25 February 2003

Kelly's first stand

Heard the one about the expat Kiwi running a British film company using American money to make a film about an Irish revolutionary in Australia? Michael Hutak plunges into Kelly country. 

"Are you gonna whack Heath on the cover?" asks Tim Bevan, founder of Working Title Films and arguably the world's most successful independent movie producer. On the line from his London office, there is much more than just his new flick, Ned Kelly, to promote today.

But let's start with the movie. Starring Heath Ledger as the defiant one, Geoffrey Rush as his Victorian police nemesis and Naomi Watts as his lady love, Ned Kelly reunites the producer-director team of Tim White and Gregor Jordan that crafted Ledger's 1999 breakthrough hit, Two Hands.

Jordan's is a vision of Kelly who at Glenrowan forever cements his status as a revolutionary hero of the Australian underclass, at least so say the film's publicity notes. As this story is being written, the film-makers are trying to finish the movie in time for its March 27 world premiere in Melbourne. With a budget of $29.3m, it's been touted as the biggest budgeted Australian production yet.

"It is a big budget for an Australian movie," Bevan says, "but we wanted to give it an epic feel; it deserves a decent-sized landscape, and without us [Working Title] they wouldn't have been able to do it - that is the long and short of it."

Ned Kelly is Bevan's 56th film and counting for WTF, the company he founded in 1984 with Sarah Radclyffe, and which since 1992 he has run with Eric Fellner. WTF gained instant success with My Beautiful Laundrette (1984), and then led a creative resurgence of the British independent film industry in the late-'80s. After a decade's honourable toil, the company notched a worldwide box-office hit with the low-budget Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). WTF's first film with TV comedy writer Richard Curtis, it has taken worldwide receipts of $US244m ($412m).

"Four Weddings completely turned it around for us because we'd been working for several years before we had a mega-hit," says Bevan. It secured WTF unfettered access to a Hollywood studio cheque book - back then it was Polygram, today it's Universal - in a production and distribution deal that handed Bevan the power to "green light" any film up to a budget of $US25m, no questions asked.

They don't ask questions because the hits kept coming: Fargo (1996), Elizabeth (1998), Notting Hill (1999), High Fidelity (2000), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) and About A Boy (2002).

With the Universal deal in place, WTF has become the mainstay of the British film industry, and its biggest exporter of films to the world. Now Bevan says he wants to do the same here, with a new, wholly Australian-owned company - Working Title Australia. Ned Kelly is the first "local production" under the WTA banner, but it does get complicated.

"The reason we've set up WTA," says Bevan, "is that in Australia, there's a completely disproportionate amount of great directors, actors, and technical talent compared to the size of the place. Now it seems to me as soon as they get out of Neighbours, they all head to LA, but all of them - if you come up with the right project - will come home to make a movie. They'd prefer to be working in Sydney, living in Australia for six months, as they were enthused to do on Ned Kelly. So if we can do other projects that can attract Cate Blanchett or Nicole or whoever the hell it is, then we'll do it."

That's why on Ned Kelly, Bevan says he put an enormous amount of pressure on Gregor Jordan "to cast the hell out of it. And we did cast the hell out of it".

One Australian producer laid out the scenario: "Universal would have run the numbers, looked at all the figures for Ledger, Rush, Orlando Bloom, Watts, and then made a bottom-line calculation. Then they would have factored in the deals for television, satellite, cable, video and DVD and they would have seen - compared with say, The Hulk, which cost $US110m - that this film has got a big upside, but it's not gonna break the bank if it doesn't work. It's a no-brainer."

Even if WTA didn't exist, Bevan concedes, "we'd have probably made it anyway. We would have definitely considered it ... I was very keen that the film should be post-produced in [the UK] so it didn't just feel like an Oz-fest. But it is still exactly the right vehicle to launch WTA."

But while the film is launched under the WTA banner, Ned Kelly is an international film funded under the British parent's agreement with Universal. The deal was done directly with London out of Los Angeles by Perth-born Nelson Woss, an independent producer based in Los Angeles for the past 12 years who has just teamed up in Australia with James Erskine's Sports Entertainment.

"I made the deal," says Woss, who takes a producer's credit on Ned Kelly. "I optioned the book [Robert Drewe's Our Sunshine] and as soon as you option a property, you control it. Then I commissioned John McDonough to write the script. I did all of this offshore, through my US company." With several other Ned Kelly projects in the air - most notably Crying Game director Neil Jordan's, who had the rights to Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning The True Story of the Kelly Gang - Woss had to work fast. A bidding war ensued.

"When I'm in LA with Lionsgate on one line and Miramax on the other bidding for my script, I'm gonna deal with the people who can push the button," Woss says. "So I did essentially a US-structured deal; I didn't do an Australian producing deal. I mean, that's how we survive." By this Woss means that because the budget for Ned Kelly was greater than $A15m, the deal was structured as a foreign co-production in order to take advantage of the federal government's 12.5% tax offset for foreign film investment (see Lights, camera Tax! sidebar).

WTA's first really home-grown project is Getting Square, a $7m film shot in Queensland starring David Wenham and directed by Better Than Sex's Jonathan Teplitzky.

When looking for someone to head WTA, Bevan "tapped" his old friend Tim White, an Australian producer with more than 20 feature credits, such as Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Cosi (1996), and Spotswood (1992). The two Tims - both expat New Zealanders - became friends in the early '90s when they were working on Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart.

White says WTA is wholly his company, and works under a trademark licence agreement with WTF. The deal is a "first-look" arrangement whereby WTF gets first option to finance any project White has in development - and he has several. White says that the development process of movie-making is autonomous, "everyone starts to surrender autonomy, once you start financing the thing", while for his part Bevan says he will be "encouraging WTA to be doing at least one small film and one bigger film each year".

Despite the high stakes riding on Ned Kelly - not least the gamble that Ledger has sufficient box-office appeal to "open" a film worldwide - both Bevan and White say they're in Australia for the long haul, no matter how well the film does.

What the Australian industry needs, says Bevan, "is a couple of Four Weddings to come out of Australia. You need a film that does $200m worldwide, to make everyone sit up and say, 'Whoa, OK' - that would help a lot".

Bevan believes Australia still has a competitive advantage over other film production destinations such as Canada and Britain - which is why he's coming here. The movies are a global business, he says, and just as Aussie stars are seeking bigger cheques in Hollywood, "ultimately the studios are gonna go where it's cheaper. It's ultimately the exchange rate that makes the difference. If you can buy two-and-a-half dollars for a [US] dollar, then you're going there."


First published in

25 February 2003
The Bulletin 
Volume 121; Number 8

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