George Harrison started making films “by accident” in the late 1970s. His friends in Monty Python lost their producer for life of brian. Since George wanted to see the film, he supported it financially. Suddenly HandMade Films was born and brought George into the film business with countless screenplays.
The production company made films that nobody else wanted to make, most of them British. Until HandMade Films finally expanded to America.
The former Beatles’ official entry into the film business is controversial. If George had his way, he wouldn’t have taken on many projects after that life of brian. However, his managing director, Denis O’Brien, got the “taste” and convinced George to continue the business.
Luckily for George, he didn’t have to devote much time to HandMade Films. Otherwise he would have panicked and jumped off. George told Film Comment that he would have quit even if HandMade Films had become a big American company.
George wanted HandMade Films to remain a small British company. However, it soon made its way to America. They established an office in New York and released their first American film, Five Cornersin 1987. Then suddenly they picked up seven more American films.
“It’s not my idea, but I think it could be Denis’s; he’s interested in broadening the base,” George said of expanding across the pond. “Personally, I don’t want HandMade Films to turn into an American company in New York or Los Angeles, I like being in a nice little office in England.
“…I like American actors and directors. We really aren’t closed to anything. But I don’t want us to become one big flashy American company. At that point I would probably back out.”
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Another reason George didn’t like going to the US was that it was difficult to make films for American audiences. But Film Comment asked, “Isn’t the American market just as important to the film business as it is to the record industry?
“Of course,” George replied. “To really make it, you have to be successful in America — in film and on records. You can sell anything you want in England and France and Switzerland. But you need a big response in the American market to pay the bills, return the money, and get things rolling.
“The tipping point for our company came in the last year or two when some of the films that we were producing exclusively as low-budget projects were accepted in America. mona lisa was one. Withnail and I was another – which was something of a shock. Personally, I really enjoy the film, but thought there was no snowballing opportunity for the American people to get that kind of humor. The jokes seem very English to me. I’m happy to say I was wrong.
“We’ve always been told that Americans want things to happen with a bang! bang! blow! and want a movie to move fast. You get so scared when there is actually dialogue going on and people have to use their brains and listen.
“We tried to give credit to people for wanting to see a movie with some kind of storyline, dialogue and depth, and were pleasantly surprised that there are Americans who don’t mind putting in a little work — especially given the all the competition nowadays.
“Someone told me that between last August and Christmas 170 films were released in America alone. A few years ago in the US you could get a movie out and build it on word of mouth. Now if you release a film on Friday and it hasn’t made a certain amount of money by Saturday night, it’s gone. It’s ruthless – even more ruthless than the record business.”
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George didn’t want to get carried away with HandMade Films. To narrow it down, he only wanted to stick to comedy.
“All the logistics make it very difficult to get all these films going at the same time,” George said. “Those records you’re trying to turn are big, heavy things, you know. Good thing he is [O’Brien] however, it works in a way.
“I would have been content to just do it life of brian and bandits of time– much happier just doing comedy. But then, if I was in charge of this venture, I don’t think it would have taken that long or really gone that far. I probably would have encouraged us to make even crazier films than we made.
“I know I wouldn’t have been as adventurous in some areas. But at the same time I don’t want to get too adventurous. I like being safe and secure you know.”
Luckily George didn’t produce too many more movies to throw HandMade Films out of control. At some point he left everything behind to focus more on music again. That was his true love.