The director talks about the 40th anniversary of Get Carter, the state of the British film industry, and two new films he’d like to make.
Mike Hodges was back in Newcastle this weekend for Carter Is 40 — the 40th anniversary celebration of Get Carter, the classic film that was famously shot there. The celebration was backed by the likes of The Tyneside Cinema, Northern Film + Media and Generator.
Hodges, now 78, was a dynamic force for the weekend of celebrations, swapping tales from the set of Get Carter (his first feature) with actor Alun Armstrong. He also spoke about the role of place in crime stories, in discussion at the Story Engine screenwriting conference with novelist David Peace.
The writer-director was also honored on Saturday night at the Royal Television Society’s annual awards for the North East and the Borders.
Hodges began his career working on documentaries for World In Action. He then made two TV thrillers, Suspect and Rumour, before moving on to Get Carter, which starred Michael Caine as Jack Carter. Hodges adapted the groundbreaking gangster story from Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home and moved the setting to Newcastle.
Hodges then went on to make films include Pulp, The Terminal Man, Flash Gordon, Black Rainbow, and then 1999’s hit Croupier.
The last film he directed was 2003’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead starring Clive Owen, but Hodges has two feature scripts that he’d like to direct. Until the financing comes together, he says he busies himself with other creative pursuits in his home in Dorset, where he is also a keen vegetable gardener.
Do you enjoy these nostalgic remembrances for Get Carter?
I don’t have them very often, maybe only every 40 years, and I don’t think I’ll have another in 40 years time. Another 10, for the 50th anniversary, I might just about make it. I’m not quite sure why the 40th year is significant to celebrate, maybe they think I’m not going to make it to 50. It’s very strange, but it’s lovely.
Is it strange to revisit something that was at the beginning of your career?
Of course it is. What’s nice about this one is that they are also running all the other films that people don’t usually get to see. I’ve had some distribution problems in this country, so The Terminal Man was never shown here, Black Rainbow had a terrible release, and so on and so on. So I haven’t had a very good time in my home country in terms of distribution. It’s nice that the films are being shown here, also the various television films.Otherwise I’d be a one-trick pony. I could have made Get Carter and died, but I didn’t, I went on to make other interesting films. They can be rediscovered.
Do you have a favourite?
They are all so completely different. And that’s actually a problem, a lot of people don’t realise I’ve made them. If you saw a Hitchcock film, you knew it was a Hitchcock film. I’ve not been like that. It’s slightly difficult to equate Get Carter and Flash Gordon, for example. So a lot of young people who discover Get Carter just simply can’t believe that I also made Flash Gordon. That film represents a rather facetious side of my nature which I’m rather glad to say I’ve nutured in my 78 years on the planet.
With Get Carter, why do you think it’s become so iconic and still connects so well with audiences?
I’m probably not the person to ask, we’d have to ask the audience. But the fact that it has states the case without me having to sound like an arrogant twit (laughs).
What’s it like being back in Newcastle?
That’s so delightful, I can’t tell you. I chose Newcastle because it looks so hard but the people are soft, they really are lovely soft people. And the city is so transformed, it’s of great interest for me to see it. I’m very curious — I’m going on this tour of all the remaining locations, and that takes me back. I really did explore the city personally, on foot and on public transport. I just walked the city and got to know it. All the locations are ones I found and weaved into the script.
The original book [Jack’s Return Home] was less place-specific, so what about Newcastle connected to this character of Jack Carter for you?
The book not being set in a specific town allowed me the freedom really to set it where I wanted, where I could make a good film. A lot of the locations I witnessed during the ’50s when I did my National Service with the navy, on a minesweeper. I was an Ordinary Seaman so I was just wearing my bellbottoms and I would go ashore and see all these extraordinary places. There was one in Hull called The Albert Hall, which was as big as the Albert Hall in London, but full of fisherman, tough nuts. There was quite a lot of brawling, it was a tough place.
So when I went back to find all these locations that I had witnessed in the navy, they had virtually gone. So I went further and further up north, I had remembered North Shields, that was a fishing port. So I was coming back by land to go there, and came across Newcastle. I looked at it, and visually it was extraordinary, with all the iron bridges. It looks so extraordinary.
The shoot itself was 40 days. Was it very smooth?
Because it was my first film, I was unconscious of what a miracle it was. I got the book in January and I read it, said yes, my contract was sorted out, I wrote the script, Michael Caine came on board, we found Newcastle, we reworked the script with Newcastle locations, we fixed the crew, cast the rest of the film, and started shooting in July! That’s about 28 weeks from getting the novel, not even the script.
The unfortunate thing is that I only got a straightforward deal on the writing and directing and no residuals (laughs). I don’t get money from anything. But I have absolutely no regrets, I have enough to live on.
When you started working with Michael Caine for the role did you do a lot of rehearsals with him?
I hate rehearsals. You rehearse each sequence, all the actors are in their environment, they are rooted, and you get some semblance of what the scene is going to be like…I talk to the actors a lot before you begin or when you’re casting, but the casting is the imperative thing.,
They wanted more names on board but I resisted, a lot of these actors had never made films before. Which gave a lot of veracity to this character of Carter, it’s a different energy. I was able to cast really good actors.
Are you writing anything now?
I’ve written a novel, Watching The Wheels Come Off. And I’ve got two films which I’ve been trying to finance in the last five years. One is called Mario The Magician, which is written by Abe Polonsky who was blacklisted in American in the 1950s. He never got to make it. That’s based on a Thomas Mann novella. Then there is an original script called The Chinese Busker, Trevor Preston (I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead) wrote that. So you never know, they may get the finance. But my life doesn’t depend on it.
Do you miss being directing?
I always have a lot of other activities going on. I write and I paint, I draw, I’ve done two fringe stage plays in the last five years, and I’ve written a novel and two radio plays. I have many arrows in my quiver. It’s kind of stressful making films. I seem to make one film every five years, some people make two films a year, I’m not very good at planning the next film while I’m doing one. You have to be very philosophical about work. And you have to make sure that your income doesn’t depend on it. I’m not a rich person but I do have enough to live on without making a film. I’d like to make more films, if it works out it works out. I can’t lose any sleep over it, otherwise I’d never sleep at all.
Do you think great films are being made in the British film industry today?
I don’t get an awful lot to the cinema. I haven’t even seen The King’s Speech. Unfortunately, I don’t see it as a British film ‘industry,’ it’s not really an industry. For an industry you have to have the equivalent of a studio system and you have to have the turnover of films that’s sufficient for people to make a living. We haven’t had that for years, it all goes back to the Carter days in fact.
At the Story Engine conference, you’re here talking about the crime genre. Is that still what gets you most excited?
Oh yes. When I started out I thought I was just going to make thrillers. And the first three films I’ve made were thrillers. And then I got seduced by comedy, and I made a black comedy called Pulp. And then I got seduced into making science fiction, and I made The Terminal Man. Thankfully I got back to thrillers making Black Rainbow and then Croupier and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. So I’m back on the thriller trail hopefully, although Mario is not a thriller.
What do you think it is that draws you to thrillers?
Making a thriller is like being a pathologist doing an autopsy. Thrillers are the great way to showing the underbelly of society. Murder and robbery doesn’t happen out of the blue. Something has prompted that, and it’s about finding out what has prompted those crimes. Thrillers are about human behaviour, they are an exciting way of examining society, you have a good conveyor belt for ideas.