Amsterdam Beckons, Cannes Return and Christopher Walken
Probably the best birthday present I have ever received was the trip to Amsterdam for CR and I, which was very generously bought and paid for by her lovely mother, M.
The trip was a thirtieth birthday gift, which we took in the sunny spring of 1999.
Chillin’ in the Dam
From the moment we walked out of Amsterdam Centraal and took in the remarkably relaxed atmosphere and pace of life, I felt like it was a place I would one day call home.
We stayed in the Hotel Eichmann on the Prinsengracht, just a short walk away from the first Coffeeshop I ever visited – Coffeeshop Johnny – where I enjoyed some fine Moroccan hash and too many espressos before bed each night.
When CR and I weren’t wandering blindly up and down the serene canals, we were frequenting art galleries, museums and various cafes, restaurants and Dutch brown bars.
Cultural highlights would have to be seeing Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Night Watch [pictured above], and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, both of which we saw in the majestic Rijksmuseum.
By the time our five day stay was at an end, we were both so relaxed we were completely dreading going back to London, no matter how much we loved our little home in Stroud Green.
High Times In Edinburgh
In August 1999, we had a very memorable trip to the Edinburgh Festival, where we stayed at the Balmoral Hotel, courtesy of the multimedia publishing company CR worked for.
At the Fringe, I was in the audience to see Josie Long win the BBC New Comic of the Year, which was broadcast during Saturday night prime time on BBC1.
As the genial compere and joke telling legend, Bob Monkhouse, asked Josie to say a few words when she won the award, she looked directly at me in the middle of the packed audience and said:
“There is only one person to thank and that’s Michael Knighton.”
Given the fact that my stand-up workshop in Beckenham had now produced Hackney Empire and BBC New Acts of the Year and a Perrier Best Newcomer nominee in its first three years, the course became perpetually over-subscribed.
Nevertheless, the gratitude Josie expressed at a time when all would have forgiven her for being overwhelmed by her success, will always mean far more to me than the widespread acknowledgment that my stand-up workshop was producing exceptional professional comics.
Johnny Vegas For Fat Ronny
As fortune would have it, while I was making my way to the Gilded Balloon to see Josie perform in the So You Think You’re Funny new act competition final [in which she came runner-up], I heard an unmistakable voice to my rear.
Before I could do or say anything, Johnny Vegas jumped into my arms, as a crowd looked on, aghast at how the feck I managed to stay on my feet, let alone hold Johnny’s considerable weight.
After I put him down safely on the pavement, we had a quick coffee in a nearby cafe and reminisced about the unforgettable night I compered a gig he did at Vic Naylors in London.
I then wasted no time to divert the conversation to ‘Nefarious’ and the role of big-boned coke dealer, ‘Fat Ronny’. Johnny thought it sounded like his kind of role and I sent him a script as soon as I returned home.
Rather unexpectedly, Johnny took the opportunity to tell me how sad he was that I wasn’t directing his Edinburgh show, following some disappointing reviews.
After seeing the impact that one afternoon of my direction had upon Jon Reed’s show the previous year, when they were on tour together, Johnny asked me to direct his.
However, since this put his long term manager’s nose out of joint, Johnny reluctantly had to pull the plug, before proceeding to Edinburgh, where was pipped at the post for the Perrier Award by The League of Gentlemen and Jon Reed was nominated for Best Newcomer, narrowly missing out to The Mighty Boosh.
This year Johnny has been performing a set which isn’t too dissimilar to last year’s. Of course, this is perfectly understandable, since he has pretty much been on a sell-out national tour ever since, which means that he has taken no time out to write and rehearse new material.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think I could have whipped his show into award-winning shape in just a few well spent hours.
A Room For Romeo Brass
At the film festival, I sat in the front row at the premiere of Shane Meadow’s brilliant ‘A Room For Romeo Brass‘, which featured compelling performances from unknown actors, Paddy Considine, Andrew Shim and Vicky MacClure.
Afterwards, I was lucky enough to meet Andrew and Vicky, both of whom I congratulated on their very impressive debuts. I also met the director, Shane Meadows, who has made a truly brilliant British film.
