Last week I got an e-mail saying Malcolm McDowell was available the following day to discuss the new movie Free Fall, which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Anchor Bay. The thriller is about a financial executive (Sarah Butler) trapped in an elevator after she uncovers some misdeeds in the company. McDowell plays the CEO of the company in the beginning and end of the movie. It is the directorial debut of producer Malek Akkad.
It’s always a good time to talk to the screen legend, but particularly because December 2, Warner Home Video releases Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray, which of course includes A Clockwork Orange. McDowell reflected on his latest role, his classic film and his upcoming Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle with me on the phone.
Nuke the Fridge: You’re going so far out of your way to support Free Fall, is this a film you really care about?
Malcolm McDowell: I’ve worked with Malek. Malek’s a good guy and he directed it, so I’m doing it for him basically.
Nuke: I imagine you met Malek from making the Halloween films. Did you know then that he had directing on his mind?
Malcolm McDowell: No, I didn’t and I don’t think he knew either.
Nuke: Did he call you right away for Free Fall and offer you the part?
Malcolm McDowell: Yeah, he just said, “Look, would you do a part? There’s a part that I’d like you to do. It’s only a couple of days.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do it for you.” one of those.
Nuke: With the experience he’s had as a producer, what kind of director was he?
Malcolm McDowell: Well, he knew what he was doing and he was very affable with the actors, so it was very easy. I think he had a good time. I know I did but everybody seemed to really like Malek and they pulled for him. He got a good cameraman. He got good technicians around him which was a smart move on his part. I remember doing the helicopter shot and taking off, but you can’t just take off and land. So we had to take off and go around the circuit of high rises downtown L.A. which was quite a sight. It was at Sunset, that magic hour and it was really quite delightful. I wasn’t going to do it. They were just going to cut, get me out of there, but once I was in, I went, “Well, hey, let’s go.” That was a lot of fun and I think I did it three times.
Nuke: The setting of the film is in this financial institution. Did you want to say something about these financial crooks yourself?
Malcolm McDowell: [Laughs] I don’t think I need to add any more than what’s been brought about. I think most of us are in sort of disbelief about some of the numbers being bandied about and how much they absconded with and cheated normal people out of, their pensions, etc. We can start with Madoff and work down, or up. It’s staggering. But when there is so much trust involved, then I suppose there is the opportunity to cheat people. Even though they may start out with the best intentions, it just takes a trigger and the whole thing gets out of hand and unravels. It’s just weird. It’s weird for people to put their trust in the banks and these institutions on Wall Street. I think people are very leery and quite rightly, because there have been so many instances where there has been so much embezzlement. In fact, it almost brought down the whole economic climate. The whole thing nearly went under because of it, didn’t it?
Nuke: Did you do the research to look at guys like Madoff and even the lesser people in those institutions?
Malcolm McDowell: No, no, I don’t work that way. I just do what’s in the script. I don’t worry about what other things have happened. If it’s not in the script, it’s not in the script. So I just try to take it and fill it in as best I can. It was a fairly one dimensional character, but if you put a bit of energy into it, then the sort of ruthlessness which is inherent in any successful businessman. You don’t get to be successful, you don’t get to be Bill Gates without killing a few people on the way. I mean that of course metaphorically but there has to be a killer instinct. Rupert Murdoch is a prime example. I must have played him a million times, or been asked to. He’s always held up as the one you should be like and all the rest of it. You don’t even have to really play it because it’s inherent really when everybody is yessing you to death. There’s really not that much you have to do. I always try to find the lighter side if I can.
Nuke: There’s another Kubrick collection coming out on Blu-ray next month. A Clockwork Orange never goes away for you, do it?
Malcolm McDowell: No, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. But, you know, it’s a remarkable film and I salute it, and I salute Kubrick as I do. Not just for my film but the collection is quite extraordinary. Every so often they come out with a new collector’s edition of course, but this one is really special and I think this will probably be the last. Who knows? To have Blu-ray remastered 2001, I mean that’s such a masterpiece, and all these wonderful films. Strangelove, Lolita, they’re amazing, and Clockwork of course. And Barry Lyndon and The Shining, they’re amazing films really. They really are. Kubrick is up there with the greats. I’m very fortunate that I worked with him and knew him well for that period of time.
Nuke: Warren Clarke passed away, and he’s featured in the new documentary Kubrick Remembered. Did you keep in touch with your costars who played your gang in the film?
Malcolm McDowell: No, but I was very, very fond of Warren. I worked with Warren three times and he was a dear friend of mine in those days. I haven’t really seen him since I lived in America. Weirdly enough, I’ve lived in America longer now that I lived in England, which seems shocking because it seems like I just got here. But I’ve been here a long, long time now. I’d see Warren occasionally but whenever we saw each other, it was like we were old friends.
I really did urge Kubrick to cast Warren. He didn’t want to cast him and he went on for like six months or more. We’d do auditions with other people. I must have done auditions with 70 other actors and I kept saying to him, “Warren Clarke.” And I’d just leave it at that. I didn’t know that they’d had Warren go in and shot him with a video camera. Kubrick looked at it and didn’t like it. I said to him, “Look, he’s on at the Royal Court in a play. Get in your car and go and watch him, because as soon as you see him, you’ll want to cast him because he’s absolutely brilliant. He’s one of the great actors around right now and really we need to get him.” This went on for six months. He ignored me and then I was out at Kubrick’s house. The intercom went off and the secretary said, “Warren Clarke to see you, Stanley.” And I thought oh my God.
