Lorton CEO Julian Bird on Coleen Rooney ‘Wagatha Christie’ Doc, Mipcom-Bound ‘Horsepower’

Wayne and Colleen Rooney, Oisin Murphy
Wayne and Colleen Rooney (Dan Kitwood/Getty Image), Oisin Murphy (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

When it was announced earlier this year that U.K. production outfit Lorton had exclusively snagged the most sought-after documentary subject in the country – soccer wife Coleen Rooney (pictured above left, with husband Wayne) – it cemented the label as one of the hottest unscripted producers around.

The reason Rooney was such a get was because in 2019 she set up an elaborate social media sting to catch the person she believed was selling stories about the couple to U.K. tabloids. The culprit, Rooney revealed online, was fellow “WAG” (the collective noun for athletes’ wives and girlfriends) Rebekah Vardy. The revelation, which saw Rooney dubbed “WAG-atha Christie” for her sleuthing skills, went viral and sparked a libel lawsuit from Vardy. After three years of legal wrangling, every detail of which was covered by a salivating media, Vardy lost the court case earlier this year. Screen adaptations – both factual and scripted – were inevitable, and Rooney was said to have had her pick of deals to choose from.

Which is why when it was revealed at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August that she would be working exclusively with Lorton on a docu-series (tentatively titled “Wagatha Christie”) for Disney+, there were audible gasps in the auditorium.

Lorton founder and CEO Julian Bird is reluctant to give too much away, either about the discussions with Rooney or the docu-series, when he sat down to speak to Variety just weeks after the news broke. “Obviously, like everyone, there’s a fascination with the Wagatha story,” he says of how he came to partner with Rooney. “Once [the trial] exploded as a public phenomenon then those conversations naturally gravitated to that.”

It helped that Lorton had not long ago worked with the Rooneys on another documentary, simply called “Rooney,” for Amazon Prime Video, this time focused on Wayne’s meteoric rise from 16-year-old soccer prodigy to England team captain. But the feature didn’t just look at Wayne’s professional life. In it, the couple also addressed their highly-publicized and occasionally toe-curling marital woes. Bird says he had had no idea the Rooneys would be so open before they embarked on the documentary. “I mean, I hoped,” he says, before clarifying: “I don’t want our films to be tabloid-y style. I want them to be high end, independent but thought-provoking and enjoyable.”

Julian Bird, CEO of Lorton (courtesy of Lorton)

That’s certainly the common thread between many of the factual projects Lorton have had a hand in, including “Bros: After the Screaming Stops,” Oasis doc “Supersonic,” the Asif Kapadia-helmed “Diego Maradona” and the as-yet-untitled Boris Becker documentary, all of which the company financed. “We were very much a finance business at first,” Bird, a former banker, says of Lorton’s evolution. “The idea was essentially to bring sensible capital to what I felt was a capital-starved industry.”

With the hits stacking up, the obvious next step was to move into producing and co-producing. As well as “Wagatha Christie,” Lorton are working on a James Blunt feature (billed as “Spinal Tap-inspired”) and a horseracing docu-series titled “Horsepower,” which they are bringing to Mipcom this month. Like many of their other projects, “Horsepower,” which debuted in the U.K. on Amazon Prime Video last month, makes for compelling viewing. Just a month into shooting, one of the series’ protagonists, jockey Oisin Murphy (pictured top, right), tested positive for cocaine. Despite the result potentially jeopardizing his career, Murphy decided to continue shooting.

“We don’t search for controversies,” says Bird. “But we’re just looking for interesting stories of interesting people or interesting institutions or whatever that may be.”

In part, Lorton’s timing has been fortuitous, aligning with a boom in unscripted content. “The way that people view documentaries now is very different to the old school way – they’re films, but they’re true life,” he says. What is it about factual content that is so appealing? “Everyone loves a true story,” says Bird.

But Bird isn’t one to rest on his laurels. Lorton is also ramping up its scripted offering, particularly with the launch of a second content fund to develop projects. The first fund which launched earlier this year and, Bird says, “was more heavily weighted to factual that we had a couple of scripted projects in there. The second fund will have a much more of a balance and will be bigger anyway in size. But we’ll have a balance between factual and scripted.”

The company, which has about 10 full-time staff plus a number of producers and other creatives it works with regularly, has grown quickly. “This time last year we had two or three projects at any one time on the go,” says Bird. “We’ve probably got five or six now. And then I could see that probably this time next year [it might be] between eight and 10.”

Lorton was launched as the steamer wars began in earnest. With the bubble having burst somewhat, is Bird worried commissioners might be tightening their belts? “I think that there will always be a demand for content,” he replies. “And whatever the world looks like on from a content perspective in a few years time, I think that good content will always be wanted and in demand.”

Having worked with so many iconic figures, who would his dream documentary subject be? “I’m not sure I can answer it because I’ve got a couple of dream ones and we’re trying to get them at the moment,” he laughs. “Filmmaking and storytelling is amazing and I’ve come into this late as a non-film person. I’m consistently fascinated and in awe of the ability of people in this country to make films and make them in such a way that you don’t cease to be amazed or enjoyed by them. So my dream project is to continue making films that do that for people.”