'Lion' Producers on Working With Weinstein, How Brexit and President Trump Will Impact Filmmaking

Chris Chen
Iain Canning and Emile Sherman

The Brit-Aussie team of Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, the heads of See-Saw Films, who won an Oscar for 'The King's Speech,' open up about resisting suggestions to set 'Lion' in America and possible controversy surrounding their upcoming biblical epic about Mary Magdalene.

It's the stuff of dreams. On Feb. 27, 2011, producers Iain Canning, a Brit, and Emile Sherman, an Aussie, won the Oscar for best picture for The King's Speech — the very first film they made after launching See-Saw Films in 2008, a U.K.-Australian production and financing company. (It also was the first time either attended the Academy Awards.)

See-Saw was a bold gamble considering its London and Sydney offices are on opposite ends of the planet, but the payoff was immediate. Sherman and Canning — who talk almost every day but can go several months without seeing each other — have deep connections in their respective film communities, plus are able to tap into generous government-backed film funds and tax incentives in both locales. They cover the rest of a film's budget via foreign presales and rich deals with U.S. companies, including go-to partner The Weinstein Co.

It was Canning's friend and British producer Gareth Unwin who brought King's Speech to Canning in London; it also helped that Sherman knew fellow Aussie Geoffrey Rush, who starred in the George VI biopic opposite Colin Firth. King's Speech went on to gross a stunning $414 million on a reported $15 million budget.

While it hasn't yet repeated the financial windfall, See-Saw and its 25 employees have established the company as a home for prestige film and TV fare, from British filmmaker Steve McQueen's Shame to acclaimed television series Top of the Lake from Aussie filmmaker Jane Campion (McQueen is Canning's pal; Campion is Sherman's). In addition to planting a flag in this year's awards race with Lion — they won't say how much the film cost, but Harvey Weinstein's shop plunked down $12 million for distribution rights in much of the world — See-Saw is getting more ambitious in scope.

The outfit is in production on Mary Magdalene — Universal International and TWC are partners on the biblical epic — and prepping McQueen's Widows, an ensemble female heist movie that's set in Southern California.

Sherman, 44, a married father of three young boys, lives in Sydney, while Canning, 37, resides in London with his husband, Ben. Both filmmakers recently spoke with THR about why they have every faith in Weinstein, the importance of casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter in Mary Magdalene and why they will never be producers for hire.

Lion is based on the story of Saroo Brierley, a 32-year-old adopted Tasmanian man who used Google Earth to find his birth family in India. How did you prevail in a bidding war for his life rights?

Sherman: We had a home-court advantage. The disadvantage was that we were very late to the table. When we turned up, there had been about 20 companies around the world who put in bids. But Saroo's obviously Australian. My job was to make him feel we'd tell the most respectful, authentic version of the story.

Canning: In those early days, some people suggested setting the story in America to make it more commercial.

Sherman: Sometimes America can think it is the center of the world. We have a different perspective.

The Weinstein Co. is going through lean times. Are you worried about Lion getting enough support?

Canning: No. Lion is the sort of film that TWC does incredibly well. Look at King's Speech. But it is interesting to look at the landscape in terms of U.S. indie distributors. There's been a real shapeshift. TWC has had to change the way it is. I think they will release fewer films now, but concentrate on those films.

How did you first meet, and why did it make sense to partner with someone so far away?

Canning: I was working as a foreign sales agent at Renaissance Films in London in 2004 and selling Candy, a film starring Rush and Heath Ledger that Emile produced. We didn't know each other well when we formed See-Saw.

Sherman:The idea was to be the ultimate U.K.-Australian co-production company. Both countries have a history of supporting film. It allows us to make a movie that can compete with Hollywood but doesn't cost us more.

What size are your budgets?

Sherman: We support emerging filmmakers with budgets under $10 million. Outside of that stream, our films tend to be in the $15 million to $40 million range.

Canning: We had a watershed moment after The King's Speech where we were offered a film by a significant [European] distributor that was financed and ready to go. But we just didn't feel like it was adding anything to the world. We said no, and that really defined us going forward. It has led us in strange directions, but it is the only compass we have.

Will Brexit hurt the film business in the U.K. and Europe?

Canning: Yes. The smaller projects from first- or second-time filmmakers usually are made with subsidies from Europe. They are going to be harder to make, and that's a tragedy. If I hadn't been an executive producer on Hunger, I would not have the relationship I have with Steve McQueen, so it's important to be there at the ground level.

Were you shocked when it passed?

Canning: I went into a depression I'm not out of yet.

Sherman: The world is dividing between the populist and global movement.

How will a Trump presidency impact what movies are made?

Sherman: The one thing we could say is that it feels like the world is aching for films that tell stories of love and the coming together of people of all backgrounds.

Any concerns that Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara, will spark controversy among conservative Christians?

Canning: No. We wanted to address the misunderstanding, or idea that Mary Magdalene also was Mary the prostitute. Even the Catholic Church now agrees it is an amalgamation of the two.

Sherman: The film isn't radical and is faithful to the Bible in many ways. Mary was one of few, if not the only, females that went with Jesus Christ to Jerusalem. She was there at the crucifixion and the resurrection. For women of faith, as well as men, it offers a real opportunity to celebrate a woman as part of that story.

Canning: When we were scouting in Jerusalem, we met a Catholic nun who asked us what we were making the film about. When we told her, she said, "Please, don't make her a prostitute." And we said, "We're not, we're not." She said, "Thank you, because she is not here to defend herself."

Joaquin Phoenix plays Jesus in the film, while Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the apostle Peter. Will Ejiofor's casting prompt debate?

Sherman: Color-blind casting is exciting. As producers, we need to be responsible and lead the discussion regarding diversity instead of hiding behind "we're just doing our jobs." Also, we want to capture the ethnicity of the place. The people we've cast and the accents we're using haven't been seen before in terms of stories about Jesus.

Neither of your spouses work in the film industry. Good or bad?

Sherman: This is an all-consuming business, so it is good to have a reality check from people who just don't care that much.

Canning: And try explaining what a producer is to your parents. They sort of got it when we won the Oscar for The King's Speech. (Laughter.)

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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