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Thursday, 11 March 2010

Interview with 'Once' Producer Martina Niland.

When I first began working in the industry, I had no idea what a Producer does. After a few years working in the business, I still had no idea. And now, having produced many shorts and a feature film; I am still pretty much clueless. Luckily, I had the privilege of interviewing Martina Niland - a Producer based in Ireland who has been quietly and consistently producing wonderful feature films for over a decade, including one of my (and everyone's) favorites, 'Once'. What follows is a fascinating insight into the life of a successful film producer - essential reading for any upcoming producers or screenwriters.

Photograph: Karina Finegan

When did you first know you wanted to work in film?

I have always loved film. Since as far back as I can remember, I ‘make believed’ I was in the movies. I’m a Pisces so a bit of a dreamer, the more make-believe the better. Movies or films as we call them were/are a perfect outlet for a head like that. Every Sunday at 2.30, RTE 2, you’d find me glued to whatever black & white Hollywood classic would be showing that day (much to the dismay of my siblings I might add). Then I studied Film & Broadcasting in college and came to realise that I had a bit of a love for the producing side of things.

Was the plan always to be a producer, or did you have other ambitions?

I more ‘fell into’ producing while in college but then found myself being quite good at it and enjoying it a lot. I love the ‘script to screen’ challenge of producing – of taking an idea and nurturing it through to the big screen. Of course there are many many difficulties to be overcome in the middle section between script and screen, but it is always worth it when the lights go down and the film finally begins for an audience.

The Irish film industry is not something I often think about-- but now that I do, I realize a lot of really great films have come out of Ireland. What can you tell us about making films there and how is it different to the UK?

Ireland is a small marketplace and there are limited enough funds to avail of to make a film but those that exist like The Irish Film Board are always very supportive – I have found at least. I have made a number of films in Ireland and have always enjoyed the process very much. We have great writers & directors here, a lot of great/skilled cast and crew and top of the range facilities, like post-production, so all of that makes it a lot easier for a Producer. However, once a film's budget goes above 1m euro, it’s necessary to look beyond these shores for additional finance. Unfortunately, the UK is much more tricky to co-produce with now, given the way its tax system operates and that’s why we’re seeing a lot of co-productions with other EU countries like Holland, Germany and Eastern Europe which is great – the more diverse the better I believe.

When I Produced a feature; what really hit me was that whenever anything went right, the Director got a lot of praise. But whenever things went wrong, even little things like the tea bags going missing, the blame seemed to come my way. And that's how I kind of see producing; taking the blame when things don't quite go right, is that a fair assessment?

Yes kind of.... I once heard that ‘you only know something is wrong when the producer shows up on set’! I don’t necessarily agree with that, I happen to like hanging out on set when things are going well too... As a Producer I like to be across everything but not micro manage so I always hire a good Production Manager that I can trust and rely on to be my right arm really during production. Someone I can call and get a solid update on where we’re at with everything financially, schedule-wise, morale-wise and so on... It’s my job to help the director realise the film that we both set out to make, to protect that process and to shield he or she from all the other mini drama’s going on around the place (like lack of tea-bags on set)! All you are ultimately left with is that 90min film you will premiere to a full house (hopefully) so it’s important as a producer to always keep that end game in sight.

Photograph: Karina Finegan

How do you usually get involved in a project?

I can get involved in a few different ways – an agent might send me a script to look at or a writer might send it directly to me or to Samson, the company, or I might know a director and he/she might send me something they’d like to do with me. It depends really. Sometime we develop ideas from an early stage like a treatment or from a first draft on, it can take 2-4 years at a minimum to get something ready enough to begin looking for production finance and if you have 20/25 features on a slate at any given time and in various stages of development etc, that’s a lot of balls to keep in the air. A lot of meetings to keep having week in, week out. But it’s fun.

It's really nice when people like yourself are producing meaningful and interesting indie films -- how pressed do you feel to make marketable, 'safer' films?