For the next ten minutes we chewed the fat over how tough it is to break into the industry. Despite having two critically acclaimed feature films under his belt, Shane complained bitterly that the industry looked down on him because he refused to move to London from the midlands.
However, I reassured him that I did move away from my native North East but I have still been looked down upon, simply because I have a Geordie accent.
Such is the plight of all working class lads, when they have the temerity to gatecrash the largely closed-shop of the British film industry, run with a rod of insincerity by those we call the Soho Mafia.
Nevertheless, I was greatly encouraged when Shane told me that getting the wonderful Bob Hoskins, whom I have loved since I saw ‘The Long Good Friday’, to take the lead in his first film, ‘Twenty-Four-Seven’, was the key to raising the finance to make it.
Nefarious Casting Calls
Following the Edinburgh trip, in the autumn of 1999, the ‘Nefarious’ casting finally began in earnest, when Dougie Henshall agreed to play the pivotal role of ‘Lez’.
We then sent another dozen scripts to actors handled by ICM and other London talent agencies and set about targeting every film financier in the capital, pitching the best casting wish-list we could muster.
However, despite managing to convince just about every great actor living and working in London to read a copy of the script, Tony and I then spent the next six months chasing our tails.
Wednesday 29th March 2000
It’s been a pretty dreadful couple of weeks. In fact, it’s still fair to say that the new millennium has been pretty shitty thus far.
First Markham & Froggart withdraw their unsolicited offer to cast Jonny Lee Miller, Terence Stamp, Rutger Hauer, Malcolm Macdowell, Benedict Cumberbacth and Sophie Okenado in ‘Nefarious’, claiming that the project isn’t going to be high profile enough for their clients.
Then we get knocked back for finance by Sky Pictures, after eight weeks of promising bullshit, despite ‘Roadkill’ placing runner-up in the Sky Cut-Short competition and screening twice on Moviemax.
The fact that everybody seems to think it is one of the best short films they have ever seen doesn’t mean shit when they’re asked to take a financial risk on the talent that they have already recognised.
It Gets Worse
Then Emily Lloyd, Ian Hart and Brian Cox all pass on the script, as do Entertainment, Intermedia, DNA, FilmFourLab and Miramax, for a record fourth time.
However, at least we got the latter’s attention with two faxes to Bob and Harvey Weinstein in New York, complaining about the contemptuous treatment we have received from their London office.
Harvey’s secretary, the lovely Pamela, told us that her boss had instructed his London staff to take a another look at ‘Nefarious’. We can only assume this transpired because we had the balls to make such a move.
Just about the only positive thing to happen since Dougie said he loved the script last October has been a firm interest in the North American rights from US distributor, Fine Line.
The company’s acquisitions team described the project as an “original and ambitious potential acquisition”. This could prove vital in getting a sales agent attached.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to be cynical when you’re banging your head against a brick wall on a daily basis.
Thursday 30th March 2000
I only managed to get a few hours sleep last night, after compiling a list of calls to make today.
Tony came over mid-morning, for three hours of the same kind of frustrating brainstorming that has been our daily routine of late.
Every actor we’ve approached, except Dougie, has passed and we have no reason to believe there aren’t more to follow.
People keep telling us that we’ve got a great script and then they go and pass on it, just like Michael Caine did.
What have we got to do to get this film made?
A Pleasant Surprise
At around 4.30 pm this afternoon, I knew I had to call somebody to retain my sanity.
So I called ICM to confirm with Ben Chaplin and Phil Danial’s agent that new copies of the script were on their way, after the last package we sent got lost in the post.
However, to my surprise, I was told that they had made a mistake – the scripts were received and they have both made their minds up in just a couple of days.
Ben is passing on the role of ‘Lez’s partner in crime, ‘Billy’, but Phil likes the script and wants to see ‘Roadkill’, before he agrees to play the role of Elkiar’s right-hand-man, “Tag”.
Moments later, I danced around the room in celebration, as I told Tony the fantastic news on the phone. Finally, another actor has said “yes”.
Today is suddenly the best day of the new millennium. This morning, it felt like one of the worst days of my life! Such is the life of a film producer.
Friday 31st March 2000
First thing this morning, we faxed Miramax with the news about Phil Danials joining Douglas Henshall in the cast.
