Pulp Friction: Mike Hodges vs. the Hollywood Machine

In a career-spanning interview, the British director discusses everything from making classics like "Get Carter" to fiascos like "Omen II."
Matthew Thrift

Get Carter (1971). Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

A fascinating figure in British cinema, Mike Hodges made his astonishing debut with Get Carter in 1971, a vicious tale of gangland revenge featuring an immortal lead performance from Michael Caine. A seminal British gangster movie, Get Carter immediately announced the arrival of a filmmaker with a keen eye for genre deconstruction, the film’s pithy nihilism and modernist sensibilities strikingly attuned to its vision of wanton amorality and national dilapidation. Other studio gigs followed, but film after film, it quickly became apparent that executives and marketing departments had no idea what to do with the work of this perennial outsider.

The Terminal Man (1974) never saw a UK release, and A Prayer for the Dying (1987) was re-cut behind his back. Horror sequel Omen II: Damien (1978) was a disaster from the off, with Hodges unceremoniously replaced as director, and Black Rainbow (1989) effectively vanished for some 30 years. While the remarkable noir-inflected thriller Croupier (1998) became a sleeper hit on its US release, and inaugurated a movie star in Clive Owen, the film made little impact on its home turf, despite a re-release following its Stateside critical acclaim.

With a comprehensive retrospective of Hodges’ career now underway at London’s BFI Southbank, we sat down for a long chat over Zoom, in which the 89-year-old filmmaker talked us through the wild ups and downs of a combative, six-decade career.

NOTEBOOK: The BFI retrospective was originally scheduled for 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. I understand you spent most of lockdown working on an autobiographical documentary. How’s that coming along?

MIKE HODGES: It’s finished, actually. It’s an all-library film with pre-recorded music and my commentary, which I wrote and performed. But we haven’t got the money to pay for the library footage. So it’s completed, but whether it’ll ever be seen is another matter. But I’m used to that.

NOTEBOOK: It sounds as though you’ve come full circle, as documentary was where you started out. Did you enjoy working with the archives on this one?

HODGES: I did. It’s interesting, I was approached years ago by the BFI to see if I was interested in doing it, but I couldn’t get it together because I don’t really like talking about myself. I tried to find various ways of hiding, as though it were about somebody else and not me. Eventually I faced up to just doing it, writing and recording this autobiographical script. But we’ll see…

NOTEBOOK: The centerpiece of the BFI season is the new 4K restoration of Get Carter. The last time I think I’d seen it was during its previous BFI re-release in 1999, at the height of the Cool Britannia wave of the Blair years. Back then it was fully appropriated by lad-culture magazines as this cultural emblem du jour, and the pinnacle of ‘60s cool. It was fascinating to rediscover it now, and realize how terse and modernist it is, and how a film can change based on the cultural context of when you view it.

HODGES: I think you’re right. Most of that lad-culture movement had no idea what it was like back then. It’s so alien to anything that generation was brought up in. When I was in the Navy in the 1950s I could go everywhere, and that’s what led to me choosing the film’s locations. I saw such depravity, sights that Hogarth wouldn’t have dreamt of. I was in the Fishing Protection Squad, so we went into the likes of Hull, Grimsby, and eventually North Shields. They were terrible places, absolute hellholes. When I was offered Get Carter, Ted Lewis’s story really fit with what I’d witnessed. So I changed his nameless location to one of these fishing ports.

I went back up the east coast some ten years after leaving the Navy, and these areas hadn’t been gentrified, but they’d been built up and weren’t really as I remembered them. So we went back to North Shields, where there was an area behind the fishing jetty known as the Jungle. It was a really sad place, with such awful poverty. Trying to get to North Shields by car, I came across Newcastle, and knew immediately that this amazing city was where I wanted to set the film. Visually, it automatically explained Jack Carter’s behavior. You could see these locations and understand this tough, brutal creature a lot more than you would’ve done anywhere else.

It’s all gone now. I caught Newcastle on the cusp, really. It was changing from a place of abject poverty to a slick, gentrified city. If you go there now the full gentrification has happened. I’m glad for Newcastle, because it was a pretty desperate place when I filmed it.

