Alan Parker

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Sir Alan Parker
Alan Parker (Director), London, 2012.jpg
Alan Parker at his Soho Offices, London, April 2008
Born Alan William Parker
(1944-02-14) 14 February 1944 (age 71)
Islington, London, England
Education Dame Alice Owen's School

Sir Alan William Parker, CBE (born 14 February 1944) is an English film director, producer and screenwriter. The early part of his career, beginning in his late teens, was spent as a copywriter and director of television commercials. After about 10 years doing commercials, many of which won awards for creativity, he began screenwriting and directing films.

Among the different genres Parker has directed have been musicals, including Bugsy Malone (1976), Fame (1980), Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982), The Commitments (1991), and Evita (1996); true-story dramas, including Midnight Express (1978), Mississippi Burning (1988), Come See the Paradise (1990), and Angela's Ashes (1999); dramas, including Shoot the Moon (1982), and horrors and thrillers including Angel Heart (1987), and The Life of David Gale (2003).

His films have won nineteen BAFTA awards, ten Golden Globes and ten Academy Awards. Parker was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the British film industry and knighted as a Knight Bachelor in 2002. He has been active in both the British cinema and American cinema, along with being a founding member of the Directors Guild of Great Britain and lecturing at various film schools. In 2013 he received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, the highest honour the British Film Academy can give a filmmaker.[citation needed]

Early years[edit]

Parker was born into a working-class family in Islington, North London, the son of Elsie Ellen, a dressmaker, and William Leslie Parker, a house painter.[1] He grew up in an Islington council estate and as a result has always been able to relate to average people. According to British novelist and screenwriter Ray Connolly, Parker "remains almost defiantly working-class in attitudes." Parker described his early life in an interview with Connolly:

I've had a lot of fun but I feel as though I'm still up in my bedroom in Islington working for my O-levels [high school examinations] when everybody else is out having a good time.[2]

He feels that he had a "pretty ordinary background," and never had aspirations to be a film director: "No one in my family really had any aspirations to be involved in anything to do with film." The closest he ever came to doing anything related to movies was learning about photography, a hobby inspired by his uncles: "That early introduction to photography is something I remember."[3]

He attended Dame Alice Owen's School, concentrating on science in his last year. Instead of enrolling in college, he left school when he was eighteen to enter the advertising field, taking a job as an office boy in the post room of an advertising agency. He recalls that period:

I didn't go to university, and I really wanted to write, more than anything. I used to write essays and bits and pieces ... I didn't really have any advice on what area I might go into ... in the evenings I used to write ads.[3]

He told Connolly that he was first attracted to the advertising industry after seeing a play about an agency and saw "there were millions of girls in it."[2] Parker was encouraged by others who worked in the agencies to stay with writing:

I ended up getting a job as a copywriter. The great thing about advertising from a British point of view, is that it didn't have a kind of class distinction as other jobs had. If you were half bright, they gave you a chance. I was very fortunate that they gave me that chance.[3]

Television advertising[edit]

During the next few years he worked his way up from the post room into copywriting, and took jobs with different agencies. One agency was Collett Dickenson Pearce, in London, where he first met future producers David Puttnam and Alan Marshall, both of whom would later produce many of his films. Parker credits Puttnam with inspiring him to write his first movie script, Melody (1971):

I didn't know anything about writing scripts, but David Puttnam wanted to be a producer so he talked me into it.[2]

Beginning in 1968, Parker moved from copyrighting to successfully directing numerous television commercials. After a few years, in 1970, he partnered with Alan Marshall and established his own company to make commercials. The company became one of Britain's best commercial production house, winning "virtually every major award open to it, national and international."[4] Among the award winning commercials was the famous U.K. Cinzano vermouth advertisement, along with a Heineken commercial, noted for using one hundred actors.

Parker credits his years in writing and directing commercials for his later success as a film director:

Looking back, I came from a generation of filmmakers who couldn't have really started anywhere but commercials, because we had no film industry in the United Kingdom at the time. People like Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, and myself. So commercials proved to be incredibly important.[3]

Film director[edit]


In 1973 Parker made his first fictional film, No Hard Feelings, for which he wrote the script. He describes the film as "a rather bleak love story I had written, set against the Blitz on London during World War II, when the Luftwaffe bombed the city for 57 consecutive nights. I had a particular affinity for this subject as I had the dubious distinction of being born (a little later) during a German air raid."[5] Parker explains the significance of this memory:

My parents told me all about the blitz and I wanted to put some part of that down. The baby in that [film] could well have been me.[4]

However, with no feature film directing experience, he was unable to get financial backing. Parker decided, "the only way was to risk everything I had," he says,[4] and he invested his own money, including mortgaging his house, to pay for it.

The film impressed the BBC, which bought the film and showed it on television a few years later, in 1976. BBC producer Mark Shivas then contracted Parker to direct the TV film, The Evacuees (1975), a World War II story with a script by Jack Rosenthal. The film was based on true events which involved the evacuation of school children from central Manchester for protection.[6] The film won a BAFTA for best TV drama and also an Emmy for best International Drama.

