Most Wanted Men: The Ink Factory on 'The Night Manager,' Tom Hiddleston and Ang Lee's Next Oscar Contender

Courtesy of The Ink Factory
Simon Cornwell and Stephen Cornwell

Simon Cornwell, co-founder of the British production indie, explains the secret behind making and selling high-end TV (with a little help from his dad, one John le Carre).

It's been, it's safe to say, a good year for The Ink Factory.

The U.K./U.S. production house is basking in the critical (and ratings) acclaim that followed the bow of The Night Manager on the BBC Feb 21. The six-part espionage thriller, which stars Tom Hiddleston as a British soldier recruited by intelligence agents to infiltrate the illegal arms trade, is already tipped to sweep the BAFTA television honors next year, and if the show gets a similar reception in the U.S. (where it goes out on AMC starting April 19), the Emmys might not be far away. 

Meanwhile, Hiddleston's performance has reignited debate over whether the 35-year-old Brit should be the next James Bond. 

But The Ink Factory, founded and run by brothers Simon and Stephen Cornwell, isn't resting on its laurels. The company has an impressive slate of new projects lined up, buoyed by a recent round of financing, including award season hopeful Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk from Oscar winner Ang Lee and spy drama Our Kind of Traitor starring Damian Lewis and Ewan McGregor.

Both The Night Manager and Our Kind of Traitor were based on novels by John le Carre, and the banner is planning several more le Carre adaptations. Which isn't all that surprising, seeing as the Cornwells have a long and intimate relationship with the famed literary spymaster: He's their father. (Le Carre's non nom de plume? David Cornwell).

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from within the white walls of company’s very shiny new headquarters in London's cultural heartland near Leicester Square, Simon Cornwell discusses selling a high-end, $30 million “six-hour film” that became The Night Manager; Lee's 3D experiments with Billy Lynn; and getting Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy back together for the long-gestating sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Although you started The Ink Factory in 2010, hadn't you been working on adaptations of your father’s work before?

We weren’t involved as producers, but we were informally involved. My brother, in particular – he’s been a screenwriter for a long time and has been fairly closely involved. We’ve had a good relationship with the Working Title folks, and he was there with the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation, just as a friend of court basically. We got a special thanks credit, but I don’t really know what it meant. But our first small project as The Ink Factory was A Most Wanted Man, which then obviously became Anton Corbijn’s film with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

But you didn’t simply start The Ink Factory to adapt your father’s work?

No, we set up the company first to do things that we wanted to do. And then – not quite serendipitously – A Most Wanted Man became available a few months after we founded the company. We went on from there. I suppose at the end of 2013 and 2014 we really got going. Our Kind of Traitor is our next project and is backed by Studiocanal.

The Night Manager has been a major buzz event on British TV. There had been two previous attempts to bring it to screen as films – one with Brad Pitt to play the lead – but they never made it. How did the project end with the Ink Factory?

After the passing of time, the rights came back to us, as they do when they haven’t been used.

But did they go back to you or to your father?

We have an arrangement with my father, so yes, they went back to him, but under our agreement with him they came to us.

So do you have first dibs?

We have an umbrella agreement with le Carre.

I’m assuming you have mate’s rates...

Ha, well, lets say they’re certainly favorable.

How does the umbrella agreement work?

Well, we’ve had a relationship with him for quite a long time! But in terms of the contractual formalization, that dates to time we raised our financing in 2014. It was, very understandably, at the point when we were dealing with large sums of money that it all needed to be buttoned down in a way that made sense for everybody.

What made you decide The Night Manager should become a TV drama rather than a film?

Geographically, the book travels the world; it’s vast, and the best part of 500 pages. And it also has these huge personalities who are muscling their way off the pages. But you also have this current television environment and a level of creative talent that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. You can attract the most extraordinary cast and director, and you can have big enough budget that it’s not four Bulgarian waiters running in front of the can have armies of people. And you can shoot in big locations. That was really the perfect combination of circumstances – it never really fitted into 120 minutes. The two scripts that tried to do that – even in the hands of the great Robert Towne – didn’t succeed in compressing the story into the available space. Having six hours to play with was great.

How did you manage the financing?

We actually put it together the same way you’d put together an independent film. It’s quite funny – a lot of people in the TV world look at us and say we’ve been hugely innovative. Because we came out of the film background, we instinctively approached this the same way you would approach a film, which is increasingly what people do in television nowadays. We brought in the BBC very early and then developed it with them. And then AMC came aboard.

