Orson Welles, Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando, Lauren Bacall, Michael Caine, John Gielgud and Ben Kingsley: whilst this list offers a roll-call for some of the most famous film stars of the Twentieth Century, it also represents just a small fraction of the high-profile actors with whom director and producer Michael Winner worked throughout his long career in cinema. At the time of his recent death in January 2013, Winner was arguably best-known to Britain as a public personality and a television star in his own right. However, it was his life-long adoration of the icons of the big screen which proved to be the enduring motivating force behind his work as a filmmaker.
Winner’s passion for cinema was first expressed through his work as a critic. At the age of fourteen, Winner became a show-business columnist for the Kensington Post, under the banner of ‘Michael Winner’s Show Gossip’. The young film fan used this position as a means of access to the world of the Hollywood star elite, meeting, amongst others, Bob Hope, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant during their visits to England. Following a degree in Law and Economics from Cambridge University, Winner continued to feed his enthusiasm for the cinema, only this time from behind the camera as opposed to critiquing its products. After numerous early rejections from the British film industry, Winner moved into short independent filmmaking on a tight budget. Through these shorts, Winner cut his creative teeth as a director but received little critical or public acknowledgement for this work. Struggling to find his niche as a director, Winner took on work as a talent agent for film, further nurturing his admiration and attentiveness in relation to the big-screen performer. After meandering through various directorial roles in television and B-movie production, Winner eventually broke into British feature filmmaking with Play It Cool (1962). A musical starring Billy Fury and filmed at Pinewood Studios, Play It Cool proved a robust commercial success and established Winner’s credentials as a popular filmmaker. The career that followed resulted in more than thirty feature films over a period of forty years, spanning both British and American mainstream cinema. Such films include The Jokers (1967), Hannibal Brooks (1969), The Nightcomers (1971) and Death Wish I, II and III (1974, 1982, 1985).
As previously mentioned, in more recent years, Winner’s public notoriety stemmed less from his work as a film director (he directed his last feature film, Parting Shots, in 1999) and more from his numerous television appearances as a celebrity in his own right. Whilst Winner returned to the role of director in creating a series of Esure car insurance commercials, rehiring his old production crew for this purpose, he was first and foremost their star, coining the catchphrase ‘Calm down dear, it’s only a commercial’, which soon became a central (and much referenced) component of his public persona. In addition, Winner worked as a celebrity food critic and television presenter, headlining television formats such as Michael Winner’s True Crimes (ITV, 1992) and Winner’s Dinners (ITV, 2010), alongside his many guest-star roles on British chat shows, reality programmes and sketch comedies. Such appearances perpetuated a public image of Winner as an eccentric, forthright and somewhat overbearing bon vivant, a caricature which stands apart from the filmmaker who resided beyond the view of the camera lens. As Michael Caine, one of Winner’s close celebrity friends, once commented: ‘You come on like this bombastic, ill-tempered monster. It’s not the side of you I see. I see a man who has a tremendous artistic eye’ (This is Your Life, BBC, 2002). Thus, in Caine’s view, Winner the persona and Winner the artist were two separate entities entirely, with Winner the persona succeeding (in more recent years) to eclipse his reputation as a successful mainstream filmmaker. Yet, both versions of Winner were, at their core, fuelled by an irresistible attraction towards the world of cinematic celebrity and by an intense reverence for the inhabitants of this world. Winner the brash star and Winner the respectful director of stars: both stemmed from a fascination with the nature of stardom itself.
The following interview with the late Michael Winner aims to shed further light on the disparate facets of the director’s personality: as public persona, filmmaker and film fan, with his intense attraction to the world of celebrity revealed as the central cohesive characteristic.
What first attracted you to a career as a director specifically?
Well I wanted to be a director from the age of at least five, or possibly younger. I don’t know why. Probably I saw movies – I guess it would have been Bambi , or whatever – and from day one I thought, “That’s what I want to do”; I wanted to create these images and I wanted to be a director. It’s very rare to have such absolute clarity of career direction from the age of five on, particularly in an unusual profession when I’m sure I didn’t really know what a director did! But I certainly wanted to find out and do it!
