“I retired from filmmaking 18 years ago and you do wonder if anyone remembers you existed,” says Puttnam, 74. “So it’s a very nice re-affirmation that you did have a successful career and you must have done something right.”
The award is also very timely, as 2015 is an important year for Puttnam. Like some ex-mob figure who thought he’d finally escaped his former life, he’s found himself back on active duty. “Much to my amazement, I’m making another film, ‘Arctic 30,’ ” he says.
Puttnam was persuaded to produce the Greenpeace environmental advocacy thriller in part because of his own activism. “I took the world’s first climate change bill (through the British Parliament), and I’m very proud of that,” says the Londoner who was made a peer in 1997 and sits on the Labour benches of the House of Lords. “I was asked for advice about the film, and then found myself getting more and more involved.”
If it’s his swan song, it marks a fitting end to a charmed career that began in advertising in the ’60s and continued with the production of such flamboyant projects as Ken Russell’s “Mahler” and “Lisztomania” in the early ’70s. “I had this extraordinary run, right the way through ‘The Mission’ in ’86,” he recalls. “During that time I managed to produce some 25 films.”
Over his career, Puttnam’s work has won 10 Oscars, 25 Baftas and the Palme D’Or at Cannes.
He has worked with many larger-than-life directors and has fond memories despite the many “ups and downs and stresses” of production. “Ken wasn’t easy, but I probably learned more from him than anyone else. I learned to think on my feet, not to carry too many preconceptions into the process and what not to do.”
Puttnam produced Ridley Scott’s first feature, 1977’s “The Duellists.” “Because of the tiny budget,” he recalls, the director also got involved in the camera department and production design. “I never saw anyone work so hard for such a pittance.”
1978’s “Midnight Express” was the first big international hit for both Puttnam and helmer Alan Parker. “This success changed everything,” he says. “I’d have never been able to make ‘Chariots of Fire’ without it.”
“Each one of the films and directors I worked with really owed a huge debt to the ones before,” Puttnam explains. “Michael Apted did a terrific job on ‘Stardust,’ which made it possible for me to raise money for ‘Bugsy,’ which got Alan off the ground, and in turn Ridley, and so on. And most important, if Hugh Hudson hadn’t done such a wonderful job with ‘Chariots of Fire’ (the 1982 best picture Oscar winner) there’s no way Roland Joffe and I could have ever made ‘The Killing Fields’ and ‘The Mission.’” Both were Oscar-nommed for best pic.
In 1986 Puttnam became chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures, and he’s brutally honest about his brief, often divisive tenure. “Not only was I the first Brit to run a big Hollywood studio, I was so inept that I will remain the only one,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It was hubris.”
Today, Puttnam is doing what he wants, focusing on education and politics. “I’ve had an amazing career and I wouldn’t change a thing.”