Liz Watts, Producing Animal Kingdom
By Rochelle Siemienowicz
If the fans on Twitter and Facebook are anything to go by, Animal Kingdom is certainly the most hotly anticipated local release of the year. But thankfully, they’re not the only ones raving. After winning the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, and collecting a huge scrapbook of glowing reviews from international critics, the film has been picked up for US distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. Right now all eyes are on the film’s crucial release on home turf, when it will be unveiled in Australian cinemas next week (3 June).
Animal Kingdom cast at Sundance 2010.
L-R: Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn,
director David Michôd, Joel Edgerton,
Sullivan Stapleton and Mirrah Foulkes.
Set in Melbourne’s underworld of the early 1990s, this is a tense crime thriller, a study of a dangerous family living one step ahead of the police. Headed up by the seemingly sweet but formidable matriarch ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver), the family of ‘boys’ includes the menacing Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the drug-addicted Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), the naïve Darren (Luke Ford) and their best friend and business partner Baz (Joel Edgerton). Into this world stumbles the newly orphaned young pup Josh (James Frecheville), a teenager who’s not sure he wants to be a part of the violence. One straight cop
(Guy Pearce) tries to steer him in the right direction.
Written and directed by acclaimed short filmmaker and ex Inside Film editor David Michôd (Crossbow, Netherland Dwarf), Animal Kingdom is a debut feature. Wisely, however, the producer behind the project brings a world of experience. Liz Watts, of the Sydney-based Porchlight Films, has a long list of credits including features The Home Song Stories, Little Fish and Walking on Water, as well as acclaimed shorts and short features like Jewboy and Martha’s New Coat.
In this interview we talk to Liz Watts about her role as producer on Animal Kingdom. She tells us about her fears of a massive talent drain to Hollywood, which sees our best actors flying away at a scary rate. Connected to this, Watts expresses impatience at a financing structure that holds films up with sluggish bureaucracy.
AFI: It must be a very exciting time for you on the eve of the release of Animal Kingdom. There’s a lot of buzz about the film, especially on Twitter and Facebook and in the blogosphere. How involved are you in that side of the marketing and publicity strategy?
LW: It is exciting! I’ve been working pretty closely with Madman [the film’s distributor] and they’ve been fantastic. Dave [Michôd] and I have been across everything. In terms of strategy, we did a lot of testing at the end of last year, as we came close to finishing the film, and also market testing and trying to really place the film in terms of the audience. We’ve put a considerable amount of effort into social networking. Of course we want to reach a reasonably broad audience, but at the same time, the film is not going to be on 160 screens. It’s going out on just over
40 screens, which is appropriate.
AFI: You came on board this project in 2006 and you knew David Michôd from around the traps?
Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton and Luke Ford.
LW: I’ve known David for a long time. He was the editor of IF magazine with Bec Smith, and of course I knew him through that. I was aware that he was doing this script – it was then called “J” and Bec was the original producer. Then I ended up being a mentor for the producers of Crossbow, which was David’s short film. [The producers were] Angie Fielder and Polly Staniford. That was done through Screen NSW’s Young Filmmakers Fund. So I saw Crossbow and I was very taken by it and thought David had a very powerful directorial voice. In the
end, Bec ended up moving to LA, where she’s now at UTA [United Talent Agency] and reps David. So David approached me, and asked me to come on board and we talked about the script. I did have comments in terms of feeling like it still needed more work. David and I talked about those and he shared concerns about it as well.
AFI: Crossbow is an amazing and quite devastating short film, with a real strength in its characterisation and writing. Would you say that one of David’s strengths is in writing?
LW: Yeah, definitely. I think he’s a writer-director, definitely. He made Crossbow – and he says this himself – he made Crossbow to really show himself as a director, because he hadn’t done much. He’d been at VCA, he’d done some short films, but he needed to really earmark himself as a director more than as a writer. But I think his strength of character is very much a writer’s strength of character, and it comes through in the direction of the performances in this film. We had such a fantastic cast on the film. The richness of the characters really drives
Animal Kingdom into being something more than just a genre film and distinguishes it, which is what you always want to do with genre.
AFI: If you were trying to tell people, a general audience, what a producer actually does, how would you summarise it?
