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Alan Parker: The Guardian Interview (1991)

On movie stars, critics and executives

Main image of Alan Parker: The Guardian Interview (1991)

Alan Parker was interviewed by Barry Norman at the National Film Theatre on 23 September 1991.

1. Movie stars

AP: Something happens on a film set when the movie star arrives, there's no doubt about that. I mean, even nice ones. I mean, De Niro is a really, is a very - you think he's a [unclear] - he's a very nice man. You know, he's obsessed with his work and that makes him kind of strange, it's true. But, I don't know, it, even when they're well-behaved and decent people, which often they are, the movie star, when they arrive, the whole set stiffens up. It's, "Bob's on set," and you do, everybody stops talking, they're nervous of the person. Gene Hackman has that effect. And they're not unpleasant people, it's just that there is a tension in the air which can sometimes be very useful from a creative point of view, but often it's not. The lovely thing about working with, you know, in The Commitments, was that first of all you didn't have to wait ten minutes for them to come from their caravan 'cause they didn't have one. [Laughter] They were sitting on set and they felt privileged to be there, and the crew respond to that, you know. There's just a better atmosphere, and in a way it's more, I don't know if it's necessarily more creative, quite frankly, because sometimes out of tension interesting things happen, but it's just infinitely more enjoyable.

2. Worldwide audience

BN: How did the Irish react to being described as the "Blacks of Europe" and Dubliners being the "Blacks of Ireland"?

AP: It went down very well, actually. I mean, I also saw it the week before in South Africa where it didn't go down so well. [Laughter] They responded to the film in a way that I've never had anybody respond to my, I mean, I knew that the Dublin audiences were gonna be the most difficult and the fussiest, you know, its' about their city, but it was, you know, it was an extraordinary response. I felt like Jack Charlton, you know. [Laughter]

BN: You and I have been talking for years about when you're going to come back and make a film in Britain. I remember when you were making Fame in New York you said, "The next film, I promise you, the next film's gonna be made in Britain," and I came over and I saw Fame with you a few months later and I said, "What's this film you're making in Britain?" and you said, "It's called Shoot the Moon and I'm making it in America," right? Now, this one seems to me, what is galling about this film, is that it seems to me that this could have been a British production. I mean, alright, it's not a British story, but it's much closer to us than it is to America and yet it is essentially an American film. Now why was that?

AP: I mean I think before I was involved they did try to raise money here and couldn't. And then I became involved and there was American money offered immediately. It's not that you're desperate for Americans to have the film, it's just a completely different attitude to financing film in America, and it was just that much easier really. I mean you always say I ran away to America, but I mean I really -

BN: I didn't say that.

AP: Well, you will in half an hour -

BN: Well, I was going to. [Laughter]

AP: But I didn't. I mean you get sick of knocking on doors and begging for money when there are people in the United States who really want to encourage British filmmakers, you know? If there was money here, we'd be here, there's no doubt about that.

BN: I must say in fairness that when you told me you were gonna to Shoot the Moon and you said then that you'd been going knocking on doors and you couldn't get arrested over here, and you'd had lots of offers in America.

AP: It's true. It's absolutely true.

BN: Of course in America, I mean here it seems to me that your great friends you love so much, the critics, regard you as a kind of commercial filmmaker. In America you're regarded as a highbrow filmmaker, aren't you?

AP: I know, it's funny, isn't it?

BN: Yeah. [Laughter] Why is that?

AP: I don't know. There they think of me as complete aggravation, actually.

BN: But we do too, Alan. [Laughter]

AP: I don't know, I just, I don't actually, you see I work with, beneath that commercial, American, commercial umbrella, but I don't actually do the kind of films that they want me to do in America. I do, you know, whether you like them or hate them, I mean I do the films that I want to do. And they're not the normal films that are made in the United States, you know, they're difficult films to set up, and they're difficult to fight for and I do fight for them. And then here they always use those sort of very simplistic phrases like, you know, "Gone Hollywood" or whatever, when you're fighting for a better cinema within a system which actually is very powerful, that actually allows my films to be seen in over 50 countries, you know. That's pretty important to me, that they are seen in all those countries. So in a way I use it, you know what I mean. I have to ask myself the question every day: am I using them or are they using me? And if I feel that comes out the right way I'll continue to be there.

