Filmmaker David Puttnam (Part Two)

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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: I’m Bill Moyers. Some of the most enduring portraits of America have been painted by outsiders; by the Frenchman, Alexis Tocqueville, by the Englishwoman, Mrs. Trollop. Those who stand outside our culture often view it with a lens made more accurate by distance and perspective. In this broadcast, we’ll hear more from David Puttnam, one outsider who’s training his lens on America this election year. The British filmmaker is looking at the stories we tell about ourselves in our movies, and watching how they reflect and shape our society.

Last Fall, employees of a Hollywood movie studio, Columbia Pictures, were stunned when they learned their chairman, David Puttnam, was resigning.

Sir Richard Attenborough, David Puttnam and Bob Geldof at the BAFTA Film Awards in London, 1988 (Rex Features via AP Images)

Sir Richard Attenborough, David Puttnam and Bob Geldof at the BAFTA Film Awards in London, 1988 (Rex Features via AP Images)

PUTTNAM: The truth is I’m neither St. George nor Don Quixote. I’m just a European motion picture producer who crossed the Atlantic to ask a few questions and possibly seek a different way forward.

BILL MOYERS: {voice-over} Puttnam, a filmmaker from England, had been only a year on the job, but he got a standing ovation. Puttnam was, in fact, pushed out of Columbia in a corporate power play. He had made enemies by attacking the big stars, big agents, and big money that rule Hollywood. Before Columbia, Puttnam had been an independent producer, making movies like Chariots 0/Fire, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture in 1982; The Killing Fields, based on the true story of a Cambodian journalist caught in a reign of terror and the struggle of his friend, a New York Times reporter, to save him; The Mission, a tale of Jesuit priests who convert Indians in Latin America to Christianity, only to face an attack on their mission ordered by the Church itself; all stories of people driven to act out of principle, a credo Puttnam claims is very much his own.

Today, he is once again an independent producer. We met recently in Utah at the Sundance Institute, a center for filmmakers founded by Robert Redford. Tonight, Part Two of our conversation about movies and their power to change society, about movie makers and their values.

{interviewing} What did you mean when you said on one occasion that Hollywood is a godless place?

You make a passionate and a committed film and you do it well and the audience will always turn up. I’ve never had the audience let me down.
PUTTNAM: I meant that it’s a place that has managed to convince itself that the rule of cause and effect doesn’t function and that what goes on, what people know goes on, the deals that go on, the self-serving quality of many people -but not all -of many people within their society, the notion that somehow or other there isn’t a price to pay. Now, interestingly enough, the price that’s been paid is, I think -my view -is in the quality of the movies. Not the success of the movies, but the underlying quality of the movies. You’ll find it quite difficult, as you move around Hollywood in any reasonably sophisticated group of people, to come across people who are proud of the movies that are being made. Sometimes they’ll say that they’re not bad, other times they’ll defend them by saying they’ve been relatively successful, but you’ll find very few people who feel that there is a strong vein of first-class movies emerging out of Hollywood-

BILL MOYERS: They’re selling themselves short?

PUTTNAM: Yes, and that’s where they’re paying the price. What I was trying to say was by godless I meant there’s no price to pay. The rule of cause and effect wasn’t operating within that society.

BILL MOYERS: Someone said to me once of a man who was very powerful at a network, .. He has no Bible in his office,” meaning that there’s no core of belief, no guiding ethos. Is that what you’re saying?

PUTTNAM: Yes, very much so. I mean, unfortunately, you know, phrases get picked up and rather casually used, either against you -maybe I use them too casually -but when I talk about a godless society, what I’m referring to is a society that doesn’t believe that at the end of the road there’s not a price to pay.

BILL MOYERS: And how does this affect movies? They make movies dealing with what’!

PUTTNAM: I think the movies arc trivial. I think that-over by and large trivial. I think that the filmmakers are selling themselves short because there are some very, very fine talents at work who somehow are being convinced that their principal job is to second-guess the audience and I don’t think good creative work has ever been done in history out of a sense of second-guessing.