LW: [laughs] Like say, my mother!? I don’t know what a producer does! It’s so… It’s such a hard question. I remember John Maynard answering, when someone asked “What does a producer do?” and him saying, “I sell tickets.” And I was like, “Wow, yeah, that’s true, you wanna sell tickets!” I guess a producer makes things happen. I always work with directors that I have great belief in, and I try to help them in terms of support and trying to understand their vision. I think a producer has to actually see the whole film before you even start, almost, and see where it’s going to
go, because you’re on it for so many years, and you end up caretaking it.
I do think producers now have to be much more audience-orientated in the sense of understanding and trying to work through the distribution process in Australia. I think it’s actually going to get tougher, in the sense that you have to be on a project much more hands-on for a lot longer than maybe in the old days. [With Animal Kingdom] I’ve been involved in the development, I’ve been involved in the financing, in the production, but I’ve also been involved in the distribution, probably more so than on the other films I’ve done. We’ll see. I don’t know, it might all go pear-shaped
and no-one will go to see it. Who knows? Hopefully not!
AFI: When the film’s actually being shot, are you right there on set?
Sullivan Stapleton and Jacki Weaver.
LW: Yeah. I guess I see myself as a creative producer in the sense that I actually do like production – which some producers don’t. I like production. I like the script and the edit – actually I like that a lot more than the financing. I find financing can be just frustrating. Producers love the deal as well. I suppose you have to be across that in order to satisfy the creative needs of the project and to have control of it, so that you are able to creatively control it. You have to have the finance in that way.
AFI: Was it difficult to get the deal together for Animal Kingdom?
LW: It’s always… it was tricky, because David is a first time director. Crossbow was a really great calling card for most people, and people were definitely impressed by it. It’s no more difficult than everything else I’ve done, in a way. It’s always that thing of getting the last ten per cent of the money. When you’re dealing with the marketplace, you’re just trying to tick as many boxes as you can in terms of the risk. We had a fantastic cast, so that helped things. But even now, cast doesn’t really finance a film, unless it’s actually one of about four names in
the whole world. It’s always tricky, but we got there in the end. We’ve had excellent partners in Showtime and Madman and E1 [E1 Entertainment] in Canada, our sales agent. And I was also really pleased with the resulting attention in Sundance with the sales, because it really returned for E1, who took a bit of a chance on it.
AFI: Winning the Grand Jury Prize must have been a help. It must have been a celebratory day when you got that award?
LW: Yeah, definitely. Look, Sundance is fantastic. We had screened in Melbourne for our cast and crew screening and we’d done a lot of edit room screenings. But it was the first time we had shown the film cold to an audience that didn’t know us, so the response was just brilliant, and winning the prize was a bit of a cherry on top, because we were just incredibly happy with how people responded to it. I was really happy, also with the sales that came out of that.
AFI: What was the budget of the film?
LW: It was under 5 [$million].
AFI: As a producer you’ve got a lot of different projects at different stages of development. Is that a tricky thing to keep your mind on all these different projects and in all these different places?
Jacki Weaver and Joel Edgerton.
LW: Yeah, absolutely. It’s the constant dilemma of the Australian industry, working so that you are being paid – and that happens when you’re actually in production – but things take a long time to develop and they take a long time to finance. I think that we’ve got to really lock down our budgets. This is probably controversial, but I think in the realm of the rest of the world, we are still a very expensive place to make a film, unfortunately.
LW: Yeah, absolutely. And I think we need to be doing more in terms of using our cast. We’ve got a real talent drain from Australia. I flew back from Sundance and basically everyone [else] was left in LA, and that to me is just like, “Well, that’s great, but I want people to be working in Australia.” Because we do have a fantastic amount of talent here. I think that we need to be in production more, obviously. And I think we probably need to be testing our ideas and testing our concepts in the first place much earlier. It’s probably controversial to say this, and it goes
against the grain of what we do here, which is developing for years and years and years, but I think we actually need to just take two lines into the marketplace and go, “Well, what do you think?” before we go into six months or a year of development. It just means the turnaround would be quicker in terms of what we’re doing. But it is very, very tricky and it’s very concerning. We’re constantly struggling with money. At Porchlight, we’ve been going for twelve years, thirteen years now, but it doesn’t get any easier.
AFI: Is it ever an option for you to be one of those people staying in LA?
