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Our dirty questions to Mike Newell

The British director of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Four Weddings and a Funeral talks about his experience as jury president in the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, the future of the seventh art after Brexit, Truffaut, happy endings and much more, in exclusive interview!

The 23rd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival takes place between November 15th and December 1st, showcasing more than 250 feature films and 300 shorts. The A-category film festival has become a prominent and prestigious platform for dirty movies made in every corner of the planet.

This year, 67-year-old British director Mike Newell was invited to head the jury of six, which will selects the winners from the 21 films in competition. Each film comes from a different country in every continent of the world, and we have reviewed each one of them exclusively for you (you can read them by clicking here).

We took the opportunity to have a conversation with the iconic mainstream filmmaker. He counts the likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) under his belt, plus another 50 titles or so, in a career spanning five decades. We talked about his relationship to the Estonian event, what he learned from watching so many independent and unconventional movies in such a short period of time, his thoughts on Truffaut’s controversial remark about British cinema, the future of British movies in Europe after Brexit, and much more!


Victor Fraga – Please tell us how this invite to be president of the jury came to being. Had you been to Estonia before? Have you ever shown your films here?

Mike Newell – No, I’ve never shown a film here. But I was here last year at the Festival because there was a section about composers run by the son of Arvo Pärt, one of the great men of this country [Estonia]. His son has a particular interest in film music and invited the composer of the film that I had just finished this time last year (a Netflix release called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) to be part of section of the Festival. And she said to me: “It would be great if you came along”. So that’s how I met the Festival director Tiina Lokk. We got on very well and then six months ago she invited me. Connections, connections, connections!

VF – Let’s talk about British cinema. Our country has a representative in the Competition, Muscle [by Gerard Johnson, pictured below]. How is British cinema being represented abroad? Are there enough features in prominent European festivals such as this?

MN – I enjoyed Muscle very much. I knew one of the actors, Craig Fairbrass. I don’t know about British movies being represented in European festival because I see a particular section of British cinema, which is the connection with America as opposed to the connection to Europe. I am of that camp. So I come to a festival such as this, which has films from all around the world. You discover that these films are very serious. This is not to say that they are not entertaining. A lot of them are entertaining, but they have a serious purpose. They are not simply there to satisfy the audience and to make money. That’s not the very first thing in their heads. They are there to represent their concerns, their cultures. They are not plugged into the British and the British-American pipeline. You are reminded of that very forcibly every day when you watch these films. It’s good for the pipework. It cleans you out. You can’t make the assumptions that you make when you are going to the cinema at home.

The last two films that I saw at home were The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019) and The Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019). Big blockbusters. When you come here what you see is that people have a much more modest and intimate concern for their subjects and for their nationalities. That’s healthy.

VF – Can you please talk about Muscle?

MN – It’s a bold film. The film is rooted in traditions and past films and writing in English movies. What the director says to you, which I can see, is that he finds the Joseph Losey film The Servant (1963) a very powerful inspiration . That movie was written by Harold Pinter, the great theatrical writer. And you can see that in the movie as well. So it plugs into a very important line of English writing and drama. It’s very interesting to see someone revisiting that territory 50 years later, that is to say, an ordinary man who becomes sucked into the dangerous life and relationship with a person he doesn’t know and doesn’t wish him well.

VF – Does Muscle plug in well into the “healthy” pipeline of national films that you mentioned?

MN – I do think that. This is not to say that it isn’t entertaining and that Hollywood wouldn’t recognise it. Hollywood would definitely recognise it for what it is. I’m sure it will be a very potent calling card for the director to show Americans. It will have a double function.

VF – What are the biggest joys and challenges in heading a jury of six and judging 21 films from 21 different countries?

MN – The bad things are that you aren’t sufficiently alert to see that from one screening to the next the kind of dial of what the movie is, of its ambitions, that swings all over! As you go in, you know only what the catalogue of the Festival tells you, and then suddenly you find yourself with a very serious movie that has no jokes at all. Then, half an hour later, you dive straight into a comedy. You have to readjust all of circuits for it! Every day for 10 days, and several times a day.

VF – Is that challenging?

MN – You bet your arse that’s challenging! Because you gotta wipe everything that you’ve seen in order to watch the next film, which might be something completely, radically different.

