"The producer, Graham Leader,
thought his film would have all the right ingredients.
Apparently, he was wrong."
Filming Turns Out to Be
Just the Beginning
by William Grimes
The New York Times, February 13, 1994
"Arts & Leisure," section 2, page 1 & 20-21.
Researched for the Bates Archive by Judy Wilds
FILM "SHUTTLECOCK" HAS A FEW things going for it. It
stars Alan Bates, the gifted British actor who burned up the
screen in "An Unmarried Woman." Mr. Bates's co-star
is Lambert Wilson, not a household name in the United States
but popular in France, a sort of thinking man's Aidan Quinn.
The cinematographer, Denis Lenoir, served as director of photography
on Bertrand Tavernier's "Daddy Nostalgie" and Patrice
Leconte's "Monsieur Hire." The script comes with a
pedigree, too. It is based on a novel by Graham Swift, whose
novel "Waterland" was turned into the 1992 film of
the same name, starring Jeremy Irons.
If "Shuttlecock" does not sound
familiar, that's not surprising. It has never been released.
It sits in a closet in midtown Manhattan, unseen by the public
since being finished more than two years ago.
Many completed films fail to find a distributor,
of course. At last year's Independent Feature Film Market, 75
feature films were shown, of which 5 received a theatrical release.
"And that was a good year," said Catherine Tait, the
executive director of the Independent Feature Project, which
runs the market.
But it is highly unusual for a film with
actors like Mr. Bates and Mr. Wilson to fall by the wayside.
In the seven years he has devoted to the
film, Graham Leader, the producer of "Shuttlecock,"
has had ample time to draw lessons from the experience of putting
together an independent film and then trying to present it to
the public. Some he has transmuted into rueful aphorisms. Perhaps
the truest is this: "If things don't go very right for a
film, they go very wrong."
"Shuttlecock" is a film for which
things went very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that it makes a kind
of negative case study for anyone thinking of investing in or
producing an independent film. Its troubled history is a whole-earth
catalogue of bad decisions, strategic miscalculations, painful
rejections, misunderstandings and lots of old-fashioned bad luck.
It is the film story that independent producers pray they will
never live through.
"Shuttlecock" began promisingly.
Seven years ago, Mr. Leader fell in love with Swift's novel.
It is a brooding, muffled tale of a young Englishman's difficulties
with his young son, and his own struggle to know his father,
who played a heroic role as a secret agent in France during World
War II, operating under the code name "Shuttlecock."
Early in the novel, however, the son, who works in Scotland Yard's
records office, discovers documents that threaten to undermine
the father's version of his wartime activities. "I see it
as a father-son story with a thriller element," said Mr.
Entering the Business
Where Hope Beats Common Sense
Mr. Leader arranged
a meeting with Mr. Swift and ended up optioning the rights to
the novel for two years for $7,500 at the current exchange rate.
"A book of that quality could attract a strong screenwriter,"
Mr. Leader said, "even though I had no reputation or money."
At this point, the project was fueled more
by hope and idealism than by cold cash.
Mr. Leader's credentials were slender. A
44-year-old native of Dover, England, now living in the Hamptons
with his American wife and two children, he had worked as an
art dealer in London for several years, first with the Marlborough
Gallery and later on his own. He got into the film business by
In 1975, while attending an auction in the
United States, he ran into a client who was a film maker and
whose latest project was a documentary film on progressive country
music. The art business was slow. The film sounded interesting.
Mr. Leader agreed to produce it.
Common sense suggested that the proper market
would be public television. But reason did not prevail.
"We ended up doing a 90-minute feature,"
said Mr. Leader. "We decided to go for broke, and that's
exactly what happened."
In the end, Mr. Leader cut his losses by
selling the European rights and arranging a tax-shelter deal
in the United States. The film, "Heartworn Highways,"
is now on videotape.
Common sense, again, might have suggested
to Mr. Leader that the film business was not for him.
"To this day I can't figure out how
it works financially unless you hit a really big vein,"
he said. "But independent films are born out of passion."
