Spirits are high in the Mespil Road offices of Element Pictures, and with good reason.
Last week, the production company streamed a charming video of the gathered staff celebrating the Oscar success of their film The Favourite, which received a staggering 10 nominations. Prosecco flowed and staff roared as though watching a football match, and the only ones missing were the company’s founders, Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe, who were in Hollywood.
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“I kind of wish we’d been here,” Andrew tells me. “They were live streaming back to our hotel and it looked like fun.”
In terms of the Academy Awards, this is not Element’s first rodeo: they and Lenny Abrahamson made a big splash at the Oscars in 2016, with Room. But to receive nominations on this scale for a period film made on a modest budget is something special. “We were surprised,” Guiney admits. “And we’re very excited”
Founded back in 2001, Element has become the dominant force in Irish cinema in recent years, producing films like Room, The Lobster, The Guard and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, backing TV shows like Red Rock and the forthcoming adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and running two art-house-friendly cinemas, Dublin’s Light House and Pálás in Galway.
They’ve come to specialise in making intelligent, lowish-budget independent movies and forging long partnerships with directors. The Favourite is their third collaboration with the brilliant and stridently original Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, but the period drama took 10 long years to pull together.
“Our partnership with Yorgos actually began with this project,” Lowe explains. “When Yorgos did Dogtooth in 2009, he was doing the rounds and we met him in London.”
Element had optioned the original screenplay that would become The Favourite, and showed it to Lanthimos. “The working title of it was Balance of Power, and he really liked the idea: we thought he was a very interesting film-maker, so we decided to give it a go.
“Yorgos worked with first Deborah Davis, who’d come up with the idea, then with the Australian writer Tony McNamara. All of that took time, and when we came to casting we had a bit of a hiatus, because having secured Emma Stone, it transpired that Olivia Colman had a prior commitment to work on Broadchurch for seven months, after which Emma had another commitment, it was Battle of the Sexes I think, so it was going to be 12 months before they were available again.”
“And the Sarah Churchill role,” Guiney adds, “was momentarily with Kate Winslet, and there might have been a flirtation with Cate Blanchett.” Rachel Weisz would eventually and fortuitously step in. “Yorgos had a shorthand with Rachel from The Lobster,” says Lowe, “and happily she became available at the same time that everyone else did, so we went with her. But all of that took 10 years from start to finish, so in the meantime Yorgos pitched us the idea for The Lobster, which we commissioned, and then having done The Lobster we had this hiatus on our hands so he suggested doing The Killing of a Sacred Deer. So The Favourite has turned out to be our third film with him, but it all started with this one.”
The Favourite, in case you haven’t seen it, stars an Oscar-nominated Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, the embattled early 18th-century English monarch who’s lost in grief and surrounded on all sides by sycophants and enemies. Weisz and Stone (also nominated) play two courtiers vying desperately for her attention. It’s a hilarious, punkish, anarchic film, with none of the halting stiffness one associates with period pieces.
“I don’t think Yorgos could ever do anything straight,” says Guiney, “and in a way that speaks to our general ambition when it comes to working with people, which is to try and find film-makers who can do something that’s distinctive and different, and will stand out from the crowd.”
Made for a modest $15m, The Favourite has already recouped its costs three times over, and that figure is steadily rising.
“I think we’re in our ninth week of release in the US now,” Lowe explains. “We were on a high with about 750 prints, and we’re down to about 520 this week, but as of tomorrow, it goes back up to 1,500 prints, so that a huge boost, and that’s down to the nominations.”
For production companies, awards matter.
“We’ve had a number of films over the years that have kind of pushed us forward as a company,” says Guiney. “I think Garage was one, and in a different way The Guard was one because it was such a hit, and Room obviously was, because it was the first one where we had proper nominations, and a win.
“We’d had decent access in America up to that, but ‘oh, those people produced Room, and Brie (Larson) won an Oscar’, that’s a very different thing from saying ‘oh, did you see that film The Guard? The one with Brendan Gleeson?’ It really helps your reputation.”
