Producer. Nationality: British. Born: London, 25 February 1941. Career: 1960s—photographer's agent in London; 1970—first film as producer, Melody ; 1986—moved to Hollywood as production boss for Columbia; 1988—returned to England. Awards: Academy Award for Chariots of Fire , 1981; Michael Balcon Award, 1981. Knighthood, 1995. Address: Enigma Productions Ltd., 15 Queens Gate Place Mews, London SW7 5BG, England.
S.W.A.L.K. ( Melody ) (Hussein)
The Pied Piper (Demy)
Mahler (Russell); Swastika (Mora); That'll Be the Day (Whatham)
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (Mora); Stardust (Apted)
James Dean, the First American Teenager (Connolly); Lisztomania (Russell)
Bugsy Malone (Parker)
The Duellists (Scott)
Midnight Express (Parker)
Chariots of Fire (Hudson)
Experience Preferred But Not Essential (Duffell—for TV); P'tang Yang Kipperbang (Apted—for TV); Secrets
Arthur's Hallowed Ground (Young—for TV); Local Hero (Forsyth); Red Monarch (Gold); Sharma and Beyond
Cal (O'Connor); Forever Young (Drury); The Killing Fields (Joffé); Winter Flight (Battersby)
Defence of the Realm (Drury); The Frog Prince (Gilbert); Mr. Love (Battersby—for TV)
Knights and Emeralds (Emes); The Mission (Joffé)
Memphis Belle (Caton-Jones)
Meeting Venus (Szabo)
Being Human (Forsyth)
The Burning Season (Frankenheimer—for TV); The War of the Buttons (Roberts)
Le Confessionnal ( The Confessional ) (Robert Lepage)
My Life So Far (Hudson)
Sight and Sound (London), vol. 53, no. 2, Spring 1984.
American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1986.
The Listener (London), vol. 120, no. 3081, 22 September 1988.
"Art and the Bottom Line," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1989.
Screen International (London), no. 825, 20 September 1991.
Time Out (London), 25 September 1991.
"Art and Science Must Unite behind the Screen," in Times Educational Supplement (New York), no. 4122, 30 June 1995.
Yule, Andrew, Enigma: David Puttnam: The Story So Far , Edinburgh, 1988.
Kipps, Charles, Out of Focus: Power, Pride and Prejudice , New York, 1989.
Yule, Andrew, David Puttnam, Columbia Pictures & the Fast Fade , New York, 1989.
Eberts, Jake, and Terry Ilott, My Indecision is Final: The Rise and Fall of Goldcrest Films , London, 1990.
Walker, Alexander, in National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties , London, 1985.
Stills (London), November 1986.
Hollywood Reporter , vol. 298, no. 50, 18 September 1987.
Films and Filming (London), no. 398, November 1987.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 402, December 1987.
Variety (New York), 18 and 25 May 1988.
American Cinemeditor (Hollywood), vol. 38, no. 1, Spring 1988.
Premiere (Hollywood), no. 137, August 1988.
Film Comment (New York), vol. 25, no. 1, January-February 1989.
The Listener (London), vol. 122, no. 3105, 16 March 1989.
Sight and Sound (London), vol. 58, no. 4, Autumn 1989.
Starburst (London), no. 137, January 1990.
In Talking Films: The Best of the Guardian Lectures , edited by Andrew Britton, London, 1991.
Film Journal , vol 94, no. 9, June 1991.
Time Out , vol. 1101, 25 September 1991.
Variety (New York), vol. 349, 25 January 1993.
New York Times , 30 August 1994.
The Nation , vol. 259, 10 October 1994.
Times Educational Suppledment , no. 4087, 28 October, 1994.
Times Educational Supplement , no. 4160, 22 March 1996.
Variety (New York), 23/29 June 1997.
