Of Streetcats and Producers – Adam Rolston (The VH Interview)

Adam Rolston

Three days before the U.K. premier of A Streetcat Named Bob, I sat down with producer Adam Rolston to discuss everything from #TeamBob, to what it’s like producing and working in the British film industry. And while the international bestseller-turn-film, A Streetcat Named Bob, follows the story of (you guessed it) a streetcat named Bob, who helps transform the life of former heroin addict, James Bowen, as the two characters find comfort and solace in each other, Adam’s story was equally one of trial and tribulation, with the film itself coming to his aid.

 

What about A Streetcat Named Bob drew you in to want to produce it?

I first read the book in 2012 when it was published, but I didn’t really have my producer cap on at that time. The cover was very striking. I’ve always liked cats; I’ve grown up with cats. And I’ve always liked stories about the homeless, in cinema especially. I’m a big fan of Chaplin for example. There’s always been a very a romantic element to homelessness for me, despite being a very gritty subject. But in terms of buying the rights, it wasn’t till a year later that I found out they were actually available, and I was quite shocked. Normally with these things, by the time it’s sold so many copies, it gets snapped up. That was also an attraction – it seemed like a no-brainer, because it was such a popular book. Having read it, I felt like it would make a great movie. I loved the story, but it also made a lot of sense business-wise.

When lobbying for the film rights, you were originally up against some stiff competition. What do you feel was the main reason you ultimately won against the big studio companies?

When I met James and Bob for the first time (what they call Team Bob), I pitched it that I would stay true to the books and James’ story. I think some of the companies were wanting to turn it into more of a buddy movie, ignoring James’ story about the recovery from addiction and making Bob out to be this singing, dancing cat, which isn’t the reason the book sold. The book sold because it’s a true story. So my pitch was staying true to the book; keeping it natural. And I guess they could see my enthusiasm for the story. I said to them that if they went with me, they would get my undivided attention. That was going to be my highest priority, which it was for the past three years. Whereas, with some of the bigger studios, they can get a project just for the sake of it and park it for ten years.

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Do you feel that Tim John and Maria Nation’s script stayed true to the book, or did it go above and beyond in some aspects?

I actually think, in many ways, the script did take the book to another level. We go deeper into James’ story, we also develop the drug counsellor, played by Joanne Froggatt. And I think that with some book-to-film adaptions, like The Girl on the Train or 50 Shades of Grey, it pretty much remains the book on film. But for A Streetcat Named Bob, it’s not just going to be the book, it’s going to be a whole other experience.

What about the chemistry between Bob the cat and Luke Treadaway? Was it something that hit off immediately, or did it gradually have to sink in?

Bob’s a pretty laid-back cat. For Luke it was much more getting to grips with James’ character. And he spent a lot of time with James Bowen, almost mimicked him down to the T. It was quite uncanny. It was quite a wonderful performance. And James was there to teach Luke, for example, how to carry Bob on his shoulders. Bob definitely got used to Luke in a preparation period before shooting. But we also had about five other cats, which were flown in from Canada. So of course, Luke had to get used to them too. It was quite surreal.

Did Bob generally adapt to the transition from James to Luke?

Actually, the original plan wasn’t to use Bob. We were going to go cameo, because it was such an unknown quantity: would Bob be comfortable on the film set? We knew he was comfortable outdoors and at book signings. But in a set environment where there’s so many people and so many things going on, would he be comfortable? And would James be willing to put Bob through that? So we had these trained cats, supplied by Roger Spottiswoode who’s done animal films like Midnight Sun, which had polar bears in it. That’s essentially why I chose Roger, because he’s someone who knows how to make animals and humans interact really well on screen. And when Roger came on-board, I said, “Look, how are we gonna do this, how are we gonna make the cats work?” And he said, “Well, I’m gonna call my Canadian trainers and see what they say. I’m sure we can get you a couple of Bobs.” They were trained for three months in Canada, then they came over, and you do see them in the film a lot, doing a lot of the stunts that Bob can’t do, like running onto buses. But then, we were in Covent Garden the first week, and it was proving very difficult to get those trained cats just to stay still, because they were always so alert. That day, James and Bob were just on set, and Roger says, “Come on, Bob, let’s do your cameo now!” It was the scene where Luke was busking, and Bob just sat there – cameras rolling – and he did it! It was like he knew he was acting. It’s also the scene with people passing by, putting money down, and in one take, he almost nodded at someone. It was then Roger and I looked at each other, and by telepathy, we just knew Bob had to be in the movie. From that point on, Bob was on set everyday with James, and he made our lives a hell of a lot easier; helping keep our schedule. So Bob becoming a cat actor was quite seamless really.

