Filmmaker David Puttnam (Part One)

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David Puttnam believes in the power of film to teach and inspire. An Englishman on intimate terms with America, he sees in our movies the reflection of a nation at odds with itself. Puttnam gained worldwide praise with Chariots of Fire, which won the Oscar for best picture in 1981. His other movies include The Killing Fields, The Mission, Local Hero, and Midnight Express. He was a chairman of Columbia Pictures in 1987 and now heads his own production company in London.



BILL MOYERS: {on camera} I’m Bill Moyers. Some years ago I read a book which told how the crimes of the Nazis were all prefigured in the literature, plays, and movies appearing in Germany between the wars. The author concluded that “the transition from things imagined to things real is a very easy one, and men no less than children will suit action to fantasy.” In this age of the visual image, popular culture can indeed make attractive the vice or virtue that politics then imitates. Watching Ronald Reagan star in his own movie for eight years, listening to Michael Dukakis being introduced by his Oscar-winning actress cousin, hearing George Bush quote Dirty Harry and the new-comer, Daniel Quayle, assure us he is just like the folks in the movie, Hoosiers, I wondered about the long-term effects on democracy when the fashions of politics are so readily cut in the fantasy factories of Hollywood, and politicians aspire not so much to be leaders as leading men. So, I decided to begin this series of discussions on values and beliefs, ideas and issues, by talking to someone who knows firsthand how movies can shape imagination and culture.

{voice-over} For much of his career, the British film producer, David Puttnam has been a student of America, its society, its people and its movies. He has told stories about America and stories for American audiences. Puttnam gained wide recognition here when his movie Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1982. And the movies that followed built his reputation as a filmmaker of passion and commitment The Killing Fields dealt with the friendship between an American journalist and a Cambodian, a friendship that triumphs over the indifference of government and the horrors of war. In The Mission, Jesuit priests in Latin America fight to the death for their cause, trying to save their Indian mission.

Puttnam made these movies from his base as an independent producer in England. Then, for 12 months, he held the keys to power in America’s movie industry as chairman of Columbia Pictures. When he announced his resignation in a corporate reshuffle last fall, the news brought tears to the eyes of Columbia employees. Some called him the conscience of Hollywood, a champion of quality and moral standards in an industry corrupted by money, a system Puttnam has been outspoken in attacking.

David Puttnam still

Still from World of Ideas with David Puttnam

DAVID PUTTNAM: Do I have all the answers, as some believe I think I do? Of course I don’t, but I do plead guilty to strong beliefs; to faith in the individual vision; informed by craft and purpose, to a love, in fact, a passion for my craft and the process of its growth into an art form which is capable of uniting, in peace, that family of man of which we’re all a part.

BILL MOYERS: {voice-over} That was a year ago. Now, David Puttnam has once again come to America as a visitor from England. I met with him in the mountains of Utah at the Sundance Institute, a center for independent filmmakers founded by Robert Redford. Puttnam comes here often to help teach new talent. Visitor he may be, but he remains on intimate terms with America.

{interviewing} The first day you came to this country in 1963, you said, was perhaps one of the few really exciting days of your life. You felt as if you were coming home.


BILL MOYERS: And I wonder how can someone feel he’s coming home to a place he’s never been?

DAVID PUTTNAM: I think what I was trying to emphasize was the power of American cinema on my imagination as a child, that I’d been brought up on American movies and that my dream of life, if you like and the part of me that I wanted to develop, wanted to see develop, had been molded by American cinema. Therefore, the environment, the society I was about to come into-I remember looking out of the plane, flying into what was then Idlewild Airport-

BILL MOYERS: Now Kennedy.

DAVID PUTTNAM: -now Kennedy, which is so exciting. I felt, well, that’s the place where all these ideas and images and dreams had been molded.

