The Den of Geek interview: Michael Radford

Michael Radford talks about trying to cast Sean Connery in 1984, worries over Richard Burton, Il Postino, and why he won't be working with Harvey Weinstein ever again...

Al Pacino and Michael Radford, making The Merchant of Venice

Michael Radford’s career has taken him from the successes of the film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, through to the international phenomenon that was Il Postino. As he prepares to launch his latest movie into the world, he spared some time to talk to us….It seems logical to start at the beginning: you got your start in documentary work?

Yeah, I did. I did documentaries because there wasn’t really a feature film industry in Britain. Well there was, but it wasn’t very fruitful. So when I left film school, that was really all there was.

And there wasn’t a burning passion in you to be a documentary maker then?

Not really, no. When I was at film school we had a very strong documentary ethos then, because it was the time of observational documentary, a very strong documentary movement going in. And it was really interesting, a great way to see the world as well.

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You were mainly doing them for the BBC?

Yeah. I was freelance, but I basically just worked for the BBC.

So how did you end up going from there to Nineteen Eighty-Four?Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t my first film. I made two films before that. One was a feature film for television. I went to BBC Scotland and I was there doing a documentary, when somebody asked me if I’d like to do a documentary about a Scottish writer called Jessie Kesson. To cut a long story short, I read one of her books and thought that this would make a fantastic movie. And I sold the idea to the Arts Features department at the BBC, making a film about how somebody turns their life into fiction. I ended up writing, well it was supposed to be a 70 minute documentary with ten minutes of fiction inserts, but I actually did it the other way round!

And the film was so successful, even though it was financed by the Arts Features department at the BBC, that they asked me to do another one. Then Channel Four, and Channel Four Films, started up, and I sold them an idea to do another film with this writer, Jessie Kesson, who had become a friend, about three Italian prisoners of war on a Scottish island, called Another Town Another Place. And amazingly the film was picked for the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. I got letters from Bertolucci and people like that…

Really?

Yeah! It was kind of amazing. So then I was on my way, instead of making documentaries, I was now making feature films. And it was winter 1983 and I said to my producer at the time, look, nobody’s making Nineteen Eighty-Four as far as I know. Maybe we could try and get the rights? Never thinking that we could.

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And we found that the rights were held by a Chicago lawyer called Marvin Rosenblum. He had been trying to get it made, but he didn’t know anything about putter a film together. He’d been trying to get it together with Coppola, Scorsese and people like that. But had never actually managed it.

I had what I thought was a really good take on it, which was we’re going to do it like a science fiction film made in 1948. And we said, you know, would you go into partnership with us. And he was a bit desperate, had been hoping to make it by Nineteen Eighty-Four, and he said yes. So Simon Perry [producer] went to raise the money from Richard Branson, and I wrote the script in three weeks.

Three weeks?

Yeah. And we were off and running! It took us about two months to get the whole film together! It wouldn’t happen now.

Have you had an experience like that since?

No, because nowadays it takes years to get pictures together. But then we even started the film without having cast Richard Burton.

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Really?

Yeah.

So when did Richard Burton come in?

Well, I was looking for an O’Brien. Richard Burton was always on the list, but he was a sort of famous drunk, so I didn’t really want a drunk around the place. And he lived in Haiti. Anyway, so I went to Sean Connery, and Sean Connery ummed and aahed and ummed and aahed, and he said he didn’t think he could do it. I mean, I spent a lot of time talking to him.

And then we went to Rod Steiger, he’d had a facelift that had gone wrong. We went to Paul Scofield, who’d broken his leg. And, by the time we’d got through all these people, we were six weeks into shooting, and we still didn’t have one of the major stars! And I said look, we’d better just go for Richard Burton and hope for the best.

So we helicoptered the script to Haiti, and he got on board another helicopter and came straight out, and said okay, he wanted to do it.And was his drinking a problem in the end?

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Not at all, no. He became completely teetotal during the making of the film. And in fact he would always have these open Diet Cokes around the place. He’d offer one to me, and I’d say ‘oh, that’s very nice, thanks’. And I’d sip it, to check there was no alcohol, no vodka in it. He was great.

I just couldn’t imagine the film with Sean Connery in it.

I know. But there you go!

You were six weeks into the shoot, but the rest of your cast seemed to fall into place – John Hurt was pivotal.Well actually, I don’t think I’d have done it without him to be honest. Because I just thought he was Winston Smith, and I actually said that to him when I went to him and asked if he’d be in it. I didn’t know whether he would. And I just said to him, look, I don’t think I’ll make the film if you’re not in it. And he was great.

