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Sunday 30 May 2010

Chimera at the BFI

Here's some news... on Monday July 5th as part of the Future Human season, my 1990 miniseries Chimera is getting a screening at the BFI South Bank. A while back I was asked if I'd say a few words before it, but that's now expanded to become a Q&A with me and director Lawrence Gordon Clark.

Which feels weirdly symmetrical because back when the BFI South Bank was the National Film Theatre, they screened Chimera before it was broadcast. It was part of a season of new TV drama, and we did something similar then. I could probably dig out my twenty-year-old notes, if I made any, and give the same answers. Last I heard, they were planning to show the first two parts at about 6:30pm followed by a 30 minute break, and then the final two at 8.30pm.

The day of the screening coincides with the release of the Region 2 DVD. I have some details of those DVD extra features now. There are sleeve notes from me, Lawrence, and Executive Producer Archie Tait. There's an image gallery, and the original press kit for the show, and the script of an earlier radio adaptation of the source novel. There's also an on-camera interview that I did for Revelation a couple of years back when they first started pursuing the DVD rights.

In addition to that I've recorded some commentary for behind-the-scenes footage shot during the production. It's been tricky to juggle, with me being here and the editor working on the footage at the authoring house in London, and I haven't yet seen the results. But there's a look inside the workshop of effects house Image Animation, designers and creators of the hybrid prosthetic, along with coverage of the shooting of the episode one finale and stuff from the Yorkshire locations.

Future Human runs through July and August and there's a listing of the screenings and events here. Just take a look at some of the stuff they're presenting. 2001, Chris Marker's La Jetee, BBC 2's seminal series of sf adaptations Out of the Unknown, Silent Running, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarkovsky's Solaris... and also in July, a programme running in parallel, Brian Clemens, Auteur of the Avengers. Seeing my little show in there makes me feel like I crashed the A-list party of my dreams.

It just struck me that I was twenty-five when I wrote the book.

I need to sit here quietly for a while and think about that.

Saturday 29 May 2010

Dennis Hopper

I just heard on the radio that Dennis Hopper died at his Venice home this morning, of complications relating to prostate cancer.

Not too long ago, I was working on a project where the producer was pursuing him for a major role. To be honest, the part and the actor weren't a fit, and Hopper knew it. But the producer felt that Hopper's name in the credits would help to sell the show internationally, and kept after him.

When it finally didn't happen, my one regret was that I'd be missing out on the chance to meet a legend.

The rise, fall and rebirth of Hopper's career will be charted elsewhere, but let me revive part of an old post to direct your attention to a performance in that was - I believe - the actor's first in a leading role:
Did you ever see Curtis Harrington's first feature, Night Tide? I'd wanted to see it for ages and finally managed to catch up with it last year.

It has a similar setup to Cat People - it features a very young Dennis Hopper as a sailor on leave in an off-season seaside resort, who falls for a woman who plays a mermaid in a sideshow. But she always holds something of herself back, and there's a sense of something more to her past. It could be a setup for a creature feature. But like Cat People, it's a naturalistic movie that presses the Creature Feature buttons.

I suppose the subtle stuff like that can't exist without the unsubtle stuff to be subtler than. If that makes any sense.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Testing the Audience

We just got back from Las Vegas. It's a long drive through the desert, with nothing but country music on the radio. If you're ever thinking about it, you have been warned.

The last time we did the trip was around 1980, and that was by Greyhound bus. Back then it was essentially still '50s Ratpack and Mafia-style Vegas, where a couple of kids with backpacks could have a cheap time with inexpensive buffets and free champagne. Now it's like they attach a suction pump to your wallet as you arrive, and it keeps on draining money until you finally pull free. But we wouldn't have missed it.

We got a good deal on a suite in the Palazzo, right on the Strip. Eight floors down and right across the street, two full-sized pirate ships did battle every hour and one of them sank, bobbing back up at the end of the show like the only decent scene in Raise the Titanic. There were working gondolas floating through our hotel's shopping plaza and a volcano in front of the Mirage along the way. Every hotel is like an indoor city, and each has a theme. In one afternoon we walked through crazed fantasy reproductions of Venice, Paris, Ancient Rome and, erm, Atlantis, which I suspect some Americans believe is as real as all the other places. One night we went off the strip to the Rio (theme: 70s Blackpool acid flashback) for Penn and Teller's show. Penn and Teller have a residence there, with the theatre named after them... it was a bare-bones show with no sets, just a jazz piano player and one performing assistant, but we had great seats and saw some neat stuff.

