Tuesday 13 October 2009

Vice Interview: Michael Winner

Here is another one for Vice v7n9, The Film Issue. It was fun.

Making A Statement Regardless

Michael Winner On Working With Brando & Directing The Most Authentic Western Ever Made

Michael Winner. “Calm down dear” and fights with Gordon Ramsay about whether his opinion is worth a dime when it comes to food or not. That’s it right? Hmm, not quite.

If you are anyone who knows anything about film then you will know that Winner lays easy claim to being one of the most successful British directors of his or any generation.

Name another Brit film maker who cut pictures with Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Robert Duvall, Robert Mitchum and Sophia Loren. Struggling? Try adding to that the fact he basically created the careers of Ollie Reed and Charles Bronson for good measure. Now whose side are you lining up on when it comes to Winner vs acne chin sweary guy?

Having defined 1960’s ‘swinging London’ with films like Play It Cool, West 11, The Jokers and I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname which invariably featured Reed and more than a little more swearing and nudity than the BBFC were happy with he casually took on Hollywood directing everything from western’s (Lawman), to crime (Big Sleep), to hitman thrillers (The Mechanic) and Horror (The Sentinel).

The defining moment of Winner’s busy Hollywood period came in 1974 when he let Bronson loose on the streets of New York to avenge the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter with indiscriminate anger and a really big gun to the tune of a Herbie Hancock soundtrack in Death Wish. While the concept of a normal guy getting mad and getting even has formed the template for a million movies since no one had done until Winner and no one has done it as brutally and stylishly since.

After keeping Vice waiting for fifteen minutes in a sitting room whose walls couldn’t breathe for memorabilia from a lifetime spent in film and well wishing notes penned by everyone from Brando to Burt Lancaster Winner sailed into the room spewing greetings, good will and orders to our photographer not to shoot him below his eyeline or else. Apparently Orson Welles once told him that it wasn’t a good look.

As well as being inhumanly tanned and in worryingly good shape for a 74 year old he also really fucking likes saying “fucking” all the fucking time. It’s kind of fucking contagious. Ramsay wouldn’t even triumph on the swearing front.

Vice: Doesn’t Jimmy Page live next door? How did you end up becoming neighbours?
Michael Winner: I’ve lived in this area for years but Jimmy and I became very close when he did the music for Death Wish 2. We got on as soon as I met because I adored him straight away. He was well into his druggy period when he did that first score for me but he did it wonderfully well. He said he wouldn’t have anyone near him while he was composing the music. He’d never done music for film before and we wanted to be sure it would synch properly because in film the music has to fit with the image to within a 24th of a second. Jimmy told us that he wouldn’t send us anything until it was finished and no one could go and see him. It was done at his studio in Cookham that Chris Rea ended up buying off him and turning it into a house. Shame. Anyway, the music is the last thing you stick on the film so we were all a bit nervous when it came in. I always edited all of my films myself and I remember running it through the machine so clearly. I’ll never forget that as I put my foot on the pedal to start the film the music and the picture moved together perfectly. It was unbelieveable. Everything fitted to the 24th of a second.

As well as Jimmy you’ve had more than a few A-List wining and dining buddies. Any favourites?
As a dinner companion or a gossip on the phone Marlon (Brando) was the nicest, loosest, least competitive person you could meet. You actually felt like he was your buddy. Burt (Lancaster) I adored but he had an edge to him. He’d occasionally turn a bit sarcastic, a classic Scorpio. Of the women I worked with, Sophia (Loren) was the best. The most proffesional and witty. She appears quite haughty but she’s not once you get through to her. Ollie (Reed) was a dear friend. When I first met him he would drink every day in this pub in Soho and he’d written this story about a man who carried his house on his back up a hill that he wanted to make into a movie. The Ollie I remember was an artist.

From the nudism in Some Like It Cool to the raunchy sex in Dirty Weekend and the sado-masochistic elements of Nightcomers your early workshocked and surprised its way through the 60s. Did you purposefully intend to push the BBFC’s buttons?
Nightcomers was pretty tricky for its day but it passed uncut in theatres. The video was cut though and the same happened with Dirty Weekend which wasn’t actually banned, just censored. You do your best to get stuff out there and you just have to work thinking “if I have trouble with the censor, I’ll deal with it when it happens”. I hit trouble many times and largely dealt with it. The censors were largely idiots, one of them was actually at Cambridge with me and he was a fucking idiot then and he was a fucking idiot as a censor. They all tended to be failed directors who suddenly find they have power over every director in the world and they misuse it.

