A lot of work went into making Tom Hooper’s big screen version of the record-setting musical Les Misérables happen and no one knows that better than Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan of Working Title Films, the prolific British production company responsible for films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Atonement and many more.
Neither Fellner nor Bevan do many interviews, so ComingSoon.net felt really lucky to get some time to speak with Fellner early in the morning before the press conferences for “Les Mis” and we not only spoke about that, but also some other projects Working Title has in the works. The interesting ones of note are that they hope to shoot Stephen Daldry’s Trash and the long-delayed Lost for Words next year, and that Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman, which Martin Scorsese has been attached to direct, may in fact be the next project for the Oscar-winning filmmaker.
ComingSoon.net: How long were you guys developing this before Tom Hooper came on board?
Eric Fellner: I met Cameron (Mackintosh) in 2009 and sat down with him and said, “It would be great if you would trust us to make a movie of Les Miserables’” and that was the beginning of the journey. The next critical point was October 2010 when I went to the Odeon Leicester Square in London and saw the first UK screening of “The King’s Speech.” I’d been aware of Tom’s work, I’d met Tom before but I had no idea whether he was going to move up in the cause “Damned United” was the last film he’d done which was a very small little British movie. Despite all his work being good, nobody knew whether he was going to take that leap and after seeing “King’s Speech,” I thought, “Oh my God, this guy has to do Les Mis’” and I’ve actually been asked, “Why? Why? Why? What was it that fit so well?” And I can’t fully describe it, but I’ve been around this stuff trying to put people and projects together for years and you just have a gut feeling of who is right for what. I think that culturally I felt he would understand it, I thought that he would be able to make something not only look great and be the quality of movie we try and do in London at Working Title, but also that he understood how to paint on a bigger canvas. He took “King’s Speech” from being a really small little story and turned it into something that had real broad appeal on an international basis, and that’s what I knew we had to do with “Les Mis.” Going into “Les Mis” I knew that if we did it right and if we did it right with Cameron and Claude-Michel (Schönberg) and Alain (Boublil), the creators of the show, we could attract the fans, we could probably make a film the fans were really excited and happy about, but at the kind of the numbers we were talking about for the budget of the film, that wasn’t enough. We had to break out, so in choosing a director, I wanted to find somebody who wasn’t just going to make a film for a small part of the audience, but was going to try and make a film for everybody. That was October 2010, he committed around April ’11, we started shooting March ’12 which when I say that
CS: Wow, that’s amazing.
Fellner: That is amazing.
CS: I was at CinemaCon in Vegas and you guys were showing footage there.
Fellner: That was about four weeks into shooting.
CS: That’s what they said and I was thinking, “How is that possible they’re going to get this done by the end of the year?”
Fellner: When I do the math, it’s seven months and that is insane. If someone said, “Shoot a film with this scale and edit it and orchestrate two and a half hours of music,” you’d go “No, way,” but we did it. Tom is amazing. He is an animal. He just churns the work. He just goes for it. He sets a target and then so he’s wonderful for a producer to work with because his work ethic is enormous and it’s very hard to keep up with him sometimes, not only for me but for the crew, for the actors, for everybody. If you can keep up with him, you can get great things done not only in a short space of time, but also to a very high level of quality.
CS: I was trying to think of other musicals you and Tim may have produced and “Pirate Radio” was the only one I could think of that came close.
Fellner: We did “Billy Elliot” as a musical but that was on stage, but no, that was part of the attraction when we talked to Cameron. It was like, “Okay, you’re the biggest and best theater producer and we’ve got a reputation of being able to make films. I think that combination can be really interesting.” He has been the guardian of the music, very much so, and we couldn’t have made the film as well as it’s turned out without him and his team’s input. We know how to make the film side of it, so it was a really interesting partnership I think.
CS: There are interesting parallels between this and Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina.” In that, he had a large-scale production that he put onto a stage and here, you have a stage production you’ve expanded to show a much larger world.
Fellner: I hadn’t actually thought that through, but yeah, I like that a lot.
CS: Feel free to use it at the press conference later as if it was your own idea. I donate that to you.
Fellner: We’ll quote you on it.
CS: You must have known to make this kind of movie and musicals have had a checkered past, especially lately where you have a “Chicago” and then you have a
CS: Was there a lot of discussions about whether it was wise to go into that world?
