A hands-on producer with a love of collaboration
With producing and exec roles at Working Title, Miramax, Film Four and Kudos Pictures, Paul Webster’s credits reveal some of the most successful and critically-acclaimed British films over the last thirty years.
From David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Joe Wright’s Atonement to Pablo Larraín’s upcoming Princess Diana-based movie Spencer, his collaborations also reveal a passion for auteur directors with a strong vision and desire to reach a broad audience.
While there are many iterations of a producer’s role, this BAFTA-winner (Webster won Best Film for Atonement) believes that the central focus should be on supporting and enhancing the director’s vision.
“If you have a good director then everything flows from that director, if the director isn’t such a good communicator, but has good ideas, then it’s my job to step in and ensure those ideas are disseminated and adopted effectively,” he says.
He adds that if a director isn’t clear on what they are doing, but the producer is, then that’s “problematic” – something he claims to have observed, not as a producer, but on occasions, during his spells as an executive.
“The less I have to do creatively on a movie the better – not because my ideas are bad but because it’s always the director that needs to be in pole position and that’s the vision we’re supporting. If that’s not there, then it’s a problem.”
“Producing is the interface between art and business: the art has to balance with the science and the mechanics.”
A gift of collaboration
Webster co-founded the London-based production company Shoebox Films with director Joe Wright and fellow producer Guy Heeley. He describes the four occasions in which he has worked directly with Wright as “a gift”.
“We were put together by Tim Bevan and Working Title on Pride and Prejudice. He was a first-timer but a very experienced TV director and it was clear that he knew what to do with the camera, the editor, and the actors…
“He’s extremely demanding, but then that’s what you want from a director and that’s always been a pleasure with Joe. It’s simply about waiting for the right project to come along to connect.”
At Shoebox, the three co-founders work on their own projects, although there are occasional collaborations, the main crossover being the projects of [writer-director] Steven Knight, with whom they also have a long relationship.
Webster adds that Knight’s 2013 thriller Locke – a tense Tom Hardy one-hander that he produced – is one of the films he’s most proud of being associated with.
These days Webster is also keen to work with more female directors and people from diverse background. Recent collaborations have included working with Zeina Durra on Luxor and with Marjane Satrapi on the Marie Curie biopic, Radioactive.
“It was only while working on Radioactive I realised that I’d never worked with a female director before, and so in the third act of my career, I’m trying to redress the balance a bit,” he says.
Enabling the vision
While Webster maintains that he’s purely there to facilitate a director’s vision, he describes himself as a very hands-on producer, and it’s clear he enjoys collaborating through the entire filmmaking process.
“Generally, on every movie we do, I’m on location, which is unusual for a lot of producers: when it’s going well, there’s not much to do,” he says.
“But I find myself fascinated by the process, drawn to it, and when I can see it, I can make a proper contribution that comes from a position of knowledge and power,” he adds.
His strength, he maintains, is collaborating with cast and crew and spotting areas that need connections, relationships that need establishing and firefighting problems.
For foreign-based directors not familiar with the UK talent base, this might mean acting as a conduit with craftspeople most suited to the production.
Most recently, this involved bringing in Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood to compose the score for Spencer and securing [Emmy Award winning costume designer] Consolata Boyle on Radioactive.
Everyone’s opinion in post
According to Webster, collaboration in post is also key because as soon as there is a cut of a film, then “that’s when everyone starts to have an opinion”.
He adds: “At that point my job becomes handling the financier’s input on the film, and that’s what the director wants and what we believe the film is.”
While some directors aren’t keen to receive producer input at this stage, a collaborative director will usually start to include producers in post conversations during the shoot, he notes.
“The conversations I’m having with Pablo right now are based on what he’s shot. He knows that I understand what he’s doing, so he’s treating me like a collaborator. I’m sure he will show me the cuts early on and that’s what I’m used to,” he says.
Webster claims that it’s not necessary for producers to know everything about the mechanics of filmmaking and post-production – although it’s helpful if they know someone that does who can explain it to them.
The art and the business of film
One aspect of a production he claims he did have to consciously learn was the budgetary mechanics.
“I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with production managers and accountants talking about how that works because our responsibility is both to the art and to the business of film. Producing is the interface between art and business: the art has to balance with the science and the mechanics.”
He adds: “I don’t want to be taking money from a company to deliver a film and not be able to repay their investment and commitment.”
So, when the producer turns to page 22 of a script and reads a description of an explosion, he admits that he’s sometimes conflicted. “If there’s a very expensive idea and you are on a budget then it’s really difficult to separate out your instincts,” he says.
“On the very occasional times I’ve worked on films that have run into budgetary problems its challenging because cutting the budget means cutting the script and the schedule – it’s the only way. And when you cut into the meat of a story that can be very dangerous,” he adds.
On Spencer Webster finds himself working remotely with two other producers and, for the first time in his career, he has not joined the crew on location, in Germany.
While it’s all “doable” he says, remote man-management is a challenge. “I was on a call earlier with the UK and the German side of the team, going through the budget, and that’s all very easy – but filmmaking is a collective undertaking. I’ve never met the casting director and I’ve been working with her for nine months.
“Film is essentially about people meeting and telling stories together. So, to have my assistant in Chiswick, my line producer in Yorkshire and my production coordinator in Berkshire – it’s really difficult – things can slip through the cracks.
“Ultimately yes, you can you make films remotely but the thing to pay attention to is maintaining that human touch.”