A Roller Coaster Ride to Production
With the rights to
"Shuttlecock" in hand, Mr. Leader began shopping for
a screenwriter. He found Tim Rose Price, who had written several
BBC dramas and was beginning to develop a reputation, enough
of a reputation to attract Jon Amiel, the director of "The
With Mr. Price and Mr. Amiel on board, Mr.
Leader was able to attract interest from Channel 4 and British
Screen, two important film investors. Channel 4 agreed to put
in $900,000, payable when the film was delivered. British Screen
said it would provide just over $500,000, if Mr. Leader
could find a European co-producer willing to invest $1.5 million.
The total budget was a very modest $3 million or so, about an
eight the cost of the average Hollywood film.
For most of 1989 Mr. Amiel, Mr. Price and
Mr. Leader worked on the screenplay.
This was the high-water point for "Shuttlecock."
The financing looked fairly solid. Mr. Leader moved back to England
to make his film. Within hours after his plane touched down at
Heathrow, things began to unravel.
"The day I arrived in London, I had
lunch with Jon Amiel," said Mr. Leader. "He told me
he'd been offered another movie, 'Queen of Hearts.' My choice
was either to match the deal, which was inconceivable, or find
a new director." For six months, Mr. Leader pursued option
No. 2, eventually finding Andrew Piddington, who had directed
docudramas for British television, but never a feature film.
Then a new script brought in Mr. Bates.
"I read the script and I liked it at
once," he said. "The two things it is about, I've experienced
and thought about a lot. The first is the parent-child business,
three generations trying to understand each other; the other
is the theme of heroism and cowardice, how people can be brave
at moments, and do appalling things as well."
But the financing was turning out to be a
problem. Mr. Leader had already shopped the project around in
the United States to Orion Classics, Avenue Pictures and others
soon after signing up Mr. Amiel. But American investors wanted
the characters and settings Americanized. (This in fact was done
with the film of "Waterland," which shifted a British
boys school to Pittsburgh.)
Mr. Leader eventually
found a European partner in an independent French company called
Belles Rives Productions. This should have completed the financing
package, but at the last minute, British Screen withdrew its
"If I had been rational, I would have
pulled my horns in and canned the project," said Mr. Leader.
"But at this point, I had invested five years of my life.
My wife and I had sold everything we owned and moved to England."
Instead, he scrambled to put money together
to finish the film. One of France's largest film labs agreed
to provide materials and film-processing services and hold off
on the billing. That still left a shortfall of $225,000. Mr.
Leader called a meeting of his creditors and made his pitch:
the only way to recoup was to press ahead. If he could get film
in the can, just a rough cut to show investors, everything would
work out, he said. The theory was flawed.
"The truth is, you're at your strongest
before the camera rolls," he said. "In cinema, you're
selling a dream, a vision. When you have actual film, the fable
is somehow tainted."
A Fractious Shoot in Lisbon
For six weeks at the
end of 1990, a French, English and Portuguese crew filmed on
location in Lisbon in an atmosphere that Mr. Leader describes
as "highly unorganized chaos," although his director
and Mr. Bates both say that Mr. Leader was quite skillful in
not letting the chaos interfere with the creative process.
It was better that the actors didn't know
what was going on. One bleak day, the checks stopped coming.
Much to Mr. Leader's surprise, the French bank that had lent
the production money took its fees out of the loan rather than
out of the profits from the film.
"They were really quite extraordinary,
the French," said Keith Hayley, the film's production accountant.
"They'd say one thing one moment, and turn around and do
something else. It was quite an eye opener."
Desperation set in. Mr. Leader, Mr. Piddington
and Mr. Price put half their fees back into the film. For a brief,
insane moment, a miracle investor from London showed up in a
Rolls-Royce and spent days strutting around the set and avoiding
signing a contract. His source of income was a New Zealand heiress,
who, unfortunately, chose that moment to freeze all his bank
Against the odds, filming in Lisbon and London
was completed in January, and post-production work began at Pinewood
Studios. Mr. Leader had his raw material in the can.
If Only of the Brief And Harmful Kind
In the film world,
news travels fast, and rumors of a hot script or an interesting
film project are quickly picked up. In the case of "Shuttlecock,"
a consultant to the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain mentioned
the film to Koldo Anasagasti, the festival's assistant director.