Fellner: Yeah, I’m a blind optimist when going into things. If I believe it’s going to work then I only look at the successes, because I can’t believe that we would put all the time and energy and effort into something that wouldn’t work. Now, of course that does happen and it’s happened to us before, but you have to assume you’re going to be able to make the best version thereof. I wanted to keep the costs as low as possible but at the same time, I needed to make sure that the film had a scale and also that it was attractive to Tom to do it. If we said we got $25 million, then there’s just no point in doing it. It was finding that fine line of how much and also, in the marketplace, the studios were coming from that point of view. There hasn’t been a musical that’s worked since “Chicago.” “Mama Mia!” worked but that’s with contemporary music. “Chicago” is about ten, twelve years ago, I think. So I knew that if I went in with $100 or $150 million, there’s no way we’d get the film financed, so we just pitched it at the right level and it was kind of the low 60s, where there’s upside if it works and I believed with the fanbase and quality of film we’ve made that we wouldn’t let the studio down that wouldn’t be able to cover its cost.
CS: It’s amazing because it looks like a movie that would cost three or four times that much.
Fellner: I know you’re a serious movie guy, your column and your site, so I can talk about it without it being a waste of time, but that’s something we’re really proud of what we do at Working Title. We try and make films look as big as possible for as little as possible, and I think part of it is being in that England you can make money go a lot further than you can here. We know that we’re going to be able to take more risks as filmmakers if we keep the cost down. The minute the costs go up, the studio starts getting nervous. It’s the normal thing, so the less our films cost, the more creative control we have and the more creative control we have, the more we can give that to our directors and allow them to make great things. With “Anna Karenina,” I just think it’s a stunning visual tour de force for a director who is at the top of his game. It’s a beautiful, beautiful film but I think if we made that at more money, nobody would have dared let him do that.
CS: Were Hugh, Russell and Anne no-brainers? Early on, you knew they were the ones to get?
Fellner: Yeah, the project’s been blessed because we wanted Tom Hooper. He said, “Yes.” We had a list of one person to play Jean Valjean, and that was Hugh Jackman and he said, “Yes.” Then when you do a list of people who are strong enough and powerful enough on screen to go up against Hugh, that’s a very short list. Top of that was Russell Crowe and he said “Yes” and Annie said “Yes” and Amanda and Eddie and a lot of people came after us as one. It was a wonderful novelty for me ’cause I’m normally having to chase people and this time, we were being pursued by a lot of people, a lot of agents, wanting to get the role for their clients. But we got lucky. This is a space in time right now where there are six or seven great actors who can all sing musically and are perfect for their parts and I think five years ago, ten years ago, we may not have been able to put this group together. Tom said from Day 1 and we all concurred that if we couldn’t cast Jean Valjean then there was no point in making the film.
CS: It’s interesting that you also have Samantha Barks, who was the one person who had played the role on stage before.
Fellner: Yeah, but Samantha had never been in front of a camera before. So powerfully accomplished. She walked on set, her first day ever on a movie set, and just knocks it out of the park. She was great.
CS: Not sure if anyone realizes this but both Hugh and Russell broke out in the same year, 2000, and then Anne did with “The Princess Diaries” a year later, so it’s interesting to see them all come together in the same movie at this time in their careers. Anyway, you guys are always working on a lot of different projects so what have you been working on for next year?
Fellner: We’ve got a new Richard Curtis movie called “About Time” which stars Rachel McAdams and a fantastic young actor called Domhnall Gleeson, who is Brendan Gleeson’s son. He was actually in “True Grit” and he was in “Anna Karenina” as well and he’s just gorgeous to watch on screen. It’s a beautiful Richard Curtis romantic comedy about the simplest of things in life which is two people who fall in love and have a family and that is it.
CS: I thought it was a big science fiction movie for some reason.
Fellner: Well, it’s interesting you say that. There is an element of time travel in it but it’s a very aside element. The film is about love and life and it’s funny and engaging. We actually just previewed it in L.A. two days ago to unbelievable results so we’re very excited about it.
CS: And that’s going to be a summer movie opening in May I believe?
Fellner: We’re not quite sure whether it’s going to be March, April or September. We’re just working that out. I doubt it will come out in the summer. And then we got “Rush,” the film we did with Ron Howard, Pete Morgan wrote, about the Formula 1 drivers.
CS: Did that come out of doing the doc “Senna”?
Fellner: It’s a bit embarrassing cause it’s my passion or what used to be my passion was Formula 1 and all my professional life as a film producer for 25 years I tried to make a Formula 1 movie, which is a very hard thing to do, and then suddenly we did two within two years, so it’s just coincidence. And then what else do we have?
CS: The next person coming up is going to ask you about the same thing because we’ve both known Edgar Wright for about eight years and everyone’s really excited about his new movie with Simon and Nick.
Fellner: Well, he’s shooting right now.
CS: He’s been on Radio Silence for months, which is rare for Edgar.
Fellner: Yeah we’re really putting Edgar through the wringer. Not so much we, but the English weather because he’s in the middle of four weeks of nights and the weather is brutal. It’s freezing cold and pouring rain so he’s not a happy bunny right now, but he’s doing brilliant things and the film is going to be a worthy end to the trilogy of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.”
