AN INTERVIEW WITH MIKE HODGES (PART 1 OF 2)

Mike Hodges is best known for the seminal British gangster film GET CARTER (1971) and the heist drama/ thriller CROUPIER (1998), and for the cult classic FLASH GORDON (1980). Before GET CARTER, Hodges worked successfully in television, where he displayed an aptitude for penetrating documentaries (World in Action), comedy (the documentary The British Way of Death) and experimenting with the form of arts programmes (Tempo, and New Tempo). His children's serial, THE TYRANT KING (1967) showed the possibilities of shooting television programmes on film and was followed by two highly acclaimed TV films, SUSPECT (1968) and RUMOUR (1969), both of which were hard-hitting, authentic, disturbing thrillers set in the criminal world. The latter film led to producer Michael Klinger and star Michael Caine agreeing Hodges was the right man to direct GET CARTER, which proved to become one of the most iconic and loved of British films. His excellent work in television aside (including the acclaimed TV films SQUARING THE CIRCLE and MISSING PIECES), over nine films Hodges has created a body of work that traverses genres and  consistently reflects the man's preoccupations with the nature of humanity and the world we have created - the crime thrillers (GET CARTER, PRAYER FOR THE DYING, CROUPIER, I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD), the comedies (PULP, MORONS FROM OUTER SPACE), the forays into sci-fi  (FLASH GORDON, THE TERMINAL MAN) and horror (BLACK RAINBOW). Hodges is a fascinating, underrated filmmaker, and in the first part of our email interview, he talks about the films that influenced him; the experiences that shaped him as a person and a filmmaker, and how his outlook on life is reflected in his films; his stylistic habits; GET CARTER and its themes; revisiting similar turf for I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD (2003); his experience making FLASH GORDON (1980), and Kubrick, Malick and Felllini, all of whom were fans of his work.         

What are some of the films have stayed with you over the years and impacted upon your life and work? 
I was lucky that my most impressionable years were the 1950's, a great period for US movies, which largely featured in my local cinemas. Of the ones I still remember I must include Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), SUNSET BLVD. (1950) and ACE IN THE HOLE (1951); Elia Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), and A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957); Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY (1955). Then from the UK studios, Carol Reed's THE THIRD MAN (1949) and ODD MAN OUT (1947), and John Boulting's BRIGHTON ROCK (1947). Dark stuff! 

Why did you choose to serve on the lower decks of ships for your National Service instead of have an automatic commission? Do you think this was the start of an urging to see the world and understand it better? 
If I'd taken the automatic commission in the Royal Navy it'd still have been as an accountant. And that I didn't want. I'd qualified simply to appease my parents desire for me to have a profession. Instead - by being on the lower deck - I was embedded in a community coming from the UK's working class. For me this was a revelation. One that was compounded by the poverty and degradation I witnessed in the numerous fishing ports my ship took me to.

You have an ability to look into the abyss with your films and don't shy away from showing the cruel, tragic, uncaring elements of life. Where does this come from? 
Maybe this answers your question. I was indoctrinated with Roman Catholicism from birth and only escaped its tendrils at around fifteen. A very traumatic experience it was too; but once free (sort of!) I was already skilled at looking into the abyss (as you put it!). A devout Catholic spends considerable time contemplating death, hell, purgatory, limbo, etc. With that baggage now dumped I had to pick my way through the wreckage and find some equivalent belief to fill that spiritual hole. It seemed to me that compassionate Socialism was the closest I could find to Christianity - but without the hocus-pocus.

Before making GET CARTER, your experiences in life had made you angry with the world's injustices, inequalities and hypocrisies. Do you think all this bled into GET CARTER? Is Carter's anger really your anger at what people do to other people and their environments? 
Undoubtedly. I found the British very complacent about the state of its community. They were unwilling to face how deep the cancer of the country's class system ran. The corruption that stemmed from such desperate inequality infected society from top-to-bottom; parliamentarians, lawyers, police, media. All had, or wanted to have, their noses, in the money trough. In fact shortly after I'd finished the shoot in Newcastle its mayor and other dignitaries were convicted for taking whopping bribes. Although I didn't come from the working class Michael Caine did. I can only assume this was the source for the anger he summoned up in his performance. His anger then was also mine - and is still!

Do you think your experiences meant GET CARTER was never going to feel like a Hollywood film? 
By the time I got to make GET CARTER I'd lived in London for some twenty years. I was, for the first time, able to access films from other cultures: France, Germany, Sweden, India, Japan, Mexico. But it was European cinema in particular that influenced me. Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, Michelangelo Antonioni, Fellini and others. Although my early love of American Westerns did, I think, inform GET CARTER. I don't think it could  ever feel like a product of Hollywood. Just look at the ending! 

How much of a fatalist are you? What to you is the joy of telling a story? 
The pattern of human behaviour and the eternal recycling of its mistakes makes it difficult to be anything other than a fatalist. As I type this I can look from my office window into a wonderful wood of oak and ash trees. In there are the noisy vivid jays. I hear them every day as they squark alerting other creatures that a predator is closing in. My joy in telling stories is sounding an alarm. Like them I squark warnings - if not as effectively! 