And he’s done the reverse role now in V For Vendetta.

Yeah, he played Big Brother in that.

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Your Big Brother turned up in Holby City, I’m reliably informed.

Really? I always wondered what happened to him. He only turned up for the photographs and that was that. We ran a competition in The Guardian and about 10,000 people sent in their pictures. And this guy, he was like a comic, a cabaret, and he’d just been to the Falklands entertaining the troops. He just had this fantastic face. We picked him.

One thing about the film was that you shot it around the area and at the time that Orwell envisaged. How much work did you have to do on the locations themselves?

There was a huge amount of artwork. A lot of it was done in the studios. The one location where we really had to turn up and shoot was Beckton Gasworks, which was where we’d chosen to shoot the exteriors. It was this old Gasworks where all the steel had been taken out of the buildings and they’d half collapsed.

So that was pretty much as it was, but the rest was shot on all sorts of locations. We had to build the Ministry of Truth, we had to build all sorts of things.

How much of an issue was budget? Did you catch Virgin at just the right time?

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Virgin backed the whole thing. It became an issue, because the film became a lot more expensive that it was supposed to be, and that was where all the problems about the music came from. They wanted a hit record of it, and I couldn’t see how you could make a hit record out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

So we had a few quarrels about that. We did overspend, but we overspent, and it was still incredibly good value, because the film only cost five million dollars. And it didn’t have any special effects in it at all.

So would you say you set out to achieve all you were looking for from it?

I think so, yes. In a sense, when you’re adapting a classic book, it’s very, very difficult. You go about it in a different way because you’ve got to be incredibly respectful of a story that practically everybody knows. When we’d finished, I remember Goldwyns – one of the potential distributors – came to us and asked us if we could change the ending and make it more happy. You’d just lose your audience! [laughs] The funny thing was that the film became amazingly popular with kids.

Yeah, we saw it at school – I’m a big fan of it.

Thanks a lot. And it does have it fans. I think at the time the demographics were completely different from what the distributors were expecting. They were expecting everybody to be 35, 45, adults, who’d read Orwell and wanted to go and see a faithful rendering of it. And actually the demographic was like 16-25. All the kids turned up to see it. It was very nihilistic, something in the air at some time.

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And – I have to say! – the most amazing thing that happened was we invented short hair! We reinvented short hair! Because before that, I promise you, you had to pay extras £100 to get their hair cut, because everybody had long hair! And when it came out, literally within a week, everybody had these kind of weird pudding basic haircuts all over London. That was the best thing that ever happened to me! I though, oh blimey, I’m actually having an effect here, I can see it!

I read that Tim Robbins is trying to raise the money to do another take on Nineteen Eighty-Four?

I read that too, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Do you think the story has been told?

I don’t know. You always like to think you’ve made the definitive version. I hated the original version, the one in 1956, which was financed by the CIA, an anti-Communist diatribe. I always tried to make mine anti-tyranny.

I have to tell you this, though. You can always tell the difference between right wing tyranny and left wing tyranny. Right wing tyranny, all their national anthems are in the major key, and all left wing tyrannies their national anthems are in the minor key. And that holds true absolutely without fail! Ours was in the major key! Right wing tyranny is about flamboyance and brutality, left wing tyranny is all about guilt and self-criticism. Brutality and violence, but it’s a much, much more internal thing.I tried to make a film that was both faithful to the novel, and reflected the time in which it was made. And I think we did that, and, you know, if he wants to do it…. Terry Gilliam made Brazil the same year as us, too, and we shared a number of the locations!You said before that when you adapt a text, there are all sorts of pressures. Was that something that ultimately led you to an improvised project like Dancing At The Blue Iguana?Actually, yes, that was one of the things. What really led me to that was the awful experience I had with Miramax on B Monkey, which I felt ended up in the mill at Miramax. And I just wanted to get away from all that stuff. I just went to a producer in Hollywood and said how much would you give me to make a film that didn’t have any script or ideas, and he said very little. So I said okay, I’ll do it.

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And it was based on the fact that actors have a fantastic amount to give. Although the film is flawed, it was a phenomenal experience. Working with actors to that degree.And was it any coincidence that you were doing theatre directing at the same time?

