Saturday, 22 December 2012

Tony Scott: a tribute

I realise I haven't yet written anything about the late great Tony Scott. As the year draws to a close, let me say what a sad loss of a very talented director and superb chap. I first met Scott, briefly, in 1993, at the LA press junket for True Romance, probably my favourite of all the Quentin Tarantino-scripted films. Though it was a couple of years later, when I was living in LA, that I got to know him better. 

Scott was working on his excellent submarine flick, Crimson Tide. Introduced by Tarantino's then-publicist, the wonderful, and wonderfully named, Bumble Ward, Tony agreed to my doing a piece about him and the film for Empire magazine (at that time I was its US Editor). Instead of the usual interview/profile stuff, I had ventured whether we might do something a bit different — how about, for example, if I tagged along with him while he was editing the film? (This would have been in the Spring of 1995.) Given Hollywood's twitchiness about films in anything other than a finished condition, not to mention extreme paranoia about the press penetrating its inner sanctum, I didn't fancy my chances — they were under huge pressure to deliver the film on deadline only days before general release. However, I was pleasantly surprised when Scott got straight back and agreed for me to sit in the editing suite with him and his team for a couple of days at the post-production studios in Santa Monica. 

It proved not only an education but a highly entertaining encounter which got written up in full (I can't find the piece online, but if I do I'll post the link). This was no mere case of an inconvenient journalist being shoved in the corner — as so often happens — but of the director fully involving me, steering me through every detail as he put the final touches to the film. As if he didn't have enough on his plate. Featuring some great laddish humour, an unruly Great Dane and an impromptu drop-in by überproducers Simpson and Bruckheimer, who insisted on changing the movie's ending, it was quite an experience I can tell you ("Uh-oh, the fuckin' boys are here. I think there's gonna be a row" he warned, in that gruff and familiar Northeastern strain, instructing me to pretend to be someone from the sound department).

He was an absolute gent to the last thread of that battered old, omnipresent red baseball cap — which even then had faded to a pale pink — and was indulgent way beyond the call of duty. I had recently been sailing to Catalina, I remember — well, pulling a few ropes while the skipper shouted at me — and we talked about that. He was a keen sailor himself, a great outdoorsman, a lover of rock climbing in particular. Being a fellow Brit (as indeed is Bumble) certainly helped. In a candid moment, he did intimate that all "this" (Hollywood/films, etc.) was "bollocks"... Yes, I do believe that is a direct quote. And if it isn't, it's not far off the mark. 

Not long after that he agreed to pen the foreword to the Tarantino biography I was writing at the time. In some places online the book is even listed as by "Tony Scott and Jeff Dawson", which isn't strictly correct, but if one were to have a co-pilot, I could think of none finer.

Scott's suicide was a real shock and continues to be for my industry colleagues in Tinseltown. What a great bloke. Glad to have known him, however brief the acquaintance. Strangely enough, not long before his death, I had dug out Crimson Tide to watch again, the first time in many a year. A tremendous film. When he was on song, there were few entertainers to match him.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Les Misérables: George Costanza

Saw "Lay Miz" last night. Tom Hooper's flick is visually stunning and the performances by Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and co. are absolutely terrific. A criticism? Whisper it quietly near Old Compton Street, but I don't think the songs are that great — brilliantly rendered but not grabbers; not ones you'll hum on the way home.

Seinfeld fans will know what I'm talking about here, but one ditty, Master Of The House, just kept reminding me of this...

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Hobbit: A Review

I never read Lord Of The Rings but did do The Hobbit at school — "in days of old when knights were bold," to quote Robert Plant, who's rather embarrassed about such lyrics these days. "And magic filled the air" — long enough ago for me to have forgotten most of it. So, I'm judging The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on purely cinematic merit.

My principal criticism is one I level generally at such epics — that for all the technical wizardry and sweeping vistas, sometimes less is more, the obsession with detail coming at the expense of the dramatic staples of character and plot. We know how it goes — big bucks necessitates big return, big return means global mainstream audience, global mainstream audience requires visual shock and awe (or so the thinking goes). And thus does Tolkein's book about little furry people go Wagnerian.

Where I found the first LOTR film quite enchanting, the second and third outings, for me, became a bit "so what?" I mean, after the umpteenth battle between dwarves, orcs and blah-di-blah, who really cares? It's exactly the same gripe with The Hobbit, but all in one movie. It has slaughter on an industrial scale yet still pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of leaving one strangely detached from the action and, curiously, never once feeling that any of our heroes is remotely in peril.

