Sight and Sound – Autumn 1981

During the next year, the National Film Finance Corporation will be backing five or six British films. In the present state of British production and film finance, this is quite enough to qualify it as a major – if only, as its managing director Mamoun Hassan points out, ‘a minor major’. Hassan became managing director in 1979; the first film-maker to be appointed to the job. At that time, it looked as though the Labour Government intended to finance the NFFC quite generously: £5m was a widely quoted figure. It also looked as though a· British Film Authority would soon be in existence. In the event, the NFFC had to settle for a much smaller sum, and the BFA now looks a long way off. The Wilson Committee is still meeting; the Association of Independent Producers, whose pressure campaign was widely regarded as one of the factors in Hassan’s appointment, is still campaigning. All the same, there is a feeling of change in the air. I interviewed Mamoun Hassan in January 1979 just before he took up his appointment, and it seemed a good moment to talk to him again.

MAMOUN HASSAN: I think that things are both worse and better – much better and much worse. When I was appointed, I thought that I was going to be leading a charge. I was given to understand, certainly, that quite a lot of money was going to be made available. What’s a lot? … Well, a lot more than we have now, anyway. I then discovered, within a few months of taking on the job, that in fact I was really being asked to organise a siege. I was in two minds about whether I was the man for a siege, and it’s for other people to decide whether I am. I did find it very difficult, because I had had quite a different view of the job.

At the outset, I asked for a hundred per cent of the Eady Levy. When I say that I asked, this was really directed at the industry and the Department of Trade. I did not expect to get it, but I felt at the time, and still do, that the industry has to prove to the government of the day that it is willing to shoulder some of the burden of financing its production programme. The hope then was that the government might be prepared to match us, if not more than match us. What has happened is that the NFFC is now financed entirely through the Eady fund, to the tune of £1.5m a year or twenty per cent of the annual levy, whichever is the greater. In fact twenty per cent is unlikely to be more than £1.5m, unless of course films shown on television were to become subject to Eady, in which case there would be a dramatic increase. Out of this, we have to fund our production programme, look after the trustee company, look after the National Film Development Fund, run the office and look after the 750 films that the Corporation has backed in its thirty years of existence.

We no longer have to meet the burden of interest that was such a crushing weight on the NFFC in the days of my predecessor, Sir John Terry. Our debt has been written off. We were also given £1m as a farewell present by the government.

So, in effect, in the first year we had £2.5m, and for the next four years, until the legislation that allows us to operate comes up for renewal, £1.5m a year, apart from any income we might make from our films. That’s a very, very small sum of money. It forced us in some ways to reconsider our policy. On that money, there could be no question of seeking to support British cinema. What we could do was follow a comparatively narrow policy of backing those films which sought a wide audience but which the industry was unwilling to finance. We also discovered that the policy of putting up a relatively small sum of money towards a film’s final budget really didn’t work. The producer had our commitment, which was always conditional on him finding the balance. So he tried other sources of finance, he could not get the money, and six months or more would have passed. In that time, the budget had gone up, our money was worth less, and he still was not able to use our commitment as an incentive to attract other investment. Consequently, we realised that we had to bite the bullet with every film we made, and back it to a larger extent. I had anticipated that, but the situation had become worse since other sources of finance had dried up.

I also discovered, disconcertingly, that there was some misunderstanding between myself and my colleagues in the film community as to what I meant by ‘British cinema’. I realised rather quickly that what a lot of people meant by British cinema was patriotic cinema. To me, patriotism is, at best, a sentimental and exaggerated view of the virtue of one’s own society, and what I was talking about was not patriotism but authenticity. That left room for us to back foreign directors who were dealing with British subjects, and British directors who were dealing with foreign subjects.

As long as the route to our society was discernible to us as a Board, then I felt we should go in. I’m unrepentant about that. I find no virtue in patriotic cinema. I do find tremendous virtues in nationalist cinemas, because nationalism is a political attitude about identity. But it became apparent that as long as a film was set in England, had English characters and employed a British director, that was enough for many people. Often the greatest virtue of a project, if not the only virtue, was that it was British. A number of the scripts we received seemed to reflect that attitude. Which was extremely depressing to me and to the Board, because we were not interested in that. We wanted to back exciting films which gave us an insight into our society.

