The British drama The King’s Speech won best picture, best lead actor, best director and best original screenplay honors at the 83rd Academy Awards, which was impressive for See-Saw Films co-founder Iain Canning, as the British drama was his company’s first movie out of the gates.
“That was my first producing credit,” Canning told a Toronto Film Festival panel Saturday before, despite the success of the British drama, recounting the sweat and toil for the startup production company to get the film made.
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For starters, the exchange rate went against See-Saw during the development of The King’s Speech. Period dramas were out of fashion among film buyers at the time, apparently, and a key financier pulled out of the project at the eleventh hour.
The King’s Speech
“I remember phoning [See-Saw co-founder] Emile [Sherman] and saying you may have to fly to London as this is really getting complicated,” Canning recalled during a Visionaries session sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter.
The success of The King’s Speech, which starred Brit actor Colin Firth and Australian co-star Geoffrey Rush, convinced Canning and Sherman not to split their slates between their core U.K. and Australian operations, which wasn’t easy. “We were in both time zones, which is a curse and a curse,” he observed.
Another building block for the company was ensuring development could always convert to a finished film. “You have to have self-belief. We never wanted to start a development process where we couldn’t sort of foresee a way in which we could get the film made,” Canning insisted.
Their strategy has, over 15 years, produced box office winners like Oscar best picture nominee Lion, starring Dev Patel, Steve McQueen’s star-studded heist thriller Widows and the Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan period romance Ammonite.
See-Saw also collaborated with Jane Campion on The Power of the Dog and Top of the Lake. Canning said he and Sherman were and remain “fan-boys” of Campion and revealed he wrote a university essay on The Piano, her 1983 period drama that starred Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin. “I wouldn’t let her read it,” Canning said of the essay.
Another building block for See-Saw films is having rock-solid faith in projects before they go to camera. “We really do look at the finance plans before starting development. You have to have the finance plan out before getting people on that journey,” he continued.
This year, See-Saw Films has brought two movies to TIFF, including James Hawes’ One Life, where Anthony Hopkins stars as a British stockbroker who helped rescue hundreds of children from Europe on the verge of the Second World War. The other title is The Royal Hotel, director Kitty Green and actor Julia Garner’s film about two friends who run out of cash while backpacking in Australia and must take jobs in an exploitative pub to fund their trip home.
See-Saw Films has remained an indie banner, which required along the way building up of a financial war chest to develop projects in-house and protect intellectual property rights. “What you see is what you get. Hopefully what you see has been curated in the best way possible,” Canning said as the production banner has nine executive producers hot-housing new projects via their own slates.
“We’re passionate about film. We think there’s life in theatrical,” Canning argued, even as the entertainment industry enters a period of profound change and disruption, including from streaming platforms and artificial intelligence tools.
“I’m interested in things loved by humans, written by humans, directed by humans, acted by humans. We are around the campfire with this story and imagination, and we’re holding on to that,” Canning said.
The Toronto Film Festival continues through to Sept. 17.
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