The British filmmaker reflects on his debut film, Scandal, 20 years after its original theatrical release.
Michael Caton-Jones is one of the UK’s best, and most unheralded, directors. Over a 20 year career, he has worked with the likes of Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis and a young Leonardo DiCaprio. His directing credits include Rob Roy, Memphis Belle, The Jackal, the singularly brilliant Basic Instinct 2 and the powerful portrait of the Rwandan genocide Shooting Dogs, which united him with John Hurt for what many consider to be one of his finest performances. Caton-Jones talks to Little White Lies about his controversial debut film, Scandal, the unique abilities of John Hurt, his hatred of the Thatcher government and why the closure of the UK Film Council as an 'unmitigated disaster' from a Government full of 'philistines'.
LWLies: Watching Scandal today, what strikes you about it 20 years after making it?
Caton-Jones: It strikes me as a really good piece of work, better than I thought. I look at a lot of films today, and there’s a breadth to Scandal that seems to have evaporated in British films. It’s about a lot of different things; it’s emotional and it’s classical, it’s just quite a good film actually. I was surprised at how good it was.
Scandal is a film about a real life event that took place over a number of years. What kind of challenges did that pose as a dramatist?
First you have to concentrate on the emotional pull of the story. You have a certain amount of recorded fact that you have to present but there were three different screenplays present at the point I joined the project. It was originally planned as a TV series rather than feature film. So my job was to try and create an architecture out of those, and develop a start, middle and end. At one point or another, I actually started to cheat on things. You can’t be hamstrung by the weight of things that actually happened, it is more important to keep the spirit of what happened.
It’s a sympathetic rendering of John Hurt’s character, Stephen Ward. Was that a conscious decision?
When I first came to it, the focus was on the pain and grief of the downfall of John Profumo. The scandal has his name, but it doesn’t necessarily make him a central part of the drama. When I was researching the film, the more I read and the more I talked to people who were about at the time, and the more I found about it, the more outraged I got about the behaviour of these people towards this guy. He had been completely ostracised by people he called his friends, and we all know what it feels like to be let down by people. You’re always looking to get your audience to empathise with your characters. But there was a lot going on behind the scenes, and you could attack the whole thing from a new angle by showing them something new, and by concentrating on someone the audience knew nothing about.
You’ve worked with John Hurt a number of times. What does he bring to the role as an actor, and why do you return to him again and again?
What’s great about John, and what isn’t particularly obvious, is he probably the greatest actor we have. I’ve called him before probably the British De Niro. Physically or stylistically they are not the same, but one thing they do share is this complete bravery in how they attack a character. They are not afraid to do anything because they are searching for the truth. It’s not about physicality or the voice or the surface stuff, it’s inside the person. They are searching for honesty of behaviour, in its complexity. John’s just the best in Britain that I know of and I’ve been lucky enough to work with. When I have a screenplay to work on, he is the first person I go to.
The film starts as a comment on gender, with Stephen Ward’s sexuality left ambiguous. You get a much clearer sense of Joanne Whalley Kilmer’s character. But as the film progresses, it becomes much more of a comment on class issues – the political class circling the wagons in self protectionism. Was that something you gleaned from the story?
Absolutely. We were quite aware of what we were doing. Scandal was made at the end of the Thatcher era and we were seriously fucked off with it. I feel the film is about hypocrisy which was rampant at that point. What I felt I was doing was looking at an example a few years earlier of what a certain type of person in a certain type of class or establishment were capable of doing and constantly doing it in the betrayal of people. I thought this was a good way of illustrating what we’d just been going through because I loathed the Thatcher administration with a vengeance, and I thought this was as good a way as any for a film maker to find out what was going on.
Do you think it still has relevance today?
If you get an emotional honesty of the behaviour of the characters then it should resonate in 20 or 30 years time. If it’s simply of the moment and of the fashion then it won’t work in the future.
Considering Scandal was your first feature film, it is very nuanced and multivalent. How do you feel you have developed as a practitioner since making the film? Has your style changed radically?
I think it has. When you start off you’re full of vim and vigour. I just came out of film school and was versed in different styles of film making, so you kind of explode with all these different ideas. You try things out, and in some ways you’re much braver. When you make more films you realise that what you are after is economy of expression. A lot of times when you start off, you’re basically jacking off as a director. You’re like ‘Look at this cut, look at this tracking shot.’ And once you’ve done that you realise your job is to be as invisible as possible and to make the story do the work and make the film simply happen, and a lot of it is about economy of expression. If you want a close up, you can dolly into the close up, or move the actor into the close up rather than cut to it. Interestingly it’s kind of anti the modern way at the moment, a lot of directing is concerned with being seen and being noticed right now. It’s a flamboyance rather than an invisibility.
How long do you think that compulsion to be flamboyant has been around for?
I think its been there for 20 years. If you look at Paul Greengrass’ films, no one else could make them. They’re highly individual and highly stylised. There’s a whole generation based on that scatter gun technique. There’s a lot of handheld. It doesn’t matter if it’s in or out of focus. There’s a lot of documentary montage. But I came up with a classicist view. If you come from Britain, you kind of come from the social realism tradition. That’s just what you grow up with. I think it’s to do with the lack of money that’s now in the film industry.
On that point, obviously you’d only recently left film school when you got the Scandal gig, which has an amazing cast with John Hurt, Ian McKellen and Joanne Whalley Kilmer. It would be unusual for a young director to be given the same trust now. What’s your assessment of the health of the industry, with the UKFC recently going under?
We’re in a drastic state to be honest. Films like Scandal couldn’t be made any more. There’s a cultural chokehold. To make a film, you have to get money from the BBC, Channel 4, the UKFC or you need to go to the States. But for all these things, you need to make a certain type of film before they give you the money. So there’s a cultural chokehold on what types of films can be made. By the same token, in comparison to the volume of films being made in the States, we only make a few. What is happening is there’s less money, there’s less variety and there’s less opportunity.
With the UKFC being closed, the government are suggesting that film makers move into the private sector for funding. Is that going to exacerbate or help the problem?
The government haven’t got a fucking clue what they are talking about. I think this is the most disastrous thing that could have happened. I’m not the biggest fan of the film council but I’ll defend its right to exist. It just doesn’t provide money for development, it looks after the exhibition side of things around the country. It strikes me as one of the biggest mistakes this mob have ever made.
Despite its bloated beaurocracy, the UKFC was still at heart a redistributive body and it still provides people who aren’t from London and who aren’t rich an opportunity to make movies...
The Council kind of works, and the film industry kind of works. So if you get rid of it, you ask ‘What are you going to replace it with?’ It’s stupid, and because they are philistines, and because they don’t see film as an art, they just cut it. It’s an unmitigated disaster.
If you could make one rule in the British film industry, what would it be?
I’d lose all executive producers. The BBC is awash with executive producers, none of whom know what they’re talking about. The director has been doing the producers job for decades, and now there is just another level of beaurocracy getting in the way. It’s stopped directors doing their job because they have to defer to an exec producer, and they make soft films that are about compromise instead of a singular vision.
What do you love about movies?
Making movies is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I’m incredibly privileged to do this job. It’s a really fantastic job, despite all the arseholes. And the fact is you end up with something that didn’t exist, whether it is ugly, misshapen or beautiful. It’s a fantastic job to create something that doesn’t exist.
Scandal is out now on DVD.