Eamon Yates – Hello, Karen. It’s great to have you here.
Karen Newman – Hello! Thank you for having me.
EY – You’re welcome! To get the ball rolling, can you tell us a few things about yourself?
KN – Ha-ha – I love a question that makes me feel like the most boring person in the world. OK so I used to be an actor, many moons ago and I actually still do a lot of roleplay work, which of course sounds very wrong when taken out of context. I do voice overs too and I am the English voice of a Swedish fat monitoring machine, oh the glamour. I never went to film school, so I have learnt on the job so to speak. I live in the Hertfordshire countryside with my slightly crazy black Labrador, Maisy and a 2CV car called Patrick. We have just finished a very long renovation job on our cottage, I think it might have been easier to have knocked the place down and started again, apart from the fact we are attached to our neighbour this could have worked nicely. I have quite an eclectic taste in films actually, but I do love horror films and I watch Hollyoaks as my guilty pleasure. Oh, and I have a black belt in Jiu jitsu … (I don’t really, I am just trying to distract from having admitted to watching Hollyoaks!)
EY – It sounds like you do quite a lot with your time and being the voice for a Swedish fat monitoring machine, that’s quite a unique thing to have done! So tell us a bit about what projects have you done before?
KN – Garry and I had collaborated on his third short film ‘Bertie’ which stars Alison Steadman and takes a look at parenthood and bereavement through a dark comic lens. This is doing very well at festivals at the moment and we are working towards getting it a wider audience. ‘Down’ was in existence before ‘Bertie’ actually and as soon as I read an earlier draft, I knew we had to make it.
I produced my debut feature film, ‘Just Charlie’, about a transgender teenager in 2017. It has achieved critical acclaim around the world and won many awards including the prestigious Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Cannes Écrans Juniors award in Cannes this year. It has been sold to many territories internationally including Amazon in the USA and most recently to SKY cinema in the UK. My short film, ‘Lady M’ starring Samantha Bond is just coming to the end of a fabulous festival circuit and it looks like it might have some distribution which is fabulous. It is really exciting to have all these films out there doing well.
EY – That is a lot of films to have on the go at one time and all to be doing so well, you must be doing something right! You eluded to the fact that you have made these films, what roles did you play in film making?
KN – I am a producer. I have also line produced all of my films, but I wouldn’t call myself a line producer. I was giving a talk to young film makers one day and someone asked me what does a producer do? I said its always your fault and most certainly your responsibility. As a producer you have to have the entire project in your sights at all time and you need to learn to put your ego aside. There are many egos on set already and you cannot under any circumstances add to that. I learned very early on that whilst something may not actually be my fault it was always going to be my responsibility and once you establish that you allow people to relax and get on with it. Filmmaking is collaboration and teamwork; people need to feel safe and appreciated and you cannot micromanage everyone. Oh, and I make very good coffee on set and it’s never instant!
EY – I need to get on to one of your set’s if it’s never an instant coffee! That’s awesome. I totally understand what you mean about ego’s and responsibility, having a background in Production myself, I can see why your approach works so well! So, what excites you about film?
KN – Discovering stories, challenging peoples’ perceptions and making them think. I love it when I get sent a script and I am reading it on the toilet because I simply have to keep reading and cannot put it down. I have a couple in development at the moment that had that effect which is really exciting. Seeing something that started from words on a page grow to become a beast of its own is fabulous. The world is your oyster in film, you can really express your voice and your view of the world and you get to call it art!
EY – They are rare to find but a script you can’t put down is worth its weight in gold! It’s clear to see that passion you have with this industry. I love it.
EY – You mentioned the BAFTA qualifying film “DOWN” earlier, tell us a bit about it, what’s the story about?
KN – DOWN is a dark comedy about suicide, OCD and mental health, set entirely inside a lift, in real time. It centres around two characters who are trapped together and have to overcome their own issues in order to help each other. Ed has just attempted suicide and his life is slowly bleeding away. Alice has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and is torn between her desperate phobia of blood and her overwhelming desire to save his life.
It is inspired by an experience Garry had when directing a play at university. During the interval of the production, he discovered a man who had just attempted suicide in the lift of the theatre. He had to help him and thankfully he survived but Garry always wondered what caused him to do this and what happened to him subsequently. My best friend lost his battle with depression in 2012 and took his own life so mental health has always been very important to me.
