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Mike Newell Talks Great Expectations
...and Harry Potter in Empire's webchat transcript

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Stepping into the giant shoes of David Lean, 'Marvellous' Mike Newell has delivered a fresh take on Great Expectations just in time for the Charles Dickens bicentennial. Leaving this odd coincidence aside for a moment, we welcomed him into the office to undergo the trial by question that is the Empire webchat. He answered your probings on everything from Pip's romantic tribulations, to Potter and his early days on Corrie. If you've ever wondered how he managed to make Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire AND score all those goals for Blackburn Rovers, you've come to the right place.

Mike Newell Talks Great Expectations

GreatGatsby said: There have been many adaptations of Great Expectations on film and TV. How do you go about making it feel fresh again?
I guess the way you go about making it fresh is that you have some big version of the story that you think hadn’t quite been told before. There have only been two movies of this (maybe you could count three), but I felt that this was very contemporary, because it was a great big passionate and very sexy love story. Not like the John Mills love story at all, which was very ‘British’ and stiff-upper-lipped, and so on. This was about obsession, about a guy who was driven crazy by love and who betrayed everyone about him to get where he needs to be for the girl. But it’s also about money, and how money steers you wrong if you’re not careful.

So Pip beings to think that he IS a gentleman, just because he has money – and, well, he isn’t. He gets to discover that it’s a delusion, and he gets to discover that he screws himself up and everyone around him through that delusion. I think it’s Dickens; it’s Dickens writing about himself. I think that’s what he’s doing. You know, Dickens had fantastic success, audiences with the Queen, and all the time he’s saying: “You’re a fake, you’re a fake”. And he dumps his wife and 12 children, and runs off with a 20 year-old actress.

Robf7 said: Did you consider doing it as a contemporary piece?
"Great Expectations is a big, passionate and very sexy love story."
No. And the reason for that was this: Alfonso Cuarón is a friend of mine. We did adjoining Harry Potters and got to know one another then, and I bumped into him a couple of years ago and asked me what I was doing. I said I was doing a version of Great Expectations, and he took the forefinger of both hands and made the sign of the cross! And he meant that he had done that and felt that it hadn't worked. And he's a brilliant director; there were things that he did in that I stole, that were tremendous.

But what I felt was that, particularly because this was an English production, it put a responsibility on you to either do a version that was SO modern and SO not the Dickens that it was nearly unrecognisable, or - which was the more interesting challenge to me - you had to do it as a full Dickens story. But you had to do it and also make it contemporary. So you had to do not the stood-back version of David Lean, but make it hotter and more 'now'.

Potter1 said: Did you watch the Potter films after doing Goblet Of Fire? What did you think of them? Have you got a favourite (yours excluded of course)?!
Well, I watched them all – of course I watched them all! I enjoyed the last one, because the last one was Harry Potter Fights The Second World War, and it had more distinguished rubble than I’ve seen in any movie! And I very much enjoyed Potter-rubble. The thing about the last four movies is that they were all by the same director, and making a Potter movie is like fighting the battle of Stalingrad; it’s a huge challenge. I watched them all and was open-mouthed that David was still alive! But I did like mine, actually. I don’t always, but I did like that one.

Duckface said: What was it like cutting your teeth in The Rovers Return on Coronation Street in the '60s? Also, it's our round: what are you having?
I'll have a pint of mild and bitter, thank you! They always drink mild in the Rovers - or they did then anyway.

Coronation Street was an invaluable experience. Everyone said to me before I started that it was going to teach me wonderful things about the techniques of directing onscreen, which was rubbish because those cameras ran in grooves on the floor, there were no new shots there. But learning to say “Good morning” to Pat Phoenix in the mornings when she had a hangover has stood me in good stead for the rest of my career. She was a huge star - they were all enormous national stars. And we were spotty little Herberts, and their attitude was, "You sit there and we'll find something for you to do". They were wild, they would run the show around you. They were tremendous, and that was very valuable. I looked one of them up the other day and she was dead, poor lamb.

