MAKING THE DIG. Gabrielle Tana is a British film producer, most recently of “The Dig”, a Netflix January 2021 release in which Ralph Fiennes plays the amateur archaeologist Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, whose land he digs on. Tana and her fellow producers were previously nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture for the 2013 film “Philomena”.

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Gabrielle Tana, you are a successful producer with an office in London and New York. How many films did you produce or co-produce?  

I lost count, but around 15 or 16.  

You must receive hundreds of proposals and scripts. What makes you decide to produce a film?  

Generally I develop the things that I’m going to make. It’s rare that it comes from outside. If it does, then it’s something that I get very involved in. You’ve got to have passion, because it’s very hard, and you’ve got to really love it and believe in it and feel that it’s got to be in the world. That’s what sustains you.  

As a producer do you follow the film’s entire construction?  

From nuts to bolts. The genesis can be from a book or from an idea, sometimes an original screenplay. Then it’s about working on the script with the writer. Hopefully a director sooner than later, sometimes with the director from the get-go. Then it’s about the creative development, putting together the whole team, from the cast to the technical crew. I’m there every day when we’re shooting, and then through post-production. And I raise the money to get it made!  

Your film “Philomena” got plenty of awards. Did you imagine such success?  

Judi Dench came on board very early on, even before we had the script, as did Steve Coogan, who I really developed it with. Having Judi Dench involved gave me great hope that it would come to fruition. She is so loved and she’s such a great actress that I had real confidence in it. 

Philomena is based on a book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith. Did you read the book first?  

Yes, but we left the book aside and it became about how the writer embarked on the journey with the real Philomena. 

Why did you decide to produce “The Dig”, a film that has quite an enclosed story?  

There was a screenplay when I got on board, but it was more than an eight year journey to make it happen. The timing for it to come out is really on our side. It is a story that resonates right now, more than ever.

Finding treasure in your garden is something that appeals to everybody.”

Gabrielle Tana

Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has a “feeling” about one eminence in particular – the whopper in the middle. With her mustard-keen young son Robert (Archie Barnes) in tow, she invites local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to see what he might unearth beneath the layers of mud.

Gabrielle Tana, an amateur archaeologist played by Ralph Fiennes starts digging on the private land of a widow called Edith Pretty. Can you tell me the story?  

The story is looking for treasure. Edith Pretty had a very strong sense that there was something on her land. She was in her own way an amateur archaeologist. Finding treasure in your garden is something that appeals to everybody. She had a hunch.  

Was this just an odd feeling?  

It was. These were known to be ancient burial grounds at Sutton Hoo, so it wasn’t impossible that there would be something in them. Over centuries, people had gone into them and taken things out. Just as the Second World War is looming she decides to dig. It was carpe diem, seize the moment and do it now.  

Ralph Fiennes plays Basil Brown. Who was he?  

He was known in the region to be somebody who was passionate about archaeology, and also astronomy. He was self-taught, an autodidact with his own innate intelligence, a fascination with the land that he grew up on and a sense of curiosity. In the film people from very different backgrounds came together, but nobody had any sense that they would find this amazing boat.  

It is a real story, isn’t it?  

Absolutely. At  Sutton Hoo they discovered the greatest treasure ever found in the UK, and it can be seen in the British Museum.  

Watching the film you imagine that there will be a love affair between Basil Brown and Edith Pretty, the lady who owns the land, but it doesn’t happen?  

No, their class was different, and what’s so beautiful is their shared passion for the dig. It’s platonic, people coming together, sharing and doing something remarkable together. And Edith Pretty was very ill. 

What is your professional relationship with Ralph Fiennes?  

I got to know him as an actor because he starred in a film that I produced some years ago called “The Duchess”. We are kindred spirits who have a similar sensibility. After that film he asked me to help him with “Coriolanus”, his first film as a director, which was a real honour. It’s a wonderful film. It should be on Netflix and be seen much more. People often say to me that it’s one of their favourite films and definitely one of their favourite adaptations of Shakespeare.  

How did Ralph Fiennes become involved in The Dig? 

I gave Ralph the script to read six years ago. He read it on an aeroplane and called me right after reading it. He was so moved by it, partially because he comes from that part of the world. He was born in Ipswich, near Sutton Hoo where the treasure was discovered. Ralph’s father was very connected to the land, so the story spoke to him very personally. He went to extraordinary lengths to become and engage with Basil, and understand who he was. He fell in love with Basil. You feel the connection that he has with his character.  

What made you believe that this would be a successful story?  

You can’t know how people are going to respond, but I felt it was such a moving story and we had a great group of talent. Simon Stone is a brilliant, visionary young director, and he brought something to “The Dig” that gave it a whole other dimension.

It was very hard to get made. I had many, many sleepless nights.”

Gabrielle Tana, has the fact that the film was launched on Netflix rather than in cinemas helped the launch because so many people can see it at the same time? 

It has. It’s been fascinating to watch how we’ve had a captive audience, people sharing something all together, all around the world. It’s phenomenal. I’ve never experienced reactions like I’m getting with this film.  

