This much I know: David Puttnam, film producer

This week Hilary Fennell sits down with film producer David Puttnam to talk about the experiences that lead him to work with the 2017 I Wish conference, encouraging young women into STEM industries.
This much I know: David Puttnam, film producer

My most useful skill is being good at handling other people.

Maybe the fact that I was small growing up has something to do with it. When you are small you become quite good at not falling out with people.

I was hopeless at school. I wasn’t an especially outgoing child, but I had a sunny temperament. My report card said ‘this boy smiled his way through.’ Actually, I hated school and couldn’t wait to leave. I always felt the education system failed me by not realising that I was rather good at certain subjects: those that interested me. Like History and English.

I wanted to work in film from the moment I saw Bambi. It made me cry. Crossing the foyer, I remember thinking ‘that’ is what I’d like to do, although I was not sure what ‘that’ was.

All film producers seemed to have middle initials in their names, which made me think I was barred from such a career.

My father used to say ‘I don’t mind what you do as long as you are good at it.’ He was a press photographer and picture editor, so I grew up with a strong sense of the visual.

When I was 20 years old I married a girl I met at school. Patsy and I will have been married for 56 years.

I have a very strong work ethic and our life together has been based on a rhythm which was established early on. I got used to starting at 7am and getting home at 10pm, at least three days a week. I went to night school where I created a whole curriculum for myself studying economics, copyright law, design and typography.

I began working in advertising. I was a suit: an account director. The job put me in touch with a lot of interesting people, including the director Richard Lester who encouraged me to give the film business a go.

Life has thrown me any number of challenges. I’ve known financial hardship, starting out on sixteen pounds a week. I got ME (chronic fatigue syndrome), and my period in Hollywood as Chairman of Columbia was particularly tough. I took the job for all the wrong reasons and paid a price for that although I’m glad I did it, for the lessons I learned.

I always made films that meant something to me and I believed film to be an elevating, important medium that can inform attitudes and the way we live. In Hollywood, I found myself stuck in a commercial environment based on the reverse of that.

I’m not frightened of death. I’m not convinced of an afterlife although Patsy believes we will be together after we die. I’m not religious although I do like the idea that there is some organising hand behind all this. I have taken a good look at all faiths and what strikes me is how remarkably similar they are. Perhaps there is something in our DNA that needs to believe.

I’m horrified at what’s happening with Brexit and Trump. If I could change one thing in our society, I would encourage everyone to question their attitudes. I’ve been reading about the ‘echo chamber’ - the notion that we think we seek information but in fact, we seek affirmation. I can’t overemphasise the need to question.

I developed an interest in science after I became interested in the environment. There is still a strange bias against women working in STEM and we are working to change that. We began living in Skibbereen purely by chance, when we stumbled across our house. We’d lived in Wiltshire for 14 years before that and, although I loved the countryside, I always felt like a fish out of water there, struggling to fit in with the English county classes.

My biggest fault is not saying no. I hate to let people down and as a result I find it very hard to pace myself. I’ve always been fine with things like diet and exercise. I never put on weight, partly due to the fact that I have two wonderful dogs who need constant walking.

Clearly, life does chuck stuff at you although I do think I’ve led a charmed existence. So far, the biggest lesson is that you have to engage: engage with people, engage with ideas, engage with life.

  • Film producer and chairman of Atticus Education, Lord David Puttnam will address students at the 2017 I WISH conference and showcase in City Hall, Cork on Thursday 9 February 2017. I WISH is Science Foundation Ireland supported partnership initiative encouraging young women to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

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