Rebecca O’Brien began her film life working at the Edinburgh Film Festival. After a short stint in theatre admin she took a one-week film production course and fell headlong into filmmaking. She worked on early Channel 4 films and dramas, including My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and the Michael Rosen inspired multi-cultural kids’ series Everybody Here (1982-83).
Her producing debut was Friendship’s Death (1987) written and directed by Peter Wollen and starring Tilda Swinton and Bill Paterson. She began what was to become a long producing partnership with Ken Loach on Hidden Agenda (1990) and since then they have made sixteen feature films together and many other documentary and short projects.
In 2002 they formed Sixteen Films. Apart from the Loach/Laverty films, Rebecca also produced the Bean (1997) movie for Working Title, Princesa (2001) for Parallax Pictures and has executive produced for Camilla Bray, Ian Knox and Henrique Goldman.
She has sat on various film industry boards including PACT, The UK Film Council and South West Screen. She is currently a member of the British Screen Advisory Council and the Board of the European Film Academy.
1. You are a regular speaker on the Inside Pictures Programme. Why did you want to get involved?
Inside Pictures is a very prestigious scheme and it does something really unique for the industry. No other programme
offers such a wide-ranging and well-regarded development opportunity for experienced practitioners in film.
My colleague at Sixteen Films, Camilla Bray, took part in the programme in 2010 and she, along with many other alumni I’ve spoken with, are very enthusiastic about their experiences on Inside Pictures. You know that anyone who goes through the programme is going to end up benefiting from it and will have influence in the industry in the future. I am very happy to be part of it.
2. You have a long-time partnership with Ken Loach and have now made 16 feature films together – very fitting considering the name of your company you run together! What do you think has made your professional relationship so successful?
The fact that we’ve always been friends as much as anything else has really made it an easy and productive partnership. We share a deep mutual respect for each other, our work and the role that each of us plays on each project.
Trusting each other is vitally important and we do so implicitly. Once you’ve made a few films together, you absolutely speak the same language and you develop a shorthand which means there are lots of conversations you simply don’t need to have; you already know what the other will say. It gives us the space and the time to concentrate on the important stuff which is telling each story as best we can.
3. What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started out as a producer?
That producers aren’t nearly as important as I thought they were…! I wish that I’d known that no two projects are ever the same and never to rest on your laurels. Every job I’ve had has taught me something important. I tried a variety of different roles in film before I became a producer full-time and each one has shaped the ‘finished package’. I just loved film, was passionate about it and took every opportunity I thought would help me get there. Taking the time to work my way up through various production roles was invaluable because it really teaches you how to troubleshoot – an essential skill for a producer.
4. Europe has been a key source of collaborators and finance for your projects in the past. What advice would you give to new producers who are looking to explore co-production with Europe?
Find your partners in places where there’s a relevance for your production; it makes sense to seek to co-produce if you’re doing a film in a specific country. Look at the different sorts of ways a co-production can benefit your project and the partners you’re looking to work with – seek your partners in a logical way and you won’t go far wrong.
I have found partners at film festivals; many festivals offer co-production forums where introductions are facilitated. Good relationships are absolutely important the world over so choose people you like to work with and invest in the relationship. Good collaboration often leads to regular collaboration.
5. And how do you see Brexit affecting the way co-production relationships work?
I am very concerned about Brexit and the impact it will have on the indigenous film industry. Leaving Europe could be very problematic for a producer like me; I have collaborated with European partners on every project I’ve done for the past 25 years.
I am confident we will find ways to make it work whatever happens as the appetite is there and the projects are there. It will be increasingly difficult though and not as easy as we’re used to at the moment. The priority will be to find other mechanisms to make it easy to partner with European territories. We may need to join or re-join other organisations that will smooth the process – I’d recommend that the UK re-join Eurimages, for example. I also think it is vital that Britain remains part of Creative Europe.
6. You are known for making films that have a real impact on audiences; they go beyond entertainment and tackle real social issues. Do you actively seek out projects that have a wider social story to tell?
I suppose that I do but it is also probably just the projects that Ken and Paul have chosen to do. We just kept on trying to produce the films we wanted to produce and evolution led to those kinds of films ending up being made. We have always chosen the stories that have been the most interesting to all three of us and that have a political relevance.
The kinds of films we make do mean that we have a responsibility to the people whose truth is represented in the stories we’re telling. I am always very conscious of representing them properly and not being frivolous about it. It’s vitally important, for everyone who works on our films, to get that element right.
7. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m always hopeful that there will be another Paul and Ken film but we will see what happens. I am also working with Louise Osmond who collaborated with me last year on Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach. I am very much in a development phase and just waiting to see what is going to rise to the surface.
Rebecca O’Brien was in conversation with Claire Stratton, Programme Manager at Inside Pictures.