Mike Newell is a director whose diversity is apparent. While movie goers may flock to see his predominantly female starrer Mona Lisa Smile, many more will descend in droves to see his next film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The director of such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Pushing Tin, has no doubts as to why he chose to go from one cinematic extreme to the other.
“I am of a generation in England that was brought up (at a time when) you could work and find out how to work in television. And television was omnivorous then. It was very varied and it was full of extraordinarily diverse opinions and points of view and talents. You could never say, ‘I don’t comedy. I don’t do thrillers. I don’t do this or that or the other.’ You did everything. One of the things that I found when I began a different line of work was that people were much happier if you did the same thing all the time, because that was quantifiable. I don’t know why Ang Lee made The Hulk, but it may be that the Ice Storm Ang Lee made The Hulk because he was bored by being asked to make The Ice Storm again. There is a huge virtue for us guys in variety. Also, it’s something to tell your grandchildren,” he adds, smilingly.
Newell believes that it’s possible to take such an established franchise as the Potter films and make it your own. “Obviously, that’s what you try to do. Chris Columbus made the first two, and those were a particular kind of film. Alfonso Cuaron is making the third, and it is radically different, and for me there is a story worth telling.” Newell confirmed that the original children will be returning for Goblet. “But, whether (Daniel Radcliffe) will be back beyond this or not, I don’t know. But he will be the same age as the character should be. The (other two kids) will (repeat their parts as well). But listen, one of the reasons to do it is that the way you literally make a film is that you take a subject and you hone it and you hone it and you hone it until it is an arrow, and it goes as straight as you can make it to the middle, if you can manage it, of the target. These stories aren’t that at all. These are like Bollywood in that they’re all singing, all dancing. They’re like variety shows and you can have that spine to them, but, at the same time, you’ve got to hang the baskets of flowers off of the spine. That’s a huge and very amusing challenge to take on.”
He sees Goblet as “an absolute classic thriller. At the beginning, the antagonist, the anti-hero, the creature of supreme evil has a plan. He needs one tiny, tiny little thing from the boy: three drops of blood. Therefore he sets up this gorgeous piece of clockwork which will get him what he needs. And the boy, classically, starts, as all thriller heroes do, in complete ignorance, and then you watch him ratchet around until and he and the antagonist are in exactly the same place at the same time, knowing everything.” Asked if there is one section of the book that, as a filmmaker, is especially irresistible for him to tackle, he is very clear and excited. “Yeah, the big denouement, the big shootout at the end is very exciting, not least because the antagonist starts as a kind of horrible foetus wrapped up in a bundle of rags and has to become this great looming presence. You have to transform it.”
All of this is in stark contrast to Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile, a 1953-set drama about a forward-thinking art history teacher determined to reach out to a cluster of conservative young women. Partly a socio-political comment on the role of young middle-class women of their time, Newell aggress that the film could have been even more political outside of the big studio system. “I think the writers will have felt that, but curiously I don’t think it would have been in the political arena so much. But the straight answer to the question is yes. If this had been a low-budget independent movie, of course (it would have gone deeper). I think, in a way, the thing that would have been most affected is that we would have been tougher about the technical aspects of it; that is to say the teaching. The pictures that were referred to would probably have been referred to in a different kind of way. We would have become more rarefied, more intellectualized. I don’t necessarily think that would have been a good thing. It was quite clear when I saw (the script), that it wanted to be a big, popular movie, that could be done with honour, so I knew what was happening.”
As for working with star/producer Roberts, Newell was more than surprised by her. “She’s really, really clever. I think that one of the days that gave me most pleasure was we had this very odd situation where we had to shoot, literally, the last scene of the film first. At eight o’clock in the morning of day one we were shooting the last scene of the movie, which is a very difficult thing to do. All of the Wellesley stuff had to be done in the first week or 10 days because of the leaves on the trees. We had to have the seasons, and we started shooting in September. So we had to do this stuff wildly out of sequence. And there was a shot we had to do where Julia comes out of a scene right at the end of the film, where the girls are giving her the paintings. She comes out onto a terrace and the camera goes around and around and around her, and she has to feel certain things. Julia found it difficult, as you would. Who wouldn’t find it difficult? She came to me and said, ‘I’m finding this very difficult.’ We then had an absolutely adorable conversation for about 20 minutes, about what the moment was, how she would feel about that. It was a real exchange of views and it was very profitable. It was the beginning of a path that we took through the film, and I was very affectionate towards that memory”.