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Q&A with Thembisa Cochrane (Development Executive, Spier Films)

Spier Films is an award winning production company, predominately based in Cape Town, South Africa and recently helped produce Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones and The Salvation with Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green. Exit 6 is very lucky to have the opportunity to talk with their Development Executive, Thembisa Cochrane.


Hi Thembisa, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about what being a Development Executive for Spier Films involves?

I’m basically responsible for helping feed new projects into the company, so because we work with a lot of international co-producers, I often spend time reading scripts and helping prepare production plans and ideas on how we could help with finance for other producers around the world. That’s one aspect of the company, but then we also have our own slate of original content and for that I try to meet as many upcoming talents as possible, and I keep an eye on the talent we already know so I can package them with the right projects if they come up, and lastly I spend a lot of time actually working with writers, directors and producers to improve and develop the scripts already on our slate.

The Salvation was set in 1870s America but was filmed in South Africa, why is it that many more TV and film projects are filming out there?

A couple of reasons. The country has a great film tax incentive and coupled with a great exchange rate and a really experienced, top of the world crew base, it means you can get amazing value for money by shooting in South Africa. We also have a very diverse range of landscapes, so South Africa has stood in for all sorts of places – England, Seattle, Suriname. And we now even have state of the art studios which helps!

'The Salvation' directed by Kristian Levring

When you are searching for new projects, do you have a set criteria on what to look for, or is it simply down to finding an original concept?

I’m never really searching – I’m always hoping that some amazing script will suddenly, magically, fall into my lap and for some reason not already have been optioned by a Hollywood producer. But that doesn’t really happen. So what I’m really looking for most of the time is talent rather than an actual concept – can I find people who can write engaging, smart, layered, true scripts? And do they have a style and voice that matches directors I know or ideas that I already have on standby or books I want to adapt? Though I have had a couple of original concepts really grab me – for those it was a case of “you don’t know what you’re looking for until you’ve found it.”

Following on, we’ve met a couple of times at the London Screenwriters Festival where you’ve been listening to pitches – where else do you look for potential projects?

A lot of the time people approach me, often because someone else sent them my way. I also go to festivals and markets and will meet writers or directors there if they’re around. I keep an eye on the BAFTA Rocliffe new writing and the NFTS graduates. A lot of the time it’s also asking other people in the industry who they know, so if I hear someone mention a great new talent, I will immediately investigate. And if a film is getting great buzz and reviews, I will look at who wrote and directed it.

'Layla Fourie' directed by Pia Marais

It’s 2017 and I can’t believe there is still a gender gap within the industry. Do you ever see this going away and in your experience is it getting easier for female filmmakers to come through?

It’s horrendous, but I think a lot of energy is being put into helping and hopefully we will see that pay off soon. I know a number of great support networks for female filmmakers and by now I am aware of so many incredible up-and-coming women that I feel surely it’s only a matter of time before the balance starts to even out. We just need to keep on going, keep on standing up for equality, making a plan to give women equal opportunities. I think it’s awesome that there was a recent initiative announced to help with childcare – that makes a big difference for female professionals because sadly the gender norms of broader society also still need work.

Spier Films has offices in South Africa, London, Iceland and has worked with many different international film organisations. Is there a huge difference in countries and how they produce and make movies?

It’s not radical, we all speak the same filmic language, but each country has its own small unique things. You have slightly different government policy, sometimes crew roles aren’t quite the same, or the kind of content that works in, for example, a French market, is definitely not the same as the content a South African audience will watch.

'Young Ones' directed by Jake Paltrow

Can you tell us anything about what Spier Films has on its slate for the future?

We have a number of really exciting projects – it’s just not entirely clear which ones will actually make it to the finish line! We have one fantastic period action adventure which is a co-pro with Africa and China, then we have a drama adaptation which is planned as our second co-production with Ireland. We have a Sci-Fi Odyssey, but that may take a while still to develop. We’re shooting a coming of age drama this June/July and then we’ll see which other projects move quickly enough. We have three in post-production at the moment and may not shoot a second film this year, but you never know.

A lot of people who come to the Exit 6 Film Festival are just getting started in the industry and showing their talent through their short films. What advice can you give new film makers trying to break through?

Persistence is everything. If you don’t give up and just keep on making films, then at some point you will get recognised. The challenge is staying at the table long enough! It also helps if you’re always polite and keep a close hold on all the people you actually enjoy working with.

And, finally what have you watched recently that you would recommend?

Oh, that’s a tricky one! I really enjoyed Hidden Figures, though I can’t claim it was an artistic masterpiece, it was just so much fun!


You can follow Thembisa Cochrane: @Thembisa

You can follow Spier Films on Twitter: @SpierFilms

To learn more about Spier Films visit their webiste.

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