12 Years a Slave reminds us that the risk-taking British film industry is punching above its weight
Tessa Ross, head of Film4 and executive producer on 12 Years a Slave, was on stage with director Steve McQueen after he picked up his Oscar. Nurturing great British talent can lead to many more moments like this, she says
On Sunday night, I sat in the back row of the stalls of the Kodak theatre, next to Steve McQueen's mother, Mary, and his sister Deborah. We were very nervous – it was the last award of the evening and Will Smith was about to announce the winner of the 86th Academy Award for Best Picture. When we heard the words "12 Years a Slave", along with a room packed with Hollywood’s great and good, we jumped up and cheered. Actually, Deborah and Mary screamed! I can't imagine there'd have been a better seat to be in than the one next to Steve's family. And as the show ended, and the throng struggled up the stairs to get onto the dinners and parties, we three ploughed down to the stage, to hug that wonderful man and the team around him.
Rewind a few years, and Jan Younghusband, then Channel 4’s Head of Arts and Performance, invited the artist Steve McQueen to develop a film. He wanted to tell the story of the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Steve, together with Jan and Peter Carlton from my team at Film4, started to develop a screenplay with the brilliant playwright, Enda Walsh, and an extraordinary project began to take shape. Hunger was about a subject that would be considered difficult, starring a (then) little-known actor called Michael Fassbender and directed by a man who, despite international acclaim as an exceptional visual artist, had no experience of any feature film-making. In movie terms, it would be termed a risky project.
We were, however, in our element – this was exactly the kind of work that Film4, the feature film-making arm of Channel 4, exists to support. And so we were in the privileged position of saying yes to the start of this exceptional film career. There's no greater pleasure than finding a new voice and a new vision – a writer, director, producer with something to say and a new way of saying it. And because our remit demands that we take risks on the new, the extraordinary, the freshest and the boldest, Steve's thrilling story is not the only one we've witnessed.
I believe that this is the huge strength of the British film industry. We’re prepared to take risks on talent, both new and experienced, telling unusual and distinctive stories, making films that aren't built in the often derivative shapes that aim squarely at the box office, but which, because of their originality and their love of cinema, often receive great responses from the critics and find their audiences through this route. And the US comes knocking at our door precisely because we seem able to take these exciting risks that they feel so nervous of.
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Hunger was a critical and creative success, winning Steve the prestigious Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, amongst many other awards and nominations. It’s this debut film which first brought Steve to the attention of the wider industry, and, perhaps now most famously, to the attention of Brad Pitt and Plan B, who would go on to produce 12 Years a Slave.
So as he collected his award I felt a real sense of pride – for Steve and the extraordinary journey he's been on – but also for our industry that, despite its small size and relatively low budgets, is consistently producing world class work, is punching well above its weight and so often triumphs on the world stage. After all, the other big winner of the night – the incredible Gravity – is also a British success story. If we can keep protecting and supporting exceptional talent and looking for stories that are truly original, there'll be jumps of joy from the British contingent at many more awards seasons to come.
Tessa Ross is Channel 4 Controller of Film and Drama and an executive producer on 12 Years a Slave