Sir Alan Parker on ads, film and choosing your heroes

Sir Alan Parker on ads, film and choosing your heroes

Back in 2011, I devised and produced a three-day festival in London at the meeting point of music and the visual industries: Visionsoundmusic. It was a great idea that, perhaps, should have stayed a blog post as it nearly killed me, but with the ameliorating distance of time, it was an amazing festival. Most of the VSM site’s still archived here.

Anyway, one of the people I HAD to get involved was film director, Sir Alan Parker, who sadly died today aged just 76. I desperately wanted him as keynote speaker. After trying various sources, and getting nowhere, and after getting no reply to the letters I sent him (having searched and sleuthed my way to finding his home address), I decided to doorstep him. His cleaner answered the door, and said that he was in, but busy. I told her I could wait. After around an hour, he eventually came to the door. I told him about the letters. He remembered them, but told me that he hated speaking at conferences. So I asked if he’d like to do an interview for the website. He was gracious enough to say yes, and invited me in. We talked for around an hour where over tea and Hobnobs he regaled me with his vast experience, his expertise and some great, punchy views.

So in honour and memory of a great British creator, I thought I’d republish the interview in full. Thank you, Alan. With your work, you made the world a better place.

Is there a movie director who’s a better champion for VisionSoundMusic than Sir Alan Parker? He started in advertising, with David Puttnam and Charles Saatchi, then went on to direct some of the most famous music films of all time (Bugsy Malone, Fame, The Commitments, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Evita). We were lucky enough to scoop this exclusive interview.

VisionSoundMusic’s Festival Director, Andrew Missingham, caught up with Sir Alan Parker, just before he headed off to LA to work on a new film with writer José Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries).

VisionSoundMusic: What kind of music did you listen to when you were a kid?

Alan Parker: The first record that I bought with my own money (from my Paper Round) was ‘It doesn’t matter any more” by Buddy Holly.’ I was a big Buddy Holly fan and also of the Everly Brothers. Later it was Beatles and Stones, then on to Dylan and Otis Redding.

VSM: Was yours a musical family?

AP: My Mother used to thump out Ruby Murray songs on my Grandma’s upright  piano at Christmas. We had a ‘radiogram’ which was a large piece of furniture that took up most of the living room of our council flat in Islington. It had a turntable that only played 78’s to start with. My mother played David Whitfield stuff and my Dad was an Anne Shelton fan. Later, my Dad changed it to a 45 turntable deck.

VSM: What was the first tune that really blew your mind?

AP: ‘That’ll be the day’ by Buddy Holly. It was different to everything that had gone before. Also Elvis’s  ‘Hound Dog’, which also was a big breakthrough song and his first hit in England.

Advertising has to be as clever and as innovative as the programme that the commercial is interrupting

VSM: Who were your creative mentors when you were a teenager and a young man?

AP: I was lucky enough to get a job in advertising when I started work. David Puttnam, Charles Saatchi and I worked in the same advertising agency—CDP— and the Creative Director was a man called Colin Milward who had a big influence on us and a whole generation of young advertising people. He taught me that advertising, in order to be noticed, had to be as interesting, clever and as innovative as the programme that the commercial was interrupting or, if it was a press ad, to be the most startling image in the paper or magazine. Colin Milward was a hard taskmaster and our work had to be the best that was out there, otherwise he wouldn’t approve it. At first, the agency, CDP, which was the breakthrough agency of the time, excelled in print and then revolutionised the stodgy commercials that had gone before.

Advertising was a young industry then and it was very egalitarian— they were only interested in the work not where you came from or where you were educated. I started out in the mailroom and doing menial jobs and used to write ads in the evenings. Eventually, they gave me the junior copywriter’s job. In a short space of time I landed at CDP as a copywriter.

VSM: What’s the advertisement that you made that you’re most proud of?

AP: I like the Cockburn’s Port commercial I did for CDP, which was set on a lifeboat after the occupants’ ship had sunk. We shot it on the giant water tank in Malta and the commercial used to run every Christmas for quite a few years.

VSM: And which advertisement would you most like to have made?

