Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Dark Watchers: The Women in Black

Director: Philip Gardiner
Writer: Philip Gardiner
Producers: Philip Gardiner, Melanie Denholme
Cast: Melanie Denholme, Eirian Cohen, Val Monk
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: online

Am I misremembering or was The Stone: No Soul Unturned really this bad? I mean, I know The Stone was pretty rubbish and, re-reading my review, I find a bunch of criticisms that could also be levelled at Dark Watchers: an incoherent story, improvised dialogue, poor acting, a tendency to pad with scene-setting. But I’m sure that The Stone wasn’t actually this bad. I recall it at least being recognisably a film, even if it wasn’t up to, well, anything. It was a long way from good, but it wasn't unwatchable.

On the other hand, Dark Watchers: The Women in Black is utter, utter crap from start to not-too-distant finish. The story is not only incoherent, it actually seems to be missing. There is no discernible plot whatsoever. Vast swathes of a film which only just scrapes feature length are ‘atmospheric shots’ of beaches and woodland or just people sleeping or getting dressed. It’s about eight minutes before anything actually happens at all.

The Stone at least had characters of some sort; Dark Watchers has none. The trio of female leads are genuinely only differentiated by their hair colour: blonde, brunette and redhead. Two of them are presumably lesbians as they share a bed, but maybe the other one is too. And they are forever getting dressed or undressed beneath the unblinking gaze of a fish-eye lens. It’s like the film keeps considering becoming a porno but then bottles it at the last moment.

None of the cast can act; they certainly can’t improvise. If there’s one thing more agonising than watching non-actors trying to act, it’s watching non-actors trying to act without a script. Viewing The Stone, one at least got the impression that there was a story, that the ‘actors’ had been given some direction and maybe they had even had a rehearsal. But Dark Watchers really seems like the director set the camera running then went down the pub and left these poor, talentless women to just talk crap for five minutes.

The reason why I am comparing these two features, the astute amongst you will have spotted, is that Dark Watchers is a Philip Gardiner joint. Gardiner is extraordinarily prolific. After years of banging out video documentaries about batshit conspiracy theories and paranormal bollocks, The Stone was his first narrative feature, made just three years ago. Between that and Dark Watchers he also found the time to make Cam Girl, House of Sin, One Hour to Die, Paranormal Haunting: The Curse of the Blue Moon Inn and Lady of the Dark: Genesis of the Serpent Vampire. And since then he has made Awesome Killer Audition and Exorcist Chronicles and is now working on Dead Walkers: Rise of the 4th Reich.

Basically, the set-up seems to be this. Warren Croyle at Chemical Burn Entertainment, who releases all of Gardiner’s wacko crockumentaries, gives the Englishman money to make features. Gardiner knocks 'em out and Croyle releases them, whatever they’re like. It’s good work if you can get it and I know many, many British film-makers who would love to have a US angel providing funds and guaranteed distribution.

But here’s the thing. You would think, would you not, that anyone making their seventh (count 'em) movie would have learned something from the preceding six. On the strength of this, however, Philip Gardiner seems to be getting worse. Obviously you can’t plot a graph from just two points and I need to see some more of the man’s work (Paranormal Haunting is in the TBW pile somewhere) but unless my memory of The Stone is somehow flawed and I’ve blocked out its worst excesses, then Dark Watchers is a massive retrograde step in a career which was already starting from pretty close to rock bottom.

So what goes on here? Let me try to describe it to you. Blondie, Brunette and Redhead live together in a house near the sea. They have no obvious jobs, they all dress like whores and their conversations are such vacuous nothings that it’s a wonder they don’t just text each other. The only other character is a UFO spotter called Terry who comes round, with two non-speaking mates, to show the girls (on a small laptop) an attempted interview with a supposed abductee. So inept/lazy is Gardiner that he doesn’t even cut to the footage on the laptop. Instead, we have to spend five minutes squinting at a close-up of a laptop screen.

The improvised ‘dialogue’ in this film-within-a-film is just as bad as that elsewhere in this rubbish. Here’s one line I actually noted down which I think gives a flavour of what litters the soundtrack when we’re not looking at out-of-focus beaches: “We’re from the UFO Society, and we’re just kind of looking for some evidence really, to try and find out about these UFO spottings that we’ve had lately.” Ah, nothing like enthusiasm for one’s hobby.

Two of the girls reckon they lost four hours the previous day, although they seem to be such braindead tarts that it’s entirely possible they just had their watches on upside-down. They subsequently find black patches of stuff appearing on their skin, and they occasionally throw up. Later they find Terry drunk on the beach, take him home and then find he has disappeared. Eventually, one of the women gets covered entirely in black sticky stuff while wearing literally the worst effects contact lenses I have ever seen.

Every so often one or other person gets a call on their mobile which is an FX-distort voice saying “Babylon. Babylon. Return to the Garden of Eden.” No-one mentions these calls to other people, even when there are other people in the room at the time.

That’s it. That’s the entirety of the plot so far as I can see.

But what about the whole Men in Black schtick? After all, this is the film that was shot (in October 2011) as Men in Black: The Dark Watchers before a polite cough from the legal gorillas at Columbia Pictures prompted a swift title change. Well, there is a bald, black dude in full MiB gear who wanders around in various shots, sometimes accompanied by, or possibly chasing, or possibly being chased by, a dark humanoid figure which scampers on all fours and may possibly therefore be an alien. Occasionally one or both of these appear inside the women’s house but they seem to be invisible as no-one notices them. There are also some interwoven scenes of someone or other running scared through some woodland. At the end, a car drives up to the camera and the black bald guy gets out, followed by the three women.

Self-indulgent, amateur-hour rubbish, Dark Watchers has not one thing in its favour. It’s not scary (despite the actresses’ screaming in the last ten minutes or so), it’s not actually atmospheric (despite endless mixed-focus shots of pebbly beaches and deciduous woodland), it’s not interesting or intriguing or comprehensible. Not entertaining in any way. Not even so bad it’s good. The women look like skanks, the UFO nut looks like he ate too many pies and bald black guy never says anything, never does anything and (like so much of this wannabe-arty film) is never even in proper focus.

I’ve raised the MJS rating up from the very bottom of the scale by one notch because, despite the vacuous tedium of the off-the-cuff mutterings of the cast, their words are at least audible. So one point for decent sound-recording - which is pretty ironic. I’ve seen so many films where potentially interesting and/or important dialogue is inaudible due to bad recording or mixing; yet here, where not one interesting or relevant word is spoken throughout, I can hear every one of them.

There is no evidence that cast or camera were given any direction. The editing is shit, the production design is non-existent and there are no effects beyond the black goop and the joke-shop contact lenses. I’m holding fire on the photography only because what I watched was a low-res version posted free online in January 2013 by Gardiner (along with The Stone and a bunch of other stuff). Comparison with the film’s trailer shows that the photography is nowhere near as bad as what I saw, so I’ll give that the benefit of the doubt.

Presumably the idea behind posting these low-res versions is that people will watch them, then want to see the film properly. But Dark Watchers is agony to sit through and it is inconceivable that anybody might want to ever watch it again. Surely this is more likely to put off potential buyers. That said, we know that most of Gardiner’s established fanbase live in some sort of bizarro world where aliens and goblins are real so, since they believe any old shit they’re told, maybe they also believe that he makes watchable films. Maybe he does. Maybe this is an anomaly and he has actually been getting better since The Stone. But somehow I doubt it. You have to wonder whether Gardiner even watched this film before sending it to Croyle, especially given the rate at which he knocks out this stuff. Did Croyle watch it before releasing the DVD in March 2012? Does anyone involved with these films care what they’re like at all?

The online version of Dark Watchers runs a not-quite-feature-length 67 minutes but stops abruptly with no credits. Various sources list this as 80 minutes and I've found a review which says there's a six-minute music video right at the end so there are presumably seven minutes of agonisingly slow credits - unless there are extra scenes after the ‘getting out of a car’ bit. But that would mean that Gardiner had put 90 per cent of his film online then expected people to buy/rent the movie to find out what happens at the end (bearing in mind that absolutely nothing has happened before this cut-off point). I don’t believe anyone would do that. But then, I don’t believe anyone would pass off a piece-of-crap student film like Dark Watchers as a real movie.

Why do I watch these things? I watch them because somebody’s got to. I watch them to save you the trouble. I watch them because sometimes I find real gems, or at least films with promise. Dark Watchers has no promise whatsoever. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.

Blondie is played by Melanie Denholme, the least worst actor here, who seems to be Gardiner’s muse as she has appeared in most of his films and also produced some of them (including this). More recently she has teamed up with David VG Davies (Three’s a Shroud) for a feature called Killer Conversation. Brunette is Eirian Cohen, who was in a few other Gardiner movies plus Molly Crows, The Psychiatrist and The Eschatrilogy. The possibly not-lesbian one is played by Val Monk: also in Molly Crows and The Eschatrilogy and, bizarrely, in a film with me! While we didn’t share any scenes - she’s in a nightclub, I’m at a wedding and an auction - nevertheless we both have Bollywood comedy Yamla Pagla Deewana 2 on our CV. How about that? Everyone on the IMDB is no more than six degrees away from Philip Gardiner.

Black bald fella, who probably comes out of the film with the most credibility since he never says a word but just stands around looking moody and almost in-focus, is Rudy Barrow. He’s in a couple of Gardiner features but also the Jonathan Sothcott-produced Rise and Fall of a White Collar Hooligan, plus Killer Conversation and The Dead Inside. [Several months after posting this review, I actually acted alongside Rudy in a scene for The Wrong Floor, without realising who he was! - MJS]] Terry is played by Lee Roberts who, according to his self-penned IMDB biography, is “Paranormal content advisor for UK Film Maker Philip Gardiner”. So his job is presumably to advise PG about things that aren’t real. Jessica Messenger, who must be one of the people running through the woods, is a Derby lass who has been in Derby horror features Devil’s Tower and Wasteland plus a couple of Gardiners and an extraordinary-looking thing shot in Nigeria called Psoro.

Don’t waste your time on this. Dark Watchers is indefensible crap. Seriously. I wasted my time and I’m already regretting it. I didn’t pay for this movie and I still feel like I’ve been ripped off somehow. I could have spent those 67 minutes getting muck out of the corner of my toe-nails, which would have been more fun. And better directed too.

MJS rating: D

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Famous Monster

Director: Michael MacDonald
Writer: Ian Johnston
Producers: Michael MacDonald, Holly Hedd
Cast: Forry Ackerman, Ray Harryhausen, John Landis
Country: Canada
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: screener

Famous Monster: Forrest J Ackerman (to use the full title) is a 48-minute look at the life and work of ‘Mr Sci-Fi’ himself, produced a couple of years before his death in 2009. It features most of the expected talking heads, some rare photos, lots of clips from trailers and PD classics and some newly shot interview footage with Forry himself who looks very weak and frail but clearly still had all his faculties.

