Brian Ashby - Derbyshire entrepreneur on writing the Interlude in Prague
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 January 2018 | UPDATED: 09:51 09 January 2018
Nigel Powlson meets local businessman Brian Ashby who recently moved into the world of film-making.
NEARLY 20 years after writing his first screenplay, commercial property developer Brian Ashby has finally seen his cherished movie project about Mozart come to the silver screen and he couldn’t be happier with the results. Interlude in Prague has been pleasing film festival audiences at home and abroad and after its glitzy London premiere has been selling well around the world. Then on 1st November, it won a Golden Angel Award for the Best International Film at the Chinese American Film Festival. Brian hopes many more people will now see it on DVD and on the Sky and Amazon movie platforms.
Having provided much of the finance himself and having seen the film through from his original idea to the premiere, it has been a labour of love for the Derbyshire businessman, who already has a second movie in the pipeline.
‘It was very emotional watching the film for the first time and hearing all these words that I had written coming back to me from the actors,’ he says. ‘It was just how I imagined it when I was writing it.’
Brian also makes a brief appearance in the film. ‘I went to Prague during shooting with a group of friends and we all became extras in a masked ball scene, which was great fun.’
It’s all very different from Brian’s successful business life. Born in Birmingham he moved to Derbyshire in 1960 (‘I think I’m nearly accepted now,’ he laughs) and founded the Viking Property Group in 1970. He has made commercial investments in North America and Europe as well as the UK. He’s also well known as an amateur motor racing driver, only retiring very recently, and for his charity work – he founded the Ashby Charitable Trust and is President of Foundation Derbyshire which aids voluntary and community groups in the county.
His entry into the film business was a long and winding road. ‘I knew it would be a steep learning curve but I didn’t know it would be vertical!
‘I had written some books but never a screenplay before so I did a short course and finished the first draft in 1999. I was very naive about the film industry and so got nowhere for a very long time, going down all the wrong channels. I don’t know what the actual percentage is but I would guess only about one in every hundred screenplays ever gets filmed and then only one in ten films actually makes money.
‘It’s quite a challenge but also very exciting because of that – and I like a challenge.
‘Even so, I ended up putting the screenplay away and concentrated on other things until some years later I was reading the Mensa magazine and discovered that a fellow member Helen Clare Cromarty was involved in films.’
After making contact with Helen, Brian was eventually introduced to film director John Stephenson, whose movies include Five Children and It and Animal Farm. John loved the script and helped Helen and Brian polish it to the point it was ready to go before the cameras. Brian provided the bulk of the finance in order to get the project moving and filming took place in the Czech Republic, although not always in the original locations.
Brian says: ‘The Nostitz Theatre Mozart would have conducted in during the 1780s has changed so much over the years – all the seating is very different and a lot of the interior was unsuitable due to health and safety. But we heard about a baroque theatre that was built inside a castle on the southern border of the Czech Republic. It’s a world heritage site as it’s so well preserved but nobody is allowed to use it. Fortunately, we had a Czech producer who was able to persuade them to allow us to film in this wonderful theatre, which had never been done before, and it was just how it would have been in Mozart’s time.’
Writers are often disappointed with film versions of their stories, especially if the director takes it in a different direction, but that’s not the case for Brian: ‘I was absolutely delighted with the finished results. It was a much better production than I had expected from the screenplay I had written and a lot of that is down to the director – he brought out the best in it.’
After production was complete, it was then all about finding takers on the international distribution circuit.
Brian says: ‘We took it to the Cannes Film Festival and it had its world premiere at the Odeon in Leicester Square last May which was a huge success. There are 1,600 seats and it was full. Afterwards we went to the Café de Paris and that got it off to a flying start. We have now been able to sell the film to airlines and hotels, and all around the world – Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and America as well as the UK, and there’s interest in France, Germany, Switzerland and China.’
Brian did a Q&A at the Chichester Film Festival following a screening of Interlude in Prague and was delighted with the audience response.
