Man with a mission - He once said it was his ambition to direct a movie in every genre. Looking back over one of the most diverse CVs in Hollywood, Alan Parker relives his greatest triumphs - and disasters. By Ariel Leve.
There is nothing stuffy about Sir Alan Parker. His eyes crinkle when he smiles and he laughs easily. Because he appreciates a good story, he tells them in person the way he tells them on film - with reflection and substance. Alan Parker films are distinctive; he acts as an omniscient narrator and none of them are alike. Fame captured the emotions of the auditioning process long before shows such as The X Factor existed, and after its release, performing-arts schools sprang up everywhere from Liverpool to Cleveland, Ohio. Evita, Bugsy Malone and The Commitments used music in different ways to tell a story. A conversation with Parker is viscous, and he does not disengage if the topic gets sticky. Having written and directed some of the most resonant films made, he's willing to expose what it took to do it, and his own shortcomings.
Born in Islington, north London, on February 14, 1944, Parker was the only child of working-class parents. He was accepted at grammar school on a scholarship, which afforded him chances beyond the council estate where he grew up. After school, he went straight to the post room at an advertising agency, and soon he was promoted to junior copywriter. It was the late 1960s and a productive time for British advertising. His contemporaries were Charles Saatchi and David Puttnam. It was all very egalitarian. "If you had a good portfolio, you were promoted. I'd always wanted to write, and advertising didn't require a degree."
The ads he wrote were very successful and he moved into writing and directing commercials. It was, he says, a two-horse race with Ridley Scott. "It was Ridley or me. We did the good stuff. If there was a beautiful girl on a beach in Bermuda, Ridley would get that. And if there were two old people in a kitchen in Hammersmith, I would get it. I did the dialogue; he did the pretty stuff."
Recalling this period, he says he feels lucky. He was directing commercials at 24. That was his film school. The natural progression was to move into features.
How did Bugsy Malone, his first feature film, get made? At the end of the 1960s, Parker was writing scripts and trying to direct a feature with an American studio. They kept getting returned to him with the comment "too parochial". So, in 1974, he decided to write an American story. He wrote a pastiche of gangster films and musicals. The twist was that he cast it entirely with children.
He met Jodie Foster, who was then 12 and about to begin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. When she arrived in England to shoot Bugsy Malone, he says, she was "brilliant. Totally sophisticated". At the end there is a battle scene in the speakeasy where machineguns fire whipped cream, and custard pies are flying. "I had three different cameras and I said, 'Action,' and it went crazy, and in about a minute the entire set turned white from the flour and cream pies. I threw a pie at Jodie - was lucky to get a bull's-eye - and as the pie falls off her face she says, 'So this is show business.'"
After Bugsy Malone was released in 1976, Parker went to New York. While walking down Fifth Avenue, he ran into a friend and was given the script of Midnight Express, which Oliver Stone had been employed to write. "Oliver could simply not comprehend why someone who made Bugsy Malone would be considered for Midnight Express."
An old military fort in Malta was turned into a prison. It was a painful film. "If you're shooting in a prison it's bound to rub off on you. We shot in 53 days - six-day weeks. I remember nobody had a day off. That's very tough on a crew. People can't buy toothpaste and they can't go shopping and you get sick. You get exhausted."
John Hurt had decided that to feel the part, he would not bathe. "He didn't, for seven weeks - and he really did smell, and you would see him in the bar of the hotel and he'd say, 'Come and have a drink,' and we'd say, 'No thanks.' "
The leading role was Richard Gere's but he pulled out three weeks before shooting and Parker went with Brad Davis instead. "Brad just put so much into it. He did very little afterwards - it was the performance of his life. I pushed him to his limit. We all went mad making that movie. When you're doing a scene that is dramatically powerful, there comes a point where you tread the line. But in the end all you care about is the performance."
