‘Ironclad’ overcomes finance obstacles

Mythic-produced film's road to bigscreen is a lesson for indies

From the global banking crisis to great crested newts, the producers of “Ironclad” had to overcome all kinds of obstacles to complete their $25 million medieval actioner. However the film turns out, it stands as a remarkable achievement in financing during an exceptionally tough time for indie film.

Directed by Jonathan English, “Ironclad” was among the largest British indie films shot in 2009. Made without a U.S. or U.K. distributor, its financial structure was “more complex than a London Underground map,” according to producer Andrew Curtis. The fact that the film has 18 exec producers tells its own story.

It was the debut project from Mythic, the company formed by English, a British producer-turned-director living in Los Angeles; Curtis, a London lawyer-turned-producer; and Rick Benattar, an L.A.-based producer.

The Mythic trio all have lots of experience, but none of them had ever attempted to mount anything this challenging.

“Ironclad” is billed as “The Magnificant Seven” in a castle, shot in the visceral, immersive style of “Saving Private Ryan.” Set in the 13th century, it’s about a Templar knight who gathers together a motley band of warriors to defend Rochester Castle from King John. It stars James Purefoy and Paul Giamatti along with a crowd of Brit thesps including Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, Mackenzie Crook and Jason Flemyng.

Mythic started pre-sales at Cannes in 2008, from a table in the Grand Hotel bar next to the piano. Purefoy and Giamatti were already attached, along with Megan Fox, which helped to seal key early deals in Spain and Russia. Fox later ankled, to be replaced by Kate Mara.

Benattar had also pulled together a veteran team of key crew to persuade financiers that the company could deliver English’s bold vision. They included Josef Nemec, the production designer from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”; David Eggby, the cinematographer of “Mad Max”; “Hellboy” editor Peter Amundsen; “Dark Knight” swordmaster Richard Ryan; and Florian Emmerich, the camera operator from the “Bourne” franchise.

Equity finance came from German fund VIP and U.K. tax fund Premiere Pictures. ContentFilm Intl. took over sales, including a large German deal. But the credit crunch also knocked away some pre-sales, and the cast wobbled as the producers juggled their financing options and shaved their budget. Aside from Purefoy and Giamatti, the entire supporting cast changed during the financing process.

Mythic received gap finance from Silver Reel, a Swiss-based debt boutique, which also covered the pre-sales. Coutts bankrolled the U.K. tax credit.

London facilities house Molinaire invested as part of a comprehensive post-production and vfx deal. Music outfit Cutting Edge put up cash for the music rights. Richard Attenborough, who had been cast as the Archbishop of Canterbury (but later dropped out due to illness), persuaded Mythic to shoot at Dragon Studios in Wales, which had gone bust after being built and had never been used. This enabled the producers to tap equity coin from the Welsh Creative IP Fund.

Mythic needed to construct a replica of Rochester Castle before it could get the completion bond, so it struck a bridge financing deal with Perpetual Media Capital. Perpetual also cashflowed the Hungarian tax credit, because Mythic was using some Hungarian crew, a relic of an earlier plan to shoot in Hungary.

But it proved much slower and trickier than expected to marry all the investors. Perpetual ended up carrying the production until the financing finally closed weeks after filming started.

“If it hadn’t been for Perpetual, we would never have done ‘Ironclad,’ ” Curtis says.

Every penny was squeezed to the max to provide production value onscreen. English’s vision was to deliver raw intensity, particularly in the battle scenes, to suit the tastes of American audiences in particular. When the broadswords cut through flesh, they don’t sever limbs neatly, but rip and tear. A cameraman dressed as a mercenary ran through the battlefield action with a Canon D5 SLR camera to capture the brutality of medieval combat with gut-wrenching immediacy.

One small problem was the newts. These rare amphibians inhabited the site where the castle was built. Disturbing one meant an $8,000 fine and a criminal record. So instead of using a bulldozer, the site had to be cleared by hand, with a local conservationist on watch to ensure no newt was traumatized. Eagle-eyed audiences will spot a newt insignia on a shield above the castle gate, in honor of the pesky little critters.

A three-minute promo reel at Berlin secured a key Scandinavian sale. An 11-minute sequence will screen at Cannes.

“We’ve made a very ambitious movie with limited funding,” Curtis says. “There wasn’t a belief structure in the U.K. that we could pull it off. Certainly it was tough, the closing is infamous, but the key was finding the right partners who shared our faith and vision in the project.”