As well as starring Orson Welles didn’t I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname also feature the first recorded use of the word “fuck” on film?
I’m not sure about that but we ran in to hot water over because of a scene between Ollie (Reed) and Carol White’s character where cunnilingus was implied. You couldn’t see anything though so I don’t know what the big hoo ha was about.

How did you make the transition from doing tose Swinging London type pictures to making movies in Hollywood?
I went over and did Lawman and suddenly I was very hot with United Artists, they loved me. Basically, with cinema if you’ve got the star you can film the menu of the Woolsey. We had Burt [Lancaster] and it was having him that really got the film going. Duvall was in it too but he was nothing at the time. Burt and I met and got along immediately but we would always argue. He threatened to kill me twice actually when he got in a temper. He dragged me up by the pelvis screaming “you cock-sucking areshole British piece of shit”, the lot. Fuck me. But he remained a dear friend and he was a wonderful man so who cares if he tried to kill me a couple of times? We did two films together and that’s really how I got into westerns and that Hollywood system. I’d never even done a western before but I got very serious about it. I had American professors come up and look at locations and I wanted to get the details correct. I asked what they usually used for oil lamps and they said that they just used new ones and threw some dust on them. I told them that was ridiculous and that they could get authentic period oil lamps for twenty quid on the Portabello Road. So the crew were all coming over from England with these things crammed in their luggage. It was the most authentic western ever made. Everything was real. We sold the set to John Wayne who was coming in and doing another movie on the set after us.

Did you ever meet Wayne?
Very briefly. I was staying in his house while we shot Lawman and I remember he was worried about the amount of raccoons there were on his land.

In 1972 you made three major motion pictures in a year. Now it takes Tarantino about a decade to do one.
It was a different world back then. We shot Nightcomers with Brando and after eight weeks we were already on to Chatto’s Land with Charlie (Bronson). Now they want twenty re-writes on every script they see but back then it was all these Jews from Russia and all they wanted was a handshake. The studios were one man and it would all happen just like that. It took me three months to get a two page deal memo out of ITV for a fucking afternoon TV show that I am working on now and it worked out as less money that a fucking Pimlico Plumber gets on a Saturday afternoon call out per hour. In Hollywood before there were fucking faxes and emails you could do a deal memo for an $11m movie in four fucking hours. Fucking unbelievable today. Plus everything is done with computers now.

Have you worked much with modern technology?
With who?

You know, computers and stuff.
Not really. There was a 70’s film festival in New York not long ago and they showed Stone Killer which got great reviews at the time. In a film like that if a car came out of a seventh story window there would be a man in it and after you yelled “cut!” everyone would rush over to see if he was alive. Or at least how badly hurt he was.

You did a run of movies throughout the 70s with Charles Bronson. How did you two first meet?
One of the great loves of my life was Jill Ireland. She told me she wanted to get married at 21 but I told her I couldn’t marry her as I was penniless so she went of and married David McCallum. She then got together with Charlie (Bronson) and when I first went to meet him before Chatto’s Land at the George V Hotel she was there and as I turned up shouted to Charlie: “Charles, it’s my old friend Michael from London” before turning to me and saying: “I’ve told Charlie all about us”. “Fuck me” I thought, “this isn’t good” but we ended up getting on very well. Much later Jill told me that she had told him that we were friends but not what had really been going on and that I mustn’t tell him. “Tell him?” I said, “the only question if he found out would be who he killed first, you or me”.

Wowsers, I wouldn’t want Charles Bronson coming after me. How did Death Wish end up coming together?
Death Wish started life as a novella by Brian Garfield that had sold about three copies to the writers family. That film is now lectured on in American universities. It was the first film in the history of the world where a civilian was the hero of the movie and killed other civilians. There have been 700 of them since. The most copied film of all time. Nobody wanted to make it and they thought I was mad, “you can’t make a film where the hero kills other people” they’d say. Well, the people he kills are nasty people, you shouldn’t like them. Anyway, I had it for about two years and they finally gave me a free ride on it. They said that of they got their money back on the script I could produce and direct it. I remember proposing it to Charlie after we’d shot Stone Killer in the back of a limousine at LAX. Charlie said to me: “Michael what shall we make next?” I said “well, the best script I have is Death Wish, it’s about a man whose wife and daughter get mugged so he goes out and gets revenge by shooting the muggers”. He turned to me and said: “I would like to do that”, to which I replied “make Death Wish? Great!” and he just said: “No. I would like to shoot muggers”.

