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
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