BILL MOYERS: You were growing up in England in the ’50s-


BILL MOYERS: -watching American movies. A lot of American movies?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Exclusively American movies. Funnily enough, looking back, I’ve been a great jingoist in terms of British cinema. I was a failure in terms of British cinema as a member of the audience. I used to deliberately go for the American film. This is how culturally sophisticated I was. My first decision was: is it in color? If it was in color, I’d go and see it. Then the second thing was: was it a film with any merit and was it American? Then, that would be the second film that week. And then, if I had a gap at the end of the week for a third movie, then maybe I’d see the British film. But it was very important they were in Technicolor.

BILL MOYERS: What were your favorite movies? If you could take one of those movies from the ’50s to a desert island with a VCR, only one, which one would you take?

DAVID PUTTNAM: The film that had enormous impact on me, not in color, was Inherit the Wind, not for its filmic qualities particularly, because it was quite a stagey piece -it was adapted from a stage play -but because it was the first time that I’d seen debate on-screen and found myself moved by debate.

BILL MOYERS: The Scopes Trial was right there in front of you

DAVID PUTTNAM: And it was the first time I realized what cinema could do, the way that cinema could not just move you emotionally in a fairly simple sense, but actually could move you emotionally and intellectually.

BILL MOYERS: But did you think of this event as peculiarly American or universal? Was it-

[Inherit the Wind] was the first time I realized what cinema could do, the way that cinema could not just move you emotionally in a fairly simple sense, but actually could move you emotionally and intellectually.
DAVID PUTTNAM: No, absolutely universal. That was what I think was important to me and that’s why I’ve stressed this time and time again. I think that American cinema of that period was universal, absolutely universal, they were taking American experiences but somehow there was an underlying metaphor which was totally universal.

BILL MOYERS: What did you learn about values from those movies?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Well, you remember that I came from a sort of a middle-class, lower middle-class background, from a class-obsessed society of which I was very critical. I was lucky, I was a scholarship kid, getting a decent education, very aware of the class problems in Britain. And my sense of the United States was that it was a place where those problems, that type of structure, didn’t exist, where there was limitless opportunity, where -and this has become such an underused word -where the notion of what was fair was tremendously important. The notion of what was fair in Britain, certainly immediately postwar Britain, was a tortured idea.

BILL MOYERS: I think when I was growing up in the ’50s, what I thought of as fair came at least as much from the movies, from High Noon, Inherit the Wind, Twelve Angry Men, all those movies about justice, as what I learned from the church, from the school, from other places of my little culture there in Marshall, Texas. Is that what happened to you?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Very much so. Yes, I mean, it’s not something I would have stressed whilst my father was alive but, looking back, the biggest cultural and, I guess, intellectual influence to an extent -I’m not an intellectual -was cinema. It was the thing that stimulated me. It was the thing that gave me vision and the thing that gave me parameters.

BILL MOYERS: The paradox, though, David, is that in the ’50s America was not a fair society. We still had entrenched and ugly segregation. No blacks could sit in the front of the bus, they had to have separate segregated water coolers, they had segregated schools. It was separate and unequal, so the image you were receiving in London from the movies that we exported to you were at odds with the reality of American life.

DAVID PUTTNAM: Well, I think there is the paradox there but I would defend it in two respects. Number one was that the cinema itself was pushing at the edge of the envelope of society and that cinema was maybe creating an ethos among young people which developed in the ’60s into the changes that took place. So that I think it is the role of cinema, it’s the role of the media generally, to be pushing for what could be, not merely reflecting what is. I’m not saying that the reflection of what is isn’t important. I think that it was doing that. Secondly, and this is where I would appeal, if you like, to self interest in this country. The image that was being projected overseas was of this society of which I wanted to be a member. Now, cut to 20 years later and the image that the nation was projecting in the 1970s, let’s say, of this kind of nihilistic society -self-loathing, very violent, antagonistic within itself -that patently isn’t a society which any thinking person in the Third World or Western Europe or Eastern Europe would wish to have anything to do with. So America was exporting an extremely negative notion of itself.

