Nestled away off London’s Tottenham Court Road, the office for Number 9 Films is an instant reminder of the impact made by this British production company, which was formed by Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley. Framed posters for such impeccable films as Their Finest, The Limehouse Golem and Carol adorn the walls. In the boardroom, a glass case houses a life-size model wolf – a reminder of Woolley’s early triumph, The Company Of Wolves, the first of 13 films he’s produced for writer-director Neil Jordan.
Karlsen first met Woolley at Palace Pictures, the company behind such famous British films as Scandal, Absolute Beginners, and Jordan’s Oscar-nominated The Crying Game. Although Palace eventually folded, Woolley and Karlsen remained together, becoming husband and wife and forming Number 9 Films in 2002, producing Breakfast On Pluto (2005), Great Expectations (2012), Made In Dagenham (2010), Carol (2015) and this year’s Ian McEwan adaptation, On Chesil Beach. Now comes Wash Westmoreland’s vibrant Colette, starring Keira Knightley as the French 19th century author forced to live in her husband’s shadow…
What drew you to the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette?
ELIZABETH KARLSEN: I loved Colette’s writing and I had a couple of biographies, one that had been given to me by a close girlfriend for a birthday almost 20 years ago. Everything should scream as a warning signal: French icon, in English language, casting someone who’s English, filming across various places in Europe. Can you make it work? But I thought there was enough of an arc there and enough originality and surprise when people came and saw the film to go, “Wow, I didn’t know about her, the things that she did and the mores that she challenged and how expressive she was.”
STEPHEN WOOLLEY: For me, I thought it was a fantastic script about merchandising and selling Colette as a commodity and certainly selling her creation, Claudine. With modern marketing in music, theatre and cinema, everything is about branding.
I was astonished by how modern it was. And what a great job Richard [Glatzer, writer] and Wash [Westmoreland, director] had done with modernising the story that you think is archaic and Belle Époque. From Colette fighting her publisher husband, Willy, to be recognised as the real writer behind her books to her sexual politics, it’s also a very feminist story.
EK: It is. In the same way that Carol was. In Carol, you have a woman who leaves her husband and her child, and a woman who leaves her fiancé. And in Colette, you have a woman who leaves her husband. But I think in both films, it’s not like men are portrayed as evil.
SW: It’s a film that can work for men and women. It shows why a man can do those things without consciously realising he’s steamrollering across somebody else’s personality. It also shows a woman who is fighting for her rights but also has a love for her man. It’s not a relationship that is black and white. It’s a lovely, complex, colourful relationship that shows how we are as human beings.
This is your first time working with Keira Knightley. How was that?
EK: She’s like working with Cate Blanchett. She’s a thoroughbred. She’s just fantastic.
SW: I think it’s a special movie for her. She felt this was an opportunity to make something she could feel really close to.
Early in your career, Stephen, you ran the Scala cinema. What memories do you have of that?
SW: The Scala was an amalgam of everything I knew and loved about cinema from that point on when I was in my early twenties. I was very eclectic in the things that I loved, and I disliked the idea that because you liked, for instance, Dario Argento, that you’re not allowed to like Ingmar Bergman. The Scala was an ambitious and crazy idea to present films from the widest range of the spectrum of cinema. When we started Palace, that was a direct birth from the Scala. The philosophy has always stayed with me and the two of us.
How did you come to work at Palace, Elizabeth?
EK: After my post-grad degree, I was living in New York. Then I had to come back to London for a family thing. I called a friend, Joe Boyd, and said, “I’m going to be in London for a while, I need to get a job – I’ve been working in film.” He was in the music business, and he said, “I only know one person in film, that’s Stephen Woolley. Why don’t I call him? Maybe you could see him and he could give you some advice.”
SW: It was about 1988, and at that point we were upping our production at Palace. Scandal was in Cannes, and we had Rage In Harlem up next. I was desperate for a production person who could both read a budget and read a script. When I met with Elizabeth, I thought, “Wow, she really knows about the mechanics.”
You started Number 9 Films in 2002. What sort of mandate did you have for the company?
SW: Right from the beginning, the movies we made are kind of boutique one-offs, whether it’s Carol or Made In Dagenham. They’re not films you make sequels or prequels to. We’re making a unique package every time. We’re not in the business of taking a best-selling book and then making it into a movie.
EK: We love the process of collaboration. We’re not guns for hire. We want to work with writers or directors and feel part of the team and engaged with the material. We get so much pleasure from being able to sit down and really talk to them and be forensic about what it is they’re trying to do with the script.
Made In Dagenham was huge, even turning into a stage show. Why do you think that happened?
EK: I think it really touched and affected people. This huge thing – this group of women who had all left school at the age of 15, 16, no real access to education or financial means. No political education to speak of. They said, “This is not right, it’s not fair.” And I think we tried to make it very warm and fun, like Colette.
SW: We wanted to celebrate those women and what they’d achieved, and not demean it and not patronise them, but at the same time not paint it as a political polemic. In a way, they were as heroic as Joan of Arc and probably had more going for them!
Stephen, you’ve produced 13 films for Neil Jordan, from The Company Of Wolves to Byzantium. How do you characterise your work with him?
SW: In the same way that the Scala and Palace was slightly subversive and odd, I think the movies Neil Jordan has made have been slightly subversive and odd. Even Interview With A Vampire. I think we’ve always worked in that area, to push out and not to exclude but to embrace. And that’s what we do as filmmakers. Try and embrace all the voices – female voices, transgender voices, people of colour.
You’re working on a Dusty Springfield biopic with Gemma Arterton. What you can tell us?
EK: During the making of Carol, we mentioned to Phyllis [Nagy, the screenwriter] about wanting to do Dusty Springfield. We’d had a couple of false starts on it. We couldn’t get it quite right. We pitched this idea to her and now we have this wonderful script.
SW: It’s a great way of examining the real Dusty, in the way that Scandal and Backbeat [did with their ’60s subjects]. Hopefully it’s going to be really reflecting what the world was like for Dusty, and what Dusty was like in that world.
Colette opens on 11 January