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Adrian Wootton interview

Presented by MIFF 37ºSouth Market & Accelerator, Adrian Wootton returns exclusively to Melbourne for more of his acclaimed Illustrated Film Talks exploring the relationship between cinema and great modern cultural icons.

A former director of the London Film Festival, British Film Institute and the UK’s National Film Theatre, Wootton is currently CEO of Film London & The British Film Commission, director of the Crime Scene Festival and a program advisor to the Venice Film Festival, London Film Festival and Italy’s Courmayeur Noir Fest. He contributes articles on screen culture to The Guardian and Sight & Sound, regularly broadcasts and reviews films on BBC Radio, was awarded an honorary doctorate by The University of East Anglia and is a Norwich University Film & Media Visiting Professor.

As the Director of the Crime Scene Festival, and a program advisor to the Venice Film Festival, what kind of impact do you think that festival cultures have on films?

As someone who has worked on many festivals, including The London Film Festival (now for over 25 years!) as well as the others you mention, I really believe that festivals – especially of the size and scale of MIFF – are increasingly important to the fate of films and filmmakers in our industry. Festivals can launch new careers, create new professional and business networks, build or cement reputations, help define a film's identity to audiences, generate sales to distributors, launch films in the marketplaces and help secure finance for future projects.
 
Thinking about Humphrey Bogart, do you believe that ‘tough guy’ and ‘romantic hero’ are the only two types of characters that can be presented by males?

No! Actually I really believe that Humphrey Bogart's talent and extraordinary career demonstrates that it was possible for a male actor to escape gangster tough-guy stereotyping and portray a variety of versatile characters, ranging from typical hardboiled gangsters (in a lot of his early films and notably in both Dead End and The Roaring Twenties) through to an ambiguous anti hero in High Sierra and the classic romantic hero from a string of memorable films including Casablanca. He also protrayed a psychotic gold prospector in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, a loveable rogue in The African Queen and violent, tortured screenwriter in In a Lonely Place. All these are explored in my talk.
 
Apart from Alfred Hitchcock, which filmmaker’s directing style would also collaborate well with Patricia Highsmith’s crime and suspense novels?

Well, clearly Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train from 1955 was not only the first but one of the most famous of the Highsmith film adaptations. But what is interesting  to me is that despite being an American her work has a particular European sensibility, which has attracted French, German, British and Italian filmmakers. Indeed Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) by Rene Clement is one if the very best early versions of a Ripley novel, and Claude Miller's wonderful 1977 film This Sweet Sickness captures the tension, unease and psychological suspense of Highsmith brilliantly. In the same year, German maestro Wim Wenders also brought his superb cinematic eye to Highsmith in the terrific The American Friend. And of course Anthony Minghella gave us a great glamorous version of The Talented Mr Ripley in 1999.

Highsmith was a wonderful writer, a fascinating and reclusive personality and a rich subject for film adaptation.
 
What is your opinion towards the spy genre in film history? Do you think audiences will always have high interest in spy thrillers on the screen?

I am assuming this links back to my talk on John Le Carré. So to give a bit of background, spy fiction has been represented on screen since the silent era (because spies have existed in fiction since the era of Dickens) and especially from sound in the 1930s because of the popularity of writers like Somerset Maugham, John Buchan, Eric Ambler and Grahsm Greene.

The complex  stories with crosses and double crosses, ambiguous and amoral characters, often exotic locales, political undercurrents and the opportunities for sexual intrigue and violent action provide a rich canvass for writers to exercise their imagination, and for filmmakers to translate into large- and small-screen adaptations. In the case of Le Carré, he has – in a career now spanning more than 50 years – fashioned a large and unique body of work and become one of the giants of the espionage fiction genre. In so doing, his work has spawned many fascinating and terrific film & TV versions, from the 1960s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold to the 1970s TV version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (and the most recent wonderful film), from The Constant Gardener to the forthcoming A Most Wanted Man.

Le Carré has also had good, bad and ridiculous experiences working as a screenwriter, which I had the pleasure of interviewing him about and I will recount in my talk.
 
As one of the greatest actresses in romantic films, do you think that Katharine Hepburn was objectified on the screen through the ‘male gaze’, like most female characters in Hollywood?

Although the Hollywood studios tried, Katharine Hepburn was never moulded into the typical stereotype of the female star. Her family background (her mother was a suffragette and her father was a campaigning liberal doctor), her education, her intelligence and her forceful, independent personality made her a really unconventional actress who defied the dictates of the dream factory. In fact this counted against her in first phase of her career and despite winning an Oscar and making some wonderful films in 1930s (including Bringing Up Baby) she was described as "Box Office Poison".

So it was only when she consciously developed a screen personality that enhanced her free spirit, energy and charm, from Philadelphia Story onwards, that she really became popular with audiences. In the 1940s and '50s in her onscreen partnership with Spencer Tracy she broke boundaries in the way women's lives were realised onscreen (wives, professional woman and even female sport stars) in such classic satirical romantic comedies such as Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike.

Then in the 1960s she broke the mould as to how older women were represented, with amazing performances in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and The Lion in Winter. She still has the record for an actress in the number of Oscar nominations and wins (four), the last of which she won for On Golden Pond in 1981, when she was 76 years of ag .
So it was an amazingly long, groundbreaking and glittering career, with much to pack into my talk!

For detailed information on each of Adrian Wootton's film talks, please click the links below. Each lecture is $15* (MIFF passes not valid).

Humphrey Bogart: Tough Guy & Romantic Hero

Patricia Highsmith: From Strangers to Ripley

John le Carré: Spy to Page to Celluloid

Katharine Hepburn: A Maverick's Diamond Career