Alan Parker 1987 Angel Heart Interview
The following interview with Alan Parker took place in New York on February 17, 1987, as Angel Heart was beginning its theatrical run.
JOHN A. GALLAGHER: How did you break into the feature film business?
ALAN PARKER: I wanted to write originally. To be honest, I had no aspiration to be a director. It was always writing that most interested me. I grew up in a working class background in London, which makes it quite difficult within the very rigid English class system. I didn't go to university, but what I did do was get into advertising. The important thing about advertising in England is that it's very egalitarian, so if you've got a few bright lines they'll let you do it. I was fortunate enough to be able to start as a copywriter. It was the early days of television commercials in England. They'd just begun. They'd either fly over American directors or you'd get rotten commercials. Somebody gave us some money to experiment in the basement of the advertising agency where I worked. With a 16mm camera we just did lots of commercials. Suddenly there was somebody who could work a spectral light meter, somebody could work a Nagra tape recorder, somebody could operate the camera. I was actually the only one who couldn't do anything, so I said, "What shall I do?" and they said, "You better say action." Everybody knows that's the easiest job on a commercial, so I said "Action" and "Cut," and suddenly I was a director. It sounds like a glib story but it's perfectly true! Michael Seresin and David Puttnam were in the same advertising agency. One day David said to me, "Let's try and get into films." I said, "Don't be ridiculous." He said, "Write a screenplay," which I did, and it became his first film and my first film. It's a film we don't have on our resumes, thank God.
JAG: How did Bugsy Malone come together?
AP: Pragmatic exercise, really. Most of the things that I'd written at that point were parochial, about me, about growing up in England, about things I understood. The scripts kept coming back with a rubber stamp on them saying "parochial," which was irritating. It was a very depressed period of filmmaking in England. I really didn't know anything about making American subjects, but what I did know a little was American movies, so Bugsy was really a parody of the American gangster film and the American musical. I'd worked a lot with kids and I had four very young children of my own at the time. When you do have young children like that you're very sensitive to the kind of material that's available for them. This was pre-Star Wars ( 1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark ( 1981). The only kind of movies they could see were Walt Disney movies, and you knew when you were in a Disney movie then because all the adults were tilted at an angle, asleep. I thought it would be nice to make a movie that would be good for the kids, and also the adults that had to take them. So to be absolutely honest, Bugsy Malone was a pragmatic exercise to break into American film. It was financed in England, and Paramount picked it up for distribution in America.
JAG: How did Midnight Express happen?
AP: David Puttnam was about to take a job in Los Angeles at a company called Casablanca. Almost simultaneously, I had come over. They wanted me to do a thing called The Wiz, which Sidney Lumet eventually did ( 1978), but I didn't like the project very much. I was walking along Fifth Avenue, and somebody came out of Columbia Pictures with this book manuscript and asked if I'd like to read it. It was Midnight Express. I read it on the plane going home and I spoke to David quite independently. He said he was taking this job at Casablanca, and it turned out that Casablanca owned the book. He said, "If you do the film, I'll take the job," so it worked out very well. I wanted to do something that was different from Bugsy Malone. I wanted to do something that showed the other side of me, because I didn't want to be put in a pigeon hole of what kind of director I was, so it was a definite reaction to that.
JAG: At what point did Oliver Stone join the project?
AP: Oliver had been employed by Casablanca. He came to England and sat in the back office of our offices in London, popping away. Every so often we would send in sandwiches and beer, and at the end of it came this fantastic screenplay. He did a terrific job.
JAG: You used the island of Malta to double for Turkey.
