The British prime minister’s trade envoy to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam retired from the film industry in 1998 and is best known for producing films — such as The Killing Fields and Chariots of Fire — that have garnered 10 Oscars and 25 Baftas. Interview by Lien Hoang. Photograph by Fred Wissink.
You produced The Killing Fields, based on the experience of journalists Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran during the Khmer Rouge era. What was it like to meet the people that the film was about?
I worked with all the real people, with one exception, and I met him afterward, Al Rockoff, who was the photographer. I didn’t meet until after the movie because he and Schanberg didn’t get on and it was a bit tricky. But I’ve worked with all the real people, and one of the most moving — without any doubt — moments of my life was showing the film for the first time to the real Dith Pran and his family and Schanberg. The film finished and I was sitting behind them in this tiny cinema, and the whole family just gathered together and they cried for half an hour. I just sat there watching. It was quite extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary.
Haing S Ngor, the actor who played Dith Pran in the film, is one of the few people to have won an Oscar without any prior acting experience. How did that work out?
The hero, interestingly, was the other guy; Sam Waterston [who plays Sydney Schanberg]. He’s also an acting teacher; he’s always been famous, so he really coaxed. Some actors are very selfish, they try to win. So let’s say there’s a scene for you and I. We can either compete for who’s smarter, who’s quicker, which a lot of actors do. Or you or I can help each other. Sam absolutely coaxed and coaxed and would work at night with Haing on lines. He was great, a good man and a decent man.
Why was Chariots of Fire one of your proudest achievements?
I mean, winning the Oscar wasn’t so much a proud achievement. First of all, it was a big surprise, and secondly it made my film career much easier because I had something to refer to. But it’s not my favourite film. My favourite film is one that got really no awards, Local Hero.
Why is that your favourite?
I just think it’s a wonderful film. Why does a mother have a favourite child?
Mothers won’t admit it, though, that’s one difference.
Sometimes it’s because it’s the smallest. It’s often because there’s something special about the child. There’s something special about Local Hero.
In Chariots of Fire, I read that you had a raffle to get people to come in as extras.
I did because I couldn’t afford extras, so we raffled a car.
Would you have to come up with similar ideas at the last moment in other films?
I would. I mean you’ve never got enough money, ever, ever, ever. Or, put another way, your ambition is always more than the money you have.
Can you think of other times you’ve had to make do?
The evacuation sequence in The Killing Fields, when they leave down the railway line. We had to come up with all kinds of schemes, not so much to get the crowd there, but to hold the crowd all day, because it was the hottest day in Thailand for years. And to keep them all day, we had to keep coming up with raffles.
You’ve compared bad films to a bad can of Coke.
The point I was making was that films can be a product. No one really cares what the impact or effect of that film might be. I’ve always really been concerned about what the audience took away from the films I’ve made and how it, maybe, changed their lives in some cases.
You talk about wanting to convey some values…
You’re a journalist. Do you hope that when you write something, it conveys some values? It’s exactly the same as me.
With films like The Mission and Chariots of Fire, are you interested in religion?
I’m not so much interested in religion, I’m interested in people’s motivations. I’m interested in the way people view themselves… I believe in God but I’m not interested in promoting religion.
Could you talk about your relationship with Southeast Asia?
I was asked in October of last year if I would become an envoy. And then I was asked which country or group of countries I would like to work with and I chose Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos quite deliberately. I’ve been coming to the region for well over 30 years. I spent a big chunk of time in 1983 and 1984 making The Killing Fields. And then I returned over and over again as president of Unicef where we did a lot of work in this region, particularly on landmine clearance and child trafficking.
So it’s a region I know, it’s a region I came to love and I feel very comfortable with. It’s also a region I have absolute belief in. If I look forward to 2030 and beyond, I think it’s a region that’s going to be one of the leading regions of the world. So it was both a nice decision but also quite a pragmatic decision. I thought I was associating myself with success.