The film has a lot of humour and we are hoping that people will engage with what is essentially a difficult subject matter. “Down” underlines that a person might seem fine upon appearance, but this is often a veneer disguising profound internal turmoil; forcibly hidden away owing to society’s conventions. There is a subtle dedication to my friend, Timothy Welling, at the very end of the film. We wanted people to be entertained but at the same time there is a message behind the film.
EY – Wow, that sounds like a very poignant and powerful film, it also sounds very much a relevant and current topic. Well done for tackling such a difficult subject matter. How long did it take you to make it?
KN – We shot in a studio for three days in July last year and I think Garry and myself started planning it the February following the completion of ‘Bertie’ our first short together. We had completed post by the November, and it started its festival journey at the beginning of this year.
EY – I can imagine this being the sort of film that would do very well at the festivals! Did you enjoy making it?
KN – I enjoy working with Garry, he is incredibly talented but is also a genuinely smashing guy, we have a lot of fun and because we get on so well there is a feeling that anything is possible. I enjoy putting all of the pieces together and nothing beats the feeling you get when you solve a problem. You can’t make a film in isolation it really is a group effort. We had a fantastic cast and crew on “Down” and it still blows me away to stand on set and watch everyone fluidly move around each other, knowing exactly what they are doing (most of the time!) I think we are really building a team now and I am finding it hard to imagine the next project without this incredible ensemble of talented individuals by my side. Also, I got quite an education on what materials are used to imitate various bodily fluids, needless to say there are things I now cannot unknow! So, the short answer is yes, I did, despite the many challenges.
EY – I can only imagine the bodily fluids you had to imitate for this. I also know what you mean about having a trusted crew by your side, it can make the world of difference! Have there been any days that you felt this project wouldn’t get completed?
KN – Actually no. There were complications and challenges with the shoot that tested everyone to the max, but I always had faith that we could pull it together. I think that is one of the biggest parts of my job to be honest, if I don’t believe we can do it, how am I supposed to convince anyone else? We had a great team who really believed in the project and really did go the extra mile to pull it all together and I trusted them, their expertise and creativity.
EY – That’s fantastic that you had such a belief in this project and crew to overcome anything that was thrown at it. For new film makers, tell us a little about how you have funded this project?
KN – We organised a crowd funding campaign in addition to private investment and managed to secure 10% of those funds for the wonderful charity, MIND. It was a great way of raising awareness and gathering an audience, but we also wanted to give something back to the charity that had helped to develop the script. A lot of people do not realise that short films are eligible for tax credits, as long as you file everything correctly. This really helped us to get our budget together. I don’t think you ever have enough money, but you make it work the best you can, it’s a juggling act.
EY – That really is useful to know about short films being eligible for tax credits, take note of that one people! I want to take a moment to delve a little more into you as a creative, where do you get your drive from, on difficult days, how do you keep yourself going?
KN – Thank God for wine and hair dye! I honestly don’t think I have ever been asked this question and I think it is quite an important one as the business is tough and fraught with rejections and you sometimes feel that you are constantly fighting invisible battles. Have I avoided the question successfully? No?
EY – Nice try, haha.
KN – Ok then … It is hard and there is a tendency to find yourself on a down-ward spiral of negativity. I try to focus on successes, however small and the enjoyment and fun that can be had. Also putting things into perspective can help, we are not brain surgeons, we are not actually having to go to war, it is only a film. I talk to my dog a lot too; she would make a great assistant if only she could talk and didn’t like chasing squirrels so much.
My closest friends are not actually in the business and I find that can be very refreshing as sometimes not talking about film can be good. I think I am quite a driven person; I am quite competitive although I have learned to pick my competitions and I know myself well enough to accept that whilst today feels like hell, I will get back up and tomorrow (or the day after tomorrow) is a new day. Have I already mentioned wine …?
EY – That’s really interesting that talking to your non-film industry friends can help get you that perspective that so often can be needed when you are immersed in these projects. Also, if all else fails, wine! It’s not surprising with your drive and passion that you have won quite a few awards, what one means the most to you?
