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Friday, June 21, 2013

An Evening With Lord David Puttnam

Feb 19, 2013, Lasalle School of Arts, Singapore

Lord Puttnam's talk went through the story of film, then his personal journey and lastly how film can contribute to society.  This is what I gathered from my notes and what I remember from the talk:

In the days of silent movies, the message was universal. The moment there was sound then films became culture bound.

In the early days, the US purchased all their films from Europe. They had people who watched films and ascertained if the films are saleable to the American public. This differs a great deal with European film makers who see film as an art. Even those who made films to sell those days felt that films rightfully belonged to the arts.

The need for films to sell is an old requirement dating back to the 50s. This is nothing new.

Lord Puttnam started as an advertising executive. He said that music changed his life - “saved by Elvis Presley” (in his words) – so, many of the films that he produced has an element of music in it.

He brought anecdotes of his journey by screening clips of the films that he produced and were major box office hits.

His early film was “Melody” (1971), he casted Mark Lester and got a then up-and-coming band called the Bee Gees to play the music. He was delighted but surprised that the Bee Gees agreed to come in with their songs. Some bands who have not been in films before may be interested to be, as it adds to their publicity. So he urged the audience to try. If you don't ask you wouldn't know.

"Melody" was a hit in Japan (and hence those subtitles), probably for its very English setting that the Japanese considers romantic. It is also released as "S.W.A.L.K." (Sealed With A Loving Kiss), in the UK and some other countries like Singapore. I remember Mark Lester was such a darling among the teenage girls in Singapore then. That is also the time when the Bee Gees songs got rapidly popularised.

He then showed the clip of the young Mark Lester as an athlete in the school sports day, running around the field to impress a girl that he fancies in the story.


Then he showed a clip of “Chariots of Fire” which he made 10 years later, also of the protagonist running around the university tracks. “Why waste a good idea?” he quipped.

The scene in "Melody" was captured during a school sports day with two cameras, but only one director. So, he asked his colleague at the advertising agency at that time, Mr Alan Parker, who took a day off to see the shooting, to man one of the cameras. After that scene, Alan came to him and said that he is quitting advertising and coming in to make films.

In Stardust (1974) he was to squeeze 24 songs in the film. He showed us a clip where six song clips were inserted in a mere three minutes.


In “Bugsy Malone” (1976) he ended up having five major investors, as he couldn't get a single investor to put money in a gangster film where the average age of the actors was only 12. I guess it must have been hard to manage five investors, compared to one.

When Jodie Forster was a child.

Midnight Express” (1978) was a turning point, as after Midnight Express, he felt that he was accepted by both sides of the Atlantic as a film maker.

In Midnight Express, he didn't want to cast a famous actor as he wanted the audience to feel the vulnerability of the actor, that the character may not make it through the torturous journey in the Turkish jail. If it had been a star, the audience would have somehow believed that he will make it through.


Though Midnight Express was a huge success, there was something that he thought he had misjudged the audience totally. That was the scene where the protagonist bit off the tongue of the sinister prison mate. The scene was crafted to show that the protagonist has gone through so much torture that he has lost his mind. This message seemed to have conveyed well in Europe. However, when shown in America, he was shocked that about two-thirds of the American audience actually applauded the gruesome scene.

Probably because of the success of “Midnight Express” the Turkish government subsequently agreed that American offenders on Turkish soil are to serve their sentence in jails in America. So you see films can have a tremendous influence and role in society. Films, unlike books and other forms of art, tend to hang around for a long time.

So in “Chariots of Fire” (1981), he made sure that he understands the audience and craft the more delicate scenes carefully to convey the messages that he wanted to. So, when the film came out during the triumphant scene at the end, it seemed that the messages were well understood.

The “Killing Fields” (1984), was conceived after the Vietnam war when many Western journalists were coming home and Lord Puttnam wanted to make a film about the stories that they bring back.


In the Mission (1986), is a film where Lord Puttnam worked with the a multi-cultural and multi-racial cast. He wanted to cast the then young Liam Neeson and signed a contract with the young actor, but was objected by Warner Brothers who funded the movie. So sometimes you have to compromise.


Memphis Belle” (1990) was made to honour the people who had fought in the earlier world wars. This was also inspired by his father who was a photo-journalist. They managed to get some B16 to fly. Given that at that time there were only 12 B16s that could fly, that was a remarkable achievement.


Questions from the Audience:
How to pitch for funds?
With difficulty. A belief. A belief that if this investor don't someone else will and it will make the preceding one feels that he has missed an opportunity. The belief must be strong. Even when he first started, he never believe that he will not win an Oscar. Call it arrogance, self conceit or however you want to interprete it,... it is this belief that will propel one to success. It is through self-belief that others will believe in you. Particularly so in his case, as he related, that his wife Patsy believes more in him than he has already has on himself.

If you believe that you have a message to tell and that this message will change the world, go ahead and you will succeed.

Given a good script, would he choose a new director or an experienced director?
If he knows the new director well, he will choose the new director. He finds that directors seldom improve after their second movie, as they get more concerned about their reputation...etc.

Will the West accepts Universal messages told by a non-western source?
At the moment no, but surely yes in time. In the Asia Pacific Film Festival, films like “Aftershock” is such a profound movie and yet it didn't receive much response in the West. It could be cultural and it could also be due to distributors who tends to prejudge the film.

Why didn't he direct the films?
He worse fear is that he had to fire himself from the job because he is not good enough. He feels that he is not as good as the directors that he hires. So why pretend that you can do a better job, when there are others that can do so. He said that he is not an artist but a facilitator for other artists.

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