TAKING THE ROUGHAGE
`The Commitments' was the feelgood film par excellence; `The Road to We llville' is a barrelful of belly laughs and bottom jokes. Has Alan Parker gone soft? No such luck: AMANDA MITCHISON meets a grim old bruiser with a head as ha rd as a bad baron' s heart. Portrait by GAUTIER DEBLONDE
Saturday 07 January 1995
Here, one rainy afternoon, arrive an unhappy young couple in search of a cure for the husband's stomach problems. Their adventures - Will, the husband, undergoes a wide variety of tortures involving devices with long rubber tubes and glinting brass - unfold against the extraordinary setting of the spa. No shot is without its admonishing billboard - bowels make for clean thoughts; sausage: eat it and die! - or its background blur of enormous bottoms quivering on vibrator belts, or men with moustaches andtiger-prawn bathing costumes riding bicycles, wielding Indian clubs, diving into cold ponds.
In Britain, with its tradition of Carry On films and its old obsession with bodily functions, we can find these jokes funny. But in the United States, The Road to Wellville has not gone down well. The inhabitants of Battle Creek, the town in Michigan where the real John Harvey Kellogg ran his sanatorium, wrote his 50 books, and kept his strict routine of five enemas a day, are up in arms about the film. And American critics have been appalled by the bathroom humour, several pointing with distaste to Parker's cross-cutting from an enema to a bartender drawing beer. The film, they write, has been "a 30-million dollar bowel movement'' and "one long puke and flatulence joke''. One critic pleads: ``This is horrible, this is degrading, this is torture... Please make it stop.''
Under the circumstances, you can't help admiring the director. Here is someone who seems so unbowed by the demands of Hollywood, whose work is so unexpected, that you might well think of him as a slightly boffinish character - an enthusiast, an eccentric, a man who stretches his eyes and flaps his arms when he speaks, and maybe even spits with excitement. A gentle individual with a great sunny smile and maybe a sincere frown when he mentions politics. In short, a nice chap who has somehow just landed onhis feet in Hollywood.
But never judge a man by his work. Read the press cuttings and you realise the assumption couldn't be more wrong. Alan Parker is a grim old bruiser. He loves a good feud. He scoffs at the British film industry and openly derides the work of Peter Greenaway. For several years, he and David Puttnam, once the best of friends, did not speak. He says things like, "I have a reputation for being extremely difficult'' or "That's how I am with everybody...'' And the reputation has served him so well that he is one of the few Hollywood directors to get final cut on his work.
In his serious films - for example in Midnight Express (1978), where every Turk is fat or evil or both (as in the case of the informer whose tongue is bitten out by the hero), or Mississippi Burning (1988), which, while espousing the cause of the blacks in the Deep South, is very much a tale of white men's heroism (and of white FBI men's heroism, no less) - Parker couldn't have upset more people if he had tried. Indeed, it is hard not to think that, knowing as he must that a spark of controversy is goodfor the box office, maybe he did try.
On Alan Parker's last film, The Commitments (1991), he banned one of the producers from the set. During Mississippi Burning, there were nasty spats with the screenwriter. And in the production diary, which he published as part
of the puff for the film, he writes: "It wasn't the ideal time of year to show the cotton in full bloom and so the cotton was dressed, plant by plant, by the entire crew.'' Note that passive verb - an entire field of cotton was dressed. Parker asserts that the crew volunteered, and no doubt they were volunteered.
Glance at the photographs of him: rumpled, curmudgeonly, stocky build, hunched posture, eyes prowling around behind the long hair.
He even looks like a bruiser. There he is 1992
in Nigel Dempster's Daily Mail diary: Alan Parker's wife Annie, to whom he had been married for 26 years, is filing a divorce suit naming Parker's young assistant, Lisa Moran. There are wrangles over money. Poor Lisa Moran is described as "bubbly".
And here he is now in a hushed, fawn-coloured hotel room, with the PR man outside the door. He is a nervous interviewee. He puffs at cigarettes, he stares at his moccasins, he grins, he follows the cues to his own jokes and laughs. He is not himself a great performer - he won't waste his energies unduly on an interview - but when he warms up he takes the trouble
to tell funny stories: for example, the television interviewer who had "Jim" written on the sole of his shoe and, when Parker talked, waved his foot at him to ensure he called him by his first name. You can see he could
be an agreeable drinking companion. Even an Alan Parker, it seems, wants to be liked.
But that is a hard task. Consider the enemies and all their bad-mouthing. For you are a bully, Alan Parker. You make wonderful films, but you shout at people, you humiliate them publicly. It's blood and tears and graft and grey hairs on your sets, and people swear they will never make another film with you. But then they do. Because afterwards, you are charm itself, putting your arm round shoulders, giving off gravelly laughs, sending your colleagues those slightly wobbly cartoons that you doodle duringbreaks. So when the next film comes round, of course they come back for more.
