The movie that mattered to me

In a new book by Independent writer Geoffrey Macnab, the world's leading film directors talk about the films that first inspired and influenced them

Friday 27 November 2009 01:00

The idea that someone is so overwhelmed by an individual film that it changes their lives and turns them, almost instantly, into a movie director is, perhaps, far-fetched.

For most of the interviewees here, it was not a case of a single "Rosebud" moment. The Rosebud parallel is instructive, though. In Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, the word whispered on the dying tycoon's lips promises, at first, to unveil the mystery of his life. Of course, it does no such thing. It's a storytelling device – what Alfred Hitchcock might have called a "McGuffin".

Nevertheless, the word is a hint: Rosebud is the name on the childhood sledge that we see burned at the end of the movie. It's the door that leads to Kane's past. The same might be observed of many of the "epiphanies" the film-makers discuss here.

The interviewees here often talk about their "epiphanies" in terms of the getting of knowledge. In their childhoods, films were simply "there", projected on the screen as if by magic. They saw movies as unmediated, magnified reality. Even when they did question the device, they would do so in a naive fashion. For some, the discovery of the craft behind the films was a disappointment. Just like Dorothy when she learns that the Wizard of Oz is just a tubby man behind a curtain, they feel short-changed. For others, the contrivance is itself magical. They begin to have the sense that they, too, could create something akin to this.

The interviewees here have often discussed more than a single film. They have responded by talking in intimate detail about their childhood cinema-going or about how they took their first steps in the film industry. For some, the moment of epiphany was not a specific film but the people they met or experiences they had at formative moments in their film-making careers.

Screen Epiphanies by Geoffrey Macnab is published on Monday by BFI/Palgrave Macmillan for £14.99

Danny Boyle

Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola, 1979

I had always wanted to be a film director since seeing A Clockwork Orange, but it was in the same way that I wanted to be a train driver. It wasn't practical really. I never went about doing anything about it. I did plays at school and I directed assemblies on stage. Then I went to university and started doing drama. I started directing there properly but I was directing for theatre (not film).

When I came to London for a job in the theatre, I was living in a place in Fulham with some mates. They gave me a bedroom to stay in. I was an assistant stage manager, driving the truck, sweeping up and setting up the stages. They were an amazing company called Joint Stock Theatre Company. Outside the flat in Fulham, there was this huge billboard.

One day, this black poster went up with Apocalypse Now on it. I am sure I must have known something about it from Time Out or whatever. Anyway, I went to see it. That was the moment when everything suddenly made sense.

I guess what it does it that it collides some of the elements of American mainstream cinema from the time and art. That was what Coppola had done in a way. What was interesting about it for me was that I was so transformed by it.

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My dad came down to stay with me in London. I wanted to take him to see Apocalypse Now. The only place it was on was at the Prince Charles cinema. Then, unlike now, the Prince Charles cinema usually showed porn but they were showing Apocalypse Now. I took him to see it. Before the film began, there were all these trailers for porn. It was so embarrassing sitting there with my dad, watching these quite explicit group-sex orgy films.

Then Apocalypse Now began and we sat there. What I remember was trying to persuade him how great it was. It was like trying to persuade him that Led Zeppelin and David Bowie were great artists and wanting him to come on board about it. But in fact I don't remember his response to it at all. Why that's weird is that he fought in the war. He was in the RAF. His friends were killed. He left the RAF because if you stayed in the RAF as what he was – which was a gunner – you basically got killed. You got paid a lot of money. You were very glamorous. You had the best uniform and the girls flocked around you but basically you died quite soon. So he left and transferred into the army, which was what a lot of guys did.

It's typical of being that kind of age that I never really asked him what he thought of the film. I tried to convince him what a great film it was but he never spoke about it in that way.

There is something that haunts most directors, which is that we don't really do anything useful although we're thought of as being useful. He [my dad] fought in the war and contributed something and yet all I wanted him to do was watch Francis Ford Coppola's version of the war. It didn't undermine the film for me but it categorises film for me in a way. Film often runs in parallel with life and it feeds off it but I don't think it necessarily nurtures it. I don't think it necessarily contributes in the way we think it does. We, in our world, in our bubble that we work in, imagine that it does but I am not sure that it does.

Mike Leigh

Room at the Top

Jack Clayton, 1959

In 1959 in Salford, at the local cinema, I saw Room at the Top. I have a great respect for Jack Clayton (the film's director, whom I actually knew a bit). When I think back on Room at the Top, it was not a great film. When you look at it, it still has pretty ropey, old-fashioned acting and ludicrous casting. The choice of Laurence Harvey! He is as northern and working class as Oscar Wilde himself.

