Sunday, 6 July 2014

Blade Runners, Deer Hunters & Blowing The Bloody Doors Off - Michael Deeley


No, I'd never heard of Michael Deeley before either but should it bother us? Well, not really but I suspect it's something that bothers Michael Deeley because I think he'd like a bit of recognition. He'd like some respect, godammit! And so he should. He deserves it for just the simple matter of being the producer of some of the greatest and most interesting films in cinema history such as Blade Runner, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Wicker Man, The Italian Job and The Deer Hunter.
Unfortunately for him, however, a large rump of the cinema-going public don't seem to take a lot of notice of the producer's name in the credits unless it's Walt Disney or Stephen Spielberg. If a film is both produced and directed by the same person then it's an entirely different story and their name becomes synonymous with the film but if they're only credited with producing then the reality is that most people don't know what a film producer even does. 
So what actually is their role? What exactly does a film producer do? According to Michael Deeley in his eye-catchingly entitled book Blade Runners, Deer Hunters & Blowing The Bloody Doors Off, a producer doesn't really make films but he causes them to be made.

Essentially, a film producer oversees a film from beginning to end. They choose the project, they raise the money, they hire the director, they oversee the casting, the soundtrack and the editing, they organise the shooting, and they manage the budget. And it's all a thankless profession because if the film is a success, the people who get all the acclaim are the actors and the director. So why do they do it? Well, obviously nowadays more than ever producers do it for the money because if a film is a success then a healthy profit can be turned. Some do it for the sheer love of movies - for the art; and whilst making a profit would be nice, it's not the prime motivating factor. Some do it for the glamour and the attraction of a potential Hollywood lifestyle. And some do it for all three of these reasons; Michael Deeley - at times - being one of them.

This then is the story of Michael Deeley's 'life in cult movies' which immediately raises another question: what exactly is a cult movie? Again, according to Deeley it's a movie that's been largely ignored by the general public yet defended vigorously by a few aficionados; gauged by the degree of devotion the movie inspires. Which means that the net could be cast wide enough, he suggests, so as to even include a film such as Star Wars. And that's true. But what this then tells us is that the term 'cult movie' is pretty meaningless and is now nothing much more than a marketing buzz word, and unfortunately this rather ties in with the underlying theme of his book.

It may not have been the intention but the world that his book depicts is a quite horrible one of marketing, self publicity, egotism, and vanity. The biggest exponent of these traits being director Michael Cimino who right from the start is described as a liar for claiming to be the person responsible for the creation and success of The Deer Hunter, thus excluding the input of the producer. In any other business this might be taken as a mere clash of egos but in the world of movies it's a declaration of outright war.

One of Deeley's most satisfying moments he tells us is at the end of Blade Runner when the screen cuts to black and the first credit appears with the words 'A Michael Deeley/Ridley Scott Production'. Which says a lot. It's the recognition that counts. The name in lights. The massaging of the ego.
In the blurb on the book jacket there's a quote from Sir Michael Caine CBE who whilst describing Deeley's eclectic taste mentions The Italian Job and adds 'I was one of the stars of that film'. Really? Did Michael Caine really feel the need to let us know that? Did he think someone might not know? You see? Even in a blurb - put there to help sell someone else’s book - there is egotism and self publicity.

For a book featuring such classic movies as listed above, the whole thing doesn't make a particularly engaging read which is a little surprising because you'd expect it to be overloaded with all kinds of anecdotes and insights that only the producer of those movies might be privy to. That's not to say there are none there, it's just that they're very few and far between. Anyone with a passing interest in director Sam Peckinpah, for instance, would already know of his reputation for being difficult and of his predilection for drink and drugs. Anyone with even a passing interest in comedian Benny Hill who featured in The Italian Job would know that he was a bit of an enigma. The book fails to tell us anything more. At one point Deeley mentions how his 'old friend' James Coburn turned up on the set of Convoy to do a bit of second-unit directing and to get a bit of behind the camera experience. But that's it. There’s no explanation of how he and Coburn became 'old friends' and there are certainly no insights or little known facts proffered about him.

When fresh anecdotes are put forward, however, they're genuinely interesting. Prime Minister Harold Wilson, for example, was a good friend of Deeley and of British cinema, and considered the Rank Cinema chain as a national treasure. Thatcher, on the other hand, didn't give a damn about cinema and unlike a number of more forward thinking countries refused to provide tax breaks or grants for it.
Gregory Peck was a very early supporter of Blade Runner and felt the script's themes of moral crisis and urban pollution were vitally important, so did all he could to help get it made.
The name 'Blade Runner' came from a little-known paperback entitled Blade Runner: A Movie, written by one William Burroughs who for a modest sum of money sold the name to Michael Deeley. Why didn't I know that?
When Rutger Hauer first met Ridley Scott - having already been cast as the renegade replicant in Blade Runner - Rutger was wearing pink silk pants and a Kenzo sweater with a fox fur draped over his shoulder. His hair was bleached white and was wearing Elton John-style glasses. Apparently Ridley was convinced that a gay activist had been foisted upon him to play the aggressively masculine lead role, and was seriously upset.
This is the kind of stuff we want but in a book of almost 300 pages there's just not enough of it.

To Deeley's credit he does put forward the name of the person who is perhaps the unsung hero in the story of the creation of Blade Runner and that's Hampton Fancher, a comparatively unknown actor and stage director turned writer. Fancher was responsible for writing a screenplay based on Philip K Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep and according to Deeley it was the most interesting and original piece of writing he had ever seen. It was this screenplay that became the building block for Blade Runner. The same screenplay that Gregory Peck had read and was so enthused about. After months of intense pre-production work and only weeks away from the actual production of the film starting in earnest, however, Fancher was unceremoniously dumped by Deeley and Ridley Scott and was off the picture.

If anything, this particular episode shows how mercenary and how merciless film making can be and is probably the best insight not only into the character of Michael Deeley but also of the world he has spent his life traversing. A world of narcissism, fantasy, glamour and dreams. Of high art, back-stabbing, illusion and lies. Of Blade Runners, Deer Hunters... and blowing the bloody doors off.

John Serpico

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