Now, you get into this strange paradox is–which is the more honest? Now, I’ve been in this country enough to know that the image that America projected of itself in the late ’70s and ’80s is not an honest one. This is a really wonderful country in many, many-to a very great extent. The middle of this country is an extraordinarily fair and decent place. It hasn’t changed that much from the ’50s. I do think that the extremes, the East Coast and the West Coast, have aberrant elements within them which have distorted the image of America.

BILL MOYERS: Give me an example of that.

DAVID PUTTNAM: Oh, I think the totally rampant greed, which somehow the nation seems to have got around to justifying as part and parcel of its heritage, is out of control and is going to do you immense damage in the long run.

BILL MOYERS: What is your image of America today from the movies you see?

DAVID PUTTNAM: A nation at odds with itself: You know, there was this wonderful high point, if you like, in the time of the Summer Olympics in 1984, where the nation, I think, felt very good and had an image of itself as being very successful. With that crumbling and with that sense that all it was a sense that the nation was feeling good, actually wasn’t good, wasn’t paying its way. There was a deep financial malaise. I think the country is at odds with itself and I think: that’s being reflected in the movies. The movies have an underlying nastiness in them. The thing I loathe more than any-thing has become fashionable, which is cynicism. I think cynicism is a desperately destructive thing within society, and the movies, I think:, are reflecting cynicism.

BILL MOYERS: Where do you see that most significantly? A movie like Rambo?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the cynicism is in the making of it, in the manner in which the people who make films like Rambo, distribute films like Rambo, regard their audience. The audience are kind of lumpen proletariat who, as long as they tum up in sufficient numbers and pay their money at the box office, are really totally ill\-considered. And you’re creating a society which is a different society than the one I think {a} you want and {b} in the long run you can afford to have.

I had this feeling when I watched the Iran-Contra hearings when Colonel North was admitting to Congress that he had lied, that he withheld information from them, that he had deceived the press, the public and the Congress. And he said, you know, ”I’m proud of it.” And the camera cut to a woman looking at Colonel North with awe, with a transcendent gaze, with deep, deep respect, affection and adoration and I thought of the old movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when he was on the side of truth and decency and openness and fairness. The new Mr. Smith, in the image, is Oliver North who’s decent, kind, patriotic, loyal but defending lying, deception, and self-aggrandizement.

Well, I don’t know, I guess Oliver North in many, many ways is a symbol of the times we’re living in and it is a little disturbing. See, what I find fascinating is that the colleagues in my industry who I work with, many of whom are absolutely first class, not just first class at their jobs but first class people, don’t want very often to get into this type of debate. They don’t really want to acknowledge -I don’t know if it’s the same for the journalists, I imagine it is -they don’t really want to acknowledge the awesome responsibilities that the medium brings. They don’t want to feel that the cause and effect aspect of making movies is as desperate as maybe people like I believe it to be.

So I think: what you’ve got is a kind of conspiracy between the filmmakers themselves -and I may be part of it -between filmmakers themselves and society, whereby we’re all trying to dump responsibility for the type of world we want to live in. And yet we all live in the same world. You can’t make a film, the net effect of which -as certainly has been true in my country -is to create a very violent society or certainly a very irresponsible society, and then merely spend the money you make as a result of that movie building a higher electric fence around your house and installing a new set of burglar alarms.

There’s a madness in that and you’ve got to we’ve all got to look past this thing and say, well, where are we going to be in the year 2000? Are we literally going to live in tiny enclaves with individual armed guards, pouring rubbish over the fence in the form of television material, films or even journalism at an undereducated and increasingly irresponsible society on the outside?

BILL MOYERS: But I go to the movies to be entertained, not to be lectured. Do I really want David Puttnam sitting there saying, “What kind of moral instruction can I give Bill Moyers when he pays me seven dollars?”

