TLG talks to Exec Producer Nigel Wooll about Ridley Scott, Roman Polanski and Madonna
If you want to hear about why Ridley Scott is the most talented director ever, where to find ‘royal palace’-calibre stately homes, the new Millennium Film Finance Corporation and Egyptian camel-wrangling, then you’d enjoy a chat with feature film Executive Producer Nigel Wooll.
Nigel (pictured right on set with Ridley Scott) works with London-based Bardot Films. It is actually easier to talk about places where Nigel hasn’t filmed during a career in film production that has spanned nearly 40 years.
Nigel started out as a tea-making 3rd Assistant Director on the legendary Carry On series in 1964:
“I started off with the Rank Organisation in the 60s working on a short documentary format called Look at Life for release in the cinemas before the main feature. I did that to get my union card and then I got a job on Carry on Spying, on Gerald Thomas’s set, with Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor who, were all people that just made you laugh uproariously all day long.
"UK film was a very small industry in those days and who you knew counted for more than what you knew. I got on well and met people like Charles Orme, Ralph Thomas, Timothy Burrill and Simon Relph. I was very fortunate to work on films like Khartoum in Egypt in 1966, where my job was to count the camels and make sure a nefarious camel wrangler was not sneaking off with them."
Nigel worked on Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth:
“It was financed by the Playboy Empire and was certainly a challenging production. We filmed in the wilds of Wales where it continually rained. Battle sequences in the wet and mud are not a pleasant experience but having finished in Wales we then moved to Northumberland for a scene where 1,000 extras with tree branches march across the top of the valley to Dunsinane with the early morning mist in the foreground - a truly incredible sight!”
MMFC will be working on a rolling slate basis, with four or five new films in production all the time. We will be dependent on recouping - hence our interest in very commercial projects.
Whilst still producing films, Nigel is taking on an additional role as Head of Production of MMFC (the Millennium Film Finance Corporation) and Mongoose Film Productions Ltd - a group of financiers headed up by Grahame Duffield investing in feature films in the 10 to 50 million dollar range:
“MMFC will be working on a rolling slate basis, with four or five new films in production all the time. We will be dependent on recouping - hence our interest in very commercial projects. We won’t be producing art house pictures at all. Our first production is to be a biopic of [Russian composer] Rachmaninoff called Whispering and Lies, directed by Bruce Beresford and produced by Fred Muller.
"Fred Muller has scouted both Lithuania and Hungary, and is very pleased with both places. Lithuania is going to double for Moscow, and Hungary for Austria. At the moment Hungary has a tax rebate system and Lithuania is still very cheap - even without a limited rebate. We are also going to be shooting in the UK and taking advantage of our own tax rebates. We are shooting from January and will hopefully release it at the end of 2012.”
Madonna as a director has an amazing eye for detail and was keen to be as historically accurate as possible.
The MMFC has several other features in production, including Snapshot Wedding, an Indian love story due to shoot in India and Yorkshire in the UK. Hell To Pay is a special forces action thriller and then there's The Brigadier, a Cold War-era film about reuniting brothers, for which Canada looks a likely principal location.
Nigel has also just finished shooting on Madonna’s film W.E, which is currently in post-production in New York. The film is the story of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, a relationship which lead to the monarch's abdication in 1936.
“Madonna as a director has an amazing eye for detail and was keen to be as historically accurate as possible. As the Wallace Simpson story is still a touchy subject we were unable get into genuine royal palaces like Arundel and Hampton Court. Having searched high and low for places of the same calibre within spitting distance of London, we found wonderful places like Hatfield House and Harefield House in Hertfordshire.
"For the abdication speech, which actually happened at Windsor Castle, we needed a match for the interiors of the castle. We had to go to a place on the Gloucestershire/Welsh borders: Eastnor Castle. Madonna was fanatical about the locations being perfect and it will certainly show in the finished film.”
Nigel has worked on more than 80 feature film projects since 1964, within which time he was lucky to have worked with one of the all-time great film directors:
“I did two films with Ridley Scott. GI Jane shot in Florida, Connecticut, New York and California. Demi Moore was in the film and her character becomes the first female Navy SEAL. She did almost all of her own stunts and was expert at doing hundreds of one-armed pressups. She has astonishing physical strength and is underrated as an actor.”
After shooting at all our Caribbean locations for White Squall, we built part of the boat in Malta Film Facilities’ colossal water tanks, and filmed these shots while the real boat sailed across the Atlantic to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.
Nigel worked on Ridley’s ambitious ocean-bound thriller White Squall as a co-producer:
“We went across the Caribbean to St Lucia, St Vincent and the Bahamas, and then to Malta and South Africa. Capturing the actual squall scenes was amazingly complex. After shooting at all our Caribbean locations, we built part of the boat in Malta Film Facilities’ colossal water tanks and filmed these shots while the real boat sailed across the Atlantic to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, where the seas can be the roughest in the world. That was what Ridley wanted!
"The crew had to go out every day and film off and on the Cape for two weeks. There was a lot of seasickness in that fortnight, but Ridley remained utterly unaffected. I am sure he has this astonishing ability to play the film in his head before it’s been shot. He talks wonderfully about the scenes and if you don’t understand what is in his head he does little ‘Ridleygrams’ - pictures and storyboards which are astonishing in their detail. He’s an exceptional man and a very great filmmaker.”
Nigel also worked on five films with his good friend Peter Yates and easily the happiest film of his career was a 1983 British classic called The Dresser. Yates directed Albert Finney and Tom Courtney, and it garnered five Academy Award nominations. Nigel learned something that has been incredibly useful working as a Location Manager, Production Manager, Producer and Executive Producer:
“We were looking for a theatre to film and it needed to be ‘dark’ for seven weeks so that we had enough time to get the whole film. After a lot of searching we found the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford. Once negotiation started, they were really keen for us to shoot there. We made contact with the Bradford Tourist Office just out of politeness really and I am so glad we did because they were amazingly helpful. They helped us deal with the traffic and police and with all the local amenities.
It struck me that Producers might make contact with national film offices and commissions and disregard the little ones. I learnt never to underestimate the value of small provincial film offices and tourist offices, as they are often free to make great financial deals and open up so many doors.
"It struck me that Producers might make contact with national film offices and commissions and disregard the little ones. I learnt never to underestimate the value of small provincial film offices and tourist offices, as they are often free to make great financial deals and open up so many doors. This was very useful again a few years ago on Miss Potter when Alan Saywell of North West Vision opened up the whole of the Lake District for us. A feature film crew can block up large areas of a town like an army on the move, and that local knowledge and expertise is irreplaceable.”
Does Nigel have a fond memory of an underrated location from all his years shooting around the globe?
“In 1990 I worked on a Disney film called Shipwrecked, during which we toured many of the world’s loveliest island paradises, including the Seychelles, Indonesia, Tahiti and Brunei. We ended up spending a couple of months in Fiji. The place needed to be cost-effective and have some infrastructure without being too developed.
"Tahiti is French and was too expensive, and the Caribbean was too built up. But Fiji was absolutely perfect for its seclusion, beauty and low costs. We dealt with the Fijian authorities and commandeered the island’s only chopper to get to our secluded island - it looks wonderful on the screen. I have great memories of that location, so I’d recommend Fiji without a doubt.”
TLG readers should watch out for the MMFC’s slate of productions from 2012 onwards, not least because of their new Head of Production’s breadth of experience, The chances are they will be shot in some imaginative and breathtakingly beautiful places.
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