Calling the Shots in British Film: Behind the scenes with Claire Jones, producer of 'The Festival'
Producer Claire Jones was born to be an advocate. An advocate, that is, for the film business. She began her training as a City lawyer, when she realised that it wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life.
“I would have been a good lawyer,” the producer of this summer’s British blockbuster, The Festival, says now. “But I wouldn’t have been a great one.”
"Get out while you can, before the money becomes too good.."
Claire Jones is the producer of some of the most interesting British independent films of the last decade – Sightseers, Kill List and this year’s surprise horror hit, Ghost Stories. But a decade ago she was still trying to break into the industry.
With a love of film, but as she says herself “absolutely no connections in the business,” Claire spent six months of her legal traineeship sharing an office with a solicitor, talking about film.
“He said, ‘get out while you can, before the money becomes too good and you’re too into this job,’” Claire recalls. “Because I had no connections, I started as a runner for London Film School at the weekends and mainly managed traffic on shoots.
“Then I got a job as a receptionist at a film company, it was the only way I could get in. When I had my interview I said, ‘I am here to earn and help you do what you do, I don’t want to be a receptionist for a long time,’ and the women who owned that company said ‘that’s who we want.’
“So I worked my way up, they were incredible women, and they had amazing success as females in the film industry. With their support and teaching, I was first able to first produce something at the age of 26.”
I think it’s so important that we have role models while we are young women. Women must encourage each other and not see each other as competition.
Glynis Murray, who gave Claire her first chance, was the British producer behind Nanny McPhee, Shooting Fish and Waking Ned Divine, and she taught her protegee something invaluable.
“I’ve found throughout my career that women wanted to push you up rather than keep you down, and now I want to embrace that – I try to give young women as much experience as possible to they can scale the ladder quicker. It’s the generosity of those women who have put me where I am right now, “Claire explains. “She – Glynis Murray – was the most impressive woman I have ever met. I think it’s so important that we have role models while we are young women. Women must encourage each other and not see each other as competition.”
“I’m good at making it happen for other people.”
While learning the job, Claire quickly realised what she wanted to do within the industry.
“The boss of the set was the producer. I’m not one to aim low,” she adds. “You have to aim high, and I wanted to have my hand in every department – casting, costume, art. Harnessing everyone else’s creativity is my strength and that’s what a producer does.”
Asked why she didn’t think about sitting down in the director’s seat, she says she applied the same argument as to why she didn’t go ahead with a career in law.
“I knew I could be an okay director, but a great producer. I could never be as good a director as Ben Wheatley for example, and I don’t understand why I would try and copy anyone. You have to understand your talents. I never thought producing was any the less important than directing on a film set.
“I’m good at making it happen for other people.”
Ben Wheatley and Claire Jones are now on their third film together ( they’re working on the upcoming Freak Shift) and thanks mainly to the cult status that Sightseers holds with international audiences, their budgets are getting bigger with each film they make - she recalls making Kill List in 2011, and also taking the role of Assistant Director in the first week as there was no budget for anyone else (she’s also playing an uncredited receptionist in the film, which at least she’d had experience of.)
It’s the director, rather than the budget, that lures her to a project, she explains, calling Wheatley “incredibly talented – and I’m lucky to hitch along for the ride with him. Iain Morris (director of The Festival, also producer and writer on The Inbetweeners) is a comedy genius and I’ve learned so much about comedy from him. That’s the key with producing – just keep doing new things and don’t stop learning.”
Trust me, there’s always a solution to everything in life and you just have to tackle films in the same way.”
The “learning” she experienced on The Festival, involved going to a lot of festivals and persuading their management to let her production team film. The movie, starring Joe Thomas from The Inbetweeners, combines the idea of the British summer blockbuster (that The Inbetweeners movies did so successfully) with an original idea, “and a festival is a British rite of passage for so many young people,” she explains.
“The whole film is so ambitious,” she says. “Most British independent comedies involve a lot of talking in bedrooms as that doesn’t cost much money. But we thought, if we’re doing this, we need to go big and give it scale or we’re going to look pathetic. So we approached real festivals, and went to Melvin Benn at Festival Republic who runs Reading and Leeds. He loved the idea and said, “let’s do it, you can film at Leeds as long as it doesn’t interfere with the acts.
“But it was challenging,” she adds, “as we needed to film while the headliner was doing their act. Luckily I managed to track down the manager of Kasabian who was playing and persuaded them to let us put cameras all over the stage, promising we wouldn’t get in the way. I’m still quite stumped he agreed, but anyway – we got nine cameras in there and one enormous crane to film at a distance.
“Then for the finale we needed to get Joe Thomas on stage ( you’ll see some clever editing when you watch The Festival) so we put Joe on to get some crowd reaction. He got really nervous as he got warned casually beforehand, ‘oh by the way, they might throw some bottles of piss at you’, but of course they loved him, and the crowd went absolutely mental for him. In fact they were all chanting ‘Boner’ at him (an in-joke from The Inbetweeners.) A hundred thousand people chanting ‘boner’ in a field – you can’t beat it.”
This may or may not be a high point in any career – but Claire also created a festival film set (Leeds was too noisy to film any conversations there.) They built a set outside Bristol, “and had 300 extras there every day,” she says. “It was a hard shoot and we ended up in a lake of mud by the end. Which I suppose is the whole point of any festival experience…?”
If this sounds like it’s for you, this producer says she’s passionate about seeing “50-50 equality in every department on a film set, I’ve seen everyone tends to respond better when the set is balanced. And that includes having men doing make-up in the departments which are ‘traditionally’ female. I’m also really keen to see more women in the editing process of films.”
If production sounds inspiring, Claire Jones is adamant that problem-solving skills are paramount to being a good producer.
‘You’re basically faced daily with problems on set, and I have this theory there’s always a solution. It might not be what you’ve thought it should be though, so you should never panic or worry about it. Trust me, there’s always a solution to everything in life and you just have to tackle films in the same way.”
‘The Festival’ is released in the UK on August 14, 2018