It came out of it. Because I’d been working with Daryl Hannah. And this guy called me up from London and said could I persuade Daryl to go on the stage. And I said I think she’d be really good, as she’s a great improviser. So that’s what we did. That was the beginning and the end of my theatrical career really, although I directed a play in Santiago, Chile a couple of years later!

How bad did the Miramax experience become? You were drafted in to replace Michael Caton-Jones in the first place is my understanding?Well what happened was, funnily enough, Il Postino was bought by Miramax, and they distributed it a year after I’d made it. And I was broke. I was waiting for this film to hit big if it was going to, to get another job. So they offered me a three picture deal for absolute peanuts, which I signed, because I thought that’s the only way I’m going to get some money up front. When it hit the big time, they had me.

They asked me to make this picture because Michael Caton-Jones had dropped out, and I thought I’d better do something. So I was very worried about the script, but thought no, I’ll do this. And I was getting divorced at the time, so needed the cash. Not very good reasons to make a picture to be honest.

And I ended up making this picture I didn’t really want to make. I started off making it as a European art movie, very decadent, very subtle, with a lot of stuff with homosexuality, bi-sexuality, all that kind of stuff in it. And Miramax absolutely hated all that. Harvey [Weinstein] hates all that stuff. They took all that kind of danger out of it, and smeared a rock and roll track all over it. I just wanted to walk away, but got trapped in it, and they kept asking me to recut it. It lasted about two years, and by the end of it, I never wanted to make another film. It was just horrible.

But I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to get into that with Miramax. In fact, I’ll never work with them again, and you can quote me on that. Not Miramax, but Harvey Weinstein.

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Which in a way leads us on to Il Postino then? I think it’s fair to say that many were surprised that this huge, lovely film from Italy came from a very British director.

Well, not if they’d seen my first movie, which was half in Italian! What happened was that after I’d made White Mischief, which had been a financial disaster, half the team left for the United States – Roger Deakins and people like that, and half didn’t. And I didn’t. I don’t know why, but I didn’t. I felt I was more European and all the rest of it.

White Mischief picked up an award or two though?

Yeah, it did, and people liked it. It got caught up in the politics of Hollywood and ended up not being properly distributed and making any money. And it lost a lot of money for the backers, so I became persona non grata for a bit as a director does when a film loses money. And I found it very difficult. So I just went off, and I went to live in France for a bit, and I went to live in Italy, and I realised six years had past and I hadn’t done anything! I’d made some money, so was okay financially, but I hadn’t done anything and nobody was asking me to.

Expect this Italian actor who would ring me up every three or four months and say come and make a film in Italy, we’ve got money and everything! And I thought I can’t make a film in Italy.

And then I suddenly started listening to what he was saying! We’ve got money! We can do this. We can actually make the picture. So I thought well, he’s the only person who was asking me, so why not?

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And that was the late Massimo Troisi, presumably?

Yeah. He was a huge star in Italy, big comic. He was like the Steve Martin of Italy, really big, really beloved.

What had drawn him to you?

Another Time Another Place was his favourite movie, and he really, really loved it. And so he said I’ve bought the rights to this Chilean novel, do you want to do it? We can do it in English, in Spanish? And I said look, you don’t speak a word of either of those languages – you hardly speak Italian! Let’s try and make an Italian picture at least. It’s what you know, and it’s where you’re going to get the money from.

So we actually went to Hollywood, and wrote the screenplay in Santa Monica.

And how long did that one take?

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Three weeks! It always seems that’s the way! When it seems to come together, it comes together really quickly.

And then he got very ill, so I ended up sticking around in Rome for six to eight months, waiting for him to get better. And he didn’t really, so we decided to make the movie anyway, and then he died. It was tragic.

I understand you could only work with him for a few hours every day?

He had a heart defect. He’d had a dramatic fever when he was a child, and he knew it was going to hit one day that he was going to have to have a heart transplant. And it hit him almost immediately after we finished the script.

But he was determined to do this film, because he really didn’t think that he was going to last, which he was right about. But it meant that he could only work about an hour a day. So I learned a lot about using doubles, absolutely for everything really, apart from the close-ups of him. And it taught me a lot about film making, I could only do one take, he had to be sitting down, all that kind of stuff. He was so weak. And he would come in at the end of the day. I’d shoot everything with Philippe Noiret and all the other actors before, and he’d come in at the end of the day and do an hours’ work, and go away again.

Presumably all that makes the success the film enjoyed all the more poignant?

