Director Mike Newell on the ups and downs of his career
MIKE NEWELL, LIKE his contemporary Stephen Frears, is a hard director to pin down. He’s as comfortable making romantic comedies or lavish blockbusters as he is independent dramas, such as his latest, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society. Is there a connective tissue? “If you boiled everything down, everything I’ve made is about good characters in bad fixes,” he says. We asked him to talk us through five of the best. Well, four winners and one near-career funeral.
1. FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL
The Richard Curtis-written comedy that made Hugh Grant a star and launched a thousand imitators.
“I was deeply negative about the title. I wanted them to change it. They said, ‘You’re mad, why?’ I said, ‘Audiences will count. If halfway through they’ve only got to the second wedding, they’re on their bikes.’ I was wildly wrong, and nobody objected to the title at all. We were all gung-ho to make it in the late summer, then it was closed down because of money. Hugh went off to do a movie in Australia [Sirens], and they said, ‘We’ll re-cast.’ I said no. Because I saw everybody for that part. They had to have verbal dexterity. But only one had the combination of being very slightly but just forgivably posh, who was gorgeouslooking, and who never tripped up on the words. That was Hugh. So we waited for him. That was the right thing to do.”
2. DONNIE BRASCO Weddings,
Post-four Newell found himself directing Al Pacino and an increasingly stellar Johnny Depp in this low-key but acclaimed tale of an FBI agent going undercover in a New York crime family.
“I knew that this was an absolutely wonderful script. But how could I, an Englishman, possibly go up against Francis Ford Coppola and all that wonderful aesthetic of the Godfather movies? What was there for me to do? The thing was to develop the relationship between Pacino and Johnny Depp. That’s where the juice lay. It was clear that the trick of the movie was that Michael Corleone was going to play this no-account junior mechanic. How are you going to change the audience’s perception? He was right in the middle of his Big Al period, and I think he would have heard himself in that mode and thought this wasn’t quite right. So, he was prepared to cooperate. I was constantly, in tiny ways, saying, ‘I wonder what would happen if that was softer?’ It was death by a thousand drips! But he was terrific. Does somebody who is as experienced as Al not see what is happening?
I doubt that.”
3. HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005) Newell’s first blockbuster, this adaptation of the fourth Potter book remains a fan favourite, and introduced the world to Robert Pattinson through his doomed Cedric Diggory. “Alan Horn was in charge at Warner Bros. and had been there for about two years. I liked him a lot. He said to me, ‘Can you make two films out of this book?’ I said, ‘I don’t think you can, and I don’t think you should. There’s enough incident for two films, but not enough story.’ It was North By Northwest — the innocent at risk. It’s a thriller, a black thriller. I had no idea how to make the film. CGI can be very dull, but I did find out as we went along. And the big thing was, somebody died. That was a key thing. At the end of the film, Cedric Diggory crashes back into the arena and everyone starts cheering, but he’s dead. I wanted the actor who played his father, Jeff Rawle, to howl like an animal, and he did. And it’s a tremendous thing. All of a sudden you are no longer joking. It’s no longer a cute film about schoolchildren. It’s not even that the boy dies, it’s that the love of his father is torn out of him.” 4. PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME (2010) A disappointment critically and commercially, Newell’s adaptation of the beloved video game failed to repeat the Potter magic. “I have mixed memories of it. They sent me the script, but because they were in the middle of a writers’ strike, we never cracked it. I made a film which I always think of as very different from the one that went out. Jerry [Bruckheimer, producer] saw it and he saw that in his estimation the film was adrift. So I was required to fire my editors, which I did very, very badly. It takes exquisite skill to fire somebody. And in came Michael Kahn, who cuts for Spielberg. For me, it was a great big epic romance with battles and princesses and it had a real swing to it. Off he went and he cut lots of things I wouldn’t have cut. But you know what? If I were him I would say, ‘What is he talking about? I saved his film!’” 5. THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY (2018) Newell’s latest sees Lily James shine in a wistful post-world War II drama that found fans despite — or possibly because of — that unwieldly title. “I love the title. The title took a lot of stick. Of course, it’s cute. And cute is usually the kiss of death. There had been three versions of the script by three separate writers and each of them came to me. What none of them did, except the one I made, is show how this preposterous title happened. I think a lot of serious people hated the title. However, the people who come to the midweek screenings didn’t. People feel guilty about liking it. People come up to me out of alleys and say [in mock whisper], ‘I saw your film. I really enjoyed it. But I’ve got to go now.’” CHRIS HEWITT
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD
Mike Newell confers with Daniel Radcliffe on the set of Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.