David Puttnam

Movies and Money

VTR Date: December 3, 1998

Guest: Puttnam, David


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Puttnam
Title: “Movies And Money”
Recorded: 12/3/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And our subject today derives from the truism that most of us in America … and now perhaps in significant parts of the world outside as well … have two businesses: our own, and show business.

Well, this program relates to the latter, particularly to the insights into movies the world over provided by a brilliantly readable Alfred A. Knopf book entitled “Movies And Money” by Lord David Puttnam, Britain’s peerless film maker who has brought us such magnificent cinema wonders as “Chariots of Fire”, “The Killing Fields”, “The Mission”, and “Midnight Express”.

Now I actually came to know my guest during the twenty years I was Chair of the motion picture industry’s voluntary film rating system. And I think one of the last times I saw him was when we had dinner together while I went on at length about what a daring — though what I thought was a perfectly foolhardy — decision he had just made to become Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Columbia Pictures, one of Hollywood’s major studios, and itself then owned by Coca Cola.

What I didn’t know then was that David Puttnam had already delivered to Coke’s Chieftains what he calls his own screed, namely:

“Movies are powerful. Good or bad, they tinker around inside your brain. They steal up on you in the darkness of the cinema to inform or confirm social attitudes. They can help to create a healthy, informed, concerned, and inquisitive society or, alternatively, a negative, apathetic, ignorant one — merely a short step away from nihilism …”

Also writes Lord Puttnam: “The medium is too powerful and too important an influence on the way we live, the way we see ourselves, to be left solely to the ‘tyranny of the box office’ or reduced to the sum of the lowest denominator of public taste.”

Well, I think you won’t be surprised if I note that two years later the new CEO was gone — r

They wanted films they could take their families to. And they felt they’d owned a studio for a long time of which that wasn’t true. So the brief was to deliver a studio, a Rolls Royce studio, if you like, that made a different type of product. And if it happened to make money, great. If it happened to lose a bit of money, the sense I was very clearly given was that Coca Cola company could more than afford it.

HEFFNER: But it couldn’t be, could it?


PUTTNAM: In hindsight, no. But I think they believed it when they said it to me. And I chose to believe them. In a way we were co-conspirators in an enthusiastic piece of idiocy. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Well, I remember Fay Vincent’s devotion to you. And he thought it was going to be a wonderful combination. But when we come here to this rather extraordinary book, because “Movies and Money” … it seems to me the combination is …


HEFFNER: … disastrous.

PUTTNAM: Fire and ice.

HEFFNER: Right. Precisely. Why couldn’t you make it go then? Why does there have to be the assumption that in this country, at any rate, it’s fire and ice?

PUTTNAM: First of all, I made a number of misjudgments. One was I should have done what Jeffrey Katzenberg did when he went to Disney, which was ignore the pleas of the distribution people that they didn’t have any product to pump through the system, until a point where I believed there was sufficient product, or I had things that were worth pumping through the system. Instead of which … I think there’s always been a little bit of a Boy Scout in me, who sort of saluted and said “right. … product”. And I dashed out and instead of, I think, concentrating on films I absolutely believed in, I started trying to make the best of what we had available to us. And one … some cases pick-up … some of them I was actually very proud of … “Hope and Glory”, was a pick-up. “The Last Emperor” was a pick-up. So in fact the “picking up” we did wasn’t so dusty. More worrying were the films that we put into production that either shouldn’t have been put into production or in most cases weren’t ready to go into production. I say Jeffrey I think was smart … he had a strategy and he waited. Unfortunately, I didn’t have his example at that point to, to look at. I also think that I had a number of views about what was wrong, not one of which I think, in essence, was wrong. But I think what I did forget, was that I spoke with a foreign accent. I think funny enough, if anyone asked me “what was the most stupid thing you did at Columbia?”. It was forgetting that I was not an American and that people are extremely tolerant, or can be very tolerant, if they hear constructive criticism in their own language. They don’t take it well when they hear it from a foreigner.

HEFFNER: And you write here about the universality of film.

PUTTNAM: I believe in the universality of film. But I also believed in the specificity of criticism. I think if you hear a

HEFFNER: … but there seems to me in “Movies And Money” to be a kind of inevitability on the one hand that inevitably we are going to produce this kind of system in this kind of country, talking about the United States. At the same time, you take this wonderful vision that you have of what film, cinema can be, could be, what it meant in your life growing up …

PUTTNAM: I think that’s the key.


