Sir Alan Parker: A European Sensibility among American Studio Sharks

Sir Alan Parker on the set of Pink Floyd: The Wall. Production still photographer: David Appleby © Goldcrest Films International, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Tin Blue, United International Pictures

From the surprisingly successful and long-lasting child-acted musical gangster film Bugsy Malone in 1976, through genre-bending Pink Floyd–The Wall, unforgettable Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning and our personal favorite Angel Heart, all the way to the underappreciated The Life of David Gale in 2003, after which he channeled his creative passion to other areas of creation, Sir Alan Parker had a long and respected career on both sides of the Atlantic. Springing out of television advertising, he soon claimed the place of one of the most prominent British filmmakers of the final quarter of the 20th century. Both a harsh critic of the film industry and its dedicated promoter, Parker is a complex and controversial personality who found the movie business too narrow a window to let his creative steam through: a novelist, a cartoon artist, a painter, a person of many interests and countless opinions. You can only imagine how pleased I was with a shot to sit with him at the Camerimage International Film Festival, literally under the spotlight, as a cozy little stage was prepared for TV interviews. Across a polished wooden table there sat the knighted director, who could’ve easily made only Angel Heart, that timeless diabolical neo-noir tale, and still be celebrated as one of the legends of British filmmaking.

When I look at your resume, what surprises me is your range. Musicals, thrillers, psychological horrors… Not just the movies: novels, paintings, drawings… Where does this diversity of taste and interests come from?
Either I’m incredibly multi-talented, or I have no focus whatsoever (laughs). Someone asked me once why I made so many different kinds of films, and I said: because I can. My wife told me that was a terrible answer, because it sounds so smug, you know. But I was able to make different kinds of films, so I did. It’s interesting because for many years, on my passport, I had “writer.” I’ve never put “film director.” I always thought that was, like, not what I was. Most of my writing was for film, but screenplays are a very limiting thing if you want to write. So my writing ambition was to write a novel. You know why? Because when you write a novel you’re on your own. It’s just you. And film is so collaborative, and very expensive. What got me down was not the creative process, I loved the creative process on films, but the whole notion of trying to raise money for your art form. If you’re a painter, you just have to buy the paints and the brush. And it’s you. But for film, you require this gigantic army of people, which costs a huge amount of money. It’s the money thing that gets in the way of the art, really. Most of my films were films of some scale and they were mostly made with American money. The American film industry has become so… not complex, the opposite of complex, zeroed in on one kind of film, really. Fantasy films for young audiences. So the films that I do became more difficult to make, you know?

The other things I was good at became more important, and in recent years painting has become so much more important to me as a creative person than making a movie, and because I was able to do it, you simply zero in on the things you find most enjoyable. I didn’t go to university, I started very young. I wanted to go to art school, but my father wouldn’t let me go, thinking I was too old and had enough education, so I had to go to work. But I was really lucky because I went into advertising and became a copywriter, had some success. But all the time I was writing, I was always drawing at the same time: I would do the whole idea (gestures like he’s drawing on air), not just the words. That was my background, and then by chance I did a television commercial. It was in the basement of the agency, we were experimenting, I wrote it. I couldn’t work the camera, I couldn’t work the sound, so they told me to just say “action.” I said “action” and then I went “no, no, no, do this, don’t do that, try this” and everybody went “oooooooh, film director!” (laughs). Suddenly I was a film director and that ambition went all the way through to making films. Writing and having a visual sensibility, all those things… The great thing about film is that it involves everything. But my first love was always painting, so I went back to that. That’s what I do now.

This isn’t the first time you’ve argued that making a film is a collaborative effort. Since we’re here at Camerimage, I’ll use cinematography as an example, but the question equally applies to sound design, music, editing, production design, and so on: do you think cinematography is an underappreciated profession in the eyes of the public?
I think you’re absolutely right. I think it’s because of the French theory of the auteur that the director gets far too much credit for a film. Who is the most important person on a film? Without a doubt, the director. But he’s not the only person. There are directors, some very good directors, who have no visual sense whatsoever, and their films are often made by the cinematographers. The choices, the shots… I won’t mention names, but I know some very good directors who go, “I’m not interested in that sort of things.” On the other hand, you could argue, I would argue, that the most important person on the Harry Potter films is Stuart Craig, the production designer. It’s his vision, everything is his vision, that world was created by him. Yeah, and J. K. Rowling, the writer, but actually he took what she wrote and took it somewhere totally different. Some very good cinematographers worked on those films as well, some of the best. But the most important creative person, for me, is still Stuart Craig. If you ask people who like Harry Potter about Stuart Craig, they would never know his name. Film industry is terrible for the wrong people taking credit (laughs). It really is.