DAVID PUTTNAM: No you don’t You have every right not to want that but, again, I think there’s an underlying poverty of ambition, if you like. I’ve never accepted that there’s any dichotomy at all between entertaining you, Bill Moyers, and also dealing in an is-sue, addressing you with an issue. I don’t think there’s any dichotomy at all and I think it’s the job of the responsible filmmaker or of the good filmmaker, forget responsible, to deal in both. When I’m teaching in England, I have this expression I use all the time which is, there are “and” movies and there are “or” movies. And the filmmaker’s responsibility is to make an “and” movie, that’s to say, you make a film which is entertaining and informing and has intrinsic values, values which are ongoing values within society and which people can gather around and defend. The “or” movie is a movie which on Day One decides that it merely wishes to exploit whatever aspect of the audience is fashionable at that moment and doesn’t wish to bother itself with injecting any other values whatsoever.

BILL MOYERS: But you’re not suggesting that we ignore the violence in our society, the greed in our society, the ugliness, the brutality, that part of the human experience, are you?

DAVID PUTTNAM: No, what I’m suggesting is that people who communicate, as we do, have an absolute responsibility to decide for themselves what type of society they would love, enjoy being part of, and have a responsibility to kind of, if you like, promote that form of society, promote a form of responsibility, of mutual responsibility, and not to take advantage of society’s weaknesses. You see, I think what we’re avoiding here is we’re not addressing head-on what society’s weaknesses are. They’ve always existed. The Roman-what we now think of as the Roman Circuses and the excess of the Roman Circuses where, in the end, hundreds of thousands of people died, didn’t start that way. They started legitimately as circuses. They started as pieces of entertainment, extremely mild entertainment, but the audiences’ demand for more and more resulted over a period of, in fact, several hundred years, in that form of entertainment becoming more and more and more bloody, more and more grotesque. What might have been a woman raped, let’s say, raped publicly by a Centurion a year later was a woman raped publicly by an ass, and ten years later was ten women raped publicly by a hundred asses. I mean, the audiences’ desire for that goes way back deep into history. Someone has to say, “Enough!” because this is disaster. We are destroying ourselves and successive societies have destroyed themselves by the failure of their leadership to say, “I know, in many respects, that’s what you’d like to see, but you know what? It’s bad for us. We’re damaging ourselves. We are untying the fabric of our society.” And I see filmmakers, journalists and people, I say, who communicate as having absolute responsibility to say that We’ve got to stop and look. What are we doing to ourselves? Who are we? What do we want to be and are we moving in that direction by going down this path?

BILL MOYERS: Well, you made The Killing Fields, you made The Mission, you made-


BILL MOYERS: -Chariots of Fire, each one of which evolves around some individual who’s deeply committed, acting out a principle, whether it’s the athletes in Chariots of Fire or the environmentalist in Local Hero or the Jesuit priests in The Mission. Is that the ethos that drives you, the value system that drives you, that the individual is morally accountable and has to act to change the society around him?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Yes. I think-this is why it’s exciting. When I sit in a large audience, doesn’t matter where it is, Texas, Canada, Hong Kong, Tokyo, you see the same thing. You give people a character with whom they can identify and you put that character through a moral crisis -a man or a woman -and you allow that character to fight his fights and come out the other end, he may not win, but with his dignity intact, in the case of The Mission, and being true to himself, everywhere in the world you watch the faces in that audience, watch them respond. Why this battle’s worth fighting is because deep down within all of us we are decent. Go into a group of a thousand people and you’ll have no problem at all finding what we were talking about earlier, fair, finding a commonality in terms of a notion of what is fair and what’s just and what kind of life do we really want to lead.

Somehow what’s happened is that aberrant elements of all of us, at least it’s in all of us, have taken control and somehow cinema particularly has failed to appeal to that deep, decent core in people. I remember seeing A Man/or All Seasons many, many times, not because of the filmmaking qualities, which were definite, but what it did to form me and to me, the fact that it allowed me this enonnous conceit of walking out of the cinema thinking, “Yes, you know, I think I’m going to have my head cut off for the sake of principle.” I know absolutely I wouldn’t, and I probably never met anyone that would, but the cinema allowed me that conceit and the cinema allowed me for one moment to feel that everything decent in me had come together. And cinema can do that. And I think if we can time and time and time again plumb that depth, we’ll be doing ourselves a great service, we’ll be doing this nation a great service, and we’ll be doing all of humanity a great service.

