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Thursday 29 July 2010

You CAN Go Home Again

Okay, I've been tagged, and this time I can't dodge it. On his blog Between the Pavement and the Stars, Piers Beckley has listed those films that he'll watch any number of times, and challenged me, Danny Stack and Jason Arnopp to do the same.

It's not supposed to be an objective greatness list, or even necessarily a 'best I ever saw' list. There's many a great movie that I admire enormously, loved at first sight, and remember with awe, but don't necessarily want to re-experience. At least not right now, and probably not ever on a regular basis. Some experiences are diminished the second time around. I loved The Sixth Sense when I saw it in the cinema, couldn't wait for the DVD to come out, bought it the moment it did... and it's been sitting on the shelf unopened ever since. And not just because I know 'the twist', which was fun at the time but added no lasting value.

(Twists in movies are not the best idea. Something I've believed ever since, on the first appearance of Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, someone yelled from the back of the stalls, "She's gorra cock.")

I suppose it's the difference between a memorable party and a favourite restaurant. Try to repeat the party experience and you're doomed to a vague sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment, whereas a favourite restaurant promises something reliable. Here the movie has an advantage in that the chef won't storm out in a huff at the beginning of your evening.

(It's happened)

Anyone who's raised a family since the advent of the VHS machine will be familiar with the phenomenon of the favourite tape or disc, played over and over, feeding a child's endless appetite for the familiar. We were lucky; in our household it was Pinocchio, and later The Blues Brothers. My friend Graeme wasn't so lucky. He got Bananas in Pyjamas.

If you're flicking through the TV channels and you happen on a familiar movie and you stay until the end, looking forward to "this next bit where...", then it probably belongs in your own list. If in an idle moment you find yourself thinking, "It's about time I saw X again," then X almost certainly belongs in your list. If you can quote every line and do all the voices, you probably belong in an institution.

King Kong
Jason and the Argonauts
Way Out West
The Music Box
The General
Les Yeux Sans Visage
What's Opera, Doc?
(Tarkovsky, and seriously)
Twenty Million Miles to Earth
Hell is a City
Blade Runner
The Wages of Fear
Pas de Deux
(Norman McLaren Film Board of Canada short)
Whistle Down the Wind

These are the rules of the meme:

1. Provide a non-exhaustive list of films you'll happily watch again and again;
2. There is no rule 2.
3. Reprint the rules.
4. Tag three others and ask them to do the same.

So Stephen Volk, Good Dog, and Lee Goldberg, if you should happen by... now I bet you're sorry.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Johnny Hollywood, the Commentary

You may be curious as to why I appear to have a habit of interviewing myself, so the previous post could benefit from some explanation.

The first Johnny Hollywood entry came about as a result of a freelance journalist contacting me through my publisher to request an interview for a well-known magazine. I said okay, he sent me a list of his questions, and I imagine I must have put in an hour, maybe two, drafting the kind of responses I'd be happy to live with.

I never got to see the piece he wrote, but I gather that he'd canvassed about a dozen different writers with the same list of questions. From all the responses he cherry-picked selective quotes. Which is... well, it's not illegitimate. I'm not even saying it's wrong.

But I reckon it's pushing it, a bit.

Rather than see the words wasted, I shunted them onto the blog. A few weeks ago another interview request showed up in my mailbox. I didn't know the sender but she has a site for aspiring writers, from which it's obvious that she's sincere. Now, I never want to forget that my roots are in fandom - old-school fandom, the kind where the convention book rooms were huge and the screening programs tiny, of zines and apas that were often the nursery slopes for the next generation of pros. I'm conscious of my debt to the Bob Shaws and Rob Holdstocks of that world, so I try to behave as I think they would.

Well, as soon as I got a spare hour I fired off my responses, and despite a follow-up query it's been radio silence ever since. So I chopped out some early-career stuff you may have read before, and onto the blog it went.

So here's the outcome of that. In setting up a website and later a blog I made myself accessible, but maybe the internet now makes it too easy to get hold of people and some boundaries are called for. So if you want to ask me anything, ask me here, where it's personal.

