A Conversation with Writer/Director Mike Hodges

Mike Hodges is the director of the canonical crime film classics Get Carter, A Prayer for the Dying, Croupier and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. Having just published his debut novel, Watching the Wheels Come Off, he reflects on his relationship to storytelling on the screen and off.

Mike Hodges, you’ve had a prestigious career making films, and in your seventies you pen your first novel. What prompted the change of direction?

For me writing a novel seems a logical extension rather than a “change of direction.” Over the years I’ve written and directed for both theater and radio, always venturing into territory I always knew I’d never be allowed to enter on film. I seem to recollect Kurt Vonnegut saying he had to cease writing because nothing in his imagination could contend with the reality of our accelerating insanity. I’m new to the literary game, so it’s too early for me to give up on the human comedy. The title of my novel says as much: Watching the Wheels Come Off. Unlike Vonnegut, I always use a crime story as the conveyor belt for ideas; crime seems to more easily hold our attention.  On both film and page, human curiosity is the one thing I’ve always banked on, although I suspect it may be a diminishing human trait. We seem to be moving in larger and larger cultural swarms, with our collective moves being directed by increasingly Machiavellian marketing skills. Manipulation, exploitation, and human gullibility have always been the engines that drive my creative output; not sure quite why. I suspect it stems from having sampled all three in a childhood dominated by Roman Catholicism, an indoctrination process I managed to shed in my early teens, but not without a struggle. By the time I emerged from that trauma it seems my sense of humor had been considerably sharpened, from then on becoming a major tool in my survival kit. Not surprisingly, Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers. Only in Get Carter, with its odd shafts of dark humor, and, more fully, in my second film, Pulp, have I been able to exercise my bleak drollery. Hence  the necessity for my literary output.

You’ll always be remembered for Get Carter. How did you first come across Ted Lewis’s novel?

It landed on the floor of my London apartment; only then it was called Jack’s Return Home. With it came a letter from film producer Michael Klinger asking if I’d be interested in adapting and directing it for the cinema. The back story to this is that, during 1968-69, I had written, produced, and directed two feature-length thrillers for television, Suspect and Rumour; Klinger had seen and liked them. He’d already successfully produced Roman Polanski’s first two English-speaking films: Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion. Needless to say, with that track record, I read Ted’s novel immediately. It was a unique book; way outside the usual British crime fare. I can’t say I realized it was the classic I now recognize but I knew immediately it could make a great film. I still have Klinger’s letter: It’s dated 27th January, 1970. It’s a date I still find hard to believe. On the 20th of July — a mere seven months later — I was shooting the opening scene in London and the following day Jack Carter on the train to Newcastle. Get Carter was completed in forty-five shooting days and was in the cinemas early the next year. I thought filmmaking was always going to be like that: decisions quickly taken and quickly acted on, instinct always in the driving seat. Nine feature films over the next forty years shows how wrong I was. Keeping instinct alive in an industry run largely by committees of incompetent and frightened executives is no easy matter.

A good proportion of your films are within the crime and mystery genre. What attracts you to it?

Crime is the litmus that shows what’s really going on below the surface. That’s why I’m attracted to it. Besides, as one myself, sinners interest me more than saints. The preparation for all my films in this genre, from the first, Rumour, to the latest, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, is rooted in the compost of intensive research. This habit came from my days in television documentary and current affairs. Get Carter is a good example of what I’m getting at. I’d never adapted a novel before and, because Ted Lewis hadn’t named the location of his story, I quickly decided it had to be one I knew. This was Newcastle. Despite the film being firmly based on a fiction, I still investigated the local crime scene and happened on [a crime] that was to influence the very fabric of the film: the Dolce Vita murder. This crime, committed two or three years earlier, somehow captured the sleaziness and corruption festering in the city’s underbelly: it even involved a hit man, already incarcerated, but who, like Jack Carter, had come up from London. My research led me to many of the locations used in the film, including the grim Gothic house occupied by Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne), which had also been the home of the real-life criminal behind the murder. The veracity of the film’s thrust was confirmed soon after its release when the city’s manager, the first ever appointed in England, was arrested and found guilty of corruption,  a cancer that had spread to very top of the country’s establishment.  So what sources drew me initially to this genre? They were probably Raymond Chandler’s novels (“Los Angeles has the personality of a paper cup”) and Hollywood B movies (Kiss Me Deadly). They showed me how to use the crime story as an autopsy on society’s ills.

