Comic Strip. Shaun Of The Dead. Black Books. Hot Fuzz. Scott Pilgrim. Paul. The World’s End. Producer and Big Talk supremo Nira Park has put her stamp on the British film and television industry with comedy after comedy over two incident-packed decades. She talked to Empire about her path to the top and the art of producing.
ODDBALL CHARACTERS, PRODUCERS. There was Lawrence Of Arabia’s Sam Spiegel, whose reputation for womanising had him dubbed “the velvet octopus”, and Columbia Pictures' capo di capi Harry Cohn, famously irrascible and fond of bugging his own sound stages. Then there was Don Simpson, a man whose gargantuan hunger for narcs made the Wolf Of Wall Street look like a tabby cat with allergies. Even the great David O. Selznick, shepherder of classics like Gone With The Wind and Spellbound, often junked up on amphetamines to meet his own gruelling deadlines.
Happily for the blood pressure of Marvel execs, Ant-Man’s Nira Park is nothing like any of those. With a diary filled to brimming – this week finds her on the set of her new Simon Pegg comedy Man Up, doing press for Brit thriller In Fear’s DVD release and talking insect superheroes with Edgar Wright – the Big Talk founder and Shaun Of The Dead veteran is a whirl of energy and enthusiasm, all of it 100 per cent natural. “I’m a very hands-on producer,” she explains of her current day-to-day, “so I’m there from call to wrap. I don’t really have downtime.”
There’s no such thing as an average day. That’s the best thing about the job. Her interview with Empire is the first engagement in a day that will take her from her memorabilia-filled office on Mortimer Street and down to the South Bank to oversee Man Up's day’s shoot. She’ll iron out wrinkles as and when they appear – and they usually do. “It’ll be anything from problems with sound, to paying off skateboarders, to actors being cold, to dialogue changes, to money, to whether we need overtime.” Yesterday’s noisy skaters were paid off from the Man Up biscuit tin, before Park headed home at midnight for an hour and a half on Skype with her Ant-Man director.
The late nights are an occupational hazard Park shrugs off. She’s known in film and TV circles for having a Stakhanovite work ethic, a passion for British comedy and a prized roster of directors she works hard to nurture. Good producers are prodigious multitaskers and Park is no exception. “I think that’s the best thing about the job,” she enthuses. “There’s no such thing as an average day.” Frequently in the air, as when the simultaneous shoots for Scott Pilgrim and Paul shuttled her between Toronto and New Mexico, she doesn’t even have the usual airborne luxury of ropey rom-com viewing. “No, just emails,” she deadpans. “It’s terrible!”
FOR BUDDING PRODUCERS OUT THERE, Nira Park is a valuable case study in the old-fashioned merits of persistence and door-knocking. Her first ambition, to become a ballet dancer, was curtailed by a car accident during her foundation course at London’s Lewisham College. Undeterred, she finished her diploma organising tours with the kind of flair that soon saw her firing off letters to companies listed in The Knowledge, the entertainment industry’s bible. She asked for work as a runner. “I didn’t really know what it meant,” she laughs, “but I wrote a letter to a hundred people and took them around Soho. I had a little photo and a terrible CV and a commercials company wanted me to start two days later.”
During those humble beginnings at a now-defunct production house – and she made enough tea to drown a dowager countess – Park’s eye was on a cult TV show that boasted bright young comic actors and a gift for riffing on popular culture. The Spaced of the early ‘90s, if you like. “I was obsessed with The Comic Strip Presents…”, she remembers. “I’d come back from holiday early if a new one was being broadcast, so I decided that it was where I wanted to work.” In her early twenties, Park wrote religiously to ask for work. “I told them I’d do literally anything! Cocktails, tea, pasta-making...”
I doubt big Hollywood producers are on set complaining that the sandwiches don’t have enough ham in them. It was 1991, still early in the show’s lifespan, when that dream came to pass. Her persistence scored her a bits-and-pieces job helping co-creator Peter Richardson and his tiny team. Her first task? Clearing out his garage. “I did that for three days,” she says with a chuckle, “and then stayed for seven years”. This was during the show’s salad days. Broadcast on BBC1, it was a conveyor belt of out-there 30-minute gems like Detectives On The Edge Of A Nervous Breakdown, a send-up of TV cop clichés that had Richardson playing a hilarious, champagne-quaffing version of Z-Cars’s Jason King and Jim Broadbent bellowing “Guv!” a lot, Five Go Mad on Mescalin, and the entirely self-explanatory Space Virgins From Planet Sex. “I’d do everything from typing the scripts to organising photo shoots,” Park remembers. “Peter didn’t notice me for about four months, until one day he suddenly turned to me and said: ‘You! Whatever your name is! You do it.” The “it” was a key Radio Times front cover that Park organised and sourced props for. The result was as close as a big break as it was possible to get in a company boasting three people and a freshly uncluttered garage. “Every time someone left, I’d climb another rung, so I was basically running the company aged about 23.”
