The man who told Notting Hill to 'sod off'
By Chris Parry
Posted 07/19/99 22:48:10
Lots of directors find it easy, even preferable, to slot into a neat career pigeonhole. You can't imagine the Farrelly Brothers trying their hand at an action thriller or Wes Craven directing a Hugh Grant film. Jane Campion likes her period pieces; Tim Burton and Alex Proyas prefer to go gothic and Lucas just loves to play with CGI. But surely the ultimate test of a director is how they handle vastly different styles, genres, paces and actors. If this is true, British director Mike Newell is right at the top of the tree.
After a ten year career in television that started back in 1968, Newell's feet began to itch for something bigger as the 80's loomed large.
"There was no such thing as a film industry in Britain at the time. Any kind of native production had collapsed and it was all offshore American stuff making sub-James Bond movies," says Newell. "The cool place to be and the place where things were actually going on, where you could get work and people were experimenting, was in TV. There were great things that came out of that period. Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Michael Apted all started there. Then, I suppose, in our early thirties we all started to make TV movies."
Though television work is generally looked down upon, Newell maintains it has a strong place in the scheme of things. "There was a TV show I used to watch as a kid called Whirly Birds, which was about helicopters and pilots, and that was one of the shows Robert Altman started on. I don't know where we learnt to be dismissive of that side of the business. It might be the French, who seem to have less of a television background than anyone else. They sort of created a cathedral around 'pure cinema', but actually it's very common," he says.
It must be said that TV movies in the 70s were nothing like the homogenised, large budget, 'churned out' productions of today. A single ratings point had a lot less monetary value than it does now, which allowed more experimentation and freedom. Says Newell, "there were two main strands of TV movie production. One was, big and heavyweight, ninety minutes long, usually studio-based, very little outside stuff, all with big electric cameras. The other option at that stage was much less grand and much less expensive, you could make an hour show on 16mm film. You could do that for about 30 thousands pounds. I think the going rate now is about thirty times that much, but back then it was very cheap to go on film instead of video." This cost-cutting, 'fly by the seat of your pants' attitude led the industry's young players to the natural next step. "We thought, why not spend a bit more, shoot it on 35mm, but how do we do that? How do we get there? How do we get the scripts, how do we get hired, how do we learn to be feature film directors, which was a perfectly natural extension of where we'd been on 16mm TV films. We each found our own way."
Newell's 'way' was by virtue of a TV movie, The Man In The Iron Mask, that somehow found its way to a US theatrical release. He then dove right into a baptism of fire with the 1980 horror film, The Awakening, starring Charlton Heston, Susannah York and Stephanie Zimbalist, and soon after he was in New Zealand shooting a thriller, Bad Blood with Australia's own Jack Thompson. With a slowly growing rep for adaptability and getting the best out of his cast, Newell spent the next few years working on drama, comedy, thrillers and the odd TV series, but it was as the 90s dawned that his talent began to really be recognised.
With Enchanted April (a drama set in Italy that received three Oscar nominations), and Into The West (a children's adventure film starring Gabriel Byrne, Ellen Barkin and a yet to be discovered Brendan Gleeson), Newell won the Best Film Award at the Cleveland International Film Festival for two years straight. Success through genres as diverse as those has little to do with luck.
"The reason TV was such a good place to start was that you actually did a lot of everything. You did drama, tragedy, action, absolutely everything, because TV has such an enormous demand for material. You can't specialise. So I got to enjoy a lot of different things, including comedy which I enjoyed a great deal."
Much of Newell's early work was far from comedy, but after his 1994 comedy smash, Four Weddings And A Funeral, a film that won two BAFTA Awards (best film and best director) and was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, the name Newell became synonymous with comedy. The offers came for more, including a recent offer to helm the Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant romantic comedy, Notting Hill. Newell instead chose to go ahead with something a bit more dramatic and signed on to Pushing Tin.
"I did feel that I'd done a Notting Hill already. They came to me and asked me to read it and it was clearly a lovely script. Richard Curtis has the Midas touch as a writer. But I felt I had been there before. In commercial terms I made the wrong decision, but in practical terms I didn't. It doesn't matter that Notting Hill is going to make buckets of money and Pushing Tin isn't. It doesn't matter to me. I'm okay with that."
It wasn't a quick decision though. "I was tired," he confesses "and I was by no means sure that I wanted to go back to work. But I took a look at the script, did some work with the writers, Glen and Les Charles, and fell in love with them. I so enjoyed working with them that my involvement in the project sort of rolled on from there."