NOTEBOOK: Get Carter has been read so many different ways: as a crime thriller, a social realist drama, a portrait of social and national decay. I’m curious how you view the film, and if that’s changed at all over the years.

HODGES: I think it’s still the same in many ways. I’d worked on World in Action, the famous investigative documentary series on British television, and I knew that the version of Britain that viewers were being shown on TV wasn’t the one that I saw. I witnessed a lot of corruption. People thought the police were wonderful and fraud was only something committed by foreigners. Well, I knew this was totally wrong. It was interesting that when I went to Newcastle, T. Dan Smith was the mayor, a socialist who two years after we made the film ended up in the slammer for massive fraud. So the smell of corruption was there when I was shooting.

NOTEBOOK: The film’s visual style—that long-lensed, journalistic approach—is there in your excellent ITV films Suspect (1969) and Rumour (1970). How did yours and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky’s background in documentary filmmaking influence the look of Get Carter?

HODGES: I guess it was inevitable. When I made Rumour, which was the first feature-length film I made for television, the operator and lighting technician was a man named Dusty Miller, who I took as an operator onto Carter. When it came to making a film for cinema, the pedigree of the cinematographer was important, so I had to search around for someone I thought would be good. I was lucky that I remembered seeing an Anthony Newley film called The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), but I had no idea who the cinematographer was. I looked at it again, and not only was it this amazing portrait of a lost Soho, but I discovered that it was shot by Wolfgang. Then it was simple. The two of us came together and it was a delight. I’ve just seen the new master of Carter and it’s just wonderful, it’s like seeing a different film.

NOTEBOOK: MGM wasn’t in the best shape when you made Carter. Tell me a little bit about that first studio experience. Was there any pressure on you and producer Michael Klinger to fill it with American stars?

HODGES: Yes, there was. Michael Caine came on board after he read the script. It was an EMI film, as far as I recall, and then MGM came in on the deal and it all changed. They wanted all sorts of actors to play minor roles. I was resigning every day, because I didn’t think you could make the film with their ridiculous casting choices. Not that they were bad actors, they were just totally inappropriate. With my television films, no one ever asked me who was going to be in them, I just cast them with the actors I thought were right for the parts. I fought and fought, but it was all happening so quickly that I just about got away with it. They did insist on one other star, so luckily Britt Ekland agreed to play her very small role, and that solved my problem.

It’s funny, because I know the film was shown in South Africa where it was severely edited. The marquees were advertising a film starring Michael Caine and Britt Ekland, but aside from her quick appearance pre-titles, no one would’ve seen her in the film given her main scene would’ve been cut.

Pulp (1972).

NOTEBOOK: I’ve seen those great archive pictures of the marketing campaign MGM ran for Get Carter in the UK. They really went all-out, which is more than can be said for United Artists with your next film, Pulp (1972).

HODGES: They just had no idea what to do with it. There is a precedent to it. John Huston, a wonderful director whose name I barely want to mention in the same context, made a film that Truman Capote wrote called Beat the Devil (1953), and they had the same problem with that. I loved that film. I remember seeing it alone at the cinema in Salisbury when I was living there, working as a chartered accountant. I just adored it.

Pulp opened in Philadelphia and they gave it the red carpet treatment, but as W.C. Fields reputedly had written on his gravestone: “Better here than Philadelphia!” God knows what audiences must have made of it there. There was a new cinema that had recently opened in New York, which was a venue specifically for lost films. One of the first films they played was Pulp, and it got amazing write-ups. Time magazine called it a minor masterpiece or some bullshit like that, but the film just wasn’t running anywhere. It got a week in that New York cinema, and then we spent the next two weeks trying to find out where on earth it was playing. But it was already too  late, and that was the end of Pulp.

It’s lived on though, which is fascinating. Writers seem to like it. Ballard loved it. I got into correspondence with Jimmy Ballard towards the end of his life and he could quote every line in Pulp, which was wonderfully flattering because I thought he was just the most incredible man.

