Diving into Swimming With Men with producer Stewart Le Maréchal
Stewart Le Maréchal, the producer behind BAFTA-winning short film September, Head of Production at MetFilm Production and guest judge at last year's Exit 6 Film Festival, talks to us about his new film Swimming With Men splashing into cinemas this weekend and not going The Full Monty.
Quite possibly Basingstoke's only BAFTA-winning son so far, producer Stewart Le Maréchal, heads up MetFilm Production. part of the MetFilm Group that also comprises the MetFilm School based at Ealing Studios in London. Last year he returned to his hometown to join us as an industry speaker and guest judge of the top 6 short films in our programme, after having won a BAFTA for his own short film September.
Such is the size of our town, it never ceases to amuse me that we first got in touch with Stewart via his dad, who happens to drink in the same pub as one of the Exit 6 team. Our meeting was clearly meant to be. It was a pleasure to have Stewart join us last year to pore over the work offered up in our judges 6, so it's great to have the chance to talk about his projects, starting with his work at MetFilm.
"I'm a producer. I run MetFilm Production. Originally I was working as an assistant at a company called APT Films, which was run by a friend of mine, Jonny Persey. He became the director of the MetFilm School. The school strategy was to embed itself into the industry so the decision was made to bring a production company within the group. I then set up MetFilm Production with Jonny and a couple other people. It sits along side the film school with us interacting with the school as much as possible. Whether that's a little bit of teaching here and there or whether it's about bringing interns into our company or hiring graduates for various roles on films, doing masterclasses and Q&A's. A whole range of things.
My day is pretty full on. It covers a huge range of different things. We've got projects in early stages of development. We've got projects in prep. We've got projects looking for finance. We've got a couple that are just about to be released in the cinemas. There's always something different to be done, whether it's development, financing, production, post-production, marketing. Also, running the company, which takes a bit of time as well. During any given day I'm doing any one of those things. Probably at least 10 or 20 in any one day. What I love about the job is it is so varied. You can find yourself doing almost anything at any given moment of any given day."
What doesn't happen every day is picking up a BAFTA for a short film, which is something I will wager anyone reading this has daydreamed about on more than one occasion. What was it like to be part of a short film project that had so much success?
"September was a great project. Esther May Campbell, the writer/director, and I had been wanting to work together. We'd been throwing around ideas between ourselves. At the time, we were working on a couple of feature ideas. Then, she brought September to the table and said, "This is something I really want to do." We then got into the process of developing it, which took a couple of years before finally making it.
It was a pretty long journey in terms of the development process of the project. It ended up being a 21-minute film. It had pinged between being a 10-minute film and a 30-minute film over the course of the development process, whilst we were trying to find the best way to tell the story. We also had to go out and search for the finance to make the film, which again takes a bit of time. It's a lovely film. I love it. I'm very proud of it."
Next for Stewart is one of those aforementioned projects about to be released in the cinema; mid-life crisis comedy Swimming With Men, directed by Oliver Parker and featuring a stellar British cast that includes Rob Brydon, Jim Carter, Thomas Turgoose, Adeel Akhtar, Daniel Mays, Rupert Graves, Jane Horrocks and Charlotte Riley. It's the story of Eric Scott (Brydon), a man who is suffering a mid-life crisis finding new meaning in his life as part of an all-male, middle-aged, amateur synchronised swimming team. In a rare twist, the film was actually born from the factual documentary co-produced by Stewart years before.
"Although we didn't know it, the journey began about 11 years ago. Basically, we began developing a documentary about the only all-male Swedish synchronized swimming team, who were also middle aged. We spent about 2 and a half, 3 years making that film. Towards the end of the process, we just thought there was a brilliant fiction version of this film. As we completed the documentary, we then sat down with the Swedish team and said, "Look, we'd love to remake your story."
We acquired their rights in order to do that. Along with our documentary, we then set about making the fiction film. We then attached a writer, Aschlin Ditta, who I'd worked with before. Ash had seen the documentary and phoned me and said, "If you ever turn this into a fiction film, I want to write it." He totally got what the fiction film should be so Anna Mohr-Pietsch, my producing partner, and I embarked on that journey with Ash, gathered executive producers and a director and cast and finance. That process took us eight years until now to make the fiction film."
It's not often that the production team behind a documentary goes on to make a fictitious version of the same story. Was it a help or a hindrance to have a resource such as the documentary to draw on when writing the script? How true would, or could, the makers be to their own documentary?
"I think it was definitely really helpful because there’s a certain tone to the documentary, which is something to do with the fact that the team are Swedish. They do things a little differently from how we might do things. Even if we moved it to the UK, we wanted to find that feel in our film.
In some ways, the documentary is very much about guys hitting 40 and going through a midlife crisis. It's book-ended by a fish out of water story which is the director of the documentary (Dylan Williams) who's also in it. He was a Welsh guy who met a Swedish woman, fell in love, and moved to Sweden. In order to get into Swedish society, he joined a club. Obviously, the first club you'd think of would be a Swedish synchronized swimming team! He joined that club, and that helped him integrate into society. In a way, that was the book-end.