If you're a Coronation Street fan, answer me this question: where is Sandra Gough? [Empire goes away to find out]

Mike Newell Talks Great Expectations
Mike Newell directing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Steven Samurai said: Are you a football fan? Are you aware of your namesake, who used to play for Blackburn Rovers? And if so, have you ever met?
I've never met him, but he also used to manage Luton Town. I'm not particularly a football fan, but I live in north London, and I can hear when Arsenal score, and it's fantastically exciting. Down the road you can hear the roar.

DonnieBrasco said: Is there an actor you haven't yet worked with, that one day you'd love to?
I have a particular love of an actor that I did work with, oddly, in Donnie Brasco, who has since become a wonderful talent: Paul Giamatti. I would love to do a whole movie with Paul Giamatti. He played a tiny part; he had a wonderful scene where he and Johnny were riffing on the phrase "Forget about it". But he's become so good now, I'd love to do a whole film with him. But there are so many I'd love to work with.

Douglas Dirk said: Star Wars Episode VII, Mike. Do you fancy it?
Yes I do, but I’m not going to get it!

Duckface said: I heard you telling an amazing Johnny Depp whoopee cushion story on the Empire podcast. Did you learn any other practical jokes from him?
God, you want another one compared to that?! No, it’s interesting because he was very… Johnny. I don’t know what he’s like now because I haven’t seen him for some years, but then he was absolutely a nice boy. He was a boy you would like to introduce your mother to, very quiet and respectable, and not noticeably drunk or drugged.

So what he did was stay out of Al’s way, and just had that one glorious joke in the car. He came along for Al’s last day – I noticed him standing around on set and he wasn’t called, and I asked him what he was doing there, and he nodded and said, “It’s Al’s last day”. He was a very decent guy and I don’t see why he would have changed.

MattHooper said: How long a shadow does the Lean version of Great Expectations cast? How did it influence you, if at all?
It influenced me very greatly because it casts a very long shadow, because lots of people will say, when they've seen my version of this story, that it's not as good as the David Lean. It's bound to happen. I watched it like a hawk - I watched it again last night because I knew I'd be asked questions like this. I used the sea sequence almost shot-for-shot, because it's very difficult to shoot water and he did it technically brilliantly. I got a storyboard artist to show me the David Lean version, and cherry picked that. What I found useful in a negative way was that I found it a very unerotic story about love.

Lean understood eroticism well enough, but he didn't put it in that movie. So I could add that. But they're two very different versions. Aside from anything else, I think David Lean probably had a long time to shoot. He built a lot and spent a lot of money, I think. But it’s as important to see that movie as it is to read the novel.

DonnieBrasco said: What can you tell us about your new film Reyjavik? Very excited to see that Christoph Waltz is starring in it as Gorbachev!
How much do you want to know about Reyjavik? We have the story of the beginning of the end of the Cold War. What's tremendous about the story is that the leaders of those two superpowers came together and the Americans thought that the reason they were there was simply to make their diaries agree on a date in Washington when things would get done. What had happened to Gorbachev was that Chernobyl had blown out and there was fallout all over Europe. He realised that his technology didn't work and that the Americans had this thing called Star Wars that would shoot missiles down in space before they hit their target. In fact, it didn't work and everyone told him that, but he reasonably said, "With the Americans, you never know!".

Somehow he wanted to get them to stop that programme. So he went in with the idea that he would offer the Americans such a huge reduction in the Soviet nuclear forces that the Americans would have to match it. For the Russians it was vital, economically - they were bankrupt. So he went along and said he was prepared to decommission 50 per cent of his missiles if they gave up Star Wars. And one of the difficult things about the movie will be what people remember or not.

Do we know Reagan or not? So what the generation over 40 remembers is that Reagan was dim - except he wasn't. He was an actor, and what he knew was that when he met someone new he could smell them like an animal, whereas professional diplomats are restrained by politics - and they're not reacting in an instinctive way, and Reagan did. So he looked across and refused to give up Star Wars, but said that Gorbachev was a man he could do business with. These two actually liked each other, so they laid the groundwork for a huge decommissioning of weapons about two or three years after that meeting. So it's a story about human contact being established in a desert where it shouldn't exist, and against all the odds it does. It's a triumph of the human spirit.