NOTEBOOK: You must have had a lot of offers off the back of Get Carter, but you were quite insistent on wanting to pursue your own projects, from screenplays you’d written yourself.

HODGES: Well, first of all you write about things that you really deeply feel about. Secondly, the joy if you’ve written it is that you can change it as you go along. When you’re shooting, things often turn out differently to the way you’ve imagined them. Later in my life, when I worked with Paul Mayersberg on Croupier and Trevor Preston on I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003), if I wanted to change anything, I wouldn’t have unless I’d consulted them. I respect writers. Having done it myself, it’s not an easy job, especially for the cinema. Writing screenplays is tough, as you never know quite who you’re writing for. Are you writing it for yourself, for the financiers, to attract stars? The purpose of a screenplay is very difficult to work out, actually. That's why I’ve always enjoyed writing my own stuff, although I ran out steam until Black Rainbow.

NOTEBOOK: Like Get Carter, Pulp seems to pursue a theme that runs throughout your filmography, that of men who believe themselves to be in control of a given situation or of themselves, but who ultimately discover that they’re not. It’s a noir-ish framework, but one which you seem to use as an opportunity for genre deconstruction.

HODGES: I was very influenced by B-movies. When I was a young man in Salisbury, there were three cinemas, and I’d always head for the B-movies. They were usually in black and white, often political, and in many cases much better than the main feature. I was also thrilled to discover the likes of Chandler, and the whole pool of American crime writers. I found it a very good way of communicating the underbelly of my country, and society generally. Much like Get Carter exposed a side of Britain that was anathema to the likes of Cool Britannia.

I was also interested in making films about loners. People pretend that living isn’t a lonely business, but I think that it ultimately is. So I tended to write about lonely men, but the Martha Travis character in Black Rainbow is also desperately alone. So these were the films I tended to end up making.

NOTEBOOK: Did United Artists give you much trouble on the casting of Pulp? Was Mickey Rooney a hard sell?

HODGES: Oh yeah. I noticed that all these gangster movie stars, the ones who beat up women and stuffed grapefruits in their faces, were all small men. I’m not sure if I’m accurate in saying that quite a lot of the dictators of the 1930s were also small men. So the whole point of this character was that he’s got to be small, and a lot of the gags in the film revolve around his size. I said there was only one person in the world who could play this and that’s Mickey Rooney, but United Artists didn’t like that idea at all. He was very much out of vogue and hadn’t made a film in a long time. The only thing people remembered about him was that he’d been married about seven times.

One day an executive at UA called and asked if I was sitting down. “What about Victor Mature?” he said. “Victor Mature is about 6’3”” I yelled, “Have you read the script?” That idea eventually went away but it was a battle to get Mickey Rooney.

NOTEBOOK: Was he a good sport?

HODGES: He was curious. He just turned up, and never discussed the script. He’d made about a hundred films and I assumed he’d be like Caine, very precise in his acting. The first scene I shot with him was the one where he comes out as a waiter, spilling wine everywhere. The rehearsal was wonderful, his timing was just perfect, so I thought we’ll do a take. Of course, I never, ever got him back to that first run. He was very undisciplined, which really surprised me. So I learned quickly that I had to shoot the rehearsal. I was concerned about making the character too crass or revolting, but he gave me that anyway. He gave me much more than I’d written.

The Terminal Man (1974).

NOTEBOOK: One of my favorite films of yours is the one that came next, The Terminal Man. If you had trouble with the marketing for Pulp, things were about to get a lot worse with Warners on this one. It must have been quite a traumatic experience.

HODGES: I suppose it was traumatic. I’m sad because I was really proud of the film. Stanley Kubrick saw it and loved it, and I think he tried to get Warner Bros. to treat it seriously, but again they just didn’t know what the hell to do with it. It had a disastrous preview which the whole of Hollywood seemed to have come to. It wasn’t playing from a combined print, so the sound and the picture were running independently, but the sound didn’t come on. We had ten minutes of the visuals at the beginning of the film but with no sound. It was an absolute disaster.