Starting out, did you have a clear notion of your role and approach as director?
Well, not when I was five, no.
I used to hold a torch behind coloured paper – do drawings and put coloured sweet paper over the windows and I held a torch and did a hand play with my hands in shadow. This was at school when I was about six or seven. I remember sitting on a toilet at a mixed school. I was on the toilet, and the girl next to me was on the potty. I’d just done one of these shows and so I said to her, “How did you like my film?” She said, “I hated it”: my first critic! On a potty, aged six! She said, “Films frighten me”. So I picked myself up and soldiered on as best I could after that initial non-response!
We know that you were always a lover of film and from a very early age formed a career as a journalist, but what brought you into actual directing?
Well, I always wanted to direct and indeed I started as a film critic for a number of newspapers. I couldn’t direct at Cambridge University because film was very expensive in those days. There was no DVD, there was no video: there was only 16mm film. So there was nothing I could do. But, the minute I came down, I wrote to everybody I possibly could to try to get into the filmmaking industry. In those days, they used to play twenty, thirty-minute short films in the cinemas. There was what was called a programme set out for you, rather than a single feature-length film as there is today. You got a short, an hour-long second feature made especially for that purpose, a newsreel, and then the film. So I, eventually, by writing endless letters – few of which were ever actually answered – got an answer and went into making these twenty-minute short films which were mostly documentaries. Then I thought “Let’s have some actors in them” and I began to write a few second features and that set me off on my career path. So at least I had started in film. We used 35mm cameras, albeit a camera called the Newman Sinclair, which was like a box that you wound up. So, if there were only two of you on the unit, which there most often was, all you had to do was wind up the box and it went. You didn’t have to bother with batteries and extra pieces of equipment. It was a very fine camera – what marvelous lenses that camera had.
Did your approach as a director evolve and develop from your experiences working on these early films?
Yes, because, even if you’re directing something as mundane as people walking past a building, or you’re directing anything, you learn. And, of course, I was vastly influenced by the directors I’d worshipped whilst I was at school, namely Carol Reed, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. Some early scripts I wrote were more or less rehashes of The Third Man  or rehashes of things that I thought I’d seen and then you begin to branch out to your own technique because you see what you’ve done – only a little bit of it is derivative, the rest is original. I very much learnt as I went along. There were no film schools, really, then. You had to learn on the job. And I was, for a very long time, the youngest English-speaking director in the English-speaking movie business. I started directing when I was twenty-one. In those days they used to say that you cannot be a director until you’re forty, as if something magical happened to you at forty. But the French New Wave showed that directors in their teens or early twenties could do the job, and the British kids were getting earning power and they didn’t want to see Gregory Peck as the lawyer in the suit and so producers started to make these pop musical films because they saw, when the bands played the cinemas, that the takings rose. So a lot of us got into directing these pop singers who the elder directors didn’t want and nobody thought would last. Summer Holiday  was directed by Peter Yates, Dick Lester did It’s Trad, Dad! , his first film, and went on to The Beatles, and I did a film called Play it Cool with Billy Fury. A lot of us got into the business directing these people that nobody else really wanted –in the industry – the public wanted them.
The 1960s and 1970s were perceived as a sort of ‘Golden Age’ for British TV drama and many early career filmmakers went into television during this period…
Well, I was rejected by both the BBC and Granada, which were the two big British TV companies. I’d worked briefly as what they called a call boy at the BBC, which was a junior assistant. They both rejected me – thank God that they did! So, I had no option but to carry on in my own individual field – both writing and directing my own movies.
Would you have considered yourself an independent filmmaker at that time?
Very much so, yes. I was very much an independent filmmaker. Even when I worked sometimes for the big studios, I often created the projects and would take them from the ground up. I got the scripts written or wrote them myself, and I had my own company, Scimitar Films, which appears on many, many major films. I was very much an independent filmmaker.