A couple of days of it were enough... at one point I found myself sitting eight floors up with a direct view down on all the madness, communicating with home in real time and running off show reservations on the in-room printer. On one of the suite's three huge flatscreen TVs, one of a dozen rolling news channels was telling of how robots were working to cap an oil well amidst ecological disaster along the coast of Lousiana. Down below my floor-to-ceiling window was a street scene that could have been lifted from Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room, while behind the hotel fantasy facades stretched a Ballardian wasteland of concrete, desert lots, and high speed roads. It was as if every SF novel I ever read had come true all at once and in the same place... in the foyer the next morning I even saw a bunch of service people in fatigues and with kitbags checking out to return to duty, with a sense of dislocation straight out of The Forever War.

Note that I say novels, and not movies. Much of the SF literature I was reading decades ago, some of it written decades before that, still stands as an effective imagining of the potential variety of the human context. It wasn't predictive, nor did it ever purport to be. It was exploratory and prophetic, and therein lay the joy of being a science fiction reader; SF as a magnificent rummage-chest of thought-out possibilities.

Whereas the movies did something different. It's the difference between actual science fiction and the theme park ride that is sci-fi. Looking at them now, you can see how the movies reflected their time without ever really moving out of it. There's nothing more dated than a sci-fi movie's idea of futuristic fashion.

But there was a serious purpose to the trip, as well. I went to a demonstration of 3D television, and later spoke to the guy in charge of one of the audience testing centres on the Las Vegas strip. There are two such centres in town, and two more in Florida; the idea is that both locations offer a wide cross-section of the American population (I might also say that I saw more seriously unhealthy people in the first six hours in Vegas than in my first six months in Los Angeles.)

They get people in off the strip, record their reactions during the screening of a show, and ask them a series of detailed questions afterwards. The raw data goes to the networks and the studios. Eleventh Hour was tested here, with Rufus Sewell delivering one of the highest-ever scores of a new series lead. When the results were in, the pilot was recut to remove Rachel's businesslike motel seduction of a local detective; the test audience said they liked the character and didn't want to see or hear anything bad about her.

And did the demonstration change my opinion of 3D television? The technology certainly worked, and worked well, in that the image was diamond-sharp and had depth. As long as you wore the glasses and didn't tilt your head or move from the couch. Therein, I think, lies the genuine drawback. 3D television is like stereo radio. It's OK to have it if it's no extra trouble.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Scares on the Shelf

Twice the Terror is a second collection of material from The Horror Zine, Jeani Rector's Sacramento-based webzine of dark-themed fiction, art and poetry.

The previous print collection, And Now the Nightmare Begins, featured a range of contributors, from the newly-launched to the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Simon Clark, and Joe R Lansdale.

I have to come clean and say that I have a dog in this fight - volume two includes my short story Not Here, Not Now.

From the book's Amazon entry:
The Horror Zine presents its second in-print anthology, a wicked brew of stories with relentless suspense that ride side-by-side with haunting poetry and eye-popping artwork. Volume 2 from The Horror Zine unveils a fresh approach to basic fears and has twisted, unexpected endings. “Twice the Terror: THE HORROR ZINE” contains contributions from such famous writers such as Graham Masterton, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, Deborah LeBlanc, Ed Gorman, Stephen Gallagher, Terence Faherty, and Hugh Fox. But it also contains deliciously dark delights from morbidly creative people who have not yet made the big time… but they will soon.
Mainstream publishing falls in and out of love with dark fiction, whereas it seems to me that the core readership's appetite remains fairly steady. Kudos to The Horror Zine for giving a platform to new writing in a context of the genre's more recent traditions.

Here are a couple of random picks from the quality artwork on the site. This one's Mercy by Isiah Stephens:

While these strange dolls are the creations of Beth Robinson.

Monday 10 May 2010

Crusoe Region 2

This one sneaked by without my hearing about it... the full season is now available on a Region 2 3-disc set, presumably replicating the content of the Region 1 release.