Do you think the film has a message that life has to go on?  

Absolutely. I think it’s resonating. It’s true that we get through these things. We will survive it. We will learn from it. It’s the cycles of history.  

Are people touched by the big injustice to the two protagonists, who made the discovery but are completely dismissed by the professionals?  

It’s very touching. In fact, Winston Churchill did want to knight Edith Pretty and give her a damehood, but she said no thank you. For her, it wasn’t about her. It was about the discovery. There was a selflessness, respecting history and sharing it.  

Does it concern you that cinemas are closed and so people cannot see the film on a large screen?  

Yes. The intention was for this film to go out in cinemas before it went up on the Netflix platform, so it was heartbreaking for that not to happen. I felt particularly bad for Simon Stone, the young director, who has not had that much experience with his films being put out into the world. It was very hard for him not to have any feedback, but now it’s overwhelming and beyond anything that could have happened.   

Will “The Dig” eventually go into movie houses?  

Maybe. That will be a Netflix decision, but it would be glorious if it did get a chance to get seen on big screens. I am a great believer in cinema. There’s nothing like having that collective experience of being in a room with people watching something.  

Were you nervous and anxious about “The Dig” before it came out?  

Of course. It was very hard to get made. I had many, many sleepless nights. I’m still in post-traumatic stress from what it took to get it done. People that were investing then decided – when we were already very advanced in making it – that they didn’t want to keep doing it. Netflix saved my life. It’s a crazy business. I don’t encourage people to do what I do.  

Was it easy for you to get into Netflix?  

Fortunately, as you go through working in this business for enough years, you know enough people who find themselves in different places. Somebody I worked with years ago when he was a studio executive became an executive at Netflix. It is a relationship business in that way. Even though it’s changed, a lot of people have come out of the same kind of womb.  

Once a film is on Netflix can it still go to festivals like Cannes, Venice or Sundance and win awards?  

We’d hoped to go to Venice, but a decision not to was made across the board, out of security. It was very painful for us as filmmakers to lose that moment. Festivals will come back and cinema will come back.  

Perhaps you will win awards. Will the Oscars and BAFTAs be given this year? 

People are already looking at films and considering them for BAFTA and the Academy. “The Dig” is there for people in those organisations to watch, consider and vote for if they believe that it should be rewarded.  

Gabrielle Tana

THE DIG: Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown.

Cr. Larry Horricks/Netflix © 2021

Gabrielle Tana

THE DIG (L-R): Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown.

Cr. Larry Horricks/Netflix © 2021

Gabrielle Tana

THE DIG (L-R): Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, Archie Barnes as Robert, Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.

Cr. Larry Horricks/ Netflix  © 2021

Gabrielle Tana

THE DIG (L-R): Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown.

Cr. Larry Horricks/Netflix © 2021

Gabrielle Tana

PHILOMENA is a 2013 drama film directed by Stephen Frears, based on the 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith. Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, it tells the true story of Philomena Lee’s 50-year search for her adopted son and Sixsmith’s efforts to help her find him.

Gabrielle Tana

CORIOLANUS is a 2011 British film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, written by John Logan and directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, who plays the titular character. This is Fiennes‘ directorial debut.

I love working with people and making things together.”

Gabrielle Tana, do you prefer to produce movies originating from books or theatre?  

Yes, and true stories too. There’s often something extraordinary about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Truth is stranger than fiction. I’m producing a scripted feature film based on the true story of the little boys who got trapped in a cave in Thailand a couple of years ago.

Would you like to be a director yourself?  

In the beginning that was what I thought I would do. I’m not going to rule it out, but I’d have to know that I was the right person to tell that story. It could happen.  

What is the real talent of a film producer?  

All the detail. I’m there to be supportive and helpful and nurturing and make sure that people are being taken care of and being treated properly and being heard and getting what they need in all aspects. Not just the actors, but also the heads of department. And making sure that the money is on the screen and not getting spent on things that it shouldn’t get spent on.  

Are you working on new projects?  

Yes, with Simon Stone, and also with a wonderful Brazilian Algerian director by the name of Karim Aïnouz. We’re preparing a feature film that we’ll do this coming year. It’s about Catherine Parr, the last and remaining wife of King Henry VIII.  

Is it a historical film?  

Karim didn’t even know who Henry VIII was when we started. We’re bringing a very different kind of eye to a historical story. It’s more a thriller than an obvious period drama. It’s surprising. 

Who is going to play the last wife of Henry VIII?  

I can’t say yet because I’m not one hundred percent sure. Somebody I’m very excited about working with if it works out. Somebody I’ve always wanted to work with.  

Are we still in the time of big blockbusters, or do they cost too much and the results are not so great?  

It’s so strange now because blockbusters are waiting to be released. James Bond keeps getting pushed and pushed. But they’re not the kinds of films I know how to make or want to make. It’s a certain kind of entertainment and if there’s a public for something there will be production.  

What makes you go?  

It’s become something that is stronger than myself, a kind of addiction. And I’m crazy. You do have to be crazy to do this, but I love it. I love telling stories. I love working with people and making things together. It’s a joy when it comes together.