- 22 Feb 16
Producer Ed Guiney’s Element Pictures is behind Lenny Abrahamson’s extraordinary film Room, which is up for Best Film at this year’s Oscars. From humble beginnings, he talks about conquering Hollywood.
Hot Press meets producer Ed Guiney in the Mespil Road HQ of Element Pictures, the production company he founded with Andrew Lowe in 2001.
From relatively humble beginnings, Element has grown to be one of the great international success stories of the Irish film industry: it currently employs in excess of 50 full-time staff, with offices in Dublin and London, and works across production, distribution and exhibition. Element also manages The Lighthouse cinema in Dublin. Some of their cinematic stepping stones are marked by the framed movie posters hanging throughout the building. There are three big ones displayed in the main hallway – for Adam & Paul, Garage and The Wind That Shakes The Barley.
The first two of those movies were directed by Lenny Abrahamson, a long-time Element collaborator (Frank, What Richard Did, etc.). The boardroom boasts a poster for the Dubliner director’s most recent release, Room. Based on Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel, and starring Brie Larson, Joan Allen, Jacob Tremblay and William H. Macy, it has already picked up a number of prestigious gongs, including a Golden Globe for Larson, two SAG awards, and the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award. More significantly, it’s just been nominated for four Academy Awards.
Other recent Element film productions include Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes, Darren Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary, and Gerard Barrett’s Glassland. On the TV drama front, they’ve produced Charlie, Rebellion and Quirke, and are also behind TV3’s award-winning soap opera, Red Rock.
Given the sheer scale of all of this creative activity, you’d almost expect Guiney – who was awarded the Prix Eurimages at the 2014 European Film Awards – to be a typically bullish, arrogant, cigar-chewing film producer, straight out of central casting. Instead, he’s a small, softly spoken, courteous and extremely pleasant character.
OLAF TYARANSEN: What’s your earliest memory?
ED GUINEY: My earliest memory? Oh my god! I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that question before... (very long pause). I don’t know. Maybe last night I was thinking about going to the spring show with my grandmother when my brother was in a pram, buying ham sandwiches, but that’s totally random. Because it’s to do with cinema I remember going to see The Battle of Midway.
I was going to ask, what was the first film you remember?
It might have been The Battle of Midway, or Lady and the Tramp maybe? My mum used to take me to the cinema.
You’re from Dublin?
Yeah, I grew up in Ballsbridge. I live in Ranelagh. So the leafy suburbs. I went to school in Gonzaga in Ranelagh, before that to St. Michaels. I’m one of those clichés who hasn’t moved far from home.
What did your folks do?
Both of my parents were doctors. My dad was a surgeon and my mum was an anaesthetist.
So you had a fairly privileged upbringing?
Yeah, it was a very nice childhood, really.
Have you any brothers or sisters?
I have one brother and one sister. I don’t know if it’s still the way, but we grew up on a road with lots of young families and kind of had the run of the place, in and out of other people’s houses. I don’t know if there’s less of that now. People are a lot more paranoid about letting their kids run free nowadays... I have a little boy of five, so he’s not quite at the age where he’d go off by himself anyway. I live on Mount Pleasant Avenue and that’s a busy road. On the road I grew up on, our next-door neighbours had seven kids, which was not unusual. There were two families with 11 or 12 kids, and there were three of us. There were just millions of kids running around the place, which was nice.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Well, I came from a medical family so that was always a possibility – but actually when I was very young I wanted to be a film producer. By ‘very young’ I mean a teenager, like 15 or 16.
A producer as opposed to an actor or a director?
Yeah, really bizarrely in a way. I used to obsessively read biographies about Meyer, Zanuck – all the early pioneers, the guys that set up the studios. They were producers in one way, I suppose, but I was fascinated with the business of filmmaking, so I didn’t take towards...
The artistic side?
Well there’s an element of art to it as well, I think, but I wasn’t reading a lot of biographies of directors. I was reading biographies of these guys. And I just devoured those. They were my favourite books and as soon as a new one came out I read it. I read all of those books, My Decision Is Final, You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again – and I still love them. Art Linson wrote a book recently: I love those things.
Did you explore any other career options?
