Veteran British director Mike Hodges is the first to admit he’s a man of extremes. “I’ve made a lot of very serious films,” he begins, “from my first feature, Get Carter, to my latest, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. Both very sombre and extremely grown up. But then I really love the silly stuff as well, films like Flash Gordon and Morons From Outer Space. My work reveals a kind of schizophrenia, I suppose.”
Before exploring the solemn side of Hodge’s work, I can’t help but press him for information about a personal favourite of mine, kitsch classic Flash Gordon (1980). “The only improvised $37 million movie ever made,” recalls the director. “I was presented with costumes and weaponry and all sorts of stuff which was often a bit naff, and I would have to be as inventive as possible. So I would walk on the floor, literally every day, and just make it up as I went along.
“I made it with the belief that it would never be seen by anybody,” admits Hodges. “The financing always seems kind of precarious. Plus we were working against blue screens, yet we didn’t know when we started how we were going to do the skies or anything, really. I was pleased with how it all turned out, though. And I think it’s still terrifically good fun.”
Silly stuff aside, it’s Hodges’ crime thrillers that the Seventysomething director remains best known for, from the iconic, influential Get Carter in 1971 right up to recent DVD release I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, in which former gangster Clive Owen returns to his old stomping ground to avenge his brother’s death. Not so different from Get Carter in that respect, but a far more restrained and believable treatment of the subject.
“It’s a dangerous film to have made, in many ways,” says Hodges of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, “because it breaks so many rules. Especially in contemporary cinema. If the film had been made in the Fifties or Sixties it would have probably been more acceptable, but these days films don’t generally trust their audiences to absorb atmosphere and accept a slower pace. It’s risky if you break the rules, but I’ve been very gratified by the positive response the film has received. Everyone seems to get it.”
Hodges first worked with Owen on the film that made him a star, Croupier, it’s clear the two work well together. “I like his minimalism,” says Hodges of his leading man. “I like the fact that he paces himself, that he knows what scenes are important. He’s a bit like Hitchcock. Hitchcock was bored stiff on most of what he shot, except for those amazing set-piece sequences that he delighted in. Like Hitchcock, Clive knows the scenes that count and saves his best for them. When he steps in front of the camera, he makes everything work really well.”
Of the many characters in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Owen has the least amount of dialogue, playing it strong and relatively silent all the way. “Some actors,” says Hodges, “give them a script and they look straight away at how many lines they have. And if there aren’t enough they often won’t do it. But Clive looks at the character. How important they are to the story, rather than how many words come out of their mouth. He’s a lot like Clint Eastwood in that respect. I don’t think playing James Bond would suit him at all, though,” says Hodges of the persistent rumours surrounding Owen and the 007 franchise. “That would be a terrible mistake.”
Not such a terrible mistake as Sylvester Stallone’s dreadful Get Carter remake. “To be honest I’ve never seen it. I can’t really watch Stallone. My son brought it home on DVD one night, but we all got drunk and forgot to watch it. Everyone’s told me since, all my friends, not to watch it. I’ll tell you what really upset me about it though: the fact that Michael Caine actually appeared in it. What on earth did he do that for? He was my first film star, and Carter was his best role ever. Why would he risk spoiling the memory by doing the remake? Certainly it was an odd endorsement, but then Caine is famous for doing anything for the money, and is the first to admit it. “He just hates not working,” clarifies Hodges, “but I think it was a mistake.”
Back to I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, and though there’s not a single innocent in the entire movie, the real villain of the piece is played by Malcolm McDowell, an actor well known for “…chomping up the scenery, if you let him. But I think he knew, when we talked about the role, that I wouldn’t stand for it. We’ve known each other for years but we’ve never worked together before, but he’d seen my films and he just knew that I wouldn’t tolerate any overacting. And I think he’s absolutely extraordinary in this. He’s an incredibly brave actor, I think, a real trooper.”
Shot for a relatively tiny budget, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is pure Hodges, made without the meddling of producers only interested in the bottom line. “As a result of Croupier’s international success I’ve gotten myself into position where I have control of my films, and I won’t make them unless I do. I’ve had a lot of trouble over the years with films being taken away from me and recut, most memorably, I suppose, A Prayer For The Dying, with Mickey Rourke. But I’m too old to go through that kind of nonsense again. These days, if they want me to make another movie, I have to be the boss.”