November 28, 2014

An interview with Mike Hodges

Harry: “Clever sod, aren’t you?”
Carter: “Only comparatively.”

Mike Hodges is one of Britain’s most distinctive commercial filmmakers, with a cinema career spanning nearly forty years. His first feature, Get Carter (1971) belatedly became recognized as a classic British crime thriller, and his subsequent movies have run the gamut from cult favourites (The Terminal Man) to detested turkeys (Morons from Outer Space).

My partner, screenwriter Fiona Watson was mentored by Mike in a screenwriting course, and has kept up an occasional correspondence with him ever since. I decided to exploit this slight connection to ask for an interview, and Mike was kind enough to agree.

Our discussion ranged over some of his lesser-known works, while ignoring large areas worthy of deeper investigation. In particular, television work like Squaring the Circle and Dandelion Dead is criminally under-appreciated and under-seen, while other pieces, like the kinky music video for Queen’s Body Language, had not come to my attention at the time of the interview. I can’t account for my inexplicable failure to raise the subject of Black Rainbow, a striking movie which combines ecological and spiritual concerns, other than to plead that the intent of the interview was to concentrate more on the British side of this ocean-skipping oeuvre. Despite the gaps in this piece, which never aimed to be a career overview, I think it’s clear Mike Hodges has both a fascinating stylistic approach to film, and a set of strong recurring themes adding up to a cohesive and stimulating cinematic vision of the world – something all too rare in modern British film.

DC: Firstly, I wondered how you became a director? Your early television work is excellent (and little known) and it's not surprising you were talent-spotted for cinema. But it's amazing how quickly that first film happened, especially in the early seventies when it looks, in hindsight at least, as if all the fantastic energy British film had shown in the sixties was starting to wind down. So, a very general question: how did the industry feel to you at the time?

Mike Hodges: It soon became obvious to me that the British film industry was imploding under pressure from the US studios. It was a process we were getting used to as it had already happened to other UK industries including a thriving aircraft industry. Get Carter was an Anglo American production, EMI/MGM. Just prior to the commencement of shooting MGM suddenly shut their UK studios (again a healthy arm of the industry) and even removed the boilers etc. to render them useless.

During the first weeks on location in Newcastle the ACTT, the technicians' union, called the crew out on a useless one day strike. But then the union itself was useless and some would say corrupt. From then onwards (and probably before) the balance between UK and US product shifted dramatically away from British films having an outlet in its homeland. The Americans are, of course, brilliant at creating addictive merchandise. Their whole culture depends on that talent. Coca-Cola is a very significant brand in this respect. McDonalds, Hilton Hotels, etc. are all addictive institutions. So, with American hands on the windpipe of both production and distribution, the game was up for the British film industry as an industry. But, of course, it didn't stop in the cinemas but extended to every aspect of our culture and identity. That's what our politicians call the special relationship. If you want to explore further my opinion of this relationship you may like to read my novel - appropriately called Watching The Wheels Come Off - published in March.

DC: Pulp is such a different film from Get Carter — it seems to have suffered by comparison with its predecessor. It doesn't feel like an attempt to fit into any genre (while Get Carter is perhaps a deliberate attempt to push the realism of the crime genre) so I was wondering what inspired it?

MH: I must confess to being somewhat shocked when I first saw Get Carter on a cinema screen and with an audience. Having worked only in television it was an experience I'd never had before. In short, my apparent talent for manipulating audiences alarmed me. Pulp was my way of seeking an antidote through humour. It is, if you think about it, much the same story as Get Carter: the exploitation of a young woman and the corruption which engulfed her. Mickey King, unlike Carter, is not killed but left as helpless as a fly in a spider's web; an experience many of us endure with increasing intensity.

Undoubtedly my sense of humour is rooted in irony. It's my way of dealing with the world as I find it - brutal and bleak and brave. The resilience of Homo sapiens never ceases to move me.

Interestingly, between these two films, I wrote and directed a television short called The Manipulators. Two agents occupy a flat across the road from a young couple and their baby whom they are observing. Like Pavlov's dogs the couple are unwitting victims of a psychological experiment operated by some unnamed organisation, state or otherwise. Through misinformation (via phone calls, mail, etc.) the agents are apparently stimulating paranoia in the couple and destroying their trust in each other. The male eventually cracks and suffocates the woman. When it becomes apparent he intends to do the same to the child one of the agents protests, calling for the operation to be called off. His companion immediately phones the flat opposite and the couple present themselves in the window – with the baby. It's been a hoax. It turns out the protesting agent had failed the organisation's test. He'd showed signs of humanity, and is shot on the spot.