BILL MOYERS: But isn’t this because they want to sell? It is a business. You keep using the word show business, entertainment business and the bottom line is the bottom line.

PUTTNAM: Yes but, again, I think that’s a reasonable position for, let’s say, the management of the studios to take. It’s not a reasonable position for the creative community to take. The creative community is supposed to be the group who are pushing, using their strength, using their power, using their talent to push against what is into what may be. And I think a great number of movies -I refer to the kind of poverty of-the poverty of ambition is the problem, not the poverty of the imagination -but a great number of movies are made when, before one roll of film’s been shot, the film to a very great extent’s been sold down the river because of an attempt to second-guess what it is the audience is going to want to see. And that’s why you’re not creating cinema. Great cinema is when you surprise the audience and maybe sometimes even surprise yourself.

BILL MOYERS: Well, how does that happen? I mean, what was it Francois Truffaut said, that every filmmaker should say to himself or herself that I’m going to make a movie that proves my truth is the only truth?

PUTTNAM: It is the only truth. I think the filmmaker has to feel inside. I mean, I get myself into a lot of trouble because I do sincerely believe in a lot of these things that I’m saying, a lot of which may well appear to be nonsense to other people, but I sincerely believe them. And I’m desperate to get these-what I believe are truths–over on film, over in cinema. The medium’s powerful enough to do it. We’re not dealing in a wimpish medium. It isn’t the medium letting us down and interestingly enough, it isn’t the audience letting us down. You make a passionate and a committed film and you do it well and the audience will always turn up. I’ve never had the audience let me down. I’ve never made a fine film, as a producer, and had the audience not turn up. I’ve made plenty of films which were inadequate and the audiences smelt them out immediately. But you make a good film -I think. The Killing Fields is a good film, a film like The Killing Fields -and people will come to see it. They won’t say, “Oh, it’s about Cambodia,” and turn off, they’ll come to see it.

BILL MOYERS: That says a great deal about what we have in common as individuals, no matter what our particular culture, religion-I know that sounds banal and trite but it is something basically true about it.

PUTTNAM: But isn’t that the problem? I find that every day and what I’m saying, that’s why I mentioned earlier I loathe cynicism because the gut of what we’re saying is so easy to spike with cynical one-liners that I become crazed. You know, you say something which you sincerely believe in, you know that in parts it sounds banal, you know it sounds obvious, you know it may even sound simplistic and then some smart-ass has a terrific one-liner which deflates it. And what that one-liner has done is damage the truth. You see, so often cynicism is used to undermine the truth because the truth is banal frequently.

BILL MOYERS: What was it Adlai Stevenson said? “Clichés mean what they say and truisms are true.” It really does matter. Sometimes I think, well, it’s just a movie, it’s not real life. You’re saying it really matters.

PUTTNAM: I’m saying it really matters.

BILL MOYERS: But do you think people do things differently because of what they see on that screen?

PUTTNAM: Not on any one film and I think this is one of the areas that’s important. I’m glad you asked the question because it’s one of the things that’s used to puncture my arguments. No, I don’t think any one film’s ever going to change anything and I don’t think any one newspaper article’s ever going to change anything. But over a period of years, the drip, drip, drip of a lot of good movies, a ton of movies that address real issues, a lot of good articles, the quality of newspapers, the caliber and integrity of newspapers’ editors — very, very, very important — the effect of that drip, drip, drip daily diet of views and ideas that adhere to what’s best in society, that has an effect. Not one movie, not one article, not one building can better our architects but just the fact that all of us buckle down and try and do better and be better.

BILL MOYERS: You said, “A movie tinkers around inside your brain. It steals up to form or confirm social attitudes, that movies actually can help to create a healthy, informed, concerned and inquisitive society or a negative, apathetic and ignorant one.”

PUTTNAM: I believe that absolutely, sincerely.

BILL MOYERS: So that young people who go to the movies are, whether they know it or not, taking something out of there.

PUTTNAM: Every single movie has within it an element of propaganda and they walk away with either benign or malign propaganda.

BILL MOYERS: Propaganda?