AP: We'd gone to Italy, Israel, and North Africa looking for a prison. We found this old fort in Malta, which was exactly right. It was a combination of two locations actually, because there are in fact two prisons within the film. In the film it looks like there's one prison, but there are two halves to it, because he does go in to Section Thirteen, the insane part of the prison. That was a different location but they were both there in Malta only one hundred yards from one another. It was very convenient. Malta is an English-speaking place, which was easy. Obviously I wasn't going to be allowed to make Midnight Express in Istanbul, although I'd been there a few times. Not a lot of people know this, but I did a second unit shot of a car, which I intercut at the very beginning of the film with something I'd shot in Malta. I needed a shot of the car going over the bridge in Istanbul. Hugh Hudson did that shot for me before he'd directed a film, but he never wanted any credit for it because he thought if the studios knew he was doing second unit he might never get a movie. He's done enough now -- Chariots of Fire ( 1981), Greystoke (1984), Revolution ( 1985) -- that he can own up to the fact that he did that shot!
JAG: You had your pick of projects after the success of Midnight Express.
AP: I did Fame immediately after Midnight Express, and again, that was a reaction to doing something very dramatic and serious, although Fame has its serious side. I wanted to do something with music again. After that, I did Shoot the Moon, which was a personal story. I call it the first grown-up film that I'd done. After I'd made two American films, Fame and Shoot the Moon, I'd gone back to England and found it a very angry and violent place. I'd always liked Pink Floyd's music and when I did The Wall I tried to put a lot of that anger into the film. Looking back on it, I think the film is almost too angry. I'm very proud of it technically and creatively. It was Roger Waters who wrote the original music. He was screaming when he wrote the music and I was screaming when I made the movie.
JAG: Did Wharton have any creative input in the project?
AP: No. He sent me a videotape of canaries. I think he wanted us to get on with it. A film has to take on a life of its own, although the book was obviously the beginning of everything. I was intrigued with the experience of the book. It had to be a film, it had to be its own thing. You can be too intimidated by a novel. I think he understood that, and he didn't have to be there.
JAG: How did you achieve the flying sequences in Birdy?
AP: The secret ingredient was going to be a new camera called the SkyCam, which was invented by Garrett Brown, who also invented the Steadicam, which was an enormous advantage from the point-of-view of tracking, since you could strap it on to a man's body. Sky-Cam was meant to be an even greater evolution of that in that it could fly, and therefore I could actually show the flight of the bird from the bird's pointof-view, which would be very exciting. As it turned out, we were probably a bit too soon in the evolution. It crashed into the ground more often than it should have, and finally, it didn't fly again. So a lot of the flying sequences that you see, 95%, were achieved with the Steadicam rather than this wonderful new invention, with a lot of cheating and a lot of thinking on your feet.
JAG: What was the process of adapting the William Hjortsberg novel Falling Angel and turning it into Angel Heart?
AP: Similar to Birdy in that I was originally sent the book when it was first published. The thing about being in England is you always get things last, so by the time you try to get it, it's lost in the Hollywood machinery. Different people owned the rights at different times, including Robert Redford. I think they found it was a rather tough nut to crack as a novel, as most first person novels always are, since so much happens inside the person's head. From the point-of-view of exposition you have to put it into dialogue, and to make the lead character sympathetic considering what has happened. Those were the difficulties, and I suppose the reason why people like Redford probably couldn't find their way around it. I'd always liked the book. I hadn't written an original screenplay for a long time. By original I mean even an adaptation. I'd always sort of rewritten other people's things. I thought it would be rather nice to get back to doing that. I've tried to do different genres with each film, and this was a classic Raymond Chandler detective story, but it was also about the supernatural, so in a way, I had two genres in one. The fusion of the two was what intrigued me.
JAG: What kinds of changes did you make from the novel?
AP: Characterization -- most important. I moved the story away from being all in New York to being half in New York and half in New Orleans. That was for very selfish reasons. It's difficult to give something a cinematic edge in New York now. Everywhere you look there's gaffer tape where somebody's put their camera! You find a wonderful location here and suddenly you find the Polaroid film from the picture that's been there before. Also, a lot of the leads within the novel itself went down to New Orleans, and I thought it was a way for me to open it up and give it a different look. Those are basically the things I changed. I kept the heart of it, though I did change the title.
JAG: In Angel Heart you use a recurring visual motif of fans.
