Colin Vaines has had an incredible career in film, encompassing five decades. Beginning his career as a journalist, he transitioned into running the National Film Development Fund in the UK, being a consultant for British Screen, and developing and producing films for Harvey Weinstein, Graham King and David Puttnam, before becoming an independent producer. In part one of our interview we talk about the origin of his love for movies, his various capacities in the world of film before going independent, and working with Ralph Fiennes, Martin Scorsese and Anthony Minghella.
What is your earliest childhood memory regarding movies?
For some reason I was always mad about films. I don't know why because my parents weren't particularly keen. They'd take me to see a James Bond film or a Carry On film occasionally. I remember very distinctly that when I was five I was passing a poster for JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) and I said to my mum ''I really want to go and see that film.'' I've no idea why. I guess the images on the poster just appealed to me. A Jungian would say it was at some mythic level! I saw that film so many times as a kid. As I grew older and learned more about movies, I recognised that, alongside the great Harryhausen stop-motion, much of the success of the film came down to Bernard Herrmann's amazing score, which adds colossal value to the movie.
Was there anything in particular that you think deepened your love of movies?
When I was ten years old, our English teacher read us, in daily installments, a book that we all enjoyed. On the last day of term he fired up a print of Powell and Pressburger's A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946), and we realised it was the film of the book he had been reading (although it turned out it was actually one of the first films to be turned into a novel, rather than the other way round). That was my Road to Damascus moment. After I saw the film I thought ''My God, I want to do this for the rest of my life. I don't know what this is but I want to be involved in it.''
My best friend's father was a Fleet Street journalist, James Nicholson. He was a very exotic character, always jetting off around the world. He was always dressed in black and covering these really lurid crime stories. His nickname on Fleet Street was 'The Prince of Darkness'. I thought ''I want to do this. This guy's so cool!'' I had the idea that if I became a journalist I could become a film critic, which was the pinnacle of my ambition at eleven or twelve years old. From that point on I was really committed to becoming a journalist. At the school I went to you could jump a year if you were considered bright enough and go into a program they called 'The University Stream'. I did that but I knew I didn't want to go to University - I wanted to get into journalism. By the time I was eighteen I had left school and was on a training course in magazine journalism. After that I managed to get some work on Time Out Magazine. I applied for a job replacing one of the senior reporters, and after the interview, Duncan Campbell (now the senior crime reporter at The Guardian) called me and told me ''We can't possibly offer you the job because you have no qualifications whatsoever. But we were so astounded by your chutzpah in applying for this job that we are going to give you some work anyway.'' That was my start in journalism.
You went from there to Screen International. How was that experience?
My sister was working at Paramount Pictures on Wardour Street, and she saw an ad in Screen International for a junior reporter. I think I got the job because the publisher, Peter King, liked the cuttings I brought to the interview from my time I was studying journalism, and because I knew a hell of a lot about film. But I think the thing he liked most was that I was dirt cheap! He couldn't believe how little I wanted to do the job for. I probably would've paid to do the job. I joined Screen when I was nineteen and stayed there for over seven years, eventually becoming co-editor. That was really my film school, absolutely brilliant. I'm probably the world's worst film journalist in terms of breaking stories and delivering scoops and all of that stuff. At that time Screen was quite an eccentric paper. It had only become an international trade paper a few years before. We had huge production pieces. I visited EVERY film set because the studios invited journalists to each and every film, no matter the size of the movie. I remember visiting the set of ALIEN (1979), for example. I interviewed everybody. Some of them were fairly obscure people, but some of there were fairly major. I spoke to Scorsese at the time of RAGING BULL (1980). We started the interview at his hotel, and because he was enjoying it so much we continued it in the car driving to the BBC.
How did you make the transition to actually working on films?
Working at Screen was a great education but the more I worked there the more I realised that I didn't actually want to be a film critic - I wanted to make films and be involved. At the end of my time at Screen, Mamoun Hassan, who had become a friend, was running the old National Film Finance Corporation, which was the precursor to the BFI. He called me in one day. I thought I was going in to interview him, but he said ''No, I don't want an interview. The person that's running our development fund is leaving and I want you to put your hat in the ring''. At that time I had only read about two scripts in my life so I asked him ''Do you really think that's a good idea?'' Mamoun thought I could do it. From that experience I've taken the philosophy that if I meet the right people and they're not properly qualified, I simply listen to my gut. The brilliant thing about running the development fund was that I could choose my consultants from the film industry, and so I went to people I admired and liked such as Alan Parker, John Boorman (who had been like a father figure/ mentor figure to me), Richard Lester, Stephen Frears, the writer Allan Scott and the producer Mark Shivas. Every now and then you could change people around. I had this incredible body of people who were really smart and clever, and I learned a lot. We had to pass judgment on treatments and whether they'd be given development money or not.
What skills that you had accrued as a journalist helped you when you started working in film?