An hour later, they faxed us back their second firm interest in the acquisition of the North American rights, once the film is complete.
However, they also said that if we can “firmly confirm” the participation of Christopher Walken and Lindsay Duncan for ‘Elkiar’ and his wife, ‘Tonia’, they would be interested in financing the project.
Since Ben Chaplin passed, I sent a script to David Thewlis for the role of ‘Billy’ and Tony dropped a copy of ‘Roadkill’ off at ICM for Phil Danials.
We are both feeling so much more positive, having taken another giant leap forward this week.
Tuesday 4th April 2000
I cold-called independent UK distributor, Metrodome, this morning and was put through to somebody in the acquisitions department.
The executive I spoke to listened to my wired pitch patiently, before telling me that the person I needed to speak to was the head of distribution, Rupert Preston.
When I was patched through to his office, Rupert was in a meeting but his secretary promised he would be given a message to call me as soon as possible.
Determined to make more progress today, I called ICM to see if Phil Danials has had a chance to watch ‘Roadkill’ yet.
Claire, Harriet Robinson’s assistant, told me that he now has the tape and she will call me when she hears back from him.
Metrodome were true to their word and Rupert called back late this afternoon. Encouragingly, he went for the pitch and asked for a script, a budget top-sheet and a copy of ‘Roadkill’.
He then said that he will take a look at the project immediately and get back to me next week.
Friday 12th April 2000
Tony and I had a meeting with Rupert Preston this afternoon at Metrodome’s London headquarters.
Having spoken to him on the phone several times now, he had already struck me as being very down-to-earth and I wasn’t disappointed when we met him.
After waiting for twenty minutes in the reception of the company’s brand new offices on Park Street, we were very encouraged to meet a slim, disheveled man in his early thirties, dressed in a baggy white ‘T’ shirt and jeans.
Dressed, as always, in black ‘T’ shirts, jeans and leather jackets, looking like a couple of slightly bohemian hit-men, we warmed to the demeanour of the well-spoken young Metrodome chief.
After pitching him ‘Nefarious’ with both barrels, he told us that he is interested in taking the UK rights. However, we must secure the kind of cast we’ve been talking about, with at least one bankable name.
Nevertheless, we left the meeting in a distinctly positive frame of mind, having just been told what we already knew.
Tony and I arrived back at my Stroud Green home office to discuss our next move.
Yesterday, we received an e-mail from Cannes, rejecting ‘Roadkill’ for the second year running. Despite this, we both still feel like we should be there.
Unfortunately, we don’t have more than a couple of hundred quid between us, so we probably couldn’t afford a single flight, let alone accommodation, food and drink.
Plus, the lion’s share of the two hundred belongs to Tony and I already owe him around the same amount, as finances have been pretty tight since the California trip last Autumn with CR.
Monday 15th May 2000
Four months now and still no decision from Lindsay Duncan. I know that her agent Ken MacReddie is fully committed to supporting the film, so there’s still no point in hassling him.
As soon as he knows her decision as to whether she will play ‘Tonia’, we’ll find out about it.
I made half a dozen cold calls to distributors and sales agents to take my mind off the waiting game. Every person I tried to speak to has already left for the Cote d’Azur.
In fact, just about everybody who’s anybody in the film industry is going to be there.
We’ve gotta find a way to go, otherwise, we can probably write off making any progress for the next month.
Wednesday 17th May 2000
Somehow, I also managed to convince Guy [my best mate from my time in Leicester] that the prospect of two fifteen hour drives and sleeping in my car was an attractive one.
I’ve arranged to meet him at Finsbury Park tube station, at 5 o’ clock tomorrow. From there we will drive to Crouch Hill to pick up Tony, who will be sharing the wheel of my well-traveled Peugeot 405.
Our Cannes ETA is some time on Friday morning. If we make it one piece, who knows what might happen.
Thursday 18th May 2000
We drove through heavy rush-hour traffic and arrived in Dover in plenty of time to catch the 9.45 pm ferry to Calais. When we hit the French auto-routes, it was pitch-black and approaching midnight.
Already tired at the end of a frantic day, I could hardly imagine staying awake for another three hours, let alone the next twelve.
Friday 19th May 2000
At around four o’clock in the morning, somewhere near Troyes, I felt myself nodding at the wheel.