Which will mean no DVD extras, which is a pity. NBC had a behind-the-scenes crew covering just about every aspect of the show's making, and their material generated a healthy number of featurettes for the Crusoe section of the NBC website. Almost none of which I got to see, because the video streams would only play for US users.

Apart from an initial week of meetings where all of the writers got together with the producers in Power's London office, nearly all my work on the show was done from my study in England by phone, email and internet feed. I was in constant and regular touch with producer Jeff Hayes on the island sets (actually a stretch of the Nature's Valley coastline in South Africa), with the Power team in London, and with the NBC and Universal execs in Los Angeles. I saw auditions via video link and we conferenced for notes calls with sometimes as many as eight or nine people on the line.

I never even got close to visiting our South African locations, which could have been useful. I'd have taken a more practical approach to the way I structured the treehouse scenes had I realised that the base and the platform were separated by a number of miles, and a simple dialogue between Friday on the ground and Crusoe on the deck required a complete crew move!

I did get to be a part of UK location scouting in and around York, in a unique approach that was mostly born of necessity. They'd had a couple of Canadian guys working on scripts and a bible, and that hadn't worked out as hoped. Their take on it was close to the book and not the balls-out, gung-ho adventure show that NBC had been promised. Time was now short but then along came the WGA strike, halting all progress; as an outsourced production Crusoe wasn't actually a struck project, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my career explaining as much and so I only came on board when the strike had ended.

Now the clock was really ticking. All we had was Defoe's novel, Power's pitch to NBC, and some brilliant visual concept work from production designer Jonathan Lee. So here's what I proposed, and how it worked out; firstly, before anything else was written, I'd write the full hour's worth of flashback scenes for the whole season. We'd shoot those and then, as the crew was relocating to the South African base, I'd complete and deliver the pilot. Somewhere along the way, the pilot specification grew to a double episode; by then I was well into it and could see that my script was going to be way over. So I was blase about the challenge, and didn't let on that the extra length was actually the solution to a problem.

But the York production date was looming, and preproduction had to begin before the material was actually written. So armed with only an outline and a rough idea of what I was going to do with it, I went out with the team and we looked for places to match the story. In the bar of the Royal York Hotel each evening, we'd go over what we'd seen and I'd improvise and elaborate on the outline, so the team could take away specifics and start doing their jobs. Exploiting the best of what we'd seen, shaping the unwritten script to avoid pitfalls, getting the best out of that fantastic city and some wonderful old houses in the surrounding countryside. As they set to work, I went home and did the same. I have to tell you, it was one of my best writing experiences ever.

As I recall, we pretty much took over York for the May Bank Holiday. They closed down York Minster for us, cleared out all the seating, and let us bring in an enormous crane. We closed the Shambles for a morning. We filled the streets with extras, horses, dogs, goats, and cables. Miles of cables. Not to mention large numbers of Women of a Certain Age craning for a glimpse of Sean Bean.

(There are more pictures from the York shoot in this earlier post.)

Then everyone headed for the sunshine and I stayed behind. Except... heading to the Southern hemisphere meant heading into the South African winter. During those first weeks of shooting, I'd see the uncut rushes coming up the line with our shirtless heroes framed against the sunset on some glorious beach... with the last few seconds of the shot revealing a crew in thermals and puffer jackets, their breath misting in the cold air.

So maybe I didn't miss out too much. And frankly, with the pressure of shooting, there was no time for me to make the journey. It was an experience, all right; my first time working with an American network.

It was a bumpy ride. But so's the Indiana Jones jeep adventure in Disneyland, and people queue up for that.

Friday 7 May 2010

The Future is Then

From the day that I saw Kenneth Kendall reading the BBC news on one in Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey, I wanted widescreen TV. Up until then, I'd no idea that the industry had domestic widescreen in its sights. But given the meticulousness of Kubrick's research, I imagine that the notion was there on some technology giant's wish-list, even if at the time it had to be faked with back-projection.

When the first sets came out, I wasn't impressed. Looking at a zoomed-in letterboxed VHS of Star Wars on a demo TV in the basement of the Virgin Megastore, I remember thinking that the quality was significantly less than that of Super 8 anamorphic Cinemascope (yes, it does exist).

But I was at the head of the line for the first wave of integrated digital widescreen televisions, and then one of the first to bitch and moan about continuing DVD releases in the cropped 4X3 format called 'fullscreen'. From this you may conclude I have more money than sense and I'd probably agree, on the basis that it wouldn't take very much money to make it true.

