How a cinema ticket-tearer teamed up with Neil Jordan and helped save an industry
Stephen Woolley was always a film fanatic, but he became a producer almost by accident, after John Boorman encouraged him to try his hand at it. Since then his films have included ‘Letter to Brezhnev’, ‘The Crying Game’and ‘Mona Lisa’. His latest film takes him back to his London roots
STEPHEN WOOLLEY is a funny-looking fellow. Somewhat on the short side, with very long, greying hair, he comes across like the sort of person you’d expect to meet selling Marxist newspapers outside a London Underground station. In the course of our conversation he recalls once going to meet John Boorman, the distinguished director, at the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly.
“Yeah, I got there and they wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t wearing a tie. I always forget those things. So we had to go round the corner for a Guinness. Actually, I got here today and wondered if they’d let me in dressed like this.” True enough, Claridge’s hotel, just a hop and a skip from the Ritz, is a fairly salubrious location, but I would imagine the staff have been primed not to lay a finger on Woolley. He may not look like a mogul, but he is one of the most important figures in the recent history of British cinema. Originally a distributor and programmer, he went on to produce such hugely influential films as Letter to Brezhnev, The Crying Game, Mona Lisaand Scandal.Arriving at a point – the early 1980s – when the British film industry was on the point of crawling into its sarcophagus, he joined the likes of David Puttnam in firing plasma back into the beast’s withered veins. “I guess, all those years before Trainspotting, we were trying to bring some reality into British film-making – but in an entertaining way,” he says. “There was a point, round about Chariots of Fire and all that Merchant Ivory stuff, where it all got a bit Laura Ashley.”
We are here to discuss a fine little film named Made in Dagenham. Dealing with a key incident in the history of the British labour movement, a 1968 strike by women workers at Ford’s east London plant, the picture satisfies the criteria Woolley established all those years ago. It deals with a true story about working-class women and their struggle for equal pay, but it remains a zippy, populist picture suitable for a mainstream audience.
“I heard this documentary on the radio, and I was amazed that I knew nothing about this strike,” he says. “Coming from working-class north London, I was reminded of my family. I had two aunts who had to do everything. My dad was a complete waste of space, a gambler. So the women had to do everything. My aunts had been through the Blitz, and I think, as a result, everything was funny to them. You would get fatalistic, going through that.”
You wouldn’t say that Woolley sounds working-class. He may, at 54, be dressed like a student, but his vowels are pinched and his consonants are struck precisely. Indeed, if anything, he sounds positively posh. “I have completely lost my accent,” he admits. “But there was five of us in one room when I was growing up. There really was a tin bath in front of the fire and a kitchen the size of a cupboard. We ate off the floor, and this was 1967, not 1867. It was a funny time in Islington. We were at the bottom of the street, where it flooded when it rained. At the top end Dudley Moore and Roger Moore were moving in.”
When his family ventured north, to distant Hendon, the teenage Woolley moved into a flat with his girlfriend and, a lifelong movie fanatic, got a job tearing tickets at the Screen on the Green cinema in Highbury. (A few weeks after he began, the Sex Pistols played a famous gig at the venue.) Thus began Stephen’s long, but impressively steady, ascent of the cinematic ladder. Within a few years Woolley was programming films at the Scala Cinema, in King’s Cross. The fondly remembered venue, which closed in the mid 1990s, was a splendid place to catch a Polanski marathon or an evening of back-to-back Tarkovsky.
Many believe the incident that killed off the Scala was the decision to show Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. At that stage Kubrick, alive and brooding in Hertfordshire, had prohibited any screenings of the film, but Woolley and his gang felt he might give them a free pass. “It was weird. Stanley used to phone me from time to time if we had a film he was interested in. Or his secretary did. ‘Oh, The Big Combo. Stanley hasn’t seen that for ages. Could he borrow it?’ So we’d lend him the print. By that stage, videos of A Clockwork Orangewere widely available in Camden, so we just showed it. The third time we showed it Fact [Federation Against Copyright Theft] came around, and that was that. We felt a bit betrayed by Stanley, but later I got to know him and realised you just couldn’t read the guy.”
