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Podcast – Liz Watts: producing features in Australia

The producer behind The King, Animal Kingdom, True History of the Kelly Gang and Lore discusses the realities of creating films and TV in 2020.

The King, Liz Watts, True History of the Kelly Gang

The King, Liz Watts, True History of the Kelly Gang

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

With the screen landscape in a state of flux, producer Liz Watts says adaptability is key for Australian producers going forward.

“Everything is moving in terms of the structures of finance underpinning the industry,” she says.

“People have to be nimble and flexible. And at the same time, you’re still trying to creatively make material and content.”

In the latest episode of the Screen Australia podcast, Watts talks about collaborating with Netflix on David Michod’s The King, and how she felt True History of the Kelly Gang found a wider, younger audience by streaming on Stan after a shorter theatrical window.

Watts also reflects on her career and how she went from working in the camera department to her first production job at Film Australia (one of Screen Australia’s predecessor agencies) and onto Porchlight Films – the company she co-founded with producers Vincent Sheehan and Anita Sheehan.

Porchlight Films’ mixed slate covers both film (The King, Mary Magdalene, Jasper Jones), TV (The Kettering Incident, Laid) and online (Kiki & Kitty), which is something Watts explains is necessary for producers working today.

In the wide-ranging interview, Watts also touches on her thoughts about director Cate Shortland (who she worked with on Lore), becoming the first solo female director on a Marvel film with Black Widow; what Animal Kingdom – and its format sale to the US – meant to her; and how tough the theatrical market is for indie films (which was also recently flagged by Screen Australia’s CEO). A stark illustration of this is Event cinemas recently disclosing to The Australian that more than third of their revenue was courtesy of just five films.

To see some of Watts’ work, see The King on Netflix, True History of the Kelly Gang on Stan, and Kiki & Kitty on ABC iview now.

Further resources

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

TRANSCRIPT 

 [00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. On this episode, I'm joined by producer Liz Watts, one of the co-founders of production company Porchlight Films. Watts has worked on a wealth of Australian titles, including director David Michod's features Animal Kingdom, The Rover and most recently The King, which released on Netflix in 2019. Watts talks about the experience of making The King with Netflix and the considerations of creating content that could be watched on a smartphone alongside a wealth of other topics - everything from how The True History of the Kelly Gang found its audience on Stan; how Australian producers survive in this ever changing landscape; and her thoughts on seeing her friend, director Cate Shortland, who she worked with on Lore, leap from independent Australian features to directing the upcoming Black Widow film and becoming the first solo female director on a Marvel movie in the process. This interview was actually originally recorded for a video, which will be released soon and cover some slightly different territory. But we just felt that Liz covered so many interesting and varied topics that it would be a shame not to release the longer chat with you all. To catch that video when it releases, just subscribed to Screen Australia's YouTube channel, or you can always sign up for the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter and we'll deliver it straight to your inbox with all the latest industry updates. If you have any feedback about this podcast also please feel free to email [email protected]  You'll also notice at the beginning of this chat that Liz and I are having a bit of a laugh. And that's because this interview was recorded in Sydney's inner west. And for any of you familiar with that area, there is a flight path there, so naturally a plane flew overhead just as we were starting the recording. So now that you're in on the joke, here's producer Liz Watts from Porchlight Films.

[00:02:10] Caris Bizzaca Take two. What was your first job in the industry.

[00:02:13] Liz Watts My background in the industry is actually camera work. I worked for quite a few years as a camera assistant and occasionally shooting when I could, which I loved. And that was what actually drew me into wanting to do film and television originally. And the short story, I suppose, was that I sort of grew more and more interested in looking and being a part of the before and the after shoot. So obviously doing camera work, it was just intensive shoot periods then you walk away. And I really became sort of interested in scripting and development and then also the post-production path. So I think my first kind of real job was really at Film Australia, which no longer exists, of course. And I worked with an executive producer in children's television and documentaries. So I had a sort of strong production base in documentary filmmaking as well as like production managing Johnson & Friends, which lots of people won't remember, but anyway.

[00:03:20] Caris Bizzaca I do remember Johnson & Friends.

[00:03:22] Liz Watts Yeah. So I sort of came through the hands-on production on shoots into a more overseeing producer area, I suppose.

