Lord David Puttnam reveals the secrets of the trade

Oscar-winning film producer speaks to the ‘Post’ about 30 years of making movies.

David Puttnam 370 (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
David Puttnam 370
(photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
"It digs deeper into the psyche of its audience than anything else I’ve ever done,” said Lord David Puttnam of the enduring appeal of the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire, which he produced and which won a Best Picture Oscar. He was speaking at a Master Class at the Sam Spiegel School of Film & Television, Jerusalem, where he is conducting a series of workshops on producing to mark the beginning of the academic year. The week of festivities will culminate in an event called “Close-Up,” in which a group of Israeli artists and other professionals will speak on their favorite movie close-up and what it meant to them. The “Close-Up” event will take place on Thursday, November 1 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, beginning at 10 a.m.
Puttnam, an extraordinarily affable and entertaining speaker, is enjoying a thriving second career as a lecturer on how to make a living in the movie business while keeping your spirit and integrity alive. He is certainly an authority on this subject, having made several reality-based dramatic films that garnered extraordinary critical acclaim and popular success, among them Midnight Express (about an American imprisoned for drug smuggling in Turkey) and The Killing Fields (the story of chaos and death in Cambodia during and just after the Vietnam War), as well as Chariots. Puttnam was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1995 But it’s Chariots, with its iconic slow-motion races and Vangelis score, for which Puttnam is best known.
The story of two British runners in the 1924 Olympics, one a Jew determined to prove himself to the anti-Semitic establishment and the other a devout Christian who refuses to compete on Sundays (a principle that was perhaps better understood in Israel than anywhere else), on paper it sounds like a nice Masterpiece Theater drama, but Puttnam and his director, Hugh Hudson, turned it into the mustsee blockbuster of that year.
Describing how he has seen audiences in China moved to tears by the film, Puttnam says he feels that the imagery and ideals of Chariots create “something weird and spiritual” that connects with viewers around the world.
“In the end, making movies is about creating magic,” he says, while admitting that he drew inspiration from many sources, including a Japanese documentary about the 1964 Olympics in which runners were filmed in slow-motion.
But even 30 years ago when money wasn’t as tight, Chariots of Fire was not an easy sell. Although Puttnam had a producing deal at Warner Brothers in the late Seventies, he recalls an executive tossing what the man called “the red script,” the original working script for Chariots, into the trash.
When the film won the Oscar (it was made for a different studio), Puttnam remembers walking up to the podium, “slightly overwhelmed” and noticing the executive applauding. “It wasn’t a surge of joy I was feeling, it was more revenge,” he admits.
“I’d got my own back... I was not entirely comfortable with what I had won.” But when The Killing Fields was nominated for the same award a few years later, he was more comfortable and better able to savor his success. “I knew The Killing Fields wasn’t going to win, even though it was better than Amadeus [which was the winner that year]. But it didn’t matter. That air-punching moment when you win is fleeting and not really worthwhile. What’s worthwhile is making a really good film, a film you feel is a success.”
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Puttnam, the son of a Christian journalist and a Jewish mother, described how he got into the movie industry after a stint in advertising during the Mad Men-era, where he met many of the directors he went on to work with, including Ridley Scott (The Duelists) and Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone). It comes as a bit of a surprise that Puttnam, who was born during World War II, didn’t do well in school (“I escaped at 16”).
Having grown up hanging around with his father on Fleet Street, he has always had a fascination for news and reality.
“I never had any interest in science fiction,” he says. “I never even really read fiction. The truth never ceases to confound me.”
A keen observer of his surroundings, he notes on his fifth visit to Israel that, “I have never seen as much pent-up anger, irritability and grumpiness as the taxi drivers have here.”
Puttnam who is quite interested in social justice off-screen as well as on, shows his students a short film, The Mass of Men, that recently won a top award at the Locarno International Film Festival. It’s about a jobless man who finds himself humiliated by a counselor at an employment office in an incident that turns unexpectedly violent.
“There is a point at which people just snap,” he cautions. “Violence is never the answer. But lack of leadership can drive people to desperation. The Mass of Men is about the need to reinvent a society.”
Puttnam now lives in rural tranquility in Ireland. “I fell in love with the countryside when I was making Local Hero [in Scotland], but found the right piece of land a few years later in Ireland,” he explains. He lives with his wife of 51 years. His children, a son who is a composer and a daughter who works for an organization that helps parents who have lost their children, are not far. This producer, who may not love the current state of effects-driven Hollywood movies, is nevertheless no technophobe and has a state-of-the-art system for delivering lectures from his study to venues around the world.
While he enjoys this relaxation that he has earned, he says that so many of those he started out with “became their own worst enemies” and fell victim to various kinds of self-indulgence, including but not exclusively drugs.
“Making movies is not a job,” he says, as he praises his wife’s patience with his workaholic tendencies over the years. “It’s somewhere between an obsession and a profession, and a calling. You’re obsessed and irritable if your work is going badly, and obsessed and irritable if it’s great. But if you can manage to cope with all the rejection and truly create magic, it’s the greatest career you can ever have.”