Film and TV producers can take many forms, and as a result their role is often not fully understood — especially by actors. Yet all producers play a pivotal role every step of the way, from pre-production (and even before) to post-production and beyond. They’re frequently the first on set, the last to leave, and the name longest attached to the project itself.
Helen Bowden has produced and worked with actors in the UK, US, her native New Zealand, and especially Australia – where she is now based – on projects including The Secrets She Keeps, Lambs of God, and The Slap. We spoke to the ever-in-demand producer about her journey into the industry and her thoughts on what makes an actor truly stand out.
Do you remember the moment that first sparked your desire to produce?
Helen Bowden: My first job as a producer was my first ever involvement with the film industry. I was living in London and aged about 23 when my flatmate, who was a directing student at the London International Film School, asked me to produce her short film. She had a huge belief in the proficiency of New Zealand women, regardless of the task. It was an absolute trial by fire but I loved it. One moment I was discussing whether an emotional beat in the script landed and the next, I was persuading people to allow us to park our trucks in a city laneway for free.
“I’d had no film education, knew almost no one in the industry, and it was not a career I’d ever contemplated. But I didn’t look back.”
After that, I devoured every chance I got to learn and to work on films. A few years later, I tried my hand at directing but quickly realised that I was temperamentally much better suited to producing, and that’s what I’ve done ever since. Producing television drama, which I began in earnest in 2009, has proved to be my absolute favourite role. It is endlessly demanding, exciting, and fulfilling. I could not be having more fun.
How do you think about your job in relation to actors?
HB: Early in my career, I was a bit terrified of actors. I suppose it was usually the director’s job to interact with them and I thought just talking to them might ruin the alchemy. But as time has gone on I have grown less afraid and more excited. I absolutely love what actors bring to our work. Casting is one of my favourite parts of the filmmaking process. You’ve worked with the writers and have one version of a character in your head and then your casting director sees something else in the text – and then the actor they suggest brings a whole other perspective. The layers of meaning just deepen and deepen.
Can you recall a time you were particularly impressed with an actor?
HB: I can recall so many times I was impressed with an actor. I am almost always impressed! I first worked with Essie Davis on The Slap and then again on Lambs of God. She inhabits her roles so fiercely. She brings an intelligence, a vulnerability, and a humanity to the screen. I love her. Actors who come to Australia to work with us blow me away. They take the risk to come to the other side of the planet to work with people they don’t know, inhabiting characters in a different world. Sophie Okonedo, Laura Carmichael, Ann Dowd, Jessica Barden are all people who have got off the plane and immediately dived into complex, challenging work with an incredible lightness. But I’m endlessly impressed with the warmth and care and fun that so many actors bring to a set. They help each other do great work.
Is there anything you feel actors would benefit from having a greater understanding of?
HB: I think all producers would love actors to know how much devotion goes into making our shows, that we fight hard not to be subject to pressures that don’t serve the work first and foremost, that we are there to help them do the best possible job and protect the integrity of the show.
“My motto is — run towards trouble. I always want to know what is going wrong and what I can do about it.”
What film/TV series has really blown you away recently?
HB: My new favourite is We Are Lady Parts by Nida Mansoor. A British punk band whose members are Muslim women. It’s hilarious and affecting. I can’t wait for Season 2. Mare of Easttown of course — me and the whole world all at once. Kate Winslet, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart — all those performances are so utterly committed — but the writing is also extraordinary. Over and over again, the viewer is left to discover the relationship that is unfolding on screen in such a satisfying way. And the toggling between the whodunnit and the relationships was perfectly balanced. But there is so much to love — Starstruck with Rose Matafeo; Feel Good with Mae Martin; Wakefield, the Australian drama; and Sweet Tooth – which is just kooky – are just a few of them.
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