Forry had a stock of anecdotes and well-worn gags which he trotted out in interview after interview, column after column, especially in the last decade or two of his life, so it would be very easy for this to turn into a singalongaforry as anyone with even a passing knowledge of the man mouths the stories word for word. It is to the credit of director Michael MacDonald and writer Ian Johnston (who share a curious ‘created by’ credit) that Famous Monster manages to largely avoid this, without leaving any obvious gaps in the story. There is the occasional “little boy, take me home” or “I am your reader, make me laugh” but they provide texture, not tedium, to the story.

Most of the interviewees need no introduction. They are, in order of appearance: Ray Harryhausen, John Landis, Ray Bradbury, Roger Corman, film exhibitor/historian Reg Hartt, Twilight Zone/Star Trek scripter George Clayton Johnson, actress Bobbie Bresee (Evil Spawn etc), actor Dan Roebuck (Matlock, Halloween remake etc), Rue Morgue editrix Jovanka Vuckovic, Joe Dante, David J Schow, director Tim Sullivan (2001 Maniacs etc), Del Howison (owner of LA collectibles store Dark Delicacies), Ib Melchior, Fred Olen Ray and Scott Spiegel.

There are also clips of Ackerman’s cameo roles in Ray’s Scalps and Melchior’s The Time Travellers as well as some archive footage shot inside the original Ackermansion. Forry sits in an armchair in the mini-Ackermansion that he moved into in his later years and is also seen at his favourite restaurant, House of Pies.

Forry looks very small and old in this film - he was 89/90 when it was produced - and his movements are small and slow. But he looks content, thankful for his (amazing) lot in life and comfortable in the knowledge that he is surrounded by friends who will care for him until Prince Sirki finally comes a-knocking. “He’ll probably outlast us all,” says Sullivan, which of course turned out not be true. “When he finally goes, he’s going to go happy,” ventures Dante, which thankfully did prove prophetic.

Although it was produced and broadcast on American and Canadian TV while Ackerman was still alive, the first DVD release of the documentary was this UK disc which hit stores a couple of months after his passing. There is a curious but, I suppose, unavoidable inconsistency in that some of the interviewees talk about Ackerman in the past tense but we can work out that they are talking about Forry as he was when he was still active; he was still with us when these people spoke.

Johnston’s script (narrated by Terry Pulliam) largely avoids any attempt to ape Forry’s punning style and acknowledges the controversy over the reincarnation of Famous Monsters without dwelling unduly on the matter or naming the other party involved. Johnston is also credited with ‘research’ and ‘interviews’ while MacDonald (who had previously interviewed Forry for his 2005 documentary Visions from the Edge: The Art of Science Fiction) shares camera credit with (brother?) Fred MacDonald and editing with James Patriquin. Warren Robert, sometime guitarist with rockers Avacost, provided the score.

Famous Monster strikes just the right balance so that it will appeal to both those who know little about Forrest J Ackerman and those who are completely familiar with the man and his legacy. Although there is, naturally, no reference to his passing, this serves as a generous, affectionate (but not cloying or hagiographic) tribute to a man who, directly or indirectly, touched the lives of millions of people around the world.

The DVD from Spirit Entertainment includes nearly two hours of extras plus a commentary by Johnston and MacDonald which starts fairly blandly but picks up later on. There is a three-minute ‘Blooper Reel’ which has out-takes from the interviews with Landis, Schow, Dante, Roebuck and Corman. Landis observes that there is no irony in Dan Aykroyd’s belief in UFOs, ghosts and conspiracy theories and that the actor really is “insane”. Corman can’t recall which of his films Forry cameoed in but, when told the details of one such appearance, then repeats them for the camera as if the information was plucked from the air. (Film journo secret: this sort of thing happens all the time.)

‘More Forry Memories’ is 27 minutes of additional interview footage, 17 minutes of which is Ackerman himself although this includes a rather pointless sequence in a car during which Forry barely says a word and a House of Pies sequence of Forry singing three songs, which is the sort of indulgence one extends to people of that age (and Forry always loved to sing to people) but is of little actual interest. The remaining ten minutes includes additional interview material with Dante, Bradbury, Roebuck, Sullivan, Spiegel and Landis.

On the commentary track, Johnston and MacDonald explain that they visited a convention where Forry was scheduled to appear but he didn’t show up. Since they were there anyway they grabbed three interviews with other guests but these have been omitted from the main documentary for two obvious reasons. One is sound quality - all three interviews were done on the fly in a noisy dealer’s hall - and the other is that none of the interviewees have anything to say about Ackerman except what a lovely man. Carla Laemmle (niece of the Universal Studios boss, now well into her 90s) is one of the ladies in question and the other two are Grace Lee Whitney (Star Trek’s Yeoman Rand) and Hammer/Bond hottie Caroline Munro. The fourth deleted interview is with a young, aspiring make-up effects artist, Casey Wong, who is seen in his studio and in Forry’s home. This whole ‘Deleted Interviews’ segment runs 22 minutes.

A seven-minute tour of the Mini-Ackermansion is really just long, unedited takes of establishing footage but it gives us a chance to view what remained of Forry’s collection after the great sell-off. On the other hand, ‘Dan Roebuck’s Hall of Horror’ (called ‘Dan Roebuck’s Living(??) Room’ on-screen) is a guided tour around the extensive collection of this likeable actor who turns out to be a massive, massive monster kid. Roebuck, whose many credits include episodes of Lost, Six Feet Under, Freakylinks, The West Wing, Lois and Clark and Star Trek TNG, explains that, unlike Forry, he has very few original items (a couple of Planet of the Apes costumes notwithstanding) but he has vast amounts of toys, action figures, books and other merchandise plus a number of lifesize waxworks, some bought from out-of-business museums and some specially commissioned. Finally there is a gallery of 37 photos of Forry or from his collection, some of which are seen briefly in the main feature.

One day someone may write a definitive biography of Forrest J Ackerman (whose middle name, I learned from this film, was actually Clark). I certainly won’t, but somebody might. It will be a difficult job, even at a remove of several years, because Forry was human and could, I have no doubt, be as cantankerous as any old man. But he is so loved, and is likely to remain so, that objectivity will be difficult and may well end up being condemned - which is one reason why I wouldn’t touch such a job with a barge pole, thank you very much.

In the meantime, this sympathetic, informative, well-crafted documentary serves as a fine record of a person whose historical importance and cultural influence were out of all proportion to his actual level of public awareness.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 11th March 2009


Director: Johannes Roberts
Writer: Johannes Roberts
Producer: Paul Blacknell, Ernest Riera
Cast: David Schofield, Eliza Bennett, Juliet Aubrey
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: preview screening

There are two potential problems with the snappy title of Johannes Roberts’ new film, F. One is the practical angle. It is, for obvious reasons, impossible to google. And it will be effectively invisible in any list of films, such as a list of what’s on at your local cinema or the index of any film listing. (Unless the listing is compiled by Kim Newman or Stephen Jones, who would put it under J as the on-screen title is actually Johannes Roberts’ F.)

The other problem is the way that this title sets the film up as an easy target for lazy film journalists in mainstream media. We all know the sort: the ones who will trash any independent British film purely for being an independent British film, making snide, unfunny jokes of the sort they would never dare with a Hollywood studio.

“This is the first film whose title is also its own review rating.” “Roberts should be given an F for this piece of work” or even “This film is F-ing awful.”

If you see any reviews like the above, ignore them. They carry no validity because those jokes simply don’t apply to F (or whatever it gets called when it is finally released [It was subsequently retitled The Expelled for its US release. - MJS]). Because this is a genuinely terrific film. It’s a powerful, original, thrilling and thought-provoking slice of relevant, contemporary British horror.

David Schofield (Pirates of the Caribbean, American Werewolf in London and Frankenstein’s Monster in a 2003 Mary Shelley dramadoc) stars as Mr Anderson, a haggard, browbeaten teacher whose attempts to interest kids in GCSE English Literature are increasingly futile. A year on from a violent attack by a pupil, which left him entirely unsupported by the bureaucratic school board, Anderson is an unshaven, borderline alcoholic wreck, separated from his wife (Juliet Aubrey: Helen Cutter in Primeval) and living alone in a scuzzy bedsit. (Johannes Roberts claims that not only is the location his own bedsit, but the featured prop was his own bottle of whiskey!)

Somehow, Anderson has managed to cling onto his job but the school - in the persona of self-serving, form-filling, rod-up-her-arse bitch Principal Sarah Balham (Ruth Gemmell, also in Primeval as well as EastEnders, The Bill etc.) - is looking for any excuse to sack him. He is a figure of fun among his colleagues although pretty school librarian Lucy (Emma Cleasby: Dog Soldiers, Doomsday) is kind to him.

Selling a horror movie to that key 18-25 demographic when your lead character is in his mid-fifties could be tricky. Fortunately for whoever has to design the DVD sleeve, Anderson has a 16-year-old jailbait daughter, Kate (Eliza Bennett: Nanny McPhee, Inkheart), who lives with her mum but sees her father regularly as she is one of his EngLit pupils. Near the end of his tether when he discovers that Kate would rather spend the weekend with friends than with him, Anderson gives her an unjustified detention.

That evening, the school is almost deserted, with just a handful of staff working late, including close-to-breaking Anderson and his bored daughter. Balham is in her office, Lucy is stacking bookshelves, short-tempered woodwork teacher Gary (Tom Mannion, who commanded a Star Destroyer in Return of the Jedi) is tidying up tools, fit PE teacher Nicky (Hollyoaks’ Roxanne McKee) is working out in the school gym and an unnamed janitor (the great Chris Adamson: Razor Blade Smile, Evil Aliens etc.) is cleaning the place. Keeping an eye on the school are a brace of security guards: experienced Brian (Jamie Kenna: Children of Men) and bored, young no-hoper James (Finlay Robertson: The Disappeared, he was also the guy who catalogues the video easter eggs in the Doctor Who episode ‘Blink’).

There is the scenario, those are our characters. All we need now is a threat.

Anderson argues with - and slaps - Kate who runs off. In searching for her through the corridors, her father starts to suspect that there are some kids in the building, causing trouble. But James isn’t interested: Anderson is known for his (justified) distrust of youngsters and viewed as a paranoid old git by the rest of the school staff.

However, the audience are privy to the truth, or at least a vague version thereof. Because we saw what happened to the other security guard when he ventured out into the car park. Let’s just call Brian’s death shocking, savage and cruel and leave you to find out the details.

One by one, the characters find themselves not alone. Figures scuttle or leap past in the background. Unexplained noises betray an unauthorised presence. Sometimes it’s more overt: Nicky finds a basketball bouncing in the sports hall but dismisses the occurrence until the same ball bounces into the women’s changing room.

Someone is inside the school. Someone who shouldn’t be there. Several someones with knives and a psychopathic intent. Someone - or something.

This is where Roberts’ film works its wonder. You see, when Jo first told me about this, I said I probably wouldn’t be interested. It sounded like an indoor version of Eden Lake. Hoodie horror in the locker room. I’ve got no interest in some violent, ugly piece of hatred, however much it may masquerade as social polemic. Thing is: Jo isn’t interested in that either and he assured me that F was not that sort of film.

Yes, the threat is young people in hooded tops. Or rather, it has the same shape as young people in hooded tops. But underneath every hood is silent darkness. There is no characterisation of these hoodies, no individualisation, no humanity. There is every possibility that they are in fact not human youths but some sort of supernatural beings.