In 1975 Parker wrote and directed Bugsy Malone, which became his first feature film. It's a parody of early American gangster films and American musicals, but uses only child actors. Parker's desire in making the film was to entertain children and adults, while also being very different from typical children's films which he felt were too limiting:

I'd worked a lot with kids and I had four very young children of my own at the time. When you do have young children like that you're very sensitive to the kind of materials that's available for them ... The only kind of movies they could see were Walt Disney movies ... I thought it would be nice to make a movie that would be good for the kids, and also the adults that had to take them. So to be absolutely honest, Bugsy Malone was a pragmatic exercise to break into American film.[7]

The film received eight British Academy Award nominations and five Awards, including two BAFTAs for Jodie Foster.

His next film was Midnight Express (1978), based on a true account by Billy Hayes, about his incarceration and escape from a Turkish prison, where he was placed for trying to smuggle hashish out of the country while visiting as a student. Parker took on the film in large part, he says, "to do something that was different from Bugsy Malone:

I wanted to do something that showed the other side of me, because I didn't want to be put in a pigeon hole of what kind of director I was, so it was a definite reaction to that.[7]

The script was written by Oliver Stone, his first screenplay, for which he won his first Academy Award. The music was composed by Giorgio Moroder, who similarly won his first Oscar for the film. Midnight Express established Parker as a "front rank director," and both he and the film were Oscar nominated.[8] The success of the film gave him the freedom from then on to direct films of his own choosing.


Fame (1980), was Parker's next film, very different from Midnight Express, which follows the lives of eight students through their studies at the New York City's High School of Performing Arts. It was a huge box-office success and led to a spin-off TV series of the same name.

Parker states that after his previous film, which was very dramatic and serious, he wanted to do a film with music.[7] He explains why this musical would be different:

I didn't want this sort of classy MGM musical where you stop and then there's the musical number. I wanted it to come out in real situations, which it kind of does ... I went to the school and I hung out with the kids for quite a few months ... I think so much of the stuff I put into the film came out of the kids.[3]

Actress Irene Cara recalls that "the nice thing about the way Alan works with everyone is that he allowed us to really feel like classmates."[3] However, Parker was refused permission to use the actual school portrayed in the film, the High School for the Performing Arts, because of the notoriety he achieved from his previous film, Midnight Express. The head of the school district told him, "Mr. Parker, we can't risk you doing for New York high school the same thing you did for Turkish prisons."[3]

Shoot the Moon (1982) is the story of a marital break-up that takes place in Northern California. Parker calls it "the first grown-up film that I'd done."[7] Like his previous films, he once again took on a subject very different from his last film. "I really try to do different work. I think that by doing different work each time, it keeps you creatively fresher."[3] He describes the theme of the film:

Two people who can't live together but who also can't let go of one another. A story of fading love, senseless rage, and the inevitable bewildering betrayal in the eyes of the children.[9]

Many critics considered the film to be Parker's best, both "brilliantly scripted and acted." The stars, Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, were Golden Globe-nominated for their performances. While making the film, Parker was forced to examine his own marriage: "It was a painful film to make for me because there were echoes of my own life in it. It was about a breakup of a marriage, and the children in the story were quite close to my own children in age. Shoot the Moon was very, very close to my own life."[3] He worked with writer Bo Goldman on developing a realistic story:

I sat in a room with the writer, Bo Goldman, for days on end and talked the movie through. And in those circumstances you own up to certain things about yourself that you would never do with a shrink. I think my marriage is infinitely stronger as a result of the film.[4]

Birdy (1984), starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, focuses on two school friends who returned from the war in Viet-Nam and were both psychologically and physically injured. After reading the book by William Wharton, he called it a "wonderful story," but said that he had "no idea how to make it as a movie":

So much happened in the boy's head, so much poetry. I didn't know if you could take the poetry of the book and make it cinematic poetry, or if an audience would actually want it.[7]

Most critics gave the film positive reviews: Richard Schickel states that Parker had "transcended realism ... [and] achieved his personal best," while Derek Malcolm considers Birdy to be Parker's "most mature and perhaps his best movie."[4] The "message" of the film, according to critic Quentin Falk, is "joyously life-affirming," which he feels is "common to much of Parker's work."[10] Falk summarizes many of Parker's films:

What Parker has managed always to achieve, with admittedly varying degrees of success, is that elusive blend of strong story and elegant frame, a symbiosis that tends regularly to elude other directors schooled in (and too often hamstrung by) the purely visual.[10]

Parker's second Academy Award nomination came with Mississippi Burning (1988), based on a true story about the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, which stars Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. Hackman was nominated for Best Actor and Parker for Best Director, and the film was nominated for five other Oscars including Best Picture, winning for Best Cinematography.


Returning to the musical genre, Parker directed The Commitments (1991), a comedy about working class Dubliners who form a soul band. The film was an international success and led to a hit sound track.

