Friday August 15, 2003
Photo: Sarah Lee
|The man who steps into the
office reception could have staggered in from the desert. His hair is
damp, his shirt sopping. His eyes look positively bleached, as if he has
been staring for too long at the sun. Mike Hodges has just this moment
arrived in London, having driven up from his home in deepest Dorset. "It's
about 10 degrees hotter here. My God," he says, flopping into a chair.
"How does anybody cope?"
Actually, he couldn't have arranged a neater entrance. By a happy coincidence, Hodges' latest film - the portentously titled I'll Sleep When I'm Dead - also features a rural recluse who finds himself lured back to the mean streets of London. Forget the incidental details: the fact that Hodges' hero is a notorious hard man, whereas the director himself is soft-spoken, good-humoured and 71 as of last birthday. Both of these men have come out of the wilderness to reclaim their respective kingdoms.
For Hodges, this is the bonus round. When his previous picture - 1999's Croupier - died a quick, lonely death at the box office, he assumed his career was over. He had made a peerless writer-director debut with 1971's Get Carter, plus a bunch of other films he was proud of (Pulp, The Terminal Man, Black Rainbow). He insists that he wasn't bitter about anything. His time up, he would retire to Dorset and grow vegetables.
Then something strange occurred. Croupier was rescued in the US, opening on 17 screens to rave reviews before expanding to a healthy 150 cinemas. In the end its Stateside success convinced backers FilmFour to give it another, proper release in the UK. "You think your film is going down the toilet," he reflects ruefully. "And then it gets stuck. And then it comes back up again." Which is why he's here today: braving the heatwave and with a fresh movie to discuss. Flushed, but unflushable.
Fingers crossed, I'll Sleep should keep him buoyant for a
while longer. Scripted by Trevor Preston (a long-time friend), it stars Clive
Owen (previously of Croupier) as a former gangster who returns to his south
London manor to investigate his brother's suicide. The film was produced by
Mike Kaplan (another friend) and showcases a splendidly diseased supporting
turn from Malcolm McDowell (yet another friend). But don't be lulled by this
snug, matey pedigree. On screen, Hodges' film is startlingly bleak; a no-frills
existential gangster tale that, at its best, exudes the same reptilian menace
he showed on Get Carter. Certainly it touches on similar themes: honour, revenge,
Hodges admits to a fascination. "As you can see, I'm a small man. I don't get into fights. I don't have any macho side to me at all. But I am interested in these characters and where they come from. Now, whether I ever wanted to be one of those men, I really can't say. I think that as a young man I probably did."
These days he's smart enough to know that such behaviour is often a sham, a cover-up. In the 1960s Hodges worked as a documentary maker for British TV, at one stage shooting a World in Action report on the Vietnam war. "I was able to study these supposed hard men at close quarters. And one suspects - well, indeed, one knows - that an enormous number of them are homosexual. An awful lot of the Hollywood western stars were gay, incidentally. And, sad to admit, the facades of those kind of men do interest me."
Hodges describes I'll Sleep as a samurai film. By contrast, his writer likens it to Greek myth. Personally, I saw it more in terms of a cowboy picture, where the loner hero rides into town to kill the evil sheriff. But whatever slot you put it in, there's no denying it's as dry and dangerous as gunpowder. Ultimately, it seems to offer its hero a stark set of options: either stay within the system and get eaten up, or get out and live like a hermit.
Hodges says he can relate to that. "I can understand that kind of rejection. And in a sense I've done that myself. I live in pretty comfortable circumstances, but I've rejected materialism in any excessive form. I don't own any home. I drive a very simple car. The only things I'm interested in buying are books and CDs. I eat well and I drink well, but that is my life. I decided about 20 years ago that I didn't want to embrace anything beyond that."
Was there a catalyst for this? "Well, there was a whole change in my life. There was a divorce, and the divorce partly came from struggling to keep up a style of living for the family. There were four of us, my wife and two children, and it just became a treadmill, and I found myself doing all the things I swore I would never do. The kids were going to private school, and we had the country house and the town flat and two cars and God knows how many television sets in every room. And when Jean and I divorced, I just had nothing left; I was at rock bottom. This was in about 1980. And then I became seriously ill and had to have an operation, and it might have been malignant but fortunately it wasn't."