PENELOPE HOUSTON: Let’s mention some titles. When you started at the NFFC, you inherited two projects: The Europeans and Black Jack. The Corporation have backed Franco Rosso’s Babylon, Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl and David Gladwell’s Memoirs of a Survivor. Coming along are Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital and Chris Petit’s adaptation of the P. D. James novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

I should explain some of the reasoning behind the films we have backed. Otherwise, it might seem that we just did it; that we simply thought it might be a nice idea. The makers of Babylon were amazingly prescient. The film ends, in fact, with the police confronting young blacks, and you feel that there is going to be a riot. It was tragically prophetic, but done in a way which I think cannot properly be called social realism. Social realism sets out the facts. Babylon doesn’t set out the facts-it explores the feelings. All sorts of people have told me that the film illuminated for them areas of this sub-culture and its feelings of frustration. They had known intellectually what was involved; they hadn’t known how it felt. No one who saw Babylon, however, would have regarded it as a lecture. It’s an entertainment.

That is one area we should be exploring. And if we hadn’t taken the risk and invested in that film, I am fairly certain it would not have been made. Indeed, after the film had been made and seen by a few people, we were told we would have riots in the cinemas. Well, we didn’t have riots, but it was that kind of anxiety which made the film so risky. Plus, of course, the fact that the film industry is constantly looking backwards in the assumptions it makes about films and subjects. Until something has been done, the industry refuses to believe that it can be done. If it has not happened, it cannot possibly happen. Films about blacks have not been interesting in the past; therefore films about blacks cannot be interesting in the future …

Gregory’s Girl? We all felt that Bill Forsyth is one of those rare writer-directors who are able to treat serious subjects with great warmth. You expect it from Renoir, from Milos Forman perhaps, but that kind of warmth is some-thing you simply don’t expect from a British film-maker. In fact, I think that Britain is extraordinarily lucky in having two such gifted directors as Bill Douglas and Bill Forsyth, who between them represent what might be called the dark and light sides of the Scottish soul. I’m glad to say, by the way, that Bill Douglas has written a script for us: a marvellous script, I think, with a nineteenth century setting, half in England and half in Australia. Not a social realist film, but a film about the nature of history; a work of great originality. It may be financed without us; but I hope we are in a position to help.

Memoirs of a Survivor is the most controversial of the three, and in some ways it will confirm the worst suspicions of some sections of the film trade, that I was taking the Corporation away from the area of films for audiences and into the area of films for film-makers … I am not much concerned with the subjects of films, because that in the end is not what films are about. On the other hand, you can’t just ignore subjects, and the reasons why certain subjects have not been treated by films. Babylon was a subject which had seemed to be taboo. Another subject which frightens everyone is the holocaust – the possibility that our children may not live to reach our age. In the area of Oxfordshire where I live, which happens to be close to the Upper Heyford air base and therefore is a prime target, parents of young children do talk about it a great deal. Should we be building shelters, could we afford it, is it feasible, is there any point? I felt this was a subject we had to film: not survival as some kind of adventure story, but a film which would link up with the anxieties so many people have, both spoken and unspoken.

It seemed to me that we had arrived at that project with Memoirs of a Survivor. It is very difficult for any of us to look into the abyss directly, and this was, as it were, a reflected view of the abyss. It was a kind of mirror, so that we could look into the abyss without being turned to stone. The book is written by a major writer, Doris Lessing, the Hermann Hesse of today; we had a marvellous script by Kerry Crabbe; and in David Gladwell we had the director to do it: a man who had already dealt with an extraordinary theme, people emerging from their graves, in a completely matter of fact, unarty way. Of course we also realised that there were mysteries in the film, opaque passages, and we were not naive enough to think that it would be easy. It is not allowed for a director who works in our culture to set up questions to which there are no immediate answers. Or no answers at all. And although film buffs are likely to forgive Tarkovsky, when he fails to enable them to under-stand him, they will not forgive a British director. There is no tradition here of that kind of film where the journey itself is more exciting than talking about ·the destination. We knew all those problems, but I still feel it was essential that we should be prepared to take that kind of risk. Whether we are going to succeed, in the sense of getting large enough audiences in Britain, I have no idea. My impression from the Cannes festival is that the film may well get a better reception from audiences on the continent, where they don’t have the same inhibitions about movies which are mysterious or opaque. All these subjects represent risks; and we have been taking risks with the film-makers as well in backing comparatively unknown people. Franco Rosso had directed only one documentary; Bill Forsyth had made a feature, That Sinking Feeling, but it had not been released at the time we invested in Gregory’s Girl; David Gladwell had made only one film, Requiem for a Village. Of our future plans, Chris Petit has made only Radio On; and even Lindsay Anderson I think of primarily as an outsider, always coming in from the outside, never from within.

