MOVIES : Town Without Pity : Former Columbia chief David Puttnam pops into town with a new appreciation for those who make it day to day in the movie industry

Charles Champlin is the former arts editor of The Times

Four years after he left Columbia Pictures, following a brief (18 months) and spectacularly controversial tenure as studio chieftain, David Puttnam has been back in Hollywood--briefly.

"Anyone who makes it here--and on his or her own terms--is extraordinary. I know I couldn't," Puttnam said at breakfast one recent morning. He had appeared at USC the night before. "The kids were very flattering," Puttnam said, "talking about 'being true to your vision'--that's their phrase--and 'what comes out is all of a piece.'

"But to a huge extent that's made possible by being five and a half thousand miles from here, not being involved with the day-to-day pressures of the business, being able to get on with the job. You might get more movies made here, but it's incredibly hard, so anyone who does do it here has remarkable self-control and self-discipline."

Puttnam was in town seeing to the Nov. 15 opening of the second film he has produced since leaving Columbia, "Meeting Venus," by the Hungarian director Istvan Szabo and starring Glenn Close as a world-class opera singer engaged for a trouble-strewn production of "Tannhauser" in Paris. Like "Memphis Belle," the first production from his post-Columbia career, he had developed "Meeting Venus" at Columbia and had been able to take it with him when he left. His productions are backed by a consortium of Warner Bros. (with whom he had a deal before he went to Columbia), an English financial group and the Japanese conglomerate, Fuji-Sankei.

Both films are the kind of special, modestly priced and hand-tailored productions that have been Puttnam's forte since he began as an independent producer in England with "Melody" in 1971. By a certain irony, they are also the kind of films that drew down upon Puttnam the scorn of industry traditionalists who think in terms of big-budget, big-name blockbusters. The lack of the blockbuster mentality was effectively Puttnam's undoing at Columbia.

As he remarked in England a couple of years ago, "The great reality of that damned job is that you're making such an enormous bet every day. You do get scared. You really do. I failed hopelessly at Columbia." His concern going into the job was that films weren't getting any better; he had found nothing subsequently that showed the daring of "Raging Bull" and the "Godfather" films. "The really sad thing," Puttnam said in 1989, "is that I didn't do anything to make the situation better."

In his recent USC appearance, Puttnam mused that his short, unhappy tenure might have been different if it had been under the present aegis of Sony rather than during Coca-Cola's somewhat baffled and baffling ownership of Columbia.

"Sony knows exactly how Columbia fits into its plans. It makes the hardware; it needs the software. Perfect match. I don't think Coke ever really knew why it wanted Columbia or what to do with it. I'm not sure they really knew why they hired me."

His association with Time Warner is, Puttnam says, ideal. "They're very good about being both cautionary and sensitive, when the creative, as it were, bumps up against the commercial realities."

He feels strongly that Gulf & Western's attempt to deflect the Time-Warner merger was catastrophic. "It didn't strengthen Gulf & Western and, in the end, it was to no purpose. The shareholders may have been happy with the price, but all it did was weaken what could have been one of the dominant world mediums."

From the European perspective, Puttnam says, "what you see is that these firms have to be global by their nature, and to be global they have to be strong. And to be strong they have to make acquisitions worldwide. The merger as originally conceived by Steve Ross was a phenomenal idea. As it is, saddled with their massive debt, they've been unable to take advantage of some tremendous opportunities that were available these last two years."

In all events, Puttnam's own tenure as a studio head is history, and he has gotten on with his life. He is preparing his next film, "Chico Mendes," who agitated to save the South American rain forests and was murdered for his efforts. The film will begin shooting in Costa Rica in April. It is again a project that first took shape at Columbia. "I've been working on it since October '88, two months before he was killed." Chris Menges, the cinematographer who won an Oscar for Puttnam's "The Killing Fields," will direct and the English playwright William Nicholson is doing final revisions on the script.

Although Puttnam gained a (mixed) reputation as an outspoken critic of the industry, he is equally critical about himself--a refreshing departure in an industry that raises blame-shifting to an art form.

"Memphis Belle," which derived from William Wyler's documentary about a B-17 bomber crew's final mission, fell 15% short of what it ought to have been, Puttnam reckoned. "It did fairly well, with a large dose of help from Japan, where it was enormous. I think it was the second- or third-largest grossing film of its year, also the biggest video. We had a tremendous windfall.

"Perfectly good film. Had the potential. My fault. A couple of fundamental errors. I should have realized early on that there should've been someone, probably a woman, who had a big emotional investment in the plane coming home, someone the audience could identify with. We should have got under her skin. And we probably shortchanged Matthew Modine a bit. The actors performed heroically. I put the troubles at my doorstep.

"At least I know it. I try to analyze the things that went wrong, even when the film's a success. Sometimes it's almost mortifying, doing the analysis."

"Meeting Venus" derives from Szabo's own experiences trying to direct "Tannhauser" in Paris amid union disputes, personality clashes, creative differences and language problems. Puttnam, hearing the tales, urged Szabo to do a script about them.

"There's a small inside joke in the film," Puttnam says. "Istvan Szabo means Steve Taylor in Hungarian. So the leading male characters are all Steve Taylor in their own languages. The American is Steve Taylor, the German is Stefan Schneider."

Puttnam is not less critical of the industry than he used to be. "The trouble, I figured out years ago, is that you're never allowed to grow up properly. You're treated like dirt as a teen-ager. Then, when you've made your first remotely successful piece of work, you're treated like a god. So the normal growth process--a few bruises, a few pats on the head, and all the other things that happen in a healthy growing up, don't happen.

"I was lucky. I was given a chance to mature as a film producer. A few small hits, but in general I was able to make my mistakes in private and come back and learn. I don't know how anyone learns any more. It's the maturing process, and it's never being treated correctly--never being corrected when you do something stupid, and not being cultivated and allowed to grow when you do something right.

The lack of Hollywood daring he complained of from the beginning still bothers him. "Timidity seems to be the norm--timidity as progressing toward rigidity. What is it that happens to the body after death? Rigor mortis? Yes, certainly creative rigor mortis and probably commercial rigor mortis as well.

"The lack of nurturing on both sides of the camera has always astonished me. You can't grow genius, but you can certainly grow talent. The idea that Sundance (the institute where new talents are identified and encouraged) has to go around hat in hand is unbelievable. The industry should be helping it and more places like it."

One small sign of hope that Puttnam finds is the rise of international co-productions. "The fragmentation of movie-making may be helpful in fighting the fish bowl aspect of Hollywood. I've often thought that directors who choose to direct and writers who choose to write in New York probably save themselves a lot of grief. They may not work quite as much, but they're happier."

Puttnam keeps eight projects in development, figuring that the attrition rate is about 50%. One project is with Bill Forsyth, who directed "Gregory's Girl" and "Local Hero."

Meanwhile, Puttnam's operating credo, for films of any size, is, as he remarked in 1989, that "the real brief any filmmaker should give himself is to engage the mind and the emotions equally, because engaging the emotions gives you the opportunity to put over ideas, these notions you have."

For him, "Meeting Venus" fulfills the credo. "It's about lots of things, including language. About who we are, how to find a good life for ourselves but at the same time pursue what matters to us. It doesn't offer any easy solutions. It says that life is enormously complicated but worthwhile. But to link hands with that concept, you have to have been bruised a bit."

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