LONDON — At the Production Guild of Great Britain’s annual awards on Saturday, Roy Button, executive VP and managing director, Warner Bros. Productions Ltd., received an award for his contribution to the industry. Variety spoke to him about his 46-year career.
Button started as a runner, rising up through the ranks of 1st and 2nd assistant director, production manager and producer. In his assistant director roles he worked with such filmmakers as Richard Attenborough (“Cry Freedom,” “Gandhi,” “A Bridge Too Far”), Steven Spielberg (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Empire of the Sun”), Sydney Pollack (“Out of Africa”), Richard Marquand (“Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi”) and Richard Donner (“Superman”).
As head of physical production for Warner Bros. Productions Ltd., Button is responsible for all the studio’s movies based out of the U.K., Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has also been the driving force behind Warner Bros.’ investment in Leavesden, one of Europe’s largest studio facilities, and the production base for many U.S. tentpole movies, including eight Harry Potter films, “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Jupiter Ascending,” “Tarzan” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” It also is the home to the Harry Potter Tour.
Button is involved with training programs within the U.K. film industry, and is a member of the Film Industry Training Board and the board of the British Film Commission.
One of the most memorable moments in Button’s career was arranging for Tom Cruise to land a helicopter in London’s Trafalgar Square, and repeating the shot several times. The location shoot in 2012 for thriller “All You Need Is Kill” required the closure of the Central London location for four hours. “I love logistical things like that,” he tells Variety.
Another memorable moment, albeit an unhappy one, was attending the funeral of Stanley Kubrick. “Looking after Stanley was interesting to say the least. He’d ring you at 4 o’clock in the morning. He didn’t care what time it was,” Button says. “I spoke to him the night before he passed away.”
A long-lasting achievement was bringing the production of the Harry Potter franchise to Leavesden, and then persuading Warner Bros. to buy the site and redevelop it. He had to put his proposals to the Time Warner board in New York. “F— me, that was a tough room,” he says. “Can you image a lot of accountants looking at you while you are going through a spread-sheet and saying ‘we have done this and that,’ and they say: ‘Yeah, so?’” But Button had the backing of then Warner Bros. topper Barry Meyer, and Steve Papazian, president, worldwide physical production, and he was able to push forward with the plan. Setting up Leavesden has allowed the U.K. to take far more tentpole movies. “It’s one of the best things that has happened to the British film industry,” he says.
For Button, his key strength are his people skills, which he has honed over the course of his career.
“It’s because of my background,” he says. “I was an assistant director so having spent all those years on the floor looking after… well, everybody from Stanley Kubrick to Sydney Pollack to Dickie (Richard Attenborough) to Steven Spielberg, to all those people… I learned over 27-odd years being (an assistant director) how to look after someone and what they want from it, and what would make them less stressful, and what would allow them to concentrate more on making the movie.”
He adds: “So, I might not be good at most things, but I am quite good at people, because I’ve had the experience. When I started in 1969/70 I was 16 and a half/17 — you learn very quickly when you are a third assistant asking 50-60 year-old guys on the floor to do something and they tell you to go f— yourself, because that was the age — that was the day — so learning how to handle people… it’s the famous Stanley line: ‘Filmmaking is easy. It’s the people that make it so difficult.’ It’s the skill of people that I enjoy.”
He continues: “I’ve worked with most people in the U.K. The thing I love about the job is the fact that I can read the script, I know exactly how it is made, I know exactly what we can do, you get an idea of how much money people want to spend on it — but I love being able to pick the right people to go with the right people. That’s what I’m good at. You go: ‘Oh, he’s good at that, but you wouldn’t put him with him, would you? Those would go great. And, touch wood, it’s worked quite well.”
Some filmmakers see Button as their advocate during the production process, but there’s far more to it than that.
“I see my role as running the studio, getting as many films (to Leavesden) as I can, keep the Tour going, keep the training going, keep the government happy. My job is to keep everybody happy. I’m f—ing Henry Kissinger. I’m head of the United Nations,” he says. “But, in the end, there’s a goal, and the goal is to make a movie, obviously for a price, because that’s what the industry is about, but make it creatively, in the right place and with the right people.”
He declines diplomatically to see any one filmmaker as his favorite, preferring to see them as partners. “Look, it’s a business partnership. As long as you pick the right person to do business with — whether it is making a movie or owning a hot-dog stand — you are in business with someone,” he says. “If they have a vision — you’ve employed them for their vision — it’s our job to get their vision out of them in a creative and positive way for everybody.”