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David Puttnam

A masterclass on movies from film producer David Puttnam

A masterclass on movies from film producer David Puttnam

10 May, 2013

The venerated film producer Lord Puttnam of Queensgate was in Sunderland on a chilly morning for a masterclass at the University of Sunderland.

The event (held at the David Puttnam Media Centre) began with the showing of a clip from the BBC's Film 81 in which we saw a youthful Puttnam, fresh from the success of Chariots of Fire, holding forth to the sceptical-looking presenter Barry Norman about the future of media.

With a Steve Jobs-like prescience, Puttnam told Norman that we would soon be entering an age when "television as a piece of technology would be looked at in the same way as the telephone". He correctly predicted that we as viewers would be soon accessing on demand content and that cinema would become, essentially, a way of marketing films that a mass audience would see on TV.

Now aged 72, Puttnam remains as forward-thinking as ever. It's 15 years since he actually produced a movie but his passion for cinema remains. So does his belief that film should inform as well as entertain. In a two-hour session, the producer showed clips of his own and other people's movies, reflecting on a career which has seen him win Oscars, take charge of a Hollywood studio and oversee several of the most celebrated British films of their era.

David Puttnam on performance: the star system, the British stage tradition and American "method"

"One reason stars tend to be stars is that they are very good actors... They tend to deliver a good performance. The second reason they're stars – probably the most important – is that they carry with them on screen our dreams. Unsurprisingly, they're attractive, charming. We want them to be our image of ourselves on screen. (But) I've always believed that the job of the actor once hired, irrespective of whether they're a star, is the degree to which they are prepared to serve the material – the story, the characters. I've always struggled with actors who see themselves as somehow separated from the venture. That's one reason why I've always tried to cast people who had a reality to them.

"On Midnight Express, we had tremendous problems getting the studio to accept Brad Davis. They wanted Richard Gere. If you've got a Gere or a Tom Cruise in a film like Midnight Express, you would expect them to be there at the end. You would expect them to see it heroically through. We actually wanted someone who, two-thirds of the way through, you thought, 'You know what – he is not going to make it!' We wanted to seed that doubt into the audience and we needed an actor who was vulnerable and unknown enough to do that.

"On The Mission, we had Jeremy Irons, classically trained, and (Robert) De Niro. Jeremy would come entirely prepared. He would be word perfect whereas De Niro was used to rehearsing on camera... by take three, it was probably as good as Jeremy would ever be. (But) on take three, De Niro was just limbering up. By take seven, when De Niro was beginning to get somewhere near a performance, Jeremy would get bored. By take 13, when De Niro was delivering a very, very good performance, Jeremy was glassy-eyed!"

On the move from film to digital

"The truth is, I was a child of celluloid and sprocket holes. It was very evident to me that that was going to go to the knacker's yard at some point. I wouldn't say it was an important part of my decision but one of the reasons why it was perfectly helpful to retire when I did is that I went out with sprocket holes!

"I've got a dodgy back. I spent far too many years of my life humping vast cans of film around the world.... Try to imagine if I wanted to show a film in the States to raise some money, I was taking up 20 cans of film on a plane. All of that is in there [points to a USB stick]."

On the opportunity that YouTube gives young film-makers

"The biggest single problem when I was starting out was to prove to anybody you could do anything. Let's go back to the Second World War. If you had any ambition to be a film-maker, your only avenue through was documentary...When you look at the careers of the dominant directors of the late 1950s and early 1960s, they all came from the documentary movement – Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, John Boorman etc....This is about opportunity – where do you get the opportunity to prove you can actually do it. My generation needed the ability to put film through a camera. The reason that Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Hugh Hudson used commercials was literally because that was what was available to practice on and prove you have some skills."

On Memphis Belle and why film remains a visual medium

"If you can possibly tell a story minimising the dialogue, you're better off. Cinema, in the end, is a medium of images and music."

On All the President's Men and journalism

"In that scene, you see the insistence of the editorial team, their staff and bosses on two sources, preferably more, and they're pushing for someone to go on the record. There is a very interesting line from [Washington Post executive editor] Ben Bradlee when he says 'Did [President Nixon's Attorney General John N] Mitchell know he was talking to a reporter?' That is a zillion miles away from the practices developed in the UK which is basically about attempting to make a story stand up irrespective of the rules of journalism – the two sources rule, the business of identifying yourself."

On inspiration and Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington: the idea that film can inform and entertain

"The challenge of making a film is how do you get across a story you want to tell that contains the values you believe in and is at the same time genuinely entertaining and engaging. I've never had anyone say that Chariots of Fire is a boring film. You look at Local Hero, you're in no doubt about what it is trying to say... I've turned the question around. I've never really understood anyone who has wanted to make a film which is just a series of whizzbang car crashes."

On the generation that fought the Second World War

"My attitude toward that generation that did fight the war is sheer awe. I think they were quite extraordinary people. My whole life, really, has been about trying to justify my generation in terms of my father's generation. I don't think my generation has been as anything like as significant or as bold and visionary. That's why I joined the Labour Party and it's why I believe passionately in the social justice that began to emerge after the Second World War."

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