But at the time I saw it, at the age of 16 or whatever, the epiphany was watching and experiencing a film that was looking at the real world – which was the very world outside the cinema when I stepped out into the street.

Gurinder Chadha

Purab aur Pachhim

Manoj Kumar, 1970

There was one real epiphany. That was in 1970, when an Indian film came out called Purab aur Pachhim directed by Manoj Kumar. Purab aur Pachhim means "East or West". It is the most fantastic Indian film because not only does it conform to a Bollywood tradition of songs and dances, it also has fantastic social and intellectual ambition.

It was the first film that really tried to make sense of the British-Asian experience. The story starts during the Freedom Movement, before the independence of India. These two men are fighting for India's freedom. The British kill one of them. The other escapes. It's an "oh, the Brits have been terrible to us" intro. Then, suddenly, it's 1947, India has won its independence and the British flag comes down all creaky in black-and-white, the Indian flag goes up and all of a sudden, the screen bursts into colour.

You cut forward 20 or 30 years. The son of one of the freedom fighters is now the hero of the film. He is called Bharat [Manoj Kumar], which means "motherland". He is coming to England to study at Oxford. His dad died but the other freedom fighter survived and is now living in England with his two kids. Bharat comes to stay with him. He arrives with all his ambition in England. As soon as he gets off the plane, he meets the other members of the man's family. The daughter has got peroxide hair, a miniskirt and high heels. The guy is wearing a flower-power tunic and trousers with a handlebar moustache. It's hysterical. You can watch it now and laugh at it. At the time, I was absolutely appalled. The whole film talks about how backward and fucked up kids growing up in England are. The film wasn't without wit and it was quite clever. It was prophetic in some ways. He [the director] knew what was coming but it was one of those films that had it so totally wrong that it was risible. On the other hand, there was nothing else out there.

It was immensely watchable. It was an immensely important film for me.

Sally Potter

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday

Jacques Tati, 1953

As a child, I probably knew every frame of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday. I knew the sequences off by heart. I think what indelibly struck me was not so much the comedy of it, which often felt slow, as the compassion in the observation: this observation of small moments, a swinging door. The emptiness of the soundtrack, which just has one or two effects dropped into it. Almost the feeling of it as a kind of meditation on loneliness and the social behaviour of people attempting to have a good time. It was the tragic part of the comedy that impressed me and the minimalism of the means with which it was realised. I think as a child I was experiencing it as a minimalist transcendent meditation more than as the work of a comic genius.

I just quickly looked up something about Tati and discovered something which I hadn't known before, which was that he lived most of his life in poverty, having to raise mortgages on his previous films to raise money for the next ones. The solitariness of that position as a film-maker I realised was imbuing the films themselves with the melancholy. I found that a fascinating piece of hidden information about the work.

Mira Nair

La Jetée

Chris Marker, 1962

I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a scholarship at Harvard when I was 19. I had come from Orissa, a very small town in India. I didn't really see films there. When I was at university in Delhi, it was pretty much solidly theatre. My father was a civil servant. There was nothing obsessive or passionate [in his attitude to cinema]. He was much more in love with and devoted to classical music. He passed that on to me. Music was very alive in our home. But we lived in a town that was remote even by Indian standards. It was with that kind of unformed mind, not knowing that cinema could be a serious form of expression, that I went to Harvard.

It was only at the age of 20 or 21 that I understood cinema could be taken seriously. I never had any involvement with it [before then]. When I was 20, I enrolled in a course in film-making. It was pretty hard to get into.

Ten people only were admitted. I got in based on a series of still photographs I had taken. My professor showed the class La Jetée. That was certainly the epiphany. I saw it in a classroom with maybe 15 people and my professor. It was unforgettable. It crystallised that this would be possible for me, too. This I understood. This I was turned on by – the rigour, the economy, the photographic quality and the fact that you could make something big and impactful out of an idea, but not needing millions. La Jetée was unapologetically apocalyptical ... and vast.

Lars von Trier

Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubrick, 1975

Watching Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon is a pleasure, like eating a very good soup. It is very stylised and then suddenly comes some emotion [when the child falls off the horse]. There is not a lot of emotion. There are a lot of moods and some fantastic photography, really like these old paintings.

Thank God he didn't have a computer. If he had a computer at that time, you wouldn't care, but you know he has been waiting three weeks for this mountain fog or whatever. It is overwhelming with the boy, because it is suddenly this emotional thing. The character Barry Lyndon is not very emotional. In fact, he is the opposite. He is an opportunist.

