Mike Newell interview: Great Expectations, Voldemort, budgets, reviewers & more

In the run-up to the release of Great Expectations, we chatted to director Mike Newell about his cast, his regrets, and future projects…

This interview contains discussion of Great Expectations’ plot and ending (Can a one-hundred-and-fifty year old story be spoiled? We’ll leave that up to you).

Director Mike Newell certainly can’t be accused of retreading the same old ground. After winning the 1995 BAFTA for Four Weddings and a Funeral, he went on to make an eclectic choice of pictures, including Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Jerry Bruckheimer’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Newell’s most recent film is a version of Dickens’ Great Expectations, adapted by novelist David Nicholls and starring Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger. It’s a faithful adaptation – as far as is possible for a two-hour film to keep fidelity with a five-hundred page novel – and one that, in Newell’s words, doesn’t ‘dick about’ with the story or the way it’s told.

All-too-briefly, we chatted to him about its cast, lack of dosh, the trap of novelty, and why he didn’t make Great Expectations to please jaded reviewers…

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You and Susie Figgis put together quite an extraordinary cast for this adaptation. Everyone seems to be saying that Miss Havisham is the role Helena Bonham Carter was born to play…

They didn’t at the time.

What was the initial reaction to her being cast?

Too young. Even if people haven’t seen the [1946 adaptation] David Lean movie, the Lean is a very influential thing, it’s like a kind of sacred text, it’s the text, and so in some ways or another, they’ve all got this notion of Martita Hunt In their heads, just in the way they’ve got Sullivan – the guy who plays Jaggers – he’s also in people’s heads, and it’s very difficult to get it out.

It’s only when they see Helena and they see that there’s a kind of rationale for it to be Helena, because Helena is… her character is an hysteric, and Helena has an hysterical side to her nature – that’s why she stops the clocks – it’s this hysterical reaction to being jilted. Hysteria in the Freudian definition of hysteria, a kind of “Ugggh” revulsion, of not being able to even look at something. And Helena’s perfect for it. 

Ralph Fiennes isn’t an actor most people would immediately pair with Magwitch, he’s not the stocky, brutish Finlay Currie type. Did he take any convincing to agree to the role?

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I cast Ralph as Voldemort, I started him as Voldemort, and I’d known him sort of socially before that a bit and when I asked him to do Voldemort he said ‘I don’t know, let me come out and watch some rushes with you’. And so solemnly he came out to where we were shooting Harry Potter [and the Goblet of Fire] one lunchtime, which is when we always saw rushes, and he sat in the back of the theatre and at the end of that he said, ‘Okay I’ll do it’. What I think he was watching was whether we were taking it seriously or not, you know, was it some kind of camp flip around a Harry Potter novel, and it wasn’t, we were doing a drama, we were doing a proper drama. And so he felt okay about that, and having been through that with him, I think he was much more apt to trust my instinct. Of course, when he looked at the part, he became really interested in the difference between him and the character.

Now, some people say he’s not Magwitch, some people say it’s a disappointment to them to see Ralph playing Magwitch, I suppose because he isn’t Finlay Currie, he’s not that huge sort of lumbering monster you know, the one with a bolt through the neck… But other people are converted, and I like him. I like him because he’s thought it through. What’s great about what Ralph does is that Magwitch says that he was caught, he’s trapped, he’s trapped by his criminality. He’s done everything, he’s poached and he’s thieved and he’s counterfeited and spent most of his time in jail and he can’t get out and he can’t stop being like that, and that was something in the performance that I really loved, the way he did that.

As the director, how did you ensure the performances didn’t lose their humanity by falling into caricature and grotesque, although though Dickens is known for his grotesques I suppose…

I don’t know. Again, some people say that this adaptation isn’t Dickensian enough.

In what sense?

I think that they don’t feel that there is enough of the kind of boisterous [sings and energetically pumps his arms] “Consider yourself, at home!” or “Food Glorious Food!”. They want it to be merrier and more Pickwickian, and it didn’t seem to me to be a Pickwickian story at all. I would love to have got a couple of characters in, I would love to have got Mr Wopsle in who is a guy who… do you know the book?

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Yes. The hammy am-dram stuff, that would have been lovely.

