'The fruits of my labour are the relative freedom to do the things that interest me - it's the luxury of only working with people I like, not with people whose values I don't share.'
- British filmmaker David Putnam on his life now at 72
IF there's such a thing as a born storyteller, Lord David Puttnam would fit the bill rather nicely. After all, he's been in the storytelling business - in one form or another - for much of his life, starting from his first job in an advertising agency, through a career as an award-winning film producer and more recently as a leading educator and advocate for learning technologies.
Throw in a supporting role as a life peer and roving ambassador for the British government and it's easy to see why Puttnam doesn't have much time to potter around his garden at home in West Cork, Ireland.
Puttnam was in town recently to address the British Chamber of Commerce. His connection to Singapore extends further, thanks to an ongoing association with Lasalle College of the Arts, where he is patron of The Puttnam School of Film.
His appointment book is filled, and that's the way he likes it. "I am continually finding excuses to say why I work so much and why I'm not kicking back, taking time off," he says. "It's simply because I really love what I do." At 72 years old however, Lord Puttnam does allow himself one or two little luxuries. "The fruits of my labour are the relative freedom to do the things that interest me - it's the luxury of only working with people I like, not with people whose values I don't share," he says. "At this point in life you don't have to - especially in the movie industry. I didn't want to feel permanently compromised."
Puttnam made his mark on the industry with films such as Midnight Express (1978), Chariots of Fire (1981) and The Killing Fields (1984), but it was an ill-fated tenure as studio head at Columbia Pictures in the late-1980s that left a bitter aftertaste. "Accepting the offer to go to Columbia was my biggest mistake," he says. "I have no problem making mistakes, but I don't want to be a victim of other people's mistakes."
As a result, he doesn't miss the industry at all, but he does stay involved by teaching filmmaking courses at several schools around the world (including Lasalle), often without having to leave home - thanks to state-of-the-art video conferencing technology.
"I teach film but I don't teach how to - I teach the story of how." He's seen a few Singapore movies over the years as well. "My only concern is that they don't inform me more about the Singapore experience," he says "What's it like to fall in love in Singapore for instance, and how will it play to an international audience?"
It's probably no surprise that sporting metaphors sit well with David Puttnam, who describes himself as a big cricket fan (and long-suffering supporter of the Tottenham Hotspur football team). "The sweetest thing someone said to me was, 'You've got enough runs on the board'," he says. It was a reference to Puttnam's successful career.
"I also adore track and field; that's why I made Chariots of Fire, it was a way of putting together something I really love with a story I loved - a perfect fusion." He adds, "In hindsight, I realised that at the core of my films was how men behaved towards adversity - they were about male relationships under stress." The awards and the critical acclaim were feathers in his film producer's cap, of course, but Puttnam prefers to look ahead these days. "Looking forward feels much better than looking back," he says. "I don't have time to miss it - my life is enormously satisfying now."
As for the movies he wishes he had made, he names Raging Bull, The Godfather Part II and West Side Story at the top of his list. "I'd like to dump one or two of my own movies as well," he laughs.
In the past, he'd read about something and be inspired to make a film about it - which is exactly what happened with The Killing Fields, about the experiences of two journalists during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. "It was a great story but I also wanted an excuse to work in this part of the world," he says.
Lord Puttnam first came to Cambodia in 1966 and still returns to Indochina on a regular basis - representing the United Kingdom as a trade envoy. "My job as trade ambassador is very simple - it's to create relationships that will last," he says. "The message is simple: this is a highly competitive part of the world - what are the conditions you need to be successful?" When asked what the hypothetical title of a film of his life or a biography would be, Lord Puttnam ponders for a few seconds before he offers: "Whatever Happened to Real Life?"
As a member of the House of Lords, he commutes frequently between home in southwest Ireland and London, and wishes he had the luxury of a private jet at his disposal to cut down on travelling time.
"That's the one luxury I'd wish for," he says. "Heathrow to Cork, and then a 75-minute drive home. That's where real life is - because the House of Lords sure as hell isn't real life."