For the past two decades, Raphael Benoliel has been Hollywood’s man in France. With more than 40 projects under his belt, the Nice-born Benoliel has turned his Firstep production banner into a kind of one-stop-shop for international shoots, amassing line producer credits on projects as varied as “Les Miserables,” “Stillwater” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
And if last year might have been Firstep’s busiest year to date following back-to-back shoots of “Emily in Paris,” “John Wick: Chapter 4” and David Fincher’s “The Killer,” this year shows no signs of letting up, which makes the circumstances of Firstep’s founding all the more ironic.
“[Firstep co-founder] Dimitri Veret and I started the company with other goals in mind,” Benoliel tells Variety. “I was receiving [employment insurance] and didn’t necessarily need the money to get by, so we launched Firstep, using the benefits to finance our shorts.”
Opportunity knocked when Benoliel – who was working as a production coordinator for international ad shoots at the time – caught wind of an upcoming project scouting locations across the country.
“Neil Jordan came scouting for [2002’s ‘The Good Thief,’] his remake of “Bob Le Flambeur,”’ Benoliel continues. “He was hesitating between shooting in the South of France and in Deauville. For me it was my dream come true, so I did everything I could to bring the production to Nice. Only I couldn’t convince the company for whom I worked to do the film because the money was a lot better in advertising back then!”
Though Benoliel had only been hired as a production manager, his responsibilities would expand in a short time as the project’s English backers found the young man’s sensibilities more aligned to their own.
“Simply put, in the U.S. and U.K., when a film is greenlit with a certain budget, the goal is to see that budget on screen,” Benoliel explains. “I was trained that way, because that’s how it worked in advertising. Only, French producers often didn’t see their own margins included in the budget, so they’d try cut costs, to produce the film with less money than originally allocated in order to turn a profit. That wasn’t how I worked.”
Success on one project led to an offer for another, but when Benoliel once again couldn’t convince his ad bosses to slum for a film – this one an odd sounding romantic comedy called “Love Actually” – the young man simply struck out on his own, retooling his existing production banner Firstep into a line production facilitator.
“I don’t just offer production services,” he continues. “I try to act like more of a partner – looking at a project’s artistic intentions and finding solutions. Or at least, that’s what an English producer once told me.”
Indeed, beginning with “Love Actually” and on through titles like “Wimbledon,” “The Queen” and “Mr. Bean’s Holiday,” Benoliel developed a reputation as “the king of British shoots in France,” while fostering particularly strong ties with Working Title Films. And it was through that connection that Benoliel learned an invaluable bit of intel.
“Working Title had recently produced ‘Match Point’ in London, and so when [producer] Helen Robin contacted me for ‘Midnight in Paris’ I knew the film would have a budget of $17 million. At the time Woody Allen always had the exact same budget no matter the film or subject. So when I put my hands on the script, I wrote up a line-item proposal with that in mind.”
A few days later, he heard from a New York number. “Woody Allen called me and said he thought I was low-balling the estimate, trying lure him to France to spring him with a more expensive one,” Benoliel laughs. “I told him if I could put together the crew and work under certain conditions we could absolutely make the film for $17 million. And we did.”
It helped that “Midnight in Paris” was the first project to benefit from France’s new tax rebate scheme, a longstanding industry dream signed into law shortly before the 2011 film went into production. The project’s $152 million worldwide box office probably didn’t hurt either. In any event, pretty soon Benoliel was fielding a lot more calls from U.S. area codes.
“In order to benefit from our tax rebate, to hire technicians on site, and to partner with people who know the lay of the ground, productions turned to Firstep,” he says. “Though based in Paris, the company is French above all, and we’ve since worked all over Europe. We can work anywhere as needed.”
For 2018’s “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” Benoliel experienced a scale of production larger than anything he’d seen before. “I ended up hiring 5,000 different crew-members,” he marvels. “They weren’t all on-set together at the same time, of course, but on average the craft services would feed 500 people a day. The logistics on that, in troubleshooting how to move such a circus through a city like Paris, was quite fun.”
“When you’re making a film with a more human scale you fall into a family rhythm,” he adds. “I love saying hello to everyone, knowing everyone. But with 5,000 technicians, you can’t say hello to everyone. And thankfully so.”
Starting this February, Benoliel will begin work on his next mega-production, the Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston-led sequel to the Netflix comedy “Murder Mystery.”
“We already have 350 crewmembers lined up, and that’s just the second unit,” Benoliel says. “[By the time the main cast arrives,] we’ll have a comparable crew to ‘Mission: Impossible.’ So we’re talking about a big production that needs studio space, trained crews, and help working with city hall and the municipal authorities to get shooting permits.”
“We’ll also have over six weeks of production, with more than half the time spent in studio,” Benoliel adds. “Which goes to show that you don’t have to come to Paris to only shoot exteriors.”