Sir Michael Caine sits down with Quint to talk about his career and upcoming flicks IS ANYBODY THERE? and HARRY BROWN!
Published at: April 18, 2009, 2:15 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I’ve found there’s maybe one interview a year that has me genuinely nervous going in. Now, I usually get a little serious before each interview I do, concerned that I go in with an idea of where to steer the conversation, thinking about what I have to say and in what order, but that’s different than a real case of nerves.
While I was sitting in the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, outside of the suite where I was to have a thirty minute one on one chat with Michael Caine, I was full on nervous. It wasn’t just a star-struck thing. I was able to meet Caine a few hours previous in a little meet and greet put on by the people behind his new film IS ANYBODY THERE?
The event was small, intimate, but filled mostly with theater owners… perhaps two dozen people total. I introduced myself to the man, who towered above me (and I’m just a hair under 6’1”) and we talked a little about the notoriously eccentric cinematographer Christopher Doyle who shot THE QUIET AMERICAN. I also brought up my love of a film he did, a heist flick called GAMBIT, in the mid-60s, which lit him up. It was his first American studio film in which he co-starred with Shirley MacLaine and Herbert Lom.
He brought up the talk that there was a remake in the works. A while back The Coen Brothers were attached to redo the film. I don’t know if that’s still a possibility, but Caine said he’d love to help, saying he'd be keen to play the old man now (the part originated by Herbert Lom).
It was a fine little chat, but the environment was completely different. Everybody there was pulling for Caine’s attention and time, so I grabbed a little bite to eat and ended up recognizing Caine’s wife, Shakira, from her appearance in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and I ended up talking more with her than her husband.
We talked about John Huston and Sean Connery before I left the two to rub shoulders with the heavy hitters of film exhibition.
I suppose the nerves I felt before the interview were more out of my sheer respect for the man and my sincere hope that I didn’t waste his time.
As it turned out, I didn’t have anything to worry about. Caine came in with all the publicists, studio people and personal friends, but in under a minute’s time the door closed and it was just me sitting across from Michael Caine. Sorry, Sir Michael Caine.
We cover a lot of ground here, talking about everything from the film he’s promoting to his appearance at ShoWest to accept a lifetime achievement award (and what that means for him and his career) to Christopher Nolan’s next film, INCEPTION, to his past work, his future work and everything in between. My favorite part is probably discussing his falling out with Alfred Hitchcock.
In short, I could have spent 3 hours talking with this guy and only skimmed the surface of his vast and impressive career. I hope you guys enjoy the chat as much as I did. We do cover some spoiler territory regarding his character in IS ANYBODY THERE? but I don't believe we talk about anything that will actually ruin the experience for anybody. Enjoy the chat!
Quint: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Michael Caine: I know what it is, I get this on my computer.
Quint: Oh yeah? The site? Ain’t It Cool?
Michael Caine: Yeah.
Quint: I hope we haven’t offended you or anything.
Michael Caine: No, you haven’t.
Quint: Not yet?
Michael Caine: Not quite yet.
Quint: We will figure out a way.
Michael Caine: This may be the moment.
Quint: It might start right now. At the cocktail party I got to meet your wife and for one, she’s a lovely person and I kind of cornered her, because I was wanting to grill her on THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING. I thought she was so good in that.
Michael Caine: Yeah, she was.
Quint: So we were talking about John Huston it just struck me that you are accepting an award tonight, to look back at your films. You have worked with such an amazing amount of quality directors, not even looking at your co-stars…
Michael Caine: Sure yeah. I’ve been very lucky every now and then (to work with directors) like Joe Losey and Lewis Gilbert twice. It’s been a fantastic career for me with directors and what’s interesting to me now is at my age whenever I do one of these little British movies, they use a young director, like they did with John Crowley. He is very young. He’s only done two pictures before IS ANYBODY THERE?
And then on the picture I have just finished (HARRY BROWN), there’s a young English guy called Daniel Barber and he’s only done one movie, THE TONTO WOMAN, which was a short movie and he got an Academy Award nomination for it.
So it’s interesting with me that the roles are very, very intricate and experimental now, because that’s what I chose to do, nothing easy and then I make it even more difficult by choosing a new young director and hope. You get a tremendous dynamic from a young director, because they are there all day and ready to go, you know? It’s not like some old guy who just wants to buy a new house or something.
