Kirsty Bell is a successful film producer, seasoned executive producer, director and chartered tax advisor who has spent much of her early career at the top of global accountancy firms before founding Goldfinch. This combined expertise has seen her focus on the structuring of entertainment companies and their finance raises since 1996. Since she founded Goldfinch in 2014, she has raised over $350m for the industry and achieved around seventy Producer/Executive Producer credits to her name for a stable of more than two hundred projects across the film, TV, animation and video games sectors. Goldfinch has finance, production, distribution capabilities and launched Birdbox.Film in March 2020.
Tara Karajica talks to Kirsty Bell about her career as producer, Goldfinch, feminism and film and her debut feature, “A Bird Flew In,” a poetic film about the need for human connection and our desire to find life meaningful during lockdown, that screened in Competition at this year’s Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival, as well as what she is up to next.
What made you want to become a producer?
Kirsty Bell: I didn’t know what a producer was in the sense of what all the elements of a producer’s job were, which are basically to be end to end on a film. What I did know was that I had a fire in my belly, so to speak, to actually try and help the independent film industry make films that investors could potentially invest in and get their money back, and make films that were commercial, joining both sides of the show and business world. And, I came at it more from a point of view of ensuring that films were made for the right budget, for the right audience, and done in the right manner. That’s why I set up Goldfinch eight years ago, to do exactly that. I didn’t intend to become a producer. It was the very nature of the job that I was doing, which has a label on it. So, it wasn’t that I thought: “Oh, I want to be a film producer.” It was more: “This is what I want to achieve in this industry.” And, the label that is put on that is “producer” because you’re actually producing the film, the end product. So, you are the person who is engineering the whole process.
How did A Bird Flew In come about? How did you get on board this project?
K.B.: Well, it was a really weird situation. A film that was being filmed in a studio in the North of England, the producer on that film had redone all the schedule and had quite a few actors from other countries around the world. And, he just had a sort of sixth sense about lockdown in the UK happening. So, he rejigged the schedules with the actors’ and the crews’ permissions and actually brought forward the schedule and the wrap happened at seven o’clock on 23 March on the Monday of lockdown. And, effectively, I was driving back to my house in the North East of England, thinking: “Oh, my God, I’m going back to a house where my husband is stuck abroad seeing his son and I don’t know what’s going to happen.” So, I was totally on my own and everybody started doing Zooms and connecting with each other this way. And, I started to doodle on a pad of paper next to my phone, imagining the living situations of people who were in similar situations to myself for different situations and created this imaginary world on paper of people in relationships. I sent it to the producer who’d wrapped the film early, Philippe Martinez, and he phoned me up and said: “This is a film you need to write.” I said: “I can’t write!” He said: “So, we get a writer on board.” And he then said to me: “But you’re the perfect person to direct it, Kirsty. It’s your story.” It’s not my story as my personal story, but it’s a story that came out of my brain and my imagination. And, he asked me if I knew a good producer, which I did, with Ben Charles Edwards. And, I asked Ben if he would become involved and he asked me to give him the elevator pitch of the film, which is the emotional journey of people during the fact that they’re locked in their homes for the first time probably ever, and he loved that idea. We got Dominic Wells to work off Elizabeth Morris’ first script, and in the middle of May 2020, we actually greenlit the film, and we started shooting on 13 July 2020. So, it was a fair old ride and, bear in mind, we started these characters’ journeys when lockdown wasn’t even finished in the UK for the first time. And, astonishingly, quite a lot of what happens to our twelve protagonists in the film, actually turned out to be true in real life. That’s really the style that I wanted – cinéma vérité. I wanted to add a rawness and emotional realness to the film. And, that’s why we shot in black and white, with a nod to cinéma vérité.
What I found interesting is that you don’t produce this film, but you act in it and you direct it. Can you talk about these choices and the other hats that you’re wearing on this project?
K.B.: Well, as I said to you before, when I founded Goldfinch eight years ago, it was very much from the business end of things. And, I’ve always been known for that because I used to be a partner in a national firm of accountants, specializing in media, and it was really weird that lockdown unleashed in myself this creativity that had never been allowed to seep out to the sides before. Philippe and Ben supported me as a director. I’m a team person and I love working in a team environment and when we were going through the casting, it was suggested that I should do a screen test for Naomi, the character who plays the producer. I am normally a producer, so it would seem that I’d play the producer probably better than most in that respect and I was quite shocked at the actual suggestion in a way and quite worried about it. I did the screen test and Philippe and Ben said that they were going to take that decision and they unanimously said that that was the right decision to make. I have to say I’m actually very happy with the result and felt that that particular character was quite a natural fit for me. Lockdown completely changed my life, I suppose. It’s got me to see the other side of filmmaking. I’ve dealt with an awful lot of actors and an awful lot of DPs as well as other producers and directors and for me to actually have the honor of that experience of being a director and also an actress in my debut film was a massive risk for somebody who’s known to make films that would make a return to investors and commercial films; to make a very much arthouse film was a massively risky thing for me to do, but I’m pleased I did it.
