Cassian Elwes, Grilled on Producing: ‘I Was Totally Burned Out’

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Cassian Elwes is grilled on the state of film financing, the William Morris-Endeavor merger, on how he lost – and re-found – his passion for making movies

Cassian Elwes left one of the independent film world’s most prominent roles in 2009, running the indie financing department at William Morris. His new career as an independent producer has helped bring films like “Margin Call” to theaters, and in January he took on the role of partner at Evolution with Mark Burg. Two films he executive produced have been chosen to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, John Hillcoat’s “Lawless” and Lee Daniels’ “Paperboy.”

In his first full-length interview since leaving William Morris, Elwes is grilled by TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman on the state of film financing, the William Morris-Endeavor merger and how he lost –  and re-found – his passion for making movies.

“I was totally burned out,” he tells TheWrap. “The whole experience of the merger – was it on, was it off, who was in, who was out – mentally destroyed me. I lost my enthusiasm for film, and that’s a terrible thing when you’re a producer. “

What is the state of independent film financing?

I think it’s fantastic. I know everybody is always saying doom and gloom, but I think that the market for independent films is excellent. There’s definitely financing available for the right types of films. There’s a lot of foreign sales. People are buying independent films again. The business is really healthy at the moment, as long as tax credits remain in place.

That is contradictory to what you always hear. The fact of the matter is it’s always been hard. But the current environment is not as hard as it could be.

What would you attribute that to? The independent film business is not a lot better and neither is the economy.

Two years ago when the market crashed, it was very hard to borrow. Now the banks are looser. And it’s cheaper to make movies. Actors and agents are more realistic about what they can get paid on independent movies. Certainly we proved with "Margin Call" that there is a very vibrant business on VOD with the right product.

What you would consider the range for financial backing? $500,000 or $5 million?

“Lawless,” which is in Cannes this year, cost $30 million. “Paperboy,” which we worked on, cost $20 million.

That’s quite a large budget.

But the money was raised in an independent way. “Lawless” was  financed by Michael Benaroya and Megan Ellison together, entirely. Foreign sales came on board after the movie was financed – Film Nation did international sales.

“Paperboy“ was a combination of presales through Nu Image (Millennum) and equity financing. When the movie turned out really well, Avi Lerner (of Millennium) decided he wanted to finance the whole thing.

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Why did you leave William Morris?

At William Morris, particularly toward the end when the company was up in the air, clients threatened to leave. I was being forced into working on films that I knew in my heart were not going to be good, that I was doing to save clients, and I knew wouldn’t make money. But that was the job. Still, some great movies that came out in the last three years that I was involved – like “Frozen River” – but there were a lot of other films I don’t want to name that I hated. I would never have done them, and I shouldn’t have done them. But I was doing them anyway.

They didn’t want me to leave. The reason I left was because of the merger. Two things happened – my stepfather Elliott Kastner died that summer, he was a mentor of mine. And I’d done the job for 15 years; I didn’t want to do it anymore. And I didn’t want to do it in that environment.

What do you mean?

I’d rather not expand on that. I always missed making my own movies. Before I was an agent, I made 30 movies.

Was it about (Endeavor partners) Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell?

Not at all. I never even met them. I don’t want to imply that. Truthfully, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to stop. I was burned out – very burned out. That was the main thing. The whole experience of the merger – was it on, was it off, who was in, who was out – mentally destroyed me. I lost my enthusiasm for film, and that’s a terrible thing when you’re a producer.

I wanted to rethink, reenergize, take some time out. I made 283 films for William Morris.

Has doing that reenergized you?

Yes it has. In my head, I’m more driven, more excited about the kind of films I want to do. William Morris taught me how to work on a lot of movies at a time and honed my taste level. I thought, ‘I can do this myself.’ And here I am, with two movies in main competition at Cannes.

How did you end up as a partner at Evolution?

Last year, Mark Burg approached me. One conversation led to another, and we ended up setting up partnership together, Evolution Independent, to help finance movies.

Do you have a different perspective since being at William Morris?

It’s very different. I feel like the éminence grise of independent film. I’m sitting in the background, trying to make as many films as I made when I was at William Morris, which will never be possible. At the height of William Morris, I was making 20 films a year. I’d be happy to be making eight. I made seven last year.

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What’s "Paperboy" about?

It’s a late '60s gothic noir potboiler, a murder mystery in the deep South. Two young journalists are trying to prove a convicted murder is innocent. Nicole Kidman plays a woman obsessed with John Cusack, who’s in jail for murder. She becomes part of the investigative team.

If she’s not nominated for this movie, there’s no justice. In this movie she is right back on top of her game.

And what's happening with "Lawless"?

The Weinstein Company bought it during Cannes last year on the script. It will open at the end of August, beginning of September.

Hollywood is not making these kinds of movies.

There’s a terrible void in the marketplace. Studios are obsessed with $150 million tentpole, comic book movies. But they don’t make movies like they did in the '70s and '80s  – highbrow, character-driven thrillers or dramas. You sit there and you say, "What is missing, and what do adults want to see? And can I make that for a price?"

You’re flying without a net?

I don’t mind that. I kind of enjoy it. I’m not beholden to anyone else’s taste. That’s fantastic too. I want to say yes to stuff I want to do. And I’m pretty confident in my head and heart that things I’m passionate about, I’ll get the money for it.