Years later I finally got to read Fernando Pessoa, and realised what I'd spent most of my life railing against. He put it so succinctly: “The world belongs to those who feel nothing.” Witness Blair's performance before the Chilcot inquiry. Ironically the brief he mastered so brilliantly was, in fact, the defence of a murderer. What's more, as a genuine psychotic, he freely admitted to feeling nothing.

What prompted me to write Pulp was the re-emergence in the late 60s of the Italian fascist movement. There were local elections which revealed a substantial following. I was shocked. Having witnessed at the age of thirteen the opening up of the concentration camps and seen the horrors revealed, I naively assumed mankind would never repeat such barbaric behaviour. Wrong.

I went to Italy, to Mussolini's mausoleum. I freely bought LPs of his speeches, postcards of Il Duce and his family. Then, remembering a famous scandal of the 50s, the Montesi Affair, where a young woman was found murdered on a beach near Rome, I blended the two elements with the Mafia (fictional and real) and the Roman Catholic Church (which I'd abandoned in my early teens).

The script was originally called Memoirs of a Ghost Writer, and, despite the comedic wrapping, I think it's a serious film. That said, I suspect I didn't quite get the balance right between the serious and the entertaining.

Over the years I've noticed that writers, in particular, like Pulp. Not long before he died I had a brief exchange of letters with J.G. Ballard. He was commenting on my documentary about serial killer films - Murder By Numbers -which he happened to have seen. As a great fan of his work I was over the moon when he revealed how much he'd liked the film and how much he remembered of it.

DC: A trick you use during the titles of Pulp, where Caine's narration of his book is interrupted by cuts on the soundtrack, is repeated in a different form in The Terminal Man, where the operation sequence inter-cuts the surgical procedures with the dialogue of observers, often cutting them off in mid-sentence. It's a very unusual technique, and I wondered what inspired it?

MH: I think this probably comes from working in television current affairs (e.g. World in Action) where you become very proficient in editing talking heads, or extracting the essential.

The process in Pulp was to leave the word following the cut to the imagination of the audience. In The Terminal Man the process was used to illuminate the intricacies of the surgery whilst lending energy (hopefully) to the story telling.

DC: Mickey King in Pulp is obviously a part written for Caine, shamelessly xenical best place to buy so, but is he also Mike Hodges, creator of thrillers? Are there characters in your films who represent you more than others?

MH: You're right. Having worked with Caine I was able to tailor Mickey King in Pulp to his brand of humour. In passing I might add that an actor's talent for applying a “voice over” to film is a very special one. Some are terrible at it. Caine – and later Clive Owen in Croupier - were both brilliant. But there were characteristics other than humour that I was able to weave into the plot. For example, when shooting Carter, I discovered Caine couldn't drive. When taken aside and informed of this by his minder I was stunned – “But he played a chauffeur in Alfie!” It seems I was slow to realise that all of cinema is artifice.

Aside from King's rueful humour there's also a lot of me in him. Like him, I'm a drifter. There's something about letting fate take a hand that fascinates me. Hence the gaps in my CV? Sensible directors have what's called a “slate” of films; moving effortlessly from one to the next. Much to the fury of my agent and bank manager I could never do that. This may come from my adolescent love of fictional gumshoes, usually American. They never knew who was going to walk into their office next and what shit that'll lead to. Life was more exciting that way. Usually men, they were also loners. ”Down these mean streets…” etc. Nearly all my films are about lonely men – and some women. My first film, Suspect, and later Black Rainbow, were about women; both were lonely and both written by me. I never saw loneliness as a male prerogative. Deep down I think all humans are lonely. It's not surprising since we live our lives in the knowledge of our own inescapable death. By the way I'm not all sure we are the only animals with this knowledge.

DC: I remember you saying that when you first looked at Caine through the lens for Get Carter you felt that the stakes had been raised, because a real movie star makes everything bigger, more intense. With Pulp you had the chance to work with Hollywood figures like Mickey Rooney, Lizabeth Scott and Lionel Stander, three very distinct and I imagine quite strong personalities. How was that experience?

MH: I remember being sent to New York in 1964 when I first joined World in Action. Until then I'd only seen this great city on film. It's so distinctive and the skyline so overpowering that every experience I had there was like being in a Hollywood movie. Such is the power of the cinema that I've never shaken off this sense of unreality when visiting America.

And it was much the same when I cast Pulp. Making it was like being in one of the ”B” movies I loved so much. And the film was, in many ways, me saying “thanks” for all the fun they'd given me. The thing I remember most about Rooney, Stander and Scott is their voices. The same with Bogart, Tracey, Hepburn, Davis, Crawford, Cooper, Cagney et al. They all had distinctive voices; gold dust for professional impersonators in the 40s and 50s. Not so today. The voices and faces of our current stars are, in my opinion, very bland by comparison.

