Michael Deeley has worked on some of the most iconic films of the past half-century, from The Italian Job to The Deer Hunter, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and – my personal favourite – Blade Runner. His book is full of jaw-dropping revelations and is a detailed analysis of everything a producer has to do in order to get a film made.
When it comes to analyses of movie making, all too often we rely on the director or the writer, the so-called creatives, to give us their version of events, but there are very few worthwhile handbooks about the business side of movie making. Michael Deeley was a producer who went with ideas that intrigued him, and made films that broke new ground. The movies he brought to the screen are quirky, and even when not completely successful are still worth a second look.
Deeley was the guy who generally picked the director, found the finance, organised the distribution, and had a big say in the casting, and his role in the genesis of these cult movies is important. The book also explains clearly how films are financed and throws light on the convoluted ways in which studios do their accounting – needless to say, rarely to the benefit of the people who actually work on the project.
He certainly didn't shy away from working with difficult characters, from Sam Peckinpah to Michael Cimino, and accounts of their sometimes acrimonious relationships make hilarious reading. He doesn't mince his words: "The only flaw I can find in my Oscar [awarded for The Deer Hunter, Best Picture in 1979] is that Michael Cimino's name is also engraved on it. I keep it on a high shelf so I can see the award but not the unpleasantness minutely chiselled there." Years later, Michael Cimino called Michael Deeley a moron, and Deeley agrees: "We must have been morons to deal with him!" There's a lot of black humour in the book – obviously a key attribute if you want to make it in movie production.
Deeley's mother worked as a PA to film producers and his father was in advertising. Michael had planned to go to university but was offered a job as an assistant editor for £7.50 a week. This turned out to be a great way of learning the business: he worked on Monsieur Hulot's Holiday and the Robin Hood television series (which had some famous American left-wing writers, such as Ring Lardner, working under pseudonyms). It wasn't long before he'd started to produce short films in his spare time; his first starred Peter Sellers and was shot in five days.
Deeley's first big movie was The Italian Job (1969), shot in Turin. He reveals how Troy Kennedy-Martin's script was later amended so that lots of cameo roles could be inserted for British stars. Benny Hill was one of them, and Deeley describes him as a "complete mystery... we were never sure what he was thinking and when he wasn't working he disappeared for hours on end." God knows what Hill was getting up to. Deeley, a pragmatist, had to cobble together all sorts of cars (which would all be wrecked) on a low budget, but he confesses that the most spectacular stunt turned out to be a disappointment, and there was no money left to reshoot.
Having overseen the editing of Don't Look Now, Deeley received a visit at 11pm from Warren Beatty, who'd been having an affair with Julie Christie. Deeley recounts that Beatty wanted the (now famous) scene in which Christie and Donald Sutherland make love – a scene which is probably one of the most erotic in modern cinema – removed, claiming it was vulgar and that Christie had been talked into it against her better judgement. Luckily Beatty was ignored.
This book is packed with hilarious stories: Sam Peckinpah, whose cocaine and alcohol abuse were legendary, storming into the edit suite on Convoy, declaiming, "to be or not to be, that is the question", and then passing out on the floor for two hours; on Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer going to meet his director, Ridley Scott, wearing pink silk pants, Elton John glasses and a fox fur. Scott was terrified he'd been given a gay activist to play his tough guy.
Deeley describes a producer's job as "raising funds and providing everything a director needs". He says, "a producer must deliver". True, but Deeley was not a run-of-the-mill producer churning out crap; he carefully nurtured engrossing films, some of which are now regarded as classics. That makes this book a great read for anyone interested in the film business.