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LFF Interview with Gabrielle Tana - Producer of Philomena and The Invisible Woman

Women and Hollywood By Kate Wilson | Women and Hollywood October 28, 2013 at 2:00PM

Gabrielle Tana's name made two notable appearances at the London Film Festival - through her New York-based shingle Magnolia Mae, she is the producer of Stephen Frears' crowd-pleaser Philomena and Ralph Fiennes' eagerly anticipated The Invisible Woman.
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Ralph Fiennes and Gabrielle Tana
Ralph Fiennes and Gabrielle Tana

Gabrielle Tana's name made two notable appearances at the London Film Festival - through her New York-based shingle Magnolia Mae, she is the producer (with her partner Carolyn Marks Blackwood) of Stephen Frears' crowd-pleaser Philomena and Ralph Fiennes' eagerly anticipated The Invisible Woman.

Philomena is the true story of a woman's search for the child who was taken from her fifty years ago. Written by Steve Coogan, who also plays spin-doctor-turned-human-interest-journalist Martin Sixsmith (upon whose book the film is based), the film is light of touch, soft of lens, inoffensive and funny. It will have mass appeal, particularly to the older generation of cinema-goers who have contributed to surprise hits in recent years, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel particularly comes to mind.

By comparison, The Invisible Woman is serious and foreboding, challenging the audience with its sparse dialogue and slow pace while painting a darkly glorious picture of Dickensian London and a considered, astute and powerful depiction of the man himself by director Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes' performance as Dickens has attracted plaudits and admiration. The depiction is, as expected, complex and carefully drawn, simultaneously attractive and despicable. The eponymous invisible woman is the young lover who was his muse in his later years until his death, Nelly Ternan, played quietly and with subtlety by Felicity Jones.

Women and Hollywood met Gabrielle Tana to talk to her about both these films and her experiences as a female producer who is hitting the big time:

Women and Hollywood: In your own words, could you describe both of the films that were shown recently in the London Film Festival, Philomena and The Invisible Woman?

Gabrielle Tana: Philomena is a moving and entertaining, heartfelt story about a woman who is coming to terms with something she has kept hidden from years. It's a wonderful road movie with Judi and Steve, actually. It's about that relationship as much as it's about the other big issues that it deals with. It's about how people affect each other.

And The Invisible Woman is an amazing story that was based on Claire Tomalin's book about Nelly Ternan, who was the mistress of Charles Dickens during the last years of his life and who was written out of history. He destroyed all evidence of it and her family destroyed all evidence of it. It's another amazing portrait of a relationship between two people who deeply affect each other. She also hides her secret and uncovers that secret.

And so there are parallels, funnily enough, even though they're extremely different movies.

WaH: The parallels are quite striking, particularly between the young Philomena and the young Nelly Ternan -- they are both hidden, invisible women...

GT: I think there are lots of stories that go on still and are very similar to the stories of these women. In a recent Q and A, the writer Abi Morgan referred to it being very likely that there were invisible women in the audience. It is still something that goes on, but society is different in a way. What is definitely different is opportunity - the opportunities that women have professionally. In Nelly Ternan's family, they were more emancipated than most women at their time because they worked in the theatre. The theatre was one of the few worlds where a woman could have a presence and participate. Even though being an actress was looked down upon, it did give the women some freedom.

WaH: Abi Morgan is a much-lauded screen and television writer in the UK. What was it like to work with her on The Invisible Woman?

GT: A joy. She is so generous and so committed to the work and loves the work. She and Ralph really got along so, so well. She would come to set a lot. For Ralph to act and direct, Abi's support was really wonderful. If something wasn't working he could ask for her help and there she would be.

WaH: Both Philomena and The Invisible Woman are about sexual relationships, but neither has sex scenes, to speak. Did you make active choices to omit explicit scenes and, if so, are you actively eager to make films that are grown up and for a more mature audience?

