EXCLUSIVE: Cillian Murphy, fresh off of the massive global success of Oppenheimer — and as he gets ready to debut Small Things Like These (in which he stars and he produced) as the opening-night gala of the Berlin Film Festival next week — has set his next starring and producing gig with Steve.
This adaptation of Max Porter’s novel Shy also officially launches Murphy’s production company, Big Things Films, with longtime collaborator Alan Moloney. (See below for our discussion with the duo.)
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Netflix has greenlighted Steve in collaboration with Big Things and will distribute globally. Production begins in the spring.
Steve is a reimagining of Porter’s Shy and traces a pivotal 24 hours in the life of its eponymous character, a headteacher (Murphy) of a last-chance reform school who struggles to keep his students in line, while also grappling with his spiraling mental health.
Moloney and Murphy are producers. Small Things Like These (and Peaky Blinders alum) Tim Mielants is directing. Porter wrote the screenplay. He and Murphy previously collaborated on the stage adaptation of the author’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and also on the short film All of This Unreal Time.
This is an exciting time for recent Golden Globe winner Murphy who is nominated for an Oscar, BAFTA and SAG Award as lead actor in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
With Big Things Films, he’s cementing himself as a producer after cutting his teeth as an executive producer on three seasons of Peaky Blinders and as producer of Small Things Like These. An independent, story-driven company, Big Things was initially created to produce Small Things Like These, and aims to collaborate with singular filmmakers, writers, actors and directors, both new and established, who have something to say and are passionate about what they do. Big Things will collaborate with like-minded financiers, studios, distributors and streamers in both film and television.
The company will seek material in which Murphy will act, but not exclusively.
Projects will be designed to provoke, inspire and explore themes that take audiences to places that can sometimes be uncomfortable, but more often reveal core truths about who we are, regardless of genre or format, the partners say.
Meanwhile, Berlinale opener Small Things Like These is based on the Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Claire Keegan with a screenplay by Enda Walsh. Murphy, Eileen Walsh and Emily Watson star in the story which takes place over Christmas 1985, when devoted father Bill Furlong (Murphy) discovers the startling secrets being kept by the convent in his town, and some shocking truths about his own life as well. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Artists Equity financed the film and “couldn’t have been better partners,” Murphy says. FilmNation Entertainment is launching sales for Small Things Like These at EFM.
Murphy and Moloney’s working relationship began with John Crowley’s 2002 Intermission which smashed Irish box office records to become the highest grossing indie of its time, and won Best Picture at the IFTAs. In 2004, Moloney and Murphy reunited for Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto for which Murphy received his first Golden Globe nomination. In 2008, they collaborated on Perrier’s Bounty, and then again in 2019 on The Delinquent Season. Moloney’s extensive credits also include The Escapist, Albert Nobbs, Sweetness in the Belly, Brooklyn and Kiss the Future.
I recently caught up with the duo to talk about Big Things Films. Here’s our chat which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
DEADLINE: When you first created Big Things in order to produce Small Things Like These, was it intended as a one off, or did you know you were forming a bonafide production company?
CILLIAN MURPHY: I think we did. We’ve known each other for a very long time… I’d been in four films that Alan produced, Small Things was the fifth one. I brought the book to Alan because he was the obvious choice for me and then it seemed like it went so well and we’re so proud of the film and we work very well together, it felt like kind of a no-brainer that we should continue, you know? We had talked about this for quite a while, about changing the relationship from just producer to actor to actually forming a company.
ALAN MOLONEY: We’d talked about a couple of different projects prior to this, so there was that sense of possibility I suppose. Then it kind of happened, and sort of became formalized by definition of Small Things Like These and then it just continued. It’s sort of a natural thing.
DEADLINE: Why does now feel like the right time to commit to making official this collaborative relationship you’ve had for quite a while?
MURPHY: Speaking for myself, you know I had come off Peaky Blinders and I spent about six months kind of looking around and reading scripts and nothing was good enough, nothing really connected with me and then I read Small Things Like These. A lot of things happened simultaneously: I read this book, I gave it to Alan, then I got Oppenheimer and I went off to do that. In the meantime, we were securing the rights, in the meantime Alan happened to be working with Matt Damon and I was working with Matt Damon so there was a lot of serendipity around it. But from my own point of view, I definitely felt like now was a good time to have a bit more agency for myself in terms of generating work.
But this was pre-Oppenheimer coming out and being this absolute phenomenon, that definitely helped. But the gestation of it was prior to that. For me, it was more about finishing Peaky which I had been executive producing for three series so I was cutting my teeth on that, but it was really about trying to have a little more agency and control in terms of my career.
MOLONEY: We had historically over a 20-year period come back together to work together again, and I suppose as Cillian’s appetite for producing has developed, there just is that kind of sense of it making sense as much as anything else. We didn’t set out 10 years ago and say, “We’re gonna do this, this and this and then land there”; it’s just evolved. I think creatively, I guess the world will judge for itself, but Small Things is a film that we’re incredibly happy with and proud of, and obviously the fact that we feel so good about it is encouraging for us to continue to make films together and to develop television together and see where that goes.
DEADLINE: Do you have any financial backing?
MOLONEY: We’ve kind of bet on ourselves. To date we’ve financed this ourselves, we invested the development funding required to get these projects off the ground ourselves and I think we now have what is becoming a going concern. We haven’t taken third-party finance. We’re going to do Steve with Netflix and so far we’re into our second year really in terms of trading as a company and we’re into our second movie. Based on my 30 years of making films, that’s a pretty good batting average. I think we’re doing something right, so we’ll just keep doing it and see where we go from there.
DEADLINE: How are you scouting projects for the company?