DC: How did the transition to Hollywood filmmaking work with The Terminal Man?

MH: The transition to Hollywood was interesting. Curiously it was an experience very close to that of George Benson, hero of The Terminal Man, the film I went there to write, produce and direct in 1974. Like Benson in the film I was totally alone. I knew hardly anyone in LA. What's more, also like Benson, I was suffering from depression and was pretty scared of what I'd taken on. In his case experimental neurological surgery; in my case a major studio film. Never before, or since, have I been so close to a fictional character in any of my films. I even decided to draw on my own life by transforming him into a lapsed Roman Catholic. Once I'd settled into the curious LA lifestyle the depression hovered but didn't engulf me - and a clear vision of the film itself began to emerge. This partly came about by my accidental encounter with the work of an American painter I knew nothing about. It was Edward Hopper. His sparsely populated oils, the epitome of urban loneliness, showed me the way to visually express the desperation of Benson's position.

DC: As a writer-director, do you find it easier to mix writing, directing and editing into a single organic process, as opposed to when you work from somebody else's script?

MH: I think that's true. Whenever I'm directing a work not written by me I tend to be unhealthily reverent with the text. However, if I want to change the script, I feel duty bound to consult with the writer.

But when you've written the script yourself it is, of course, more organic. What's more, it's quicker and easier to consult only with yourself. However, make sure the script's right before you start!

DC: I guess your involvement in the writing process has varied from film to film. When the collaboration has been successful, how would you characterize the process? Writer-director collaboration is sometimes very delicate, but I presume your own writing experience helps?

MH: Again I agree. Twice only in my career have I found myself (usually for fiscal needs!) directing scripts I didn't like. On both occasions I deduced the writers were temporarily hacks (as indeed I was on these occasions!) and acted accordingly. Guile was the preferred way to get them into shape – but in my experience when a script is bad it usually stays that way.

DC: If you simply had a studio who paid you to make a film of your choice a year, what kind of work would you specialize in?

MH: Thrillers – because they are the very best vehicles for exploring the underbelly of society. That's what I'd always intended to do. If only I hadn't been a dedicated drifter – see above!

DC: You've made, loosely speaking, three science fiction films, The Terminal ManFlash Gordon and Morons from Outer Space. Which covers a pretty broad spectrum. And you mentioned your correspondence with JG Ballard, who likewise has a rather indefinable relationship to that genre. Are you a fan, and what would be your ideal science fiction film to make?

MH: I've never been a great reader of science fiction - but The Terminal Man appealed to me because it tested the Faustian contract we have with science. Our blind belief that it will always solve the problems we bring upon ourselves. Worse, nowadays many are seriously contemplating immortality as an achievable aim – again without thinking through the consequences.

Flash Gordon was strictly speaking a comic strip – although, in my most facetious moments, I like to think of Flash as a metaphor for US foreign policy.

Morons, in my opinion, is my most serious film. It represents my take on the 20th and 21st centuries, a less hopeful view than Spielberg's epics. As opposed to the idea that civilisations necessarily improve with age, there is a possibility, based on what's happening here, that they become more cretinous. Hence the films advertising slogan: “They came 30,000 miles to do a little shopping!” And it also brought about my favourite review of all time: ”Die before you see this film.”

DC: These tonal shifts from film to film really seem to throw the critics, who only seem to accept you in serious mode. But A Prayer for the Dying was badly received by journalists who weren't even film writers. How did it happen and what's your take on the film now?

MH: Even as it exists A Prayer for the Dying is a perfectly honourable melodrama. The fact that it was re-edited and the sound track stripped of all subtlety is now history.

At the time, however, there was a press release to the effect that I'd asked for my credit to be removed and this had not happened. Because the story involved an IRA man the great British media decided my decision must have been because I was a supporter of that cause and the film's pro-IRA ending had been changed in the re-editing. Anyone who has seen the film knows that this is pure tosh.

Sadly this was exacerbated when the London Film Festival (who had cravenly selected it as the festival's opening film - knowing it was re-edited without my involvement - simply because the producers were offering to pay for the inaugural party!) withdrew it following the Enniskillen atrocity. That confirmed the media speculation. Now I was caught up in a frenzy of lies not unlike the one depicted in my second film, Rumour.

Needless to say, when the film was finally released (no one had seen it until then – that's how informed they all were!), I got a drubbing from the critics for making a fuss about such a bad film; thereby revealing how little they know about the process. I could take Citizen Kane and within a few days turn into shit!

DC: After the way Croupier was rescued from seeming obscurity, you confounded expectations again with I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, which seems on the face of it to have many plot elements in common with Get Carter but moves and acts in an entirely different way. There's a nocturnal eeriness about this one — plus a glimpse of what might almost be a ghost, when Clive Owen spots his dead brother — which is nowhere to be found in the earlier film. What was your thinking behind this unusual tone, and were you surprised when the reviewers struggled to see past the superficial Get Carter similarities?

