Mike Hodges in conversation at ID Fest 2012
Apparently, had MGM gotten their way, Yul Brynner would have played the villain in Get Carter – and Joan Collins would have turned up as a Geordie prostitute. Thank goodness director Mike Hodges stood firm, otherwise the classic Brit-noir might have looked… well, frankly, the mind boggles.
Derby QUAD’s ID Fest 2012 kicked off last night with a Q&A with Hodges, hitherto one of the unsung heroes of British cinema but unsung no longer. As the main guest over the weekend-long festival, Hodges was awarded Hero of Cinema for one of the most unpredictable careers of any director.
After helping to revolutionise current affairs TV with the crusading World In Action, Mike Hodges got his big break with Get Carter – but he didn’t let success go to his head. This most down-to-earth of filmmakers let whim, fortune and a gregarious outlook decide his projects. Who else could leap from Get Carter’s brutal control to camp-as-Glastonbury blockbuster Flash Gordon within the space of a decade? And who else would rather populate his debut feature with the weather-beaten likes of Alun Armstrong than Joan Collins?
Rarely for a director, there’s no plan. Mike Hodges never storyboards, preferring to decide what happens on the day. “I absorb the film, and somehow it tells me what it wants,” he offered last night by way of advice to budding auteurs. Case in point: when Melody Anderson’s costume as Dale Arden proved totally unsuited to the action required in Flash Gordon, Hodges made a running joke out of Dale having to take off her high heels and place them neatly on the floor before kicking alien arse.
The only thing he admits to taking time over is in the casting; he hand-picked every extra in the casino scenes in Croupier. If the face fits, then everything else will fall into place. Ironically, Hodges learnt this lesson on the set of Flash Gordon, when he asked producer Dino De Laurentiis (of whom Hodges does an amazing, insane impersonation) why he’d been hired. Was it because of his track record or shooting style? Nope. It was because Dino liked his face.
Then again, maybe it was also his personality that Dino liked. Mike Hodges is a lovely guy and a proper leftie, a guy who changed the setting of Get Carter’s source novel Jack’s Return Home from Yorkshire to Newcastle, because he wanted to capture the mix of vibrant character and grim poverty he saw when he took shore leave in North Shields as a sailor during National Service. Likewise, he only agreed to make The Omen 2 because of its anti-capitalist satire… only to quit when the producer brandished a gun at him.
Nearing 80 and half-deaf, Mike Hodges remains spiky and formidable. I was lucky enough to ask a question, about how Hodges (and peers such as Ken Loach) got away with making such radical work during their early years in 1960s British television. The answer? “Because we had freedom!” Sadly, Hodges’s laissez-faire approach to filmmaking doesn’t suit the modern era of focus groups and the tawdry search for finance, something he confesses to know nothing about (“despite being a qualified chartered accountant!” he observes wryly).
Hodges says he still harbours hopes of making a film out of a script he inherited from a late writer, which was originally penned in 1955 but abandoned because its author was blacklisted during the McCarthy witchhunt. If it ever got made, Hodges announces with a mix of wry amusement and rueful frustration, it would break the Guinness record for the longest amount of time a film had been in pre-production. Fingers crossed.