BILL MOYERS: Somebody’s idea of the way the world ought to be?

PUTTNAM: Yes and I think it’s an important word because I think it’s a word we shouldn’t duck. You and I shouldn’t pretend that, even in this interview, we’re not in one respect propagandizing. It’s up to the audience at home to decide whether what we’re propagandizing about represents the truth and something worthwhile.

BILL MOYERS: You made a very large claim for movies and you said, “Our political and emotional responses rest, for their health, in the quality and integrity of the present and future generation of television and film creators.” That’s claiming a lot for this business.

PUTTNAM: Yes, but I think in fairness, even if the claim is only half justified, I think. what is important is that people that come into this business acknowledge the possibility of that truth and are prepared to address it and don’t merely come in and regard it as a frivolous adjunct of show business in which the best thing that could ever happen to them is three pages in People Magazine and a million dollars in the bank because the business is about more than that.

BILL MOYERS: There are some very good movies coming out of Hollywood. I mean, I loved Moonstruck and I’ll bet you did, too.

PUTTNAM: Yes, I did, though I unfortunately had the miserable misfortune of turning it down as a script but I certainly liked the result.

BILL MOYERS: Now, why did you turn it down?

PUTTNAM: I thought it was a film I’d seen before. It wasn’t-in fairness, it was then, at that point, called Moonglow, it wasn’t as sharp a screenplay as it was later on. It was a mistake. I made plenty of them. That was one of them.

BILL MOYERS: And Broadcast News and have you seen Whales of August?

PUTTNAM: Yes, I have.

BILL MOYERS: Wonderful movies, affirming these values that you’re talking about.

PUTTNAM: Yes. I guess I defend it, Bill, by saying that -and this is not diminishing the qualities of Chariots of Fire -it occurred to me after Chariots of Fire won the Oscar that really and truly in a healthy movie society, as it were, with the movie industry being the movie industry that I would have it be, Chariots would be your regular movie, it would be the film you’d expect at your local cinema each week. It shouldn’t be the film, the Olympian film, that at the end of the year climbs the mountain and wins the Oscar. Frankly – but it’s a terrible thing to say about your film – it wasn’t a good enough film to win my notion of what an Oscar should represent. When I look back over the years at the films that didn’t win Oscars, when I look back at the films that didn’t even get nominated, I can’t be anything but a little embarrassed. In fact, the only time I really felt comfortable about Chariots of Fire, interestingly enough, was when Killing Fields didn’t win. I somehow felt, well, the combination of Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields, maybe the two of them put together deserved one Oscar. And that was the first time I really felt comfortable.

BILL MOYERS: But you wouldn’t turn it down.

PUTTNAM: No way. In fact, if anyone had tried to rugby tackle me as I went up to collect it, I certainly think I could have shaken off-even The Refrigerator would have had trouble stopping me.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of men did you find were running Hollywood? Did you find, when you looked at those corporations or when you talked to them, C.S. Lewis’s warm and well-lighted offices occupied by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails who never raise their voices? Bookkeepers, accountants, bottom-liners?

PUTTNAM: In some respects, that’s true. In other respects, it was a pleasant surprise. I mean, the job’s a very tough job and the people that do the job, for the most part, are very professional and stick with it. I think that because of the demands of the job, be-cause of the, I’m afraid, short-term results which are required of all American executives -this is not just the motion picture industry -they are frequently required to make decisions which I certainly would argue with. But I don’t think that it is the role of the businessman, the executive, to capitulate to the artist any more than I think it’s the role of the artist or the creator to capitulate to the businessman. We have to find a nexus. We have to find a partnership and the best of those executives running studios want better movies. They want to be proud of their movies. They want to be able to tum up at Academy Award night and be proud and to have a film nominated and feel the film has a value.

BILL MOYERS: What about the people who own Coca-Cola which owned Columbia? Did they force you out because of this conflict over art and business, over your independence, your maverick style?

