Interview: Lord Puttnam

“As much as I adore women, I’ve never understood them.” WILL STINSON has a chat with the effervescent mega-producer LORD PUTTNAM.

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Lord Puttnam’s international breakthrough film was Midnight Express in 1978, the story of a man caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey who is thrown into prison. Shortly after came Chariots of Fire, and then a flurry of them including Killing Fields and The Mission. And let’s not forget that before this rollercoaster of hit after hit, Puttnam produced the unforgettable Bugsy Malone.

“I had a pretty good run for my money; I won 10 Oscars and 25 BAFTAs, and had a very nice time.” ‘Nice’ isn’t a word usually kept for describing incredible achievements, but movie producer extraordinaire Lord Puttnam is extremely humble.

Relaxed and smiling, this is a man who has reached the top of his game in everything he has put his hand to. In reply to this gushing introduction, he flashes a wink and declares: “You’ve just got to keep going to bat.”

In the 60s, Lord Puttnam was a young, successful businessman working in advertising; so how did he get into producing, and become so successful? He describes his thought process: “Well, I’ve done that. What else do I like? Movies! Okay, I’ll make movies.” A combination of arrogance and ignorance, a lethal mix in today’s economic climate, was something you could get away with back then. He explained that it is actually the capacity to be critically self-analytical, and understand that if he applied his skill sets and tailored a given job to his abilities, he could make it work.

Lord Puttnam sees his work as essentially journalistic. He tells me that he always tries to tell stories where the good guy wins, because he deems it important to believe that good guys can win. Indeed, Puttnam admits that all his movies bar one (he cast Helen Mirren in the lead for Cal in 1984) have been solely about men, their relationships and the trials they go through as characters. Why? “As much as I adore women, I’ve never understood them.

He believes that if you don’t understand the subject you’re trying to produce, you will perpetually question yourself; why would she do that? What does she think? Puttnam has stuck to films that focus on male relationships, simply because as a man he more readily understands how male characters should develop.


The final scene of Bugsy Malone (1976)

Although he has had the most stupendous successes, Puttnam admits that his two years as Columbia Pictures USA Executive Chairman were “simply miserable.” Even though he classes himself as an independent film producer, he feels unable to criticise Hollywood as it was “only ever kind to me.” Demonstrating his skills for self-analysis, Lord Puttnam frankly imparted to me that his time at Columbia Pictures lead him into a spiral of self destruction, and he knew he simply had to get out.

Before he leaves, Puttnam tells me that his biggest achievement was his piloting and amendment through Parliament to create a polarity act that was against the ties between the government and the media. He sees this act as playing a large role in bedevilling the Murdoch empire, a cause which he deems worthy. “If I was writing my obituary I think I’d start there.”

This interview was arranged courtesy of the Cambridge Union Society