The first time I saw a plasma screen - I think that was in HMV on Oxford Street. It was displaying a DVD of Alice in Wonderland. An indifferent made-for-TV version, but I was bowled over by the depth of detail and the warmth of the image. I waited until plasma sets became affordable and then spent three times as much as I needed to, just so I could go that extra mile and get hi-def.

High definition proved a bit of a damp squib. The increase in quality isn't that great. Sometimes it's barely even noticeable. But if HD acts as a brake on the efforts of broadcasters to lower their picture quality in order to cram in more channels, I'm still for it.

But 3D... this early adopter's heart doesn't beat any faster at the idea of 3D television at all. Despite an absence of product to display, and a lot of consumer ignorance over when and how they'll get a 3D signal, 3D-ready sets are coming onto the market now. The launch is accompanied by this grim list of health warnings on Samsung's Australian website.

Health issues aside - even shaky 2D camerawork makes me queasy, so God help me if Paul Greengrass ever gets his hands on 3D - I fear a Betamax moment coming for the industry. 3D will be great for gaming and that's the angle they should push, with the occasional bonus of a sit-down-for, no-interruptions, phone-off-the-hook blockbuster. By pushing 3D as 'the future of TV', when we all know that for much of the time TV is a casual, on-in-the-room, passing-parade part of our lives, they're pretty much sealing its doom.

And everyone looks like a twat in those glasses. I'm sorry, but it's true.

A couple of posts back I mentioned that there were design changes in store for the blog. Well, notice anything? Thanks and credit for the supercharged overhaul with all its hidden wonders (it's even iPad-friendly) go to Paul Drummond, whose web design services can be further investigated here. And a special thanks to Dave Young, whose HTML skills produced the site that served me so well for a number of years.

Now I'm told I have to go get my head around Twitter.

It never ends.

Sunday 2 May 2010

What's in a Band Name?

Ever wonder why new bands always have such weird names? Because the simple ones are all used up, is why. Google for just about any common noun and you'll find at least one band using it, usually with a MySpace page. They may not have any track record, they may not even have any songs to back up their ambitions. But whether they're counting their sales, their gigs, or their dreams, they at least have dibs on some corner of the dictionary.

It wasn't always such a big deal but in this wired age, unique can matter when it comes to names and titles. LA's Brand X magazine recently told of how rising local band The Afternoons took the risky step of a mid-career identity change to avoid potential Google-crash with a Welsh band of the same name. It's no big problem for them now, but they were thinking ahead. If someone's going to be looking for your music online someday, you want to be sure it's you they find.

(LA's The Afternoons are now Shadow Shadow Shade.)

Whether or not you're a fan of their music, you have to admit that Coldplay and Radiohead played the name game right. New bands can seek out a band name generator and land on any one of a number of sites that will mix and match band names from their lists of selected terms. At first these engines look like the answer to a prayer; after half an hour of clicking, you concede that they're mostly just for amusement. If you want a real name, you probably won't find it out there. You most likely have to dig around in your heart.

Which doesn't stop bloggers and commentators from offering their suggestions, and I'm going to be no different. This is a list of band names I tinkered together over a couple of months, for reasons I'll go into some other time. When I first started I'd check to see if they were in use already, but after a while I stopped bothering... so be forewarned. If there's anything here you want to grab and use, do your own 'due diligence' first.
Feces Piper
The Shotgun Slugs
Die, Spammer, Die
The Chainsaw Dentists
Desert Gnats
Abusing Grace
M C Hamster
The Wrong Venus
Ace of Spayed
The Breathing Test
Bear Dance
The Poo Lumps
Down Rover
Run for Lovers
Mayfair Slayride
Reason for Treason
Cupid and the Psychos
Monkey Logic
Angels in Spitfires
The Slopes
Refried Jeans
The Slinkies
The Speckled Band
Spies and Prejudice
the mean achievers
Stranger than Ravens
Cactus Jones
The Rottentops
The Homework Club
*Gigs always end in a fight.
Feces Piper, by the way, is an actual job description.

If you're starting a band and struggling for a name, and one of these takes your fancy, consider it my gift to you. Just let me know.

Except for brooligan. Someday that's gonna be my band.

After I learn this guitar.