The ten Oscar nominations for The Favourite is just the latest highpoint on the long road to success for Ireland’s top film producers, writes Esther McCarthy.
A friendship and professional relationship, first forged on the set of Irish drama Sweety Barrett, prompted producers Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe to set up their own company with the ambition of making movies.
It’s a connection that has brought Element Pictures all the way to the Oscars and some of the biggest stages in cinema. The Irish duo’s co- produced The Favourite, a wickedly funny drama set in the court of Queen Anne, has been nominated for ten Oscars and 12 BAFTAs.
But from the early days, the two men who founded the company have always dared to dream big.
“Our paths had crossed as kids growing up in Dublin,” said Lowe. “I had a first cousin who was in school with Ed so we would have met as teenagers in Dublin.
"Ed would have been ahead of me in college and then Ed went straight into producing and I took a slightly circuitous route, became an accountant and started working as a film production accountant.”
A conversation started on the set of the 1998 film starring Brendan Gleeson culminated in the setting up of Element.
By this point, Guiney, who had long harboured a desire to produce, was gaining valuable experience in an indigenous film industry that was beginning to gain momentum. There was a sense of anticipation in the air.
“I absolutely, since the age of 16 or 17, wanted to be a film producer so I was totally committed to that,” says Guiney.
That was around the late 1980s and a new generation of Irish talent were turning out some very good short films. “John Moore did Jack’s
Bicycle, and Damien O’Donnell did some fantastic shorts around then. There were interesting people, and we all worked on each other’s shorts.
“Paddy Breathnach, Lenny, Stephen Rennicks (who now composes film scores), all these people started making films and then they tried to get a bit of success internationally. That coincided with the re-establishment of the Film Board (now Screen Ireland) in 1993. So there was a pool of people who had an ambition to make film before the Film Board came along, then that just catapulted it.”
Guiney has been Oscar nominated for his role as producer on The Favourite, the clever and offbeat movie from The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos. Lowe is executive producer on the film. So what exactly does a producer do?
“The role of producing in its broadest term, it’s all encompassing in a sense. Often it’s about finding the original material,” explains Lowe.
“Occasionally It’s responding to something people pitch in or else it’s finding a book, or a newspaper article, a magazine article.
"Finding a writer, commissioning them to write a screenplay and then finding a director. Once you have a director on board the producer’s role really becomes about supporting the director and the writer.
“As we get into production, it’s supporting the director and the casting process, raising the finance, hiring the crew, overseeing the entire physical production through to post-production and then working closely with the distributor to see the film out into the world and oversee its initial large festival launch awards campaigns, if you’re so lucky to have one.
“Managing the talent is part of that whole process. That’s an all- encompassing role and so often you’ll find there are many producers involved.”
Producers are often described as the ‘money people’ when it comes to films, but Guiney said there are greater challenges than raising finance.
“You know, people often say: ‘You’re the people who get the money. That’s what producers do, they find the money’. And I’m always quick to say that money’s not the issue. It’s not the problem. It’s never the problem.
Talent is the scarce resource. Money is not the scarce resource.
“I jokingly say it but I think it’s true — if anything we’re talent prospectors like there were gold prospectors in the old days, trying to find little nuggets of gold. It’s parallel to that. We spend a lot of time trying to find books, writers and directors who we think are really special and have something really unique to say and then we try and help them do what they do best.
"And give them the environment to do it in. But that is the scarce resource. Really gifted people are very, very hard to come by.”
As well as production, Element has a successful distribution arm and produces TV series such as Red Rock and Quirke. They founded that company in 2001. Did they have any sense then of the international success they could achieve?
“I think you just set out to do good things,” says Guiney.
"I think we were always very ambitious, no doubt about that. And I think when we set up the company together we always expected that we would work in an international context. But until you’ve actually made things that are internationally recognised and make an impact, you can never claim that.”
After What Richard Did in 2012, the Element duo sat with director Lenny Abrahamson, and hatched plans which eventually led to the success of Room.
“It was: ‘Well let’s try and find something international’. Because if you look at films like Adam and Paul or Garage or What Richard Did, if those films were made in America, by an American filmmaker, they would have been much more impactful around the world. I think there’s still a thing offilms made here are harder to get out into the world, even very special ones.
“If you think of something like Michael Inside which is a terrific film, if that equivalent was made in America, it would probably win Sundance.”
Both men feel there is a massive global opportunity for film and TV at the moment, and that Ireland is well-positioned to take advantage. “There’s just an insatiable appetite for screen drama whether it’s film or television and animation. And I think that it’s great,” says Guiney.
He lauds Screen Ireland’s reorientation towards the screen industries generally, with planned support for not only cinema, but also television and animation.
Lowe points out that key moments for Element in terms of growing the company have been two company slate funding schemes that Screen Ireland ran, and another initiative run by Enterprise Ireland.
“It was very much encouraging companies to think about the global market rather than the domestic market.
"And I think those kind of interventions at different points of time in the growth of the company were really important. It forced us to consider where we were going and to reflect a bit on what our priorities were.”
Both men have experienced the dazzle and mayhem of Oscar night and will be returning to the red carpet this spring.
“It’s quite nice for us because no one’s really interested in us,” smiles Guiney.
“But yet you’re on the red carpet standing behind whoever and beside whoever. They’re all a lot of fun and they are very glamorous and there are very high-end parties and lots of overwhelming numbers of famous people in very small spaces.
"That is enjoyable and it’s actually such a small part of our lives and what we do that it’s nice to savour it when it happens occasionally.”
Lowe adds: “And in response to intense speculation we’ll be wearing black and white.”
The Favourite is out now. The Oscars take place on Feb 24.
Sally Rooney and other projects in the pipeline
A buoyant production period for Element Pictures means there are several new film and TV projects on the way, and several others in the early stages of development:
Adam & Paul: Lenny Abrahamson’s terrific feature debut centres on two pals and heroin addicts (Mark O’Halloran and the late Tom Murphy) as they navigate their way through Dublin.
The Lobster: Yorgos Lanthimos’s excellent English-language debut, shot in Co Kerry, tells of a dystopia where single people must find a mate or be turned into an animal of their choosing.
Garage: Pat Shortt is perfect as Josie, who mans a garage in small-town Ireland, in Abrahamson’s moving film.
Rosie: Sarah Greene is fantastic as the title character in Paddy Breathnach’s note-perfect tale of a family’s efforts to maintain a sense of normality when they become homeless.
A Date For Mad Mary: Seána Kerslake shines as a troubled woman looking for a date for her friend’s wedding in this funny and poignant drama from Darren Thornton.
Room: Abrahamson films in Canada, and gets four Oscar nominations (and a win for Brie Larson), pictured, in this powerful dramatisation of Emma Donoghue’s award-winning novel.
Frank: Abrahamson goes quirky in this inventive and touching tale of an aspiring musician (Domhnall Gleeson) who befriends an enigmatic rock star (Michael Fassbender) who wears a giant fake head.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley: Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or-winning film, shot in West Cork, is set against the backdrop of the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War.
Glassland: Gerard Barrett’s fine drama, set in the suburbs, tells of a young man’s struggles to support his alcoholic mother.
The Guard: Brendan Gleeson is fantastic as an unhinged guard in John Michael McDonagh’s mischievous comedy.