Tea-time with… British Film Producer Barnaby Thompson

copyright: Olivier Van-Den-Abeele

Barnaby Thompson is a British film director, producer and owner of the iconic Ealing Studios. He has made famous major films with his own production company, Fragile films, but has also produced 5 of the top 20 highest-grossing British independent movies of all time in the UK. He welcomes us in the historical White Lodge where it all began for Ealing Studios.

The latest Ealing Studios production is a TV show called “Maigret” starring Rowan Atkinson and takes place in 1950’s Paris. Their next film is called “Sea change” and will be both directed by and starring Kristin Scott Thomas, with Mark Strong portraying her husband. It is a growing up love story, set in the Greek isles, which will be released end of next year.


Introduction: Tea or Coffee? 

I drink coffee in the morning à la “cafetière” of course with a French Press, and Tea in the afternoon.

You bought Ealing studios in 2000 to make them come back to the original spirit right ?

My background is I am a filmmaker. I grew up in Notting Hill Gate with the movies of Ealing studios so It was a very romantic place for me. I produce and direct films. In 2000 the studio was put for sale. We brought a guy Henry Handelsman, the CEO of Manhattan Loft Corporation, who has done Saint Pancras and Chiltern FireHouse. We all bought the Ealing Studios. These are the oldest studios in the world, starting in the beginning of 1900 and celebrating golden age of British comedy in 1940 and after.

What does that mean for you ?

This studio is not just a great space, but it is also a name that means a lot for people of the world because of the great films made here. We were keen not just to refurbish it but also to make films under the ban of Ealing studio productions. A lot of people I work with can feel the soul of this place.

You are British. How would you describe British cinema ?

I think the thing that distinguishes British cinema is certainly in relation to Ealing, a kind of authenticity. They grew up around the second world war, they are presenting real people in real situations, even if those situations were comedic.

If you think about “Full Monty”, “4 Weddings and a Funeral”, they are all based on the truth. American cinema tends to be more about fantasy, even their romantic comedy are more idealised in a way.

British cinema comes very much from the truth and the real. In last 10 years, nearly every great film is actually based on the truth, it’s kind of great but it’s also a shame. When you think about big filmmakers like Powell and Pressburger, David Lean, they had great imagination and we have lost that…

How would you define French cinema ?

It is difficult to describe… Growing up in the 80s, filmmakers like Luc Besson were able to tell stories that felt true but were tremendously stylish. That’s the greatest influence I have taken from French cinema is the ability to be a little bit more imaginative, a bit more stylish than British cinema.

France has a great tradition of making just films about ordinary life also. I saw a great film by Claire Denis with Juliette Binoche called “Let the sunshine in”. It portrays middle-aged women dealing with the craziness of the life, with the kids, with a lot of heart, energy and warmth.

According to you, what is Britishness today in few words ?

It is an interesting question today as we are facing the Brexit…

The best side of Britishness is a generous spirit. We have always been a very creative nation.

It is no surprise that the creative industry in this country is one of the most fastest growing field.  I think there is many specificities because of our particular place in the history. The way this small island that used to have an empire, simultaneously big and small, all in the same time. I think that affects our outlook, it also means we maybe punch above our weight in terms of impact culturally on the world. It is also interesting because we share a common language with America and we are deeply European also. With a natural stepping stone between Europe and America, that’s a huge advantage we need to not forget.

A word about Brexit ?

The night of the election I was in a friend’s big birthday with 200-300 people from around 30-49 different countries and we couldn’t imagine the vote was going in the wrong way. The next day after it was such a shock. London is such a multicultural, international city. It is an incredible place because of the influx of  Europeans, Australians, Americans… And somehow the Brexit was a vote against all that.

It is sad to arrive to this point. I think the England I thought I knew is slightly different from the one that we have.

Certainly, it depends on the area, but London is obviously a different place to other part of England. But it is the most dynamic, diverse, exciting city… Now because of Brexit, people are more and more talking about Paris as a new excitement, it seems to be the next place.

In the end, I don’t think Brexit will change that much… In the 21st century, the ideal of nations boundaries seems old-fashioned. We live in this global world, receiving through social media and through the way movies are distributed more or less all over the world. We all need to be together so it seems curious to fight that.

Do you think we can talk about trends in the film industry ?

I think what’s happening is that there are fewer big films taking more on the marketplace.

You have this huge gulf between the Marvel, Star wars movies and smaller films. The kind of film we all grew up with like the thrillers, the romantic comedies made by studios don’t really exist anymore…

You have independent cinema and franchise cinema, very little in between.

The other thing is that the technology and the way people are watching films is changing so much, we have these big TV screens in our house. It gets easier and easier to sit at home and watch a film rather than going to cinema. There is a big growth in the moment in television also because Netflix and streaming services are delivering very high quality TV drama. Cinema has to fight harder and harder.

What the boundary between TV and cinema?

There are two : one is that the length of a film is around a 2 hour experience, whereas television is something you live with or you return to many times.

The second one is that cinema should be enjoyed on a big dark screen, great sound system and you share it with fellow members. That’s all becoming rarer to have a full cinema. That experience to watch a movie with an audience is going away, whereas there is nothing better than watch a romantic comedy and being swept along by the laughter.

Cinema has made some mistakes, losing this connection the audience had with itself.

Apart from technology, is the decline in cinema-goers also related to the cost?

If you look at Hotels, Airlines travel, Phones, the prices vary and are competitive…. whereas cinema hasn’t learnt any of those rules. There was a promotion of Orange or EE phone for cinema, like on Wednesday night you get 2 for 1 ticket. In the end, the cinema made more money on those nights than they do on usual night because more people go.

But in this aspect, Cinema has been very slow to change.

In this new era of endless information, everything is more sensational, people need to experience extreme feelings all the time.  Do you feel this in the film industry as well?

Before, the audience could take the time to see it and like it.

Now, if your film is not rated 4 stars from the beginning you are in trouble.
Because then, you can’t get the initial audience to keep the film in the cinema.

The thing is that information moves so fast. Whereas before a film could stick around and exist by word of mouth, it had time to do that. Now everything moves so fast that if you don’t have a success in the first weekend… there is no second weekend. The biggest film is the one which has the best marketing campaign so that everyone knows they are there. The smaller films, the one you want to find, to discover, they struggle.

When you receive a new script, do you know immediately if this is a good film to produce ?

Now, you have to think very carefully. To be successful in the cinema, you have to really have something very distinctive. A lot of movies you would have made five years ago, you don’t make them now anymore. Something has really changed.

How long does it take to make a film from studio ?

Pre-production is about 3 months

Shooting is about 2 months

Editing goes on about 6 months

For the all, it takes about 1 year from beginning to end, with a usual gap before we release it.

The last film you have watched you enjoyed the most?

It was in Cannes, I watched a film called “Assassination nation”  a film which comes out in September. It is a crazy American film about social media. This film is very refreshing, exciting and new.

What would you like people to say about Ealing Studios in 20 years time ?

I hope people will carry on appreciating it as the home of British cinema. There are still great films being made here like “The Darkest Dawn” and great TV program like “Downton Abbey” that was shot here. So hopefully in the next 20 years, more great films will be made here.

Interviewed in June 2018 by Hélène Bouche, accompanied by Olivier Van-Den-Abeele and Elisa Olenik.
To read it in French, click here.
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