The British newcomers up for an Oscar

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

image captionProducer Baldwin Li (left) and director Mark Gill are on their way to Hollywood

Two up-and-coming British film-makers will rub shoulders with Hollywood's finest at the Oscars next month after roping in Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander to star in their low-budget short film.

While Dame Judi Dench, Steve McQueen and Steve Coogan lead the British charge at this year's Oscars, two less familiar names - Mark Gill and Baldwin Li - are among Britain's best hopes of scooping a golden statuette.

The Manchester-based pair are nominated for best live action short film for The Voorman Problem, a whimsical 12-minute story of a psychiatrist dealing with a prisoner who has convinced his fellow inmates he is a God.

Based on a section of David Mitchell's novel number9dream, it is, according to the bookies, favourite to win.

media captionSherlock and The Hobbit star Martin Freeman and Rev actor Tom Hollander feature in the Oscar nominated short

The film was actually made three years ago. Unfamiliar with the conventions of casting A-list actors, director Gill and producer Li originally asked Kevin Spacey to be their star after watching the movie Seven on TV.

"I'd forgotten how magnetic he was without really doing a great deal," Gill says.

They bypassed Spacey's agent and wrote to him directly at the Old Vic theatre in London, where he is artistic director.

"At that time we were fresh faced, I didn't have an agent, no-one told us what we could and couldn't do," Gill recalls. "It feels quite liberating when you don't know the process."

Spacey declined - but liked the script and suggested they approach Hollander, best known in the UK for TV show Rev, with whom Spacey had worked at the theatre.

"Tom got in touch straight away and said he'd love to do it," Gill says. "And then Tom helped us get Martin."

image copyrightHonlodge Productions
image captionMark Gill (left) cast Tom Hollander on the advice of Kevin Spacey

Hollander gives a terrifically mischievous performance as the prisoner Voorman, while Freeman, known as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit films and Dr Watson in the Sherlock TV series, is the puzzled psychiatrist.

They also came to "a good agreement" with David Mitchell to use the short extract from his book.

"David described it as the equivalent of sampling because we weren't taking the entire book, we were just taking a section of it," Gill says.

The pair decline to reveal how much The Voorman Problem cost to make. Gill will only say: "It should have cost a lot more than it did.

"The good thing about having freelanced around Manchester is that we had loads of connections. The crew were very discounted, let's put it that way."

Gill started his career filming behind-the-scenes footage for Doctor Who DVD extras. Li began as a sound man and vision mixer on TV programmes such as The Jeremy Kyle Show and Stars in Their Eyes.

For new film-makers, having the words "Oscar nominated" before your names is almost the best career boost you can have. "Oscar winning" would be even better.

If they won, they would be following in the footsteps of Peter Capaldi, who won the same award in 1995 before becoming The Thick Of It's Malcolm Tucker and then Doctor Who. Andrea Arnold, who won in 2005, went on to make the feature films Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights.

image copyrightHonlodge Productions
image captionMartin Freeman plays psychiatrist Dr Williams

"You read so much about awards and there's a lot of cynicism around them," Gill says. "But for new film-makers I think it really helps.

"Making any film - short or feature film - is so difficult, Even if it's good or bad, I have respect for people just getting a film made. And if winning this makes it 2% easier, it's worth it.

"My dad said, 'You're not worrying that you've peaked too early, are you son?' I wasn't 'till you said it Dad."

The pair are now developing their first feature film, which will be a biopic. But they will not disclose whose life they will be filming.

The Oscar nomination has helped win over people who may fund their feature, Li says. "It does not necessarily change their minds but it does make them accelerate their commitment."

Opening doors

Gill adds that it is now "easier to get meetings" with industry figures. "They're phoning my agent rather than us having to [phone them]," the director says.

"We haven't been to the States yet so we've been told to prepare for…"

Li finishes his sentence with a smile: "Schmoozing."

While the vast majority of the British film industry is centralised in London, Gill and Li see no reason why they should not continue their careers in Manchester.

One of the few examples of a film production company succeeding outside the capital is Sheffield-based Warp Films, which made This Is England, Four Lions and Submarine.

"What they've done is fantastic and some of the films they knock out have been some of the best British films of the last 10 or 15 years," Gill says.

Li adds: "Ultimately that's a great model and they've shown that things like that can be established away from the big smoke."

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