But if you're setting out with Google and a list of boilerplate questions, looking to drum up some content from someone whose work you've never even read, from now on I'm gonna have to pass.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Johnny Hollywood Explains it All (2)

How do you stay motivated to finish a novel? How do you stay focused?
I don't start a novel unless I've got a story that gives me a little sense of awe whenever I think about it. Not out of vanity, I mean that sense of having lucked into something classical and timeless like a myth or a folk tale. As long as that sense is here, you never want to let go. The motivation and focus take care of themselves.
What is your writing schedule like? Do you write in the mornings, evenings, and for how long?
I mess around in the morning, start getting up to speed in the afternoon, have a productive burst when I get there, and I'm done by early evening. If I could lift out the productive burst and get it out of the way at the beginning of the day, the rest of my time would be my own... but it doesn't work that way. Over the longer term, I set wordage targets if it's a novel, page count targets if it's a script. I have a year planner or a calendar and I keep a daily score, so I can see how I'm doing as I work toward the target.
How do you get your ideas? What is your method for remembering them?
The way for me to get a new idea is to complete the work on an old one. It creates a hole in my life and the new idea slides into it. That's the only answer I know. I wish I controlled the process, but I'm pretty much at the mercy of it. As for remembering ideas, I jot notes whenever I have odd thoughts. At some point you find that the notes are like jigsaw pieces and fit together in a way you maybe didn't expect. It's great when that happens. It feels like a gift from your subconscious.
If you get writer’s block, how do you get over it?
Feeling blocked usually means I'm out of love with what I'm doing. My only answer is to cast around for something else.
What are your thoughts on self publishing?
"A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient." If self-publishing were the way, I'd still be writing stories about a detective with a steel head and a tuxedo. It's okay if you just want to play to your circle, but being a professional in the public arena means riding out rejection and raising your game. The best publishers are the ones with the best editors, and your best editor isn't you.
What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a writer? What is a good starting point for them?
If you're thinking about doing it, then maybe it's not for you. It's like sports or anything else, you burn to be active from the get-go and you don't stop to weigh it against other options. But read, and read well, and read widely beyond the kind of thing you want to write. Study technique, look for things that you can use and make uniquely your own. Aim for simplicity and balance and eventually your prose will sing.

Monday 19 July 2010

Panning and Scanning

I was channel-hopping last night and came upon a comparative rarity; one of the digital channels, could have been ITV2, was showing a modern movie in 4X3 format, the almost-square 'Academy' ratio that was phased out in the cinema about 40 years ago and in TV at the beginning of this century.

Like a Chav faced with subtitles, I skipped right on by.

I've no problem with the Academy ratio, which was good enough for some of the greatest cinema ever made, but this wasn't that. This was a widescreen film in a cropped 'TV version' at least a decade old. Rather than source an up-to-date transfer, I'm guessing that the broadcaster had used the version supplied to them on tape when they made a deal for the rights. I mean, come on, guys. Cheat if you have to. Run out and buy a DVD.

Format can be problematical. The widescreen of your widescreen TV is not the widescreen of Ben Hur. Like most things in life, it's a compromise. The viewfinder on a modern film camera includes an element with the 'safety zones' of the different viewing formats etched into the glass, so the operator can ensure that whatever the composition, the essential information will fall within the frame and the shot will always make some kind of sense. Hi-Def video assist systems offer the same facility in the monitor display.

In the early days of widescreen cinema, feature film makers saw TV as the enemy and went out of their way to ensure that their images would exceed the capabilities of the smaller screen. Panning and scanning was TV's response to that. It was an alternative to 'letterboxing' the image, which preserved the composition but invariably triggered a stream of phoned complaints to the TV station's duty officer.

Panning and scanning involved continually reframing the film in telecine. This could go way beyond the cranking of a frame to the left or right to squeeze the action in - a small section of a shot could be selected and enlarged to fabricate a closeup from a medium shot, for example.

The end result would, in essence, undo the work of cameraman and director and sometimes the editor as well. Grain, contrast, focus, and framing would be all over the place. I recall a scene which, in the original, was a single long take of two people talking. The telecine operator had reframed each person in a separate, enlarged closeup and then cut back and forth between them as they spoke. Didn't match, didn't work, looked appalling. Used to be quite common.

'97 was the awkward pre-pubescent time for widescreen TV. The first sets were around, but almost nobody (apart from my dad) had one. Broadcasters hedged their bets, shooting new material in 16X9 widescreen but putting it out in a bastardised 14X9 shape that looked bad on both kinds of display.

I can place it so precisely because '97 is the year I made Oktober for ITV. The three-hour miniseries was shot on Super 16, a format that originated (if I recall my American Cinematographer correctly) with the Aaton camera company in Sweden. It used a customised camera gate to utilise more of the 16mm negative area. In the case of Oktober, the broadcast master was scanned directly from the camera negative and electronically converted to a positive image, eliminating the loss of quality you get when making a print.

