Behind the doors of Number 9 with producer Elizabeth Karlsen

Originally published on Film4 / Medium.

Elizabeth Karlsen is a British film producer who co-founded Number 9 Films in 2002 with production partner and husband Stephen Woolley. Speaking on the phone from her London office, she tells Film4 Online’s Nicole Davis about an accolade-heavy CV (Carol, Colette, Their Finest, Made in Dagenham, Hyena and Youth are just a handful of the films they have coached into cinemas in the past decade) — and why she’s at her happiest when making other people’s cinematic visions come true.

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Number 9 Films’ Elizabeth Karlsen.

It started with studying biology. It might be a stretch to posit that an interest in microorganisms and molecules would be a good foundation for a career in producing, but at its simplest, the role of a producer is to coalesce lots of different cells to create a living, breathing film.

Her cinematic appetite, however, was whetted much earlier. “Being brought up in the States where so much of the fabric of the culture is cinema, we went all the time as a family,” Karlsen says. Although it is her English “film buff” mother whom Karlsen cites as the real inspiration, “she was always watching films.”

It was while doing a postgraduate degree, after having studied English, with “a brilliant woman called Jacqueline Rose” (a renowned feminist scholar) that Karlsen found herself immersed in “feminism, representations in cinema and a lot of critical theory around film.”

It gave her enough of a sense of what she wanted to pursue that upon returning to New York she got a job as an intern on a film set. “I got on really well with the director and when he was editing the film he got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to help,” she says. He was fantastic and sort of propelled me onto that path.”

The film was Parting Glances, starring Steve Buscemi, and the director was Bill Sherwood, who clearly had a good eye for discovering talent. The other person credited as an Assistant Editor on the film alongside Karlsen is Christine Vachon who went on to found Killer Films and produce — among many others — Carol and Colette with Number 9 Films.

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(Left); Karlsen got her break working on Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, (Right); with regular collaborator, fellow producer and friend Christine Vachon.

Considering she spent much of her time in the editing room, I ask Karlsen why the role of producer, in particular, stood out to her.“I just walked onto that set and I didn’t really know what producing was, but I just got this sense that you could bring all these creative people together and make a film and I thought ‘that’s what I want to do’…I remember very strongly that someone had to orchestrate it and make it happen and that really appealed to me.”

The radicalism of Parting Glances — now considered something of a milestone in queer cinema — would set the tone for Karlsen’s own career, telling “stories from the sidelines.” Although she credits her political family and the coterie of liberals (“outsiders and misfits”) around whom she was brought up as the fuel to that fire.

It was another “six or seven years” before Karlsen co-produced The Crying Game alongside her now-husband and producing partner Stephen Woolley, during which time she had roles as Production Manager, Second Assistant Director and Production Supervisor. Karlsen readily admits that “it was a long and arduous path.”

But it was quite the film with which to establish herself. The 1992 thriller about an unlikely friendship between a British soldier and an IRA volunteer earned six Oscar® nominations, including a win for Best Screenplay, and seven BAFTA nominations, including a win for Best British Film.

It would be a taste of the success to come.

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Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game

Karlsen describes herself as a creative producer; an approach that is very much baked into how Number 9 operates. They are purposefully small, hands-on and often generate their own material. For them it’s about seeing the film through its entire biological life cycle, from development to distribution. “I see it as my role to support a director and [their] vision the best way I possibly can, so that they have the best chance of realising it.”

And where does the material that they generate come from? “We look in the margins…bestsellers don’t always make the best films and books that no one’s heard of can make phenomenal films”, says Karlsen.

It was writer Phyllis Nagy who came to Karlsen with the idea to make Carol in 2005after they’d worked together on a project called Mrs. Harris — an HBO TV movie starring Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley. But the rights were tied up with another producer and it would take a decade before they became free.

The publishers were reluctant to sell the rights to another independent producer, but Karlsen pleaded her case, with the involvement of Film4’s Tessa Ross. They closed the deal in 2011. But by that point Nagy had wearied and her enthusiasm for the project wavered. Karlsen held firm, and eventually Nagy was in. What sounds like a stressful experience would turn out to be a good omen.

“The things that have gone on to huge critical success or awards success are the ones that were hardest to get funded at the time…With something like Carol, once the right team were onboard it really propelled forward at a fast pace.”

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Todd Haynes’ Carol

Karlsen credits the partnership she has with Woolley as being integral to her ability to withstand the ups and downs of a producer’s life. “It’s a rollercoaster ride of a business that can turn on a dime…You can feel like you’re banging your head against a wall and if you have creative doubt or despondency, it’s important to have a partner…to help you pick up the pieces and validate your choices. And also to share your successes. It’s been wonderful to share the limelight together.”

“It’s rare we have strong diverse responses” says Karlsen, when I ask whether they have distinct tastes. “Typically we like the same kinds of films.” Certainly something appears to be working. Number 9 has produced almost a film a year for the past decade.

“When I saw that, I was like ‘wow, that’s pretty good’,” laughs Karlsen.

“We only really have six to eight project that we’re developing on the slate at any one time and they can take anywhere from two to ten years, which generally works quite well as a conversion rate.”

How does their creative input vary, I wonder, when it comes to working with an established director like Todd Haynes as opposed to filmmakers for whom it’s their first feature outing? “With someone like Todd, who is an extremely talented auteur, you’re just making sure he has the tools he needs to deliver on that. A first-time filmmaker will need different kinds of help. They might not fully know how to use the camera, or tell that story, and so you might think a bit more about who to team them with in terms of a cinematographer or editor, and you’d take a different approach. You just need to be fully supportive to allow them to believe that their inexperience might be their greatest asset and that they absolutely have the ability they need to carry it off.”

It’s a cheering thought, that perfection isn’t a requirement, particularly in the competitive environs of the film industry. “The worst combination is ignorance with arrogance”, Karlsen continues. Ultimately it’s about listening to, and leaning on other members of the team who do have the knowledge, be that the producers or anyone else on set. It comes back to that notion of collaboration that is the lifeblood of Number 9 Films.

“We’ve been really lucky with the relationships we’ve established over the years with financiers and distributors, one of them being Film4, who’ve been there right from the beginning. That’s been a very crucial and satisfying relationship for us, and I hope we can continue to make Film4 proud to be a part of our team.”

A relationship is the beating heart of Number 9 Films, and as Karlsen puts it, “relationships are absolutely crucial to us.” I sense their success has far more to do with this emphasis on collaboration, a lack of ego and lots of hard work, than luck.

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