I saw the film when it came out. I was in my early twenties. The first time I saw it, I slept. It was on too late and it is a very, very long film. What is interesting is that Nicole Kidman told me Kubrick hated long films. If you have seen Barry Lyndon, the last scene of the film, where she is writing out a cheque for him, is extremely long. It goes on and on and on, but it's beautiful.

The good thing is that Kubrick always sets his standards. Barry Lyndon to me is a masterpiece. He casts in a very strange way, Kubrick. It is a very strange cast. But that is how the film should be, of course. This thing that he liked short films was very surprising. And he liked Krzysztof Kieslowski very much. He was crazy about Kieslowski.

I don't know if Kubrick saw any of my films, but I know Tarkovsky watched the first film I did and hated it! That is how it is supposed to be.

The narration in my films Manderlay and Dogville is definitely inspired by Barry Lyndon, and the narration there is this ironical voice, this whole chapter thing, the feeling there are chapters. I have done that in Dogville and Manderlay and to some extent in Breaking the Waves. It is all Kubrick!

Kevin Macdonald

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943

I grew up in the countryside in Scotland, a million miles from anything cinematic. My grandfather was this very distant figure in my life. I was told, as I was growing up, that he had made films. They weren't films that really appealed to a child. They weren't Walt Disney. Nor were they action movies or Westerns or Lawrence of Arabia. I remember there was a season of his films in about 1977. We rented a VCR machine and recorded all the films. I tried to watch them, but except for The Spy in Black and Contraband, which had a certain derring-do, I found them dull. I never really spoke to my grandfather about the films.

Then, I went to university at Oxford. I was 18 or 19. A year or two later, my grandfather had become very ill and had gone into an old people's home. My brother and I were in the strange position of being his only relatives. My mother wasn't really in contact with him. We felt responsible for this old man, who was in his eighties. I had a strong emotional bond with him even though I hadn't spent a lot of time with him in childhood. I went to see him every few months. For a young person to see him in that setting, it was quite upsetting. He was somebody who had led an extraordinary life and who had ended up alone with no relatives apart from his two grandchildren.

There was a film club at Oxford. One Saturday, they showed The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I said to friends, let's go and see that. I think because he was unwell and shortly after that died, I was particularly emotionally open to the film. I sat there and it was a sort of epiphany. I realised that this wasn't just a very good film but that he [my grandfather] was a film-maker of genius and this was one of the best films I had ever seen. Not only that, but I could see – because I was attuned to him and his story – so much of him in the film. I realised that this film had come out of his own own life and his experiences. It wasn't just that one of the characters was a refugee and an émigré from Germany, as he was.

Paul Schrader


Robert Bresson, 1959

I was a protégé of Pauline Kael and very much set on becoming a film critic. Pickpocket was finally released in Los Angeles, ten years after the fact. It was shown at the big arthouse theatre. I saw it and I was extraordinarily impressed in a way that it took me a while to figure out why. Rather than write a single review, I wrote about it for two weeks running.

Even though my reviews were long, I couldn't fit everything I had to say in the space for one review. Out of that came the desire to write the book on transcendental style. More importantly, I saw a kind of film that I not only liked but I knew how to make – I knew I could make. This was a kind of existential character drama about a single character who is in every scene and who drifts around, peeping in on the world, who is a solitary man, who lives in a spare room and who is slowly undergoing a transformation.

Now, I never have tried nor would I ever try to make a film as austere as Bresson did. That is a very specialised kind of talent and I am not that kind of film-maker. You don't compete in that territory unless it's the only way you know how to make films. You can't copy Bresson. But I have been making that sort of film ever since with variations and deviances.

Martin Scorsese

The Red Shoes

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948

I used to call it brushstrokes, the way Michael Powell used the camera in The Red Shoes. Also, the ballet sequence itself was like an encyclopaedia of the history of cinema up to that point. They used every possible means of expression, going back to the earliest days of silent cinema.

In the documentary I am making about British cinema, I have to approach it from my point of view, from what I experienced and how I experienced it. It was literally intertwined with American cinema. Watching British film was as natural as watching a Western. We began to understand the different genres of British cinema, whether it was The Blue Lamp, John Ford's Gideon of Scotland Yard, An Inspector Calls or Seth Holt's films, let alone the films by Joseph Losey or Basil Dearden or Ronald Neame. In its very restrained way, Kind Hearts and Coronets was a film that influenced a great deal what I do with voiceover.