Right, I would love to have got that whole disastrous Hamlet in. I would have loved that. I would love to have got Trabb’s boy in, you know the kid who takes the piss out of Pip in his new clothes, that just made me really laugh. 

And Orlick of course.

Traditionally, Orlick always goes. He’s not in the Lean. He is in this latest BBC television one. I really regretted not being able to do Orlick, though I thought David [Nicholls] gave a very clever account of how Mrs Joe dies because you see what she is…


Yes, absolutely, rampaging. You can see the high blood pressure there, but I had loved it being Orlick who beats her and robs her of the power of speech and I also loved Orlick inveigling Pip out to the marshes and planning to kill him and burn his body in a lime kiln, but I have two hours, television had three hours and I’ve got two hours.

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When this came along, I was doing an adaptation by a very, very good writer of Dombey and Son, which is a great story and has wonderful comedy in it, marvellous comic characters, and it’s all about Victorian money and how money perverts and bullies and so forth, but it’s a thousand pages long, so you can only do it on television. I thought maybe there was just a chance that we could do it as a movie, but we failed, whereas Great Expectations is half that, it’s five hundred pages long, and David had this very elegant, crisp adaptation of it which every time you tried to change it or put something else in, defeated you because he had a kind of logic going. The logic was that he built it all around these three points of view on the story. He had Magwitch’s point of view, he had Miss Havisham’s point of view – told in flashbacks – and another one, and it’s wonderful to see these kind of three parts of the story click together.

On a personal note, can I thank you for including Walworth and the Aged P in the film…

Why, is it one of your favourite bits of the book?

It is, and it’s hardly ever done on screen.

Oh the Aged P’s wonderful. He wasn’t in the script originally and he was there at my pleading and insistence or however you want to think about it. I wanted to get that schematic thing that Wemmick is one kind of a person when he’s in the office and a completely other kind of person when he’s at home and he will not let the two cross over. You know, he swears Pip to secrecy. I loved that because it was a way of… Dickens is very sentimental, always, he’s a Victorian. But there’s always a point to it and I felt that we were under-sentimentalised, that we didn’t have enough of the kind of gush of human good feeling in the story. So we included Wemmick’s Aged P because he’s so marvellous, and I adore the craziness of when he lets that cannon off, because once a day, the old man hears something! And it’s mad; it’s mad in the way that Dickens can be.

There were budget problems weren’t there?

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All the time. 

In a recent interview, Robbie Coltrane [who plays solicitor Jaggers] said you’d gathered everyone together at one point and said “The budget’s gone shit-shaped”…

I don’t actually remember saying that. Robbie has a highly developed sense of the dramatic and it may be that he’s adding to events… Well, it’s true though. I could tell where we stood with the budget every morning by looking at the producer’s face when she came in, I knew whether it was a good day or a bad day.

They would never tell me what the budget was because they didn’t know. I only found out about four weeks ago, and we were constantly, desperately treading water. I don’t remember it as a single great crisis, though there may have been one, but what I remember is a series of certainly twice weekly – although it may have been more than that – crises when suddenly, you couldn’t do something.

We were going to shoot the final scene, which we wanted to do because the book suggests that this is what happens: Pip and Herbert  go to Cairo. Herbert’s business is in Cairo because he’s trading in silks and all that stuff, and Pip was going to meet Estella, who – as a rich widow was travelling like Victorian ladies did – and they were going to begin to relate, as they do. So we couldn’t afford Cairo, and actually Cairo was then rather dangerous. We tried for Malta but then we couldn’t afford Malta – too many airfares. We tried for Morocco, but Morocco still wasn’t close enough to home, so we wound up in a field in Berkshire, or a muddy garden in Berkshire. I suppose I felt that there were areas which were weakened by the money and the end was one of them.

When I watch the movie now I say to myself, oh dear God, not another set of closed dialogue shots, wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have the great semi-tropical sunset somewhere romantic for them to have the start of the rest of their lives, but we didn’t have the dosh, so it is as it is.

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Returning to the David Lean film, your opening is very similar to his.

Oh yes.

Did you ever have the idea to start with something other than that now-iconic sequence of the fog, the marshes, Pip running, the graveyard etc.?