BILL MOYERS: But as I listen to you, I think that Rambo appeals to a lot of people, millions of people, for many of the same reasons, that here’s a man, an individual on a mission of patriotism for his country, driven by deep, abiding affection for his brothers-in-arms, for his country, for his cause, risking his life, going into the dark forest, as the mythologists would say, wrestling with demons, enemies, adversaries, coming back having ac-accomplished the will of the individual against the hordes out there. Now, what’s the difference between the Rambo of that image and the Jesuit priests in The Mission, the hero in Local Hero?

DAVID PUTTNAM: I think there are two important differences. One is that it sells us all short because of the simplistic images that it deals in. It doesn’t allow us to grapple with the complexities of the real world or the complexities of society or, I would say actually, the infinitely greater complexity of actually being a human being. There’s nothing tougher in the world than being a human being. Rambo tries to give you the impression that it’s not that being a human being isn’t very difficult, that it’s extremely easy to decide who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and to dispatch the bad guys. It also dangerously reduces the notion of death and violence into an abstraction. Death isn’t an abstraction. If you kill someone, if someone dies, there are vast effects. People are left behind, families are left behind.

BILL MOYERS: You’re saying that real people bleed real blood in real life?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Yes, and I’m saying more. I’m saying that what’s wonderful about cinema is that it is a truly international medium and that if you can make that case in movies, my experience as I travel the world with the films that I’ve produced, is that you get the same echoes. People respond in the same way to the same fine echoes of themselves that they see on screen.

BILL MOYERS: It is universal but the other side of it is-I remember when Rambo, the first Rambo came out three years ago, The New York Times carried a story saying that the image of the militia, of the Amal, of all of the young men fighting and killing each other in that devastated city, lining up at the few movie houses, waiting to see Rambo; they carried their AK’s with them, they carried their weapons with them, they were going to see this. It was reinforcing a universal image that they have of themselves. They didn’t go see Room With a View, because that would have been a lie to them.

DAVID PUTTNAM: I guess I’d argue that. I think it was reinforcing-it comes back to the business of the Roman circuses-I think it was reinforcing the desperately negative aspect that exists within all of us. I don’t feel -let me say this is very important -I don’t feel that I’m some good guy who’s somehow seen the truth and is trying to get a lot of bad guys to come along with him. I’m challenging myself. I’ve made some desperately bad films. I’ve made some very poor decisions during the time I was at Columbia. I don’t think I even turned out to be particularly good at the job I was doing. But what I do know is that I’m working within a medium which has enonnous power and which carries with that power enonnous responsibility. And I’m convinced that it’s not a good thing to appeal to the violence of the Amal guerrillas by showing them a movie which, in one way or another, helps to justify their violence.

BILL MOYERS: You did make Midnight Express, a movie with a lot of violence and a bizarre movie in a sense. I’ve seen it twice, and I shudder when I see it, at what it reveals of the human being. Were you driven by some other desire when you were making that?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Not at all. I mean, I think we all go through important cathartic moments, and I think certainly Midnight Express was just that for me, because when I saw Midnight Express, which I’m proud of as a piece of moviemaking, I mean, I think it was extraordinarily skilled, everyone that worked on the film did a marvelous job. When I saw the impact of that film or the effect of that film, when I did precisely what I de-scribed to you, when I traveled with the film and saw that many of the creative decisions we’d made, believing we were going to get a particular response, had the exact opposite response; when I saw that, you know-we’d talked long and hard about Billy Hays biting the tongue, remember, of one of the other prisoners. The reason we’d done it was to try and give the impression that he’d become demented; we thought the audience would vanish under their seats. The truth of the matter was the opposite happened. They got up in their seat and they were cheering him. I got the shock of my life and I think that was the moment where I suddenly realized exactly what I’d got myself into. And that’s where, you know, it happens to all of us, where and when do you join the circle? That’s when I said to myself, “Never again.” I don’t ever want to sit in a cinema and look at a film that I’ve had any responsibility at all for and be stunned and shattered by the reaction it’s getting from the audience.

