A conversation about great writers and filmmakers with British film boss Adrian Wootton, fresh off lecturing on Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
After his terrific Melbourne International Film Festival keynote on Ernest Hemingway, film culture tsar Adrian Wootton talked to me about Ken Loach, Graham Greene, and Venice. The lively Brit with colourful socks was expansive, fascinating company.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: In your talk earlier today about Hemingway, you spoke about his amazing energy for writing and life. Who’s around these days who’s in that vein?
ADRIAN WOOTTON: In terms of filmmaking, I’ve always thought Steven Soderbergh. Even though he’s now said he’s retiring, I personally don’t believe it. He’s somebody who I’ve met and done stuff in festivals with over the years; I’ve always been incredibly impressed by how he wants to do everything. I’ve always been extremely impressed with Steven Soderbergh as a filmmaker and as a person who has got a lot he wants to say and a lot he wants to do. I can’t believe he’s not going to come back and make more movies. The biggest writers—it’s almost like a truism now—they keep themselves away from public life and celebrity. Most of the major writers hide from it, they run from it like the plague. They don’t court the publicity, they churn out books and people don’t really know anything about them. Whereas actors have become even more dogged by celebrity, film directors/writers have retreated. I think the biggest writers have retreated from celebrity and their personalities have almost become, in a lot of cases, anonymous.
John Le Carré spent years and years being enigmatic. I love him, he’s such an incredible raconteur and wit; he tells these wonderful stories about ludicrous incidents writing films and trying to be in a film. Being a friend of Graham Greene’s and friend of Alec Guinness’s, he’s got amazing stories. But he doesn’t do that kind of celebrity interview, so once in a blue moon he’ll give an interview and the rest of the time he hides away in Cornwall or Switzerland (where they’ve got a house in Geneva) and you don’t see him. I think that’s characteristic of a lot of writers. You name all these big serious novelists that publish books and you think, how much do you actually really know about any of them? The only person who you could say is a bit larger-than-life—which was kind of thrust upon him, and he’s retreated from it in recent years—is Salman Rushdie because of the whole Satanic Verses thing, and being guarded by armed police for 20 years. I guess a long-winded way of saying I can’t think of an example of an equivalent of Hemingway in the 21st Century.
AB: Alex Gibney was telling me about Martin Scorsese’s exceptional passion and energy for filmmaking and film history.
AW: There are three film makers that I have met in my life whose encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema astonishes and awes me. One: Quentin Tarantino, but even he doesn’t know as much as Marty. Scorsese is unbelievable. The first time I ever met him was when I was in my 20s, and I wrote a big article about him, and I hosted him at this event we were doing in the UK. I picked him up from the train station in a car, and in the half an hour we were in this car he went through more film references than I’ve ever met in my life before. I thought, “My god, how am I going to cope with this for three days?” It was amazing.
AB: What film was he introducing?
AW: We did a special preview of The Color of Money. He had three gigs, one in London, one in Yorkshire and one in Scotland. It was my first real job and I couldn’t believe I’d got him in the town for 48 hours. I was looking after him and talking about movies every day. The other person I have to say who is up there with those two, is Bertrand Tavernier. Tavernier is astonishing. He started out as a press agent when he was very young in France. He ended up looking after John Ford. These American filmmakers came over with their late movies and he would look after them in Paris. John Ford liked getting drunk all the time, so he had to hide the bottle from him because he was doing his interview. Tavernier has these amazing stories about meeting great Hollywood filmmakers near the end of their careers. I think he’s a great filmmaker and every time I have the pleasure of going to Paris to meet him, he’s always got something to say which absolutely amazes me. I would agree with you, Scorsese is life-affirming in terms of his passion for cinema. But Marty isn’t a kind of actioner, he’s the reverse of that, he’s locked away in a projection room saying “I just need to see that again,” and he leads in that sense. When he’s not working, he leads quite a sedentary life and in fact it’s almost like he’s never not working, he never stops. He’s an amazing character.
AB: You’ve seen him a number of times over the years since that first meeting?
AW: Yeah, and it’s a funny thing because when he came to Yorkshire and when he came to Bradford, the people that were running the place then insisted that he visit the IMAX cinema. He’d never been in an IMAX before and it made him feel quite queasy seeing the film in IMAX. And then he said to me, “Well we’re in Bradford, Adrian [imitates Scorsese slapping his knee], so are we going to go for a curry tonight?” And I said, “Yeah Marty, whatever you want to do.” My bosses said, “Oh no, no, no, can’t take him out for a curry.” I said “Well this is kind of the curry capital of the UK, what’re you talking about?” And they said “No, no, we’re going to take him to a French restaurant.” I said, “a French restaurant in Bradford?! What are we taking him to a French restaurant in Bradford for?” We had this amazing row, and anyway we went to this flaming French restaurant which was mediocre. All the way through, Scorsese kept saying to me, “But where’s the curry Adrian?” For years afterwards, every time I met him, he said to me, “We never did get that curry.” So it’s a memory that has stuck for 25 years. Years ago, myself and a journalist called Jonathan Romney wrote a collection of essays called Celluloid Jukebox about popular music in the movies, and he was kind enough to write a preface for me. Then when he edited and put together the Bob Dylan documentary, he couldn’t come to the screening we had, but he did a small film for me which prefaced the screening of the film, which was just lovely. He’s always been very kind, a great friend to the British Film Institute, the Archive. He’s a terrific guy, for me personally, but also for the BFI.
