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BSS 2012: an interview with Ben Lewin

Tony Forster: Of your work, I’ve seen the 1991 feature The Favour, The Watch & The Very Big Fish; obviously I’ve a very fond memory of working on The Dunera Boys, and last night I was privileged to see a preview of The Sessions, thanks to the Big Screen Symposium. Taking those three extremely different projects (all of which you directed as well as wrote), how would you rate them amongst your overall body of work? Do you have a particular favourite?

Ben Lewin: Well, The Favour, The Watch & The Very Big Fish is a special favourite, because it’s my only venture into surrealism. There is something surreal about it, and I’m glad I did that. I don’t how I got away with it! I believe it has a small cult following here and there. That’s a kind of pet, more than a favourite; and for that reason I’m glad I went there for once.

But I don’t know how to tot it all up and say, Well, is it the same person? I don’t know – it’s strange, isn’t it?

TF: Yeah!

BL: There’s no answer – I guess they just represent different stages of life. Different pre-occupations, and maybe you get better as you go along.

I must have made The Favour, The Watch & The Very Big Fish to contradict any notion that I was only interested in Jewish themes – it was to prove that when it comes to religion I’ll go anywhere.

TF: I did wonder about the Jewish thing, given Dunera and one of the themes in the new film – and there’s the Polish thing too. You were only 3 years old when your family emigrated to Melbourne in the late 40s. Does the Polish thing have any relevance to you? Have you spent much time going back there, exploring those roots?

BL: I’ve never been back there, and I’ve obviously had no curiosity about my Polishness. I regard it as an accident of birth, rather than anything else. It’s a connection, if you like, to Europe, to the pre-war Jewish world – it’s more the Jewish thing than the Polish thing. I might go back one day.

One of the projects that I’m vaguely interested in now is about a guy going back to Poland to discover his roots there. But my brother went recently to visit Poland; and he went to where I was born, and he said “It’s a shithole, don’t bother.”

I like Europe. I spent 2 years living in France – the first making The Favour, and the second spending the money – it was wonderful. But everyone keeps urging me to go to Poland – one day I’ll be able to answer your question! Let’s do another interview in 3 or 4 years time, same place…

TF: Your first time in NZ?

BL: I came here over 40 years ago as a law student, when there were moots held in Wellington. Then to Wellington again 25 years ago to do some ADR with John Bach – but I’ve never been to Auckland before. The view from this window is great!

TF: In your work there’s also the illness theme, but that’s covered well elsewhere. But thinking of illness, I noticed in the paper the other day that your friend and regular cast member Bob Hoskins (The Dunera Boys, The Favour) has retired from acting now, because of –

BL: Yes, Parkinson’s.

TF: Do you have much contact with him these days?

BL: Not much. A couple of years ago I just knocked on his door when I was in London. He answered the door, and it was as if we’d only seen each other yesterday. It was a very nice reunion, and I still think of him as a very good friend.

I still see Warren Mitchell (another Dunera cast member, famous for his Alf Garnett character in the British TV series Till Death Us Do Part).

TF: How’s he these days?

BL: He’s not what he used to be. He’s not mobile anymore – still completely with it, but very frail, not capable of working. But I still stay at this place when I’m in London.

TF: It was fascinating for me to meet those guys – such contrasting personalities. I’m still amazed at how extraordinarily generous Bob was to the other, especially the less experienced, actors. He’d finish his scenes for the day at, say, 11am; then he’d hang about for the rest of the day, observing, helping and teaching the younger actors camera craft.

BL: He looked a bit like me – or I looked a bit like him!

TF: There’s something in that! You’ve had 3 kids since Dunera. Do any of them show any inclination towards the screen industry?

BL: Well, our eldest daughter, Alex, worked on this new film from go to whoa.

At a certain point I realized that the film was going to happen, that there was a possibility of success of some sort; and that this was going to be the equivalent of a family asset. So I wanted the family to be involved – I mean, like or not, until Fox bought it, we owned the film. We were the last port of call, we were responsible for everything; and I just felt more comfortable with Judi producing and Alex doing all the co-ordinating, all the grunt work, especially in post-production.

But whether Alex is going to take it up as a vocation, I don’t know. She may have other ambitions, and I won’t necessarily be disappointed if she decides otherwise. But I’d be very thrilled if she uses this experience to set up shop for herself.

My son, who’s 21, is passionate about music. Whether a film composition career is in the stars for him or not, I don’t know.

TF: Film composition is a very specific form of creating music, isn’t it?

BL: Yes, but he understands it. We consulted quite a lot during The Sessions, and he had quite an influence over the role of the music. He was part of the process of minimizing the music, and getting to the point where we worked with simplicity. So I think it’s very possible that he might have a career in film composition.

Our youngest daughter, who’s 12, mercifully wants to be an obstetrician; so if she does become a doctor, or a plumber, or anything meaningful like that, I’d be delighted. I think you need at least one breadwinner in a family. Unfortunately, Judi and I have been awful role models…

TF: I know of a few couples in your situation – husband and wife as a writer-director and producer team – I was talking with one very young such couple just last night, who I think have a fantastic future ahead of them. But interestingly, to me at least – in every couple I can think of who work as such a team, it’s the male who’s the writer-director and the female who’s the producer.

Also, when you consider how in many situations the producer is regarded as the ‘boss’, we get (in NZ especially, it seems) a lot of female producers and not many female directors. Any thoughts on that?

BL: Well, my first thought was to contradict you – thinking of Nadia Tass and David Parker, where Nadia’s the director and often the writer, while David produces – though often they jointly produce.
I think that maybe women have more stamina when it comes to producing. I do it only by default, and reluctantly, whereas Judi tends to embrace the job more. It may be a matter of temperament.

And I don’t know why more women aren’t writers; or is that just an illusion? Maybe they don’t have the same tendency to want to torture themselves!

TF: Maybe they just have more sense in that respect?

BL: I think that maybe it’s a little bit like running a home; a house is usually run by the woman. Certainly in our family, Judi is the anchor for all family matters. I think that when it comes to teamwork, maybe women are better at co-ordinating it, making it happen.

Maybe men tend to be more ego-driven, less conciliatory, whereas maybe women are more sensitive to what other people are thinking or feeling. That’s the only explanation that I can think of – but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

TF: Working with your wife Judi as your producer – how and when did that begin?

BL: Lucky Break? She produced a script that I wrote. I didn’t direct it; it was a telemovie called Plead Guilty, Get A Bond, set in an Aboriginal community. Then she was a producer on Lucky Break, and then on Paperback Romance in the USA…

It’s a convenient role to have because we have the same agenda. If I screw up, it’s the family’s problem.

She’s also the first person to read whatever I write, and that is quite an important element. When someone is genuinely vested in what you’re doing, they tend to be frank; and she doesn’t pull any punches. I enjoy working with her a lot.

Also, when you’re doing something together which is fun, it’s a bonding activity. “I’ve never found it a problem to be married to the producer. And sleeping with the producer, I recommend it.”

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Ben Lewin’s BSS session is covered here

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