INTERVIEW: Sir Producer Puttnam's "Life So Far"
by Brandon Judell
Sir David Puttnam, 58, has accomplished a lot. He’s produced such varied features as “Lisztomania” (1975), “Midnight Express” (1978), “Chariots of Fire” (1981), “The Killing Fields” (1984), and “War of the Buttons” (1994). He’s composed music and written the respected tome “Movies and Money” (Knopf), a history of the business side of filmmaking. He also had a legendary run at Columbia Pictures from 1986 to 1988. Now comes what he says is the last picture he’ll ever produce, “My Life So Far,” a sweet tale of the world at large as seen through the eyes of a precocious lad (presently in release from Miramax). It takes place in a huge estate in an earlier part of this century. Yes, this is the kind of quality movie Puttnam lives for, one that has trouble finding a home, let alone backing. Anyway, Sir David pulled it off and agreed to discuss his wealth of experience in the movies with indieWIRE, from his influences in the 50’s and 60’s to the cinema’s present problems with children, morality and censorship.
indieWIRE: There seems to be a young new British cinema arising that deals with racism, working class issues and homosexuality. It’s like the sixties all over again with that decade’s “The L-Shaped Room” and “This Sporting Life.” Do you find this happening because the British public is more sophisticated than its American counterpart? Or do you find it’s as difficult making movies for the Brits as it is for us?
David Puttnam: Let’s start at the beginning because it’s quite an interesting story, and it doesn’t get told enough. When I was first making movies in the late sixties, it was an exciting time to be around because there was this tremendous growth of film societies in universities all over America. There was a very big 16mm market, and there were these tremendous figures of kids entering higher education in this country, so you felt quite confident that if you hung in there for five or ten years, there were going to be major audiences who were really interested in European cinema. These societies would book very interesting stuff: Bresson and Renoir and the Eastern Europeans, the early Milos Formans and they did very well. So the reasonable expectation was we were moving into an era where there was going to be this plurality of filmgoing and therefore filmmaking.
For whatever reason, in the mid-seventies, the likes of these pictures hit a brick wall. And cinemagoers just got less discerning, less interested in what films had to say about life and about death. The last really great film about life was probably “Fanny and Alexander.” It’s the last time I saw a film where you thought I’m watching a film here by somebody who really understands the complexity of life, who’s really trying to help me navigate my own way through what’s going to be a tough next thirty, forty years.
So there was a tremendous optimism. I feel that that sort of died on the vine. Now in Britain what you got is that market but it’s small. There’s not enough of them. Maybe 500,00 people who’ll maybe go and look for a smart film. Thanks to Channel 4 and BBC and various other things, we constantly have people coming out in those areas that want to make those films. We have good writing, but there is a budget limit, and the budget limit is around three and half million dollars. If you make a picture over $3-1/2 million, you’re going to lose money because you’re only going to get a few pennies out of this market place. It’s very tough. So we’re squeezed into low budget filmmaking. Let’s put it this way, anyone with any dreams is squeezed into low budget moviemaking.
iW: You’ve said you were shaped by films from the fifties. There’s a controversy now that violence and a lack of morality are corrupting American youth. Do you feel film can damage society? Is there a correlation?
Puttnam: I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever. I’ve never doubted it. I’ve been saying it for 25 years. I’ve never wavered for one second in my belief that there’s a precise correlation between the media diet to particularly young people and their view of themselves. Why? Because what their media is doing is informing that view of themselves. That’s the way they see themselves. When you go to the cinema, what’s reflected to you is the best and the worst of your personality, and it’s up to the filmmaker to either reflect back to somebody their dreams and what’s inside them that’s really worthwhile — or you can reflect back to them their most criminal, banal, basic dumb instincts. It’s up to the filmmaker.
iW: So getting to “My Life So Far,” what are you trying to say to children through your boy hero?
Puttnam: It wasn’t made for children any more than “My Life as a Dog” was made for children or “Cinema Paradiso” was made for children. Both films used children as a vehicle. In “My Life So Far,” it’s the world seen through the young boy’s eyes. But what we are looking at is the adult world. It’s a film made for adults. And what we hoped to do is try to illustrate to adults how very silly they can appear to each other or to any one objective, not just a child.
I think the film’s touching. It’s funny. It makes me laugh. As I said, I think it touches on issues that haven’t been addressed for quite a long while. I think here’s a family that anyone with a brain would like to have been part at some point. You may not have wanted to be one of their children but you certainly would have liked to have known that family. To have lived within their environment. It’s so seductive in that sense. The idea was to make “My Life So Far” sufficiently seductive that when a crisis hits upon them, you care, and you want them to get out of it.
iW: What about the films you saw when you were growing up?
Puttnam: My own life was largely formed by a movie I saw when I was very young indeed. Hardly do I ever meet anyone who’s ever seen it. It’s called “The Search” with Montgomery Clift. It was his first film. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. It has half financed by MGM and half by the United Nations. I wanted to be that person that Clift played. I was 12 or 13 when I saw the movie, and I wanted to be him. I wanted to be that sensitive. To me he was exactly what human beings ought to be like. Why? Because he was rather like the very best of my father. My father had just come back from the War. What was great about it was Clift wasn’t a goody-goody. He had this boy foisted on him, one separated from his mother in a concentration camp, so he had to kind of go out and be good. But he did the right thing in the end, helping the child to find his mother, and thus losing that child. To me, it was a perfect tale about how a decent human being uses his life, uses the potential of having life, and it marked me very consciously.
Another film sequence that marked me was, because I was exactly the right age, I was 15 when I saw it, was “East of Eden.” It allowed me to not be frightened of the complexity of my emotions and my reactions to things. It was at the end of the day. There’s this fantastic scene where James Dean is sitting by his father, holding his father’s hand. His father’s had a stroke so he tells his father he’s going to look after him. He’ll get rid of the nurse. That for me was the way life ought to be. You’ve been through your crises. You made your point, and at the end of the day, you’ve made your piece with your family.
I sound like some old fashioned soul saying this, but it’s relevant because inside all of us, we haven’t changed. Not that much. We’re not different human beings. We’re still basically moved by the same things. We care about the same things. Mothers still react to their children in the same way they have always did. What’s happened is our reactions have been distorted for us. This is about being reflected back to us in a distorted form. We’ve been cast. In the other room before I came here, I was talking about censorship. What kind of crazy censorship system is it where you censor sexuality that is not illegal, but you don’t censor violence that is illegal. It’s the most extraordinary kind of piece of doublethink.