Two of my personal favorites amongst your films, and also slightly less known compared to Get Carter and Croupier, are Pulp and Black Rainbow. How did they come about?

After the success of Get Carter, Michael Klinger offered me various projects, none of which appealed. I was also very anxious to get back to writing my own films, going back to where I’d started. Whilst it was agreed that [Michael] Caine, Klinger, and I wanted to work together again (eventually we formed the Three Michaels production company) I decided not to accept a script commission but to write one speculatively. It was the only way I knew to retain my sense of freedom and to ensure that my partners were really enthused by the results. In short, they would only proceed if they liked the script. The idea for Pulp came from many different sources. In the early 1970s I’d been severely shaken by local elections in Italy which revealed the existence of a neo-fascist political party and one that received strong support from the electorate. As a youngster of twelve I’d been horrified when the German concentration camps were opened up one by one, unmasking the infinite scale of human depravity. My childhood naivete (the assumption that mankind, having had its nose rubbed in the vileness of fascism, would ensure it was never resurrected) had curiously extended into my early thirties. What had compounded this naivete, I suspect, was my exposure to library film of both Hitler and Mussolini making their rabble-rousing speeches. They looked to be complete buffoons; Charlie Chaplin’s portrayal had been spot on. In close-up Il Duce took on the persona of a posturing bullfrog; one then wondered how he could possibly have led so many to embrace such a repugnant philosophy. But, of course, those speeches were not witnessed in close-up; they were delivered from balconies and podiums high above vast spaces filled with enthusiastic followers. Somehow all this morphed into a counterpoint film to Get Carter, on the surface a lighter comedic thriller but with the sinister undercurrents of fascism constantly breaking the surface. After six months a script emerged: Memoirs of a Ghost Writer. With it I doffed my cap affectionately to the B movies and pulp fiction I’d always loved. Quite rightly Pulp even became its eventual title. Mickey Rooney, Lizabeth Scott, and Lionel Stander were my attendant ghosts to a film genre long gone.

Black Rainbow was, like Pulp, written speculatively. It came directly from a nightmare shoot I’d endured two years earlier in North Carolina. Wherever I am in the United States, I’m an avid reader of the local newspapers. During my time in the Carolinas I read reports about workers who, having blown the whistle on breaches of safety, were beaten up and even murdered at the behest of the employers. It wasn’t the first time I’d come across such stories; there seemed to be a pattern across the United States. Not surprisingly this fact attached itself to my urgent desire to tell a story about the impending ecological meltdown. This, in turn, coincided with my growing passion for quantum mechanics, the unraveling of mysteries previously considered to be the sole domain of religion. For example: proof that particles can be in several places at the same time. Back in England I’d watched a stage medium by the name of Doris Stokes at work, becoming fascinated by the theatricality of her performance and the desire of her audience for confirmation of an afterlife. Somehow all these elements became welded together in my mind and I wrote Black Rainbow. The story centers on a medium (Rosanna Arquette) performing across the Bible Belt in the company of her alcoholic father (Jason Robards). However, instead of connecting with those on “the other side,” she suffers a time slippage and begins to predict deaths before they happen: she turns from medium into prophet and a threat to one employer in particular. A hit man is put on her tail. The film’s end scene explores that dictum of Marx: All that is solid melts into air. Some months after I’d finished the script my agent was lunching with John Quested, who had recently acquired Goldcrest Films, asking him what sort of projects he was looking to make. John immediately said, “Another Elmer Gantry.” My agent must have smiled. A year later I began shooting in Charlotte.

You write some of your own films, whereas others are penned by scriptwriters (who are also crime novelists) like Paul Mayersberg or Trevor Preston. I gather you work closely with them; how do you choose them?

