Films: His labour of love

Films: His labour of love


 MAGICAL PERIOD A still from the upcoming Hollywood film, ‘The Eagle’; (inset) Hollywood producer, Duncan KenworthyAnd yet, Duncan Kenworthy has made a career out of doing so, producing three of his country’s most widely successful movies — Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually.

Nearly eight years have passed since Duncan’s last release, but he’s got a good excuse for the big hole, as he likes to call it, in his filmography. Over the past several years, Kenworthy has been closely associated with the British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTA) as chairman and since 2009, as the vice president; second-in-command, to none other than Prince William. Since then, Duncan has been responsible for some of the much-needed structural changes within the organisation and rejuvenating the annual BAFTA awards that was telecast worldwide and viewed by an audience of about 40 million this year. “I did it (the job at BAFTA) as if it were a movie. As a producer, I have been told I am very hands-on, and that’s just how I approach my work at the Academy,” he says.

Duncan’s latest film, The Eagle, is an adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical young fiction novel, The Eagle of the Ninth. The book, first published in the 50s, was sort of a scaled-down Harry Potter of its time, finding a large number of loyal fans in both children and adults, with its own radio series and later in the 70s, a TV adaptation. It is a story set in the 2nd century, a period of struggle between the tribes of Britain and Rome, with honour as the overriding theme.

The central character, Marcus Aquila, is the son of a Roman general whose legion disappears in the Scottish highlands. Marcus sets off on a journey with his British slave, Esca, to restore his father’s reputation. The master-slave dynamics, and how they go from mutual distrust to friendship, is at the heart of the story.

The Eagle is Duncan’s first major non-romantic film and collaboration with Kevin MacDonald, the director of Last King of Scotland. Writer-director Richard Curtis, who has been the common feature in all his major hits so far, is not a part of this project. If the pre-release jitters are hitting harder than usual, Duncan isn’t admitting it. “It might seem like a departure from the point of view of my career so far, but I  have loved all my movies and have felt equally apprehensive each time,” he says, and adds, “Marcus and Esca’s quest is for reasons of honour, which is a very contemporary theme. People today want respect and they will be able to relate to it.”

The Eagle may not be a love story, but it is no less a labour of that emotion for Duncan. The filmmaker loved the book as a child and re-read it in the early 90s after a conversation with director Mike Newell, on the sets of Four Weddings and a Funeral. A few years later, while shooting Notting Hill, Duncan was on the phone, persuading the publisher to award him the film rights. After waiting for years for a celebrated writer who was eager to write the screenplay, Duncan Kenworthy went ahead and secured the movie rights for The Eagle of the Ninth in 2004. But more time was to pass before the film got made.

“Kevin (MacDonald) and I worked with screenwriter Jeremy Brock (Last King of Scotland, Mrs Brown), and the screenplay was ready by February 2007. I thought we could get the filming done by the end of the year, only to have Kevin announce that he had already committed to State of Play (Russel Crowe, Ben Affleck). I said, ‘Well, you’ll have to un-commit’, but he couldn’t. I had waited all those years, so I thought, I might as well wait for two more!” says Duncan.

Much like The Eagle, Duncan’s career took off gradually. He started his career producing children’s television shows, including Sesame Street in New York. He spent several years in the medium, making his first big film, Four Weddings and a Funeral, when he was 42. “My first feature was for Jim Henson (creator of Sesame Street). As an associate producer on Henson’s Dark Crystal, I didn’t enjoy the experience much. It was a big film with a crew of about 400 people and most of my work involved making sure that they were fed and that there were enough toilets on set. I was happy to go back to television. But a few years later, shooting a series in 35 mm film, I got a taste for the medium. When the script of Four Weddings and a Funeral came my way, I just knew I had to make it,” he says.

Duncan’s natural instinct for picking the right projects has since made him one of the most successful producers in the UK. Over the years, he has worked with some of the biggest stars in the world, including Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. In the midst of promoting The Eagle, Duncan has already begun work on his next project, a new version of the British Classic, My Fair Lady, which, the filmmaker feels, is a throwback to his days in children’s programming. “When I tell my friends, who are also parents of young kids, that I am working on My Fair Lady, they say, ‘Oh! My children love that movie!’. They love the costumes, the music and also that she turns into a princess in the end!” says Duncan.

Talking of musicals, Duncan admits that his exposure to Bollywood is limited, and he owes it to a Bollywood film festival he organised for the members of BAFTA a few years ago. “I met Shahrukh Khan through Lakshmi Mittal, and Lakshmi asked me how Shahrukh could get a BAFTA Award. I said, ‘Well, he can’t, because none of our members have seen his films. This triggered the idea for a festival, where we screened Bollywood films and invited Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and of course, Shahrukh and many others,” he says.

“Maybe, My Fair Lady, with its song and dance, could be a step towards making a Bollywood movie,” he says with a laugh. ‘The Eagle’, releases through PVR
Cinemas in India, this March.