Interview, Michael Radford: director of '1984', 'Il Postiono'

Wess Haubrich
Screengrab from Radford's '1984'Den of Geek

This interview originally appeared at London’s (now defunct) 405 when the author was contributing editor for their film section. The author reposts it because he believes the substance of the discussion in it is timeless.

I caught up with filmmaker Michael Radford to talk film, cinematic influences, film-making, his future projects, and his newer film – a biopic of Andrea Bocelli titled The Music of Silence. Find it on VOD now.

Radford is an Academy Award nominee for Il Postino. He also brought us The Merchant of Venice in 2004 with Al Pacino and Joseph Fiennes, and an adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, starring the late John Hurt.

I highly enjoyed his observations on film-making, art, cinema and life in general – I hope you will too.

The Music of Silence is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary man. Toby Sebastian does a brilliant job of showing us Bocelli’s triumphs both personally and as an artist – and his struggles, with blindness, life, and even his faith in God.

I highly recommend the film for not just Sebastian’s work and Radford’s deft hand as a director, but also for Antonio Banderas’s unforgettable performance as Bocelli’s vocal coach – an intense focused, and caring teacher, who drills the singer to success in his own strict but caring way.

The film also features never before released early compositions from Bocelli – and is really a not-to-be-missed piece on the nature of great art and the struggles – and passion – it takes to make.

Hello Michael!

Hi Wess, how are you?

Wonderful! How are you?

I’m good. I’m just curious: “The 405” is that after the freeway?

It actually is.

Uh huh. So this is going to be a very slow interview? [Laughs]

[Laughs] Well, I hope not.

[Laughs] I had been waiting to say that.

[Laughs] Um…

[Laughs] And he pauses for reflection… [Laughs]

[Laughs] I’d like to start if I may by getting a feel for your cinematic influences. What films and directors do you consider pivotal on your development as an artist?

When I start to say this, you’ll open your eyes and say “my goodness, who could this possibly…” [Laughs]


It’s not necessarily people who do what I do – it’s people who’ve moved me by the personality of their films and a lot of them are Italian. I love Italian cinema of the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s – the great period of Italian cinema if you like.

I love Michelangelo Antonioni, I love Fellini, Rossellini – I love them all, for their great humanity and the freshness of what they did and all the rest of it. I just love them for that.

Equally, I love the great American films of that period too – I do. You know, Some Like it Hot – I can’t wait to see that movie again for the 93rd time [Laughs]

[Laughs] that’d be me too.

And The Searchers. I could watch The Searchers every day of the week.

It was a very funny thing, when we first made Il Postino, I’ll just tell you a very quick story – I was standing on this huge stage in Cinecitta and I was being interviewed by an Italian radio guy, and he called me and he said, “guess where I am? I’m in Monument Valley where John Ford shot all his great movies.”

And I said, “well, guess where I am? I’m on Stage Number 6 at Cinecitta where Federico Fellini shot 8 ½ … so, there you go.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Wow. Definitely.


What makes a truly great film?

It’s different – I used to be very snooty about Hollywood movies because I felt they were always industrial and sentimental and now I realize how great they were. Sometimes I look back at movies I didn’t pay any attention to and movie directors I didn’t pay any attention to – like Otto Preminger for instance – and realize what great craftsmen they were.

I think that all these guys, were working in an industry controlled by finance more than the European conception of art – if you like. One side or the other, it’s about someone who opens your eyes to a way of looking at the world that is just different – that does not come through very often.

Sometimes you see it in films that you kind of despised when you were a young student thinking about cinema, and language, and all the rest of it. Suddenly you see what great movies they were. I’ll give you an example – Godard’s film, the science fiction film that he made, Alphaville – and David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia – were both released in the same year. In the year 2000 I saw them both, at the Millennium I saw them both about 40 years after they came out.

At the time, I was a great fan of Godard – he ruled my world. He just seemed to have such an extraordinary vision. And David Lean was just, you know, a hack who worked for money.


I saw both those movies – Alphaville’s a piece of shit [Laughs] and Lawrence of Arabia’s a great movie! [Laughs]


And that’s 40 years later. So, its kind of, it changes… I was very much a “talent man” like a lot of kids when I grew up, who wanted to rewrite the history of cinema but at the same time, I realize now that those great pros working in the Hollywood system were – and I love them more and more – Billy Wilder and all those guys, I just love them more and more. You know, I could cite a thousand names…

You know, more and more I love comedies as I get older [Laughs] …

[Laughs] Indeed.

There’s a fantastic movie by Monicellii called I soliti ignoti – “the usual suspects” if you translate it directly – but I think the translation into English was Big Deal on Madonna Street. The story of the heist that they do, with Marcello Mastroianni – he’s a safe cracker who’s broken his arm – it’s one of the funniest movies, I can watch that… forever.