[00:03:32] Caris Bizzaca So what drew you to producing, was it having that overarching kind of look at a production from start to finish.

[00:03:40] Liz Watts Yeah, I mean I wanted to produce because I wanted to be involved in not just the shoot. I wanted to be involved in the development and working with writers and then working with directors in terms of prepping for originally in feature film and then in television with writers and then really overseeing the whole thing. I didn't want to be in one part of the process and not the other. So producing for me kind of has given me that opportunity to work with creatives and work with financiers and stakeholders and so on to try and make a project sort of appeal to an audience.

[00:04:20] Caris Bizzaca And so then do you think your camera background has informed how you produce it all?

[00:04:26] Liz Watts I'm sure that having come from camera work, it must influence the way I look at potential projects. I'm always drawn to films and television that have a strong visual storytelling. For me, cinematography was that kind of step in understanding how you put together a story, I suppose with frames essentially. And I love the editing process as well, in part for that, because I think you're rewriting and you're recreating, or not totally, but you're massaging that storytelling again. So I'm sure that it has influenced me. And I think my line producers have often joked that I'm a bit soft on the camera department. But, you know, I love working with cinematographers as a producer and worked with such amazing talent out of Australia. And I'm sure it has influenced what I do.

[00:05:26] Caris Bizzaca I've spoken to some producers before who have said how they maybe gravitate towards a certain aspect of producing. So maybe someone is more of a creative producer or someone is really interested in a financing. Do you feel like you're drawn towards one area of producing in particular?

[00:05:43] Liz Watts Yeah, I would say that I'm drawn to the creative side of producing. But I also understand and fully appreciate the very important financial side and do the deals and so on. And that becomes about control and about being able to work. Being able to work the project to the best of your ability when you have financial control is very important. But I guess my love is that creative process of working with a director or a writer - creatives, basically. And I wouldn't really do producing if that wasn't a big part of my job because the finance alone doesn't interest me. It does interest me in as far as it gives us the ability to make and create and produce a project.

[00:06:32] Caris Bizzaca So when was Porchlight Films founded? And what kind of stories do you feel like Porchlight tries to create?

[00:06:41] Liz Watts So Porchlight's now been going for about twenty three years and Vincent Sheehan, Anita Sheehan and myself came together because we each definitely share a common sort of taste and appreciation for strong, creatively driven projects that can reach an audience. That's just fundamentally what we do. And I mean, Vincent and I met at, I was doing post-grad at UTS - I think I shot one of his short films. In those days, it was a case of production companies trying to come together and to unite in a very, very different environment to what it is today. Everything has changed dramatically over 20 years, as you can imagine. But I think the core idea at that time and it's still ongoing to this minute is that we came together to produce really provocative, strong, internationally-focused, not just Australian-focused material. And we've been doing that really to this day, I think.

[00:07:51] Caris Bizzaca And another thing I was wondering about producing is in your day-to-day or if you're reading articles or if you're talking to people, do you think there are any big misconceptions about producing and what it is?

[00:08:01] Liz Watts Producing is a really complicated sort of career and pathway in the production of a film to explain to people. I find it really hard to tell my mother what I do because it's so sort of nitty gritty, but at the same time, overseeing and looking ahead. A lot of my job is to look ahead and to try and pre-empt, and try and curtail catastrophes when they happen, etc. But the amount of producer credits on films these days I find a little disturbing because I do feel that most people aren't producing. They're perhaps doing a component that is very much appreciated, but perhaps shouldn't be a producer credit. And that comes from an American system mainly. And obviously film and television is very different. In television I tend to act in a more executive producer role, so I'm more involved with scripts at the beginning, I will be there on the shoot, but I'm not going to be standing next to the monitor every day unless I'm a creative behind it and had written it. So producing I think in different mediums also has a different pathway. But it's an interesting one because there's a lot of specific skills to producing, but not one specific skill. So it's about very much I'm a diplomat, I'm trying to negotiate with people. It's all about people and it's all about the way that you get on with those people as much as you can to be able to make things happen. I think that's the easiest way to say 'what is producing?' It's making things happen for the director, for the writers, for the cast, for everyone.

[00:09:40] Caris Bizzaca And so, you know, in terms of bringing those stories to life, like I was thinking about some of the films that you've worked on - Animal Kingdom,  Jewboy - being directorial debuts, but like a very specific look and vision from that director. Do you ever feel like part of your job is almost identifying talent and giving them the support?

