Posted on Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 by David Chen
When I look at director Mike Newell’s filmography, I’m impressed by its breadth, depth, and quality. It’s difficult for me to imagine that the same man who made Donnie Brasco also made Four Weddings and a Funeral, and also made Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) his eclectic choices, Newell has been able to craft films that always seem able to bring out a certain sense of authenticity in their characters and in the relationships between them. In a couple of months, Newell will tackle another big-budget adaptation, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. In the past, videogame adaptations have had a pretty spotty record in terms of quality, but I’m holding out hope that Sands of Time will be one of the best videogame-to-film adaptations we’ve seen yet.
I had the opportunity recently to chat with Mr. Newell for a lengthy conversation/interview. Our discussion spanned topics far and wide; we discussed the early days of Mike’s career, why he enjoyed working in film over TV, the tax benefits of working with George Lucas, the “English-ness” he tried to bring to the Harry Potter series, how he chooses his diverse projects, and why he cast Jake Gyllenhaal in The Prince of Persia. You can read the interview below, and/or listen to the audio via the /Filmcast.
Mike Newell, thanks so much for speaking with us today on the /Filmcast.
Well, it’s nice to talk to you.
So Mr. Newell, you’ve worked on a lot of television shows and some made-for-TV films; I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about your path from working on TV to working on film.
Well, it’s a long time now. The mid-1970s was when I moved into movies, and the first show that I made, in fact, started life as a big sort of two hour TV dramatic special but they liked it and released it as a movie. Somebody bought it and released it as a movie. I can’t remember who. And that was a show called ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’. Not the last one; not the Leonardo DiCaprio. It was made with actually Richard Chamberlain and a lot of other very snotty– I mean, very important in English actors.
So that’s where it began, and then of course for a little while, I flickered between the two. I would make movies and then I would come back and make television, both in this country and also internationally. And then little by little, simply, I didn’t need to make television any more and I was more interested in movies, and so the television side of things went away.
So did you always want to work on films, or did you discover your love for it when you started making them?
No, no, no. I always wanted to work on films, and when I was starting in television in this country, in Great Britain, there really wasn’t any film to be made. The stuff that was being made was very low quality. A lot of it was sort of quota movies for cheap and pretty nasty American product; Matt Helm and things like that. And where the juice was, where the, you know, the great writing was and the real excitement, was in TV. And so what we wanted to do was– what my generation wanted to do was to break out of studio production, electronic studio production, which you would know as– oh, God. I mean, your version of it was done in the mid-1950s; our version of it was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it was– oh, I can’t remember what they were called. It’s people like Arthur Penn and what not would make these big studio-based, set-based TV dramas and we had the same kind of production. And of course what the young guys like me were desperate to do was to get out onto the streets.
We wanted it to be realer and we wanted it to be harder and to have more action to it and just a greater sense of reality, and so we were constantly shoving to get away from electronic production into film production. And so we started to make little 16 mm films and then they developed and we were making hour, hour and a half television features, and then it’s quite a natural step, in fact, to go across into low budget cinema features. And that was what happened to my generation of directors.
What did you personally enjoy more about films than TV work?
Well, simply that the kind of subjects that you would be able to do would be realer. They would be harder-edged, they would be more kind of ‘the world as it is’ rather than a kind of– some fuzzy sentimental glow. An awful lot of TV back then was pretty sentimental, and then there was a whole other strand which was simply, “This is what it’s like. This is really what it’s like.” And all of us aspired to that.
I want to talk to you about your films, obviously, but before I do that, I just want to ask real quickly about your work on ‘Young Indiana Jones’. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Ah, right. Yeah, you bet I can. ‘Young Indiana Jones’ was an absolute lifesaver and back when that was being made, which was kind of the early 1990s, once in a while, some– very times were hard in this country, as they very often are. It’s a kind of cottage industry here, and it has colossal ups as well as colossal downs, and those days were one of the down times. And what happened was George Lucas developed this show and what he wanted was to get absolutely grade A directors for a price. And we needed the money, we needed the jobs, and the marvelous thing about it was that George would– he was immensely generous. He paid very well. He sort of paid straight into your back pockets. If you paid tax on it, that was your affair, but it wasn’t his affair. And he had these sort of wild subjects.
