With countless awards to their names, producers Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley have been a filmmaking force to be reckoned with for more than four decades. At the 2019 EE British Academy Film Awards, they were presented with the Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema award, one of BAFTA’s highest honours. Interview by Neil Smith
BAFTA: What’s your approach to producing movies?
Stephen Woolley (SW): I think uniquely among producers we enjoy aspects of the whole process. When I do film school talks, I narrow it down to five basic areas – development, financing, shooting, post-production and marketing/distribution – so we tend to cover all those bases in different ways. Sometimes we can’t both be at all the various meetings, and very rarely are we both on set together. The relationship with the director is crucial and the worst thing in the world is to have two producers on set talking to them or the actors.
How do you divide the workload?
Elizabeth Karlsen (EK): Sometimes I like to make lists and tick off things I’ve done and work through things very quickly, while Stephen probably gets more deeply involved and considered about things. That’s quite a good balance, because sometimes I may be too quick to move things forward and he will say, “Have you thought about this or considered that?” Similarly, if he gets too deeply involved in something, I can move him on. That’s a simplistic way of how we complement each other, but I think we do.
“It’s important you choose people who are part of a team. Making the film as good as it can be is the primary concern.” – Elizabeth Karlsen
How do you find balancing your professional and married lives?
SW: We have both trod individual paths through this, so we can trade lots of information and exchange lots of ideas. I’ve never seen the marital thing being either a huge positive or huge negative. I think it’s been a really good meeting of minds, and occasionally you do want to switch off, and occasionally you think it’s great we can make this decision together. There are pluses and minuses, I guess.
EK: It’s hard to be objective about it because we’ve always worked together and we’ve been married for almost 30 years. We don’t know how it might have been otherwise, or what it would have been like to work with a partner with whom you didn’t have an intense relationship. From the outside, it might seem peculiar, but it’s what we’ve always done, so it seems very natural to us.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
SW: Don’t assume if you’re a producer or writer or director that you’re not going to be reliant on somebody else. No one does everything, so you need to work with good, talented people. Cinema is a partnership, so you need to find people who share your taste and ideas. The best way to start is to try to group together with like-minded people who love cinema.
EK: Across the board, it’s important you choose people who are part of a team. Making the film as good as it can be is the primary concern. You shouldn’t just chase the money or the idea you think everyone is looking for. Typically, it will be that black swan, the idea that no one saw coming, that takes everyone by storm. However much people try to reduce it to a science, there’s so much about it that’s completely unknowable.
Neil Smith is contributing editor of Total Film magazine
Read more about Karlsen and Woolley’s outstanding careers in the full EE British Academy Film Awards in 2019 brochure here.
And watch their acceptance speech at the Awards here.