The Killing Fields, Roland Joffé

Film Producer David Puttnam on the Making of ‘The Killing Fields’

The Killing Fields, the harrowing film set in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime, could not be made until after Chariots of Fire, Producer David Puttnam recalls.

The Killing Fields
Roland Joffé
2 November 1984 (US)

David Puttnam is many things. He’s an Oscar winner, an environmentalist, a former member of the House of Lords, and a film producer. Born in London, Puttnam established himself as a film producer during the 1960s, forming a lifelong friendship with writer-director Alan Parker during the making of Melody (Waris Hussein, 1971.) By the ’80s, he established himself as one of his generation’s most influential British film producers, working with everyone from Ridley Scott to Pat O’Connor.

In 1982, he won the Academy Award for Best Picture for Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), an award which permitted him to take creative risks with his work, and was appointed to the House of Lords in 1997. His notable films include Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker, 1976) and The Killing Fields (Roland Joffé, 1984), written by Bruce Robinson. He has lived in Cork, Ireland, since the ’90s. 

“Bruce Robinson,” Puttnam hums to himself. “I originally knew him as an actor. He played Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet [Franco Zeffirelli, 1968] and was a very nice guy. I knew he wrote a bit, and he sent me something he’d written, which eventually turned out to be Withnail & I [Bruce Robinson, 1986].

“To be honest, I wasn’t especially attracted to the story, but I loved his dialogue, so I commissioned him to write a TV series for me called Garrett’s Guitar. It was really good, but at that time, it was virtually impossible to make television unless you actually worked for BBC or ITV. But I really believed in him because he was clearly a good, passionate writer”

It’s a wet day in Ireland, the country we are both calling from. Puttnam is laughing at the irony that his camera won’t work despite cinema being the medium he is most associated with. We are here to discuss The Killing Fields, a piercing film set in Cambodia during the regime of the Khmer Rouge, released 40 years ago. “Local Hero [Bruce Forsyth, 1983] is my favourite of the films I’ve produced,” Puttnam admits, “but The Killing Fields would be the runner-up.” 

Puttnam, who retired from the film industry in 1998, is in jovial form. He is set to return to Dublin, where he will participate in a panel with producer Ed Guiney of Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023). Drawn to the colour and aspiration of the film, Puttnam says he’s perplexed that BAFTA ignored the director for what he considers to be a brave and unique piece of work. “I love [Poor Things], and really admire Ed Guiney’s guts – so Yorgos not getting the nomination makes a bit of a mockery of the BAFTA Jury system. I’m the very proud patron of the Cork Film Festival, and we screened Poor Things on the opening night.” He says the excitement at the screening was palpable, which is interesting, considering that Ireland was one of the countries that banned Terry Jones’ 1979 film, Life of Brian. “I sometimes go into video shops, and I’m always amused that Life of Brian is now such a huge hit in Ireland; changing times, eh”? 

The popular sports drama Chariots of Fire stars Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams, a real-life Jewish athlete, and Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell, a Scottish man who uses running as his means of praying to God. “I don’t think people realised that Ben Cross wasn’t Jewish, because he has a Semitic face,” Puttnam says. “Just goes to show how eras change. I had more problems with the fact that Ian Charleson had been in a very, very, very gay film with Derek Jarman, and that, funnily enough, caused more wrinkles because here he was playing this devout Christian. [Whereas] two years earlier, he had been camping it around.”

Alex Gabassi’s popular series, The Crown (2016–2023), features a small segment of Puttnam’s real-life speech at the Oscars, thanking Dodi and Mohamed Al-Fayed for their financial contributions. “I think I saw Dodi twice on the film set,” Puttnam laughs. “It was his father, really.” The Crown has already become a classic of British cinema, and it awarded Puttnam certain liberties as an artist. “I had this period for about ten years during which Warner Bros gave me a wonderful degree of freedom,” he beams. “Normally for a movie, the split of  ‘above or below the line costs’ is either 50-50 or 60-40; within that range.”

The Killing Fields is quite unique: ninety-two percent of the entire budget is on the screen. That’s the best producing achievement of my career; we made the film for $14 million. Happily, I was coming off the back of Chariots of Fire, having won the Best Picture Oscar. As a result, I was given a remarkably free hand. I don’t think The Killing Fields could have been made pre-Chariots of Fire.”