PUTTNAM: I don’t think so. I think that probably what happened -and I can only surmise -I think that probably what happened was that whilst their intentions were absolutely honorable two years ago when they first asked me to join the company, I think they found that the pressures and problems and the short-term crises that were created by my attitudes weren’t justified by the potential long-term benefits that I might have brought to the studio.

BILL MOYERS: Do you feel in any way that you sort of declared war on the prevailing ethic of Hollywood?

PUTTNAM: No, not at all. I feel that in taking me on or encouraging me to join the studio, strangely enough, the Coca-Cola Company declared war on the prevailing altitude and rightly, because they were very disappointed with what they had. But they brought in someone whose views were absolutely declared. I mean, whatever else can be said against, I was no closet critic and they publicly applauded the stance that I took. I just don’t think they were ready for the fallout I don’t think they were ready for the venom that was forthcoming.


PUTTNAM: From those people within the Hollywood community who felt themselves threatened by my views.

BILL MOYERS: The people you criticized for the big deals -the agents, the talent with high prices-

PUTTNAM: Well, the people who I feel take advantage-continue to take advantage of the amount of money that washes around within that system and, instead of plowing it back into the business, tend to look after themselves, in the first instance.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what happens? Why don’t they plow it back?

PUTTNAM: Because I don’t think there’s a belief in the system, and I don’t think there’s a belief in the medium. I think one of the underlying things we’ve been talking about is the fact that I believe that cinema’s important. You know, if you had to take this-if you needed a title for this talk, the title would be “Is Cinema Important’!” If you believe that cinema is important, then everything I’m saying holds up. If, deep down, we fail to convince the audience that cinema’s important, then really what I’m saying is nonsense. Now, I think what the paradox of this is that many, many, many people who have wonderful careers in the motion picture industry deep down don’t believe that cinema’s that important. Many of them subscribe to the question you asked which is, you know, isn’t this a lot to ask of a medium and, really, does a film make a difference?

BILL MOYERS: In this case, then, don’t you have to go on your own? I mean, wasn’t it a mistake for you to try to take over a major company like Columbia producing pictures that had to represent a larger-


BILL MOYERS: -corporate strategy than your own personal vision as a filmmaker?

PUTTNAM: In hindsight, it was a ridiculous mistake, I mean, on several fronts. The biggest single mistake, I think, was to try and translate an essentially European notion of what cinema is into an American view, without realizing that basically, there’s a dislocation in there. The running of an American studio requires a form of discipline and, frankly, a form of compromise which I’d never been asked to address and therefore, I wasn’t able to.

BILL MOYERS: You were so outspoken in your criticism of the big deals, the agents, the high prices, the materialism of Hollywood that you came off, like all prophets do, a little bit with the hairshirt and a little bit as the outsider-

PUTTNAM: Not really, though, I mean, I painted myself into a corner in that I’d always had those views. Those weren’t new views, they were views I’d been espousing for at least a decade and the problem I had was that if I attempted to revise them — and good journalists made sure I wasn’t allowed to stay quiet about them — if I’d attempted to revise them, I would have been, quite rightly, accused of not being true to myself but of being the worst kind of revisionist, that here I was now in a position of power discovering that all the things I used to say were no longer true. And I was more concerned about being seen as this character who shifted ground with a shift of job and a shift of responsibility than anything else. I think that bothered me a great deal. Now that, again, I think, strengthens your case that I was probably the wrong person for the job, but I had painted myself into a very real comer and I felt. had to continue down the road that I sincerely believed in.

BILL MOYERS: But wouldn’t it have been better — and you’re not the only who could say this — wouldn’t it have been better to have practiced what you preached and preached less what you practiced?

PUTTNAM: Without doubt. Again, to an extent, I’m hung on my own petard. My father was a journalist and I was brought up in a household where the worst thing that could happen to him on any given day, week, or month, was when he came back from a job where he’d got a “no comment” or someone that wouldn’t talk. And so I was brought up from a very, very early age to despise people who weren’t prepared to talk about the things they believed in. I can well sec that it’s more expedient at times, but it’s a difficult thing for me to do. Just, literally because of the nature of the household I came from.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve said before that journalists, filmmakers and architects all have one thing in common.

