Pippa Cross: Ipswich-born film producer scores box office gold with Chalet Girl

When I catch up with the normally ebullient Pippa Cross she is chaffing a bit at the mixed reviews meted out to her latest movie, the feelgood comedy Chalet Girl. It’s a film which, not unexpectedly, has divided critics. The more highbrow critics have predictably adopted a rather sneering attitude to the romantic comedy.

“Still we didn’t make it for the critic of The Times,” she sighs; “We made it for people with a useful heart.” She takes comfort from the fact that magazines and the more popular papers enjoyed it for what it was – a well-made comedy, designed to conjure up happier times when the world wasn’t suffering from so much economic angst.

“This year a lot of people aren’t going to be on the slopes, aren’t going to be strapping on their skis and it was designed to remind people of happy holidays from previous years.”

She said that having sat in on several preview screenings, sitting quietly in the dark judging audience reactions to what is happening on screen, she said she is satisfied that it is a genuine crowd-pleaser and indeed in a commercial world where films can come and go in the blink of an eye, it has survived three weekends at the box office.

“I have sat in a lot of cinemas and have witnessed a lot of people have a good time and if you get that but of alchemy right then they do go out and tell their friends and it’s true is the best form of advertising because its advertising that you can’t buy.”

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But, having got that out of her system, Pippa returns to her usual calm self. “Opening a film is a very stressful time, simply because you’ve got to hold your screen. There’s no time to let a film build any more, so the business you do on your opening weekend is very important.”

Pippa Cross, daughter of former Ipswich Borough Council chief executive Robert Cross, the man responsible for the construction of the Ipswich Film Theatre, loves film but she’s not a film snob. One look at her film CV and you see that it is the sheer diversity of subject matter that defines her film-making career.

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“It’s very difficult to say what makes me want to develop a script or take a film on board. People at my films – everything from Bloody Sunday (The story of the infamous British army shootings in North Ireland in 1972) and Shooting Dogs (a look at the genocide atrocities in Rwanda) to Jack and Sarah (a romantic comedy about a recent widower with Richard E Grant, Judi Dench and Ian McKellan) and Chalet Girl (her latest film about an independent girl making her way in the world) – and ask what’s all this about? I don’t know what makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, which is how I judge material. There’s something that happens when I read something – an instant chemical connection. There’s something inside you which decides that ‘yes, you could devote the next 18 months of your life to getting this film off the ground.’

“To be perfectly honest, it ‘s a gut reaction. It’s not terribly scientific. Do you love it enough to be in there for the long haul? You’ve got to be passionate about the films you choose to back. Obviously I have slaved long and hard over the years on films which I feel haven’t had the recognition they deserve. But, you do things for different reasons and sometimes they have different outcomes.

“I feel we did our bit in raising awareness of what happened on Bloody Sunday but a more long-term outcome was that we launched the career of director Paul Greengrass. Although it pre-dated the Saville Report by many years, a more immediate result was that people realised what a fantastic director Paul Greengrass was.”

Paul Greengrass went onto make United 93, the award-winning movie about the airliner that was crashed by its passengers on 09/11 and two of the three Bourne films with Matt Damon.

“Shootings Dogs was terribly important to me because it was telling a story which I thought we had turned our back on in the UK. When the film came out there were questions asked about why we were telling the story of the Rwandan genocide through the eyes of a couple of white characters and the answer was very simple. The Rwandans had lived through it, they knew what had happened. We were telling the story for the outside world.”

She said that she spent an enormous amount of time developing those films and then promoting them on release. These were easily identifiable by serious film critics as serious films but she said she could easily be just as enthused by something like Chalet Girls which was just a good old-fashioned crowd-pleaser.

She added that she been working on the film full-time for the past 18 months – “Which is a dreadful thing for a producer to admit to because you should have been balancing half-a-dozen other projects at the sametime” – and because the film’s delivery date had seamlessly melded into the release date meant that they could get involved in the promotion and the marketing. “This has been an absolute treat – to have an input into the poster design and the trailer – normally you are standing in the middle of a muddy field half-way through another project, so I am pleased to have been able to see this through from beginning to end.”

She said after the socio-political messages contained within films like Bloody Sunday and Shooting Dogs there was nothing wrong in producing a film which was purely about telling a heartwarming story, set in a gorgeous location and whose sole aim was to make people laugh. “I think very few people will be heading to the slopes this spring and it’s a virtual way of giving people that breath of mountain air.”

