‘I hope they don’t throw me to the lions’

Michael Radford. Picture: Virginia Farneti / LaPresse

It’s 9pm in Rome and I’m keeping Michael Radford from dinner with his editing team. “I’m knackered, to put it mildly,” says the Oscar nominated writer/director (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Il Postino, The Merchant of Venice), via FaceTime. Radford has been working on The Music of Silence, a ‘biopic’ of the tenor Andrea Bocelli, who was born with glaucoma and lost his sight completely, aged 12, when he suffered a brain haemorrhage after being hit by a football.

Last August, he was in Tuscany, where Bocelli grew up, working on the script with Anna Pavignano, his collaborator on Il Postino, before switching to Rome for pre-production and then filming in November and December. Post-production took up the early months of this year and now he is looking forward to a short break before aiming to complete the film by June. “It’s been quite an experience,” said Radford, who took several attempts at persuasion by the producer to direct the film.

“The problem with biopics is that a good film is not shaped in the clear, linear way life unfolds. And particularly if the subject is still alive there is the danger they will say: ‘That didn’t happen,’ if you use some dramatic device to help convey the story. But I think it works; it’s a powerful story about a kid who was born nearly blind, then goes completely blind, but who had this ambition and kind of went off the rails because he thought it wasn’t going to happen. And then, relatively late in life, becomes this global phenomenon. I like the people in the film; I like their humanity.”

XpoNorth 2017: ‘A Masterclass with Film Director Michael Radford’, La Scala Cinema, Inverness, 11.15am, 8 June.

It stars Toby Sebastian (Game of Thrones) as Bocelli and Antonio Banderas (One Upon a Time in Mexico) as his mentor. Luisa Ranieri (Letters to Juliet) will plays his mother and Ennio Fantastichini (Open Doors) his uncle. Radford said: “We used mostly Italian actors, but speaking English – which I wondered about initially, but it actually feels very authentic.” The film was a challenge technically, he added, “a lot of extremely difficult sound stuff, and a lot of visual effects as there always seems to be in films these days.” The irony is not lost on Radford whose Nineteen Eighty-Four was lauded for its visual effects, when in fact there weren’t any.

“Everything was shot for real. There were 2,000 extras. What was playing on the television screens was shot on film, not added afterwards, so when you did close-ups you had to make sure you had the right thing playing on the screen behind. All of that was very complicated,” he said. “But it was fabulous to do, it was a fantastic moment in my life – I was just a kid when I made it – and I’m just so pleased people haven’t forgotten about it!”

Earlier this year, more than 200 independent cinemas across America – and some in Europe – held a screening day for Nineteen Eighty-Four in protest at Donald Trump’s presidency. “It’s still being shown in some places,” said Radford, who shot a new introduction and interview for the occasion. In it, Radford speaks about how he had just made Another Time, Another Place – the story of a Scottish housewife during World War Two who has an affair with an Italian prisoner of war.

“It had some critical and cultural success and they started talking about the ‘new British cinema’, of which I appeared to be a part, and I spoke to my producer Simon Perry and said: ‘Look, no-one’s making Nineteen Eighty-Four and we are nearly in 1984, it’s October 1983; why not?’ We got in touch with the person who held the rights to the book, a Chicago lawyer called Marvin Rosenblum and Simon said: ‘Look, we don’t have any money, but Michael is prepared to write the script and I’ll go out and raise some money.’ And we promised to do this by 1 January 1984.”

Ensconced in a room in Paris, Rad-ford wrote the script in three weeks. Perry approached Richard Branson, who put up the funding. They began pre-production on 1 January, shooting in April and the film was released in September 1984. With Suzannah Hamilton cast as Julia and John Hurt as Winston, they were having problems with who to play O’Brien. “We were looking around and kind of trying to ignore Richard Burton, because of his reputation [as a drinker]. But he made a promise to himself that he was going to do this.

“He had this little ritual every morning. His friend Brooky would turn up with an already opened can of Diet Coke and give it to Richard who would look at it and then hand it to me and ask: ‘Would you like a sip?’. And I’d sip it, and there would be no alcohol in it. But nobody would say anything. That was it, ‘Would you like a sip?’, every single day. He was amazing. After we finished, he gave me a picture of ourselves together, with a note that said: ‘Of the 72 directors I have worked with only eight have given me a new dimen-sion, and you are one of them.’ It went straight to my head of course!”

It was an endorsement early in his career that Radford could add to those from Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci, who had both written to him in praise of Another Time, Another Place. He is hoping for a similarly positive reaction to The Music of Silence: “When it comes out, I am due to appear at the Colosseum with Andrea to talk with him about the film; I just hope they don’t throw me to the lions.”