Matthew Field: My life with 'The Italian Job'
Above: Matthew Field speaking at the Royal Automobile Club during The Self Preservation book launch. Photo by Mark Lewis Photography.
Throughout the summer I have been busy promoting my new book The Self Preservation Society: 50 Years of The Italian Job. The question all journalists ask is: Why are you so fascinated by this film? Well, The Italian Job is more than just a film to me, it’s a measure of time. It was the first film I ever saw – the first movie to enter my consciousness. I saw it sometime in 1985 when I was four years old. My dad showed me the 15-minute Mini Cooper chase and I immediately fell in love. We were a ‘Mini’ family – my parents had owned them, and both my grandmothers each drove a Mini 1000. I would spend hours sitting on the driveway, clutching the steering wheel of my Nan’s chocolate brown Mini, lost in my own Italian Job dream. I re-played that car chase over and over until I wore out the videotape.
The Italian Job was not in vogue during my early childhood, but by my adolescent years suddenly everybody was discovering ‘my’ film. ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ was no longer just a cheeky exchange between my brother and I, but a catchphrase that provided Michael Caine impersonators with their best punch line.
Little did I know, back in 1985, how The Italian Job would go on to shape my life. Over Christmas 1998, Channel 4 aired The Mini Job – the first documentary to examine the making of the film. It reignited my interest and, as I finished my A-levels and contemplated university, it struck me that the film would make a good subject for a book. Since that book had not been written, I decided to take a gap year and attempt to write it myself. My sociology teacher, Mr Deakin, always told me that ‘polite persistence pays off’ so, with this advice in mind, somewhat ambitiously I set off on my journey. I was 18 years old.
As I wrote the closing pages of The Self Preservation Society, my second book on the subject, it struck me that it has been nearly twenty years since I began my research way back in September 1999. At that time, The Italian Job was re-released in UK cinemas to mark the thirtieth anniversary and I spent the year 2000 tracking down and interviewing as many of the filmmakers and actors connected with the movie as possible.
Research was slow, after all the Internet was only in its infancy. My first encounter was with the second-unit director, Philip Wrestler. He presented me with a dusty old, leather-bound folder, comprising the original script (marked-up with all the scenes he was required to shoot), a red felt-tip pen drawing of the coach hanging over the cliff, and a collection of personal black-and-white photographs. By pure coincidence, I discovered that production designer Disley Jones lived in the flat next door to Wrestler. Twenty-five years after they had last seen each other, two key creatives from the picture had ended up side by side in flats in Elephant and Castle.
I met Troy Kennedy Martin in his writing den in Ladbroke Grove – always piled high with scripts and research notes. Troy was slightly embarrassed by The Italian Job, considering it not up to the intellectual standard of his later, more prestigious work. However, he took great delight in the cult status the film was beginning to enjoy. Troy allowed me to read each draft of the screenplay, giving me a much better understanding of how the film had evolved and his generosity has informed much of what you have just read.
Peter Collinson was of particular interest to me – at the time, the man who had directed The Italian Job remained something of a mystery. I discovered his widow, Hazel, teaching musical theatre at a drama school in west London. The life she shared with Peter – Hollywood, showbiz, Rolls Royces and big houses – now remained in the past. At first, she declined to participate in the book but, once again, polite persistence paid off, and my youthful enthusiasm must have appealed to her. We met in a coffee shop in Turnham Green and, after I gained her trust, Hazel shared her personal story with me. During lengthy interview sessions, often over one of Hazel’s homemade Irish stews, she painted an intimate picture of a complicated man: a tragic, yet successful life, cut desperately short.
Douglas Slocombe, the legendary cinematographer, was 87 when I first met him. He had already gone blind – so sad for a man who lived most of his life through a viewfinder. Calm and genteel, he spoke affectionately about the film with his trademark stutter. Over the years, I interviewed him for other publishing projects. When Dougie was over 100 years of age, he could only manage short interview sessions, but his memory and wit remained as sharp as ever.
My most enduring relationship on this journey was with the greatest advocate for the project – Michael Deeley. I first met Michael – then recently retired from filmmaking – in London. He immediately showed a producer’s faith in my ambition. And my book certainly benefited from his producer’s touch: the impossible suddenly became possible thanks to his faith in me and years of film business connections. One day, I received a call asking me to ring Michael Caine at the Ritz in Paris. Michael Deeley had orchestrated the star’s participation and soon he granted me an in-depth interview, full of anecdotes that only a raconteur like Michael Caine can deliver with such hilarity.
When I sought publishers for my project, I avoided meeting commissioning editors in person, thinking that they might not take a 19-year-old seriously until they read my manuscript. Finally, in 2001, The Making of The Italian Job – a slim volume compared to the book you are holding now – was released, becoming my then-publisher’s bestselling non-fiction title. Its success was a testimony to the widespread and enduring affection for the film.
We launched the book at the BFI Southbank in London, with a sold-out screening of The Italian Job and an audience of nearly 500 people. A party followed, reuniting many of The Italian Job alumni for the first time since 1969. The publicity for the book was incredible and Michael Deeley generously accompanied me on a host of high-profile television and radio shows, including The Big Breakfast. I got to visit Turin for a car show called Dream Machine, to film segments at the locations used in the film, and the Bournemouth Echo proudly blared the headline ‘A Ferndown man’s tale of daylight robbery!’ It was magic, and the first of many doors began to open for me.