PUTTNAM: The need for a patron.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve got to have a patron. Why do you have to have a patron?

PUTTNAM: Because the dreams of all three groupings are not — have no effect — I guess we’re all in the business of effect — but don’t materialize without a patron. A filmmaker without a studio to fund his screenplay is just a man sitting in a coffee shop with 120 pages of deathless prose. A journalist railing against the inadequacies of the new appointee to the Supreme Court is also sitting in that same coffee shop unless he has someone to print his newspaper column. And most of all, I’ve always felt the most vulnerable of all are architects who have dreams which, without the ability to physically represent them and tum to someone funding their building, have got these large sheets of blue paper which are almost impossible even to file.

BILL MOYERS: This does give filmmakers, architects and journalists a very precarious existence because you’ve got to have that patron. At the same time, you’re trying to get out of you this singular conviction about the truth or the idea or the dream, so there’s a conflict. And that happened to you, didn’t it?

PUTTNAM: Yes, absolutely and I can’t imagine that at some points in your career it didn’t happen to you, certainly early on. And what you have to do is deal with that frustration. Now I’ve managed to -talk about arrogance -I’ve managed to convince myself that, come hell or high water, one way or another I’ll always be able to make films. I mean, I may not be able to make big Hollywood movies but I’ll certainly be able to make small films in England or, if worse comes to worst, I’ll make films in television. And so I haven’t ever faced the notion that somehow Puttnam and the things that he believes in are going to be banned from the screen. That, maybe, is what allows me the conceit of saying the things I say because I’m sure that many, many people in my peer group sincerely feel that if they’re too outspoken or too aggressive with their views that they may someday, in some mysterious way, be banned from the screen.

BILL MOYERS: What did you learn about the weakness of American society from your experience in Hollywood?

PUTTNAM: Well, the most worrying and the most long term damaging is the fear that well-paid jobs and industries that have within them opportunity to be enormously successful and to have all the things that society offers, the fear that goes along with that, the fear of people losing their jobs, the fear of people finding themselves on the outside of the small society within which they work or live is very real. And I think that is the most worrying factor because that can only perpetuate the worst of what is and that would also always delay change.

BILL MOYERS: You said in a recent speech that the United States is in real danger of becoming a lost land. In what sense?

PUTTNAM: Well, I think I went on to say the lost land or at least the lost land of my dreams. I was personalizing it. I think a nation in which the gap between the way the country -it comes back to their soul -in which the way the country sees itself, the soul that it would wish to have becomes more and more removed from the manner in which it sees itself reflected on a day-to-day basis. I sincerely think that the ordinary people in this country know that there’s something wrong with the financial system, the underlying financial system. They know that Boesky is not an isolated case, they know that there’s more to it than that. And somehow those wounds haven’t been cleansed and I think that’s just one issue. I think it runs along a very broad spectrum but there’s been a lack of cleansing and a lack of a restart. People know deep down in this country there’s something wrong but, at the same time, they know that it’s a good country. They know that the instincts of this country are decent and they know they want to be the way they see themselves. They were allowed that in a phony way, I believe, under this present president, but it was a phony vision. Now I think what they would like is for the reality to conform to that excellent feeling.

BILL MOYERS: The reality being, as you see it, the reality of America being what?

PUTTNAM: The reality of America being that it is the one nation in the world that was conceived and built on a notion of justice and equality. The people who founded this country and the people who created this country ran away from the countries -among the countries that they ran away from is the one that I live in -ran away from dictator-ships, ran away from exploitation, ran away from-be it exploitation of a religious or of a financial nature. I don’t for one second believe that the people who founded this country had in mind creating a nation which merely became a mirror image of the nations that they were running away from. And I think in-and I believe in history, I think history will be very poorly served if America merely turns into a reflection of the evils of the nations that created it.

BILL MOYERS: Is it possible that you went to Hollywood having seen too many idealistic movies of the 1950’s where the good guys always win and the endings are always happy?