PUTTNAM: I know. I mean there are things that people can’t take away from in life, and one of those things is your own personal trajectory. Your own personal experience. I’m sitting here with you today, as much as anything else because of a group of film makers who making movies in the 1950’s that I saw as a kid in North London, and which altered me, which gave me a set of ethical parameters, a type of person I wanted to be, a notion of the type of contribution I’d like to make. And now, admittedly, it was a different, it was a post-war world, it was a world that was searching for a different form of meaning. It was a world that had survived a … what looked like a total catastrophe. It was a world where it looked as though right was overcoming wrong. And so I was the joyful, gleeful student, if you like, of people like William Wyler, Fred Zimmerman, Stanley Kramer … who had a very, very, I think, firm ethical grasp on the … on where society could go and should go. And I was, I was the beneficiary of that. And all I’ve tried to do in my career … all I’ve tried to do in my career is nudge that along. Is somehow to replicate those notions, those thoughts. I think it’s true, I’d like to think that “Chariots” … you can’t come out of “Chariots of Fire” without an affirmed vision of what human potential is. You can’t come out of “Local Hero” without a stronger sense of the value of community. You can’t come out of “The Killing Fields” without a firmer commitment to the notion of friendship. So, in my own way nothing, nothing … and Fred and those other heroes of mine, I think I haven’t done badly.


HEFFNER: Then what happened? I don’t mean in, in terms of your career, in terms of your choice … because your career is made up of those very wonderful films. What happened to the movies that the films that inspired you don’t prevail One finds them occasionally, but they don’t prevail.

PUTTNAM: Well, the answer, Dick, and it’s slightly glib and I know it as I’m saying it … is that at some point the studios … the people who have to make decisions about making movies … lost faith in the audience. And simultaneously the audience lost faith in cinema. And they both, I used that phrase … reduce the lowest common denominator … I think that’s what exactly happened. The studios decided to reduce their produce to the lowest common denominator of public taste. And the public instead of rising up and saying, “Hang on a second, we’re smarter than that”, decided to accept cinema as something less in their lives. That’s, I think, the most important thing. Cinema was a very important thing in my life. It’s an important thing for some people living here in New York, who seek out movies, who discuss movies. But for most people in the United States, and indeed, for most people around the world, movies have become exactly the same as the stuff that you stick in your mouth when you’re watching them. They are … they’re just a visual version of popcorn. They’re comfort food.

HEFFNER: Well, let me go back to the question though of cause and effect here. What led to this? Who stepped forward first, or who stepped backwards first? The studios or the audience? In your estimation?

PUTTNAM: I think the studios went into free fall in the seventies before I was … well, I was just beginning to make films in England. But I think it was a pretty catastrophic period … the very early seventies where the management’s lost control. Where I think the managements were too old, out of touch and where they weren’t able to nurture the new audience with anything that was going to really work. You then had this extraordinary flurry of quite wonderful films … very much when you were in Hollywood … “Raging Bull”, “Godfather, II”, I mean there was an brilliant patch of marvelous American films. But what they’d lost at that point, and I don’t want to sound preachy because I was accused of being “preachy” and I don’t feel that I’m being preachy. But I think what they lost, and what the individual film makers lost was their moral compass. I think it’s actually true of my generation, in the sixties. We had lots of wonderful ideas and an enormous amount of energy. But I do think we were floundering around looking for a moral compass. We knew that the fifties Nixonian moral compass was wrong, but we instead of … and so we set about destroying that. But whilst destroying it, I don’t think we put anything particularly substantial in its place.

HEFFNER: You know, I want to find out about what the “preachiness” was that you referred to now. But I first want to ask you whether this isn’t in a sense the same conversation we had at that dinner, just as you became Chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures.

PUTTNAM: Can I say in one respect it is …


PUTTNAM: … because I remain an optimist. I was an optimist at that dinner that night …

HEFFNER: I know.

PUTTNAM: … and I’m an optimist sitting here at this table today. Despite the fact that in many respects things look more bleak than they did even in ‘86.

HEFFNER: But, David, if you’re talking about an institution … you describe this institution in “Movies And Money” … “here they come together …”

PUTTNAM: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: …and there seems to me to be almost an inevitability in what the product of their coming together is. You still don’t feel that way, do you?