When I was a kid, I had a cousin who worked for the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. She brought me onto the trading floor, where the equity traders were trading and I was intrigued by that, but I really did want to be a film producer. It’s funny because I don’t think I really could have known what that meant – but I had an instinct that I wanted to be involved. And of course I love watching films. My friend was one of the first people to get a video recorder. It was Betamax actually, it wasn’t even VHS, and there was a great video shop on Baggot Street called Metropolis. It was the first proper video shop, it’s where Tesco is now, around there. It was just these stairs, and posters – this complete Aladdin’s cave.
That was back when videos cost around £80 each to buy.
Yeah! But it was mental that you could walk in, as if to a book shop, and choose any film that you wanted. The thrill of that. Myself and my friend used to do these all-night marathons. That was when I was a teenager – it started when I was 14 or 15. That was a big part of my life. All kids watch movies, but certainly with this particular friend of mine, Paul Hickey, who is an actor now living in London, we used to just watch loads. I guess I was just pulled in that direction.
So how did you go about actually becoming a film producer?
Morgan O’Sullivan was really the only game in town and I remember writing to him and trying to get a job during the summer, when I was at school. Then, when I went to college, I did get a job working for John Kelleher and David Collins, Strongbow Green Apple, during the summer, as an intern. That was my first time working in an office and learning about scheduling films. It was all very old school in those days. I also worked with a guy called Arthur Lappin. They’re all still good friends of mine. I worked for him that summer: his wife is a great friend of mine. That started me off in one way.
You knew Lenny Abrahamson from your school days...
Lenny was in High School, I was in Gonzaga – and we used to hang around with Alex girls, basically. His sister was in Alex and, in fact, I dated her for a few weeks. We would meet, as teenagers do, at parties and we would just end up chatting. We’d often talk about films. When I went to Trinity I had this idea to set up a filmmaking society using new film equipment and video technology. It was still crazily cumbersome, but it was the early days of home video and the possibilities of that stuff. So I phoned Len, who I didn’t know terribly well – he was an acquaintance really – but he was a year ahead of me in college. So we set it up together with Stephen Rennicks...
Who has done the music for some of your films.
Yeah. Stephen wasn’t in Trinity, but we set up this filmmaking society.
What were you studying in Trinity?
I was studying ESS, which is now BES – Business, Economic and Social Studies. The reason I ended up doing that was that it was eight hours of lectures a week, and that would give me time to do what I wanted to do. So Lenny and I and Stephen and another friend, Michael Joy, set up this filmmaking society, the Trinity Video Company – TV Co. And we would just make documentaries. Like, we made a documentary about the Trinity Ball.
What was your first onscreen credit?
My first onscreen credit proper was Lenny and Stephen and I made a documentary about Lenny’s grandfather. It was called Mendel Walzman, who was a kosher butcher on Clanbrassil Street. He was an extraordinary character, who had come from the Carpathian Mountains to Dublin, as a refugee, via Brussels. When he was in Belgium, he worked for the glass bottle factory. Then when the Irish State were setting up a glass bottle factory, he was brought over as a skilled worker – and then became a butcher on Clanbrassil Street. He had these amazing stories to tell about being in the Polish Army, his childhood, and his flight from Poland across Europe. We probably sold that to RTÉ.
What age were you then?
We did it in the IFI before it was the IFI, when it was still the Quakers building. That was probably when I was 21 or 22. The first proper film I did was with Lenny and Michael West and it was called 3 Joes, a short film we made in the early ’90s. That was the first thing I commissioned: I commissioned Michael West to write a script and paid him a hundred quid, and Lenny directed it, and we got bits of money from here and there, including the Arts Council. It’s funny, it was around the time that people who are around now were very active and were making short films: people like Paddy Breathnach, Damien O’Donnell, John Moore, were in Rathmines and people would work on each other’s shorts. It was good because it was spontaneous and everyone worked for free. There was no money.
And also you were shooting on actual film.
Yeah, it was old school. 3 Joes was on 16mm. Dominic West was in it – the guy who was in The Wire: he was in college with us. Gary Cooke, who is in Apres Match and Mikel Murphy, who is a director and actor. They were all friends and so they were the 3 Joes. There was a vibe at that time. A bunch of films, short films I’m talking about, started to register internationally and win festival prizes. And then, in 1993, the Film Board was re-established by Michael D. Higgins and that meant that it was possible to get funding to make films here. The coincidence of those two things – a bunch of younger filmmakers who were making things and, to be fair, established filmmakers that had been active before – and then the possibility of actually making films.
How effective has the Irish Film Board been?