He got a lot of very good writers; a lot of English writers came in and had a lot of fun with what would happen to Indiana Jones as actually a little boy– they did some with a little boy– and as a teenager. And they were a lot of fun. They were a lot of just kind of simple adventure stories at kind of 40, 45 minutes for a TV slot. And you used to shoot these things and you’d go all the world. I mean, it was wonderful. I remember saying, “You know what? This one, I’d really like to make it like the end of ‘Anna Karenina’, have the end of the drama, all happen in front of a great big steam locomotive.” And the guy who was producing it– I mean, George was producing it back in California– but the guy who was doing the kind of day-by-day stuff said, “Yeah.” He said, “There are great steam trains in Prague. Let’s go to Prague.” So we packed up our traps and off we went to Prague, and that would happen all over the world. It happened in Africa, it happened in Turkey and Istanbul, all over the show. And these shows were very, very great fun. We had a lot of good times with them. I only did a couple, but I had a great time doing it.
I’m looking over your filmography, and I’m sure a lot of people would be interested to know this. You know, you made a number of smaller films such as ‘Pushing Tin’, ‘Mona Lisa Smile’, ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera,’ and there’s a lot of diversity there. Can you talk about how you choose your projects?
Well, in a funny sort of way, it’s actually quite difficult to talk about how you choose, because the one power that guys like me have is to say, “No, we don’t have to make anything,” and so therefore whatever notions we have of what we like to do, how we’d like it to look, what sort of audience we would like for it, that depends very much on what is out there and what is coming to you. And so I think that there’s a general feeling of, “What simply connects to you personally, to me personally?” And so with each one of those films which– and they’re very diverse. You know, there’s very little– actually, there are things linking them, but I think are very clear and we can talk about it if you’re interested– but they sort of self-select. And ‘Pushing Tin’ came through, for instance, and I said, “Oh, that’s really funny. And also, it’s about a day’s work in the lives of these two obsessive guys.” And I could see a way of doing it in which the characters were true.
‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, which was a colossal flop and a lot of people did put it down very hard, I’m sure quite rightly– I mean, you absolutely mustn’t bitch about critical reception– but I loved the book so much because I felt that the book was so human and full of sort of love and life and what not, that I kind of couldn’t not make it. Same with ‘Mona Lisa Smile’; I thought, “My God, we’re going to tell the story, we’re going to tell a story about the lives of young women in the 1950s when young women were simply overlooked. They weren’t dealt with at all.”
Now you’ve got things like ‘Mad Men’ and a lot of TV which has a lot to do with the young women of the time, but then, 10, 12 years ago when I was making that movie, they weren’t being talked about it was a great opportunity to get this ensemble cast of fantastic actresses together. And again, it self-selected. What all of those things have got in common actually is character, and if I can’t see a way into a character, then probably I shouldn’t do the movie. That’s where I start; I start with character and I also start with a kind of fresh, compelling story. I need a story and I need good characters, and that’s why you get this what people perceive as being a great variation in the stuff that I do, but as far as I’m concerned, they self-select.
One of the questions I have was kind of about your desire to work on big sort of tentpole, blockbuster films, and you’re kind of doing more of that now.
I didn’t desire it. I didn’t desire it. It came along and it wanted me. I mean, how it happened, I made two of these things now. I did a ‘Potter’ and I’ve just made this Bruckheimer movie, and in both cases, you know, in the ‘Harry Potter’, the producer gave me a book which was the size of a house brick and said, “Can you see a way of making this as one movie? The studio think maybe you have to make it as two movies,” and I read the book and I said, “I think it would be disastrous to make it as two movies. There’s not enough material. There’s a lot of decoration, but there isn’t enough real story. No, we should make it as one movie and we should make it like this. We’re going to make it like a Hitchcock thriller.”And of course, they loved the sound of that and the way we went, and that’s what we did. We cut great chunks out of the book quite, I believe, rightly, and away we go.
And then with the Bruckheimer, what was completely fascinating to me was that you were dealing with this ancient world which was so completely strange to me, and had to be researched and discovered and I was completely fascinated in dealing with a sort of myth. You know, the story of the Bruckheimer movie is like the story of Noah, except that it’s not a flood, it’s a sandstorm that is going to wipe out mankind unless mankind can manage to kind of do a deal with God. And I was completely with fascinated to go back into these really ancient times and recreate them in such a way that a modern audience would find them exciting and emotional and funny and be entertained by it. It’s a terrific challenge, that, you know?
I want to ask you about ‘Harry Potter’ again, in terms of how you were chosen to direct that film. What was that process like, especially because I don’t think you had made that many big films at that point in time.
Well, I mean that I think that I had been jogging along at budgets of around somewhere between $50 and $70 million, and I can’t remember what the budget of ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ was. It was in the area. So was ‘Donnie Brasco’, so was ‘Pushing Tin’. The English movies, ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, were much, much, much, much smaller. You know, ‘Four Weddings’ was made for $5 million and, you know, simply it’s a tribute to the skill of everybody involved that it came off the way it did, but that was a real cheapie. But the others had been in the kind of mid-range.
