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James Cotton

James Cotton (BA Film & Literature 2005-08) has produced a new British film, Powder Room, alongside fellow Warwick graduate Damian Jones (BA History and Politics, 1983-86). The film is released nationwide, December 6th

  james cotton
 
  powder room
 

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You studied for a BA in Film & Literature at Warwick, how did that help you in your career?
A film producer has to balance the creative and the pragmatic, and my degree greatly assisted in giving me the grounding in the former. A greater understanding and appreciation for art came from three years of studying the masters of cinema, and discussing their work. However, I had the frustration of analysing completed cinema that could not be changed in any way by my own hand, so the course had a positive effect in driving me to change that fact. Now, armed with a greater knowledge of cinema, I’m out in the world making them from scratch.

What are the most challenging parts of your job?
Producing involves having relationships with dozens of people in the making of a single film, so managing egos, suppressing egos, and always trying to do what’s best for the film no matter what the circumstances. I find this extremely challenging, and as every film has its own set of personalities involved and dynamics, I have to adapt each and every time. Though challenging, I never stagnate within my role, which is a great positive that comes from this challenge.

Another great challenge is dealing with constant rejection; funding bodies reject the projects you take to them, actors may say no to a script, and audiences may not react to a finished product in the way you’d anticipated.

What have you done that you are most proud of?
There are three films that I am most proud of producing, for three different reasons.

Firstly, a short animation entitled The Magnificent Lion Boy was the most enjoyable filmmaking experience of my life; all the elements of script, direction, editing, sound design, music composition and acting talent (Hugh Bonneville and Andy Serkis) all came together to cause an extremely strong emotional response from everyone who saw it. The film subsequently premiered in competition in le cinéfondation section of Cannes in May 2013.

I am also very proud of a short entitled Rule Number Three, which I wrote, raised money for and produced prior to film school. Made with a fellow Warwick graduate of 2008 (Tom Ludlam), we managed a casting coup by securing Nicholas Hoult and Imogen Poots. The film performed well on the festival circuit and is now available on iTunes, but it was the fact that this was Tom and I’s first professionally made short, and the product was the product of our vision and hard work.

The most significant achievement so far is producing a feature film with fellow Warwick graduate, Damian Jones (BA History and Politics, 1983 - 1986). The creation of the film, Powder Room, was singularly the sharpest and most fulfilling learning curve of my life. When you move from shorts to features, things get serious; lawyers become heavily involved (and are your best friend), problems encountered on shorts magnify and you become exhausted, but the sense of achievement in the end is greater. This is enhanced further when Universal buy the film and Vertigo distribute it. For the sense of achievement and sheer amount I learnt throughout this filmmaking process, I suspect it is the most important and formative experience I’ll ever have in my career, and one I can be proud of. Powder Room was released in 46 cinemas nationwide on December 6th, 2013.

What drives you?
What drives me is a feeling that what I produce creates an emotional response from an audience. If I make a comedy and people laugh, I’m happy. If I make a tragedy and people cry, I’m happy. I think that this feeling supersedes any desire for huge financial gain, but I must admit, I’d like that as well in due course.

What single thing would most improve the quality of your life?
Having a financial backer to enable me to develop my slate of film without having to worry about rent / food. The financial backer would subsequently benefit from the films I produce.

What was your favorite aspect of the Film & Literature programme at Warwick?
My favourite aspect of the Film & Literature programme at Warwick was the detail in which we looked at film. Most people watch a film once, have a reaction, and perhaps they will re-watch it a couple of years down the line. On the course, compulsory repeated screenings enabled you to study beyond the surface level, analyse, discuss and develop your approach to and opinions of film.

What would you tell someone thinking of studying at Warwick?
As far as film is concerned, do it. People in the film industry that attended Warwick include two renowned directors, two big producers, one big actor, the head of acquisitions at a leading UK sales agent, the BFI’s latest employee and myself – and these are just the ones I know about.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently during your time as a student?
I wish I had physically produced more. At Warwick, a team I pulled together won ‘best director’ at a 24-hour film challenge, but I didn’t get involved beyond this snapshot of filmmaking. I always thought the equipment via Warwick TV was sub-standard at the time, and I have always been cautious about the quality control of aesthetics. I think this was probably a mistake, and with the advances in technology in recent years making top quality achievable on a shoestring (most significantly the Canon 5D and more recently Blackmagic), I think I would now have a different attitude if I were to go back again.

How do you balance work and life?
As producers make little money whilst developing projects from conception to script, the payless legwork has to be balanced with a regular form of income in the early years. Once you have a couple of hits under your belt, producing can become your full time job, but I’m not quite there yet. Therefore, I also work for a film financier, who admittedly, may soon fund part of my future works. Through necessity, I need to do this for now.

If you could choose another profession, what would it be?
I have always wanted to investigate murders. I don’t know why, but it’s the only other thing I could see myself doing. I’m not sure what that says about me.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years’ time?
Running a reputable production company (perhaps with a sales or financing arm). I also hope to have somehow got a BAFTA nomination, and be well known within the industry.

What three objects would you take with you to a desert island?

  1. Alexander MacKendrick’s book ‘On Filmmaking’. I could be reminded of the wisdom within this book forever, and although the book is primarily for directors, it is most definitely relevant to screenwriters and producers.
  2. A football.
  3. Paper. I’d just have to hope that I found graphite on the desert island to write with.

What are your favourite memories of your years at Warwick?
Being President of Warwick Student Cinema and hosting events was a highlight. I also loved the amount of 5-a-side football I used to play, and the number of Hip Hop artists that came to Warwick. I’m a fan of the genre as a form of expression (not the vacuous commercial artists), and whilst at Warwick I saw artists such as People Under the Stairs and Ugly Duckling. I think the person in charge of booking acts whilst I was in my first year in 2005/2006 must also have shared this opinion of Hip Hop.

Do you have any advice for new graduates?
I can only give advice to those who want to work within the film industry. It may sound terrible advice, but learn how to drive; it’s the one piece of advice a top UK producer told me back in 2008, and he was right. All films need drivers, and all actors / producers / directors get driven. If you make friends with one of the aforementioned, it can lead onto another job, and another, and another. The ‘who you know’ element of the industry can only come from hard work and putting yourself in the right positions to start with. Once I had a famous actor in the car, I befriended the actor; he got me an internship from which I got a job, and then another job. The same actor even voiced an animation character for me, which elevated that project to a higher level and has helped my profile as a result. It all started from taking that one piece of advice.

James Cotton: the facts
Age: 28
Lives: London
Education: BA Film & Literature (University of Warwick)
MA Producing (The National Film & Television School)
Career: Film Producer
Interests: Feature films, short films, animation, reading about anything and everything, screenwriting, football, jazz, intelligent hip hop.