Tag Archives: director

Sir Richard Attenborough remembered: Time Out’s Chaplin interview

24 Aug

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What a sad fortnight for film. Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and now Sir Richard “Dickie” Attenborough has headed off to the great Green Room in the sky. Though young Americans may know him only as “that old bloke from Jurassic Park”, he was dark and brilliant in Brighton Rock way back in 1947, and became known as an actor’s director. Those who think of him only as a sentimental old “luvvie” are missing a trick.

In my third month as Time Out’s editor, in April 1992, I put Attenborough’s Charlie Chaplin biopic on the cover. This is an extract from the location piece and interview by our Senior Editor, Brian Case:

<<Attenborough is known for his tenacity. His manner – “Oh, you are so divine. Bless you, darling” – contrasts with the crimson vehemence of his face with its glaring nostrils. It had taken him 20 years to raise the money for Gandhi for which he deferred his own salary, and mortgaged his art collection to keep going. Chaplin’s widow, Oona, gave him total approval to film the autobiography, although she’d been turning down two offers a day since her husband’s death.

“It is not a hagiography, not sycophantic,” says Sir Dickie. “It is not a whitewash. The young girls? Yes. His ruthlessness? Yes. He was absolutely blinkered in his life in terms of his work. He was bound to be like that because, between the ages of five and six, he was in the workhouse and at 12 he had to commit his mother. For the first 14 years of his life he lived on the edge of starvation, digging up fish heads from the mudflats and taking them home for his mother to boil because she was so unbalanced that she could no longer take in sewing and earn any money.”

Financing Charlie had proved the usual endurance test. There was no British money, of course, and Universal suddenly put the project into turnaround. Over that weekend, Sir Dickie – a master of the pitch who once sang and danced his way through Oh! What A Lovely War to convince Paramount’s Charlie Bludhorn to invest – landed Carolco.

Sir Dickie’s other problem had been finding the right actor to play Chaplin from 19 to 83. Nijinsky described him as a great dancer and Olivier as the greatest actor of all time. “Anyone can do The Tramp,” says Sir Dickie. “We had to find that thing behind the eyes that gives the idea that there’s a tremendous amount going in the mind. Very difficult to convey. You think of the number of movies that have conveyed genius. Paul Muni once or twice, Charles Laughton once or twice – there’s not many. This boy has it.” [The “boy” in question, of course, was a then little-known young actor called Robert Downey Jr.]

In the background, Downey is practising tricks with his hat. Already, he gives the impression that objects have a life of their own, and a capacity for mischief. “Yes indeed,” agrees Sir Dickie, “and one of the great figures involved with that was Olivier. He fenced with the props in his particular sequence and then he would adopt some and thrust out others as if there was an antipathy, an aggressiveness towards them – an inkstand or something that he didn’t like.

“Props were absolutely vital to him. Robert [Downey Jr] is like Ben Kingsley when we went to India – for a year and a half he lived, breathed, talked, felt Gandhi, so that he was almost incapable of doing something which in character terms was incongruous.”>>

Even from this short extract, you get a glimpse of the determination and drive needed to shepherd a big-budget movie to completion, particularly in a country lacking any major studios; but also of the love and care and understanding with which he approached the craft of acting. Attenborough’s movie career spanned 65 years, from acting in In Which We Serve in 1942 (he has 78 acting credits to his name) to directing Closing The Ring in 2007. We may not see his like again.

Easter special: Dave McKean picks his Passion films

29 Mar
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Dave McKean, illustrator, director and dead ringer for Orson Welles

Dave McKean is an astonishingly brilliant and prolific illustrator, graphic novelist, animator and director. His credits are too numerous to mention, but his films include Mirrormask, written by long-time collaborator Neil Gaiman, Luna (as yet unreleased) and last year The Gospel of Us, in which he filmed Michael Sheen being crucified on a beach in Port Talbot.

I’ve interviewed Dave a few times, and had the pleasure of asking him about his favourite movies involving Christ and crucifixion, to get us all in the Easter spirit:

“There are a lot of screen depictions of the Passion of Christ that I love. King of Kings, the silent film, has a beautiful atmosphere. There’s the Christ sequence in Ben Hur, which goes from a sepia image to glowing  Technicolor. Pasolino’s The Gospel According to St Matthew has these incredible faces of these non-actors he got to play the parts. Jesus of Montreal is probably the closest to The Gospel of Us. The Last Temptation of Christ is fantastic, it’s close to being my favourite Scorsese film. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ is brutal and over the top in the scourging sequence but it has some amazing stuff in it. But nothing beats Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain.

Holy Mountain was hard to find for a very long time. The original prints were embargoed by the producer and it was only available in Japan in degraded and often heavily censored form: glowing orbs would appear over people’s genitals. But Jodorowsky finally got the rights back recently, and it’s an astounding film to look at, though it makes variable sense depending on who you are and how much you’ve had to drink.

“Jodorowsky has said he basically rounded up his actors and kidnapped them, kept them in isolation, broke them mentally, then put them back together on screen. In a key scene the Christ figure, who is a complete innocent, gets cast in papier mache by his followers. When he wakes up, he sees a thousand versions of himself and is driven insane, smashes them all up, and the last sequence is him eating one, ripping great chunks out of it.

“But the whole film is incredible. You start with this man, who wakes up, covered in flies… it doesn’t make much sense but it’s incredibly compelling. It’s one of those films where you arrive somewhere, look back, and you think ‘How the hell did I get here’ and you can’t imagine where you’ll be in ten minutes’ time.

“My own approach to Gospel of Us wasn’t much more sensible. We basically raced down to Port Talbot, where Michael Sheen was re-enacting the Passion over 72 hours with a cast of a thousand locals, taking ten cameras to shoot what the hell we could. It took eight months to whittle it down to a two-hour film.”

So there you go. That’s your Easter weekend movie viewing sorted. And we didn’t even mention The Life of Brian

A shorter version of this post first appeared in The Book magazine