Compared to the Daily Mail whining that you’re early British films had suffered Death Wish faced something like full-blown outrage.
They kept calling it a vicarious pleasure and I can tell you this: whenever Charlie killed anyone the whole theatre would burst into applause. London didn’t even have mugging then in the way it does now! Eleven years later someone shot a mugger in a subway in New York and it was blamed on Death Wish. If he learned that from Death Wish he was a fucking slow learner. When we made Death Wish most of the muggings in New York were committed by blacks and Hispanics because at that point they were the deprived people. The studio were nervous about how we were going to portray these muggers and they told us that we had to very careful with how we cast them. So we had mugging auditions. We bought boys in in groups of five to rape a chair and believe me: you learned something. How loose people could be, how inventive they could be, they were very interesting auditions. The chief mugger ended up being a jew and being a jew myself I knew that the jews would never complain. It turned out that this unknown jewish mugger was Jeff Goldblum. No one had a clue who he was then but he was great and he ended up doing my next film The Sentinel which also had Christopher Walken in it.

There’s big talk of a re-make of the original Death Wish, who would you like to see picking up Charlie’s Magnum?
Leo di Caprio could do it. Daniel Day-Lewis would be great at it if he shut up for five minutes.

Out of all of your movies I reckon your re-make of The Big Sleep was the most underrated. Who did that nuts soundtrack?
Jerry Fielding. He was a fucking genius. He was an American composer who did a lot of work with Clint Eastwood and even did the soundtrack to The Wild Bunch. He used to say to me: “the trouble with you Michael is that you know fuck all about dubbing sound in movies, you know nothing about it, one day I’ll teach you about dubbing”, but he was so lovely that you didn’t care. He did about five of my movies but sadly he died young because he was savaged by the Un-American Activities Committee. They decided he was a communist and he ended up conducting a pit orchestra in Las Vegas and somehow they found out about that too, picketed the hotel and he was fired from that as well. It damaged the immune systems of a lot of people that persecution and took them young. Look at Lee J. Cobb.

Having worked with some of the biggest names in modern Hollywood history is there anyone that you didn’t get the chance to work with who you feel you missed out on?
I’d have loved to have worked with Edward G Robinson. Of the newer people of course Hoffman, De Niro and Pacino. I also think that Renee Zewelleger is a wonderful actress. Very versatile. I also managed to turned down King Kong, James Bond, The French Connection and The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. Four of my many errors in life but it goes on.

You’ve directed everything from horror to crime to westerns and romances. Is there anything you’d say holds that all over the place body of work together?
Nearly all the films are about somebody who wants to make a statement or do something different. I don’t know if that reflects something in me but it seems to resonate with most people. Bronson’s character in Death Wish wanted to do something so he shot muggers. Ollie Reed’s character in The Jokers wanted to do something so he robbed the crown jewels. They are about people who want to get outside of society and make a statement regardless. They want to be seen and they want to know that they made a mark even if it’s not a gentle mark.

Having left a pretty big mark yourself why did you decline your OBE in 2006?
First of all, I did not create the Police Memorial Trust get a Knighthood so it seemed a load of bollocks. I worked for twenty years on it with my own money and managed to get up the first memorial on The Mall in over 100 years. I couldn’t give a shit about a CBE or a Knighthood so I just thought stuff it. If you look at the people who have turned down honours it makes for a wonderful list. I now put on my notepaper “Michael Winner, MA CAM OBE (but rejected)”. Fuck ‘em.

What are the chances of seeing “Michael Winner” on the credits of a film again and not on an E-Sure ad?
The truth is very simple, It applies to me as it does to everyone else. They are not lining up to employ directors in their 70’s. I get calls from John Boorman and Nicholas Roeg and none of them can get anything going. That is the nature of life and the spotlight of showbusiness. It shines upon you and then moves on to somebody else. Luckily I’ve managed to somehow become this half assed food critic who knows nothing about food and I have a few TV projects on the go so at least I’ve got that. Some of the greats of that period have got nothing.

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