|Sir Alan Parker|
Alan Parker at his Soho Offices, London, April 2008
|Born||Alan William Parker
14 February 1944
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. Parker's early 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.
Parker is noted for having a wide range of filmmaking styles and working in differing genres. He has directed 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); family 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.
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. 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 says of his early life that although he had his share of fun growing up, he nonetheless always felt he was studying for his high school exams while his friends were out having a good time.
He adds that he had an "ordinary background" with no aspirations to become a film director, nor did anyone in his family have any desire to be involved in the film industry. The closest he ever came, he says, 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."
He attended Dame Alice Owen's School, concentrating on science in his last year. Instead of enrolling in college, however, he left school when he was eighteen to work in the advertising field, attracted partly by the expectation that advertising would be a good way to meet girls. His first job was office boy in the post room of an advertising agency. But more than anything, he says, he wanted to write, and after work he would write essays and ads. Parker was also encouraged by others in the agencies to stay with writing, which led to be assigned a more substantial position:
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.
Over the next few years, after having become proficient in copywriting, he took jobs with different agencies. One such 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 and talking him into writing his first movie script, Melody (1971)
By 1968 Parker had moved from copyrighting to successfully directing numerous television commercials. And in 1970, he partnered with Alan Marshall and established his own company to make commercials. That company eventually became one of Britain's best commercial production house, winning nearly every major national and international award open to it. Among their award winning commercials were the UK Cinzano vermouth advertisement (starring Joan Collins), and 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.
In 1973 Parker made his first fictional film, No Hard Feelings, for which he wrote the script. He describes the film as a bleak love story set against the Blitz on London during World War II, when the Luftwaffe bombed the city for 57 consecutive nights. Parker, who was born during one of those bombing raids, says "the baby in that [film] could well have been me.
But with no feature film directing experience, he could not find financial backing, and decided to risk using his own money and funds from 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 had, in the interim, also contracted Parker to direct the TV film, The Evacuees (1975), a World War II story written by Jack Rosenthal. The film was based on true events which involved the evacuation of school children from central Manchester for protection. That latter film won a BAFTA for best TV drama and also an Emmy for best International Drama.
In 1975 Parker wrote and directed his first feature film, Bugsy Malone, a parody of early American gangster films and American musicals, but with only child actors. Parker's desire in making the film was to entertain both children and adults with a unique concept and style of film:
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.
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 confined for trying to smuggle hashish out of the country while visiting as a student. Parker took on the film in large part to do something radically different from Bugsy Malone, and thereby widen his range of filmmaking style.
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. 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 doing a serious drama like Midnight Express, he wanted to do a film with music, but very different from typical musicals of the past:
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.
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." 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."
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." Like his previous films, he again took on a subject distinctly different from his previous film, explaining, "I really try to do different work. I think that by doing different work each time, it keeps you creatively fresher."
He describes the theme of the film being about "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." Critics considered the film to be Parker's best, "brilliantly scripted and acted." Its stars, Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, were Golden Globe-nominated for their performances.
The film also had a personal significance for Parker, who says he 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." He spent days with writer Bo Goldman on developing a realistic story, and states that his marriage became "infinitely stronger as a result of the film."
Birdy (1984), starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, was the story of 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, Parker called it a "wonderful story," but felt he had no idea how to make it into a movie: "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."
The film was a critical success however. Richard Schickel said 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." 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, adding that Parker's films manage to achieve a blend of "strong story and elegant frame," a style which he says typically eludes other directors who rely too much on the purely visual.
Mississippi Burning (1988) gave Parker his second Academy Award nomination for Best Director. The film is based on a true story about the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, and stars Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. Hackman was nominated for Best Actor, while the film was nominated for five other Oscars, including Best Picture. It won 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." "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." 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.
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." Parker says that it was the "most enjoyable film" he ever made.
Evita (1996), was another musical, starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas, and Jonathan Pryce. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote the score, which had also been used for the successful 1978 Broadway musical of the same name. Parker remembers Madonna's strong desire to play the role of Evita, that "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 that's exactly what she did." Evita was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning for Best Original Song, which was sung by Madonna.
Parker's next film, Angela's Ashes (1999), 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's subsequent problems caused by his father's alcoholism.
Noticing the dramatic shift in theme and style, 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. Meaney adds that "when Alan starts a project, it's going to be something very interesting and completely out of left field." Parker explains that doing a story like Angela's Asheswas simply his "reaction against a big film" like Evita. He says that he tries to avoid the "obvious movies": "You want the film to stay with people afterwards ... It just seems to me that the greatest crime is to make just another movie."
Parker says it's important to carefully choose which 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.
For that reason, when Parker 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."
British film critic Geoff Andrew describes Parker as a "natural storyteller" who gets his message across using "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)."
In 2003 Parker produced and directed The Life of David Gale, a crime thriller, starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet. It tells the story of an advocate for the abolition of capital punishment who finds himself on death row after being convicted of murdering a fellow activist. The film received generally poor reviews, mostly because of its less than believable attempt to present a political message about the death penalty. Roger Ebert did not like the film, calling the story "silly," although he said the acting was "splendidly done."
Honours and awards
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.
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.
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.
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.
- "Alan Parker profile". Filmreference.com. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
- Connolly, Ray. The Observer, 30 May 1982
- Emery, Robert J. The Directors, Allworth Press, N.Y. (2003) pp. 133–154
- Wakeman, John, ed. World Film Directors, Vol. II, H.W. Wilson Co., N.Y. (1988) pp. 740–743
- "Jets, jeans and Hovis". The Guardian. 13 June 2015.
- Parker, Alan. Making of "No Hard Feelings"
- "The Evacuees", Alan Parker Biography
- Gallagher, John Andrew. Film Directors on Directing, Praeger (1989) p. 183-194
- Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia, HarperCollins (1998) p. 1064
- Parker, Alan.The Making of "Shoot the Moon"
- Hillstrom, Laurie C. ed. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Directors 3rd ed., St. James Press (1997) p. 744
- The Making of the Commitments, 2004, DVD supplement
- Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf (2002) p. 667
- Parker, Alan."The Making of 'Evita'"
- "Bafta: Director Sir Alan Parker on fellowship award", BBC interview, 8 February 2013
- Andrew, Geoff. The Director's Vision, Cappella (1999) p. 166
- Ebert, Roger. The Life of David Gale review, Rogerebert.com 21 February 2003
- "26th Moscow International Film Festival (2004)". MIFF. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
|NFTS Honorary Fellowship||Succeeded by