Create Soho – Alan Parker

My two day screenwriting course with Phil Gladwin, running in London on the weekend of Oct 10-11 with guest speaker ESTHER SPRINGER (Head of Development, BBC DRAMA).
NB Have a look at the web page for some lovely testimonials from our May course.

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Hi There,

In June I went to a couple of sessions at the SOHO CREATE FESTIVAL.

Here are some notes from the first of those sessions – an interview with creative collaborators, film director, ALAN PARKER, and his cinematographer, MICHAEL SERESIN. It was a fascinating and inspiring session – Alan Parker is (in my opinion) one of the great British film-makers, and he was also wonderfully indiscreet!

‘From Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express to the award winning Angela’s Ashes, two cinema greats, director Sir Alan Parker and cinematographer Michael Seresin discuss thirty years of collaboration at the pinnacle of the film industry. How do they work together to create the extraordinary worlds and stories of some of our best movies? Does a thirty year working history give advantages in understanding each other’s creativity, and have they kept the same teams around them on that journey?’

AP: Had worked in Soho as a copywriter. Started to make ads. MS was his cinematographer. They hit it off, working together on commercials.

MS: Shared sense of humour, rapport. An example of their working relationship – they met over a meal in a restaurant to discuss FAME and how to approach shooting it. But over a 2 hour lunch didn’t get round to talking about the film.

AP: Michael had some really great work in commercials. Around this time (1969-70) there was a huge revolution in cinema – about simplifying light. With Michael, he sometimes had one light, took 10 minutes to set up, the shot looked beautiful – then others with 50 lights, it looked terrible. Michael uses his eyes – it’s about simplicity.
Ridley Scott hugely influenced a generation of film makers. He had an innovative approach.

BUGSY MALONE – his first feature film – was quite a conventional studio film, and Alan had never worked on a studio production before. He’d never worked with kids before. Because it was new to them (the kids) they brought great energy to it. AP had to hire the workforce from Pinewood studios. Not the way he had been used to working on commercials – an old industrial system which changed soon after.


They shot in Malta for 5 months. Unlike today, no executives saw any footage for weeks. They were able to try different things, juggle the budget in a way not possible nowadays. ‘They forgot about us.’ It was funded / made by Columbia Pictures but felt like making an indie film. We had great creative freedom.

MS: When Michael sent me a script, he’d accompany it with about 150 images – this fired discussion. We didn’t have a detailed discussion. Almost unspoken trust between us. Now, in the digital age, everyone sees everything instantly.
But back then there was a rigour – as you had to commit, and didn’t know until afterwards if it had worked.

AP: Oliver Stone wrote MIDNIGHT EXPRESS in my office in Soho. His script won best original screenplay Oscar. ‘I met him and he was just horrible…everything he said was the opposite. If we heard him typing away, we disliked him so much, we’d sneak out.’
‘I wrote a lot of bits of it. I wrote the English character (played by John Hurt). And in Malta we rewrote the end sequence. But Oliver Stone spent 6 weeks writing it in our back office in Gt Marlborough Street.

‘When we got it, it was hypnotic, sensational. Written in a different way to anything I’d read before…But as a man whatever he says makes me want to punch him. Met him 3 times since. The antithesis of charm – but hugely talented.’

AP: We never had a creative disagreement (with MS). But there was never enough time to shoot everything we wanted. Michael was incredibly fast and very sensitive to the director’s needs.
On a film set, the most important thing is momentum – getting into a rhythm. If you can’t get into a rhythm you can’t do good work.
I very rarely work with the same actors – but I always work with the same crew. People who are sensitive to the creative process. And Michael has sophistication that others don’t have. He’s sensitive to the bigger picture.

MS: I’m not especially technical – to me it’s all about light, shadow, the lens.


AP: Shot in New York City. We did a big musical number right in the middle of the city. The camera operator had a personal meltdown, flew back to London. It was devastating. The union wouldn’t let Michael operate.
They weren’t allowed to film in the NYC School of the Performing Arts. The principal told him – ‘Mr Parker we can’t risk you doing for NY high schools what you did for Turkish prisons.’


Worked with Garrett Brown who invented the steadicam. And then the ‘Sky Camera’ – we were going to be the first people to use it. But it broke – so we had to think on our feet – in simulating the flight of a bird. CLIP: The flying shot in the film nowadays would have been totally digital effects – but in the shot in BIRDY the actor was on a wire flying in a real rubbish dump.

What are the differences in technology between then and now?

MS: All I care about is the composition. Technology has taken over. But it doesn’t make the ideas any better. In the past you had to be more imaginative, you had to make it work…it really made you work, I liked that challenge.

AP: ‘I don’t want to make a movie now. It’s very different. It’s the era of the studio exec now. Because the outlets for film have become so narrow. ‘They don’t make a multiplicity of films anymore.’ And it’s physically really hard. Michael has much more stamina than me, but he only arrives on the day we start shooting.
But getting the money, then shooting 6 day weeks, 12 hour days for 3 months is physically very hard. I enjoyed it at 40, 50 but not 70.


MS: The chemistry between Micky O’Rourke and De Niro was mesmeric. All about two brilliant actors working together.

AP: I’m very proud of the work I’ve done. It’s lovely when it works. When I talk in film schools, I say – make sure you’ve chosen the right profession.
When I write something I have an image in the back of my mind. Michael always makes it look better than I imagined.

We come from this Soho world of TV commercials – so I had relationships with producers, editors. We came ‘en masse’, moved into feature films together, intact. Lucky not to have to look for sympathetic producer. Ridley Scott’s group of people on Lexington St. Adrian Lyne on Beak St. Hugh Hudson in my office.

AP: I’ve written a number of feature films that haven’t been made. Lots of producers – even Scott Rudin – have a lot of unproduced screenplays. Nothing to do with whether the script is good or bad.
If you don’t want to be judged by these rules ($30m +), you need to make very inexpensive films.

What are their favourite films?

MS: The Third Man. For various reasons, it had a deep personal connection.

AP: ‘I’m surprised you said that. I thought you would have been infinitely more pretentious.’ My favourite director is Ken Loach and film ‘Cathy Come Home.’ When I started to direct, he was the one I looked up to. Integrity coming out of his ears. He repeats himself, as does Mike Leigh.

There’s an indigenous British film industry – Leigh, Loach. Then there’s the service industry of technicians etc to service US films in the UK. But US and UK film crews themselves are not very different.

There are huge financial advantages for US film to come here – but our technicians work in a similar way to the US. Whereas there are big differences with European processes / film industry.

Most UK films have very narrow ambition, they don’t have money, so are infinitely simpler than US films.

Until next week

All the best




July 17th 2015