Despite some fine acting, at nearly three hours, and with a damp squib of a pay-off, the "unexpected journey" feels more of an aimless potter after a liquid lunch. As ever with these things, the best bits are the personal moments, Bilbo's verbal sparring with slippery Gollum worth a hundred Orc-ish eviscerations.

And yes, the format. I have an issue with 3D generally in that the current system is a bolt-on — a techno-gizmo retro-fitted to a hundred-year-old system, that of projecting a 2D image onto a blank canvas. Until a new method of exhibiting a film comes along — sitting in a pod? wearing virtual reality helmets? — it will always feel like a weld-job. As has been reported elsewhere, the pin-sharp resolution of 48 frames per seconds makes some of the scenes, particularly the indoor ones, appear like workaday television.

More than that, I still have a problem with both foreground and background being in focus simultaneously, something that contravenes the laws of physics. I found myself actually shutting one eye for much of it (add joke here). But that's just me.

There was a general consensus among the broadsheet reviewers for this film, a feeling of deflation. I think they got it just about right.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Jake Gyllenhaal

A shot at redemption

No more rubbish blockbusters, please. As a cop in the startling End of Watch, Jake Gyllenhaal is now in pursuit of realism and danger
Jeff Dawson Published: 11 November 2012, Sunday Times Culture

Round, close-set eyes, long face, upturned nose, beatific grin... No matter how hard one tries to banish the thought, when you see Jake Gyllenhaal, you can’t stop the image of Woody from Toy Story popping into your head. Maybe that’s why he got cast in Brokeback Mountain; perhaps Heath Ledger reminded the producers of Buzz. Today, though, the picture is somewhat skewed, because Gyllenhaal’s youthful looks are obscured by an added cartoonish adornment — a beard of such pirate-captain volume and lustre, you suspect there’s a band around his head, holding it in place.

We are used to black-clad ­Hollywood bucks disfiguring themselves in the name of art, as if handsomeness precludes integrity, so this is nothing out of the ordinary. The face rug is, however, for a part; he’s appearing in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet at the Laura Pels Theatre, in New York.

Lampooning Gyllenhaal — with a soft “g” — is a bit mean. He is, it turns out, a most excellent and genial fellow. Generous, too, breaking bread in a downtown Manhattan hotel, late in the afternoon, when he really ought to be limbering up backstage for tonight’s show. “I happen to like not starting my engine until very soon before,” he says. “It makes it a little more exciting for me.”

Written and directed respectively by the Brits Nick Payne and Michael Longhurst (the team behind the Royal Court hit Constellations), the play sees Gyllenhaal grunge down as a bourgeois London slacker, complete with accent. In a weird piece of symmetry, it is 10 years ago that he made his acclaimed theatrical debut in the West End — as a bourgeois American slacker — in This Is Our Youth. He hasn’t appeared on stage since, so this is only his second outing, and his Broadway entree. (“Off Broadway,” he corrects.)

So why the comeback? “It was a questioning of what I want to do with my work and my life, and if I felt fulfilled,” he says. “I think it may have been turning 30. I’d made a promise to myself that I would really only pursue my artistic instincts, no matter where it took me, and I kind of broke that promise.”
To an outsider, at any rate, it all seems to be going swimmingly for Gyllenhaal. Off the back of last year’s time-travel yarn, Source Code, comes a gritty LA cop thriller, End of Watch, the film we’re here to talk about.

The movie has earned plaudits for ­Gyl­lenhaal and his co-star Michael Peña, who play police officers cruising the mean streets of South Central. Written and directed by David Ayer, whose forays into the milieu include Training Day, Swat and Harsh Times, the film was shot for $7m — movie peanuts — but is riding high at the US box office.

Beefed-up and shaven-headed, Gyllenhaal’s Brian Taylor is a spiritual cousin to the Marine grunt he played in Sam Mendes’s Gulf War movie Jarhead, although the film remains, essentially, a buddy story, its best parts the car-bound “bromantic” interludes. “That was the heart of the film, and was essentially why I wanted to do it,” he says. In a sort of throwback to Broke­back Mountain, the two officers spend more time with each other, joshing about life and love, than they do with their other halves (Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez).