The lesson that I learnt is in reality a negative one. It’s a pity. Some films that we have seen have a great difficulty in ending in a satisfactory way, or are not concerned to end in a positive way. They will end in a negative way. Whether these films come from Taiwan, South America or somewhere else, they don’t see an optimism in the world right now.

VF – Is it mandatory that films should have a happy ending?

MN – No, not at all. But sometimes what happens is that a film will end simply by smashing into a kind of “what now?”. The film doesn’t know “what now?”. The audience therefore must figure out – if it can – where the film will lead to.

VF – Is that a bad thing?

MN – Maybe it’s not a bad thing, and I’m not arguing for happy endings.

VF – What about ambiguity?

MN – I think ambiguity is a wonderful thing. What I meant is that there is a lack of hope in these films. Ambiguity can offer you hope. A significant number of times in the films that we have seen you feel that hope is not there.

VF – Is that a concern? Does that mean the world is moving in the wrong direction?

MN – The world will move in whatever direction it wants to move. What it means is that the cultures that produced these films are cultures that feel under threat in one way or another.

VF – Truffaut once famously said that British cinema was a contradiction in terms. Do you think this perception has since changed and Europeans are now more receptive towards British cinema?

MN – Fuck Truffaut, how dare he??? I think what Truffaut was talking about were the silly comedies and endless war films, and stuff like that. But wake up, Truffaut! This may have been true then, but your own humanity should have said it won’t last forever. And it hasn’t lasted forever. There’s now a very healthy approach to film dramas in the UK. That quote has always annoyed me, I feel belittled!

VF – Have you ever encountered hostility towards British cinema on European soil?

MN – I don’t believe so. I have been welcomed and treated very well. But everybody knows that quote. Perhaps what you feel is that you are too scared of the quote. Are we sufficiently inventive? Do we break conventions boldly enough? Probably n… well, who does??? That’s always an accusation. And Truffaut himself was not free of it. He made some very milk pudding-y kind of films!

VF – I’d to talk about the Competition entry from Kosovo The Flying Circus [by Fatos Berisha, pictured below]. The characters are actors who recreate Monty Python, and they dream of meeting the legendary Michael Palin, who’s visiting Albania at the occasion. How do you feel about it?

MN – I haven’t seen it yet, I believe I’m seeing it next! The notion of reenacting Monty Python tests my belief circuits a little, but we shall see. Monty Python is a sacred text!

VF – Let’s talk dirty. Will Brexit change the relation between British and European cinema? Could it have a negative impact on our output?

MN – Yes! What will happen is… what a disaster! Recently there were elections to the EU Parliament, in which the British Brexit Party won more seats than anyone expected. Then we saw in our news broadcast the opening ceremony of the Parliament. The anthem of the EU is Ode to Joy, as you know. As it began to play, the Brexit Party delegation turned their backs on Beethoven. In doing that, they are trying to demonstrate to their voters is that the cultural institutions of the EU are worthless.

So what should we have? Should it all be as in The Last Night of the Proms? Should we all wave the Union Jack and sing patriotic songs? That’s ridiculous! What you see in that tiny incident is that at least 50% of us think that we should be more concerned with our own culture than with the broader culture.

Do Europeans turn their back on Shakespeare? We have great things to offer to the culture of Europe. They have immense things to offer to us. Those offerings are going to get overlooked. They won’t disappear. People like me are infuriated by Brexit. Brexit’s is a very bad thing. Not just culturally, turning our backs on Beethoven, but where’s the money gonna come from? It takes millions of dollars for us guys to make what we make. and that’s going to be more difficult now, and we are gonna fall under the sway of another culture, America, and that’s going to be difficult, too.

I owe a whole great to America. I love America. I am tremendously fond of many great Americans, and America has done great things for me. At the same time, I hope that the relationship with people in my country is not exclusive. And we’ve taken a considerable step towards it being exclusive by doing what we are doing.

VF – What’s your advice for nascent and established British filmmakers who wish to use European festivals as a platform for their work?

MN – That they should come. Beat the drum! See what the sources of finance are, understand the sensibility of the other countries. Success in the movies goes up and down. Look how unbelievably successful German movies were 30 years ago, and now German movies are in a period of acquiescence. Every culture is a waveform: the German, the French and also the British!

By Victor Fraga - 29-11-2019

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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