I managed to fight it for a few miles but even half a pack of Pro-Plus couldn’t prevent me from admitting that I was well and truly knackered.
Three double espresso’s later, Tony took his first driving stint, while I endeavoured to keep a conversation going for longer than thirty seconds, before realising he was just as exhausted as me.
Guy meanwhile, slept like a baby on the back seat, until he was woken by the burning sunlight of the new day.
Staying Awake With Inane Burbling
All through the early hours of the morning, I found myself burbling inane gibberish, before falling into a partial sleep, each time waking in a cold panic about Tony falling asleep at the wheel.
Guy managed to recover his unconsciousness, despite the blistering heat, whilst Tony dug deep to do a sterling job for more than four hours.
However, when I woke to find him with his chin on his chest and eyes closed, we decided it might be time to stop for breakfast.
After refueling with croissants, pastries, Orangina and yet more coffee, I returned to the driver’s side just after 8.30 am, still at least four hours from Cannes. Tony apologised profusely, before joining Guy in the land of nod.
I kept myself conscious by planning the pitches in my head. Despite my physical condition, I felt waves of adrenaline surging though my body.
The mission is simple: pitch ‘Nefarious’ to anybody who will listen. If we are lucky, we might find someone who can help us raise the money.
We might even bump into somebody who can help us get a script to Christopher Walken.
Hotel Peugeot 405
After arriving in Cannes in the early afternoon, we parked in a large car-park by the marina, which would be our base for the duration of the trip.
Invigorated by the buzzing throngs of locals, tourists and film people, we quickly changed into clean clothes and made our way to the accreditation centre.
Tony and I joined the enormous queues of producers trying to convince various blue-suited festival officials to hand over their precious passes for the festival.
Almost three hours later, we emerged on the croisette, with our badges around our necks. Were it not for the fact that we are registered on IMDB because of ‘Roadkill’, we would have been shown the door.
Hardly able to stand, let alone walk, we found Guy, went to a supermarket and bought cheap baguettes, cheese, crisps, chocolate, cigarettes, a bottle of diet coke, a bottle of vodka and a bottle of tequila.
We then returned to the car-park, where we ate a picnic looking on to the sea. By the time the sun went down, I’m afraid to say that we were very, very drunk.
Understandable, considering that we have all too easily accepted that we will be spending the next three days at the hotel Peugeot 405.
This film malarkey is such a glamorous life.
Freaky Night To Remember
We spent most of the evening relaxing in several local bars, until we stumbled upon the legendary Petite Carlton.
As we sat on the terrace outside the busy bar, drinking beer and watching the world go by, I had a strange feeling in my gut; like something memorable was about to occur.
Several men and women, dressed in tuxedo’s and cocktail dresses then passed by on their way to various screenings and parties.
Suddenly, amid the throng, Tony recognised somebody. “Fuckin’ hell!”, he exclaimed, as Guy and I both turned look at his palpably excited visage.
“What is it?’” I asked, not for one moment thinking his reply would have a dramatic impact.
‘It’s Dougie! Over there…it’s Dougie Henshall!’
Sure enough, making his way through the crowd was the only actor whom we could reasonably claim, was (almost formally) attached to ‘Nefarious’.
Dressed in a smart green jacket, he was obviously in a hurry. I dread to think what he must have thought, as we bounded over to him, screaming “DOUGIE!” at the top of our alcohol-soaked voices.
Fortunately, he recognised Tony from their first meeting a few months ago, just after his agent Ken told us he loved the script. I introduced myself and as we shook hands, I immediately liked him.
Dougie apologised for not being able to hang around for a drink because he was on his way to the ‘Honest’ launch party. For Dave Stewart’s sake, less said the better about that film.
After taking my mobile number, Dougie wished us well and promised to call me on his return to London, before making his way down to the croisette to the party.
It’s fair to say we were absolutely dumbstruck at the mind-blowing coincidence. Even Guy was taken aback. “You must be meant to be here Mike..” he opined.
Seconds later, his face became gaunt, as another familiar face appeared at our table.
“Hello Guy…”, said his ex-girlfriend from our days in Leicester, whom he has not seen since she poured a pint of lager over his head in the summer of ’92.
