Not every Oscar nominee was backed by Harvey Weinstein or a multimillion dollar publicity drive. Meet the British blaggers whose first movie after film school has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Mark Gill, director of the short film The Voorman Problem, told The Daily Beast that breaking all the rules and a letter sent blind to Kevin Spacey helped to secure an unlikely Hollywood cast for the film. Stellar reviews and an Oscar nomination later, Gill was thrilled but still couldn’t afford the airfare or a tuxedo for his first ever trip to Los Angeles.
The young director and his producer Baldwin Li are based 160 miles north of London in Manchester, where Li is still living with his parents. After honing the script for their short movie, Gill and Li’s thoughts turned to the actors but they had no heavyweight contacts or Hollywood casting director.
The eventual cast of Martin Freeman, star of The Hobbit, and Tom Hollander, whose credits include Pride & Prejudice and Pirates of the Caribbean, was secured after a remarkable turn of events that began with a letter to the Old Vic theatre in London. They were watching Seven on television and thought Spacey would be excellent in their little film. The American Beauty star has been artistic director at the Old Vic since 2003, so Gill typed a letter, enclosed the script, and posted it off down to London.
“I think everyone’s blagging. It’s part of the director’s job to try and make something happen beyond shouting ‘action.’ We were fresh faced and we thought let’s just do it. If you don’t ask: You don’t get,” he said. “We were really surprised and warmed by the response we got from Kevin. He couldn’t do it himself but he thought the script was great and he suggested we speak to Tom Hollander.”
Spacey’s response was gratefully received but he hadn’t exactly included Hollander’s cell phone number. They knew a letter to his agent from a couple of unknown filmmakers would probably go unread, even with a mention of Spacey’s recommendation. Li was discussing the dilemma with an old professor at Balliol College, Oxford. The professor said there had been another student in the same year who went on to become an actress, so he sent the script over to her and Elizabeth Gray said, yes, she knew Hollander and was happy to pass it along.
“It’s just one of those quirks of fate,” said Gill. “So we were able to get the script to him without going through his agent. In short—everything that you’re not supposed to do.”
A week later Gill, 32, was taking a break in the Lake District, a picturesque sweep of mountains outside Manchester. “I had a voicemail saying ‘Hello, Mark, this is Tom,’” he said. “And I was thinking I don’t know any Toms. I’d completely forgotten.”
“He said he absolutely loved the script and really wanted to do it. We had a discussion about other actors and Martin Freeman’s name came up and Tom said I’ll write to his agent.”
The film is based on a vignette in David Mitchell’s book number9dream, his next novel Cloud Atlas was also adapted for film. Freeman plays a prison psychiatrist who is asked to analyze an inmate, Hollander, who says he is a God and created the Universe nine days ago. The psychiatrist must decide if the prisoner is really suffering from severe mental illness, or faking it.
The Voorman Problem has already won four awards on the film festival circuit and was nominated for a BAFTA before it made the Academy’s 2014 shortlist in the Live Action Short category. Previous winners of the short film Oscar include Martin McDonagh, who went on to direct In Bruges.
“It’s very much the pinnacle, so to be nominated is really flattering. I’m all for awards if it makes it any easier to make the next film,” he said.
Getting to the ceremony proved another huge challenge for Gill. He tried to blag flights from British Airways but they said they would have needed six months notice. After hearing that the filmmakers risked missing the ceremony, a creative entrepreneurs organization called Toucan stepped in to pay for the flights, which the airline discounted. “It is exciting, especially because of the nominees lunch which is just nominees. Apparently they split everybody up, like a wedding, so you don’t just sit with your people—every table has a star,” he said. “I’m interested to see the seating plan!”
Gill plans to take as many meetings as possible with movie industry executives while he’s in town. “I don’t know about moving to L.A., we’re very excited to go out there and meet people, but I think I might miss the rain,” he said.
Forget Los Angeles, Gill and Li currently have no plans to move to London where rent is so much more expensive than in Manchester. “A lot of the conversations we have are like, ‘Oh, you’re in Manchester, not in London.” So you have to work hard to build trust. That’s where the blagging comes in. I don’t think I’d describe myself as a scamp but we don’t shy away from that. The fact is—it costs a lot of money to make films.”