To hear Al Clark tell it, Time Flies is the story of a bloke who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Witty, and fast-moving this is filmmaker Clark’s personal story.
Written by Clark over several years it is a sometimes-hard-to-believe-but-no-it’s-all-true adventure that merges the early days of punk and New Wave with the sadly truncated Brit film renaissance of the 1980s, and the wicky wacky world of international film finance at a time when Orwell’s 1984 and Electric Dreams make perfect sense!
Here are the Sex Pistols and their notoriously sneaky puppet-master Malcolm McLaren, movie makers Ken Russell, Nic Roeg, Julien Temple and Martin Scorsese (and countless others) with walk-ons by David Bowie, XTC and Mike Oldfield.
The stakes, predictability are fame, cash, celebrity. The casualties? Ego, career and integrity and through it all Clark maintains his sanity and sense of humour.
Still probably best known in Australia as the producer pf Stephan Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994, and executive producer on 2000’s Chopper, Clark has the reputation amongst his peers as the insider’s insider.
Awarded AACTA’s prestigious Raymond Longford Lifetime Achievement gong in 2013, Clark has earned respect and admiration in the international film industry for his erudition, integrity and straight talk.
Modest to a fault, Clark told Filmink his job description was, “to be useful.” What emerges from Time Flies is Clark’s deep connection with music and film. Where so many showbiz memoirs are about deals, dirt and score-settling, Times Flies is about a fan who never lost his sense of wonder.
Born in Huelva, Spain, a shipping port dominated by the mining company that was largely responsible for its existence, Clark remembers his childhood as extreme and intense. It was the local movie house that brought in the outside world during the time of Franco’s dictatorship, leaving him with a sense of wonder that he says has never quite faded away.
Clark: I tell a story as the book opens about how cans of film made this long journey to our village because it was the point of origin of what was wonderful in our lives. I never was a jaded movie professional. But then, I was never an impressionable child. I might still lose that sense of wonderment (laughs.)
Memoirs as a rule have a name-dropping, gee-wiz, self-congratulatory air, even the best of them…but your writing conveys something gentler, kinder, more reflective. You seem to be saying how it’s not about understanding the ‘deal’ but understanding the person sitting across the table from you.
Clark: I was conscious of the fact that I did not want to overstate my involvement (in success stories). In the temperamental world of show business sometimes people forget that one of their jobs is to be useful. By that I mean to advance a conversation, to steer it towards where it’s meant to go, to help reach a conclusion. Not to be dismissive.
Clark ended up as public relations chief at Virgin, a mail order business that grew into Richard Branson’s corporate behemoth. Melody Maker described Clark as the only PR they knew who managed to speak ‘in complete sentences’! Virgin took off with their first major record Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, other acts like Tangerine Dream proved big…and then came the Sex Pistols and Clark ended up in the role of “their answering machine.”
Clark: There was a kind of feeding frenzy around the group both for and against. I felt my job was to stabilise it, not to extinguish it, but walk a different tight rope.
Rock history has not been kind to Malcolm McLaren, but you seem to step back from giving him the boot.
Clark: I think you need to work out who people are and what makes them the way they are. I don’t think you can somehow persuade them to be somebody else. All you can do is encourage as many right decisions as you can over wrong ones. It’s keeping a certain distance that enables you to do that.
How did you personally deal with the chaos around the Pistols at that time?
Clark: By not confusing myself with the band! I was twenty-nine, married, a father and living in the suburbs. They were not that!
You were there at the beginning when Virgin got into film; indeed you were central to that story, developing projects at a time when American money started to lose its appetite for risk no matter how low the price. Martin Scorsese came to you with The Last Temptation of Christ.
Clark: He had just done King of Comedy and run out of financing options in the States. Virgin had accrued a profile. In some ways, that moment was typical of what was happening. I was meeting filmmakers where I knew their entire filmographies.
There was a lot of hype after the Chariots of Fire ‘British are Coming’ Oscar triumph in 1982, but your book gives the Brit Film Rebirth hype a fresh perspective. You once said that just as Australian films are hardly first choice for Australians the same is equally true in the UK where appetite for the home-grown struggles. One of the best bits in the book concerns Absolute Beginners (1986) which was panned by the Brits but the Americans thought clever and classy.
Clark: Yes. Still, I was always much more intrigued by those filmmakers who worked on the perimeter. People like Paul Mayersberg who did Captive and Ken Russell, who did Gothic. I watched Russell working on set. I was amazed by his energy, his ability to manage it all. When Virgin went public, it meant we were to acquire distribution rights in pre-sales. We could finance more films at less risk, but we would no longer be a producer, an originator of projects and I found that hard.
Soon after Clark left Virgin and moved to Australia and married the love of his life.
You have published two excellent books previously, Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood and The Lavender Bus (about the making of Priscilla), but this is obviously more personal in a unique way.
Clark: Well, at the end of it I was struck by my good fortune. I was there at the start of Time Out and Virgin, and you were able to evolve with those organisations, and if you had an aptitude for something, a new idea…chances are they would be there. I left out a lot of the drudgery. The hanging around. The occasional office bickering. The delusional thinking you get in popular entertainment. They are there…but not belaboured. Because I have this life that many would aspire to…and you wanna complain about it?
Times Flies has a wonderful black and white cover featuring Al Clark looking like the world is at his feet. Tell us about it?
Clark: It was taken in 1979 by Penne Smith. I was running the publicity department at Virgin. We were looking to sign American bands. One of them was Devo. I was in LA, in a warehouse watching their sweaty rehearsal. New Musical Express [NME] had sent Smith and a journalist to travel with me. She dragged me outside, which was Sunset Boulevard. She positioned me in such a way, so it appears that a palm tree is growing out of my head. I felt a sudden exuberance…it was first trip to California…I was in Heaven.