The British director chats Great Expectations, making Dickens sexy and directing James Bond.
Mike Newell is by no means a genre-specific director. After the success of Four Weddings And A Funeral, he moved on to American gangster flick Donnie Brasco. Since then the British filmmaker has tried his hand at a wide range of different genres, putting his name to Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, Mona Lisa Smile, Prince Of Persia and, now, a new adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. With the belief that there are only ever six good scripts going around, LWLies asked Newell how he goes about spotting the best ones.
LWLies: This isn’t the first time Great Expectations has been adapted for the screen. What made you want to try it again now?
Newell: Lots of reasons actually, like air crashes, there are always multiple reasons for air crashes, it’s never just one thing, it’s never just the wings falling off, there’s a lot behind air crashes… and I had been working on the adaptation of another Dickens novel, a novel called Dombey and Son, with a marvellous writer and a producer who's an old friend, but we couldn’t get it right. And the reason we couldn’t get it right is that Dombey and Son is a 1000-page novel and we simply didn’t have the screen time to get it all. And then I had already read Great Expectations and it’s a much slimmer book, it’s only 500 pages long and I thought, 'You know what, I’d been sort of sensitised to Dickens'. I thought, 'I’m ready to do Dickens'.
In what way did you feel ready?
Well I’d been in America a long time and I’d had enough of America, I wanted to come back and do things with the eyes that god gave me, you know, English eyes. So I was partly home sick and partly just America sick. And there was this thing and I was pretty sure that Great Expectations would be made and it was always what, I had been very passionate about Dickens when I was a student, I’d done a lot of work on him.
Did you grow up in London?
I grew up in St Aubyns, a fine old medieval town which has lots of bits of it that would do very nicely for Dickens. So I’d always loved the novels and I loved this one in particular and I find frankly don’t care that it had been done before. Hamlet is done half a dozen times a year and in a year there will be a couple of really good Hamlets. So I don’t care that it’s been done nine or 10 times.
So you don’t see it as a challenge so much as just this film you’ve always wanted to make?
Of course it’s a challenge because the first thing that you say is: what makes this relevant? Will people under the age of 35 go and see this movie? I don’t know. But I was very concerned when we were making it and writing it and casting it and so forth that it would be told from the point of view, as the novel is, from the point of view of a 20-year-old boy who is achingly and painfully in love. Who is attacked by all sorts of desperations and jealousies and can’t get where he needs to go, and is immensely frustrated. What would that be like through modern eyes? So I tried to see it through modern eyes and that’s where I went from: which bits of the story would be truly understood by an audience today? I thought they would understand the money, I thought they would understand the temptation of the money and how money screws you up. I thought that they wouldn’t be able to do with just sort of Victorian chaste love: I love her, I love you, let’s go off and get married and in due time by some mysterious process there would be a family of little children. How ever did that happen?
Estella’s character deals with that, in the way that she can be quite cold to the notion of love.
Yes, but also the thing about her and Pip is that for Pip she’s a real turn on, so I was very anxious that I would get an actress who was a sexy actress who had a kind of erotic charge to her because I was sure that was what was in Pip’s head. So that’s what I was looking for when I found Holliday [Grainger], and she did precisely that. But that’s another thing where a modern audience would say yeah, you know, these two are really going to go at it. I thought that was important.
There’s definitely a tension between them.
Yeah, it shouldn’t be… English Literature. It ought to have a real charge to it.
Alfonso Cuarón directed the 1998 version of Great Expectations. He also directed the Harry Potter film that came out before your Potter film, Goblet Of Fire. Have you ever spoken to him about this?
And what were those conversations like?
I like Alfonso very much and we went through the same sort of infantry schools. As I was starting my time on Potter he was actually shooting Potter, and he was very generous to me and he welcomed me and he made all sorts of things easy for me that he could have made hard. I bumped into him just before I started to shoot this and he asked what I was doing and I told him, and he went 'Ourghhhh' and I said, 'No, come on, it’s a good film' and he wouldn’t talk about it, he felt that it was a failure and he got, I think, probably critically beaten up for it.
So did you feel like you had to avoid where he’d been with it?