Quint: Yeah, who is just doing his job…
Michael Caine: Yeah, who is just doing his job and he gets some money and then goes to the race track. (laughs) I’ve had those too, I’m afraid. It’s very exciting for me to do these little pictures.
Quint: Is that then a big part of your decision process, you get a script and then you look at who is doing it?
Michael Caine: Well sure, but then again I also do BATMAN, which is one of the biggest films in the world, but even there, you see, when I first did BATMAN, (Chris Nolan) was a young director with a couple of small films. It’s the same thing, you see.
Quint: That’s right.
Michael Caine: When they said that Christopher was going to direct this whatever it is, hundred million dollar BATMAN BEGINS and I knew who he was, I thought “Boy, that’s a tremendous challenge for him and a tremendous chance for the studio to take” and it worked out superbly. I’ve done three pictures, BATMAN BEGINS, THE PRESTIGE, and THE DARK KNIGHT, all of which are wonderful movies, didn’t matter the amount of money spent.
Quint: I think it’s actually a really fascinating time. Hollywood seems to be splitting, where you have some studios that are really just staying the course playing it very safe, putting out very homogenous stuff, but you look at Warners and the chances that they have been taking in the last few years, looking at WATCHMEN now, but before then…
Michael Caine: How is WATCHMEN? I haven’t seen it.
Quint: WATCHMEN is really good. I think it’s faithful to a fault.
Michael Caine: Meaning it could have been a little bit more something or other?
Quint: I think that Zack Snyder, in his attempt to adapt the material, I think he might have been a lot more faithful to what the comic book was than what the movie should have been, but I can’t fault it as a fan of the comic. I can’t believe there’s a movie that huge that’s rated R that is full of these very serious issues.
Michael Caine: It’s got a good audience. It’s done well at the box office?
Quint: It’s done okay.
Michael Caine: Not fantastic?
Quint: It had a huge weekend and a big drop, because they sold it as an action movie and there’s very little action in the movie. People think it’s another DARK KNIGHT.
Michael Caine: I thought that.
Quint: There are a few action scenes, but most of the money shots that you see in the trailer are big parts of the action, it’s more of a deconstruction of superheroes.
Michael Caine: Is that what it is?
Quint: It’s a very smart movie and it’s a very brave movie, and I think it’s fascinating…
Michael Caine: It should stand the test of time then.
Quint: It’s like BLADE RUNNER…
Michael Caine: Look at BLADE RUNNER. When it came out, it was like “What the hell is this about?”
Quint: Nobody understood it. I wouldn’t say WATCHMEN is as good as BLADE RUNNER. BLADE RUNNER, I think…
Michael Caine: It’s a classic, isn’t it?
Quint: Yeah, and it has survived the test of time, but yeah once again talking Chris Nolan, I think he’s probably one of the best visual film makers.
Michael Caine: I have read about a movie he’s doing called INCEPTION and I haven’t spoken to Chris about this movie. I’m not in it, obviously, but I happened to see it on the internet. I was doing an interview and the interviewer said to me “Are you in INCEPTION?” I said “What is INCEPTION? I have never heard of it.”
They said it was a Chris Nolan film. Obviously I wasn’t in it, because I didn’t know of it, but I looked at it and it said “The film is set in the architecture of the mind” and I went “I wonder what that means!” (laughs) But knowing Chris, he will pull it off. It’s original by him. What was interesting from my point of view, because people are always saying “When’s the next BATMAN?” It ain’t next year, that’s for sure!
Quint: I like that. I like that between BEGINS and DARK KNIGHT he did THE PRESTIGE and that was a fantastic movie. I love that movie and I think that that kind of paved they way, because I think DARK KNIGHT is an even bigger step forward in terms of film quality and just direction, his confidence level as it appears on the screen… I think THE PRESTIGE was a big part of that and I think he had to cleanse the pallet a little bit. I’m looking forward to the next Batman movie like anybody, but anything from him…
Micahel Caine: Or anything from Chris Nolan, because at least it will be interesting. He is fantastic.
Quint: Visually he is one of the most fascinating film makers working. He gets it. Anyway, let’s go back to your movie a little bit…
Michael Caine: Yeah, lets talk about my movie! Stuff Chris, he made all of that money! I haven’t made it yet!