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You used to work as a playwright, having sold your first screenplay at 18. Besides the obvious, what did you feel was the most striking difference between working in theatre and working in film?

Well I guess, on film, you can never go back. In theatre, you can go to the first night, sit in the back of the audience, and find out what was working and what was not, and then change something. In film we also did that – we tested with audiences almost every week, and that did help us to refine the edits. But then, once you lock it, that’s it – it becomes very expensive to go back. That was a huge difference. And of course, it’s a completely different form of storytelling. When you’re writing a play, you’ll usually do it in one setting and you have to structure everything around that, being more dialogue heavy as well. But in film, it’s much more visual, and you have a lot more freedom as to how you tell the story.

Do you feel like your background in theatre and as a playwright helped you when producing the film, in ways you wouldn’t have known otherwise?

I think being a writer definitely helped me work with writers in the film. Tim and Maria were absolutely fantastic, and I learned a lot from how they work, but I felt they definitely appreciated the fact that I could ‘speak their language’ almost, and work so closely with them. Also, my playwrighting was very commercial. My motive was always reaching a big audience. I did very repertory theatre – things that would play to, what I call, ‘the masses’. It’s not anything intellectual, and I think that’s what I’m trying to achieve now in film, and A Streetcat Named Bob was very much in-line with that, in that I felt it was going to reach a wide audience. So I’ve definitely brought my commercial side in theatre to film. When I was very young I actually wanted to be an animator. I used to draw a lot, and do comic strips. Then at some point when I was fifteen or sixteen, without remembering why or when, I switched to wanting to write scripts. And I always loved film. I actually sold a screenplay when I was eighteen. It didn’t get made, but I was encouraged to keep writing.

And now that you’ve had exposure to both film and theatre, which do you see yourself settling into more?

As much as I love writing, my passion lies more with film, and producing is more my calling. But I am still writing. I have a publisher, and am actually commissioned to write two plays at the moment, but just haven’t found the time just to get into the headspace to do so. But film is where I’m directing my career now, and next year is going to be busy; working on five feature films. And Bob is still continuing, actually. We’re doing an animated TV series now for him. There has been chatter about a sequel film, but that’s probably too early to talk about.

Does the animated series follows Bob after the events of the movie?

It is meant to be after, yeah, but more aimed at preschoolers. In the book series, there’s actually six books, and two of those are children’s books. They’re aimed at a certain age level, and it’s very much focused on Bob as a character, not dealing with heroin addiction or homelessness, but rather about Bob and what he can teach you. And we’re developing it, trying to find the balance to focus it on a preschool audience.

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So A Streetcat Named Bob is essentially going to be the debut release for your production company, Shooting Script Films. Is that somewhat nerve-wrecking to think about, or do you feel the film is a solid reflection of the company?

I think it definitely reflects the company. It was a very ‘smart’ first investment for the company, and we’ve been delighted. So it’s been a great start, and not many companies get this level of film for their first movie, especially if you’re an independent company. And for me personally, there are nerve-wrecking aspects – it’s such a big release with all the advertising, and the royal premier on Thursday with the Duchess of Cambridge. Then on Monday, the focus is on the numbers, and seeing how we do, particularly with over forty international release dates. Obviously, that’s hugely exciting. But for me, you know, you get a little bit nervous and you want it to do well. As a writer, I used to have anxiety dreams where I’m sitting in the audience and suddenly actors start changing lines or the audience starts walking out. I’m actually now having the same thing as a producer, where I’m watching the movie, say at the premier, and the audience starts booing and walking out. But it’s nervous excitement really.