Can you talk about the shooting and casting processes, taking into account that it was shot during the pandemic?
K.B.: Well, we were one of the very first drama films to be filmed coming out of the first lockdown. And, at that point, The Times actually covered our shoot in that vein, and we had very stringent policies and protocols on set. I’m a great believer that if you don’t “dot the I’s and cross the T’s,” you will get to your comeuppance and so therefore, a set should be run regimented. Any film that I’ve ever been involved in, I want the first AD to be almost military in their approach with a smile. And, that’s where you get people behaving professionally. This isn’t for fun. This is a job for everybody, and a career for everybody. So, you have to be ultra careful with absolutely everything that you do. So, coming out of the first lockdown in a pandemic, we’ve never experienced anything like this before. There were obviously masks. There was obviously social distancing. There was making sure the cast felt comfortable. There was testing. We had a nurse on set at all times for that purpose. We had deep cleaning experts and sanitizers come on the mornings and the evenings on set. So, it was very, very much an added structure to an already busy, busy set. But we embraced it because the crew was so happy to get back to work, but we were all cognizant of the fact that there’s a pandemic out there, and we’ve created bubbles…
But from a casting point of view, we went to agents we knew and agents we didn’t know. And, basically, Ben and myself, sold the idea of the character that we were looking for at that point in time. Derek Jacobi was a case in point whereby he just felt that he could resonate greatly with the character of David. Julie Dray, who plays Jeff Fahey’s love interest in the film, Anna, actually dressed like she thought Anna would dress for her Zoom interview with me as director, because she fell in love with the character of an actress in the film. With Camilla Rutherford, who plays Rebecca, we spent hours talking about Rebecca’s motivation. But it was really people wanting to get back to work, falling in love with the characters that had been created. They called themselves by those characters when we were talking about them. And, we were very fortunate that we knew Jeff Goldblum in the States through Philippe, who suggested Jeff Fahey immediately when he learned that Peter was a writer, and he read poetry. And Jeff did three Zooms with Ben and I and just fell in love with the script and the character and worked on the character with us. So, it was a very special time in History, a very awful time in History, but we hope we’ve created something that will resonate with people and that they will enjoy the cinema experience of.
The film explores how we are forced to spend time in our homes, and how we need human connection and validation in self-isolation. And it couldn’t be more relevant. Can you talk about these aspects and wanting to make the film in a black and white cinéma vérité style as you have just said?
K.B.: It had to be shot in black and white in a certain way with a handheld camera most of the time. Sergio Delgado, my DP, just loved it. We wanted it stripped of color because we wanted the emotion of the characters to come out. So, if you’ve got lots of color and movement and everything else, you’re distracted from the human condition. What I wanted to focus on with each of the twelve protagonists were their actual needs, their worries, their concerns, their behavior. And, we kept the camera rolling a lot of the time when the actors didn’t even realize. They thought I’d said: “Cut!” but we actually didn’t, we kept rolling… I wanted to see them behave as the character without the words involved, or the actions that I was directing. Every single character, when they go away from that film set, they wrap and then they go home, closes the door behind them. And, it’s about what happens to their person, their own personalities and their mental health situation, which I think is a massive topic, obviously, from the pandemic in every country in the world. Everybody can relate to loneliness, isolation, heartache and loss and I wanted them to be basically ordinary people who just happen to have met when they were shooting a film and that’s the only link they’ve got with each other through the whole thing. And, they either realize a lot about themselves, which I did during the first lockdown in the UK, or they realize nothing about themselves at all. I wanted everybody to identify; anybody out there, whether you’re young or old or in-between, to potentially identify with one of those characters that we created for the film. And the title of “A Bird Flew In” came from us thinking more about what we were actually creating. And, it’s how when a wild bird gets locked in somebody’s house, it creates chaos because it can’t find a way out. So, I was trying to explore the chaos of each of our protagonists effectively.
Can you talk about Goldfinch and the projects you decide to invest in and why?