3. The most judged art form

BN: Let's talk about your great bete-noir, which is the critics. So are you reconciled to critics nowadays or do you still regard them with deep loathing and suspicion?

AP: I don't think there's anything wrong with criticising them. They, you, [Laughter] are able to say anything you want about what we do, but nobody polices you at all.

BN: Do you mind? I get worse reviews than you do. [Laughter]

AP: You're the only critic, you know, you're the only critic who does, yeah, that's true. [Laughter] It's true, you're the only person who Time Out pisses on more than they do me, really.

BN: Sort of neck and neck!

AP: I mean, the main critics don't, as a profession. I'm much, when I first started, you know what I mean, I thought that I was the only person that was ever being criticised, and you do take it very personally, actually. Now I suddenly realise that, you know, we are, it's the most judged art form in the history of art. That's an enormous industry, film criticism, and, you know, in 50 countries there's, you know, there's an enormous number of critics and some people are gonna like what you do, and some people aren't. There are certain critics that I feel, that I've, that I feel ought to be attacked by filmmakers, people like Pauline Kael, for instance, an extremely dangerous woman who fell out of love with cinema a long time ago, you know, who I described as a demented bag lady. [Laughter]

BN: I bet she liked that.

AP: Well, fortunately she's now retired, you know. And thank god. [Laughter] But the reason that she was dangerous was that other critics read her, and her opinions formed, were formed, critics were looking at what she said and conclusions she came to and that was dangerous, but I think that, I mean I'm not suggesting that not all, that critics don't think for themselves, they do, and it's stupid to think otherwise. But what she did was to make petulance acceptable, and really, it's not, it's very hard, actually, making a film, you know, very, very hard indeed, and sometimes we deserve more than we get.

4. Mouthing off

BN: The other thing of course is that you are refreshingly outspoken about Hollywood and Hollywood executives, and I sometimes fear for you because I feel that you, one day, you know, you're going to make, gonna be unlucky, you're gonna make a couple of flops in a row and everybody's going to say, "OK, great, we don't employ Parker any more". Is there that danger? Can you make enemies that way, by speaking your mind, which you will always do?

AP: I think that, you know, when, I mean a lot of people agree with what I say 'cause a lot of people -

BN: Yeah, but not many of them have the guts to say it.

AP: Well, they're fearful because they're, you know, maybe they might not get employed again or whatever, but I think that, in my experience, you know, you can't insult 20th Century Fox - it's not possible - because the people that run 20th Century Fox this year might not be there, almost certainly won't be there the year after. So, you know, there is an incredible changing around of people. There are certain people who are very powerful who continue to be powerful, and I'm very careful about insulting them, I tell you! [Laughter] I mean in an article I called the head of Disney, a very powerful studio at the moment, an idiot, who's somebody who really isn't an idiot, but who I don't like, and I think that's rather silly of me, actually. [Laughter] But on the other hand their judgment of me is: am I fiscally responsible when they trust me with the money they give me to make a film? Yes, I am. Am I professional about what I do? Yes, I am. Are the films successful at the box office? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Do I deliver the kind of film that I say from the very beginning, and am I absolutely honest about every single aspect of it? Yes I am. You know, I mean in the end as long as I can be professional about what I do, I don't care, it shouldn't matter what I say, actually.

BN: No, I agree, I agree.

AP: I mean I'm only ever honest about what I feel and there is a huge amount that's wrong.

External links

Interview on The Life of David Gale with Michael Parkinson, 2003 (BFI)
Interview on Angela's Ashes with Barry Norman, 2002 (The Guardian)

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
1. Movie stars (1:18)
2. Worldwide audience (3:37)
3. The most judged art form (2:18)
4. Mouthing off (1:55)
Commitments, The (1991)
Parker, Alan (1944-)