Britannia Hospital is going to be another risk: it’s a very black comedy. Fox had developed the script, and then were I think too shocked by it to want to pursue it. It came to us, and there was considerable discussion by the Board about whether we should be backing a film by such an established figure. None .the less, we committed about three-eighths of the budget, and it was then up to the producers, Clive Parsons and Davina Belling, who also produced Gregory’s Girl, to find the rest. Most of the people Clive approached shared Fox’s reaction, I think, until eventually EMI came in. Partly, perhaps, because the shock had worn off with familiarity, since they had been discussing the script for some time, and partly because of Clive Parsons’ sheer persistence and grittiness.

Could you say something about budgets and comparative costs? When we talked in 1979, you were speaking of trying to make films for £300,000, while recognising that £500,000 was the cost of a ‘cheap’ picture.

Inflation has taken care of that. There are very, very few projects we are looking at now which would cost less than £750,000. I can’t think of even one. We have had a few projects come in with a ‘ price tag of about £500,000, but we have not had any single interesting picture put up in the last three or four months which is less than £750,000. I don’t want to say exactly what is the maximum, in aggregate terms, that we would put into a picture, partly because it has not been agreed by the Board and partly because the maximum then very quickly becomes the minimum. I can say, however, that we would never put up the whole £750,000.

On the other hand, the pictures we have been discussing really were very cheap. Babylon cost less than half a million; Gregory’s Girl cost considerably less than half a million, and is none the worse for it. Memoirs of a Survivor was somewhere between half a million and a million (as you can see, I am not willing to give you exact figures); and I believe that film, which is probably the most risky we have backed to date, did suffer from limitations of finance. It suffered in terms of the schedule. That worries me, but we have to make pictures as cheaply as possible, for the obvious reason that we have so little money and for the other obvious reason that the commercial viability of a film depends on its cost.

Our investment on those three films was about 55 per cent of the budget in the case of two of them, and a higher percentage on the third. The films we are starting now are more expensive, because of inflation, and our investment share is lower: something over 40 per cent in one case and something under 40 per cent in the other. Britannia Hospital is being backed by EMI for the rest of its budget, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by Goldcrest. But the way we found the rest of the money for the other films is interesting, because each of them is unique. In the case of Babylon, the balance was put up by Chrysalis, the record company – in the first instance they were involved simply as investors, and were not thinking at that stage of the music rights-and by Lee International, which is a film equipment company. So that was really quite a curious alliance. Scottish Television invested in Gregory’s Girl; a straightforward investment, not on account of forward sales to television. On Memoirs of a Survivor there were half a dozen co-investors, each of whom fell out at various times, but eventually EMI came in. And that in itself was remarkable, because EMI had not invested in that kind of picture for a very long time. Now of course they are backing Britannia Hospital. I think you will find that the projects we hope to announce later this year are going to be equally surprising in the kind of investment they attract.

You are trying to get your returns from a British market, in so far as that exists?

That’s right. But the curious thing is that the films we are making now are much more international in appeal. I have always believed that the moment you are culturally specific, other cultures find echoes, find something to interest them, in a way that no one is really interested in mid-Atlantic cinema. I don’t say that the Japanese, for instance, find Babylon very relevant; but certainly the Scandinavians reacted to it strongly, and so did the Americans. Young French audiences at Cannes reacted positively to Memoirs of a Survivor; and they also understood it.

No, the main problem now is the very limited funds at our disposal. And I ought to make it clear that the problem is not exacerbated by the fees that are paid, because people have in fact been extremely reasonable. They regard the NFFC as something like the National Theatre – they will take lower fees, just as actors and directors working for the National are prepared to take less than when they are engaged by a West End production. In fact, I’ve discovered that the situation has changed totally, fascinatingly and curiously since the mid-60s. In those days, people made the films they really wanted to make for television, and would go off to do commercial films for the cinema to earn a lot of money. Now people are more properly remunerated for television, and you find they make the films they really want to make for the cinema.