Anyway, those are the movies. I think if I look for something, it’s just a little voice in there saying not “look at me” but this is a different way of seeing things, and … I hate movies where you get this sense that there will be Oscars. [Laughs]

[Laughs] definitely

[Laughs] where you sense it from the start, you know, that that’s where there aiming – sometimes the actors and sometimes the director.

Sometimes it’s just a movie that will speak to you in such a way – a movie like Sideways for instance, Alexander Payne’s movie – we won’t talk about the one he’s just done… [Laughs]

[Laughs] Nope.

…but we’ll talk about Sideways [Laughs] … everybody’s allowed to make a mess of things – I’ve done it on many occasions.

But I just love to see something that makes me sit up and say, “wow! I haven’t seen that before.” Do you know what I mean?

I do.

And it comes in all shapes and sizes. It can come in a completely digital science fiction movie or it can come in – you know – two people in a room.

Most certainly – it’s varied and I think that’s part of the magic of the medium. But, getting into The Music of Silence – what drew you toward the project? Bocelli’s story is really inspiring but I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s something more that drew you there especially in light of your other film, Il Postino, that also touches on bold creativity.

Yes, yes. The things is this: I’m very well-known in Italy because of Il Postino and also another film of mine which you may not have heard of called Another Time, Another Place [watch it for free at this link] – my first movie – which was about 3 Italian prisoners of war in the north of Scotland. That, I think, is rated even higher than Il Postino.

Oh wow.

It’s why I got to make Il Postino. It wasn’t a movie much admired when it came out – in the States. In fact, I remember very clearly the very first review I got for my very first movie, it was one of the New York papers and it was headlined this: “Another Time, Another Place: Go See Another Film” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Wow…

{Laughs] Imagine you’re like 25 and you feel in your gut when you read that… [Laughs}

Yeah. Harsh. [Laughs]

But actually, it is probably the best movie I ever made. Anyway, I won’t go on about that, but it is one of the reasons I’m well-known in Italy.

They’d been bugging me to do this film for quite some time and I really didn’t want to make a biopic about someone who was alive but as I got into it – I took it because they were friends and they really wanted me to do it. I didn’t go into it desperately wanting to do it. I actually felt that “that'd be good: better to be shooting a film right now than not shooting a film. And I’ll see what I can make of it.”

That’s really what happened. The only regret that I have is that there really wasn’t enough money to make the film that I wanted to make. I know this is a constant complaint of directors – and a constant complaint of producers is that they spend too much money and fantasize and we have to cut it all out of the movie… you know, could’ve made it for half the price.

It was not, but I really didn’t think of it as a work of art where I was going to try everything – I wanted to do justice and I wanted it to be emotional to the point where – not too sentimental, and I hope it isn’t – but – perhaps it is actually – but to make people feel something.

Understand that Bocelli – rich and famous as he is – went through a lot as a kid. And actually – you know he was 40 when he made it?


You know, after all that stuff – wanting to be a singer from when he was young – in a funny way, the film was very inspiring. It was a huge hit in Italy – it was amazing.

It did it – you know, not as a favor – I would never do a film like that, I would never do a film without giving my everything to it – but it wouldn’t have been a film that I would’ve chosen to have done myself. So, it was a commission if you like.

But I thought, “I’ll do this.” It’s probably the first or second time I’ve done a commission in my life. “I’ll do this and see what I can make of it because that’s what you do… [Laughs] …a lot of the time.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah.

And I’m proud of it and I’m pleased with it – and I learned a lot – I really did learn a lot. I learned a lot about being blind, I have to say. More than I knew – A LOT more than I knew. It was really interesting.

Most certainly. What were some of the challenges like on the film? Especially with getting the blindness factor understood and communicated visually?

Well, obviously time and money [Laughs] are challenging in a movie. More and more in Europe – I’m not sure how it is in the States right now – at this level of independent cinema, you struggle a bit just to get the film in the can.

Apart from that, the challenges of blindness – yes, I had to study blindness a lot because there are different types of blindness for instance there’s glaucoma which does certain things to your eyes where the blind person really doesn’t want their eyes to be seen.

I watched Bocelli – I watched an awful lot of people – and I saw that an awful lot of the time, they don’t shut their eyes. Some people do. But they don’t shut their eyes – they actually only shut them when they don’t want them to be seen.

So Bocelli would often shut his eyes – you know what I’m saying – but at the same time, there’s a way of looking with your eyes open and being blind at the same time – which was something that we spent a lot of time working on.

So, not looking instantly recognizable as a blind person, having a way of not being able to see stuff – you know, Bocelli spent a lot of his life where you forget that he’s blind. You forget because he rides horses, he does all sorts of stuff – you know?


