As part of our on-going series of interviews with producers, Maria sat down with Helen Jones and Naomi Wright at Silver Salt Films to discuss the highs and lows of running and independent film production company. Silver Salt's recent production 'Censor' by Prano Bailey-Bond screened at Sundance and EFM.
MCG: The first question I wanted to ask was about your path into producing. Did you always want to be a producer or did you come about differently? I think it's always interesting to learn about people's journeys towards where they are today. So I wondered if you could share yours with us.
HJ: I knew that I wanted to study film at University, my passion from a young age was to work in film or television. At my University there was a theoretical path that you could take to learn about film, but there wasn't a proper practical path at that time, and there certainly wasn't anywhere you could go to study producing in the way that you can in London by going to the NFTS for example. The ‘nuts and bolts’ of the role felt quite hidden, so it took me some time to learn exactly what the role entailed. But I knew from an early stage I wanted to work on the business side of filmmaking – I had no desire to direct, write, or act, for example.
NW: I produced and directed a lot of television early on in my career, because, at that time at least, producing and directing in documentary television was the same job.
I'm also a writer and director for film, but at Silver Salt Films I also produce because it can takes years and years to get a film off the ground as a director, and there can be a lot of time between projects. I love ideas and stories and find it very exciting to be a part of a number of projects rather than just working on one film at a time.
MCG: You mentioned your company Silver Salt Films. So do you have a specific remit of filmmakers or films that you want to develop, or is it quite a broad spectrum of projects that you work on?
NW: When we were forming the company, we both felt strongly that we wanted to help make the screen industry more representative. So we focused in the beginning on looking for female writers, directors and other talent, then widening the net to work with a range of diverse talent.
HJ: What we're ultimately looking for is to work with bold, diverse filmmakers who have something to say. We want to work with people, whether it's the writer, director or other producers, that have a very strong and striking perspective.
MCG: I think that's the nice thing about being a producer, that there are people that you want to champion or stories you want to champion and as a producer, you can lead that charge.
NW: It's really exciting. Another point we both felt strongly about was that we didn't want to focus solely on producing films for a British audience - we wanted the company to be thinking globally, reaching out and co-producing with other countries, and telling stories that will resonate internationally.
MCG: Could we go back to much earlier in your career because a lot of the people accessing this website, are maybe starting out and they're thinking about how they can get investment for feature films, and a lot of that comes from making short films or television. Could you talk a bit about that journey for yourselves, what it was like to take the first step into bigger productions from working on smaller short films or things like that?
HJ: My path was slightly different, I guess, from the "normal" one. Prior to forming Silver Salt Films, my career had predominantly been in international theatrical distribution. When I was contemplating starting a production company, I knew that I had to find a like-minded partner to come on board, someone with skills who could complement my own. Having known Naomi in a professional capacity from producing her second short, I knew that we shared a similar ethos in terms of the type of films that we wanted to make. I also knew that Naomi came from a very production-focused TV background and I thought the two of us would work well together.
MCG: Talking about script development, projects can take a while to get off the ground and even to complete. Could you maybe give us some tips about how you motivate yourselves and also the filmmakers you work with and the team for when you are in development? And that is an open-ended thing. How do you keep everyone's creativity flowing and how do you empower them to keep going?
NW: For me it’s key that there are two of us. That really helps with motivation because it means that you're always accountable to at least one other person. Somebody is there waiting for you to send them the work. Also, the company exists as an entity outside of ourselves personally, that we have to contribute to. And right from the start, Helen has extremely good at making sure that we not only hit deadlines, but that we also put time aside to develop a five and even a ten year vision for the company. Within that we set out monthly and yearly targets.
MCG: Can you tell us a bit about the films you have coming up now?
HJ: We are a minority co-producer on the beautifully crafted film ‘The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)’; a Japanese-language drama. That was a film that we came on board with after it had been shot, working primarily with the filmmaker C.W. Winter. It's an eight-hour film, a very bold piece of work, about a woman in her 70s living in a rural community in Kyoto, Japan. It premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year, just prior to the lockdown, in a new competitive section: Encounters. It won the section, a Golden Bear for ‘Best Film’, which everyone was very happy about and the film is currently continuing its festival journey.
NW: It's got some good distribution deals, internationally.
HJ: Yes. Grasshopper Film in the USA, Capricci Films in France, Shima Films in Japan – for example. However, our first film as lead producer, is called ‘Censor’. It's a psychological horror by the filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond. She's co-written it with Anthony Fletcher, and it's her directorial debut. We've been working on that for several years now with partners the BFI, Film4 and Film Cymru Wales.
HJ: We began working on ‘Censor’ in 2016. Film Cymru Wales were the first financier to support the film’s development, with Creative England coming on board to develop the film with us shortly thereafter. The BFI and Film4 then joined for the final stage of development and then for production. We are working with our sales agent Protagonist Pictures on the festival strategy and distribution for the film, now that we have premiered in Sundance and Berlin. With Covid, it's a bit of a new world and ever-changing landscape. We're all learning how that may or may not affect things for festivals, sales and distribution, as we go forward in time.