The one thing that you never, ever think about is budget. The only thing to be said about budget is that there is never enough of it. It doesn’t matter whether it costs $200 million or $250 million or $450 million, as you hear that maybe ‘Avatar’ cost; there will not have been enough money. And you completely lose any kind of– the budget and the money is never a thing which overwhelms you. If it did, then simply you should never have been selected, but I have never been overwhelmed by money in my life. I’ve always felt they should give me more.
Can you talk a little bit about how you approached the world-building elements of the ‘Harry Potter’ film?
Yes. Yes, absolutely. I mean, the world was built, remember. You know, I was very fortunate to have had two really good guys go ahead of me, and the world was built. But what I felt was that because one was Mexican and the other was an American, they actually hadn’t been able to see what I could see, which was the English-ness of it. Now, I didn’t go to a boarding school, but I went to a school that is actually very much like the school in ‘Harry Potter’. The buildings were all 700 years old, the school had been around for 1,000 years, it had traditions dripping out of every pore, so on and so on and so on. And so what you saw in that movie was me saying, “Listen, the one thing that I can really bring to this is I can make this a really English school. Trust me for that.” And so the kids are very– well, I mean, the relationship between the teachers and the pupils is a kind of anarchic one, which is exactly what I remember. I remember that the business of school, aside from learning and passing exams and all that kind of stuff, was actually testing the relationship between adults and children to destruction.
Could you get the guys who taught you to sob and gibber with the impossibility of their relationship with the people they taught? And that was a lot of fun, and we did that constantly and the adults who were teaching us knew exactly what the game was and knew that there was a game being played, and it was all about these kids learning to kind of mold the real world into their version of that, and that’s what we did at school. We said, “Okay, the world is this, it’s the world of school, but it’s real for us and so we like this guy. But we don’t like this guy, and so we’re going to show both of these guys what that looks like,” and so we did, away we went. And of course, once you’ve set that, once you’ve set that kind of engine in motion, then the thing will develop in its own right. And my point about the school always was that it was anarchy and it was about children learning how to dominate.
I’m wondering, were you ever sort of offered to do the subsequent films and can you talk about how you feel the series has gone since then?
Well, it was impossible for me to do the one immediately following because it was already coming down the road, quite a long way down the road, before I had finished the one that I was doing, and so I would have had to have skipped. And by the time that I had skipped, I’d actually found something else that I really wanted to make and it just– everybody slightly missed the train. There was also time while I was shooting ‘Pushing Tin’ when they were setting up the first two movies, and I think that they were pretty interested in me during that time. But again, you know, it didn’t work out. It’s like actors; if you knew how many different actors were considered for any particular part, I wonder how many actors were considered for ‘Indiana Jones’. It won’t just have been the guy who played it; they would’ve been all over the show, scripts would’ve been flying all over Hollywood. It’s not an exact science. And that happened more with the films that went before than it did the films that went after. It’s kind of accident. It’s an accident of availability.
What do you think of the films that have come out since ‘Goblet of Fire’?
Oh, I’m not going to tell you that!
I mean, I’ve never seen a movie yet…If you gave six directors one script and said, “Go away and make a movie,” you would get back six radically different films. It just would be the case. And so David Yates is a really good director; how he’s managed to do four on the trot, I simply don’t know. It would’ve driven me stark mad.
Alfonso was a marvelous director, and Chris, there wouldn’t have been a ‘Harry Potter’ if it hadn’t been for Chris Columbus, and you know, power to all of their arms and the films that I made of those scripts wouldn’t have been anything like what came out. And so I don’t follow the series slavishly. I’m aware of it, you know. I see bits and pieces. Once in a while on late night television and what not, I’ll see it, but I don’t follow it slavishly. I had my chance just to have a lot of fun with the memories of my own school days in the one that I did, and I had a lot of fun, and that was enough.0
Let’s talk about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Can you tell us about what drew you to the project and also have you ever played the ‘Prince of Persia’ video games before?
Well, I played it, of course. As soon as I knew I was going to make the movie, I went and played it. I played it solidly for, I don’t know, afternoons on end, it seemed like to me, and I was so maladroit at the handling of the controls that I just about managed to get him to run along a wall before he fell off into some appalling scything machine and was chopped to bits.
So what drew you to this project, sir?
I was hopeless. I was completely hopeless at it, but we never thought that what we were doing was making a film of a game. I knew that it was based on a game and Jordy [Jordan Mechner] and I– the guy who wrote the game and had a huge hand in the creation of the first couple of versions of the game– Jordy and I really hit it off and I adored him, because he was, like me, a kind of research freak and he knew stuff about sixth century Persia that I found completely fascinating. I’m sitting in my office now staring at a row of huge books about sixth century Persia. And I loved doing all the research, and Jordy absolutely loved doing the research and we kind of got together on that and had a lot of fun.