The same lo-fi Comic Strip spirit runs through Big Talk, the production house Park had set up within two years. “We’re split across two offices and it has that feel,” she says of a team that’s grown from four in 2005 to more than 30. “It feels more like a little house with lots of people doing things in their bedrooms than a big office, and that’s definitely how we want to keep it.” Helping her do just that are Big Talk co-partners Kenton Allen and Matthew Justice. The trio take a divide-and-conquer approach to a slate that currently has Ant-Man and Man Up underway and a wealth of other TV and film projects in development. And if you think that running the company saves them the trial of an annual review, think again. “We have a summer lunch and a Christmas dinner and we’re quite honest with each other,” she says. “We do little appraisals and talk about what we want to do next year.”
ATLANTA, HOME OF ANT-MAN, would have loomed large in December’s big talk at The River Café. Park is scheduled for an early get-together with Wright in LA, the first of many transatlantic trips over the next 12 months. It’ll be a change of scale, as well as scenery. Lately she’s worked with her partner Jeremy Lovering and a skeleton crew in Cornwall on In Fear, Hertfordshire on The World’s End and London for Nick Frost’s salsathon Cuban Fury. Scale-wise, all three are likely to be dwarved by the anty one, but for its producer the principles remain the same. Using the analogy of assembling the perfect dinner party, she stresses that “it’s about putting the right team together for that film and giving them the support they need”.
For now, though, the focus is on Man Up, a romantic comedy that pairs Pegg with Lake Bell and launches them into a mistaken-identity caper around London. Park explains that the film’s logline – ‘It's going to take one big lie to truly fall in love’ – is a critical piece in the puzzle. “If you don’t have that very simple concept you can pitch up front, it’s tough. You need that even if you’re getting branding cleared or a piece of music. That’s always been the starting point.”
And speaking of dinner parties, food will no doubt feature on today’s agenda. Like Napoleon, Park’s army marches on its stomach. “I’m obsessed with the catering. I doubt the big Hollywood producers are on set complaining that the sandwiches don’t have enough ham in them,” she laughs, summoning crazed visions of Jerry Bruckheimer scouring soundstages for gammon.
Before flagging down a cab across town, Parks offers her must-haves for any aspiring producer. On the list are a good mentor (hers is Working Title’s Eric Fellner, “the best”), boldness in the face of rejection and a horses-for-courses approach to building a film crew. “I wouldn’t necessarily use the same crew with Edgar that I’d use with Joe (Cornish) or Ben Palmer on Man Up.” And obvious as it sounds, a good eye for talent and a willingness to delegate are essential. “Get the right people and don’t think you can do it all, because you can’t,” she stresses. “No-one can.” And ham? “Definitely get ham.”
FIVE KEY MOMENTS IN NIRA PARK'S CAREER
The Comic Strip Presents... (1990-)
A golden era in British comedy was spearheaded by actor-writer-director-general-funnyperson Peter Richardson and a comedy troupe that included Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Rik Mayall, Jennifer Saunders, Alexei Sayle, Park's ex Keith Allen and Robbie Coltrane. Over five sessions and 41 episodes, they made merry with everything from Enid Blyton to Alfred Hitchcock. If it wasn't nailed down, they spoofed it.
It was at 23 Meteor Street, Tufnell Park, that the Park-Pegg-Frost-Wright quartet came together. "The George Martin of our Beatles" is how Simon Pegg describes his long-time producer. "She allows us to have the space and not have to worry about budgets and shit like that." Their culty late '90s treasure isn't Big Talk's only TV success story: Park has also shepherded Black Books, Free Agents and Friday Night Dinner onto the small screen.
Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
The project that Park counts as her proudest achievement emerged from the dying embers of Film Four a little charred around the edges but intact and ready to shoot. "(Channel 4 chief) Mark Thompson didn't want it so I asked for it back", she recalls, "and they gave it back within 24 hours. I called in (fellow producer) Alison Owen for a bit of advice and she gave me lots of names." Firing off letters to all and sundry, Park and her director Edgar Wright swore off other gigs until they'd secured the £4m they needed. "People would give us £2.5m but to make the film the way we wanted, with enough zombies, visual effects and shooting time for Edgar, we just couldn't get it down from that."
Attack The Block (2011)
Joe Cornish's directorial debut, an urban invasion sci-fi that played like Assault On Precinct 13 by way of H. G. Wells, was a steep learning curve for its frontman. "Joe won't mind me saying it but he was still learning," Park says. "I went down two weeks before call and said: 'Okay, this is what your first AD does, you mustn't try to do his job...', but he's so bright and learnt so fast. He'd literally never made a short film, but he was working with brilliant people – and the right kind of people."
In Fear (2013)
A scary little thriller that will make you never want to get lost in evil-infested Irish woodland again, this project had Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert playing a newbie couple faced with a dose of motiveless malignancy. It saw Park working with her partner, director Jeremy Lovering, in a very happy if unorthodox arrangement. "I was dreading it," laughs Park. "We met on a job but hadn't worked together for a long time. We had different bedrooms in the hotel – directors have to be able to come back and lock the door – but it was a really brilliant experience."
In Fear is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.