Quint: Yeah, you’re not on the payroll for another Nolan movie. He missed his chance! So with this movie, I think that it’s actually a very brave role. I was talking to (the publicist) and just saying to him that your image is toughness and charm somewhat mixing together, but you play this character very vulnerable.
Michael Caine: That’s why I went for it. I choose difficult now. I really choose to push myself. It’s no good sitting around making cyphers of movies I keep doing over and over again. A lot of old actors do, because it’s easy. I like to push myself and have some fun with it, so it was fascinating for me to do this.
I consider it the best performance I have ever given. It’s a performance that could have been done better by other people, but it couldn’t have been done better by me. That’s what I’m saying by that, not that it’s the best performance, just that it’s the best that I could do. Sometimes you have done movies where it isn’t necessary and you didn’t have to knock yourself out. I had to knock myself out every day on this movie.
Quint: I think it shows. Not in terms that it feels like you are trying for something, but in that I felt emotionally raw at the end of the movie.
Michael Caine: That was the idea. The thing was I said “If there is one moment in the picture where I make you roar with laughter and another I make you cry your eyes out, I’ve done my job.”
Quint: I have got to say… the magic show scene killed the audience! And this was a bunch of theater owners who…
Michael Caine: Did they laugh?
Quint: Oh yeah. They gasped first. I don’t think people saw it coming, but you guys were toying with the senility thing and the moment you flipped the switch, I was like “Oh no… This isn’t going to end well for some body!”
Michael Caine: (laughs) What I liked about it was, just a little personal thing, as I went over, I was still blowing the raspberry. (laughs)
Quint: What I love by having the raspberry scene is that you are almost involving all of the kids and being a part of…
Michael Caine: It’s involving the kids and the old people and I was becoming as old as them, because I was doing the raspberry as well, so it winds up that we are all doing it, the children are doing it, these old people are like children and now me. I didn’t say “Let’s do the raspberry” and then show them and stop, I did it with them!
Quint: Let’s talk a little bit about Bill Milner, because I really loved him in SON OF RAMBOW.
Michael Caine: What a wonderful little actor he is and what’s incredible about him, from a grown up point of view, it’s like working with another grown up actor, not that he is precocious or anything like that. He’s not precocious, he’s a little boy, but his attitude and the amount of skill that he has and it’s not to much skill, because he hasn’t learned it, it’s an absolute talent for doing this. He does behavior, which is fabulous in movies. That’s what you are supposed to do. You are not supposed to do acting, you are supposed to do behavior and reaction and he behaves and reacts perfectly. He’s a perfect little movie actor and he’s wonderful.
We had a great friendship he and I. I get to see him in New York. He’s showing up there and John Crowley is coming. They are doing this thing there for the NEW YORK TIMES. He is so good in it and the thing about it was… David Heyman, when we started he said he was looking for a little boy, I said “He better be good, because if he tanks, the picture tanks.”
Michael Caine: That’s the whole thing, the picture is gone with him and fortunately we found Bill and he’s wonderful. The great thing about him too, is he doesn’t have a stage mother who is trying to work out (his) life. She’s a very lovely nice woman and it reflects in him. He’s a nice little boy and I don’t remember him… I think possibly, I don’t know if his mother told him who I was, but I always got the feeling he never really knew who I was, you know what I mean? And he never mentioned “So, I liked THE ITALIAN JOB…” or something… these films that young boys like. We just had conversations and we got on with it and he was so bloody good.
Quint: In order to build that chemistry, it obviously sounds like it was stemming from your real life interaction.
Michael Caine: Sure. We became friends instantly and then we had to sort of turn it about because we weren’t friends when we met, but then being friends in real life, you saw his reaction when I said things in which he knew I would never say, so it worked like a charm.
Quint: That was great and I love how his character is very much kind of dark kid, but because he is so innocent about it… it’s almost like Bud Cort in HAROLD AND MAUDE, where he has this fascination with death and all of this macabre stuff, but he plays it so innocently that it somehow works.
Michael Caine: What I like is I turned him into a little boy at the end when he played football. What it was is that I helped him out. I helped him to live and he helped me to die.
Michael Caine: Because once I found the missus I was okay and I could die.
Quint: That’s very cool and it also seems to be a bit of a track record of you kicking it in your movies.
Michael Caine: I kick it in every movie. And I never get a sequel.
Quint: I guess that’s why you have got to keep friendly with Chris Nolan!