Do you have a favourite sequence from the film that you’re fond of?

I’d say I really love the music. We have these great original songs by Charlie Fink, who played for Noah and the Whale. And my favourite sequence from the movie is also my favourite sequence from the book, when Bob first follows James onto the bus into town and that’s kind of when it all begins. They’re coming down to Covent Garden, Bob on his shoulders, and they busk together for the first time and play one of the songs, “Satellite Moments”. That’s my favourite sequence, because it’s that moment where the whole journey of them together as a duo sort of begins.

What is some advice you’d give to an aspiring writer or producer who might be reading this interview?

I would just say never ever give up on it. You will encounter rejections in this business. I like to think I’ve proved something within this industry. But rejection is part of it. And sometimes, yes, it can be demoralizing. But it happens to everyone. You can speak to some of the huge players, and they’ll tell you how many rejections they’ve had. I mean, getting A Streetcat Named Bob made was not easy. Even when we had the rights to the book, a great script, and a director attached, it was still a lot of no’s. I was told countless times it was never going to get made, just because I wasn’t a known producer. But you have to find some kind of resolve. You do have to have a good project, but if you believe in your project that much, take the rejections on board, listen to people, and keep at it, something will happen. Three years ago, if you told me I was going to be meeting the Duchess of Cambridge and have fifty international release dates, I wouldn’t have believed you. But these things are possible if you have the right project and you really stick at it. It’s a tough, tough business – cut-throat actually. The British film industry is particularly tough. You do have to network a lot. You have to go to the festivals, and you have to approach people when you can.

Can you tell us about some of your future projects?

Sure. They’re at varying stages, and one of course is the Bob animated series. I’m now prepping for two feature films. One is a British rom-com called Never Google Heartbreak, and it’s also based on a book, not quite as bestselling as A Streetcat Named Bob, but from the same publisher.  And then I’ll be going to Canada later in March to do a comedy called Booze Bus, so it’s a very silly American booze bus that I optioned for earlier this year. I’ve got another project with Roger, the director of Either Side of Midnight, that’s an ensemble drama, one-night-in-Manhattan sort of thing. And I’ve just optioned a number of horror short stories by a very popular bestselling author called John Connolly who does the Charlie Parker series. I’ve also started work on a project called The Easter Daddy – a family comedy about a single dad who becomes the Easter Bunny. Tim John actually wrote it, and it’s a really great script. But for now that’s it.

never-google-heartbreak

You seem to be diversifying in terms of where you’re based, but also in terms of genre: from horror to comedy. Is it usually the value of the script or the genre and location that drives your interest for producing a certain piece?

Without sounding kind of- I’m more driven by what I think is commercial. So for example, with the short stories by John Connolly, horror is one of the best selling genres in the market. It just sells. And I felt with him as a bestseller, and with that kind of fanbase already behind him, as we had with Bob, it makes things a bit easier, and makes a bit more sense. So I generally gravitate towards things I think can sell. And yes, they have to appeal as well. You know, rom-coms, when you get them right, they’re really fantastic. For Never Google Heartbreak, when I first got the book, I loved the title. And Google is the USP; everyone uses Google everyday. So it’s finding these selling points, and just what I feel can sell. And yeah, we look at all genres. I’m constantly reading either original scripts or commissioned scripts, and I’d welcome anyone to send stuff in really. And I’m constantly reading books; I go into Waterstones every other day just to have a browse. So it’s just about what I feel has a chance to survive in the market, because that’s what it comes down to. You might have a great script, but if it’s too bleak or too British, it can only really sell here. So you wanna find projects that can sell in Korea or Japan or Russia. If you find those projects, then you’ve got more chance of selling a movie and making your money back, which is what it’s about ultimately.

And is this something you’ve increasingly discovered from having your own production company, or is it something you’ve always known in the back of your head?

