In September, David Puttnam received a special honour at the Montreal World Film Festival after having treated festival goers with a film masterclass on 31st August. Anthony Kirby was there and sent Film Ireland this piece on the celebrated British producer.
Partly in fulfillment of a promise he made to festival founder Serge Losique some twenty years ago, Lord David Puttnam returned to Montreal’s World Film Festival this autumn. He mesmerised both film professionals and the general public by giving a free workshop on creativity and film production.
“Creativity isn’t a mystery,“ he said showing an illustration of the five aspects of the process. “What I’ve shown here are the aspects of the process. However, more important than all of them is persistence.”
Glad to be an advisor in the department of Media and Communications Arts at University College Cork, Puttnam has taken part in promotional videos for both the Bachelors and Masters programmes. He has a small studio at the rear of his home in West Cork where he formats lectures for UCC and two other universities.
As a child growing up in North London Puttnam was obsessed by comic books, especially by the Alf Tupper comic strip. Tupper was a scrawny child fascinated with long-distance running, (the Tupper addiction was to pay off in later life).
Puttnam and best friend, Alan Parker, “lived in the cinemas of North London… Like everyone of our generation, Alan and I were also obsessed by James Dean, especially his work in East of Eden and Giant. Once we began to make our own films we stole from Elia Kazan and others.” He showed the shooting arcade scene from East of Eden and the exact same sequence from one of his first films at this point.
Puttnam left school at sixteen and found a job as a messenger boy in central London. “I went to night school but also spent a lot of time at the British Film Institute where I discovered Fellini and Visconti.”
About this time he was engaged by the Collette, Dickerson, Pearse & Partners Advertising Agency. His immediate superior was Colin Millwood. “After a few weeks Millwood called me into his office. I thought I was going to be fired,” he recalled, “instead Sir Colin said, ‘You’re not here simply to work, Mr. Puttnam, you’re here to amaze me. Now amaze me.’ Youth are desperate to be challenged,” Puttnam says. “I’m mindful of this in my teaching and seminars.”
Putting copy writers and graphic designers together as a team Millwood revolutionized advertising, making the C.D.P Agency the top advertising agency in Britain. His best friend, Alan Parker, also worked C.D.P.as did Ridley Scott, John Hagerty and Charles Saatchi. All have remained close friends.
“In advertising as in art you start with something quite good and finesse and finesse it through dialogue with the other members of the creative team. In both industries you keep the creative relationships and build on them.”
It was the early ‘60s , the time of “swinging London”. Not only were Puttnam and Parker fascinated by film, they also loved popular music. Puttman was especially fascinated by the Harry Neilson song and album ‘That’ll be the Day’. He envisaged a film featuring this and other songs. How to do it? “My friend Ray Connolly was also captivated by pop music. We decided to go for it. Ray worked on the film script at night. I met him in the morning and reviewed his work. Somehow we cobbled together enough money to get the film made.”
Directed by Waris Hussein, with music by The Bee Gees, Melody (1971) is an adolescent view of swinging London. The appealing leads, played by Mark Lester (Oliver) and Tracy Hyde, rebel against the establishment, especially when they decide to get married. Melody did well at the box office and both Connolly’s and Puttnam’s careers were launched.
“We followed with Stardust (1975), directed by Michael Apted. It starred Adam Faith, Keith Moon and David Essex as believable rock musicians.”
“At its heart, film is about identity” Puttnam said. “Alan Parker was extremely interested in the Chicago of the late ‘20s and the music created. He hit on the idea of an homage of sorts with all the leads played by twelve year olds. Jodie Foster committed. Instead of bullets the machine guns sprayed whipped cream. Paul William’s score was in the tradition of the era and worked. The movie Bugsy Malone (1976) was a runaway critical and commercial success. Alan won a BAFTA for Best Screenplay and Jodi Foster won two BAFTAs as Best Supporting Actress and Best Newcomer. Because of changes in law a film like this couldn’t be made today.”
With the late Francoise Truffaut, Lord Puttnam believes that “the truth the filmmaker feels inside himself is the only truth. I’m desperate to get what I believe are truths across in cinema. God knows the medium is powerful enough to do it . You make a passionate committed film, the audience will always turn up. I’ve never had an audience let me down. You make a film like The Killing Fields and the audience will come and see it.”
Puttnam’s childhood obsession with Alf Tupper comics and a bout of ‘flu in 1979 led him to research the life of Eric Liddle a devout Scottish Christian who struck Olympic Gold in the Paris Games of 1924. Liddle was in fact the model for the comic strip. “I looked at actual film of Liddle running from the Games and elsewhere. The film was jumpy. Then I returned to the drawings from the comics. I commissioned Colin Welland to write the screenplay and the result was Chariots of Fire. It won an Oscar. It was Hugh Hudson’s first film as director. He won a BAFTA and later an Oscar. Ichikawa had made a 1965 film Tokyo Olympiad which greatly influenced our cinematographer David Watkin.”
“I’d like to take moment here to acknowledge the part of music in great movies. I’ve seen both Chariots of Fire and The Mission many times without music in the editing process. Vangilis’ music for Chariots and Enno Morricone’s music for The Mission greatly enhanced both films.”
“Cal (1984) was a chance to work with the great Helen Mirren. I was attracted to the project because of the Dostoevsky-like aspect of Bernard MacLaverty’s novel. The budget was always adequate and we had a terrific Anglo-Irish cast and crew. I think Mark Knopfler’s score for Cal is wonderful and underestimated.”
Puttnam refers to Local Hero as his first environmental film. He’s about to produce another film on this subject. Ironically part of the financing for this project comes from Saudi Arabia. “If you’re not part of the solution you become part of the problem,” he said, quoting Eldridge Cleaver. He can usually tell if a script is of interest after reading about fifteen pages.
“On balance, I think it’s easier to get a reasonably priced picture made today than it’s ever been – this is evidenced by the number of movies being distributed by independent distributors. Although there has been a slight decline in the number of small-budget pictures produced by major studios as they increasingly focus on large productions.”
Lord Puttnam ended his lecture by paying tribute to fellow Cork resident Jeremy Irons. “Jeremy is a committed human being who’s an actor but much, much more.”
The same might be said of producer, and humanist, David Puttnam.
The Montreal World Film Festival took place 27th August – 7th September 2015