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Working Title takes reality check

Success has a tendency to make people lose touch with reality, but that can’t be said of the folks at Working Title Films.

In fact, after their breakthrough into new artistic territory with dazzling docudrama “United 93,” toppers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner are hungry for as much reality as they can get their hands on.

They are in production with their first documentary — an account of the 1996 Everest disaster by American mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears — and are developing several others, including “The Weather Makers,” a doc on climate change by “Master and Commander” screenwriter John Collee, based on Timothy Flannery‘s book of the same name.

“I think as you get older, fact seems to become more interesting than fiction,” Bevan says. “The starting point for a lot of what we’re looking at in development is factually based.”

One recent example was Phillip Noyce‘s “Catch a Fire,” based on the true story of a man brutalized into becoming a terrorist by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

The company recently teamed with Ron Howard and his Imagine shingle to strike a deal for the movie version of Peter Morgan‘s play “Frost/Nixon,” about the seminal TV interviews between disgraced U.S. president Richard Nixon and Brit presenter David Frost.

“If you look at ‘United 93’ and what Peter Morgan is up to, there seems to be a new cinema to me, this so-called ‘reality cinema,’ which of course isn’t really reality but somebody’s interpretation, and people seem very intrigued by it,” Bevan says.

The Everest doc actually came about as a side effect of Stephen Daldry’s long-gestating movie on the same subject — the terrible night in 1996 when a freak blizzard killed several climbers on the world’s highest peak.

Breashears, a four-time Emmy winner, was filming the Imax movie “Everest” when the storm struck, and Working Title hired him as co-producer and second unit director for Daldry’s pic. Breashears led Daldry’s crew to the Everest base camp in 2004, where they shot plates for the movie. Daldry’s commitment to launch “Billy Elliot: The Musical” meant the project was put on hold, but Breashears convinced WT to back a documentary in the meantime.

WT’s push into docs is part of a wider rethink of its low-budget arm WT2. Until now, this label was used to make quirky $5 million movies with fresh talent, more in hope than in expectation of finding an audience. That succeeded triumphantly with “Billy Elliot,” and more modestly with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Ali G Inda House,” but pics such as “The Calcium Kid” and “Mickeybo & Me” barely got released.

“Our thinking is now that we would prefer either to back a new filmmaker at a slightly higher level, like we did with Joe Wright and ‘Pride & Prejudice,’ where you stand a chance of attracting more of a cast and giving it more production value; or with the resources that we have historically spent in that area, to make more fact-based or issue-based material,” Bevan explains.

But there’s still plenty of sheer escapism on WT’s upcoming slate, as detailed in Variety‘s “Billion Dollar Producer” feature in this issue.

The company has taken Roald Dahl’s classic kids novel “The Twits” out of turnaround from Disney, and is hoping to shoot a sequel to “Nanny McPhee” next year as well. WT regulars Richard Curtis and the Coen brothers are returning, and Roger Michell, who directed “Notting Hill” for WT, is prepping London heist thriller “The Rip.” Casting is under way on a slew of big American comedies, including John Hamburg‘s “The Troubleshooter” and Gary Fleder’s “Worst Case.”

“People are getting sick of high-concept, machine-created movies. The only high concept that still works is broad comedy,” Fellner says.

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