LW: They’re not really interested in me! No, look, it’s particularly cast that they’re interested in, and we all know that. There’s a talent drain to America. What I think is interesting is that when you look at the American independent sector, they’re so resilient to things, in terms of either being up against studios or against marketplace. I think one of our things we need is to get our cast working here. If we were a little bit more nimble in our approaches to development, we could be really working out if a film should be actually going into financing or not, so that
we can secure really top-name talent that we need in a short amount of preparation time, so that we can go to someone like Guy Pearce and say, “Okay, we’ve got the money, we’re ready to shoot in a month, are you available?” and if they’re not available, we’ll find someone else. Instead, we get locked into long-ranging financing and development and it’s hard to keep people on board.
AFI: What you’re talking about is a problem with the various government financing structures?
James Frecheville and Guy Pearce.
LW: Yeah, I think that things have slowed down in terms of processing at the moment. That’s nothing against the individuals working at those organisations at all, but I think there seems to be a slow turnaround. There’s a real lag in the ability to move things through to financing relatively quickly.
AFI: How did you get your get your start as a producer?
LW: I actually have a camera background and I worked in the camera department for a long time – well, not that long, but that was my main interest. Then I became more and more interested in development and scripting and wanted to be involved in a production, not just for the six or seven weeks of shooting, but actually right from the beginning to the end. I worked at various places in terms of production, from Film Australia to Beyond, to Southern Star, and I started production managing short films. Then I formed a partnership with Vincent Sheehan and Anita Sheehan and we
formed Porchlight Films.
AFI: Can you name three mentors who’ve helped you along the way?
LW: Oh, I’ve had heaps! That’s another thing that’s really important to the industry here, that notion of mentorship because I think that it is really invaluable, what you garner from other people and sharing knowledge and all that kind of thing. I guess people like Jan Chapman, Marian Macgowan are producers that I admire and have worked with. Then there’s Sharon Connolly, who used to run Film Australia and she had a big impact on me moving into production.
AFI: Any advice for young players?
LW: Um, get a law background! No, no, I guess, find people that you want to work with and be assured that if you are entering into making something like a feature film, it takes a lot of energy and you’ve got to really believe in and respect the people that you work with. I think tenacity and patience and all of those things still hold true no matter what you’re doing, or in what stage of your career you’re at. Just always try to think outside of the square. Things change all the time and there are no set rules – although it feels like there are. But if there are set rules,
try and change them!
AFI: Finally, you’re producing the upcoming TV comedy Like a Virgin. Can you tell us about that?
LW: Yeah, sure! It’s six half-hours for the ABC. It’s happening now and we go into production in June. Debbie Lee is the commissioning editor on it. Marieke Hardy and Kirsty Fisher are the writer-creators of it. Marieke is pretty well-known around the traps. It’s a black comedy and it’s hysterically funny. We’re in the process of casting at the moment and the director is Trent O’Donnell, whose background is with that fantastic show Review with Myles Barlow. He’s finishing the second series of that at the moment, and then we shoot ours in July/August.
AFI: We can’t wait to see it. Thanks for speaking with us, and best wishes for Animal Kingdom.
Liz Watts’ IMDB profile.
Youtube video of Liz Watts interviewed at Sundance.
Crossbow was screened on AFI TV last year exclusively to AFI members. It is now available to watch on the Blue Tongue Youtube site here.
Animal Kingdom: Connected
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw
also shot the feature film Blind Company
as well as shorts including the Cannes-winning Jerrycan
and Ahmad’s Garden
– which is now available for AFI members to view on AFI TV
Editor Luke Doolan made a splash with Miracle Fish, for which he won the 2009 AFI Award for Best Screenplay in a Short Film and the AFI Award for Best Short Fiction Film (shared with Drew Bailey).
Production Designer Jo Ford has worked extensively within the industry and won the 2002 AFI Open Craft Award (Production Design) for television production The Road From Coorain.
Composer Antony Partos won the 2008 AFI Award for Best Original Music Score for Unfinished Sky, and in 2007, the AFI Award for Best Original Music Score for The Home Song Stories.
Sound designer Sam Petty won the 2007 AFI Award for Best Sound in a Documentary (Global Haywire); the 2005 AFI Award for Best Sound (Little Fish); and the 2004 Award for Best Sound (Somersault).
Costume Designer Cappi Ireland won the 2007 AFI Award for Best Costume Design for The Home Song Stories and the 2008 AFI Award for Best Costume Design for The Tender Hook. You can read our 2009 interview with Cappi about her extensive career, including her work on last year’s Balibo, right here.