When directing children, as in Bugsy, Angela's Ashes and Shoot the Moon - especially when they have difficult performances - he was careful. But with adults, the delineation isn't always so clear. During Midnight Express he was shooting in an asylum and some of the inmates were in the scene. "I'd asked them to do some difficult things and I remember the second assistant, a kid of 20, said to me, 'Guvnor, I think you've gone too far,' and it just took my breath away, him saying that. Because I had not realised it. I was so adamant about getting a great shot. But these were not actors, they were not extras, they were not very well people that we were using to make a good scene. And there's something kind of shabby about that."
Midnight Express earned Parker an Oscar nomination in 1979. That year he was sent a script called Hot Lunch. He went to New York, to the High School of Performing Arts, hung out with students there, rewrote the script and called it Fame. "I couldn't call it Hot Lunch because one day I was on Ninth Avenue - where all the porno-film places were - and there was a pornographic film playing called Hot Lunch and," he breaks off laughing, "the guy starring in it was called Al Parker." The casting took place over a long period in New York, and on one of the days 3,000 kids turned up. "But it was very hard making Fame in New York City. They weren't very helpful to us."
Shooting the scene where the students are dancing on 46th Street, the area had to be blocked off for three days. Nobody had done scenes on the street before; the police kept shutting it down. "We were naive and we just got on with it - an entire dance number in the middle of New York City, one block from Broadway. To be a film director you have to have the sensitivity of a poet and the stamina of a construction worker. The problem is, rather too many of us get it the wrong way around."
After some thought about whom he's been most intolerant with, he says Barry Miller, the actor who played Ralph Garcey. "I was so horrible to him. We were in an apartment in Times Square, it was the middle of the night and he was doing a monologue about his sister being abused, and he has to break down in tears. And I thought he was doing okay but not going to the emotional place he needed to go.So I abandoned that night and came back the second night to do it, and I just pushed him and pushed him, and it became a classic situation where it was no longer an actor doing a performance, it was a human being revealing something about themselves that was so painful and so horrible - so that I could capture it on film.
"As a film director you think that's pretty great, but as a human being you don't feel so good, because even if you put your arm around the actor, as I tried to, he didn't want it - I'd pushed him too far in order to get a performance." Years later, Miller knocked on his door in LA. They sat and talked. "I think he needed to forgive me. I was full of guilt."
Birdy, a 1984 drama about two friends who return from Vietnam scarred, featured the then-unknown Danny Glover in a scene that was eventually cut. "At the time, he could not remember his lines to save his life. There was a long speech he had to make - and I broke it into two halves. Then I broke it down again into a few lines and again until it was three words at a time. He still couldn't remember. It was very frustrating and I knew I was in trouble.
"We went into a room and he said, 'I'm really sorry but I'm having trouble with my wife.' I said, 'You're having trouble with your wife? There are 63 crew here and every single one of them is having trouble with their wives. But we still have to do our job, so why can't you do yours?' "
When asked if he would have said that to Danny Glover now that he's famous, he laughs and says: "Probably not."
But what happens when he has to direct someone who doesn't feel they need direction? "The great actors, the first person they look at after they finish a take is the director. They want to know your opinion. Almost every actor I've ever worked with has required that." Who hasn't? "Kevin [Spacey] was rather unusual, in that he's the only actor I've worked with in 30 years who didn't give a toss whether I liked it or not. And that's why it was a bit disconcerting. He might be right in that he knew more than me - I don't know. As long as he was happy that's all that mattered."
The Life of David Gale is a film he is very proud of. It got made, he says, because it was a thriller, but an anti-death-penalty film did not do especially well in the US, predictably. It was seen as too political or not political enough, depending on whom you talk to.
Parker is careful to choose actors who will take the work seriously. He creates an environment that is so professional, they can't afford not to. "Even with someone like Mickey [Rourke], who liked to be mischievous, it rubs off." When he was making Angel Heart in New Orleans, there was a scene between Rourke and Robert De Niro he describes as a "prizefight". "Mickey was ready to go for it." He says they started to improvise - so much so, he had no idea what they were talking about. "I'd written the scene. And they kept going off on tangents to prove one could out-improvise the other. It wasn't acting, it was a duel."
