This week our golden rules of moviemaking come from none other than BAFTA award-winning director Mike Newell, director of Great Expectations, as he imparts some of the wisdom he has learned after a five-decade long career in the entertainment industry.
Ever since his start as a television director in the ’60s and ’70s, Mike Newell has proven to be one of the world’s most versatile moviemakers—effortlessly transitioning from romantic comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral) to gritty crime dramas (Donnie Brasco) to wildly popular fantasy franchises (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) to three-hankie weepies (Love in the Time of Cholera) and everything in between. His latest endeavor is an adaption of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, starring Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and Jeremy Irvine.
Directors are solitary animals. They never see others of their kind at work, they detest intrusion and are dominant, silverback apes of uncertain tempers. Making a movie is a knife fight, and as is said right before Butch Cassidy kicks his opponent in the balls, “Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!” Nonetheless, here are some guides to navigation—some private rituals that I don’t like to be without when I work.
1. When I first read a script, book or treatment, I’ll get an immediate little jolt of excitement if the thing has something to say to me. I have to nail that idea before anything else. If you have a big, clear idea of what you want your audience to feel and think—and above all, what you want—then, even in the times of darkest chaos (which will quite certainly be upon you), you have a rock to hang on to
2. Try to know the scripts nearly by heart. I work the scenes through in advance again and again with as much detail as possible. Then, on the day we shoot, I am prepared to ditch all of that if better ideas come up. Spontaneity is the quality that only actors can bring and it’s a quality worth its weight in gold. Be prepared for the fact that no plan survives first contact with the enemy and listen really hard to the actors. Don’t impose on them. Instead, try to encourage them to be easy in their skin.
3. Everybody on the crew will have ideas about how scenes should be made; they will have ideas, angles and movements you had never imagined. One of the best camera operators I ever worked with would listen to my opinions about where the camera should be put and then march off to the complete opposite position.
4. I have a mantra that I try desperately to remember through every day’s work: Please let me not be an arse-hole today. Vain hope, but it’s good to have an ambition!
5. A lot of smoke gets blown up a director’s bottom. It’s worth not believing any of it. I try to survive without wanting to know what everybody thinks of me. Some think you’re great, some think you’re crap. The reality will lie somewhere in the middle and, anyway, it shouldn’t matter. A lot of rough things get said to you, so it’s good to have a skin thick enough to take the damage and thin enough to understand why this stuff is being said.
6. Talk quietly.
7. Have good manners.
8. If you are going to lose your temper (do try not to), it must be overwhelmingly for real. There’s nothing worse than fake anger.
9. Don’t eat the catering at lunchtime.
10. Sleep whenever you can.
11. Wear a comfortable pair of shoes.
12. The process of making a film feels like being pecked to death by pigeons. A thousand tiny bites will slowly remove your reasons for starting in the first place. You will forget why you are there. That’s when you must fall back on that initial spark of excitement (see #1) to get you through.
13. Above all, “Never fuck the talent.” (See Charlton Heston, circa 1979.)
Great Expectations opened in the United States on November 8, 2013, courtesy of Main Street Films.
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