Michael Powell: interview

The director of The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, whose work is the subject of an important retrospective at the CCBB, died 20 years ago. Time Out had the honour of interviewing him as he moved towards the end of his life and career

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Michael Powell

Although he made a string of British cinema classics – including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes – director Michael Powell was for many years a somewhat neglected figure, until rediscovery on both sides of the Atlantic brought him back into the limelight at the start of the 1980s. In 1986, at the age of 81 and four years before his death in 1990, he issued the first volume of his autobiography A Life in Movies, and embarked on a UK book tour. 

What are your feelings on the career reappraisal that’s been going on for the past few years?

‘It’s been a slow and gradual process. I had a lot of enemies in the higher echelons of the British film industry and they used the initial reaction to Peeping Tom against me. A lot of people thought I was a pain in the neck, always wanting to do something new, sometimes proving them wrong – occasionally proving them right! But for a long time Peeping Tom made it impossible for me to get any film produced in England.’

Contrary to popular myth, Peeping Tom didn’t end your career.

I did They’re a Weird Mob in Australia, which I felt had the qualities of the early American films by Leo McCarey, like Ruggles of Red Gap. A big success in Australia, yet over here they said, ‘But it’s about working people!’ They didn’t like Age of Consent here either. Too much nudity, apparently. Now there’s some nudity, I agree, you really don’t want to see. But Helen Mirren has a wonderful body. And James Mason met his second wife on that film, Clarissa. I put them in bed together in the very first scene, they fell in love and later got married. I wanted him to do a version of The Tempest after that, because I thought he’d make a wonderful Prospero. Mia Farrow was going to play Ariel and André Previn, her husband at the time, was going to do the music. I had a way of doing the story that wasn’t just Shakespeare but a bit of Powell as well. Everyone loved the cast, but we couldn’t get the money.

Is the financial side of the business something you’ve always found tricky?

Oh, I think I’m a bit innocent about all that stuff. I feel that if you’ve got the right artists and a good story, it’s somebody’s duty to put the money up.

Martin Scorsese has been a key individual in leading the rediscovery. Did you ever consider moving to America for work?

I never wanted to work in Hollywood. Not out of any snobbishness or anything, but just because, if I’ve anything to bring to the movies, humbly, it’s that I’m English.

But the cultural reach of your films clearly goes beyond mere Englishness to encompass the worlds of ballet and opera, surely?

It wasn’t consciously about bringing other art forms into cinema, I wanted to use all the mediums. All art is one. That’s the message of the second volume of autobiography I’m writing at the moment. But you know, The Red Shoes was a story Alexander Korda was already planning to do before the war, with Merle Oberon – I had the idea of buying it back, but I thought we could only do it if we had an actual dancer to play the lead role and we created an original ballet for the film. Emeric turned pale. ‘An original ballet?’ He’s a writer, after all. ‘And where will we get a girl like that?’ Well, I had nobody in mind, but art is art and you can’t sell out on art. If you gift these opportunities to the world, I somehow felt the girl would appear. And, lo, Moira Shearer appeared! A lot of the critics were appalled that we killed her in the end. Even Emeric wavered a bit, I have to say. But we’d been told for ten years to die for our country, to die for this and die for that. Nobody ever said anything about dying for your art – so now we were going to say it!

Do you see a dividing line between artist and filmmaker?

The cinema is my chosen art and I know more about the history of it than anyone – because I’m it! My book is about my particular experiences as an artist in this medium – which involved a lot of films I wanted to make but couldn’t. I always regretted that I didn’t get to do Ondine with Audrey Hepburn, the fairytale about a water nymph who falls in love with a knight. So that it’s a ‘film book’ is only incidental. What matters is your art. You must remember that. If you’re an artist, you can’t escape it.

Even if there’s a war on and you’re trying to bring something personal to subject matter with an element of propaganda?

Yes, the starting point for A Matter of Life and Death was the head of the films department at the Ministry of Information. He thought we made films that were like sermons so we’d be able to come up with something that showed how we loved the Americans and they loved us. ‘What’s wrong?’ I said. ‘Are we not winning the war?’ ‘Oh, that’s just the trouble,’ he said. ‘When we we’re losing, everyone loved each other, but now we’re actually winning ….’

Why was the partnership with Emeric Pressburger so successful?

Well, Emeric had the kind of mind you immediately fall in love with. We first met at a story conference for a terrible script Korda wanted to make with Valerie Hobson and Conrad Veidt, The Spy in Black. Nobody noticed Emeric until Korda introduced him, then he brought out what I remember was a very small piece of paper, and he came up with a completely new outline which turned the existing script upside down. Everyone else was going black and purple in the face but I thought it was wonderful. The thing about Emeric was that I’d say I thought there might be a film in the phrase ‘one of our aircraft is missing’, but it would be the sort of thing I’d mention in passing. I’d forgotten all about it when Emeric came back with a story where some returning pilots had to bail out in Holland and try to get home. ‘Fine,’ I said, ‘let’s write the script!’

Were your sensibilities complementary?

Emeric being Hungarian-born and Jewish like Korda, had this wonderful humour, and a wry attitude to life. I had a more solemn, poetic way of looking at things, and the combination worked well for twenty years.

What would your career have been like without him?

I think I would have made a lot of very interesting, pictorial, but rather dull films. He brought a very necessary theatrical thrust into the films. It was my fault the partnership ended. I got bored. We still remained great friends though. I spent last weekend with him. He’s slightly frail these days. He said to me, ‘Michael, I’m four years older than you, and I don’t envy you the next four years.’

But you’re still a great believer in collaboration, then?

It’s essential for the cinema. It’s a matter of life and death. The director doesn’t have to be responsible for the initial idea. His job is to get the best collaborators he possibly can, then suck their brains, take the money and put it up there on the screen, then leave the actors to take the brunt. They’re always in the front line, don’t forget that.

But as the director, you took the flak for Peeping Tom – did that hurt?

No, I just felt that they were wrong and I was right. I didn’t understand the violent reaction against it. People can’t be that innocent, can they?’

Did you set out to show how the cinema can feed into people’s darkest desires?

I didn’t, but I think the author did. Leo Marks initially tried to sell me a double-agent story because he’d been in the coding rooms during the war, but I just didn’t want to make that sort of film at that time. I felt I’d sized him up, so I asked him about the possibility of doing something on Freud. He came back a week later with this idea for a story about a young man who kills with his camera. ‘You’re on,’ I said. ‘That’s me. Let’s make it.’

By Trevor Johnston


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