Mike Newell: An Englishman in Colombia

I saw Love in the Time of Cholera yesterday and, once again, you surprise us. From film to film, we never know where to expect you to go.
“Good! Keep moving and they can’t hit you!”

(laughs) But is it conscious, do you try to tackle every genre?
“No-no-no. To start with, what I do seems to me to be completely consistent, because what I always respond to is the script. I think a lot of it has to do with being English, because we are brought up with a particular kind of writing, dramatic writing, plays and so forth, the same is true with novels… In which character is one of the big, big things that you go for. Dickens, Shakespeare, it’s all characters, they’re all great characters. And so what I would tend to do is to look for interesting characters, and I would then look for those characters to be in an original kind of fix. You could say what I look for is a good man in a bad jam. Everything that I make is like that. Harry Potter was a good guy in a bad fix. Hugh Grant is a good guy in a bad fix. Love in the Time of Cholera is somewhat different to that, actually, but it still has these wonderful, powerful characters in it.”

It’s true, but as a filmmaker, you’re still flexing different muscles when you’re making Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco or this.
Of course you are. An awful lot of what I do, but I think it’s true of all directors, is that you go to the movies when you’re a kid, and what you try to do I suppose, is to recreate the experiences that you had when you were young. The very first film that I saw that I can remember seeing was a movie called Bad Day at Black Rock, which is a great film, about sort of a modern cowboy. Spencer Tracy plays a one-armed war veteran who comes to this little desert town because somebody has murdered a Japanese. And it’s all about the aftermath for the Americans of the war in the Pacific. It’s about war guilt, and retribution, and revenge… A marvellous film. And I remember this like yesterday, and I was only 11 years old when I saw it. And the same is true of Ben Hur, which I saw when I was about 19, and you would sit back in the cinema and you’d think, Aww, man! This is like the biggest, lushest limousine you’ve ever rode! And you try to recreate these experiences, you know, wouldn’t it be great if you could feel like that, the way you felt at Ben Hur.”

So with Love in the Time of Cholera, is this what you were aiming for?
“No, it wasn’t, I think it’s just what happens unconsciously. What I was aiming for was that, I’d read the book, and I chased it very hard because I loved what the book said. Here are the things that really interested me: it’s very, very rare that you’re given in the movies the shape of somebody’s whole life, from young and naïve, 16 years old, to 75 years old, at the end of your life. And everything in between is covered, there’s a huge span of years. My parents had recently died when I made the film, and I’d be clearing out their house, and I would see pictures of my dad at 10 years old, and then I remembered him as he was the week before he died at 87. I wanted to get that sense of whole lives, but the glorious thing about the book is that it says that we’re all heading one way, we’re heading into the dark. You can be frightened of that and you can let that depress and scare you and pull down the joy that you might feel in life. Or you can say, no! I’m gonna live every moment that is given to me, in optimism and in positiveness. That of course is what Florentino does. He falls in love at 16 and never stops being in love with that woman. He’s depressed along the way, because it seems to be so difficult, but at the end, as an old, old man, he refuses to say, we are going into the night. He says, no, we’re gonna start to live again. And that’s fantastic, that kind of optimism is extraordinary.”

It’s interesting that you say that what attracted you was that span of time, because I thought that was the challenge of this book, which is so epic and depicts more than half a century, I thought it’d be scary to try and make this into a film.
“Of course it’s scary, making any film is scary! But the movie is that, so if you’re not doing that, you’re not doing it. You’ve got this great novel, and that’s what the novel is saying. There are glorious things in it, Florentino saying, right at the end of his life, “I have never been happier in my life”, and you believe him. That character is not heading into the dark. The very last words in the book, he says, “At last, I’ve got there and I’ve discovered that the most important thing is living and not preparing yourself for dying.”

