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BSS2015: People are our core business

After reportedly irritating some members of the audience by regularly interrupting other participants during her appearance in the earlier panel on Casting, Packaging and Financing, Liz Watts had the floor to herself for her producing masterclass, “Sustaining Key Relationships”.

“People are our core business,” she began.

For Watts it’s all about the art of choosing whom one wants to work with – and recognising that relationships in the screen industry are perhaps more complex and involved than those in other realms. She asserted, “I only want to work with people whom I’d like to have dinner with.”

Watts shared some of her experience on Cate Shortland’s feature Lore (a coproduction between Britain, Australia and Germany, and shot entirely in Germany). She considered quitting A hundred times after various screaming matches and so forth. Her point was that she hadn’t trusted her gut instincts early enough. That said, she is proud of the end result, and the film has indeed done well, deservedly.

Watts and her company Porchlight Films have a long track record of working with exceptional people (and, presumably, good dinner companions), experienced and emerging filmmakers including Cate Blanchett, David Michod and Shortland. Recently Porchlight has moved into long-form television drama, Watts’ rationale being similar to Jane Campion’s among others: a desire to tell longer, more complex stories with a greater depth of exploration of character.

Discussing writers Watts lamented that, in Australia at least, the pool of writers is diminishing. Writers are too often being “stolen” by Los Angeles and London. Like many others, including our own Film Commission, Watts is regularly searching for new people, particularly by looking at lots of short films. She observes that the writer/director (auteur) tradition in Australia is beginning to diminish – although you might not suspect that from this year’s Australian feature releases. The writer and director roles are being split more often nowadays, something of which Watts seems to approve.

Casting involves one of the most critical relationships as far as producers are concerned. For Watts it’s important to understand both why a particular actor should do your project then why they want to.

One needs to garner as much knowledge as possible beforehand about the actor – online, from reading and watching interviews, and so forth. And, as one should get to know one’s prospective actors ahead of time, Watts recommended getting to know their agents in the same way. She also stressed the importance of understanding the difference between the American and the British systems, particularly as far as actors’ agents are concerned – although she didn’t spell out what those differences were.

Watts spoke of the significance of cultural differences when working on international coproduction – not just when different languages come into play, as in Europe, but also the differences between Australia and the USA, and Australia and Britain: “countries separated by the same language” to quote George Bernard Shaw.

Later in the session Watts moved into a couple of areas of collaboration not covered by other speakers during the weekend. While other guests tended to concentrate on the producer-director, producer-writer and other collaborations involved in the development and production processes, Watts spent some time discussing the post-production phase of pitching to sales agents and distributors. She emphasised the value in taking part in post-production markets at festivals as being really good for both establishing and nurturing relationships.

While there was plenty of discussion of the people with whom one must sustain a collaborative relationship as a producer, Watts offered almost nothing on how to go about sustaining such relationships. This lack was in contrast with ealrier speaker Duncan Sarkies and his very clear and passionate prescription of how to go about nurturing relationships.

Watts summed up the key task for the producer as doing one’s preparation as fully as possible, to enable the key creatives to do their best work. In fact, the session might well have been titled “Preparing Key Relationships”.

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