Mike Newell has come a long way since his Four Weddings and a Funeral. A film director of sure hand and considerable range, Mike Newell credits his ability to juggle numerous genres and subject matters to his diverse assignments and early experiences in British television. Generally shunned as a redheaded stepson to film, Newell considers television a key component in the scheme of the entertainment industry, claiming that his work at Granada Television fuelled his versatility by allowing him the room for experimentation that the non-existent British film industry of the late ’60s and early ’70s couldn’t provide.
Born in England in March of 1942, Newell studied at Cambridge, later moving on to work at Granada Television as a trainee in 1963, where he worked in various aspects of production for several years before making his TV directorial debut. Spawning such contemporaries as Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, and Michael Apted, television work provided the creative outlet that many young filmmakers of the time so desperately needed. Newell’s U.K. television feature debut, The Man in the Iron Mask (1977) served as his springboard to international success, finding theatrical release in the U.S. Continuing with work in television in the following years, Newell began to concentrate on his attempts to move into feature territory in the late ’70s.
Newell’s first theatrical feature The Awakening (1980), a U.S./U.K. co-produced adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars, earned mixed reviews, though it began to cement Newell’s reputation as a talented and versatile director with a gift for getting the best performances possible from his actors. Following Awakening with Bad Blood (1982), a disturbing study in small town alienation set in New Zealand, Newell continued to refine his gift for darkly enchanting, personalized films on a feature level. Working through the remainder of the decade in multiple genres, including crime (Dance With a Stranger, ), drama (Soursweet, ), and the activist sports drama Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987), Newell proved time and again that his sure directorial hand and sharp eye for storytelling transcended genre restrictions in favour of deeply rooted character studies.
Though he had over 54 credits to his name upon entering the final decade of the millennium, the 1990s proved to be the decade in which Newell began to gain the international recognition that he so richly deserved. Making his ’90s theatrical debut with the charmingly romantic Enchanted April (1992), Newell continued with a critically praised melancholy family fable in 1993, Into the West, before making his breakthrough with the influential romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Offered directorial hand on a slew of similarly themed romantic comedies in the wake of the success of Four Weddings (including Notting Hill, ), and taking advantage of one such offer with the less successful Hugh Grant comedy An Awfully Big Adventure, Newell proved his versatility and struck gold again in 1997, with Donnie Brasco. In 1999, Newell spun a tale of dysfunctional air-traffic controllers with Pushing Tin, “a movie about people crashes, not plane crashes.” Last year he helmed what was to be the last significant role for Julia Roberts on film, Mona Lisa Smile, followed by his own ‘awfully big adventure, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
In the fourth and most ambitious film of the Potter franchise, Harry faces his greatest challenges and dangers yet. When he is selected under mysterious circumstances as a contestant in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, Harry must compete against the best young wizards from schools all over Europe. But as he prepares, signs begin to point to the return of Lord Voldemort. Before long, Harry is playing not just for the Cup, but for his life. At the end of a frenetic day at the Potter junket in London, a still upbeat Newell took time to talk to Garth Franklin.
Question: The last time I met you was at the junket for Mona Lisa Smile where you talked briefly about this film. I was struck by the fact that you are a filmmaker whose work is defined by character-based comedy or drama films that are of a slightly smaller scale to this.
Newell: I guess you could say that.
Question: Why did you decide that the time was right for you to leap out and tackle something of this scale?
Newell: Well, there are some human factors and there’s also one big kind of, ah, professional factor. The human factors are that it’s, it’s likely to be one of the most famous franchises that there has ever been. for heaven’s sake, why not – you know? I’ve never made a film like this before and I’ve never made a film even a quarter as big as this before. And, you know, you’re always waiting – I think any of us, but certainly in my trade – for the moment where you fall off the twig. I mean, you promote yourself and you climb the ladder and there is bound to be a rung, finally, you know, at some height up that ladder that you’re going to fall off.
So it’s pretty interesting. It’s what is curious about when that will happen. And so the scare of the thing is very attractive, you know. It’s just… it’s big. Why not do big? Also I have a 10-year-old son and it’s very good to be doing this film with a 10-year-old son, because he sure as hell gets a lot of credit out of it, but the most significant thing of all it was this, that… what Warner Bros. and the producers said to me was, if… this is a 760 page book, it’s nearly double the length of number 3, which in itself is nearly double the length of either the others and they originally – Warner Bros. – were intending to make two movies, and wisely I think didn’t because they saw that there wasn’t actually quite enough story for two movies. And so they said to me, if you can see a way in which your conviction, your storytelling convictions can survive the impact of 760 pages then it’s worth us having a conversation, but if you can’t see a way of cutting the material down to single film length – then you’ve just got to be straight with us and we’ll move on.
So I read it and what I saw – this was the big, big come-on for me – was that I could see that there was, to my eye, an absolutely classical thriller at the base of this which was like North by Northwest. It has a hero, Cary Grant – or Harry Potter who at the beginning of the story knows absolutely nothing except some weird stuff begins to happen…But of course the audience knows that James Mason is behind all this – or Ralph Fiennes. Then the progress of the film is a matter of the hero finding out just how bad a jam he is in, and only just managing to avoid it. So that… you know, to have that absolutely classic thriller structure really successfully set down in the book was… and I said to them, I said, I can only make this if you will agree that what we’re making is a thriller and we will ruthlessly take out stuff that doesn’t go to that, to that way of telling the story. There’s a lot of stuff in the book that doesn’t go – sorry, they were happy with that. They said don’t forget to be funny, will you, but that’s okay with me. You know, I mean I’ll tend to try to be funny anyway.