Very effective, really. Without the Film Board there wouldn’t be a film industry here. It’s been crucial. Things like the Film Board exist in most developed countries, but it’s been incredibly important. It offers development financing, it offers financing for short films, it offers production financing. People would go abroad and work there, if we didn’t have it here.
Have you ever worked abroad?
I’ve made films abroad but I’ve never lived abroad. When I left college it was pretty grim, and most of the people that I was in college with went off to live in London: it was that time. It was fucking miserable, most people left. I had set up a theatre company in Trinity with a few different players, and some people from UCD, and I stayed to do that. I’ve spent a lot of time commuting back and forth to the UK. My now-wife lived there, and I went back and forth all the time, but I never would have said that I lived there. I still pay taxes here.
Were you interested in being an actor?
Well, I was a very bad actor for a while (smiles), but I like that world basically. I like the world of writers and actors and directors, so I gravitated towards that.
How soon did it become a viable career?
You don’t need much to live on when you’re that age. I set up my own little company. Stephen and Mikel and Lenny and a whole gang of them had a studio called Bow Lane, at the back of the College of Surgeons. They were all partners in Bow Lane and I had a little office – or rather a desk – there. I was making shorts. The first film I properly produced was a film that Paddy Breathnach directed called Ailsa, written by Joe O’Connor, with Brendan Coyle. That was ’93, just when the Film Board was established. It was very low budget and it did quite well, it won a big prize in San Sebastian. A few years ago, Eastern European films were very exotic. I’m not comparing the quality, but in Europe there was an exoticism about Irish films because there weren’t that many. There was still a culture in Europe of big public service broadcasters and film funds who were interested in funding new work from new filmmakers. The first film was funded by Arte in Germany, Les Sept in France and so it was pretty proper in a way but, of course, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. I was pretty consistent after that, making films. I did Gerard Stembridge’s first film, Guiltrip.
How hands on are you as a producer?
Well, I regard it as collaboration. As I keep on saying, in one way filmmaking – in the way that I like it, at least – you have one long conversation about the film, and the person you have the most conversation with is the filmmaker, and it very much starts with that first conversation. If there is something sufficiently interesting in that first conversation then you’ll have a second and a third.
Then suddenly you’re making a movie.
Exactly, and the making of a movie is a conversation, you know? Every day you are talking about it and how it’s evolving, right through the editing and so on. It’s an obvious thing to say, but in a world where people can be difficult and awkward, I tend to gravitate towards people that I like and can get on with. But again you’re always looking for somebody, very much like Lenny, but somebody who has got something unique to say, who isn’t following the crowd, has a vision, has a certainty – because in the middle of every film there has to be that. It can be the writer, it can be the director, but if it becomes diluted and it becomes a committee... I’m putting the Coens to one side here, of course! But if it becomes a committee thing, then that’s a bad place to be. You need that certainty at the centre of it, and I kind of gravitate towards those people.
What’s more important to you, making money or making art?
I’ve never been driven by money. Obviously, you need to live and, like anybody, you don’t want to have financial worries, but I don’t feel the need to be richer than Croesus. So I’m motivated by the work, and by making better stuff and more interesting stuff, wherever that takes you.
What’s been the biggest disaster?
The thing is that if I answer that I will end up criticising friends of mine, but maybe I can talk about one if I talk about it in the right way, which is a film I did with John Carney called Zonad. I wouldn’t like it to be categorised as a disaster. Because it’s a film that I love – and I loved working with John. I think it’s really funny, but it did not connect... and to this day I do not know why it didn’t connect. It totally cracks me up. I’m perplexed that it didn’t do better.
What’s the one that got away?
Intermission got away; I read an early draft and didn’t jump on it. Anne Mullaney produced that. I’m sure there are loads. There are other things you come across and you don’t see it. Like, I read Brooklyn and I thought it was a really good book and I was talking to people about it. Because it’s such an internal book, it’s very much in this girl’s head and I thought, “How do you do that?” But obviously [screenwriter] Nick Hornby did do it and it’s been a big success. So sometimes you get something and you just don’t see it – but someone else can and then it’s brilliant. That’s not something I regret at all. I don’t lie awake about those things.
What does keep you awake at night?
