14 April 2021 The Irish Film & Television Network

Irish Film and Television Network


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Making the Cut

Producer Rebecca O'Brien shares her expertise in producing, financing and funding films at IFTA In Conversation Event
26 Mar 2021 : News Desk
Rebecca O'Brien
On Wednesday (March 24th) The Irish Film and Television Academy (IFTA) hosted a much anticipated In Conversation event with Veteran Producer Rebecca O’Brien.

The Palme d'Or and BAFTA winning producer gave the audience key insights into her work securing finance for independent filmmaking from co-producers across Europe and her work behind extraordinarily successful films and the financing models used and her path to becoming one of Europe’s leading Independent Film Producers.

O’Brien established Sixteen Films with director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty and together they have produced some of the most important and successful social realist films in Europe, including, Land and Freedom, Sweet Sixteen, My Name is Joe, Looking for Eric, The Wind that Shakes the Barley,  I, Daniel Blake, and Sorry We Missed You

Rebecca has also produced the Bean movie, and Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, along with a number of other feature films and documentaries for Sixteen Films. She has just completed filming My Son directed by Christian Carion, starring James McAvoy and Claire Foy.

An expert in producing and financing independent films for over 30 years, O’Brien, interviewed by IFTA Head of Film & Television Gar O’Brien, shared her wealth of knowledge and insight across a number of topics including: Her route into producing; Her unrivalled experience in co-producing and accessing financing with multiple partners across Europe; Achieving success internationally with low-budget, independent film; Working with state funders; Her renowned work in Ireland (Including Hidden AgendaJimmy’s Hall, and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which took in €2.7 million at the Irish Box Office and was distributed in over 40 territories); Practical advice for emerging and established Irish Producers.

O’Brien’s work has been immensely successful in the European box-office and has been recognised internationally including winning the Jury Prize at Cannes for her first film with Loach, Hidden Agenda. They would go on to win two Palme d’Or’s at Cannes for The Wind that Shakes the Barley  and I, Daniel Blake, a Goya award for Land and Freedom, as well as the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film for I, Daniel Blake. Alongside Loach and Laverty, they received The Outstanding Contribution Award from BAFTA Scotland.

Becoming a Producer – “I did a one-week film course and shortly afterwards found myself teaching! ”

The event began with O’Brien outlining her route into producing. Motivated by a love of cinema since childhood she approached the Edinburgh Film Festival and got a job, which allowed her to see many films in the celebrated festival, but also make a number of important contacts. From there she went on to work in theatre, including a stint at London’s Riverside Studios.

O’Brien says she was unaware producing was an option for her, particularly as a woman. At the time women were mostly working in Continuity or costume, hair, or makeup. None of which interested her. 

“Starting out, I didn’t even know what the role of producer was. A Producer to me was a large bald man with a cigar in his hand.” 

But a one-week film production course changed everything.

“ I dropped everything I was doing to take a  one-week film production course. It was run by this tiny, entrepreneurial company. Someone had written a great document with 20 lessons on how to films. It was great! That was my epiphany. This was a thing I could do. I could be a producer. I got my hands on all the equipment. I learnt how to load magazines, very basic stuff. We made a terrible short film but I learned so much, crucially that I was good at organising.”

Shortly after completing the course Rebecca soon found herself teaching production. Having had made some contacts while working in Riverside Studios they made some short films alongside her teaching. From there, the contacts she had made proved crucial once again in her journey towards producing.

“Some people I had met in Edinburgh, filmmakers I had become friends with, had heard I was getting into production and asked me if I would come and work with them as a location manager on their film. I did, and that was an extraordinary baptism of fire. 

"We had a different location every day, so it was completely insane. After that, I did my true apprenticeship which was for Film4. Channel 4 was just starting at that time. This was the early 80s. I got a job through working Riverside contacts working on a multicultural magazine programme at Channel 4. We filmed all over the country with real kids. Working on a magazine programme is like working on seven or eight little films every week. We made 30 of these programs, and I ended up producing a number of them.

"It was a fantastic apprenticeship because I was involved in every bit of the making of it and I did it for two years. After that, I freelanced as a production manager or location manager. Working on early Film4 films, I worked on an all women crew on a film called Sacred Hearts. It was brilliant fun, completely mad."

