Film4, the movie arm of Britain’s Channel 4, has optioned the rights to Booker Prize-winning author Graham Swift’s 2016 novel “Mothering Sunday” for development with Number 9 Films’ Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley, who most recently teamed with Film4 on “Carol.”
The project represents Film4’s first significant announcement of an acquisition of material for development since Daniel Battsek took the reins as Film4 director last year.
Alice Birch, writer of the critically acclaimed and award-winning “Lady Macbeth,” is attached to write the screenplay to “Mothering Sunday.”
The story starts on March 30, 1924, which is Mothering Sunday. “How will Jane Fairchild, orphan and housemaid, occupy her time when she has no mother to visit? How, shaped by the events of this never-to-be forgotten day, will her future unfold?” according to a statement.
“Beginning with an intimate assignation and opening to embrace decades, ‘Mothering Sunday’ has at its heart both the story of a life and the life that stories can magically contain. Constantly surprising, joyously sensual and deeply moving, it is Graham Swift at his thrilling best.”
The Guardian called “Mothering Sunday” “a masterpiece,” while The Observer described it as “a powerful, philosophical and exquisitely observed novel.” Swift’s previous novels include 1983’s “Waterland” and the 1996 Booker-winning “Last Orders.”
Battsek said he fell in love with the book. “Although it seems quite a simple story, incredibly economically told, it actually has so much going on that we will be able to bring to life in a feature film,” he said. “I love anything that takes the audience by surprise – where they think they are seeing one thing, but actually there is so much more going on under the surface.”
Battsek said Birch had been selected as screenwriter because of her “ability to take a relatively straightforward story and build a whole set of emotions around that. Also, the way that she connected with this material was just incredibly exciting.”
Battsek came to Berlin for the screening of “T2 Trainspotting,” the sequel to “Trainspotting,” which Film4 financed and helped develop. “‘Trainspotting’ remains a stalwart of the Film4 brand… and has many of its strengths, such as auteur filmmaking and British storytelling. Also, [it has] the ability both to be beloved at home and to travel.”
As well as championing British filmmaking, Film4 is on the lookout for international talent. “Our roots and our remit is to support a wide range of British filmmaking, but we also have our eyes – both on the business side and the talent side – on filmmakers around the world, and that is one of the many things that makes Film4 an exciting place to be,” he said. “We do want to tell British stories whenever possible, but if we find filmmakers that are true to our spirit, we will look to make movies with them.”
Examples of that approach include Baltasar Kormakur’s “The Oath,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” and Sebastian Lelio’s “Disobedience.” Lelio’s latest film, “A Fantastic Woman,” is in competition at the Berlinale this year.
“[Sebastian Lelio] understands the material incredibly well in that it is a very specific story in a specific place,” Battsek said of “Disobedience.” “But he also brings a wonderful perspective coming as a foreigner into that environment, and I think that is almost always exciting.”
Battsek described Lanthimos as “an auteur who has a definitive view on whatever material it is that we are developing, and thus brings something more to it than which actually exists in its elemental state.”
He added that Lanthimos leaves his “imprint” on a film. “Whatever it is he chooses to direct, you feel like you are watching a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and that he has left a very distinctive mark on it.”
Battsek said he is seeking to have a “mix of material” in the Film4 portfolio, ranging from bigger-budget fare where Film4 may co-finance with a Hollywood studio, but, he added, “we don’t want to lose sight of our remit of starting new filmmakers, and to be aware of our responsibilities in terms of diversity, innovation, et cetera.”
Among Film4 projects to watch out for from British directors in the earlier stages of their feature careers, Battsek said, are Rungano Nyoni’s “I Am Not a Witch,” Michael Pearce’s “Beast,” and “American Animals,” the narrative feature debut from Bart Layton, who won a BAFTA for outstanding debut for his documentary feature “The Imposter.”
Among projects to look out for from more established British filmmakers are Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete,” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which Fox Searchlight will distribute worldwide.
Battsek sees the co-financing deals with Fox Searchlight on the latter movie and Lanthimos’ “The Favorite” as examples of how Film4 can work in partnership with American companies. The strong relationships he forged in the U.S. in his previous roles as president of Cohen Media Group, president of National Geographic Films and president of filmed entertainment at Miramax Films will stand him in good stead when seeking to bring on board American partners. “There was a lot of connectivity there and so going forward that will enable us to form those partnerships, and for them to be quite organic to what we do,” he said.