Michael Caine: To me, the most touching thing was for me personally, the fact that while I’m playing this man dying of Alzheimer’s, my best friend was dying of Alzheimer’s. And he was only 72 and as I was making this film he was dying and when I was doing it, I knew exactly where I was coming from, you know what I mean? It was quite extraordinary. I’m going to dedicate the film to Doug, Doug Hayward his name was. He made this suit! He was my tailor as well, but he was secondly my tailor and firstly my friend.
To watch someone die of Alzheimer’s is an extraordinary experience. It took five years and then to be making this movie at the end of the five years, I thought it was extraordinary, because when I read the script I thought “Oh, he’s dying of Alzheimer’s like Doug,” but I didn’t realize how much of it there was. It didn’t seem like there was much of it, but when you get to it, then it becomes so important and I kept having to refer to him to get it right, because I knew how it was when it was right, so I had to keep referring back to Doug.
Quint: It must have put an extra load of pressure on you to make sure…
Michael Caine: That’s why when you see me do it, it’s very, very… not only in the movie, it’s very upsetting in a way. A lot of people got upset. My wife got upset by it.
Quint: Yeah, I had heard somebody was talking about that.
Michael Caine: And she wouldn’t let my pregnant daughter see it. She said “It will upset Natasha,” but…
Quint: It can’t be easy on your family, you know… watching…
Michael Caine: Watching Dad die?
Quint: It’s not like GET CARTER or something where…
Michael Caine: Where you get shot and you’re a gangster… They know you’re not a gangster, but what I was, I was an old man and I am an old man and this is what happened to him. And he was an entertainer.
Quint: The way that they lovingly… You see glimpses of the character’s life leading up to it, which is why I think you taking the role is such an amazing idea and probably a coup for them, because you bring a lot of baggage as an actor and when you see images of you from your 30’s and 40’s, we know that’s you. It’s like “OK, that’s ALFIE era and that’s…”
Michael Caine: Yeah, “There’s Jack Carter”
Quint: I really like that aspect of the movie and I think it adds another level to the film. Now you are accepting a lifetime achievement award at this thing, so what do you think about that?
Michael Caine: I have a double reaction to it. One, it’s a great honor, especially from a load of tough guys like this. Exhibitors… they’re not Mother Superiors! (laughs) And the other one is that you feel like “Should I retire? Because they keep giving me these lifetime achievement awards,” so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve either got to stop working or I’ve got to stop accepting lifetime achievement awards, because I can’t do both…
Quint: They are going to be outdated when you start looking at them.
Michael Caine: Exactly, because I’m getting the lifetime achievement award and I’m here publicizing a movie I have just made, made last year, and I’ve just finished one I have made this year.
Quint: You have so many movies that you have made, it seems like you have a real passion for doing films.
Michael Caine: I love doing films. I took a year off after this and then another script came up called HARRY BROWN, which is about a vigilante… an old man who turns vigilante in a very dangerous project area where he lives. It’s one where old people can’t go out. They kill his best friend and he goes… and that was again a very old guy… not like this one, he’s very, very tough, but I mean I have just finished that. That’s called HARRY BROWN.
Quint: I think people are going to be really looking forward to that, because people love the GET CARTER stuff and it feels like “what if he didn’t get the bullet between the eyes?”
Michael Caine: “If Jack Carter got old and they picked on the wrong guy…”
Michael Caine: He’s very innocent looking, old and harmless, you know and they picked on him and then suddenly Godzilla comes out. (laughs)
Quint: That’s great. I think people will love that. That’s why I think people responded to GRAN TORINO so much as they did.
Michael Caine: Yeah, I haven’t seen that yet. That got wonderful reviews. It was a big hit for Clint wasn’t it?
Michael Caine: I noticed in his, the miscreants shall we call them, were Koreans. There’s no racial… All of our villains are white English boys. We didn’t bring race into it at all, because once you do, you’re into a whole different thing.
Quint: That’s the trouble with GRAN TORINO, I think. I think it’s unintentionally funny in a lot of ways, like “Look at that racist old guy” and he’s not racist, but he still kind of is.
Michael Caine: We didn’t bring race into it at all, but ours is… well I tell you, a lot of it is truly scary. Really scary. It’s very violent, but what it is and I’m expecting to be doing an interview and you say to me “You have made this terribly violent film” and I’ve already got me answer and that’s “The film is not a violent film. It’s a film about violence that ordinary people do for reasons. The youngsters do it, because society let them down with education and parents. We let them down, otherwise they wouldn’t be like that.”
