January 9, 2005|The best films of British director Michael Radford (whose best known film is probably the Oscar-nominated Il Postino) are his directorial debut, Another Time, Another Place, and his grim 1984 adaptation of George Orwell's suddenly-current-again 1984. (They are, along with White Mischief, at least my personal favourites of his.) Something like a whirlwind in person, Radford cuts through the pre-lunch crowd at a swank Denver bar, where he spots me at a table chatting with his ingénue from The Merchant of Venice, Lynn Collins, and makes a beeline, hand extended in a gesture unaffected enough to shed a little light on how unspoken he's been about his film, United States foreign policy, and actors. (Ian McKellen: "Movie star, not movie actor.") Over the course of our interview, Mr. Radford proved more than willing to set alleged misquotes straight, as well as to share his view of not only the cultural differences between the U.S. and Europe, but also the cultural similarities between the U.S. and Orwell's dystopia.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Broadly interpreted as an anti-Semitic text--describe to me the difficulties of going the independent route for funding for The Merchant of Venice.
MICHAEL RADFORD: They say that but what I don't understand is how they can say that when so many great Jewish actors have played this role--when Shakespeare saved some of his most beautiful, impassioned speeches for Shylock. But going outside of Hollywood, it made it extremely difficult mainly financially. We have the backing of a studio now, of course, but it was an uphill battle, an extremely difficult film to put together.
Even with Pacino?
Yes, even with Pacino, because yes, it's Al Pacino, but Al Pacino in a Shakespeare film, you know. So everybody's backing away from the project because he's not jumping out of a trailer with a gun. It was brutally difficult to get funding--we had to shoot it in seven weeks in the dead of winter, the bank didn't come through with the money until three weeks after we'd finished it--all that sort of stuff. But what you do get, the upside, is you get to do what you want. Nobody's going to tell you what to do. It's not like there weren't producers, it was that there were seventeen producers and they couldn't agree between themselves about anything. The effective producers that we did have, though, I have to say--guys like Cary Brokaw and Barry Navidi--were pretty much for the movie and firmly behind me. They're guys who believe that film directors should have the choice of what to say.
Why this movie at this time?
I don't like making socio-political statements because I think that they date very quickly. What I like to do is to say here's the subtext and the subtext is today, the world in which we live. The best way to play it, and to play things like Chekov, I believe is to root it in a particular time and not to update it, but to let the subtext that's latent in these great masterpieces to speak to contemporary audiences as they do for each new generation that discovers it. I felt that this story is absolutely one set in its time, but from that you can deduce that mankind hasn't changed in four-hundred years. There's still racial prejudice, there's still cultural misunderstanding--two cultures who don't understand one another.
You've been quoted as comparing your film to the same tensions that spawned the Iraq war.
(laughs) Listen, that's been a little inflated--it was never my intention to try to muddle the Iraq war up with this film. See, I don't want to beat around the metaphor too much, but all I was trying to say was if you look at Shylock's psychology, here's a man who's completely justified in feeling hurt, but he's not justified in not controlling his anger. And that, I think, is where the United States is at this moment. The United States is absolutely justified in feeling injured by 9/11, but then to flail around and invade any country with brown skin is not a justifiable thing to do--they don't have a right to demand a pound of flesh.
And to impose a system of morality along the way.
Exactly right. Exactly right. You look at the Christians in the play, seeking to impose their morality on Shylock--on a man with his own culture, and as the great Israeli commentator Amos Oz says, you can't impose morality on people, you can only defend morality. You can't go around telling people that we're giving you something that you lack whether you like it or not--just saying it robs men of their self-respect and it festers resentment. You look at the play and it's about a man who's had his self-respect taken away. It's an old lesson.
I think it's more religion than oil--though oil is in the stew somewhere--that we're in Iraq for, to be frank.
I don't think there's any question about it. America's in there because of a moral thing, I'm convinced of it, and they're there with this feeling of divine right without once considering that if an alien culture landed on Ellis Island with a message of "You're deficient" and "You're amoral" then I'm going to guess that it's not going to be taken all that well here either. It's astonishing that the fallout from this moral authority tactic wasn't anticipated.
Why should it be? It won them two elections. Changing gears: talk to me about getting phone calls from Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci after your first film, Another Time, Another Place, played at the Cannes Director's Fortnight.
