Sourced from smh.com.au – By Gary Maddox
The pain and pleasure of producing The King’s Speech.
Emile Sherman is warming to a favourite topic – supporting the rights of animals through the non-profit organisation Voiceless – when there’s a knock at the door. ”Colin got best actor and we got best ensemble,” says an excited assistant.
For the Sydney producer of The King’s Speech, the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Hollywood have become another high point on the road to the Oscars on February 27. A jubilant Sherman raises his arms at the news. ”Yeah!” he bellows.
It’s a brief celebration – no hugging, no champagne, quickly back to work – in the stylish boardroom of the Paddington office he shares with Voiceless’s founders, his father, Brian, and sister, Ondine.
As a producer, Sherman is a different breed to one of Hollywood’s best-known examples, the aggressive, interfering, tough-talking Harvey Weinstein, who is also one of the film’s executive producers.
Still seeming as modest as when he entered the film industry a dozen years ago, he is a tall, whip-smart, bearded and slightly nervy 38-year-old with a masters degree in English literature, a law degree fleshed out with philosophy subjects and a passion for making movies.
Before The King’s Speech, Sherman’s best-known films were Rabbit-Proof Fence, Candy and Oyster Farmer, home-grown dramas shot locally. But he has also made films as far afield as South Africa (Disgrace), Britain (as well as The King’s Speech, the upcoming Oranges and Sunshine, with Emily Watson), Greece (a very different royal film, The Kings of Mykonos) and soon New York (Hunger director Steve McQueen’s Shame).
He also has a six-part TV series lined up for New Zealand, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, and another film scheduled for Australia and Europe (Tony Krawitz’s Dead Europe, based on a Christos Tsiolkas novel).
Later this month, the father of three sons – 10 months to five years – will head to the Oscars for the first time. He shares the film’s best picture nomination with Iain Canning, his English partner in See-Saw Films, and another British producer, Gareth Unwin.
So will he be as nervous as George VI about making a speech?
”I think I’ll be so nervous that if I can just do the thank-yous appropriately, I’ll be doing well,” he says. ”It’s a hugely daunting prospect.”
Until a few weeks ago, Sherman was unknown outside the film industry and quite content with that. ”Our role as producers is to be behind the scenes,” he says. ”That’s where we want to be.”
While some producers thrive on red carpets, Sherman is more interested in being ”in a position where I can make the movies I want to make, get them financed, work with the top writers and directors and actors and continually be trying to make better films with the most talented people around”.
There was no sense that he would work in film growing up in Sydney with parents, now best-known for their arts patronage through the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, who left South Africa for Sydney when Sherman was four.
After doing well at Cranbrook and the University of NSW, his father urged him not to be an accountant; his mother, Gene, didn’t want him to be a lawyer. ”I thought that was quite a nice reverse Jewish mother bit of advice,” he says.
Jobs for feature-film producers are never advertised. It’s a career that creative, financially savvy people gravitate to if they can handle the long gaps between pay days.
A family story drew Sherman into film. He started by producing a documentary about his great, great uncle, a lexicographer who lived through the Bolshevik Revolution, two world wars and the struggle for independence in Lithuania. A low-budget film, Sample People, made with a law school friend and starring Kylie Minogue and Ben Mendelsohn, followed.
During a decade of fluctuating fortunes for Australian film, culminating in the revival led by the likes of Mao’s Last Dancer, Animal Kingdom and Tomorrow When the War Began, Sherman found his niche.
”As a producer, one moment you’re working with the writer to develop the script, the next you’re dealing with problems of production, the next you’re dealing with lawyers and financiers. That’s usually in the same day,” he says. ”So you’re mixing up lots of different areas and that’s what makes it stimulating.”
Rush, who has made three films with Sherman, says he ”has a great nose for off-beat material. He’s also got the nous to pursue it.” Director Phillip Noyce says Sherman was ”a tower of strength” on Rabbit-Proof Fence who ”really encouraged me to make the film I wanted to make”.
Brian Sherman tells a story about his son’s capabilities as a teenager that provides a clue to his success today. Having studied Japanese at school, he was asked by Sydney Grammar to teach the subject while he was at university.
”He took nine students and they came first, second and third in the state,” Brian says. ”He had no diploma to teach; likewise he had no diploma to make a movie.”
Being a successful producer means piecing together complex financial deals that can fall apart at any moment.
”It’s something I do really love but at the same time it’s hugely painful,” Sherman says. ”I always loved maths at school, then I ended up studying things that were not really maths related. So it’s pure pleasure sitting down with my Excel spreadsheet to try and work through the best way to put together the finance for a film, given all the elements.
”Film, particularly outside Hollywood and Bollywood, does not make commercial sense for all participants. You need government support. So that means you’re involving many different parties. The King’s Speech had over half-a-dozen parties in it. Oranges and Sunshine had maybe a dozen.”
Inevitably, some films don’t work. Sherman has seen that with The Night We Called it a Day, Ned and The Honourable Wally Norman, among others. ”It’s an incredibly painful process,” he says. ”I’ve had so many films where, when you finish it, you feel like it’s terrible at one point, then you have some responses that say it’s brilliant, then it gets rejected from some festivals, then it wins some other festivals, then it does well in some territories, then does terribly in others. You’re up and down all the time.
”For the director, it must be hardest of all because it really is their baby to a huge degree. But even as producer, you just spend years making a movie. You learn how to be a little bit emotionally disconnected. Because if you’re not, it’s too difficult. The more films I’ve done, the more perspective I have that my entire life isn’t in one film – there will be something else.”
It took roughly five years for Sherman to build a sustainable business as a producer. He expects The King’s Speech, made for a modest $US14 million, to be the first of his films to return a sizeable profit. It has grossed more than $140 million so far. He now sees great potential for the film industry to use the federal government’s incentives – led by a 40 per cent tax offset – to encourage production.
”The producer offset, which is still pitched slightly too low, is a big asset for us as a country,” he says. ”There’s the ability to build up a real international Australian film industry. Hopefully with The King’s Speech, I’m going to be in a better position to be part of that. American producers produce films all round the world. Why can’t Australian producers?”
The key, Sherman believes, is retaining successful Australian directors and taking advantage of the fact that Hollywood studios have cut back on the number of films they make, largely sticking with ”event” or ”tent pole” movies. ”Essentially the world of interesting filmmaking has been outsourced to the independent sector,” he says.
”We feel we’re in a great position in Australia to make use of our really talented directors – a number of whom are coming back – to make international Australian movies. Films that have strong Australian elements but also an international reach. That’s the only way we’re going to build up an industry.”
While only unofficially a British-Australian collaboration, The King’s Speech is a big stride in that direction. ”My life has absolutely changed,” Sherman says.
”I feel like all my conversations are about this film at the moment. It’s amazing how many people are caught up in it. Not just all the people who worked on it and are involved – the distributors who released it – but family, friends, community.
”There’s a great sense of ownership in the film. As one of the very few films with real Australian content that make it to the Academy Awards, I feel like that’s something to be celebrated.”