Michael Radford: “If you’re the director, your first job is to make the actors feel confident”

British screenwriter and film director Michael Radford (b. 1946) visited Belgium recently; he was the President of the Jury at the 37th edition of the Festival International du Film de Mons, Belgium, held last week from March 11 through March 19.

Almost four decades ago, he first gained international attention with his second feature, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984), based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel; it was also Richard Burton’s final film. When renowned film critic and film historian Roger Ebert reviewed the film on February 1, 1985, for the Chicago-Sun Times, he praised ‘Michael Radford’s brilliant film of Orwell’s vision’ and added, ‘Radford’s style in the movie is an interesting experiment. […] The 1954 film version of Orwell’s novel turned it into a cautionary, simplistic science-fiction tale. This version penetrates much more deeply into the novel’s heart of darkness.’

Later on, Mr. Radford was also critically acclaimed for the other films he made, such as “White Mischief” (1987) about the British colony in Kenya during the early days of World War 2; “The Merchant of Venice” (2004) with Al Pacino as moneylender Shylock in the first film version of the Shakespeare play; “Elsa & Fred” (2014) about two senior citizens, played by Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, who start dating, and “La musica del silenzio” (2017, a.k.a. “The Music of Silence”), an inspirational and uplifting film of Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli. And what do these films have in common? They are all exceedingly well-acted films and well-crafted adaptations; that’s Mr. Radford’s niche and it puts him in the same category with other accomplished filmmakers such as Roland Joffé, John Schlesinger, Bill Forsyth, and Jim Sheridan.

His best-known work, however, is the Italian screen classic “Il postino” (1994, a.k.a. “The Postman”); the film was nominated for five Academy Awards in the categories Best Picture, Best Actor (Massimo Troisi), and there were two nominations for Mr. Radford for Best Director and Best Screenplay (Based on Material Previously Produced or Published)—the latter shared with Massimo Troisi and Anna Pavignano, among others. Luis Bacalov won the film’s only Oscar for his wonderful musical score.

At the time, the enchanting and good-hearted Italian tragicomedy was overshadowed by the premature death of Massimo Troisi, the film’s leading actor and co-screenwriter, at age 41 after suffering a lifetime of heart problems. He had postponed a heart operation to complete the film and died the day after filming was finished.

“Il postino” (1994, trailer)

“Il postino” was inspired by an incident in the life of Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruba (1904-1973) when he lived on the Italian island of Capri; the principal cast of characters in the film are Massimo Troisi as the postman; there’s also Neruba, portrayed by French actor Philippe Noiret, and Beatrice, the local barmaid, is played by Maria Grazia Cucinotta. The pittoresque film locations at the port and the bar were shot on the island of Prodica, in the Bay of Naples; the landscapes and fishing villages in the film are located on Salina, an island north of Sicily.

During Mr. Radford’s visit to Mons, I had the following Zoom interview with the man who made all those precious gems to talk about his work and career in films.

Mr. Radford, you are a very inspirational actor’s director. What is, in your opinion, the secret of getting the most out of your actors?

I do love working with actors; I really do. Actors are very often unsure of themselves, and that’s why I find it a real pleasure to talk to them. And in the end, it’s the actors who fill the audiences with whatever it is, and I always like to make sure that we’re doing the right thing. So I always listen to them; they have a lot to say and a lot to talk about. And I get on very well with them, actually. I just got a card from Demi Moore whom I worked with on “Flawless” [2007] with Michael Caine; it was not a fabulous movie or anything like that, but I did love working with them, and, honestly, I was very touched by the fact that she loved working with me. I also know that actors are very vulnerable because they have to give themselves, and a lot of the time they’re not sure of who they are. And if you talk to them, without being afraid or anything like that, you always get a good reaction. Al Pacino, for example, has remained a very good friend of mine. I speak to him every month or so; then you’re able to understand what he’s thinking about, where he’s coming from, and I really love that part of filmmaking almost as much as anything. When I was making “Nineteen Eighty-Four” [1984], I was only a guy, I was only 38, and I found that John Hurt used to act a lot—act too much. So I said to him, ‘You are a fantastically talented actor—which he was—but for this movie, I only require ten percent of your talent.’ And that was enough because he was so good. It’s great to work with famous actors, but it’s the process of acting that matters, and that’s why it is hard for a lot of them to feel confident in themselves. And if you’re the director, your first job is to make the actors feel confident. That’s also what Demi Moore said from the very beginning; I was probably a little bit afraid of her because she was quite a big star. But she was absolutely lovely during the filmmaking because I just wanted to do my job and make the actors feel something that, perhaps, they are not feeling for themselves. If you work like that, it’s really helpful. From my point of view, that’s the most important thing you need to do as a director.

