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A Film Issue

Michael Winner

Name another Brit filmmaker who cut pictures with Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Robert Duvall, Robert Mitchum and Sophia Loren. Struggling?
September 2, 2009, 12:00am

By James Knight

Portrait By Ben Rayner

Photos Courtesy of Michael Winner

Michael Winner is the funny-looking man from those “Calm down, dear!” insurance adverts on television. He is also one of the most successful directors Britain has ever produced.

Name another Brit filmmaker who cut pictures with Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Robert Duvall, Robert Mitchum and Sophia Loren. Struggling? Try adding to that the fact he basically created the careers of Oliver Reed and Charles Bronson for good measure.

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Having defined 1960s “swinging London” with films like

Play it Cool, West 11, The Jokers

and

I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname

, which invariably featured Reed and more than a little swearing and nudity than the the censors were happy with, he casually took on Hollywood, directing everything from Westerns (

Lawman

) to crime (

The Big Sleep

), hitman thrillers (

The Mechanic

) and horror (

The Sentinel

).

The defining moment of Winner’s busy Hollywood period came in 1974 with

Death Wish

when he let Bronson loose on the streets of New York to avenge the murder of his character’s wife and rape of his daughter to the tune of a Herbie Hancock soundtrack. While the concept of a normal guy getting mad and getting even has formed the template for a million movies since, no one had done this until Winner came along, and no one has done it as brutally and stylishly since.

After keeping

Vice

waiting for 15 minutes in his High Street Kensington sitting room, the walls of which heave with memorabilia, personal notes and signed photographs by everyone from Brando to Lancaster, Winner sails into the room spewing greetings, goodwill and orders to our photographer not to shoot him below his eyeline, or else. Apparently Orson Welles told him that it wasn’t a good look.

As well as being inhumanly tanned and in worryingly good shape for a 74-year-old, he also really likes saying “fucking” all the time. It’s kind of fucking contagious.

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Vice: Jimmy Page lives next door, I hear. How did you end up becoming neighbours?

Michael Winner:

I’ve lived in this area for years but Jimmy and I became very close when he did the music for

Death Wish 2

. We got on as soon as we met because I adored him straight away. He was well into his druggy period when he did that first score for me but he did it wonderfully well. He said he wouldn’t have anyone near him while he was composing the music. He’d never done music for film before and we wanted to be sure it would sync properly because in film the music has to fit with the image to within a 24th of a second. Jimmy told us that he wouldn’t send us anything until it was finished and no one could go and see him. The music is the last thing you stick on the film so we were all a bit nervous when it came in. I always edited all of my films myself and I remember running it through the machine so clearly. I’ll never forget that as I put my foot on the pedal to start the film the music and the picture moved together perfectly. It was unbelievable. Everything fitted to the 24th of a second.

Winner and a friend at a debutantes’ ball in the late 1950s. 

Directing Robert Mitchum and Joan Collins in The Big Sleep, 1978.

As well as Jimmy you’ve had more than a few A-list wining and dining buddies. Any favourites?

As a dinner companion or a gossip on the phone, Marlon Brando was the nicest, loosest, least competitive person you could meet. You actually felt like he was your buddy. Burt Lancaster I adored but he had an edge to him. He’d occasionally turn a bit sarcastic, a classic Scorpio. Of the women I worked with, Sophia Loren was the best. The most professional and witty. She appears quite haughty but she’s not once you get through to her. Ollie Reed was a dear friend. When I first met him he would drink every day in this pub in Soho and he’d written this story about a man who carried his house on his back up a hill that he wanted to make into a movie. The Ollie I remember was an artist.

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From the nudism in Some Like it Cool to the raunchy sex in Dirty Weekend and the sado-masochistic elements of Nightcomers, your early work shocked and surprised its way through the 60s. Did you purposefully intend to push the British film censor’s buttons?

Nightcomers

was pretty tricky for its day but it passed uncut in theatres. The video was cut though, and the same happened with

Dirty Weekend

which wasn’t actually banned, just censored. You do your best to get stuff out there and you just have to work thinking, “If I have trouble with the censor, I’ll deal with it when it happens”. I hit trouble many times and largely dealt with it. The censors were largely idiots, one of them was actually at Cambridge with me and he was a fucking idiot then and he was a fucking idiot as a censor. They all tended to be failed directors who suddenly find they have power over every director in the world and they misuse it.