There is a contrivance, in that the film is supp­osedly viewed through Gyllenhaal’s omnipresent digicam: “YouTube meets Training Day,” as Ayer put it. Key to the exercise, Gyllenhaal says, was realism. He spent five months on night-time ride-alongs with the LAPD, cruising the ’hoods seen in the movie. Whenever an actor makes such a claim, I say, one can’t help but think of the film The Hard Way, in which, for the purposes of filmic research, a pampered movie star (played by Michael J Fox) is foisted on an abusive hard-boiled detective (James Woods). “So do I,” he chuckles. “And, by the way, don’t think we didn’t get all that shit while doing it for real. The very first ride-along, we were the second call on a shooting, a murder. Guy bled out right in front of me.”

At the end, as a bonding exercise, he and Peña got themselves “tased” by their new police chums. (Yes, it hurts.) “My approach to making movies and to art now is not just to produce the greatest result,” Gyllenhaal says. “It’s how it affects my life.”

It’s another hint that he hasn’t always been the master of his own domain. Yet he is far too diplomatic to express specific regrets. Indeed, if you need proof of his all-round decentness, watch Brother Jake sit politely on talk-show sofas while dribbling hosts vouch that they have the hots for his older actress sister, Maggie.

Then again, the Gyllenhaal siblings learnt early on to take showbiz in their stride. They grew up in LA, where their director dad, Stephen Gyllenhaal, made the 1990s cult flicks Waterland and Paris Trout. Their mum, Naomi Foner, penned the screenplay for the River Phoenix drama Running on Empty. There are few people who can claim to have received their first driving lesson from Paul Newman. Gyllenhaal laughs. “That’s not true. That doesn’t do my father a good service, because he put hours and hours in. But I did go to a racetrack, and Paul was there and took me in a car.”

While his mother is Jewish, the paternal line reveals the Gyllenhaals to descend from Swedish nobility, founder-practitioners of the liberal Christian order Swedenborgianism. With God and the movies on his side, Gyllenhaal, aged 11, got a small part as Billy Crystal’s child in City Slickers. At 13, he was appearing in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street directed by his father. After a stint at Columbia University, he dropped out to return to the family business. “There is a clan aspect to this,” he concedes, “and in a way it feels second nature, because it’s a language I’ve been speaking since I was so young.”

After his breakthrough in Donnie Darko (2001), as a disturbed teen conversing with a giant rabbit, Gyllenhaal was fast-tracked for stardom, cast as a lead in the somewhat prescient eco-disaster epic The Day After Tomorrow. It’s probably fair to say that Hollywood has since cooled on him as a blockbuster opener: too old now (32 next month) to play the boyish roles his face suits; not grizzly enough (beard notwithstanding) for a mature heavyweight.

When Tobey Maguire was prevari­cating over a return to the Spider-Man series, Gyllenhaal’s name was dangled. He was up for the role of Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight reboot, but was passed over, as he was for the lead in Avatar. His star performance in the 2010 video game spin-off Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (employing another English accent) could not prevent the projected sequels being put on hold.

“I think where I feel most comfortable is being able to really collaborate, and where the risks taken are emotional,” he says. “I don’t really think the size of the movie is the thing that matters to me, although I think it’s more possible in independent film.” Which has probably left him — and us — with a far more worthy back catalogue.

Gyllenhaal runs through the highlights, picking out Donnie Darko, the Sundance hit The Good Girl (as Jennifer Aniston’s toy boy) and Jarhead as particular favourites. “And obviously Brokeback Mountain [his Oscar-nominated, Bafta-winning turn as the gay cowpoke Jack Twist], not just for the process, which was incredibly special, but for the result that came out of it. I’m so grateful to that movie for everything.” One might add David Fincher’s serial-killer docudrama, Zodiac, or Love & Other Drugs, opposite Anne Hathaway, with Gyllenhaal as a Viagra-touting pharmaceutical salesman.

Both the offbeat choices and his ­ability not to be fazed have made him less gossip-rag fodder than might have been the case after relationships with Kirsten Dunst, Reese Witherspoon and the country warbler Taylor Swift. (Her new album reportedly contains a number of nods to their courtship, including the not entirely subtle We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.)

