AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL DEELEY (PART 1 OF 2)

Michael Deeley produced some of the biggest classics of the last fifty years - ROBBERY (1967), THE ITALIAN JOB (1969), THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976), THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and BLADE RUNNER (1982). Beginning his film career in the cutting rooms, he became a producer with the successful comedy short THE CASE OF THE MUKKINESE BATTLE-HORN in 1956, which was an attempt to translate The Goon Show to film and featured members Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Dick Emery. Deeley's long career has also seen him work for the UK sales division of MCA Universal, and collaborate with Woodfall Films (TOM JONES, LOOK BACK IN ANGER). He was also the managing director of British Lion, which released such classics as THE WICKER MAN (1973), DON'T LOOK NOW (1973) and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. When British Lion merged with EMI Films, Deeley and Barry Spikings became co-managers of the company, and their productions included THE DEER HUNTER, THE DRIVER (1978) and CONVOY (1978). He is also the Honorary President of the British Screen Advisory Council, which he co-founded. His 2008 book Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off – My Life in Cult Movies (co-authored with Matthew Field) is one of the most fascinating, entertaining and candid film autobiographies there is, and it has recently been re-released with additional content. In the first part of our two-part interview. I spoke to Deeley about how he entered the film industry and became a producer, how his experiences doing National Service in Malaya and cutting films influenced his producing choices, how many geniuses he has worked with, his attraction to working with risky material and innovative filmmakers, and his thoughts on BLADE RUNNER 2049.           
  
Have you seen BLADE RUNNER 2049 yet? 
No. I haven't had a chance or the inclination for the moment. I've read reviews of it, particularly the Hollywood Reporter review, and he said the first hour was boring and the thing was so long that they could only have two shows a day in the theater, which strikes me as being crazy. You're losing a third of your money. Another guy told me he nearly fell asleep, although he did admit it was late night screening. I'm not rushing to see it. I don't want to be disappointed.

How did the idea come about for you to write Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off – My Life in Cult Movies? 
I was approached by Matthew Field, who was just about to leave University, and was writing a book about THE ITALIAN JOB. He had liked the movie since he was six years old and he felt he could do a good book. He hadn't written a book before and after I met with him, I introduced him to Michael Caine and others, to help him get what he needed. When it was being published, we used to go and do these Q and As to promote the book. We would be hanging around waiting to go on, and he would ask me about all the films I had made. He said ''You know, you ought to write a book. '' I said ''I can't write a book. I can't type!'' To cut a long story short he volunteered to do the book with me. Over a long period of time, where he'd come over and stay with me or we'd have dinner in London, we eventually got the thing together and had a book.

It's a fantastic book. I've read it five times. I find it fascinating, and very entertaining and candid. 
It seemed to me that nobody knows what producers do, and it would be interesting for people to learn. My main aim, though, was to dig out some stories about some of my films that people had seen and try to pull out some human experiences that went into the making of them.

It was also a chance for you to tell your side of the story. When stars or directors complain about producers, most people are inclined to believe their version of events. 
Producers don't always have a very pretty look to them, and of course Mr. Weinstein is an example of that.

What were some of the films that made you fall in love with cinema growing up?
I don't know about falling in love with cinema, I fell in love with girls! I do remember seeing FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (1943) in Paris at the impressionable age of fourteen or fifteen and being very taken with it. My mother was in the film business so I knew some film people, but I never planned to enter the film business myself. When I was doing my National Service in Malaya, right at the very end I was suddenly struck with meningitis in the jungle and I ended up in a hospital in Singapore. When they eventually let me come home, I stayed at my mother's house whilst she was in Switzerland making a picture. A friend of the family called wanting to speak to her, and he happened to ask me what my plans for the future were. It was November, and I told him I needed a job before going to Oxford in September the following year. He told me he would give me a job and that I would start on the Monday, working in the cutting rooms at Douglas Fairbanks' office. I earned the same money in my first week as I had earned as a Second Lieutenant shooting at Chinese people in Malaya. Very quickly I was having such a great time that I had no desire to do anything else but work in the cutting room.

Did your experiences in Malaya instill in you a sense of drive and ambition? 
It was vital for me because I had been institutionalised. I had been in boarding schools since the age of six, and certain aspects of my upbringing had sheltered me. The Army was a magnificent segue from frankly being a kid to sort of being grown up. Just the issue of life and death. People were being shot. It was a useful growing up process.