At first, we were thinking, "Do we do a fish out of water story? Do we do someone going from London to a village in Wales or do we do someone coming from a village in Wales to London? How do we do that?"
As it developed, we felt that actually, that wasn’t the way to go because the story is about being middle aged and losing your way. We decided to go down the route of having a character who was in that environment, who is just very lost. He happens upon these guys that do synchronized swimming. Then, joins them. He’s not a fish out of water in the sense of location or the first time in the country."
Ahead of the cinema release, the motley comedic crew forming the swimming team has already drawn comparisons to another British comedy darling, The Full Monty. Stewart is quick to explain the key difference between that film and Swimming With Men, and how it is not simply a re-hash of a story that went on to be a box office smash on screen and on stage. Will links to such a global success prove to be a good thing?
"I think it was definitely really helpful when we were putting the film together and financing because the elevator pitch is, it’s The Full Monty in Speedos. From that perspective, it was really great. I guess the thing we don’t know yet is because there’s such, in some ways, a clear similarity, does that mean that every reviewer will be comparing it to The Full Monty rather than just reviewing it on its merits? I don’t know. Who knows? [laughs] We shall see.
The driver for our story is midlife ennui which is very different from the driver for The Full Monty, which initially is about the need to make some quick cash. We wanted to be true to the spirit of the documentary and not invent something that wasn't there rather than have an artificial driver for the film."
Stewart does a superb job of selling Swimming With Men as a very different kind of offering to that of Robert Carlyle and Mark Addy strutting their stuff in the buff. There must have been an equally impressive selling job done to assemble such a smorgasbord of British talent for the cast.
"It wasn’t easy. Rob Brydon was the first person on board. We felt that it was really important to cast the role of Eric first because that sets the tone for everything else. Also, in terms of closing the finance, we needed to have our lead on board so that everybody could have a real sense of what the film was, what it looked like and where it would sit within the marketplace.
We pulled the finance together. Then, as we got closer we began to bring everyone else on board when we had a fixed date. The people that we brought on are brilliant. They’re a really great cast. All their performances are spot on in the film. They’re all genuinely, really lovely people, and in terms of the shoot and what it was like working with them, it was fantastic."
Finance is the conundrum facing every filmmaker, especially those looking to move from shorts to features. As a producer, Stewart has a lot of experience in how the business side of 'the business' works. He gives an insight into how his team at MetFilm choose films to put their weight behind, and offers advice to filmmakers looking for those much needed funds.
"I think it really depends on what kind of project you’re making. My producer Anna Mohr-Pietsch and I, we'll look at a project. If it is an interesting script or topic or book or whatever it might be and if there's talent attached, whether that's writer, director, we ask ourselves if they are a good fit for it. Are we excited by them? Then, we look at it and think, "Okay, If it's that material with that writer or that director, where does it sit in the market place? What kind of cast will it attract?" From that you build up a bit of a picture of what you think the film could be. Then, off the back of that, you have an initial instinct about what kind of budget level this should be made for. Inevitably that changes because we set out to make Swimming With Men for a much higher budget. In the end, we made it for just under £3 million.
What you have to do in terms of the financing is think about what kind of project you've got and who the writer and director are. For instance, you've got BBC Films, you've got Film4 and you've got the BFI who are a variety of different public funding entities. If you've got the right project or the right writer or director talent, those can be places that you can go. If you've got a project that is more commercial or doesn't necessarily fit into what those three organisations are looking for, then you basically go to the market. You've got to make sure that it can work in the market.
The market's much tougher because it's not public subsidy, it's not soft subsidy. You've got to absolutely make sure the package that you're putting together makes sense. Have you pitched the budget level at the right point that you can attract the right level of cast, that means you can make the right number of pre-sales around the world in order to finance your film? It's all about juggling all of those different elements because it's very possible to make a teen horror with no stars if you've got a good script and you budget it at the right level. There's going to be someone out there who will finance it if they think it's original enough. Whereas if you're doing a period, UK set drama, then you're going to need a bigger budget. Therefore, you're going to need a bigger director who can attract bigger stars, which means you can get that budget, which means you can sell the film internationally. It's just looking at each of those elements and just trying to get the balance right across all of them."
Having successfully juggled all the above elements to make sure Swimming With Men was brought to life, Stewart's final wish is that as many people as possible get out to the cinema to see it on opening weekend. Not just for the sake of his film, but for the sake of others like it too.
"Purely as a personal plea, I would say for independent films like this it's really important to have as strong an opening weekend as possible. It helps the cinemas decide what films will they keep on for another week because they make those decisions on the Monday after the weekend, not after the film's had a whole week at the cinema. If you want to see the film, please get down and see it on opening weekend. That would be my message on that one. I hope whoever sees it enjoys it as well."
I know what I'll be doing this weekend... Swimming With Men opens in cinemas (including Basingstoke) on Friday 6th July.
You can follow Stewart on Twitter: @StewLeMarechal