Film writing

John Hurt

British film production

David Puttnam

Bill Forsyth

Peter Greenaway

Professor Colin Young

Yiddish Cinema

London's MOMI

Clare Park

Film writing

Portrait de John Hurt

This article was taken up by a few film magazines in 1984. I had loved Michael Radford's first film Another Time, Another Place and felt that the casting of Richard Burton as O'Brien, the inquisitor for Big Brother, and John Hurt as Winston Smith for 1984 was inspired. So I chased down the great John Hurt and he talked to me for 90 minutes at Brown's Hotel, Mayfair, where he was staying for the film's London publicity sessions in August 1984. In the photo below the hotel champagne he ordered was purely for my (and the cameraman, Mark Cairns') benefit, as he was on the wagon at the time.

John Hurt - '1984'

John Hurt is generous with the champers from his mini bar at the end of our interview

John Hurt is generous with the champers from his mini bar at the end of our interview

The filming of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four started from a casual remark made this time last year.

Over dinner last October, film director Michael Radford (whose previous film Another Time, Another Place had won numerous European film awards and which Godard had described as virtually the only true film to date, to be made in Britain) was talking with his producer Simon Perry in a London restaurant. Radford mentioned to Perry that he'd always wanted to turn Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four into a film. Radford felt however, that a film of the book coinciding with the year 1984 was so obvious a project that someone, somewhere must be filming the novel. Perry didn't think so though. He had heard no men­tion of it in the trade journals, nor along the film grapevine.

Simon Perry went to see where the film rights were after lunch and discovered that they had been bought seven days before the death of Mrs Orwell by a certain Marvin Rosenblum, a Chicago lawyer.

John Hurt at the peak of his film career. Photos Mark Cairns

John Hurt at the peak of his film career. Photos Mark Cairns

In late October, Rosenblum, in answering Perry's query about filming the book, wrote back saying that he'd had a very bad script made of it and that he was somewhat reluctant to sell it anyway. He had had people like Francis Ford Coppola after the film rights but they had wanted to turn it into a big science-fiction movie. Rosenblum had promised Orwell's widow that if Nineteen Eighty Four were ever to be turned into a film, then it would be a version that was as close to George Orwell's original as possible.

Radford and Perry on hearing this, sent a tape of Another Time, Another Place to Rosenblum, who looked at it and was, in the words of John Hurt, "absolutely ecstatic". He sent a telegram back saying that if they could write a script and find the money necessary by Christmas, then he would come into the production with the film rights free.

The film rights free to Nineteen Eighty Four to two young film-makers, is a once in a lifetime opportunity not to be missed. So Michael Radford went to his apartment in Paris to write the screenplay while Simon Perry searched for the money in London.

Simon Perry went to the Virgin Records creator Richard Branson who was extremely receptive to the idea and by January the money was found and the pre-shooting was underway. In March, the shooting of the main film started and the finished product was distributed in September, a mere 11 months from its conception to its rel­ease. This must be something of a pro­duction record for a multi-million pound film.

The very basic storyline of Nineteen Eighty Four is that all forms of pleasure, including love, are illegal in this world of the future. In return for a job, the popu­lace must display absolute conformity and a total loyalty to their leader, Big Brother. But Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth, rebels against this oppression and does something unique in this totalitarian world, he starts to keep a diary. This very act places him in danger. It implies that he has a mind of his own and consequently risks imprisonment, torture and even death, if he is discovered.

The interview

Listening to John Hurt talking about Nineteen Eighty Four was like lis­tening to somebody recounting their impressions of a visit to a fantastic, out of the way country. An enthusiastic out­pouring of praise about a place which few had yet visited, but which he was sure they too would surrender to once they had seen it.

For example, the national anthem of the fictional Oceania in the film Nineteen Eighty Four is "senfucking­sational", something that Elgar would have been proud of. The sets for Nineteen Eighty Four, made by Alan Cameron -  who worked on The Naked Civil Servant and Lace - are "not only how I envisaged them to be, but better than I imagined" and the image chosen for his character is so good that "there is a good chance that the Winston haircut will be all the rage in London by Christmas."

John Hurt with his Winston haircut. Photos Mark Cairns

John Hurt with his Winston haircut. Photos Mark Cairns

"I know that the book profoundly affected my life when I read it at 16 in 1956. I found it easy to identify with Winston, coming from the North myself. It can be a very stifling area. I had a decision to make in the same way that Winston had. How do I get out of this oppressive place? How could I? Not even knowing what I wanted to do or what I could do, only knowing that I had to get out. It seemed a totally impossible dream.

 "For Winston it was obviously somewhat different. He knew that it was the end for him the minute that he thought about escaping. He had committed 'Crimethink' or thought crime. By desiring to escape and to change his own circumstances he had signed his own death warrant. That does not make the book or film depressing, because in both, the character of Winston still has the opportunity to say what it is necessary for him to say despite his impending doom.

"Nineteen Eighty Four is a brilliant modern tragedy without any question. Winston is a singled out man from the beginning, as in Lear, as in Hamlet. It is pure tragedy and the fall of Winston must happen. But I do not find it depres­sing for the reason that there are many things to be learnt from the story of Nineteen Eighty Four.

"It was Michael Radford the director who wanted me to play the role of Winston. And I was fortunate that the part came to me at the right age. In the book and in real life we're about the same age. Winston is one of the few characters that I would have paid to have played and I am doubly fortunate that I have achieved the part with this particular director.