Pippa Cross is also something of a sharp-eyed spotter of talent. Other than Paul Greengrass she has been instrumental in launching such household names as Keira Knightley, Scarlet Johansson and Gillian Anderson. She catapulted Gillian Anderson into feature films with a starring role in the period drama The House of Mirth, at a time when she was in danger of being typecast as Dana Scully in the X-Files. This immediately led to other big screen and theatre roles. Keira Knightley played one of the schoolgirls trapped in an underground cavern in The Hole while Scarlet Johansson was Thora Birch’s co-star in the cult coming of age movie Ghost World.

“I have been particularly blessed when it comes to casting. On this latest film, of course, we are currently being praised left, right and centre for finding Felicity Jones. This crowd were extra special and Felicity was an absolute joy to work with. I remember her walking into the room when we were casting and the director Phil Traill looked at me and raised his eyebrows at me and I said: ‘That’s Kim’ It was as simple as that.

“I think it gave my mum particular pleasure because Felicity played Emma Grundy in The Archers for ten years. We had also seen her in That Face, a very tough play at the Royal Court, and on the face of it it was difficult to see her as a wonderful and very natural comic actress, but it turns out that she is a very gifted comic actress.

“But signing unlikely people in the lead roles does make financiers nervous. Fortunately for us, we had financiers who got it and were very supportive but even then they did say; ‘Yes she is the right person for the role but you’ve got to have a lot of star names around her’. So it was great when Bill Nighy signed on and he was great to have around on set. He was only with us for a fortnight but all the younger cast just loved him. He, Brooke Shields and Bill Bailey were just great to have with us.

“Casting is something of a dark art. It should be a science but its more of a case of wetting your finger, sticking it in the air and hoping you’ve called it right.”

She said that it is fascinating to watch how some stars go from being king of the world total obscurity in just a few years. “It happens because they either pick the wrong roles or they don’t put as much into them as they did when they were on the way up. It’s that old ‘I really don’t have to give as much any more because I’ve made it factor’.

“Happily Felicity has obviously done a lot of things which are right after she left us because she went straight from our set into this little movie called Still Crazy. It did very well at Sundance and now there is heat around her for a possible Oscar campaign in the autumn.

“It’s getting the right actor on the cusp and putting them in the right role. It’s a little bit of risk taking.”

Born and raised in Ipswich, Pippa left home in 1974 to study for an English degree at Oxford. This was followed by a spell at the Wembley Conference Centre in 1977 when she had to stage the BAFTA award ceremony. It was at this point that Pippa was bitten by the showbusiness bug. In 1980 she joined Granada and started working in their drama department before moving into features and contributed to a docu-series on The Spanish Civil War and the on-going documentary series 28 Up.

She laments the fact that television has turned its back on documentaries in favour of so-called reality TV. “When I was at Granada we made Disappearing World which was the most extraordinary series. Those big series are now on life support in TV but, documentary makers are nothing if not persistent and innovative, so have found a new home in the cinema and that’s been a big boost for cinema. The ones that work on the big screen are the ones that tell a story. There is more of an obligation to tell a story in the cinema.

“I saw Wasteland earlier this year about an artist to who is a waste tip in Rio de Janeiro and creates art with the pickers, the people who pick over the rubbish and it was an absolutely beautiful and moving film.”

After a spell at TVS she returned to Granada as head of Granada Film before striking out on her own as a freelance producer. “Being a film producer is now something of a career ambition whereas when I started it was something you stumbled into by doing other things.

“I was invited back to Granada to make feature films and we went through a pile of scripts and the first film we decided to do was My Left Foot which gave us a lot of confidence when it took off in the way that it did.”

She said that it would be good to see British film getting increased backing from British investors. “There are a lot of films at the moment which look and sound British. They are made over here in British studios, with British crews and actors and all the profits go straight back to America because they are made with American money.

“One of the things that the film industry has done in the past has upset the investment community. Somehow we have never managed to measure up to what they expect. But, on Chalet Girl we have a local investor from Suffolk, who wishes to remain anonymous, but they saw our investment plan, saw that it was a commercial project and were happy to invest some money in the film. I hope we can persuade more people to do this sort of thing in the future. It’s very exciting when that happens.”

She said that being an independent producer was as close as you can get to seat-of-your-pants flying. “It is very scary at times but I do love that mix of the creative and administration. It’s a wonderful job for multi-taking and I would do anything else.”

n Chalet Girl is on general release in cinemas across East Anglia.

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