The Killing Fields‘ script features some of Bruce Robinson’s most assured penwork. “I showed Bruce the original Sydney Schanberg article in the New York Times Magazine, so I offered him a second commission to write The Killing Fields. We worked on it for over two years. Schanberg was a rather difficult man, and he and Bruce didn’t hit it off, so that made life quite difficult for a while. Bruce himself is perfectly capable of being a bit difficult.” Puttnam laughs silently:

“[Chariots of Fire writer] Colin [Welland] was incredibly affable, but Bruce wasn’t always as easy. Bruce can be quite dark. [But] one of the advantages of working with Bruce was because I was differing over who should direct. We met with Louis Malle, but it became obvious that if we did that, it would become Louis Malle’s movie.”

After stumbling on something Roland Joffé had directed for television, the producer realized he, at last, had his man. “Roland wrote me a five-page memo analysing [Robinson’s script],” Puttnam says. Bolstered by Robinson’s quest for truth and Joffé’s penchant for strong visual narratives, the filmmakers decided that the story – detailing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime – was striking enough to work with lesser-known actors.

“Dustin Hoffman’s agent was ringing up,” Puttnam admits, “and Roy Scheider desperately wanted to be in it. But we absolutely decided we wanted relatively little-known people to play the leads. Largely thanks to the success of Chariots of Fire, that wasn’t challenged. In different circumstances, at a different studio and time, I likely would have been forced to do things differently.” 

John Malkovich was becoming better known at the time for his work in theatre. “It was John’s first film,” Puttnam corrects me. “Everyone knew John was going to be a breakout. He was part of a Chicago troupe, and it was just a case of which movie got him first. Roland must have gone to see John Malkovich in Chicago.”

In the case of Julian Sands, who plays John Swain in The Killing Fields, Puttnam continues: “It was probably the Merchant-Ivory film [A Room With a View (1985)]. But all the others were an ensemble of good English actors. Julian [Sands] and John Malkovich became close friends, which was very helpful.” Standing between these artists is Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian born man delivering a deeply fragile performance as journalist Dith Pran. A remarkable performance from a non-actor (he was actually a doctor) in a debut role, Ngor brings gravitas to The Killing Fields, which correlates with many of his real-life experiences as a victim of the Khmer Rouge.

“Not more than a month before we started shooting, a casting director named Pat Golden went to a Cambodian wedding,” Puttnam reveals. “Haing was the uncle to the bride, and he gave a speech. She was very impressed. We did a video test with him, and he was great. That was taking a big chance.”

Luckily, the film had cast Sam Waterston as the headstrong, albeit world-weary, Schanberg who, like his character did with Dith Pran, took Ngor under his wing. “The ‘quiet key’ to the whole thing was Sam Waterstone. He wasn’t just an actor, but taught theatre, and his role in helping Haing throughout the movie was immense. Sam rehearsed with him every single evening.”

Puttnam recalls, “Sam speaks French, as I remember it. He and Haing would communicate in French. I’d forgotten that, but I’m sure they did. They would meet in the evenings, and their conversations between the script were in French.” That brings to mind Robert DeNiro, who was something of a mentor to the teenage Jodie Foster, playing what was arguably the most difficult role of her young life in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

“Yes, “Puttnam laughs. “We had snapped up Jodie for Bugsy Malone, but we had to wait until she finished Taxi Driver. She literally flew to London the night after finishing the movie. That’s professionalism!” Puttnam’s voice becomes emotional when he talks about Alan Parker’s death (“He was my closest friend, and I miss him terribly,” he says.)

One of Waterstone’s finest moments comes late in The Killing Fields, where he becomes emotional to the sound of Pavarotti’s music, his tears a painful reminder of the country and friends he has left behind. “For me, one of the most understated elements in the movie is that here is a situation where a guy [Schanberg] gets out of Cambodia, gets back to New York, and wins a Pulitzer prize..”Everything in his career is going ok, but he is falling apart. Meanwhile, Pran, in unimaginable circumstances, is managing to cope. Psychologically, it’s one of the pivots that works wonderfully well in The Killing Fields. It was something Bruce and I discussed from day one.”

“Sam [Waterstone] is a very un-chippy person,” Puttnam continues, “so the chippiness in Schanberg’s character was something Sam had to create. To [Schanberg’s] credit, he conceded that aspect of himself, but he was also going through a very bad time with his marriage.” Theysay that a difficult journalist is a good journalist. “My father was a journalist – it so happens he wasn’t difficult,” Puttnam laughs. 