That’s nice of you to say but to be honest, I don’t feel the pressure of the market place that much when I am deciding whether or not to take on a script. I simply judge it on how original it is and whether or not I was moved by it – whether to tears or laughter, for the right reasons of course – I've had the other experience too!! Obviously, there is little point making a film if nobody goes to see it so you must always aim to reach an audience but I believe you will if you have something interesting and unique to say, you don’t have to ‘sell out’ to do this. I don’t believe ‘Pavee Lackeen’ was a safe film and yet it resonated so well with audiences everywhere and believe me ‘Once’ when pitched to me by the director back in 2005 sounded anything but ‘safe’ and look what happened there. You just need to go with your gut in the end and for me that is simply freshness of the idea!

Thank you for producing 'Once' and being a big part of getting that film made. I feel the world is a better place because of it. What is it about that film that resonated so much with audiences, and did you have any inkling during production that it would be received in this way?

I think audiences responded to the honesty of the performance between the two central characters ultimately - this quirky, understated love story. I think the indie way the film was made became a huge part of its charm, it gave a more intimate feel to the piece and to their relationship in the film. And of course the music itself - Glen & Marketa’s songs and their voices. When we screened at Sundance to sold out theatres, myself and John Carney would get up at the end to do the Q&A but all the audience wanted was for Glen and Marketa to sing so we’d spend a good hour after the film had ended in the cinema singing the songs from the film with the audience singing along. It was crazy but beautiful crazy. A woman came over to me at the end of one of the screenings and asked ‘what happened next’? I started going on about how we have submitted to a few key film festivals and are looking for distribution etc etc when she interrupted me and said ‘no, I mean with the guy and girl, did she follow him to London?' She thought all of that stuff was real in the film she was that caught up in it. I was blown away and kind of just stared in silence.... That trip will stay with me forever.

“A little movie called Once gave me enough
inspiration to last the rest of the year,”
S. Spielberg

Did I know it would be that big and would resonate that much? – No I didn't. I always knew it was going to be a very special film but never could have imagined how it would touch audiences around the world. We seemed to just hit a moment with that film and I’m very grateful for that and for the memories it has provided me with.

When young writers complete their feature screenplays and are happy with them, what should they do? Where should they send them?

A lot of companies don’t accept unsolicited scripts unfortunately so it is hard to get your script noticed initially. We try to read all scripts that come into us at Samson, patience is required but we do get to them all eventually. I work with a very solid development team at Samson and together we decide which submissions we’d like to take further etc.. The first step for a writer, who has taken his/her script as far as they can, is to attach a producer who can develop it further if this is needed and ultimately package it with a director and get it to financers. It is so important that a writer is able to pitch in a few sentences what the script is about and this is always a document worth enclosing with the script when sending it out to producers. If the pitch grabs us as original or a fresh take on something, then we will usually read the script much more quickly.

You work with Writer/Directors a lot I've noticed. Is that intentional?

No, not intentional at all. It’s just the way it has worked out for me. Maybe subconsciously I am drawn to more ‘authored’ or personal pieces when they land on my desk. They seep in passion, are labour’s of love usually and I’m a sucker for that kind of thing (for my sins). I think I will always produce writer/director films, alongside the others. Once the projects are inspiring on some level, I don’t mind what the scenario is really.

What are your favourite movies?

This is an impossible one and I usually don’t answer when asked – there have been so many great great films made over the decades and my favourites are all very different from each other: from ‘All About Eve’ with Betty Davis to ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ with Al Pacino, to ‘The Shining’ with Jack to ‘Withnail & I,’ to anything Almodovar touches, to ‘The Orphanage’ a recent directorial debut from Spain, to our own ‘My Left Foot’ .... I could go on but I won’t just now...I simply love movies of all shapes and sizes!

What would you still like to achieve in your career?

I’d like to continue doing what I do - meet great filmmakers and find great projects that deserve to be in the world and help put them there, films that I will always be proud of! That’s the main motivation for me really.

I am just grateful that I get to do what I love and what I've always wanted to do.

Martina's latest film, 'SNAP', is currently in post-production.

Care to share?


  1. Excellent interview. And Spielberg's quote about the movie is true of me too.

  2. Very insightful interview, thanks alot :).

    And love your blog, always an interesting read.