K.B.: Goldfinch has changed a lot over the years, and we’ve worked with a lot of producers. And, what we’ve come to now in our evolvement is that working with third-party producers can be quite difficult from immersing yourself in the production process. So, we tend to work with fewer partners, but we tend to work on more projects. Internally, we have homegrown projects that we do ourselves like A Bird Flew In, like Quant that we got Sadie Frost to do her directorial debut for, and like Father of Flies that Ben Charles Edwards directed. And then, we finance projects. We don’t do equity into third-party projects. But we cash flow tax credits internationally, we cash flow pre-sales or minimum guarantees and we do do a little bit of gap financing as well. And, when we look at those, we look at the risk profile of each of those projects. So, we have an extensive due diligence process that the team goes through for each of those projects. It’s a pure finance play rather than a production plan. And, we’re very stringent in our requirements. So, I would say we get an awful lot of projects submitted to us every week. And, there’s a weekly submissions call between all of the team and set actions as a result and I would say that probably only ten to fifteen percent of the projects that are submitted to us potentially go through to either be co-produced by us or executive produced by us or financed by us.
Do you have a favorite project?
K.B.: Apart from my own, I think my favorite project was a film that we did very early on in Goldfinch, which is called My Feral Heart and it is a wonderful story directed by Jane Gull about a young Down Syndrome gentleman whose mum, who has looked after him, dies and it’s about what happens to him after that. The producer on the film, James Rumsey, took this film by the scruff of its neck and took it to all the festivals across America and all around the world to get recognition for this little film about a Down syndrome young adult, and it won so many awards. It just showed to me what tenacity of a producer could be and what you can produce on sheer determination, team effort, and not that big of a budget. My second favorite, I think, has to be Quant. I read Mary Quant’s autobiography two summers ago and fell in love with this woman who was so entrepreneurial of spirit and so free-minded within her own capabilities. And, when I asked Sadie to direct it, she was the perfect person for it in all respects.
Do you have a dream project?
K.B.: I’ve been carrying around that my father told some forty years ago, which is a true story about two running giants back in the 1860s, one in the Northeast of England and one in America. And, that’s the film that I would see as the pinnacle of my career if I ever got to make it.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past four years. What is your take on it? Do you see any change?
K.B.: Before I started Goldfinch, I came from a professional background where I was a partner in a firm of accountants and in professional environments like that and being a woman of the age I am, I’ve seen all the prejudices in the 90s and 2000s and how people behave in those situations, and I think now there’s far more opportunity for women than I would have ever seen in those decades. But I still don’t think the parity is correct. And, one of the reasons, apart from thinking Sadie would be a wonderful director, for asking her to do Quant was to empower another woman to become a director and see her directorial dreams happen. The same with Jane Gull on My Feral Heart, that happened to be her directorial debut as well. But making a film, there are so many other roles that women can do and I think a lot of people fall into the normal stereotype of: “So, she’s got children, she can’t work on a film set because of the hours…” There are so many different ways we work now, which the pandemic has proven to us and I’m hoping that maybe the fact that this has happened, there are going to be even more opportunities for women. We are just launching a female focus short film fund through our First Flights programme, which I am championing as part of Goldfinch, and it’s to try and encourage people to say: “Look, you can make films, you can be involved in some filmmaking process, we just might need to think a bit differently about it, or push harder.” But, as a woman CEO, I’m all for getting women involved in the industry, but to caveat that, I also believe in meritocracy as well. So, I wouldn’t give a job to somebody just because of their gender; I would give it to them because they deserve to have that and deserve it because of what I’ve seen in front of me. But there should definitely be more women in this industry.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker and someone you would love to work with?
K.B.: I would love to work with Charlotte Rampling as an actress. I think she’s an amazing actress. I’ve always admired her work. The female director that I always have in mind is Jane Campion. Her work is so delicately told you just fall into it. It’s almost like you’re in some kind of marvelous dream that she’s created for you that you just fall in and you’re looked after throughout the whole film, so if I would ever get the opportunity to work with her, it would be an amazing gift. One hundred percent.
What are you working on next? Are you planning on directing something or you’re back to only producing?
K.B.: The dynamic that Ben Charles Edwards and I had on A Bird Flew In, Quant, and Father of Flies, we want to continue with that. Ben Charles Edwards is our Head of Production and we’re developing a new genre slate within Goldfinch with him at the helm and what we see going forward is that we will swap; I may produce him directing and then he’ll produce me directing. We’re working on a slate. The first one of the genre slate films is one that should be out of the traps early next year and it’s a psychological thriller. We also have a horror that may be shooting in Bulgaria next year. We’ve got other documentaries that we’re involved in, which I love. What I find fascinating about the projects that we deal with is that each of them is completely different. It’s a bit like having children; each child might come from the same gene pool, but they’re all different. And, that’s what I find fascinating about film. They’re so interesting – the way they’re structured, the way that they’re written, the way that they play out, the way that the end product happens and the way that it is distributed. There’s no set formula at all as far as I’m concerned.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Goldfinch Entertainment.
This interview was conducted (virtually) at the 2021 Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival.