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David Puttnam

Legendary producer David Puttnam to be honoured by Festival des films du monde

Legendary producer David Puttnam to be honoured by Festival des films du monde

27 August, 2015

Rather than ask David Puttnam to name the great British films he has made, the easier question could be: What great British films didn’t he have a hand in making? It may be a shorter list.

As a consequence of his film success on the other side of the pond, he is now Lord Puttnam, or Sir David. But frankly, he wishes folks would just call him David, or Puttnam.

Puttnam, who was knighted in 1995 and appointed to the British House of Lords in 1997, is being fêted by the Festival des films du monde. And most deservingly at that.

The tribute features free outdoor screenings in front of Place des Arts of some classic Puttnam productions, including Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, Local Hero, The Mission and Robert Lepage’s Le Confessionnal.

Puttnam will also be giving a master class on film, Friday at 2 p.m. at the Imperial Cinema. And few are in a better position to discuss the subject than his Lordship.

In addition to the aforementioned films, Puttnam, who began his career in advertising, produced such fare as Mahler, Bugsy Malone, The Duellists, The Killing Fields, The Mission and Memphis Belle, among many others. His films have won 10 Oscars and 25 BAFTAs (the British Oscars).

Plus, Puttnam has taught film at various universities in the United Kingdom. And, of course, he got quite the education on American cinema when he served as chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures in Hollywood for one turbulent year in the mid-1980s.

So, what message will Puttnam seek to impart to those partaking in his master class?

“Firstly, that film is a very important business,” says Puttnam, 74, over a cappuccino in an Old Montreal hotel lobby bar. “It’s much more than an entertainment business. It’s what frames our attitudes to the world. It’s about who we are, and it’s about how we can contribute to the world — and even how we can change it.

“Second, I will try to take people into the happenstance involved in me getting into this world. I will try to demythologize the business. I remember very well when I was a kid in north London and how (intimidated) I was by Hollywood.

“There really is no great mythology attached to the business. It’s really a question of having really good ideas, having something to say and having the guts and the persistence to follow through.”

This is not empty rhetoric. The fact is, many of Puttnam’s films have made a social and/or political impact.

“I also believe I have avoided this false paradox that in trying to make relevant films, you’re simultaneously making them not entertaining. The trick is to create genuine entertainment which carries some punch with it.”

Puttnam carried through with this philosophy, but in less familiar terrain, in producing Lepage’s Genie Award-winning mystery drama Le Confessionnal in Quebec in 1995.

“My wife had gone to see the original Lepage play at the Edinburgh festival and had been knocked out by it,” he recalls. “Since I always take her advice, I saw the play and liked it enormously. (Lepage) had it in the back of his mind about making it a movie, and weirdly I had always been a big Montgomery Clift fan. And the fact that Lepage was dramatizing the shooting of the Hitchcock film I Confess in Quebec City, with Clift, which I knew well, was very attractive to me.

“I have to say, I’ve never been less troubled on a movie set than this one. It was really one of those rare and extraordinary trouble-free existences. Robert was also very kind. He let my son Sacha, just starting out in his music career, do the film’s score, which was a huge break for him. And (Sacha) hasn’t stopped since.”

Puttnam stopped producing for a spell. But after a 17-year absence, he is set to produce another drama next year: Arctic 30, about the Greenpeace activists who were thrown in jail in Russia after trying to mount an oil rig in Arctic waters. Based on Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg by Greenpeace’s Ben Stewart, the project is already being dubbed Chariots of Ice.

“Emma Thompson pulled me back into production,” says Puttnam. “But there is a bit of a backstory. One of the things I did in Parliament was I took through the House the world’s first climate-change act, which set carbon limits.

“Each year it gets attacked by the energy industry. As a result, I got to know a lot of the NGOs, and a couple of them came to see me about Arctic 30. I then read the account and thought it was pretty good. They asked if I could help and I introduced them to Emma, who had just come back from the Arctic. Then she told them ‘not to let Puttnam off the hook.’ And I just got sucked into it.”

Puttnam concedes that the Russians may not be too pleased about the film or his involvement.

“I’d better be careful not to drink any polonium,” he cracks, in reference to the substance that killed Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Given his extensive knowledge of the business, there had always been an expectation that Puttnam would eventually direct a feature. But he never has, and isn’t about to do so now.

“Several times I kind of flirted with the idea of directing,” he explains. “I had a good reputation with Warner Brothers, and I think they would have trusted me — albeit on a reasonably inexpensive film.

“But the problem for me was that I could always think of someone who was better than me to direct, and if you’re a remotely professional producer, you can’t do that. I would have an absolute horror in having to fire myself at the end of the second week,” he jokes. “That was something I was not ready for.”

Puttnam is known for showing the sort of humility for which most Hollywood execs are not noted. That could explain the collision course that ensued when he took over Columbia Pictures in 1986.

“Frankly, though, I only have myself to blame,” he says. “But without doubt, I think we did bring in some fine pictures that year, and we had more Academy Award nominations for Columbia than ever before in their history.

“I think the quality of what we did was good, although it could have been better. But financially, that year was a bit of a bust.”

Puttnam was relieved to leave the studio a year later.

“Nor do I think it’s very likely I’ll ever be asked (to run a Hollywood studio) again. But I was the only non-American ever to run an American studio. And I ran it so ineptly that I will remain the only non-American ever to have run an American studio,” he says with a big grin.

“I was bad — really bad. The job didn’t allow me to do any of the things that I’m best at, and it basically played to all the things I’m not very good at.”

Candour is clearly not one of those things.

“At this point in my life, if I can’t be candid, it’s all been a waste of time.”

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