PAUL ROWLANDS talks to TONY KLINGER about his father, MICHAEL KLINGER
This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Tony Klinger is a man who doesn't believe in waiting around. He was an assistant director on the classic British TV series 'The Avengers' (1961-69) when he was 16. Then, in quick succession, he produced and directed documentaries and features, and in 1979, had his first big success producing the classic documentary of rock band The Who, THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT. Three decades later he would document the tumultuous making of the movie in his book, 'Twilight of the Gods'.
Tony continued to produce and direct documentaries and features, but he has also spread his wings to direct promo videos, short films, and write novels: 2012's 'The Butterfly Boy', which is to be followed by 'Noah's Table'. He also managed to find the time, until 2006, to be the Chief Executive of TMLH, a production company, agency and creator of content. Tony was also the National Secretary for the Association of Media Practice Educators (AMPE), while he was an academic, and served on the board of The Audition for Hollywood Company. He is presently the European Consultant for the American charitable organization, Word Theatre.
Can you tell us about your father's life before he got involved in the film business?
My father's original occupation was as an engineer. He graduated from The School of Building just before the Second World War, and when that started, he volunteered for the RAF despite the fact that his was a 'reserved occupation'. He got in trouble for trying to be an R.A.F. pilot as he was supposed to stay where he was. In fact, he volunteered for Britain's forces 11 times, becoming so desperate to join his mates that he also volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force. But every time he cot caught and was sent back. He eventually rose to a fairly senior position of responsibility for a very young man, but he had no money at all. His invention of a machine that made and tested munitions (torpedoes and bombs) as they went down the production line, without having to explode one of every thousand or such like, was taken by his firm and the government, and I believe was licenced to the Americans. His firm kept that revenue, which was a great deal of money, and he got nothing. So, at the end of the War he was newly married, my sister was born, and he could barely put food on the table. He came from a very poor background, working class Jewish immigrants from Poland.
His father was a tailor's presser, menial back-breaking work. He had married into a family that made kiddies' duffel coats for a big chain store. It was a sweat shop rather than a factory. It was one of my first memories, my dad rigging up a hoist to take the 'spare' coats to the markets where he could sell them for the family and his benefit. This was called cabbage. The amount of spare cloth you had left from fulfilling an order being the cabbage from which you could legally make some coats for your own sale. He worked the markets every weekend to generate some cash and it was while he was there, a couple of years later, that an opportunity presented itself.
One of the other market traders, a full time crockery market trader, was also a bit of a singer and comedian. He had been doing a turn some nights at a West End (London) night club called The Gargoyle, in Dean Street. It was for sale but they didn't have the money to buy it. Michael was always a very clever man, always top of his class, and ready to spot an opportunity. He realised that the owner of the club was himself from a wealthy family, so he convinced the man to lend him the money to buy the club. It was actually two: The Gargoyle and The Nell Gwynne Review. One was quite posh, and the other what you'd call a strip club, but in the context of the '60s, really quite innocent. I remember being in the strippers' dressing room and it more mumsy than depraved. Except these mums weren't wearing much at all!
Some suggest that meeting Tony Tenser was the thing that changed it all. Can you tell us about Tenser?
I don't agree that Tony Tenser was the thing that changed it all. He was a catalyst, a partial enabler. I think it would have happened somehow, Michael Klinger becoming a film producer. He was born to do that job.During the time that Michael was at the Gargoyle, he was approached to look at another potential club premises around the corner in Old Compton Street. It wasn't suitable as a club or much else, but then Michael had the idea of perhaps opening a cinema. It was too late that he found out about logging and barring - where the big chains in the UK were able to bar anyone else showing a film in radius of several miles when they had it showing in their cinemas. The punishment for anyone breaching this was that their cinemas would never be allowed to show any other films from that distributor in any of their cinemas. It meant that the cinema Michael had by now built was a white elephant. He then came up with the idea of using his knowledge of club membership etc. to sell patrons membership to the club showing films, rather than tickets to see the films. In meeting with Tony Tenser he came across the perfect film publicist who saw a chance to go from being an employee elsewhere, to owning some shares (it was about 20% I think) in Michael's new business.This still left them with a problem: where to get films that would be available and attract an audience. The first films were all those that were banned in the UK, such as THE WILD ONE (1953) and TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935), very daring for a Jewish owned business to exhibit, but a great work nevertheless. This was the first demonstration of how literate and well read and well versed in foreign films Michael was - he went for one end of the market, but Tenser quite legitimately knew there was a real market for what he described as 'T and A'.
Tenser could sell, and Michael knew how to market and grow and run a business efficiently. He truly was an innovator. It was a powerful combination set against an otherwise grey British film industry of that time. The company soon became the proud owners and builders of quite a few cinemas across the UK, and almost immediately one of the biggest indie distributors in Europe. It was a small and almost inevitable step to start production.
