As far as Hollywood goes, it's tempting to paraphrase Colin Welland's famous remark: "the British are coming"… but do they ever entirely arrive? Our actors have always been loved there and nowadays pass for Americans with perfectly fabricated accents; our technicians and creatives enjoy the highest regard and studio facilities here have historically been the nursery for iconic US movies. But do our producers have clout on the Hollywood level? Two of them do, actually. Or almost. Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of the production powerhouse Working Title have for decades been a distinctively British-based creative team that punches above its weight on both sides of the Atlantic.
New Zealand-born Bevan and Brit Fellner are our equivalent of Harvey Weinstein, smart moguls with studio-sized ambitions and Olympic stamina — acquiring properties, nurturing writers, cultivating directors and shrewdly maintaining relationships with the big American players, chiefly WT's longtime owner Universal, with whose resources they can produce anything they like up to a budget of $35m without anyone's say-so.
They had their big breakthrough in 1994 with the Richard Curtis romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, a movie about Hugh Grant's shy Englishman diffidently charming Andie MacDowell's sexy, worldly American woman. Was that a parable for Tim and Eric's seduction of the US industry? Maybe. They became known for other smashes like Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary, and it's become commonplace to deride that signature upper-middle-posh vision of Britain. I can only say that the Working Title/Hugh Grant/Richard Curtis romantic comedies remain tremendously watchable after 20 years: Notting Hill gave Julia Roberts the best role of her career.
But Bevan and Fellner also produced the Coen brothers' Fargo, The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man, Edgar Wright's 'Cornetto' comedies, Joe Wright's Atonement and Pride & Prejudice and also Paul Greengrass's United 93 — the best film about 9/11. Their Oscar winners include The Theory of Everything, about Stephen Hawking, and The Danish Girl, about transgender artist Lili Elbe. They are a virtual industry in themselves, and Tim and Eric are sleek and resplendent with success, healthy and beaming.
And they really are passionate about what they do. It extends to making their views clear to critics. After a disobliging review I wrote about their film Frost/Nixon (actually, it was better than I gave it credit for) I received a crisp email from Eric inviting me to phone him at my earliest convenience so that he could "discuss" this review with me. The conversation had a certain froideur. I once sat near Eric at a lunch in Cannes and, in a slightly cheeky spirit of raillery, pitched him a movie biopic about a positive version of Richard III, without Shakespeare's villainous spin. Hearing me out patiently, but fixing me with a veiled gaze, Eric said only: "Show me the finished print" — and I had an idea of what it must be like to please him in a creative sense. But many of my good reviews and even the iffy ones are also met with cheerfully good-humoured emails. Fellner and Bevan care about what they do. They have survived changes in financial weather, corporate culture and critical fashion, and still make very successful movies. Whether they like it or not, they are becoming national treasures.
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