Speaking of cinematographers working on this film series, The Prisoner of Azkaban was shot by Michael Seresin, with whom you’ve worked on numerous projects. What made you such a compatible duo?
First of all, we started very young so we grew up together. Grew up learning about film, learning about photography, about art. And our tastes and sensibilities were the same. Since we started at the very beginning, we went to the same exhibitions of photography, the same art museums, there was a fundamental appreciation of visual things that we both shared. And also, my feeling is, and this seems a small thing, but ultimately creatively is a very important thing, when you’re making a film it takes a long time, at least three months. Filmmaking lasts three months nearly always, well, making it is longer for me, obviously, writing it, finishing it… it’s a two year cycle. But the actual filmmaking is three months and you’re usually away from home, and it’s hard. The director can’t always make the right decisions. I’m pretty clear about what to do, but there are moments on a film that I don’t know, and I think every director says this. It’s brain fatigue. You can’t hold so many thousands of shots in your head. Some days you think, I can’t think of a single shot. Or, for instance, you might have a very difficult actor. How do you deal with that? In those times, you don’t need just a cinematographer who shares your visual sensibility, you need a friend. You need someone who’s actually going to support you in every single area. Michael is particularly strong in that regard, he’s very good at making sure I’m not going to collapse (laughs). That’s important, and that kind of a relationship you can get only by making a lot of films together. I always say, if a director and a cinematographer are on a collision course, if they’re not getting on, you won’t get a good film. It’s impossible. Films don’t always come out of a nice, comfortable relationship. A lot of films come out of conflict. But you can have conflicts with the actors and still make good work. If you have a conflict with the cinematographer, you’re in trouble.

When I look at the number of films you’ve made over the years, it’s obvious you approach the scripts you receive selectively. What does a script have to have to spur your interest?
I think it’s obviously the fundamental story, what it had to say. And secondly, the milieu in which it is set. It’s always been important to me. It allowed me to give a film a different identity. I never, ever liked to make films other people were making. I always wanted to go somewhere else, you know? I was never really interested in fashion, I always tried to do things that were different, and sometimes they became fashionable. When I did Pink Floyd–The Wall, it invented almost an entirely new genre, but when we did it, it was quite revolutionary. I never really respond to good writing because I always like to write my own screenplays. So if I’m sent a script, it means someone had already gone a little far down the road with the project. It’s much better to be sent a book, and then write my script. But if I’m sent a script, I always read it and sometimes think, well, I could make something of this, even though it may not be a great piece of writing, it can be a great idea. I often respond to that rather than to the quality of writing. It would be wonderful, not that I make films now, but if I did, it would be wonderful if that brown envelope came from Los Angeles, you open it and the script is word-perfect, wonderful, ready to be made. That would be such a great situation, but it never, ever happens.

Fred Zinnemann, your mentor, once told you making films was a privilege that shouldn’t be wasted. This is an idea Hollywood doesn’t really adhere to?
The interesting thing about Fred was, he was my mentor and I used to show him my films when I finished them. The first film I ever showed him was Birdy, and he loved it because of what he thought it had to say about anti-war, or whatever. And then, one of my best films, I think, was Angel Heart, and he didn’t like Angel Heart at all. He thought it was frivolous. That’s when he told me not to waste it, do things that are important. I think there’s a European sensibility that’s different to American. The tradition and history of European cinema is that films are important and that they can change people’s minds, they should be political, they should have a point of view, they should have something to say. American films don’t really have to have something to say. And that’s really why they’ve been so successful, because they’re easy. They don’t really test you intellectually at all. And I think that young American filmmakers are so brilliant at what they do because they have embraced this simple way of entertaining people, and they’ve also embraced the new technologies. I used to go to film schools. In a European film school I’d be asked certain questions, but in American schools they always wanted to know how I technically did something, not why I did it. Back to that Ken Loach thing, really. (When Parker started making movies, Loach told him not to ask how, but why.) I was a part of the American film industry, but I never stopped thinking I was a European filmmaker. I was quite lucky because I did get away with making the films I wanted to make. People can like them or not like them, I appreciate that, but they were my films. I was never controlled by the studio, and I started to feel that was happening. This new generation of studio executives are much more manipulative, much more interfering than before. Much, much more. Again, it’s the technology, they can see everything immediately, on their desk, the very next day after you’ve filmed it. And they have an opinion on it. Some films that are made today are being directed from the studio executive’s office. So the director becomes just a mouthpiece, really (laughs). That’s not the cinema I was part of.

When you look back at Angel Heart, how do you feel about it?
It was incredible. We created the milieu I loved. We were in New York briefly, and then New Orleans, it was a great experience, I really enjoyed all of that. I had two fantastic actors. I had De Niro, who was absolutely at the top of his game at the time, as was Mickey Rourke. I think this was the last film Mickey did where he behaved… well… and I think he went a bit off the rails after that. Well, he did go off the rails (laughs) and became a different person, he even looks like a different person. But I think he was pretty fantastic in that film, as good as he ever was. Adrian Lyne said to me, if Mickey had died after Angel Heart, he would’ve been bigger than James Dean (laughs). I will always remember the scenes I did with De Niro and Mickey Rourke, from a directorial point of view, because I’ve never, ever experienced anything like it. The electricity of the two of them working together, the danger of the two of them, and the way in which a scene could be fantastic, and the way in which a scene could also be terrible if they were allowed to go off the rails. They would start to improvise, the two of them, always in these scenes, and you suddenly think, this has nothing to do with what I’ve written, so you got to drag them back to what it is. It was a great experience.