In an era when the liberal press like to complain about ‘the demonisation of young people’, Johannes Roberts has literally demonised them by turning them into supernatural terrors. Or turning supernatural terrors into young people. There is an undeniable influence of J-horror here - think of Tartan’s sleeve for the original version of Dark Water - but to my mind the closest comparison is another UK horror, The Descent.

The greatest strength of Neil Marshall’s film was its ambiguity. For months afterwards, discussion forums were full of arguments about whether the Creepers were real or all in the lead character’s head. And if they’re real, what is their nature and origin? And if they’re in her head, at what point does the film move from reality to hallucination?

Similarly, the hoodies in F are brilliantly ambiguous. We are never told or shown anything which would confirm whether they are supernatural or just bad kids looking for a spot of the old ultra-violence. Both arguments are equally valid.

A week before shooting began on F, Roberts had a lucky break when his 1st AD spotted some teenagers practising parkour - free-running - and those youngsters were hired to portray the threat in the film. So these ‘parkour hoodies’ (as the script referred to them) jump up onto things, leap nimbly to the floor, run and scramble in a way which is potentially human but seems unhuman. It’s an absolute stroke of genius.

On the one hand, it lends weight to the supernatural theory: if these kids were violent trouble-makers they would be unlikely to also have the self-discipline needed for parkour, and if they were out of their heads on drugs or booze, they certainly wouldn’t be that agile and nimble. But at the same time, it fails to disspell the rational theory because the ‘parkour hoodies’ never do anything overtly paranormal or fantastical. We know that teenage kids don’t act like this, but we also know - as this film ably demonstrates - that teenage kids can act like this.

In fact there are at least four possible interpretations of this story, bearing in mind Anderson’s poor state of mental and physical health. In short: they’re real, they’re supernatural, he’s drunk or he’s dead. That came from a single post-screening chat. There may well be other interpretations offered once more people have had a chance to see the film.

Roberts skilfully weaves the together the largely isolated characters, some of whom believe there are kids in the school, some of whom dismiss the idea. Subsequent additions to the building’s small population include Kate’s boyfriend Jake (Max Fowler), her mother and a couple of police officers who eventually turn up (Alexander Ellis: Beyond the Rave; and prolific indie horror actress Tina Barnes whose CV includes not only Roberts’ Hellbreeder and Darkhunters but also Bane, The Witches Hammer, Nightmares, A Day of Violence, Bordello Death Tales and The Hunt for Gollum).

What is abundantly clear to the audience, but becomes evident to the characters either very gradually or too late, is that there is a real, deadly threat here. We never see any actual violence, only the effects of violence, but those effects are gruesome. The camera doesn’t dwell on Dan Martin’s special effects make-up but we get a few shots of dead and nearly-dead characters which make it clear that the hoodies are sadistically, pointlessly violent. But then we knew that the moment we saw what happened to Brian the security guard. (Martin’s many credits include work on The Wolfman, Sunshine, The Devil’s Chair, Batman Begins and Mutant Chronicles.)

And yet there are other characters whose ultimate fate is never shown. We can just infer that they are either dead or wishing they were dead. The whole film is riven with carefully devised ambiguity, of the sort that breeds even more ambiguity among audiences than Johannes Roberts probably ever conceived.

The ending, when it comes, will catch you by surprise because there is no neat and simple wrap-up. There is redemption for Anderson, but at a terrible price, a climactic ‘Sophie’s choice’ that will leave you aghast. But what is really happening? That we’ll never know. And I’m not sure Jo Roberts does either.

Shot almost entirely handheld (although this isn’t rammed home and so doesn’t distract) and with lots of momentary action in out-of-focus backgrounds, F is a tour-de-force by the camera crew, led by cinematographer Tim Siddell (who has a day-job as Senior Lecturer in Photography at Anglia Ruskin University).

Malin Lindholm (The Disappeared) was production designer; Anna-Louise Day (Winter’s Secret) oversaw costumes; editor John Palmer also cut as-yet-unreleased UK horror feature Psychosis aka Vivid; and Neil Stemp (who worked on a Marvel superheroes video game) provided the score.

The location, which Jo identified as a great place to shoot even before he had written the script. is a real school near Cambridge which judiciously asked not to be identified in the credits, although when F is released someone will no doubt have identified it on Facebook or Twitter within five minutes.

Roberts cites F as a much more personal project than his previous work. After making his debut with Sanitarium aka Diagnosis a decade ago, he has directed four intermediate features, all of them unashamed horror B-movies: Hellbreeder, Darkhunters, Forest of the Damned and When Evil Calls (which was edited together from a serial disseminated through mobile phones). All five features have received a UK DVD release and some have been released in other territories too (Forest of the Damned was retitled Demonic for the USA), making Roberts one of the most prolific and successful indie film-makers currently working in British horror. Although ‘successful’ has a different meaning at this level of production. Producer Ernest Riera worked with Roberts on Forest... and When Evil Calls and is currently directing Forest of the Damned 2.

F was designed to be shot on a very low budget but nearly had considerably more money when it teetered on the edge of being a UK/US co-production. But Roberts turned down the US money in order to retain personal control over matters such as casting. Which, it must be said, was both brave and wise. Schofield is perfect, his craggy face filling the screen in the many extreme close-ups which, if one is being picky, are somewhat overused in the early part of the film.

The only other reasonable criticism which might occur to you when watching F is that, for what is supposedly a dodgy, bottom-of-the-tables school, it’s odd that there is no-one else in detention that evening. But that’s a footling annoyance and is more than assuaged by some deft plotting, as when Kate nearly makes it to Jake’s car but he doesn’t see what happens to her.

Which raises another interesting point. Although the school phones are all dead, most characters do have mobiles and the building is never locked. A lesser film-maker would have contrived to find artificial ways to keep potential victims in the building and remove their ability to call the police. Johannes Roberts works through those problems in his slick script, believably and adding to, rather than detracting from, the credibility of the situation and his characters’ actions.

Before a preview screening at the Bloodlines horror film conference in Leicester in March 2010, Roberts shared the stage with Jake West and Mum and Dad director Steven Shiel for a panel on contemporary British horror, and he made the point that what he really wants from a horror film is to be scared. In that respect, F works brilliantly because it really is genuinely frightening. It’s a film that generates fear, not just atmosphere. And it doesn’t resort to cheap cat-scares. There are a few cat-scares in the first half of the film but they serve a narrative purpose, frightening the characters, not just the audience.

The sheer originality of F is perhaps its greatest strength in this regard, with no clue as to (as another film once put it) who will survive and what will become of them. The story is taut and carefully structured without being simplistic or linear. The characters are all credible and none of them are simplistic. It is also noticeable that the film doesn’t fall into the trap of generalising about either kids or adult authority figures. There are no truly sympathetic characters in the school but they are all real.

This is certainly Johannes Roberts’ most mature and accomplished film to date. In its exploration of urban middle-class angst it says a lot about society - and about the human condition in general, which could not be adequately expressed if it was just about a bunch of hoodie-wearing, alcopop-swigging thugs bent on trouble.

Everyone will get something slightly different out of F, and that’s a good thing in my book. Strike up another title which will loom large when the definitive history of the 21st century British Horror Revival is written.

Far from an F, this film deserves an...

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 7th August 2010

Saturday, 27 April 2013

interview: Jennifer Evans

I interviewed Jenny Evans about her role as Cat in Evil Aliens in October 2005 and used part of this in the article I wrote for Fangoria. A few months later I interviewed Jenny again, on stage at Leicester Phoenix Arts, at a screening of that film. Jenny can also be seen in the short films Close Your Eyes and Plastic Reality.

How did you come to be cast in Evil Aliens?
“My then agent sent me along for the casting. I knew nothing about it at all and wasn’t aware it was such a good project (which was a good thing as I was less nervous!). It was only afterwards when I read the script and had a meeting with Jake West and the producer that I realised I had landed on my feet and was onboard a cool project.”

What appealed to you about the role?
“The role of Cat was a really fun one to play. She’s a little offbeat and quirky and I like roles that require that side of me. Pretty quickly things kick off when she gets abducted and her life goes downhill from there with spectacular results - giving me some full-on emotions to work through, which was great.”

What is Jake West like as a director?
“Jake is laidback yet specific in his direction. He knows what he’s after and moves pretty quickly.”

What were the locations like?
“We used various locations, one of which was Wookey Hole Caves (for the underground cavern scenes). It was great as we were there after hours and had the whole place to ourselves to explore, which was very cool. Also, while we filmed in Dorset by the sea we stayed on a caravan site - so when we were off duty it felt like we were teenagers on holiday!”

What were the best and worst things about making this movie?
“The best things:
It was my first feature film, so I was very happy indeed to be onboard.
Getting to really scream my head off - it’s not every day you get to do that!
Being on location in Dorset was lovely. I had a couple of days off while we were there, so it was like a mini seaside break!
Cat’s transformation scene was cathartic - I really let loose.
Getting my body cast was a bizarre experience - scary yet pleasurable all at once!

“The worst things... hmmm:
Those flipping freezing cold night shoots.
All that sticky blood and having to keep it on for hours (all sorts of crap sticks to it) plus having it squirted up my nose was definitely not nice!
Wearing the alien head and arms whilst trying to eat my dinner!
The mouthfuls of disturbing cold miscellaneous soup every time my character had to vomit (I came close to the real thing!).”

What did you think of the film when you finally saw the completed movie?
“It took two years to finish so by the time I saw it, it was like seeing an old friend! It was very exciting to see what Jake had done with it and I was really impressed with the finished results. It’s a very original British film, which I am very proud to be part of!”

interview originally posted 31st July 2006
website: www.jenniferevans.co.uk

interview: Gareth Evans

Gareth Evans - aka GH Evans, writer-director of the superb Footsteps - kindly agreed to an e-mail interview in October 2006 and gave me these wonderfully detailed answers. Gareth later achieved tremendous success with Merantau Warrior and The Raid.

To what extent is the film based on real news stories, on urban legends or on your own imagination?
“It was never my intention really to make what is usually perceived as a ‘social’ film. I wasn't setting out to use the film as a soapbox for my own personal views but sure I was influenced by news reports and observations around me. While not explicitly shown in the film, I had wanted to address that issue of ignorance allowing violence to breed - and by this I don't mean ignorance in a racial or religious context but just in that general decline where you feel that, even in a crowded room of strangers, no-one would step in to help you out of a threatening situation ’cos they'd rather not make it their business. It was that whole idea of us sitting idly by, not intervening, while others are put upon, and with the media making a sensational outrage of happy slapping as some nationwide ‘psycho youth’ epidemic, it tied in casual violence with video-sharing, which eventually led to the snuff film element being the perfect way to represent that theme.

“I'd heard some stories about snuff films, and so far it is largely considered to be an urban myth, something which I hope it stays - there's no evidence to suggest it exists, but a lot of bad things go on in the world that we don't know about. There was no point really in me trying to argue whether or not such an industry existed ’cos it’s not essential to the story; the story is all about Andrew's redemptive process.