ITV were hovering over when to 'go wide' so after the grading we made two complete transfers, one in full widescreen and the other in the half-cropped, half-letterboxed 14X9 ratio. I watched the widescreen version going through. Bruce McGowan's photography looked rich and wonderful, the high Alpine locations spectacular.

Guess which version went out.

The Betacam master of the widescreen transfer went into storage at NBC-owned Carnival Films, where I cross my fingers that it's survived their office moves of recent years. I last checked on it when Revelation produced their full-series DVD (for the UK only; the US release is a 96 minute 'feature cut'). I tracked it down, hooked everybody up, but there was some glitch with distributor approval and it was the 14X9 master that went onto the disc.

And so I remain the only person on the planet who's seen the three-hour show in its full 16X9 ratio, on a big plasma screen in a windowless editing suite that misty afternoon in Soho.

But someday... maybe someday.

Though probably not, I'm guessing, anytime soon on ITV2.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Crusoe in Kent

I'm grateful to Scott Andrews for the news that the many of the sets, props and weapons created by Production Designer Jonathan Lee for Crusoe have been shipped from South Africa to the UK. The sets have been reconstructed as an adventure play attraction at Groombridge Place near Tunbridge Wells (these images are Jonathan's concept sketches, not views of the park itself; I haven't seen any of those).

From their press release:
A desert island from a TV blockbuster has been recreated using props and artefacts which were shipped all the way from South Africa and the Indian Ocean.

Container loads of Robinson Crusoe’s belongings from the TV series ‘Crusoe’- which was shown on television screens at Christmas and starred Sean Bean, Sam Neill, Philip Winchester and Joss Ackland – have been delivered to Groombridge Place, near Tunbridge Wells, for the new attraction ‘Crusoe’s World’...

...Two tree houses have been built high in the trees linked together with rope bridges and a central viewing tower. They are on several levels with decking and platforms and the houses are sheltered under sail roofs. There is a look-out post high above one of the tree houses, providing fabulous views over the canal, open countryside and the steam trains of the Spa Valley Railway.

Actual props from the film, including Crusoe’s fishing equipment, cooking pots, catapult, boats, barrels, furniture and dummy weapons, are there for visitors to create a little make-believe on their very own desert island.
The Crusoe page on the NBC website is still live, and you can see more of Jonathan's concept work here if you're so inclined.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Disappointments and Discoveries

Two things to talk about, here. One, a movie I had some expectations for, the other a novel reminding me that literary fiction need not be the turnoff that so many literary novels have made it into. By which I mean the kind of literary novels you get when bad poets have access to too much paper.

Clash of the Titans. I finally got to see it. When I posted the trailer here sometime late last year, I thought it had the look of a promising romp. So WTF went wrong?

How do you screw up Clash of the Titans? It's got a flying horse. It's got a Gorgon. It's got an effing Kraken, for God's sake. It's got an underdog hero and a cataclysmic love story and its Big Theme is nothing less than a standoff for dominance between Man and the gods. The guys get the most flattering wardrobe in all of human history, and the women the most feminised. All pleats and bare arms and classic hairstyling. Like a skin care ad set in heaven. Or a Dove commercial without the token fat one.

But... ay. So much action, and so little suspense. So many people just saying stuff, while you struggle to stay tuned in. So much sweeping camera movement that takes you nowhere and tells you nothing when you get there. A protagonist who neither responds to events nor directs them forward, but is just carried along to wherever the story needs him to be next. All the set-pieces were adequately done, but strung together it was like everything always turned into a battle. Perseus is a guy who can't go to the fridge for a bottle of milk without having to fight off a horde of something-or-other. To me it felt like something written by gamers, where the main character is an empty vessel for the player, and the story objectives only matter to the extent that they give you somewhere to be heading for while shit falls out of the sky or bursts through the walls.

Some people in Hollywood make a big thing of 'the hero's journey' because you can find it in Joseph Campbell's book and someone on an expensive writing course once made them believe it was a secret key to something. The script appears to have been endlessly rehashed with the Hero's Journey in mind and none of the versions did what it needed to do, which was simply to make it Perseus's story. Not just by explaining to the audience what Perseus wants, but by making the audience want it too.