"I have waited 20 years to work with someone like Michael Radford. When I work with a director I look for an ally rather than a judge. I find working with a judge extremely difficult. That is the American way of working, having this Big Daddy who reckons that there are two sides to the camera. 'That Side' and 'Our Side', and never the two shall meet. However, with the best directors that doesn't happen. What I look for is honesty. This, Michael Radford had in abundance.

Richard Burton and John Hurt meet in the film '1984' - film still

Richard Burton and John Hurt meet in the film '1984' - film still

"Working with Richard Burton was another bonus. I remember seeing him playing Hamlet in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh when I was 13, and a very, very remarkable performance it was too. It was the first time that I had seen someone on stage with that kind of eco­nomy, that kind of presence.

"Meeting him in person for the film, he turned out to be quite unlike what I had expected. I had expected from his preceding publicity that he would be much wilder, but perhaps thanks to his wife Sally, he was on excellent be­haviour. His enthusiasm also stemmed from his belief in the film. He, like me, had always wanted to act in Nineteen Eighty Four and he did it, as far as I know, way, way under his normal price.

"I did not, however, learn techniques of acting from him as many people supposed I would because he's not an actor you can learn from. You cannot learn from Brando, you cannot learn from James Dean and you cannot learn from Burton either, because they are what they are. The skills that they have are unlearnable.

"There is of course talk about Academy Awards for this film, but it really doesn't matter to me in the least if I get such an award.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the human race is very fond of prizes, so it is very flattering to be given a prize. My attitude would be that recommended by Sir Ralph Richardson: be thrilled for a day and then get on with the rest of your life.

John Hurt in 1984 - film still

John Hurt in 1984 - film still

"Winning an Oscar obviously helps you to get the role you want to play. It helps you to get noticed, but it can be dangerous. It helps you to be offered all the mega-budget movies, most of which you don't really want to be a part of, and in which you are both miscast and merely a part of the package. An Oscar may help you to get a fortune, but it doesn't help you to get a million dollar movie off the ground if the film is not to the public's taste. Having an Oscar can make it more difficult to get a good part, because everyone thinks that you're going to be moodier, more expensive, and that your indulgences are going to take you over and that is a reasonable fear for the film producer.

"Me, I try to keep a philosophical grip on things; 'It's a wise man who knows that he knows nothing'. Each film as far as I am concerned is the beginning of a beginning. Whatever you've done before will not count for a great deal except perhaps in gaining a certain amount of confidence. But that confi­dence is limited. There is nothing in the way that I prepared for the part of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty Four that is going to help me in my next project."

And finally, will John Hurt still be acting in 20 years' time?

"If I'm about, I will be, and if someone's going to employ me, I will be. I'll certainly be acting in 20 years' time, even if I have to act out on my own."

© Dominique Joyeux

Postscript: Richard Burton died a few weeks after completing 1984. Coincidentally, John Hurt was staying with him at his Swiss home at the time and there's a nice wrap to his extraordinary life here, and a quote from the producer Simon Perry talking about Burton working on the film.

"He took the part very seriously, in a way he had not taken a film seriously for quite a long time," said 1984 producer Simon Perry. "We were worried about him when he was working with us. He wasn't ill but he seemed very frail. He didn't touch a drop and he went to bed early. He thought we were ridiculously young, and he liked the idea that somehow he was involved in the new wave of British filmmaking. Richard would keep us spellbound with his stories of Victor Mature and Elizabeth Taylor, whom he referred to as E.T." Director Radford noticed that Burton and Sally were "amazingly happy. He seemed to have settled and to come to some sort of renewal of himself. He'd entered a different phase of his life. He had a kind of elder statesman air about him." Burton accepted Radford's attempts to tone down his power onscreen. "Whenever I said, 'Richard, you're overdoing it a bit,' he would say, 'Oh, I'm doing a Burton.' He said, 'Listen, Michael, for 20 years I've had the most famous voice in the world. I just want to make one film without it.' The upshot is he gives a performance like he hasn't given for 20 years."

Amelie likes the film and has put it in her blog.

Probably one of the scariest clips from a movie, ever. Welcome to Room 101 -courtesy of YouTube.

Rent or buy the film here.

Published by:

Cover of KosmoramaThe Danish magazine Kosmorama made a nice two page spread using the pictures we shot on the day of the interview.

Cover of Cahiers du CinemaCahiers did quite a spread on 1984 in this issue. And it was a bumper issue for me as I had both the John Hurt interview and my two page National Film School article in this issue. It was also, coincidentally, the issue that reported the death of their ex-editor and the star that I had followed into film-writing, François Truffaut.

Cover of Film DirectionsThe news came close to the printing date and they had room only for one paragraph that started: "La mort de François Truffaut frappe Cahiers du Cinema comme, dans une famille, la perte d'un grand frère. Nous le savions très malade mais nous n'avions rien préparé qui aurait anticipé sur cette disparition que nous redoutions sans vouloir y croire …."

Queens Theatre Spring Programme 1985 published by the Arts Councils of Ireland. They published the John Hurt and Bill Forsyth interviews to tie in with showing their films that season.

Cover of PenthouseA small part of the interview was picked up by UK Penthouse and printed in volume 19 number 11, 1984