As your career developed, you started working with some of the most celebrated actors of the last century. We were wondering if you might shed some light on your process as a director, in working with actors. For example, did you follow a set structure in production in terms of how you helped to develop and shape the actors’ performances?
First of all, with many of the actors that I’ve worked with, everyone said “They’re impossible”, “They’re difficult”. Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Faye Dunaway, Charles Bronson, Robert Mitchum – people told these horror stories about working with them. They were all fantastic with me – fantastic! Because, first of all, I was a fan – I wasn’t afraid of them. I had no reason to be afraid of them because they didn’t do anything to me to merit that. Well, Burt Lancaster tried to kill me three times and he was still my dearest friend – I mean, he grabbed me by the throat, shaking me around, but it doesn’t matter! He was the most wonderful human being! One thing I can say about my directorial process is that I never had a storyboard. I never knew, when I turned up, what I was going to do. I totally made it up as I went along, and I only shot, say, a sequence from A to B, and then cut. Then I shot from C to D, and so on. Robert Ryan, the very famous Hollywood actor, said, “The only other person I’ve known who works like this is John Ford”, because then I can adapt completely to what happens, to the situation that evolves around me with the actors. If you do a master shot, which is the classic way of doing it, then fill in with a lot of over shoulders and close-ups, you’re stuck with what you did in the master shot. If you then have an idea at two o’clock in the afternoon – too bad! You can’t do it, because the plan is set. So I just always invented as I went, in order to leave myself open to all possibilities. Even in my commercials, I never had a storyboard – that is unheard of in commercials! I just turned up and made it up as I went along! Of course, I started editing at a very young age – I was an editor at around twenty – so I imagined myself sitting in the cutting room, as I edited all my own films. I don’t mean supervise, I mean ran the film through my fingers, marked it with the pen, cut it, joined it. So, I imagined myself sitting there in the cutting room saying ‘What do I need now? I need a bit of film doing this’ and I would then create that material on set. This was a subconscious thought. When I first started out, my producer was very, very worried. I did a film for Associated British called West 11 . It was a big company. The producer said to his assistant, “This will never cut together! There’s no master shot! I’ve never seen anything like it!” And, luckily, the assistant said “Well, I think it will – I think it’ll be alright – don’t worry”. This man was shitting himself – where was the master shot?! Instead, these little bits kept turning up, like a jigsaw puzzle! But I was very good at jigsaw puzzles. I have always loved jigsaw puzzles.
So, you were told that the only other person to work like that was John Ford? Were you conscious of this then?
Well I was a fan of Ford’s but I didn’t know that was how he worked until Robert Ryan told me on a film called Lawman in 1970. I didn’t know John Ford worked like that.
You also edited all your own pictures. Was that out of necessity?
No – I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to let anyone else get in the way. Because, once you edit a picture, it’s done. The director can then say, “Take that shot and replace it with that” or “Make that pause longer”, but the basic thing is done. You cannot go back to those thousands and thousands of feet and put them together in a different way. You can only titivate. You can only do minor changes. If you’ve got it from day one, you can do everything.
Do you consider that a director’s role?
Well, most directors can’t edit!
But you saw it as part of the process?
Yes, to me, it is. Sometimes I had an editor with me, quite qualified editors, but all they did was hand me the film! When I joined it together, they put the sound on it. Occasionally I’d call in very senior editors and have them look at it, to see if they had any opinions. I remember Universal sent over a lady called Verna Fields, who edited Jaws  – she got an Academy Award for Jaws. And she said to Universal, “Well, he’s a very, very good editor, this fellow – there’s not a lot I can do”. But, actually, I resented her coming over on a film called The Sentinel . I really resented it. She came to London, because I edited these films in my house. I still have cutting rooms in my house. And I really resented this woman coming, as if I wasn’t good enough. But she was absolutely marvelous and I learnt a few things from her. No question I learnt some things from her, even though I’d been editing for twenty years!
Did the actors ever help you or talk to you about that process?
