King of Hollywood: From Cockfosters boy to Hollywood hotshot

Pity poor Graham King. He’s on the winner’s podium, the Academy Award for Best Picture in his fist and… the hottest film producer in the world forgets his speech. Here, the taxi-driver’s son from Cockfosters begins our Oscars Special by explaining how he came to be greenlighting projects for Martin Scorsese – and grovelling to Brad Pitt

Words,Craig McLean
Sunday 22 February 2009 01:00

Oscar night, 2007, Los Angeles. Graham King hasn’t eaten all day. That’s how nervous the film producer is. Tonight, his movie, The Departed, is up for five Academy Awards, including Best |Picture, Director and Screenplay.

It’s not as though he hasn’t been here before: by his off-the-cuff reckoning, his movies have garnered 31 Oscar nominations. In fact, including The Departed, the running total is 38 (of which 13 have won), a remarkable tally given he’s been producing films only since 1995. Many Hollywood observers thought he would win big in 2002 for Martin Scorsese’s long-cherished epic Gangs of New York, which King ensured was made by finding the $65m needed to get the production going, after the major studios balked at the cost. Yet, from its 10 nominations, it came away winner-less. Three years later, the buzz was equally strong for Scorsese’s The Aviator, a passion project for its star Leonardo DiCaprio, which King also financed (and for which he won his first nomination as a named producer). But even though the Howard Hughes biopic won the Best Picture accolades at the Golden Globes and Baftas – the latter |a particularly sweet victory for this London-born expat – it missed out on all the big Oscars.

So on this February night, King and Scorsese are hoping it’s third time lucky with The Departed. The Boston-set yarn about the Irish mafia and corrupt cops, featuring powerhouse performances from DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Ray |Winstone, is the director’s highest-grossing movie ever. King would, obviously, love to win Best Picture.‘ But mainly he’s rooting for his director and creative partner: Scorsese has never won the Best Director Oscar.

“I saw Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson with the envelope [for Best Picture],” says King now of the 79th Academy Awards ceremony two years ago. “I thought, ‘If Jack reads the nominations and Diane reads the winner, we haven’t won’ – because Jack was in the movie. It was weird to have someone presenting the award who was in the film.”

But The Departed did win. As did Scorsese, trumping British directors Paul Greengrass (United 93) and Stephen Frears (The Queen). In his office here in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, not far from the home he shares with his family in Malibu, King has a framed photograph taken from the wings at the awards show in LA’s Kodak Theatre. In it, Scorsese watches King as the latter stands centre-stage, clutching his newly won Oscar.

“It’s so nerve-racking,” King chuckles in his London accent. (The 47-year-old might have come a long way from his roots as the son of a taxi driver and hairdresser from the decidedly unstarry north London suburb of Cockfosters, but his working-class timbre seems to have been largely untouched by his 28 years in America.) “You have this monitor in front of you counting down, 30, 29, 28... telling you how long before you have to get off. And I’m not an actor, I’m not used to being in that environment and trying to keep calm. I got my speech out and had it in my hand and the Oscar in the other hand, and the envelope… and I didn’t open my speech. I wanted to thank Leo – he’s such a good friend – and Marty. But I forgot two people who were really important to the movie – Brad Grey and Brad Pitt, who produced it.” (To King, the speech is a point of honour – after the Steven Soderbergh film Traffic won four Oscars in 2000, King, who had been the movie’s producer, went on the record to express his disappointment that he had not been thanked in any of the speeches.)

Walking off stage, “I felt horrendous. I’d just forgotten to thank the guy who was top of my list, the first name on my speech! It was a very surreal night. For the next two months I would be in meetings and my head would go off somewhere, thinking: ‘I’ve actually got this statue – I’ve won an Oscar…’”

It’s early February 2009, the heart of awards season. The Golden Globes have been and gone, the Baftas are looming and, two weeks later, the Oscars. Graham King doesn’t have any films in contention this year. After The Departed he took it easy for a while; he’d made that movie concurrently with Blood Diamond, the Africa-set thriller that starred DiCaprio. For this thorough, hands-on producer, that was a lot of |flying around and set-hopping. But in 2009, King has a raft of projects, many involving the myriad creative partnerships he’s built in Hollywood since leaving an international sales job with 20th Century Fox’s TV wing in 1988 (he moved to LA as a student in 1980).

As part of a long-term deal with Johnny Depp’s production company Infinitum Nihil, he is about to start filming The Rum Diary, based on the Hunter S Thompson novel (Depp, who’s been trying to make the film for six years, will star); he is in talks with DiCaprio about another big project; and under the banner of his own GK Films, King has completed the political thriller Edge of Darkness, a big-screen adaptation of the 1985 BBC mini-series, with Mel Gibson as the lead. “To get Mel to come back into acting in movies for the first time in six, seven years, the script has to be really good.” Gibson was the “only actor” he had in mind, for bluntly prosaic |reasons: “How many guys are there who could realistically be on screen with a 23-year-old daughter and who can carry a big movie?” When he says things like that, all King needs to complete the mogul-producer image is a huge cigar.

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The new version of Edge of Darkness has been scripted by William Monahan, who also wrote The Departed. King’s “first-look” deal with Monahan has also given rise to GK Films’ London Boulevard, a crime drama that shoots in London this summer starring Keira Knightley and Colin Farrell, which Monahan is directing from his own screenplay.