You know your most underrated performance, I say. “No?” Bear Grylls: Man vs Wild — a corking episode in which Gyllenhaal and the survival expert are dropped on a glacier in Iceland, then yomp across volcanoes, swim icy waters and try to eat a rotting sheep. He laughs. “That was fun. That was the start of all this crazy stuff, going on the streets with cops after going with Bear. I thought, ‘Yeah, this sounds dan­gerous. Let’s do it.’”

One thing Gyllenhaal’s new direction won’t include is the screen version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Stories have spread across the internet linking him to the part of the priapic Christian Grey, something based on the casual comments of the book’s author, EL James. “Literally, I know nothing about that.”

Currently, he has a more pressing engagement, with a theatre audience. He’s cutting it fine and still has the rush-hour traffic to contend with. You know what, he says, family business or not, acting would still have been his vocation. “Because, at times, there is nothing that brings me more joy than being up on the stage or being in a movie, watching an actor give an extra­ordinary performance across from me. That gives my soul joy. And I know it sounds like a total cliché, and it is, and in print it sure will be, but it does.”

End of Watch is released on Nov 23

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


... Or as I call it, the 22nd remake of Dr. No. Look, it was reasonably entertaining and had its moments, but the rapture surrounding it is proof positive of either a sterling PR job or the media taking collective leave of its senses. Once again, falling standards have resulted in grade inflation.

Back Home, Dead Reckoning and Melvin Smarty

Just to let you know that Back Home and Dead Reckoning are now available as e-books (Orion). Should have some news soon on the film I wrote, Melvin Smarty, which was shot as a US independent feature at the back end of 2009.

Spy truth stranger than fiction

Six embassy staff running for their lives and a bogus Hollywood film — Ben Affleck's movie Argo has it all, and it's straight from the CIA's mouth
Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 21 October 2012

As the recent murder of the American ambassador in Libya demonstrates, diplomacy can be a deadly business. According to the Vienna ­Convention, relations between nation states depend on an abstract concept — that embassies are an immune corner of a foreign capital that is forever theirs. “But really, what is an embassy but a ­fiction?” asks Chris Terrio, the screenwriter of Argo, a new film about deadly diplomacy. “As long as everyone pretends this imaginary thing is there, then it exists. The moment someone isn’t playing along, it all falls apart.”

The Iran hostage crisis is one of the most notorious examples of a nation’s wilful disregard for the rules. On November 4, 1979, surfing the wave of revolutionary zeal that had swept Ayatollah Khomeini to power, a “student” mob stormed the US embassy in Tehran, seizing its personnel. Accused of being stooges of the despised deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — fêted by Kissinger, serenaded by Sinatra, at the time undergoing treatment in a $900-a-day New York hospital suite — 52 Americans were to endure a living hell. Held captive for 444 days, they were abused, blindfolded and subjected to mock executions. Their forced denunciations of their homeland were to become a familiar charade on news shows.
Meanwhile, a sideshow was developing. Washington realised some staff had escaped. The consular building, across the compound from the embassy proper, had been spared the brunt of the frontal assault. During the madness, several staff had simply exited through a back door onto a deserted street. Five of them went on the run: the consular chief, Bob Anders; Mark and Cora Lijeck; and Joe and Kathy Stafford. They had been joined by a sixth refugee, the agricultural attaché, Henry Lee Schatz.
The byways of Tehran, where murderous Revolu­tionary Guards roamed, were clearly no place for fugitive Americans. Unable to make headway in the embassy crisis, the CIA seized the opportunity. It would bring the six out. The mission to “exfiltrate” them has gone down as one of the most bizarre covert operations in the agency’s history. Code-named Argo, it is now the subject of a film, directed by Ben Affleck, and a book by Antonio “Tony” Mendez, the agent responsible for the rescue.
Now 71, Mendez is enjoying retirement at his home in rural Maryland. In the film, Affleck not only directs, but stars as him. “I said, ‘I don’t know if he’s good-looking enough to play me,’  ” Mendez deadpans. Having lived a life in the shadows, he speaks quietly and slowly, as if every utterance has withstood rigorous self-censorship. His house is the same one he was living in 33 years ago. Mendez had already spent 90 straight hours working on a plan to fake the death of the shah, one that had come to nought. (The shah would oblige him in July 1980.) He was painting in his studio, venting his frustration, when news came through of the six fugitives. For this job, he was perfect. He had risen from entry level as an “artist-validator” — a forger — to become the CIA’s head of worldwide disguise. He had once ushered an African-American agent through Laos disguised as a Caucasian. He had exfiltrated a KGB luminary through Asia. More pertinent, seven months previously, Mendez had lifted a key Iranian agent, Raptor, out of Tehran.
'The first thing I did was read the books and double-check, because I had a hard time believing it was actually true'