The general motif of Angel Heart, the idea of selling one’s soul to the devil, is especially interesting if you consider how much you’ve been critical of the film industry. Is this perhaps some kind of a subtle, or actually not so subtle, criticism of the movie business?
That’s a very good question. I’ve never thought that. Ever. But it might be true (laughs). Which might be why I got back to much purer form of art. I’ve spent my life in conflict with the system. I was a part of the American film industry whether I liked it or not. I was never part of the British film industry. Ken Loach is the British film industry. I and the other directors of my generation, which Ridley (Scott) is the most successful of that lot, we were never comfortable… I was comfortable in the United States, I like the United States, they’ve been very good to me, I married an American, and I’ve always enjoyed making films in different parts of America. I never enjoyed going into the studio to talk to the executives, it was always the worst part of making films. And you have to do it, because they were the ones with the bag full of money.

The bigger the budget, the smaller the freedom of the filmmaker.
Completely. The more money there is, the more people trying to protect their investment. Absolutely true.

I remember seeing The Life of David Gale. I was fifteen at the time, and found the film to be emotionally shattering. Years later I found out how poorly it was received by the critics. Do you read the reviews of your films? Do you get bothered by them?
In the early days I was very much bothered, yes. The French critics were particularly difficult if they hated the work. But then you meet them and (laughs) I wouldn’t want to have a cup of coffee with some people. They are a different kind of people, really. My films were seen in fifty countries around the world, and every country has at least twenty film critics. There’s a lot of people making passing judgments on what you do. It’s kind of easier now, in a way, because I think the film critics are younger. Back then, most of the film critics belonged to a different era: I was the young filmmaker, and they were the elderly critics. That’s a very important demographic, you know? They came from a totally different kind of cinema, and mine was not acceptable to them. But throughout the history of art, if you want to call film art, critics have not always accepted significant artists. When you become older, you become more philosophical, that’s probably why I bother much less today. If my work is over-praised, I find that embarrassing, too. It’s interesting with my art, I had a big exhibition of my stuff this year in May. I was not sensitive to what people felt at all. Not that there were critics looking at it, I didn’t invite them, nobody knew I was doing it. I don’t worry so much, I don’t know what it is. I think it’s because I can do a painting, and if someone doesn’t like it, I’ll do another one. Film is two years of your life, you become very protective of it, very sensitive to what people think. The Life of David Gale had very good reviews, too. For all of my fourteen films, if you really look, you’ll find a bad review for every single one of them, just like you’ll find a fantastic review for all of them. It’s very subjective.

Mississippi Burning is a film that carries a lot of weight not only because it’s well-made, but because its theme is instrumental for the American people. How do you see it today?
I’m pleased I made it. It won the Academy Award for cinematography, strangely enough. I thought the black community would embrace it and really like it, because I thought the strongest voice in the film was black, not mine. But the black community didn’t universally like it. Martin Luther King’s widow said she hated it, she absolutely hated it. And I asked if she’s seen it, and they said no (laughs). Because it had white heroes. The Civil Rights struggle was, you know, a black battle, a black victory, helped by some liberal white people. On the other hand, I would not have been able to make the film at that time without having Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. If I had two black actors, it wouldn’t have been made. Now it would, but not then.

Regarding the death of the intelligent film industry, the blood is on the hands of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Your words. Would you care to elaborate a bit?
(laughs) As I recall, it was a response to something dumb I’ve read. I don’t know where I wrote that…

I found it on your website.
(laughs) …then I must have said it. I think the two of them were being very pompous at one point about the art of cinema or something like that. They have blood on their hands in some ways. It seems very drastic when you say it like that… I do lots of cartoons, and this almost belongs to that category. But those two people are more responsible than any other directors in history for the way in which film has now become completely and utterly commercial and populist. And not thoughtful. I talked to George Lucas many years ago, he asked me to make the second Star Wars, Irvin Kershner made it in the end. And I talked to Steven about it. I cornered him at a party once, and said, you know, you are so powerful and you’re so brilliant, and yet, why do you keep making this kind of films? He’s quite capable of making amazingly brilliant films. And he did, the next film he made, not because of me, he was already going to do it (laughs), he did Schindler’s List. He really understood, it was a film from his heart. You just wish they would use that power to do more important work, really. Their important is different from my important.

Thanks for the conversation, Sir.
Thank you.

An interview conducted by Sven Mikulec. Production still photographers (Angel Heart): George Kontaxis & Terry O’Neill © Carolco International N.V., Winkast Film Productions, Union, TriStar Pictures. Still photographer (Pink Floyd: The Wall): David Appleby © Goldcrest Films International, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Tin Blue, United International Pictures. Still photographers (Mississippi Burning): David Appleby & Merrick Morton © Orion Pictures, Inc. Credit: Courtesy of Alan Parker.

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