But before that comes King’s first British movie: The Young Victoria, with Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) in the title role as the teenage queen. The lavish, $32m costumed biopic is born of a partnership arguably even more eyebrow-|raising than his hook-ups with Scorsese, Depp, DiCaprio and Gibson: Sarah Ferguson, the erstwhile Duchess of York. Ferguson is a friend of King’s partner at GK Films, the Texan oil billionaire Tim Headington. “Tim said Sarah had some ideas for movies, for TV.” King found Fergie “fabulous, warm and friendly” and thought her idea for a story depicting the early days of Victoria’s reign “really intriguing”. Cinema’s greatest living auteur was also smitten: “Marty was intrigued, as he’s a lover of film… he thought the same I did: here was a story that hadn’t been told before.” King and Scorsese agreed to co-produce the project. They commissioned a script from Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. “There were no lawyers,” says King. “It was just Marty and I on set with The Departed, talking. And I was happy to greenlight the movie like that.”

King’s calm, organised demeanour percolated through to the Young Victoria shoot, which took place in some of England’s finest stately homes in summer 2007. “Whereas half the time in Hollywood,” notes Fellowes, “setting up a picture is like being on the set of Apocalypse Now.”

“Graham creates a very safe environment,” says Blunt, who is in almost every scene as she portrays the cloistered but coltish teenager who, at 18, is suddenly the ruler of half the world. (The film also has bit parts for King’s 20-year-old daughter – he has another, 13-year-old daughter – and |Ferguson’s daughter Princess Beatrice.) “Feeling the weight of responsibility of carrying the film was nerve-racking for me,” she adds. But she was only reassured by King, and by his hiring of director Jean-Marc Vallée. “We had such free rein: Graham went for an – on paper �– unusual director, a French-Canadian who has a rock-star approach to this whole period. He wasn’t going to hold it in too much reverence.”

This, it seems is part of the key to King’s success: he is |creative, and adventurous. “From Johnny’s point of view, I’m |a guy who takes risks,” King says of Depp (everyone is on first-name terms at the top of the Hollywood tree). “And |I take risks with the kind of film-makers he likes to work with. I’d love to find something for Marty and Johnny to do together.”

His risk-taking is born of the fact that he’s an independent, nimble operator: GK Films’ Santa Monica offices may have 18 staff, and his business partner a net worth valued by Forbes at $2.5bn, but he’s not a major studio. “And I’m not a corporate guy. I get involved with all aspects of the film-making.”

The day after our meeting in his spacious office suite, Depp wraps on another King film: Rango, an animation being made by Gore Verbinksi, the director of the hugely successful Pirates of The Caribbean series. “Gore was looking for someone to help finance it and get it rolling before he went to a studio. An animation is complicated to make and takes a long time, and Gore wanted to get it out at a certain time.”

King’s slate for 2009 is teeming: he’s hopeful that he and Scorsese will begin shooting on Silence, another long-|gestating project about two Jesuit priests who travel to 17th-century Japan; the week of our meeting, the Hollywood trade press have announced that Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio Del Toro and Gael García Bernal are all attached (King denies that any are committed). He and Depp hope to restart work on Shantaram, an epic that fell victim to last year’s writers’ strike. And in partnership with Warner Bros, there’s |a thriller called The Town starring Ben Affleck and a sci-fi film based on Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels (“It could be Lord of the Rings in space,” King says with a smile).

On top of that, Edge of Darkness will be released, with Ray Winstone taking the place of Robert De Niro, who pulled out over “creative differences”. A difficult moment? Not a bit of it. “Bob wanted to take the character one way, we wanted to take it another. It happens,” King shrugs. “We all go through it. Harrison Ford fell out of Traffic four weeks before we were due to shoot. You can either lower your head, say, ‘Fuck it’ and not do the film. Or you get creative.” That time, King got creative by hiring Michael Douglas, and Traffic made $207m.

This time next year, Graham King may well find himself an Oscar frontrunner again, for Edge of Darkness. But who is he backing this year? Sadly, he won’t say – too many people he’s working, or wants to work, with are nominated, so he’d rather not tip his hat. In which case, can he reveal what Oscar night is like from the inside? “Well,” he chuckles, “I’ve been there as a big loser, with The Aviator. The buzz on [fellow 2004 nominee] Million Dollar Baby and Clint Eastwood was getting very loud. The whole town was talking about how it wasn’t our night, and you have to listen to those people, I guess.”

Things were different two years later for The Departed. “I can tell you right now that Marty Scorsese never makes a movie to win an award! I know a couple of other film-|makers who do. So if it hadn’t have won, we’d have been fine. I’ll be honest with you: we were up against Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. But it was a fabulous movie, and it just felt good.”

The Departed duly triumphed. King digs his Oscar out of a holdall (fearful of burglary at his home in Malibu, he’s having a cabinet built in his office) and lets me hold the gold statuette. It’s had some repairs – it got scratched after he took it home to the UK, and it spent a month being toured around the small Norfolk town where his proud father lives. The Oscar feels good. It feels heavy. It feels like… victory.

Behind his expansive desk King has another framed |photograph taken the night of The Departed’s victory: him, Scorsese, Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, all buddies, all in their tuxedo’d finery. Later that evening, he recalls, he attended his company’s party at Hollywood’s Four Seasons hotel . “Everybody was hammered. And I hadn’t had a drink. I’m on cloud nine; |I don’t need a drink at that point!”

Nor had he eaten. So his partner ordered a delivery from In-N-Out Burger. “There’s a great picture of Helen Mirren with an Oscar at the Vanity Fair party sitting, eating a burger!”

The following day, King woke at noon to a flurry of |congratulatory emails and calls. “But it was over. It was just all the same. It had been a dream for so long. And I was like, ‘Wow, what can I do next?’” So, what can he do next? “Win another one! I dunno. I just wanna make great movies. And a week later you’re back on the phone to agents, trying to negotiate another deal for another actor, writer, director. You’re back to square one.”

‘The Young Victoria’ (PG) is released on 6 March

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