PUTTNAM: No. It’s … the word I’m having a problem with is your use of the world “inevitability”. I don’t think there’s any inevitability about this at all. I think the great sadness for me … particularly in respect to the United States … and I say this to some one … I think I’ve made this very clear in the book … America to me was the land of wonder. I knew I lived in a difficult country … a country … through a difficult time in the fifties and sixties in Britain … particularly the fifties. And America was the answer, appeared to be the answer … to have the answers. It appeared to have a set of values, it appeared to be about something and going somewhere. So I’m very disappointed in the United States. One of the reasons I’m disappointed is I don’t think any decisions in the last twenty years have been made as to what type of society this really wants to be. It’s been dozens of speeches made, every single time there’s an election, whoever the President’s elect or the would-be Presidents are, will make almost exactly the same speech about the type of nation they wish to lead. But when it really comes to it, I don’t think this country’s fully decided what it wants to be and it’s a schizophrenic country. And I believe, personally, that that particular form of schizophrenia is very, very damaging. I still believe in this country. And I still it can get to its roots and to what it’s really about. It could be an extraordinary moral force.


HEFFNER: But let’s take movies. When you describe in this book, to a farethewell, the beginnings of this industry …

PUTTNAM: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … don’t say profession … of this industry, the point is that it was initially and is and remains an industry and when you talk in those terms, I can’t find in your book any documentation for the notion that it began as a revelation of what could be done with this new art form. It began, as you say yourself, with a group of men who knew how to merchandize and produce product that they could sell. And there never was any other motivation. When you refer to the films that created your values or that helped mold you … you’re talking about exceptions, aren’t you to a rule that you describe as dominating this industry from the word “go”.

PUTTNAM: Well, let’s say … first of all they didn’t feel like exceptions. Because I was an avid cinema goer, I went two, sometimes even three times a week. And whilst there were exceptional films, you know, the happiest days of your life … absolutely exceptional films, “Here to Eternity”, “Inherit The Wind”, which had an extraordinarily powerful impact on me as a movie. Whilst I suppose they were exceptions intellectually or in terms of their intelligence, the tone, and I use this word “moral” with a very small “m” … the tone … and the moral tone of the films was not dissimilar. In the end they were about good overcoming evil. And not always in a silly way. Sometimes an extremely complicated way. And I’ve read a great deal about the, the conversations that took place around … and you know much more about this than me … decisions about how “Public Enemy” would end. Well, “Public Enemy” is a very, very exciting, beautifully made gangster movie. But no one ever had any doubt that the end had to be him riddled with bullets in the gutter. I don’t think there was ever a serious suggestion that it would be an acceptable ending if he was off to Miami with his trunk … with a car trunk full of money and two very attractive girls at his side. That debate never occurred. You knew that “Public Enemy” had to end with a guy in a gutter apologizing to his mother, as it were.

HEFFNER: Do you think … well … not as it were … he was.

PUTTNAM: I mean in reality.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the moral tone of this country, of the world, indeed, because you talked about the impact of American films around the world, do you think that we were liberated from the fact that … you’re quite correct, there was no discussion of that … but we turned to a kind of realistic cinema that had no use for, had no place for that kind of automatic ending. Do you think we’re better off for that?

PUTTNAM: I was always very impressed by the ending of “The Graduate”. If you really look at the end of “The Graduate”, it is not a happy ending. It is, it is a “what now” …

HEFFNER: Yeah, it’s a question mark.

PUTTNAM: It’s a big question mark. I think that’s my idea of a moral ending. It hasn’t resolved anything. And it has offered a really interesting question mark. If you choose to watch it through to the end. That is to say, if you watch that, that shot … Mike Nichols held that shot a long time. To me, we’re in danger here of over complicating this issue. The issue’s very, very simple. Every single film maker, man or woman, set designer, production designer, screen writer, producer, director, when they go to work in the morning, has … lives … enters a society, lives within a society and they leave behind their kids, who go to school within that society, their wives operate in the society, their parents operate in the society. To walk into a sound stage and create something or produce something which in any way, shape or form damages the stability or the sense of security, or the sense of optimism in that society is, I think an anti-social act. And I don’t know how you do it. I, I know that I consciously troll through all the films, certainly post “Midnight Express”, largely as a result of “Midnight Express”, every one of those scripts, thinking “what’s the take-away from this”? What values am I leaving in place here? What am I actually saying? What’s the film going to be saying. And really, really trying to create a movie which made everything else in my life more sensible. And this is what I don’t understand. I don’t understand people who function in an industry, knowing that the result of some of their acts, some of their actions is, is a kind of a take-away from a society that is damaged. And I’m afraid, I go further … that an awful lot of those people believe that the answer to that question mark is to build a rather high wall around their estate, to put razor wire around it, to hire a twenty-four hour guard and that is the way in which they’ve dealt with the problem they’ve created. Well, that is, that is deeply anti-social.