[00:10:05] Liz Watts Yes, I think definitely producing an element of it is being able to source and identify and work with talent. And that talent might be the director or maybe the writer, or in some cases you've also got to have relationships with key cast. And I think part of the joy of producing has been actually working with new talent, or so-called new talent, because sometimes they're not. They've done lots of things before, but it might be a debut feature or a debut series. We working with Nakkiah Lui, that Sylvia Warmer's producing, hopefully coming up a series, but we did a really little iView 10 minute series with her and-

[00:10:50] Caris Bizzaca Kiki and Kitty?

[00:10:52] Liz Watts Kiki and Kitty, yeah. And I think that there's a natural attrition, too. In Australia, we lose a lot of writers to the US and UK, as well as directors. So part of my job is very much to be aware of and to be looking for new talent as much as possible.

[00:11:11] Caris Bizzaca On that point about losing writers and directors, I did want to ask about Cate Shortland because even though she has gone overseas, it is kind of incredible thing to be the first solo female director on a Marvel film and you did work with her on Lore and she was on the (Porchlight Film production) The Kettering Incident as well. How do you kind of feel about that?

[00:11:39] Liz Watts Well she's a really good friend of mine. But seeing someone like Cate Shortland go on and to do Black Widow, I'm absolutely thrilled about, because I do feel - of course I'm thrilled about it. She's breaking so many barriers doing that film. And it's great for everyone else. And I'm sure she'll keep making projects here as well. But, it's such an exciting world platform to which she can then move into doing whatever she wants. So I think it's a great thing. And that happens increasingly so. David Michod went and did War Machine after The Rover. And I think that's fantastic. And then we've done The King together, with Plan B, the same people that did War Machine, so have partnered with them. So I think increasingly we're working internationally. But we also need to encourage that talent base to keep going here and that's where Screen Australia, the state bodies all come into play as fundamental basis. We need to keep encouraging talent to work here.

[00:12:48] Caris Bizzaca I do remember reading the kind of press around when Cate Shortland got the (job on Black Widow) when that was announced at the time. And there was some talk it was because of Lore and that Scarlett Johansson had seen it. Did you hear that?

[00:13:06] Liz Watts I heard when it was announced. And I think Cate told me and Kate Richter, her agent, told me that Scarlett Johansson had seen Lore and was really impressed with it. I'm so glad because it's such a beautiful film, that film. And I was gonna say the other thing with Cate. I remember she and I sat on a Skype pitching her to a UK production company, many nights ago. About three years ago now. And it was for a high end kind of franchise sci-fi thing with a female protagonist. And I remember we made a list of every arthouse director that had gone over into either studio or Marvel or any of that kind of franchise property. And there was no women on that list. I think there was one at that time. And that was part of our point in pitching Cate. And so to see that now she's turned it around and is doing Black Widow is really great.

[00:14:14] Caris Bizzaca Another thing I was wondering is obviously Animal Kingdom did really massive things for the careers of a lot of people that were involved in that film and David Michod being one of them. But what did that film mean for you personally?

[00:14:30] Liz Watts Animal Kingdom, I think opened doors for everyone really who worked on it and who was in it. And obviously the cast, you can see that visible rise and David. But also for me personally, it opened doors basically, it just opened lots of doors and meant that I could have a seat at the table. And people like (cinematographer) Adam Arkapaw has gone on, he shot recently with us (on The King), but has been doing amazing work. So it sort of filters all the way down, I think. And it's definitely enhanced my career, without a doubt. I think there's a 10-year screening coming up somewhere in New York or something for it. So I can't believe it's 10 years. It doesn't feel quite that long ago, but it was a while ago now.

[00:15:21] Caris Bizzaca And do you find that there's any difference between producing for online with Kiki & Kitty say, to TV, to then film?