Both Paul and Trevor are old friends of mine. I must confess to becoming weary of writing scripts, having completed so many that never went into production. Also I must admit that screenplays are not a literary form I relish; their function is, of necessity, an ill-defined one. So I was much relieved when Film Four approached me to direct Croupier. The commissioning executive had also produced my first stage play so we already knew each other. Obviously he and Paul had talked about possible directors and my name came up. Even when reading the then-current draft (when I eventually started shooting, it was draft number nine), I was beside myself with excitement. The casino had often been used in films as a metaphor for many things, even life itself, but never before had it seemed so relevant as then/now. Turbo capitalism was racing away with all our lives; it was to be a decade before it finally crashed with us in it. To me this outcome was self-evident even then, so I relished the idea of making this film. My memory is hazy about how long Paul and I worked on the script; probably close to a year before we finally got the green light. We met every few weeks/days to iron out the problem of the croupier also being a novelist. Paul solved that by thinking of him as two people, Jack the Croupier and Jake the Novelist-to-Be; almost certainly a bad one who, like many other bad ones, hits the jackpot. Most importantly we managed to retain the use of a voice-over against some opposition within Film Four. I had used the technique in previous films (among them Rumour and Pulp) and knew how effective it could be. But with a difference: I had Clive Owen, now cast as Jack Manfred, learn the lines, thereby allowing me to move the camera freely, knowing his voice would fit perfectly. Another major change was the location of Jack’s apartment and the casino; in the original, both were aboveground until I suggested we locate them in basements. When the script was published Paul dedicated it “to the memory of Jean-Pierre Melville.” Enough said.

By the time I was shooting Croupier, Trevor Preston had already shown me the script of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. I liked it a lot, its sparseness and lack of cumbersome back story. Once Clive and I had established that we enjoyed working together, I asked him to read it. With him on board I was convinced we could get it financed. The fly in the ointment came when Film Four took against Croupier and declined to distribute it. I managed to save it from going straight to video by getting the British Film Institute (who were embarking on a re-release of Get Carter) to agree to a small- scale U.K. distribution. An American friend, and an ardent fan of the film, Mike Kaplan, was seeking a U.S. distributor. After close on two years he found one. The film garnered wonderful reviews, word-of-mouth was strong, and the film played throughout the summer. Until this happened I’ll Sleep was kept waiting in the wings, unable to be financed. Once again it was Mike Kaplan who came to the rescue. We started shooting four years after I’d originally shown the script to Clive, only by now he was a major star. That does help. The film starts with a criminal act of buggery, a male rape, a scene which reverberates throughout the film and is the springboard for all that follows. And what follows is a story of revenge that roughly corresponds to that of Get Carter. The victim of the rape is a small-time thief and drug dealer but, more importantly, the younger brother of a serious criminal, Will Graham. Graham returns from his self-imposed rural exile to investigate the mysterious suicide of his brother. There the similarity to Carter ends. It shifts gear, instead examining the homoerotic/homophobic duality of gangland masculinity and that essential ingredient: revenge. When it comes to that, Jack Carter doesn’t hesitate; Will Graham does. Just for a moment. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead has the same quiet simplicity of Croupier. Indeed, they’ve recently been released together in a double DVD. At the end of his postscript to the published script of Croupier, Paul writes: “When we’d finished the voice-over dubbing, Clive Owen said to me, ‘How do you see Jack’s state of mind at the end?’ I said, ‘He’s mad.’ Clive said, ‘Thank you.'” What more can I add?

Mike Hodges is an English screenwriter and film director. He is notable for directing films such as Get Carter, Pulp, the 1980 version of Flash Gordon and Croupier.

Maxim Jakubowski is a British writer and editor, once responsible for the Black Box Thrillers and Blue Murder imprints, and owner of London’s Murder One bookstore. He now edits the MaxCrime list for John Blake Publishing and the annual Mammoth Book of Best British Crime Stories, already in its ninth year. His latest books are FOLLOWING THE DETECTIVES, a travel guide to fictional mystery locations, and a new novel, I WAS WAITING FOR YOU; both appear this fall. He lives in London.