STEPHEN WOOLLEY began his movie career tearing tickets at his local London cinema. Today, 18 years later, he is producer of "The Crying Game," which has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.
The film is now the most successful independently distributed British movie to hit the United States. Moreover, American producers recently bestowed on Mr. Woolley their highest honor, Producer of the Year. The prize is considered an indicator of who may win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Even so, Woolley ("The Company of Wolves," "Mona Lisa," "Scandal") is taking nothing for granted. Despite "The Crying Game" consistently winning top critics' prizes in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, he knows that the film is by no means a shoo-in Monday night at the Oscar ceremonies.
"When is this interview appearing?" he asks, before deciding how frank he can be. Realizing that most of the Academy members' votes will be in by the time this story is published, Woolley relaxes. I ask him whether, given the unusual nature of the central relationship in "The Crying Game," he thinks that the academy's strong conservative bent will militate against the film's chances.
"It's not the conservative vote I'm worried about at all," Woolley says. He points out that the Producers' Guild is by far the most conservative organization in the business, yet it still gave him their top prize. "It's actually the loyalty vote to Clint Eastwood that concerns me, because he has been working in the industry for over 30 years, and he's been employing most of the Academy members in one form or another. People are very loyal to Clint. And I can certainly understand that." No financial backers
Whatever one may think of "The Crying Game" - its subject matter and style aren't for everyone - it's a wonder the film was made at all. Set in Northern Ireland, it opens with a black British soldier being kidnapped by the Irish Republican Army. One of his IRA guards befriends him and later is told he must kill the soldier. The story switches abruptly to London where the plot twists and turns as the former IRA member seeks out the British soldier's lover.
Because of its unconventionality, no financial backers in Britain or America would touch the project. Woolley, in fact, completely gave up trying in the US because the rejections were so virulent.
"All of the people I approached in America," the producer explains, "felt the film dealt with too many issues that were taboo: interracial relationships, terrorism - a sympathetic terrorist, which we very rarely see in films - and an `unusual' romance. It deals with things that people felt individually an audience perhaps would take, but all of them in a single film was too much."
So Woolley concentrated his search for financial backing on European organizations, most notably the British TV company, Channel Four, which is renowned for its innovative film output. But even Channel Four gave Woolley's project the thumbs down. Seventeen times.
"It finally got to where I even threatened to immolate myself in the Channel Four foyer," Woolley says with a laugh.
Persistence paid off. The film got made, but on a shoestring. At one point Woolley, his film company having been declared bankrupt, made ends meet by using his own credit cards.
The producer says the rejection kept him going. The more times he was turned down, the more convinced he was of the project's value. It clearly didn't fit in any identifiable category; it was outside the normal movie formulas. Woolley believes, as a good rule of thumb, that the degree of vitriol hurled against a film project is in inverse proportion to the importance of the film's message.
For example, in "The Crying Game," Woolley says, a key point the film makes is that not all terrorists are "raving lunatics," despite being cold-blooded murderers - that there is an internal logic, whether or not one agrees with it, to their actions. He also hopes the depiction of the unusual romance challenges stereotypes and assumptions.
"If I were to describe the film," Woolley says, "I would say it's a romantic thriller - unlike most films in the States nowadays, which are erotic thrillers. It's a situation of friendship, of two people who find themselves and then become incredibly strong friends. And they do things for each other because of that friendship. Those are important, old-fashioned values, which we now rarely see in the cinema." British film industry
Something else that we rarely see is the present phenomenon of one quarter of this year's Oscar nominations going to British films. Yet, paradoxically, fewer movies were made in Britain during the past year - 42 versus 57 in 1991 (compared with the hundreds that are made every year in America) - than ever before.
Just as hardship has been the spur to Woolley's own success, he sees the same mechanism operating in the British film industry. Indeed, "industry" these days is a misnomer. Britain's moviemaking has reached a point that it is now reduced to, rather startlingly, only a handful of filmmakers. People in the business typically blame the British government for consistently refusing to provide cash assistance or offering any form of incentives to promote private investment.
"Of course, things could be worse," Woolley says. "There could be absolutely nothing. So at the moment, we are just above nothing. As a result, we filmmakers are very conscious of the need to get results, so much so that we really put our heart and soul into our films to get them right."
But why are British films across the board - not just in terms of acting, which has long been recognized abroad - suddenly becoming so admired by mass American audiences?
"You don't really have filmmakers in the States today who can supply what we can supply," Woolley says, "which is films that have strong literary or theatrical roots. These roots, which are so much a part of British culture generally, have actually been endemic in our movies since we've been making films. It's just that Americans are now craving [these qualities], because their films have become so disappointing at that level; they don't have any real substance. So when you do get a film with a certain d egree of unpredictability, intellectual content, slower pace, and character development - our funny little odd creatures - you kind of feel like it's a treat."
As Woolley himself shrewdly observes, it is his feistiness as a producer and filmmaker that is his major contribution to British film. He refuses to provide the traditional "Howards End" portrait of Britain. This is certainly true in "The Crying Game" where, for instance, a side of London is depicted that most residents would prefer to keep hidden from foreigners' sight.
"I make critical films showing the worm at the apple's core," Woolley says, "because I love my country. I'm actually very patriotic. And I want to make my society better.... If that chip on my shoulder left me, I would be in Los Angeles, by the pool, taking my big fees and making different sorts of movies. But that would be wrong for me, and wrong for my country."