Michael Radford at the Festival International du Film de Mons | Mara De Sario/Festival International du Film de Mons

You’re also very loyal to the people you work with, like cinematographer Roger Deakins, for example, who was instrumental in your early films.

Yes. We went to film school together, and we made a number of films together. Now he’s a huge star [14 Academy Award nominations, 2 wins]. But, once again, I like to feel a real personal relationship and not just ask, ‘I want you to do this’ or ‘I want you to do that.’ Because all those people have a craft in them, and they’re afraid like everybody else is. And you want them to use it to the best of their ability. That’s what a director does.

You just said that actors can be insecure. Have you ever been insecure as a filmmaker?

No, not at all [laughs]. That doesn’t mean that I’m Mr. Big Guy or anything like that; I’m just not like that. I believe in what I’m doing. If I don’t, nobody else will. The other function that I have—which probably helps quite a lot—is that I often write my screenplays as well. I’m planning now to do a film about Vivien Leigh. I haven’t gotten the actor yet to play her, but I’ve written the screenplay. Many people like it, so now we’re trying to find the perfect Vivien Leigh. You can find lots of good actors, but they don’t look like her. It’s difficult to have someone represent or play a character who has been in the movies for so many years and is so visible to most people who know about cinema, so that’s my problem at the moment: finding the right person to play Vivien Leigh.

If I’m correct, you also plan to do “Sweethearts,” the story of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, two stars from eight MGM musicals [1935-1942] who introduced opera to film-going audiences. That project is still on the table?

No, it has been canceled now. It turned out that the producers were not able to finance a big film like that. I did a lot of work on it, so I am sad it doesn’t work out. I had even persuaded Al Pacino to play Louis B. Mayer. But for some reason or another, the producers or the financiers were not able to set up the movie; I felt very sad about that. This could have been a huge movie, and it would have been great fun to do. But it got canceled; maybe it will come back, I don’t know. But not now.

How do you explain that, after all those years, “Il postino” [1994] is still such a memorable film?

I honestly don’t know. You always do your best and hope it will turn out fine. “Il postino” was a film made under terrible circumstances because Massimo Troisi was dying all the way through the movie: it was a very tragic story. When we were shooting it, we worked a lot with a man who looked just like him; he was a physical training instructor from Calabria, but when you put the two of them together, it was almost impossible to distinguish the difference between them. He looked so like Massimo, so I used him in many scenes. He did all the heavy work of riding bicycles and things like that. All Massimo could do was walk into a room and sit down. In most of the film, he’s sitting down, and I shot him in close-up. In all the wide shots, we used a double. But he was a fantastic actor to work with, he really really was. The sadness is what happened in the end. I was happy to be part of the film because I like Massimo a lot. So I loved making it, but it was such a tragedy that he died. He was only 41 years old; he had a terrible heart problem. We even hoped to make several films together; one of them was about an Italian waiter working in Los Angeles. That’s also where we spent a lot of time when we wrote the script. Los Angeles was his favorite city because nobody recognized him when he went out. After he had seen my first film, a little Scottish film called “Another Time, Another Place” [1983], he thought I understood him better than anyone else.

Michael Radford, publicity still | Festival International du Film de Mons

Only now and then, a foreign-language film becomes an international success. “Il postino” is one of them. How do you explain that?

What was so great about that is that the film took off in Hollywood, which I never expected. I think it was one of the first foreign-language films since Fellini to be nominated for several Oscars. That was a great help for us all. I was very happy about that. Then the film went everywhere in the world, and people liked it.

