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Old Boy Andy Paterson in the Spotlight

Monday, 03 February 2014

Old Boy Andy Paterson is a film producer. His latest film, which he also co-wrote, is The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. The film tells the true story of Eric Lomax, a British prisoner of war forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway by the Japanese during WWII; he tracks down his captor years later in an attempt to find reconciliation. The film is currently on general release at the box office.

 

What were your favourite subjects when you were at school, who were your favourite teachers and did you have any involvement with theatre (e.g. School productions)?  Did the School play any part in helping you to be successful in your career?

Slightly side-stepping the invidious question of favourites, I can tell you that Mr Gallagher, my principal physics teacher, was responsible for my making the slightly precocious decision at 16 that I could handle English on my own but would never understand the universe without the maths.  He told great stories of his time at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge after the war, relating back to the physicists who worked on the atomic bomb.  I remember him telling me of the first nuclear test, when the scientists worried that the bomb might ignite the atmosphere and destroy the earth.  So I was already driven by story-telling - I just thought science had the better stories…

I was in a band for most of my time at Bolton and I suppose my first independent production credit was starting an annual Christmas Song Contest, an X-Factor forerunner and excuse to wear jeans and make loud noises at school.  (I'm jealous of the new Arts Centre I see on the website...)

 

Who/what inspired you to move into directing and then producing?

After Bolton School I went to Oriel College, Oxford to read physics and that's where I met the bunch of people who would be my partners for a long time. Two Americans arrived as post-graduates with a Beach Boys tribute band. I told them they needed a bass player and joined them.

They were the main drivers of the idea of making a film and put together a small team which set about trying to work out how to do that.  We had no idea how hard it would be to pull off, but director John Schlesinger was an alumnus and he inspired us and introduced us to David Puttnam, and we were gradually able to beg and borrow equipment and work on a script. The story of the making of the resulting film, Privileged, a melodrama set at Oxford, was almost certainly better than the film itself, but it was Hugh Grant's first production and it was released in cinemas.  After that we were hooked. And one of the tiny team that made the film was a beautiful girl called Olivia, who is now my wife.  

 

How did you get into film and TV production?

I sneaked into the BBC using my supposed engineering qualifications.  Actually my electronics experience amounted to a two term option in my final year but I joined TV News and most of their requirements were operational.  My experience in rock bands was actually more useful than the theory.  The timing was extraordinary; TV News was moving from film to videotape and they needed editors who were technically qualified to use the equipment.  As I had been involved in student radio at Oxford I had journalistic experience and became quite sought after so found myself working with legends: Kate Adie, John Humphreys, Tim Sebastian etc.

It was a thrilling three years, but then our team had found a script we wanted to make and managed to persuade EMI to fund it.  So I left the BBC - possibly the bravest thing I ever did. 

 

You seem to have moved away from directing more recently – is this because you prefer production, or would you ever go back?

I was never really a director.  The role of Assistant Director is somewhere between on set producer and floor manager - a good experience in terms of understanding the specific practical difficulties of shooting a film.  I have done some second unit directing but, to paraphrase David Puttnam, I'd be a competent director but I'm a much better producer.  

 

I believe The Railway Man is your first writing credit – any particular reason why you felt you needed to co-write this particular film? Did you enjoy the process  and is it something you’d do again?

Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote a wonderful screenplay but after he'd done a million rewrites I had an idea about a different way of telling the story.  Rather than ask him I tried it out myself and he was gracious enough to read my drafts and agree with where I was going.  After that we worked together and it was the most rewarding process I've ever been through.  It was, I think, inevitable that after twenty five years of working with writers I would find that I knew some of the tricks.  I'm a good enough producer to know that Frank and my wife Olivia - who wrote the screenplay for Girl With A Pearl Earring - are orders of magnitude better writers than me, but there are some stories I want to tell and will write myself.   

 

Why did you feel it so important that the story was told?  What were the biggest problems you faced as co-producer?

It's undoubtedly the best story I've ever been told.  The main difficulties were finding a way to write it for the screen and how to afford the scale of production it demanded.  On the face of it this is a dark drama with scenes of torture and brutality - potentially difficult for audiences.

We had to create a page turning script capable of persuading financiers and then audiences that they had to see the film.  Films are really all about tension - putting the audience on the edge of their seats, desperately needing to know what's going to happen.  One problem here was we knew they would already know the ending, or at least that it is a story of reconciliation.   Another is that it's a story of a man who comes home from war unable to talk of his experiences.  That's a very difficult character trait to make work on screen.  On the production side I discovered a wonderful Australian director and by setting it up as a UK/Australian co-production I was able to raise the money.  It helped that Colin Firth was kind enough to win his Oscar just as I was putting that stage together.

We then found ourselves making a massive film, shooting in Scotland, Queensland - and excavating the actual Thai/Burma railway from the jungle to shoot our biggest scenes where they actually happened.  

 

What are your future career plans?

I plan to drop dead on a film set around the age of 100, having warned the crew they should keep going in that event.  I've already been around long enough to see film replaced by digital, DVD come and nearly go, internet distribution becoming commonplace and, despite dire warnings of its demise every few years, audiences still wanting to go to the cinema for that particular experience.  The Railway Man has demonstrated that a great story will still drag people out of their homes in their millions.  So I want to continue to find stories that move and entertain, and insist that they should be made.  That doesn't get any easier, and each film takes several years to make, but they're usually worth it.  

 

Which skills do you consider essential to do your job?

Passion, persistence, taste, courage, a touch of madness.  Above all the ability to tell a story and to recognise stories which will sustain that passion for the years it takes to bring them to the screen.  My mum told me just before I went to Bolton School that she wasn't sure what I would end up doing but it would involve working with people.  That seemed a bit general at the time but I now know what she means - I love putting together a huge team of people and enabling each of them to do amazing work.  I take my pride from protecting an idea from the initial concept to the finished work.  The Railway Man took fourteen years from reading the book to seeing posters in Leicester Square and the sense of achievement is quite something.  

 

What advice would you give to our pupils interested in getting into your field of work?

Be very careful.  I'm an independent film producer and people assume therefore that I must be rich, but I'm not.  It's a very risky business. Few survive and even fewer make real money.  So you'd be better be sure that telling stories and guiding those stories through the most extraordinary maze of problems - creative, financial, managerial, legal - is something you're driven to do.  

 

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Andy Paterson

Andy Paterson