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Certainly for me, yeah. He was such a great guy, a real special guy. Very brave. Don’t let anybody tell you that Italians are not brave. Bravest man I knew, he really was incredibly courageous, incredibly witty. I liked his sense of humour. Italians don’t often have this, but he had a real English sense of humour.

He once said something to me. He said that they used to tell him, whenever he used to feel sorry for himself, they said to just look behind yourself, there’s always somebody worse off than you are. And one day he said ‘I snuck a peak, and there was no-one there’. That’s a very English, understated sense of humour. He was amazing like that. That’s why I liked him, and found him very easy to work with. Because he was basically a comic.

And did it affect how you reacted to the success of the film?

I had no idea, these things come out of the blue. Some of that’s to do with Harvey Weinstein, I have to say, who just decided that he was going to put everything behind it, which is what you need for an Oscar campaign, and what it got.

But the public went to see it in droves before the Oscar campaign, he really put his muscle behind it. And then when it got five nominations, that was phenomenal. Except that the only nomination it didn’t get was for Best Foreign Picture, because the Italians wouldn’t put it up! It happens to Julian Schnabel this time with his French film [The Diving Bell And The Butterfly]. The one prize it should have won was Best Foreign Picture, but it didn’t get nominated.

Was it always inevitable that you’d look to bring Shakespeare to film, as you did with Al Pacino in The Merchant Of Venice?

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Not at all. I’d never done any Shakespeare before, I’d never thought about it. But somebody said to me would I be interested, and I would if some big actor I respected wanted to do it. And one of the producers had worked with Al Pacino, and gave him the script that I’d written. Al called me up and said do you want to come to New York and meet, and that was the clincher. I thought this is too good an opportunity to pass up.

But also, while doing The Merchant Of Venice, I had a very good take on it. I had a take that was clear: it’s a very, very modern story, just set in the past. You can take people to that decadent place that was Venice in the 16th century, but at the same time there are those recognisable characters, the first generation immigrants. Basically the dad in Bend It Like Beckham. The girl in that film just wants to play football, wants to get away. And all that kind of stuff, the homosexuality, I just thought this is a story that if I clean it up a bit and make it in an intelligent way, we can get people to hook onto it.

It was a huge hit in Italy, it made seven million dollars in the first week. Unfortunately here they distributed it like just another Shakespeare movie, so only people who like Shakespeare went to see it. But actually I’m very proud of it.

Al wants me to do another one. He wants me to do King Lear, obviously, and I’d like to do it. But King Lear is very theatre-bound, I’m struggling to find a cinematic angle on it.More recently, you’ve done Flawless, with Michael Caine and Demi Moore, as well. It seems to be one of the few projects where you didn’t write the script yourself?

That’s right, yeah. I had a hand in criticising, and I got a great writer friend of mine to rewrite it, although he’s not credited. But nevertheless the basic idea was written by this guy in Denver, Colorado, who had never been to England in his life.

But actually it had a really good idea in it, and I just thought I wonder what it would be like to make a film that I hadn’t had a hand in writing, and that I don’t actually rewrite myself. And it was really interesting, because it was what do I bring as a director to this film? It was very liberating.

The film’s good, I don’t think it’s the most profound film that’s ever made, but those who see it really like it. It works, the film works. If at the end you think it’s a great film, I don’t know. But it really works.

And you’re heading to the US to promote it?

Yeah, it’s about to come out.

I want to ask you about the oracle that is the Internet Movie Database. I was interested to see that at the bottom of every person’s page, they summarise the four most popular plotlines that are associated with someone’s work. I wonder if I can read you yours and see if you think this sums up your career in any sense?

Yeah! [laughing]

Michael Radford’s work is: films based on novels, female nudity, independent film and a number in the title.

[Laughs] That pretty well sums it up! That’s great! There’s no female nudity in Flawless I have to say! It’s really interesting because Flawless goes against all of those. It’s an original screenplay.

The interesting thing is that I don’t know why people accuse me of always adapting novels and things. 90% of movies are adaptations! It’s really hard to find one that isn’t. That’s really funny!

You’re moving onto a Spanish language film next?

Yeah. I like to think of Another Time Another Place, Il Postino and this third film as a trilogy. Because they’re modest poetic films, tragic-comedies, about ordinary people trying to struggle their way through life, set in a European context. The Spanish idea came my way, and although set in the Spanish war, it’s a very, very different take. It’s about a muleteer, who is just trying to hold onto his mule during the way. It’s a lovely story, I have to say. I’m really passionate about it, really, really passionate.

Michael Radford, thank you very much.

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