The most fun he has had on a set was making The Commitments. "It was the only film I ever did where I woke up every morning and couldn't wait to get there. Every other film I'd wake up and think, 'Oh shit, I have to go to work.' " The reason? "No movie stars. The kids arrived in a minicab. They couldn't believe there was free food."
The least enjoyable was Pink Floyd: The Wall. "Just a miserable experience. I was never meant to direct it." It was shot in 1981, and he had already made Shoot the Moon that year. That is the film he is closest to on a personal level because it is about divorce, which he was going through at the time. There are four small children in the film; Parker had four small children then. He gave his own daughter's dungarees to the girl in the film because children's clothes in films always look so new. His daughter hated that.
What made Pink Floyd: The Wall a misery? "Roger Waters. He's not easy to work with. I gritted my teeth and finished. But I look back now and think, that's quite good." And Bob Geldof? "A delight. He was totally miserable himself doing it. He and I were in the same boat. We made it up as we went along. We took it seriously and did the best we could. Sometimes out of misery can come good work."
It is widely recognised that Madonna's best performance on film is in Evita. Michelle Pfeiffer had done a test for it but she had two small children at the time and wasn't keen to go to Buenos Aires. "At the same time I got this four-page letter from Madonna saying how brilliant she would be in the part and I really should consider her. It was a very sweet letter. I met with her and she ended up doing it."
All concerns he had about her being able to do the serious dramatic moments were obliterated, he says, once he recognised that her commitment was total. She was easy to direct because she was prepared. "Her lip-synching was immaculate. She worked out her moves in the mirror the night before we'd shoot. She would work so hard. She was not someone who went out clubbing every night. She was the one who said, 'I want to be there at 5.30 in the morning so I have enough time to get the hair and make-up right.' So before the crew had even arrived, she would be there."
She was demanding, but mostly with hair and make-up. "By the time she arrived at the set she was smiling and she did her job. And she did her job brilliantly."
Along the way, there have been a few mistakes. He was offered the first Harry Potter film but turned it down. He had been sent the script with a letter saying he was not allowed to discuss it with anyone. He then received a phone call from LA at 10pm, and he thought he was talking to the head of the studio.
"Then, suddenly, eight people introduced themselves over a conference call - which I took in my kitchen. It went from bad to worse. They said, 'Okay, Alan, tell us how you see the movie.' And I said, 'I have no idea - I've only read the script once. If you want me to do the film I'll do it, but I'm not going to audition for you on the phone late at night while I'm standing in my kitchen.' " He says he doesn't regret anything he's turned down but, considering the impact of Harry Potter, there is a sense of wistfulness. "I don't mind getting on an aeroplane to see them. But as a British director working with American studios, this is the bane of my existence - you're forever on the phone in your kitchen late at night talking about your movie, or the money for your movie. As you get older, you find that not such an attractive proposition."
As well as making David Gale, Parker has been chairman of the British Film Institute for two years, then chairman of the UK Film Council for five years, both of which were a distraction from making films. He had a film with Charlize Theron he worked on for a year, but that fell through because of financing. Though he's been offered many projects, he says "the kind of film I want to do - a polemical film of any kind - they are the hardest ones to get made". He's written a film script of Blood Brothers with Willy Russell and is in the process of trying to finance it.
He has often been critical of the Hollywood system. It's not anger, he says, it's frustration. He feels that a film of his such as Mississippi Burning, about the murder of civil-rights activists in the 1960s and starring Gene Hackman, couldn't get made today, because money is the bottom line. But, he adds, in his more than 30 years in the business, the industry has been pretty good to him. He says working with De Niro and Hackman was a privilege. "And Willem Dafoe, he was the one you would have a coffee with on the break. Entirely unpretentious. Never will be a movie star - in attitude. As hard as it's been, I'd work with all of them again." Parker smiles. "Even Madonna."