So they literally dumped it. It was interesting because the poster they designed was an image of George Segal with sparks coming out of his arse, flying through the air. It was patently obvious that they didn’t know what on earth to do with it. Kubrick was always brilliant with his marketing people, and they would educate the audience before they saw the film, so that they came in prepared. I noticed afterwards when I got the residuals that it played for a long time on television in America. So it did have an audience, but watching a film on television is a totally different experience.

NOTEBOOK: I can see why Kubrick was a fan. It feels like he would’ve enjoyed Croupier too. Did you get a chance to show him that one before he died?

HODGES: Stanley had an amazing way of getting his hands on films he wanted to see, but I’m not sure about that one. I sent Black Rainbow over to him because again, the marketing looked like it was going to be awful. I needn’t have bothered because the distribution just ended up being another disaster. I’ve just been unlucky, I guess. If you make films that are different, that don’t fit into any category, the marketing people just don’t know how to place them.

The fact that Croupier became a big hit in America was a total shock to me. It seemed like the most unlikely place where the film would work. It was all word of mouth because the adverts were the size of a postage stamp. I was lucky because the reviews were terrific, so it survived. Unfortunately I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, which is a film I’m really proud of, was just treated as a pathetic remake of Get Carter. Anyone who looks at that film could see that even if the bones of the story are similar, it’s hardly just an old man’s Get Carter.

NOTEBOOK: I think it’s a tremendous film. It really brings all your themes together: of guilt, redemption, and duality. It’s such an interesting examination of gangland masculinity, and quite a tough watch, I think.

HODGES: I used to have nightmares about how I was going to shoot the male rape. Malcolm McDowell was an old friend, and when it came down to it, I think we shot that whole sequence in about an hour. It just came together somehow. Because it comes so early in the film, I was having trouble working out how to deal with it. I didn’t want it to be gross, and yet I wanted it to be effective. I got the feeling that people forgot that scene as the film progressed though, maybe because it was so tidily put together. I don’t know.

It’s interesting that when you find out what motivated McDowell’s character to do this, it’s so trivial. But that’s it, he was just jealous of how good this young man was with women. People couldn’t understand that a lot of revenge is over trivial things, a slight which someone received fifty years ago that then suppurates and becomes worse and worse. Revenge is a major motivator for human beings.

Above: Croupier (1998).

NOTEBOOK: You really made your way around the studios in the ‘70s. After The Terminal Man at Warners, it was over to Fox for Omen II: Damien, an experience which didn’t end well.

HODGES: I must say, making The Terminal Man at Warners was delightful. They never interfered, but when it was finished they said there was nobody to “root for.” Americans love that term. I couldn’t believe that people couldn’t root for that Segal character. To try and appease them, I put in a pre-title sequence that shows his relationship with his wife. But it always aggrieved me that I agreed to do it, that I tried to make the character more appealing. It didn’t work, all it did was clog up the film. So for the version I’m showing at the BFI retrospective, I managed to get this 7-minute sequence taken out. It’s so much better because the film gets into the subject matter much more quickly. My American friends love backstory, but it’s something I can’t bear. Part of the problem with I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is that there’s no backstory, you find it all out as you go along. Now, Omen was another matter.

NOTEBOOK: How quickly did you realize you were in trouble on that one?

HODGES: I should’ve realized sooner. I had a script called Mid-Atlantic that I eventually turned into a novel called Watching the Wheels Come Off. It was based on something I witnessed in America about a training course centered on the idea of brain-altering. For this course, the men and women were separated, and in this hotel conference room, as you walked in, there was a hangman’s rope, a crucifix, a coffin, and a cage. It was this brutalized performance exercise designed to make you a better salesman. It was so weird, that I went to Warners and told them I’d make a film about it for nothing. They read it and the smelling salts came straight out, they couldn’t believe it.

So I came back to England and learned that this course had come over here. They’d checked into the Royal Garden Hotel, and a journalist had infiltrated it. So they vanished. That’s where I wanted to pick the story up, with this strange cult in hiding in Weymouth, on the south coast. But I just couldn’t get the money. I spent four years or so on it, trying to set the film up, which I’m no good at. I’m absolutely useless at getting people to finance my films. So I was desperate for another film. I’d been offered the first Omen, but the script was just laughable, I thought, even if Dick Donner did a brilliant job.