He pauses to take a gulp of tea, then switches to the third person. "But once you remove all the pressures and the money worries, you immediately feel freer. And then you can start making the films you really want to make."
After all this, it would be nice to report that life became plain sailing for Hodges. Not so, however. If the 1970s were a decade of struggle, he freely admits the 1980s were "a terrible time" too, and the 1990s not much better. Clearly, the director seems to have suffered more than most. Reading back through his cuttings is like revisiting a series of car accidents. Two of his favourite films (The Terminal Man and Black Rainbow) were effectively killed off by poor distribution, while he (unsuccessfully) lobbied to get his name taken off the 1987 IRA thriller A Prayer for the Dying. Then there is the story of Damien: Omen 2, which he fled after only three weeks on set. There is a rumour that relations on Damien grew so fractious that the producer even pulled a gun on him. But surely that can't be true ...
Hodges chuckles at the memory. "Well, 'pulled' isn't quite the right word," he says. "I was having a discussion with the producer, who was slightly neurotic, to say the least, and he got very angry. We were sitting in an office and he suddenly rummaged in his bag and put this handgun on the table. And I said, 'Is that loaded?' And he said, 'Yes.' And then we just looked at each other for a bit."
Was there the suggestion that he was going to use it? "Well, I don't know," laughs Hodges. "But it's the perfect symbol of the macho behaviour we've been talking about. I think I must have got under his skin. We were arguing about the design budget and I said, 'Calm down' and he didn't. But I found it very scary, I have to confess. The whole film was very threatening."
Yet it wasn't the gun that made him leave the production? "No, no, no. I should never have taken that film on in the first place. I needed the money, and the whole thing was a disaster. The gun was incidental."
After the interview I ring up Malcolm McDowell, who has known Hodges since the 1960s. Our conversation verges on the surreal. It's late evening in London but lunchtime in Los Angeles, and when McDowell picks up the phone he's riding a buggy down the fairway of his local golf course. This strikes me as a bizarre place to find the satanic majesty of If... and A Clockwork Orange, but there it is. Possibly it's all part of some subversive protest; perhaps with hand grenades for golf balls and a Droog caddie riding shotgun.
Barrelling down the fairway, McDowell admits Hodges has had a choppier, more troubled career than most. "Mike doesn't like compromising very much," he explains. "Now that's a great strength as I see it, but it doesn't help when you're trying to work within the studio system." That said, he feels the director has weathered the storms and has finally started to get the acclaim he deserves. "He's a rare bird in British cinema, and I'm just pleased he's getting some recognition. I'm pissed off that it's taken 35 years, but that's typical of England. We never realise what we've got until it's almost too bloody late."
As for Hodges, he feels he's arrived at a place where he's comfortable; making low-budget films with a gang of old friends. "To find this out at 70 is pretty ridiculous," he says. "But I'm there now."
In the meantime, his reputation continues to grow. He regards the success of Croupier as a vindication of the sort of movies he wants to make, and a sort of "gentle revenge" on both Hollywood and the British film industry. Then there is the ongoing renaissance of Get Carter, which was regarded with general distaste on first release and yet is now seen as horribly prescient, and one of the great British gangster films of all time.
A few years back, Get Carter even gave rise to a fumbled Hollywood remake, which relocated the action from Newcastle to Seattle and installed a leaden Sylvester Stallone in the Michael Caine role. Hodges still hasn't seen the remake, although a friend rang to inform him that it was "unspeakable". Actually, he adds, his son brought him the DVD back from Hong Kong last Christmas. One night Hodges got drunk and tried to watch it. But the system wasn't compatible and the disc wouldn't play: "So we put it in the dustbin."
Oh well, I say. At least the studio must have paid him a lot of money for the rights. Hodges guffaws at my ignorance. "I didn't get any money at all," he says. "When I made Get Carter, I was paid a flat fee of £7,000 for writing and directing and that was that." He beams happily. "We were very naive in those days."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
interested in happy endings
Hes interested in re-invigorating your soul and spirit .
- John Patterson, 'MIKE H0DGES: BEYOND GET CARTER' BBC 4