Getting Direct With Directors...
Martin Campbell
No.34: Martin Campbell

Directing TV series like Minder and The Professionals offered a great training ground for British director Martin Campbell. He's since become a man of action in Hollywood with films like Vertical Limit (2000), GoldenEye (1995) and The Mask Of Zorro (1998) to his credit. The latter was among his biggest box office hits yet it took seven years to get around to making a sequel.

Here, Campbell tells us why The Legend Of Zorro (2005) got a hacking in the cutting room, why he hates Meet The Fockers (2004) and really regrets Beyond Borders (2003).

Why did you become a director?

Money. No, no... Why did I become a director? Hmm... Because I wanted to become a director?

What sparked your ambition as a director?

In the late 60s I was a video cameraman at ATV, Lew Grade's company in Elstree, and I worked with directors there and I thought they were fairly useless and I could actually do the job much better [laughs]. So, that's really where the idea came from.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?


What other director would you like to see at work?

Alive or dead? David Lean.

Cinderella Man

What was the last movie that you paid to see?

Cinderella Man. Loved it.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

There was one I walked out of, but I can't remember for the life of me... Oh, yes. The last film I walked out of was Meet The Fockers - probably about a third of the way in. I hated it.

Do you believe in God?


Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?

Steven Spielberg.

The Wild Bunch

What's your favourite movie quote?

"If they move, kill 'em," from The Wild Bunch - Sam Peckinpah.

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

Peter Weir. Well, actually I don't know, he is very highly rated. But the thing about Peter Weir is he is genuinely one of the best directors in the world. He gets such emotion and such wonderful performances out of his actors and a lot of feeling into his movies, you know?

And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?

Overrated... God, I just don't know. See, I love [Quentin] Tarantino - I think his work is terrific so... I can’t think of anyone.

Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?

Well, you - that's not a fair question. Actually I've got one or two pains in the arse that I've worked with, but I'm not going to name them, especially the actors. I find it's always best to keep your mouth shut with questions like that. It always comes back to haunt you.

What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

Yes... Why am I doing this? [Laughs]

Do you believe in test screenings?

I hate them! I absolutely hate them, but I think they are necessary.

Do you find the scorecards helpful?

I don't really. All those forms are all tabulated and given to the people who organise this stuff and they produce a report so you can read the report the next day, which will say that people hated your movie and the characters were disliked universally or whatever, or I didn't like your villain, he was too camp, or whatever the f****** thing is. Where I find them useful is where there is a consistency of people who didn't understand certain things and then you know you've got a problem. Unintentional laughs is another one which is always good to catch, or there are sequences which people feel drag on too long. If certain characters are genuinely disliked for certain reasons then you may be able to alter the cut so it takes the heat off.

The classic example in [The Legend Of] Zorro is that to begin with, in the opening sequence, I had more of Zorro doing flips and bows and taking applause and the rest of it. Well, the audience didn't like it. They thought it was showing off too much - although it's part of his character to show off - but they disliked him for it. Anyway I took a lot of those flips and bows out and at the end of The Governor's Mansion when he rears up on his horse and waves his sword - I took it out because it was too much. I think we've hit the right balance now. In the final test screening, which went terrifically well in Sacramento, that complaint had gone. So, that's where test screenings can be very useful. Unfortunately all the studios are interested in is how many people ticked the boxes for 'Good' and 'Excellent' and that's when it becomes a numbers game, which just really p****s me off.

How seriously do you take reviews?

You know, some directors don't read reviews, but you do take them seriously in the sense that, having put in so much time and effort to making the movie, no director likes being told that his movie is lousy or nobody liked it. So they do affect you...

Have you ever found the criticism constructive?

If there is a consistency of it. I did a movie called Beyond Borders with Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen and the reviewers hated it in America. They dumped on the film and it was a film I really liked. I’d worked very hard on it and everything else and the critics didn’t like it at all. The film didn’t do any business either so it was a complete and utter failure as a movie, and that hurts, you know?

There's nothing I learnt from the reviewers on that. All it is, they didn't like the idea of a love story being set against hunger in the camps of Ethiopia. On the other hand, that's the very thing that all the audiences that went to see it loved about the movie - that it didn't politicise and make the obvious statements about hunger. They're all there, they're implied - they don't need to be rammed down your throat. But then you give up after a while. You just read a few reviews and think, 'Oh, f*** it'. You just don't bother.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

I don't know. I didn’t have a mentor in the film business so I can't think of anything.

And the worst?

The point about advice is whether you take it or not. That's really the question. There may be bad advice and you know it's bad advice and therefore you reject it, so really the question is: What is the bad advice that you have taken and that really f***** you over? That's really what you want to know, isn't it?


Well, yes. You always have bits and pieces of that. I can't think of anything right now though...

What's your biggest regret?

I was working on a film called The Notebook, you know? I was going to direct that and I'd done all the development work on the script and I eventually turned it down for, um... [laughs] Beyond Borders. So that's probably my biggest regret. Actually I dropped out of it over a casting issue.

In the end, did it get to the screen with the actors you argued against?

No, actually. Entirely different. What happened is, I refused to work with the cast that they [the studio] wanted me to - well, at least the guy. I really can't name the person. Of course in the end it was entirely different casting and the film was a big hit.

There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?

I think a bottle of scotch and a cigarette really. And sit on a rock and wait for it to happen.

What film makes you want to spit?

I haven't seen Guy Ritchie's new one [Revolver] so maybe that one. Apparently everyone else wants to spit according to the reviews! [Laughs] No, um... A film that I hate is... Meet The Fockers. There, I mentioned it again. Hated it, hated it! It was just God awful - great actors prostrating themselves for a terrible script. Of course it did huge business. Naturally.

What are your three favourite films and why?

Lawrence Of Arabia

I think Lawrence Of Arabia is my first. I just think it's a truly magnificent film, a wonderful script, beautifully directed, wonderful locations and wonderfully acted and historically interesting. That's one.

The Wild Bunch, the Sam Peckinpah movie is probably my favourite western of all time. The violence was the least of it for me. It was about the relationship between the guys in The Wild Bunch and it was really interesting as a eulogy about progress and men who were out of time with progress, you know? They were anachronisms. There's a great line where one of them says, "We've got to think beyond our guns," which of course they don't and they all pay the price. The moral spine of the story was interesting and I thought it was fantastic.

The Manchurian Candidate [1962] is another one I thought was brilliant, by [John] Frankenheimer. It was a great, great thriller and it really affected me when I saw it at the time, because it's so brilliantly directed and extremely well acted and it was a subject that was just absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately the remake never got near it. It didn't have nearly the same impact.

What do you think of Norman Wisdom?

I never was into Norman Wisdom's humour, you know. Is he dead?

Calling The Shots homepage