“So, once I'd decided to centre his redemption around his involvement in the snuff industry, I decided to try something new, take it in a different angle and avoid the subterranean goth-influenced stereotype of grunge and gore. Instead I set it in a very real office space, a very organised, casual workplace. There's no grimacing loonies, no balding bespectacled weirdos with perverse grins; instead there's a guy offering you a cup of tea on your first day, a shooting room, an edit suite, an accountant! It was plunging this oft-seen vile underbelly of mythology into a relatable everyday office existence that made it all the more creepy, but also absurdly black humoured. It gave an otherwise nihilistic tale an odd injection of humour to prevent it from being all just doom and gloom.”

How did you set about finding your cast and crew?
“For the lead role it was always going to be Nick. I'd worked with both him and Emma Powell (whom we cast as Sera) on a short film for a youth theatre project four years prior and he had a good work ethic about him and a deep understanding of the types of films I was hoping to make. I sent him the treatment at a very early stage and so I was able to clearly discuss with him the growth of the character to the point that on-set it didn't matter how far we jumped in the chronology of the script, he had it nailed down perfectly and knew exactly where his character was and exactly how to play it. We were very lucky to have him on board, he carried off a very difficult character to play and I was able to put my absolute trust in his performance throughout the entire shoot.

“Originally, due to the low budget we were dealing with, we set out to cast the rest of the film entirely using local actors. So we approached various amdram societies, drama colleges and agencies but the turnout was quite poor and we were fast approaching our auditions date. So we put an ad up on Mandy.com and almost immediately were inundated with e-mails from actors all over the world. Thankfully, from that list of candidates we were able to cast Jared Morgan as the Cameraman, Solitaire Mouneimne as Michelle and of course Mads Koudal as Paul. So yeah, our initial plan to cast locally was pretty much shot to shreds once we'd agreed to fly Mads in from Denmark but as you'll see from the film, he was worth every penny, as were all the cast.

“It was our debut feature and we were dealing with some pretty taxing hours (our first day lasted eighteen hours of shooting with a further eight hours prep-time leading up to the shoot) yet nobody complained. Everyone just did their job and performed, far exceeding my expectations. It was the best start to the film we could've hoped for - it was an exciting time watching through the rushes.

“For the crew, I was lucky enough to already have a core film crew assembled purely out of friends I'd met through university. I set up the company Random Films Ltd alongside Matt Flannery, a very talented writer/director in his own right, who became the DoP for Footsteps. Meanwhile my good friend Graham Hellis is a musician so we knew we had the score fixed. A colleague of mine at work (George Falloon) recorded the sound for us, and Stewart Atwill - another friend of mine - had experience working at a theatre and so we had the lighting and electrical work covered. In addition we were lucky to have on board Tom Alcott who at the time was a film student at Aberystwyth University; he came on board and worked alongside Stewart and George handling sound recording and lighting.”

Much of the film has little or no dialogue: what problems did that present for you as scriptwriter and as director?
“It's strange but, seeing as the majority of my film intake is usually from Japan, I found that the hardest part was actually writing dialogue. Writing a scene where everything had to be told visually felt a lot more natural to me and I just found it to be a lot easier to establish a sense of characterisation and plot development through focusing on body language and the editing process as opposed to expositional dialogue. When you abandon the idea of straightforward dialogue as a narrative device, it forces you to think a lot more crucially about shot composition and the juxtaposition of images - so I approached the film with an editor's mindset. The transitions between scenes had to play a role, portraying much more than just the simple jumping from one scene to the next. They had to tell you something about the characters and had to engage you into the story.

“Now this concentration on shot composition can at times be a difficult process for the actors. There's nothing worse than stopping and starting for each set-up - it breaks the flow and can result in patchy performances. So I approached each day by talking through the shot list with Matt in great detail so we could create a shooting atmosphere that was free-flowing to allow the actors to have the opportunity to dig up their emotions and keep them consistent for each scene. This meant that we very rarely paused for a different set-up, we just ran through each scene in its entirety, almost like a play, and Matt would be able to drift in and out of the scene focusing on different gestures for cutaways and give me as much material as I could possibly need to piece the scenes together. It made filming so much more exciting as we allowed the actors to deviate from the script and improvise. I would hold from calling cut until the absolute final moment as we were getting some great stuff being brought to the table each day.”

In what way has your interest in Japanese cinema influenced the film?
“Again, my influences from Japanese cinema are largely in the telling of the story. I was quite economical when it came to dialogue; Japanese cinema tends to be quite oblique and has a vagueness to its storytelling. I was heavily influenced by the structure and introspection present in the works of Shinya Tsukamoto and Takeshi Kitano in particular - it's a style that I've always admired - while, in terms of the violent content of Footsteps, there are shades of Takashi Miike. I decided not to shy away from presenting the violence as something truly ugly and grotesque. I didn't set out to offend or disturb, but just to make the violence feel as real as I could, to make each punch or kick feel like it truly connected for it to have an impact on the audience emotionally rather than purely on a visceral level.

“What I find interesting about Miike as a director is that, whenever I watch a film of his, there's a fearlessness about his approach which makes for an exhilarating experience. It doesn't matter which genre or age group his films are aimed at, I'm still uncertain of where he's going to take me with each film. It's that exciting, almost fearful prospect that I love about his work, and so if I can achieve that same sense of wonder with each production and each genre then I'll be happy.”

How important was the lighting and cinematography to the way that you told the story?
“Light, much like the editing, played a strong part in representing the psychology of Andrew's character. Aside from the tried and tested blue and red lighting that is prominently used as a sign of both his rage and his loneliness, the film also plays around with the themes of darkness and light to suggest his inner moral conflict. There are a number of scenes that are symmetrical in the shots that are used, but are made vastly different by making changes to the light. After he has ‘performed’ in work with the Cameraman he finds that he has the money to get his life back on track in a financial sense, so we had Andrew himself switching off the lights around him, plunging himself back into darkness, the light being symbolic of the shame that he is struggling to deal with.

“We also played around with warm and cool colours. For the flashback sequences when his father was still alive and his life was a much happier affair, we offset the scenes by tinting them to appear a lot more inviting, using yellows and oranges, acting as a stark contrast to the bleak ‘present’ which is quite often desaturated and cold. It was essential to present Andrew as someone who has lost something, someone who was once happy - he couldn't be just a sullen young man or else the audience wouldn't relate to him. There is a reason that he has become the way he has, and so the story had to be about his redemptive process, and so the colour and the lighting were just extra layers to add to the atmosphere of the film.

“In addition, we knew from the very beginning that we had to strive to achieve something memorable with the cinematography. It's all part of the low-budget indie film stigma, so we tried to raise the production values of the film with some dolly shots and high-angles while shooting the entire film using progressive scan to remove that interlaced video sheen usually associated with DV. Matt made great use of depth-of-field shots and he and Stewart both built our dolly and bird’s-eye view jib (used in the nightclub toilet scene). Other than home-made kit, we splashed out on a DV-rig to give our verite-style hand-held shots a steadiness (largely inspired by Nicholas Winding Refn's incredible Pusher trilogy) and a sticky-pod (which is essentially a metal plate with four suction cups to attach the camera to a flat surface) for filming dialogue in a moving car - you've never seen a crew more nervous.”

How has Footsteps been received and what are you planning next?
“So far, very few people have had anything negative to say about the film which, considering its content, is quite surprising. We had the best start you could imagine by being awarded Best Film on the same day of the premiere at the Swansea Film Festival back in June of this year. Reviews meanwhile have been very positive and it’s all very overwhelming. More recently, the film is due to be represented at this year’s American Film Market in November by Anthem Pictures (on behalf of Cinesales Inc), so the next step for the film now is distribution and broadcast.

“Our next projects include directing a music video for Welsh music show Bandit, while Matt is putting the final touches to what will be his directorial debut The Fatal Bellman an epic drama thriller that we are starting to develop with a view to shoot early next year.

“Meanwhile, I’m currently in the early stages of writing a horror feature Petals that I hope to get ready to film almost immediately after Bellman. I'd promised my wife, after having to put up with the gore in Footsteps, that I'd write her a romance drama next, which I had started during post-production on Footsteps - but this great horror story started calling to me and after spending a day or two getting excited by the scope of ideas and the characters it just snowballed and took over and so the romance drama has been shelved for a couple of months while I get the grimy world of horror out of my system. It promises to be a fairly intense ride.”

interview originally posted 23rd October 2006

interview: Darren Etienne

Darren Etienne wrote and directed The Entomologist, a quite superb animated short. I spoke with Darren on 11th January 2001 because the organisation I was then working for, East Midlands Arts, had part-funded the film. At the time, Darren had just discovered that The Entomologist had made it past the first round of BAFTA selection (although it didn’t make it onto the eventual short list).

Congratulations on the BAFTA news. How did that happen?
"We knew the competition would be pretty stiff. We're pitching against companies who have done this before, maybe even won a BAFTA. I was scanning the festivals page of the BFI website when I found a link to a page that said, 'get your BAFTA applications in' and we'd just finished the film. From about 200 films we're now on a list of 20, which is very exciting.”

What is the film’s history?
"We received a bursary from East Midlands Arts in May 1997 and started production towards the end of that summer. We finally finished the film in August 2000, three years later. It's been a struggle, but people's response has been very good. That initial support from EMA chuffed us no end - it was very important.”

So what now?
"We're going to spend this year sending the film off to festivals. Next week I'm taking it to the Abbeville Festival in France.

What problems have you faced in making what is a very ambitious project?
"We've had plenty of problems along the way. One of our cameras - well, actually our camera! - developed a fault, and even when it came back after being repaired it still wasn't right. We had a black bar on the image, but fortunately because we were editing on video we could digitally enlarge the image to move the bar off the frame. We would love to be able to transfer back to a film print but we don't have the money for that right now.”

What about the production design?
"We had a friend who did a degree in sculpture, then did an MA in Film and Television Design, and we asked him to do some sketches for the room in which the later part of the film is set. He came back to us with really detailed plans and drawings, so we then asked him to build the whole set, which he did. And he did a fantastic job.”

You directed the film with your brother.
"My brother Jason and I directed the film between us, from a script by myself. It was produced by me, Jason and Mark Swain, who designed and built the sets. We also had some help from the Lighthouse in Brighton and from South East Arts.”

What’s your background?
"This is my first animated film. I studied illustration and fine art and later did an HND in film and video, specifically to learn about animation and study technique. I've been interested in this all my life. I've always drawn, but I was never sure whether painting was my thing or sculpture was my thing. Everything that I'm interested in - and the same for Jason - is involved in animation."

interview originally posted before November 2004

interview: Norman England

As I live in Leicester and Norman England lives in Tokyo, we naturally first met halfway inbetween - in LA. It was at a Godzilla convention and, knowing each other’s work for Fangoria, we hit it off and have stayed in touch since. In 2006, Norman sent me a copy of his first film, the charming sci-fi fantasy/comedy The iDol. Naturally, I wasn’t going to let him get away without one of my notorious six-question mini-interviews, and Norman came up with some great answers.