"Who did you hear that from? Who told you that?"
Sorry, can't say.
"Well,'' he barks. "It's not a fair criticism." And then he goes on: How could it be true? After all, they are all still with him. The camera operator - he's done seven films with him, and the film editor, they go back together 20 years. And then he lists others who have been on similarly long sentences with Parker: the production designer, costume designer, make-up, hair...
"I'm very, very strong in what I want done, and maybe I don't tolerate people who aren't doing their job well enough. That's for sure.
But I was kind of lucky on this one, it wasn't so much that way, you know, I mean..." He pauses. "I think `bully' is a bad word, there must be a nicer word for someone who's strong."
Later he admits, "I have always said that film directing is a crash course in megalomania. You know, there are 70 people on the set all looking at me for whatever I want at that moment in time. And, er, it is a very powerful position. And at the end of the day, you still have to be a normal human being - that's a tricky adjustment for anybody."
When I interview Parker, the damning reviews of his film are not yet published. He has just been in Germany, and the following day he is to face the American critics - thousands of them, he says, flying in from every corner of the States. Maybe he has some inkling of the attack that is to come. For when I tell him it's a lovely film, and that we laughed like drains during the preview, he replies: "Saw it with journalists, did you? They never like to laugh. It gives the game away. They might have enjoyedit."
But for all the growling, Parker still feels a need to impress. It is not a matter of baroque, exotic boasts, but just flat, sad, little factual inserts: "You know all the films of this summer, I was offered most of them to do...": or "I think that it's very foolish to say or think that you could never improve on what you already did."
He slips in: "Over this film, when they write about it - there will be a thousand things written - there are a thousand critics and they will all be writing." And should just one of those thousand critics write a bad review, Parker will still feel stung.For Parker is touchy about criticism. Being a bit hard, he chips easily.
For hard he is. Perhaps deep down at the bottom of the pond lies a soft, squelchy Alan Parker, but the impression conveyed is that inside the hard-as-nails Hollywood director is his previous incarnation, a hard-as-nails commercials director and inside the hard-as-nails commercials director is a hard-as-nails adver-tising copywriter who started work at 18 and has always regretted never having gone to university. "I used to feel a little bit embarrassed, you know, you feel `I don't know if I'm intelligentenough to be doing this job because I didn't go to university.' But [dry laugh], er, now I have no such worries."
"I'm bored of going on about it, because then I have to read another article going on about Alan Parker being a working-class boy from Islington. I am kind of bored by myself talking about it, because I'm not any more, you know. But there's no doubt thatit was a huge part of why I behaved in the way I did."
Alan Parker was responsible for the "Nice One Cyril" Wonderloaf advertisement, and the famous Cockburn's Port shipwreck and the spoof of Brief Encounter for Bird's Eye Dinners for One. In the Seventies, he moved into film - firstly with some semi-autobiographical pieces based on his childhood on a council estate in Islington, and then, with Bugsy Malone (1976), a musical of gangland Chicago played by child actors with drawn-on moustaches and machine guns firing marshmallows.
Bugsy Malone got Alan Parker noticed in Hollywood and afterwards he directed Fame (1980), set in a talent school in New York, Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), featuring fantastical animation by Gerald Scarfe, and the "serious" films - Midnight Express, Birdy(1984), Mississippi Burning, Come See the Paradise (1990). All were bold, beautifully produced, high-gloss productions which tackled what Philip Larkin would have called "ishoos": drugs, civil rights, racism. All were American and most were commerciallysuccessfully - and back in Britain people began to ask if Parker would ever return.
Then, four years ago, Alan Parker did return from Los Angeles, temporarily, to Ireland, to direct The Commitments, a funny, enthralling film based on Roddy Doyle's novel about the rise, and subsequent disintegration, of a Dublin soul group. Filmed in luridly derelict surroundings with a cast mostly made up of local musicians with no acting experience, The Commitments was probably Parker's best film to date and exploits his talent for casting and working with unknowns. It also proves him to be a great comic film-maker. Parker's shortcomings as a director of more serious works - his tendency to caricature, and an inclination for overkill and moments of hamminess - are turned to advantage. And this is also the case in The Road to Wellville, which revels in a luxuriance of language and setting and absurdity.
This film is all about bottoms and sex, isn't it?
