Interview with Gareth Ellis-Unwin, Producer of Steel Country - Raindance

Ahead of his Steel Country Masterclass on 18th April and of the upcoming release of Steel Country, we sat down with Academy Awards and BAFTA-winning producer Gareth Ellis-Unwin (The King’s Speech).

What intrigued you most reading the script of Steel Country? Did the original script undergo any significant changes throughout the production process? 

When Simon Fellows (the director) first brought me the script, what struck me was this underlying principle of “a good story told well”. At the time I first read Steel Country, I was getting pitched about 20-30 ideas a week at Bedlam Film Productions. Some fully formed screenplays, others just treatments and concepts. So many would perform these incredible written gymnastics but ultimately fail as a good story. An unsatisfying read. It was the clarity and focus of the story that attracted me. A 9 piece jigsaw, as Simon puts it.

What are the factors you consider when selecting the right director for a project and what did it bring you to work with Simon Fellows?

It was Simon’s project so he sorta came with the script ! We had however known each other from before, I had (during my 1st AD phase of career) budgeted and scheduled his film Malice in Wonderland, sadly dates and production schedules meant I couldn’t work on the film. But we remained close and he pitched me Steel Country some 8 years later. It just goes to show how persistence is important in our industry.

The town that contributes to the atmosphere of Steel Country is Griffin, Georgia (USA). How did you choose this location and did you have to face any challenges during the shootings? 

The main reason we shot in Georgia was the cash incentive and the fact it was a great match to Pennsylvania where the script was set. They have a very robust tax credit available for filming, and knowing a few friends working on The Walking Dead I knew the crews were great. It also satisfied a long-held ambition of mine which was to get to shoot a movie in the U. S. of A. We worked closely with the Georgia Film Academy – it’s important to me that every production of mine works towards creating opportunities for the next generation of filmmakers, and after scouting we landed on Griffin. It’s an amazing town, in many ways down on its luck – the textile industry left 50+ years ago  leaving the town now with 2nd and 3rd generation poor families, but a brilliant sense of commitment to returning to former glories. It warms me to know we had a positive impact on the town.

What do you look for in a story? Do you have any tips for screenwriters who would like to pitch you their scripts?

Audience. Audience. Audience. If I can’t understand from reading the script who it is going to appeal to, it’s dead before it’s started. The writer has to tell me who the audience is going to be. I have to feel and know who the film will play well to, who is likely to finance it, and what the thing is likely to (or should) cost to see into production.

Given your experience, what are the most common mistakes a producer should avoid?

Forgetting to be a decent human being. Thankfully we are emerging from a period of time where bullying behavior, getting the shot at all costs, and a fairly toxic working atmosphere was the norm. We tell stories, that’s all we do. No different from the minstrel or the jester in the town square 200 years ago. We are not saving lives. I know we play a high stakes game, but I always chuckle when I remember what a wizened studio exec once said to me: “Son, you make movies. If they remember your movie in 5 years, you get to call it a film. If they remember it after 20 years … then it’s fucking cinema.”

With an unlimited budget at your disposal, what would your dream production project be?

Without being contrary, I don’t think I’d want a limitless budget. Budget seems to drive how big or bold you can make the movie, but does more money available guarantee an increase in quality?  It might take away some of the funding nightmares and getting to a successful financial close. But what are you going to do? Pay the actors even more? Blow more shit up? Spend a load more on VFX or even better … craft service?  If I had that much money I’d spend it on creating a time machine… and get to be the 3rd AD on Jaws, ET or Jean de Florette.

Don’t miss Gareth’s Steel Country Masterclass on 18th April, followed by a preview screening of the film and Q&A with special guests.



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