Clearly going to the well one too many times is something Newell is wary of, especially with the comedy genre. "The trouble with comedy is that until it's actually out there, nobody is sure whether it will be able to pull an audience. By the time a comedy is finished, a director, editor and producer will probably see the film eighty or ninety times, so who can tell any more whether it's funny. It's lost the spontaneity, and you're really flying on the instruments after about the fourth time you see it. After you've done two or three comedies all together, you start to think of it as mechanical. The joke will work like this; you leave a couple of seconds there for laughter, blah, blah. It doesn't work that way. That's crap."
In order to avoid becoming mechanical, Newell's next project after Four Weddings And A Funeral was the Al Pacino, Johnny Depp gangster film, Donnie Brasco.
Says Newell, "Donnie Brasco, that certainly wasn't a comedy. Any humour there is just an accurate portrayal of what happened. It's funny because it's so far from what people are used to in gangster films, like The Godfather."
With Pushing Tin, Newell is definitely trying something different again. The film, based on the incredible stress of air-traffic controllers in New York, and the trouble they have coming down and dealing with their families, tries to play both sides of the coin - drama and comedy. Newell describes it as "a movie about people crashes, not plane crashes," and while the film thrives on nervous tension and high-pressure situations, it seems so does Newell. "If I was describing my job, I wouldn't think that the first thing or even sixth or seventh thing that came into my head to describe it would be 'stressful', though I suppose by any objective definition it is. Not to say that I'm never stressed. I am, but then in some way I've learned to cope with it and feed off it."
Like most Newell films, Pushing Tin has a top-notch cast, including a very un-Elizabethan Cate Blanchett. She has surprised critics worldwide with her performance in this role, and astounded them with her near perfect New Yawk accent. But while it's no secret today that 'our Cate' is a genuine actress, when Newell cast her, he was flying blind. "There wasn't much to see that I could get my hands on. She made a couple of films in Australia but I didn't manage to get a hold of any. All I saw was Oscar & Lucinda and frankly, that didn't help me at all. It was 2000 miles from what I was looking for. But the casting director kept insisting that she was one of the coming events, so I kept her in my mind."
And then he saw Elizabeth.
"It was an early screening and she so clearly picked the whole film up and carried it along with her. Without her there wouldn't have been a film, I was really impressed by that. Then I met her and she said what nobody else I had met for that part had said, 'what I'm really interested in playing is a housewife. I would like to be a person who is entirely content and whose horizons are very limited. She then walks into this wall full of surprises.' But the idea that somebody would take on the part and simply wanting to portray a suburban middle to lower class housewife, I thought was great. I hadn't heard that before. You know what Americans are like, the actresses I saw wanted to be studying at night school for a degree in nuclear physics. Cate wasn't like that. She hooked me."
Some would be happy with one stellar actress, but Newell found a second. That actress was Angelina Jolie. "There was no part there for Angelina. There wasn't much for Cate, but with this character she was simply an addendum to her husband. I had to simply find a terrific actress, but a terrific actress to do what? She was too young; she was kind of like some 25 year throwback to a hippy chick, mixed with trailer trash. All of that made her very unexpected, plus she was a very, very good actress."
Rounding out the cast are two of the strongest screen presences of the 90s, John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, who despite their respective production roles in other films - Cusack wrote Grosse Point Blank and Thornton directed Slingblade - were willing to take instructions.
"I guess I've been lucky with the big actors I've worked with," says Newell. "I haven't actually come up against a ball-breaker. I've never come up against some of those legendary people who are not content to be directed and are not prepared to be anything other than a star. Both John and Billy Bob are younger and more modest in their remuneration to put it crudely. They're much closer to being actors than being stars. They're kind of in an intermediate position, which works for me."
After a career based on talent and patience, somewhere along the line an errant publicist decided that Newell needed a reputation for breaking balls himself, creating him a nickname - The Colonel - which found its way into Pushing Tin's official production notes. It baffles Newell to this day. "I don't know what the fuck that was about. I suspect it's journalistic desperation. I don't object to the name, people will call you whatever. I mean, Hugh Grant used to call me a lot worse than that," says the artist formerly known as The Colonel.
PUSHING TIN (1999)
DONNIE BRASCO (1997)
AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE (1995)
FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994)
INTO THE WEST (1992)
ENCHANTED APRIL (1991)
SILENT VOICE (1987)
THE GOOD FATHER (1987)
DANCE WITH A STRANGER (1985)
BAD BLOOD (1981)
THE AWAKENING (1980)
THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1976)