Paving the way

Although its location and buildings can attract the biggest Hollywood film makers, Liverpool’s local production companies can struggle to get their projects started. But a new fund is aiming to help

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When it came to filming just one key scene in the gold, bronze and marbled grandeur of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, Fantastic Beasts director David Heyman took 500 cast and crew and put them up in 10 hotels across the city for nine days. Not hard to do when you have a budget for the film of £140 million.

The latest film from Liverpool-based Hurricane Films, by contrast – Sometimes Always Never*, by Liverpool screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce and starring Bill Nighy – came in at £2.5 million all told.

Last year was a record one for filming in Liverpool – 366 productions were shot there

These are the two faces of movie-making in Liverpool: the prince and the pauper; the franchises – Fast and Furious, Captain America, Fantastic Beasts – generating billions at the box office; and a few tiny independents quietly turning out critically acclaimed arthouse features at bargain basement prices. North West England is now Europe’s second largest production base, with Liverpool at the forefront of things. Over the past decade, Liverpool Film Office, the first in the UK, has helped double the volume of film production in the wider city-region.

Hollywood comes to Liverpool firstly for the architecture, with St George’s Hall among a portfolio of historic structures variously standing in for New York, Chicago, Paris, Rome, Moscow and more.

Last year was a record one for filming in the city. Including TV, 366 productions were shot there, which equates to 1,387 film days, generating £16.1 million for the local economy. If the statistics are impressive, so are the names. Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Eddie Redmayne, Samuel L Jackson, Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are among actors to ply their trade on the pavements of Liverpool in recent years.

The irony is that while Hollywood queues up to film there, home-grown production companies struggle to make movies on home soil.

When Sol Papadopoulos, joint founder of Hurricane Films, was trying to cajole a potential investor to sink money into a film about a man who plays Scrabble, it was not an easy sell – especially with a first-time director at the helm. But Papadopoulos and Hurricane partner Roy Boulter, one-time drummer for Liverpool pop group The Farm, believed in the story and the script. Eventually, the men British movie auteur Terence Davies credits with reviving his career would make their film on what its author called “a very, very, very low budget”. Eventually, Sometimes Always Never premiered at the London Film Festival to enthusiastic reviews, and is at cinemas nationwide this week.

Without the wealth of a major studio behind them, says Papadopoulos, independent films need to go where the money is “because financing them is such a challenge”.
Boulter would “love to” film more in the city but “we’ve shot one week in Liverpool in 10 years. We’ve had to go abroad partly due to the demands of the story but partly down to a lack of studio space and a lack of financial help.”

Main image: Filming of a scene for the BBC’s War of the Worlds adaptation at St Georges Hall in Liverpool in 2018 and above Hurricane Films’ Sol Papadopoulos (left) and Roy Boulter. Photo: Alex Hurst

But now a newly-launched £2 million regional production fund will give outfits like Hurricane the opportunity to film in the city, with grants of up to £500,000 up for grabs – sums that can mean the difference between being able to make a movie and not.

“Making Davies’s Sunset Song we shot all the interiors in Luxembourg because there was a tax credit, and a grant from the Luxembourg government. None of that was available in Liverpool,” says Boulter. “It wasn’t, but now it is. It’s not a huge amount of money but it’s a start.”

For the major movie-makers, Liverpool is high on the list for location managers looking to stage set-piece historical scenes, whether the exquisite Italian Renaissance style of the Cunard Building for Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, or, for this year’s Tolkien, the grand Victorian mansions overlooking Sir Anthony Gormley’s iron men on nearby Crosby seafront.

Liverpool also presents fewer logistical problems than London. The capital is clogged: with productions, people and traffic. Boulter says: “In London, if you’ve got a unit to move across the city, that could waste a lot of time with a very expensive 100 people on your crew. Liverpool is so compact you can do it, so it’s got a lot of economic argument for it, logistical argument.”

“It’s not just about price,” insists Kevin Bell, operations and liaisons officer for 17 years at Liverpool Film Office. “We try to deliver bespoke options. So a production might come here because of the architecture; another might come because of the way the city is designed – it’s easy to control certain areas; some might come primarily because the talent is here.

“Touch wood, we are successful at that. And it’s not just the service the Film Office gives – it’s the service the whole city region provides.”

Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts took nine days to shoot in the city but 18 months of preparation from Liverpool Film Office, groundwork that makes producers keen to return. At the other end of the scale, Hurricane Films punches above its weight. Essentially a two-man operation, last year it was named among the UK’s top 50 producers – one of only three outside London. In recent times the duo has turned out a film a year, which, for a small independent, says Boulter, “is stunning really, but it’s very difficult to sustain”.

Liverpool-born film-maker Davies (The Long Day Closes, Distant Voices Still Lives) had believed his career finished until Hurricane came along. Together they made three films, including the latest, A Quiet Passion, about the life of poet Emily Dickinson, which film critic Mark Kermode declared “makes your heart sing”. Working with Davies was rewarding but not in any financial sense. Boulter recalls: “After three films he said: ‘You boys need to go and make some money now.’ He wasn’t wrong. They are really, really hard to raise the money for.”

Much of Papadopoulos and Boulter’s week is spent on trains between Liverpool and the capital because that’s where the vast majority of the financiers are. Uncertainty over Brexit and the grinding effects of austerity make that job tougher.

Papadoloulos says: “It’s a bit like the Premier League. There’s the big players, those big popular films which soak up 85-90 per cent of the box office, and the other 15 per cent spread between all the independents and arthouse films trying to make something a bit more special or challenging.”

The city’s place at the heart of global film-making is set to be cemented with the establishment there of a north of England HQ for Twickenham Studios, one of the great names in the UK film industry. The vast art deco former Littlewoods Pools building, on the city’s outskirts, will be a fitting home for a Hollywood-style facility, with sound stages and a hub for interior filming.
More than two years before the studios are due to open, Liverpool is being talked up as the “Hollywood of the North”, with film and TV producer-director Betsan Morris Evans suggesting it will be the “main place to film in Britain”.

Meantime, the production fund gives Liverpool Film Office “a seat at the table” of movie-makers applying for a slice. Bell says: “We’ve doubled production in 10 years, but what we’ve never been able to do is say: ‘If you’re filming here and you want this funding, you need to have x per cent of crew and talent from this area.’”

Bell foresees a new generation of skilled film crew coming through locally, learning their craft through a mix of local degree courses and production companies taking on trainees – partly at the behest of the film fund – ready to meet the demands of a new boom in production by online content providers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

The fund is intended to be self-sustaining as cash invested in films is recouped from box office receipts, then re-invested in future projects to “create more employment and more opportunities”.
Back at Hurricane, another success story could be on the cards, courtesy of a script by award-winning local writer Joe Ainsworth. Mr Turner star Timothy Spall is signed up for The Last Bus, playing a widower using his free pass to make a nostalgic journey from John O’Groats to Land’s End.

Papadopoulos says: “It’s a kind of British The Straight Story meets It’s A Wonderful Life – uplifting and very emotional.” While the Hollywood movie machines are driven by the bottom line, Papadopoulos says: “We’re led by the heart. We care about what we do, and we care about the people we work with and the stories they want to tell. It makes no financial sense sometimes.”

*Read our interview with Sam Riley, one of the stars of Sometimes Always Never, in the Features section of The film is in cinemas now

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