Back in Iran, the six had gone to ground, crashing at the homes of friendly diplomats in the wealthy suburb of Shemiran. By the end of the month, they had split themselves between the residences of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his immigration officer, John Sheardown, who harboured them at great personal risk. Sure enough, the screws were turning. The homes were under suspicion. The Komiteh — the revolution’s tub-thumpers — had pieced together the six’s identities from frantically shredded documents. While the CIA kicked around harebrained schemes, such as having them cycle 500 miles to ­Turkey, Mendez insisted on a more prosaic exit. With bogus Canadian identities, fabricated with the collusion of the Canadian authorities, they would leave via ­Mehrabad International Airport, into the daily chaos of which scheduled European flights were still running.
Normally a stickler for the inconspicuous, Mendez chose a cover story that was to make the escapade deeply intriguing: the six would pose as members of a ­film-production company. “We did what they call in magic ‘misdirection’,” he says. “Instead of trying to hide, we put it right out in front of them.” In downtown ­Tehran, where lynched bodies swung from lampposts, a ­Canadian film company would purport to have dropped in to location-scout for a family-friendly motion picture.
The plan — “the best bad idea we’ve got”, as it is described in the film — was not as loopy as it sounds. Laughably, amid the unravelling terror, their assets ­frozen by America, local authorities in Iran were actually wooing western business. “They didn’t have any hard currency,” Mendez explains. “If somebody came in from Hollywood and laid a few coins on the table, I think you could have got whatever you wanted.” Crucially, in the wake of Star Wars, whose exteriors were shot in Tunisia, exotic desertscapes were all the rage as sci-fi settings.
Mendez enlisted a buddy in Hollywood, the renowned make-up artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman), creator of Mr Spock’s ears and an Oscar-winner for Planet of the Apes. An army veteran, Chambers moonlighted for the CIA. Creating false identities alone would not make the story stand up to close scrutiny. To “backstop” it, they would have to put the fake film into fake production. Even for a Canadian project, all roads led to Hollywood. The film would be run out of LA.
Mendez flew there and, together with a special-effects colleague, Bob Sidell, took over offices vacated by Michael Douglas after The China Syndrome wrapped. Cheekily, they called their outfit Studio Six, and started trawling the slush pile of unproduced scripts. There they hit “the mother lode”: the screenplay for a space romp called Lord of Light, filled with eastern imagery. They changed the title to a snappier one, Argo — after the mythical vessel that transported Jason on his quest for the golden fleece, a name that also allowed them to be the punchline to a knock-knock joke: “Argo who?” “Argo f*** yourself.” Studio Six took out ads in Variety announcing Argo as its new movie. It fielded phone calls. It threw a launch party.
Days later, when Mendez and a CIA associate known only as Julio flew into Tehran, they were carrying six Canadian passports and documentation for a screenwriter, art director, associate producer, cameraman, transport co-­ordinator and locations manager. Except that Mendez was no longer Mendez. He was an Irish film producer, Kevin Costa Harkins. The devil was in the detail. Before leaving, he furnished himself with “a rich collection of pocket litter, right down to matchbooks for the Brown Derby, where Studio Six had hosted a bon voyage dinner for me”.
Affleck admits he was incredulous when Terrio’s script reached him, developed from a 2007 article in Wired magazine by the journalist Joshuah Bearman. “The first thing I did was grab the documentaries and read the books and double-check, because I had a hard time believing it was actually true,” he says. “But, lo and behold, it was.” He has not always been treated kindly by La-La Land, and one of the joys of his film is that it works as a Hollywood satire as well as a political thriller — not least thanks to a wily producer character played by the venerable Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel, a rewriting of Sidell), who nearly steals the picture. Yet, as befits a film that lists George Clooney and Grant Heslov as producers — men who brought you Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck — Argo also begins with a history lesson. “I felt it was important to give ­context to the story, so it didn’t just begin with bearded maniacs outside the embassy,” Affleck says. The shah, we are reminded, was an oppressive autocrat imposed on democratic Iran by America and Britain in 1953.
You know the six are going to get out. History tells us so. On January 28, 1980, after nearly three months in hiding, the group boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich. Save for the reluctant Joe Stafford, they played their parts to the max. “The Hollywood cover was something for everyone to focus on and enjoy,” Mendez recalls. “We really did have a party coming through the airport.” Bob Anders almost overdid it, shirt open, medallion flapping, “strutting around with the chutzpah of a Wilshire Boulevard stud”. For dramatic purposes, Affleck’s film prefers a tense, Midnight Express-like chase through departures, one of several differences between life and art. (A harrowing scouting expedition to the Tehran bazaar didn’t happen; and ­Mendez is shown acting alone, without Julio.) “But generally, I’m very happy,” stresses Mendez, who served as a consultant to the film. “Where it didn’t match exactly, it certainly has the spirit of the real story.”