MOLONEY: We are in that process of reading books, meeting writers, meeting filmmakers; sort of just doing that thing. There’s a couple of things that we’re sort of circling and talking about, and I think that as the company develops there will be a couple of strategic hires this year to expand our capacity for deeper dive in development terms. But there are projects coming to us, IP coming our way and then there’s things that we’re kind of scratching at ourselves.
MURPHY: It’s been really nice for both of us. I know an awful lot of writers that I’ve worked with over the years and so does Alan and the first two projects – Enda adapted Small Things, just to be able to call him up and say we have this project and he loved the book and delivers this beautiful script, and then Max Porter, who’s a friend of mine also, it’s his first script but I knew he could write film.
This is what I think having a company means, that you can approach these people and say “Look, we have the platform, we can get these things made” and that’s very exciting for me. So, there will be more writers I will be annoying and calling (laughs).
DEADLINE: I can imagine that following Oppenheimer you must have received myriad offers, does the new company mean in any way that you are stepping back from mega Hollywood projects?
MURPHY: No. I will continue to look at every script as I have always done, and judge it on how much of a challenge it represents to me. Whether it comes from inside the Hollywood studio system, or the independent sector is always secondary. The quality of the writing and the quality of the collaborators is primary.
DEADLINE: What about the book Shy grabbed you so much – you know, forgetting you know Max Porter and that you’re already a fan?
MURPHY: I just adore Max’s writing and the thing his writing does for me, which Claire Keegan’s writing does as well — and it’s something I’ve always chased down in writing — is something that has an actual visceral effect on you, an emotional effect. I remember reading Foster, Claire’s short story, I remember actually crying reading the book and having to put my hood up on the train to try to hide, I was so embarrassed.
And then Shy was also that book. Max gave me that book in a proof edition before he finished it, and again it just broke my heart. They’re the sorts of things I love as a reader and as a performer, so I really wanted to do something with him.
DEADLINE: In the book, the main character is a student, but you’ve changed it to the headteacher, why?
MURPHY: It was Max’s idea to change the perspective and flip it around to the headteacher who runs this institution. Myself and Alan and Max got on a call and we started to turn it around in our heads and it seemed like we could make a film out of it. The same events happen, we’re just looking at them through a different lens.
And I love films that happen in real time — this all happens in 24-hours so there’s immediately sort of an intense pressure on the characters — and then Alan gave it to Netflix. Alan maybe you want to take it from here?
MOLONEY: Yeah, I gave it to Anne Mensah, who is somebody that Cillian and I know a long time and have a very strong relationship with, and Anne responded very quickly and very objectively. It was a first draft, but she could see what we were intending with it. She just backed it from there. That was only a few months ago, so it’s all moved very quickly to get to the point of greenlighting.
To be fair to Anne, I think she saw what we saw in it but also had that degree of trust in what we were doing, and let us bring it to where it is now. That’s been very positive to date.
DEADLINE: You’re shooting this spring, so Cillian, you’re not going to get much down time. On Oscar nominations day, you told me there was no chilling between now and March, but does this take that further?
MURPHY: No, I have a couple of months that I can just rest up. But the thing about it is that I’m very cognizant of the fact that doing all this awards run, it’s such a privilege to be in it and having Oppenheimer celebrated. I think I’m actually getting better at it the more I go along, but it will be nice to get back to actually acting. This season precludes that, none of the actors that I meet or the writers are working. This is work, and like I said, we’re all so privileged to be here and also flattered and humbled, but it will be nice when it’s over to go back to work.
DEADLINE: Do you guys always see eye to eye?
MOLONEY: On creative points, we’ll talk them out and reason it through until I agree with Cillian (both laugh).
MURPHY: I think the fact that we’ve known each other for so bloody long really helps, and I’m a big fan of re-collaboration and trust. Many of the people that I work with I’ve known for 20 years or more and I think that is the best place to be in a working or business environment. You know if you do have a disagreement, you know you’re always gonna be friends, you know that you know each other forever. And, Alan has an awful lot of strengths that I do not possess because he’s been making independent films for 30 years and he knows how to put films together, he knows that world inside out. I think my strengths are much more in the creative world in terms of instinct and emotion and stuff like that.
But, making Small Things and being in post definitely was one of the most satisfying things of my whole career — and we found that with everybody who was involved in the film, from the crew and the cast and into the post-production, it really was a gorgeous experience and we’re happy with the outcome.
I know they’re not all gonna be like that, but it was a great way to start.
MOLONEY: It’s worth mentioning that Tim Mielants, who directed that film, who Cillian had brought on because of his relationship on Peaky, that was a real pleasure. Tim is pretty remarkable guy and I think the fact that we’ve asked him to direct Steve probably tells you everything about that.
MURPHY: He’s a real artist, like a real, real artist and an amazing collaborator. I’d work with him forever, I just adore working with him.
DEADLINE: Speaking of Peaky, if there were to be a movie, would Big Things potentially be involved?
MURPHY: If there were to be a Peaky movie, I would definitely be a producer. It’s hard to tell at this stage, given that it isn’t set up yet, whether there would be a role for Big Things.
DEADLINE: OK, moving on, in the notes I received about the company it’s interesting that at one point it says “not all the projects will be tough or challenging.” Small Things has very serious subject matter and really stays with you, and what about Steve?
MURPHY: It’s very funny, Steve, I have to say.
MOLONEY: Yeah, it’s darkly funny. I think what’s important, the qualifier, is good writing. But equally, what we all do is to try and entertain in some form; and so our intention is not to only make dark difficult films or tell dark difficult stories. It will be whatever is the writing that appeals and has something to say.
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