[00:15:32] Liz Watts I think there is a difference to the different content that we make of television, film and online. Look I don't have a wealth of experience in online, but the Kiki & Kitty for iview was a really great experience. I mean, mainly because you're always thinking hopefully about the audience and who you're aiming for. Saying that I would just say in the last two years, the cinema audience is so changed in this country and everywhere, that I don't think you can make a production these days that is purely one-platform orientated because people are watching things all over the place on so many different devices. And it's quite confusing in some ways I think for a lot of people who are trying to make a feature film now, it's like, are you making it for streaming or are you making for the cinema? And I think you can make it for both. And I strongly believe that [True History of the] Kelly [Gang] had the best release that it could in terms of gaining an audience, a younger audience with Stan and a bigger audience with Stan than it would have in the cinemas on a sole cinema release. So things are changing so much, I'm a little platform agnostic, I would say. And I'm just trying to make content, but trying to access the audience still, which is appropriate for that content. So whether it's a younger audience or is it still the arthouse Australian - I say art-house, meaning Dendy, Palace [Cinemas) audience or is it, trying to tap into a different market altogether? Things are changing a lot at. So it's interesting.

[00:17:11] Caris Bizzaca And also with your point with Kelly Gang, the kind of punk nature fits that younger audience who are on Stan.

[00:17:21] Liz Watts Exactly. And I think the younger audience is still really hard for films that aren't in a studio model or a studio bubble in terms of marketing and spend and the nature of them, like Marvel, to get that audience into a cinema is really hard. And I don't know of any film that's done it, frankly, in 20 years, really. Prove me wrong, someone. I'm sure there's some great figures for some younger films that we've made out of Australia, but I can't think of one.

[00:17:56] Liz Watts And so then to talk about The King being on Netflix. What was that like as an Australian producer working on a feature that is destined for Netflix? How did you find the experience and the fact that it did then release on the streamer as well as, did it have a theatrical window?

[00:18:17] Liz Watts Yeah it did. Making The King with Netflix was pretty fantastic, actually. In some ways it has a lovely simplistic path, if you like, because you're working with sort of a studio and that's a one-stop shop in terms of the finance. But we also were very mindful. We had a lot of Australian talent on that film, obviously. With Joel Edgerton and then we had cast and we had crew and we post produced the whole film here in Australia. That was really important for David as well to do that. But I found working with Netflix really fantastic. You know, obviously I was working with Plan B, which is Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner predominantly as hands on producers. We had a great relationship. We worked with David and Joel on the script and we had really great support from Netflix to do the film in a financially viable way, so a responsible way, but at the same time with a certain amount of creative freedom for David, which was fantastic. And much more probably freedom than you would have had in the old studio system. So a lot of the creative choices were very, very much supported by Netflix. And Sarah Bowen was our key exec there under Scott Stuber and they were really supportive. They made comments and there was criticisms and there was definitely budget talks. But I'm really proud of that film. I think we pulled off something that looks and feels very sort of weighty in terms of the budget spend. But at the same time, really appropriate to the story.

[00:19:59] Caris Bizzaca But with something like that, does a little part of you think 'someone is going to watch this on their phone.' Like you were saying how you're platform agnostic - does that bother you at all?

[00:20:10] Liz Watts It doesn't bother me. I think about it. Like we thought about it. You think about that with subtitles. You think about that with some of the shot design, knowing that it's going to be Netflix primarily. But at the same time, we shot 6k or whatever, I think it was 6.5 I can't even remember because it keeps increasing every day. (Jokes) We shot 15k. (laughs) No, but yeah, you definitely think about the design. And David (Michod) and Adam (Arkapaw) would talk about that. And it was very important that we could see in some of those interiors, Adam Arkapaw is such a genius at lighting and he's using a lot of natural light. He's using candles. We needed to make sure that it was visible and viable on different platforms. And Netflix are very aware of that. And their post guys were fantastic actually in advising on some things. But saying that, Adam really didn't have to compromise anything there. It was all pretty much as he wanted, or as David wanted. So I do think you're always thinking about the different platforms that the material is going out on.

[00:21:22] Liz Watts I was also wondering from a producer's point of view, like how valuable is it to have something like Animal Kingdom sell that format and become a television series in the US.

