Duncan Kenworthy is one of the UK’s biggest producers, with three Richard Curtis blockbusters to his name - but he hasn’t produced a film since 2003. Matt Mueller caught up with him on the Hungarian location shoot of his long-cherished film, The Eagle Of The Ninth.
For a producer whose name is synonymous with UK film success and the inexorable rise of Richard Curtis, it is somewhat surprising that Duncan Kenworthy has not produced a film since Love Actually. It is also an eye-opener that the project with which he is returning - The Eagle Of The Ninth - only represents his sixth producing credit. Kenworthy has been far from idle in the intervening years, of course, spending four of them at Bafta, including serving as the Academy’s chairman from 2004-06. “I feel as though I’ve produced Bafta in the meantime,” he laughs.
Kenworthy never expected the gap to be so long, but Bafta became, in effect, his day job and his passion project. Besides overseeing a facelift of its headquarters and energising the film awards, Kenworthy poured his energies into streamlining the academy’s governing council, reducing the headcount from an unwieldy 30 down to 12, and leaving a more efficient organisation in his wake.
“I knew that if necessary change was going to be implemented, I had to take it on,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I can’t do it, who else could?’ I didn’t need to earn money after my stint with Richard Curtis, I don’t have a family to support so I put my heart and soul into that for a while.” While pushing through the Bafta reforms, the producer was also actively developing his other passion project: an adaptation of The Eagle Of The Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 historical novel about the Romans in Britain, which he had loved as a teenager and secured the rights to in the late 1990s.
“I remember talking to Mike Newell about it when we were shooting Four Weddings And A Funeral, so it’s always been on my radar,” says Kenworthy, seated in the stands of a small, provincial coliseum that has been constructed for the Eagle shoot in the Hungarian countryside, about an hour outside Budapest. “We don’t call it an epic - we describe it as an epic adventure. But it’s sweeping and it will have a scale about it.”
After an early, failed attempt with one screenwriter, Kenworthy hired Jeremy Brock (Mrs Brown) to adapt Sutcliff’s book before, in 2004, loosely attaching Kevin Macdonald, who was just coming off Touching The Void, to direct. “At that point I didn’t have a script, he’d never made a feature and I wanted to make a big film - Gladiator had proved that a big Roman epic could find an audience,” says Kenworthy. “So I said to Kevin, ‘Let’s talk again further down the line.’” After Macdonald had directed The Last King Of Scotland, all three men poured their efforts into the Eagle screenplay, and had a shooting script ready to go in early 2007 - which is when Macdonald tossed a spanner into the works.
“Just at the point of being ready for shooting, Kevin said, ‘Oops! I think I’ve just committed to direct Brad Pitt’s next movie, State Of Play,” says Kenworthy. “He said, ‘Will you wait for me?’ And I said, ‘No, of course I won’t wait for you. When you finish directing a big Hollywood film with Brad Pitt, you might not want to do this and I’ll have waited for no good reason.” State Of Play, of course, became Russell Crowe’s next movie after Pitt left the project, but regardless it took Macdonald out of the frame. However, after considering other directors, he decided to wait for the Scottish film-maker, largely because Kenworthy’s vision for Eagle was as “almost a Roman documentary” and so, he felt, well suited to Macdonald’s talents.
“Troy and Alexander were the kind of films I didn’t want it to resemble - big, slightly grandiose, lots of CGI,” he observes. “What I loved about the book is its reality. At its heart, it’s just two guys in the wilds of Scotland.” While Macdonald went off for two years, Kenworthy, who funded the project into pre-production to a high six-figure tune, set about securing a $25m budget. Paramount Vantage, Pathé and Warner Bros all expressed interest but Kenworthy settled on Focus Features “because they offered the best deal. That and their strength in international sales and access to Universal’s distribution in certain territories.”
Film Four also invested in the project, which Kenworthy insists “is contractually an independent movie – it’s not a Focus film. Both Kevin and I are taking a financial risk on it. We’ve done a very good deal with Focus but if we go over our budget, then Kevin and I will feel the pain.” The substantial tax credits in Hungary and the UK complete the financing structure, and Focus was able to sell most territories in Cannes earlier this year.
The shoot kicked off in late August in Hungary, which Kenworthy selected to stand in for the film’s early, English-set sequences, before moving in October to the Scottish Highlands, the setting for the two lead characters’ epic journey north of Hadrian’s Wall. Eagle’s unexpected star is Channing Tatum, who takes the lead role of avenging Roman soldier Marcus, with Jamie Bell as his Celtic slave.
“I don’t think Channing was initially on Kevin’s radar but I was one of the few adults who saw Step Up when it came to the UK so I knew the young audience really liked him,” says Kenworthy. “Our concern was that he was so contemporary in feel that he wouldn’t fit easily into a Roman drama. But it’s worked out great. The audience for this will start as a youth audience and hopefully grow out from there.”
As well as his return to the producer’s chair, this year has also marked Kenworthy’s official separation from DNA Films - one of the original UK lottery-funded franchises, which he set up with Andrew Macdonald (Kevin’s brother) in 1997. The two served as co-chairmen for six years, until Kenworthy reduced his involvement and shareholding when he went off to produce Love Actually. According to Kenworthy, Fox Searchlight, with which Macdonald has since partnered, has bought out DNA’s back catalogue, with the producer using his financial windfall from the deal to donate $1m to the National Film and Television School’s new teaching building. He lists the NFTS, where he has been a governor for five years, as his other twin interest with Bafta.
“We’d got public money to set up DNA in the first place, so I always said, ‘If any money comes from this deal, I’m going to give it away,’” he says. “It was a pleasure to be able to do that.” The second part of his DNA windfall is due later this year; Kenworthy has earmarked that for Bafta, where he has been made a vice-president.
Now established in his own offices under the Toledo Productions banner, Kenworthy is running a more streamlined operation himself these days. “It’s me, my assistant and my bookkeeper – I’m very happily a one-man band.” The other major project he has in active development is a new version of the Lerner & Loewe musical My Fair Lady, which he admits is still undergoing a protracted search to find the right director.
Professing himself “very happy” with Emma Thompson’s adaptation, which puts more of George Bernard Shaw’s original Pygmalion back into the mix than was present in the 1964 George Cukor version, Kenworthy insists Keira Knightley is still attached to star. “But,” he adds, “only in that Hollywood way of whatever that means. There’s no contract and I keep saying there’s no point in pursuing it further until we have a director. The last thing you want is to tie people’s hands. But I think Keira would be absolutely fabulous in it.”
DUNCAN KENWORTHY FACT FILE
Kenworthy attended Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduating with a first in 1971; he was also a Thouron Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.
He worked for several years on educational children’s series Sesame Street, first in New York then in Kuwait where he produced an Arabic-language version.
His first feature credit was associate producer on Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal in 1982. He was a vice-president of Jim Henson Productions (JHP) from 1988-95 and co-creator of Fraggle Rock as well as the Anthony Minghella-scripted The Storyteller and Greek Myths series.
Taking a leave of absence from JHP, Kenworthy earned his first feature producer’s credit on Four Weddings And A Funeral in 1994. He went on to produce Notting Hill, starring Julia Roberts, and Love Actually.
His other feature producing credits are Lawn Dogs (1997) and The Parole Officer (2001), the latter under the aegis of DNA Films, the lottery-funded film franchise he set up with Andrew Macdonald in 1997.
He was Bafta chairman from 2004-06, and in September 2009 was appointed to join Michael Grade as one of two Bafta vice-presidents.