What is surprising is that the Iranians didn’t find the Americans. As in the film, they remained indoors, indulging in western delicacies while the revolution raged outside. “They adopted a scorched-earth policy on alcohol — make sure they were not going to leave any behind,” Mendez says. Yet their whereabouts had become an open secret in the close-knit diplomatic community, some of whom would drop in for dinner. Domestic staff, too, were aware of the “house guests”.
Notably, although westerners are conspicuously absent in the film, Tehran was swamped by the world’s media at the time. (The ayatollah was interviewed by Mike Wallace for TV’s 60 Minutes.) “It was an odd thing, because the revolution, and particularly the hostage crisis, were meant as stagecraft,” Bearman says. “They didn’t want to throw a revolution and have nobody see it, so at the same time they’re chanting ‘Death to America!’, the ministry of information was inviting American journalists in.” Indeed, it didn’t take long for a Washington-based Canadian reporter, Jean Pelletier, to uncover the where­abouts of the six. He was persuaded to sit on the story. Even the local rag in Schatz’s home town, Post Falls, Idaho, ran a front-page piece disclosing that their native son was holed up in Tehran — a staggering revelation that, pre-internet, just slipped through the cracks.
Ultimately, the media were used by the CIA to provide one mother of a smokescreen. There were CIA agents operating out of the US embassy, three of them. Mindful of repercussions, the agency duly excised Argo — and America — from the official narrative of the rescue. It became known instead as the Canadian Caper, a smuggling exercise run by Ambassador Taylor (who left on the next plane out) that prompted a huge outpouring of popular gratitude from the USA towards its northern neighbour. “They took advantage of that, as we suggested,” Mendez muses. “The Canadian ambassador became an international hero. He lived that cover famously.”
Canada will not necessarily appreciate the rejig. (Pelletier’s 1981 book, toeing the official line, was, Mendez writes, “wildly off the mark”.) Indeed, the renewed interest in the hostage crisis has placed Mendez in an awkward position all round — a habitual disavower of his work, a man whose Intelligence Star was presented in secret, must now talk publicly. It wasn’t his idea: the CIA “twisted my arm”, he says. In 1997, on the agency’s 50th anniversary, when the Argo case was declassified, he was encouraged to write about it. “I said, ‘What? That’s our best secret — why would you give it away?’ The director at the time, George Tenet, was adamant. He said, ‘We have to give a fair audit of our performance.’ Never mind that the Canadians were left high and dry.”
Mendez duly devoted a chapter to Argo in his 2000 memoir, The Master of Disguise. By the time of Bearman’s Wired article, however, the CIA were no longer the villains of popular entertainment, but the good guys, stars of Emmy-winning TV series. For Mendez, old habits die hard. Even today, he refers to John Chambers as “Jerome Calloway”. “You have sources, and you treat them in a certain way, right?”
Argo wouldn’t have ended there, Mendez reveals. The ­production would have actually begun “filming” in Iran, a Trojan horse for a special-forces oper­ation to spring the hostages, with Delta commandos masquerading as technical crew. “We were still scheming that idea seriously in the Oval Office after I came back. It really would have worked.” Instead came Jimmy Carter’s disastrous military rescue attempt of April 1980. Argo was shut down.
The hostages were eventually freed, coming home in January 1981 after billions of dollars of Iranian financial assets were released by America. But the effects of the crisis were ­profound: it reshaped Middle Eastern politics, brought a new tactic to the negotiating table, hostage-taking, and cost the equivocating Carter his presidency. At the end of the film, the real Carter praises Mendez: “One of the 50 top operatives the CIA has ever had.” Mendez sighs: “Carter is a kind man and a good soul, but was probably not a good president.”
Mendez is endlessly fasci­nating. Three decades on, Iran is public enemy number one again, engaged in a standoff that, he fears, won’t be resolved without “a new system” of engagement. He adds that, given the tools, ex­filtrating Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London would be a piece of cake. He has a grumble about Tom Clancy, whose thrillers are spoilt by incorrect application of spy ­jargon. Yet there’s an air of mystery about him, a suggestion that “Tony Mendez” might be a persona, one perfected for circumstances such as our interview, another “misdirect”.
“We used to say, ‘This can’t be the real CIA, they couldn’t possibly be so inept,’  ” he says. (They did fail to spot a revo­lution.) “‘The real one must be over the horizon.’ Truth is always much more boring than you’d expect.” He laughs. “But I love the idea that the real Tony Mendez is still out there. You’ve seen magic... I might appear on your doorstep in 20 minutes.”
Argo is released on November 7. Times+ members can see it first and free at one of 18 preview screenings from Saturday, Oct 27, until Thursday, Nov 1. Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History by Antonio Mendez is out on Thursday (Penguin £7.99)