Mr. Anasagasti watched a rough cut and told Mr. Leader he wanted
to open the festival with the film.
The San Sebastian festival, which takes place
in September in the Basque city of the same name, is small but
not insignificant. It has lost much of the luster it had in the
days when it served as a launching pad for films like "Claire's
Knee," but it still attracts industry attention and press
coverage in Europe.
The invitation was flattering but problematic.
"Shuttlecock" was not really a finished film. Mr. Leader's
French partners strongly urged him to finish editing, then wait
to enter the film in the Cannes Film Festival the following spring.
Mr. Leader disagreed. He argued that the
film did not have the kind of advertising budget to make a splash
at Cannes. At San Sebastian it could be the star on a smaller
stage. Besides, Mr. Leader discerned strong hints that the film
would have a virtual lock on the grand jury prize, which would
mean a check for $250,000. The French reluctantly agreed.
With only five days to go before the festival,
Spanish subtitles were added to a rough cut of "Shuttlecock,"
and the film, like the first bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, was
raced to San Sebastian at top speed, arriving just moments before
the opening night screening.
San Sebastian turned out to be a disaster.
The prize never materialized. "What they never told me was
that every 20 years, the Basques make a film," said Mr.
Leader. "And this was the year." The prize went to
"Wings of the Butterfly."
Mr. Leader's French partners were not amused.
He had miscalculated badly. "Shuttlecock" did not win
the $250,000 Golden Shell Award, or any other of the official
and unofficial awards at the festival, for that matter. In addition,
it was now ineligible for Cannes. Variety praised the film's
acting and directing but said, "theatrical prospects seem
iffy." Film festivals are springboards into the marketplace.
Mr. Leader had just taken a swan dive into an empty pool.
A Virus Loose In the Film World
"If there isn't
that moment of celebration, it travels like a virus that something's
wrong with your film," Mr. Leader said.
Over the next six months, Mr. Leader held
off his creditors and finished editing the film. He tried to
attract a distributor, but quickly discovered that a dark drama
set in a foreign country did not spell box-office success. Distributors
needed a marketable angle: say, a hot young director on the rise
("Reservoir Dogs"), fashionable subject matter, like
the trials and tribulations of disaffected youth ("Slacker"),
a glamorous star like Bridget Fonda ("Bodies, Rest and Motion")
or a gimmick ("The Crying Game").
"Shuttlecock" has none of these.
"It's a good film, a well-made and interesting film,"
said Robert Aronson, the executive director of acquisitions at
New Line Cinema, who saw "Shuttlecock" and passed on
it. "It's serious and disturbing, which makes it a challenging
marketing proposition. Not that we are not distributing films
like that. But a film like that needs a critical consensus behind
it, as well as a fistful of prizes."
When Mr. Leader describes the film's fortunes
after San Sebastian, he falls back on the language of conspiracy
and intrigue. He seems unable to accept the notion that some
people might not care for the film. To hear him tell it, everyone
who has seen the film loves it. As one checks with the enraptured
viewers, however, it becomes clear that Mr. Leader has sometimes
taken polite remarks at face value.
Richard Schickel, the film critic for Time,
saw a videocassette of "Shuttlecock" two years ago
and, in Mr. Leader's mind, became an ardent fan. The ardor seems
to have cooled. In a recent conversation, Mr. Schickel described
it as "a bit on the plodding side," and as "the
kind of film that would have two weeks in the theater and then
go straight to video."
Mr. Leader tried the First Directors Series
at the Museum of Modern Art, which shows six to nine films each
year by new directors, usually American. The series has become
so popular it receives as many submissions as the New York Film
His film did not make the cut.
He called Laurence Kardish, the museum's
curator of film exhibitions, to ask why. As Mr. Leader tells
it, Mr. Kardish said the committee turned the film off after
15 minutes. (Mr. Kardish declined to discuss the film.)
Mr. Leader, incensed, fired off a sizzling
letter to Mr. Kardish.
Rebuffed at MOMA, Mr. Leader turned to the
First Look series at the Tribeca Film Center in Manhattan, a
monthly program of independent films. The series pulls in industry
representatives who are prepared to give a film a serious look
in ideal surroundings (and to eat food from the Tribeca Grill
at the post-screening reception).
