ALAN PARKER. EVITA. December 12, 1996 (negative)
  • Film

Alan Parker Talks About His Movies

Alan Parker, the recently deceased British director, was interviewed several times by the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press. He spoke broadly with us about his films and influences. The directors Parker most admired were Americans John Ford and Orson Welles, but the one who inspired him to become a film director was his countryman, Ken Loach, (“He taught me that people should be filmmakers only if they have something to say.”)  His mentor was Fred Zinnemann, an Austrian director who worked in , directing movies like From Here to Eternity, and then moved to London. “What I learned from him is that filmmakers have a responsibility to make films which reflect the society we live in, to try and change peoples’ lives and not just be entertainment. You should have a social responsibility to this very exciting and wonderful art form.’

This is how he came to direct Fame (1979), the teenage musical with Irene Cara and Lee Curreri, which was later turned into a TV series.  “I was sent a script called Hot Lunch by 13.0pt’>, he wrote the original idea and he guided me to the High School of Performing Arts. I then hung out with the real kids for quite a few weeks, and the story developed from there.  It’s not really a musical, because no ings on screen unless it was part of a class where someone was singing.”

As for Birdy (1984), based on the 1978 novel by William Wharton, with Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, about the friendship between two teenage boys in the 1960s told in flashbacks, Parker noted that the screenplay differed from the book, in that the time period was moved from the Second World War to after Vietnam, “so that it was more relevant to a contemporary audience.”  He explains how he chose his actors, “Birdy is an eccentric and weird character. If I had gone with someone who was strange and really crazy, the audience might have lost sympathy with him. I wanted them to care and to tolerate his madness. And I liked certain gentle qualities that Matthew Modine had. Nicolas Cage was the opposite. For Al, I wanted someone who was gregarious, voluble, and strong, or he appears to be that, but deep inside he’s extremely soft and sensitive. And that’s true with Nicolas’ own personality.”

Despite having grown up in England in the 1960s, Parker, being politically aware, “knew about the whole civil rights struggle,” which is the background of Mississippi Burning (1988) with Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, as two FBI agents investigating the murder of three civil rights workers. “The subtext is about racism and basically what I did was to take away the emphasis from a straightforward detective story, which is what it started out as, to give it more of a political and social backbone.  And he did not cast his actors because they were movie stars, “I chose them because they are terrific actors, as are Diane Keaton and Albert Finney, the only other stars that I’ve worked with, in Shoot the Moon (1982), which was about the difficulties of marriage. When I worked with Matthew Modine and Nicholas Cage in Birdy, they weren’t stars yet. And even Jodie Foster in Bugsy Malonejust a 12-year-old kid in a TV series, but she was a remarkable actress.”

When Parker chose to cast Madonna in Evita (1996), from the 1978 musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, with Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce, he already knew her and trusted her, but what he was most interested in was the story of the real Eva Peron.  “There are alternative views of who she was, very few people in Argentina agree on whether she was good or bad or what, they are very partisan, they’re either for her or against her, depending on what their politics are.  It’s this paradox that makes it such strong material for a film, and getting to the bottom of the actual historical accuracy is very difficult, so I tried to give both points of view.  In the end, this is a classic Hollywood story that happens to be true. A young girl comes from nowhere, tries to be a movie actress, meets and falls in love with the most powerful man in the country, becomes the most famous woman ever to come out of South America, and dies tragically very young. In that regard, you can’t but be sympathetic towards her.”

Parker was not deterred by the bleak depiction of extreme poverty in ’s Ashes (1999), from the 1996 memoir by Frank McCourt about his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, with Emily Watson.  He tried to highlight the humor of the situations whenever he could.  Again it was the larger social implications that attracted him to tell this story. “Ireland has gone through an upturn in their economic fortunes in the last twenty years, their per capita income is greater than the United Kingdom for the first time in history. That’s because, as one of the poor countries, they’ve benefited greatly by being part of the European Union and so you’ve seen this transformation with regard to affluence.  They’re very nationalistic and proud of their new country and they don’t really like to be reminded of how it was, particularly the church, because it’s nowhere near as all-powerful as it once was.”

Parker, of course, is against the death penalty, which today continues to exist in the West only in America, but what he wanted to do with his film, The Life of David Gale (2003), about an anti-death penalty activist on death row for murder, with Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet and Laura Linney, was to generate a conversation among the viewers. “It’s very difficult in today’s Hollywood to do any film that has any kind of political point of view, in fact, that says anything at all, and therefore this film got made because it’s a thriller, which is the locomotive that brings the political issue behind it. I come from a European sensibility with regards to the importance of film, I believe that we have a responsibility as filmmakers to make people think, while Hollywood is primarily concerned with entertaining. So the hardest films to make these days are those with political substance and intellectual worth.”