What a freaky night to to remember.
Saturday 20th May 2000
After settling down in the car for a bad night’s sleep, we were woken by the intense heat of the morning sun.
The car-park’s facilities begin and end with a single toilet, which is jealously guarded by a miserable, middle-aged French woman.
When Guy tried to wash himself in the tiny sink, she threw him out of the grubby building, cursing venomously in French. This is certainly not ‘business class’.
We breakfasted on cheese and wine courtesy of the Kodak Pavilion, before spending most of the afternoon chatting with other producers, drinking beer and more free wine.
At 7.00 pm, we attended the Scrin party on the beach for yet more free drinks. When the alcohol ran dry, we made our way back up to the croisette, where we were handed a leaflet by a young French woman.
She was publicising an ‘alternative’ festival on the beach, beginning at nine o’ clock. I asked her if they might be able to squeeze in a little Welsh film about a couple of hillbilly brothers. The woman smiled and told us to come back to the beach at midnight.
Returning to the Petite Carlton, Tony and I discussed our strategy for tomorrow’s pitches. We already know that almost everything will hinge on the casting, so we must appear confident of securing the names on our wish-list.
After a brief discussion, we decided that we would say we are in the process of approaching Christopher Walken, while Dougie, Phil Danials and Lindsay Duncan have all but committed to the project.
The only problem is, we already know that American agents will never accept unsolicited approaches by producers without a track record, so we need a way in.
Unofficial Cannes Screening
Aided and abetted by several bottles of Kronenberg, just after eleven, I climbed aboard a table and announced to the incredulous patrons that ‘Roadkill’ would be screening on the beach at midnight.
Mortified by the total lack of interest, we finished our drinks and headed for the beach, where we were not to be disappointed.
‘Roadkill’s unofficial Cannes screening was cheered by an audience of about a hundred, which comprised mostly of local film students, disillusioned by the corporate ass-kissing of the festival organisers.
I’m not sure that any of them could understand a word of the coarse, Welsh dialects but they seemed to enjoy it all the same.
Afterwards, we returned to the car to try and get some sleep before tomorrow’s meetings with two UK sales agents.
Sunday 21st May 2000
The first pitch was with Matt Payne of sales company, J&M, at 9.45 am, on the top floor of the Carlton Hotel.
As we walked into the plush suite, the receptionist looked us up and down, before asking us to sit on a plush sofa for a few minutes, while Matt finished his second meeting of the morning on the balcony.
Ten minutes later, a tall, ginger man in his late thirties came through one of the patio doors and introduced himself.
When I shook his hand, I couldn’t help feeling that he had already written us off. We just don’t look like the kind of people he looks like he would want to do business with. I could be wrong but I doubt it.
Despite this, he gave us a real grilling about every single aspect of the production, from finance to completion bond. Occasionally, he would seem a almost impressed with the boldness of our replies.
Then he told us that we should forget about telling anybody that we intend to shoot in July because it makes us look like we don’t know what we’re talking about.
His reasoning was that any experienced producer knows that it takes at least six months to put a finance plan together, from the stage of development we have reached.
Constructive Criticism Welcome
We told him that we realised that a summer shoot was somewhat optimistic.
Apparently encouraged by this response, he said he would read the script within a couple of weeks and we left the Carlton in a surprisingly positive frame of mind.
With no time to stop, we wandered down the croisette to the Miramar, where we had a meeting booked with Victor Films, another international sales outfit, run by Eastender, Vic Bateman.
Always Be Ready To Pitch In Cannes
In the cool lobby of the hotel, we waited for the lift to reach the ground floor. A middle-aged woman in a floral summer dress then sauntered over to us and smiled, as our Tardis arrived with a triumphant ring.
When the door closed, the three of us stood silently for few embarrassing beats, as we were hauled slowly up to the fourth floor, surrounded by brightly lit mirrors.
“Having a good trip guys?” she inquired politely, in a thick Californian accent. I then heard a deafening voice in my head, screaming “Pitch, you daft fucker! PITCH!!”
Tony must have heard the same voice because we gave her our high-octane, thirty second pitch for ‘Nefarious’.
When we were done, she seemed almost charmed, as the lift passed the third floor and she asked if we were looking for any American talent.
