Matthew James Wilkinson, one of the original producers of box-office hit “Yesterday,” has his latest movie, “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” premiering at the Locarno Festival on Wednesday. He talks to Variety about those movies, as well as upcoming projects, including a heist musical, a feminist horror pic, and a new film – as yet unannounced – directed by BAFTA winner Paul Andrew Williams.
Wilkinson is riding high on the success of “Yesterday,” which he brought to screenwriter Richard Curtis, who in turn helped persuade Working Title and Universal Pictures to come on board, with Danny Boyle attaching as director to form a dream team.
Reflecting on what has driven the film’s popularity with audiences – it has grossed more than $125 million worldwide – Wilkinson says: “It is partly escapism. We are living through quite difficult and complicated times, so when you present something that is charming and takes you out of the everyday, that’s a welcome relief for a lot of people.”
He adds: “Also just presenting a package that people possibly haven’t seen before: Danny and Richard haven’t worked together before, and I think that combination excited people.
“Then you have the hardy perennial of the Beatles’ music. I know that [their] music has been used before in a variety of ways, but this felt like an original way to bring those songs together, and they are just feel-good classics, aren’t they?”
Having so many big-name players attached to the project necessitated a balance between letting go a bit while also trying to retain some control over the project.
“Yes, it was a bit of a process. My background is editorial so it always felt like that was going to be the part that I would have to play the most. Certainly in terms of Richard writing his version of the script, we were on hand a lot to give editorial feedback,” he says.
“Once [the project] gets into prep and production, Danny knows exactly what he’s doing – he’s leading the charge. You don’t often find yourself on set giving notes for that.”
Once the film went into the editing suite and following test screenings, Wilkinson was once again more hands-on, “just making sure that the promise of the premise is delivered in the most effective way possible, mainly from a story perspective,” he says.
The movie’s success should allow Wilkinson to push his career as an independent producer to the next level. “Hopefully what will happen is it will just raise my profile overall. To have been involved in a project that has grossed more than $125 million worldwide…creates a useful shorthand in terms of the other projects on my slate,” he says. “They are not necessarily of that size and ambition, but it shows that I have a good nose for material, and that I am able to find projects that, if packaged in the right way, do have a chance to get out there and reach an audience in the cinema.”
Looking at the slate of Wilkinson’s production company, Stigma Films, there is a predominance of elevated genre films. “They have to feel like something that would deliver to a savvy genre audience, who have certain expectations from a film like that,” he says. “But I also want to make sure that they have strong characterization and resonant scenes, and they are actually attempting to say something.”
He is particularly proud to be producing films by two first-time female writer-directors: “Amulet” (formerly known as “Outside”), written and directed by actress Romola Garai, starring Imelda Staunton and Carla Juri, and exec produced by Damian Jones; and the BFI-backed ghost story “The Power,” written and directed by Corinna Faith, and starring Rose Williams (“Medici”).
Garai and Faith “very much want to say something within the confines of horror,” he says. “So they will be horror films but they will also be social commentary, and that excites me just as much as commercial filmmaking.” He adds they are “commercial filmmaking with a bit of a message, holding up a mirror to society.”
“Amulet,” in particular, is being positioned as a “feminist horror,” he says. “This is a female filmmaker [Garai] who definitely wanted to take a look at what is happening in terms of recent gender politics and stand it on its head.”
“Amulet” has been shot and delivered, and will premiere at an A-list festival this autumn. “The Power” is about to start principal photography.
Wilkinson has two films lined up to go into production next year. Heist musical “The Score” is a four-hander, starring Johnny Flynn (“Beast,” “Stardust”), Connor Swindells (“Sex Education”), Naomi Ackie (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) and Antonia Thomas (“Sunshine on Leith”). It is directed by Malachi Smyth (“Gateway 6”), and features Flynn’s music. International sales on the film will be launched at the Toronto Film Festival.
A new project on the slate, as yet unannounced, will be Paul Andrew Williams’ next feature film, crime thriller “Titus,” whose title may change, Wilkinson says. Further details are yet to be announced.
Williams’ debut feature film, “London to Brighton,” earned him the New Director’s Award at Edinburgh Film Festival, and a BAFTA nomination in 2007 in the most promising newcomer category; his TV movie “Murdered for Being Different” won a BAFTA last year. His credits also include 2012 feature film “Song for Marion,” nominated for a British Independent Film Award, and the 2015 TV movie “The Eichmann Show,” starring Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia.
On Wednesday, Wilkinson will be in Locarno for the world premiere of gentle coming-of-age comedy-drama “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” the directorial feature debut of British actor Simon Bird, best-known as the star of hit comedy series and movie franchise “The Inbetweeners.” The film stars Earl Cave as an angry teen spending a frustratingly dull summer in his suburban town with his lonely single mom, played by Monica Dolan. Rob Brydon, Alice Lowe and Tamsin Greig deliver witty cameos.
Wilkinson produced Bird’s film directorial debut, the short “Ernestine & Kit,” which premiered at SXSW in 2016. This gave him the confidence to back the actor’s debut as a feature director. Bird “impressed me in terms of storytelling and performance, but also because of the amount of prep and effort he put into making a 10-minute short,” he says. “It just encouraged me that making a feature would be a similarly rewarding experience.”
Bird wanted to adapt Joff Winterhart’s graphic novel “Days of the Bagnold Summer” as a feature and so sent it to Wilkinson. “It was something I was immediately charmed by,” Wilkinson says. “Although I realized it was quite a delicate story to tell, it also felt like a very universal story. We have all been teenagers and understand the struggle of trying to find our identity and strike out on our own, away from our parents, but also for a slightly older audience we might start recognizing the narratives in the other direction as well.”
Wilkinson had been on the lookout for a British comedy to add to his slate. “I felt if we could get the right ensemble, which thankfully we did, there could be a gap in the market for something that was funny, but also had something to say, and wasn’t too throwaway,” he says.
Despite Bird’s lack of experience as a director, having already produced his short meant “there was a level of trust and shorthand there,” Wilkinson says. “It was really a case of listening to his requests and making sure they were things that we could facilitate given the production budget and the time scale, and then surrounding him with people who I previously had worked with and who I knew would bring a certain level of on-set experience that Simon was lacking from a directing point of view. Just to support and encourage him, and help him get out what was in his head.”
Despite the success of “Yesterday,” Wilkinson says life for a British independent film producer is “very difficult.” U.K. distribution deals, and in particular pre-buys, are “almost impossible” to come by, and pre-buys more widely seem “increasingly harder” to clinch, even with name talent attached. As a consequence, budgets are falling. Even with a recognized director, a good script and interesting cast, it is getting tougher to get projects greenlit “without scrutinizing the budget, bringing the levels down and being quite entrepreneurial with how you bring the money in,” he says. Support from the BFI or one of the broadcasters is “very difficult to come by and very competitive.”
“To a degree it has never been harder, but somehow we are still managing to get these projects put together,” he says, “and hopefully something like ‘Yesterday’ will increase my ability to get money from outside of the U.K.” One of his recent projects, dark comedy-thriller “Muscle,” directed by Gerard Johnson, was fully financed by a French company, Fred Fiore and Eric Tavitian’s Logical Pictures. “I am looking outside of the U.K., not just for pre-sales….In terms of sources of equity, [the international market] is becoming increasingly important,” he says.
Wilkinson finds co-production partners for his films whenever he can. “I find a project that I get very passionate about, and then try and find another producer who is just as passionate about it, and together we can share the load.”