‘We’re prospectors mining for gold’

It’s undeniably a good time to be Irish in Hollywood. While we’re on a first name basis with many of Ireland’s brightest acting talents, Saoirse, Cillian, Barry, Paul and Andrew to name but a few, Dublin-based production company Element Pictures has been slowly and steadily building a reputation as a force to be reckoned with internationally.

Founded by co-CEOs Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe in 2001, the team at Element are behind some of the more interesting and offbeat films of the past few decades. Room, The Lobster, The Favourite, and the lockdown sensation Normal People are among the projects they have steered to the big and small screens.

Speaking to RTÉ Entertainment as the team prepares to head off to the Oscars, where their film Poor Things is nominated for 11 awards – a record for an Irish-produced film and the second most nominated film this year behind Christopher Nolan’s juggernaut Oppenheimer – the amiable Guiney reflected on the early days of Element.

He had been running a company called Temple Films alongside writer-director Stephen Bradley, with credits including Cillian Murphy’s screen breakthrough Disco Pigs, Gerard Stembridge’s Guiltrip and Paddy Breathnach’s Ailsa. Guiney and Lowe, who ran in the same circles, first collaborated on Bradley’s film Sweety Barrett, where Lowe was the production accountant and “brilliant at all the financing stuff”.

Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe established Element Pictures in 2001

The conversation between Guiney and Lowe about setting up their own production company began in the late 90s, with their complementary skills providing a sturdy basis.

“We’ve always had in principle that specialization, where I tend to look after development and editorial matters, and he tends to look after commercial and financing,” Guiney said. “But actually, it’s way more fluid than that, we talk all the time about everything.

“We were both excited about the idea of building a company out of here that would work internationally. And to the extent that we had a vision back then, it was about just working with great filmmakers and trying to help them make film and television that would go out around the world.”

Forming relationships with filmmakers is key to Element’s success, and Guiney’s close friend Lenny Abrahamson has been a “really central long-standing collaborator”.

They became close as teenagers, running into one another at parties where they “used to find each other and talk about film”. When studying at Trinity College, Guiney set up a film production society. Naturally, Abrahamson was the first person he called.

They made a silent comedy 3 Joes starring Gary Cooke, Mikel Murfi, and Dominic West, which did “very well internationally and won a lot of short film festivals”. Acclaimed films such as Adam and Paul (2004), Garage (2007) and What Richard Did (2012) followed, but it was 2015’s Oscar-winner Room that marked a “huge turning point” for Element.

Lenny Abrahamson and Ed Guiney made Oscar-winner Room in 2015

“To have a film that got four [Oscar] nominations and the Best Picture nomination and the Best Director nomination – that was absolutely huge”, Guiney said. “That year was a defining year in terms of setting the tone for the kind of success we’ve had since then.

“We’ve had three Best Picture nominations over eight years, by any standards internationally, there are very few companies that have that track record.”

The producer is humble about Element’s approach, which is trying to “support people in the way that works best for them”.

“What we’re really good at as a company is being able to work with artists and filmmakers and creators all of whom have very different ways of working themselves. In other words, we can bend around how they want to work rather than say, ‘You must come and work the Element way’.”

When asked to encapsulate the work of the producer, often a little understood role compared to that of the director or actor, Guiney replied: “The kinds of producers that we are, in a prosaic way, we’re project managers.

“We’re involved at every step of the way as the creative partner to the filmmaker. That’s around everything – casting, all the logistics, the budgeting. And then looking after it as it goes out into the world in terms of the marketing, the design and how it is received.

“It’s following something from inception right to the very end.”

Ed Guiney on the role of a producer: “More than anything, we’re prospectors mining for gold”

Guiney shared the most important role of the producer. “A lot of people think producers are all about money and finding money – that kind of cliché. And that’s part of it, but it’s quite a small part of it.

“More than anything, we’re prospectors mining for gold. In this case, the gold is the talent, the filmmakers or the writers or the books, they’re the rare thing. The rest of it falls into place if you make the right choices around the choice of project and collaborators.”

He said their ethos is “way more about people than projects”.

“If someone that we trust and like working with says they want to do something, our inclination is always to get behind that.”

A case in point is Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things. The Greek filmmaker and longtime collaborator, who Element previously worked with on The Lobster (2015), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and Oscar-nominated The Favourite (2018), first approached them about adapting Alasdair Gray’s novel about a decade ago.

Emma Stone on the set of Poor Things

“We had zero clue at that point how we would make the film,” Guiney said candidly. “But we knew Yorgos was an incredibly special and unique talent. It was very easy for us to say, let’s try and do it.

“If you were really rational and analytical about it you probably wouldn’t do it, but that’s not the business we’re in. We exist in the world of emotions, and ambitions, and dreams, and hopes, and artistic endeavour and that’s not a rational exercise.

“The idea of Yorgos making that film was a really exciting proposition. That’s all you need to know to start.”

