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Mike Hodges is 71, short, softly-spoken and lives in sleepy Dorset where he likes to grow vegetables in his spare time. So why does he keep making movies about bloodthirsty loners out for revenge? Xan Brooks meets the director who came back from the dead
Actually, he couldn't have arranged a neater entrance. By a happy coincidence, Hodges' latest film - the portentously titled I'll Sleep When I'm Dead - also features a rural recluse who finds himself lured back to the mean streets of London. Forget the incidental details: the fact that Hodges' hero is a notorious hard man, whereas the director himself is soft-spoken, good-humoured and 71 as of last birthday. Both of these men have come out of the wilderness to reclaim their respective kingdoms.
For Hodges, this is the bonus round. When his previous picture - 1999's Croupier - died a quick, lonely death at the box office, he assumed his career was over. He had made a peerless writer-director debut with 1971's Get Carter, plus a bunch of other films he was proud of (Pulp, The Terminal Man, Black Rainbow). He insists that he wasn't bitter about anything. His time up, he would retire to Dorset and grow vegetables.
Then something strange occurred. Croupier was rescued in the US, opening on 17 screens to rave reviews before expanding to a healthy 150 cinemas. In the end its Stateside success convinced backers FilmFour to give it another, proper release in the UK. "You think your film is going down the toilet," he reflects ruefully. "And then it gets stuck. And then it comes back up again." Which is why he's here today: braving the heatwave and with a fresh movie to discuss. Flushed, but unflushable.
Fingers crossed, I'll Sleep should keep him buoyant for a while longer. Scripted by Trevor Preston (a long-time friend), it stars Clive Owen (previously of Croupier) as a former gangster who returns to his south London manor to investigate his brother's suicide. The film was produced by Mike Kaplan (another friend) and showcases a splendidly diseased supporting turn from Malcolm McDowell (yet another friend). But don't be lulled by this snug, matey pedigree. On screen, Hodges' film is startlingly bleak; a no-frills existential gangster tale that, at its best, exudes the same reptilian menace he showed on Get Carter. Certainly it touches on similar themes: honour, revenge, male violence.
Hodges admits to a fascination. "As you can see, I'm a small man. I don't get into fights. I don't have any macho side to me at all. But I am interested in these characters and where they come from. Now, whether I ever wanted to be one of those men, I really can't say. I think that as a young man I probably did."
These days he's smart enough to know that such behaviour is often a sham, a cover-up. In the 1960s Hodges worked as a documentary maker for British TV, at one stage shooting a World in Action report on the Vietnam war. "I was able to study these supposed hard men at close quarters. And one suspects - well, indeed, one knows - that an enormous number of them are homosexual. An awful lot of the Hollywood western stars were gay, incidentally. And, sad to admit, the facades of those kind of men dointerestme."
Hodges describes I'll Sleep as a samurai film. By
contrast, his writer likens it to Greek myth. Personally, I saw
it more in terms of a cowboy picture, where the loner hero rides
into town to kill the evil sheriff. But whatever slot you put it
in, there's no denying it's as dry and dangerous as gunpowder. Ultimately,
it seems to offer its hero a stark set of options: either stay within
the system and get eaten up, or get out and live like a hermit.
Was there a catalyst for this? "Well, there was
a whole change in my life. There was a divorce, and the divorce
partly came from struggling to keep up a style of living for the
family. There were four of us, my wife and two children, and it
just became a treadmill, and I found myself doing all the things
I swore I would never do. The kids were going to private school,
and we had the country house and the town flat and two cars and
God knows how many television sets in every room. And when Jean
and I divorced, I just had nothing left; I was at rock bottom. This
was in about 1980. And then I became seriously ill and had to have
an operation, and it might have been malignant but fortunately it
After all this, it would be nice to report that life became plain sailing for Hodges. Not so, however. If the 1970s were a decade of struggle, he freely admits the 1980s were "a terrible time" too, and the 1990s not much better. Clearly, the director seems to have suffered more than most. Reading back through his cuttings is like revisiting a series of car accidents. Two of his favourite films (The Terminal Man and Black Rainbow) were effectively killed off by poor distribution, while he (unsuccessfully) lobbied to get his name taken off the 1987 IRA thriller A Prayer for the Dying. Then there is the story of Damien: Omen 2, which he fled after only three weeks on set. There is a rumour that relations on Damien grew so fractious that the producer even pulled a gun on him. But surely that can't be true ...
Hodges chuckles at the memory. "Well, 'pulled' isn't quite the right word," he says. "I was having a discussion with the producer, who was slightly neurotic, to say the least, and he got very angry. We were sitting in an office and he suddenly rummaged in his bag and put this handgun on the table. And I said, 'Is that loaded?' And he said, 'Yes.' And then we just looked at each other for a bit."
Was there the suggestion that he was going to use it? "Well, I don't know," laughs Hodges. "But it's the perfect symbol of the macho behaviour we've been talking about. I think I must have got under his skin. We were arguing about the design budget and I said, 'Calm down' and he didn't. But I found it very scary, I have to confess. The whole film was very threatening."
Yet it wasn't the gun that made him leave the production? "No, no, no. I should never have taken that film on in the first place. I needed the money, and the whole thing was a disaster. The gun was incidental."
After the interview I ring up Malcolm McDowell, who
has known Hodges since the 1960s. Our conversation verges on the
surreal. It's late evening in London but lunchtime in Los Angeles,
and when McDowell picks up the phone he's riding a buggy down the
fairway of his local golf course. This strikes me as a bizarre place
to find the satanic majesty of If... and A Clockwork Orange, but
there it is. Possibly it's all part of some subversive protest;
perhaps with hand grenades for golf balls and a Droog caddie riding
In the meantime, his reputation continues to grow. He regards the success of Croupier as a vindication of the sort of movies he wants to make, and a sort of "gentle revenge" on both Hollywood and the British film industry. Then there is the ongoing renaissance of Get Carter, which was regarded with general distaste on first release and yet is now seen as horribly prescient, and one of the great British gangster films of all time.
A few years back, Get Carter even gave rise to a fumbled
Hollywood remake, which relocated the action from Newcastle to Seattle
and installed a leaden Sylvester Stallone in the Michael Caine role.
Hodges still hasn't seen the remake, although a friend rang to inform
him that it was "unspeakable". Actually, he adds, his
son brought him the DVD back from Hong Kong last Christmas. One
night Hodges got drunk and tried to watch it. But the system wasn't
compatible and the disc wouldn't play: "So we put it in the