It’s all a far cry from Element’s beginnings back in 2001, when our domestic film industry was in a fairly parlous state and the idea of setting up a movie production company seemed wishful.
“I’d wanted to be a film producer since I was about 16,” Guiney explains. “When I was a kid, I read the biographies of all the Hollywood moguls and I was fascinated by them, and by the business of film, and I also watched an awful lot of movies.
“When I went to Trinity, I was friends with Lenny Abrahamson and set up a film-making society together. And so I never thought about doing anything else but this. And then Andrew and I worked on a film together called The Tale of Sweety Barrett. He was the production accountant, and we got on very well. I recognised then that it would be a great thing to partner up with someone with that kind of acumen and ability. And a few years later, we decided to set up a company.”
“I think the company was initially fuelled by an awful lot of heady optimism,” says Lowe. “I went to Trinity as well, did modern languages and then trained as a chartered accountant. So coming from what was then Coopers & Lybrand, to jump out of that into the film world probably wasn’t a very rational decision, really.
“Those early years were very tough, and we did all sorts of mad things we’d never have to do now, because when you’re starting out, you just chase any sniff of an opportunity, no matter how mad it sounds, travelling around the west of Ireland doing recces on films that never happened, that sort of thing. But you just had to believe that everything was possible, and just by dint of some strategy, hard work, good luck, we’ve managed to more or less get to where we wanted to get.”
They’ve certainly done that. Element’s cinematic CV is now extremely impressive, and their adventures in television are expanding. In 2012, the company took over the running of the Light House, a state-of-the-art cinema in Dublin’s Smithfield which has since thrived. But when they took control of the long-stalled Solas project, now the Pálás cinema, in Galway City, controversy ensued. The development, which was first proposed back in 2004, received almost €8m in public money but stalled during the recession and ran into serious financial difficulties. The company was not independently valued before being transferred to Element, and there were also claims that the tendering process had not been competitive. The controversy, says Lowe, “is understandable”.
“This is a project that was beset with problems before we ever got involved, and there were a lot of legacy issues that we had to contend with. But to be fair to the Solas board, they set out to develop an art-house cinema that didn’t exist anywhere outside Dublin, and they actually did a really good job for a volunteer board.
“They started out in the boom, and then the first contractor went bust, and the house next door fell down, and a whole lot of things just happened. In that context, the overall budget went over by about €2m in terms of the public contribution from what was originally expected. I mean when you look at what’s going on with the children’s hospital (in Dublin) at the moment, I think that puts this in context. And the fact is, we’ve invested multiples of what we originally said we would, everyone’s shared the pain in that respect. The good news is it’s there, it’s open, it’s doing really well.” Element have some exciting TV projects coming up. Dublin Murders, a crime series starring Sarah Greene and Killian Scott and based on the novels of Tana French, is in production, and they’re also working with Abrahamson and Sally Rooney on an adaptation of Normal People.
“With Sally,” Guiney explains, “we had optioned Conversations with Friends, her first book, for film, and then when Normal People came out, we felt very strongly that it would make an amazing piece of television, and Lenny then responded to it and we put it together with the BBC. It’s going to shoot in May. Sally’s doing some of the script – she’s an amazing scriptwriter, and it’s very true to the book. It’s in 12 half-hour episodes, so it’ll be quite bite-sized, and we’re really excited about it.”
Meanwhile, the Dolby Theatre beckons, and on February 24 the pair will face an anxious night as the Oscar winners are revealed. Are they feeling confident? “It would be nice to come away with something,” Guiney says, “but you really don’t know. It was different with Room because I felt that Brie Larson was a lock, and I’m not sure that we’ve any locks right now.”
“I think we were nine-to-one yesterday for Best Picture,” Lowe adds dryly, “so apparently The Favourite is not the favourite.”
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