David Puttnam and his refreshing view of filmmaking
London — Behind a substantial-looking, antique desk in an office attached to his home, British film producer David Puttnam is busy talking on the telephone, as film producers are supposed to be. He is bearded, informally dressed, and his soft-sell manner seems out of place in a room that almost looks like a film set for a movie-producer's office.
The walls are crowded with huge, framed posters of Mr. Puttnam's films -- ``Chariots of Fire'' (winner of four Oscars including Best Picture); ``Local Hero'' (a small-scale film about a culture clash over oil wealth in Scotland); and, among others, ``Cal'' (a love story set amid the political turbulence of Northern Ireland).
Not pictured is Puttnam's latest and, he feels, most successful movie, ``The Killing Fields,'' a British film that is his latest Oscar candidate, having recently been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category.
Puttnam hangs up the phone, apologizes for his preoccupation, and suggests that the interview take place in his ``real'' office upstairs.
Leaving the world of the frenetic film producer behind, he leads the way to a book-filled room with a wooden floor, sits down on his desk chair, and is ready to talk.
Of all the accomplishments that he can lay claim to, Puttnam is most pleased about changing the image of his profession and proving that a successful film producer can still be a ``nice guy.''
``I'd love to think I'd fashioned a new image for the film producer,'' Puttnam admits. ``Funnily enough, of all the tangible things I honestly believe I could lay claim to, I do think I have done that.''
Besides uplifting the image of the tough-talking, cigar-smoking film producer (a no-smoking sign in Italian is on the back of his office door), Puttnam has done quite a few ``tangible things.''
He is credited with reviving the British film industry almost singlehandedly; with lifting the spirits of his whole country and winning huge admiration and affection from abroad with ``Chariots of Fire,'' the story of two Olympic runners who valued their religious heritages more than the opinions of a secular-minded society; with consistently proving that major movies which do well at the box office can be made on a reasonable budget without big-name stars; and with showing that movies which have a message can find an audience as well as any picture that exploits sex and violence.
But what David Puttnam wants to talk about at the moment -- his Oscar for Best Picture glinting on a shelf but a few feet away -- is not how well his latest picture is doing, but where he has fallen short in changing what he sees as the deep flaws in the film industry.
It seems that the honesty and moral purpose which caused such commotion among the characters in ``Chariots of Fire'' are present, causing similar inconvenience, in the career of the man who made that film possible.
``I find myself running counter to many of the pressures and many of the aspirations of the film industry,'' says Puttnam.
``I mean I certainly feel that the films I do have an ethical as opposed to a show-business base. And I like that idea.''
But at the moment, Puttnam, who defines his job as producer as ``being responsible for every aspect of a film that the camera doesn't see,'' is dissatisfied.
``I don't think I've failed in terms of the films I've made,'' Puttnam says. ``I couldn't be more proud of `Killing Fields,' or `Cal,' or `Local Hero,' or `Chariots of Fire.'
``But I've failed because I had an ambition and that ambition was to affect the structure of the film industry in Britain.
``I've failed in my attempts to lobby the government to take the film industry seriously -- in my attempts to bring various elements of the film industry together in a homogeneous manner so that they're dealing in a shared dream. It's only a matter of time before the realities I've failed to change catch up with me,'' he says.
Puttnam is sufficiently bothered by the burdens of this unfulfilled idealism to be strongly considering at least a year's sabbatical from films in 1985, as soon as he is free from his present commitments. If he decides to give filmmaking a rest, his audience will miss him.
His new film, ``The Killing Fields,'' has received substantial press attention not only for its Oscar nomination but for its accurate, humane portrayal of the endurance and struggle toward freedom by one man, the interpreter and assistant in Cambodia for the New York Times, Dith Pran, after the Khmer Rouge takeover. Insiders in the film world feel the movie could well give Puttnam another sweep of the Oscars.
Puttnam got the idea for the film from a piece in Time magazine, he says. Immediately, his fundamental talent of recognizing good material came into play, and he knew it was a story that would make an excellent film.
``I don't know how I do it. I come out of advertising. I'm market-oriented; that's to say I'm good at spotting gaps and the potential of ideas. I've always felt that, in a crunch, I could walk out of the house, spend a day walking around London, and invent a business during that day, and earn a living at it.''
This unusual blend of confidence and humility is at the root of the innovative image Puttnam has fashioned for himself as a film producer.
``I'm not interested in money. But I am interested in security,'' Puttnam says, referring to his ever-present problem of raising money for films in Britain.
``The sanctity of the individual is the idea that's most important to me. I could never go along with acts that violate the individual. `The Killing Fields' is about the danger of a society that polarizes. It's about the danger of extremism.''
Puttnam is insistent upon the fact that the most important influence on him when he was growing up, the son of a news agency photographer in North London, was the cinema. And it says something of the power of movies that Puttnam believes ``my entire ethical base was not put together from home and church but from American movies of the '50s. The awakening of a set of ethical beliefs for life came from the cinema.''
Puttnam left school at 16 and went into advertising. He had already met the woman who was to become his wife. It had been love at first sight, and they were married when Puttnam was 20 and his wife, Patsy, was 17. They have two children.
``My marriage is the single best success story I can point to. A lot of my thinking at the moment is geared to attempting to protect that.''
If Puttnam decides to take his sabbatical from movies, he will spend it in one of two ways: He will go to university for a year to study moral philosophy; or he will accept a job offered to him in the advertising world, which he feels needs people who are not only interested in making money.
But before any sabbatical takes place, Puttnam has to supervise the birth of two more movies. He is off to Colombia to deal with the filming of ``The Mission,'' with a screenplay by Robert Bolt (``A Man for All Seasons'') and directed by Roland Joffe, who directed ``The Killing Fields.'' Also under way in the Puttnam name is ``Defense of the Realm,'' a contemporary thriller set in England.
If David Puttnam is possibly the world's most purposeful film producer, it is not a position that has been without its cost for him personally.
``I am in danger of trading in my private and personal persona for frankly a form of notoriety on which I place no particular value,'' he says of the increasing glare of public attention that surrounds him.
``I see leaving the film industry for a while as an absolutely constructive move regarding myself and my own growth, my own sense of -- I hate the word in a way because it sounds presumptuous -- my own sense of my own dignity,'' Puttnam explains.
David Puttnam films are about the unusual individual who takes the unusual course. It should not be surprising that Puttnam himself has the courage to admit that he wants to try a different kind of life, the success of which cannot be measured in Oscars.