DonnieBrasco said: When can we see pictures of Michael Douglas and Christoph Waltz as Reagan and Gorbachev? You must have showed the guys at Empire already?
"Which other actor would have made a good President? Gregory Peck, without a doubt."
No, we haven't. Waltz is in Romania shooting, and Michael Douglas is in Las Vegas shooting, and so I can't get at them yet, so I think it'll be either just before Christmas or the beginning of the year. I talk to them all the time but haven't managed to stand in their presence yet. We have to get the hair right - because Reagan was so vain about his hair - and obviously the birthmark and the baldness for Christoph Waltz.

Robf7 said: What was the last film you watched?
The last film I watched was a German film. I can't remember its title, that's awful. It was about the tribulations of a Turkish immigrant family trying to adjust to things in Germany, and I was watching it for the work of the cameraman, who was very fine. And then I watched the Bond with my mother-in-law, and we had a very good night out down the Odeon with a hotdog.

JakeJ said: It's the big one! What's your favourite sandwich?
No contest: a salt-beef sandwich on rye with mustard. I am not Jewish but I think that America invented nothing so fine as deli food. I just love deli food, and that salt-beef sandwich is really difficult to find now. Not even in the East End.

With a pickle!

GreatGatsby said: You worked for a number of years in TV. What do you make of what's happening at the BBC at the moment?
It doesn’t make sense. I worked for the BBC, and the BBC is an absolutely wonderful organization, which should be cherished. But there was a really good piece in The London Review of Books by a guy called Sean O'Hagan, and what it does is to dive into the culture of the BBC, but also the culture of post-War England, and say where the Jimmy Savile stuff came from, that there was a kind of culture of abuse which you just didn't notice, you weren't supposed to notice.

They dealt with it very badly. You can understand it happening once, perhaps, and obviously the editor of Newsnight knew that it was dynamite, but how you can have made the second mistake makes no sense whatsoever. Did they not refer it up? George Entwhistle should have been on top of it more, but how come it wasn't on his desk? It's the damndest thing. TV (when I began in it) was mostly about the journalists, and I don't think a mistake like that would have happened. How come the checks didn't exist, particularly for the second one? Beats me. I’m not a journalist, I have no experience of that. It’s a real shame.

Mike Newell Talks Great Expectations

Superher0 said: Do you have a favourite character from Great Expectations?
Gosh. I love Mr Jaggers - I don't love him, but he's very interesting. I love Wemmick. It's a feeble thing to say, but I knew the material very well because I studied Dickens at university, and Great Expectations was pretty much always my favourite book - Bleak House is pretty good too - so... it's all written from the point of view of character. The thing about the English is that they're quite convinced that he's writing them. Not for them, but writing them. They, the nation, understands his voice better than they understand Shakespeare; it's more recognisable. And his major tools are the delineation of characters. So they all matter. When you have to dump a character in Dickens you feel a real loss. We had to dump a character called Orlick, and David Nicholls (the writer) and I really missed him.

Marechal said: Your next film is partly about an actor who became US President. Which actor that you've worked with would make the best President, and why?
Without a doubt, Gregory Peck. I loved Gregory Peck, and he just WAS the President. There was a wonderful story that when Reagan was elected to his first term, Jack Warner shouted out in his office, "NO! JIMMY STEWART FOR PRESIDENT! RONALD REAGAN FOR BEST FRIEND!".

JakeJ said: What advice would you give a young Mike Newell just as he was beginning his directing career?
Keep on! Don't stop! It's really simple. You almost stop all the time. What you do for a living is so full of shame and self-accusation and the sense of how hopeless you are. We're none of us any good. Who's any good? Michael Haneke maybe? What most people do is they make terrific films, one in three if you're very lucky, maybe one in five. So you just have to keep on, you have to get through the bad bits. Also, a well-developed "fuck-it" muscle is useful.

I would like to send a message please: Sandra Gough, please phone home.

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