Speaking Hollywood with Shawn Williamson

Head of Brightlight Pictures works north-south to produce film and TV


Shawn Williamson might not be a household name, but many of his projects come close: Wayward Pines, White Noise, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, and a little film that spawned an international incident with a hot-tempered dictator, 2014’s The Interview.

But Williamson has never wanted to be a household name. For decades, he’s been laser-focused on nurturing projects from behind the scenes.

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Before Williamson was one of the most influential producers in the local film industry – he’s the president and co-founder of Brightlight Pictures, a company whose credit list includes dozens of film and TV properties – he was an up-and-coming stage manager working backstage at the Arts Club.

For seven years, the Vancouver native stage-managed theatrical productions – 25 in all. “I’ve always been a support guy, so that’s what I loved about theatre,” says Williamson on the phone from the Wayward Pines production office. “As a stage manager, I was trained to support the script, the writer, the director, and the actors, and to this day, we use the same philosophy.”

His first credit in the realm of screen-based entertainment grew out of his stage work: he worked as a production manager on a Variety telethon. This was quickly followed up by a producing job on Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, a gig he won because the Shari Lewis starrer was a videotaped show, and the telethon had given him experience working in the videotape realm.

“I was intrigued by television, and it was familiar, because it was storytelling,” says Williamson. “The audience is the camera instead of a live audience.”

Williamson co-founded Brightlight Pictures with Stephen Hegyes in 2001. Although Hegyes left the company in 2012, the aim of the company has remained essentially unchanged since its founding: to produce an array of work for and with partners in Canada, the United States, and around the globe.

Highlights to date include White Noise, 50/50, Mistresses, Witches of East End, and the upcoming The 9th Life of Louis Drax, starring Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, and Aaron Paul.

The challenges have also remained pretty much unchanged since those early days. It’s always a challenge to package and finance new projects, and seemingly more so in Vancouver, which is a “hub for shooting, but it’s not a hub for development,” says Williamson. “It’s a great production centre to go and shoot, but it’s not somewhere where most people go to look to package writers, directors, and actors.”

And so Williamson has had to master the art of working north-south, and to learn to “speak ‘Hollywood,’ which is a different language, and if you’re not in that club, it’s very difficult to get into it,” says Williamson, who received a star on BC Entertainment Hall of Fame’s Star Walk in 2014. “You get into it by producing either high-quality product or commercially successful product, or both, ideally.”

Over the last couple of years, Williamson has managed $353 million in total volume over 32 projects: seven feature films, 19 television movies, two pilots, and four series.

One of those films was The Interview. Williamson says he learned plenty of lessons via that particular project (a film which – indirectly or otherwise – led to the Sony hack and not-so-veiled threats from North Korea).

“If it had been a fictitious Asian country that most people could figure out was likely North Korea, it’s one thing,” says Williamson. “But we very directly set it in North Korea and used the existing leader as an element in the film, and that was the biggest lesson to come out of that is that choice comes with its challenges.”

Williamson is currently producing a Netflix series called Haters Back Off, a scripted series written by and starring YouTube sensation Colleen Ballinger-Evans (AKA Miranda Sings).

“This is somebody who most of us walking down the street wouldn’t recognize, but within her world, she is huge, and that sort of entertainment I find fascinating and I’m so happy to be attached,” says Williamson. “It’s something that, five years ago, wouldn’t have existed, for two reasons: nobody fully understood at that time the value of YouTube, and Netflix didn’t exist the way they do now. They were once a place that bought material, and now they’re a place that produces really more than anyone else.”

• For a complete listing of Brightlight Pictures’ projects, visit BrightlightPictures.com.

 

MORE FROM SHAWN WILLIAMSON

On supporting short films like Sarah Deakins’ Greece: “It goes back to my roots in theatre. If the story is interesting, then I want to help tell it. I’ve been a friend and advocate of Sarah’s for years. I think she’s a great talent. When I read the script, I said, 'Okay, there’s a very interesting film here that I haven’t seen.' Ultimately, we helped get it made. We financed it, and put it together from a physical production perspective, which allowed her to make her film. It turned out well. For me, it’s an homage back to my theatre days. You were never working on big budget shows. Everything was small, and even our low-budget division is making movies at three million dollars. That’s still a bucket of money, so no matter how you cut it, that’s more money than I was ever spending in theatre. We consider that our low budget world… Typically short films are being made to help people build a resume, and get experience so that they can move on to bigger pieces. I’m doing it backwards. I’d never really been involved in short films until recently, and now I’m involved in a number of them, and I’m involved because I like the story and I like the people and I want to help support these filmmakers.”

On Vancouver’s status as one of the top production destinations in the world: “It’s very cyclical here. When you’re talking about service work, you’re talking about American work. As new jurisdictions around the world create new incentives to draw the work there, Hollywood will follow the incentives. But the infrastructure in Vancouver has made it one of the top for filming destinations in North America, so it’s really us, LA, New York, and Toronto… There’s infrastructure that is nuts and bolts when it comes to equipment, cranes, cameras, studios, trucks: those things we need, and there’s a great depth of that here, but the ultimate test of a filmmaking centre is the ability to crew it locally, and when I look at Wayward Pines, which I’m shooting now, the entire crew are local. That didn’t exist fifteen years ago, and it certainly didn’t exist 30 years ago when I was first starting."

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