Part two was very political, which interested me. It was basically about the devil incarnate taking over William Holden’s large American corporation. It was a good idea, the devil running one of the largest corporations in the world. I don’t really like horror films, so when it came to that side of the story, I probably shouldn’t have taken it on. I knew this born-again Christian at the time, and he used to come into my office and say, “Mike, the devil’s going to stop you from making this film!” I was just thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?”

NOTEBOOK: So it was going to be a kind of Satanic Citizen Kane?

HODGES: Exactly. But needless to say, I couldn’t get away with that one. I left of my own accord, I might add. I just hated it. I loved working with Bill Holden though, he was one of my heroes, but they asked me to shoot in a way that I wasn’t prepared to do.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a story that’s been doing the rounds for years about the producer pulling a gun on you.

HODGES: He was very upset because the production designer I used on Terminal Man had come in with a budget that he thought was preposterous. Whenever the subject of money would come up, he’d just disintegrate before your eyes. So he rifled through his bag, produced a gun and put it on the table. I said, “Is that loaded? What’s that for?” And he said, “Do you wanna shoot me?” I told him that I would like to, actually, but I’m not going to. So that’s the story. He never threatened me with it, it was probably the other way around in many ways.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of Citizen Kane, there are many parallels between your career and the battles Orson Welles faced from The Magnificent Ambersons onwards. It’s easy as an outsider to look at a director’s IMDb page and just assume that one project follows another, but I’m curious about what you said earlier, about not being very good at raising finance for your films. The 1980s looks like a busy period for you, but it also contains a wild variety of projects that you didn’t write or initiate yourself. Was that a direct result of your troubles on The Terminal Man and Omen 2? Is building a career as a filmmaker a constant battle?

HODGES: The autobiographical film we spoke about at the beginning is incidentally called All at Sea, which is a very significant title. When I was in the Navy, I was on the lower deck, and the ship just went where it wanted to go. So I got used to just drifting. In terms of my career, I was always fighting to do a single project. Smart directors have multiple projects in hand, so that if one turns out to be a bust, you’re already making the next one. But I never learned that. I’ve always worked on one film at a time and I just got into trouble.

My marriage broke up and I had serious surgery at the beginning of the ‘80s. I was pretty desperate, actually, so I had to take some jobs that I wouldn’t normally have taken. I always tried my best to make what were often not very good scripts into something, at least. But I got into trouble because as soon as you reveal to producers who are unsympathetic that you’re actually trying to make something worthwhile, it makes you vulnerable. They’re usually ok when you’re shooting, but it’s when you get to the editing that they strike. They wouldn’t dare get involved when you’re working with actors, but as soon as you’re alone with your editor, that’s when they start screwing you around.

NOTEBOOK: That happened on Florida Straits (1986), right?

HODGES: Florida Straits was an absolute mess. I have no idea about the motivations of the people behind it, no idea where they were coming from. I was supposed to be shooting in Mexico, which is a country I love and one of the main reasons I took the job. But then they rang up and said, “We can’t afford to shoot in Mexico,” which was the first time I’d ever heard that, “We want to shoot in North Carolina.”

NOTEBOOK: To stand in for the Cuban jungle?

HODGES: I’m in Dorset at the moment and I could probably find a better substitute for Cuba by looking out the window. They flew me out to North Carolina and it was pissing with rain for three days. The only concession I got was that I could take a British crew over there as it was a non-union state. They took it off me and re-edited it, but I had the final pay off. The film they put together was just ridiculously awful and I tried to withdraw my name. But then the DGA found out that they’d shown the film as a feature in France, even though the contract only listed it as a TV movie. So they had to pay me a stack of money, and I got my final revenge in the end. The one good thing about Florida Straits was that I was introduced to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I eventually made Black Rainbow, which was a lovely experience.

