‘The Sweeney’ finally cops its place on bigscreen

Film based on cult Brit police series is six years in the making

LONDON — Cult 1970s British cop series “The Sweeney” aired on commercial web ITV for three years. When writer-director Nick Love’s feature version hits Blighty’s cinemas in September, it will have been six years in the making.

In 2006, Fox Searchlight’s then-topper Peter Rice (now head of Fox entertainment) and DNA Films’ Andrew Macdonald approached Love, one of the co-founders of Vertigo Films, to helm and pen a film version of “The Sweeney,” for which the two were in the process of buying the rights.

Love, who had already established a following in the U.K. for character-driven gangster pics laden with sharp dialogue (“The Football Factory,” “The Business”) seemed a perfect fit to tackle the action-thriller based on the London Metropolitan police Flying Squad, which fought violent crime. The helmer-scribe jumped at the opportunity.

Love developed the story with Macdonald and Rice, and wrote the first five drafts of the script before “Trainspotting” scribe John Hodge stepped in to write another five drafts.

The film nearly started shooting at that point, two and a half years ago, when, budgeted at £9 million ($14.1 million), it had Ray Winstone attached as no-nonsense Jack Regan (a role made famous by John Thaw in the original), with Michael Fassbender as George Carter (originally played by Dennis Waterman).

“We would normally go a lot quicker,” Love says, “but it was a bigger film, bigger script and was harder to get rights to a thriller.”

Adds Vertigo producer and co-founder Allan Niblo: “I remember people being a bit scared at the budget at the time. And that got it into a traditional vicious cycle where the budget kept getting readjusted, and each time different hurdles came up.”

Love is more direct.

“For Fox, the issue was, is there foreign value on this film?” he says. “Ray never really worked for foreign markets, and their issue was that if we’re making it for $14 million, you’re relying on foreign (pickups). Whereas if you’re making it for $3 million, you’re relying on U.K. domestic.”

Because it was an American studio that ultimately financing the film and because the property is so intrinsically British, there was always an issue of which market the film was being targeted to, Love adds.

Love says that, for him, the main problem with the project years ago was the script. He and Vertigo decided to pull away from “The Sweeney” at that point, with Love going on to write and direct soccer hooligan drama “The Firm,” which was released in 2009. That same year, with Rice having moved from Searchlight into the broadcasting arm of the company, Searchlight put the pic into turnaround, and approached Vertigo to see if it wanted to buy out the $785,000 of development costs.

“We leapt at it, because we always wanted to make (the film),” Love says.

Niblo says that Vertigo worked to bring the budget back into line, focusing on the U.K. audience, with an eye toward reflecting the original TV series. Love and Hodge spent seven months re-writing the script, and Vertigo, using experience it had gained with CGI thanks to pics such as “Monsters” and “Streedance 3D,” re-packaged the pic to fit into a budget closer to $5 million.

Ben Drew, known in Blighty as rap act Plan B, was cast opposite Winstone to play Carter, along with Hayley Atwell and Damian Lewis, and “The Sweeney” went into pre-production in August.

London-based Embargo Films, a production and financing company, boarded the project with equity finance and eOne pre-bought the pic in the U.K. while Square One picked up German rights.

The film shot over eight weeks from October through December, and is skedded to be released in Blighty on Sept. 21.

And while the project’s past may have been turbulent, its future looks bright.

Protagonist Pictures, which is repping sales, proved international distribs had an appetite for the pic: At the Berlinale in February, Universal bought multi-territory rights for France, Benelux, Scandinavia and Brazil, while other international distribs also boarded the film.

Brit TV car show “Top Gear” is doing a segment on the actioner, whose name is based on the Cockney rhyming slang for Flying Squad, Sweeney Todd, while the film is also getting a major sponsorship deal from Ford Motor Co.

Plans for a sequel are already under way.

Love, who insists the pic’s long gestation helped sharpen how he approached the actioner, says simply: “I’ve loved this film and been more obsessive about it than any other.”

Popular on Variety