You’ve mentioned the words and quotes from the book, that’s another challenge, I guess, because it’s a very literary book, rooted in poetry and the written word, characters writing love letters to each other and so on.
“Yes, that was a big big thing. And when Gabriel García Márquez, who was involved all the way through but always kept kind of a distance from it, because I think he thought we were gonna screw it up. He gave us some notes on the first draft of the script, he said two things: “Why are you so respectful of the book? For God’s sake, chuck stuff out!” The other thing that he said is, “Where’s my stitch work?” We weren’t sure what this phrase meant, it was obviously a literal translation from Spanish, but nonetheless we didn’t understand quite what he meant. Then I realised that the way the book is written, you can have an incident, for instance there’s a character called the Widow Nazareth, one of Florentino’s early loves, you meet her between pages 50 and 70, then life goes on, she falls away and she’s not mentioned again… Until page 370, when suddenly you got this little chunk about the Widow Nazareth. And the Widow Nazareth, by this time, is 50 years ago! And so what he does, it’s like embroidery or making a quilt: he sows it, embroiders it and then he folds it, and it goes away, but then he comes back and embroiders it a little bit more, and then he folds it again. That’s what he meant by stitch work. But of course, you can’t do that in a movie, it would take ages and you would have an 8 hour movie, and it simply would become turgid. I had to say to myself, what could I do? I had to find an equivalent to that, and I said that the equivalent of a sentence was the frame, so what was I going to do with the frame that would be as rich as what García Márquez would do when he was writing a sentence? So I tried to pack the frames with all sorts of contrast, with light and dark, with activity in the foreground while in the background there’s some extraordinary piece of country, for instance. Those details… You get this tremendous sense of, sort of super-life. That was my equivalent for stitch work, and also in a way, for magic realism. Everybody talks about magic realism, but with this book it’s not very helpful, because this book is realer than it is magic. One Hundred Years of Solitude absolutely is magic realism, blood runs uphill, all sorts of weird things happen. But in this story, the magic isn’t as elaborate, but there is a kind of super-realism, and it’s partly to do with the place, and how energetic the place is, because the people are so energetic, and also how hot it is, and how vivid it is, and how strong the colors are.”

You shot in Colombia, right?
“Yes, we shot in the town of Cartagena, which is never named in the novel, but it is in fact where it’s set, right on the coast, it’s a coastal city in Colombia. And there’s this extraordinary thing, of a kind of classical 16th century Spanish city, dropped into a tropical marshland, it’s the most extraordinary thing. So we tried to make this sort of super reality.”

Maybe the magic or the super reality, as you say, comes from the over the top feelings, the grand desperate romantic gestures and everything.
“That’s absolutely right. Their blood is hot and their spirits are very high, and they do feel with great intensity.”

I like to see that kind of stuff, it’s rare in theses cynical times… It’s kind of brave to make a film that’s so–
“What’s really brave is to write the book. It’s a fabulous book, it’s one of the great books. For me, it’s like War and Peace, it’s so generous towards human beings. Not stupid, not sentimental, because at times, García Márquez is very surprising about the way he writes his characters. You think that you’re cruising along with Florentino as your hero, he’s got a good heart, and then suddenly, García Márquez will say that he was really mean, mean with money. And you think, ooh, I don’t like that! But García Márquez absolutely sticks it to you and says, if you’ve got the good, you’re gonna have the bad.”

Like how Fiorentino is so pure about his lifelong love for Fermina…
“…and he fucks 622 other women! (laughs)”

How about this international cast you put together, they’re not all Colombians, there are some Spanish actors, some Italian…
“Because it was American money, an American studio, New Line, for distribution, what we tried to do, as we always do with Hollywood, you try to cast in that very narrow range in which the audience has demonstrated that it likes to see these actors, it feels safe with these actors. So if you have Brad Pitt, they’re going to go see this movie because it’s a Brad Pitt movie. We couldn’t quite do that with this, it’s crap doing it this way. What we should be doing is cast Latin throughout, no matter where they come from, whether they’re Italian, Spanish, Portugese or Brazilian or whatever. They’re going to have a foreign language as their first language. Even Ben Bratt, his mother is Peruvian, Laura Harring, her mother is Mexican… We had the whole world to cast from, rather than this tiny little suburb of an industrial city in California! The possibilites were infinite, you could have Fernanda Montenegro from Brazil, who’s a great, great actress… It’s an enormous international cast, and the thing that unified them was the language that they spoke, they had to speak English with a very particular accent. I was very nervous about the English speaking trick, but I’d seen it work really well with a movie by a guy called Julian Schnabel, called Before Night Falls. And what they did was to speak English with a Cuban accent, and I felt within five minutes, I thought they were speaking Spanish, I forgot about it.”

Was it also when you saw Before Night Falls that you had the idea to cast Javier Bardem in the lead?
“Oddly enough, not, I’d gone about him before that. I was watching his other work in order to get acquainted with him, and up popped this movie and it was very useful. And then I was nervous about that, because I felt that if South Americans didn’t like it, then we’d really fail, we were taking a risk by making it in English, but I couldn’t direct it in Spanish…”

Has García Márquez seen the film?
“Yes, he has. He thinks it’s terrific. It would be horrible if he hadn’t. I was very frightened of him, and of the South Americans, that they would think that it wasn’t authentic. But they love it, and they love it in English. García Márquez, at the end of the screening, he went kind of, “Whoa! You did it!” So, now here we are, off we go. We’ll see whether anybody else likes it, but it was great to know that he did and that the South Americans did.”

Interview conducted at the St-James Hotel, in Montreal.