Yes. Yes, we did. We started originally with Miss Havisham’s wedding day, but I finally got nervous of that. I didn’t like that because I felt that one of the real strengths of it was that this is a great big piece of Victorian storytelling which began at the beginning and ended at the end, and I knew that there was going to be that chunk in the centre when you were dancing around the various points of view on the story, and I thought that was something that I always enjoyed reading and I thought that I would probably enjoy making it.

If I had started out as it were, in flashback, I felt that the power of that would have been weakened, so there were two strikes against it; one was that it wasn’t as sort of simple and monumental as Dickens had written it, and the other was that it was going to spoil something that David had done beautifully well later on. 

We hear much these days about ‘bold reimaginings’ and ‘audacious retellings’ of classic stories. How then, would you respond to claims that your Great Expectations is overly conventional, cautious even?

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That must be a perfectly reasonable thing to say. I won’t defend it. If that’s what it is, then that’s what it is. What I felt was… I felt that there’s a trap in novelty, and if you find that novelty will weaken the power of the machine then I don’t think you should do it. Of course I knew that that would be an accusation, and it has been, you’re by no means the first to say it.

What I really felt was that in some ways it’s a story that has to do with destiny. The novel is all told in the first person, what is happening to Pip is happening to him now, it’s uncontrollable and frightening, and that if we were to take away that very simple narrative point of view that says ‘and then, and then, and then’ and it gets worse and worse and worse, we would be simply playing to jaded reviewers. And if jaded reviewers are jaded, and if they find that it’s too simple and that we haven’t tried hard enough, and that ‘Oh God, it’s another one’, they have to think that, I can’t help that. But I think that the novel is great, really great and has something to say about today as well as about the nineteenth century, but I don’t think that those things are well served by dicking with the ways of telling the story. I haven’t seen Madame Bovary, not Madame Bovary, the recent one…

Anna Karenina?

Anna Karenina yes, and I don’t know, that’s obviously a case in point.

As we’re near the end of our time, can I ask about a couple of your future projects? What about the adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach you inherited from Sam Mendes?

That’s still alive and my God I would love to do Chesil Beach. Love to. But again the problem with Chesil Beach is money. You simply can’t make a decent film for two or three million dollars. It takes eight or nine million dollars to get it there. Chesil Beach is a period story, it’s not a big period story, it should be fine, but you then go out and you look for actors and… if you were to say that you take those two fine actors Robert Pattinson and Emma Watson and make them the two characters in that film then you can make it with as fat a budget as you want. But if actually say, they’re not quite right for it, the audience’s expectation of them will be damaging, as I think probably the audience expectation of, for instance Rob Pattinson in… what’s the thing he’s just done?

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The French period film?

Yes, Bel Ami. Or Keira Knightley or whatever, if the audience is expecting something it doesn’t get then that’s trouble, so why not cast somebody who is wonderful and absolutely right? Well the reason is that they don’t bring in the bucks and so again it’s a budget problem, it’s the difficulty of making independent movies in Europe. It’s very difficult to achieve that balance of what it takes to make a decent film with what the people who then distribute and sell the film regard as profitability. 

Something close to our hearts is your planned adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights. What’s the status of that at the moment?

The script is there, I would love to make it but I think there is a problem with The Box Of Delights and the problem is that… I don’t know what children expect. I know what adult Hollywood producers think they expect and it is that the story should be much more intricate and much more special effect-y and have comedy and [waves hands around] terrible surprises, and to look overegged in general. The Box Of Delights is a story from the 1930s about a boy who has wished on him something that is almost a curse, which is a box that can allow him to do certain things, and is being struggled over by two powerful figures from the past.

And you know, I’m from a certain generation, and I am the age I am and for me, it’s partly an answer to your thing about why didn’t you juice up Great Expectations. For me, the story of that book, just the way it is with the story of Great Expectations, is sufficient. It’s a really good story, it has a really strong human sense of good and evil and exploration and peril and all sorts of wonderful things but I think it’s in trouble because it isn’t Transformers.

It’s not a Jerry Bruckheimer film.

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If he wanted to make it though, would you go for it?

I should be so lucky. He’s one of the great producers of his time, of course I would, but that’s not going to happen.

Mike Newell, thank you very much!

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