I like the Levi’s ‘Launderette’ commercial. (part of Vision Sound Music’s Audio Ad Remix project) It’s not so great in how it’s shot, but the genius is the use of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I heard it on the Grapevine’ song which elevates it to another level in communicating.

VSM: How did you make the transition from advertisements to film?

AP: When I worked at the agency CDP, I asked if we could experiment on film in the basement. We used to make pilot commercials. They started very simply but got more and more ambitious. We used to use the agency personnel in the commercials and, one day, when our boss, John Pearce, was showing a new client around he noticed that the agency was half empty. ‘Where is everyone?” he said. “They’re in the basement making a commercial for Alan” was the reply. The next day, John Pearce and Colin Milward called me in to their office. They suggested I should leave and form a commercials company and they would help me financially and also give me their work. It was a lucky break for me and I probably couldn’t have done it without them.

The British film industry was at an all time low so I decided to write an ‘American’ story. I used to make up this story for my four young children whilst on long car trips. This became ’Bugsy Malone’

VSM: And then?

AP: I started a commercials company with Alan Marshall. He was a producer at CDP. He had been an editor before that and I owe a great deal to him in that he taught me a lot as we made a commercial a week. We were quite successful and won quite a few awards. With the profits from the commercials we made a short film that I wrote, ‘No Hard Feelings’, which was set in World War 2, and from that I was asked to do the ‘The Evacuees’ for the BBC. That won BAFTA and an Emmy, so from then on Alan Marshall and I were becoming less enamoured with commercials and wanted to tell longer stories and break into feature films.

VSM: How easy or difficult was it? Who helped you?

AP: Foremost, I wouldn’t have made the break but for the encouragement of my producer, Alan Marshall. (We went on to make seven feature films together.) Also I had the help of David Puttnam, who I knew from our advertising days. I had also written the screenplay for Puttnam’s first film, ‘Melody’. Most of the screenplays I was writing at the time were of a parochial nature and the British film industry was at an all time low, so it was impossible to find money for films.  So, for pragmatic reasons, I decided to write an ‘American’ story. I had four young children at the time and I used to make up this story for them whilst on long car trips. This became ’Bugsy Malone’, which was financed by the Rank Organisation and the National Film Finance Consortium. Paramount bought it for America.

I’m most interested in dramatic story telling, but when music and images fuse together well, it’s a great way to communicate to people.

VSM: You’ve made some of the most iconic moments of music in films. So what draws you to music-led films?

AP: I’m more interested in dramatic story telling, but when music and images fuse together well it’s a great way to communicate to people. It’s also a great feeling on set when you’re playing music. It can be very inspiring for everyone, from the guy pushing the dolly to the actors.

VSM: But you also have great, really diverse music in your non-music films. In “non-music” films, how early you consider music in the film making process?

I always experiment with laying on different kinds of music when we’re editing. I have my ‘tool kit’ and put different layers of sounds together. Ironically on ‘Midnight Express’ that you mention, I had laid old Vangelis tracks on the rough cut of the film This was long before ‘Chariots of Fire’, but Hugh Hudson shared an office with me and he introduced me to Vangelis. However the film was produced by a Los Angeles company, Casablanca Filmworks, which had a strong record company and wanted one of their people to do it. The boss of Casablanca suggested Giorgio Moroder as he had enormous success at the time with their biggest act, Donna Summer. I went to Munich where I worked with Giorgio and an engineer and a tiny 10” monitor. It was a very organic process and Giorgio became the first person to win an Oscar with a completely electronic score.

AP: My approach differs from film to film. Obviously Pink Floyd The Wall is a very different challenge to Evita. With the Wall the music was already done. With Evita, which was a ostensibly a ‘sung-through’ opera, we spent four months recording music before we even began the filming. On ‘Birdy’ Peter Gabriel saw the film when we were about half way through. We went back to previous multi tracks on his albums, many that hadn’t been heard and remixed everything for the film. On Bugsy the music arrived from Paul Williams weeks before filming in a crude two track form. A far cry from the 48+ tracks of Pink Floyd!