There were reports that AMC came aboard after some kind of "bidding war."

There was a lot of interest around the table, and yes, there were several bidders, but I didn’t see any large artillery! There was a lot of interest in it, and then we put up most of the equity and actually brought in a fund that we’d worked with on A Most Wanted Man that also put up a small lump of the equity. We led the process, we put in the risk, but at that point we’d already sold it to the BBC.

Did having the BBC as a co-producer mitigate much of the risk for such a big project?

Yes, and AMC were very committed to the project as well, and with Suzanne Bier on board we had a lot of support from Scandinavian broadcasters, and the Germans came in very early. So in film terms, we had a bunch of pre-sales as well as co-production partners in the BBC and AMC, so that all helped put the financing equation together. But we made it happen, took the bulk of the financial risk in the process.

By the time you took it to the Berlin Film Festival, where it was the biggest budget project at the festival, hadn’t it already sold out?

Yeah, at that point it had pretty much sold around the world. It sold extremely well. It’s already been broadcast in more than 60 countries.

Who was looking after the sales side?

We did it with WME. Normally you’d go to BBC Worldwide or ITV Studios, or in the States you’d go to one of the big studios and they’d typically sell and come up with a deficit financing. Obviously we were prepared to finance ourselves so didn’t need that, and we work very closely with WME anyway – they’re our agency in the U.S. I think it was a new departure for them at the time. The traditional model for television distribution isn’t really the right model, either for today’s world or indeed for high-budget, high-end drama. It was written and conceived effectively as a six-hour film, it was produced as a six-hour film and it was financed as a six-hour film, but it was also sold as a six-hour film.

A budget of $30 million was being floated

Yes, I’ve heard that. I’m not going to confirm but I think you can assume it’s a remarkably good estimation. So when it’s a chunky budget like that, the traditional TV distribution model is set up for shows that are basically made for one market, for the U.K. or U.S. You may sell one to other markets for $50 or $100k an hour, and to do that, those are very small deals, you need a lot of infrastructure, and you take a very high fee. But if you're selling a bigger-budget production and you’re basically doing seven-figure deals in the major territories, it’s just fundamentally different than selling re-runs of game shows. So we broke the model on that.

Moving forward, is The Ink Factory now hoping to be a major part of financing its own projects?

Yes, we’re raised a pool of money in 2014, which basically put us in a position to start financing our projects, and that’s very much part of our model going forward.

But you've also got a bigger studio project with Sony, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. How did that come into your hands?

We got hold of the manuscript in the way that people get hold of manuscripts, and we kind of fell in love. Our producer Rhodri Thomas here and my brother literally got on a plane to Dallas to see the writer and kind of sat on his doorstep, and on his agent’s doorstep, until they gave us the rights.

How did Ang Lee become attached?

It was us and Tom Rothman – at the time he’d just left Fox, where he’d done several Ang Lee movies. And Tom was then hired by Sony to reboot the Tristar brand. And so it was really with Tom that the whole thing came together – they came aboard as a studio, and Ang Lee joined to direct.

With a release date on Nov. 11, it seems primed for awards season, which must be exciting.

Yes, it’s releasing on Veterans Day. It’s set against the backdrop of the Iraq war, so it makes sense to come out then. They booked that slot more than a year ago. But I think it’s a little premature to be talking about the Oscars. It’s certainly a wonderfully ambitious project. And it’s doing exciting things – pushing boundaries of narrative technology.

The technology element of the film does seem particularly amazing – it's first major motion picture shot in 4K, 3D and 120-frames-per-second format.

Ang’s calling it New Cinema. It’s very interesting for us, because we play on both sides of TV and cinema. We live in a world where the experience of watching television is so good that you sit at home with a 60-inch screen and surround sound and a six-pack or nice glass of wine, and that’s an experience that compares pretty well to going down to your local multiplex. So Ang Lee’s observation was: If you’re going to get people to go to the movie theaters, you’ve got to give them an experience which is quite special and worth getting out of the house for. So he began the process with Life of Pi, and now he’s kind of pushing the boundaries of technology further. The intelligent use of 3D and the depth of the stereoscopic effect has quite a powerful subliminal effect on the viewers.

How does it work between your U.K. and the U.S. offices?

Most of our back office is based in the U.K., and if you look at our development team, that’s pretty evenly split between the U.K. and L.A. But things like business affairs, commercial functions and our finance group...that's based in the U.K.