Well, I found that I dealt, on the whole, with highly skilled, professional actors who’d been doing their job for years, and they all trusted me. Brando was famous for interfering – he only tried it once with me and we shut him up, bless him! Jack Palance said, “We’ve got to have a master shot” once, and we did a master shot and he was furious because then he had an idea and we couldn’t do anything about it. I said “Jack – serves you right. You and your bloody master shot!” Seasoned actors can smell when they’re in competent hands, and, if they feel that there is competence and order and speed, they go along with it. Brando said to me, “I never knew you could make films so quickly, like this”. He loved it. In his autobiography he said, “The only production process I ever enjoyed was the film with Michael Winner”. They feel comfortable with me, because they feel there’s someone in charge who’s bossy but who’s competent and who truly respects them and their abilities. If there was a studio or something, we kept them well at bay. And I also, from time to time, had a bit of fun, which they appreciated!
So, as a rule, do you perceive the script as set in stone, at the outset of production?
Well, I always remember that Orson Welles said to me, “Michael, you know, I usually rewrite the script. I wrote the Ferris wheel scene in The Third Man”. I said “Orson, dear, if you wrote the Ferris wheel scene in The Third Man, it’s one of the greatest speeches in the history of cinema – please have a go at the script! Be my guest!” And every day, his secretary, Miss Rogers, would sit on the set – they had little typewriters in those days – and she’d be retyping the script. I was waiting for these marvelous additions or changes from Orson Welles, and after about three weeks I said, “Orson, darling, the fucking pages come via Miss Rogers from you and you’re doing our exact same script! Where are these wonderful changes you were going to make?!” He said, “Well, the script is so good I don’t need to make any changes Michael – she just takes out the stage directions for me”. So, I never had any problems – the script is set in stone, unless somebody gives me a good enough reason why I should change it, and they never did, ever. Never, in thirty, forty films with the biggest stars – nobody ever said, “Michael, let’s rewrite this or let’s do this a different way”. Well, in fact, Brando did once and I said, “Marlon, you’ve had the script for nine months, we haven’t got time to redo the whole bloody thing now, thank you very much. It’s a low budget film and you had a great deal of time to make this speech. It’s no good making it standing in a country lane in Cambridgeshire with Francis Ford Coppola behind the barrier with the crowd watching. This is not the time dear – I’m terribly sorry”. And I could see that Marlon was thinking, because this was what he did all the time, his usual trick – he used to stop the film whilst the script was changed for him, and it drove everybody mad – and I could see him thinking, “Well, he’s a nice fellow, we’re getting on well, I’ll demur”! We carried on. That was the only moment. But, do you know, because we were so friendly and he could clearly sense my absolute respect for him, I could deal with it and be honest about the situation.
The Nightcomers is one of the shining comeback performances of Marlon Brando in the 1970s.
He loved the film. He used to say, “Michael, I’ve just seen this film again”. He said, “just ran it – you should be very proud of it”. He loved it.
In some ways, it was unfairly eclipsed by The Godfather  and Last Tango in Paris .
The problem was, you see, my film was finished before The Godfather, and I begged Joe Levine, who bought it for America, to hold off on releasing it. I said, “Look, Marlon’s in The Godfather, it’s coming out in nine months time. Ours is a period film. They’re all wearing fucking frilly costumes – it’s not going to date!” I said, “Keep it until after The Godfather”. Marlon’s acting career was dead at the time – stone dead! He’d been involved with eleven failures in a row. You couldn’t give him away! I said, “Let’s wait until after The Godfather and we’ll have the biggest star in cinema in our film”. “No,” he said, “the film’s so great we can go ahead” and he went ahead and released it before The Godfather. Funnily enough, it made a profit, which was a bloody miracle. A huge factor in this business is effective timing. But, you know, what can you do?!
In your memoir, you do mention that Brando gave notes to revise the script, as you’ve just mentioned, and also that he decided to play the part Irish. Would you say that Brando’s input changed the direction?
