Our Under the Spotlight series aims to cast a light on industry peers we love, envy and respect so that more people can understand the work that goes into The Work.
For the last 15 years, Roy Boulter and Solon Papadopoulos of Hurricane Films have produced some of the UK’s most critically-acclaimed independent films and documentaries. In that time, they’ve picked up half-a-dozen RTS awards and two BAFTA nominations, including one for Terence Davies’s heartfelt ode to Liverpool, Of Time and the City.
Recent productions, including Sometimes, Always, Never and A Prayer Before Dawn, have premiered at the Berlin, Toronto, Cannes, and London film festivals. Their latest film, The Last Bus, was released in August 2021, and stars Timothy Spall as a widowed pensioner who travels the length of Britain on his free bus pass.
I sat down with Roy to discuss the film’s success, Liverpool’s growing profile in the film industry, and the future of cinema.
The Last Bus was released back in August, and has continued to play at cinemas well into October, which is a tremendous run for an independent release – regardless of the challenges the industry currently faces. What is it about The Last Bus that you think is connecting with audiences?
I think it’s an unusual tale. It’s the most unusual of all the films we’ve developed and produced. As soon as people hear what it’s about, they’re intrigued. We’re also really lucky and blessed to have had Timothy Spall. He’s beloved and got a huge following. And then it’s come at a time when COVID restrictions have largely been lifted; audiences are finally returning to cinemas and want something uplifting. The Last Bus leaves you feeling upbeat, in spite of its miserable storyline.
Narratively, tonally, The Last Bus is a world away from some of your other films – A Prayer Before Dawn, for example. Is there any intention behind the variety of films you produce or has your production slate just panned out that way?
At the very heart of everything we do, we’ve got to love the script. That’s our guiding light. We don’t set out for a diverse slate; if the script grabs us, then we go with it. If anything, we’ve moved towards a more commercial slate because it’s getting harder to finance independent productions. In an industry that should be script-dependent, financiers now want a cast and a director secured before committing to a project.
I believe Sol did some second unit director work on The Last Bus?
Yeah, we needed shots of location and scenery, so he did that in the Cairngorms. Everything was shot, more or less, within an hour and a half of Glasgow. We were going to follow Tim’s character’s route and do the whole of the country at one point, but [director] Gillies MacKinnon didn’t feel he needed to do that. That saved us time and money. With a bigger budget, we’d have shot almost as the journey went.
Did you have any pushback from people saying ‘that’s not John o’Groats, that’s not Land’s End’?
None at all. In fact, we had a couple of people saying ‘I recognise that place in Cornwall’, even though it was all shot outside Glasgow. And anyway, audiences are savvy enough to realise that films are make-believe, that we can’t always shoot where they’re set.
Did you visit set yourself?
Yes, that’s our thing. Sol and I are on set all day, every day. Some producers don’t do that, which amazes us. It took us 10 years to get The Last Bus made, from initial pitch to cinema release; we just think it’s mad to spend all that time and not go on set. And it’s helpful for the director that we’re there so that they can ask questions if they need to. As long as the director trusts their producers, they’re usually comfortable with having them on set. If nothing else, they think they can complain directly.
You don’t have to strike a balance between being hands-on and hands-off?
No, because it’s a collaborative process. We’re great believers in collaboration. If you’re bringing a director on board, let them direct. If you’re bringing an editor on board, let them edit. You can’t sit on a director’s shoulder and tell them what to do, it just doesn’t work. If we’re asked for our input, we’re there on hand, but otherwise no.
Looking more now at your home city, Liverpool, which has grown into a major hub for film production. In the last couple of years, it’s played host to films such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, and more recently future blockbusters like The Batman. How does the influx of these large studio productions affect the work of independent production companies like yourselves – do they provide any opportunities for you or is there no relationship at all?
None at all. When the big monster moves into town, they’re all crewed up for the most part. There’s a knock-on effect for the local economy, of course. Sometimes we get the occasional call saying we need runners, so we’ve been able to get some of our trainees on the first rung of the ladder. The big productions come to Liverpool because we’ve got the architecture, but it’s also a cheap and convenient place to shoot. You can close roads at the drop of a hat in a way you can’t in, say, London. Over the years, the Liverpool Film Office has built up a brilliant reputation for Liverpool being a film-friendly city.
We’ve lobbied our MPs and our council for years, had conversations down in Westminster, urging them to support filmmakers and productions indigenous to Liverpool. The result of that is the new studio [The Depot, which opened for business 4 October] and the Liverpool City Region Production Fund. We’re very proud to have been integral in all of that. And hopefully, we’ll benefit from it because we’ve now got a studio which is literally at the end of my road.
Hurricane has done a fair bit of shooting in and around Liverpool.
