Nick Ahad meets the producer behind Warp Films, whose independent spirit has put it firmly on the map over the last ten years.
Securing an interview with a movie producer is as about as easy as catching wind in a hairnet.
It takes about a month to finally track down Barry Ryan, but when I do get him on the phone his answers come so thick and fast my pen runs out of ink.
Ryan is head of production at Warp Films and given the company has gone from a garden shed in Sheffield to one of Britain’s major players in just 10 years, it’s perhaps no surprise that he has much to look back on and much he wants to say.
“Actually, the shed was our first office, we actually started in Mark’s spare room. Only, I used to sit on the stairs outside because there wasn’t space in there for both of us. I’d be sitting on the stairs, him in the spare room, saying, ‘Right, we’ve got £750,000, how do we get this movie made’.”
Mark is Mark Herbert, CEO of Warp Films, who a decade ago was a location manager with a dream of being a movie producer. Around the same time Warp Records, the uncompromising Sheffield label that launched electronic pioneers like Aphex Twin and Autechre, was looking to set up a film arm.
Herbert, who had been responsible for bringing a number of productions to Yorkshire, seemed like an obvious fit to lead the company and while there was going to be no big budgets, the Warp name brought with it at least a little kudos.
“I’d produced a couple of shorts and Mark and I knew each other socially and so he rang and said ‘there’s no money, but I reckon it could be a laugh, do you want to join up’. So I did,” says Ryan.
Herbert had just produced My Wrongs, a short film written and directed by Chris Morris and starring Paddy Considine. When in 2003 it won a BAFTA for best short film, it pretty much hit the fast-forward button for Warp. They moved out of the spare room, into the shed at the bottom of Herbert’s garden. Where at least they could both get a seat. The BAFTA also gave them leverage with film financers, the only question was what should be their first project. The answer came when through Considine, Ryan and Herbert met a young film-maker called Shane Meadows. He’d made a few short films and his first feature A Room For Romeo Brass, had a cinema release, but the writer-director, who had an idea for a Western set in the Midlands, was feeling bruised by his first brush with the movie business.
“Normally you sit down with a budget, work out how much you need to make a film and then set out to find that money,” says Ryan. “But from day one the only thing we wanted to do was make stuff that we would want to see, stuff that we were going to love and films that we cared about.”
Douglas Adams once described the process of having his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books made into films. He said it was like trying to cook a steak by having a series of people come into a room, breathe hot breath on the steak and then walk out. It captures how painfully slow the movie-making business sometimes moves. With Warp, Herbert and Ryan wanted to do the opposite.
“We went out and got the financiers to back us and once we had the budget we then worked out how we would make the film,” says Ryan.
“We met with Shane to discuss his film in February 2003 and we were shooting in the May. If you have no concept of the movie industry, imagine it as the Mums’ and Dads’ race at sports day. To go from pre-production to shooting in that space of time would be like Usain Bolt turning up on the starting line.
“It was unheard of. What you have to remember is that we had been going down to London, sleeping on floors, meeting all day and night to get the finance in place and all the crew and everything you need to organise as the producer of a movie to make it happen, so we weren’t going to just sit around and let it drift along.”
The film finished, the producers and director happy, they secured a cinema release, pretty good going for a début production. Only Dead Man’s Shoes opened the same weekend as Saw and Layer Cake, both with marketing budgets that blew Warp’s out of the water. The movie didn’t sink without a trace, it did respectable business, but not quite what the company might have hoped.
Then it came out on DVD.
“It bubbled for a bit then it just kind of erupted,” says Ryan. “A bit like Fight Club, or The Shawshank Redemption, both relative ‘flops’ at the box office, quality will out and in both those cases – and in Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes it did.”
Its belated success gave Warp confidence. As did This is England in 2007, a big turning point for the company. “That sold pretty well overseas. It opened on one screen in America – but we opened in America! That was an important moment for us as a company.”
And they just kept comping. Four Lions, Morris’ comedy of four incompetent British jihadists, put the company into a whole new league when it came out in 2010 and Warp followed it up with critical acclaim for both Kill List and Tyrannosaur.
Even Hush, the story of a young couple who find themselves in a game of cat of mouse, which didn’t fare as well as the major hits, saw director Mark Tonderai go on to direct recent Hollywood movie House at the End of the Street.
“We just really care, intensely, about all the films we do,” says Ryan when pushed to reveal the secret Warp holds behind the doors of its Sheffield office. But surely no-one sets out to make a bad movie?
“We’re like mothers to each of our films. They are all our babies. You live with them for such a long time that you have to love them,” he says.
Next week Ryan will be at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival in York. Now in its second year and run by Cherie Federico, who edits the arts magazine Aesthetica, Ryan is hugely impressed with what has been achieved in just two years – and remains as passionate about seeing short films and helping the talent of tomorrow come through.
Tip. If you are going to go along, start practising taking down notes, at speed, now.
Barry Ryan will be talking at one of a series of masterclasses at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival, at York Theatre Royal, November 9, 12pm. The festival runs from November 8 to 11. Full details at www.asff.co.uk.