Emile Sherman: The Power of See-Saw Films

November 13, 2021
The prolific producer of Jane Campion’s acclaimed western The Power of the Dog and the co-founder of thriving UK-Australian production company See-Saw Films.

Since its formation 13 years ago, Emile Sherman and Iain Canning’s production company See-Saw Films has cemented itself as one of the leading and most respected producers of prestige films and series both internationally and in Australia – whilst maintaining a keen eye on emerging Australian talent.

As joint managing director, Sherman has spearheaded the company’s Australian operations and has been fundamental to its growth and success, developing close relationships with fast-rising creatives (like Garth Davis, who See-Saw has a joint venture with and has made two features – another is underway), and shepherding acclaimed films including Lion, Slow West, The King’s Speech and Tracks, to name but a few.

Within those 13 years, Sherman has collaborated with Jane Campion three times.

His latest team-up with Campion, The Power of the Dog, her first feature in 12 years, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a savage and wealthy rancher, who finds his comfortable existence shaken when his younger brother (Jesse Plemons) suddenly brings home a wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to their family ranch.

We caught up with the producer to discuss working with Campion, the challenges of making the film and the expanding, global strength of See-Saw Films.

How did the film begin?

“Jane brought the project to us in 2018. Jane had come across the book and was intrigued by it and found out that the rights were held by a Canadian producer, Roger Frappier who’s made a lot of really wonderful movies. She met with Roger, and he became excited at the idea of Jane coming on board, knowing her enthusiasm for it and what she could bring to it. Jane had also been talking with Tanya Seghatchian, who’s an English producer and friend of hers about working on a project together. And then at the same time, we started talking about this project and how we could all work together to produce it.

“So, we came on and did a co-production and rights deal with Roger, brought Tanya on as part of that. We all spent about a year or so as Jane developed the script and then took it to the Cannes marketplace in 2019. The BBC came on as a development partner and were fantastic, and we took it to Cannes and packaged it as a really compelling project and cast team. We were hoping that it was going to get great interest and have some sort of bidding war. And that’s exactly what thankfully happened. Netflix came to the fore and backed the project to the level that we needed to be able to realise Jane’s vision.

“It was still an independent production. We had a completion bond. We structured it as an Australian/New Zealand co-production, which was great because we were able to draw on the really brilliant behind the camera talent of Australia and New Zealand, as well as some additional actors. And Jane knows New Zealand so well and was really comfortable with that and excited about what New Zealand could offer as a landscape to replicate Montana back in the twenties, which is when it’s set.”

How would you describe your working relationship with Jane Campion over the years, from Top of the Lake through to The Power of The Dog?

“Well, it’s been a really life-changing relationship creatively, as partners across a number of shows and as a friend, she is an extraordinary woman. She’s a visionary storyteller and filmmaker, but she’s also just a wonderful person and I’ve just loved working with her over all these years. We’ve done two seasons (of Top of the Lake), which, looking back, was really ground-breaking television. I think a lot of people still reference it as a moment when television changed. We put it together in a very original way for the time where television was largely driven by the home territory and we put it together as a five-party co-commission, led by the BBC in the UK.

“Working with Jane is always challenging. She wants to do things in unique ways and to think about things from first principles. She has her creative priorities and ways of working, which it’s our job as producers to understand and support. But she also just wants to enjoy the process of making it. How she makes the show is as important as what she makes. And it’s the relationship you have, the spirit with which one experiences working on a show, which is important. And that feeds all the way through to all the crew members as well as the actors.

“On The Power of the Dog, for example, she doesn’t want the actors to arrive for the shortest period and then get sent back. It was a real seduction to get them to see the shoot in a way that maybe they don’t normally see shoots, which is, come with your family and come earlier and immerse yourself into the landscape and spend time and become the characters and enjoy yourself and make this a moment of your life rather than a job. And she manages to hold on to that way of being, in the midst of what can become a very transactional machine, which is filmmaking, where everyone’s just like, ‘got to do this, got to do that’. Whereas Jane’s like, ‘let’s think about the whole thing much more holistically’. And I think it does infuse the final product, but to be honest, even if it didn’t, it’s still a really great way of working because it makes the experience much more complete. It’s distinct and immersive to collaborate with Jane.”

This is your first feature with Jane, following two seasons of Top of The Lake. How was this team-up different?

“It was the same, in the sense that it was very much a collaboration with Jane as the key creative. On Top of the Lake, she co-wrote with Gerard Lee but both projects felt like she was absolutely at the centre of driving the creative decisions. I think there was something we were really all learning together on Top of the Lake about television. We were going on this adventure together. Top of the Lake was much smaller budgets, particularly the first season. We approached it in a very indie movie way. Power of the Dog is grander in terms of the budgets and her sort of purity of vision. On (Top of The Lake), Jane didn’t direct all the series. The first one we had Garth Davis, who we ended up working with on Mary Magdalene and Lion and now Foe and have a company with and we had Ariel Kleiman on the second one, who is fantastic as well. They were more complex beasts with more parties. Whereas, there’s something incredibly pure about The Power of the Dog. I think Top of the Lake in a way was more challenging because there were more elements, which is hard to juggle in television.”

Filming was delayed due to the pandemic. Were there many significant challenges on the project due to Covid?