You captured the look and feel of the characters very beautifully, but what are the obstacles when you make a film in another language? Knowing Massimo Troisi was also a comedian, how did it work out if you wanted to add a little bit of humor, even in a subtle way?

That’s always difficult when you’re working in another language. Massimo didn’t speak any English, and even though I speak Italian, speaking Neapolitan is not quite the same. I had discovered very quickly that the worst thing you could possibly do when you’re directing a film in a foreign language is trying to tell jokes. Never tell jokes in a foreign language because you always get them wrong. At least, I always get them wrong. I’m happy to a certain degree that when I was making “Il postino” I couldn’t be funny to anybody because nobody understood what I was saying. When we were shooting the film, I saw an Austrian hitchhiker passing on this island, he was walking alone, and I ran up to him and asked, ‘Could you stop for a minute and just tell me a couple of jokes in English? Just to feel that I have a sense of humor.’ And then I could deal with Masssimo.

After the success of “Il postino,” did your telephone explode with offers from producers and production companies who all wanted to work with you?

I suppose so; that’s what happens more or less. But, you know, many people in Italy said that I didn’t direct the film at all. ‘He didn’t do it, Massimo Troisi did it,’ they said. But how could he possibly have acted the way he did and direct it too? You can also see that in ‘The Making Of.’ I think there was a bit of a backlash somehow in Italy.

You have worked with screenwriter Anna Pavignano on several of your films, including “Il postino.” How important has she been in your work so far?

She’s a wonderful writer, particularly in Italian. She doesn’t speak any English, actually. When I was writing the script for “Elsa & Fred” [2014], I had asked her, ‘Could you refurbish it?’ Since she doesn’t speak any English at all, she rewrote the entire script in Italian, then I translated it in English, and it worked really well—better than it was before. Although Shirley MacLaine, who played Elsa, was a little bit difficult, let’s say; she actually insisted that her dog directed the film. She would put him in the chair, sitting next to me, and referred only to the dog [laughs]. She was something else, something I had never come across before. But she’s a great and wonderful actress.

Festival International du Film de Mons,
March 19, 2022

FILMS

THE DAY THE FISH CAME OUT (1967) DIR – PROD – SCR Michael Cacoyannis CAM Walter Lassally ED Vasilis Syropoulos MUS Mikis Theodorakis CAST Tom Courtenay, Sam Wanamaker, Colin Blakely, Candice Bergen, Ian Ogilvy, Dimitris Nikolaidis, Nikos Alexiou, Patricia Burke, Michael Radford (Tourist)

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE (1983) DIR Michael Radford PROD Simon Perry SCR Michael Radford (novel “Another Time, Another Place” [1983] by Jessie Kesson) CAM Roger Deakins ED Tom Priestley MUS John McLeod CAST Phyllis Logan, Giovanni Mauriello, Gianluca Favilla, Claudio Rosini, Paul Young, Gregor Fisher, Tom Watson

NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1984) DIR Michael Radford PROD Simon Perry SCR Michael Radford (novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” [1949] by George Orwell) CAM Roger Deakins ED Tom Priestley MUS Dominic Muldowney CAST John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack, Gregor Fisher, James Walker, Andrew Wilde, David Trevena

WHITE MISCHIEF (1987) DIR Michael Radford PROD Simon Perry SCR Michael Radford, Jonathan Gems (novel “White Mischief” [1982] by James Fox) CAM Roger Deakins ED Tom Priestley MUS George Fenton CAST Sarah Miles, Joss Ackland, Greta Scacchi, Charles Dance, Geraldine Chaplin, John Hurt, Trevor Howard, Murray Head, Hugh Grant

IL POSTINO, a.k.a. THE POSTMAN (1994) DIR Michael Radford PROD Gaetano Daniele, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Mario Cecchi Gori SCR Michael Radford, Massimo Troisi, Anna Pavignano, Furio Scarpelli, Giacomo Scarpelli (story by Furio Scarpelli, Giacomo Scarpelli; screenplay ARDIENTE PACIENCIA [1983] by Antonio Skármeta; novel “Ardiente Paciencia” a.k.a. “El Cartero De Neruda” [1985] by Antonio Skármeta) CAM Franco Di Giacomo ED Roberto Perpignani MUS Luis Bacalov CAST Massimo Troisi, Philippe Noiret, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Renato Scarpa, Linda Moretti, Sergio Solli, Carlo Di Malo