KN – Thank you and that is impossible to answer as every one of them means the world but for different reasons. Just Charlie, my feature won the Audience Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival and that was a special moment, we won on home turf and it felt incredible. It also won The Cannes Écrans Juniors Award in Cannes this year which was a special moment. Garry won best screenplay for Down at the OSCAR and BAFTA qualifying Flickers Rhode Island Festival this year and I got to collect it on his behalf. I was so proud. I was at the festival; I knew how good the competition was! Around this time last year my short, Lady M won the audience award at the Exit 6 Festival and then Best Film for Change at The Bolton Film Festival. I had just started to properly build my company up and establish myself as an independent film producer and these awards felt like a fabulous refreshing starting point. These two festivals will always have a special place in my heart and the best thing is I get to go back this year with Down.
EY – That’s incredible to be able to revisit Festivals where you have had such success with another project which will hopefully do just as well if not better. It’s also really nice to hear how much each award means to you and what they represent, I love that! Being so successful, can you tell us how you prepare for a film?
KN – This could be a very long answer so I will keep it short. It depends very much on the film but essentially, I like to know the script and story inside out, that’s where breaking down your script, scheduling it and budgeting it really helps even if you end up employing someone else to do another version. I try to put myself in the position of potential investors and partners and convince myself why the project is worthwhile. It is always a good idea to reverse engineer the process and think about the distribution and marketing at the very beginning of the process.
EY – I really like the idea of reverse engineering the project. I can imagine it helps you to see things objectively rather than passionately and hopefully help you secure that elusive investment! How important do you think social media is for the modern creative?
KN – I am not sure we can do without it. The big studios can advertise on buses and tubes and spend a fortune on clever marketing because they have the funds and the staff. The independent producer has Facebook. Social media has a huge potential outreach, you can develop, define, research and target your audience form your lap-top in your pyjamas. Who needs buses!?
EY – Haha, that should be put onto a t-shirt for low budget film-makers, “Who needs buses!?”, I like that. So following on from that, how important has networking been for you in the film industry?
KN – Last year I was invited to a summer networking party, I didn’t feel like going (even though I knew the party was brilliantly organised by a fabulous company) I was having one of those days described above. My husband told me to go, speak to one person, have one drink and come home. I did. I spoke to one person, had more than one drink and came home. Unbeknown to me her husband had told her to do the same thing. We are now in pre-production for a feature film to be shot next year with a couple of other things in the pipeline. You honestly do not know who you are going to meet or where. Two years ago, I gate crashed a certain boat party in Cannes (no I am not saying which one) that one party was more useful to me than all of the meetings I had set up put together.
EY – I absolutely love those stories! Who hasn’t had those days when we don’t want to go to a networking event. It just goes to show that the smallest actions can gain a huge result. I am also not sure I can condone gate-crashing on here but that does sound like a hell of a lot of fun! I want to help some of the up and coming film makers out there, can you tell them, what would you do differently if you were filming some of your projects again?
KN – Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but I actually wouldn’t do anything differently because that is how I learned to get better. You make mistakes, you learn. Just try not to repeat them, that’s just silly!
EY – I think that has to be one of the best answers I have ever had. Mistakes are part of the learning process! So, if you could go back in time, what one thing would you tell your younger self now?
KN – Tell more people to f*ck off a bit more, grow a pair, be brave, don’t give a second thought to what others think about you and trust your instincts because you were always right in the end. AND never get that perm! Sorry that’s more than one thing but I think you get the point.
EY – I love the concise nature of that. Also, I am very interested in seeing that perm now, haha! What do you think someone should do if they have a good idea for a film?
KN – Write it down! There is no copyright in ideas only the expression of them. Then research your audience, who has made similar films in the past, how well have they done? Work out why your idea is unique and if it isn’t, make it unique.
EY – That’s really sound advice. I think people forget to do their research and charge full steam ahead into something that could be hugely successful if researched and tweaked before going into production. I love your philosophy there. Now to end what has been a great afternoon, what one thing do you want people to know?
KN – We all feel like frauds you are not alone, there is no faking it until you make it, there is just hard work, grafting and determination. And don’t lie about your credits, it’s not cool, earn them.
EY – Karen, its been a real pleasure to talk to you and I wish you all the success with Down in the upcoming festivals. I can’t wait to see where things go for you! Thank you for your time and your fantastic answers.
To learn more about Karen feel free to explore the following links below:
Twitter – https://twitter.com/knewmanproducer