The great man discusses Sean Connery's fear of heights, the reasons he made Jaws: The Revenge and how spending time with real gangster helped him to get his Get Carter part down pat.
You’ve well over 100 movies to your name. Are there films of yours you think have been unfairly overlooked?
Yeah, there are a few. I made a film with Sean Young a while back called Blue Ice which I liked but nobody really took any notice of. I thought Without A Clue was very funny and should have been a much bigger hit. And then there was The Last Valley, which a very good film. It was written and directed by James Clavell, the guy who wrote Shogun. I made it around the time I made Get Carter, but it should be pretty clear which of those films I get asked about more often.
There seem no limits to Get Carter’s popularity.
I’m always surprised by the number of young people who want to talk about the film. Most of Get Carter’s fans weren’t even born when the film came out. Of course, I get some older critics who want to discuss it, but by and large, it’s young guys in their twenties. It’s a little strange to me because it’s very clearly a film of the 1970s. But I guess the character of Jack Carter’s pretty ageless.
How did you get inside Carter?
Well, people tend to forget that I knew a few gangsters, growing up in Rotherhithe. Knowing those men, I was well aware that gangsters weren’t like the people you saw in the movies. If you watch films made before Get Carter, gangsters were always depicted as either funny or stupid, and I knew that was wrong on both counts.
Didn’t you talk to a hitman about the role?
Yes, I did. He thought it would be interesting to see the man behind the killer. If you’re a criminal, you’re not a criminal every minute of every day. The kids have to go to school, the bills have to be paid, the crossword’s got to be done – he thought it was important that Carter wasn’t shown as some sort of machine. Carter laughs, he cries, he’s an ordinary person – and that’s what makes him frightening. I met a few of the ‘chaps’ after the film came out and they all said I’d done a good job of showing that Carter was a man first and a con second.
You mention that Jack Carter’s ageless. Could you say the same for The Man Who Would Be King?
Absolutely, that’s part of the reason it’s my favourite film – it will never age.
You and Mr Connery seemed born to play those roles.
The funny thing is when John Huston first tried to make the film it was way back in the 1950s and he wanted Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable to play the leads. Then he tried again with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, and after that he tried to get it up and running with Newman and Redford. Apparently it was Paul Newman who suggested me and Sean, which was very nice of him.
If you’re a criminal, you’re not a criminal every minute of every day. The kids have to go to school, the bills have to be paid, the crossword’s got to be done.
A John Huston anecdote, please.
Sean Connery’s not the biggest fan of heights. There was a day when we shooting on the rope bridge and Sean turned to John and said “Do you think the bridge looks safe?” John lowered his eyes and said, “Sean, the bridge looks the way it always has. The only difference is that today, you’re going to be standing in the middle of it.”
And if God has a voice…
He talks with the voice of John Huston. What a man! I remember he gave me a great piece of direction. There was one scene where I thought my character should speak very deliberately. John just raised his hand and said, “It’s okay, Michael, you can speak faster – he’s an honest man”.
If The Man Who Would Be King’s your favourite film, do you have a favourite performance?
The Quiet American was very satisfying. It was very hard work – each night I can home and I was a husk. I’ve never been more exhausted but I’ve never been happier. I knew Graham Greene and I knew he didn’t approve of all the adaptations of his work, but I think he would have loved our Quiet American.
Around the time that came out, there was some talk of you retiring. Whatever happened to that?
[Laughs] Well, I’m not very good at golf. Actually I did retire in a manner of speaking. I just promised myself I’d only make movies that I felt compelled to make. And when you’ve got people in the business like Christopher Nolan, why would you want to keep working?
He’s that good, is he?
He is. In a hundred years time, people will be talking about the films of Christopher Nolan with as much passion as today.
Given how many great films you’ve made, does it disappoint you when people want to talk about the ones that didn’t do so well?
No, what annoys me is when, as happened today, you’re doing a day’s worth of interviews and the very first question you’re asked if, “Why did you make Jaws: The Revenge?” When things like that happen, the interview becomes very short indeed.
Just out of interest, how did you reply?
I just said what I’ve always said – I made it because they paid me a lot of money! It’s like when people ask me why I made The Swarm – I made The Swarm because my mother needed a house to live in. Then I made Jaws 4 because she was lonely and I needed to buy her a bigger house which she could live in with all of her friends. It’s that simple.
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