The great thing that journalism teaches you is that you have to have an opening paragraph that grabs the reader's attention, then a second paragraph that goes back and starts to develop it, and after that you develop the story in the third paragraph and onwards. What better way of describing writing a film? When I do a synopsis or prepare a pitch, my journalist side kicks in and I'm asking questions like ''What's the story? How strong is it? How long can it sustain? Who are the characters that are going to intrigue and interest the audience? Is there a story that can begin in a strong way and be developed?'' A lot of the skills I developed in journalism have definitely come to bear on scripts and so on. I always carry my skills around with me. As a producer, when you're pitching and selling your ideas, it's a great discipline to be able to bring a story down to three paragraphs. If you can't grab people with the beginning of your pitch, you might as well give up.
Was it a regular occurence at the time for film journalists to transition across to the film business?
Yes, it was a very traditional route at that time, which was in the 80s. People who'd worked in the trade press tended to go into any discipline that they were writing about. So a lot of music journalists went into the music business as A&R men or producers or whatever. I think it's now become increasingly difficult to make that transition but at the time it was the most normal thing. The nature of the trade papers has changed. The reporting has become much more hardcore, factual and journalistic compared to what we were lucky enough to be doing back then, which was along the lines of ''Oh, Billy Wilder is at Cannes. I'll interview him.''
You've worn a lot of different hats in your career. Do you enjoy the challenge of constantly having to pick up new skills?
Yes, absolutely. Often I have been put in a 'sink or swim' situation, and I have always managed not to sink! An example is when I was working with the parent body of the NNFC and became a kind of consultant. That turned into British Screen and Simon Relph took over. He officially made me a consultant for BS Finance as well as the Head of the Development Fund. Everyone that I worked with subsequently always gave me more and more to do. Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said ''If you're ever offered a job that you can't do, accept it immediately.'' That's a great philosophy to have in life. It's true of everything. Whenever you feel out of your comfort zone and terrified, that's when you're almost certainly going to do your most interesting work. I remember I had worked on a film for Miramax called B. MONKEY (1998) and it had not been a happy experience for anyone. When I did my interview to run development for Miramax later on, Harvey Weinstein sat down and said ''You're the last person I want to see for this job!'' We had had so many arguments and fallings out over the film. At the end of the half hour he said ''Well, do you want this job?'' I said yes, but on the plane home I was thinking ''What have I done? This is madness!'' I had no in-depth knowledge of American writers at that point and it just felt like a mountain to climb.
Your first film as a producer was also Ralph Fiennes' first film, the TV movie A DANGEROUS MAN: LAWRENCE AFTER ARABIA (1992). How did you get involved with the project?
After I left British Screen I went to work for David Puttnam, and I ran development for him. He had always wanted to make a film about T.E. Lawrence and was looking to make a film covering his life. The first version of the film was going to be a much more expensive film, and had a different director. It was Clive Irving, a journalist friend of David's (he wrote 'Scandal '63' about the Profumo affair), who told him ''You shouldn't do his whole life. You should find the microcosm, the one incident, that can be dramatised.'' The one bit in Lawrence's life that had never really been done on film was his time at the Paris Peace Conference. The decision to cover this period was brilliant because it gave us tremendous latitude to develop a script that pondered what might have happened. Eventually, after developing that script for a long time, David asked me if I wanted to produce it. Again, I was being dropped in the deep end. With Ralph, when we were casting, a friend said ''You have to see Ralph Fiennes. He's absolutely brilliant.'' I went to see him at the RSC, where he was appearing in three plays, and was blown away both by him and his range; but he wasn't available because we wanted to shoot in Paris and he had theatre commitments. The film collapsed but it got resurrected later on and we made it for much less money. We were able to go back to Ralph because we were now shooting in a nearby environment to where he was working with the RSC. I take enormous pride in taking Ralph out of the RSC and effectively launching a great film career - but somebody would have done it eventually, he was so good. He was ripe for picking. The great thing was that because of LAWRENCE and its exceptional reviews in America (it won an Emmy as best drama), it sparked huge interest in Ralph, and I know he got SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) and then QUIZ SHOW (1994) out of it.
What was the experience like producing Fiennes'directing debut CORIOLANUS (2011) almost two decades later?It felt like closing a circle. It was a lovely experience. Twenty years after the Lawrence film, Ralph happened to be working with two producers on CORIOLANUS who were very good friends of mine, and for various reasons they all asked me to get involved. CORIOLANUS was the biggest joy of my career because it was a film that was really hard to get made and people weren't actually falling over themselves to finance it. It was a very tough shoot. I had two great colleagues on that, Gabby Tanna and Julia Taylor-Stanley. Julia did a great job of pulling together tax deals from the UK and some other non-traditional sources. Gabby had incredible 'ins' with the Serbian government. Her father is Dan Tana, the restaurateur, who has become a legendary character in Serbia. Her connections opened all sorts of doors for us. The government let us use the Senate building, and supplied all the military vehicles and tanks that appear in the film, as well as the military police who worked on the film. It was great working with people who were such dedicated producers, but above everything else, it was great working with Ralph again because he's an artist and he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do. He was the hardest working man I've ever worked with. I would put the likes of Scorsese, Anthony Minghella and him in the same box in terms of attention to detail, commitment and absolute, rock-solid vision of what they want to achieve.
