My SBP interview with director Mike Newell, 30/03/08

Even when you’re a director as famous and well regarded as Mike Newell, there are some jobs that are hard to win. The Hertfordshire-born director has established a world-beating reputation with films including Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But back in 2005, Newell found himself in the unusual position of campaigning for a job he genuinely wasn’t sure he would land – the plum role of directing Love in the Time of Cholera, the highly anticipated film adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1985 masterpiece.

Newell had heard about the upcoming film while in the middle of fielding calls about owls and magic spells on the set of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, lucky man, owns the Harry Potter kitchen).

The producer of Love in the Time of Cholera, Scott Steindorff, had petitioned Garcia Marquez for five long years to allow him to make the film. Finally, Garcia Marquez had signed on the dotted line. Newell knew he wanted the film to be his next project. ‘‘I read the book when it first came out,” Newell explains. ‘‘I fell in love with it – I thought it was one of the four or five greatest novels ever written. I loved it for what it said and I loved it for the way it said it.”

The book tells the story of Florentino Ariza, a youth who becomes obsessed with the strong, beautiful Fermina Daza. When the pair meet for the first time, it’s the 19th century and Fermina is 13 years old. Florentino, a charming telegraph operator, swears his ‘‘everlasting love’’ for Fermina in a letter, but Fermina’s father – an ambitious social climber who is hell-bent on having his daughter marry well – forbids her from seeing him.

‘‘Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other and wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered them,” writes Garcia Marquez.

‘‘Never in that delirious spring, or in the following year, did they have the opportunity to speak to each other. Moreover, from the moment they saw each other for the first time until he reiterated his determination a half century later, they never had the opportunity to be alone or talk of their love.”

Fermina marries Dr Juvenal Urbino de la Calle – a well regarded cholera doctor – and Florentino must endure the pain of her rejection.

But Florentino refuses to give up; he waits 51 years, nine months and four days to finally win over his Fermina. The complexity, deftness and delicacy of Garcia Marquez’s prose, the scale of his vision, the sprinkling of magic realism and the wisdom of his central narrator are just some of the elements that elevate Love in the Time of Cholera to the status of a modern masterpiece.

With such a wonderful book, it’s no wonder so many people were wary of the notion that it could be turned into a film of a couple of hours duration. But Newell, like Steindorff and the film’s screenwriter, Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), were confident that it could be done. ‘‘I stalked that film,” Newell says, with a broad, confident laugh. ‘‘I went first to the writer and he said, ‘I can’t help you. I’m just the writer.’ He gave me the producer’s number. And I went on.” And Newell got the job.

It’s a curious experience, interviewing Newell at this moment in time, because the film has already been released in the United States and widely dismissed as a flop. In the film version, Florentino is played by Javier Bardem, fresh from No Country for Old Men, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar win and a haircut from hell. Fermina, meanwhile, is played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno, the Venice Film Festival’s Volpi Cup Winner for the film Don’t Tell.

The reviews have veered from lukewarm to scathing. ‘‘A valiant attempt to turn a complex novel into a compelling movie is hamstrung by a conventional literary sensibility, an uneven tone and, crucially, a failure to establish a moving, meaningful connec-Empire magazine. Another critic opined that had Newell simply filmed an actor reading aloud the book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for 140 minutes, it would have made for a more valuable piece of celluloid.

The film isn’t quite as bad as that – but it’s not much better either.

Lacking a clear sense of artistic vision, the film flirts with grand themes – the notion that love can prevail – but seems to find more of a natural home in the lighter, slapstick moments.

Bardem’s character, seeking to quash the pain of losing his beloved, sleeps with woman after woman. Often, you feel like you’re watching some sort of bizarre mash-up of a Carry On film with Love in the Time of Cholera. It’s entertaining, in a nutty bad film kind of way – and the setting in the historic walled city of Cartagena in Columbia is visually sumptuous – but it makes absolutely no sense as a serious work of art.

To a large extent, you suspect that Newell is doing these interviews not just to promote his film, but also to defend it to the world. Failure doesn’t seem like an acquaintance Newell meets often.