PUTTNAM: Yes, but on the other hand, I’d defend myself merely by saying that it’s that form of hope that keeps us all going from day to day. And I was genuinely encouraged by my family to do it. Their view was that if I didn’t take up the cudgel, I could tum into one of those bitter 6O-year-olds who talks about what might have been and what would have been and how things could have been different. And that that was a fair price to pay for getting rid of that notion and I think that’s proved to be true.

BILL MOYERS: You’re not very happy with people, are you, who say, “Well, this is just the way it is. We can’t change it.”

PUTTNAM: No, not at all. I think it’s-I think they might as well roll over and give up. No, not at all. I think the whole point of being here is the battle. I enjoy the battle. I make no pretense about it. I like a fight. It’s stimulating and makes me think and makes me question myself, which is important. No, I have no real time for people who feel that that’s the way it is and we’re just going to have to live with it.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a exiled Russian writer -Aksynov, I believe -who said that the American dream is really the continual belief that you can change your life, that some-where in this vast, economic phantasmagoria, you can-you’re going to change the way things are for you. You’re going to better yourself, you’re going to improve your-self. You’re going to make a different person out of yourself. And the movies you and I saw when we were growing up all suggested that-


BILL MOYERS: -that you can take charge, you can make a difference, the individual matters. Get out there and make it happen. That’s the American dream. Do you think that’s

PUTTNAM: Yes, I do. I think when you asked me what I found most distressing and dispiriting about Hollywood was the sense that, other than on a purely careerist basis, that dream has vanished. The sense now is that only by belonging, only by being part of the system, will you elevate yourself, that the old dream of certainly the early ’60’s that the system was there to be changed and the system was there to be adapted and made better-that seems to have vanished and there’s a general sense, certainly in Holly-wood, that only by assimilating and being part of the existing system are you going to get anywhere. That’s rather sad.

BILL MOYERS: But there’s another side of it. I brought this ad from The New York Times. It’s a woman executive, corporate executive, who says, “I believe in self-reliance, being aggressive and expressing anger openly, kind of like Rambo,” she says. So there’s Hollywood reinforcing the individualism that is, I don’t think, quite the individualism you’re talking about.

PUTTNAM: It isn’t, I mean, I can tell you I don’t know who this woman is. I wouldn’t want to meet her and it sounds to me as though she’s someone who is not going to con-tribute to any society that I particularly want to be pan of or-

BILL MOYERS: She might make a very good corporate executive, overseeing the David Puttnams of Hollywood.

PUTTNAM: She may well, but what I think I’m saying is that there’s a need for a different kind of plural society here, that somehow or other we’re going to have to make it together. We can’t just make it on our own and that seems to me to be what’s getting lost in the equation. You know, that what your schooling at the moment -for instance, your school system -you’re at the moment creating the workforce of the year 2000. Unless that is an intelligent and thoughtful workforce, unless that’s basically a social as we both understand the term -workforce, what kind of society is that woman going to be running her corporation within? Is she going to be able to employ people who can read and write? Is she going to be able to employ people who are not going to rip her off for pay cash? I mean, my notion of a society is, I think, even the dictionary definition of society doesn’t allow for mere self-growth, self-aggrandizement and devil take the hindmost. And it can ‘I. We live in a plural society. We have an absolute obligation to make sure that both we and the people around us and the generation that’s following us are better and inherit a better world than the one in which we were brought into.

BILL MOYERS: And you really do believe that movies can make a difference in their lives’!

PUTTNAM: I’m glad you said “make a difference.” I believe that movies have a role to play and the interesting thing is, if movies played their role to the hilt, then they may well embarrass other media like television, like journalism, into also addressing their in-adequacies and getting their act together.

BILL MOYERS: But if movies did that, would we still need to go to church?

PUTTNAM: It’s an interesting question. I suppose, really, if we reached the apotheosis that I dream of, there would be no need to go to church because church would reside in everyone’s home and within each of us. It’ll never happen to me and it’ll never happen in my lifetime, but it’s a nice dream.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you, David.

This transcript was entered on March 24, 2015.

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