B. MONKEY (1998) DIR Michael Radford PROD Stephen Woolley, Colin Vaines SCR Michael Radford, Chloe King, Michael Thomas CAM Ashley Rowe ED Joëlle Hache MUS Luis Bacalov, Jennie Muskett CAST Asia Argento, Jared Harris, Rupert Everett, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Julie T. Wallace, Ian Hart, Tim Woodward, Bryan Pringle, Clare Higgins

DANCING AT THE BLUE IGUANA (2000) DIR Michael Radford PROD Michael Radford, Dana Lusting, Damian Jones, Ram Bergman, Graham Broadbent, Sheila Kelley SCR Michael Radford, David Linter CAM Ericson Core ED Roberto Perpignani MUS Renato Neto, Tal Bergman CAST Charlotte Ayanna, Daryl Hannah, Sheila Kelley, Elias Koteas, Vladimir Mashkov, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Tilly, Robert Wisdom

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (2004) DIR Michael Radford PROD Cary Brokaw, Luciano Silighini Garagnani, Fabio De Carli, Jason Piette, Barry Navidi SCR Michael Radford (play “The Merchant of Venice” [ca. 1596-1599] by William Shakespeare) CAM Benoît Delhomme ED Lucia Zuchetti MUS Jocelyn Pook CAST Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall, Charlie Cox, Heather Goldenhersh

FLAWLESS (2007) DIR Michael Radford PROD Mark Williams SCR Edward Anderson CAM Richard Greatrex ED Peter Boyle MUS Stephen Warbeck CAST Michael Caine, Demi Moore, Lambert Wilson, Nathaniel Parker, Shaughan Seymour, Nicholas Jones, Joss Ackland, David Barrass, Silas Carson

LA MULA (2013) DIR Michael Radford [Anónimo] PROD Bruce St. Clair, Alejandra Frade SCR Michael Radford [Anónimo], Juan Eslava Galán (novel “La mula” [2003] by Juan Eslava Galán) CAM Ashley Rowe, Ángel Luis Fernández ED Teresa Font MUS oscar Navarro CAST Mario Casas, María Valverde, Secun de la Rosa, Daniel Grao, Luis Callejo, Antonio Gil, Jorge Suquet, Jesús Carroza

ELSA & FRED (2014) DIR Michael Radford PROD Matthias Ehrenberg, José Levy, Ricardo Kleinbaum, Nicolas Veinberg, Edward Saxon SCR Michael Radford, Anna Pavignano (screenplay ELSA & FRED [2005] by Marcos Carnevale, Marcela Guerty, Lily Ann Martin) CAM Michael McDonough ED Peter Boyle MUS Luis Bacalov CAST Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harden, Wendell Pierce, Jared Gilman, Chris Noth, Scott Bakula, George Segal, James Brolin

LA MUSICA DEL SILENZIO, a.k.a. THE MUSIC OF SILENCE (2017) DIR Michael Radford PROD Monika Bacardi, Roberto Sessa, Andrea Iervolino, Motaz M. Nabulsi SCR Michael Radford, Anna Pavignano, Andrea Bocelli (autobiography “La musica del silenzio” [1999] by Andrea Bocelli) CAM Stefano Falivene ED Roberto Missiroli MUS Gabriele Roberto CAST Toby Sebastian, Luisa Ranieri, Jordi Mollà, Antonio Banderas, Alessandro Sperduti, Antonella Attili

TV MOVIE

THE WHITE BIRD PASSES (1980) DIR Michael Radford PROD James Hunter SCR Michael Radford (novel “The White Bird Passes” [1958] by Jessie Kesson) CAM Norman Shepherd ED Polly Moseley CAST Isobel Black, Derek Anders, Marjorie Dalziel, Sheila Donald, Jean Faulds, Joan Fitzpatrick, Geordie Hamilton