A pleasure to talk to, Newell’s whole attitude fairly radiates confidence and belief in his project. When I tell him, choosing my words carefully, that I found the film ‘‘entertaining on several levels’’, he beams.

In Newell’s opinion, the film has had a difficult birth because people dislike watching older people on the big screen.

For their roles, Bardem and Mezzogiorno age several decades. When they finally become a couple, Newell feels that viewers of the film have had trouble handling the love scenes that follow. ‘‘There’s an injustice going on here that the emotions and the sexuality of old people are simply not allowed. This is not a story in which old people can be swept under the carpet. It’s their age which counts and the fact that they still love and desire one another even after 70. It’s shocking and wonderful.

‘‘But we showed it at a test screening where nobody knew what they were going to be watching. And there was a 19-yearold kid down the front and when the love scene between the old couple came up, he went, ‘bleurgh’ – and he went on doing it very loudly.”

Presumably, the 19-year-old found the love scenes between the younger couples a little easier to bear. In attempting to ease his loneliness, Florentino sleeps with 622 women. Leaving the film, you feel like you’ve seen at least 621 of those scenes. All in all, it’s quite a feat.

‘‘Florentino does fill in the blank spots with other girlfriends,” Newell laughs. ‘‘All the girls were absolute heaven. They were so sweet. With one of them, he’s making love to her under a bridge and I didn’t want to be coarse, I didn’t want to embarrass them. But the girl just said, ‘On a count of between 80 and 100, where am I when we start?’ I said, ‘You’re about 93’.The only thing that numbs the pain for Florentino is sex.”

Newell was at times embarrassed that he was asking such acclaimed actresses to play such limited roles. But one actress – ‘‘a very respected girl from Bogota’’ – soon set him straight. ‘‘It’s fine,” she insisted to Newell. ‘‘The clothes are nice and I get to have Javier Bardem.”

Newell laughs. Thankfully, it was Bardem minus the hangdog haircut he sported in No Country For Old Men.

‘‘That spooky haircut is the thing you remember most from No Country for Old Men,” Newell says. ‘‘Javier was shooting No Country for Old Men when I was preparing Love in the Time of Cholera. The two flowed, one from the other. I went to New Mexico to talk to him and show him costumes and that sort of stuff. And I asked him how the film was going. And he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’m going to get away with this haircut.’ “

Now that he has almost finished promoting Love in the Time of Cholera, Newell has his eye on new horizons. His next film will be Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a project that has been developed from a video game.

The upcoming film seems yet another unexpected move from Newell in a film history that has taken in myriad genres.

Looking back over Newell’s movies, from Enchanted April (1992) through to Donnie Brasco (1997) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2007), can he see common threads linking the films together?

‘‘For me there’s absolutely a common thread,” Newell says. ‘‘When I was a kid, my parents, particularly my dad, were great amateur theatricals. The house was always stuffed with play scripts and I learned as a kid to read dialogue quicker and easier than any other kind of writing. And so, from ten years old, I was reading plays. What I loved about the plays were the characters.

‘‘In all the stories I like to do you’ve got a good character in a bad jam. That’s what Hugh Grant is in Four Weddings, that’s what Miranda Richardson is in Dance with a Stranger. That’s what Julia Roberts is, to an extent, in Mona Lisa Smile. That seems to me to be entirely consistent. The fact that they skip around the genres doesn’t matter to me at all – what I see is consistency.”

Before we finish the interview, I ask Newell a final question about Love in the Time of Cholera: what did Gabriel Garcia Marquez think of the film? There’s a delicate pause as Newell considers his response. ‘‘He saw the film first when it was finished in August. And he punched the air as if he had just scored a goal. “ ‘Congratulations,’ he said. ‘Now we can make another film just as long and just as good with all the bits you didn’t use.’

‘‘Eight months later, because he’s a cantankerous old sod, he changed his mind and said, ‘Oh, they missed it by a mile.’ Well, you pick the bones out of that. ‘Can we have the million dollars back please, Gabriel Garcia Marquez?’ “

And then Newell laughs his confident laugh and moves on to another topic, brushing the thoughts of failure away from him.

Love in the Time of Cholera is on general release.

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