Telling Stories - A Masterclass in Film Production
Wednesday, 24 September 2014
The Boys’ Division Great Hall had surely never been so quiet and so still as during the Tillotson Lecture delivered by Andy Paterson, film producer and Old Boy. Describing his job as being all about telling stories, he took the captivated audience through an almost filmic interpretation of his educational life and career. He vividly recalled visiting the Great Hall as a ten year old boy with his mother and meeting an old man in a gown who asked him which is heavier - water or ice? Floundering for an answer and fearing that his time at Bolton School was over before it began, he was suddenly fed a lifeline when the teacher asked him to think about a pond in winter and how the ice rests on the water. This opened up an animated discussion and resulted in the scholarship that made it possible for him to join the school. Reflecting on his childhood, he praised the School’s ethos for helping him to develop the ability to think around subjects; he recognised that it was here that he determined to tell stories.
Andy went on to study at Oriel College, Oxford, where he met his future wife, screenwriter Olivia Hetreed. and lifelong friend Michael Hoffman. They joined fellow students to make ‘Privileged’, starring aspiring actor Hugh Grant; a venture that Andy described as incredibly difficult but one that had them hooked thereafter. His engineering qualifications enabled him to get into the BBC by “the back-door” and he enjoyed three years as an Editor in TV News, working on the miners’ strike, the Falklands War and with Kate Adie on the wedding of Charles and Diana. He then arguably took his bravest decision by leaving the BBC to pursue a career as an independent film producer.
Describing the role of a producer, Andy pointed out that it all begins with a story. He told the audience that you need a tale strong enough to sustain you through the years of planning, negotiating, writing and filming that producing a movie involves. It is about art, creativity, industry and, above all, persistence.
The making of ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’, from a screenplay written by his wife, offered up many lessons. As a producer you have to convince people to lend you large sums of money on the back of a story. You have to sell the film to distributors who rely on big names to bring in the audiences. Andy allowed his financiers to persuade him, against his better judgement, that Kate Hudson would be the ideal female lead for the film. When she wavered, her agents and the film’s backers colluded to pull out of the film just weeks before shooting and hours before two planes hit the World Trade Centre, leaving him with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and little chance of retrieving the situation. He resolved at that stage that he would never again allow questionable creative decisions to be made purely in the interests of getting a film made. He went back to a young unknown called Scarlett Johansson, who had made such an impact when she auditioned against Ralph Fiennes, playing Vermeer. But Scarlett had been heartbroken when Andy turned her down the first time round and he had to work hard to persuade her he had always known she was the one. She relented just in time for Ralph Fiennes to allow his own agents to convince him that ‘Maid In Manhattan’ should take priority and he too pulled out. Andy went to Colin Firth and his sheer perseverance was rewarded, finally, by the perfect cast.
When asked what his favourite story was, Andy said it had to be that of ‘The Railway Man’, which he produced and co-wrote and which starred Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It took him fourteen years to finally see the project through to completion and on cinema screens. As a story, Andy felt this one had everything. Quizzed on what advice he could offer to a young producer, Andy’s first thought was: “Don’t mess up your A levels!” He then suggested it is a good idea to study films and your reaction to them – what bits keep you hooked, is it the character or the story? What makes you want to find out what happens next? What films bore you? Good movie making is about creating and maintaining tension and energy and understanding how to tell the story on camera. For his sheer energy, ambition, magnetism and colossal imagination, Andy cited Harvey Weinstein as the biggest character he had come across in the film industry. Andy was also asked to relate the surreal story of taking Kevin Spacey to afternoon tea at his in-laws near Lullworth Cove whilst filming ‘Beyond the Sea’, a film about singer Bobby Darin. Andy concluded his lecture with the words, “It all began here and it is an incredible honour to be here again.”
Straight after the lecture, Andy was due to board a flight to San Sebastian for the European premiere of a new film ‘Tigers’ which he co-wrote and co-produced. He would then move on to Cantabria for the filming of ‘Altamira’ with Antonio Banderas.
This was the 42nd Tillotson Lecture, a series that has run since 1971 and in recent years has been given by Sir Ian McKellen (Old Boy), Lord Coe and Sir Philip Craven (Old Boy).
You can watch Andy Paterson's Tillotson Lecture on the School's YouTube Channel here.