Mike Newell began directing for television and earned global acclaim with the international hit Four Weddings And A Funeral. He talks to writer-director Luke Snellin about the importance of luck - and grabbing opportunities
LUKE SNELLIN I studied screenwriting at university and one of the first things they said to us was, “You’ve got to manage your expectations, you’re never going to see your feature get made.” I almost felt, “How dare they tell us that?” But coming out of university, the scramble for jobs and trying to find any job to edge your way in… How did you start out as a director?
MIKE NEWELL It’s all about luck. No one will get on without it. And the luck I had when I was the same age as you are was television. It was 1962-63 and BBC Two had yet to start broadcasting so they were recruiting in a major way. And ITV had begun a few years before. The company everyone started to take notice of was Granada. Going to Granada then was like going to graduate school. But what really characterised those times was the emptiness of the field and the relative ease of getting a job. I’m always horrified about how much you guys now have to try. We would never have survived. After four months at Granada, I was fed into a production mincer. I had to be worth the small investment the company had made in me so I had to go to work, to direct shows.
SNELLIN Did you look for something in scripts back then that you latched onto, and do you still do that now?
NEWELL It was understood then that there wasn’t a choice. Every three weeks the production line began, a script would land on your desk, you’d think, “Oh great, it’s a Jack Rosenthal,” or, “Oh no, it’s a Peter Ridley,” and you’d do it. That was a wonderful training ground. When I moved beyond that production line, I recognised there were certain things I liked and others I didn’t, and I was able to categorise what those things were - I preferred modern dramas, even though I was required to do everything from adaptations of DH Lawrence to Thomas Hardy. But it was also when I was working with writers that I really loved, I could see what they did. I remember working for one producer and taking what I thought was a bad script from him. He laid the script out on the floor of his office and went through each page, eliminating some pages, moving one page from there to here, moving another, etc. That was fantastically instructive because you saw it being made, it wasn’t a magical thing.
SNELLIN What did you take from TV? Did you find there were lessons you learnt that enhanced your work in feature films?
NEWELL Writing, most definitely. By the time you’d finished in TV and had made a lot of TV films, you recognised what was good and what was bad. I remember when I read what became my first feature, The Man In The Iron Mask, I said to my agent that I could show him much better scripts which were with the BBC’s Play for Today and shouldn’t I be sticking with the good stuff? He said, “Of course you should! I will go on getting you Plays for Today until we both drop off the tree and you’ll never have made a movie!”
SNELLIN I’m finding that now, as a new film-maker, you have to forge a voice that’s going to separate you from everyone else. So far I’ve written and directed films with young kids and they’re quite sweet and not very gritty. The scripts I’ve been given are along those lines and they’re good but there’s nothing that has really set my interest on fire. I’m wondering if I should do one of them just because there’s a window of opportunity or should I wait.
NEWELL I wouldn’t wait. I’m saying that because I didn’t wait. In a way, the first movie is such a shock to the system, because you don’t realise the size of the egos that are surrounding you. They all know how to do it.
SNELLIN How did it feel to shoot your first big movie? What did it do to you, physically and mentally?
NEWELL It had a colossal international cast [Richard Chamberlain, Louis Jourdan, Patrick McGoohan, Jenny Agutter] and David Lean’s cameraman [Freddie Young] and art director [John Stoll]. I didn’t make what I wanted to make, I made what I had to make, and that’s a habit that has stayed with me ever since ‹ 60%-70% of the things I do, I’ll do because I want to do them and have a belief in them, but 30% I’ll do because I have to, or because I screwed up on the last one and got terrible reviews. Someone once said, it doesn’t matter why you do something just as long as you know why you’re doing it. But I was thin and young and I was damned if I would not survive but afterwards I never wanted to make a film again because I thought that I had been tenderised. Then after a year I went and did TV which I understood very well. And then I got itchy…
SNELLIN What advice would you give about getting an agent for someone starting out?
NEWELL It’s a very good idea to have an agent because you need all the help you can get and above all you need an information exchange. You need to know who’s doing what, what’s out there that you like; you need to discuss if you should do some serious TV to get some broadcast hours. None of those decisions can be made by anyone but you, but it helps to have someone to talk about it with.
SNELLIN The first part of your career didn’t include work with a lot of visual effects, so what’s it like to start making films like Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire or this year’s Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time which are very effects-heavy?
NEWELL It’s always uneasy because I’m so much not of that generation. I’ve now done two huge films that have a lot of visual effects. I learned a lot on Harry Potter so was more secure on the second. What you will have is the visual-effects supervisor who’ll shepherd you through that. You may have the best ideas in the world but you won’t know what the real possibilities are until the VFX supervisor tells you what is. There’s one set of effects in Prince Of Persia which took something like 20 months from inception to delivery and during that time I was flying blind most of the time. I worked out with the CG people and the supervisor what the actors had to deliver but I couldn’t have told you what it was going to look like. You have to have faith.
SNELLIN Are you always satisfied with how it turns out?
NEWELL So far, yes because I have proved myself colossally incompetent at least twice. Once was a sequence on Harry Potter where I simply had to be rescued by the visual-effects supervisor. He told me to go and sit down. On Prince Of Persia, there was a sequence that I might have persisted with except absolutely everybody said it was going to be a pain in the arse, it’s going to take forever and it’s not going to be very good.
SNELLIN Do you ever contemplate the value of what we do? Do you ever feel guilt at having such fun and being in the job that you love?
NEWELL Never! Partly because it’s not always fun, it’s sometimes absolutely horrible and very punishing and very humiliating. You don’t get to wear nice clothes and have drinks with gorgeous girls. It’s mostly sitting on a box in mud being peed on by all sorts of people. At times, it gloriously isn’t like that but there are huge frustrations built into this job.
SNELLIN As a British film-maker who has managed to straddle both the UK and Hollywood, does Hollywood have all the allure and enchantment we think it does?
NEWELL The best Hollywood joke is: ‘“Good morning,” he lied.’ I never met anyone stupid in Hollywood, you don’t get there unless you’ve been filtered into the purest fraction of savagery and cleverness. If I hadn’t tried it, I would have always regretted it. Having tried it, my wife thinks - and she’s probably right - that it’s screwed me up more than any other single influence. There are certain things it just doesn’t do. You couldn’t make those brilliant films we can make here. You couldn’t make Fish Tank, Exit Through The Gift Shop, anything Shane Meadows ever dreamed of.