Andy Harries has produced films such as the Oscar-winning The Queen and The Damned United, as well as hit television series Cold Feet, Wallander and The Royle Family. He talks to Impact about his new film The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh, and what it means to produce movies in the modern age – The Lady arrives in cinemas on the 30th of December.
Impact: Thanks very much for taking the time to speak to us.
Andy Harries: Pleasure.
Impact: Your latest production, The Lady, comes out on the 30th of December. Can you start off by telling us how you got involved in the project?
Andy Harries: The very raw basis, inspiration if you like, lay in a trip to Burma that I went on with my wife, who is the writer of the film, in the early 90s. We were in Thailand on one of those, ‘shall we get married’ sorta holidays, and we hopped over there for a week. At the time Aung San Suu Kyi (the film’s protagonist) had won the election and was under house arrest – I was fascinated by the story. I was left with a lasting impression of a country under a very tough and unpleasant military government. About five years ago we had the idea for the film, she was still under house arrest – I felt that it was a story we had to try and tell. The actual story that we found was her relationship with her English husband, which is little known.
Impact: Would you describe this as a personal project?
Andy Harries: Yes, to be honest with you I think all films are personal projects. When you get into a position to make films, you make films that interest you. All the films I’ve been involved in are personal; they have to be because it’s going to take up three to five years of your life. That’s the life of a film; it’s never less than three years and often a bit more. You have to be very sure about what you want to make. I’m very careful about what I do, I really am, I don’t want to spend my time doing stuff I don’t really get excited by.
Impact: Considering that long timeline, how much would you say the production has evolved from its conception to now?
Andy Harries: At the end of the day, the big, critical factor is the choice of the director, he’s the person who influences the film more than anybody else, without any doubt at all – it is a director’s medium. A film like this – if it had been directed by Paul Greengrass it would be one way, if by Luc Besson it would be another way. As a producer you have to follow your instincts. At the time I set this film up it was the middle of the recession, it was very hard to interest British directors – I don’t think they thought it was a film that would be easily financed. America was not interested; they don’t know where Burma is mostly. So I was very thrilled to get Luc Besson – he offered to finance the film, not just make it. It was great, he had a real interest in the story, he felt passionate about it. He was excited about Michelle Yeoh, who I’d already asked to play the lead part. When you see the movie, it’s very much a Luc Besson film.
Impact: Let’s talk about Luc Besson. He’s a director normally associated with action movies, where did his name originally crop up from?
Andy Harries: His name appeared about three years ago. You can’t finance a film without a director, a television series you can, but with a film you can’t. Michelle Yeoh (who had already signed up) had a relationship with Luc Besson, her partner is a great friend of his. A meeting was arranged, I flew to Cannes, he expressed great interest in it. I think it was just the right project at the right time, he wanted to do something different and he was very taken with the story.
Impact: Regarding Michelle Yeoh, some will know her primarily for doing her own stunt work in films like Crouching Tiger… this is a shift away.
Andy Harries: Well, she is 47. Firstly, I think she’s an excellent actress. Secondly, she’s one of the few Asian actresses who’ve got profile; she’s been in a lot of movies. Obviously if you’re an Asian actress, parts in Western films are limited – a role like this is absolutely extraordinary for her.
Impact: How about David Thewlis?
Andy Harries: He’s a wonderful British character actor, we were looking for someone in their late forties who had a the right look about them. One could’ve gone to several British actors but I’m very fond of David Thewlis, so is Luc Besson.
Impact: Taking a slight shift… recently we came across an article claiming that there are two types of producers – creative and business. Would you agree with that?
Andy Harries: Yes, I would actually. I think you can combine them, and one tries too, but I think there are different types, yes.
Impact: Which one would you consider yourself to be?
Andy Harries: I tend to be a creative one, and I don’t say that because I think being a business one is bad. One of my greatest failings is trying to crack the business side – in many senses, finding the money for a movie is the hardest thing, I find it much harder to find the money than the subject matter or casting. Trying to finance the movie, doing all the legwork, very boring. But, one needs people to do that, either for you or with you. If you can combine the two, even better, but very few people can. The thing you’ve got to know about the movies – you can finance it in as many different ways as you can think, there’s no end to the ways you could. Television is wildly different… if you want to make a show with the BBC you can funded by the BBC, or ITV, whatever it is. You might need some extra money, so you get it topped up in the market place or do a presale in France, Germany, etc. That’s it. Movies are completely different: you have private financiers, distribution companies, sales companies… it’s like a mine field.
Impact: So would you say you prefer working in television than film?
Andy Harries: I think the scale of movies is wonderful, people in the movies are bigger and brasher, larger than life. You don’t get people like Harvey Weinstein in television, these are movie characters. It’s show business, everything’s big in it, it attracts criminals… television is different… I love UK television, we make it very well here. Budgets are stricter and more controlled, you can fail less in television. Movies can fail spectacularly.
Impact: Talking about that glamour, how did it feel to win a BAFTA for The Queen?
Andy Harries: The Queen was an incredible experience, yeah. One shouldn’t get obsessed with awards, it’s very nice to get on the stage, to go to The Oscars. Ultimately what excites me is seeing a film work. If you’re watching a film with an audience and they’re responding to it, that’s much greater. It’s the dreadful meals that are always associated with awards ceremonies… rubber chicken and god knows what.
Impact: Is the food better at the BAFTAs or the Oscars?
Andy Harries: [laughs] It’s not very good at the BAFTAs, it may look glamorous…
Impact: Do you have any advice for budding producers at this university?
Andy Harries: It’s really very tough, it’s always been tough this business. But films have got to be made and people want to be entertained. Whether it’s The Queen or The Inbetweeners, it doesn’t really matter – there’s a huge appetite for what we do in the UK, and young producers are needed. You and your comrades are going to be more in touch with what people want to watch than I am, that’s the way the business works. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, you need a lot of passion and a lot of dedication. The other exciting thing is what’s opening up on the Youtubes and the Googles, people can make names for themselves by doing stuff from home.
Impact: Finally, could you sell The Lady to us in a couple of sentences?
Andy Harries: It’s a very inspiring story. I think it’ll move people by highlighting the extraordinary commitment she (Aung San Suu Kyi) made to promoting Burmese democracy. It’s an incredibly sad story but I think it’s one we should all be aware of, and inspired by.