HEFFNER: We’re into December 1998 now, and I wonder was this the message, was this the preaching that you did in Hollywood the past couple of days?

PUTTNAM: Yes, but I think it’s also the message I’ve been preaching in a way for the last twenty years. What upsets me is to be accused of preaching. It really does, it stings me. It’s because what I realized is … your just using the word “values” irritates people. It irritates people because it creates a question mark in their own mind because they know they’re supposed have values. And they know actually they have got values, but they also know that they’re short-changing themselves in their values a lot of the time. And that’s why people get irritated by the word.

HEFFNER: David, I wonder whether the people you’re talking about don’t adhere precisely to the values that they have accepted. Values that put Number One, second part of your title “Movies and Money” … movies you would call in England and around the rest of the world “cinema”. For us they’re movies. And we talk about money, too. The important part of this equation is that movies are designed to make money, not to uplift, not to support the kinds of values that you’re addressing yourself to, not to be educational, not to be parenting and nurturing …

PUTTNAM: But why should these be ideas in opposition?

HEFFNER: Ah, okay. That’s, that’s where I go back to that last supper that we had.

PUTTNAM: It almost was [laughter].

HEFFNER: Indeed. You, you wonder why, and within the context of the values of this country … values that are not brand new in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, make for this equation what you were delighted with, with the enthusiasm and the optimism of the movies that you saw, back when you were a boy …


HEFFNER: … growing along with that went a kind of Darwinian market place basis for just about everything we do. I don’t like that as a principal value and you don’t either. But why, why … I won’t say fight against it … why fail to realize it is the value?

PUTTNAM: Okay, there is a reason. Because ultimately we’re all searching for and this is as much true of corporate America as it is true of any individual in Europe. We’re all searching eventually for a sustainable society. Sustainable business, sustainable world. I think sustainable is a terribly important word in this, in this context. One of the very interesting drifts in the last three or four years in this country is that large corporations are beginning to understand that if you are successful, if you make profit at the price of social cohesion, you dealing in a zero sum game. And this is what I’m trying to get across, I hope to the movie industry. But the best thing the movie industry can do for itself is to start thinking more carefully about the kind of films it makes in order to actually provoke and provide for a society which is going to be there for them in the end. I actually think the audience, sooner or later, will get fed up with the movies that are being made. I think that what I’ve just described as the popcorn syndrome will eventually run itself into the ground, as indeed it did in the seventies when they started making “Paint Your Wagon” and that whole series of ludicrously over-inflated, over priced and hopelessly out of date movies. There’s a disconnection at the moment between the people making films and the audience, other than, other than at the most banal level. Every now and then someone like Speilberg or Scorsese manages to re-connect with the audience is allowed the privilege of seeing there’s some intelligence out there working. I loved “Private Ryan”, but everyone did, but I absolutely love “Private Ryan”. It’s a very intelligent film and it gave me a window into my father’s generation and into my father, which in a strange way I’ve been denied. A film I only saw quite recently, but knocked me sideways was “Field of Dreams” because again it just hooked something into me that I needed reminding of. The film makers are out there, the intelligences are out there, the writers are out there. There is a community out there. What’s gone wrong is the inter-leaving … and this is what I said when I was in Hollywood, it’s what made me very unpopular … the inter-leaving of layers of lawyers, agents, advisors who unfortunately work the angle which is “you’re a great film maker, do you know there’s another film maker who’s not as good as you, earning more money”. Now that’s a very, very a lot of film makers are very vulnerable to that and a lot of film makers end up … I wouldn’t say selling their soul, that’s too crass, but end up making misjudgments and not making the films they want to make and not believing in the films that they do believe, because their confidence in their status, if you like within the profession or within the industry is undermined. So I’m looking for and hoping for, and believing there will be a kind of return to a set of priorities, proper set of priorities. Good film makers will earn good money if they make good movies. But you’ve got to get it in that order. Learn your craft, make films you can be proud of, get paid properly, and continue to make films you’d be proud of. Don’t worry that some other shmuck who made a chase movie or a rape movie is getting paid twice what you’re getting paid, because Lord knows he’s paying the price for that.


HEFFNER: Lord Puttnam you know that, but the major question in Hollywood and in, in so many other segments of, part of America is what are you going to do for me tonight. And the question is posed in terms of what dollars are you going to make for me tonight. But we have so many more questions, we’ve come to the end of this program, stay where you are, and we’ll do Lord Puttnam, part two. Thanks, David, for joining me today on The Open Mind.

PUTTNAM: Thanks, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.