TIFF: How 'About Ray', 'Carol' Producer Dorothy Berwin Quietly Developed Timely LGBT Films (Q&A)

When Dorothy Berwin began developing the transgender-themed dramedy About Ray in 2012, she couldn’t have envisioned that her film’s subject matter would dominate headlines. But the film — about an adolescent (Elle Fanning) transitioning from female to male — debuts against the backdrop of Bruce Jenner’s metamorphosis to Caitlyn and TV series like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black. About Ray will even have to share the gender-swap spotlight at TIFF. The Weinstein Co. film will make its world premiere Sept. 12 at Princess of Wales, while Focus Features’ The Danish Girl will play hours later in the same theater.

But the London-born, New York-based producer has never been one to chase trends. She began developing the Cate Blanchett-Rooney Mara love story Carol, another TWC title, nearly two decades ago — long before there was a box-office appetite for such fare. The 55-year-old mother of three sat down with THR to discuss About Ray’s genesis, Patricia Highsmith ("a drunk") and how her own life mirrors Carol.

How did About Ray come together?

[Director] Gaby Dellal was a great friend of mine from London, with a lot of mutual friends in common. I produced her film On a Clear Day, which opened Sundance in 2005. I really enjoyed the experience. I moved to New York, and she was back in London, but we kept in contact. She pitched me the idea of a project about three generations of women living in a brownstone in New York: a grandmother who was a lesbian, a single mother; a mother who was single and straight; and a daughter who was going to transition to become a boy. I thought, "This just absolutely touches my heart and my soul." We started to develop it. We then found a writer with [playwright] Nikole Beckwith.

Gender transition stories are remarkably timely. Did you have any idea this would happen?

No. It was timely, but nothing like it is now. It’s quite incredible how the world has changed in the past year in terms of media attention.

How hard was it to raise the $5 million to $6 million to make this movie?

We did not go out widely in the marketplace. We really believed in it. Gaby’s agents, Christina Bazdekis and Bart Walker at ICM, who have become my agents too, were incredibly instrumental in the introduction to [financier] Big Beach. We had various possibilities, but it became very quickly clear that Big Beach was a wonderful home for the movie.

Are you heartened that there is such a conversation around the subject?

I am, because one of the things that we wanted to achieve in developing the script was to make a film that people could relate to, where hopefully they laugh and cry and they can immerse themselves in the experience of this family.

Will The Weinstein Co. be giving it an awards-season campaign?

It’s early to say. The performances are very strong. Naomi Watts is absolutely tremendous. Susan Sarandon is so funny and we love her character, and Elle Fanning is one of the most mature, intelligent performances. But it’s a comedy drama, not a heavy drama. When you set out to make a comedy drama, you don’t do it with the intention of, "This has to be an awards film." It’s more in the vein of The Kids Are All Right.

You spent 19 years developing the Patricia Highsmith novel Carol. Why did it take so long?

I was working on it with [playwright] Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the script and kept refining it. And Todd Haynes worked to make it his own, though it was very much Phyllis’ script. I used to love pitching it as: "It’s 1950s New York. Grace Kelly walks into department store and falls in love with Audrey Hepburn."

But for years, you heard "no" a lot?

We always had some very interesting people following it. But it was a much riskier idea in those days to play the role of Carol. As a project, it came together with Cate Blanchett. You needed to always start with her role — in the same way that in About Ray we started with Naomi, who came on as an executive producer and was so helpful.

Why did you enlist Nagy?

I approached [U.K.] agent Mel Kenyon at Casarotto [Ramsay & Associates]. When I pitched to her, I said, "Look, I’m negotiating the option for the novel Carol. Do you have any interesting playwrights?" I knew I wanted to go to a playwright. She said, "There’s only one person that you absolutely have to go for, Phyllis Nagy. Not only is she a brilliant, talented playwright, but she knew Patricia Highsmith a bit."

What did she say Highsmith was like?

She was a drunk. She was a brilliant, cantankerous woman. But I think she was very generous to Phyllis in terms of mentoring.

Your own story is bit of life imitating art with Carol, right?

Like Carol, I was married. Like Carol, I fell in love with a woman, and I changed my life. I have a child with my ex-husband. I suppose it’s part of why the story resonated with me. I had already fallen in love with this woman when I picked up Highsmith’s novel Carol. That’s why I read it.

What’s next for you?

Gaby and my next project together is a film called Dominion, about an extraordinary lawyer in Boston [Eric MacLeish] who helped bring in the Catholic Church abuse scandal.

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