Spotlight on Film Producer Winnie Li
The year I was a Mitchell Scholar in Cork (2000-2001) was the year it first occurred to me that a career in filmmaking might be possible. Little did I know that I’d go to the Oscars® a few years later, but I sometimes wonder how my life would be different without that year as a Mitchell Scholar. I first arrived in Cork in September 2000, and within a month I had signed up to volunteer at the Cork Film Festival, which takes place annually in October. I ran Guest Reception, taking care of the filmmakers who came as delegates to the festival, and as I spoke to them, I realized that it was actually possible to have a career in film.
So my year in Cork, I found myself watching arthouse films nearly every week at the Kino Cinema and the Triskel Arts Centre. I kept in touch with some of the filmmakers I’d met at the festival, most of whom lived in London. After I finished my MA in English at UCC, one of them put me in touch with a producer they knew who needed an assistant. I left Cork after getting my diploma, and in February 2002, I arrived in London with a backpack and a serious cough I’d picked up in Ireland. I had always wanted to live in London, so I figured here was my chance – even though I didn’t have a work permit or really know anyone in the city.
I started working for Lene Bausager, a producer who owns Ugly Duckling Films – nearly five years later, I’m still at Ugly Duckling. It was just the two of us at the time (although by now in 2007 we’ve expanded to four people in our office.)
That first year in London was tough. I bartended and edited essays on the side for extra money, and was too poor to go to the movies, unless they were playing at the Prince Charles Cinema. But we completed the company’s first feature film, a political thriller called Boxed , about the Northern Ireland conflict. (I had first met Marion Comer, the writer/director, at the Cork Film Festival in 2000.) We secured finishing funds from Bord Scannán na hÉireann / Irish Film Board, the film premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival in August 2002, and in November, I got to attend its European Premiere at Foyle Film Festival in Derry (the local Mitchell Scholar, Matt Alexander, let me crash at his place). The film eventually won Best Feature Film at the Boston Irish Film Festival 2003.
Over the next few years, we co-produced two feature films with a Danish company: Stealing Rembrandt and Oh Happy Day. Both of these ranked No. 1 at the Danish box office and netted several Danish Academy nominations. And then in Spring 2003, we shot a little short film called Cashback. This was the film which would eventually take us to the Oscars. It was written and directed by Sean Ellis, whose commercials and music videos Lene had been producing, and we filmed for four consecutive nights in a London supermarket. We managed to get a good cast, including Emilia Fox (The Pianist) and Sean Biggerstaff (the Harry Potter films). Cashback started to tour the film festival circuit in Autumn 2004, and to our great surprise, it won the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. That was just the beginning – it went on to win Best Narrative Short at the Tribeca Film Festival 2005 and at thirteen other festivals!
This whole time, Ugly Duckling Films had been operating out of the basement of a hair salon in Chelsea (albeit, a posh one) and in January 2004 we finally moved into our own offices in Soho, the heart of London’s film industry.
Meanwhile, I had been speaking to a director Jackie Oudney for a few years about producing her next short film, a story about a homeless man and a high-society party. We filmed it over five days in December 2004 and January 2005. Given the little money we had, it was very ambitious: we were trying to film an elaborate ballroom scene with eighty extras, a jazz band, and on three cameras. Nevertheless, we succeeded, and that film, Vagabond Shoes, has just won its thirteenth award on the festival circuit, including two awards at BAFTA (the British Academy).
By spring 2005, Cashback had attracted so much buzz that we decided to produce a feature-length version of it, while still using the same characters and footage from the short film. We shot it in five weeks on a very tight budget, and in January 2006, it was picked up by Gaumont, one of France’s top film distributors. They launched it as part of their sales slate at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 – but before that, Cashback the short was nominated for Best Live Action Short Film by the Academy Awards®! We got to attend the Oscars® in March 2006 -- and were also thrilled to be at the US-Ireland Alliance’s first Oscar Wilde pre-party.
Where are we now? It’s true what they say – getting an Oscar nomination® puts you on a whole new level in the industry, but it’s still a lot of work. At the moment, we are shooting Sean Ellis’ next feature film, a psychological horror film called The Brøken, and completing finance on another feature, which will shoot in South Africa in March. I will be producing Curfew, a noirish mystery set in Northern Ireland, which we hope to shoot in September, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission.
The next step, of course, is to get investment into our company, but outside of financial support, it’s enough if people just see our films. Both Cashback the short and Vagabond Shoes are downloadable from the US iTunes site, and for a taste of the feature version of Cashback you can check out trailers on our MySpace site or the Gaumont website, or the official website.
Cashback, the feature film, will be released in theatres in France on January 17th, 2007 and around the world throughout 2007 – it’s gotten great reviews in the trades and with the public so far. And Vagabond Shoes is eligible for an Oscar®, so on January 23rd, we may find ourselves nominated again!
It seems like a long journey, even though it’s only been six years (in the life of a twenty-eight-year-old), but it’s strange to think I may not even have ended up here, had it not been for that year in Cork.