Newell ad­ven­tures

Empire (Australasia) - - REVIEW -

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 (1994)

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.”


(1997) Post-four Wed­dings, 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.”



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.”



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’s he talk­ing about? I saved his film!’”



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


Mike Newell con­fers with Daniel Rad­cliffe on the set of Harry Pot­ter And The Goblet Of Fire.

From top to bot­tom: James Russo, Al Pa­cino and Michael Mad­sen in Don­nie Brasco;

Mark (Glen Pow­ell) leads Juliet (Lily James) in the dance in The Guernsey Lit­er­ary & Potato Peel So­ci­ety;

Charles and Car­rie (Hugh (Andie Grant) Macdow­ell) fail to get hitched again in Four Wed­dings And A Fu­neral;

Jake Gyl­len­haal (right) piles in in Prince Of Per­sia: The Sands Of Time.

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