It was an extraordinary moment in my life. I was a young filmmaker, really struggling to make movies, and I had really modest ambitions for it but it got selected for the Cannes Film Festival. No one'd really seen it before then, but fifteen-hundred people came to see it and there was a standing ovation. So the next day, I started getting these letters from my heroes, you know, from people who I'd admired my whole life. Jean-Luc Godard, perversely of course, said that he was going to make a documentary about why the British couldn't make films, but he couldn't after seeing my film. And then Bertolucci called me from Rome just to say that he thought it was a great movie. Then CAHIERS DU CINEMA put it on their year end best of list--and suddenly all the things as a film student you wanted was in my lap. And it's been all downhill since then. (laughs)
I like that film better than maybe anything else you've ever done.
(laughs) Ah, thank you, I think of it as my best movie, too, but so few people have seen it, I don't get to talk about it much.
Ten Minutes Older, a compilation of short films: you're on the roster with Godard and Bertolucci--but you didn't work with them?
No, not in the slightest. We were all given a budget and we all went off and did our own things, but, obviously, I felt very, very honoured just to be in their company. Them, Claire Denis, Mike Figgis, Spike Lee...
Lee was in that project?
Well, there were two films (Ten Minutes Older: The Cello and Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet -Ed.)--there were fifteen films and they were split into two movies. The second one had Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismäki... All those guys.
After the success of Another Time, Another Place, you acquired Fred Zinnemann as a friend and mentor--what did you take from that interaction?
He wrote to me--he wrote me a letter--and was very complimentary and I went and had tea with him. He was a lovely man, he wintered in Los Angeles and spent his summers in London, and it was just after 1984 when I started getting huge offers from people to make films.
For instance, Dino De Laurentiis approached me to make what was to be at that time the most expensive movie ever made with a budget of $165 million dollars, something called Tai-Pan.
The James Clavell novel?
Yeah, it wasn't a very good script--it really wasn't a very good script.
Not a very good book, either.
(laughs) No, it isn't. So De Laurentiis offers me this project and I'm taking tea with Fred Zinnemann and I ask him should I take it, should I decline, I don't know which way my life is going. And he looks at me and says, "Michael," with his sort of central European grace, he says, "Michael--you either want the mink coats and the Cadillacs, or you don't want the mink coats and the Cadillacs. You're at the crossroads now." So I thought to myself, Hell, I don't want mink coats and Cadillacs, so I didn't take it and it was a couple of months later, again over tea, I thanked him. "Fred, you gave me such great advice," I said, "you must have been at that same crossroads--what'd you do?" And he said, "I took the mink coats and the Cadillacs, my wife has very expensive tastes." (laughs) So I had to ask which film he was talking about and with this bitterness--this look of distaste just came over his face and he almost spat it out, he said, "Oklahoma! It took me seven years to recover."
|"...I do find it strange that American women are so obsessed with their freedom and yet they're about the most repressed group that I've ever met."|
I really liked your White Mischief as well and saw a lot of that naughtiness and decadence seeping through into your Merchant of Venice.
Well, of course I love naughtiness and decadence. Venice, and this is one of the things that really inspired me to set the play to period, because Venice at that time was at its zenith as the most decadent place. English travelers who came to vacation were just horrified at what was going on--and one of the things that was going on, which is astonishing to us now, is that prostitutes went around bare-breasted.
By law, right?
That's right, by decree. And there was more. The masks that they wore, right up until the eighteenth century--whenever they were doing something they'd put on these masks and presto: anonymity. Everything's kind of crushed together--it's so cold in the winter, it's so dirty, and the seawater ruins everything. It's like New York in a way, though: it's falling down in so many ways, but it's also so alive. It's like a living thing. Vibrant.
You're also quoted as saying that the studio distributing your film asked you to tone down the decadence.
No, another misquote that's taken on a life of its own. What actually happened was that the FCC--everybody's terrified since the Janet Jackson episode--so some FCC bureaucrat somewhere sent me a list of things that might be offensive to an American audience. Men kissing, women kissing, animals being slaughtered for food, and so on and so on, and the final one was, could you please cover up some of the wallpaper? And the sheer screaming ignorance of that, I was thinking, Wallpaper? What wallpaper? Then it dawned on me that they were talking about a few Cupid's willies that were on Paulo Veronese's frescoes in a few scenes. But that's not the studio--it's gotten somehow twisted by you blokes in the media. (laughs) Our distributor's been extremely supportive of the movie.
