Over breakfast at the Ivy Club in London in early 2018, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain and his producer partner and brother Juan de Dios Larrain gathered with British producer Paul Webster and writer Steven Knight to talk about the Pablo’s idea to make a film about Princess Diana. . The group had been looking for a project to collaborate on for some time. “And Pablo said he couldn’t get Diana out of his mind,” recalls Webster.
If he got the idea on the spot or if he thought it over to Webster, it’s not known, but he recalls that Knight pitched the idea of shooting the movie during a Christmas during this conversation. lively for breakfast. “Within an hour, we developed the idea, and that’s about how the movie is now in terms of the three-day structure and the idea of this woman coming to what will be her last. Christmas at Sandringham with the royal family in distress, ”says Webster.
Such an upbeat and productive meeting early in the morning did not foreshadow the difficulty of filming for Spencer – which will premiere at the Venice Competition – would turn out to be. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Webster admits.
He doesn’t say that lightly. Webster is one of the UK’s most experienced producers with credits ranging from The big guy (1989) and Romeo bleeds (1993), through a stint at the helm of Film4 until the founding of Shoebox Films with Guy Heeley and director Joe Wright in 2011, directing feature films such as Knight’s Locke (2013) and, more recently, that of Marjane Satrapi Radioactive (2019).
“I told Juan we should try to make this movie the old fashioned way,” says Webster. “He agreed and suggested that we bring Jonas Dornbach from Komplizen Film to Germany, with whom he and Pablo [through their production outfit Fabula] had worked on A fantastic woman. This gave us the possibility of accessing soft money outside of Germany. “
The duo Larrain, Dornbach and Webster decide to finance the development themselves and then hire a sales agent to pre-sell the film internationally. Knight delivered his screenplay in mid-2019. CAA Media Finance and Endeavor Content have joined us to manage US rights as FilmNation goes international. Kristen Stewart signed on to play Diana just ahead of the 2020 pandemic-delayed Cannes virtual market, where the project sold out.
Next in line
Securing their lead actress hadn’t been easy. “We had conversations with a few actresses who will remain anonymous, both of whom loved the script and Pablo,” says Webster. “Then they both passed. I think the reason was fear of the potential controversy portraying this highly visible woman. It’s very difficult for an actress to play someone with such visibility. Diana is arguably the most famous woman of the 20th century.
Pablo Larrain’s next suggestion was to approach an American actress, namely Kristen Stewart. “We all thought it was a great idea,” says Webster. “[As an American] she would not have the baggage that others more closely linked to the United Kingdom would have. It was about finding someone who could break free from the shackles of public personality. And Kristen is completely fearless.
As for the traditional funding scheme, the idea was originally to match German soft money with similar funding from the UK through support from the BFI, BBC Film or Film4 which would allow producers to retain control of the film. “We went to see the three and they all loved the script – and none of them put in any money. It took eight months for the BFI to say no,” says Webster.
“[BBC Film head] Rose Garnett was a great champion, ”he continues. “She was excited about the idea but William and Harry are young in the film and while there is nothing particularly controversial about their portrayal, she needed [the] BBC Compliance [department] to sign that. And they didn’t.
“In another world, I would have been royally pissed off by that.” But I wasn’t. We shouldn’t be either. The BBC is under such pressure. They’ve had such a kick out over the years and they’re one of the great media organizations in the world and we should be proud of them. So fair enough, not this time.
It was decided to shoot the majority of the film in Germany, mainly the interiors of Sandringham Palace. This meant that the project could access support from various national and regional funds, including the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF), Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, the German Federal Film Office (FFA), Film- und Medienstiftung NRW and HessenFilm und Medien. The exteriors would be filmed for a week in Norfolk and London, making the project eligible for UK tax relief.
“But, of course, Covid came along and made it terribly complicated,” Webster says dryly. “We wanted to do the movie right away because of Kristen’s availability and that meant we were going to try and do it during the pandemic.”
The big challenge was to find a bank to cash the film. Paris-based Cofiloisirs walked in but was nervous – nervous that Covid would end filming and nervous that traditional distributors would buy the film territory by territory at a time when theaters were closed around the world. “Cofiloisirs took out the insurance themselves and worked with Commerzbank in Germany to co-finance the film,” says Webster.
But another crisis was looming thanks to the fallout from the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on December 31, 2020. One of the bank’s own insurers pointed out that the project was not currently qualified as European according to its own. cultural test requirements. By a stroke of luck, it was discovered that Jack Nielen, the young British actor played in the role of Prince William, also held a Dutch passport. Crisis averted. (Webster makes an effort to point out that Nielen was Larrain’s first choice to play William: “He was the best kid we’ve seen and he was our initial choice.”)
But the challenges continued to come. The 32-day pandemic filming in January and February 2021 at a castle near Dortmund with safe health protocols for Covid was compounded by a travel ban for people entering and leaving Germany.
“The German authorities were very supportive, but that meant that all actors had to stay all the time. Even though they only worked a week, they had to stay and weren’t allowed to go back and forth, ”says Webster. “It put a lot of pressure on the players and our budget. It was an expensive way to make a movie – it’s an independent movie, [budgeted at] less than $ 20 million – and it has proven to be incredibly difficult to manage. There were a lot of hidden costs that we couldn’t anticipate – because of the Covid delays, because of the bureaucracy, the things that weren’t happening and all that sort of thing. “
Although it does not exceed 20% more, he qualifies the additional costs as “substantial”. The Brexit factor caused further headaches with delays in shipping materials and goods to Germany from the UK. Everything was held up at customs.
Webster saved on his expenses as he made the difficult decision not to travel to Germany as he was not yet fully immunized. It was the first time that Webster was not on the set of a movie he produced. He’s optimistic now that he’s on the other side. “I have two good partners and it was a very well run production,” he says. “And Pablo is an extremely responsible filmmaker. But it was difficult. “
Returning to the Cannes virtual market in 2020, the film’s big contracts were a joint takeover by Neon and Topic Studios for the acquisition by the United States and STX of key territories, notably the United Kingdom and South Korea. . The team has had conversations with the streamers about the film’s full funding, but Webster is confident the right choice has been made. “It was so difficult to make this movie, and I often think we should have taken one of the offers [from the streamers], says Webster. “But our partners were great and everything worked. But it was very, very risky.
The Spencer the team’s ambition has always been to make a film for theatrical release. “I’m a big fan of cinema and it’s given me an incredible career,” says Webster. “I would like to give back and try to support him as much as I can. Pablo is also absolutely committed to making a film for the cinema. If we can keep the theatrical experience going, everyone benefits – the audience, the filmmakers and the culture in general. It is not an experience you can duplicate no matter how sophisticated your home entertainment system is.