And then I had an immensely happy experience with Steven Kloves, who was one of the most wonderful collaborators that you could possibly have and who was game really for anything – and absolutely could see where I was at and came along every step of the way – sometimes I would lead, sometimes he would. But you know, it was very good to work with him. So that’s why – the reason is why is that I can see how.
Question: Now, Mike, that’s all very well, but on the other hand you also have to deal with the pressures of the audience for this franchise, which can be very, very critical, how mindful were you of that?
Newell: Well quite, and then, you know, as things progressed more and more… I mean for instance quite recently, I saw a piece that appeared n a chatroom that was, was outraged that we had changed Hermione’s ball dress from the blue of the novel to the pink of, of the film. Outraged! And a very, very lively and tense chatroom discussion sprang off that. Now I knew about that to start with, I knew that there was an audience that was rabid to a degree, and that we of course could not disappoint them. So there were two things that I had to address, one is when I could do one of the great set piece sequences that everybody’s is expecting from the novel I would, and that meant things like flying carriages and other watersheds; and, it also meant that as much of the Quidditch World Cup as one possibly could and the competition stuff – all of that. So I was very, very mindful that when I could, deliver to this hungry audience I should do so. But the other thing was that when I wasn’t doing those sequences that I felt belonged to the movie there were sequences and things like that I should simply be making the film with such a force and drive that they wouldn’t care.
Question: Now you’re also, which is rather extraordinary when you think about it, the first British filmmaker to have tackled this franchise. Do you think that gives this film a very different tone than the ones directed by your predecessors?
Newell: Well, I mean that would depend on a comparison and I don’t know that I’m the man to make that comparison, but I would have thought logically, yes, absolutely – how could it avoid being very different. And there are all sorts of points at which it would be different. To start with, of course I went through this sort of education. In fact, I wasn’t at a boarding school I was in a day school, for which I’m very grateful but there’s an enormous body of literature books for children that are school stories in this country and I had read all of those, and I’d been to a school just like it where you were beaten with a cane. I remember some of the teachers being really quite violent and hurling things about the classroom – all of that one took to be the universe of the school, and of course the details of that and how English kids would respond to that, that is absolutely in my experience and could not possibly have been for either Chris or Alfonso, and so, yeah, you bet. It’s quite inevitable that it would have been enormously different, and I think that in the end what I wanted to bring to it was that I remember my own school days as being really anarchic. Sometimes I was very scared, sometimes I was hysterically amused by what was going on around me but I kind of knew that this was… that school was kind of a world, that it was like the outside world only smaller, and it had a headmaster of whom one was likely terrified and then a descending order of authority figures, and then there was… and then there was us. And it was just like a world – we were learning to live in a world. It was a practice world. And, you know, a lot of that was very, as I say, it was very anarchic, and I wanted to bring that to it. I don’t see how anybody who hadn’t gone through that, who wasn’t English, could possibly have suspected that.
Question: What about your sense of humour, though, because there seems to be a lot more high comedy in this work than in the other films. Do you think that also plays a role in a change of tone?
Newell: Well, yes, I’m quite certainly it was, and I remember going along and seeing Alan Horn, who is the boss of bosses at Warner Bros., and him saying, okay, tell me how you want to make it, and I stumbled along through my thriller pitch, at the end of which he said, you won’t forget to be funny will you, because that’s why we’re really interested in you, and I thought, oh, no, no, of course not… And of course I hadn’t thought it was a comedy at all. But then when you get on the ground with these wonderful characters, and particularly the kids playing the characters, you know, you find that… the kind of eccentricities that you get in children. They are wildly eccentric, children. They start to push themselves to the fore, and quite inevitably that makes things… that, that makes comedy, makes it funny.
Question: Are you surprised at how good these kids have become as actors?
Newell: Slightly, yes, I am. I was… there were two things that surprised me about them, one is that these are films like no other in which, you know… this is not like Mary Poppins. In the end Mary Poppins, it may be a film for children but it certainly isn’t a film about children, it’s about the adults, whereas this is not that at all, this is a film that ism for and about kids. They are simply the stars. You know when I look at this, um, schedule of these interviews that I’m doing today, Daniel Radcliffe comes first, Emma Watson comes second, Rupert Grint comes third and only then do I come… (Laughter)
Newell: You know… they’re, they’re way out ahead. They’re huge, huge world stars. And what I was surprised by was how completely level-headed they were. I didn’t get any kind of backchat from them, no kind of mulishness or rebellion. I was prepared to talk to them and convince them, as I would with any other actor, but I was very surprised, and nicely surprised, by that.
Question: Now what were the challenges of doing these bigger set pieces, … the stuff on the water for example, were those much more intimidating to you than
Newell: Well it was because that was the bit of it I knew least – I didn’t know how to do that stuff, you know. I had to learn on the fly and it’s a very, very steep learning curve.
Question: Are you gratified that this movie could be a kind of crossover movie in a way that in fact you don’t really need to have read this book to know… to understand this – I mean apart from perhaps, ah, the Ralph Fiennes component?
Newell: I don’t even dare hope that, you know. I mean of course that’s what you fantasize about. I would love that.
Question: And what can you possibly do now as an encore? I mean, do you have any plans… (Laughter)
Newell: Something really intense and small and character driven with not a single foot of visual effects in it. I have no idea what I’m going to do next.
Question: Would you ever be persuaded to go back to Potter again?
Newell: Oh, yeah – you know, I think when it comes to the last one there’ll be queue a mile long. I’ll certainly be there.