Franc Roddam INTERVIEW
RICHARD KEITH WOLFF: Franc Roddam you are best known as a feature film and television director / producer and additionally in more recent years as a book publisher. What motivated you to want to work in the film business in the first place and how did you set about accomplishing this aim?
FRANC RODDAM: At the end of my street, where I grew up, there were 2 cinemas. Throughout the 1950s I went to the cinema as often as I could. I was particularly obsessed with American movies. American heroes seemed to embody all the values that I wanted to obtain: I wanted to be brave, charismatic, romantic and possibly rich. Time will tell whether I have become the hero of my own life.
WOLFF: You went to the London School of Film Technique (now London Film School) how did you find this experience and was it helpful to starting your career?
RODDAM: I loved my time at the Film School. Rather than just being attached to one department, which would have happened had I gone straight into the industry at ground level, we were able to take a holistic view of cinema. I loved watching old movies and understanding the history of cinema and I was very fortunate to work with talented fellow students and learn not only about film techniques but also the great range of points of view that emerged from our different histories. It was extremely helpful when I went out into the big world. Not only had I made some small films, but my childhood prejudices were softened.
WOLFF: Your first job after film school was in advertising. This would almost seem like the antithesis of work you were later to make as a documentary film director for the BBC for example with the documentary "Dummy"!
RODDAM: It was impossible to get work in the film industry because of the union restrictions; it was a closed shop. We all had to break in, in different ways – the front door was not open to us, so I climbed in through the window.
WOLFF: Your second documentary for the BBC was "Mini" a heart breaking study of a delightful but troubling young boy who had committed arson on his family home when his father was inside, though his father came to no harm. The documentary shows Mini under psychological observation, resulting in a decision for him to be removed from his family and to be detained under tight security in a special institution. What made you tackle such a difficult subject, perhaps a risky one at that?
RODDAM: In many ways Mini embodied the frustration that all children feel with the adult decision-making process. I have always been committed to the rights of children and many a child has suffered from the attitudes and misbehaviour of misguided parents. Mini was a clever, thoughtful child who did not like to take instruction from adults, parents and teachers alike, that were in the process of destroying their own lives. Why should he listen to them. When I saw Mini, I saw myself.
WOLFF: It is interesting to see that you are now, in your newer role, as publisher, publishing Mini's autobiography “Mini & Me” by Michael Cooper. What was it like meeting and being involved with Mini after all these years?
RODDAM: Mini and I have stayed involved as friends for 38 years. I was always looking for a way to liberate him from the incarcerations that his strong point of view had forced him to endure. He was a maverick, who couldn’t compromise. This got him into a great deal of trouble; I believed he was worth rescuing. Publishing the book is part of our ongoing relationship.
WOLFF: Another realistic, but largely dissimilar, documentary series you co-directed is the "Family" (1974). A fly on the wall look at a family. This anticipates the reality programmes we see nowadays. Do you have any thoughts about being so fabulously before your times on this approach?
RODDAM: The idea for this documentary was from producer Paul Watson. The tradition of fly-on-the-wall film-making was something I’d already tackled in my film, The Fight. At the point when we made this film the details and morals of working class life were still somewhat of a mystery to middle class England. The Family was a revelation; I had two tasks: one was to expose as much as I could for the viewer; but at the same time protect the subjects. It was important that the family were seen as real people with a real agenda, and not just TV fodder to be laughed at. If The Family is considered cutting edge, I am very happy to have been part of it.
WOLFF: In 1979 you directed your first feature film QUADROPHENIA based on the Who's rock opera. This a favourite film with a number of people. It broke new ground. It has a realistic feel but is a fictional story, though based on real events. The audience may be forgiven for feeling they are a member of the Mod gang just outside the frame, how did you achieve this effect?
RODDAM: I could write a book on this one! But this was achieved by having a core group of 100 young actors – 8 of them who became the main cast, 20 of them who became ‘special extras’ and the rest extras. By training them and introducing them all to each other, they took on an authenticity that transmitted to the viewer. I also used wide angle lenses, so that the foreground, middle ground and background were all in focus. This meant that even the extras had to know their place amongst the group and their status with each other. The middle ground had to be interesting, and the foreground had to be strong. All the camera movements are motivated by the action.
WOLFF: THE WHO are a super group for want of a better description, how did you a relative newcomer get the trust of these musicians to direct this film for them and what was it like dealing with The Who members personally?
RODDAM: The Who were extraordinarily gracious; they accepted my vision and apart from a few extraordinary moments with the drummer Keith Moon, it went very well. Keith, at our first meeting, suggested we co-direct the film. I replied, ‘Fine, if I can drum on the next Who album...’
