WHEN KATHY MET MAGGIE
They have worked on iconic and award-winning films including ‘Mamma Mia!’, ‘Withnail and I’, ‘Brazil’ and ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. Line producer and Cinema Trustee Kathy Sykes and set decorator Maggie Gray, who both live in Chichester, chat to Jane Weeks about their career and craft.
They have worked on iconic and award-winning films including Mamma Mia!, Withnail and I, Brazil and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Line producer Kathy Sykes and set decorator Maggie Gray, who both live in Chichester, chat to Jane Weeks about their career and craft.
What do you see as the highpoint of your career?
K: Mamma Mia was great fun and magical to work on. Withnail and I was unique. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin too, and The End of the Affair, directed by Neil Jordan. The Secret of Roan Inish. The Missionary – that’s where I first met Maggie.
M: Brazil and Young Victoria. I was Oscar-nominated for both, the first at the beginning of my career, the second at the end. And Four Weddings and A Funeral. It was just a small independent film. We never guessed it would become a worldwide success.
How did you start in the film business?
K: I was a secretary in the BBC Drama Plays Department and worked with producers such as Richard Eyre. I worked on Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle produced by Kenith Trodd which the BBC refused to transmit. He decided to make it as an independent film and asked me to join him at Shepperton Studios. From there, I became a producer’s secretary on ‘The Missionary’ which was the first of many HandMade Films I was lucky enough to work on.
M: I started in commercials, and my mentor was Norman Garwood. When he was invited to be the Production Designer on The Missionary, he asked me to join him. I worked with him on a number of pictures including Brazil, and he taught me a lot.
How has the film business changed since you started?
K: Technology! I got my first laptop in 1989 and I had to teach myself how to use DOS whilst in production. The introduction of Windows was a boon! With a few exceptions, films are now shot and edited digitally and whilst I was used to post production becoming digital, all the projects I worked on were shot on 35 mm film. The UK has a very effective tax break for film producers (if they qualify, the government will give them a 25% rebate on their UK spend). This has been a great incentive for the US Studios to film in the UK. This is a great advantage for the film industry as a whole, but the Americans have rather taken over. I feel the UK film industry has become a service industry for the US Studios.
M: Many historic films are now shot on location in historic houses, rather than in the studio. Anything missing can be added in later digitally. When we filmed Eugene Onegin in St Petersburg, we had to bring in fake snow machines to cover the real snow to erase the footprints! Now you’d just use CGI. The Director of Photography and the Production Designer used to be at the top of the tree, now it’s all driven by Post Production. The UK has some great hire companies and when I started everything was hired – you had to be careful not to use the same sofa too often – but now much of the furniture is bought and then sold off afterwards – that’s what they do on the Bond movies. One of the most apparent changes is the number of women in senior positions: in production management and financial control and on the technical side: in camera and sound, in editing and music and in most departments.
What did you enjoy most about your job?
K: The feeling of being part of a creative group and all the pre-production work to bring the shoot together. The technical recces were special: all the heads of departments together travelling to the locations and trouble-shooting to make the film practically possible.
M: The camaraderie – you worked from 7am to 9pm, sometimes seven days a week, it was your whole life and the team became like family. I also loved the travel – you could spend months doing a recce for a film. I once spent three weeks in Kenya searching for locations for Being Human, which starred Robin Williams. We finally made the film in Morocco and Robin Williams gave a show for us every night. He knew the names of all the crew – he was great to work with. Worst moment was when I found a black mamba snake in the property cupboard when we were filming in Africa!
Who was your favourite director to work with?
K: John Sayles, who worked as a script doctor on blockbusters to provide the income for him to write, produce, direct and edit his own films. We made a wonderful film, The Secret of Roan Inish, on the Donegal coast, about mythical Irish creatures called ‘selkies’, a creature half seal, half human. We had a seal and gull wrangler on set.
M: Terry Gilliam. He’s wonderfully creative & comes up with amazing ideas. He refused to change the ending of Brazil to make it more upbeat and so, although it was Oscar-nominated for best screenplay and best production design, we knew it wouldn’t win. He was demanding as a director but great to work for.
Has working in the film business affected the way you watch films?
K: Occasionally I find myself thinking ‘So where on earth did they park the unit base?’
M: Yes, it means you appreciate the effort that goes in to creating the effect. And you sympathise for the creative departments when the film looks great but has a poor script or a bad director.
What do you enjoy about New Park?
K: It shows independent and world cinema which doesn’t get shown in big commercial cinemas, and the new seats are a bonus!
M: It’s comfortable and friendly.