What’s the size of the team in L.A.?

We just have three or four people in the office out there. It’s really focused on development of material and finding the right projects. For instance, when we were doing Billy Lynn, Rhodri Thomas, who’s a producer on the film and is based in London, spent six to nine months in the U.S. doing that. Happily he has a U.S. passport, which helps.

Given the success of The Night Manager, are we likely to see more of your father’s back catalog of books turned into TV projects?

We are scrupulously avoiding saying anything about the future, but at the same time I think The Night Manager, for complex narrative and layered, ambiguous characterization, being able to build that over six hours rather than two, has just been terrific. So I think that’s something, certainly, that we’ll look to do, more long-form work based on le Carre’s body of work, and indeed based on other great material as well.

How about your father’s last book, A Delicate Truth?

We’re actually developing that as a film. We’re doing that with BBC Films, and we have Bill Monahan, who won an Oscar for writing The Departed, doing the screenplay. That’s an example of a story that is relatively compact and tightly told – the novel is only 200 and something pages. So from a creative perspective, I think you benefit from the intensity of telling that story in a single sitting.

There’s been talk of Smiley's People, the sequel to 2011's excellent – and commercially successful – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy over the years. What’s the situation with that project?

Studiocanal and Working Title are working on that. We are involved as well. Peter Straughan, who wrote (the script to) Tinker Tailor with his late wife Bridget, has written an exceptional first draft. He’s doing some more work on it. That’s a film I would, without tempting fate, say I expect to see coming together in due course.

And something you’d help finance?

We haven’t made a big deal of that, but we’ll see whether we do or not. We’ve done one film with Studiocanal, Our Kind of Traitor, that we didn’t finance – they’re obviously on their way to being a studio, so that may also be a case where it makes more sense for them.

What was the decision to skip An Honorable Schoolboy in le Carre's Karla Trilogy and go straight to the third book, Smiley’s People?

That’s a very good question – the BBC did the same thing. I think the reason is two-fold – one is very practical. The Honorable Schoolboy is set in Hong Kong and China at least in part, and I think in the original BBC adaptation the notion of going to China to make a TV series was certainly not on the cards in those days. But it’s also quite a separate story. It’s the middle one of the trilogy, but it’s also stands alone quite well and isn’t a necessary precursor. I have to say, personally, in the way that I have always loved The Night Manager, I love The Honorable Schoolboy. I would hugely like to see that on screen. And actually in the new world, where being set in Asia is a positively extremely attractive thing to do, I’d love to see it happen.

Would you hope to see the same cast return?

Oh yes. I felt Gary Oldman did a phenomenal job. I actually think Tom Hardy is an extraordinary actor, and while it was a small role in Tinker, I thought he was breathtaking. And Benedict Cumberbatch is irresistible, as Benedict Cumberbatch always is. So I think it would a pity for those three not to come back together to do the sequel.

What’s the deal with your father and the adaptations? How much involvement does he have?

First and foremost, he’s a writer; he loves writing books. But he’s also fascinated by the process of moving beyond the book and onto the screen. The Night Manager was, I think, the 12th adaptation of one of his books – so he’s extraordinarily experienced at this point. If you look at the directors he’s worked with….50 years ago this year he was working with Martin Ritt and Richard Burton on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold! He was on set in Dublin, mediating between a warring director and an extraordinary difficult but brilliantly talented man who stood for everything the director disliked but at the same time was giving this extraordinary performance.

So does he offer tips along the way?

He’s very good at empowering the screenwriter and the director and indeed us to go off to, as he puts it, make the film of the film, not the film of the book. He makes notes on the screenplay and makes suggestions, but I think if you spoke to the directors of his films they’d all say pretty much that he’s a pleasure to work with. He’s very good at coming up with ideas to how to make a better film – he’s not defending the book. The Night Manager is a very good example. On paper it’s the boldest adaptation that has ever been done. It's updated – which has never been done before. One of the central male characters has turned into Olivia Colman. The story diverges fairly substantially from the raw plot of the book but at the same time feels very true to le Carre, and he feels that.

So are you peering over you father's shoulder see what he's writing next and planning an adaptation?

His very next book is a brilliant book called The Pigeon Tunnel which comes out in September in the U.K., October in the U.S.. I don't know what he’s working on next, but needless to say, every time I read something he writes, I’m thinking about how to adapt it. It’s inevitable.