As well as starring Orson Welles, didn’t I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname also feature the first recorded use of the word “fuck” on film?

I’m not sure about that but we ran into hot water because of a scene between Ollie Reed and Carol White’s character where cunnilingus was implied. You couldn’t see anything though so I don’t know what the big hoo-ha was about.

How did you make the transition from doing those Swinging London-type pictures to making movies in Hollywood?

I went over and did

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Lawman

and suddenly I was very hot with United Artists, they loved me. Basically, with cinema, if you’ve got the star you can film the menu of the Wolseley. We had Burt [Lancaster] and it was having him that really got the film going. Duvall was in it too but he was nothing at the time. Burt and I met and got along immediately but we would always argue. He threatened to kill me twice actually when he got in a temper. He dragged me up by the pelvis screaming, “You cock-sucking arsehole British piece of shit!”, the lot. Fuck me. But he remained a dear friend and he was a wonderful man so who cares if he tried to kill me a couple of times? We did two films together and that’s really how I got into Westerns and that Hollywood system. I’d never even done a Western before but I got very serious about it. I had American professors come up and look at locations and I wanted to get the details correct. I asked what they usually used for oil lamps and they said that they just used new ones and threw some dust on them. I told them that was ridiculous and that they could get authentic period oil lamps for 20 quid on the Portobello Road. So the crew were all coming over from England with these things crammed in their luggage. It was the most authentic Western ever made. Everything was real. We sold the set to John Wayne who was coming in and doing another movie on the set after us.

Backstage with Nat King Cole in 1954.

Directing Marlon Brando in The Nightcomers, 1972.)

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Did you ever meet Wayne?

Very briefly. I was staying in his house while we shot

Lawman

and I remember he was worried about the amount of raccoons there were on his land.

In 1972 you made three major motion pictures in a year. Now it takes Tarantino about a decade to do one.

It was a different world back then. We shot

Nightcomers

with Brando and after eight weeks we were already on to

Chatto’s Land

with Charlie [Bronson]. Now they want 20 re-writes on every script they see but back then it was all these Jews from Russia and all they wanted was a handshake. The studios were one man and it would all happen just like that. It took me three months to get a two-page deal memo out of ITV for a fucking afternoon TV show that I am working on now and it worked out as less money that a fucking Pimlico plumber gets on a Saturday afternoon call-out per hour. In Hollywood, before there were fucking faxes and emails, you could do a deal memo for an $11m movie in four fucking hours. Fucking unbelievable today. Plus everything is done with computers now.

Have you worked much with modern technology?

Not really. There was a 70s film festival in New York not long ago and they showed

Stone Killer

which got great reviews at the time. In a film like that, if a car came out of a seventh storey window there would be a man in it and after you yelled “Cut!” everyone would rush over to see if he was alive. Or at least how badly hurt he was.

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You did a run of movies throughout the 70s with Charles Bronson. How did you two first meet?

One of the great loves of my life was Jill Ireland. She told me she wanted to get married at 21 but I told her I couldn’t marry her as I was penniless so she went off and married David McCallum. She then got together with Charlie [Bronson] and when I first went to meet him before

Chatto’s Land

at the George V Hotel she was there and as I turned up shouted to Charlie, “Charles, it’s my old friend Michael from London” before turning to me and saying, “I’ve told Charlie all about us.” “Fuck me,” I thought, “this isn’t good” but we ended up getting on very well. Much later, Jill told me that she had told him that we were friends but not what had really been going on and that I mustn’t tell him. “Tell him?” I said, “The only question if he found out would be who he killed first, you or me”.

With Charles Bronson on the set of Death Wish 3, 1985.

With Bronson during the filming of Death Wish, 1974.

Wowsers, I wouldn’t want Charles Bronson coming after me. How did Death Wish come together?

