Toronto: Producer Stephen Woolley Talks Dedicating 'Limehouse Golem' to Alan Rickman

Stephen Woolley - H 2016
Credit: Number 9 Films

"I actually shed a tear every time I see his name at the end," says the award-winning producer, who sees two films bow at the fest.

More than a year after Carol wowed the critics (but, sadly, not Academy voters), U.K. banner Number 9 Films — led by award-winning husband and wife producer duo Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen — returns to the screens with two very different offerings, both bowing in Toronto.

The Limehouse Golem, based on the 1994 book by Peter Ackroyd, turns the clock back to the cobbled, seedy streets of 19th century London for a gruesome murder mystery set amid the thriving music halls of the era. Directed by Juan Carlos Medina from a script by Jane Goldman, the film stars Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth and Bill Nighy and sees unlikely cameos from a bevy of historical figures, most notably (and amusingly) a murderous Karl Marx. The late Alan Rickman, who passed away in January, was initially attached, but pulled out after he became too ill, with Nighy stepping into his shoes.

Nighy also stars in Their Finest, a comedy set in World War II Britain from Lone Sherfig (The Riot Club) and based on Gaby Chiappe's novel about a group of filmmakers trying to make a patriotic movie to keep morale high during the Blitz.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, TIFF regular Woolley discusses dealing with the sad loss of Rickman — to whom The Limehouse Golem is dedicated — Douglas Booth’s potential breakout as the real-life stage star Dan Leno, who he calls the “David Bowie of his time,” and what Benedict Cumberbatch might have been called in Hollywood a few decades ago.

I understand you’d been wanting to make The Limehouse Golem for 20 years. Does this date back to when the book was first released?

Yeah, it’s weird. It’s been a funny old history. After we made The Crying Game, Neil Jordan and I had a deal with Dreamworks, we were looking for projects to develop with them. That book hadn’t been out long and he’d shown it to me and I thought it would be a good book to option. But Merchant Ivory (Remains of the Day, Howards End) had the rights, which was very weird because I don’t know what they would have done with it. Some people must have told them there were some frocks or something. I don’t know if anybody read it. They had it for 2-3 years, then I optioned it, but at that point Neil was doing something else and wasn’t interested, so Terry Gilliam knocked on my door. We developed it for a period and then we never really got a script together that anyone liked, I think Terry was off doing Brothers Grimm and other films. I just politely let it go again, and then three years later Jane [Goldman] and I had lunch and she mentioned that she loved the book. And the rights had just come free again, so I started the process again. We had a long period of having it, not having, having it. Carol was the same process – dipping in and out.

What did Goldman bring to the table?

The thing about the book is that it’s a diary. And what Jane did that’s so brilliant is make the character that Bill plays, the detective Kildaire, a stronger element through the story. Detectives Kildaire and Flood are both in the book, but the investigation isn’t as strong. It’s actually told from the point of view of a diary, but you can’t do that cinematically. Jane came up with the brilliant idea of finding the journal and then having Kildaire’s investigation.

How might it look differently with Neil Jordan or Terry Gilliam?

You can’t ponder on those things! It’s like casting, isn’t it? When we did Mona Lisa all those years ag, Sean Connery was supposed to play the part played by Bob Hoskins. And people always say, but Sean Connery would have been terrible. He wouldn’t have been terrible, it would have just been a completely different film. You don’t know if it would have been successful. You can never work those things out with casting, and it’s the same with directors. But I think Juan Carlos did a great job. It was really seeing his first film, Painless, in Toronto that made me think maybe we need to go somewhere else for a view of London, one that’s not sort of shackled by the normality of how you would normally see it. Let’s have a more Ackroyd-inspired London from a foreign view.

The film is dedicated to the late Alan Rickman, who was initially attached. So you knew he was ill long before he sadly passed away?

I was trying to make it with Alan. He was attached for a long time. He loved the script and I was really relishing the part. Then we knew he was unwell, so we were trying to still push forward with the film because his doctors had said he was fine to do the movie. So I thought great, we’ll keep moving. And then he became really sick and we couldn’t do anything else. So I was bit snookered and I was working with Bill on Their Finest. So I got the script to him easily because I was standing next to him on the set, and he loved it. And that was really fantastic. He really jumped in to save the day. I love Bill. The boat did rock. But it was very sad. I actually shed a tear every time I see his name at the end – I forget. It always chokes me up.

Had you worked with Rickman before?

Yeah, I worked with him on Michael Collins all those years ago. He played De Valera. I was very excited to work with him again.

It’s must be hard not to think of what he would have brought to the role.

I know, but that’s again it’s really that Sean Connery, Bob Hoskins thing. It drives you nuts. But as a producer it’s happened so many times where you’re on the point of making something and you think oh, we’re going to go that way and then someone can’t do it. I cant even think about it other than Alan would have brought something else, there’d have been tons of stuff that would have been different. But they’re both brilliant actors.

Douglas Booth is superb as Dan Leno. Do you think this will help shed the pretty boy image and showcase his acting talents?

It’s difficult when you’re a good actor and you look like that. The thing that really persuaded me that he might be interesting for this part was his role as Boy George in a BBC show. He was really good in it, really good. We wanted somebody that would be a bit of a Boy George, someone who was a bit of a rock and roll star of their time. Performance wise, he certainly gives it a fresh young appeal to a modern audience, so you don’t look back and think it’s old fashioned. He gives it freshness. With Leno’s sexuality – he always played women on stage. It had to be a male playing a women, but without being overly a drag queen. Honestly, I can’t think of being in a stranger place than when I made The Crying Game, where you want someone to be female as a male, but not so female. That’s why Jay [Davidson] was so brilliant, because he wasn’t really overly camp, he was very settled with the way he was. And I think that’s the thing with Douglas as Dan Leno. You also get this quiet authority. I think people will walk away from the filming thinking, ooh Douglas Booth.

With Their Finest, it was originally called Their Finest Hour and a Half. Why the name change?

The book is called Their Finest Hour and a Half. But we shortened it because we felt like we were trying to make a joke that didn’t really happen. Films aren’t an hour and a half anymore, they’re two hours. And Their Finest Hour was a Churchillian quote, and that’s not in common parlance. It’s such a a labored gag that we thought Their Finest seems to work.

Nothing to do with the Disney film Their Finest Hours?

That did worry us. We wanted to stay away from ‘hour’ altogether. Hopefully it won’t be too confusing. I hate to sound like some ancient person, but titles become titles after you’ve seen the film. I had a film called Diva years ago and everyone said I should change the title. But as soon as you see it, people just said “oh, I loved Diva” and the name sticks. Who would have thought Benedict Cumberbatch would be a name that would have stuck. In the old days, they would have changed everyone’s name to Rock. God knows what Benedict Cumberbatch would have been called in Hollywood in the 1950s. Rock Cumber?