How was the experience of working with Scorsese on GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)?
Working on the film was an amazing experience. I doubt that I'll ever have an experience quite like that again. We built a set at Cinecitta that was two square miles. Just driving into the studio every day was mindblowing. I distinctly remember sitting in Scorsese's cutting room when we were editing the film. I was sitting underneath a poster for MEAN STREETS (1973) from the old Academy Cinema on Oxford Street, which is where I first saw the film. I had one of those moments where I was going ''This is really weird. I'm a kid from Croydon, and here I am with Scorsese and he's asking my opinions on scenes!'' GANGS OF NEW YORK was a really tough shoot. We shot for eight months and then it was nearly a year in post-production. We collaborated very well. He knew I really cared about the film and that I had read every single draft. He had picked up the book in 1970, and had started developing it in 1977. When I joined Miramax in 1999, Harvey had just acquired it from Disney. I knew all the drafts so well that sometimes when a couple of lines were needed for a scene I'd get asked to come up with something in their style. I loved the project and if you don't love and care about what you're doing, there's no point in doing it.
With all the naysayers surrounding the film during production, did it ever affect you?
Scorsese spent many years trying to get the film made. He told me he would go into these meetings about, say, a Rat Pack movie or something, and he'd say ''You know what I really want to do is GANGS OF NEW YORK.'' And they'd just stare at him. He'd describe it as a Western set on Mars, which probably wasn't the best way to do it I guess! Even within Miramax there were people who wondered if the film was a big folly. But I always knew the film was going to be remarkable. It certainly wasn't the film that people were expecting. I realised early on that this wasn't social realism but something operatic. Scorsese kept talking about not only THE WILD BUNCH (1969), which was an obvious influence, but also ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968). That Leone kind of influence knocked people for six a little. I remember the first day of Daniel Day Lewis shooting his scenes. We saw the first dailies and he was already at 11! You thought, ''Christ, can this film sustain that?'' You had to have that commitment to make it work, and not be thrown. If it didn't have that massive prformance at the centre of it, you couldn't make it work in the way you wanted it to work. That was a conceptual decision. It must have been similar to the execs seeing the first day of Johnny Depp's rushes on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (2003).
What did you enjoy the most about working with Scorsese?
He was an asthmatic kid, I was a fat kid, and neither of us were any good at sports. He was obviously from a different generation to me but we both stayed in and watched movies growing up. So when we get together we're like film nerds. It's such a total joy to be able to be with someone in that way. Scorsese has never surrendered to cynicism. There's not an ounce of it in him. Even when he takes on commercial projects like CAPE FEAR (1991) or THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), he still approaches it like he does everything else. He's wildly enthusiastic. You can't not be around him. When you're on set and you see him with actors, you see why they love him - he just barrels across after a take, full of notes and ideas. He gives so much back to the actors. He's so constructive, precise and clear. Everyone is always up on his sets. I cannot understand film sets where everybody is depressed or down.
How about working with Anthony Minghella?
I have been very, very lucky to work with some astonishingly gifted directors, but of course I would put both Scorsese and Anthony Minghella at the top of the tree. Anthony was a very old friend from the business when I finally got to work with him at Miramax. He was one of the most brilliant, kindest, smartest men I've ever worked with. And like all brilliant people, he didn't live in ego. He was very clear about what he wanted to do, but he also wanted what he did to be the very best it could be, and if he liked and respected you, then your opinion would matter to him. And it didn't just have to be the opinion of a producer or movie executive. I remember like yesterday on THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY(2008) TV episode he directed, Anthony asking the maid in the hotel in Botswana her opinion of a pair of shoes he was going to ask Precious, the lead character in the story, to wear, to gauge authenticity - or perhaps, more precisely, to gauge what a woman from Botswana who had the characteristics of this fictional person would wear. He was a loving, giving man who gave of his time and experience freely. Joe Wright told me that, although Anthony was asked just for an opinion on the ATONEMENT (2007) script by the Working Title boys, he ended up giving Joe a kind of unpaid masterclass in writing that totally influenced how the film came out. I also loved Anthony's approach to adaptation - he'd read a book like 'Cold Mountain' (1997) a couple of times, but from that point on, the film had to be it's own "thing", and he'd never go back and try and shoehorn in ideas that were no longer relevant to the film he'd made. And if you talk to the authors whose work he adapted, they were all very, very happy with that. His death created a vast hole in the business that's not been filled to date in my view.
Part 2 can be read here.
I spoke to Colin by phone on 28th August 2013 and via email during October 2014, and I would like to thank him for his time.
Thanks to Ricky Barnett at IIWYK.