One of the most exciting things about the film production world is that, when it works properly, talent rises to the top. Today, Kai-Lu Hsiung is one of the most significant figures in global commercial production, having taken up the mantle of RSA Films’ global managing director this year. But her career began almost three decades ago now when she chanced upon a receptionist role.
She soon went on to work as a production assistant, producer and executive producer and for the past 17 years Kai-Lu has led the UK production company founded by the legendary Ridley and Tony Scott through a period of huge disruption, ensuring that it maintains its place as one of the world’s leading commercial production houses throughout.
With her role broadening to leading RSA across the globe, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Kai-Lu to look back on her career, the direction the company’s travelling in, and the tough year we’ve all had.
LBB> How's your 2020 been? Not an easy one for anyone.
Kai-Lu> I think we will still be trying to assimilate the consequences of 2020 for a few years yet. It’s far from over unfortunately.
LBB> Production has probably been challenged more than most parts of the industry this year. What have been the most important decisions for RSA to get through that?
Kai-Lu> We’re much more of a cohesive global operation now. There’s been a lot of introspection and changes to structure that are going to continue into early next year. We’re finding ways to work collectively on projects that may well not have happened before.
The UK furlough scheme has helped us enormously. Because of the diversity of our production offering, we employ a larger number of staff than most companies and we’ve managed to keep everyone employed. It’s been tough for everyone to get their heads around not working as often. We want to get out there and make things.
LBB> What were you like as a kid? Were you always into films?
Kai-Lu> My dad was a film editor and worked on documentaries in Soho, so he took me to the cinema a lot. Hanging in Soho in the late ‘70s was pretty eye opening. I have early memories of sitting playing with a Steinbeck and getting told off for losing bits of negative.
I loved so many different things and was lucky to be exposed to so much music and art. My parents actually met at [London art school] The Slade and my grandparents were writers and artists, so it’s been a long line of creativity.
LBB> You're one of those great examples of how at its best, the production industry is a meritocracy. How did you first get started in production?
Kai-Lu> I met a brilliant producer called Adrian Hughes who offered me a job as receptionist at Guard Philips Hughes and Lowe. I was working at Time Out at the time and said I’d think about it, but as soon as I went to visit the office I was hooked.
Working on reception is an excellent way to learn about production. Everything came through the switchboard back then (no mobiles!), so you’d know absolutely everything about the company, directors, crew, and agencies. You also had to run the office, be agony aunt and make a good cup of tea. After two years I moved into a PA role at RSA, where I learned an enormous amount from some amazing producers and directors like Ronnie West and Steve Lowe. Finding someone to mentor you makes a huge difference.
I loved producing, but after a while the constant international travel takes its toll. I can remember we booked a massive adidas job in New Zealand shooting the All Blacks, and my heart sank, I couldn’t face another month away from home. I spoke to the RSA MD at the time, Adrian Harrison, and he suggested I became more of an EP. And when Adrian left in 2003, I was suddenly holding the baby.
Production is still one of the few industries where you don’t need to go to college. As long as you have some common sense and passion for what you do, then it can offer up so many opportunities. What we do need to change is the entry system to not only be one of “who you know”.
LBB> What do you think of when you reflect on your 17 years as RSA’s UK MD?
Kai-Lu> I love the huge variety of people you meet and work with in production. It’s been a wonderful privilege to learn from some of the world’s most skilled technicians and creative minds.
No two productions are the same. I’ve had squirrels landing on actresses’ heads, runners with metal detectors looking for lost cans of film on a beach, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.
LBB> And what have been the biggest lessons about production in that time for you?
Kai-Lu> Even if you have the best team for the job, unexpected things will get thrown your way. Part of the excitement of working in commercial production is the speed at which things happen. Young producers take note; thinking on your feet is a good thing to add to your CV.
It’s a tough way to live; not knowing when or where your next job will be. It’s not for the faint hearted, but when it works, and things line up then the rewards are brilliant. From seeing a piece of work up on a big screen at Cannes to seeing the credits on a feature film of a runner who has now become a DOP.
LBB> Historically, what work would you say has come to define the company most and why?
Kai-Lu> RSA is synonymous with big storytelling ideas with Hollywood style. The fact that Ridley and Tony started in commercials and then made the move to Hollywood has defined the perception of the company, and over the years we’ve really led the way in that branded entertainment sphere.
But there’s another side to the company, developing talent like Chris Cunningham and Dawn Shadforth who started out at Black Dog and have gone on to great things. And directors we currently represent like Leonn Ward and Meji Alabi. Ridley has a passion for finding new talent, and we have a very clear idea of how we develop and support directors.
LBB> Can you talk about the significance of your promotion to global MD. What do you hope to prioritise in the role?
Kai-Lu> The importance of having a clear picture of all the companies under the Ridley Scott Creative Group has been intensified by Covid. We’ve brought on a brilliant global FD, Richard Nicholas, who has been instrumental in making sure we can work to find the best ways to do things on a global scale. Martin Roker has been appointed to head up the Black Dog division globally; they’ve been involved in some really exciting projects. And we’re working closely with our Amsterdam office on some branded narrative projects. There are a lot of opportunities, we’re putting the structure in place to take advantage of them.
LBB> And recently, what RSA-made films do you think best represent what the company is about moving forward?
Kai-Lu> There are two feature documentaries that I’m excited about, both still in production. One is directed by Jake Scott on marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge
, and the other is ‘Life in a Day
’ for YouTube, directed by Kevin Macdonald with Ridley as exec producer. These sorts of projects are fascinating to work on, and I think hold the key to the future of our business.
From the Black Dog side, it’s been about collaboration and development. They just produced GQ’s first ever digital Men of the Year
show, announced a content partnership with the Outernet
for 2021, and created the opening animated segment for the John Lewis Christmas campaign