Producer Sarah Brocklehurst’s journey started with a passion for theatre before she moved into independent film production. Her first full feature film, Black Pond (2011), earned her a BAFTA nomination in the Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer category at the EE British Academy Film Awards in 2012, as well as a BIFA nomination. Brocklehurst then fought to get the film rights to Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel Animals, and was instrumental in arranging everything from finding financiers to casting. Animals (2019) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win a BIFA for Unsworth as Best Debut Screenwriter.
Brocklehurst was selected as a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit last year, a programme supported in 2019 by Netflix. The Breakthrough initiative identifies the most exciting emerging talent in film, games and television and gives them access to unique career development and mentoring opportunities. The talented individuals receive bespoke support at their critical breakthrough career moment, enabling them to build on their success and ensuring their continued development in their chosen field. Interview by Toby Weidmann.
BAFTA/Felicity McCabeWhat’s your earliest memory of cinema/film?
I grew up in France and so had a slightly unusual ex-pat upbringing. The films I watched were definitely American films and studio movies. British cinema came to me slightly later. My earliest memories are watching 90s comedies with my family, lots of Bill Murray films.
I always loved film, but I came to it after being very passionate about theatre. So, professionally, I started producing theatre and comedy at university and then came to film after that. Growing up, I never thought film was something that was especially accessible. No one in my family works in any of these industries, so my passion came through amateur dramatics. Film and cinema felt like something that was quite far away from me and what I knew and who I knew. It felt like something that happened to people that I didn’t know.
Tell us a little about your journey into producing.
I studied English at Cambridge and then after my degree I went into law for a bit. I didn’t really want to do it, and I discovered while doing it that it wasn’t for me, so I had a little misguided frolic into law, but not for terribly long. After that, I crawled back to producing and entertainment, which is always what I wanted to do. As it turned out, [studying law] has been quite handy to have a confidence with contracts.
Why produce? What is it you like about it so much?
I’m 100 percent through-and-through a producer. I have no inclination towards any of the other disciplines and never really have. I think producing is the most amazing job because it’s a marriage of the creative and the business. It’s the golden junction, because those two things are so inextricably linked and to be able to be the person who’s leading the ship, to have a really strong overview of both the creative and the business, that’s really exciting... and really difficult.
I’ve found out that I’m a good leader and a good person to bring out the best in a team of people, and to have eyes across the whole spectrum of the process of production, from creative development to financing and legal and practical and audience. The idea of being the first person into a project and the last person off it, to steer something from the very beginning to the bitter end, that’s the most exciting thing for me. I get a real thrill from being a producer.
What attributes do you need to be a good producer?
There are many different types of producers and many different attributes, in reality you probably won’t tick them all. But, I think you need to have enough strengths across several of those departments.
Having great taste, and having confidence with that creative taste, is the first thing, because without good ideas you don’t have much else. Being able to have great relationships with talent, good people skills, is really important... Being able to push a project forward, strategise and then actually make it happen, that’s important. Understanding the business and being fearless in deal-making. Being organised.
But, the character trait a producer needs above everything else is perseverance or persistence. It’s about not giving up, because it’s so challenging in so many ways at so many different moments. You need fortitude and resilience. In the industry as a whole, you need that, but it’s pretty important for producers.
Who are your inspirations? Is there anyone’s career you’d like to emulate?
I was mentored by Tessa Ross. Tessa’s a titan. For me, it’s her taste and her relationships with talent, while balancing creative, commercial and critical excellence, that’s such a huge inspiration. I’m inspired by Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes, too – there’s such exciting energy right now with female producers who are creating really groundbreaking film and television, and putting female talent and diverse talent front-and-centre. Their choices and projects are really inspiring. David Heyman is also a huge inspiration, I’d love to be so lucky to have a career like his.
What have been the main barriers you have had to overcome to date?
The biggest barrier for an independent producer is sustaining yourself between projects. It’s a huge difficulty. You can spend many years developing a project and you aren’t paid an awful lot during that time, but you have to persevere and find alternative revenue streams. You have to hold it together because you’re investing your work and your time into making a project happen. It’s very challenging, especially at the beginning of your career. It can take many years for your first project to happen and then your second project to happen. Keeping yourself alive during that time is undoubtably the biggest barrier.
It’s also hard to finance films. There isn’t a miraculous solution to that. Frankly, it is a miracle when you are finally able to start making the actual film, that the money has appeared and the schedules of everyone involved has coincided. Independent film is so precarious, because you have so many moving parts. When it all lines up, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
How do you deal with such obstacles? What’s your mindset?
I overcome the disappointments quite quickly. I’m pretty strong willed in that respect. You have to feel it, absorb the blow to the chest for however long that takes, and then just move on. When someone passes on a project, such as a financier, it’s important not to take it personally. It does feel personal, like an indictment on the thing you love, but the thing I tell myself is that people pass for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the project. It just might not be to their taste, and that’s all fine, although it is disappointing.
The key thing I tell myself is that the project I’ve brought to them is really, really strong, so don’t think about it long enough to instil any doubt in my conviction. If you believe in it, you have to hold on really strongly. A practical way I tell myself this is that they have maybe spent two hours deliberating on it, while I’ve spent four years thinking about it, so my opinion matters more.
What’s it feel like when you finally release the film you’ve been working on for so many years?
There is a huge thrill, buzz and overall satisfaction about seeing the film you’ve willed into existence, that you’ve spent years plotting with your creative team, collaborators and partners. When it’s as wonderful as you’d ever dreamed, that’s a huge thrill. It’s also incredibly rewarding to feel like you’ve honoured the vision of the people who trusted you at the beginning.
I think awards are really important, too. Being acknowledged by the industry for the quality of the work you’ve produced, I certainly strive towards that. For Animals, it was amazing that we premiered at Sundance. Emma Jane Unsworth, who wrote the novel and screenplay, also won a BIFA for Best Debut Screenwriter, and that was amazing. I took a chance on her and to be able to nurture new talent like that and see her prosper is thrilling.
What key piece of advice would you tell your younger self?
Find the people who share your passions and your ambitions and make them your team. Dream big, work hard, support each other and keep going.