AP: That wasn't in the book. I used the fan as the portent of death each time. It was just an image that I kept seeing everywhere in New Orleans and I used it even here in New York. I've always been interested in the graphic images you get when you put light behind fans and it just happened to be in a couple of times in a couple of the murders within the story and it developed from there. Sometimes you do things subconsciously without knowing why you're doing them. I knew it was an image I was repeating and there was something quite macabre about it, and I couldn't say why. In the end it's totally an aesthetic thing, really. There's no real intellectual justification for it, except that cinematically it works. Sometimes you never quite know why.
JAG: All your films have striking visual and aural designs.
AP: A lot of people do that other than me, of course. I'm the one who gets all the credit for it since the French invented the auteur theory, and of course directors are the ones who do the interviews, so we get all the credit. But a lot of very good people do it, wonderful editors and sound editors. Every tiny little element had a lot of care put into it. It's nice when people notice the difference. Often people don't. Critics never do of course because they're stuck in trade's words. I think that's why they prefer foreign films with subtitles because they prefer a good read to seeing a good movie. But it's nice when the sheer craft that's gone into the films is appreciated.
JAG: Angel Heart was put together independently by Carolco.
AP: Yes. I wrote the script in England independently before even Carolco was interested in it. It went to them and they said, "Yes." They had made rather a lot of money from Rambo ( 1985), so I'm not proud. I'll take anybody's money! There's no such thing as clean money in Hollywood anyway.
JAG: Mickey Rourke's performance in the film is very internal in comparison with the external mannerisms of some of his other work.
AP: He's very much his own man. He hates you to even think that he cares. It's charade in a way because he really does care. He has a lot to offer. As a director, in the end, it's often taking things out rather than putting things back in. No director can actually create a performance. All he can do is provide an atmosphere and environment where the actor can be at their best, and I think that's all I did for Mickey, for him to trust us to really do as well as he could do.
JAG: His revelation sequence at the film's climax is powerful.
AP: We did that towards the end of the shot. I always try to shoot in sequence anyway. As an actor starts to develop within the role they're obviously comfortable because of work that's been done in previous scenes. They understand where they are at any given point, so we did that scene right at the end. He was quite confident about the work that he'd done, particularly the scenes he'd done with Robert DeNiro, so I think he was quite happy with himself and therefore ready to give a little more. It has to do with trust. If an actor trusts a director, and, more importantly trusts the crew around him, they they'll give of their best.
JAG: DeNiro plays Louis Cyphre, the human embodiment of Satan, with every detail in place -- makeup, hair, the long nails. In The Godfather PartTwo Two ( 1974) he learned Sicilian, in New York, New York ( 1977) he learned the saxophone, and in Raging Bull ( 1980) he became Jake LaMotta. How did he prepare for his part in Angel Heart?
AP: All I know is when we were working we always knew when he was on the set because suddenly we all felt kind of strange. He became very creepy. Most of the tiny things in his character which in the end add up to the overall performance came mostly from him. He thinks a great deal about everything. Before he'd even said "Yes," he went through every single line and every single idea that he had from the point-of-view of the character. It's very hard to get inside the head of that particular character the same way it would be to get inside Jake LaMotta, for instance. So we always knew when Bob was around. You'd feel his presence. Somebody would say, "Bob must be here," and you'd turn around and there he was.
JAG: His beard seemed to be patterned and cut like Martin Scorsese's.
AP: Yeah, maybe that's how he sees the devil, I don't know!
JAG: Lisa Bonet also gives a mature performance, and she seemed to shed her television mannerisms.
AP: She's extremely intelligent. I hadn't seen her in The Cosby Show, so in a way my judgments of her were only as the actress who came in to the audition and the actress that I worked with on the set. She's much older than her years in a way. I spoke to her sometimes as someone who'd done twenty films, instead of someone making her first film. With regard to television technique as opposed to film technique, I never quite know, and I don't know how other directors work. In the end, the things I say are always intuitive to me, to what I believe. In the end, it's terribly simple, in that you're always looking for truth, so if caricature or mannerism get in the way of the truth that you're trying to show onscreen, that's the first thing I will point out. Sometimes it was necessary to do that with her. I'll come back to what I said about Mickey. You create a situation which is special in itself, an environment for the film, and the actors will be at their best. There's nothing magical about it really. Because I wasn't familiar with Lisa's television program, I wasn't nervous about taking those things out. I took it on face value.