What made you, after all these years of interviewing film-makers, decide to make a film yourself?
“This was my goal from the start of my set visiting days. Like many who grew up on a healthy diet of TV and cinema, I’ve a desire to make film. But, as you know, there aren’t help wanted ads in the paper reading, ‘Wanted: director/creator to helm blockbuster picture.’ It’s a closed-off world with no clearly defined point of entry. When I started writing, which was just a way to express my love of film and hone my ability to put words together coherently, I began to see that my press credentials were a kind of pass into the film world and that I’d be a fool not to make something of it. Once allowed access, I made it my business to learn all I could about the film-making process.”

Apart from the obvious, how does a Japanese film script differ from a western one, and how easy was it for you to produce a workable script?
“In many ways they are similar. You know, dialogue, scene descriptions, the one-page-equals-one-minute thing. But they run in traditional Japanese style, which is top-to-bottom text and read left-to-right. There’s also a lot of space at the top for note taking, which I like.

“Making the script for The iDol from my English original was a real endeavour. I worked on the Japanese version with Jiro Kaneko, who I met in 2000 on a trip to Tokyo before I moved to the city. Jiro translated it in sections, with me checking his translation and making suggestions. My Japanese is adequate, but I don’t consider myself qualified to write in it. In any case, if I felt he missed a nuance we would talk about it and would try to find the closest equivalent in Japanese.

“It took two years and we wrote the script twice from top to bottom. The first time we thought to translate the English dialogue literally, sort of what Charles Dickens did with French expressions in A Tale of Two Cities. Well, that didn’t work out so well. The response from people was that it came across like subtitles. So, we abandoned that approach and wrote the dialogue from a purely Japanese point of view. That’s the interesting thing about languages; there is no best one. In some cases the English was sharper and in others Japanese was better suited.

“To complicate matters, director Takashi Yamazaki gave it a full rewrite. This was a bit of a dilemma. I respect Yamazaki a lot and was honoured that he took the time to do this, especially since he was in the midst of Always: San chome no yuhi. At this point, I had two scripts that started the same and ended the same, but sort of zigzagged around similar plot points. It was kind of a mess and I didn’t know which way to turn. I solved things by making a flow chart of both versions to see where they intersected and where they diverged. I then chose the elements I liked best. In the end, I stayed with much of my original intent, but I did use a few of Yamazaki’s points. Ironically, I kept the photographer in the park, which was his idea and which he wound up playing. When we were shooting this scene I said to him, ‘I think you created this part just have a role in the film!’”

One hour is actually an odd length for a modern film - not quite a feature but too long to be a short. Why did you make the film this length?
“I’m the first to admit that the length works against the film in terms of selling it. However, I feel that this is a prejudice imposed by US studios and TV. In the ’20s and ’30s, films were of lengths close to this. Even in the ’50s, a lot of great sci-fi clocks in under 70 minutes. I thought about adding ten minutes or so, but in the end, I felt that it would just stretch things out too much and hurt the film. Actually, the character development is closer to that of a short film, with no superfluous scenes present to add meat to their spine. I thought about doing this, but the reality was that I didn’t have the money to add extra days to the shoot. Also, the film is more a fable than a character study.”

What response has the film received from critics, audiences and industry people?
“So far, the response has been very good. Better than I hoped, with the first showing at Fantasia exceeding my wildest dreams. Although Fantasia is comprised of people who love films that dare to be different, they really showed an enthusiasm beyond anything I anticipated.

“I’m now working on getting it seen at other film events and a limited theatre run in Tokyo. I’m meeting with people and they all seem happy with the film despite the limitations forced on the film because of the low budget.

“This is not to say that everyone loves the film. I’ve had people say they don’t get it and find it confusing. Honestly, this doesn’t bother me. It’s kind of a strange piece of film. However, enough people have given it thumbs up that I know there is an audience for it. Besides, if your goal is to have your work loved by all and you can’t accept that fact that someone won’t respond in the way you would like, then I suggest you don’t involve yourself in the arts. I mean, I meet people who tell me they hate The Beatles. My feeling is that if someone can hate something as obviously genius level as The Beatles, then how can I expect to fair better?”

What did you learn while making The iDol that you wish you had known beforehand?
“That I should trust my instincts more. As a first time director a lot of people thought they had to watch my back. Not to say that I had people working against me, just that as a director you are supposed to be holding the cards and some people were nervous about this. But this is just the way it is for every first time director. No one trusts you because you have nothing to show. It’s not an enviable position to be in, but if you want to make a film it’s something you have to go through. Shortly after I wrapped The iDol I was on the set of God’s Left Hand, Devil’s Right Hand and director Shusuke Kaneko laughed after hearing some of my stories and said, ‘I went through the exact same thing on my first film. And I deserved it too because I was probably the worst director back then.’

“But the most important lesson I learned is that no matter what you think, the reality of heading a set is something you can’t fully fathom until you are actually in the position of director. Many fans like to nitpick and say they would do this and that if they had been the director. Well, maybe this is so, but there are so many things a director has to deal with that you just might find your brilliant fix lost under the weight of a thousand other decisions.”

What plans or ideas do you have for future films?
“I’m doing a variety of film related things and am in the process of incorporating my company, iD iMages. I have a small staff and a large network of filmmakers and contacts at studios in both Japan and the US, as well as DVD companies on both sides of the globe. Of course my real goal is to continue to make films. I have just finished my next script and think it is something that has never been attempted in Japan before. Already I have gotten commitments from some major filmmakers and studios who like the story, see what I am attempting and want to be involved. As I am still in the pre-preproduction phase, I can’t really talk about it in detail. I will say that it is once again science fiction, but not of the type you normally see out of Asia.

“The motion picture and the industry surrounding it are very much at a crossroads point, and this especially true in Japan. Japanese horror is running out of steam, there is no really innovative anime coming out, and Japanese romance and family TV dramas wallow in sentimental hogwash or rely on absurd gimmicks and star appeal. The Internet has everyone scared too. Nearly everyone in Japan is connected with 100mbs optic fibre connections. These are interesting times, and I believe these so-called problems will get worked out through a combination of technical innovation and old-fashioned talent. And my plans are to be there making the kind of films I love.”

interview originally posted 2nd November 2006

interview: Caleb Emerson

Caleb Emerson, director of Die You Zombie Bastards!, kindly answered some e-mail questions which I sent him in September 2006.

Can you explain briefly the origins of Red’s Breakfast and how that developed ultimately into Die You Zombie Bastards!?
“The Red's Breakfast films were each basically a different technical exercise that I did while in college. The first Red's Breakfast was a five-minute video shot on Hi-8 that I did as a final project for my ‘Intro to video’ class in 1995. I wanted to get into special make-up effects, so the whole point of that was to have an excuse to do a gore effect. There was no plot... just a guy who wakes up and rips open a girls stomach to eat her innards. Tim (Red) was my best friend at the time... and I thought he was funny as hell so I asked him to be in it. That's basically it. The next year, I ditched video to focus on film.

“It was a synch-sound class, and after a few short exercises we had a few weeks to put together a final ‘whatever you want’ project. So, I decide to go back to Tim and Red because we had so much fun the last time. I had just started seeing a girl at the time and was in the middle of a very happy time. So, I had Red be this total weirdo who finds the girl of his dreams... and that's pretty much the entire film: psychopath falls in love. That was Red's Breakfast 2: Dawn of the Red. Looking back on it now it's pretty shitty... but there's some good effects and I think it's pretty funny. It runs about 14 minutes and I think it cost around $1,500.

“My final year of school (1997/1998) we had basically the whole year to write, plan, shoot, edit whatever we wanted. Like a lot of kids in my class I wanted to make a giant epic feature film... which of course wasn't going to happen. So I decided to make chapters 1, 6 and 12 of a chapter serial feature. The beginning, middle and end of a feature film... each chapter would start with a recap of the previous one and a preview of the next. It ran about 22 or 23 minutes, shot on 16mm and cost maybe $5,000.

“As far as the story of Red's Breakfast 3 I was thinking of all of my options and I thought I hadn't seen a good superhero movie or a good zombie movie in quite some time (which is really funny now because of the utter onslaught of superhero and zombie movies that were dumped upon the world a few short years later). So Red became a zombie-killing superhero.

“After graduating college in 1998 I wanted to make a feature film... so I decided to finish what I had started. I redid some of my favourite scenes from the Red's Breakfast films and made Die You Zombie Bastards!. It was shot between 2001 and 2003. It was edited and scored through 2004 and had its premiere early in 2005. Now we finally have distribution and the film will be released in the US in January 2007 by Image Entertainment and in the UK by Odeon/Screamhouse (no date that I know of yet).”

Who exactly is/was Rockabilly Legend Hasil Adkins and how did he become involved with the film?
“Hasil was a musician from West Virginia. He made some of the most unique and maniacal country and rockabilly music of all time between the 1950s and 2005 when he passed away. My relationship with Hasil started in 1995 I guess. I did an unsolicited music video for his song ‘No More Hot Dogs’ for a class. I had a few of his records, but really knew nothing about him. I wanted him to see my video for some reason, so I wrote to the record label he was on at the time and they got me in contact with him.

“I sent him the video and he loved it... we became friends through letters and phone calls for a couple of years. I asked him to narrate Red's Breakfast 3 because of his... uh... unique speaking voice. His heavy Southern accent, mixed with his flamboyant outlaw stage persona and a little bit of insomnia and possible alcohol dementia made him nearly impossible to understand... which was what I was going for. Red's Breakfast 3 was so nonsensical that I thought an unintelligible narrator would be perfect, and I wanted an excuse to go and meet him in person. We had such a good time that Haig (co-writer of DYZB!) and I wrote an on-screen part for him in the feature film. I wanted him in the film, and I felt that he was such an overlooked genius that I wanted to capture him in his own environment in a sort of documentary way as well... so that's it. Red is on a road trip and he goes to see Hasil. We filmed him for one day in June of 2003. Although we talked on the phone several more times and exchanged a few more letters that was unfortunately the last time I saw him.”

There is some surprisingly subtle and clever humour in DYZB! and also some very unsubtle humour - what sort of balance were you aiming for?
“Good question. I don't really know how to answer it though aside from the fact that that's just me... that's my sense of humour. Sometimes I find someone mispronouncing a word or doing the perfect eyebrow arch just as funny, if not funnier, than a good dick joke. But I love them both. I love picking up on little things the eighth time I watch a movie, but I am also a big fan of getting hit over the head with an obvious joke. One of my favourite things to make (and now watch) was the world map showing Red's travels. I think that started when I sent Haig a copy of my draft of the Barundeb Duttah scene (that is supposed to take place in Pittsburgh) to get his input.

"He made changes and rewrote some stuff, added some stuff as was our writing process. The scene ends with Red diving into the ocean to swim to Sweden. I think Haig's final note on the scene was, "Uh... you know that Pittsburgh isn't on the ocean... don't you?" I never even though about it that way... so I said, well... in this movie it is. And I slowly started to completely fuck with the world map taking it way to far. So I guess sometimes I keep little things little, sometimes I go with them and just make them bigger. Does that answer the question at all? I got lost.”