It is not a matter of the film itself, or of the film-makers. Clearly, there are film-makers who work for television – in the same way that clearly there are writers who are journalists. But the important thing is the way that television is viewed, a process which means that there is a constant erasure of experience. Two things have particularly impressed me recently on television. One was Peter Smith’s Bread and Blood, a really extraordinary piece of work, dazzlingly well shot, and with mise en scene and control that left most film-makers standing. The other was John MacKenzie’s A Sense of Freedom, which I thought was magnificent: a brilliantly crafted work, again superbly shot by Chris Menges, with a kind of dynamism that could stand comparison with Scorsese. It will be seen outside this country as a cinema film. But you can imagine that people watched one of those programmes, and then could not switch off that awful set. They would see the news, say, and later it would be tennis or football, and then a sitcom, and then Newsnight. By the end of all that, there is total erasure of the original experience. It is very difficult simply to stop, to absorb any remarkable experience that television gives you.

That, I believe, is a major reason why so many people who are able to get employment in television, and are well paid for making programmes which mean a lot to them, still feel they would rather take a cut in salary and get ulcers for two years in trying to set up a movie. They would rather do it for the cinema because they know that it will be taken seriously. Its reception will be concentrated and caring. And that really is a remarkable change: ten years ago people were not looking to the cinema for the things that really matter to them.

I said at the beginning that things were both worse and better, and this is one of the ways they are better. In my first year, I was very disappointed by the quality of the projects submitted to us at the Corporation. That is no longer the case, and if you gave me £10m I could spend it easily in the next three months on really exciting films. It seems that film-makers have at last decided they must make films for audiences: films with very serious purposes, but which are also entertaining. The projects are coming from all sorts of people – young, old, middle-aged. They suddenly seem to feel they know what the cinema is for. There is an energy and dynamism, and at the same time a wish to communicate, that I have not seen before. What has happened to produce this change, I don’t know. I’m only surprised, and delighted, and at the same time extremely frustrated that we are not in a position to finance more of them.

Curiously, there are at the same time attitudes in both the film-making and the film-receiving community which I find extremely destructive. This is one of the things that are worse – worse, in fact, than I have ever known it. Of course there has always been a tendency in Britain to put down artists and their work: we have to wait for foreigners to . tell us how good our films are. But there is another attitude now, which amounts to a widespread fear of criticism. There is a terrible word which has been around for some time, but which now seems to have become an attitude, an approach to discussing films, and one I find dreadfully destructive. The word is ‘bad mouthing’, and at the moment almost anyone in the film community who criticises almost anything is accused of bad mouthing. I come back to the patriotic point: you are as it were criticising Britain and British effort if you make any really critical point about any British film. As far as the film-makers are concerned, the criticism must be due to malice, jealousy or whatever. There is none of the openness that existed, say, at the time of Free Cinema, when of course there was controversy but there was also a kind of fun in it.

I feel in the atmosphere now a real wish to stop criticism. It applies to everyone – producers, film-makers, the industry. What people really want to say to you is just shut up, don’t rock the boat. And that means none of us is going to improve; that we kid ourselves the films we are all involved in are actually perfect. Not that they are fine but flawed, maybe, or that they are good but could be better, but that they are perfect.

That is one attitude. The other is that you really should not criticise films because you don’t have the instruments of analysis, you haven’t passed the right exams. Here, obviously, I am speaking about people like the semiologists, who also want to shut you up, unless you speak in a certain language. Their attitude is that you can only write about the cinema if you use certain terms, and no one from outside that system, that little circle, has a right to comment. It’s an attitude which I find extremely oppressive, and from quite a different starting point it links up with the film industry approach: it stops criticism. In the long run, it’s self-defeating. I think that if you don’t criticise you are actually harming British cinema. Fortunately, the film-makers we have backed recently, Franco Rosso and Bill Forsyth and David Gladwell, do actually listen, if not perhaps always at relevant moments, and I am impressed by the fact that they are prepared to hear the criticism first and the praise second.