Tony was a bombastic, fun guy, very much a showman, not really a businessman or a producer, but great at banging the drum!
Is it true that the Compton Cinema Clubs counted amongst they're founder members John Trevelyan, then the head of the British Board of Film Censors?
There were soon very many thousands of members. The first venue with a couple of hundred seats was soon outgrossing the Odeon Leicester Square, which had ten times as many seats. There's a Sunday Times colour supplement about my father's business a year or two later which gives some of the details, and it was astonishing, the rate of growth of the business, it's size and it's reach. It went from nothing to several hundred staff in about a year.
I don't know who all the Cinema Club members were, but it certainly wouldn't have surprised me if John Trevelyan was a founder member, as he liked to see foreign and interesting films that were otherwise banned, and there was nowhere else in the UK where you could regularly do so. There's a misconception that all the films were nudist or naughty. There were certainly some of those due to the fact that they did very well at the box-office, and there was a much more limited supply of good, otherwise unavailable art house films. But I remember as a kid working in Compton's cutting for censorship in the distribution department and there were films like those by Pier Paolo Pasolini like THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW (1964) or Alain Resnais's LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD (1961) and many others from around the world. It was a great place to work if you loved films.
Your father convinced Tenser and his other investors to back Roman Polanski's first English-language picture, REPULSION. What do you think attracted him to working with Polanski?
Tenser and the other later company investors wanted Michael only to make expoloitation films, and you can understand their reasons. They made a great deal of money doing so, and the company soon became a machine for producing good value films of that nature to a budget and schedule which all seemed to turn a profit. Michael knew about marketing, and if you could make something for £100, 000 and sell it for £100, 000 plus, investors loved you. He was more ambitious. He was well read and cultured and he loved foreign cinema. Although he was born in London's Soho, you have to remember both his parents were Polish Jewish immigrants, and so he had a continental flavour to his taste. He had read the works of the great Russian authors, whilst also reading and loving the more standard fare of Dickens and Shakespeare. He had a feel for the common touch whilst recognising class, talent and genius. Michael had seen Polanski's short films from Polish film school, and also his debut film KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962), and wanted to work with the man. When Polanski approached him at the Cannes Film Festival, with what I think was called 'Baby Head', he wanted to make it straight away. I think the original discussion about it was in Yiddish, as my Dad's Polish was limited and Polanski couldn't then speak English at all. My Dad's French was very poor so it must have been in Yiddish. In the original treatment by Polanski and Gerard Brach, the woman was carrying around the remains of her aborted baby's head and not a rabbit. My father was hard core tough, but even he saw that it had to be changed. Tenser and the rest didn't get on with Roman, and in fact pretty much no one did. I remember his first phrase in English after he'd been living in England for a month or two getting REPULSION ready was at lunch in Isow's Restaurant in Broadwick Street: 'Budgets and schedules are for bullshitting financiers'. It was a warning signal.
But Michael knew that Roman would make something special, and Michael wanted to step up in class. He wanted to become premier division as a producer, and to do that he was prepared to be less obvious and more adventurous. It was a totally conscious move, and you could use the Polanski movies as the starting point for the second, more important phase of Michael's producing career. He learned the technical aspects of how to actually produce a film in the first half, and thereafter it was about making something to be proud of whilst retaining a chance to make a return.
After REPULSION, surely one of the greatest horror films ever made, they went on to back CUL-DE-SAC. This film was your father's favourite, right? I think it's the best movie Polanski ever made.
Michael also thought CUL-DE-SAC was the best film Polanski ever made, in fact in one of Polanski's interviews,Roman said it was the best film he'd ever made or was ever likely to make. I'd have to put in a vote for CHINATOWN (1974) or THE PIANIST (2002) also, but CUL-DE-SAC was a wonderful film, made for a very limited budget, that to me, and to many others, was a classic of it's kind. I used to insist to Michael that it was a better film than GET CARTER or some of the others. Sometimes Michael would agree, and at others he would argue for another. He always felt that the biggest let down was SHOUT AT THE DEVIL (1976), which could have been a classic big picture in the mould of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) if Peter Hunt had not been having an unsuccessful love affair which totally distracted him.
Why did Tenser and your father sever their business partnership?
Michael and Tenser were moving in opposite directions when some of the latter day Compton investors were beginning to fight Michael against his wanting to be more adventurous, and Tenser was more on their team than his. Years later, quite recently before he died, Tenser called me to see if I would let him have the originals or copies of some of the awards the better films won like the Gold and the Silver Bears from The Berlin Film Festival for the two Polanski films etc., and I asked him why he'd want these when he had been prepared to join a law suit against my father to stop him making them. He couldn't come up with an answer. You just have to review the time before their working together and afterwards to see who had the producing talent between Tenser and Michael.