What was keeping me up at night recently was from the point of which we screened Room in Telluride to the point at which we got the nominations. I mean, obviously the film is doing well and they euphemistically call it ‘becoming part of the conversation’, right. That is both an intoxicating and disturbing experience. People are saying this might go all the way and you are delighted by that and, once that is a possibility, you begin to want it. As you know there are a million pundits out there, blogs, Oscar bloggers, so I found myself over that period of time just getting absorbed by that stuff. If we took a knock back on one thing – like we didn’t get nominated for the Producer’s Guild Awards, which is supposed to be a sort of bell-weather for the Best Picture nominees – it was disappointing, but then you get something else. I became engaged in that in a way that wasn’t the right way to be engaged. What else keeps me awake? Professional relationships: making a film can definitely give you stress and keep you awake.
Do you have a temper?
No, not really. I mean, I have, but I definitely keep a lid on it.
You’re not of the Don Simpson school of film producing?
No, absolutely not. I don’t believe in it and it’s not me anyway so I couldn’t muster it up. I don’t shout at people, at least I don’t think I do. It goes back to what we were saying earlier – I like working with people I like. Working in a constructive, respectful environment and I think we have that in the company here and with the people that we work with.
I’m thinking of books like Hollywood Animal by Joe Eszterhas, where film production just seems like a nasty, conniving business.
Before I got to know well-known actors and saw them, you hear all that stuff you know? When you do get to know them, by and large they are much better behaved than you expect and very hard-working people. And, by and large, when people lose it in whatever way they do it’s because they feel exposed, they don’t feel safe, they don’t trust the work. In a way, I always think that there is analogy between being a film director and a manager of a Premier League football team. If you lose the confidence of the people that you are guiding then you are toast. With successful actors, I used to think that it was a coincidence and that they had gotten really lucky and just managed to make it, and anyone could. But my experience of really good actors is that they are exceptional people. That’s not to say that they are not really lucky as well – but they are exceptionally bright, exceptionally driven, exceptionally insightful, mostly. There can be anxiety with that – I suppose you get that with sports people as well. But they really have something.
Would the Oscar nominations for Room be the pinnacle of your career?
Probably, yeah. No! What am I talking about? It is, definitely (laughs).
What do you hope is going to happen as a result of it?
The very tangible things that happened because of it is we went from 80 prints in the US to 800. The box office has nearly doubled since the Golden Globe for Brie [Larson], but that was all in the same week. So it is a really tangible result in terms of people seeing the film which, at the end of the day, is what you really want. Particularly for a film like Room where – although Brie is now very well-known, and she’ll get better and better known – when we made the movie she wasn’t that well-known. So more than the other movies, we need that label for people to go, “Okay, I can go and see that.” Also because people, when they encounter the film just on a cursory level, they think it’s this kind of dark story – and it isn’t. Have you seen it?
I haven’t seen it yet.
It moves from darkness to light – it’s about an escape from something dark, but it really is about how a mother protects her child. If you’ve got kids, you’ll totally respond to it. How a parent protects their child creates a world for them – and then in a sense saves the child, and then the child saves the mother. So it’s a very life-affirming film. The idea of captivity looms larger than it should have, but that’s what people grab onto. So we always say that it’s about escape, not incarceration. So to answer your question, in terms of our relationship with filmmakers, central to that is our relationship with Lenny, but also we have a relationship with Yorgos [Lanthimos] who made The Lobster.
Which was a very strange film.
Yeah, it was, but I didn’t think it was as strange as everybody else. I thought it was just brilliant and sort of intoxicating in its originality. And again, going back to what I’m interested in, it’s unturndownable. If someone comes to you, as Yorgos did with that basic pitch, then why wouldn’t you want to (a) make it and (b) see it, particularly with those amazing actors.
You’ve got TV3’s Red Rock on one hand – a kind of conventional soap – and you’ve got something as bizarrely arthouse as The Lobster. You’re kind of across the board here?
Yeah. Red Rock I love – and it’s a different muscle in a way. But actually, when I first started producing films, the stop-start of making films I found really difficult. That would keep me awake in bed. So you make a movie and whatever will happen to it will happen to it, and certainly the first films I produced may have got festival attention – but they weren’t making money. There wasn’t necessarily a momentum generated by them. I remember driving myself crazy. I was trying to get a film financed and I was incredibly frustrated because I couldn’t get it done. I thought maybe we should try to do something in television – because there’s something lovely about television when it’s up and running. There’s a constant engagement with it, there’s a constant turnover of scripts and cuts to see, and again, the conversation exists permanently, almost with something like Red Rock. That’s how I met John, because I did a show called Batchelor’s Walk with him for years and then did a show...