BILL MOYERS: There was a story that after that experience, that after you realized the reaction to Midnight Express, you called on a priest for some counselor advice. Is that true?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Yes, it is true. It was a rather-the means were circuitous-but yes, I ended up, through that and through the confusion I found myself in, spending some time with a quite remarkable Jesuit priest who is now, in fact, the Professor of Theology at London University, a man called Jack Marney. I didn’t spend a lot of time with him, but in the time I did spend with him, he really came down severely. He said, “It’s very much in your hands. Stop being so critical of yourself and do something about it. If you believe your medium that you work in has these qualities and has these opportunities, then it’s your job -no one else’s job -it’s your job to steer your own career in that direction. ”

BILL MOYERS: Were you flagellating yourself because of Midnight Express?

DAVID PUTTNAM: I think I was stunned by my own arrogance and ignorance. Arrogance be-cause I could see the way in which we had very carefully and very skillfully used the medium, and -if you will, if you like -manipulated the audience, and at the same time stunned by my ignorance in terms of not fully understanding the cause and effect, the manner in which the film would be seen.

BILL MOYERS: But every filmmaker, every journalist has to be arrogant. You have to say, “I have this truth, you’ve got to pay attention. You’ve got to listen.” Maybe it was just the wrong truth you had.

DAVID PUTTNAM: I think so. I mean, looking back, we did the film -all of us -Alan Parker and myself, Alan Marshall, because we were bored and fed up with being closeted, if you like, or categorized as an filmmakers -which was what had happened to us in Europe -and we wanted to prove that we could make an American film as well as any American filmmaker. And I think we got carried away with that notion, and somehow or other, what we were doing -or rather the effect of what we were doing -got lost in the equation.

One of the people I’m flagellating when I’m saying these things is myself. I think I’m punishing myself and I think I’m urging the studios, other filmmakers to say, for God’s sake, get better and in getting better, demand more of me. Don’t let me do sloppy work.. Don’t encourage me to assimilate into the easy and simple-minded type of movie. Make me do better work.. Criticize my work. and the only way I can get you do that is by challenging you.

BILL MOYERS: When you say Hollywood should do better, you’re saying, “Get better, Hollywood, so that you can make me better.”

DAVID PUTTNAM: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: I felt that same way.

DAVID PUTTNAM: Very much so. Very much so.

BILL MOYERS: We all have some responsibility for the moral conduct and the standards of the organization of which we’re a part, even though we may be on only one flank of that organization, on one front of it. But how do you hold onto your own beliefs and values in this chaotic world?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Well, I think that I touched on it. I mean, first of all, I believe passionately in cinema, I love movies and I believe films are important. And that gives me a focus. And I think if ever I cease to believe that, I would have to quit the business because there would be no point in going on. The other reason is I come from an extremely stable home life and background. One of the great things about Britain is the sense of continuity and the sense you’re part of a society which is ongoing. I think that helps. Certainly in the past it hasn’t been as fragile a society as this, you haven’t got the sense that you can be swept overboard by a wave.

And the third thing is what I described earlier, is because I travel with my movies, because I get around the world a lot and watch the impact and influence of cinema around the world, I know -this isn’t something I hope or I believe, this is what I know, the only thing I think I know -I know that if you put a film which really speaks to audiences, which really has something to say, which really addresses what’s best in them and it doesn’t matter what audience in the world that film plays to, it’s going to have a terrific resonance and people will walk out of those cinemas in all of those cities, all those cultures, all those nations, better, with better instincts and better able to fight back for what’s best in the world than they were when they walked in.

This transcript was entered on March 24, 2015.

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