* * *
In Vincente Minnelli's 1952 film, The Bad and the Beautiful , Kirk Douglas gives a bravura performance as a Hollywood tycoon who manages to be both venal and visionary, a cultured philistine: he is at once a wheeler/dealer, with the nous to shimmy all the way to the top of the greasy pole, and an ardent cinephile, whose determination to make challenging and popular films is unwavering. He will go to extraordinary lengths to help his loved ones, but will betray a lifelong friend at the drop of a hat if it is to the advantage of the movie on the lot. This great ball of contradictions may have been based on MGM's wonderboy of the 1930s, Irving Thalberg, but his foibles and qualities are precisely those which characterize Britain's most prominent producer of recent years, David Puttnam.
A former advertising executive, Puttnam broke into the film business in the early 1970s, when Goodtimes, the company he formed with ex-agent Sandy Lieberson, backed the whimsical, somewhat saccharine Melody , which charted a schoolboy's love affair. To add a little lustre to this gooey teen romance, Puttnam filled the film with Bee Gees songs, and cast Mark Lester, who had recently starred as Oliver , in the leading role. It may not have seemed a particularly auspicious way to start, but Melody at least proved Puttnam could get a project off the ground. It was followed by two trenchant satires on the British rock and roll myth, That'll Be the Day and Stardust . These managed to combine posturing adolescent male rebellion à la James Dean with a canny, ironic portrait of British provincial life in the 1960s; to reconcile "swinging sixties" glamour with an irredeemable 1970s seediness.
In the early days, Puttnam's single greatest contribution as a producer was recognizing and harnessing the pool of filmmaking talent which lay untapped in British advertising. Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, who cut his teeth on The Duellists , Hugh Hudson, who directed Puttnam's greatest success of all, Chariots of Fire , and Adrian Lyne all made more or less successful transitions from TV commercials to the big screen under Puttnam's auspices.
Puttnam proved far less adept in dealing with established cinema names. His collaboration with the French director Jacques Demy yielded a mediocre Donovan vehicle, The Pied Piper ; his brief alliance with Ken Russell threatened to bankrupt him when Lisztomania rocketed over budget. Worst of all, his documentary with Marcel Ophüls, A Memory of Justice , a movie later lauded by the New York critics, ended in recrimination as he tried to elbow the French filmmaker off the project. Such heavy handed behaviour didn't become a producer ostensibly committed to nurturing and protecting creative talent. Puttnam's chutzpah and energy were undeniable, but his choice of material was sometimes questionable, and his facility for making enemies of anybody who stood up to or crossed him did him no favours at all.
After the 1982 success of Chariots of Fire —a success more closely identified with Puttnam than with the picture's director, Hugh Hudson, its stars, and even its Oscar-winning scriptwriter, Colin Welland—there was a predictable backlash against the bearded marvel: critics scoffed at Puttnam, decrying his resolutely middlebrow aesthetic vision. He in turn lambasted the critics, suggesting they bore much of the responsibility for the parlous state of the British film industry. Too many filmmakers, he suggested, were hamstrung by these critics, and ended up neglecting the needs and wants of the wider audience by making introspective, obscure films which never had a chance of success at the box office, however favourable their notices.
Still, there is no denying that Puttnam, along with Jake Eberts, the former banker who founded Goldcrest, were circumspect about the projects they backed. Generally, they plumped for tales of male heroism, rousing stories with a historical foundation and a rattling narrative to stir the emotions. They both seemed to share a patriarchal public service ethos, reminiscent of Reith's vision for the BBC, where entertainment and education went hand-in-hand: The Killing Fields , Chariots of Fire , The Mission , and Memphis Belle were all high-testosterone action adventures which came laced with a message. No gangsters or morally ambivalent figures clouded these movies, full as they were of Olympic runners, Jesuit priests, raw young American airmen and crusading journalists. Puttnam seemed to hold his nose at the prospect of sex and violence, and eviscerated his films as a consequence. Only Midnight Express , a project which he did not originate but which he oversaw for the American production company, Casablanca, delved into the seamier side of the human psyche.