All the same, I remember saying two years ago that there was likely to be friction because of the way we intended to operate. That is, we were going to have discussions with film-makers not only about quantities of money and so on, but about the quality of their work. And that has come to pass . . . It’s difficult. I believe wholeheartedly in the independence of the film-makers to make the films they want to do; and I also believe that if it is left to the film-makers themselves, the concept of the audience gets further and further away. It doesn’t matter who it is, as long as there is someone to say to them, ‘I am an audience: I don’t know what that means’ or ‘I am an audience: what is the point of that scene, or that cut?’ But the moment you start asking those questions, there is an implication that there is an answer to the question. And that, in turn, implies for the Corporation – a role which goes beyond our status as a film bank.

There are now more people on the NFFC Board who are actively involved with films: the producer David Puttnam, Colin Young, the Director of the National Film School, exhibitor Romaine Hart, journalist Barry Norman. Apart from the chairman, Geoffrey Williams, the only people who aren’t in some way connected with the film business are Lord Remnant and Felicity Green. People whose livelihood is in films can’t help but have views on everything. They think about movies all the time; they ask questions. As a result of all this, our relationship with the film-makers has become much more complex.

The crunch comes when you ask questions which the film-maker finds either irrelevant, impertinent or unhelpful. Everything is all right as long as the film-maker finds the question helpful; as of course they often do, even if on a personal basis they think you’re an idiot for asking it. But although I say that we are no longer a bank, and that the Corporation now operates more like a publisher, none the less the Board has to operate like a bank in the sense that it has to be sure the investment is being looked after, the money properly spent, and that the project we end up with is the project we thought we had backed. At the same time, the relationship with the film-makers is a difficult and complex one, and I don’t quite know where it will take us. All I can say is that I am aware of the difficulties, and that I sympathise with what film-makers feel.

When we talked before, you stressed that it was necessary to think in terms of a programme of films, that one-off ventures wouldn’t work. I would think a programme would have to mean about six films a year, which circumstances have not allowed you. So are you left with one-offs?

I am convinced that the only way to solve our problems is to co-operate with a broad-based company, with the resources to plan a programme. I had hoped that we might have worked with Rank, who are now of course out of production. And we have now two films with EMI. But we do, in any case, have a programme. In my own mind, when we back a film, I think about how it connects with the others, and I hope people will recognise that a film backed by the NFFC has a certain commitment to cinema as it relates to life. We now have two films which are due to start shooting in about a month, two more which are likely to start in the autumn, and a further two which I hope will start at Christmas or in the spring. In present terms, that makes us a major-if only a minor major. For the first time we can look to a kind of continuity.

We will have real problems next year, however. By that time, we will no longer have the benefit of the extra £1m, and our £1.5m will already be worth a great deal less than it was even a year ago. Inflation in film production, of course, far outstrips the rate of inflation in the real world. So by next year we will be talking effectively about only one or two pictures, and at that stage the question would be whether the game is worth the candle. We would all have to think very hard about that. The government may decide that the system is not really working, or that it is working but not well enough, and that the only solution is to find ways to give us more money.

There are one or two things that might happen, meanwhile. As you know, the existing legislation precludes us from making forward sales to television in Britain, though we can make forward sales to overseas TV companies. The Wilson Committee has recommended that this should be changed, and this seems likely to happen soon. If we can arrange forward sales to Channel Four, or indeed to any other channel, then our money will go a little further because the film-makers will be seeking less money from us. More important is the second Wilson Committee recommendation: that when television companies invest in film production the expense should be allowable against excess profits tax. Because of course television is the source of finance for films. We need to get television to invest effectively, but without the destructive hold that the television companies have, for instance, over the German film-makers. Television has had a bad effect on German cinema, apart from the early days.

Is Channel Four likely to change things?

I think its significance is going to depend not so much on the principle as on the actual amounts that it is able to put up as guarantees against forward sales to television, and on the extent to which it is willing to accept some barring. If Channel Four insists on showing a film it supports on the day it opens in cinemas, then the film has no real theatrical potential, and no chance of making a 248 reputation which in the long run will make it more valuable for Channel Four to show it to a wider audience. I hope they will abide by some kind of modified barring. Also, we don’t yet know what percentage of a film’s budget they may be putting up. If it is no more than a tenth or a twentieth, it will be just another way to get the most unshowable films on to the screen. If we are talking about the kind of creative help that could change the climate both of British cinema and of British television, there must be much larger sums involved. We have all heard various figures· quoted; we’ll know when we see the contracts.