What do you think of the sanctimony of a list like that--and more, of how accurate it is in reflecting the sanctimony of the American public?
You know, it's just such... Listen, all fundamentalist religious societies are sanctimonious and hypocritical. It's unbelievable--extraordinarily unbelievable. The problem with fundamentalism is that it determines that the world is able to be encapsulated in five sentences. If you don't like to think and want to be coddled, Hey, that's great. Whether it's political fundamentalism or religious, same thing--but the world isn't like that. The world is a complicated, difficult place and that's where all the rest of humanity lies. Fundamentalism is about fear of the unknown and comfort in the radically reductive: there are five sentences of Truth and then there are the people who arbitrate that Truth--that translate it for the slobbering, terrified masses. I'm afraid that's what happens as an absolute, basic fact. Where you have a religious code of ethics, you'll have the most abusive children, the most sexual deviancy--all these problems, all the sexual repression.
I heard a statistic that said that for every man living in Victorian England, there were two prostitutes working.
Yes, and then you have these doctors masturbating women. The first electrical instrument was a vibrator and the doctors used to give these women orgasms in the name of science. All in the name of science!
You've dealt with this issue of fundamentalism before in 1984.
Yes! It's the same, it's absolutely the same. And you know the funny thing is that if you do something like that people will come at you with this political correctness that'll drive you insane. Orwell was attacked by the left even though his piece was an attack on the right. He was vilified by them because it appeared to be attacking them--but what I tried to do with my 1984 was say that this is an equal-opportunity attack on all dictatorships around the world. South Africa at the time, Nigeria, Eastern Europe, South America, and so on and so forth. Same with Merchant--people say, "It's anti-Semitic, it's anti-Semitic," but it's not, it's complicated.
"Nuance" is a bad thing in these United States.
It's true. People are disappointed if you actually lay out the problem for them.
You made a concession: you filmed an alternate version of your Venetian prostitutes with tops on them. What was your thinking in that action?
It's complicated. (laughs) The truth is that when you're scraping for funds then scraping for distribution, there are concessions that you make in the name of practicality. But in that there's this absurdity, isn't there, that American society is so eager to accept violence, but so terrified of a normal female breast. Sex is somehow taboo. It makes for a kind of, rather, um, society that ends up asexual in a strange way. The allure that French women have, for instance, tends to be absent in the average American woman because they're fighting some kind of strange battle to not be sexual yet reconstitute their sexuality in some other, more socially acceptable form--whatever that may be in the wake of whatever new scandal there might be at that moment. There's no subtext.
Hand in hand with the violence in this culture, perhaps?
Could be, for sure. It's an extraordinary mixture and, listen, I don't mean to be too critical here. I'm a great lover of America, a great admirer of so many aspects of this society--an Americanophile, if you will. For every appalling statement that somebody makes in the U.S., there's somebody else just as vocal on the other side. But I do find it strange that American women are so obsessed with their freedom and yet they're about the most repressed group that I've ever met. And American men, who should be embracing this feminist world, are retreating into this redneck mentality. It's odd. I wish I knew why that was.
Well, we were founded by religious fanatics, for one, that no one in England could stand anymore.
(laughs) There's that. But you're right, they had a huge influence. In Shakespeare's time, one of the reasons that they wanted Shylock to be converted was as a gesture to the Puritan society at the time who believed that the Jews were the chosen race and that when the Second Coming comes about, the Jews would be converted. That hasn't changed--the Baptists in the south of the United States would tell you that that's still true. So you look at the American foreign policy, it's very similar to Cromwell's foreign policy that was to embrace the Jews not because you love them, but because you want to convert them.
There's a belief that Bush is so interested in the Middle East because as a fundamentalist leader, he believes that he'd be doing God's work if he moved us towards an Armageddon set in the holy land. A scary thought.
A scary thought, indeed, particularly when we're being pushed up against another fundamentalist society. It is, in a way, this war and bigger wars, what both sides want. I hope you don't misunderstand--I know that most Christians are good folks as are most Muslims. We just have the misfortune of being led, sometimes, by the least of us.