And I spent a lot of time talking to people who – if you were blinded from birth – you have no reference. If you’re like Bocelli, you had 3 or 4 years when you were seeing the world blurred – you at least have a memory of what things in the world looked like which you can use when you can no longer see.

There are people who have no visual sense of memory at all – they rely on sense memories – and they create maps in their heads. It’s really fascinating.

As they say, darkness – or nothingness – is a visual reference. It’s not something that any blind person experiences. Kind of interesting when you think about it.

Very true. Fascinating.

Yeah… so all those things and the way they create patterns, we worked a lot with Toby Sebastian – who played Bocelli – to get those patterns down. Bocelli’s family was very proud of the way he played Bocelli.

I thought he did an excellent job as Bocelli – certainly. And Antonio Banderas as the Maestro too. Wow.

[Laughs] Antonio Banderas is one of the most delightful guys – he’s a real true pro and a really great actor and he really, really gave his all – he was terrific.

Toby is kind of young – he’s the brother of a girl who’s become a bit of star called Florence Pugh, who did a film called Lady Macbeth.

He’s a very good actor – like everybody he spent 3 minutes in Game of Thrones before being stabbed to death, but he’s gonna go far. He’s a good-looking guy and a very, very conscientious actor.


And a very nice guy. I like working with actors – one of the things that I like, and have become known for, in the profession is working with actors. I really enjoy working with actors – more than anything else.

Most definitely. I think we kind of touched on a few of these others – for instance, what do you want the audience to carry with them from the film?

I think we kind of touched that really – yeah.


Yeah – as I said, I want them to be emotional – but not in a sentimental way – I think the film has ended up a bit sentimental – but in a kind of true way. You know, if you cry at the end of this movie: what the hell, why not?

And also to feel that you know, this guy had his struggles, also as a blind person – it wasn’t, you know, in a way… I don’t know how to say it. If you’re somewhat understanding of blindness, I think it’ll be interesting – I hope that comes across. Anyway…

Most certainly. Going off on a bit of a tangent – when I was researching some of the films you had done, I couldn’t help but notice 1984 – which got me to wondering – with the current situation out there, what another iteration of Orwell’s story would look like today – or if they would re-release it?

They did re-release it – yeah. In the States, at the time when President Trump – I can’t remember if it was afterward or something going on about “fake news” and manipulation and all the rest of it.

250 theaters in the United States – independent theaters – re-released it.


Yeah, and it was out for about 3 or 4 weeks.


Yeah, this would be about, almost a year ago.

So they did – and it worked very well. But I think someone is thinking of doing another version of it. But certainly, there’s been a lot of requests to put it out again and do this and do that and do the other. Also since John Hurt passed away there’s been a lot of interest in the movie too.


Yeah – I always say to people, I won a prize for the special effects in that movie. I was the go-to man for science fiction at that time and a bit after it. But although I won the prize for special effects in France, there are no special effects in the movie at all [Laughs]


The whole movie was done for real. Absolutely everything was for real. The 2,000 extras – they were there… [Laughs]


The telescreens – they were there. Hell to shoot but they were there.

I’ll be damned. [Laughs]

When the helicopter flies right up to watch him shaving and careens off the window – that’s a real helicopter with a real pilot. [Laughs]

Wow. [Laughs]

The last question I had – what is next for you?

Well, I have 2 or 3 – I’m hoping to do an American movie about a treasure hunter called Mel Fisher. Kind of a well-known character and he found a wreck called The Atocha – one of the great Spanish galleons with something like $4 Billion worth of gold and silver on it… [Laughs]


It’s an amazing story. So I’m hoping to do that – and there’s, I’m hoping to do another film … I wrote a script some time ago which was not a remake although there’s another film with the same name – it was called Alexander Nevsky. It’s a Russian hero – and I wrote a big epic movie, intending it to be a studio movie.

I think people got very interested because it’s the 800th anniversary of his birth. People got really interested in the script – I’m hoping to be able to do that.

That would be something.

Yeah. There’s another one – there’s another movie in the cards I’m very much looking forward to – it’s a movie called Freddie Knoller’s War – at least, that’s what it’s called at the moment – it’s an Auschwitz movie – a Holocaust movie if you like – but it’s completely different from anything you’ve ever seen. It’s not set in Auschwitz – it’s about a Jewish guy who spent his time running from the Germans and then living amongst them in a kind of way. It’s an astonishing story.

Wow. Sounds like it.

Freddie is still alive. He’s 94 years old and an amazing character. So, it’s a really great story.

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Former editor, now dogged-maverick journalist and researcher covering the crime beat. I examine the weird, absurd, and downright infamous in American crime both here and at Real Monsters podcast. Contact:


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