GT: With The Invisible Woman it was a really conscious decision on Ralph's part -- it was about restraint and about that time, and being true to that time. We are making film for entertainment, but what does that mean? We've made sophisticated, grown up movies, in a way. I don't mean it to sound quite like that – but let's just say there are no cheap tricks.

WaH: In terms of marketing for sophisticated, grown up movies, has it helped that there is more of recognition of the market for films that appeal to an older audience? For example, did the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel help when it came to getting these films off the ground?

GT: Definitely -- some people call it the Marigold Hotel effect. Although, any film with Judi Dench is a no-brainer, I guess.

WaH: Both Judi Dench and Steven Coogan give incredible performances in Philomena. This is, perhaps, Steve Coogan's strongest dramatic, or non-comedic, role to date. Is that in part due to the successful writing and development phase?

GT: I developed the film with Steve. He wasn't even sure about being in the film in the beginning, but he did want to be taken seriously -- either as a writer or as an actor. He told me that he can't take meetings without everyone laughing the moment he walks through the door. He's so smart -- he's so much more than funny.

WaH: Many of the women with films in the LFF this year are first time directors. The Invisible Woman is Ralph's second film, but you produced his first, Coriolanus, two years ago. Comparably, Stephen Frears is an old hand. Can you tell me about the difference of working with a less experienced director, versus a very experienced director?

GT: These are both extraordinary people. Ralph took his directing debut in Coriolanus extremely seriously -- he wanted to be involved in everything. There was incredible attention to detail, including with the script. Stephen delegates much more and comes out of another tradition, perhaps because he has been doing it for so long. There was a difference in the way they worked with the actors. Ralph, as an actor, does things that other directors might not do. Stephen has a knack of pretending he doesn't know anything when he actually knows everything -- it seems chaotic and then suddenly everything synthesizes. Their styles are so very different.

WaH: There are a number of very successful female produced who have aligned themselves, not necessarily exclusively, with successful directors -- Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg, JoAnne Sellar and Paul Thomas Anderson, for example. Is your relationship with Ralph Fiennes as a director heading that way?

GT: I'll help Ralph make any film he wants to make -- that's my best answer.

WaH: You've had great success over the last few years, culminating with these two films in the LFF. We know that there are few overnight successes in Hollywood. Please can you put your career into context for us?

GT: I've been working in the business for about 25 years. I started working in production and then worked for Disney in France and then decided to become and independent producer. I moved from France to New York but was always working on films in Europe, not in the States. The first film I did as an independent producer was a European co-production that involved France and Germany, called Someone Else's America with Tom Conti and a Serbian director, Goran Paskaljevic. That film took me to New York and I stayed to produce a film for Michael di Jiacomo called Animals with the Tollkeeper -- with Mickey Rooney, John Turturro, Tim Roth and Mili Avital -- which went to Sundance.

After that I started developing The Duchess with Amanda Foreman, which took a long time -- people have said it was like incubating an elephant. We had numerous directors attached to it and went far with Susanne Bier -- even though she eventually ditched me, but she did some wonderful work on the project and so I'm eternally grateful! Then Saul Dibb directed it and I forged a relationship with Ralph on that film.

WaH: Do you have any particular advice for female feature directors who would like to find their project on your development slate?

GT: Great stories. It is always about great stories.

WaH: Do you have any favourite women directors?

GT: Susanne Bier is great. And I love Andrea Arnold's work -- she's an extraordinary filmmaker. Jane Campion as well.

WaH: Do you have any thoughts on the challenges ahead in terms of distribution and new distribution models?

GT: Video on demand is definitely the way forward, I think. And I urge young people to protect cinema by not pirating things and illegally downloading things. We won't be able to do this if people don't pay for it -- that needs to be understood. When you learn that your film can be watched on the internet before you're ready, it is painful.

Philomena is on general release in the UK from 1st November, 2013.

The Invisible Woman will be released in the UK in early 2014.

This article is related to: Women Producers, Philomena, The Invisible Woman, Gabrielle Tana


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