The celebrated writer and director of some 14 films including Bugsy Malone, Mississippi Burning and Evita talks to the young film-maker who made his first film in 18 days about the importance of time, titles and trust.
Arjun Rose: Having just made my first feature and never having made a short film, I found myself having to learn very quickly during the shoot. What is the best route in for new film-makers? Were your short films an important step to having the opportunity to direct Bugsy Malone?
Alan Parker: You’ve done it the opposite to how I always advise young film-makers. And you’re not alone in the history of film people to have done what you’ve done and I think it’s incredibly brave. You had to learn to swim and you did. But in the main, I would advise the opposite: I’m a great believer you should pay your dues and learn your craft. And then you should make a film. That’s why I’m a great supporter of the film schools because that’s the best way you can learn what you do. I didn’t go to film school but I made 300 TV commercials before I did a short film. And doing a short film after doing all those commercials was quite easy. I found it really quite hard though transferring that ability to feature film, to hold an hour and a half or two hours of story in my head at any given time. It is a big leap.
AR: When I was growing up we had about 10 VHS tapes. One of them was Bugsy Malone, one was The Commitments and one was Mississippi Burning. Your films constituted a third of our collection and introduced me to the very different worlds of the Ku Klux Klan, the mafia and musical film. Was it a conscious choice to work in so many genres?
AP: It was, because when I started I did Bugsy Malone and that was a pragmatic decision. It was a depressed time for the British film industry and all the scripts I’d written would come back with a stamp on them, ‘too parochial’. So I thought, I don’t know how I’m going to get started, so I wrote an American script. I didn’t know much about America so I wrote a film about American movies — Bugsy Malone was a combination of the American musical and the American gangster film. I’d done a lot of commercials, working with kids, and I had four children of my own which made an important impact on what I was doing at that time. But it didn’t say much about me and the kind of film-maker I wanted to be. I was a more serious film-maker than perhaps that film had indicated, which is why I did the opposite kind of film in Midnight Express. Everyone said how can the same director have done Bugsy Malone? So it made me think, well, I’m not going to stick to any kind of film. For you to stay creatively fresh, you should always go into areas where you’re not quite so secure.
AR: The cinematography in your films is beautiful. The light and shadows lend atmosphere and tension to every scene. During Suicide Kids, we had only 18 days to shoot and two weeks of preparation, we were scrambling for locations. This inevitably led to compromises. What goes into properly preparing shots like yours in terms of the right location, lighting and such?
AP: I don’t know how you do that, how you make a film so fast, and I take my hat off to you. In that case, you do have to make compromises and sometimes out of that can come some anarchy, some craziness that can end up being the energy of your film, so from a creative point of view it’s just as valid. Or you can do what Stanley Kubrick did, which is prepare a film for 10 years and maybe the film might look like it’s been prepared for 10 years. In the main, the more thoroughly you prepare then the better the film will be. If you’re doing a film like The Commitments, say, you couldn’t do it in two weeks because it took me six months just to find those kids. There’s time needed for us to do our job. When you’re shooting, the very worst thing you’re going to find is that you’re constantly looking at your watch. Because there’s never enough time. The beauty of being able to edit your film properly is to have as many options as possible, and that means the shot you need you don’t have time to do if you’re in a rush. I don’t argue the way you’re doing it is wrong, it’s just much harder. Harder on you.
AR: You’ve worked with some big stars. What advice can you give a young film-maker of gaining the trust of top actors?
AP: Most actors who have a reputation will look at your work first. It’s the work that matters. And if they feel there’s something in that work they would like to be party to, they’re going to go along with it if they feel they can get along with you. Because in the end, in most films, you’re going to be away from home with a bunch of people you have to get along with, and every single day has its own tensions. To have the trust of an actor or actress is paramount.
AR: Your films have been the subject of a fair amount of controversy, from the sex scenes in Angel Heart to the depiction of the civil rights movement in Mississippi Burning. I’ve been asked to consider changing the name of my film, Suicide Kids. What would you do?
AP: It’s your movie and you should fight for what you believe. Having said that, I don’t think it’s a good title because you can put people off. It’s hard enough attracting people to films, and the slightest reason for someone not to go and see something, they will grab hold of, and I’ve found that at times. Fame was originally called Hot Lunch. I rewrote the screenplay and I called it Fame, mostly because there was a pornographic film called Hot Lunch, and I was in a cab in New York in the area where all the porno theatres were, and I was in the middle of making the film, when I suddenly saw Hot Lunch and thought, oh God, that’s my film. And it starred the big porn star of the time, Al Parker, which was even worse! And so the props men, who I didn’t really get on so well with, made up a big poster of this porn star, completely naked, with my head superimposed on it. So there are times when changing the title is valid. But if you feel it’s the right title for your film, then fight for it. There have been a lot of very difficult titles that end up being great successes, so the truth is that a good title is a film that’s successful, the bad title is the film that’s not.
AR: It seems you made a conscious choice to make popular films and that led sometimes to less than favourable notices from UK film critics. What advice can you give on dealing with criticism?
AP: Get ready for it. There’s not a film-maker in the world who hasn’t had criticism. I remember talking to Milos Forman, who was my hero, and I said to him, you’re so lucky Milos, you’ve had such great reviews. And he said, are you serious? Look what they did to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest — they killed it! So they’re often not right, critics. But that isn’t the point really, they are going to do what they do because that’s their job. And you have to be philosophical about it. You can’t be immune to it as a young film-maker because so much of you is in your movie, you’ve sweated blood to make it, and someone says something negative about it and it took them 20 minutes to write it? The main point is not to take any of it seriously. By making a film, you’re an artist. And no true artist should be afraid of what people will say about their work.