Do you think these experiences influenced the kind of films you were attracted to make? 
I don't think so really. All I was ever trying to do was make something original, although one doesn't always succeed. For example, the absolute original thing about THE DEER HUNTER was that it was originally about Russian roulette. That was something I had never seen on screen before.

How did you first get into producing? 
About three or four years into working into the cutting rooms, a fellow named Harry Booth and I were working on the Robin Hood TV series at Walton Studios. We realised we could do our work in roughly an hour every day because the show was so sparsely covered, it was just a case of topping and tailing. We had to figure out what we could do with the free time. We couldn't go on the floor and watch the shoot because we had to be in the cutting room. We had a good location because we had an office, a cutting room, and a telephone, and we decided the only thing left for us to do was to try and produce something. Which we did. We got together 4, 500 pounds from three different sources and made a half hour film with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan called THE CASE OF THE MUKKINESE BATTLE-HORN (1956). We tried to recreate The Goon Show, which of course was impossible. We took some of the footage out and cut it in the form of an American TV show. We thought it was incredibly good, but when we ran it for our American friends from the Robin Hood show, they were so stony-faced throughout that I don't think they realised it was meant to be a comedy. In the end we put back the footage we had taken out and released it as a kind of 'C' feature in cinemas, and it did very well. It played a lot on television later on.

Curiously enough, I've made a lot of money from it in recent years. When Peter Sellers died, Dick Emery and Spike Milligan began playing clips from the film without paying me royalties. They said they didn't know who or where to reach me, which is a bad argument since until very recently I've always had my name in the London telephone directory, I am a member of BECTU, which is the biggest film union, I'm in Who's Who, and I'm a member of the Academy. In the end they had to pay me a considerably bigger amount than they would have if they had come to me upfront. The picture made about 150, 000 pounds, which is a huge number from 4, 500 pounds.

Reading your book, it's clear that you never made it easy for yourself with the projects that you chose! 
Well, the curious thing is that in my experience I never had a single experience that wasn't excellent with my actors. Two directors were far from that because I couldn't in my mind abrogate total power to the director. Of course I wasn't going to sit around telling a director how they should shoot a film, but I was certainly keen to have the project be what I understood we had agreed it was going to be like. I lost the battle on that with THE DEER HUNTER. I wanted a less lengthy film, but the director had more influence with Universal than I did as it turned out. It's just the way it goes. You win some and you lose some.

Do you think you are attracted to risky projects? 
They were risky in the way that they couldn't be demonstrated with a pitch where you say for example ''It's like LOVE STORY set during World War II. '' Some filmmakers are masters at making films that can be described that way and make careers out of them.

Did your experience in the editing rooms influence the way you chose projects? 
Well, it was the very best training for anybody making movies. David Lean is a very good example of that. One piece of advice I give at lectures or Q and As is to not get into the film industry from film school, but somehow as a tradesman. It doesn't really matter which one. It can be in the cutting room or the camera department. Once you've worked on a film you will have gained respect for the process and people will recognise that you do know something about the process of making a movie.

Would you say you have worked with many geniuses in your career? 
There are a few people who got pretty close to it. Nic Roeg is an example. He loves to leave these dangling questions in his films which isn't unique, but he's very good indeed. Jacques Tati, whom I worked for on practically my first job was something of a genius. He had tremendous control of film. MONSIEUR HULOT'S HOLIDAY (1953), for example, was beautifully controlled work.

It's interesting that your productions have often been innovative in certain ways – the car chases in ROBBERY and THE ITALIAN JOB, the editing in DON'T LOOK NOW and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, and the special effects in BLADE RUNNER. 
The great thing about ROBBERY's car chase is that Peter Yates got the job on BULLITT (1968) from it. I wanted him to direct THE ITALIAN JOB but I couldn't get him through Paramount's door. Charlie Bluhdorn, who was at that time the head of the studio, wished Peter Collinson to do it, who I didn't think was experienced enough. In truth though, Peter Yates wouldn't have been a good director for THE ITALIAN JOB because what he is the most brilliant at is mechanical things – he did a bicycle movie once (BREAKING AWAY) and an ambulance movie (MOTHER, JUGS AND SPEED) for example. But when he did the drama JOHN AND MARY (1969) with two of the hottest stars at that moment, Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow, it was a colossal, hopeless bore. He wouldn't have had the light touch to do THE ITALIAN JOB, so I was lucky in the end.

The updated edition of Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off – My Life in Cult Movies by Michael Deeley with Matthew Field can be ordered from the publishers and Amazon UK.  

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.