No not a bit. I stole some stuff. I stole stuff from him. One of the things I was immensely impressed by, because he’s a lexicon and – sorry, it’s a cliché I shouldn’t use it but – he’s hot-blooded, so the relationship between Estella and Pip in that film is much hotter than anything that we could ever do in this country. You couldn’t do that here. But there was a wonderful thing when they were children, and it was rare; the boy, that little boy first became aware of Estella as a girl, as a female, and there’s a fountain in the yard of that great big villa, and the little boy and the little girl drink from a joining spout so their two mouths actually join at the corners as they drink. You can see that that desire he has for the girl is awakened, even though he doesn’t know what desire is at that point. And I thought, 'Oh god, Alfonso! That’s so clever! I’m gonna steal that.' And I did.
What was your version?
They're dancing. Because it’s a formal dance, they have to offer ones hands and whatnot and every time her hand touches his the boy sort of jumps.
I hadn’t actually because The Departed is gross. Jack Nicholson is grotesque in The Departed, he’s so horrible to that girl. Oh god, I find it really creepy. I know it’s a performance, and a performance with a lot of conviction behind it. I didn’t really think the stories were the same really.
It was just the most obvious thing of having a mole infiltrate the Mafia...
Yes. Well that’s of course the same, but I didn’t see it till after it was made… It occurred to me I suppose. But with Donnie Brasco I had very much wanted Al [Pacino], and I knew that I could get him. I was desperate for him to do it, because I wanted it to be different from The Godfather. I had wanted Donnie Brasco to be the flipside of that so that what you were dealing with was Al Pacino not playing Michael, the great mafia general, the far-seeing strategist, but playing this no-hoper kind of guy whose kind of sprinting to keep up and then that very unexpected relationship between him and Johnny [Depp]. With Johnny becoming progressively more terrified to have to betray Al. So it was this sort of moral story…
[goes to the window distracted by the noise of a helicopter]
So the answer to your questions was, no, I didn’t particularly think of The Departed. But what I did think about was, because I was making Donnie Brasco after The Departed, and it’s impertinent for me to think I might have had any influence on them.
Well sure, if it was as good as the script for Donnie Brasco was, yeah you bet. I remember the first time that I had a real success was a film called Dance With A Stranger, which was about the last woman to be hanged in England. If you don’t know it, get it out 'cause you’d enjoy it: it’s absolutely about the woman’s point of view. It’s the first time anyone had seen Miranda Richardson and she was sensational, and after Dance With A Stranger all I got were scripts about doomed love affairs between working-class women and upper-class men. Because people can’t think outside the box you present them with. So, after Donnie Brasco I got a lot of stories about mafia betrayal and stuff like that and, the point is, they’re never as good. After Four Weddings, god, the number of romantic comedies I got, but none of them were any good. 'Well you made it really well last time, why shouldn’t you do it again?' Actually the one thing you can almost guarantee is that you won’t be able to duplicate. And that’s a perennial problem; people thinking why don’t you just make the same film again?
Do you read every script you get?
I read part of every script I get. I think that after about 20 pages you can know whether you are interested or not, so sometimes you don’t read beyond that. But, yes, I try to read what is sent to me. Sometimes I don’t and people get angry at me but I try to.
That’s one advantage of adapting a novel, you already know the story.
Yes. Well, some years ago there was a movie called Love Story. I can’t remember who’s in it… Anyway, that existed first as a movie script and everybody said, 'Oh this is a great love story, we should really make this', and the old men who run the studios said, 'Ah not so fast! What we really need to do is test whether there’s an appetite for this story or not.' So they published it as a novel and then tracked the sales of the novel, and then when they saw that the novel was doing well they said, 'Okay, we’ll make the movie.'
Would you ever want to direct a Bond?
[whispers] I’d love to. Oh, I’d love to, sure. Yes, absolutely. I don’t think I ever will.
You’re a fan?
Yeah, they’re terrific fun, and their style has changed over the years but they appear to be indestructible. Absolutely, unequivocally, it would be such fun to do a Bond. It was fun to do a Harry Potter, it was fun to do Prince of Persia, you know those great big films are fun.
Anything else you’d particularly like to have under your belt?
Well I’d love to make a cowboy movie, and I’d actually love to make a musical.
Yes! Technically, it would be difficult, because you’ve got to put all the tracks together first, the music comes first.
And the whole dance element of it, directing dance...
Yeah, it would be great. I’m longing to see whatyamacallit... the French film that’s coming out, the musical?
Yes! The play is alright. It’ll be better as a movie.