RETURNING to school with a freshly-pierced ear and a flat-top hair cut might have been the final straw, Richard Brown can’t quite remember.
It could just have been that the school grew tired of his bunking off to Cockburn Street when he should have been on the rugby pitch, or in science class. Exactly why his time as a scholarship pupil at Edinburgh’s Merchiston Castle, one of the country’s leading private schools, came to an abrupt end he just can’t recall.
“I’m not sure if I left or was asked to leave before sixth year,” he says and laughs. “But I never really fitted in there. It wasn’t my kind of place. I’d rather be in town, sitting in Princes Street Gardens with my first girlfriend or going to the cinema – mostly going to the cinema and just watching everything available. I knew even as a teenager that I wanted to work in film.”
Not that he was aiming to be Edinburgh’s next star of the silver screen, he was more interested in the alchemy of how movies happen.
Even though his career initially started in the music industry, it led slowly but surely into the film and TV industry which is why the 43-year-old producer now lives and works in Manhattan – and why his name is on the credits of one of the biggest TV hits of the year – True Detective.
The eight-part crime series was critically acclaimed for the performances from stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey and also for its writing. The way it was filmed and produced is also said to have revolutionised the way television dramas are made – and Richard is the man responsible.
He says: “You can never be sure if something’s going to be a hit. We couldn’t imagine it would work as well as it did. We knew it had great potential but even so. . . we could never have predicted the impact it has had. It has been amazing.”
Originally from Dumfriesshire (his dad owned the local paper The Galloway Gazette), he moved around as a child when his parents split up. He says his formative years were the ones spent in Edinburgh, skipping school. “I’m not a fan of British all-boys public schools, so I didn’t really feel at home there so I’d head into Edinburgh – and discovered music, films and girls – and do the things that have led me to where I am today and what I do now.
“I’d spend my time in a record store in Tollcross buying Joy Division, The Clash or Echo and the Bunnymen, or I’d loiter around Cockburn Street. One time I got my ear pierced which got me suspended from school. I guess I was considered a bad boy at that time. But most of the times I escaped from school I’d go to the cinema and watch anything and everything, and I knew I wanted to work in that world.”
When he parted company with Merchiston Castle after four and a half years, he was 16 and was sent to London to attend a sixth-form college to complete his A Levels. It was a move which led to a chance meeting which would change his life.
He explains: “I made friends with a guy whose parents lived in Miami, so he asked me to go with him for a holiday. I was delighted to go of course but while I was out there I happened to run into Chris Blackwell of Island Records. We had this great talk about music and out of the blue he offered me a job as a talent scout. It was a choice between that or university, so really no choice at all.”
Richard headed back to London and began to carve out an incredibly successful music business career. “I was quite junior but I did find Massive Attack and the Cranberries and loads of others you’ll never have heard of,” he laughs again. “I loved it though, and got promoted and became head of A&R (artists and repertoire) and worked closely with groups like U2. To be honest, I started to get quite a big head, it felt like the whole world was opening up for me.
“I wanted to go to America and when Geffen Records wanted to sign a band I was working with I went out to Los Angeles and I really never came back. I’ve just been very lucky really. There was never a grand plan.”
He was just 21 when he moved to LA, which he found “quite intoxicating”. “It’s the home of the entertainment industry so where better to be?” he says. “Music and film industries co-exist there and overlap and so I started working with the directors of music videos, people like Spike Jonze, great directors who’ve since gone on to work in film. It did occur to me at that time that it might just be possible to become a film director.
“That’s one of the positive things about being in the US. You don’t get pigeon-holed into certain areas. If you want to reinvent yourself you can.”
Richard made the transition when he was offered a job working for legendary producer Nick Wechsler (Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Player) to create a music division for his company Industry Entertainment. “It managed loads of stars like Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio – it was a step into a whole new world. I was there for few months before I said to Nick, ‘I want to do what you do’. He was generous enough to let me learn from him and at that time he was working on Requiem for a Dream.”
From there Richard went back to work for Blackwell, this time for Palm Pictures which saw him move to New York. There he created and produced the Directors Label DVD series, devoted to celebrated music directors, teaming again with Jonze, as well as Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham. It sold 1.5m copies worldwide.
He was with Palm for three years then left to set up his own production company Passenger. Then Steve Golin, head of production company Anonymous Content, offered him a job as a full-time producer.
“Being a producer is a crazy job in many ways and is quite misunderstood. You find the idea, or it comes to you, then it’s a long process. You have to find the right writer, get the screenplay to a place where it can be shown to the right director then the cast, to get it funded. The whole thing can take up to four or five years and if one element falls through you have to start over again.”
That’s why True Detective has been so revolutionary. “Writer Nic Pizzolatto brought us the idea. He’d written a great novel called Galveston and a couple of episodes of The Killing (US version) and it was clear he was a very talented writer with a distinct vision. The idea was to create a TV series that would be like a novel – chapters instead of episodes. That was really exciting to me and it seemed a paradigm shift to create a series with a finite ending rather than ongoing. . . which meant we could possibly cast film actors who wouldn’t normally commit to a TV series because of the possibility of endless seasons.
“There would also be a different methodology to have one director for the whole series rather than different ones per episode. TV is normally run by the writers, while with film it’s the directors who have authority. We wanted to do both. So it’s a real collaboration between great writing and directing.
“When you have a director like Cary Fukunaga, then getting great actors to sign on is easier, especially when we were only asking them to commit to eight episodes. We went to Matthew and he read the script and loved it. Woody came on board right away after that. They’re great friends. So then we went out and pitched it to the TV companies and the best fit for us was with HBO. From there it was all done surprisingly quickly. The whole filming in Louisiana took eight months from October 2012 to June 2013 and we had to move quickly because of the actors’ availability.”
Despite its success and the fact that there will be a second series, it won’t mean the return of Harrelson and McConaughey as, says Richard, True Detective, is more of a “brand” than a “series”.
“We’ll be producing something new but which fits into the same format. The nice thing is that there’s an audience really waiting for the second one. So now the pressure is to make something that matches expectation. That’s the next challenge, but it will be fun trying to meet it.”
Projects in the pipeline
THE first film Richard produced with Anonymous Content was 44 Inch Chest which starred Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Ian McShane and Tom Wilkinson. It was directed by Malcolm Venville and written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto.
And although another series of True Detective is in the pipeline, right now Richard is working on a new TV series called Snakehead which tells the true story of a ten-year FBI investigation into organised crime and people-smuggling in Chinatown, New York. It’s to be directed by Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for writing the film Traffic.
“I’m also just beginning pre-production on a film called Which Brings Me To You, a modern love story written by Keith Bunin and myself which will be directed by Kat Coiro and will star Gemma Arterton and Bradley Cooper.
“It would be wonderful to bring something to the Edinburgh International Film Festival . . . perhaps this will be the film which could do it.”