AB: Godard famously said there were the five cinemas period, and he didn’t include British cinema in that. Your riposte would be to cite people like Stephen Frears and Ken Loach?
AW: I would cite them. Stephen Frears said something when he did a documentary about British cinema for the BFI and he cited Truffaut. I love Truffaut as a critic and filmmaker, but he cited Truffaut saying the problem with British cinema is that everybody speaks English, and he said the British in cinema is a contradiction in terms. Frears said, “What I said is bollocks to Truffaut.” I feel that. And I feel it not just about Loach and Leigh, who I love. I’m a huge fan of Stephen Frears, and all the young filmmakers; people like Lynne Ramsey, Andrea Arnold, and Ben Wheatley. But then I also have to say, “Hang on boys”: Carol Reed, David Lean, Pressburger, Hammer, and the Bond movies. So let’s not get carried away with ourselves, because for me there’s an amazing tradition of fantastic British films and British filmmakers. And then there’s our actors.
AB: Going back to that Frears documentary, they talk about Ken Loach being the greatest British filmmaker. What makes Loach special? Tell me a good story.
AW: Ken’s ploughed his own furrow forever, you know? And he’s never compromised. I’ve spent time with him, interviewed him on stage, and hosted him at film festivals over the years in different places. He’s always so kind of mild and meek until someone pushes his buttons. I remember one famous press conference that I was at in Cannes when he’d done Fatherland and the late and famous English film critic, Alexander Walter, stood up and started ranting at Loach as if he was a traitor, and Loach just got up and lacerated him. It was a moment of great theatre in the history of the Cannes Film Festival with Alexander Walter duking out at Loach who gave as good as he got. I’ve liked so many of his films over the years. I mean, how can you not? From Kathy Come Home and Kes, through to Raining Stones and beyond. Even things which people think are superficial. Looking For Eric is imbued with this unique sensibility. He manages to develop those long relationships with people like Paul Laverty. He manages to keep on making really interesting, idiosyncratic, and powerful films. And his Spirit of ’45 documentary is terrific, so I’m a great admirer.
AW: Good Vibrations is warm, funny, and likeable dramatisation of a story of an Irish record shop owner who discovered the band The Undertones. The documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom is joyous and life-affirming, about a group of legendary but still obscure female backing singers. I am a friend and great fan of its director Morgan Neville, and think this might be his best film to date.
AB: That great sense of humour in Loach’s work, does he have that in person?
AW: It’s very wry and gentle in person; he’s not a bit joker or big wise cracker. He’s quite a private person and he’s quite retiring except when he’s promoting his work or he’s talking about something that he feels very strongly about. I have had more to do over the years with Mike Leigh; he goes to the film festivals a lot, he wants to argue with you about movies. I’ll be doing a Q&A with another filmmaker and he’ll be at the back of auditorium sticking his hand up to engage. So I have engaged and spent more face time with Mike than I probably have with Ken. But I admire both of them enormously.
AB: As someone who’s an advisor to the Venice International Film Festival, what are your thoughts on Venice; its strengths as a festival relative to the other Euro big boys?
AW: I love Venice. It’s a fabulous place to be. I find—as someone who goes to Cannes and Berlin—that you can get into pretty much everything you want to see. You get your press accreditation; it’s accessible. It is quite informal. They’re friendly. My friends who I help on the Venice Days programme are great, and there are worse places to be than on The Lido where it’s all being held. I’ll be there for the opening weekend; I always really enjoy it.
AB: Anything you particularly recommend this year?
AW: There’s a lot of stuff in the official competition at Venice, which I think is really good. Some of the Italian films in the competition; Gianni Amelio’s L’intrepido, for instance, is great. The other Italian film that’s in the competition that I really like is A Street in Palermo. The Venice Days programme is very strong. Bethlehem, a Palestinian film, and a Korean horror/thriller called Rigor Mortis are very good, too. I talked to Stephen Frears about Philomena and he’s very excited about it, and I’m really looking forward to seeing that there.
AB: Woody Allen hit England aided by your Film London outfit. Match Point is terrific.
AW: Woody came to the premiere and introduced the film with the then-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. So there was this surreal, strange moment when Ken met Woody with me in the middle. He loved making films in London. Wherever he went he said how much fun he’d had, and so he made three movies in London. It’s been fantastic to see him have a career renaissance with really successful movies. The one I was talking about today, the Hemingway Midnight in Paris, is a wonderful love poem to Paris in the ’20s. It’s fantastic that he’s still inspired to make movies and that those movies are still really entertaining.
AB: On Midnight in Paris, that exciting Parisian cultural scene seems much harder to find these days, if it exists at all?
