After a typically eclectic year for the speciality banner that has seen hits, including Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white semi-autobiographical Oscar winner Belfast, misses such as Robert Eggers’ rampaging $70 million-plus viking revenge thriller The Northman, and releases like the Downton Abbey sequel, Edgar Wright’s creepy 60s time-traveler Last Night in Soho and lo-fi Brit comedy Brian and Charles (featuring perhaps the most ridiculous robot ever seen on screen), Focus Features kicks off its fall festival season with a more classical number.
Or is it? Not a huge deal is known about TÁR, Todd Field’s much-hyped return to the director’s chair 15 years after his last feature Little Children, aside from the fact that it stars Cate Blanchett as a celebrated fictional composer and conductor.
According to Focus’ president of production and acquisitions Kiska Higgs the film is, well, hard to describe exactly, but she fully expects it to blow audiences away with the same sort of enthusiastic gusto that saw her fling Field’s script across the room the first time she read it.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the TÁR’s world premiere in Venice, Higgs discusses the benefits of being part of the great “steam engine” that is NBCUniversal, loving titles that she’s acquired fully-formed no less than those she’s worked on from conception, taking big — but calculated — swings when it comes to green lighting projects, and laments the fact nobody has taken up her pitch for a Minions/Downton Abbey crossover.
There seems to be a lot of buzz already about Cate Blanchett in TÁR. Is that a good thing to have going into a festival, before it’s had its world premiere, or can it be a curse?
She always delivers! She’s one of those actors where the buzz is always justified, she never lets you down. Have you ever seen a performance where you’re like “oh man, average Cate again”? But she is really transformative in this film. So, weirdly, of all the things I’m nervous about in life, that buzz is not it.
TÁR marks Todd Field’s return to filmmaking in 15 years. How did the film land with Focus?
We had sent him another project that we were developing, and he came in, I think right before the pandemic, and said he’d been thinking about it but that he actually had a story he wanted to write, which wasn’t this script. And he basically said, “if you don’t like it, I will go back and rewrite the other script you sent me for free.” And so he sent this script, and I was on a road trip at the time and I read it and literally threw it across the hotel room. Because it’s like this film that is… I don’t know how to describe it. It is dazzling and infuriating and in every scene you don’t know what you’re thinking. I’d never read anything like it. It’s like this meditation on power and cancel culture, set in Germany. It’s a strange creature. You’ll be mesmerized.
There’s not a lot of info out there about the story, and the trailer doesn’t give anything away. My only point of reference when it comes to films about classical music and composers is Amadeus. Is it anything like that?
It’s really more of a character study about power. I call it a black diamond because every time you look at it, there’s a different facet, and every scene you watch, you have a different reaction, depending on your mood, who you are that day, what you feel about her. You can watch it a million times and think a different thing in every scene at every point. It’s a real tour-de-force of cinema but it’s sort of not about the things it purports to be about. It’s an extremely erudite film. I don’t think of myself as a slouch on the grey matter, but it requires concentration!
How does Focus split its resources between producing films like TÁR from conception and acquiring already completed films?
We have a strategic slate, which is sort of meted out into a split, but in real life it kind of just comes together. Belfast is a good example. We probably wouldn’t have been able to pick it up if we’d had a fatter production slate that year and if we hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic on top of it. It’s sort of like — and apologies for misusing a political phrase — a first past the post thing.
Do you have a preference? It must be a great feeling to spot an undiscovered gem at a festival, but then working with a filmmaker that you love on a film all the way through to its release must also be hugely rewarding.
The cool thing about this job is that you get to do all of them. Actually, someone recently congratulated me on something that I literally didn’t touch, because we bought it finished. I guess Brian and Charles is a good example of that. We didn’t touch it. But I don’t love it any less. I have fewer war stories about it! But I think for me personally, the final development stages into the pre-production, production and post are the most satisfying, the actual getting something to the gate and making it.
The Northman was among Focus’ splashier and more expensive recent features, but sadly didn’t do as well as had been hoped at the box office. Were any lessons learned from that?
This has been spoken about before, but it actually ended up being a win for us financially. There was a special set of circumstances about the theatrical release, plus PVOD. I know in the press it hasn’t been lauded as a success, but it was ok for us in the end. There are additional ways for us to monetize things, at least for us at Universal. It was one we shared with New Regency, and we weren’t really front and center on production of that. But lessons definitely have been learned from a creative perspective, but I don’t look back and think we could have done anything differently, because there were so many … vikings in the boat.
When Focus has a more expensive title that doesn’t perform all that spectacularly, does that have a knock-on effect on how much you can spend on other films?
I sort of love the idea of saying “no” and then getting a call from some dark tower somewhere saying “what do you mean?”. But genuinely it is the amazing thing of being part of NBCUniversal. And also just the pure economics of it means we can sort of make almost anything work. We’re extremely responsible in how we green light films and how we make them. And frankly how we market and release them too. We take big swings for sure, but they’re still calculated. And across the slate, everything comes out in the wash. We’ve had some very successful years, and I’d love to take credit for those. But most of it is because we’re just part of this huge steam engine that does Minions on top of Brian and Charles. I was actually trying to pitch a Minions/Downton Abbey crossover. I don’t know why someone hasn’t taken me up on that.
On the subject of Downton, Focus created its own little mini-franchise with the two spin-off films. Is that something you look for when you green light films?
Not really. I say we’re big tent specialty. So Brian and Charles sits easily besides Downton Abbey just like Silent Twins sits next to Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. I think that’s confusing for some people, we’re not a brand identity in the way that some other distributors are. Of course, we have a brand, but there aren’t rules for what makes a Focus film. But Downton and Book Club and Greek Wedding, they’ve all come to Focus in different ways, sometimes through Universal, but they all serve an audience that is very much a Focus audience which is this older, female audience, and they all share a real sense of joy. That’s what makes them commercially successful, but we don’t go in thinking how are we going to franchise anything.
I spoke to Hugh Bonneville recently, and he said he thought Downton Abbey: A New Era would probably be the final Downton film. Are there any others on the horizon or is that it for the Crawleys on the big screen?
I hope there are others. I’m such a sucker for tales of upstairs downstairs. Gareth [Neame] and Carnival [Films] and [writer] Julian [Fellowes] of course are huge partners for us and we’re always talking. It was a huge cast. But we did have some deaths. So we’ll see. Never say never.
It’s Focus’ 20th anniversary this year. Do you have a favorite film from its library?
I am weirdly bad at lists or favorites. I don’t think I have one. That sounds terrible, so maybe we should just say that they’re all my favorites! I mean, I have some that I don’t like.