(But) I keep coming back to The Red Shoes. If I come back from shooting a film at 3am from a night shoot or at dawn and it is on, I find it difficult to go to sleep. It is a film that I continually and obsessively am drawn to. It was hard to see good colour copies of the film. I sought out whatever theatre they were playing in. Eventually, we obtained colour television sets and we saw it at least on colour on TV. The big prize was to get a good 16mm colour print. That was a major coup, to get that or at least to see it. That became a kind of obsessive search.

Nick Park


Alfred Hitchcock, 1940

There is one film that comes to mind that I've probably enjoyed more than any other, just in terms of what I get from it, and that is Hitchcock's Rebecca. I can watch that and keep on going back to it – savouring the drama, the photography and the story. I saw it when I was at college at Sheffield Polytechnic back in the late Seventies. I think I saw it in the holidays, as an afternoon matinee, on the TV. I love Sunday matinees. It evokes all of that, really. I love just sitting down and watching an old black-and-white film.

I was studying model animation – all sorts of animation, really, on a communication arts course which comprised film and photography. It was a crash course in film-making. We had film studies and watched all sorts of films from the history of film-making. I would draw my inspiration from all these things, really, as well as animation. With Rebecca, first of all it's a Daphne du Maurier novel. He [Hitchcock] is standing on her shoulders really. It is the way he brought it to the screen. He is such a visual film-maker. It's the way he dealt with the Mrs Danvers character, the evil housekeeper who is keeping the old Mrs De Winter's memory alive. It's the intrigue, the story – I just love mystery and intrigue and the way Hitchcock deals with it as well – the way the whole story is about somebody who is dead.

Film-making is a meeting of many skills: photography, acting, execution, costume, music – the whole choreography. I love the way she [Mrs Danvers] is portrayed in a very simple and well-defined way – not just dialogue but visually as well. It's the way Hitchcock gets her to float around, as if she has no legs. She is very ghost-like. She very much haunts the place. There is a particular scene I have always relished when she is trying to drive the new Mrs De Winter [Joan Fontaine] insane and to kill herself – she is talking about Rebecca as if she still exists, as if she is still there. She does believe it as well, I think. She is mad in a beautifully executed way, mad in an interesting way – you love her as a character as well. You so sympathise with the Joan Fontaine character, with the situation she is in and the world she has entered, with her distant husband, who is obviously saddened and distracted. There is a massive kind of reversal. You think he still loves Rebecca and then you find out he never did.

I love all of that, just the art of the film-making – the way you can withhold information. Animation suggests movement all the time. For me, it is very much about knowing when not to move things and how to dramatise.

I see slightly the influence of Mrs Danvers coming through in the penguin in The Wrong Trousers. It's nowhere near the same level but the way Steve Box, my fellow animator on that film, dealt with the character and the way we talked about it was as if the penguin was a Mrs Danvers – very kept, very constrained in movement, and so movement becomes more meaningful. We could easily have portrayed a penguin with a funny waddle or something – the way you would expect animation to do it.

Stephen Frears

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment

Karel Reisz, 1966

Meeting Karel Reisz really changed my life. He came to do a play and Lindsay [Anderson] said, "Oh, you should have Stephen," and I was going to work on it. Then, he couldn't cast the play and it collapsed. Karel said, you better come and work on my film, which was Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment.

I went to work on his film. I had never been on a film set before. Betsy, his widow, said he came home one day and said he had a very bright chap who was going to be his assistant. I don't know why he said that. That was more epiphany-forming than anything else. Karel was a wonderful man, a fantastic human being. He was a family man. Lindsay was much more obviously an artist. Karel valued his family because he had lost his family in the war and he had lost his country afterward. He had had bad times. The truth is I don't really remember anything except being in a mess the whole time. All I wanted to do was find out who I was or what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

It wasn't as if I really wanted to make a film. I just wanted to sort myself out. Seeing Karel, I just thought, this is a very nice man and this is a very nice life. He had values that I rather admired.

Then I went to work for Albert [Finney] and made a little film in Tangier [The Burning] about South Africa and I started getting work for television. It was never, "Oh, I really want to make a film," the way that people talk about it now. I just wanted to sort out who I was. I started making children's films and then I met this chap called Neville Smith and we wrote Gumshoe. I started getting to know people like Ken Loach and Tony Garnett and began to know what my generation was doing and what it was interested in. So it was really just following certain people. Meeting Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson was a human epiphany as opposed to a "going to the movies" epiphany.

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