The leap of faith paid off in more ways than one, with Guiney saying the film was “an absolute joy” to work on.

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“When I’m old and decrepit and I look back on my life, I’ll probably think Poor Things was one of the highlights,” he shared.

“To say that it was a joy makes it sound like there weren’t any problems – there were loads of problems. For all of the team, it was a really challenging thing and bigger than any of us had done before. But we did pull together as a team.

“There’s great satisfaction in having come through a very challenging production and out the other side of it with friendships and relationships intact and mutual respect for everybody. It isn’t always that way.”

Ed Guiney credits Emma Stone with getting Poor Things to the big screen

Guiney, Lowe and Lanthimos co-produced the film alongside leading star Emma Stone, who Guiney credits as “one of the reasons it got made”.

“Having a star of her magnitude commit to a film like this makes so much difference because it’s quite a hard sell on paper,” he said. “She’s one of those people that’s 100% in on anything she does.

“It was very clear that she would be a really positive contributor as a producer, both during the development phase and then in post-production and distribution.

“It was very lovely between myself and Andrew and Yorgos and herself as producers, that was very constructive and a little producing brain trust. We’d love to work with her again in that capacity.”

Their awards success and collaborations with actors at the top of the game have cemented Element’s reputation within Hollywood.

The Poor Things team celebrating success at the Golden Globe Awards

“We’re very much a known quantity in the place where awards matter most which is LA, which is still the centre of our business,” he said. “What that means is that people will take what we send them seriously.

“Also, because we’ve worked with so many big movie stars over the years and they’ve had a good time working with us, it also means that there’s a lot of trust with the big agencies.

“We’re seen as a very reliable partner who actually can make these things well and look after people.”

Despite their impressive track record, Element has had some bumps along the way.

“Weirdly, it’s very hard to predict if something’s going to work or not,” Guiney said. “I’ve experienced both, had failures where I expected success and had success where I didn’t expect success.

“When we’ve done things where we thought it was a good commercial proposition or that there was a market need, most of the time that doesn’t work! It’s more the things where you go well, it’s fascinating, let’s try and get it done.”

Ed Guiney with The Killing of a Sacred Deer stars Barry Keoghan and Nicole Kidman and director Yorgos Lanthimos at Cannes in 2017

While Ireland’s film and television industry is flourishing, Guiney was upfront about the challenges here.

“In terms of public policy here in Ireland, it’s often it’s the imported thing, like Star Wars and that kind of thing that gets recognition.

“While that is good in terms of temporary income, it doesn’t necessarily leave a real legacy behind in terms of who’s controlling those productions, who owns them.

“So if you look at something like Normal People, it’s completely owned by Irish people. For the industry to grow in the future we need more and more of those things that originate from Ireland rather than things that we just help other people make.

“We are seeing more Irish-originated stuff, like An Cailín Ciúin and John Carney’s Flora and Son, that’s the great prize. I think the next evolution is that we need to nurture what we can actually create out of here ourselves.

“I think we do need to be more rigorous in terms of the kinds of the ideas and the stories we’re aiming to tell and how fresh and original they are. I think if we can bring that kind of stuff to bear, I think there’s great opportunity out there.”

Ed Guiney with Normal People stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones and director Lenny Abrahamson

The company, which is based opposite the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin, is particularly keen to promote the “art and craft” of storytelling and script-writing in Ireland. To this aim, they have launched the inaugural Irish screenwriting festival Storyhouse which will run in Smithfield’s Light House Cinema this March.

“It’s something that we want to help encourage,” he said. “If we can zone in on that and streamline our storytelling expertise, I think that’s key to being part of the industry for the future.”

That future is looking bright for Irish talent with a glut of insanely gifted actors leading the charge in Hollywood.

“Saoirse [Ronan], Jessie [Buckley], Paul [Mescal], Andrew [Scott], Barry [Keoghan], Cillian [Murphy], Michael [Fassbender] – these are extraordinary people who are absolute world beaters and in huge demand,” Guiney said.

“It’s a thing that people say about the Irish, we are communicators, we are storytellers and I think that is inherent in it.”

The countdown is now on for this year’s Oscars which will be held on 10 March at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

The team at Element will be heading out to toast the success of Poor Things, but Guiney insists that bagging one of those iconic gold statuettes isn’t at the forefront of his mind.

“I don’t know what will happen on the night, whether we come away with prizes or not, but in a way that matters less,” he said.

“The nominations are the things that really power the film in terms of getting audiences to see it and we had that – we just crossed $100 million worldwide the other day.

“But also, it’s the last moment where we will all celebrate Poor Things and then that will be over. All good things must come to an end, so I’m also looking forward to the other side of the Oscars.

“I’m looking forward to moving on to new things.”

Poor Things is in cinemas now.

The Oscars 2024 take place on Sunday, 10 March.

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