‘Railway Man’ took the slow track

Producer Paterson worked on project for more than a decade

When director Jonathan Teplitzky starts shooting Colin Firth starrer “The Railway Man” in February, it will represent a triumph of persistence and conviction for its British producer and co-writer Andy Paterson.

It has taken Paterson well over a decade to find a viable way to translate Eric Lomax’s epic memoir onto the bigscreen. He started developing the project in the late ’90s with writer Frank Cottrell Boyce and director Anand Tucker, his partners in Archer Street Prods.

Paterson made several other films in the meantime, notably “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” but he could never get Lomax’s remarkable true tale out of his head.

“Without a doubt, it’s the best story I’ve ever been told,” he says. “When a story won’t let you go, it’s a very good signal that you should find a way to make it.”

A British officer in WWII, Lomax was captured by the Japanese and sent to work on the notorious “death railway” in Burma. He was tortured as a spy for making a radio to bring his fellow prisoners news of the outside world.

That trauma cast a long shadow over his life. Decades later, when a woman forced him to confront his deep psychological wounds, he resolved to track down one of his torturers, with extraordinary results.

Firth will play the older Lomax, with the rest of the cast yet to be announced. The pic is a U.K./Australian co-production. Lionsgate is taking U.K. rights and handling international sales, with Transmission pre-buying Australasia. Budget is approximately $20 million.

“It will look like a $50 million film, but will cost less than half that,” Paterson says. “What we do as independent producers is take hugely ambitious projects and find clever ways of making them for much less than it looks like.”

The Archer Street trio started developing “The Railway Man” in 1998, under their first-look deal with Intermedia and Film4. Intermedia topper Nigel Sinclair introduced Paterson to Bill Curbishley, manager of the Who, who owned the rights to Lomax’s book and remains a producer on the film.

But when Archer Street’s overall deal ran out, the script went into turnaround. Paterson, Tucker and Cottrell Boyce worked on other projects, both separately and together. When Paterson emerged from making “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “Beyond the Sea” back to back, he turned again to “The Railway Man,” looking for ways to crack the structure of the script and raise the financing in a market where sales estimates, especially for period drama, were collapsing.

“For a long time, it was impossible to get sales estimates for a drama of this scale, when drama was a dirty word among distributors,” Paterson says. “We were going insane trying to find ways of telling the story properly, and ways of financing that.”

He says the pic could have been made more cheaply, but would have sacrificed its epic feel. “The film has to convey the scale of that railway, and what people went through to build it, because that’s what motivated our character to do what he did.”

Eventually Paterson and Cottrell Boyce, who ended up sharing the writing credit, found a new angle on the script, foregrounding the woman who changed Lomax’s life and building up the thriller elements. That sparked fresh interest from financiers, but Tucker was now unavailable because he was immersed in the DreamWorks animation project “Truckers” (scripted by Cottrell Boyce).

Paterson attached Teplitzky, whose “Burning Man” he produced in Australia last year, to direct. Firth read the script in the midst of his Oscar campaign for “The King’s Speech.”

“When he called back and said he loved it, that was the most extraordinary moment in the project’s history,” Paterson recalls. “Suddenly we had a script that everybody loves, and this year’s Oscar winner who everybody loves.”

With “The King’s Speech” making distribs take another look at period drama, the financing puzzle fell into place. Approximately 30% of the budget was raised through Australia’s producer offset (with Chris Brown as the Australian co-producer) and the U.K. tax credit, and another 15%-20% in equity from Screen Australia and Screen Queensland, where the Burmese railroad scenes will be shot.

“When you are trying to do something which, on the face of it, is more expensive than the market can stand, you need that soft money to reduce the straight risk element of the budget,” Paterson says.

Daria Jovovic, a New York-based producer-financier who provided seed finance or bridge loans for several of Archer Street’s previous pics, is stepping up to make her first major investment, with a mixture of equity and gap finance. The size of that gap will depend on the level of presales Lionsgate secures at AFM.

“At a certain point, I decided that I couldn’t not make this film,” Paterson says. “‘The King’s Speech’ reminds us that no one knows where the next hit is coming from. It’s our job as producers to come up with films that the market doesn’t yet know it needs or wants.”