Good things can result.
Last year, the series showed a rough cut of "Suture,"
which eventually played at a number of film festivals and will
open in New York next month.
Mr. Leader said it seemed as though "Shuttlecock"
would get the green light. First Look's program coordinator,
Jennifer Egan, he said, told him that the committee was behind
the film. All it had to do was win over one member.
Mr. Leader got a sick feeling. "Don't
tell me," he said. "It's Larry Kardish."
Ms. Egan says that Mr. Kardish did not have
anything to do with the decision. The problem was that the film
was deemed English, and the series was geared toward American
film. "Shuttlecock," she said, never made it to a vote,
and in any case, no single member's vote is decisive.
"Larry Kardish did not blackball the
film," said Ms. Egan.
Lynda A. Hansen, a permanent member of the
committee and one of the film's supporters, said: "No one
hated it. The production values are very high, and there's a
lot that's beautiful in it, but we only show six to nine films
Mr. Leader's film would not be among them.
For "Shuttlecock," the future looked bleak.
A Last Hope
When in Doubt, Try a Local Angle
A ray of light: the
newly minted Hamptons International Film Festival last October.
Many people wondered whether the world needed a new festival,
but one thing was clear: at last, Mr. Leader was blessed. He
lived in Amagansett and knew virtually everyone connected with
the festival. Here was a start-up event, hungry for films that
would make a splash. "Shuttlecock" would be an American
premiere. Alan Bates might attend. Even if, by some bizarre twist
of fate, the film did not make it into the main festival, it
couldn't be barred from the festival's special program of films
with a Hamptons connection.
What happened next is a matter of dispute
between Mr. Leader and the director of the festival, Darryl MacDonald.
According to Mr. Leader, two days before the festival opened,
"Shuttlecock" was still on the list of films to be
included. The producer was convinced it was a sure thing. He
found out otherwise when the Easthampton Star published a schedule
of the festival and "Shuttlecock" was missing.
This was too much to bear.
Stung, Mr. Leader sent a vituperative letter
to the newspaper denouncing Mr. MacDonald and the festival.
Mr. MacDonald recalls Mr. Leader as a pest
who turned up constantly pushing his film with the persistence
of a life-insurance agent. One day, Mr. MacDonald returned from
a screening and found Mr. Leader at his office.
"I told him, 'Look, I am not a fan of
your film,'" said Mr. MacDonald, who had seen "Shuttlecock"
in Berlin, where it was screened for distributors. "He has
a way of hearing but not listening."
Mr. MacDonald promised to look at the film
again, but offered no assurances that he would include it.
"I watched, and I came away with the
same take," said Mr. MacDonald. "It's difficult to
follow any thread of the story, difficult to engage any of the
characters, and three-quarters of the time impossible to tell
what the hell is going on." The Hamptons Festival came and
went, leaving Mr. Leader back at square one. He says he is determined
to make a deal for the film in the United States, the kind of
deal that a film deserves, one that will trigger foreign sales
and allow him to pay back his creditors, who are owed about $250,000.
Raising Existential Questions
From time to time,
Mr. Leader flies back to London to meet with his lawyer and his
creditors and keep them abreast of developments. Belles Rives
plans to market the film in France, but is waiting for Mr. Leader
to strike a deal in the United States first.
Meanwhile, Mr. Leader is developing two film
scripts, hoping that, if they go into production, they can pull
On Jan. 6, Channel 4 broadcast "Shuttlecock"
in Britain as part of its series "Film on Four." Reviews
were respectful but subdued, although the Sunday Telegraph named
the film its "TV Pick of the Week," calling it "a
film with things to say and a muscular yet sensitive way of saying
Mr. Bates saw the completed version of the
film at a screening not long before the broadcast.
"I am puzzled," he said. "I
don't fully understand the politics that kept it back. This is
the kind of work that as an actor you want seen. I saw it yesterday,
actually, and I thought, 'I'm really proud, it's a nice piece
Meanwhile, "Shuttlecock" sits in
the closet, which prompts the question, Can a film that no one
sees even be said to exist?
"It needs a champion," said Mr.
Leader. "But there's nobody with enough clout and muscle
behind the film. It's just the film and me."
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