How did you get Jamie Gillis involved and did he have any, ah, interesting stories about his extensive career?
“I just tracked him down online, which isn't hard to do, and asked him. I made him (what for this movie was) a pretty generous offer and he agreed. He seemed to like the script, and I think he was a little flattered, or at least appreciative that someone thought enough of his acting skills to use him in this way. Maybe that's presumptuous but it was the vibe I got. I didn't want him in the movie in a Ron Jeremy cameo kind of way, ie: ‘Hey... look... it's that old porn star... ha ha." I paid him because he was a name actor... but I cast him because he is a really good actor, he is funny as hell, and in my opinion he was perfect for the part. Does that make sense?

“Anyway... he was a joy to work with. I am a big fan of his adult stuff... but I didn't want to be too much of a fanboy annoying him with a lot of questions about his past. I did get a couple of On the Prowl questions in (the film Jamie directed that was recreated in Boogie Nights). And at the time we were filming (November 2003) the movie Wonderland (about John Holmes) was about to come out... or maybe it was just announced or something... and we talked about John Holmes and the recent interest in older porn films. But I don't have any revelatory pearls of info that were passed down to me in secret... just friendly small talk. I can't wait to work with Jamie again though... the two days he was on set were among the most enjoyable.”

DYZB! seems like you tried to fit in as many ideas as possible. Was there anything you wanted to include but couldn’t for some reason?
“Mmmmmm... not really. We found a way to do everything that we wanted to. I wish we had hired someone else to do the gore effects (for some reason I decided to do them myself... along with direct and co-produce the film). They look all right, but I wish there were more. Maybe I'm just being self critical. And I wish we could have afforded to do better film negative transfers. But overall I'm really happy with everything.”

How has DYZB! been received by audiences and critics?
“Really well actually. I was expecting to really get torn apart by some of the online critics who seem to be brutal just for fun sometimes. But every screening we've had has gone really well. We won ‘Best Feature’ at the Lausanne Underground festival in Switzerland, ‘Best Feature’ at the Backseat Film Festival in Philadelphia and ‘Best International Feature’, ‘Best Screenplay’ and ‘Best Actor’ (Tim Gerstmar) at Tromanale in Berlin.... and pretty much all of the reviews have been great. Our Film Threat review was pretty mediocre, but it looks like they just gave the movie to the wrong guy. He said it reminded him of a ’Trauma’ film, so clearly this kind of movie wasn't his cup of tea. But the review still wasn't terrible. The only bad review we have received so far was on some guy's blog who was in the audience at Fantasia and he hated it. But all of the big guys like Fangoria, Rue Morgue, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting etc. have really liked it.”

It’s probably the most Tromatic non-Troma film I’ve ever seen. Were you aiming to make a Troma (or Troma-esque) film?
“No, not really. Haig and I both wear our influences on our sleeves. You can see blatant stylistic references to everything that he and I both love. I think that the Troma style is so in your face that it's hard to ignore.... or it's the easiest to pick up on. I love Troma (I worked on Citizen Toxie and the new film about to be released, Poultrygeist) and Lloyd and Michael's films have been a huge influence on me ever since I was a wee lad. But I think if you look you'll see some very non-Troma stuff as well. I think that's one of the reasons we decided to go with Image as a distributor too. Troma has a lot of die-hard fans that will buy anything they put out. But unfortunately, they also have a lot of people (and stores and critics) that are kind of put off by them and we didn't want to alienate ourselves from those people. I don't mean that to sound disrespectful at all... I just want as many people as possible to see this film.”

Is this the last we’ll see of Red and Violet or do you have plans to bring them back again?
“Maybe in ten years with a much bigger budget. But I would not make another cheapie film with these characters.... mostly because I have been doing it for ten years now and I'm a little sick of them and I want to do something else. I think it would be very fun to do an overblown Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back kind of thing after we've done a few more films... but for now it's time to move on. Although, Haig has been working on a screenplay for a sequel. It centres more around the Maldonato Sisters and Red's father Thierry... they team up to hunt a walking shark... and it looks pretty awesome... but for now I'm looking to do something very different (but I would definitely use actors Tim and Pippi in anything that I do... because I think they are both marvellous).”

interview originally posted 14th October 2006
website: www.calebemerson.com

interview: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are one of the most successful writing teams in Hollywood, responsible for such blockbusters as The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney’s Aladdin and Shrek. They also run a terrific website for jobbing and aspiring screenwriters at www.wordplayer.com. In April 2000 Ted and Terry generously agreed to a joint e-mail interview about their work, concentrating on their most recent credit, The Road to El Dorado - a film which changed enormously between script and screen. A couple of years later, Terry kindly answered a few e-mail questions about the first POTC movie.

Please describe the genesis of The Road to El Dorado. Where did this film come from? What was it like in its most basic, purest, original form? What made it stand out from other ideas?
Ted Rossio: “Before Dreamworks was announced, Jeffrey Katzenberg approached us with a big thick book in hand: Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas. He wanted to do an animated film set in that world.”

Terry Elliott: “He also said something that appealed to us greatly. He said that the reason animated movies made by studios other than Disney tend to fail is because they try to make Disney animated movies. Of course, Disney already makes those movies, and they make them very well. What he wanted to do at DreamWorks was make good animated movies which Disney wouldn't make - specifically, he wanted to tell stories which Disney wouldn't tell.

“This dovetailed with something Terry and I had already been thinking about in terms of the main characters of animated movies. In most cases, the main character is a well-meaning innocent whose only real flaw is that they are innocent - perfectly appropriate to coming-of-age stories, which is what most Disney animated movies are. Plus, generally, they aren't all that funny in-and-of-themselves - the really strong comedy falls to the supporting characters, to the sidekicks.

“The key to the sidekick characters, I think, is that they get to be flawed. They get to be greedy, or venal, or stupid ... they don't always evidence the virtuous, well-meaning traits the heroes have to. In short, they are more anti-heroes than heroes.”

TR: “We had been interested in exploring classic comedic forms in animation; previously, working at Disney, we wrote a version of Sinbad that was a classic screwball romantic comedy. For Road to El Dorado, we hit on the idea of creating a comedy team. There aren't any real comedy teams around any more, and there had never been any animated films with duel comedic leads. So what if we let the sidekicks hijack the movie? What if the leads were allowed to be funny?”

TE: “That was the shorthand for: let's do a movie with a pair of comedic anti-heroes. Which was a mistake, I think; so was our citing the Hope-Crosby Road movies as examples. If we'd just said: let's do a dramatic story with anti-heroes who are funny ... well, maybe things would have gone differently.”

How, and to whom (and how long ago), did you pitch the film?
TR: “If I recall, the story was pitched in treatment form. This would be sometime around the spring of 1995.”

TE: “We were primarily working with Jeffrey, of course, but Steven Spielberg and Walter Parkes (with Laurie MacDonald, head of the DreamWorks motion picture division) were very much involved. The story we came up was one everyone liked very much.”

How many drafts have you written, and how many of those were you happy with?
TR: “Rarely was there a full and complete draft of the film. Occasionally the sequences would get assembled together. Mostly it was worked on in pieces, endlessly revising sequences. I can tell you, though, that I once added up all the pages in the computer, and in the end there were over 5,000.”

The big one: how is the finished film different from what you originally intended?
TR: “We originally intended the film to be good. And that's not a flip answer. When you work in animation, you want things to change, you want to make full use of all the talent that gets assembled. And it doesn't matter that stories or sequences or characters change, as long as it gets better. In this case, the film didn't get better.

“Being a bit more specific, I'd say the biggest change is that the original film was intended to be more ambitious, more complex; containing perhaps deeper characterisations, with an eye toward a more sophisticated storytelling to bring off a more sophisticated theme, and more compelling drama. The finished film was simplified in every respect.”

TE: “Like we said, we wanted to do a movie which had comedic anti-heroes. In the finished movie, the characters are pretty much the ones we created, but the story is such that they come across much more as comic heroes - it isn't necessary for them to overcome their flaws and change in order to do the right thing, they just have to decide to do the right thing. Stories which hinge on a character who has to make a decision - instead of having to change and take an action - are inherently dull stories for a movie. And The Road to El Dorado is ultimately just a dull movie.

“The problem, obviously, was that the milieu that Jeffrey had chosen - no less than the near-annihilation of the Mezo-American peoples and the destruction of their culture - didn't really lend itself to a flat-out comedy, we thought. There had to be enough depth in these characters to allow us to do a story which would allow for some real drama - tragedy, even.

“And the original story acknowledged the fundamental tragedy of the milieu - the city of El Dorado (which wasn't even the mythical El Dorado, it was just the first city Tulio and Miguel found, which they mistakenly believed was El Dorado) was not saved. The people ended up abandoning it to Cortes, and vanishing into the jungles - the people survived (barely), but the culture did not. This was also accurate to history - Cortes encountered a number of abandoned cities on his way to Tenochitlan (capital of the Aztec empire), and was our answer to the question ‘What happened to the Mayans?’

“When my fiancee and I were watching Three Kings, she leaned over and whispered to me, ‘This is the movie El Dorado was supposed to be!" And it is - it's more hard-edged, with no songs, of course - but in terms of the basic movement of the story and the development of the characters, the mix of comedy, drama and tragedy and how they flow from one to the other ... yep, that's it. If you want to see a story which is far closer to what El Dorado should have been, watch Three Kings.”

What changes are you least happy with, and are there also changes that you feel were improvements which you wouldn't have made without other people suggesting them?
TR: “I'm most unhappy with how the songs in the finished film simply don't work. At one time, there was a story design where they did work. The story design changed, the songs, for the most part, didn't. And that was one of our original goals - to do an animated musical where the songs had to be there to tell the story, in the best Howard Ashman tradition. It is, perhaps, the biggest failure of the movie.

“As for improvements ... you have to understand the evolving nature of the animation process. At a certain point, a series of bad decisions got locked in. Then some fantastic work was done by many people to try to rescue the movie around those bad decisions. But do those efforts really count as improvements? Past a certain point, there was always a limit to how good the film could be.”

TE: “There is nothing in the movie which wouldn't be there if not for our original story, but everything that is there is worse ... except for the animation itself, of course. I think the animation is beautiful, even extraordinary. I just wish it had been put in service of a story which was its equal.

“I would be remiss to not point out the animation on the Chief, though, and the work of supervising animator Frans Vischer - he is the one character which really has the depth that all the characters should have had. There's a lot going on below the surface there, and it comes through beautifully in the performance.

“I think the problem is that many of the people who make animated movies know the craft and art of animation backwards and forwards, far better than I ever will. But they seem to overlook the ‘movie’ part of it, or give it short shrift. Movies are stories, and stories are more than ‘Here's the characters, and this happens to them, and then this happens to them ...’ - and, unfortunately, in The Road to El Dorado, that's pretty much all the story there is.”

This is the moral one: obviously I appreciate that The Road to El Dorado is your baby, but let me play Devil's advocate and ask what moral right does a writer have to dictate the final screenplay used? (Or put another way: isn't there something in a director's or producer's point of view of: 'This movie could be so great if those writer dudes would just let go of it and let somebody else give it a spin?') (Or put yet another way, once an architect has sold a house, should he be upset if the new owner puts a conservatory on the back?)
TR: “The screenwriter's moral rights end when the writer accepts a payment, selling the work, without any contractual protections. It's always possible to try to negotiate to protect the work, in conjunction with a payment for use. We didn't have that in this case.”