In 2003, Paramount made the much-maligned remake of The Italian Job. Many fans in the UK scorned it, but not me. Having seen my first book, UIP (the UK distributor) invited me to go to New York to meet and interview the cast at a press junket. These events are common practice with the release of a major new feature film and involve the ‘talent’ taking part in a day of press interviews – usually in an exclusive hotel. A first-class plane ticket and two nights in a five-star Manhattan hotel was more than enough to impress this 21-year-old.
I interviewed the director, F. Gary Gray, who told me he had kept a copy of my book in his trailer the entire time he was making the movie. True or not, I left the room walking on air. Back in London, I was invited to the premiere and I escorted Hazel Collinson, who was eager to see how Gray had reinterpreted Peter’s work. Three Mini Coopers performed a host of stunts on the red carpet and later at the after-party, I met Jay Kay – lead singer from Jamiroquai – who gave me my first ride in a Lamborghini Miura.
At the time, I had no idea what a junket was but now, 15 years later, entertainment PR and publicity has become my vocation and I produce the very press junkets and publicity events I first attended for the remake of The Italian Job. When I graduated in 2004, I faced the daunting prospect of pursuing a career in the film business. It was the dawn of DVD, and film studios were releasing their back-catalogue titles as special editions, which more often than not would feature a retrospective documentary. I bounced up to Paramount like a young pup and offered my services as a producer/director, confident that – with all the contacts and goodwill of those I had interviewed for the book – I could produce a special edition of The Italian Job.
Under the watchful eye of Lip Sync, a London-based production house, and with fellow DVD producer/director Lancelot Narayan, I created a brand new one-hour documentary. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in the cutting room and that DVD became my calling card. It was this gig which ultimately led to my current career as a producer of film marketing and publicity assets.
In 2008, Paramount asked me to produce and direct the fortieth anniversary Blu-ray bonus package for the film. With a bigger budget, we were able to create an exciting featurette about the Mini and its role in the movie. We filmed sequences with Russ Swift, the precision driver world-famous for his Mini stunt shows, while David Salamone and Barry Cox had fun with re-creating scenes from the movie on Rockingham’s oval circuit in Mini MkIs.
One of my most cherished memories of making the Blu-ray special features was meeting Quincy Jones at his home in Bel Air. He walked into the room with a battered VHS copy of the movie under his arm. We conducted the interview in a room filled with gold and platinum discs, marking Quincy’s legendary work with Michael Jackson. Staying afterwards to eat tortilla chips and guacamole, he signed a copy of his book with the most personal of inscriptions: ‘To my beloved Brit Bro, Matthew. Thanx for taking me back to some of my favourite memories of the UK, lager-lime, Kings Road and Cockney slang. Thanx again mate you know how to have it hot.’
I was also fortunate enough to interview film producer Robert Evans and he lived up to his phrase, ‘the kid stays in the picture.’ Evans reined over Hollywood during the golden era of the late sixties and early seventies. I met him in his famously palatial estate, Woodlands. The notorious old-timer was still old Hollywood. I was told he liked to make an entrance, and he didn’t disappoint. He greeted me in low light, shielded in dark shades and dressed in a silver silk shirt. He rattled off stock sound bites as if they were straight out of a movie script: ‘You remember this,’ he said, pointing a finger at me. ‘When your back is against the wall, the impossible is possible and there is no greater example than The Italian Job.’ It made no sense, but it was perfect Evans and the journalist in me thought it gold.
I spent a day with the lovely Maggie Blye on the lot at Paramount, and later that week we met again in West Hollywood, where she showed me her scrapbook of cuttings – some of which we have been able to share here for the first time. Maggie and I often talked on the phone, and planned to meet again, but sadly she passed away in 2016.
Rémy Julienne I interviewed at his lovely home in rural France, over some very fine wines. We communicated largely through an interpreter, but his enthusiasm for the movie came across loud and clear. Later, he attended the launch party in London, and I was amused that his racing prowess was as sharp as ever as he beat everyone on the Italian Job-themed Scalextric track set up for guests.
Troy Kennedy Martin died shortly after the fortieth anniversary celebrations. Together, we had recorded an audio commentary for the new Blu-ray release, and I remember that, on the day, we broke for lunch at Vasco & Piero's Pavilion in Soho and – who should be on the next table – but Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the co-writers of the 2003 remake. They pulled up their chairs and it soon became a tale of two Italian Jobs. I often wondered if he ever saw the work we had done together on the Blu-ray before he passed away. Troy was due to introduce a screening of The Italian Job at his local film society in Ditchling and his daughter, Sophie, honoured me by asking if I would step into his shoes. Afterwards, we went back to Troy’s cottage and discovered a copy of the Blu-ray sitting by the TV, the disc still in the player.
With so many potential interviewees, as well as a wealth of new material and photographs coming to light, it was inevitable that I would want to re-visit the subject one more time. The Self Preservation Society – 50 years of The Italian Job found an organic home with publisher Porter Press. Not only do they specialise in motoring publishing, but Philip Porter also owns the very same red E-type that appears in the film.
Above: guests at the RAC book launch. Photo by Mark Lewis Photography
Most of the personalities whose voices I have weaved together to tell this incredible story are sadly no longer with us. This book is their legacy and is dedicated to their memory. Writing it led to many more exciting moments for me – an invitation to visit the Lamborghini facility in Bologna to discuss the identity of the long-lost Miura amongst them. MINI hosted our official book launch at their factory in Oxford with a pop up screening of the film. We presented the book at special events at the RAC Club and Brooklands. And there is plenty more on the horizon: a presentation at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, a trip to Turin and a Q&A at the V&A museum in London. For me, The Italian Job has been a lifetime’s work and for now, at least, I feel like my work is done.