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It’s always ‘who you know’ ….a social encounter between producer Eric Fellner of Working Title and Nicholas Allott, the managing director of Cameron Macintosh set in train the project to turn “arguably the theater’s greatest musical into a musical for the big screen – a daunting task,” says Fellner. In Sydney for the premiere of the film, Fellner and his WT partner of 25 years, Tim Bevan, reveal the secrets of their success to Andrew L. Urban . . . sort of ...

It’s the day before the Sydney premiere of Les Miserables and Tim Bevan’s birthday but he doesn’t mind being ‘at work’ as he and his Working Title partner of 25 years, Eric Fellner, go through their media junket paces at Sydney’s refurbished Park Hyatt hotel, across the water from the Opera House at Circular Quay. The two men have become icons of Britain’s film industry, producers who have shown good taste and (usually) good judgement. 

Embarking on a big budget ($61 million) musical – Les Miserables – presented major risks: in the past decade the only musical films that have worked commercially are Mamma Mia! and Chicago. Evita and Phantom didn’t – not enough, anyway.

“Every project we embark on,” says Fellner, the fear comes in; how are we going to do this. Given that it was going to a large budget, how do you convince your backers – and yourselves – that it was going to enough business. And it is so loved that we had to make sure that we made a movie that fans would love and secondly that it could cross over (to new audiences).”

There are 60 million people who have seen Cameron Mackintosh’s stage production of Les Miserables, which is a large target audience, and Mackintosh has built a great ‘brand’ with it. 

"Financing discipline and the careful selection of material, followed by getting the right people"

Having started making low budget movies, says Bevan, “it’s inherent to us, rather than trying to raise huge amounts of money, it’s in our DNA to take a more responsible approach, which is to try and figure out whether it’s a million dollar audience, a five million dollar audience or a fifty million dollar audience.”

Financing discipline and the careful selection of material, followed by getting the right people – from writer and director to all the department heads – is a recipe for their success. But that’s not all; there is that intangible chemistry of two intelligent and ambitious men working together. How does that work? “We filter what we think each other’s reactions will be,” says Bevan. 

It’s always a risky business, (“we make lists of pros and cons”) and real commercial success comes when “you get repeat viewings, as we saw with Notting Hill and Bridget Jones,” says Bevan, “and inside this piece (Les Miserables) is that opportunity …people taking their sisters, mothers, aunties and so on.” (Their Bridget Jones’ Baby is currently in production, with Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, directed by Peter Cattaneo, who directed The Full Monty.)

Of course as producers, their job starts and ends with gathering the right people to do the best job. “All of those people have to be brilliant at what they do …”

"they guffaw loudly in unison"

But have there been projects when Bevan and Fellner had done everything they thought was right, hired the right people (they thought) but it still didn’t work. “Oh yes!” they guffaw loudly in unison, “but we’re not going to tell you what they are!” they shout merrily.

Fellner adds with sudden recollection of pain: “And you know by day two if it’s going to be a horror show.”

That didn’t happen on Les Miserables, and the two men were looking forward to attending the premiere; “We’re going because audiences usually clap …” 

"There’ll never be another musical made lip-synching the songs"

For filmmakers, this offers a rare opportunity top hear real applause for their work – even if all they did was produce the film.

When William Nicholson delivered the first draft of his script, the ratio of singing to dialogue was 60 – 40. “When Tom Hooper came on board, he felt that the material was strong enough to do away with dialogue altogether,” says Fellner. “And of course the problem with mixing dialogue with singing is that there has to be a reason for changing from one to the other. In that respect, it is easier this way,” but Fellner acknowledges some people will not appreciate it. He has had it first hand: “My 17 year old son said to me, ‘yea, it’s great, but what’s with all the singing?’”

Before we end our interview, Fenner is compelled to add for the record, that in his opinion, “Tom Hooper has revolutionised the screen musical and we’re very proud of that. There’ll never be another musical made lip-synching the songs…”

"has turned out better than we expected"

But on what basis do they assess if a film of there is a success? “For me,” says Fellner, “first it’s whether it’s been a valuable use of my time, and secondly, whether we achieved what we set out to do. Les Miserables has turned out better than we expected.”

Bevan agrees; “It ticks both boxes – and by the way, that’s extremely rare.”

Published December 20, 2013

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