TE: “Like he says. After it became clear that the movie was not going to be our story, we made the choice to remain and keeping working on the picture - because we still liked the characters, we liked a lot of the visual development that had been done, and we believed - if the right story solutions could be found - it could still be a good movie. Unfortunately, those story solutions were predicated on the ability of the people involved to understand what story is - or to listen to the people who did. Neither happened.”

Now we're onto technical questions: how is writing for traditional animation different from writing for live action? And how is writing for computer animation different from or similar to either of the above?
TR: “Storytelling in computer animation is not appreciatively different from traditional animation, in my opinion. The particular story needs overwhelm any small differences associated with technique. But animation is far different from live action. You've got to be faster, more efficient, more expressive. Because of time restrictions, you're essentially working with a two act structure, like a play.”

In writing a musical, how much say did you have in the songs' placing, style and lyrical content? At what stage are the completed songs added to the script?
TR: “We suggested most of the placement of the original songs - or you could say that Tim Rice picked which songs to write and where they would go. Once you construct a story, it's fairly clear what moments are candidates for songs.”

TE: “We would describe the story movement necessary in the song, sometimes in synopses, sometimes in long letters to Tim, sometimes in finished versions of the scenes, complete with dialogue - sometimes, all of those. Basically, we tried to give Tim as much information as we could, and let him shape the song to match the story. And then Tim would send the lyrics to Elton John, and Elton would do his brilliant thing, and then we would rewrite and rework the scene so that the story and song worked to best effect. Of course, since the majority of the songs were written for the story which got thrown out ....”

TR: “The songs kept moving and changing throughout the entire five year period. Once the choice was made to tell a non-dramatic story, a huge amount of effort went into trying to prop up that story, and make it work. That naturally involved new songs, moving songs to new places, cutting songs, and changing lyrics.

“Tim Rice and Elton John constantly came through with great lyrics and melodies. It's really too bad that, due to poor storytelling and placement, the songs don't seem nearly as good as they are.”

The Road to El Dorado seems to be the first thing you've written (or a least seen produced) since Little Monsters that isn't based on existing source material: what are the pros and cons of originality versus adaptation?
TR: “The biggest advantage to adapting a work is that when it gets screwed up, it doesn't hurt quite as much.

TE: “There's always a point on a movie where people begin talking about the characters as if those characters always existed - as if they were not the product of the writers' choices and decisions and creativity. I remember someone coming up to me and telling me that ‘Tzekel-Kan’ actually means ‘Yellow Skull’ in Mayan, and that ‘Yellow’ was the Mayan colour for evil, and ... and I'm sitting there thinking ‘Well, I'm glad he's excited about the name, and likes the name, and has discovered all this heretofore unsuspected depth, but geez! How does he think it all got there?’”

Everything you've worked on seems to fall into the fantasy genre (Zorro is borderline, but heck, he's a superhero of sorts; and The Road to El Dorado has a statue coming to life or something, judging by the trailers): so how important is the fantastic to your work and can you see yourselves ever writing something non-fantastical?
TR: “I think the essential attraction of storytelling is that it provides a fixed pattern of events in compressed form, which mimics people's experience with life: the future being random, the present being the moment of decision, and the past being choices made. Films in particular mirror life in that they show the end result of a whole series of decisions, hopefully excellent decisions, leaving a fixed pattern that is (hopefully) compelling and artful.

“It's the artful part that attracts people - there's an underlying curiosity that, armed with the insights of that particular story, one might be able to make one's own life more artful. And of course there's just the enjoyment of vicariously experiencing an artfully arrange series of events.

“All of which is long-winded preamble to this: what fantasy does it rip apart the basic nature of life, emphasise a particular aspect, in order to emphasise some particular truth. Yeah, you can accomplish the same thing without fantasy, but it's harder - and boy is fantasy a great tool to get to that 'truth' stuff quickly. That's why I like it so much - if your goal is to show underlying patterns of life, the real truths of life, why not play around with those underlying patterns in the story, too?”

TE: “I like fantasy and science fiction. My goal is to wed non-fantastical characterisation and drama - I guess I'd call it ‘real’ - to fantasy and science fiction stories. It's not an original goal, by any means, and it's been accomplished by others incredibly well - particularly in literature - but it doesn't seem to happen too often in movies nowadays."

Individual questions now on your various projects. For each of these I would really appreciate a brief note on what you contributed to the script, and how happy you were with the finished film. First, Little Monsters - where did this come from, and how did you manage to get it made?
TR: “The film was based on my original (unpublished) short story ... really just a snippet, that Ted liked and was able to flesh out in an amazing way. We wrote an original screenplay, which caught the interest of a couple of producers, and sold to MGM. Neither of us much like the finished film. A common occurrence for us - people buy the script and throw it out, and what they replace it with is obviously not as good ... obvious to everybody, of course, except the people in charge.”

How did Aladdin land in your lap, how daunting was it to work on a major Disney feature, and how did the casting of Robin Williams affect your writing of the Genie?
TR: “We were under contract to Disney, so when the need came up for writers on Aladdin, instead of competing with hundreds of others for the job, we only had to compete with a few other staff writers. We heard about the project on a Monday, met to pitch our approach on a Wednesday, and were working on Thursday. Robin Williams was already cast when we were hired, so we knew the voice and style of acting that needed to be written. Aladdin is by far our most pleasant writing experience; it's the film where the greatest percentage of our writing choices survived to the screen.”

TE: “Yeah, Aladdin was a real joy. All the talk that goes around that movies are a collaborative artform, Aladdin is the only movie we've worked on where that is true - where everyone's intent in the collaboration was to make the best possible movie. I credit Ron Clements and John Musker for that - great directors, in the complete sense of the word.“

On The Puppet Masters, how faithful to Heinlein did you try to be or were you allowed to be?
TR: “Our original screenplay was very faithful to Heinlein. Yet another project where our original script was not followed. It's a shame, too; I still believe that book could make a great movie.“

TE: “Actually, early in the process - I think before we turned in our first draft, even - we suggested the novel could give birth to a franchise, about government agents who investigate all types of strange and bizarre pseudo-scientific occurrences. The studio didn't see that potential at all. Of course, a couple of years later, The X-Files premiered (although I was actually thinking more in terms of UFO, an earlier aliens-and-conspiracy-type program).”

TR: “The finished film is pretty terrible. Key stuff from the book was jettisoned. The end result was a film that seemed derivative; ironic, since Heinlein's work was actually the original exploration of so many ideas; he was almost always there first.”

Why aren't you credited on Men in Black, and is it good or bad that your work on this film is an open secret?
TR: “We aren't credited on Men in Black because the WGA didn't award us credit. Over the years, we've determined there isn't much logic to how credits are assigned by the WGA. As it turns out, pretty much no one knows that we worked on Men in Black; it is in no way an 'open secret.' Even Sony, the studio who released the film, doesn't remember that we worked on it.”

Now for your unfilmed version of Godzilla. Oh man, so many questions! How did you cope with the difference between Western and Asian views of the Big G, especially the determination of Western audiences and critics to deride even the best Godzilla movies as Godzilla Vs Megalon-level crap? What instructions did you have from Toho? Why did you feel it important to create a second monster? Where would you like to see (a) the American Godzilla series, and (b) the revived Japanese Godzilla series, go? Which is your favourite Godzilla film, and which do you think is the best one (not necessarily the same thing)? Sorry to get carried away, but I'm a huge Godzilla fan...
TR: “It was obvious to us that audiences wanted two things from a Godzilla movie: they wanted to be scared of this big unstoppable monster, and they wanted to root for him to kick ass in the end. Godzilla is, after all, the hero. That's why we invented a story that involved a second monster. In the film that was made, neither aspect is provided: Godzilla runs and hides, and we never get to root for him. Stupid mistakes, really.”

TE: “We wanted a second monster because we wanted to move Godzilla from where he was in the first movie - unstoppable destroyer who had to be stopped - to where he was at the end of the third movie - defender of the earth, but still not someone you want stopping by unless it's really, absolutely necessary. A friend of mine, a big G-fan from way back, once said about Godzilla that, ‘It's not that he's a good guy - he just hates other monsters.’

“I think the first one - the original, not the recut/redubbed/Raymond Burr-added American release - is the best one. And you can't beat Monster Zero for a great enemy, can you? After that, they all kind of blend together for me. I've liked some of the remakes/updates ... but that first one, with the skeleton at the bottom of the sea ... great stuff.

“By the way, I am convinced that the whole ‘Godzilla is a metaphor for the A-bomb' analysis is wrong. In the original movie, the scientist who unleashes the weapon which kills Godzilla - metaphorically stopping the A-bomb - takes his own life afterwards. Had he died because he was trying to unleash the weapon, I would buy it - ‘We must make sacrifices necessary to prevent this from ever happening again.’ Naw, I think Godzilla is a metaphor for forces unleashed by man which he has no control over, for which he cannot predict the results, and for which he refuses to take responsibility. This makes the scientist's actions both correct to the metaphor, and makes him undeniably the hero of the movie. And I wish I could remember his name.”

TR: “In the end, there's not much use in our answering questions about Godzilla. It would make as much sense to ask questions about James Bond, or Indiana Jones. Because we've never written a Bond film, or an Indiana Jones film - or a Godzilla film. The Godzilla film that got made didn't have anything to do with our work. Our credit on the film is just another testament to the vagaries of the WGA credit arbitration process.”

TE: “I think it did have something to do with our work, with the basic approach we took to Godzilla - that he had to be presented as a serious threat, as something real. No dancing the jig or playing hoops with Charles Berkeley. That may sound like a no-brainer to Godzilla fans, but at the time we got the assignment, we were the only ones thinking that way. In fact, Devlin and Emmerich had been offered the project before we were, and turned it down because they didn't think Godzilla could be done except as an Airplane!-type spoof.

“Later, after the movie was completed, we met Dean Devlin - the first and only time we'd ever spoken to him - and he said that it was reading our screenplay convinced them that it could be done seriously. Of course, they then chucked our screenplay and did their own, borrowing a few key elements from our story (specifically, Godzilla travelling toward New York with a purpose - although in ours, his purpose was to fight another monster, not to lay a bunch of eggs). So in a way, the Godzilla movie that got made was due to us - but it sure wasn't the Godzilla movie we wanted to see made. This is getting a little monotonous, isn't it? Let's talk about Aladdin some more.”

The story in Small Soldiers - toys that are actually military weapons - is similar to a movie called Replicator which preceded it by a couple of years. Any comments?
TR: “I don't know Replicator so I can't say whether it's similar.”

TE: “Me, neither. The original screenplay was by Gavin Scott, about a kid who gets some toy soldiers that begin to think for themselves, but Steven Spielberg was the one who suggested there be two toy lines, one soldier and the other monsters. Here's the sad thing about Small Soldiers: while I don't think it’s nearly as bad as many of the other movies on our resume, I do consider it to be our only real failure. The story just never gelled. There were mitigating circumstances, but there are always mitigating circumstances. Terry disagrees with me on this one, but it's how I feel.”

