"A producer is a man who causes a film to be made," says Oscar-winning movie producer Michael Deeley. "He's there from start to finish and is the longest-serving member of the crew." Where the new Hollywood era of the 1970s created an iconic image of directors, it left the role of producer less well known. But without Michael's hands-on approach we wouldn't have celebrated films The Italian Job (1969), The Deer Hunter (1978) or Blade Runner (1982). In this new interview, the London-born veteran Hollywood producer explores the business of filmmaking and reveals what it's like to work with Ridley Scott.
Michael stumbled into the world of film on his return from national service in Malaysia, after a chance conversation with a friend of his mother's led to a job offer of second assistant editor at a company run by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He was paid the same as he'd been paid "to be shot at in Malaysia", he says, and "within months it was clear that it was terrific fun." Working his way up from the cutting rooms, he started to produce short films in his spare time, with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan starring in his first production in 1956.
He became General Manager and Producer of London production company Woodfall Films in the early 60s, which produced Oscar-winning film Tom Jones (1963) and the Palme d'Or-winning The Knack ...and How to Get It (1965). As an independent producer in the late 60s, Michael scored a big hit with The Italian Job (1969).
In 1973, he took over British Lion Films as Managing Director, and later became its owner, overseeing the release of Don't Look Now (1973) and cult classic The Wicker Man (1973). He also produced The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring David Bowie.
When British Lion Films was sold to EMI Films, Michael and fellow producer Barry Spikings took over management, producing 1970s blockbusters including Convoy (1978), Death on the Nile (1978), Warlords of Atlantis (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1978). And in 1982 he produced arguably his best-known film, a box office flop starring Harrison Ford which would later become a certain science fiction classic – Blade Runner. Here, Michael tells us about his celebrated career and his thoughts on the film industry today.
The role of a producer is less well-known than that of the director. What does it entail?
"A producer is a man who causes a film to be made. He'll do that from the beginning by finding material to make a film. The producer decides what makes a good story and then has to convince a few other people as well, including someone who's going to put up many millions. You have to make an argument that's attractive to an investor, which is what Paramount, MGM and all the rest of them are. He'll cast, find and hire a director, raise the money and manage the production, and perhaps supervise the release. He is there from start to finish and is the longest-serving member of the crew. During production, one's job is essentially to serve the director. If he wants to see the Taj Mahal moved two inches to the left and you can do it, then you do it. If it's going to cost you a billion dollars then you don't do it – you try to do it."
"Finding ideas for what will make films is a very important task for producers. Without material, without a project, a producer doesn't have a job. I read everything I can – I read scripts until I can't bear them any longer, which is often the case. I made one picture, Convoy (1978), based solely upon a song. If you can find a movie out of a song, then you should be able to find ones from theatre, books... anything. In most cases, I looked for something original, not a remake."
"By the style of the picture and the job. Ridley was the best possible choice for Blade Runner. For me, he was perfect. He had done space, he had done alien pictures, and I think he has one of the best eyes in the business. One of the things that Ridley specialises in is detail. He would draw his own view of what the shot would look like. Sometimes he'd be sitting on a crane, the actors were waiting, and he'd be moving an ashtray that he saw in the very corner of a table, six inches one way or another. This extraordinary attention to detail made his scenes memorable and very, very beautiful, quite apart from any action that took place."
"I didn't read the original Philip K. Dick book, only a treatment that had been written by Hampton Fancher, and my first reaction was that I didn't really see a film there. I suppose the idea of science fiction, as such, was not in my mind. As to how a dystopian picture got financed in the first place, the people who bought it didn't know what they were paying for. As it became clearer and clearer what the picture was really about, there was more and more dissatisfaction from the one-third financiers who began to see that it wasn't the cheery movie they'd somehow thought it was."
How did you develop the distinct aesthetic of Blade Runner?
"The style of the picture had to be something set almost 40 years hence and a lot of people worked very hard trying to imagine the future. Syd Mead, the visual futurist and concept artist, was originally brought on simply to design cars, but came to put a lot more into the movie than had been expected. Ridley Scott himself knew how to encourage these extensions of certainty – how one could take a concept of the future and seat it in reality and connect it to present day. One of Ridley's mindsets was Edward Hopper's Nighthawks painting, which is a very, in a way, sad view of somebody in an urban situation, which was used to set the mood for the picture."
"Yes, with The Italian Job, the final film was nothing like the script in atmosphere. It was originally a fairly serious, quite nicely scripted story. Paramount wanted to make it and Michael Caine was willing to do it, but there was something wrong with the idea of Michael Caine in this movie. It changed when I started working out how we should cast it by bringing in all the disparate characters like Benny Hill, Fred Emney, and those sort of people who completely blew the seriousness of the picture, and it made it a harmless, innocent, fun caper. It was basically the same script but the casting changed the whole balance of it. The writer hated the film until he saw it, because I was changing his story."
"I turned down this very nice young writer's first book called The Day of the Jackal. I read it and I said to him, 'I'm sorry. This won't make a film. We know that Charles de Gaulle's alive, so a film about assassinating him doesn't make any sense.' He eventually found a more experienced and better producer than me who was able to see that the film wasn't what I'd thought it was (it was about how they stopped the assassination), and bang."
"I don't see that much difference between the 1960s or 1970s output. The huge Marvel-type pictures are something the studios are doing today. They're an absolute splash of color and action and noise for a period of time, and they seem to appeal to fairly undiscerning people as well as, no doubt, some discerning people. It's just a huge presentation. The studios always want to play it safe, but they also want to have something special – it's a difficult game for them to play."
Is it easier to become a filmmaker today or when you first started?
"There are more opportunities for producers now. Suddenly Amazon and Netflix are spending a lot of money, and that's healthy for the industry and those working in it. I think it is easier in a way, but the industry was more regulated before so it was an easier lesson to learn. I should think now it's quite hard to know where to turn and how to get there when you want to fund a movie. As far as individual filmmakers are concerned, your struggle is to get the film made. You'll use whatever means you can to persuade the financiers to provide the funds to do it. But it's still a question of finding a good story, putting it together with a good cast and finding somebody to direct it who you like – I don't think that's changed."
"Don't think you're walking into heaven – you're not. I favour the trade entry. Whatever you want to end up as, start from the base – assistant film editor, a clapper boy, number three in the sound department, whatever. The values of this are: one, you've got a way of earning an income and two, when you move on to being a producer or a director or something, everybody who's on your crew will know that you have a basic trade and you started something from the beginning, rather than just lounging out of film school and saying, 'I'm going to be a director.'"
"I've actually only made one film that's the sort of film I would ordinarily watch, which is The Italian Job. My favourite films are quite simple, things like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. They're sort of silly, romantic, mostly comedic, but I've never made any of those except for The Italian Job. Although it's not like any picture I ever made, I also adored Mamma Mia. I'm sure the second film is absolutely made in stone to be a hit. It's got the same cast, even though they're all a little bit older, and it will work. There aren't many like that."
"Goodness me. The film that provokes a happy reaction, of course, is The Italian Job. The feeling of achievement comes from Blade Runner. There's an annoyance about things that could have been better with The Deer Hunter, but you can't knock it when you win the Oscar. None of them feel perfect to me. Even on The Italian Job there were some things that we should have done differently."