It's War Without Horseplay

Another of Michael Morpurgo's Great War stories is now a film. But don't expect the Spielberg treatment this time.

Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 7 October 2012

Is there an author as prolific as Michael Morpurgo? One hundred and twenty-plus books is some going. Even given the length of time he’s been at it — he had his first book published in 1974 — that’s still more than three a year. “Look, they’re thin ones and little ones,” Morpurgo says, dismissing the subject with characteristic modesty. “I just love telling stories.”
In the manner of his hero Robert Louis Stevenson, he writes in bed, propped up on cushions. Never having got to grips with computers, he uses a longhand scrawl in exercise books, which is typed up by his wife, Clare, “the only person alive who can read my writing. I think I get lucky. I meet extraordinary people out of the blue. People tell me stories. Things happen to me.”
Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate, and public speaking is part of the gig. A former teacher, he is evangelical about history, personalising it, making it accessible. “As a kid, what fascinated me wasn’t the dates, it was the story of the individuals, whether it was Joan of Arc or Henry V or Gordon of Khartoum. And the evidence of this, surely, is Anne Frank. If you want to teach children about the Holocaust, read Anne Frank’s diary.”
If you can throw an animal into the mix, even better. That was what made such a success of War Horse — two words that will for ever be attached in parentheses to Morpurgo’s name, turning him from respected author into unlikely Hollywood darling. That story was a canter through his pet subject, the first world war, but it is the 2003 novel Private Peaceful, set against the same backdrop, that Morpurgo often rates as his best work. Having followed a similar path from page to stage, it too has now reached the screen.
Directed by Pat O’Connor, the film version stars George MacKay and Jack O’Connell as brothers Tommo and Charlie Peaceful, lads in love with the same girl (Alexandra Roach). Their story, which runs from rural Devon to the western front, is recounted by an imprisoned soldier, court-martialled for cowardice and awaiting the dawn firing squad.
The literary device was conceived at the In Flanders Fields Museum, in Ypres, where Morpurgo came across a terse letter from the army, informing a woman that her son had been executed. “What was extra­ordinary was the envelope. It was the rip that made me think of that mother, standing on the doorstep, opening it — the worst moment that any mother could dream of.” Three hundred and six British and Commonwealth soldiers were similarly shot, two for falling asleep at their posts, he says — shell-shocked, given cursory trials, sacrificed pour encourager les autres. The book was deemed influential in their posthumous pardoning in 2006.
Moved by hearing Morpurgo read an extract on Radio 4’s Today programme, the playwright Simon Reade asked if he could adapt the story — creating a searing one-man show that has played continually and has just finished a short run in the West End. Reade also wrote the screenplay.
It’s an intimate, very British affair, filmed on a fraction of War Horse’s $70m budget. Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between the two projects — one a Spielberg epic, unashamed to indulge the sentimentality; the other small and gritty, unfettered by the literary conceit of War Horse, which was told, originally, from the perspective of the horse itself.
Both Reade and Morpurgo served as producers on this film. One can’t ignore the author’s proclamations about wishing “to be as involved as possible” on this one, or the production notes trumpeting “the story, not the sets”. Over the years, he had been involved in other adaptations, productions that had given him the “feeling of being shut out”. Yet that Spielberg wanted to film War Horse he calls “extraordinary”, and it opened the door for Private Peaceful the movie, which was being developed before War Horse went into production — limping along, struggling to raise finance from studio backers.
“At the time we were told, ‘Americans aren’t interested in first world war stories’, and ‘Nobody’s heard of Michael Morpurgo’,” Reade recalls. Then along came Spielberg. Famously, War Horse, published in 1982, had lain forgotten until the National Theatre’s inventive stage adaptation in 2007. It was this that Spielberg saw and figured he could transmute into box-office gold. Such was his clout, he got his film made — Morpurgo clicks his fingers — “like that”.