Last year I got a sneak of a late draft of the screenplay that Lawrence Kasdan had worked over, but I didn't look at it then. Didn't want to spoil what was coming. I looked at it after seeing the film, thinking that maybe here was one of those stories of decent writing trashed by unsympathetic development; but the narrative problems run deep into the film's history, it seems. 12 pages in (all completely different from the movie) and you still haven't met anyone to care about. Just try that in TV.

So a word now for Sarah Hall's novel The Electric Michelangelo. Which you'd think would belong in an unrelated universe but since the universe in question is the one inside my head, I don't see why they can't go together.

It's a long time since I picked up a Booker Prize contender that didn't ultimately disappoint. I'm not saying there's been nothing good out there, more that my inclination to sample has dwindled away. Life's too short not to learn from your let-downs.

I've written before about 'literary novel fade', that phenomenon where you're drawn in by Fine Writing only to realise that you're in the hands of a stylist whose storytelling skills won't carry them the distance. I've been caught by it quite a few times. So I don't know what made me pick up The Electric Michelangelo.

Yes I do. It was the title, the milieu, and the few lines of clean strong prose that I sampled in the bookstore. I didn't even notice the 'Man Booker Prize Finalist' endorsement until after I'd made my decision.

(Btw, for those outside the UK, the Man Booker Prize isn't an award aimed only at men. There is a women-only literary award, called the Orange Prize for Fiction. Women can win the Man Booker Prize, and often do, but men don't get a look in on the Orange. Which is a great for stoking an argument in the pub.)

Anyone familiar with my own back-catalogue will know that I'm a sucker for a windy seaside town in the off-season, for the atmosphere of carnivals, sideshows, and backstage theatrics. Add a whiff of bygone times to any of the above, and you've a good chance of getting my attention. HBO's Carnivale, Nightmare Alley, The Illustrated Man, Tod Browning's Freaks. May I also direct you to the late Tom Reamy's brilliant Bradburyesque fantasy Blind Voices.

The Electric Michelangelo follows Cy Parks from a Morecambe childhood helping out in his mother's guest house, through his apprenticeship to a fierce and complicated local tattooist, to the boardwalks of Brooklyn's Coney Island in the 1920s where, working his trade under the name of The Electric Michelangelo, he meets Grace, a circus rider. You instinctively understand his fascination with Grace when you realise that, without any forced meaning, she embodies many of his life's issues.

Sarah Hall's prose is dense and textured without being pretentious, her narrative voice strong. I know she's researched her world - the treacherous Morecambe sands were the backdrop for my own Nightmare, with Angel - and she's researched her subject.

Some might compare it to Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, which I found disappointing. Michelangelo's feminist concerns are buried deep in the texture of the fiction, and instead of fading, Hall ramps it up for a satisfying final act. There's retribution and deliverance, in a tone that's either Gothic or Jacobean and I can't make my mind up which.

But in my world, that's a rather good choice to be given.

As ever in these matters, your mileage may vary.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Bitch-slapped Bimbos and Silent Engineers (2)

Monday's Chimera screening had a satisfying turnout and the evening ran smoothly, with great atmosphere. There was an audience flyer which included the entirety of a long Time Out review from 1991 that I hadn't seen before (Fliss Coombes and Naomi Phillipson, handling publicity for Zenith and Anglia respectively, had sent me all the cuttings at the time, and to this day I've never looked at any of them). Dick Fiddy set the scene and then I did a very brief intro, probably recycling the same joke from nineteen years ago, and then off we went. Projection was excellent and the show looked and sounded better than I've ever seen it.

The source must have been a transmission master tape - it carried electronic cue dots, those tiny squares in the top right-hand corner of the image that give the Transmission Controller a minute's warning of an impending commercial break. It was a call to action for everyone involved in the next three and a half minutes - network engineers, telecine operators, VTR department, continuity announcer. I started my career in the Presentation suite, and the sight of a cue dot takes me right back.

After the first couple of episodes, there was a short interval. I went up to the green room where Lawrence Gordon Clark had just arrived and was signing DVD sleeves. He hasn't changed at all! And he was delighted with the evening, as was I. Especially since they gave us loads of beer and we were able to take it into the theatre for the second half.

During the Q&A at the end, it emerged that 50% of the audience were seeing the show for the first time. Others in the course of the evening spoke up about its impact on them at an impressionable age. The consensus seemed to be that the show still holds its own, and that Nigel Hess's melancholic score added a dimension of emotional complexity that was enhanced by theatrical presentation.