AW: I think you’re right. I think it is different. Obviously France and Paris still has a very strong film culture. You know they’re very passionate about movies and there’s a lot of really interesting movie makers, like Abdellatif Kechiche, who just won Cannes with La Vie D’Adèle. I think there’s a lot of really interesting movie makers, and I think French film culture is still very potent. I think in terms of artistic, art and literature, it doesn’t exist. It’s fair to say that, with the exception of one or two writers that sort of have an international appeal, it seems to me to be far less accessible and far less influential than it was. Paris doesn’t have the same zeitgeist that it’s had in the past. These things go in waves, but I think other places have outpaced Paris; whether it be London, New York, or other parts of the world. Paris has become a bit old fashioned in that context. You sort of struggle to name a really great French novelist at the moment.
AB: Your lecture quoted very funny Hemingway one-liners like, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Any of those that particularly resonate with you?
AW: I can’t write drunk [laughs]. A friend of mine who’s a scriptwriter said it was the other way around; he couldn’t write drunk, but he thought he was a much better editor of his own material when we was not sober. But I find that the only way that I can consistently write anything remotely sensible is by pretty much being sober. Which is very boring, so I have to be abstemious when I’m working. I think there’s a lot of bombast with Hemingway, but he had a kind of purity and vision about writing and about what he wrote. Even though it comes across as hyperbole, all you have to do to be a writer is sit at a typewriter and bleed, and he believed it. I think he had to believe it. Those things he said were his way of processing working, they were his mojo to focus him on the task at hand. He had to believe it was a tough, hard profession so that he could rationalise away the fact it was a sedentary occupation where you sit in a room quietly and don’t talk to anybody.
AB: But he did all that other stuff at the same time which informed his writing, essential to it.
AW: Well yes, even though some of the adventuring, philandering, drinking, and fishing was a distraction. The fact is, whereas Graham Greene was a machine, Hemingway had to do the things he did because he needed to draw on his own life. He wouldn’t have written The Sun Also Rises if he hadn’t gone bull fighting and hung out with all those people. He couldn’t have written A Farewell to Arms if he hadn’t been injured and had that love affair in 1917. He couldn’t have written For Whom the Bell Tolls if he hadn’t gone to the Spanish Civil War. So he had to have those experiences to write. Not all writers are like that. Greene was a bit like that; he did travel to the most dangerous, troubled spots in the world, whether it was Vietnam with The Quiet American, or Haiti with The Comedians. But the difference is Greene was a machine.
I went to Greene’s 1992 conference just after he died, and they gathered together a group of his friends. It was quite remarkable. Most of those people are dead now—the priest on whom he based Monsignor Quixote, and one of his great writing friends, a guy called Michael. He told this wonderful story about how in the 1950s he travelled around the world with Greene. But he became so disheartened by the end of this trip that he stopped travelling with him. Asked why, he said, “Well the thing is, Graham was a very big womaniser, but he could compartmentalise it all.” And it was a fact. If you see Greene’s manuscripts you can confirm it: he got up in the morning, and it didn’t matter how much he’d had to drink the night before or what he’d been doing, he would be at his desk at 6am and he would start writing. He would have an absolute ruthless routine where he’d write from 6 until 12, whereby he had to have written no less than 2000 words. And then downstairs, cocktails, parties, etc. And his mate would just be surfacing at this point because he’d be smashed from the night before, and Graham would say, “I’m finished writing for the day, let’s have a cocktail.” This guy said Greene was so demoralising to be with because he was churning out all this work and he wasn’t.
AB: There have been a lot of works about Graham Greene so I’m pleased your book approaches him from the film angle. When is that out?
AW: I hope next year. It’s something that is in a semi-finished state, and I just need to crack on when I have a space of time when I’m not running around the world doing five lectures and four panel discussions in four days. Graham Greene is someone who I am extremely passionate about because I admire his work so much and because of his engagement with cinema. He was such a brilliant film critic, and he had a really fantastic moment in the summers as a screenwriter, working with Carol Reed. He was a sort of producer; he appeared in movies and saw almost all of his work—certainly in terms of novels with the exception of A Burnt-Out Case—made in to a film or television adaptation. I don’t think there’s another writer who you can say, “He was a film critic, a scriptwriter, a producer, an occasional appearance, and had all of his work adapted.” I think he’s unique not just in the British cinema, but in world cinema for having that perspective. He led such an extraordinary, rich and complex life. And also, the reason I’m doing it is because there’s some great movies in there.
AB: Any burning question you’d like to ask Greene (and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, who you’ve been talking about here at the Melbourne International Film Festival)?
AW: With Greene, the burning question I always ask and I’m always fascinated by: why he could never make another movie with Carol Reed. They made two, and they made A Man in Havana almost as an accident; almost to stop Alfred Hitchcock doing it. Even though Greene suggested some ideas with Reed, it was a very long period and they clearly were natural collaborators. The question I would ask Greene is why didn’t it happen? Why did you not manage to carry on collaborating with Carol Reed? Because it seems like such a missed opportunity to not continue that collaboration. With the others, those great writers I’ve been talking about, I’d love to ask Faulkner what it really was like working on set with Howard Hawks and their adventures. I’d love to be in the room when they were arguing, gambling, drinking, because I think that must have been pretty special. I’d love to know what it was really like being with them in there.