The song ‘Fame’ where the kids dance on the taxi cabs in 46th street, was written long after we shot it. On the day, I filmed to Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’

On ‘Fame’ the music I filmed to often wasn’t the music on the finished film. The song ’Fame’ where the kids dance on the taxi cabs in 46th street, was written by Michael Gore long after we shot it. On the day, I filmed to a Donna Summer track ‘Hot Stuff’! On ‘Angel Heart’, amongst other things, we had saxophonist Courtney Pine riffing to Trevor’s themes, whilst he looked at the picture on the screen in the studio, like they did in the silent movie days.

For ‘The Commitments’ we had the task of showing a band that was pretty bad to start with and who ended up quite decent. I chose all the songs from a list of couple of hundred. We put twenty songs in to rehearsal to see if we could cope with them and developed the score that way.  I recorded most of the backing tracks before we started. The vocals were recorded live with a new system thought up by the U2 engineers in Dublin.

On ‘Angela’s Ashes’ I did a totally conventional score. I had the good fortune to have the greatest film composer of all time, John Williams, and he plays ‘sketches’ on the piano for you and the next you know you’re on a giant MGM music stage with a full orchestra and you hear the score for the first time. This process is how the music scores of most films are done. On ‘The Life of David Gale’ the score was done by my two sons Alex and Jake who are both musicians and who worked very closely with me, scene by scene, as we edited the film. It’s easier when you keep it in the family! My approach probably differs from other film makers, though. I think that almost all film scores are done conventionally as I described with the John Williams score. I don’t know anyone who experiments with the ‘tool kit’ method.

I don’t know why I didn’t do more music videos except my observations of the record business were that it was even shittier than the film business.

VSM: Were you not tempted to make more music videos in the 1980s?

AP: I made ‘Pink Floyd The Wall’ in 1981. I’m very proud of the film but can’t say it was a very enjoyable personal experience, so that was it for me in that genre. I don’t know why I didn’t do more music videos except my observations of the record business were that it was even shittier than the film business. However, I’ve had good experiences with music people like Madonna, Peter Gabrielle, the Commitments cast, and I love Geldof.  I wish I had a pound for every shot I’ve subsequently seen stolen from Pink Floyd The Wall’ in other people’s videos.

VSM: Which film makers are exciting you now?

AP: I like Andrea Arnold— her work is strong and fearless. And Danny Boyle has a manic energy that never disappoints. I like Darren Aronofsky who I have known since he was a student and I think that the hugely talented Christopher Nolan, when he notices he has more money in his bank account than he could possibly spend, might then do some more serious work.

VSM: What’s different about the creative environment now, from the past that affects your choices (or the choices open to you) as a filmmaker?

AP: Primarily, as the major studios have gone after the younger audience, it’s become more and more difficult to get films of a serious nature done with grown- up themes. Serious films of some scale are a rarity now. ‘Midnight Express’ and ‘Mississippi Burning’, which were mainstream studio films at the time, would now have to be cobbled together with independent finance. In fact it’s arguable that they would even be made at all in today’s climate. Serious subject matter is now the province of the Independent, low budget sector where budgets have to be begged, borrowed and stolen from different sources. On the other hand, when I started the TV companies were just two impenetrable monoliths : the BBC and ITV. This has since been cracked wide open and TV production is much more diverse and offers more opportunities than when I started. The advertising commercials industry as I knew it has imploded — as has the music business and this is still in a state of re-invention as new technologies offer up new opportunities.

Make sure your heroes are Ken Loach and the Cohen Brothers not James Cameron and George Lucas

VSM: Our festival’s How2 day is for people starting out in the film, music, ad and video games industries. What advice would you give to young people embarking now on a career in film?

AP: Make sure you have something to say and stories to tell. It’s not a glorified video game. Although, at one end, advances in modern technology has made films that cost zillions, it’s also made it possible to tell stories without the armies of crew and sacks of money, making it more democratic — smaller digital cameras, computer editing etc.  Make sure your heroes are Ken Loach and the Cohen Brothers and not James Cameron and George Lucas. There are much better stories to be told right next door to you rather than in a galaxy far, far away.