For my part, I think I actually appreciated it for the first time ever. Details I was unhappy with at the time kinda faded back into their proper places. It's like some big public sculpture where I finally got far enough away to turn back and see it as others experienced it, as a whole. I was taken aback by the degree to which it reflected and challenged the ethos of the late 80s, that greed-driven, ruthless, and anti-society era, far more so than if we'd set out with an actual agenda to engage with 'Thatcher's Britain'.

I met up for the first time with Good Dog, blogger extraordinaire whose true identity I've now taken a blood oath to protect, lest it interfere with his ability to fight crime. Malcolm Brown, friend and co-worker from my old Granada Presentation days, had come into town to be there, as had my daughter and one of her pals, and with Lawrence we went into the bar afterwards and stayed until they chucked us out.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Bitch-slapped Bimbos and Silent Engineers

Read on and all will be explained. After a fashion. I promise.

But first a reminder that this coming Monday (July 5th, 2010) they're screening all four episodes of Chimera at the BFI Southbank, formerly the National Film Theatre, followed by a Q&A with director Lawrence Gordon Clark and me.

The same day also sees the release of the Region 2 DVD. Sad news for the guy who's been selling pirated copies on eBay for the past few years, good for anyone who's been waiting for the real thing. And apparently some people have, which brightened my day when I heard it. When you work on a piece of TV drama you feel all revved-up and committed, like you're carving a monument for the ages; a few weeks after it's been on the air, it's more like you wrote it on water.

And if you're like me, you can't look at your own stuff with any objectivity. All you can see are the flaws and lapses, the things that you wish you'd handled better or could go back and fix. The same things that many critics take for their raw material. Critics have a remit to entertain, like everyone else who writes for money, and if you rush to them looking for affirmation you're looking in the wrong place.

So a writing career is a weird rollercoaster of elation and depression; the sheer joy of making a show, and the sense of gloom as it retreats into the past and the world's population doesn't line up to shake your hand and tearfully swear that what you wrote means more to them than the Bible. Followed by all the anxiety and ego involved in trying to set up another.

The fact is - and it's taken me a long time to find this out - your real audience is a silent one. A great, shy beast that rarely breaks cover, and is largely unaware of your existence. Indifferent to it, even. Yours is a name that just passes in the credits like everyone else's. What they care about is this moment in their lives where they were struck by what they saw and that they've remembered ever since.

To be the silent engineer of such a moment has a satisfaction to it. It's something apart from fame. Especially since fame used to be the consequence of doing something remarkable, but now it's not. It just means that some reality producer thinks that enough people will dislike you on sight to stick around to see you getting slapped.

I can remember a time before the VHS recorder when almost anything written for British TV had no afterlife at all. Repeats were despised by viewers and everything instantly became archive material, where the archive was seen as a wastebin of little value. That's why so much stuff got wiped or junked, prints burned, negatives recycled for their silver. Copies might be made for export but they were usually of crappy quality, converted to local standards or scanned (badly) to 16mm. Only Lew Grade's ITC shows and - perversely - some long-forgotten half-hour series of the 1950s still look good because they were shot on 35mm, in the way that Mathew Brady's full-plate civil war photographs are sharper and contain more rich detail than your last-year's holiday snaps.

Even when home recording had taken off, it was a while before TV's back catalogue became commercial. Distributors assumed that retail and rental were only going to work for movies. Chimera had a brief VHS existence in an over-truncated 'feature' version edited for export and retitled by its American distributors as (God help us) Monkey Boy. Other than that and the pirate versions, it's been unseen for most of the past couple of decades. At the time I shelled out for a couple of high-end tapes to make my own off-air copy, but it stayed on the shelf. I'm not in the habit of replaying my old stuff like some latter-day Norma Desmond.

But I got an advance copy of the two-disc set a couple of days ago, and I can give you a report. The transfer's sharp and clean and looks great. 'Contains moderate gore'. And as for the extras - far from being the silent engineer, I'm all over the DVD set like a clingy drunk.

There's a reason for this. It was my first big show and I was all over the production like a clingy drunk, too. Lawrence and everyone on the team made me welcome, and I took full advantage. I showed up everywhere with my video camera and when production wrapped, I made off with all the stills, slides and presskits I could carry. Add the script of the novel's 1985 radio adaptation and an on-camera interview that I did for a prescient Revelation Films around the time they were mastering their full-length Oktober release, and it's no surprise if I keep bobbing up in the extras like the world's biggest attention whore.

'Tain't so, honest. I'm more one for backing shyly into the limelight, protesting faintly as I go.