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Great Expectations - Mike Newell interview

Great Expectations

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MIKE Newell talks about his version of Great Expectations and why he actively stole from other versions of the Charles Dickens classic.

He also talks about his own career and why he doesn’t necessarily need to bring any sense of his identity to them, and whether there is a theme that runs through his work.

Q. Are the ghosts of other versions of this story inevitably lurking in your mind initially?
Mike Newell: Of course! And so they should. I saw all of them. I saw about nine versions starting with the David Lean and ending with the latest BBC TV version. And of course it’s a flip thing to say but I did actually steal quite a lot on the way through. There were things that I wish that I had thought of and done. There’s a marvellous version of it made eight or nine years ago for television by a very good director called Julian Jarrold in which Ioan Gruffudd plays Pip. They shot in Edinburgh, so it’s granite rather than brick and there’s a moment where he’s walking through the town at night and he’s looking through the window of this townhouse and he sees Estella. She’s got her back to him but she turns round and she’s got this huge black eye. So, in a single shot you know that she’s been beaten up by Bentley Drummle and it’s a chilling moment. It’s so specific that I couldn’t steal it.

But a version that I found really useful was Alfonso Cuaron, who I know because we did adjoining Harry Potters, so we got to know one another. I bumped into him, and he asked what I was doing and I said: “Great Expectations…” And he said: “Whooa…” So, he felt that he’d had a bad time of it. But he was fantastic with the children’s sexuality. You know, it’s all set in that ruined house off the gulf of Mexico, tropical, and in the courtyard of the house there is a fountain, which has about a dozen jets that all play inwards [gestures], and when they’re children they go and they drink from the fountain and their two little mouths are like that [gestures] drinking from adjoining spouts and it’s such a wonderful image of innocent but soon not to be innocent sex… I did it a different way but I thought that the idea was gorgeous and I stole it. The sea sequence at the end is faultlessly done in the David Lean film. A great deal of it is not at sea; a great deal of it is done with back projection. But you’d never know. I got a storyboard artist to make me a storyboard of that sequence, the whole sequence, so that I could say: “Do you know what? We really ought to have that and that.” So, I was very aware and I was careful to steal from the best.

Q. Did you go back to the book?
Mike Newell: Of course. In some senses, you have to be careful of books. I made a tremendously unsuccessful version of Love In The Time of Cholera about three films ago and got beaten black and blue by the Love In The Time of Cholera fans. But of course I loved the book so much, I was so in thrall to the book, that when I was doing my homework at the weekend for the week’s shooting, I would think: “Oh, I’ll just check the book.” And I’d find that I had sat there and read 60 or 70 pages of the book. I feel the same about Great Expectations, so I read the book all the time.

Q. One of the things I noticed is just how faithful it is to the book. Do you feel there’s a risk that maybe you missed the chance to add something distinctive, that reflects the personality of you in this version?
Mike Newell: Oh, OK [pauses to think]. Well, it’s interesting. They may see it. People say to me a lot a version of what you have just asked me. And then version is: “Why are you so all over the place and never make the same film twice? Why do you go from this genre to that genre… there’s nothing in common?” For me, there is something in common and it’s simply it’s misperception that it’s not seen. What’s common to me is that I know that I can work, I know that I’m interested to tell a story, when I can work through the characters. My father worked on building sites, he was a surveyor, and he had a great love of the Irish. He was also an amateur actor and he did Irish plays all the time. So, I could quote you great stretches of Playboy of The Western World and that kind of stuff because he loved the characters.

So, from a very young child I was immersed in these stories about what Pat the bricklayer had said to him that day about the state of the world. And so I got to see things through character. Of course, the Dickens characters are absolutely brilliant and if I can get a good character with a bad problem I’m home and dry. So, Hugh Grant in Four Weddings is a good character but he has a terrible problem – he can’t commit. Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, is a good character but he has a terrible problem in that he’s fallen in love with the man he’s supposed to kill. I could go on… So, for me, my – if there need be such a thing as signature – my signature would be in that. And I don’t feel that I have to play the thing on bicycles or on an ice rink in order to be able to feel that I own it. So, there we go.

My generation was taught very strongly not to believe in the auteur theory because we were brought up in television and we were brought up to believe that the most important person in the making of anything was the writer. And our job was to serve the writer and to serve the thing. What is it? Don’t talk to me about a style, don’t talk to me about a shot or lighting… what is it? And for that you have to… and that’s why they got a lot of people with English degrees who had done close analysis on what is it? I think part of what you’re talking about is historical.