I shot that movie in a place that I came from. The projects where I grew up, there’s even a mural on the wall of me there, but they are pulling it all down, but not the mural. I know what the difference is, between them and then in my young days and the tough guys who we were, is that now you have got drugs. We didn’t have drugs, we just had a couple of drinks, get pissed and go to sleep, you know? (laughs) Or have a fight, but drugs… I know it’s bad in America. It’s very bad in England, too. Very bad.
Quint: I can tell you, as you were just talking about retirement, that nobody that’s a fan of yours wants to see that happening, but we also don’t want you to wear yourself out.
Michael Caine: That’s great, thank you. That’s the thing, I take long times off. I’m not going to go rushing into anything. But what happens to me is… you know, I started off with SLEUTH, which is a remake that I thought was going to be wonderful. It didn’t turn out that way, but I thought…
Quint: I didn’t see the remake.
Michael Caine: The remake is good, but we got slaughtered critically, but that picture will come back again. I did that and I said, “Well, I’m not going to work.” Then they said, “THE DARK KNIGHT.” I said, “Oh, I got to do that!” I did THE DARK KNIGHT… no, I did THE DARK KNIGHT and then I did SLEUTH and then they said this one, so I did three and I was exhausted, but I don’t think that will happen again, because the parts for someone my age become less and less, obviously, and I’ve been asked many times if I am going to retire and I always give them the same answer, “Movies retire you.”
So long as I like doing it… I like acting in movies. I like the whole thing… the camaraderie. I’m part gypsy, my father was part gypsy and I love the circus idea of it, traveling around and I have my own little (group) of people in England, hair, wardrobe, and makeup, chauffer, motor home guy… and we have all known each other for years. My wardrobe guy was on ZULU, so we know each other quite well.
Quint: That’s great. I was watching a bunch of your movies to get caught up leading to this and I watched almost all of the Harry Palmer movies and it was really interesting watching the three ‘60s in Harry Palmer movies and then going into THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING… it’s so funny to me looking at where Harry Palmer is kind of like the real version of James Bond and then there you are with Connery and I had to wonder were you ever approached to be a part of any of the Bonds?
Michael Caine: No, not at all. I think that would have been because Broccoli and Saltzman… Saltzman did THE IPCRESS FILE lot and Broccoli never came in with it, so once I was in with Harry then I wasn’t going to back. The Bonds are all Broccoli, so I don’t think they would have ever of approached me and also, I’m not a big action man like that.
Quint: I could have figured they might have wanted to bring you in as a villain…
Michael Caine: I would have been a good villain, but they never thought about that.
Quint: That would have been really interesting to me as a movie fan.
Michael Caine: To have me and Connery? Yeah, well we had a great time on THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING.
Quint: That movie is so amazing. I love Plummer at the beginning and…
Michael Caine: He was really great as Kipling. He’s a wonderful actor and we were all friends you see.
Quint: I love it and the only other thing I was thinking of as I was going through your movies is you were also hitting around the time that Hitchcock was hitting his stride and I was wondering if you ever talked to him.
Michael Caine: I knew Hitchcock very well, yeah and he wanted me to do a picture. Barry Foster played the part. It was made in London and it was a sadistic killer, who killed a lot of woman and I wouldn’t play a part like that.
Quint: Was that FRENZY?
Michael Caine: FRENZY. Yeah and he never spoke with me again when I turned it down.
Quint: Really? So you think he took offense?
Michael Caine: Yeah, well not too many people turn down Hitchcock, but I felt very strongly about the scenes where he slices up women and at that time there was a lot of it… We just had a killer called Heath in England who sliced up about twenty women very savagely and I got affected by that terribly and I just didn’t want to do it. Barry Foster, who played my brother in a couple of pictures, he played it.
Quint: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for talking to me.
Michael Caine: Thanks a lot. Now I know when I look at Ain’t It Cool News who it is!
And that was that. The interview went off very well, I think, and Caine was as cool as I hoped he’d be. The fire’s still burning strong as ever and his enthusiasm is contagious.
IS ANYBODY THERE? comes out this weekend in limited release. Give it a view if you want to see the performance that Caine thinks is his personal best.
Follow Me On Twitter