Jeff Pope’s recent Bafta win bodes well in the run-up to the Oscars, where Philomena, the film he co-wrote with Steve Coogan, is up for four awards. Pope seems more than a little baffled by the whole process, however. He’s no stranger to accolades in his day job – as the writer and producer of ITV’s most acclaimed factual dramas, he’s already won a Bafta for See No Evil, a mini-series about the Moors murders. But the Oscars, he says, are completely different.
“You think you do your work, it has a life in the cinema and if people think it’s good enough then they’ll vote for it,” he shrugs. “But it turns out that’s naive. Steve has been all over America for the last two months on the Oscar campaign – he texted me recently from a tiny lodge somewhere in the Midwest. Really it’s like a political campaign.
“There are very strict rules about lobbying,” Pope explains, having stepped off a plane from LA only hours earlier. “I, as a nominee, couldn’t, for instance, urge Academy members to vote for me. That would be beyond the rules. What I can do is go to a screening and I can talk about the film. I can answer questions about what inspired us and what our processes were, but I can’t lobby one to one. So the campaign is: just get the film in front of them. Then, if the film’s good enough, they’ll vote for it – but it’s the ‘getting it in front of them’ bit that I had underestimated.”
Pope briefly considered writing a comedy about an Oscars bid but has dropped the idea – although the material is rich indeed. It’s been estimated that studios can spend $10 million on a film to secure members’ votes in the best picture category. In Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures, former publicist Mark Urman explains some of their tactics: “They set up screenings at the Motion Picture Retirement Home, because Academy members live there – even if they’re on life support. They find out where people holiday in the period between Christmas and New Year’s, and if it’s Aspen, they have screenings in Aspen; if it’s in Hawaii, they have screenings in Hawaii.”
Philomena tells the real-life story of Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), who, with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), started searching for her illegitimate son 50 years after he was given up for adoption by the nuns of Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland. In the US, the film was distributed by Harvey Weinstein, a past master at the art of Oscar spin. He was the man who won Shakespeare In Love a best picture award over that year’s favourite, Saving Private Ryan. Wary of alienating Catholic voters, Weinstein arranged a screening of Philomena at the Vatican, as well as for Coogan and Lee to meet Pope Francis. A Vatican spokesman did clarify, however, that the pontiff would not be viewing the film, saying that it is “important to avoid using the Pope as part of a marketing strategy”.
Coogan and Jeff Pope were introduced by a mutual friend – Christine Langan, the head of BBC Films – and wrote the screenplay for Philomena holed up in Coogan’s houses in Brighton and the Lake District. “Christine had worked with both of us, put us together, and we just hit it off,” Pope recalls. “I had the strong instinct that this was a tale that needed to be told – a really fascinating story about loss and love, faith and forgiveness. As you dig into the story, you just realise there’s such depth to it.”
Pope is definitely not one to shirk away from a harrowing story, especially in his role as Head of Factual Drama at ITV Studios. His projects often put the focus on women dealing with psychopaths – from Janet Leach and Fred West in Appropriate Adult (which he executive produced) to the women who died or survived at the hands of serial killer Malcolm Webster in The Widower (a drama he also wrote), which is coming soon to ITV.
Chronicling Philomena Lee’s experience was slightly different, though. “You probably can’t quite stand up the idea that the Catholic Church’s behaviour is psychopathic – just authoritarian, dictatorial and bullying,” he explains. “They thought their methods were acceptable because it was a mortal sin to have a child out of wedlock. And we didn’t try and judge what happened 50 years ago by our modern standards – that would have been a mistake.”
Pope honed his skills working on a local London newspaper and those talents are now in demand in Tinseltown. “It’s very early days and you’ve got to be Kiplingesque about these things – treating triumph and disaster as two imposters and so on,” he smiles. “If it means I get the chance to do more work like Philomena, then that will be brilliant. But I’m not about to give up the day job.”
Has he prepared an Oscar acceptance speech? He shudders. “Definitely not. I’m very superstitious. I touch wood, salute magpies, all that. I’m not preparing anything. What could possibly go wrong?”
Watch the 86th Annual Academy Awards on Monday at 1:30am.