‘One man told me he had seen Amadeus 20 years previously but this was right up there with it. All the audience voted and they all gave it four or five out of five. It has been sold to Amazon and Sky TV and I’m pleased that it’s getting a wide distribution around the world but I’m disappointed it’s not been seen in more cinemas in Britain. I think it’s seen as a bit of an arty film and that young people prefer action blockbusters but although it’s vaguely about opera and has Mozart’s music in it, it’s also a thriller and is quite a fast-moving film so is very watchable.
‘I don’t know whether or not I will get all the money back I invested in it; I’m hoping our film is the one in ten that makes a profit. If and when Interlude in Prague becomes profitable Foundation Derbyshire and Marie Curie will both become beneficiaries. It would be very nice if it did but I’m very happy with what we have achieved. Many thousands of people have seen it and what I’m pleased about it is that 99 per cent of people who get to see it love it and are thoroughly entertained.’
Brian’s next movie project is advancing much more quickly than his first. He’s written a screenplay based on one of his books and he’s reuniting with John Stephenson on the movie production.
The film – with a working title of Friend or Foe? – isn’t autobiographical but is influenced and inspired by events and interests in Brian’s life.
He says: ‘It’s a thriller set in the world of commercial property development with locations in Britain, Toronto and Switzerland. It features motor racing and skiing and is very fast moving.
‘I have been going to Zermatt since 1970 and part of the film is about skiing there and although it’s not autobiographical you use your own experiences to shape the story and characters.
‘I had a motor racing accident and there’s quite a lot about that in the screenplay. I had very bad concussion after the worst accident I had in 1987. I was winning the pre-60 Championship at the time and it was the penultimate race. It was at Silverstone and my car spun and hit the wall sideways on. The car disintegrated and my head hit the pit wall. My wife and my mechanic thought I was dead. I would love to have won that championship but I was unable to race again until late 1988 and although I still enjoyed it after that, and raced until January last year, I was never really competitive again.’
The plan this time is to sell the film to international distributors prior to its being made in order to put together the budget needed. Brian and John believe that it will be easier to sell the film to audiences than Interlude in Prague and are looking forward to working together again.
Brian says: ‘John and I spark each other off – it’s a very good working relationship. He’s a very considerate director and said he didn’t want to change anything if it made me unhappy but equally I told him that I didn’t want to limit him and that if he thought he could improve the film to use the skills he had as a director. I think that helped us hit the right note from the beginning.’
For Brian it’s a late career change that he’s taken to with a passion, ‘I enjoy doing very different things. I thoroughly enjoyed commercial property development, not only here but in America and Canada, and the motor racing and skiing as well. I wasn’t getting far with the writing at that stage nor with films but here we are now.
‘I seem to have started everything rather late in life – skiing when I was 28, golf in my 40s, motor racing when I was 45 and especially screenwriting. I wasn’t really planning a third film but since the first one came out people have started coming to me with ideas and asking if I can help so even though I’m knocking on a bit, while I’m healthy I wouldn’t rule more out – especially if the second goes more smoothly.’
INTERLUDE IN PRAGUE
Set in 1787, Interlude in Prague is a well-researched story based on true-life events which resulted in the creation of the Mozart opera Don Giovanni. Like the Oscar-winning Amadeus, it mixes fact and faction to create a film about the great composer. It has been likened to Shakespeare in Love and Dangerous Liaisons.
It’s based on Brian Ashby’s screenplay. He says: ‘I absolutely love Mozart’s music and he’s a very intriguing character, so I decided to write a factional story which is a bit of a thriller but also tells you a lot about the time and place.’
Mozart is brought to Prague by Baron Saloka a vain aristocrat and begins work on a new opera for the Nostitz Theatre. However, Mozart’s presence in Prague sparks a series of dramatic events when a young soprano who is betrothed to Saloka falls in love with Mozart. It’s these tangled emotions that inspire one of Mozart’s most famous works.
Interlude in Prague stars Aneurin Barnard, James Purefoy, Samantha Barks, Morfydd Clark and Adrian Edmondson.
It’s out to buy on DVD and available from Amazon. It can also be streamed or downloaded on Amazon Prime or watched on Sky Movies.