Puttnam seems to see himself as the spiritual descendant of Sir Michael Balcon, the patrician boss at Ealing, whose studios "projected Britain and the British character." Local Hero , the West Highland fable he produced for director Bill Forsyth, is self-consciously in the tradition of Ealing's Whisky Galore , The Maggie , et al. However, Puttnam's only experience of running a studio was very different to Balcon's. From 1987 to 1988 he was chairman and chief executive of Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, and a major "player." It was not a happy experience. While his aims were laudable enough, his approach to being a Hollywood bigwig was arguably self-destructive. He wanted to get away from making sequels or gung-ho war pictures like Rambo , to rationalize studio practices and to reduce budgets. With this in mind, he himself lived modestly. As Charles Kipps observes, while his second-in-command drove a Rolls Royce, the less flamboyant Brit would turn up to work in an Audi: "It was as if the prince was brought to the palace in a gilded carriage while the king was deposited in an ox-cart."
He refused to play the game, and many respected him for it. But, to outsiders, he seemed as nepotistic as any of his predecessors. While turning down projects from such established names as Norman Jewison and Ray Stark, he gave a green light to pictures from his old British protégés: Bill Forsyth's Housekeeping and Ridley Scott's Someone to Watch Over Me were two of the earliest movies he developed at Columbia. There were also suspicions that he obliquely tried to sink the ill-fated Hoffman/Beatty extravaganza, Ishtar . After all, he had called Hoffman a "worrisome American pest" when he had been involved in the production Agatha , which he felt the American actor had hijacked, and he had savaged the extravagance of Reds when the infinitely cheaper Chariots of Fire beat it to the 1981 Best Picture Oscar. Furthermore, to placate Hudson, who had been aggrieved at what little credit he was given for Chariots' success, he suggested Hudson ought to have won the Best Director Oscar instead of Beatty.
Politicking has never been Puttnam's strongest suit, so it is little wonder his stay at Columbia was cut short. However, leaving Columbia by no means meant leaving motion pictures. Puttnam's Enigma Films, in joint venture with Warner Bros., among others, produced Memphis Belle and then Meeting Venus , featuring Glenn Close. Meeting Venus appropriately parallels Wagner's intentions that his opera Tannhauser reflect the chaos and alliances of the political factions of the day.
Controversy surrounded Puttnam's production of the HBO movie The Burning Season , which documents the murder of Brazilian activist Chico Mendes. Letters written by Puttnam to executives at Time Warner were discovered and published in The Nation. In these, Puttnam would appear to have sacrificed political, environmental, and perhaps even moral concerns in favor of liaisons with the government of Ecuador, Revlon, and Gulf Oil (who have significantly damaged the Brazilian rain forest, with dire consequences for the indigenous peoples of the region). When the film premiered in Los Angeles, representatives from two rain-forest activist groups were present to distribute leaflets in protest.
Working again with Welland in The War of the Buttons , Puttnam adapts the 1962 French original to the conflicts of Ireland. Using the landscape and political tension as a backdrop, he addresses the conflict experienced between children and adults, particularly when the former imitate the latter in the horrors of war. While many films have portrayed children as savage by nature, easily as corrupt as adults, Puttnam's young characters in The War of the Buttons affirm the innocence and purity of children.
Puttnam is a contradictory figure, difficult to warm to and easy to attack. But, whatever his detractors might say, he remains one of the few figures left with the gumption to get pictures made in Britain. At home in both the artistic and financial halls of the motion picture industry, Puttnam often empahsizes the educational potential of motion pictures. Denying that his pictures are didactically message oriented, however, Puttnam argues that his films strive for a balance between social and political issues and human relationships, providing an audience not only with entertainment but also with enlightenment. Perhaps Puttnam's passion for learning was inspired by his father's work as a journalist; indeed, journalists and the quest for knowledge and understanding feature prominently in many of his films. Puttnam insists that the British must lead the way in integrating education and media. Not only as a film producer, but as a Governor of the National Film School, a lobbyist for British film interests, and as a teacher, his contribution to British film culture in general has been immense.
—Geoffrey Macnab, updated by Carrie O'Neill