The Killing Field‘s violence is reflected in Mike Oldfield’s explosive score, which utilises many of the instruments in his synthetic arsenal. “Mike got involved very early on,” Puttnam elaborates. “I can genuinely take the credit for this. There was a lot of hardware: tanks, helicopters. I thought, ‘How can we come up with a score that’s not music but sounds?’ I remembered liking Tubular Bells [Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album], so I approached Richard Branson. He arranged a meeting with Mike. There’s a very good interview on YouTube where Mike talks about how nervous he was.”

Luckily, his nerves didn’t dissuade Oldfield from producing a haunting score for The Killing Fields, plunging viewers headfirst into the zone of conflict. “I probably underrated it at the time, but it’s a very good score,” Puttnam chuckles. “He also wrote the Oratorio. I assumed we would buy some classical music, but Mike said, ‘Let me have a crack at it.’ It’s an amazing piece of music and totally un-him.”

Oldfield’s score is very different from Mark Knopfler’s work on Local Hero, which is jagged and driven by choreographic rhythms. Local Hero finishes with “Going Home”, a bouncy instrumental that melds saxophone with combustible bursts of guitars. “[The director] Bill Forsyth was no particular fan of Dire Straits music, but he liked one track, ‘Telegraph Road’. By keeping the conversation around ‘Telegraph Road’, I slowly persuaded Bill that Mark should score our film. Mark had never done a score before.”

Impressed with his work on Local Hero, Puttnam invited Knopfler to work on Pat O’Connor’s hypnotic 1984 thriller, Cal, for which he delivered a score rich with Irish geography, history, and contrast. “I absolutely agree with you,” Puttnam replies. “Cal is a more sophisticated score and deserved far wider recognition.

“Fortunately, Mark and Pat got on incredibly well. The editor of both films was Michael Bradsell. Mike and Mark didn’t really hit it off on Local Hero, I think Mike found Mark a little amateurish. But by the time we came around to doing Cal, they had reconciled their differences, and Mike was a fan. That in itself definitely had an effect on the way the score was used. It’s a gorgeous score, and I was really pissed off that it wasn’t recognised by BAFTA.”

He pauses before elaborating: “When it comes to [film] music BAFTA have let me down several times, and I’ve never quite understood what that Jury is looking for.” Puttnam explains that he disagrees with the process of a small committee, intimating that it leads to individual tastes and agendas, sometimes based on personal grudges. Vangelis lost out on Chariots of Fire, as did Giorgio Moroder for Alan Parker’s 1978 film Midnight Express, whereas both films won an Oscar. Mark Knopfler missed out twice, along with Mike Oldfield. However, eventually, Roland Joffé’s The Mission won for music. Well, that score was by Ennio Morricone, after all.

“I’d wanted to work with Ennio Morricone for a long time because I was an enormous fan,” Puttnam says. “He turned it down at first [because] he’d retired from film music and decided not to do any more scores. We persuaded him through a mutual friend [Fernando Ghia] to come to London, where we made a horrible mistake. We put on our temp track, the Marcello Oboe Concerto, which turned out to be one of his favourite pieces in the world. He said: ‘You can’t expect me to compete with that.’

“We persuaded him to stay and take another look at the film in the afternoon. We stripped all the music off, and he looked at the film completely ‘dry’. He still didn’t commit, but a week later, he phoned Roland, who fortunately speaks decent Italian, and Ennio said ‘he had an idea’ – an idea so strong that he was able to write the entire score in, I think, five weeks!”

Puttnam lives near Jeremy Irons in Cork and praises De Niro, although I’m surprised to hear that the American actor was not the first choice for The Mission. “If you read De Niro’s autobiography, he talks about meeting me in London where I tried to persuade him not to do [The Mission],” Puttnam giggles. “The truth is, I had an actor, and we already had a deal: it was a young actor called Liam Neeson.”

As it happens, De Niro did take the part in The Mission, but Neeson was compensated with a meaty supporting role (“That’s why Liam’s in the movie so much.”) Puttnam had seen Neeson in Colin Gregg’s 1985 drama, Lamb, and was “knocked out by him.”

Puttnam suggests that an actor’s fame can detract from the finished product. “A major star can tend to ‘draw the air out of the room’ from a producer’s point of view; they become an additional factor to worry about all the time. That can make life difficult, especially for the producer.”

