The Unexpurgated interview with Lord David Puttnam
Lord David Puttnam, better known as the producer of a host of movies such as Oscar winner Chariots Of Fire, The Mission (which won the Palme D’Or), Memphis Belle, War Of The Buttons, Local Hero, Midnight Express, Stardust, Bugsy Malone and more, was in town recently to give a seminar to the students at Lasalle College Of The Arts as part of Lasalle’s Public Lectures series.
Puttnam’s career started in advertising before he moved on to movies, mainly as a producer, although he took the post as CEO of Columbia Pictures in 1986 to 1988. In 1998 he quit making movies and started a new career in politics, working in the Education ministry. He has since become a patron to several institutions, and also held posts as the head of Channel 4 television, and the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
GOOD MORNING, LORD PUTTNAM.
LET’S TALK ABOUT WHY YOU’RE HERE IN SINGAPORE.
Well, I’m doing a seminar at LaSalle, which I’ve been involved in since the opening of the Puttnam School Of Film and I’m also doing a public lecture, where I’ll be talking about the general influence of cinema. But the seminar is part of a continuing series of seminar that I’ve been doing from home as part of a video conferencing seminar. This is a live version of something that I’m doing with LaSalle. It’s working very well, I’m delighted with it.
FILM DOES PLAY A BIG PART IN YOUR PAST, WITH YOUR BIGGEST FILM PROBABLY BEING CHARIOTS OF FIRE. IT WAS SHOWN IN THEATRES IN BRITAIN AGAIN LAST YEAR, FOR THE OLYMPICS, AND MADE INTO A STAGE PLAY. WHAT DID YOU THINK OF ALL THAT FANFARE?
I thought it was very flattering. The film is very iconic – at least in Britain – and the music was going to be used throughout the Olympics campaign, almost to the point of distraction. And we used a section of it, the Mr Bean section as part of the opening ceremony. So it received a lot of attention. It’s one of those films that transcended just being a movie. I wouldn’t say it’s up there with Gone With The Wind, but I think it’s of that ilk. Most British people my age or younger would put it in their Top 10.
WERE YOU SURPRISED BY ITS SUCCESS?
I was taken a little bit – well, maybe more than a little bit – by surprise. I’d just come off the success of Midnight Express, which was a totally different movie to Chariots Of Fire, and I wanted to make a movie that meant a lot to me. And what the film offered was the opportunity to look at two sides of the human character. Both involved winning but winning for different reasons and through different means. And so in Eric Liddell and Howard Abrams we were able to capture quite a wide spectrum of people’s ambitions and people identified quite closely with one or the other. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Oh I really loved that film about the Jewish runner” and they wouldn’t mention Liddell at all. And others would talk about Liddell and his principles and everything else. So people carved out the movie for themselves. They had their own version of Chariots Of Fire – what spoke to them, whether it was the moment they punched the air in triumph or felt good about themselves inside. And in a world where professional sport is under such suspicion, the idea of sport being very clean and compeititve the way that it was back in the 1920s is very attractive. It’s the way people want to feel sport is. They’re quite disturbed when they read about Lance Armstrong because it makes it nonsense becoming involved and very excited about sport. There’s no point being excited about the guys who’s winning if he’s drugged up to the eyebrows. And I think there is a kind of yearning for the idea that sport should be just about excellence.
PERSONALLY, MY FAVOURITE MOVIE YOU PRODUCED WAS LOCAL HERO.
That’s my favourite movie too!
REALLY? I’D HAVE THOUGHT YOU’D PICK ONE OF THE BIGGER ONES.
Maybe in the sense that it’s the most personal. I lived in Ireland in exactly that kind of environment – small village, small community. That kind of environment is an everyday occurrence for me. And in a way, that film affected most of my life. What I like about it is that it’s very human and it doesn’t pretend that people are bigger than who they are. Prior to that, the classic movie would be big American company comes into town and the town would be up in arms – no, no, it’s our town and all that – and Local Hero reverses that. Once the company talks big numbers, the townspeople go, “Oh yeah, I can’t wait for this place to be sold, I won’t spend the rest of my life trying to scratch a living”. And the audience, in a funny way, are dragged into it and saying, “Don’t do this, you’re making a mistake”.
There was a film that came out this year (Promised Land) that was very similar, about a town that was selling its rights for fracking. And that also tried to do the same thing.
ANOTHER THING ABOUT LOCAL HERO IS THAT IT TACKLES THE ISSUE OF THE ENVIRONMENT, DECADES BEFORE ECO-FRIENDLY BECAME A BUZZWORD. BUT HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN SUCH AN ECO ADVOCATE?
