Sacha Puttnam: "My dad, David, was maniacal"

As Sacha Puttnam releases a CD of music from his film producer father David's movies, Radio Times hears from them both about family ties, creativity and the joy of music

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Sacha Puttnam: "My dad, David, was maniacal"
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David Crawford

There seems to be no significant anniversary attached to the CD Puttnam Plays Puttnam. Why did you decide to make it now?

Sacha: “I was really getting ahead with movies, and suddenly radio took over [recently he scored Radio 4's 1914: Day by Day], and I thought to myself how do I go back to movies. While I was doing that I was going back over Vangelis, who really was the person who got me into the movies. He let me sit in the studio the whole time. I was there for days and days and days. I wanted to do something for Vangelis. The greatest thrill for me was going to Paris and going to Vangelis's studio, and we sat there and played together all night. For me that was perfect, the circle had come to a close.”

Did the interest in music come before you got to meet these musicians or did meeting them spark the interest?

Sacha: “There's a little bit of both. In the house we used to have people like Rick Wakeman, we used to see all these wonderful musicians coming all the time. But there was an exact moment. When dad had to go to the cutting rooms, I was just sitting there, and we were watching this scene over and over again, and because I was so small no one really noticed me. Then someone, said, take him downstairs and there was a recording studio, and someone was recording and I knew, although I'd left dad upstairs with the film, I was in my right environment down here in the basement in a studio in Soho. The dubbing room was good, but it was less magical. It was literally one afternoon.”

Are you musical David?

David: “No I don't play an instrument, but my mother was very musical, she played the piano a bit. But as a kid we used to get taken, constantly, especially during the  holidays. So by the age of about eight I knew the lyrics to hundreds of songs of that era, You're the Only Girl in the World type things, because mum used to go to these community singing things.”

Sacha: “Dad would be going off trips, so he'd make tapes all the time, so my sister and I would have music in the house all the time.”

David: “We had it non-stop.”

Sacha: “We tried to throw away some vinyl the other day and failed miserably. You can't throw away vinyl.”

David: “It's an absolute heart-breaker. I'm not musical, in a sense, but music-conscious. I could always hear a movie, I could tell what a movie should sound like when we were working the script, so for me it was always integrated and what was relatively unusual, was I'd make a deal with the composer before we started shooting the film.”

How was it growing up in a creative household?

Sacha: “Our house we talked about film morning noon and night. The directors came to the house, the meetings were done at the house. We had a lovely thing when Ridley came, there was a film that was never made, Tristan and Isolde, he's come over with these fantastic, space age drawing. It was fantastic, it was like part of the circus really.”

David: “I hadn't thought of this before, but as a family that was how I was brought up. My dad was a picture editor of the Associated Press, so every conversation was about that day's news; and it was well-handled news or bad news. My dad would say they're crazy, the front page should have had this, or he'd say, look they've cropped this picture all wrong, if they'd cropped it there, it's twice as powerful. So you just absorb that stuff, and I can well imagine that Sacha did as well, you just absorb it. It's not anyone saying to you, you're just listening and it's natural. There was no such thing as a newspaper in our household; it was a good or a bad edition.”

Sacha: “I always find this thing about work/life balance strange because we have no work/life balance; work and life are completely one. If I was looking for something to do on a Sunday, I'd be looking to score a movie. To have a walk would be very, very  nice but I'd probably be running back very quickly because I have an idea for a scene.”

David, you've said in the past that a lot of what you did was to make your father proud. Sacha, do you feel the same?

Sacha: “I think I've only just got that, I think I was a rebel for a very long time. I didn't care and I used to send my things much more to mum, who I realise has never been the strongest judge of me. If I sent her a finger painting she'd love it. Dad's always been a lot more honest with me. He will always have an opinion if I send him a piece of music; he'll say, do you really need that flute? I think that's another reason for the album; this was the first time I gave you a CD and went, take that. I can't do any better than that; that's it.”

David: “My dad was totally uncritical, he was amazing, he once said to me, I was appalling at school, he said to me, because my mum was terrified I'd be out of work my whole life, I don't care what you do. You want to be a coal miner, be a coal miner, just be a great coal miner.

Sacha: “You said that to me. I never made it down the mines.”

Were you ever worried about nepotism?

Sacha: “Dad and I have always watched out for this whole nepotism thing, because I do think you should get somewhere on your merit, but equally it's quite strange, because before, if your dad was a fireman you might well go into being a fireman because that's what you knew really well.”

David: “I'm guilty, I'm the one to blame. When I started in the film industry, it was so nepotistic it was laughable. If you wanted to be a cinematographer and your uncle wasn't a cinematographer, you weren't going to be a cinematographer. It was awful. I became chairman of my section of the union, and tried to stop it. Then the film school came, I became governor of the trustees, and then became chairman, and I just felt the film school was there as the antidote to nepotism. That was another route in. I was very, very conscious of not being guilty of the same thing, I'd spent a lot of time [fighting].”

