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CLARK, AL – NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR

THE FILM WHOSE (DVD) TIME HAS COME
Australian based producer Al Clark is happy to see Nineteen Eighty-Four finally out on DVD, a film he co-produced, as his own battered VHS copy of the film needs replacing. Besides, he’s proud of it, although he does recall the film made some people “nauseous”, he tells Andrew L. Urban.


Al Clark*, wearing his hat as co-producer of Nineteen Eighty-Four, was driving along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles in December 1984, and was heartened to see a cinema queue stretching several blocks, waiting to buy tickets for the film. It was the film’s opening weekend, released in time for Oscar consideration, by the film’s US distributor, Atlantic Releasing.

"an extreme film – and rightly so"

He kept driving, on his way to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, some way further up at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard. “The film was also being screened for Academy members but I was too nervous to go in,” he recalls, “so I sat in the lobby. And about 40 minutes into the film, people were walking out. In the torture scenes, entire rows walked out … I remember one American woman saying rather loudly, ‘I feel nauseous…’ I think that episode is my most vivid memory of the making of the film.

“It’s an extreme film – and rightly so,” he adds. Adapted from George Orwell’s influential and popular novel, the film didn’t in fact win any Oscars, although it did win the London Evening Standard British Film Award, and the Best Film (Golden Tulip) at the Istanbul Film Festival.

A chilling vision of political correctness taken to its ultimate, bleak conclusion, George Orwell’s novel of post war England was, on its publication in 1948, a wail of despair at what the world might have been coming to. Oceania is at war with Eurasia; Big Brother watches from every wall. Screens beam processed messages into every shoddy flat, while loudspeakers blare party propaganda on every street. It’s 1984 in a London where Winston Smith (John Hurt) works at Minrec re-writing history; rewriting old newspaper stories to fit the latest corrected truth. When a fellow worker, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) passes him a secret note with the words ‘I love you’ they begin a dangerous, illicit relationship, defying the party and Big Brother with their love – and by eating strawberry jam, usually reserved for inner party members (who even have servants). Sniffing around suspiciously is the brutally cynical O’Brien (Richard Burton) from the inner party…And the Thought Police are everywhere.

This is the book that cemented references to totalitarian propaganda and mass manipulation with words like ‘thoughtcrime’, ‘doublespeak’ and notions like “War is peace / freedom is slavery / ignorance is strength…” It was all meant as ironic satire, but Orwell’s vision was so uncannily accurate that any humour was drained from his words.

"my intervention increased as the budget escalated"

The film was shot in early 1984, exactly at the time the events described in the book take place. And that wasn’t easy to achieve. Clark, who had in earlier years worked at Virgin Records, was now working in Virgin Films. “In late 1983, Simon Perry (producer) and Michael (Radford, the director) approached us and invited us to be involved with the film. At that meeting we all agreed that it should be ready for release by about October 1984 – the year of its setting. That didn’t leave enough time to find other co-financiers, so Virgin took it on by itself, and my job was to protect Virgin’s investment. So preproduction started immediately – at that very same meeting.”

At first, Clark had little interaction, “but my intervention increased as the budget escalated.”

The mantra at Virgin was that “everything the company did had to be an event; and what greater event than the film adaptation of one of the greatest pieces of recent English literature to be released in the year of its title. John Hurt was hired immediately. Nobody else was even considered for the role of Winston, and John loved the script.”

For the role of O’Brien, the filmmakers first approached Paul Schofield. “That arrangement was never concluded,” says Clark. “Maybe it was because he was at the time making 1919 and the thought of going from 1919 to 1984 didn’t appeal…”

Attention turned to Sean Connery, “who was living in Southern Spain. Michael Radford went off to Spain … and soon returned. Without Sean Connery,” says Clark in his trademark wryly humorous manner. “Then we started negotiations with Rod Steiger and there were lots of telexes to and from his agent. It seemed that there were some problems with dates as his wife was going into hospital. Eventually it became clear that it wasn’t Mrs Steiger but Mr Steiger himself who was going into hospital and the dates wouldn’t work.”

Finally, someone suggested Richard Burton, “better than any of the others would have been. It’s not just who but at what point in his life he is … and Burton was weary. You can see it in the film.” This suited the character admirably. Burton died shortly after filming finished, but his widow, Sally, turned up for the premiere, which was rather tear stained.

"a fine piece of cinema"

“The making of Nineteen Eighty-Four was a baptism by fire for me,” Clark admits. We went over budget, but Richard Branson’s tenacity and loyalty paid off.” The only thing that spoiled the aftertaste was a falling out over the music. Virgin wanted the Eurythmics to provide the music, “but we’d already got Dominic Muldowney …the conflict diminished our satisfaction,” says Clark wistfully.

Clark’s response to seeing the film on DVD is summed up in one word: “Finally!” And he’s proud of being associated with it: “It honours its first obligation to be a fine piece of cinema.”

Published December 22, 2005

 



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* Al Clark has produced a number of films, several of them in Australia, including: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Chopper (2000) as executive producer, The Hard Word (2002) and as at the end of 2005, is putting the finishing touches to The Book of Revelation, directed by Ana Kokinos (Head On).







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