AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL DEELEY (PART 2 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 final part of our two-part interview. I spoke to Deeley about what he enjoys about the development process; the role of a producer; what he enjoys the most about producing; the part luck and serendipity has played in his career; how he has dealt with friction between himself and the likes of Christopher Lee, Sam Peckinpah and Michael Cimino, and how he feels about his legacy as a producer. 

Part one of the interview.    

Deeley and Sean Young
Do you enjoy the development process of making a movie? 
Yes, it's enjoyable, but one is pretty passive at that stage. I mean, you may have things you want to say about the script, but hopefully not too many. Once a director comes on, you know there are going to be further script changes. In the case of BLADE RUNNER and Ridley (Scott), there were major script changes.

I find the development process of BLADE RUNNER, as you outlined in your book, fascinating. I loved reading how small comments Ridley made would bring enormous changes to the production. 
The main change Ridley brought was to move the story outside. Just the opening shot of the movie justifies that decision straight away!

What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about what a producer does? 
In a way, Harvey Weinstein is the arch-typical view of a film producer. He behaves the way he does, sometimes makes films, but who knows what he really does.

How would you define what a producer does? 
Deeley on the set of BLADE RUNNER.
A producer is a person who causes a film to be made. The producer is always the first person on a project. He starts off in a creative role, and he's fooling around with the material. I once even made a film about a song, called CONVOY. There was no script initially on that. A producer then has to be fairly constructive and careful in how he raises the money. After that he has to cast people. Once he has done all that, and the first day of shooting comes, he's no longer doing anything except serving the director. His job is to deliver what the director needs even if it's moving the Taj Mahal two inches to the left. The director, under the Guild rules, also has the right of first cut. Very often, studios don't have enough respect for producers. They should at least realise that the package came to them because the producer put it together, but they don't because they are always dazzled by the director. They feel that the producer may go off and do other projects with other studios whereas the director and the cast are key to the film's success. This is why they fall over themselves to do what the director and cast want. The producer is edged out of that conversation.

What do you personally love the most about producing? 
It's a pleasure to get a film made and pull it off. It's several weeks of your life and at the end of it you have something that the public likes or they don't. After that, you have to go out and find another project.

How important has luck or serendipity played in your career? BLADE RUNNER, for example, has its roots on the set of THE ITALIAN JOB. 
Yes, I met Brian Kelly on that film. He was the boyfriend of Maggie Blye at that time, who appeared in the film not inconspicuously, and we became great friends. He had been in the television series Flipper and was about to be the lead in a big film for Columbia when over a holiday weekend, he had a motorcycle accident. The gears jammed on his bike and he and his passenger were chucked off. Brian fell into a grass verge but unfortunately he hit his head on a stone where it could do the most damage and it paralysed his right arm and leg. The picture was abandoned, and he was injured for the rest of his life. It was very sad. Brian always talked about producing films but didn't know anything about the process. But it was him who came to me with the idea of adapting the Philip K. Dick book, and it turned out to be a nice bit of business for me and Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote the script.

Luck definitely played a big part in my career, but I also made some pretty serious mistakes. For example, a young writer came to me with an idea for a film about the assassination of De Gaulle. I read it and it was very well done but I had to say ''I'm sorry but I can't do it. It doesn't work as a film. Everybody knows De Gaulle is alive, so how can there be any suspense as to whether he is going to get killed or not?'' He took it to the producer John Woolf, who was an old hand at the time, and he made the picture, which turned out to be THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1973). I had missed the point entirely. The film wasn't about anything remarkable, it was about how they stopped an assassin from killing De Gaulle.

Peter Yates
There was another one I missed too. Paramount weren't too happy about the way the script was going for MURPHY'S WAR (1971), and Bob Evans, who was a terrific studio head, called me and said ''I don't think we are really going to get along with MURPHY'S WAR, but I have this book I want you to read. '' Peter Yates and I were on pay-or-play deals. I read the book, and I thought it was fantastic. I called Peter to get him to read the book as well. He read it but he said ''I've just done a crime film with BULLITT (1968). I'd rather stick with MURPHY'S WAR. '' It was the luckiest day for Bob Evans because I had to call him and tell him that Peter Yates wouldn't be directing THE GODFATHER (1972). He wasn't happy at the time but Coppola did an amazing job on the picture.

As well as detailing the successes of your career, your book also covers the disappointments, the problems and the backstabbings that went on. How did you manage not to become disillusioned at times? 
I think life's like that generally. I'm not going to be disillusioned with life so there's no point being disillusioned with the film business!

Did you take it in your stride when the likes of Christopher Lee or Michael Cimino criticised you or told versions of events that differ from yours? 
As far as Christopher Lee is concerned, it was a simple story. THE WICKER MAN was meant to be released by the Rank Organisation and when it came to it, they refused. The reason for that wasn't that it was a dreary, silly little piece or anything but that it wasn't a fashionable film of that period at all. There was also a falling out between the producer Peter Snell and the person who did the bookings for Rank over one of the cast members. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

So there we were at British Lion with half of our money in THE WICKER MAN, and the other half in DON'T LOOK NOW and no release. ABC Cinemas wouldn't take it because it had been turned down by Rank and the film had been besmirched. The same thing happened on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH when Paramount turned it down. The only way I could get THE WICKER MAN on the circuit was by insisting it play alongside DON'T LOOK NOW. Everybody, including Rank, wanted DON'T LOOK NOW, so the price they had to pay was to take THE WICKER MAN as the B picture. It meant THE WICKER MAN had to be shortened, but that was a good thing anyway. Eventually what we cut out was a big, long, rambling scene with Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward talking about apple farming. Christopher Lee got cut out completely in the last LORD OF THE RINGS and he didn't go on about that the way he did with me. My argument about THE WICKER MAN has always been that it might not have been the version that the filmmakers wanted to be shown, but at least the film DID get shown. And at least British Lion got its money back.

Which of your projects surpassed your expectations with how they turned out? 
THE DEER HUNTER, definitely, although I was disappointed with how long it was. The first part of the film in Pennsylvania was meant to be 15 minutes long, but Cimino made it 45 minutes and he convinced Universal to keep it that length. So that was that. In a way, THE ITALIAN JOB surpassed my expectations because it was a boring caper script really until we cast it. By having characters like Noel Coward and Benny Hill pop up throughout the picture it gave it a levity that made people smile. It became something different. The writer, Troy Kennedy Martin, wasn't very fond of the picture at first, but he eventually came around. BLADE RUNNER was incredible the first time I saw it but I knew what to expect because we did a lot of the model work towards the end, and it all came together chink by chink.

When you look back at CONVOY and the problems Sam Peckinpah gave you, do you regret hiring him? 
No, the film has some good looking things about it. I had understood he had stopped drinking, but what I hadn't known was that he had substituted it with cocaine, which became the difficulty. I wasn't meant to produce that picture but he was so able to easily bully the guy who was meant to be producing it.

Looking back at your career, how proud you feel? 
I feel good. I made one or two mistakes, though. When Barry Spikings came in with me at EMI Films, he had had no experience putting movies together but I put his name on every film that I made. It was foolish because he really wasn't qualified and it diluted my credit. It felt like the right thing to do at the time to give your partner a co-credit. After I left EMI, he changed the credits around to give himself first credit and he also allowed Cimino to take a producing credit with us. Cimino took that producing credit to United Artists and it helped him get to produce HEAVEN'S GATE (1980). I was amazed nobody at United Artists ever called me up to find out what it was like to work with him. I would have told them.

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.