He didn’t even mention it to me, of course, but he looked at me and he goes, “Hey, Malc, do you want to say hi to Warren?” I went, “Hey, why not? As I’m here.” So I walked through to see Warren. Of course I gave him a big hug and Stanley goes, “Hey Warren, would you mind reading the scene? Malcolm, do you want to read it?” I went, “Oh my God, sure, we’ll read it.” Of course we read it. Stanley looked at me, pulled me out of the room and said, “Look, this guy’s great. What shall I do.” I said, “Stanley, go right back in there and tell him he’s got the part and you want him.” Because he was also in a play. Stanley had been dicking around so much, he was also in a play that was going to go to Broadway. If Warren was going to take a movie then they had to re-rehearse someone in his part. That was quite something. It wasn’t just an easy decision. It was work for them and they had to come in and rehearse, the usual stuff. Anyway, Stanley went straight back in to his credit and said, “Warren, we want you to do the film so you’ve got to do it. It’s going to be a great film.” And I’m so glad that Warren did it because I think it was a great experience for him, and I think it led to other nice things for him.
It certainly showcased him as the wonderful actor that he was, but Warren was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever worked with. It was such a treat for me to work with him because he did these impersonations. They were just so on. Literally at dinner I would be laughing so much I’d be crying. He was one of the only people that could get me to react like that. I salute him for his talent and his friendship. He was a wonderful guy, but as I say, I don’t think I’d seen him for 20 years.
Nuke: That’s such a great story.
Malcolm McDowell: You know, if somebody behind the camera would say, “Hey, can you get the baby legs?” I remember this distinctly. Warren suddenly starts going, “Baby legs, oh baby legs, ooh my baby legs.” He was that quick. He was just one of those guys who was wonderful to be around, kept everybody laughing and I was very happy for him that he became a big television star in England. I don’t think we saw any of the stuff in America but in England he was a big star. He deserved to be. He deserved it because the talent he had was enormous.
Nuke: The scene in A Clockwork Orange that disturbs me the most is the “Singin’ in the Rain” scene. Was that that uncomfortable to film?
Malcolm McDowell: Nothing was easy. It was difficult because we didn’t know what the hell to do. It wasn’t in the script and after five days of just sitting around and discussing what have you, Stanley just came up to me and he said, “Can you dance?” Just as an improv I jumped up and started singing and dancing, it’s in the film, slapping and kicking on the beat of “Singin’ in the Rain.” Stanley was laughing so hard, he grabbed hold of me, threw me into his car, drove me back to his house. He got on the phone with his lawyers and he bought the rights to “Singin’ in the Rain” before we went back and started to rehearse and shoot it. It was actually a very major thing in that movie because it showed that there was a certain style. It certainly wasn’t realism but it was real, not realistic. The violence then became stylized. The whole irony of using “Singin’ in the Rain” to constitute a rape and a beating was really a brilliant stroke because it made it palatable and gave it a style and an irony and a humor. Then Kubrick rejigged it a little bit so that I’m in the bath humming “Singin’ in the Rain” when he hears it and then it all connects and he knows that I’m the hoodlum.
Nuke: Did that make it any more comfortable for the actress and the older gentleman in that scene?
Malcolm McDowell: Well, it wasn’t comfortable because she had to be on Warren’s shoulder I think for a week and a half. Poor Warren I think nearly broke his back. You know Stanley, take after take, was very carefully doing it. It was all film of course, not digital stuff. It just took time and it was very difficult to shoot like anything, but it’s so glorious because the space itself with those weird lights, it’s just very sort of futuristic and it’s a very strange sort of stylized room. So everything about it with these big windows and reflections back, it’s dark out so it was beautifully done. We found a way to do it eventually, but it wasn’t there for a while. It was like pulling teeth.
Nuke: I’m sure you’ve answered this question many, many times but how long were your eyes propped open for?
Malcolm McDowell: Not long. You can only really do 10 minutes at a time, but that was long enough to get injured.
Nuke: I also saw the Amazon pilot for Mozart in the Jungle. What can we expect from the rest of the series?
Malcolm McDowell: It’s more fun than I’ve had in years. It’s got great actors. Gael Garcia Bernal leads the cast and he’s an incredible actor, besides being a very nice guy, a lovely man. Working with Bernadette Peters and Saffron Burrows, all people that I’ve known. Saffron has been a friend, so it’s very comfortable to be in that kind of environment. The director and one of the producers is Paul Weitz who I’ve done a film with and a pilot for him so I’ve known him for years, we’ve been friends. Jason Schwartzman is one of the producers and writers and he’s brilliant, and Roman Coppola.
They’re all really A list people who really know what they’re doing. The scripts are so good, so I just literally two or three days ago finished that. It’s great fun because it’s basically sex, drugs and classical music. You don’t expect it in an orchestra but there’s a lot of bed hopping and a lot of prescription drugs. To play a maestro who is flipping out is fantastic, who’s so insecure because a new young one comes in. It’s just the most delightful character, and hilariously funny I think. And sad too of course. It’s sad but inevitable that one is replaced. That’s just the way life is, is it not?
Nuke: Are we going to see your character go further off the deep end?
Malcolm McDowell: He went pretty far and ended up on sabbatical in Cuba. So we shot the Cuba bits in Puerto Rico. That was a lot of fun, right at the end of the shoot. The mistress goes down to make sure he’s he’s okay. He stopped taking his meds, hasn’t been answering any emails. She goes down. She thinks he’s suicidal. Of course she finds him on a beach in a band playing bongos. He is so happy. He’s having so much fun. An orchestral piece that he’s been struggling with for 10 years that he’s only written the overture, he’s finished in a week. It’s a lot of fun. It’s not what you think. Then of course at the end you hear he’s listening to Cuban music on the radio, and it changes to Mozart. Suddenly confusion reigns, you see on his face. He has to go back and he goes back.