In the spring of 1975, long before he became one of the U.K.’s most respected producers, Paul Webster got his first job in the film industry working as a dispatch clerk in the basement of the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill, checking celluloid reels for damage before they could be fed into the projector. For his first job, he had to inspect the reel of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Fox and His Friends.”
“I picked it out very gingerly from the can…and the middle just fell out,” he told an audience in Rome during “X Rays on the UK,” a conversation hosted by MIA in cooperation with the BFI, the British Council, and the British Embassy in Rome, and moderated by Wendy Mitchell.
“I then spent my first morning in the film industry trying to put it back together again without breaking the film or damaging it, and ended up failing miserably and being surrounded by hundreds of meters of celluloid,” Webster continued. “Which kind of is a decent analogy for what it can be like in the film industry.”
Over the course of an hour-long onstage conversation, Webster shared stories from four decades in the film industry, a career that earned him an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA win for “Atonement,” and BAFTA nominations for “Anna Karenina” and “Pride & Prejudice.” Webster also looked ahead at the future of film, and offered the first footage from his forthcoming feature, “Radioactive,” directed by Oscar-nominated helmer Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”), about the life of Marie Curie.
Looking at some of the radical changes facing the industry today, he said the era echoed similar transformative moments in the past. “Cinema was born at the end of the 19th century, during a paradigm shift in technology and the way people communicated,” he said. “And I think we’re living through a consequent change now. We’re in the middle of it, so who knows where it’s going to go, but we’re in a paradigm shift in all sectors of our lives. We’re learning how to communicate in a different way.”
Webster assessed how some of those technological shifts have changed moviemaking, from the overreliance of Hollywood studios on special effects to create CGI-powered spectacles to the way new technologies have ushered in a “golden age of animation.” At a time of unprecedented levels of production and competition for audiences, he said, arguably the biggest challenge for filmmakers is “being heard in all that noise.”
“In 1975, you could expect an arthouse movie…to have a six-month run in a cinema in London,” he said. “If a film by Federico Fellini, or Bergman, was released, it was a big event. It captured the cultural conversation. And that, as we all know, is incredibly difficult now. And film has suffered as a consequence to that.”
Webster also provided the audience in Rome with a first look at “Radioactive,” which scribe Jack Thorne adapted with Lauren Redniss from her 2010 graphic novel, “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout.”
“It’s in one sense a traditional biopic of a historical figure, but in another it’s a more adventurous story, which explores…the story of an element,” explained Webster, who’s producing with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner at Working Title, along with Studiocanal and Amazon Studios. The film is in post-production, with an eye toward a spring 2019 release.
Webster described his difficulty selling the script for “Radioactive,” which was first developed in 2012. “I couldn’t get anyone interested in reading the script, let alone responding to it,” he said.
The project stalled for three years, until “something began to happen in the zeitgeist,” shifting attention to the lack of films about women and piquing interest in “Radioactive,” “which was after all about a strong woman, front and center,” he said.
Studiocanal optioned it, and Satrapi came onboard in 2016. The project was greenlit when Rosamund Pike signed on, and with co-financing from Amazon, production went ahead on a $20 million-plus budget. Webster pointed to the partnership between Studiocanal and Amazon as an encouraging sign in changing times. “We had the new world and the old world meshed, and it’s been a successful collaboration,” he said.
Asked if he would have considered an offer to make “Radioactive” for Netflix, the producer acknowledged, “Probably I would have made it, and been a bit disappointed to be doing – thinking it was going to go straight onto a streaming service. I think that’s the problem getting attention. You just feel with the Netflix model that you’re just one more in an endlessly expanding library of titles.”
He said the streamer’s habit of closely guarding its algorithms and viewer metrics was “an obscure practice which…has kind of sinister overtones.”
Webster praised the current age of high-end TV drama and said he would have explored the medium if he were a younger producer, but he considers himself “a bit of a dinosaur feeding on scraps.”
“I like watching television. I watch a lot of TV. But I tend not to follow through on series….I just get bored,” he said. “If I’m going to get bored in watching them, I don’t think I’m the best practitioner for it.”
Webster described himself as “a relentlessly positive person” who still sees a bright future for an industry he’s dedicated his life to for the past 40 years. “Film is…a remarkably durable medium, because it answers a kind of primal need from human beings to be told stories,” he said. “And the forms of storytelling have remained pretty constant for thousands of years.”
He continued, “People like to be told stories together, in communion. And that’s why this very, very kind of arcane practice of people going into a dark space to watch a projection of a story together sustains itself. Not in the same way as it did when there was less competition for our eyeballs, but nevertheless, it still sustains, and is the cornerstone to our filmmaking, and our storytelling, experience.
“I think that’s something that we can hang onto.”