In your films, there are often pointers to the final outcome of the film. Do you feel in life there are pointers to our own destinies that we choose to ignore or fail to see? 
Shakespeare answered this question rather neatly in 'King Lear': "When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools." (Not that a baby has much choice in the matter of ignoring or failing to see this pointer.) And then there's Ernest Hemingway's dictum: "All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would hide that from you." So I insert these pointers because I think they add to the film's psychological makeup. It's DNA. For example, in GET CARTER there's the book Carter's reading on the train going up North – 'Farewell My Lovely'! It's farewell to him as he's destined to die before the film ends. And what's more, his killer is sitting in the opposite corner of this railway carriage. A premonition or a sly joke? Or both. A number of idiotic critics thought I was comparing myself to Raymond Chandler. As if I would dare. 

Do you think any person or institution is doomed to fail once they deny their humanity? 
Denying their humanity? This is a fine line we cross every day. Most of us step back when we realise it. But some don't. They relish it. Are their numbers increasing as screens replace eye contact between humans? I don't know. The Portuguese thinker Fernando Pessoa wrote this devastating but truthful line: "The world belongs to those that feel nothing." Has there ever been a better description of the psychopaths in politics and big business? 

Has your view of humanity softened as you have gotten older? 
Softened? Sadly not! Progress seems to bring with it little wisdom. For me the world is a carousel I've been on for 85 years. Now, via the porthole of my television, it appears to be whirling out of control; largely driven by deep-rooted revenge; revenge sometimes nurtured over centuries. Sunni/Shia? IRA/Loyalists? Left/Right? Republicans/ Democrats? Trump/Obama? Many of my films have revenge at their heart. Other animals, to my knowledge, don't succour revenge. It seems to be a speciality of homo sapiens. As a fellow member of that species it's not surprising I recognised that fact. 

What surprised you the most about the success of GET CARTER? 
This will sound crazy but I wasn't aware of it at the time. Only years later did I fully realise its impact. Maybe because I always go back into my personal bubble after each film? The ancient derivation of the surname, Hodges, is farm labourer. Maybe that's why I constantly retreat to my home in the middle of a Dorset farm? 

How did you feel about George Armitage's remake, HIT MAN (1972) and the Stallone remake from 2000? 
As far as I remember HIT MAN was good. But I was puzzled why anybody would want to remake somebody else's film. Shot for shot! Was it signalling a death of the imagination? With the number of remakes gathering momentum it seems it was. The Stallone version I've never seen. From all reports it's abysmal. I just wish the makers had drawn the line at using the same title. That was pathetic! 

Some directors may have tried to avoid revisiting the territory of GET CARTER with I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD. Why did you want to enter that world again? Did you intend for it to be a companion piece? Was it in any way a reaction to the way GET CARTER was enjoyed for its violence and embraced by 'lad' culture? 
Again I have to plead naiveté. The film is so diametrically the opposite of GET CARTER. I never really saw the connection when I took it on. At every level of its realisation, its composition, pacing, lighting, dialogue, music score it is totally different. You could say it's an old man taking another look at the subject of revenge - but nothing else. The brother connection is tenuous in the extreme. Most UK critics - lazy as usual - damned it as an attempt to relive the past. Maybe in time they'll take another look? But hopefully not before they have enlightened themselves with Roger Ebert's review. 

Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick were fans of THE TERMINAL MAN. How much of a fan are you of their work? Do you feel sympatico? 
Both are great film makers. Kubrick very cleverly created an aura around himself so he could control the release pattern of his films. If he had made THE TERMINAL MAN, he would have prepared the audience for it. I didn't have that control even though I was also the producer. Warners had no idea what to do with it. The poster as far as I recollect had George Segal flying into space with sparks coming out of his arse. That did not capture the nature of this film! 

There was a period when FLASH GORDON was not seen as the classic it is now. Why do you think the tide turned? How did the experience confirm your thoughts about the negative aspects of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking? 
I never thought of it as a Hollywood film. Dino De Laurentiis was in a place of his own. After a bumpy start I loved working with him. You could always get immediate decisions. In the UK many looked down their noses at the film. Cultural snobbery came into play. But over the years it's played so many times on television, often over Christmas, it's image has changed. Even the Queen asked Brian Blessed (or so he insists) to yell "Flash Gordon is alive?" for her grandchildren. Of course the film was always operating at two levels. The Saturday morning flick for kids and the sexual undercurrents for adults. Fun for all ages. The Queen is 92! 

Stanley Kubrick recommended to Fellini that he choose you to supervise the dubbing on the English version of Fellini's AND THE SHIP SAILS ON (1983). What impressed you the most about Fellini when you met him? 
His love of life and food in particular. On our first meeting he took a party of us to a massive restaurant next to Cinecittà. We all happily took our seats - but Federico wasn't satisfied. I don't what it was that concerned him - the view? the light? - whatever it was we had to move the table. Only after three more moves was he happy and we were allowed to sit, order and eat. Then later, when we started working together, he started adding extra lines, lots of them, which I simply couldn't sync to the mouth movements. I was there to do just that! When I complained he looked at me as if I was mad. "In Italy, Mike, we look at the eyes - not the lips."By then I knew him well enough to say that was bullshit!

Part two of the interview. 

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

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