MetFilm School remembers Sir Alan Parker
By John Woodward
11 August 2020
Chair of MetFilm School, John Woodward, remembers English Filmmaker, Sir Alan Parker, who sadly passed last month.
The blanket media coverage that followed the death of Sir Alan Parker earlier this month rightly focused on the largely uninterrupted stream of classic feature films that Alan directed, (and often wrote), across four decades. From Bugsy Malone through Midnight Express to Fame to Shoot the Moon to The Commitments to Evita and Angela’s Ashes, Alan’s extraordinary and hugely diverse, body of work lasered itself into the minds of successive generations of filmmakers and moviegoers; each film a model of propulsive storytelling and memorable characters, made with a seemingly effortless cinematic style that was widely copied but never equaled.
Critics have remarked before now that a recurring theme in Alan’s films is how childhood and youth must inevitably give way to the adult world – and it’s true you will often find a young person at the beating heart of an Alan Parker film, fighting to make their mark on the wider world. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that another important, (but less remarked upon), aspect of Alan’s career was his dedication to teaching film and helping young filmmakers get their earliest work made and seen by audiences. From his own experience, Alan knew how hard it could be at the outset of a career in film to get your work noticed, and that insight fuelled a life-long commitment to supporting and helping aspiring filmmakers.
I had the great good fortune to spend a lot of time with Alan over 20+ years and I was able to see that enthusiasm for new talent get translated into results. He was my Chairman when I was the CEO of the BFI and my Chairman at the UK Film Council. And it was in that role, (when he was still directing his own feature films), that Alan was able to take action. Suddenly for the first time, millions of pounds of UK government funding were invested annually in skills training. In addition Alan was delighted to be able to create First Light (now Into Film), the justly celebrated UK-wide filmmaking scheme for young people.
Alan was also a longtime friend and supporter of MetFilm, (he sat on our Advisory Board), and after retiring from directing he lectured and tutored at film schools in the UK and around the world with his famously dry wit and utter candour much in evidence. Across the years I was able to observe Alan talk with filmmakers about both the artistic and the business ends of filmmaking – always with real empathy and a shrewd insight born of long experience.
So in the past few days I’ve been reflecting on how Alan’s rigorous approach to filmmaking not only shaped his own work, but also contributed to the development of several generations of younger filmmakers. And when MetFilm School Director, Jonny Persey, asked me to write about Alan I thought the most useful thing I could do would be to rehearse some of the points I heard Alan make most often about navigating a successful film career whilst keeping your artistic integrity, (and your soul), intact – views that, with each passing year, seem ever more pertinent:
Create a clear plan
Alan liked to say that whilst the process of filmmaking could sometimes be a battleground, more often than not it was a hugely complicated ‘balancing act’ of time, money and competing creative pressures; any one of which could throw you off-course as a director if you doubted your own intentions for one second. That’s why Alan believed it was crucial for the filmmaker to know exactly what they want to achieve in production and post-production and to carry a super-clear picture in their head of the film they intend to make, long before they step onto a film set.
Master the basics
The best filmmakers all learned the craft of filmmaking and the rules of storytelling before they started to bend or break those rules and Alan’s view was there are good reasons why film storytelling evolved into its current form. And everyone from Kubrick to Paul Thomas Anderson steeped themselves in the work of the great directors who came before them, and learned the grammar and technique of filmmaking inside out, before they began to articulate their own unique vision of the world.
Have something to say
Even so, all the craft and technique in the world counts for very little if you have nothing relevant or interesting to say. Films usually engage audiences through story and structures that are designed to be comfortable, if not downright familiar, but great films always have something bigger inside them than the sum of the story they are telling. (Alan’s first question about a film student project was often ‘what’s the story about?’ and his second question would be ‘so what’s it really about?’). For Alan, great films are about ideas and viewpoints and not just emotions;
Make a connection
Audiences matter enormously. Rarely, if ever, is that about grabbing the biggest audience, (a surefire recipe for disaster or tedium or both in Alan’s view), but if a film can connect with its intended audience then it can honestly be called a success. And then if you are really good, (or really lucky), your film may grow beyond that audience.
Ultimately the films that endure are films that speak to us about the human condition and challenge our preconceptions and sometimes, tentatively, even point the way towards a better future.
And for me that last point in particular goes some of the way to explaining why, after forty five years and fourteen stone classic films, we can still turn on our TV or log onto a streaming platform on any night of any week and find an Alan Parker film that will entertain us but also make us think harder about the world we live in.
Rest in peace Sir Alan Parker.
Chair of MetFilm School