Some, yes, but we’d love to work more in Liverpool. Flying off to Belgium and Luxembourg is all very well and good, but it’s nice to go home for your tea. The plan has always been to shoot here more, and the MPs, the council, and the regional mayor have listened to us and have acted upon it. It’s great news for us and great news for the city.
Our next film, The Last Date [a sequel to The Last Bus], is set entirely in Liverpool, and the city itself is a character. We’ve had support from the Liverpool City Region Production Fund, with the idea being that we’ll shoot it in Liverpool. So, we’ve set it in Liverpool, we’ll shoot it in Liverpool, and we’ll be using Liverpool’s brand new studio.
Liverpool is also a major destination for television production, particularly for serial dramas like Tin Star and The War of the Worlds. I know you’ve both worked in television before. Do you have any plans to expand into serial dramas with Hurricane?
Television is so difficult to break into. Ironically, when Sol and I started Hurricane we were both firmly established in TV. I was writing for Brookside, Eastenders, The Bill. Sol was making lots of documentaries, nationally and internationally. But we both headed into features while the rest of the world went the other way. Although we’ve made fairly big features, in the world of TV we’re sort of a new company, which means there are challenges getting our TV stuff commissioned. As for producing serial dramas, the format all depends on what suits the story.
I don’t want to ask you too many questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s had such an impact on the film industry that it’s impossible to ignore. How did multiple lockdowns and social distancing guidelines affect Hurricane’s production schedule and shoots?
Not greatly. We were very lucky that The Last Bus had finished shooting and was coming to the end of post-production. If COVID had come a year earlier, it would have been the end of Hurricane Films, absolutely. The shoot wouldn’t have happened, and we couldn’t have coped with that financially, spiritually, morally. Luckily, with the picture locked and sound work all that was left to be done, we were able to finish it remotely. Liverpool Film Office turned the Production Fund into a Development Fund, which was a lifesaver. We’ve come out of that with two features and a TV series written. The pandemic has been a horrible, horrible time, but business-wise, thankfully, we got through it.
The September issue of Sight & Sound magazine posed to filmmakers some thought-provoking questions in the wake of the pandemic, and it was interesting to see how varied the responses were. I thought, being independent filmmakers from Liverpool, you might provide some unique and insightful takes on some of those questions. So first, in your opinion, does cinema need saving?
Well, if it doesn’t need saving, it certainly needs a helping hand. Cinema takings aren’t anywhere near what they were pre-COVID. For us, it’s getting harder and harder, there’s no way around that. Big studio releases like Bond and the Marvel films will still pack cinemas. But does theatrically-released British independent cinema need saving? Yeah, absolutely.
What gives you hope for the future?
Without sounding corny, young people – those who are enthusiastic and driven and passionate about cinema. The fact we’re still getting great scripts, that technology means people can now make films on their iPhone, that there are still great independent films being released in cinemas – that’s all really encouraging. Most of the time we’re complaining about how hard it is, but actually, if someone has a great idea, a great script, and can band some mates together, they can make a film.
Where will cinema be in ten years’ time?
It’s hard to predict. The big blockbusters are here to stay, definitely. The films that we were making and were aspiring to make, I’m not sure. I think there will always be theatrically-released British dramas, but twenty years ago, they were being made for £10-15m. That doesn’t happen anymore. Budgets are much, much smaller now. But it will survive in some form.
Hurricane’s work isn’t restricted to feature films; you’ve also produced documentaries, social community projects, and educational films for museums and broadcasters. Are you particularly proud of any of these projects, and what are you working on at the moment?
Our museum films I’m really proud of. In the Town Where I was Born [an immersive film about the early lives and careers of The Beatles] and The Power and the Glory? [charting Liverpool’s rise and fall during the days of the British Empire] are still in the Museum of Liverpool, so I’m very proud of them. But we’re doing less and less of that kind of stuff. When austerity kicked in the big museum projects tended to dry up. There are fewer and fewer cinematic entertainment projects in educational spaces, which is a shame. I’m very proud of our Jack Jones documentary, Unsung Hero: The Jack Jones Story. The Jack Jones Trust is still going, and we’ll make something else with them when we can. Ultimately, it’s all down to the story. If there’s a story we can tell, and we can raise the money to make it, then we will.
When do you expect we’ll see Hurricane’s next feature film on the big screen?
Well, Prayer Before Dawn took three years to make and that was a quick one. You just don’t know. We’ve got probably 10 really developed projects, a couple of things in the pipeline with Netflix, a couple of things with Sky. They’re all out there. Everything we’ve got is currently with a director or cast or financier; we’re just waiting for the responses to come. But we can’t be waiting for 10 years again!
The Last Bus is in cinemas now. Follow Hurricane Films on Twitter.