MCG: I mean four years working on ‘Censor’ - a lot of people would be shocked by that, but that's quite standard, isn't it, for feature development?
HJ: It's actually on the shorter side of the standard, there are lots of examples that have taken significantly longer. I think the film that people often cite here is ‘The Favourite’, which took twenty years. For ‘Censor’, it has been reasonably short, ‘four years’ can be scary for young people to hear, but it goes by pretty quickly.
MCG: You touched on it before, Helen, your background was in theatrical distribution, and I think that's something that a lot of new producers are a bit overwhelmed by. It just seems like a very mysterious world of sales and distribution. How does that affect the choices you make creatively when a script lands in your inbox? Are you considering if it has sales potential? Right the way through your development process, are you thinking about how you would reach an audience internationally?
HJ: Certainly, yes. I think part of that is probably subconscious as well. I know it sounds very cliché because people say it all the time, but you've got to think about who the audience is for that particular film or TV series that you wish to develop. Though, I wouldn't say that when we first read a script I'm thinking about the details or specifics of how we'd be able to sell or distribute the project. But I do think at a certain point quite early on it's something to consider. Obviously with Covid and the new world that we're in now, it's going to be interesting, and I think no one knows to what degree that's going to ultimately change the distribution landscape. I think even sales agents and distributors don't know. I think there's going to be a lot of waiting to see and lots of learning that's going to take place, probably for the next couple of years to see how those models are going to adapt.
NW: I've always been very appreciative that Helen has this knowledge of the sales and distribution side of producing. For example, when we were looking around for a sales agent, we had a lot of interest, but Helen was good at finding and negotiating with the very best partner; she had a good knowledge of all the companies already prior to making the decision. I felt very confident that she would make the right decision. It was nice to see how that unfolded, she just did it so naturally.
MCG: That leads me nicely again to another question about having a coproducer. As you said earlier, it's nice to have somebody who has a different skillset and background to you. How does it work between you? Would you encourage more people to set up as co-producers?
HJ: There are two ways of thinking about co-producing. One is to have a company where two producers work together. Another way is to co-produce with another company, even if that other company is a “one-man-band”. Naomi and I have worked together for a number of years now. I think we complement each other well in terms of what we're each good at. Naomi is also a writer and a director. She’s very good at working with other writers. She's very articulate and very eloquent and can speak to writers in a certain way to guide them and make the points that maybe need to be made, but also do it in a way where they feel safe and encouraged. That can be a tricky thing to pull off.
HJ: From my side, I take care of more traditional producing activities and the running of the company. And Naomi needs time to work on her directing, writing projects as well. It’s a good balance which I think works.
NW: There's so much decision-making involved in this business that having someone else to bounce ideas off is a great benefit. Having an office space has been a key part of reaping the benefit of this as it provides a space where we can more easily thrash out any dilemmas that arise and come to a decisive, united decision.
MCG: OK, final question. This is very much about encouraging new producers and giving them a bit of insight into how a creative producer works. Is there any advice you would give somebody who's thinking about pursuing a career as a producer? It'd be great if we could get some words of wisdom from you.
NW: I think it's very hard to make a living as an independent film producer when you're starting out, so it's good to have a side-arm where you can continue to make some form of steady income, either in a related area or teaching or another job.
HJ: I think when you're starting up a company, like with any new business, it is really difficult to make enough money to live on. It’s tricky but you need to balance the huge amount of time and effort it takes to start up a new company with making enough income.
NW: I remember when I was a teenager a friend said, “I want to be a film producer, they're the ones that make all the money.” I think that's how the role of being a producer is perceived, from the outside. In reality, at the low-budget, independent filmmaking stage, it’s probably the opposite.
MCG: It's very much a challenge, especially in the early years, to have some sort of semblance of a work/life balance. You feel like a lot of your time is going into, as you say, surviving and paying your bills. But then you also have these ambitions to create a company that can make outstanding creative work. And there is no money in it at the moment. I suppose the advice is sort of learning how to to make those judgments and have that balance in your career, that you can have a rewarding life as a creative producer, but also be able to pay your bills and survive.
HJ: I think one thing I have found very beneficial is to begin and maintain good relationships with other producers. I don't mean highly experienced producers, although that can be very helpful as well, but people who are at the same stage as you, or slightly more advanced. Having a network of people that you can go to if you need is invaluable.
NW: I think producers need to do that more because traditionally there have been more support groups for writers and directors, but producers are expected to know all the answers already. My advice would be, if you are starting out, to find or start a group of producers, because that will be so important as you go forward. It’s good to stick together and support each other.
MCG: Absolutely. That is great advice. Thank you both so much.
You can follow Silver Salt on twitter @SilverSaltFilm
or find out more at https://silversaltfilms.co.uk
Many thanks to Helen and Naomi for taking time out of their schedule to talk to us!