Before there can be a really effective relationship· between cinema and television, however, I think there has to be another change: the departmental responsibilities must reflect the real world. At present, we have the Home Office dealing with television, the Department of Education and Science, through the Office of Arts and Libraries, dealing with film as art, the Department of Trade dealing with film as commerce, the Department of Industry dealing with things like satellite transmission, and British Telecom involved with the equipment end. That no longer relates to the real world. Of course there are differences between film and television, but the same people work in both media and obviously every film that is ever made is going to be shown on television in the end. We all know that the separation between art and commerce is nonsense – take a film like Heaven’s Gate, which is not a commercial movie but one of the most expensive art movies ever made. If you are going to arrive at a rational structure for the funding of film and television, then there has to be a continuing dialogue between the various departments involved. Not the kind of meetings that occur once in a while at present when particular issues come up, but regular discussion. What we need is a kind of federal status for the different departments involved with the visual media.

Are you in favour of the British Film Authority, which would bring the various interests together?

No. I like the idea of the Authority, but it also worries me. I am concerned about the centralisation of so much power. I would prefer there to be a formal structure of, say, monthly meetings, a loose grouping rather than bringing everyone together under one umbrella. The main thing to be agreed first, however, is that the government would actually find it useful to have a change in the structure. At the moment, the separation of responsibility makes it hard even to talk to government. And all this is going to become even more necessary with the forthcoming developments in satellite, cable and so on.

You have talked about film-makers being concerned to find audiences. But soon, surely, it is going to be cheaper and more effective to release minority films on disc or cassette, rather than to have empty seats surrounding the few people in each area who want to see the film?

I don’t know that that is true. The so called minority films have in fact been doing very well in –  London and in some of the major cities, admittedly, because there is just no exhibition outlet in other towns and areas. The successful exhibitors, people like Romaine Hart, David and Barbara Stone or Roger Wingate, don’t share the general pessimism in the industry about cinema audiences for these films. They’re imaginative people who have been able to create audiences, as well as to bring the films to them. At the moment, of course, the Monopolies Commission is looking into the question of the supply of films to cinemas. I hope the Commission may recommend some relaxation of the barring system, so that independent exhibitors who are prepared to take the high risk of showing minority films will also have access to some of the more commercial product.

So you are still backing cinemas and cinema audiences?

Financially, it makes sense. After all, the very high prices that are paid for films by television are dependent almost entirely on the films’ cinema performance. One of our films, for instance, did quite well in the cinemas. Before it was shown, we were negotiating price x with one of the television outlets; after it had done well in the first two or three weeks of cinema release, we negotiated a price which was 3x. Or there may be an independent distributor in America who wants to take your picture. You know that however well the film does, you are going to get almost nothing out of it. The exhibitor takes his profit, the independent distributor takes his commission, the costs are passed on to you, and you end up with zero. But you know that when you are selling the picture to television in the States, the price will be much higher if you can quote the cinema box-office figures, the publicity and so on. In effect, we are sacrificing income we should be getting from cinema exhibition in order to raise the price to television.

In fact, television needs cinemas. Otherwise, you will no longer have quality in television, you will just have quantities. You would simply be selling a film running. ninety minutes or sixty minutes or thirty-five minutes: a length of footage with a title attached to it. The cassette revolution may change this, and it is bound to have a positive effect on minority films. People who buy films on cassette and disc will be the same sort of people who now buy hardback books; and in fact the price won’t be very different. But I also suspect that the cassette and disc makers will not be taking audiences away from the cinemas so much as from television. People do still want to see films in cinemas. Our problem is finding the money to make the films they want to see. Even if I am wrong, even if we only have a decade or two left of cinema, that does not affect our responsibility to the film-makers and film audiences of today. I feel frustrated, sometimes angry, but not downhearted. Bill Forsyth’s optimism is catching. As Charlie says at the end of Gregory’s Girl, ‘Andy, I think everything’s going to be all right.’ Maybe.