Screenwriter, producer and director Tom Kinninmont’s latest feature film, The Carer, starring Brian Cox, made its European premiere at 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Features Editor James T Harding met Tom (known for producing Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell and After Alice) to learn more about the film’s unusual journey, and how the production industry has changed over Tom’s career so far.
But the best lines were all written by William Shakespeare.
The film depicts an ageing Shakespearian star (Brian Cox) shaken up by his deteriorating body and the arrival of his new carer (Coco König), an aspiring Hungarian actress who hopes he will become her mentor. It’s a film about the two extremes of adult life: the sufferings of old age and illness, and the travails of insinuating a young talent into a world that doesn’t want it.
I met Tom Kinninmont the morning after The Carer’s red-carpet European premiere, about which he was still somewhat taken aback. ‘They laughed more than we expected. Louder and longer. I watched it in Berlin with about ten people, and they did laugh, but two hundred people laughing... is rather more.’
‘In theatre, the actors adjust the audience. If they're really enjoying it, they give it a beat. If you do that in film and they don't laugh... You have to err on the other side. Last night we could have done with a little more space.’
‘Peter O’Toole taught me an enormous amount about timing. He could break a line in three to get three laughs, or he could run a line straight through on a breath to stop the audience laughing until the end of the line.’
The Carer has had quite an unusual journey to the screen. The film’s Hungarian director János Edelényi commissioned the journalist and author Gilbert Adair to make a first draft of the script, but Adair died before it was completed. ‘I was working with him the day he died. It was a real shock. He's already had a stoke and it effectively blinded him: he could see but not coherently. For the last ten months or so of his life, we were working verbally and I was doing all the typing. I'd read it back to him and we'd adjust it.’
Edelényi invited Kinninmont onboard to help finish the project. ‘So I collaborated with Gilbert posthumously as it were. It was a very strange experience for me because I had worked with him so closely, to then take over a script that wasn't quite ready but had a real stamp of Gilbert all the way through it and some ideas in it that, quite frankly, I would never have devised on my own, but were very Gilbert. I was anxious to keep all that.’
‘János and I must have done more than a dozen drafts, going back and forward all the time, but were trying to keep Gilbert firmly threaded through the whole thing. Because there's a voice there which I think is very much his. Not mine, and not János’s.’
Several sources have reported that Brian Cox, who stars as Sir Gilbert Adair, contributed lines to the climactic awards-ceremony speech. ‘Brian feels he owns the final speech now, and that's crucial. In fact the number of lines in that speech which he gave are quite small, but they did make a difference. They toughened the speech up. They made it more hard-edged, and abrasive even.’
‘I wouldn't be surprised if it gets used by actors as an audition piece to get into college. It's that kind of speech.’
‘But the best lines were all written by William Shakespeare.’
Cox was drawn to the role in part because of the speech, and ‘it's an absolutely virtuoso role. He could see all the potential of that. He knew he could nail it. It's his film, however wonderful all the other roles are.’
‘Brian Cox was clearly key to getting the money to make The Carer. These days you can hardly make any film at all unless you have a star or stars. I'm very aware when writing of what they need to attract the right kind of actor.’
Tom Kinninmont started out as a radio producer in the late 1970s, and has spend his life producing, writing and directing across radio, film, television, and the stage. ‘I've spent a lot of my life trying to persuade actors to take roles. They're much more interested in a great role than they are in the money. It's about getting something really interesting to do, preferably something a bit different from the last thing they did.’
He is particularly enthusiastic about the potential of radio to attract star talent. ‘Radio plays cost almost nothing. Just the cost of the script and the cost of the actors.’ In the 1970s ‘you could get lots of star actors, particularly people who were in long runs on the West End and who were maybe a bit bored. They'd be paid peanuts, but they were doing something fun and interesting.’
The logistics of shooting for different media may vary, but the principles of making drama are the same everywhere. The footballer ‘Cristiano Ronaldo came to my notice playing for Manchester United, and he had incredibly quick, fancy footwork. He's unbelievably talented at that, but he doesn't do much of it any more. He's paired down his style to a much more effective goal-scoring machine. He doesn't show off as much. I think that's something we all need to learn. You don't always need the little tricks and curlicues that you think you do when you start out. You can make it simpler and be more effective. And the byproduct is it's often cheaper to shoot as well.’
‘The audience doesn't really care, in the end. The different media aren't quite as different as people think they are. They want a great story and people who make them laugh or move them.’
I was curious about how the industry has changed over the years. ‘When I started in television drama at the BBC, I knew very little - almost nothing - but I had tremendous power. We had no executive producers. We had script editors but they tended to work at the service of the producer to sniff out strange details.’
But the role of script editors has changed a lot, especially with the rise of conference-running script guru Robert McKee. Ten or fifteen years ago, ‘it seemed like every script editor had been sent on a course, and they were all quoting the same almost catchphrases about what your script had to have.’
‘In the hands of talented people the rules are useful and interesting. In the hands of people who are less secure in their own abilities, they get calcified. Whatever verbiage they've picked up just doesn't help.’
The problem is that executives ‘have to justify their existence with notes. The whole thing dies under the weight of notes, people re-writing scripts out of existence. I've done a lot of script development for films that have never happened, and I think it probably didn't need to be done.’
‘There was much less interest in commercial filmmaking when I started out. It was almost a dirty word. Television wanted to attracts a big audience, but when it came to filmmaking it seemed much more regarded as a subsidised art form. I think the young generation of producers and directors coming through can't be bothered with that. They're not embarrassed about it: they want people to come and see their films. I think that's probably quite healthy.’