Great Expectations

Q. Can you see a theme in your films?
Mike Newell: I’m not sure if that’s for me to say, which is a cheap way of saying ‘no’ [laughs]. I suppose what I feel maybe… it might sound really poncey this. It would be nice that if the stories I told had a sort of ‘I wish’ feeling in them… ‘I wish it could be like this – but it isn’t’. That might be something. But it truly is difficult for me to say.

Q. Does it cause you some amusement that people have said that Helena Bonham Carter is too young to play Miss Havisham and yet she’s the same age as Martita Hunt was?
Mike Newell: Yes, she’s not young at all. We worked that out very, very, very carefully. We would not have made that mistake. That said, I had no idea that she [Helena] is the same age as Martita Hunt [laughs]! In that is part of what I did want to do with the movie, and it’s something that David [Lean] did as well, which is that he’s an actor, Dickens… he was a really good actor. And for instance, PW Griffith thought that he invented screenwriting. He writes in concise, short scenes and he does. He’s a great scriptwriter. What you find with him, because he’s an actor, is that the way characters or pieces of action in the story are motivated is faultless – nothing is ever there merely for effect. It’s always woven into the story as a motivation.

And so, when you say to yourself: “What is it about Miss Havisham?” Well, what are the motives? Why does she stop the clocks? For us, the question was ‘why did she stop the clocks?’ And she stopped the clocks and she stayed in the same dress, in the same room, which is stopping your life like you stop a clock, because she could not bear the agony of letting go the one chance she had of happiness, she felt. And so the tactic with Helena was that Helena believed that every person who came into that room was in fact her beloved. He’d just popped out for a packet of cigarettes, had lost his way, and was back. And so what you notice about her, what she did was every time somebody comes in she’ll get her cheeks to look pink and young. She’s desperate to stay the age that she is. She also has fading sight. She’s got milky eyes. And she’s got crazy air with bugs in it and all that kind of stuff. But she’s desperately hanging on to her youth.

Q. How was competing with something like Bond to get Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch? I gather he was filming Skyfall at the same time?
Mike Newell: Yes he was. Because we were a very low budget film, we had a very precise amount of time from Ralph. But I know Ralph and if he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it and so he was very… when I had him, I had all of him. And he gave himself over to it completely. He wasn’t always looking at his watch saying: “I must get back to play M.” He delivered himself into the part completely, so I was never really aware of it, for which I’m glad.

Q. Can I take you back to something you said earlier about your generation of directors because your generation of British directors have found extraordinary success at home and moving into Hollywood – the Apteds, the Scotts and so on… Would you put that down to training and things like Play For Today?
Mike Newell: Yeah, there were several branches of that. For instance, the Scotts don’t belong in that. They were advertising. But Steve and Mike Apted and Richard Eyre, over the road there, all came out of theatre or television. And that was certainly true of them that the story or the writer’s script, they were the stars… I’m not sure how it happened [that we all found success]. It was partly competitive, of course. I mean we were all at Cambridge at the same time. That place pumped out people like us. I’m not sure that it’s still the same but that’s how it was.

Great Expectations

Q. Was there an inspirational teacher?
Mike Newell: It’s coincidence except that Cambridge is a cold place… it’s really cold when it wants to be. And you mustn’t care or you’re going to have a hard time. The flame in our lives was ambition and competition. We were more nastily competitive with one another as under-graduates than we ever are in subsequent life. It’s like an ant’s nest, where the ants are eating one another. There wasn’t a person but there was an ethos. And the other thing, of course, that happened was that TV was hugely influential because it was… the movies in England were sclerotic. It was a family business… families would pass on their trades – cameramen passed on the trade to their sons and so on and so on. And directors, for instance, were… I remember hearing at one point somebody say: “Oh, he was a captain in the East Africa Rifles [talking about a distinguished director]…” And somebody else said: “Ah, well that of course is the right background.” [laughs]

Of course, us guys, our generation, were all little gutter snipes from… I mean some of us came from posh schools but some of us didn’t. And we were there to elbow our way through the captains from the East Africa Rifles because we really were… we knew, we went to the movies a lot when we were at university two or three times a day. So, there wasn’t a teacher but there was an ethos and then along came television and television absolutely used what we had been taught to do. It used us being able to look at a piece of writing and say: “That is good because…” Now, we might have been wrong but our thoughts were connected and rational. So, for me at any rate, it started with that… it started with the application of what I had learnt to do.

Read our review of Great Expectations

Read our interview with Jeremy Irvine