“Covid was a massive challenge. We were just about to finish the location part of the shoot in central Otago and moving towards being ready to move to studio filming and Covid hit very hard in New Zealand. Very quickly they went from ‘we’re going to be okay. We’ll be able to shoot for another week, two weeks and finish the location part’ to ‘we’re shutting down overnight’. And people made a dash for the airport. So, it really hit us hard, but Benedict, as well as Jesse (Plemons) and Kirsten made New Zealand their home. Jesse and Kirsten went back to LA at a certain point, but fundamentally they bunkered down there. And we managed to re-commence after three months. When the world was in a terrible way from Covid, New Zealand had stayed Covid-free, and we were able to open up early.

“It was one of the most stressful producing experiences of my life. No one knew what was going to happen and there were bigger things at stake than The Power of the Dog. There was the health and safety of everybody, as well as just the general craziness of the world at that time where no one knew whether this virus will be brought under control. So, pulling it back together and deciding, ‘okay, we’re going to do it’, then getting the actors back into the country and mounting the production again was a huge achievement by the full production team.

“Libby Sharpe, our head of production and co-producer on the film was just absolutely at the centre of all production decisions, right from the beginning through to the end of post-production, because post-production happened in Australia and none of the other producers were able to be in the country due to Covid. So, it was me and Libby here. She really held a huge amount of weight to oversee this production all the way through.”

You’ve grown in scale significantly since you began 13 years ago and expanded heavily into television. What are your reflections on the where the company started and where it is now in the current marketplace?

“Well, it’s a great moment of pride for us right now with The Power of the Dog coming out and a lot of television shows happening. We’ve got this wonderful show, Firebite with Warwick Thornton filmed in Adelaide with AMC, we’ve got two big TV series with Apple in the UK, The Slow Horses with Gary Oldman and The Essex Serpent with Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes. We’ve got the feature Operation Mincemeat, working again with Colin Firth. We’ve got a Netflix TV series called Heartstopper. So, it feels like we’re really doing what we’re designed to do, which is to tell really relevant and urgent stories that deal with what it is to live now but done in a way that turns a unique lens on the subject matter, whether it’s visual, auteur, in terms of the story take, just doing things in unique and bold ways with great, distinctive voices.

“This is the best time we’ve ever been around for those sorts of stories. And that’s really played into what is at the key of what we try to do at See-Saw. When you’re working in a business, you’re in it, you’re not thinking about the bigger picture, so to speak, but looking back, it’s wonderful to see so many relationships with great storytellers, across the spectrum. And we are proud of what we’ve been able to achieve.

“So, we’re feeling very excited about the opportunities for backing distinctive voices and telling great stories for Australia and audiences internationally. It’s hugely competitive. It’s hugely challenging. It’s still a miracle every time a film or a TV show is green lit. The battle that you go through to make it happen is still as hard as it’s ever been. But looking back on our body of work, it feels like we’ve been able to work with some really great talent and tell great stories. So, we’re feeling very buoyed about the future.”

Rob Collins in Firebite, photo by Ian Routledge/AMC+

What are See-Saw looking for in terms of projects?

“Well, you have to understand the marketplace in a lot of depth. It’s not just looking for stories that you think will be interesting, that’s not really enough. You have to know who’s going to be interested in the stories, who’s going to buy it, what broadcaster is going to buy it if it’s television, who’s going to buy it if it’s a feature film in terms of distributors, how’s it going to be financed? What budget level, how are you going to put the finance together? Where exactly are you aiming for in the massive landscape. Great stories are key, but it’s also that much broader and very detailed understanding of where precisely does a project sit and how will you make it? We try to identify stories that we think are going to work locally, as well as internationally, and could attract incredible actors. The market is changing all the time and what’s stimulating is that we are always looking at how the market changes but trying also not to be too reactive. Probably more than any other time, this is a great moment to be backing great, creative voices. And our job is to help find the way to segue those great creative voices into film and television that will have a distinctive place in the market and will succeed.

“You have to continuously focus on emerging talent and that’s where a lot of the new ideas for stories come and that’s where the new voices come from. So, we want to just work with great people, whether they’re 20 years old or 70 years old. And I think having a range of voices within See-Saw, our executive producers, our development team, across Australia and in the UK, having different interests, different voices, different creative relationships. That’s the key to being able to back and bring to life a broad pool of talent. So, finding exciting talent, wherever they lie, at whatever stage of their career, is at the core of what we do.”

You’ve made several hires recently. Is the company going to keep expanding?

“There’s always this pressure to expand, which is hard to resist. But we do want to make sure we’re at a size where quality always comes first. We never ever take anything on because we need to service an overhead, even though we do now have a really significant overhead. It’s about finding that balance where we bring on more people and there’s an opportunity, we think, to do more of what we want to do, which is to make exceptional film and television. So, I’d say that we will continue to expand judiciously.”

How happy have you been with the reaction and awards buzz for the film?

“The response has just been incredibly heartening, and you never know how these things are going to turn out. We’ve had times where we thought things would go further and they didn’t and times when we were amazed at how far things have gone. I think one can only aim as a producer, to try to create a film that has a chance of being part of that conversation. And that’s what we wanted to do with The Power of the Dog, create a film that had the muscle and integrity to be part of that awards conversation. And that’s what it’s doing now. So, we’ve got our fingers crossed, but at the same time, the response to the film has been everything and more than what we’d hoped.”

The Power of the Dog is in cinemas now and will be on Netflix December 1, 2021.

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