Yeah, it was great and that was very autobiographical of John and his brother and Tom Paul and all of those guys. It was around a real house in Batchelor’s Walk. But it’s great because it’s a different thing to making a film, because it tends to last longer. I love that about Red Rock. Not a lot of drama gets made in Ireland, so you may find an amazing writer in the theatre – and they don’t get the flying hours in terms of writing for the screen, but they are expected to turn out a pristine feature film script with a bit of support from the Irish Film Board. There is no doubt that in the actual making of things you actually learn so much. A great thing about Red Rock is to work with writers and directors who are just getting more flying hours and by working with them you get to know them and hopefully build relationships into the future. That goes for actors as well. There’s a whole bunch of great young actors on that show that I think are fantastic. So it’s a really nice thing to be involved in and it’s growing. The audience is definitely growing for it and what we have right now is great storytelling.
You worked with John Michael McDonagh on The Guard. What did you think of his comment that Irish films weren’t very “intelligent” or “technically accomplished”.
He’s a provocative sort of character, but I think if that was true then, it’s definitely not true now. Look at the Oscars this year. I was at the British Independent Film Awards and it was just Irish people. Saoirse [Ronan] got something, Domhnall Gleeson was up getting something, Michael Fassbender was nominated for something, we won a prize. There were a lot of Irish people there, disproportionate to the size of the country. Obviously at the Oscars, to have two Irish films in the eight up for best picture, that’s crazy and unprecedented and extraordinary. Then you have Michael in Steve Jobs, you have Domhnall in four nominated films, not all for best picture but Ex Machina, The Revenant, Star Wars and Brooklyn. The other film that nearly made it was Viva, Paddy Breathnach’s film. It’s a film about these transvestites that sing torch songs in Cuba that Mark O’Halloran wrote. It’s really good. It was made in Cuba, in Spanish and it was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language film, but it didn’t get to the final five. It was in the final nine, if you like. That’s definitely made an impression internationally.
Do you think all of this success will convince the Government to better support the film industry here?
That’s something that I’m very concerned about now. The Film Board has, relative to other countries, very little money and I think in order to sustain the undoubted momentum that is there that they have to invest in, primarily, talent. Because, as I keep on saying to people, as a producer, the scarce resource for me is not money: talent is the hard thing. To find writers and directors and actors who are unique, special, gifted, have something to say. That’s the really hard thing. Sometimes those people aren’t immediately obvious or apparent. They need to be given time to develop. Fintan O’Toole had a thing in The Irish Times about seeing an early play of Emma O’Donoghue years ago and saying that it wasn’t that good, but she’s had time to grow as an artist.
It was curious that she adapted her own novel for the screen. Normally novelists are kept well away.
She says herself: she wrote the book and she had a strong sense that it would make a film. She wrote the film and she just wanted to have the chance to be part of that conversation, to be taken seriously. So when we first came to talk with her it was apparent that she’d like to have a go at it and actually the script was really good. To be fair to Emma, she knows a lot about movies and she was very mindful and understanding that the book is hers but the movie is Lenny’s. At a certain moment the author changed and she collaborated with him in that way. It was a really good experience and it isn’t always, you know?
Will you be at the Oscars?
Yes. Definitely. I’m looking forward to it.
What’s the biggest ambition now?
Honestly, it’s to continue to make films that really resonate and Lenny is a big part of that. That’s a huge part of our business here, our relationship with him, and I certainly hope to be making films with him for many years to come, but also to make films with other filmmakers. And television as well. I suppose it’s to grow and make bigger and more impactful things, and to build on the opportunity that we have.
Do you have a motto in life?
There is one, but I’ll have to paraphrase it. I don’t know if it’s Goethe, but it’s attributed to him. It’s something along the lines of, ‘If you move with purpose into the world, the world meets you halfway’. I’ll send it to you, but that really resonates when you’re making films. Sometimes to get a film made you have to say, ‘We’re going to shoot on this date. I’ve no idea how it’s going to be financed, I don’t know who is going to be in it, I don’t know quite how we’re going to get there, but we’re going to do it then’. And if you move towards that with persistent, self-generated self-belief, that just creates its own momentum – and the world does meet you halfway.