Judging by the conversation, it sounds like Puttnam and Joffé had their hands full with the two central leads during the filming of The Mission: “Jeremy is theatre trained: word perfect, on the set, and by ‘Take Three’, you’ve got everything you need. Whereas with Bobby De Niro, on take three, he’s just about to limber up. So, it can be very difficult for the other actor, who is forced to do an additional dozen takes. That’s not a criticism, but you have one actor with a particular style of acting and the other from a different school of acting; they’re not necessarily compatible.” 

Geography was another factor in making The Killing Fields and The Mission. “The Killing Fields and The Mission were both pretty challenging. As a location, we cracked Thailand well and got on extremely well with the authorities. You couldn’t crack South America in the same way, though, partly because we were shooting in Argentina and Columbia. Secondly, because Columbia was at the time an incredibly lawless country, so we were surrounded by the military. Shooting The Mission was quite scary at times.”

The Mission‘s story about 18th-century Jesuits in a remote region of South America found an appreciative audience (“The Late Late Show host Gay Byrne loved The Mission“), but for this writer, the harrowing story of two journalists captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” ethnic cleansing campaign, The Killing Fields remains Puttnam’s masterpiece. Directed deliberately hurriedly, the film has an edge to it, capturing the mania of the era with documentary-style camera angles and rapid-fire edits. “I think it took three months to film [The Killing Fields],” Puttnam says. “Ten weeks in Thailand, three weeks in Toronto, and one in the UK where we did pickups. Half the cast were Khmer refugees living in Thailand, and the very final scene in the hospital was filmed in Aranyaprathet, which straddles the border between Thailand and Cambodia.”

Terry Gilliam is a fan of The Killing Fields, as is Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who called it one of his favourites. “It was such a pleasure [to screen],” Puttnam says with pride. “I went right across Asia with the film. It was unbelievable. I remember being with Roland Joffé in Japan when following a screening we literally stood for two hours and signed autographs. There was this endless line of incredibly patient students; it was amazing.

“One of the most emotional things was showing [The Killing Fields] to the Schanberg and Pan families. They sat at the front of the screening room in New York, and Roland, [editor] Jim Clark and I sat at the back. It’s not an exaggeration to say that at the end of the film they sat together, just huddled in the cinema crying.” 

Puttnam is reminded of another screening that triggered an emotional response from one of the viewers: “I showed Eric Liddell’s wife Chariots of Fire, and it just so happened that this screening was the first time Ben Cross had seen it. He sat behind her, and she was there with her three daughters. The film ended, and she turns [to Cross] and says, ‘Mr. Abrahams: My husband used to talk about you all the time.'”

Puttnam says he commissioned a script from Michael Palin (“I was away on location on The Mission so gave it to somebody else, and it went on to win a BAFTA,” he laughs,) and no less a luminary than Paul McCartney asked Puttnam to produce Peter Webb’s 1984 musical drama, Give My Regards to Broadstreet. He declined the offer. “I have some guilt there,” he says, clearly a reference to the poor quality of the film. “I introduced Paul McCartney to the director Peter, who was a very good and successful TV commercials director, but for whatever reason it didn’t work.”

Paul McCartney’s 1973 song “Band on the Run” features in The Killing Fields, and the film ends with the sound of another solo Beatle bidding audiences farewell. “I had to clear both songs. I knew Paul McCartney quite well, so that wasn’t an issue.”

As for John Lennon’s “Imagine”: “There is a lovely story attached to this. I tried all sorts of music at the end of the film when we were previewing it. [The Killing Fields] proved more powerful than we perhaps had expected: people were sitting at the end shattered. So, the audiences seemed to need some sort of reassurance. 

“As it happens, at exactly the moment Schanberg met Pran at the refugee hospital in reality, the number one song in the world was ‘Imagine’. In all probability, as the cab draws up, and there’s the radio on, it’s quite likely to have been playing ‘Imagine’. Eventually we got the rights to the song.”

At the New York premiere of The Killing Fields, the producer found himself seated behind Yoko Ono. Puttnam treasures her reaction to this day. “The film ended, and she was in pieces. She climbed over the back of her chair, hugged me and cried. ‘I promise you this,’ she said: ‘This is exactly the way John would have liked the song to have been used.’ It was an amazing moment.”