Lauren Miles talks to Helen Simmons about juggling the tasks of a producer, the importance of British cinema, and her film Say Your Prayers.
On a day-to-day basis, producer Helen Simmons tackles so many responsibilities that it’s hard to keep up. Often working on various different tasks, sometimes for multiple film projects, this is just the average experience of a film producer.
Simmons is fresh off the release of her recent film Say Your Prayers, made alongside director and writer Harry Michell. The film follows two radical Christian hitmen (played by Harry Melling and Tom Brooke) who are tasked with killing a notorious atheist writer (Roger Allam) at a literary festival in Ilkley, Yorkshire.
While producers are billed alongside writers and directors in film credits, it’s the role that we hear the least about. Simmons says that they are responsible for the smooth running of a film’s production, a role that encompasses many tasks.
“You’re basically involved in every life stage of the film,” she said. This includes both creative and organisational aspects, from overseeing casting to financing the film.
“You’re in charge of running the production itself, the shoot, and also then oversee the postproduction process.” All of these tasks might seem overwhelming, but Simmons takes it all in her stride.
“I think you have to love a to-do list, love a spreadsheet and be as excited by the organisational side of things as you are the creative.” She also seems to enjoy the variety that the job provides. “I quite like that when you have a slate of projects, you have things that are all at different stages,” she said.
When it came to Say Your Prayers, she had been involved from the very beginning. Simmons collaborated with director Harry Michell on his previous film, Chubby Funny, and for Say Your Prayers they were joined by co-writer Jamie Fraser.
“I was there from the beginning just helping to nurture their idea, and they just got on with writing it,” she said. “It was the natural progression of the first film.”
A key part of the story is that the hitmen are not overly good at their jobs, and Simmons said that they wanted to differentiate them from stereotypical Hollywood assassins. “We wanted to play on the fact that you’ve got two quite inept hitmen, and it would be classic for them to be British and a bit bumbling,” she said. “You watch American films and films from various countries [and see] the very menacing, or slick, or cool, sort of aspirational hitmen and police officers, and actually I quite like that in this they’re not. They’re often a bit pathetic, but that allows you to empathise with them.”
Simmons described the choice to explore Christian extremism in the film as “prescient”, and said that she believes the extreme thinking presented in it reflects the current political climate. However, at the time the film was entering development, she said this was not at the forefront of the director’s mind.
“I think they wanted to explore something a bit different and to look through the lens of a religion that we often think of as being harmless, and [associate with] choral choirs in churches in the middle of nowhere, and look at what that might look like if it were taken to the extreme.”
She added that they were sensitive when choosing how to depict religion, and didn’t want to poke fun or offend. In the film, there are characters on both sides, religious or atheist, who are objectively immoral. “It was more an exploration of power, I suppose. In whatever context that might be.”
Having had a huge hand in every part of the filmmaking process, she said that seeing a film be released is “very satisfying, and just a big sigh of relief because it’s such a long process.” Part of the satisfaction comes from the fact that it’s difficult to get films made and seen by an audience. “Getting the film to an audience now is changing all the time, and obviously we’re seeing that with cinemas closing, and Coronavirus has accelerated trends.”
The pandemic has also created debate around the amount of funding given to the arts by the UK government.
“The figures speak for themselves when it comes to what the arts contribute to the economy,” she said. “I think what we do very well as a country is culture and the arts, and with film in particular. Indie cinema, it might not be the most profitable, it’s not Avengers, but that is where you discover talent.”
She also said that British cinema gives a voice to marginalised people and is more diverse than mainstream cinema. “I don’t think [the importance of the arts] should ever be a debate and it’s upsetting when it feels like it is. Because also, with Coronavirus, you think what is it we’re all doing when we’re stuck inside?”
The film industry has always been notoriously difficult to get into, and now is even more so. What advice would Simmons give those who want to do what she does?
Her most profound tip focused on the way that you think about your ambitions. “Nobody’s ever going to give you permission, or tell you that you’re ready to be that thing, so you just have to decide that and start trying to do it.”
That mindset certainly seems to have worked out well for her…
Say Your Prayers is out now via on-demand streaming. You can rent or buy it here.
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