An Interview with David Puttnam

A never-before published interview I had with British film industry legend Lord David Puttnam — producer of Chariots of FireKilling FieldsMidnight Express, and more.

You’ve been in films most of your life, what do you think of CGI effects?
I have a great deal to thank the digital media for, it’s made me look perpetually 59.

How’s the British film industry doing today?
Without doubt, British films are becoming more ambitious. I look back and it makes me laugh. I probably produced the very, very last non-digital film which was Memphis Belle, made literally with models and bits of string. It was unbelievably primitive. If we had made Memphis Belle just two years later it would have been made digitally and it would have been a different film, a better film. Yes, I’ve watched extraordinary changes take place.

You produced Killing Fields and Chariots of Fire, which won the Oscar for Best Film in 1982. Which film are you most proud of?
This is a funny thing to say, but when Chariots of Fire won the Oscar I was a bit bothered because I thought it was a good film but I didn’t necessarily think it was a great film. And then two years later Killing Fields didn’t win. I always felt in my heart of hearts that Killing Fields was a better film than Chariots. I felt for the first time that I actually deserved the Oscar. Between the two movies, it probably deserved an Oscar. Killing Fields was a very important moment for me. It’s a remarkable piece of work on a very, very low budget. It also deals with something that’s not often dealt with — which is friendship, a relationship between men. The first Oscar could always be called a fluke, but when you get nominated a second time or third time… In my career I got four Oscar nominations, I definitely deserved one of them.

What makes a great film producer?
Tenacity. Understanding the difference between a real talent and fake talent. Believing in someone. Sometimes you have to really, really believe in it. I remember when Bruce Robinson did his first draft of the screenplay for Killing Fields, I had a lot of people that wanted to buy it from me or wanted me to dump him and bring another writer in. But it was obvious to me that he got inside the story and it was a good story. So there was about a year of my life where I couldn’t move forward because I believed in the writer and I wouldn’t budge. Good producers do that. A good producer knows when he has got gold and sometimes it takes a long time for other people to recognise that gold is gold.

Do you need to get obsessed?
Totally, totally. The reason for that is simple. The process of making a film can be so agonising that unless you are obsessed with it… I mean, for every film I’ve made, out of 30, I’ve probably realised three… and the difference between the ones I made and the ones I didn’t was obsession.

Anthony (Minghella) was a total believer. I didn’t like all of his films but Anthony believed in all of his films. I didn’t like Cold Mountain, but Anthony absolutely, absolutely believed in that movie. So it doesn’t matter what I thought.

What separates the great directors from other directors?
Confidence, belief in what they’re doing. A lot of people are interested in filmmaking because they think they’ll make a lot of money. They don’t. There are much easier ways to make money. The reason a great director makes films is because they want to change the way that people live. Anthony (Minghella) and Steven Spielberg have always wanted to change the way people live. Anthony especially.

What are your hopes for the British film industry in the near future?
I’d like to see us making films of such shining integrity about the potential of human beings that it becomes the most influential cinema. I don’t care whether it’s the biggest box-office cinema, I couldn’t care less. But I want it to be the most influential cinema. To me, the most influential cinema in the last couple of years was a German film The Lives of Others. It wasn’t a great success at the box-office, but it changed the way people thought about things. That’s what I’d like British cinema to do.

You’ve been trying to make the film industry more accessible. Please tell us about that.
The Skillset program (now called Screenskills) offers people an opportunity outside, people who never dreamt of being in a film.

Let me put it another way, when I got into the film industry, most people in it were either the nephews or nieces, sons or daughters of people already in the industry. Extreme nepotism. What we did in recent years is help break that and make the film and television industry accessible to people who just had a dream. Twenty, thirty, or forty years ago the film industry was not accessible unless you had a route in. My uncle worked in the industry, without my uncle Charles I would never have got the interview and I thought that was wrong.

How can the film industry help tackle environmental issues?
This afternoon I sat down with other MPs and other Lords on the impact of climate change. Why does that matter? It matters because we now have the tools to explain to a new generation whose lives are going to be completely dominated by these things. And we have the tools to illustrate to this new generation what that might mean. We can take them inside a melting glacier and show them what the results of glacier melt will be. We can take them inside flooded zones and show them the devastation. We can take them inside a disease and show them what a pandemic does. No other medium ever invented in the world can do that. So this new technology has arrived just in time, just in time to alert a generation of young people, my grandchildren, the nature of the world and the problems that they can address. And that gives them a fighting chance of being able to deal with it.

What’s your next project?
I retired from the film industry ten years ago. I work for the Government and the last 4 years I have been concentrating completely on climate change and before that I was working in education for more than a decade. Next, I don’t know? You tell me.

What’s the biggest challenge for the British film industry?
The post-production facilities we have now in Soho are better than most places in the world. Probably only LA matches them. But there’s a huge capital investment involved in keeping it that way, but there’s nothing to stop others doing the same. There’s nothing to stop Dubai or maybe India to create state of the art post-production facilities. So we mustn’t sit on our laurels and we mustn’t think we have some God-given right to have the best post-production houses in the world. We’ve got to keep at it.

What were your favourite films of the past year?
The Lives of Others, I liked Juno a lot and I loved a film called In the Valley of Elah, which I couldn’t understand why it didn’t do better at the Oscars. Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in that film is unbelievable.

Cheesy question, but what’s the most important thing in life?
Balance. The reason I’m leaving early is because I’m getting the first plane back to Ireland and my biggest challenge is making sure my life remains at an equilibrium — that my home life, my domestic life, my real life stays in balance with this life.

This article was written in 2008, when I was just starting out as a freelance journalist. I never got it published but recently found it, and Lord Puttnam’s comments on climate change and the British film industry seem somehow relevant for today.

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