WOLFF: After Quadrophenia you went to Hollywood. Before your first Hollywood feature they was a hidden from view time in your career, one of serious research and development for you on an unrealised Franc Roddam feature film! Would you care to discuss this secret work or does it hurt to much to think about it? Was it to far ahead, again, of its time, after all a similar themed successful film was made many years later!
RODDAM: After Quadrophenia I was considered a young god of cinema! And could have more or less directed any film I wanted in Hollywood. I decided to make a film called Rainforest, about the destruction of the Amazon and spent 6 months there. Unfortunately, the film was way ahead of its time, and after 2 and a half years, and a year spent working with Robert Redford, it became apparent that the film would not get made. I put all my eggs in one basket, lost some momentum and had to then fight my way back into the frontline of filmmaking. Meanwhile, the forest burnt...
WOLFF: Your first American film was, The Lords of Discipline, adapted from a Pat Conroy novel. It is set in a military school, and concerns racism. Again you achieve a tense feeling of being there for the audience. The film in essence is about the choice of either, doing the right thing or following the sheep! Do you think the film resonates in modern times? I am thinking of individuals like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Shaker Aamer, as examples!
RODDAM: Lords of Discipline is set in a military academy in Charleston, South Carolina. Graduates are given a fraternity ring. Our hero, having discovered lies, torture and deception amongst his fellow cadets and indeed the teaching staff, decides to save the first black cadet at the academy and in doing so, completely alienates himself. After graduation he leaves his ring in his room but the good soldier who helped him with the fight insists he takes the ring, telling him that he truly deserves it and that he is the man of real honour. With regard to it being relevant today, I think there is so much deception in politics and government that the pretence of honour as opposed to real honour should always be challenged.
WOLFF: Another of your American feature films WAR PARTY concerns the relationship between the Native Americans and the American immigrant descendant population. What are your thoughts about the Native American culture and their role in modern America?
RODDAM: America propagates the idea of it being the perfect, noble society when in fact there are many things wrong with its history, not least of all the genocide of the Native Americans. They were systematically wiped out and pushed into reservations. When I made War Party I was shocked to see how the prejudice still continues and the Native Americans still live in poor circumstances. It’s as if they’ve been wiped from the history of America. I was very privileged to spend nearly a year on and off reservations and be accepted as a part of their community. I believe they are still being attacked, and distracted by being allowed to open casinos and follow the supposed ‘American Dream’ whilst not consolidating their rich history and practices. WAR PARTY was about contemporary Native American life; it was somewhat controversial and the New York Times stated that ‘Franc Roddam was starting a war that hadn’t happened yet.’ The film was raided by the FBI twice and I am not certain that it did not have a negative effect on my future Hollywood film career. Every time a studio offered me a picture, there came a point where they removed the offer.
WOLFF: To jump forward in time but back to England again, you create a television programme series "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" in 1983 about British migrant workers working in Germany on a building site. How did that idea come to you? Does your background in the industrial North influence your point of view?
RODDAM: The de-industrialisation of Britain by successive governments has wreaked havoc on hundreds of thousands of families and as time has shown, put our economy in jeopardy. Especially now, people are calling for the re-industrialisation. AUF WIEDERSEHEN, PET is a drama comedy that highlights the disenfranchisement of working class men in a way that entertains and still elucidates. My Northern background and my work in the shipyard enabled me to fully understand what it meant to the society and to the individual.
WOLFF: Another Television format you created in 1990 was "MasterChef " a series that has stood the test of time, still going strong on an international scale. This seems as far away from your previous work as can be, does it not!
RODDAM: The simple answer is no. Masterchef is many things but it is also about democratisation of food. As the famous football manager, Brian Clough, said in the ‘80s, his idea of socialism was prawn cocktails for everybody. Sophistication and education of the masses has always been part of my drive.
WOLFF: You have a love of writing and have launched Ziji Publishing, Introducing Clive Woodhall and Michael Cooper for example bringing us fresh new authors. Has this been satisfying?
RODDAM: it was a great privilege to have been able to publish first-time authors. There is something magnificent about books; the fact that I have published 11 books that are now in the British Library gives me a great sense of pride. I also wanted to assist creative people to realise their vision without too much interference. Film-makers like myself have always been leant on massively by the studios and financial backers. There is a purity about these books, even if they’re not perfect.
WOLFF: You have achieved an impressive and varied body of work, what are you most proud of and what remains to be achieved?
RODDAM: Sounds corny, but the thing I am most proud of is my 7 children. The piece of work that I think is most representative of my visual nature, is my section in ARIA. I was very proud to share a billing with the likes of Robert Altman, Godard and Nic Roeg. I would still like to make a great movie.
WOLFF: What's the meaning of life? just kidding on this one!
RODDAM: Light finds her treasure of colours
Through the antagonism of clouds
Franc Roddam at home interviewed by photojournalist Richard Keith Wolff. London, UK, 2014