Death Wish

started life as a novella by Brian Garfield that had sold about three copies to the writer’s family. That film is now lectured on in American universities. It was the first film in the history of the world where a civilian was the hero of the movie and killed other civilians. There have been 700 of them since. The most copied film of all time. Nobody wanted to make it and they thought I was mad. “You can’t make a film where the hero kills other people,” they’d say. Well, the people he kills are nasty people, you shouldn’t like them. Anyway, I had it for about two years and they finally gave me a free ride on it. They said that if they got their money back on the script I could produce and direct it. I remember proposing it to Charlie in the back of a limousine at LAX after we’d shot

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Stone Killer

. Charlie said to me, “Michael, what shall we make next?” I said, “Well, the best script I have is

Death Wish

, it’s about a man whose wife and daughter get mugged so he goes out and gets revenge by shooting the muggers.” He turned to me and said, “I would like to do that,” to which I replied, “Make

Death Wish

? Great!” and he just said, “No. I would like to shoot muggers.”

By comparison to the Daily Mail-style whining suffered by your early British films, Death Wish faced something like full-blown outrage.

They kept calling it a vicarious pleasure and I can tell you this: whenever Charlie killed anyone the whole theatre would burst into applause. London didn’t even have mugging then in the way it does now! Eleven years later someone shot a mugger in a subway in New York and it was blamed on

Death Wish

. If he learned that from

Death Wish

he was a fucking slow learner. When we made

Death Wish

most of the muggings in New York were committed by blacks and Hispanics because at that point they were the deprived people. The studio were nervous about how we were going to portray these muggers and they told us that we had to very careful with how we cast them. So we had mugging auditions. We brought boys in in groups of five to rape a chair and, believe me, you learned something: how loose people could be, how inventive they could be. They were very interesting auditions. The chief mugger ended up being a Jew and, being a Jew myself, I knew that the Jews would never complain. It turned out that this unknown Jewish mugger was Jeff Goldblum. No one had a clue who he was then but he was great and he ended up doing my next film, The Sentinel, which also had Christopher Walken in it.

Being held up by Sophia Loren while filming Firepower in 1979.

With James Coburn and some ex-American football player on the Firepower set, 1979.

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There’s big talk of a remake of the original Death Wish. Who would you like to see picking up Charlie’s Magnum?

Leo DiCaprio could do it. Daniel Day-Lewis would be great at it if he shut up for five minutes.

Out of all of your movies I reckon your remake of The Big Sleep was the most underrated. Who did that soundtrack?

Jerry Fielding. He was a fucking genius. He was an American composer who did a lot of work with Clint Eastwood and even did the soundtrack to

The Wild Bunch

. He used to say to me: “The trouble with you, Michael, is that you know fuck all about dubbing sound in movies, you know nothing about it. One day I’ll teach you about dubbing.” But he was so lovely that you didn’t care. He did about five of my movies but sadly he died young because he was savaged by the Un-American Activities Committee. They decided he was a communist and he ended up conducting a pit orchestra in Las Vegas and somehow they found out about that too, picketed the hotel, and he was fired from that as well. It damaged the immune systems of a lot of people, that persecution, and took them young. Look at Lee J. Cobb.

Having worked with some of the biggest names in modern Hollywood history, is there anyone you didn’t get the chance to work with who you feel you missed out on?

I’d have loved to have worked with Edward G. Robinson. Of the newer people, of course Hoffman, De Niro and Pacino. I also think that Renée Zellweger is a wonderful actress, very versatile. I also managed to turn down

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King Kong, James Bond, The French Connection

and

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

. Four of my many errors in life, but it goes on.

You’ve directed everything from horror to crime to Westerns and romances. Is there anything you’d say holds that body of work together?

Nearly all the films are about somebody who wants to make a statement or do something different. I don’t know if that reflects something in me but it seems to resonate with most people. Bronson’s character in

Death Wish

wanted to do something so he shot muggers. Ollie Reed’s character in

The Jokers

wanted to do something so he robbed the Crown Jewels. They are about people who want to get outside of society and make a statement regardless. They want to be seen and they want to know that they made a mark even if it’s not a gentle mark.

Having left a pretty big mark yourself, why did you decline your OBE in 2006?

First of all, I did not create the Police Memorial Trust to get a knighthood, so it seemed a load of bollocks. I worked for 20 years on it with my own money and managed to get up the first memorial on The Mall in over 100 years. I couldn’t give a shit about a CBE or a knighthood, so I just thought stuff it. If you look at the people who have turned down honours it makes for a wonderful list. I now put on my notepaper “Michael Winner, MA CAM OBE (but rejected)”. Fuck ’em.