In casting the film, Parker visited most of the estimated 1,200 different bands then playing throughout Dublin, eventually meeting with over 3,000 different band members. Rather than pick known actors, Parker says he chose young musicians, most of whom had no acting experience, in order to remain "truthful to the story."[11] "I cast everybody to be very close to the character that they play in the film. They're not really playing outside of who they are as people."[3] Parker says he wanted to make the film because he could relate to the hardships in the lives of young Dubliners:

I wanted to do this film because I identified with the kids in the film. They came from the north side of Dublin, a working class area, and I came from the north of London, a very similar working class area. I suppose deep down that the dreams and aspirations I had when I was a kid are very close to theirs.[11]

Movie critic David Thomson observes that with this film, Parker "showed an unusual fondness for people, place, and music. It was as close as Parker has come to optimism."[12] Parker seems to agree:

It was by far and away the most enjoyable film I ever made. It was a pleasure to get up in the morning and go to work.[3]

Evita (1996), was another musical, starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas, and Jonathan Pryce. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote the score, which was also used in the successful 1978 Broadway musical of the same name. It was nominated for five Academy Awards and won the award for "Best Original Song," sung by Madonna. Parker notes Madonna's strong desire to play the role of Evita:

[Her] letter was extraordinarily passionate and sincere. As far as she was concerned, no one could play Evita as well as she could, and she said that she would sing, dance and act her heart out, and put everything else on hold to devote all her time to it should I decide to go with her. And that's exactly what she did do.[13]

Parker's next film, Angela's Ashes (1999), was again very different from his previous one. The film is the dramatised story of Frank McCourt and his childhood after his family are forced to move from America back to Ireland because of financial difficulties and family problems caused by his father's alcoholism.

Parker says that "to do a film like Angela's Ashes, I suppose, was my reaction against a big film like Evita".[3] Colm Meaney, who acted in The Commitments, says "it's the variety of his work that sort of staggers me. He can go from Evita to Angela's Ashes. When Alan starts a project, it's going to be something very interesting and completely out of left field."[3] Parker states, "I try to avoid the obvious movies,"[3] and explains why: "You want the film to stay with people afterwards ... It just seems to me that the greatest crime is to make just another movie."[7]

Parker also reflects back on his choices of films to write and direct:

My mentor was the great director, Fred Zinnemann, whom I used to show all my films to until he died. He said something to me that I always try to keep in my head every time I decide on what film to do next. He told me that making a film was a great privilege, and you should never waste it.[3]

During an interview in early 2013, he states that when he visits film schools and talks to young filmmakers, he tells them that the new film technology available for making films and telling a story is less important than conveying a real message: "If you haven't got something to say, I don't think you should be a filmmaker."[14]

British film critic Geoff Andrew emphasizes some of the ways Parker succeeds in conveying his messages:

He is a natural storyteller adept at getting messages across by forthright methods: dramatic lighting, vivid characterisation, scenes of violent conflict regularly interrupting sequences of expository dialogue, and an abiding sympathy for the underdog (he is a born liberal with a keen sense of injustice).[15]

Honours and awards[edit]

Parker's films have won nineteen BAFTA awards, ten Golden Globes and ten Oscars. He is a founding member of the Directors Guild of Great Britain and has lectured at film schools around the world. In 1985, the British Academy awarded him the prestigious Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema. In 1995 Parker was awarded as Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the British film industry.[3]

In 1999 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Directors Guild of Great Britain. He became chairman of the Board of Governors of the British Film Institute (BFI) in 1998 and in 1999 was appointed the first chairman of the newly formed Film Council.[3]

He was knighted in the 2002 New Year Honours in Australia and in 2005 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Sunderland of which his long-time associate Lord Puttnam is chancellor. In 2004 he was the Chairman of the Jury at the 26th Moscow International Film Festival.[16]

In 2013 he was awarded the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award "in recognition of outstanding achievement in the art forms of the moving image," which is the highest honour the British Academy can bestow.[14]



  1. ^ "Alan Parker profile". Retrieved 9 April 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c Connolly, Ray. London Observer, May 30, 1982
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Emery, Robert J. The Directors, Allworth Press, N.Y. (2003) pp. 133–154
  4. ^ a b c d e Wakeman, John, ed. World Film Directors, Vol. II, H.W. Wilson Co., N.Y. (1988)pp. 740–743
  5. ^ Parker, Alan. Making of "No Hard Feelings"
  6. ^ "The Evacuees", Alan Parker Biography
  7. ^ a b c d e f Gallagher, John Andrew. Film Directors on Directing, Praeger (1989) p. 183-194
  8. ^ Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia, HarperCollins (1998) p. 1064
  9. ^ Parker, Alan.The Making of "Shoot the Moon"
  10. ^ a b Hillstrom, Laurie C. ed. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Directors 3rd ed., St. James Press (1997) p. 744
  11. ^ a b The Making of the Commitments, 2004, DVD supplement
  12. ^ Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf (2002) p. 667
  13. ^ Parker, Alan."The Making of 'Evita'"
  14. ^ a b "Bafta: Director Sir Alan Parker on fellowship award", BBC interview, 8 February 2013
  15. ^ Andrew, Geoff. The Director's Vision, Cappella (1999) p. 166
  16. ^ "26th Moscow International Film Festival (2004)". MIFF. Retrieved 6 April 2013. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Nick Park
NFTS Honorary Fellowship Succeeded by
David Yates