CS: I remember he had trouble with the weather on “Shaun of the Dead” as well.
Fellner: Yeah, a little bit.
CS: I remember Simon or Nick saying that “Paul” came out of the fact they were all having such problems with the weather that they wanted to a movie in the U.S.
Fellner: But it’s great to have Edgar back in the UK because it was 2008 with “Hot Fuzz,” it was four and a half years ago when we did that, so yeah and we’re trying to bring that out late summer probably, September here in the U.S., August or September. We’ve got a film called “The Two Faces of January” which is Hossein Amini’s first directing assignment with Viggo (Mortensen) and Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac, who is awesome. I was lucky enough that I’m friends with Joel and Ethan so they showed me some of his movie with him starring in it and he’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. So that and a film Dan Mazer wrote and directed, Sacha Baron Cohen’s writing partner. He did Ali G. and Borat and all those characters, so we’ve got a romantic comedy with him with Anna Faris, Rose Byrne and Simon Baker.
CS: The closest you guys have come to a franchise are the Bridget Jones movies. You’ve done two of them and are you still going to do a third movie? There’s been talk about it for a while.
Fellner: Well, we’re always looking at it. We’ll only do it if we can crack it creatively so maybe we will, maybe we won’t. We’ll see what happens. If we can get it right next year, we’ll try and do it next year, but if we can’t, we won’t. What else are we doing next year? We’re going to try and do a film called “Trash” which is going to be set in Brazil that Stephen Daldry is going to direct. It’s based on a book, which is about a bunch of kids who work in a trash dump and they find a wallet and in the wallet is money and a whole lot of clues and they follow the clues and it leads them to a belt politician and a large pile of millions of dollars and they’re being chased by the police all the way through it. It’s a wonderful chase movie, thriller, set in Rio. We’re looking at doing this film “Lost for Words,” which is a script Richard Curtis wrote that Tom Harper is going to direct, a romantic comedy set in the UK and China, and we’re working on “The Snowman”, which is a Jo Nesbo thriller about the detective Harry Hole and various other bits and pieces.
CS: Those are the movies that you’re finishing production or are going into production?
Fellner: Yeah, we’re like a mini-studio where you’ve got to be breathing the oxygen of next year or otherwise you die standing still. Much as this is great, I’ve got to move on now. You never get time at Working Title sadly to enjoy any film’s success, because you’re worrying about the next lot.
CS: I remember you and Tim were here a few years ago for the Gothams and that’s the only time I’ve seen you actually taking time to talk to press. I can’t remember, were you here for “Frost/Nixon”?
Fellner: No, I didn’t really do… We don’t do junkets. We very rarely do them. We don’t think that people are that interested in the nuts and bolts of what goes on behind the scenes and how films get chosen, how they get picked, how they get created, how they get put together.
CS: That’s our whole audience right there.
Fellner: No, you’re right. You’re very rare like that so we go, “You know what? Let’s let the talent do it and we’ll get on and try and make the next movie,” but on this one, I’m so proud of this film I wanted to come out and say a few words about it because I’m really, really thrilled with the way it’s come out. Also, it’s new for us. We’ve never done anything like this and I’m really proud that our company has been able to create a musical–we’ve never done a musical–for a price that’s unheard of with talent that is brilliant and create something that’s quite special.
CS: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about something you guys have had the option for a long time which is “Astro City,” the comic by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. Do you think that will ever happen? It was such a great comic in the 90s.
Fellner: It’s difficult.
CS: Is it cost prohibitive?
Fellner: For us, to get a handle on what it should be and how to do it, that’s the tricky thing. I tend to worry about “can you create something you all believe in” and then worry about “how the hell do we make it happen?” and we’re at the stage where “How do we create a script that we all believe in?” So many projects get stuck at that stage. I think part of the reason why there’s a lot of not very good films around is that the minute people have a great idea and think “we can sell this” they don’t stop. What we tend to do is we stop if the script is not good enough, because we won’t be able to get it up whereas studios already have the finance to do it so they just roll and they set a release date. I think more time needs to be put into writers and screenplays and all of that. It’s an old-fashioned thought but
CS: It’s worked so far. By the way, are you doing better? I know you were waylaid for a while.
Fellner: Yeah, I had an interesting year. I don’t know if you can see it from here but I was in a hospital just over there. In fact, what’s the date today? First of December last year, and they chopped me virtually open and cured me from a very nasty disease, so a year ago when I was coming around from the operation, if someone had said, “In twelve months time not only will you have made eight movies with your partner and you’ll have a film that’s really excited about,” I would have gone, “Nah, it’s not going to happen” so it’s been a good year.