It always has been that way for me. When I was making that film, I was also president of an organisation called – it’s a terrible title – the Council for the Protection of Rural England, and I was also chairman of the first committee that got the bill for climate change legislation in the world. We had the world’s first climate change act.
I MUST CONFESS THAT WHAT I LIKED ABOUT LOCAL HERO TOO, WAS THAT MARK KNOPFLER – WHO’S ONE OF MY GUITAR HEROES - DID THE MUSIC FOR IT.
And for Cal, too. I loved the music he did. But I think I prefer what he did on Cal than on Local Hero. It seemed to thread itself better with that movie. And I know this will sound weird too, but one of the things was I used to be able to hear my movies. I could sort of hear what it would be like. But when I was working on My Life So Far, I was struggling to do that. And I think that’s when I knew that I might have to stop.
DESPITE THE LARGESSE OF SOME OF THE MOVIES YOU’VE HELP MAKE, IT SEEMS THAT ALL OF THEM ARE MOSTLY ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION. LIKE THE MISSION, OR WAR OF THE BUTTONS OR EVEN MEMPHIS BELLE.
Well, for Memphis Belle, what I was aware of was a generation of people – called the Great Generation in America – who fought in World War Two, but they were dying (off, by the Eighties). And they were very remarkable men, most of them, and it was a film that attempted to illustrate what they’d been through. I wanted to make several points: How young they were; and the odds against them surviving, which was very, very high - the losses among bomber crews was vast.
And it started because someone said to me that the idea that horrified him the most was for rest of his crew to be dying and him, not. Because there was one guy who had the flu and sat out on a mission, and that was the most frightening thought to him – that they should go down and he wouldn’t. We don’t live in that world any more.
And I wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate that form of camaraderie. We’ve lost that. Whether we can get it back again under different circumstances, I don’t know. But we are a new generation, and that was a generation that had the opportunity to see a bigger picture. The “service before self” mentality. So that was the reason for doing that film.
Interestingly, nine of the 10 crew members were alive at the time and came to spend some days with us. Within five years, they’d were dead. And also, it’s the only film I did about my dad’s generation. At the end of the film you see the dedication to William Wyler and my father, who were of that generation.
HOW MUCH DID OUR FATHER INFLUENCE YOU?
He was a massive influence. The older I get the more I realise what a great influence he was. I think I’ve spent most of my life wanting my dad to be proud of me. Not consciously when I was young and growing up. But certainly since I reached 40.
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS WAS THE FILM THAT MADE PEOPLE REALLY TAKE NOTICE OF YOU AS A PRODUCER. DID YOU EXPECT THE SUCCESS THAT CAME AFTER THAT?
In the UK I’d had hits before that – mostly rock ‘n’ roll films. That’ll Be The Day and Stardust were big hits, and so was Bugsy Malone. But on the one hand – and I know this will be a very unsatisfactory answer – I came out of a very successful advertising career, so I didn’t know about failure. I’d had a really good career, and I left advertising in my late 20s simply because I thought, “Well, I’ve done that, what else can I do ?” So I came into the movie industry almost knowing nothing. So did I anticipate the success I would get? Of course not. But on the other hand, someone the other day asked me, “Did you ever think you’d win an Oscar?” And my answer was, “Yeah”. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t. I didn’t know which film it would be for, but I knew I was going to get it. Of course, you can pick the bones of it: How come someone who was so blindingly ignorant about the industry, could have the weird confidence to think they’d win an Oscar? But I did. It’s almost as if I knew I was going to win it.
YOU WON AN OSCAR IN A RELATIVELY SHORT SPAN OF TIME, DIDN’T YOU?
It felt like a long time, but you’re right, it wasn’t a very long time at all – what, 12 years? It was a very bumpy journey. I had some good films, and some not very good films. I had tremendous success in Japan with my very first movie, Melody (1971), and that kept me going for while. Then I had Stardust, Bugsy, which were successful, and the duellists, which wasn’t really successful financially. Then I had a couple flops – horrible, horrible films – and then Midnight Express.
AT THE HEIGHT OF YOUR SUCCESS, YOU WERE ASKED TO HEAD COLUMBIA PICTURES. AND YOU’VE RECEIVED FLAK FOR THE WAY YOU RAN THE COMPANY. IF YOU COULD, WOULD YOU CHANGED ANYTHING YOU DID?
