House Building: Juliette Howell & Tessa Ross Talk New Film & TV Projects, Theater Plans, Bolstering U.S. Relations And Backing Creative Voices

EXCLUSIVE: Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell do not court publicity and when the duo welcome Deadline to their London office in early February, it is the first interview they have given about House Productions since they set up the film and TV outfit nearly seven years ago.

The Zone of Interest and The Iron Claw are in UK movie theaters when we speak, serving as a timely reminder of the company’s film credits, which have been built brick by brick. A second season of James Graham’s drama series Sherwood will drop in coming months on the BBC and the House principals are fresh back from L.A. as they line up U.S. partners for new projects.

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Drama in the works include a series about the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, a TV adaptation of the musical Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder, and an early-stage project with Ncuti Gatwa. In film, there is an adaptation of an Eimear McBride novel, and a starry cast will soon be announced for The Semplica Girl Diaries. Richard Ayoade is starring in and will direct the latter, from a script he wrote with George Saunders, and Cornerstone is handling sales.

The Iron Claw
Zac Efron on the attack in ‘The Iron Claw’

The existing slate is diverse. On the film side, it ranges from genre piece and Matt Smith-starrer Starve Acre to Andrea Arnold’s much anticipated film Bird, about which little is known, but which will be ready later this year. In TV, the slate includes varied fare such as Italian-language mafioso drama The Good Mothers and British political drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

The through line is that each has a discernible voice, and the imprint of the writer or director can be seen and heard. “That’s why we think we can do things differently, it is about the creative, it is about the author and authorship,” says Howell. “That purity and protecting that voice in the right shape and on the right platform is why we set out House the way we did.”

Ross is a former head of Film4 and Howell ran TV at Working Title, so you’d expect them to be well connected. A recurring theme for them is the power of relationships, which is borne out by the fact the company often works with business partners and creatives on a repeat basis. Each film has a patchwork of partners, and the likes of A24, Cornerstone and FilmNation all feature. Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries, which is run by former BBC TV boss Danny Cohen, put up development money in return for a first look at House’s film slate: Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder, Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone Of Interest, Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw and upcoming Edward Berger film Conclave all benefitted from Access Industries’ rolling development fund.

Film and TV are very different businesses, but the approach to finding, backing, and sticking with projects is similar across both for House. “What you learn in the independent film business is that if you develop something in a way that you believe in and you can find some sort of foundation grip to start your project off, you can hold on to that for long enough to bring people with you, says Ross. “And there is a similarity to television, that thing of building something you believe in, finding the core, and then finding those partners that you can bring around it.”

L to R: David Morrissey, Lesley Manville & Robert Glenister in ‘Sherwood’

On paper, Howell looks like the TV chief and Ross the film boss in the House mix, but the reality is that, having worked together in various guises for almost 30 years they inhabit each other’s worlds. That means projects that come through House’s front door can fit the form rather than be shoehorned into a feature or stretched to a series. Stephen Butchard’s The Good Mothers, which House made with Italy’s Wildside for Disney+ and scooped a Berlinale Series Award, was a project that was initially thought of as film, but which ultimately needed the expanse of a series. “Making anything good is hard and making anything great is harder,” says Ross. “So, making it the right way, in the right shape is the most important thing.”

Wildside and House are also partners on Conclave, the adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel about papal succession, directed by Berger. It is the German writer-director’s first film after last year’s multiple Oscar-winning title All Quiet on the Western Front. Speaking to the continuing relationships theme, Butchard, House and Wildside are working together again, this time on a drama-based story of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia that ran aground in 2012, resulting in 34 deaths. Italian journalist Pablo Trincia’s podcast about the disaster was a starting point for the project and Butchard has written a first episode, which House is taking to market.

Taking up Residence

Backing new writers is also a priority. Residence is the name House gives its program for writers, many from a theatre background, who want to break into TV or film. “You’ve got to be surrounded by people who’ve got that appetite to drag you into the future,” says Howell. “Particularly for young writers it can be helpful to sit with other writers, to share ideas among themselves and with mentors… it happens more in theater than television.”

Playwright, poet, and screenwriter Sabrina Mahfouz was part of the program and has gone on to be part of the Beef writers’ room, and House is now developing a project with her. Jon Brittain, whose murder-mystery musical play Kathy and Kim Solve A Murder is about to transfer to London’s West End, was also part of Residence. House has a script commission from a UK broadcaster for a TV adaptation of that play.

The conversation with the House founders often references the stage, perhaps unsurprising given Ross was Chief Executive of the National Theatre between 2014-15. “It is part of my career, and we are developing some plays,” she reveals. “Sometimes the right thing is to find the live version of the story.”

The Good Mothers
The Good Mothers

When the House founders speak to Deadline they are between U.S. trips and a partner there has just come on board a major drama featuring big-name talent. They won’t give up details of this one, but with key U.S. and UK pieces in place, more will be known about this this hush-hush project soon.

They are happy to share that Ncuti Gatwa, currently playing the Doctor in Doctor Who, is attached to an exciting project in development, a thriller inspired by Strangers on a Train and set in Sitges, Spain. House has a script that is taking out now. Other TV projects include The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which was with Netflix but is now with another buyer, with Sarah Quintrell adapting the Stuart Turton novel.

In film, House is working with Irish novelist Eimear McBride on her first feature, based on her second novel The Lesser Bohemians. The House toppers also tease projects with a roster of respected writers and directors, including a film with Yann Demange, the ’71 director who Ross worked with at Film4 and who is currently directing Marvel’s upcoming Blade reimagining starring Mahershala Ali.

The indie heads talk about having “a building full of clever people coming in and out.” The London office on Clerkenwell is, appropriately, a house. It feels more comfy than corporate. Moving outside of the capital, House North was launched last year under the stewardship of Louise Sutton, who will develop a slate from her Manchester base. Howell and Ross want the new division to be “place where her relationships, her tastes can be supported,” and given her comedy chops, that brings a different flavor to the type of shows House will have on its books.

Being creator- and creatively-led is all well and good, but all prodcos are having to adapt to a film and TV market beset by uncertainty. The challenges facing the independent film business aren’t news. The drop-off in TV commissioning is, however, a more recent reality. A streamer-fueled boom is over, and the industry is awash with tales of premium scripted projects that can’t get off the starting blocks.

“It is without question a tougher moment,” Howell concedes. “But you have to stay positive. It’s about belief — and these things very often go in cycles, it won’t stay like that forever. If you are committed to, and love what you do and who you’re working with, then those things will happen. They may not happen in six months’ time, they may happen in a year’s time, but we’re in it for the long term.”

The company has the insurance of being backed by BBC Studios, which upped a 25% stake to full control in 2021. Ross and Howell want to grow the team and go deeper and wider. “As you know the middle gets pushed to either end, you can either make smaller or bigger [projects],” Ross says. “The reason to make smaller is the new talent you can bring through, bigger is to keep sustaining the talent you’re excited by and have worked with before.”

The House builders admit that their ambitions to nurture new talent and continue working with established names require scale. If the family of writers, directors, production partners and talent keep growing in the way they plan, they might just need a bigger House.

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