"It's not heavy, no. I made three very serious films in a row and then I made The Commitments and I had such a good time. And so I thought I wanted to do something that was lighter, but to do it with intelligence. It is lava-torial, without a doubt. It is about obsessions with health, with your own body and it's also about obsessions with sex, but, erm, but mostly it's fun." Then he has to add, "And I don't apologise for that, it's what I set out to do, just to be a little bit more outrageous than perhaps people have been lately."
But there are some excessive bits, no? The vomiting, the enemas, the cornflake factory in the pigsty, all those fat, wobbly people?
"They are in all my films. They fill the frame in a rather interesting way. The person who always points it out to me is the costume designer because she goes, `Oh God, not another big person', because that means she can't get it [the costume] off the peg. It must be a particular thing of mine. Probably just that much more interesting for me to have odd-looking people. If you look, there's plenty of other kinds of people in there too."
Many of the cast members who aren't fat are still pretty peculiar-looking. For example, the little boy who plays Dr Kellogg's prodigal son, George, during the flashbacks to childhood is a little whippet of a thing with a long, jowly chin, drooping eyes and jughandle ears.
"When you're casting, it's an exhaustive process. You always feel like you've got to see thousands and thousands. And I've got it down to a fine art. You give out two or three lines of a script - not the whole thing - and I tape everybody, so that afterwards, in the space of a day, I can literally see a couple of thousand people.
"In order to get that little boy, you have to look at five hundred kids. I liked him very much, but I wasn't sure, because he had to look like Dana Carvey [who plays George as an adult]. But I thought, God he's so interesting-looking! Then, instead of trying to find a kid who looked like Dana, I then tried to make Dana look like the kid. So Dana's ears were stuck out, you know, specially for the part. They just put a little piece behind the ears." Before filming, Parker scoured America for a suitable building for the sanatorium, and he had replicas of Dr Kellogg's enema equipment and peculiar foot and bottom baths built by loving craftsmen in England.
He visited Battle Creek and found an old man who had once worked as a security guard at the sanatorium and kept a big shed full of Kelloggite memorabilia, including "A gigantic stack of photographs... We just xeroxed everything. Literally, he had thousands of them."
Then Parker wrote the text, following the plot of Boyle's novel, but adding his own embel-lishments. He has the 70-year-old Kellogg die while performing a diving stunt, although in real life the doctor lived to 91 and passed away peacefully in bed. Some of Anthony Hopkins's more colourful aphorisms - "My own stools, sir, are gigantic and have no more odour than a hot biscuit" - Parker stole from other sources. And some - "An erection is a flagpole on your grave," for instance - he simply made up.
And the electric masturbation belt with the leather thonging and the silver-tipped codpiece?
"That was taken from a drawing in an old advertisement." Parker steals, invents, cobbles together, ducks and bobs, turns problems on their head. He devotes enormous attention to the texture of a film, to costumes, and casting and cinematography and set (it must "smell right"). The impression is of a man, ferociously concentrated - no wonder he has that tired-dog look - who works long and hard. No doubt a surgeon or a master chef would talk similarly. Films, Parker makes you feel, are about bossing people and getting the fine points right and working very, very hard. Meaning, symbolism, the "vision thing" are barely mentioned.
Parker thinks that he has mellowed. The angry lefty part of him, he says, is a part of him he has left behind. Now, living in the States, he has become somewhat Americanised and that, he implies, has helped to smooth his edges. Ask him now about the British film industry, and he sounds quite resigned. "It's still there, you know, it never dies. I don't know if it was ever that healthy, you know. People will say, you know, `oh, the golden days of Four Weddings and a Funeral', just like they say, `the golden days of Lawrence of Arabia'."
But nobody should underestimate him. Even the gentler version has a streak of ruthlessness, or rather a great, wedge-shaped core. And maybe, to get to where he is today, it had to be that way. After all, who ever heard of a "soft" director? And comedy, in particular, has always been a medium that attracted toughies.
Before I interviewed Alan Parker, I talked to Gerry Harrison, an old friend who hasn't seen Parker for many years. Harrison said, "Ask him about Uncle Jim." Here is Alan Parker's reply: "Uncle Jim was my mother's brother. He was a bus conductor on the 19bus route. When I was a kid he was really helpful to me; I wouldn't have got to the grammar school but for the fact that he would help me with my homework. When I first started directing, doing commercials, and Gerry Harrison was first assistant director, Uncle Jim used to come down to the back of the set and he would say, `He's very commanding, isn't he, that director?' And I would say, `No, I'm the director, he's first assistant director.' And he'd say, `No, no, no, he knows what he's doing.' He couldn't come to terms with the fact that I was actually the director."
With another terrible passive verb, Parker concludes, quite insouciantly: "So Uncle Jim was never allowed down to the shoot any more."
`The Road to Wellville' opens on 3 February
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