I’ve discovered it more with Bob. We’ve sold to every single territory now; there’s nothing left to sell. Which is great news, and for my financiers and my press team who did The King’s Speech, they’re very happy, because they made their money back. And we’ve got all these release dates, so really, it’s kind of collateral. So I’ve really learned that from doing A Streetcat Named Bob, but I’ve always had this appeal to reach a wide audience. Shooting Script Films has quite a large development finance sector, and unlike most independent organizations at our level, we don’t have to go to say, the BFI, for a small amount of money that won’t get you anywhere. We can do things in-house, like buying rights, or hiring a writer, which is usually quite costly and is considered high-risk finance. But the whole business side of things has been a huge learning curve for me, and I’ve learned a lot about how films are sold, and what appeals to which countries. It’s actually quite fascinating.

For example, with A Streetcat Named Bob, was that something you knew would be an international success, or did you have to tweak it to get to that?

I always thought it could have an international success, only because it sold the 5 million copies in all kinds of different countries. For example, in Germany, it’s huge: it sold 2.5 million copies there alone and it’s on the national curriculum. James and Bob going there is like The Beatles in concert. And actually, our first pre-sale was Germany, and that really got us going. Normally, what you have to do in your finance planning is have a certain amount of your budget pre-sold, because finance wants to know that they’ve at least got some form of distribution, or that there’s at least interest. So I always thought it might be an international success. Did I think we were gonna sell every single territory like we have, or get so many on board – no, not at all. I knew everyone would do a fantastic job, but being a studio film, I didn’t have any idea of the magnitude.

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So what I’m getting is the sense that becoming a producer has really enlightened you on the business side of filmmaking?

Oh yeah, absolutely. And that’s essentially what it is, it’s a huge business. There’s so much money involved. So many films get made that never sell. But, yes, I’ve learned a huge amount about how the business side of it works. And there’s no doubt it’s put me in good stead for future projects.

Ultimately, is this business side of filmmaking something you’d say every aspiring screenplay writer should always keep in mind when writing, or would you tell them to focus more on creative expression and not worry too much about budgeting?

I think for writers, it is important to think about budget. It’s also important that writers have a freedom in their creation. You know, if you have a sci-fi idea, you have a sci-fi idea. If you can get a clever sci-fi, like Moon, where you can make it for a certain budget, that’s even better. But for producers, you have to think about the business side of things. It’s part of it. Leave the creative stuff – your job is to get the budget right and to package a project correctly. Choose your creative team so they’re the ones that are creative, and you’re just pulling it together. When it comes to choosing your writer, choose someone who, first of all, actually wants to do it, secondly, has done similar things before and gets the project. And then there’s the director, that’s a huge, huge thing. With the right director and writer, you really don’t need to have that creative involvement. It’s all about getting that package right, and taking it to the market, so that people go, “Ah, alright!” ‘That director’ or ‘that cast’. The hardest part of anything is getting the cast on board. That’s a very difficult task, because usually, the whole market is based on an independent level. So on A Streetcat Named Bob, we had a wonderful cast; Joanne Froggatt, Luke Treadaway, etc. But we didn’t have an A-list cast. If we didn’t have Bob on the film, or the book sales behind it, then it wouldn’t have sold at all. And we sold the film based on that. So there’s got to be something there. And normally, on an independent level, you have to have a certain level of cast, and they dictate your sales estimate, and what you can make the film for. For example, if a film can be sold for 10 million, then your budget has to be around that mark. You can’t go make a 20 million dollar movie, and only estimate 10 million revenue – it just doesn’t make sense economically. So overall, you do have to have a creative mindset, but you can’t ignore the business side of things. And actually, what Shooting Script Films wants to do is try to nurture new talent and to try and change some of the industry where it feels like if you’re an outsider, you can never come into ‘our industry’. It’s almost like a mini-caste system. I think that’s part of my journey in this film, which is that I found that, even though I had the rights to this fantastic property and the projected success, people would say, “Well, we’ve never heard of you, so you can’t do it.” Which is actually bullocks. There seems to be this construct of needing to get through all these ranks just to get to some point. And it’s silly, because, why can’t you? If you’ve got the project, and you believe in it, why can’t you?

Well thanks so much for your time Adam, and we hope it’s all a success in the end!

Adam Rolston, Producer of A Streetcat Named Bob, which is out in UK cinemas tomorrow, 4th November

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