Chef (2014) Open Road Films, Fairview Entertainment & Aldamisa Entertainment

Christmas is fast approaching and as my mind turns to where I will be spending it, inevitably I start eyeing up various pieces of tech, clothing, accessories and homewares that I have my eye on both to give and receive. As I move around the stores (party food, yay!) mindful not to send the delicate glass Frida Kahlo baubles crashing to the shop floor, I also start to think about the Christmas menu from breakfast to supper.

I started this list over the weekend to take my mind off a couple of book to film negotiations playing on my mind.  In fact, it had the opposite effect as it occurred to me that the art of negotiation is not unlike food shopping.

Bear with me.

If you think about it, as you pour over the latest juicy recipe by Nigella, Nigel or your favourite go-to chef, you make a note of the ingredients, seasoning and garnish.

In negotiation terms I would describe these respectively as “essential”, “preferential, depending on your palate” and “frou frou flourish”.

Everyone has a negotiation style and I like to think on a good day mine is straight talking and firm but also friendly, justifiable and solution-based. If I can’t justify something, I won’t push it which means breaking the news to your clients and taking the time to explain to them why in the context of the overall deal, this point sits somewhere between seasoning and garnish (as ingredients ought always be identified and communicated when the dish was first contemplated).

The best negotiations I find, are when your opposite number shops in the same food store as you and you occasionally bump trolleys as you trade up and down the aisles. Things become tricky when you encounter someone on the other side of the table who plays a game of chicken at the other end of the aisle and you both spy that last remaining bottle of truffle olive oil (a current obsession with everything and remarkably few outlets offering it).

Dealing with someone that views every item on their shopping list as an ingredient from the outset or swaps seasoning and garnish to an ingredient mid-way through a negotiation, is tricky, unless you think you can achieve the same dish with alternatives.

“But, why should I?” you wail, with the faint thud of a foot stamp.

This is a good question to ask and to answer it fully is a two-step process. First, you have to look at the intention behind your opposite number’s assertion: is this truly a fundamental item to the dish or is it simply the way that they have always made it? Just because their previous guests loved the meal prepared a certain way, does the seasoning suit your taste and isn’t that garnish a little de trop?

You also have to ask and answer that question yourself. Particularly if you’ve not communicated your ingredient in advance to the other side.

When you reach an impasse, especially where a demand is driven by stubbornness or familiarity, I find it helpful to remind myself (as demandor and demandee) why the dialogue started in the first place. Genuine collaboration emerges from a common aim to bring two or more parties’ expertise together to create a new opportunity. Ideally, that opportunity is not like any other offering out there, or if it is, the parties desire to either improve it or take it to a fresh and exciting place together.

Negotiation sets the tone of parties’ relationship to each other: the chef de partie to the main event. It identifies the skills and plays a role in delivering the dish to the pass, but it is not the main event nor should it overpower it.

Image: Debark’s Doggy Etiquette by (c) Emma Topping.  All rights reserved.

Maya Angelo once said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”

That first call with a filmmaker, producer or studio interested in adapting an author’s work tends to play out in one of two ways: the “first date” approach where we cautiously, but politely, circle each other and take a sniff, leaving the bottom lines to the next call (or the lawyers); or the no-nonsense “straight-shoot” when I receive an impassioned pitch for the call’s duration that leaves me in no doubt of the speaker’s vision for the project – and his or her commercial terms.

Which works? Of course it depends on the work and the project, but really: it’s all about the delivery.

Dog lovers will tell you numerously (because it’s true), that you can learn a lot from our furry friends – and watching Koni interact with other dogs is indeed an education.  Being an all white Japanese Akita with alert ears and a curled tail, although kind and loyal if approached correctly, Koni simultaneously exudes authority and a touch of haughtiness. Those that courteously greet her adhering to the rules of “Debark’s Doggy Etiquette” (© Emma Topping) are received well. Those that charge Koni at full pelt barking excitedly regardless of intent without giving her an opportunity to assess or engage, tend to be less successful.

So back to that initial call: whether it’s a first date, a straight-shoot or a first date straight-shoot (when you better have a few night hours dedicated to working on LA time): whilst attention should be paid to what is being said, it is the way that those words are delivered and the openness to receiving and hearing a counter point of view, that really reveals whether a successful collaboration is possible.

In a recent IndieWire article, Ben Travers recounts the following statement by Jack Bender, director of the critically acclaimed television adaptation of Stephen King’s “Mr Mercedes”: “Stephen’s very unobtrusive…When he trusts somebody, [he] lets them take his project.”

And it is genuine and mutually respectful collaboration between author, filmmaker, producer and studio that creates that trust.

Image © Emma Topping.  All rights reserved.

It’s usually at this time of year as I pack away my summer wardrobe: cool sport-luxe as I like to call it, or rather “trainers with everything” and dust off and shake out my winter version (with jumper), that I start to think about how the year has been going and what I can start doing now to set the tone for next year.

Typically, I’ll have just returned from a glorious round trip adventure: Brighton – Lakes – Belfast and this year was no exception.   The image above was captured at the tip of Lake Windermere just as the sun was setting, bathing Koni (aka Bear) and I in a surreal glow that felt more like an studio set than Beatrix Potter’s rugged land.

Safely ensconced in my childhood Belfast bedroom with dear family, friends and Bear by my side and without the relentless familiarity of the noise and bustle of my commuting week to London, a plan took hold:  simplify, de-clutter, shut out the noise.  Reset.

I heard someone shout “Reset!” for the first time earlier this year when I was lucky enough to attend a night shoot on a feature currently in production.  Nodding knowingly (but knowing nothing), I looked about and shuffled a little in line with what those around me were doing in response.  Ridiculously, really, since as it turns out this is a term that the 1st AD (Assistant Director, don’t you know) calls out to actors and actresses, telling them to go back to where they were at the start of the scene to do it again.

I may have returned to Brighton and the weekly commute to London, but this year my annual pilgrimage to Belfast via the Lakes and that inspiring night shoot have galvanised me towards a reset.

And so, with my first monthly blog I launch (rather grandly) my new logo and website, blending business and creative, reflecting my commitment and enjoyment to the business of making films, television shows and stage shows, almost as much as watching them and showcasing two authors that I am excited to represent in respect of book to film, television and stage adaptations.

In the words of Beatrix Potter:  “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.”

Quite.