JAG: Angel Heart gained a great deal of notoriety with the controversy surrounding the lovemaking scene with Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet. You were originally given an "X" rating.
AP: We had an appeal and won six to five that it should be an "R" and not an "X." Apparently you need two-thirds majority to overturn their original "X" decision. The six to five majority means I had the right to appeal again, so the process carried on. It's very general what they wanted me to do. There were no details as to what particular shot had to be cut. The film was made with maximum integrity. It's not an exploitation picture, and there's nothing really from a sexual or violence point-of- view that hasn't already been seen in some film. It's how it's been done or the combination of the two. It's very difficult to tell.
JAG: The sex scenes in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), for example, were much more explicit.
AP: It's strange. It's a cumulative effect of the kind of a film that it is, I think. It's probably what they responded to. It's very hard because in the end if it's this shot or that shot, one can understand the difference but the criticisms of why it was made an "X" were very general. It's hard enough making the movie without having to go through that as well. It's almost commercial blackmail because it's very hard to release a major film as an "X," very difficult indeed.
JAG: Did you storyboard Angel Heart?
AP: I'd written it quite graphically. Knowing that you're going to direct it, you write it for one's style. We had done an enormous amount of photographic research. It was more that research that became the storyboard. I do draw quite a lot at times, but I try to avoid it because my theory is that storyboarding is how they'd make movies in Detroit. Sometimes you cannot be that specific. On certain things like special effects or very big action scenes you have to storyboard because there are too many people who have to know exactly what's going on. But in an emotional, dramatic scene, it does take on a life of it's own. I think however much you block it out in your head, there's always something that you do differently. So I try not to be too specific. On the other hand, you do have a storyboard in the back of your brain and when you go on to the set in the morning the shot is much better than how you imagined it. A line can be read not quite how you hear it in your head, and other times it's totally changed because of a particular situation. Sometimes for the good, often not as good as you've imagined it.
JAG: How did you approach the period detail of 1955 New York and New Orleans?
AP: Locations were found, but also in a sense created. Everything was filmed where it should have taken place. We probably did as much work on the street in Harlem and the Lower East Side as we would have if we had done the whole thing on a back lot. There's a lot of detail that goes into it from the production designers and the set dressers if you're doing a period piece. In a way, 1955 is quite difficult. Sometimes it's easier to do 1855 than it is 1955. I remember when we did Birdy in Philadelphia, set in the early Sixties, things had changed, but not much. It's easier when you recreate one hundred years ago because the errors stick right out. When it's recent history it's more difficult.
JAG: Most of your films have been done on locations rather than soundstages -- Midnight Express in Malta, Shoot the Moon in Marin County, California, Fame and Angel Heart in New York, Birdy in Philadelphia.
AP: It would be a lot more convenient to shoot in a studio but I've never been able to overcome the phoniness of a studio situation. I did do TheWall Wall at Pinewood Studios and it's nice to have that kind of control. As a filmmaking process it's more comfortable and more civilized, but that might be it. There's something about the masochism of being in some horrible street in Philadelphia that makes you feel the film a little more. You can be in a tiny back alleyway or a back room and think, "Why are we here and not on a soundstage in Burbank?" Truthfully, it never looks the same. I personally can't do it that way. I have a brilliant art director, Brian Morris, but to me it's more than that. I have to feel it. I have to smell it in order for it to be real. Then it makes the make-believe, which is what we're doing, believable. I always feel more comfortable in real locations, even though it's infinitely more difficult to do than being in the comfort of a controlled set.
JAG: You've worked with the same team of people for years.