And there’s an enormous sense of– well, a reality about it; this is what it was like. And I kind of saw that in the game and I saw that in the ideas and the script had it took that approach to it because Jordy wrote the first version of the script, and so we kind of carried on along that. And we had a marvelous designer and a great cameraman, and our effort the whole time was to make the world authentic without being dull. Of course, it had to be a great rollicking, swashbuckling adventure story, and that was very clear, but it also needed to have a sense of authenticity and realism about it. And also the relationship as well; it’s a love story. You know, it‘s a boy and a girl who decide– to start with, they cannot stand one another. They drive one another mad.
And you know, finally, it’s a full-on love affair, but you’ve got to take the whole movie to bring them to that point. And so just that side of things, just making a swashbuckling adventure movie, is very enjoyable, but what we tried to do, what I tried to do, was to make it very realistic. I wanted people to say, “Gosh, if you did that, it would feel exactly like that. That’s what being in a sword fight must feel like.”
I’m wondering if you’ve seen other films that have been adapted from video games and sort of what your own approach has been to adapting this particular video game. And specifically, relating to the–
Well, I’ll tell you what it was. I mean, I can tell you what it was; I don’t want to lose part of the audience, but I knew what the guy looked like, I knew the world that he was in, I knew about sixth century Persia, I knew that he was a fantastic athlete and I had the huge good fortune of having Jake Gyllenhaal, who was a good athlete but who worked his socks off. You can’t know how hard he worked to make himself the physical personification of that tiny little video game character. And there he is, he’s real and he can ride and he can fight and he can shoot and he’s a marvelous action hero as well as being the guy that we know from ‘Brokeback Mountain’, who’s a fabulous actor. I was very, very fortunate with Jake. And so, what I was aiming to do was to not produce a simple copy of what was in the video game, but I wanted him to look like that, I wanted him to be able to fight like hell, and I wanted him to be a great action character. And that’s what he gave me. Then, we were very careful about certain kind of key sequences, big sequences in the movie. There’s a sequence– there’s a pursuit in a market, there are several huge fights, there’s the taking of the town…
Well, let me ask you this; you bring up Jake Gyllenhaal– and this can be my last question. I’m a huge fan of Mr Gyllenhaal, incredibly talented, one of the great actors of our generation, but I’m wondering if you at any point considered casting someone, you know, of Middle Eastern descent or something along those lines, in sort of keeping–
No, I did not. Now, I didn’t do that because what I felt was that this was going to be a great, big movie with– that was produced by one of the great brands of American culture– well, two of the great brands, if you like; I mean, you know, Disney is one and Jerry is another– and that therefore, what I should do was to look to their requirements first. But what I absolutely did do was to say that the girl should– and I looked very hard at a lot of actresses from Bollywood, for instance, and some from Turkey and some actually from Iran, two or three from Iran, and so I got very, very interested indeed in that.
And what stuck from that was the look of the girl and the behavior of the girl. In fact, what we had was the next kind of marvelous English actress out of the box. You know, she was 21 when we made the movie, and she’s absolutely tremendous. But those researches in the Bollywood girls and the Iranian girls and what not had left me with a very strong impression of how this girl should behave, what she should look like and the fact that she was a kind of aristocrat. And Jake is not an aristocrat at all; he’s a street kid who has found himself taken into a royal family because he’s an orphan and the King likes the look of him, and it’s a kind of crazy act of sentiment on the King’s part. “I like the look of you, boy. Come and you’re going to be my third son.” But with the girl, she, for me, needed to be very authentic indeed, and she needs to have this Eastern look to her. So the casting process, I never had any doubt. It was me that brought Jake in toward this. From the very first moment that I read it, I knew that he was, for me, the one to beat. I saw lots and lots of excellent people, but I never found anybody who beat my idea of the character, who did my idea of the character, better than Jake, and I convinced Jerry of that.
But the girl, as I say, the girl really was– I was looking for an Eastern princess, and all the time I was meeting these wonderful, beautiful girls, I was learning about Eastern-ness.
Mike Newell is the director of films such as ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral,’ ‘Donnie Brasco,’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.’ His newest film, ‘Prince of Persia : The Sands of Time’ will be in theaters on May 28, 2010. Mike Newell, thanks so much for speaking with us today at slashfilm.com.
Okay, very good. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed myself, so thank you.
Thank you. I definitely have as well.
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