Sacha: “I think I spent a lot of my youth being unconfident. Mam and dad always instilled in us how unbelievably lucky we were in terms of health, in terms of what we were doing, and I think I interpreted that in terms of then we shouldn't stand up for anything as well. Only now have I just got comfortable enough to go I have enough right to say, we're going to do this like this.”

It must have been hard growing up in the shadow of such a successful man?

Sacha: “One of the things I do notice about dad, and the same would have been true of Alan Parker, Ridley, all of those people, is that they were maniacal. Thank god mum went along with it. I think at some point mum could have said, enough, we're going to have some family time and we're going to talk. But dad tells a good story, so I think we were all complete. But it was the same with Alan's family, the same with Ridley's family; I think you've all got to be on board.”

Has he mellowed lately?

Sacha: “Now Mum and I are always trying to pull dad out of politics, but he has thing that he has to give back to the country. He got into politics very young. When mum and dad first came out, they were really, really poor, so it was a way of making sure that every avenue was covered by turning up to Labour meetings and just being involved all the time. Mum was brilliant because she didn't mind him being out there all the time. Now he's very, very lovely to her. She rules the roost.”

David: “I work here with the government. One of the problems I've increasingly found  is the minute you're critical, I promise you, all defensive backs go up, oh there's not enough money, there's always a reason. It's not good enough, and you know why we will fail in competition with places like Singapore, because we have lost the language of self-criticism. We can flail ourselves, in newspaper headlines, but we do not have the ability to constructively criticise what we're doing and change it. So what we do is we default to well, it's not that bad so we'll stick with what we've got. I encounter it every single day there, every day.”

David, you don't seem like someone who will back down, you'll always find a way to get what you want?

David: “I was built in advertising to find workarounds, don't back down. I was very lucky that I worked at an agency that if what the client was asking for wasn't honestly what we thought was best, we were able to tell them so. That was very unusual at the time.”

Sacha: “It's important that honesty, that's why the relationships are so important. You've got to have someone who can say to you, and actually have the choice, to come back and say, yes, it's like this.”

So in the interests of honesty, was there a piece you were most daunted by on the CD?

Sacha: “I really took liberties with Vangelis, thank god when I played it to him, he was delighted. I wanted to make a Chariots of Fire for the person who comes last. It's still got that passion and feeling for competing, but it's about remembering. I kept watching the Derek Redmond video of his dad coming down the stairs.”

David: “Eric's Theme is the best for me. I always think it's the best piece in Chariots of Fire. The fact that the theme music front and back is what people remember, but Eric's Theme is completely wonderful, and if ever tried to convince anyone it;s a good movie I'd take that sequence, were he's running in the Scottish hills, and as he comes round the corner, the music comes in.”

One final question, David, do you think crowd funding through websites like Kickstarter will revolutionise film production?

David: “I don't know that much about crowdfunding, but the sheer volume of content and the platforms for content is greater than it has ever been. Netflix just announced $3.5 billion production budget over the next two years; Amazon are going to spend $2 billion. Well, £5.5 billion is as much as all the American majors are going to spend put togethern. Two things well happen: firstly, inflation will happen, but it will be spread unevenly, it will probably just mean Brad Pitt is paid twice as much; secondly, in the UK today, if you've got a story you've got to, got to tell, you've got to be a bit of an arse not to find a way to tell it. The problem is people give up too easily.”

David, you don't seem like someone who will back down, you'll always find a way to get what you want?

David: “I was built in advertising to find workarounds, don't back down. I was very lucky that I worked at an agency that if what the client was asking for wasn't honestly what we thought was best, we were able to tell them so. That was very unusual at the time.”

Sacha: “It's important that honesty, that's why the relationships are so important. You've got to have someone who can say to you, and actually have the choice, to come back and say, yes, it's like this.”

So in the interests of honesty, was there a piece you were most daunted by on the CD?

Sacha: “I really took liberties with Vangelis, thank god when I played it to him, he was delighted. I wanted to make a Chariots of Fire for the person who comes last. It's still got that passion and feeling for competing, but it's about remembering. I kept watching the Derek Redmond video of his dad coming down the stairs.”

David: “Eric's Theme is the best for me. I always think it's the best piece in Chariots of Fire. The fact that the theme music front and back is what people remember, but Eric's Theme is completely wonderful, and if ever tried to convince anyone it;s a good movie I'd take that sequence, were he's running in the Scottish hills, and as he comes round the corner, the music comes in.”

One final question, David, do you think crowd funding through websites like Kickstarter will revolutionise film production?

David: “I don't know that much about crowdfunding, but the sheer volume of content and the platforms for content is greater than it has ever been. Netflix just announced $3.5 billion production budget over the next two years; Amazon are going to spend $2 billion. Well, £5.5 billion is as much as all the American majors are going to spend put togethern. Two things well happen: firstly, inflation will happen, but it will be spread unevenly, it will probably just mean Brad Pitt is paid twice as much; secondly, in the UK today, if you've got a story you've got to, got to tell, you've got to be a bit of an arse not to find a way to tell it. The problem is people give up too easily.”

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