Interview: Emile Sherman (Shame, The King’s Speech)

Interview: Emile Sherman (Shame, The King’s Speech). By Simon Miraudo.

Aussie Emile Sherman has seen some spectacular success since founding See-Saw Films in 2008 with British producer Iain Canning. The duo brought Tom Hooper‘s The King’s Speech to the big screen, and took home the Best Picture Oscar for their troubles. They also released the acclaimed Aus-UK feature Oranges and Sunshine, and Emile was even the subject of an Archibald Prize nominated painting (and how many filmmakers can say that?). See-Saw also developed Steve McQueen‘s erotic lightning rod of a movie Shame, which reunited Michael Fassbender with his Hunger director. In it, Fassbender plays Brandon, a sex addict whose heavily regulated life in New York is thrown into disarray by the arrival of his estranged and deeply disturbed sister (Carey Mulligan). We spoke to Sherman about the controversy that engulfed Shame – from the prevalence of Fassbender’s penis, to the actor’s jokey claim that onscreen peeing cost him an Academy Award nomination – as well as their decision to release the film in America with the rare, and potentially poisonous, NC-17 rating. Sherman also shared with us his thoughts on The King’s Speech’s harsh classification in the U.S. (“This is when American Puritanism is at its worst”) and told us of his adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe, heading to the Sydney Film Festival this month.

Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, and Gareth Unwin with their Oscars for The King’s Speech.

Check out our review of Shame, out on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia June 6, here. Dead Europe plays the Sydney Film Festival June 14 and 15.

SM: Can you tell me about how you and Iain Canning started collaborating?

ES: It was on a film called Candy, that I produced, which Renaissance was the international sales company on. Iain worked for Renaissance, and was Head of Acquisitions and Development there. He was the guy I spoke to regularly at the company. We developed a good relationship. He then went on to work at Dendy films – he did Acquisitions for them – and Becker International, which was part of the Dendy Becker group, and that’s where he did [McQueen’s] Hunger, which links in nicely to Shame. So Iain had a bunch of Australian connections, and I kept up my relationship with him and then we ended up forming See-Saw together.

SM: How does your style work together? What is it about this collaboration that works well for the two of you?

ES: You know, it was a bit of a risk in the beginning. We’d never really worked together in that way, but it just ended up being a really fantastic partnership. He has a great understanding of the marketplace and distribution and how to position a film to be able to really make it an exciting proposition for distributors and audiences. I probably had more experience in the film financing side and the physical production side. But, as the years have gone on – and we’ve been together over four years now – we’ve learnt a lot from each other and learnt a lot making the films that we’ve made over the last few years. There’s a lot of crossover, but also, I think we respect each other a lot, and that’s the key ingredient in a happy partnership.

SM: Obviously Iain and Steve worked together on Hunger. Can you tell us a little bit about how Shame came to be?

ES: They developed a really good relationship on Hunger, and Steve was keen, as obviously Iain was, to find something else to do together. So it was a great relationship that Iain was able to bring into See-Saw. Then, we wanted to introduce Steve to a bunch of different writers, to think about what other projects could be out there. It was in the introduction to Abi Morgan, and in discussions with Abi, that the Shame idea took shape. They went and did research in New York, talking to actual sex addicts and things like that, and really the idea developed really organically through the process of research and collaboration. We were involved right from the beginning. And Steve and Abi working together was the key to it all.

SM: You don’t get involved with Steve without knowing he’s going to be pushing some boundaries. When the idea of a film about a sex addict was brought to you, were you at all tentative? Especially when he explained how far he wanted to take it?

ES: Yeah, obviously it pushed the boundaries and we knew it would, but that’s why we wanted to be in business with Steve. There were often times when we were encouraging and supporting him to be more bold and extreme. We knew the film had to push the boundaries to really work and get noticed around the world. But primarily, we’re there to support his vision, and help turn the vision into a reality, so we all recognised that if certain things were pushed too far we might not be able to get distribution; in the U.S., in particular. But all said, what was really surprising and really gratifying was showing the film in Venice and Telluride; there were so many U.S. distributors that wanted to take on the film and release it in a really substantial way. They recognised that there is a market for films for grownups. They don’t need to be scared of an NC-17 film, just because it’s NC-17.

SM: I do want to talk about that rating in a moment, but shed a little light for us on the producer’s role. Obviously you can only talk about your own experience, but what kind of control do you and Iain have over the final product? Is there a point where you do pull back, or are you involved in the creative process until the end?

ES: We’re definitely involved in the creative process up until the end. It’s just a really (hopefully) generally enjoyable – not always so – collaboration where you’re working closely with the director. Obviously the writer is the key part of the triumvirate in development, and then at the time it’s financed, the writer generally stops having such a hands on role, and it’s the producers and director who are involved in choosing the cast, and the heads of the department. It depends on the experience of the director and if they know who they want to work with. But right through to the editing of the movie and the sound and the marketing, you, as the producer, are there to support and help guide where practical and hold the hands of the director and try to make sure that the film fulfils all of its potential. It’s that relationship of trust between the two that I think often makes films work or not.