AP: I've worked together with my producer, Alan Marshall, my cinematographer, Michael Seresin, my production designer, Brian Morris, and my editor, Gerry Hambling, for twenty years. If I film in England, it's many other people within the crew. I'm comfortable with all those people. It's nice to make films with people you know to be the best at what they do, but also those people are your friends. Often we're away from home and you need that kind of support. I've always thought that film directing is a crash course in megalomania anyway, and it's hard because everybody looks at you and you have to get it right every time. Of course you don't.
The trick is to appear to be getting it right! It's nice to have people around you who are able to say things to you that you might not get from other people. I believe Alan Marshall is so good as a producer because he cares about the film aesthetically and creatively as much as I do. His job is logistics. He doesn't interfere with creative decisions that I have to make. He's brilliant at organizing the films so I never have to worry about that side of things. He's also an extremely good editor in his own right, and in post-production he's very good for me to have, someone else that I can actually refer to. It's not just Alan, it's all of them. Whatever the French say, the film process is made up of a lot of people doing good work, not just one person. I'm very fortunate to work with the people I do.
I think the identity of my work is as much theirs as it is mine. Michael Seresin is about to direct on his own now, Homeboy ( 1988), which is inevitable. I'll encourage him to do so, but deep down you think, "Well, it's strange to make films for so many years with the same person," and he'll probably have that same problem. Gerry, my editor, never fails to astonish me every single time. He'll always add something that I haven't actually put there to begin with. He always says, "Nonsense, you film it and it's either there or it's not." In a way he always adds some tiny little thing which is exciting because it means the creative process goes on and on, and it isn't just the director. There are many other people. A lot of directors are grateful that an editor hasn't messed it up. They've just put it together maybe as you've intended.
Sometimes directors like myself who do shoot an enormous amount of film present a lot of options to an editor, and often it ultimately has to do with the editor's choices and taste as much as their actual skills and dexterity. After that, it's in the attitudes within the individual scenes. You can sit at the moviola at the editor's shoulder and cut every frame with the editor. Sometimes it's necessary to do that, and sometimes it's nice to leave the cutting rooms for a couple of hours then go back, and maybe he's taken it further or somewhere I've not thought about. Sometimes it's not right. Sometimes it's not how I intended it at all, but a lot of times there's an addition to what one's done. I find that very important. That's how I work anyway.
JAG: You're still based in England.
AP: I live in London and work in America. In fact, they call me the first of the jumbo jet directors, which sounds terrific, but it's not a lot of fun.
JAG: In the Sixties, the British cinema was thriving with filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Richard Lester, Bryan Forbes, Tony Richardson, Tony Harvey, but then there was a lull until David Puttnam started producing films with you, Adrian Lyne, Roland Joffe, Hugh Hudson.
AP: I don't think it's been very different actually through the years. We had actually generated many wonderful directors, and always have from the beginning of film. What was not evident is that no one ever wanted to be a producer, mainly because in England that's kind of a rotten thing to do. Puttnam was the first one who was smart enough to think that he actually could be a producer and could also have creative integrity being a producer. You didn't just have to have a posh car and a big cigar.
It's also not often made clear that because of the strength of our television, which is very good compared to American television, a lot of the good people go into television, particularly people who have a political pointof-view to make. It's very hard to make, for instance, a very political left-wing film within the Hollywood studio system, almost impossible. I think there are a lot of very talented directors in England who do not want to go into the Hollywood system. That doesn't mean to say they can't work on film. They do work on film. Alright, it's 16mm film, but it's still film. In any other country in the world it would be called film because the audience would see it in the movies. But in England it's on television. I think that's always been the backbone of what's happened in England.
JAG: Do you have a particular philosophy in your films, an aim beyond providing entertainment?
AP: I work within the commercial cinema framework. I want my films to be seen by the maximum number of people. I don't want them to be seen by film critics and six intellectuals at a cinématheque. That doesn't interest me. By the same token, I want to say more than just sit down and laugh or cry. You want the film to stay with people afterwards. There are images in films that you remember when you leave the cinema, and maybe you remember them for longer than that. I try to give a cinematic experience that is not just another movie. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't succeed, but I always try for it. It just seems to me that the greatest crime is to make just another movie.
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