[00:21:34] Liz Watts Yeah, the Animal Kingdom remake story's, it's interesting and I can say that after five seasons now, but I think that format sale happened - it took a couple of years for that to happen. And at the time it was a very different time to now and perhaps now if we were doing that deal again, David may want a sort of creative role in it. At the time, he didn't want to remake that film into a television series. And there wasn't that kind of opportunity. There was the streamers - I think Netflix was still done by DVD. They were still putting out DVDs. So the streaming platforms weren't there. Deadwood might have just happened on HBO, but it was very, very early [in] quality, high-end TV opportunities. But of course, West Wing had been made and John Wells and Jonathan Lisco are really smart, great television people. And I think they've created a show that is very much in its own world and genre. But has ties with the original feature film. And we've been executive producers on that for the last whatever years. But it's an interesting one, because today you might think differently in terms of the options of what to do with a feature film. Our series Laid, which is a ABC TV drama, we did two seasons, has been optioned I think four times to be remade and nothing's come of it. But that's not to say something might happen, and hopefully for Marieke [Hardy] and Kirsty [Fisher], that will also happen to them.

[00:23:27] Caris Bizzaca And on that note, do you have any advice for producers or people that are wanting to get into producing and they want to create a sustainable business-

[00:23:47] Liz Watts (Laughs) No! I don't know. Sell out!

[00:23:49] Caris Bizzaca Someone once said to me that making only feature films is quite difficult and to have TV in the background bubbling away is a way of creating that - do you have any advice, aside from 'get out'? (laughs)

[00:24:09] Liz Watts I think things have changed quite dramatically, say since the year 2000 even. Since we were early days, Porchlight. And increasingly, I don't know a production company that's only doing features, to my knowledge. I don't even know of one. So that kind of mixed slate of TV and feature film. And YouTube increasingly. That's absolutely important. So vital to being a producer in an ongoing way.

[00:24:42] Caris Bizzaca And I think what I would also, I'd say to young producers, is absolutely team up and don't be afraid of joining forces with other producers, even on a one-off basis, because I think some of the best films I've been involved with have been outside of Porchlight as well. It's not just been with Vincent and Anita, but with See-Saw and with Matchbox, with Stateless most recently where I just helped, I wasn't hands on at all. But I think that you have to be open to opportunities where they arise. And increasingly, television is absolutely fundamental to your slate. And why not? You know, with the amount of platforms, streamers sort of coming into Australia, HBO are probably going to be here soon, which will be interesting to see what happens with Foxtel. But there's lots of opportunities. And I think the environment has so changed for feature film. I don't think I'll be making a film like Kelly in that way again ever. I think the next feature we do will be quite different in terms of the financial structures behind it.

[00:25:56] Caris Bizzaca Do you feel like as a producer you are having to be very adaptable then, because this year is different from last year in terms of financing models and things like that? Are you constantly having to adapt?

[00:26:09] Liz Watts Yes. Yeah. As a producer, adaptability is absolutely key. And that is a really good word, I think to be using, especially if you're coming through because everything is moving in terms of the structures of finance underpinning the industry. Everything is moving around, which is great because it's opportune. You know, there's opportunities there. People have to be nimble and flexible in how they're doing things. And at the same time, you're still trying to creatively make material and content that's really great. And you're trying to also work in an industry that... the worst thing is that you don't want the Australian film industry and the television industry here to feel like a cottage industry to the rest of the world. It's got to be outward looking. We've got to be international. And we also have to abide by industrial regulations and fair work and you can't exploit people - you've got to pay them. But saying that, you start off and you work for free a lot of the time. When you're young,bBut hopefully you're not doing that 30 years on because that's not sustainable.

[00:27:26] Caris Bizzaca And so you touched on a few things with advice for producers. Does anything else come to mind, specifically advice for young producers? So it's collaborate...?

[00:27:37] Liz Watts I was going to say, in addition for producers who are coming through, I think it's really important to form relationships [because] they end up going on for many, many years if they're great ones. And that can be with a director, or it could be with a writer, or it could be with other producers, or could be with an actor. Filmmaking and television making is about relationships. It's about people coming together to create something under a singular or multi-single  vision and having all of those relationships earlier on, I think it grows you and you grow with them and they grow with you. So I'd encourage people as much as possible to be working on each other's projects or doing stuff online, but doing it with other people, not just sitting in your bedroom and trying to do it by yourself.

[00:28:31] Caris Bizzaca That was producer Liz Watts and a big thanks to her for joining us on the podcast. Also, don't forget that you can subscribe to the Screen Australia podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts, or you can subscribe to our newsletter and we'll send you all of the latest podcasts as well as industry news, articles and videos every fortnight. Thanks for listening.