MH: This film seems to play in wildly different ways. Every time I viewed it during the editing process, admittedly always in small preview theatres, I thought it had an intensity and tension like no other film I'd ever made. I still think so – but have to temper that opinion with the fact that audiences are increasing impatient – and for them it never would work. Also I soon found that the slow ”pressure cooker” atmosphere could easily evaporate. Reluctantly we allowed it to be shown at the Moscow Film Festival. Trevor Preston and I attended. The venue was a huge barn of a cinema - with a screen as vast as the steppes – and the film literally evaporated before our eyes!

I think that “Croupier” succeeded in the US because there was NO hype attached to it. People discovered it for themselves. I begged Paramount, the US distributors, to treat ”I'll Sleep” in the same way. But no – their nonsensical sales campaign was for another audience altogether. But the marketing of films in general is remarkably unimaginative and insulting – all those ludicrous quotes and stars like teachers writing in children's exercise books! And then there are endless trailers that reduce all films to lowest common denominator.

On reflection I suppose the reaction of the British critics was to be expected. They were, indeed, expecting another “Get Carter”. Which is pretty dumb. Most of them had to review eleven films that week - which must induce certain numbness. Especially if you are there to instruct audiences more interested in feeding there tummies more than their minds. It's no accident that pop-corn probably saved the cinema form commercial extinction. In a backhanded way, maybe the positive raves ”I'll Sleep” got abroad, in particular France and America, confirms the reason for the critical reaction in the UK.

The film will, I hope, eventually reach the audience it was intended for. Your own reaction on a second viewing is encouraging. I also note the reviews posted on Amazon reveal a passionate split between those who hate it and those who love it. What more can one ask?

You ask about the appearance of Will's dead brother as a ghost. My earlier film, “Black Rainbow”, is inhabited by numerous ghosts. Who else rattles around in our memories? Let's face it we all have ghosts in our brains. I like to let them out occasionally.

DC: One of the film's most striking qualities for me was the way it spends much of its time drifting along, rather than following the “unstoppable drive for vengeance” rhythm we're all used to. You extend the period between the brother's death and the hero's discovery of it, even though in plot terms nothing can happen until the death is known. This frustrated me on first viewing, and I loved it on second viewing. It's a bleak, sad film in many ways, and you seem concerned with honouring that. Was this part of your reaction against the way audiences enjoyed the violence of Carter?

MH: Time had to play a major role in experiencing Will's loneliness. Also the fear of his own inherent violence. This is highlighted when he witnesses the man being severely beaten up in the woods. Time has a further role to show his reluctance to return to his previous life in London. The audience watches

all this in the knowledge of Davey's rape. In the macho world of thugs this is the ultimate humiliation. It only happens to women - and that's okay. See what happens to the women in the male dominated domain we created in ”Get Carter”. I made that film some forty years ago. Maybe “I'll Sleep” is an old man's look at the theme of revenge? One thing is for sure this old man acknowledges revenge as a major motor in the human heart. If you don't agree, just look at the News.

DC: There's a beautiful symmetry to your cinema career as it stands, with the two Caine films at the far end, and the two Owen films at this end. But I do hope you're planning on spoiling that by making something else?

MH: Hopefully “Mario & the Magician”, based on Thomas Mann's novella, will go into production this year. The script was written in 1955 – that's the film business for you!

David Cairns of Shadowplay film blog.

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About David Cairns

David Cairns has written 13 post in this blog.

David Cairns is a filmmaker, teacher and critic. As writer-director, he was responsible for the short comedy smash Cry for Bobo (2001), and since then has written several unproduced feature screenplays and worked in kids' TV. He teaches film at Edinburgh College of Art. As critic, he writes the blog Shadowplay and contributes to various online publications, including a regular column at Mubi.com, The Forgotten. He has provided essays for DVDs and BluRays of Rififi, Stagecoach, and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

  • http://pdbrazill.blogspot.com/ Paul D. Brazill

    A fantastic interview.

  • http://www.ehrensteinland.com David Ehrenstein

    Super interview! I love what he says about the actor’s voices in “Pulp.”

    “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” deserves serious attention. Can’t think of another film dealing with male rape save for John Maybury’s “Remembrance of Things Fast” where a drag queen discusses it.

  • Tony Williams

    Well done. Hodges deserves recognition for the other stimulating films he has made and does not deserve to be exclusively known for GET CARTER, good though it is.

  • John Llewellyn Moxey

    Are you the Mike Hodges I knew many moons ago, when I was John Moxey?