With The Mask of Zorro, as with Godzilla, you were reinventing a character who is iconic in some parts of the world and fairly obscure in other parts, so how do you cope? And to what extent is Zorro a prototype Batman?
TR: “The concept of the masked superhero is universal; there was no worry that it won't play around the world. The creator of Batman, Bob Kane, has consistently cited Zorro as an inspiration for his work.”

TE: “For me, you can't beat a guy in a mask with a sword for universal appeal. Of course, I'm of the mind that any movie with one good sword fight is a good movie, so ...

“I do remember reading one review of The Mask of Zorro where the reviewer slammed the movie because he thought we had tried to take this great classic character and turn him into Batman, right down to the secret cave. Of course, Zorro had a secret cave before Batman did. In fact, in the original Zorro stories, the secret door to the cave was hidden behind a grandfather clock - which is exactly what hides the secret door to the Batcave in the comics.

“Actually, here's an odd thing: in our screenplay, the door to Zorro's cave is a grandfather clock. In order to avoid similarities to Batman, the decision was made to change it to a breakaway fireplace kind of thing - which was the way the Green Hornet used to get to his secret garage. And, of course, the Green Hornet was not too dissimilar a character from Batman, right down to the secret lair, the cool car, the nifty gadgets ...”

How was the writing of Antz affected by the knowledge that A Bug’s Life was in simultaneous development?
TR: “At one point, someone found out that the finale of A Bug’s Life involved a storm. We had a storm, and flood, as a key part of our finale. Eventually ours was changed, partly to 'stay away' from what they were doing. Remember, all during production, it was assumed that Antz would be released second.

“As an aside, Ted and I were present during the initial inspiration for Antz, which came from development executive Nina Jacobson (ironically, now working for Disney). Her inspiration for the film had to do with being an 'ant-like' worker at Dreamworks, and Woody Allen playing the role of the slave in Spartacus, and knowing the promise of using CGI to render the bug world ... it was completely independent (and I think it even preceded) the Disney project. There's no way it was imitative of Disney; you could see how it was born.”

How much liaison did you have with Neil Gaiman when writing your unproduced version of Sandman? What particular problems does his unusual outlook and imagination present to an adaptor?
TE: “The hardest thing we had to do on Sandman was find a way to retell Gaiman's stories as a movie without losing what made those stories special in the first place. Our challenge was to do something which Neil had done with myths and legends in the pages of Sandman - telling them in a new way, which was not in violation of the way they were told originally.”

TR: “That's a script that I still think we nailed perfectly. And part of why it's good is because it's far more Gaiman than us. Which is one way an adaptation can work. We met several times with Neil, and it was great to know he approved of the work. The problem - which I still cannot fathom - is how the folk at Warner Bros could spend money to acquire the Sandman property ... and then want to throw it out. His work is among the best fiction ever written, in any form. Why throw it away?”

Please just tell me everything you're allowed to about your Iron Man project at this stage - the world (well, the readership of SFX) is agog.
TR: “As usual, our goals for this project are high. We want to do a smart, tightly plotted, effective superhero movie, with a real character at the heart of it all, and never-before seen action sequences. Why lower your standards just because it's a comic book? The most exciting thing for us is what a perfect time it is for this story. We live in a time when power is being shifted from governments to industry. When Bill Gates becomes the most powerful man on the planet, you hope to hell that somehow he develops a moral centre, for the sake of us all. That's part of what we want to do with Tony Stark.

“Happily, nobody has really done the definitive realistic superhero movie. The movies (for whatever reason) always take a step back, and don't take it seriously. But to fans, the stories are all real - they may be fun, they may have humour, they may be over the top ... but no fan ever thinks twice about whether it really happened. So we have an opportunity here to do a superhero the way everyone wants to see it.”

What can we expect from Zorro Unmasked, and when can we expect it?
TE: “The studio wants to make it, and I know Antonio Banderas is still practising his fencing, so the best-case scenario would be summer of '01. Although there is many a slip 'twixt the cup and lip, as the saying goes. As for what to expect ... well, I don't want to give away the story, but some of the elements are the California Gold Rush, pirates, a threat from Alejandro's past, an old love from Elena's past ... oh, yeah, and Elena in the Zorro outfit. I guess I kind of buried the lead there, huh?”

TR: “I don't have much hope for this project. We're writing a version of a story that was approved, but I'm not sure it's the best version of the story possible. It could turn out we're doing the sacrificial draft on this one - where you have to execute a story as well as it can possibly be done, to prove definitively to the powers-that-be that the choices made were a mistake. But I don't think, in this case, the project will recover from the initial missteps. But who knows? They may get it and love it.”

TE: “There is the problem that as we started working out the story, we came up with a number of ‘This would be cool!’ kind of things. Walter Parkes at Amblin liked half of them and hated half of them, and the Columbia execs liked half of them and hated half of them - and they were literally, no hyperbole here, diametrically opposed. I guess I have higher hopes for the project because Steven Spielberg got involved at that point, and liked all of them ... which means, at the very least, our ideas for what would be a cool Zorro sequel appeal to Steven's sensibilities.”

What is Shrek, what stage is it at, and why has it described as the one animated project that gives Jeffrey Katzenberg worse nightmares than The Road to El Dorado?
TR: “The heart of Shrek is to do a story that plays with fairy tale conventions - to do a story set in a world where people are aware of fairy tales, and in fact probably know the people who were in the original stories. Kind of a Douglas Adams treatment of the fairy tale world, if you will. The problem is that the people involved with the project are unfamiliar with that subgenre ... Terry Pratchett's work, or Piers Anthony, or even Larry Niven. So conventions keep coming up and being proposed as story solutions, but the whole point is to undermine the conventions, go a couple steps past. It takes a particular comic sensibility to pull that off.”

TE: “The problems Jeffrey is referring to really stem from the fact that Chris Farley was so clearly the right choice for the character of Shrek that, when he passed away, it threw a huge monkey wrench into the works.”

TR: “The best hope for the project is that Mike Myers is involved - as well as Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow - and as usual, there is an amazing group of talented people assembled to work on the movie.”

What on Earth is Timekeeper? And how does a script for a theme park ride differ from a movie script?
TR: “We did some work on the pre-show and show for a Disney circlevision project. Just one of those things that comes up when you're under contract to a studio.”

TE: “I think it's still running at Euro Disney or Disney Paris or whatever it’s called now ... you know, the one with the really short lines ...”

You wrote a CD-ROM called Director’s Chair. How can you write something as non-linear as a CD-ROM (especially if it has notorious maniacs like Penn and Teller in it)?
TR: “Director's Chair is a program where users can shoot and cut together their own movie. So there needed to be a movie-within-the-game for people to shoot, and that's what we contributed.”

TE: “It was really about tone - there was the comic version of the movie-within-the-game, the dramatic version, the action-adventure version, the noir version (which was different from the dramatic version) ... but the game itself really didn't work, and was kind of annoying.”

Then there’s Treasure Planet. Apart from the cute title, why set Treasure Island in space? And have you seen Space Island, the 1980s Italian mini-series that did exactly the same thing?
TR: “I'm not familiar with Space Island. But Treasure Planet is going to be great. Why have the big US companies not done an animated film in space? Yes, finally, Titan AE is coming out, but Treasure Planet will be better, I'm betting. The project has been one that Ron Clemens and John Musker have wanted to do for years. This one comes from the heart, and I have high expectations.”

TE: “I believe Ron and John pitched Treasure Planet even before they pitched The Little Mermaid. We did a draft of the screenplay for them just after we finished Aladdin, but the project got backburnered again. I don't know how much of our work - if any - will be in the finished movie, but it doesn't matter. Like Terry, I'm just looking forward to seeing Ron and John's Treasure Planet.

Why has A Princess of Mars still not been made when it has so much potential? Has the success of Disney's Tarzan made it easier to get an animated Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation greenlighted?
TR: “When things work, or they're done right, there is a logic to it. But stupidity defies analysis. So there's just no explaining some of the things Hollywood does. One of them is not making A Princess of Mars.

TE: “When we were working on A Princess of Mars, it was intended to be a live-action movie for Touchstone/Hollywood. Long after we left the project, it was shifted over to the Disney animation division.”

What lessons have you learned from The Puppet Masters that you can bring to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? And has Starship Troopers affected its chances of getting made?
TR: “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress won't be made, at least, not by the folk at Dreamworks. Someday someone might do it. There's just no interest from anyone at DreamWorks in the project right now, and the option on the book has expired. One thing that hurt the project was the release of Deep Impact and Armageddon. The big central payoff image of the novel is the rocks slamming down on Earth ... and after those films, the image was no longer unique, or compelling.”

Any comments on (or explanation of): TuskerJack of SwordsUntitled Dead Guy ProjectLady in the CloudsJingle or Instant Karma?
TR: “Let's see. Jack of SwordsLady in the CloudsJingle and Instant Karma are all stalled in Development Hell, essentially dead. Tusker is going to be PDI/Dreamworks' next CGI movie after Shrek; it's a story featuring elephants. I'm fascinated by the Untitled Dead Guy Project; what the heck is that?”

TE: “Jingle and Instant Karma are two movie we're producing, not writing. They are in Development Hell right now, but I would not characterise them as essentially dead. I would characterise them as essentially being punished for sins which are not their own. We intend to do an Orpheus and rescue them - but, trust me, we won't look back. And what the heck is Untitled Dead Guy Project?”

Is there anything else you've worked on that you're proud of (or think might be of interest to the readers)?
TR: “Have to mention our Wordplay site, a place for screenwriters to hang out: amid the madness, it's nice to have something out there that represents your true creative sensibilities. That's www.wordplayer.com. We constantly get a lot of praise regarding the site from writers, so maybe I'll allow myself to think that it's pretty good.”

Finally, a few more quick The Road to El Dorado questions. The title acronym TRTED can be read as TR and Ted: coincidence or conspiracy?
TR: “Destiny.”
TE: “The final ignominious irony.”

What about the Hope/Crosby influence?
TR: “Intentional. Why are there no buddy comedy teams any more?”

TE: “You know what bugs me? In our story, the guys would have been more Butch and Sundance then Bob and Bing. Then the decision was made to jettison our story in order to make them more like Bob and Bing - which, in my mind, meant making the movie really, really funny, with humour that worked on a multiple of levels. And yet, there was a lot of very funny stuff that was either written or boarded which was decided did not belong in the movie. Go figure.”

And, given that your story centres on two sidekicks, the influence of Star Wars or The Hidden Fortress?
TR: “No influence there at all. You might have said Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or The Man Who Would Be King, or Hope and Crosby or Laurel and Hardy or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and then I'd say, 'Yeah, like that, that's what we were going for!'

TE: “In terms of the sidekick-as-lead, the anti-heroes of Seven Samurai or Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark would be more apropos. But, really, for me, it was Hope and Crosby or Butch and Sundance, guys who weren't necessarily virtuous or noble, but always came through for the other guy.”

interview originally posted 22nd May 2007
website: www.wordplayer.com