You can only judge it on the terms of what was going on in my life at the time. I’d won the Oscar, and I’d just won the PalmE D’Or. And bear in mind that I’d been nine times with a movie in Cannes, and that’s something that I never thought I’d get. To win the Palm D’Or for The Mission was a very big deal for me. And when my wife and I were walking the red carpet, she said to me, “Well, what are you going to do now? Are you just going go round the track again?” And I said, “I don’t know”. And I got the call from Columbia, literally, that night, and they asked whether I’d go there. I’d already turned down a similar job at Paramount – when I was more sensible I guess. There was a whole series of weird factors, which if I went trhough them, not any one of them makes total sense to me, but you put them all together, and it makes a lot of sense, you know? The truth is, I was extremely well paid, I really hated the job. I was completely unsuited for it. I’m a seller, not a buyer and when sellers become buyers, it becomes a mistake. The whole mental process is different. I learnt a lot. And I got a lot of things right.
The industry was not in great shape. Prices were zooming whereas revenues hadn’t. And at the time, this was in 1986 or 1987, there was a split in the movie revenues in America: 70 per cent for the American market and 30 per cent for the rest of the world. And I was saying that it was unnatural, and the real split should be the other way, and therefore you should be looking at the rest of the world as the main market place. And today, it is 70:30 in favour of the rest of the world. So in that sense, and in one or two other things, I was a little ahead of my time – in going digital for one – but being ahead of your time isn’t always a great place, especially when you’re using other people’s money. Maybe it’s even worse when you’re using your own money. But I have no regrets at all. I had a fairly miserable 18 months of my life – and I don’t do miserable really well.
AND ABOUT 10 YEARS AFTER THAT, YOU JUST STOPPED MAKING MOVIES ALTOGETHER AND SWITCHED TO EDUCATION. WAS IT EASY MAKING THAT SWITCH JUST LIKE THAT?
It may have looked like it was just like that from the outside, but it wasn’t like that at all. I was always very involved in politics. I was chairman at my union, and I was working with the Labour party actively since 1987. And if we’d won the election in 1992, I might’ve gone then. But we didn’t and so it wasn’t until 1997 that I got a phonecall asking me if I wanted to work for the government and I didn’t even think for a nanosecond before I agreed.
I tried for a few months, because I was finishing My Life So Far, and I was juggling the two jobs at the same time and it was impossible. I told myself I was crazy. I even moved my cutting room right next to Westminster to make it easier, but it didn’t work. So I decided I was going to be in the political world and try to be good at it. And it was the right decision.
BUT WHY POLITICS? I KNOW SOME MOVIE PEOPLE HAVE HAD A BASH AT IT, WITH VERY DEGREES OF SUCCESS, BUT...
I’ve always had an aversion to being the victim of other people’s decisions. I don’t mind making mistakes – I’ve made many msitakes in my life but they’ve been my mistakes. But I hate having to deal with the repercussions of other people’s mistakes. And the only way to do that was to get involved, which was why I was involved in the union. I didn’t want to be a victim of the stupid things the union did, I wanted to be an architect of the more intelligent things that the union did. It was obvious to me that what Britain lacked was a strategy for film and television, so I got involved very early on, in 1987, in beginning to write film policy. So when we won the election in 1997, the film policy strategies were really well-embedded and laid out so we knew exactly what to do. The good thing was, the phone call from the government was from the brand new Minister of Education. And having done the film policy stuff, I didn’t have to implement it, which for me was good, because I might have had to fall out with a few people. I was able to move sideways into education and learn about the brand new world. And I’m apparently regarded as an expert now, in that area. Probably wrongly so. It was an entirely new career. And it took me 15 years.
DO YOU THINK EDUCATION PLAYS AN IMPORTANT PART IN SOCIETY THESE DAYS?
I genuinely believe that education is the most important ministry of all. Without education, nothing else works. If you haven’t got a good education system, everything else collapses. You can’t develop a health service off the back of a poor education system. You can’t guarantee yourself a decent pension off the back of a bad education system. Or even infrastructure. It’s the signe qu’on of a successful society. Without any doubt at all. It’s just not always recognised as being that. So the opportunity to work on education policy was much bigger a deal than working on film policy.
WHAT IS THE ONE KEY THING YOU’D IMPART TO STUDENTS?
My whole message tends to run around self-belief. The nature of the mentors around you when you’re younger. I was very lucky that the ad agency I was working was a very successful and hard-driving place. In the same office, I was working with Alan Parker, Charles Saatchi and Ridley Scott. I mean, they’re really tough guys. The environment in which you develop is incredibly important. Also I’m very, very obsessed about trying to draw the threads together of everything. There tends to be a separation between science subjects and arts and humanities subjects. But the world doesn’t work that way, and it’s increasingly not going to work that way. So it’s about trying to pull the threads together and say look, successful education is having someone who’s absolutely equally at home in the science aspects of things, and in the humanities aspects. It’s not two sides to a human being, but a really integrated human being who’s comfortable in both. And more recently, I’ve become increasingly interested in helping people become superb at the thing they’re good at, rather than worrying about the things they’re not very good at.