GET CARTER is one of the most loved British films of the '70s. Your father must have been very proud of it.
Michael was very proud to have found the material, director, cast and finance for the film, got it written, developed, shot, edited and in cinemas in 37 weeks, not just because of the speed, but because it was such a great film. Michael's fingerprints are all over this film. In fact, for me, it was the film that was most clearly his as a producer. I think Total Film recently voting it the best British film ever was a bit over the top, but Michael would have loved that, even if he might well have agreed with me. I also believe that in the life of a filmmaker that there is a moment when you reach your peak, like in everything else, and that moment for Michael was around the age of 50 or 51 when he made GET CARTER. It's a combination of his energy, experience and ability coming together. Also, there's no accident that one man should have his name on so many terrific, interesting films.
And you had a small hand to play in the film...
All I did on GET CARTER was sit and watch two Mike Hodges movies for television called RUMOUR (1969) and SUSPECTS (1970), and confirm what Michael already knew: that this was the right director for the GET CARTER movie of the book we both saw had huge potential, 'Jack's Return Home'. Then I happened to be dating an American girl who had an uncle with an apartment in London, off Edgware Road. I had visited the apartment on the same night my Dad had told me he was still looking for a gangster's flat in London. What you saw in the movie's scenes at a gangster's flat while they are watching a porn film was exactly how that apartment was, it didn't need any changes as it turned out her uncle, shall we say, had that taste...
The Blaxploitation version, HITMAN, was very well commented on by Caine when he said if they knew what they wanted to make a black version of GET CARTER, he would have encouraged them to show the negative of GET CARTER. He didn't comment in any detail about the Stallone version when we talked, but I tend to agree with Mike Hodges who correctly slammed the film and pointed out that the original was never about redemption, whereas the remake totally got it wrong. I generally enjoy Stallone's work, especially when he's being serious, and of course, it's a compliment that he chose this material, but the truth is that his version of the film is all wrong.
The three Michaels (Klinger, Caine and Hodges) all reunited for a very different, and not widely seen picture called PULP (1972). I love the film. What do you think of it?
PULP was one of my Dad's favourite films of all those he ever produced, and I agree, it was a terrific film. It was also the reason I had to learn Italian. Originally, it was going to be shot in Italy where the real story had actually taken place, but due to circumstances I'm unable to go into too deeply, Naples was ruled out and my crash course in Berlitz Italian was wasted, and the filming moved to Malta. I got the opportunity to use my Italian later after working part time as the London liaison for the film whilst I was making my own film in the UK. I was delighted to be asked to set up the boar hunt in Sardinia, and ended up fencing in vast areas of the island and discovering that my Milanese accented Italian was totally incomprehensible to anyone in Sardinia. We imported boars from what was Yugoslavia, and the only thing hurt in that part of the film was my pride! PULP is an undiscovered gem - a truly funny film and the performances of the actors, particularly Michael and Mickey Rooney were wonderful.
Any memories of working with Michael Caine?
I didn't work directly with Michael Caine on either GET CARTER or PULP, as I was making my own films. But I did get to meet him many times before, during and after, and he was always friendly, constructive and above all, instructive, if you listened to him.
As you know, I'm making a documentary about my Dad's film producing career and so I had to interview Sir Michael recently. When he entered our location, he went to each member of our shooting crew and introduced himself as if he was the unknown and he conveyed friendliness, professionalism and just what a nice guy he is, as well as a huge talent of course. What a mensch!
Your father also had success with the lucrative CONFESSIONS... series of sex comedies. Did you, ahem, tend to visit the set of those films a lot?
My father offered me the chance to produce the CONFESSIONS series with him as the executive producer, but being a young idiot, I turned down the opportunity, and the lovely, late and lamented Greg Smith did the job, so much better than I would have done. I didn't have the maturity to understand that these were saucy rather than sexy, funny rather than salacious, and cute rather than raunchy. It was all typical British seaside postcard humour, and on that level did remarkably well. When I asked Michael why he made them when he was now doing some wonderful work, his answer was illuminating: 'It's because these films don't do any harm and will do great, and that allows me to make the films which otherwise wouldn't be possible.'
Personally, I was at my busiest in film production terms elsewhere at this time, so I had hardly any chance to visit any of the sets on any of the CONFESSIONS films. I told you I was pretty stupid, didn't I? Actually it was my visit to the set of REPULSION when I was still a growing lad, and Catherine Deneuve was wandering around the set in a diaphonous baby doll nightie that confirmed me as a heterosexual. Michael always believed that there was nothing wrong with showing something sexy as long as it was either truly sexy or truly funny, and CONFESSIONS fell in the latter category, and Deneuve in the former.
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