No. He didn’t change the script at all. That was the only time, standing in the lane in Cambridgeshire when he made some suggestions which we smoothed away! But he did ask if he could play it Irish – this was when we were speaking during our first meeting, in his Beverly Hills house. They all said, “Marlon Brando, he lives in Tahiti”. I said, “No he doesn’t. He lives in Beverly Hills like everybody else”! Jack Nicholson was playing volleyball down below at the time. He said, “Would you mind if I play that part Irish?” I said, “Marlon, dear, you are such a great actor, you can play it Yiddish, Chinese, South African, anything you like darling!” And then they smile – they feel at ease! We’re not having a stupid discussion about why you are playing it Irish and should you play it Irish – you know what I mean? They feel at ease because you say, “Fine darling, play it however you like – you’re wonderful!” Why shouldn’t the gardener be Irish? No reason why he shouldn’t be!
Do you follow the same directorial process with each actor, then, or do you adapt your approach?
No, I’m me. I do my own bit. I do my own thing. I don’t adapt to them at all, and they don’t expect to be adapted to. I mean, Brando said the nicest thing that anyone ever said about me. He said, “Michael Winner is the only person I ever met who does not talk to me in the way he thinks that I wish to be spoken to”. Wonderful thing to say and it’s true! I remained true to myself and I dealt with my stars as I found them, rather than thinking too hard about how they might want to be dealt with. It was about respect and honesty, and if you get the balance right, healthy working relationships can be developed.
Now, what instigated your career shift from director to TV personality? And, for example, how did you find the experience of working with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in your capacity as a TV personality?
Well, while I was doing the movies, I was quite well known, and so I got these odd offers to work with the likes of Reeves and Mortimer. I’ve worked with Kenny Everett – I’m in a lot of Kenny Everett’s sketches. And, you think, well this makes a change – it’s lovely! Do a bit of acting. It’s very brief! It’s half a day usually, or less. And, of course, what happens with the film business, as in every business, and I’m afraid it’s also going to happen to you one day in your particular line of work – the spotlight goes off you. It moves on to other people, usually to younger people, and I get telephone calls from the most famous English directors – I will not embarrass them by saying their names – they’re shaking, they’re trembling – “We can’t get a film going. We haven’t had a film going in five years”. Well, you’re seventy years old, for fuck sake! In the nicest possible sense, you’ve had it, you know! Those great times have already been and gone. And don’t worry about it – just find something else to do! Other than Ridley [Scott], who’s seventy-four, there are very few people working in their seventies as film directors. So, by chance, I got a career on the commercials, which was doing these silly little vignettes – comedy commercials – which I enjoyed tremendously! Then I got a screen career going again, briefly, with a TV series and we’re now about to do another. And now I’m on a career path writing about food, about which I know very little if I am honest – it was quite largely by accident!
Do you feel that you are now able to bring your knowledge as a director to bear on these TV performances? And you direct your own commercials, correct?
I direct most of my commercials, yeah. I direct all of the “calm down dear” commercials. I produce and direct them and my company makes them, yes. It is truly wonderful to get my old team back together again to make these short commercials. It’s like putting the band back together again! In terms of me acting, I played a very big part in a film for Danny Boyle for television called For the Greater Good . I mean, if you’ve worked with the greatest actors in the world, you’re inevitably going to learn something! Sometimes they talk about acting, sometimes they don’t. Mostly they do not wish to talk about it and I don’t blame them. But you learn something just by watching them act on the set many times over and then by watching them in the cutting room, which is like putting their performance under a microscope. When you’re looking at it in the machine, you learn a great deal from that. So I didn’t go to acting school and I wasn’t taught by Lee Strasberg. I was taught by Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum, Paul Scofield, Burt Lancaster, Orson Welles, bless him – you know? The finest actors in the history of cinema! So, unless you’re a moron, you manage to pick something up, particularly if you’re interested in acting, which I am and always will be. Actors and their tremendous skills have always been at the heart of what I love doing. I have nothing but admiration for them and their abilities, and so it’s fun to play at being one myself from time-to-time! It is lovely to have earned that honour.