NOTEBOOK: It was so great to see Black Rainbow finally get a proper release at the beginning of the pandemic. You mentioned Beat the Devil earlier, and Black Rainbow has a certain late-Huston vibe about it. It was even shot by Gerry Fisher, who did Huston’s Wise Blood (1979).

HODGES: Huston was a great director, and I think he had trouble getting money for those later films too, so they were much smaller by his standards. Wise Blood and Fat City (1972) were just amazing, I was a huge admirer of his.

Black Rainbow (1989).

NOTEBOOK: You spent a lot of time back in the ‘60s traveling America for the documentary series World in Action. How did that experience feed into the writing and directing of Black Rainbow? And how much had America changed to your eyes in the interim?

HODGES: I was in America in the early ‘60s making a documentary about Barry Goldwater, who was a pretty cretinous individual. There was something dead about him. While I was shooting that, Governor Wallace came into town, before he’d been shot. I interviewed him, and he was a wily old bugger, he’d just cut your legs off with his answers. Then I went to Detroit, where I did a program on the American unions. I had no idea that the setting up of the unions was so bloody. It made the Tolpuddle story of ours seem quite tame.

In Black Rainbow, the assassin shoots one of the workers through the living room window, which was exactly what happened to the Reuther brothers, who created the UAW. Walter Reuther was paralyzed by a G-Man shooting into his living room, and his brother Victor lost an eye. So that came directly from my early travels in America. I also found that the tragedy of America was its total obsession with communism. When I was making the Goldwater doc, people would come up to me and tell me that the BBC was a communist cell. I’d tell them that I was actually working for Granada Television, but I daren’t mention it was founded by a pair of socialist millionaires, the Bernstein brothers. I don't think they’d have understood the concept of a socialist millionaire.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a great performance from Patricia Arquette at the center of Black Rainbow, but I understand it didn’t start off that way.

HODGES: That was my fault, partly. She did exactly what I’d written, and we’d shot her first performance on the stage with an audience, and they were crying. She thought it was going wonderfully, given the effect she was having on the room. Unfortunately, she’d done what I’d written, but she didn’t appear to be listening to the supernatural communications. I had a dreadful night thinking that it just wasn’t working, so I had to go see her. The audience was moved but it didn’t work as a film. She was terribly upset. I went into her Winnebago and she was on the phone to her coach in New York, and I thought, “Oh God. Stanislavski rears his head again.” But I managed to appease her and we started all over, and she was just terrific.

NOTEBOOK: Black Rainbow was made for Goldcrest. I’m curious how you feel about the studio system, looking back. Do you think it’s inherently anti-artist, or do you think you just had some bad luck with producers along the way?

HODGES: The worst producers are the weak ones. I don’t know what it is exactly, but there’s some lack of integrity about them. They won’t fight for the film. Dino De Laurentiis, who I made Flash Gordon (1980) for, was the opposite. We got off to a bumpy start, but once I got to know him I thought he was terrific, because he could make decisions. Most producers are just fearful of the film failing and are incapable of making decisions. They’re the ones I came to be wary of. That’s why I used to insist on writing my scripts before I made the film, it gave me time to assess what I was about to agree to. I made some bad decisions, no doubt about it, but I thought I was making the right ones.

When I finished I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead we tried to set up another Trevor Preston script, but things had just changed so much. No one knew who the hell I was any more. They told me to make a sizzle reel. A sizzle reel is for all the young people who don’t know who the fuck you are or what you’ve done. Then I began to miss the studio system, because all we had left were these small production units who thought they could make feature films. They were totally ignorant, and only interested in casting big names. Things had changed radically and I just failed to get the money.

I’m grateful because the system allowed me to make films without interference. The Terminal Man, Carter, Pulp—they were all made by major American distribution companies. The making was perfectly happy, but the trouble I had with them was that their marketing and distribution methods were alien to what I was doing. I realized in the end that as long as you get the film made that you want to get made, that’s all you can wish for. What happens to it after that is another matter.

Return of the Outsider: The Films of Mike Hodges runs May 1 - 30, 2022 at BFI Southbank in London.

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