SM: When Shame debuted on the festival circuit last year, it made a big splash, and there was a lot of talk about Michael Fassbender’s penis  (all positive, I should add). I’m interested to hear from your perspective: were you surprised, or pleased, or perhaps even disappointed by how significantly it dominated discussion about the film?

ES: I have to say, it’s nice to have publicity, but it certainly wasn’t the publicity that any of us had counted on our wanted. Really, we were just trying to make a sophisticated film; a film for adults. It became a little bit sidetracked with that discussion. Yeah, it wasn’t something we weren’t particularly focused on to tell you the truth.

SM: Michael mentioned in an interview recently that the scene in which he was urinating cost him the Oscar. Do you have your own theory as to why it wasn’t given any attention by the Oscar voters?

ES: Look, there were obviously a lot of great movies, and there are only a certain number of slots. We did get a nomination for BAFTA – Best Actor – and Golden Globes – Best Actor – but in the end of the day the Oscar voters are quite conservative, and this is not a conservative movie. And I do say, when people ask me that question, it was those Oscar voters that gave us the Academy Award for The King’s Speech. I can’t be too upset with them really. But yeah, it is a notoriously conservative voting crowd, largely in terms of age demographic. So I don’t know if it was that particular scene, but we certainly didn’t go into the film thinking it was going to get nominated in any way. We hadn’t really focused so much on that audience, because we knew it was a film that was going to be pushing boundaries.

SM: To that point, let’s get back to the NC-17 rating. It limits the release, and you knew that. I imagine it would have been a difficult film to censor even slightly, but perhaps not impossible. Was the idea of going down to an R rating ever entertained?

ES: No it wasn’t. We really knew going in that we were likely to get an NC-17 rating, and during the editing process it was all discussed and we knew what we were doing. We showed the film and it was never even discussed by [distributor Fox] Searchlight; they stood by the rating and said, “This is the rating that is appropriate to a mature adult movie and a sophisticated film.” I don’t think it hampered at all our box office. The cinemas that had audiences who wanted to go see that movie showed the movie. We weren’t barred from cinemas that we really wanted to get into. The film did over $5 million in the U.S., and over $20 million worldwide. It’s been a great result for the film. It is a bold film, but at the same time it’s not a film that’s out to shock, in and of itself. It’s a film that explores our inability to connect in contemporary society in the centre of the world, which is New York. It’s a story of relationships really. Yes, it pushes boundaries in some ways, but much more than that , the intention of Steven and everybody was to explore human relationships and emotions.

SM: He does it very well. Somewhat bizarrely, The King’s Speech had its own ratings controversy. It was rated R originally, and then a PG-13 cut was released in the U.S. a little bit later. What did you make of that film getting such a harsh rating?

ES: Yeah, I have different thoughts about that, because really The King’s Speech was such a gentle, lovely film. There was really only one scene where the word f*** was used, albeit numerous times, but it was done in such a humorous way and it was done as part of the therapeutic process. Not in an aggressive, violent manner. I think this is when American Puritanism is at its worst. I think it was a shame for us, because we just didn’t want people who could’ve potentially been really inspired by the film – younger audience members – to not be able to see the movie. By that point, we’d had such great feedback, even from younger people who had seen it and said this was a really inspiring film for them, and some of them had been sickly when they were younger. A lot of people do have speech impediments. The idea that they wouldn’t be able to see that film because of a few swear words is a bit ludicrous to be honest.

SM: Absolutely. Well, you did win the Oscar for The King’s Speech last year, so congratulations there.

ES: Thank you.

SM: Tell us a little bit about your experience in getting projects off the ground over the past 12 months. How has that changed compared to before the Oscar?

ES: You know, they say a producer is only as good as their next project. There’s an element of truth there. No one finances your film just because you’re producing it. That said, our access to great, talented writers and directors and actors and finance is obviously a lot stronger than it was before. For us, it’s about relationships and trust, and I think The King’s Speech and then Shame helped solidify those relationships and open up new ones. Certainly, things are a lot easier, but in the end it does come down to the material, and it’s all about having really talented people and a great story.

SM: You’ve got Dead Europe coming to the Sydney Film Festival, and I assume there will be a release following that.

ES: That’s a project I started developing with director Tony Krawitz about five years ago, actually. I had read Christos’ book, and just found there’s something unique and very bold about that. It’s a real comment on contemporary Europe; what lies on the fringe of contemporary Europe, and what lies under the surface. Things we think are buried are actually just there, ready to come out at any moment. I think in many ways the events unfolding in Europe at the moment and over the last year have only gone on to further strengthen the notion that the past is not buried; it’s there, and when things get tough, all the prejudices of the past are replayed over and over again in the present. We feel like it’s a film that tackles some really big, big questions, and again, is a really sophisticated film, and we’re just thrilled by what Tony’s done as a director. We’re excited to start showing it to audiences.

Shame arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia June 6, 2012. Dead Europe plays the Sydney Film Festival Jun 14 and 15.

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