“Actually, we’re looking for a way to get a script to Christopher Walken…” I said, as the world stood still. “I know Chris’s agent…” was her immediate reply.
Senior VP of the William Morris Agency
We all got out at the fourth floor and she handed me her card. Before I could look down, she told me to call her on Monday, when she’s back in LA and she’ll see what she can do.
Incredibly, we had just had an on-spec meeting in a lift, with Nicole David, senior vice-president of the William Morris Agency, who promised to help us get a script to Christopher Walken.
And to think. we were talking about not making this trip!?!
After another promising meeting, this time with Capitol Films, we returned to the car to meet Guy and begin the long journey home, with semi-permanent smiles on weather-beaten faces.
Monday 22nd May 2000
Twelve exhausting hours later, we caught the ferry back to Dover and we arrived back in Finsbury Park just before ten this morning.
I have no inclination as to how I managed to avert falling asleep at the wheel.
If anything sustained me, it was probably the satisfaction of knowing that we managed to achieve more than we realistically hoped possible when we set out.
True To Her Word
I called Nicole David late this evening because of the eight hour time difference. She was in a meeting but asked her assistant to tell me to hold, which I did for no more than a minute.
Then her assistant came back on the line to tell me that I was being patched through to Brian Swordstrom of the Endeavour Talent Agency, Mr. Walken’s Hollywood agent, who had no option but to speak to me because of Nicole’s kind postulation.
Suitably unimpressed by the enforced protocol, Brian cut my pitch short, telling me to send a script, which he would read within two weeks. If I don’t hear anything within three, I should give him another call.
Friday 8th June 2000
We have heard nothing from any of the companies who we pitched to in Cannes. Every one of them has said they need another couple of weeks to get through the backlog of scripts.
Out of sheer frustration, I called Brian in LA, a few days earlier than he suggested I should start chasing him up.
Brian’s extremely polite and helpful assistant Chuck, told me that his boss hadn’t had a chance to read it yet but he was hoping to get to it in the next 14 days.
Refusing to accept defeat, I insisted that we have to turn it around a lot quicker than that. I then asked if there was anybody else who could get around to it sooner.
Putting On The Ritz
Chuck suggested I send another copy of the script to Walken’s New York agent, Stephanie Ritz.
He then gave me her address and phone number and I thanked him for his invaluable help, as he could so easily have put the phone down on me.
Wasting no time, I opened an account and fed-exed the script to Stephanie in New York, following which I called her to tell her it was on its way.
She was incredibly charming and approachable, traits not normally found in the vocabulary I would use to describe agents. Not English ones anyway, with the exception of Ken McReddie.
Stephanie promised to read the script over the weekend and told me I should give her a call if I don’t hear back from her by next Wednesday.
Wednesday 13th June 2000
When the phone rang, I was sitting with a few friends in my neighbour Dave’s garden, onto which our living room window looks.
As I frantically made my way through Dave’s kitchen, out his front door and upstairs to our flat, I knew in my heart that there was only one person who was going to be on the other end of the phone.
Sure enough, it was Christopher Walken’s agent, Stephanie Ritz, who was calling from his manager Gene Parsaighian’s office in New York, where they were sitting there with their Oscar-winning client on speaker-phone.
“So Michael, Chris has now read your screenplay, which we have just been discussing with him. And I guess you should know that we are all really psyched about ‘Nefarious’. So where do we go from here?”
Over the next ten minutes, we agreed that Chris would be paid $500,000 of our working budget of around $5,000,000.
However, whilst we won’t get any legally binding commitment until the production finance is secure, we have been given permission to use his name and reputation to facilitate investment.
The second I disengaged the call, I rang Tony and told him the mind-blowing news – Christopher Walken is “really psyched” about playing ‘Elkiar’.
Over the next hour or so, we excitedly formulated our plan to secure the production money in time for a three week November shoot.
We are both certain that landing a “yes” from the star of ‘Deer Hunter’, ‘King of New York’ and ‘True Romance’ will make it very hard for Lindsay Duncan and Kim Bodnia to turn down.
Imagining those amazing actors in our first feature film, alongside Dougie Henshall, Phil Danials and Johnny Vegas, sends shivers up my spine.
It’s clear we must be doing something right.