By this stage Woolley was an established film producer. Working with Nik Powell, co-founder of the Virgin group, he had moved into video distribution in the early 1980s. Their company, Palace Pictures, rapidly got caught up in the first video-nasty controversy. After their decision to distribute The Evil Dead– now largely regarded as a larksome comedy – Powell very nearly ended up in prison. “It was a weird situation,” he recalls. “This was a film directed by Sam Raimi, now a hugely respected film-maker, and edited by the Coen brothers. And Nik had to defend himself in court.”
Woolley’s career as a producer is founded on his relationship with our own Neil Jordan. When, in 1982, he saw Angel, the director’s first film, Woolley immediately decided he wanted to distribute it, but Channel Four Films insisted that the picture had to debut on the then embryonic station. Using a combination of charm and insistence – playing up on a business connection with Jeremy Isaacs, Channel 4’s chief executive – he managed to persuade the suits to relent. The film was not a huge hit, but its positive critical reception established Jordan’s reputation.
“To be honest I didn’t know what a producer did,” he says. “But I was in Dublin shortly afterwards, and I was telling John Boorman all about this. ‘I got them to allow me to show it for three months.’ And so on. John said: ‘That’s fantastic. You should be a producer. That’s what a producer does.’ ”
Woolley duly agreed to produce Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Over the next quarter of a century they collaborated on a hugely varied series of films: Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy, Michael Collins, Breakfast on Pluto.Woolley did not work on Jordan’s recent Ondine, but they have, despite all the tensions movie-making kicks up, somehow managed to remain good chums. “He’s quite strident,” Woolley says with a laugh. So they’ve had their fallings-out? “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. We shared an apartment in Maida Vale that imploded when we were making Company of Wolves.It made the flat in Withnail and Ilook like a Habitat showroom. At one point we left the heater on in the bathroom, and the ceiling collapsed. We just left the bath full of rubble. We had a principle that we wouldn’t wash a cup. We’d just replace it.”
The history of British cinema in the 1970s was a sorry, sorry tale. When the American studios shifted their offices back to Hollywood in the late 1960s the industry slipped into a coma. Then suddenly, as Chariots of Fireand Woolley’s early films emerged, it was alive again. Banners were unfurled. Party poppers were released. But mere moments later crisis returned to Wardour Street. Two huge flops, Hugh Hudson’s Revolutionand Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners, threatened to send the industry back into the dark ages. As producer of Absolute Beginners, a musical version of a cult novel by Colin MacInnes, Woolley went from saviour to wrecker.
Why did he kill British cinema? Why? “They really did try to blame us,” he says with another laugh. “Meanwhile, The Missionand Revolutionwere being made, and they could get all the resources they wanted. We were the ones being squeezed. Every day they were trying to get me to fire Julien. But, at the same time, I was making a little film called Mona Lisa. A year later we won a Bafta and Bob Hoskins got nominated for an Oscar.”
Nearly 40 years after Woolley began tearing tickets he still comes across as a bit of a punk. He denies that he was ever fully on board with that youth movement. “I couldn’t afford the clothes. I was the guy wearing bondage trousers with a duffel coat.” But he still seems happy to give the impression that he approaches his business with a seat-of-the-pants carelessness. This, of course, has to be a front. You don’t get to produce this many films without having a properly ordered brain. It must help that Elizabeth Karlsen, his romantic partner and mother of his children, works alongside him. She, surely, wouldn’t allow the ceiling to collapse into the bath. “It does work quite well,” he says. “I can be on set for four weeks and then she can be on set for the next four. That does help things function.”
Despite continuing rumours about the collapse of British and Irish cinema, Woolley and his colleagues keep churning out decent pictures. Five years ago he directed a biopic of Brian Jones, late Rolling Stone, entitled (what else?) Stoned. He will shortly begin producing a Dusty Springfield drama, written by Enda Walsh, screenwriter on Hunger. Yet once more, following the apparent abolition of the UK Film Council, pundits are getting out their End is Nigh placards.
“Look, when I made Company of Wolvesin 1983 it was all doom and gloom. Since then I’ve directed, produced or executive-produced 33 movies. Things can’t have been quite as gloomy as people said. I’ve experienced every type of film financing, and I have never, ever believed in the gloom.”
Unshakable optimism. That’s what makes a producer.
Made in Dagenhamstar Rosamund Pike is interviewed in today’s Magazine