There’s an incredible journalist in America call Tom Friedman who came up with a very important phrase: “Average is over”. Average is not going to get you the job you want or the career you want or the lifestyle you want. So average is over. You have to be very, very good. We don’t have an education service that emphasises being great. They tend to emphasise being good. They’re looking for competencies, but competencies are just the starting point, not the place you want to finish.
STILL, IF YOU’RE FOCUSSING ALL YOUR ENERGY ON THE PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE, WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE STUFF?
You have to think about the implications of what you want to do. And you might be surprised that the implications are rather wider that you imagined them to be. So while you’re sitting there with a camera asking me questions, the real ramifications of that is “what are you trying to get out of me that can help your readers with their lives, the connections they can make?” I’ve always tried to make connections in my life. I read very little fiction – which could be a flaw of mine – but I read biographies. Why? Because I’m always trying to connect, to see what were the common threads of people that helped them to become extraordinary or different or particularly interesting. That’s what interests me. I think the challenge isn’t what you do, but the implications and ramifications of what you do. That’s why I worship good journalists. My dad was a good journalist. I despise bad or lazy journalists. They just drive mediocrity and sameness and stupidity. Smart journalists, thoughtful journalists are always making us think and stretching us. There’s all the difference to being stretched and being insulted.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT BEING DAVID PUTTNAM NOW?
I’m very comfortable. I’ll be 72. I wish I knew at 42 the things I know now. And I wish I had, at 42, the self-confidence and the sense of calm about my life that I had now. At 42, I was pretty frenzied and nervous and anxious. Things were going pretty well for me, but I was certainly not particularly calm or reflective a person. And the thing I regret is that it’s taken me 30 years to finally calm down and realise the implications of what I do.
MAYBE IT WAS BECAUSE YOU WERE PURSUING EXCELLENCE.
I was a father of two kids and I was juggling a lot of things - trying to be a film-maker when you’re away a lot and trying to be a decent father on its own is an enormous struggle. And I think I somewhat let my kids down. Thank god they’ve forgiven me and we’ve got a great relationship. I’d like to have spent some time being a better father. But that would have meant being less good at what I did. I was always very obsessive, I’ve been good at detail, with that desire for perfectionism, is very tempting too.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR LEGACY TO BE?
There are some bits of my legacy that are reasonably intact I think. I think the job I did with public education for public school teachers was very important, more important that other things I’ve done. We started the National Teaching Awards, that has been going on for 15 years now. My work at the national film and television school is a legacy. I think I challenged some of the convenient suppositions of the movie industry and tried to make people think. I think the people I celebrated were people worth celebrating, and the people I dismissed were worth dismissing. I think some of the work I’ve done in parliament – I did some work on media plurality, making sure that there’s no dominant media, er, not about Mr Murdoch specifically, but anybody at that level of dominance. Of all the things I’ve done, I think maybe I’ve worked very hard in trying to change the culture of what I saw was … well, it comes back to my father’s generation and trying to get people to reflect on what that generation fought for, what it was about, the values and what we’re jeopardising if we’re not very careful.
DO YOU THINK WE’RE JEOPARDISING WHAT THEY FOUGHT FOR?
We are jeopardising a lot. Back to climate, we’re almost hurtling – socially – towards disaster. Climate change is real. But unfortunately, it’s like the boiled frog, you don’t know you’re being boiled until it’s too late. I worry terribly about my grandchildren and I’m certain they won’t enjoy the same comforts and freedom that I’ve enjoyed.
DO YOU THINK THE YOUTH OF TODAY HAVE LOST A CERTAIN VIGOUR? INSTEAD OF OPENING REAL WINDOWS, THEY’RE LOOKING AT WINDOWS 8.
What worries me is the sheer lack of reflection. We’re in danger of living in a consequence-less society. People don’t fully understand or required to take in the consequences of their actions. So I think their actions have no consequences. And I think Singapore is one of the few places in the world that I know of, that, when decisions are made, they tend to take a view of what the consequences will be. I’ve worked in Singapore for the past 6 or 7, and what I’ve liked is the way decisions are arrived at, and the way they’re implemented, and the way they’re discussed, and the nature of the way people tend to take responsibility for the way the decisions are made are quite impressive. Much more impressive than in US or Europe, much more structured and sensible. I mean, the ramifications of climate change – I think Singapore government will take a stab at it, at least. I don’t think the China government will, I don’t think the US actually will, and much of Europe won’t. Those societies are too spoilt and too out of control to be prepared to deal with the discipline of handling a different type of world.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE AS YOUR EPITAPH?
I’d be very happy with “He tried”. Or “God knows he tried”.