From there she ended up working on a series called Echoes adapted from Maeve Binchy’s book, which was filmed in Dunmore East in Waterford. “From there I quickly became their Irish Expert,” O’Brien said, which was the beginning of a relationship with Ireland that would see her return for numerous films including The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Jimmy’s Hall, but before them there was Hidden Agenda with Ken Loach.

It was decried as IRA Propaganda.”

O’Brien began working with Ken Loach on Hidden Agenda, which was inspired by the shoot-to kill and collusion policies of British forces in the North. It was a tough film to finance but they had a stroke of luck when a researcher on the film met producer John Daly of Helmdale films. They produced genre films but also political independent films. Rebecca got in tough and Daly agreed to fully finance the film, unconcerned about any controversy the film would bring. It was controversial from the start however.

Notoriously we bought a bunch of republican supporters over to England to shoot a pub scene. Towards the end of filming, Ken and I were summoned to a small room at the Europa (hotel), where we received a stern dressing down by two police officers.”

The film was selected for Cannes but was decried after its premiere by British journalists as IRA Propaganda. The film would go on to win the Jury Prize in Cannes however and would mark the beginning of a life-long relationship with director Ken Loach. Her first film with him as sole producer was Hidden Agenda. 

Co-producing and demystifying the Euro-Pudding

Hidden Agenda marked a major shift in the way Loach’s films were financed, moving to a European Co-production Model as opposed to a fully British funded model but Loach’s films’ comparative popularity in mainland Europe was hard to ignore.

“One of our biggest markets has always been France. Our business always did better in Europe then it did in the UK. We built reputations in Europe that meant it was easier to get co-producers on board and to get funding. Having a director people recognised and being selected for Cannes also helped.”

She built on this framework by making each subsequent Loach film a co-production involving as many as seven separate countries. Each contribution was comparatively small, minimising individual risk, with creative freedom (essential, given Loach's predilection for politically contentious subjects) assured by his status as a widely-recognised auteur. Rebecca learned a lot about co-producing on this film including the pitfalls of balancing the co-producers role in financing with the creative role of the producer.

It’s a bit of a baptism of fire, you don’t know your partners, or what to expect. One of the first problems we had was that our Spanish co-producer had delegated responsibility to a Spanish production team who thought that they were in charge. A conversation had to be had… But once we had that discussed it, everything was fine.”

She developed strong relationships with companies such as Tornasol in Spain and Road Movies in Germany. It was from the latter that she learned to act as her own Sale agent and to utilise that to get some money from pre-sales that could be put back into the film. These relationships would prove to be vital going forward but also rewarding on a personal level. 

“There is also a very social aspect to co-production, you need to be able to enjoy each other’s company and get on for the partnership to work. You need to be able to trust one another.”

Co-production would prove to be a crucial element in making Loach’s films especially on bigger and more ambitious films like The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which had 21 co-producers including Ireland’s Element Pictures. It also received State funding from Ireland and the UK and O’Brien outlined the benefits of tax breaks from multiple bodies. 

We got the Irish tax break, but because we developed and did the post-production in England, we could also avail of the UK tax break as we spent over 10% of the budget in the UK; there are ways to avail of both tax credits.”

The Film’s reception was gratifying for the team, it won the Palme d’Or in Cannes but for O’Brien the reception in Cork was a particularly powerful response for O’Brien. 

The film belonged to the people of Cork, my accent may be English but the film is Irish true and true. The film went on to actually win the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival, which was wonderful. I remember we put on a screening in Cork afterwards and pulling out the Palm D’Or out of my bag at the screening for us to share with the people there. On the way back to the airport the next day we were listening to people talking about the screening the night before and saw a sign in Mallow welcoming the “Carte d’Or to Cork”. It was brilliant”.

O’Brien then shared her advice with viewers who had interacted via the webinar’s interactive Q&A function, these included the importance of numeracy for producers and doing courses on finance and copyright etc. She finished the hugely informative talk by detailing the role of the producer as one that is unglamorous but vital. 

The producer’s role at a festival is not to stand on the red carpet and talk about the film; the press want to talk to the director. The producer’s role is to go out and find the people that can help get your film out to a bigger audience.”

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