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Mick moves into movies

PARK CITY, Utah -- Mick Jagger is taller than you'd think, thin as a rail, dressed in clothes that were never new and only briefly fashionable. There is a studious unconcern about appearance, as if, having been Mick Jagger all these many years, he can wear whatever he bloody well pleases.

He is at the Sundance Film Festival as a producer. He and Lorne Michaels have produced and Michael Apted has directed "Enigma," a Sundance entry about the British codebreakers at the top secret Bletchley Park facility, who cracked the German naval code when it had 150 million million million possible solutions, and then cracked it again after it was improved to 4,000 million billion solutions.

He wanted to get into film production, he said, because "I got rather bored with people trying to involve me in their projects and then the projects would fall to pieces. I thought, well, wait a minute, if I'm interested in this, I should start doing the things that I'm interested in, and not the things other people want me to do."

In the movie business, it helps to get a project financed if a big name like Jagger's is "attached" to it. Better to attach himself to his own project and eliminate the middle men.

"Enigma" is based on a best-selling novel by Robert Harris, a riveting read, long unfilmed because it's not exactly cinematic to show a lot of mathematicians sitting in a room drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, thinking hard and writing on yellow notepads.

"It's very hard to do a movie about intellectual activity," Jagger mused. We were sitting in an upstairs room of a bar named Gamekeepers, drinking mineral water. "It's even hard to do a movie about painters. What are they doing? Painting. This could have been a movie about guys sitting in rooms with pencils.

"Fortunately, in the real-life Bletchley Park, they invented a way of decoding the Nazi signals using a kind of mechanical computer. They built these things called bombs where you put instructions in and the machines would click away. The man with a pencil would make a calculated guess what the code was, and then the bomb would go through the permutations and say yes or no."

Luckily, however, "Enigma" is about more than computers. It is also about romance and betrayal. The film stars Dougray Scott as Tom Jerico, the brilliant mathematician who has returned after a nervous breakdown, Saffron Burrows as the beautiful war worker who caused the breakdown and then went missing, and Kate Winslet as the plucky operative in the radio reception room, who transcribes the German signals and helps Tom solve the mystery of the code and the missing woman. Jeremy Northam is the British intelligence operative who wonders if all three are spies.

"It's not just about code-breaking," Jagger said, "but about love, and it's got some underlying moral questions also about how many lives can be lost for the greater good."

Hearing Jagger say things like that is tricky because you have the rock 'n' roll persona in your mind, and the person sitting across from you speaks in a well-educated British drawl, like someone on an upmarket talk show. I mentioned that I'd seen the Rolling Stones at the Double Door in Chicago, in a warm-up performance the night before one of the Stones' most recent concerts at the United Center.

"That was a nice night," he said. "That was one of those nights when it all goes nicely." He seemed to be describing another person in another life.

Michael Apted, the director of "Enigma," "is an old friend," Jagger said. "I knew him from years ago. He's a well-known English documentary filmmaker, as well as a feature filmmaker. We had meetings with him, and he seemed right for the job, and then he got this offer to do the last Bond movie, so we had a hiatus of a year while he did the Bond movie, and so we had to keep the whole thing waiting."

The screenplay is by Tom Stoppard, famed playwright and screenwriter ("Shakespeare in Love"), and a formidable force when crossed.

"Tom's an old friend of mine," said Jagger, who has excellent taste in old friends, "and since this is an intellectually challenging story, I thought he would suit it. But everyone else was kind of afraid of Tom, intellectually. He's not a mean person, but he's not a person that you can make mistakes with. If you go in and say, `Scene 38B is not really working,' you'd better know why it's not working. Everyone was afraid to do that. So that was my job. To say what I would say to any writer, because if it's not working, it's not working."

Have you had any fun at Sundance?

"No, I came here last night, and I went to a party where Macy Gray was supposed to be singing. She wasn't there. I had a few drinks and left. That was my Sundance experience."

Will you see any movies?

"I have to go back to Los Angeles tomorrow. I do go to Cannes quite often for a couple of days, to see what movies are around. And I was at Venice (film festival) this year. It was fun."

Jagger said his company has two other projects in the works, one by Martin Scorsese called "The Long Play," about two guys who grow in the music business over 30 years, and the other based on the poet Dylan Thomas' life and marriage.

He hasn't starred in many movies, but people still talk about his androgynous druggie rock star, playing host to a gangster on the run, in Nicolas Roeg's "Performance" (1970).

"I saw it on television not long ago," Jagger said. "What I found interesting was the social observations that were being made and the use of documentary-style footage. It was really quite ahead of its time. It's a good movie; I think it holds up."

He had another dramatic role in 1970, "Ned Kelly," about the famous Australian outlaw. I asked him if he had read Peter Carey's new novel about Kelly.

"People have told me it's fantastic."

So maybe your company would return to Ned Kelly for another movie?

"I think I've done my Ned Kelly years."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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