IT’S NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS to straddle the worlds of feature film and TV drama. Many British producers have tried, but few have pulled it off with any conviction.
George Faber and Charlie Pattinson‘s Company Pictures is one of those few.
With a brace of Golden Globes for its HBO movie “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” (a theatrical pic outside the U.S.) and two high-profile TV series — “Shameless” and “The Rotters’ Club” — currently airing in Blighty, Company now has two features ready to shoot this year.
“Who Killed Norma Barnes?” will star Ralph Fiennes, Emily Mortimer and rising starlet Emily Blunt in an updated version of Dostoyevsky’s dark romance “The Idiot,” set in contemporary Brighton.
It’s written and directed by Malcolm McKay, a veteran TV and theater director making his feature debut. McKay tutored Fiennes at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and the idea for the project grew out of their long-standing friendship.
Penny Woolcock, who wrote and directed the high-art movies “The Principles of Lust” and “The Death of Klinghoffer,” is making a push towards the mainstream with “Mischief Night” for FilmFour. It’s a raucous comedy set in Leeds, about two families at war in the run-up to the town’s annual saturnalia.
On the TV front, Company has just started shooting “Wallis and Edward,” with Joely Richardson as the American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII gave up his crown. There will also be a third series of the multiaward-winning “Shameless,” a black comedy of family dysfunction which has helped to confirm its creator Paul Abbott as the most lauded writer in Brit TV.
What confounds many producers who try to keep one foot on either side of the film and TV divide is not so much the creative differences, as the vast gulf in the financing process.
Creatively, at least, the big and small screen are much more intimately related in Britain than in America, with writing, directing and acting talent moving freely back and forth between the two.
But producers who are accustomed to the logical simplicity of TV — you pitch an idea, you get commissioned (or not) — find themselves unhinged by the Kafkaesque nightmare of indie filmmaking, where development can drag on for years; money (but never enough of it) comes haphazardly from all over the place; and producers naive enough to wait for someone to give them a greenlight never get anything made.
Faber did both as head of single drama at the BBC, and when he and Pattinson quit the pubcaster eight years ago to hang out their indie shingle, they structured and staffed the company from the start to fight on both fronts.
“A lot of successful TV producers just don’t have the right attitude to cope with the level of risk in making films, and it comes as a huge culture shock to them,” Faber says. “But we already had experience and relationships in both types of financing, and both types of creative ambition. We didn’t have to reinvent ourselves somewhere down the line.”
In film, Company has worked with a classy roster of directors including Roger Michell (“Titanic Town”), Shane Meadows (“A Room for Romeo Brass”) and Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar”).
Much of its prolific TV output also draws on talent more frequently seen in movies — Rhys Ifans playing comedian Peter Cook in “Not Only but Always,” Mike Leigh regular Phil Davis in detective series “Rose and Maloney,” Stephen Fry in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays.”
“We have the relationships to attract film talent to TV because they know that even with our more mainstream fare, it’s classy rather than low-rent and because there’s also a chance of developing film projects with us,” Faber explains. “With our movies, we have focused on auteur directors and passion projects that have got good arthouse releases and festival prizes. But now, alongside those we are growing a slate of more mainstream films.”