Alison Owen on Elizabeth
Producer Alison Owen reveals the trial and tribulations of trying to get the world to see things your way, especially if your producing a feature film.
What does a movie producer actually do for a living? Actors, writers, directors, we all know about - but what of that other very prominent name in the opening credits? For her book 'What I Really Want To Do Is Produce': Top Producers Talk Movies and Money (published by Faber in 2006), Helen de Winter, herself an intrepid young producer, set out to explore the broader meaning of the profession in conversation with some of the most successful names in the business. Among those witnesses is Alison Owen, who has made her name as a producer of such 'literary' pictures as Sylvia (2003) and Brick Lane (2007), but above all with Elizabeth (1998), for which she was Oscar-nominated, the gestation of which she describes below.
HELEN DE WINTER: After Hear My Song your next big success was Elizabeth which you produced for Working Title in 1998. How did that come together?
ALISON OWEN: Tim Bevan offered me a job at Working Title, I worked on staff there for a few years, and we made several films including Moonlight and Valentino with Gwyneth Paltrow. Then I left and had more of a satellite relationship with the company, but, as I was leaving, we had started talking about making a historical film. It's the only time I have ever done a movie where the idea came before the subject, which is an odd way to go about it.
Weirdly, our brief to ourselves was we wanted to make a historical film in the style of Trainspotting which meant we wanted to do a non-Merchant Ivory chocolate-box film, something gritty and muscular and more visceral than the sorts of period films that usually come out of the UK. I wanted to inspire people to look at historical characters in another way, rather than as myths and legends. We then looked for a subject to fit that brief, and we considered Boadicea, Cromwell, a few others. But I felt that Elizabeth I had a strong resonance for the modern woman–she had made great choices between her private and public selves, and we wanted to look at the juxtaposition of those personae.
Debra Hayward at Working Title was instrumental in coming up with the idea and we worked very closely on the development of the script. I also felt that we shouldn't just make a film that stuck to the facts but, rather, be faithful to the spirit of her life. Often, with facts, you have to change things around in order to be more faithful to the characters. Plus if we had just presented the events in a narrative order it wouldn't have made a very good drama, and we would have created the impression that it was going to be a long, boring reign–which it never feels when you read about Elizabeth, because her life was full of colour.
People kept trying to foist all kinds of stars on us, but the director Shekhar Kapur and I were really adamant that we didn't want a star. One has to be pragmatic about making films, and we realised there were some interesting names hovering around the part. But for us, it just seemed really important that we kept with the take on the story, which was about a young girl who grew up and decided to make herself into an icon. Therefore it was important not to have someone who already was an icon–it would have been odd to have Nicole Kidman, for instance. We needed someone who could grow into the role and, at the same time, grow into her fame. So it was a tall order. Our casting director, Vanessa Pereira, was absolutely brilliant–though now, rather irritatingly, she has become an agent. But Vanessa kept saying that she heard about a great girl who was acting in The Seagull in a theatre in Sydney and that if we were really up against it then we should go and see her. We were about to go into pre-production, so the idea of Shekhar and I getting on a plane to Sydney to see an unknown actress just wasn't going to happen. But Cate Blanchett had just done Oscar & Lucinda, directed by Gillian Armstrong, and we were in our office at Working Title and among a pile of tapes that had come in was a trailer for the film. As soon as Cate came on screen we were like, 'Oh my god, that's Elizabeth!' We still had to fly Cate over and persuade Polygram to fund the film with her... but it was just so obvious from the moment you saw her that she was Elizabeth that it didn't require any particular cleverness on our part.
HELEN DE WINTER: What happens when, as was the case with Elizabeth, you were nominated as producer for the Best Picture Oscar? Does it change things?
ALISON OWEN: It does–it makes things easier. People return your calls quicker and take you more seriously, so that's really nice. In Hollywood if you have made a couple of movies and people think you have something to offer then they are much more receptive to you. Stars get films funded so, ergo, one has to be able to get hold of the stars, which means having relationships with their agents. Now I would say I'm finding it much better getting to the people I want to talk to. There was a time when people didn't respond, and some people were very rude–some people are still rude–but you have to learn to be thick skinned and just get on with it.
The Oscar experience itself was great fun. I really didn't expect it–I didn't even listen to the Oscar nominations being announced because I was out at lunch with my daughter. When I came back along Oxford Street Eric Fellner from Working Title was waiting for me outside, and when he told me we both just jumped up and down like children on the street. I couldn't remember the last time I had jumped up and down with excitement. And then it was just such fun–people like Harry Winston ring up and offer to lend you diamonds, and designers offer you dresses. It was a laugh . . .