“Private Peaceful was still trudging through the mud, and the horse galloped past,” he laughs. “But I love this way of film-making, the organic way this whole thing came together — the exact opposite of Hollywood.” He will be hands-on with the next one, too, The Mozart Question, for which he is currently penning the screenplay.
Through his books, Morpurgo has addressed all manner of issues — the Highland clearances (The Last Wolf), the Arab-Israeli conflict (The Kites Are Flying!), Afghan refugees (Shadow) — but he keeps returning to the great war. Just out is his illustrated book A Medal for Leroy, based on the life of Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British army, who died at the Somme in 1918. He is not alone in his fascination. In addition to all the revisionist ­histories clogging up Waterstones, it has been hard to turn on the telly without seeing lions abused by donkeys — Birdsong, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End and so on. Morpurgo rolls his eyes: “They even share the same actors. Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s clearly the bloke you have to have.”
Is it a case of keeping the memory alive now that dear old Harry Patch has faded away? A cash-in on the approaching centenary? No. “This war is a metaphor for all wars,” Morpurgo says. “About the horror of war, the destruction of it, the pity of it, as Wilfred Owen said. It’s got more resonance for us in the past 20 years, sadly, because we’ve been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the coffins start coming home, it reminds people that young men do go out and die because older men tell them they have to... The grief goes on.”
It is no small irony that Morpurgo intended to go into the army. He was an officer cadet at Sandhurst until he dropped his own bombshell — announcing, at the tender age of 19, that he was leaving to get married (to Clare Lane, daughter of the founder of Penguin Books). For a war baby, born in 1943, honouring your parents’ gene­ration was simply what you did, he says. He had lost a beloved uncle, bomber crew in the RAF. At public school, he had been labelled “‘nice but dim’ — the army suited me, because I did have this aspiration to prove myself, largely because of the people I’d looked up to when I was little”.
Morpurgo has been caught up in a little revisionist history of his own. In the wake of the War Horse renaissance, fans had been flocking to the village hall in his Devon home, Iddesleigh, looking for the “small dusty painting” of Joey the horse, the one faithfully described in the book’s opening.
Though the story was based in fact, the portrait, he had to concede, was pure invention. He has since commissioned a painting to hang in pride of place, if only to spare the lady next door. “She was fed up with people knocking, saying, ‘We want to see this picture,’ and her having to lie, saying, ‘It’s been taken down to be cleaned.’”
It is not the only place of pilgrimage. There was, it turns out, a real Private Peaceful — with two Ls, but they misspelt it — who died at “Wipers”. This humble Tommy’s grave at the Bedford House Cemetery is now covered in flowers and letters from visiting children. “What’s ­marvellous about it is that this man has become a sort of Unknown Soldier — one of the million of ours who died.”
Private Peaceful is on general release from Friday

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Olympics and Eugenics

Remember that embarrassing BBC moment?

BBC studio, Olympic stadium.

John Inverdale and pundits, straight after a heavy-duty clip about eugenics, Darwin and the Holocaust.

JOHN INVERDALE (nervously)
Look.. er… you know, the fact is that, of the last fifty years of Olympic men's basketball finals, every one of the players has been.. you know… er… How do I say this?… Tall

It's true. I did a documentary.

Could it be the weather? The weather's better up there.

I mean, put it ilke this, are we getting to the point now where, you know, a short guy, who might show some promise, just holds his hands up and says, 'I'm not going to bother'?

Much shrugging all round.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold up. Let's put this in perspective. Height is just part of the tools. Nobody got anywhere without hard work.

So, you're saying, a midget, who was prepared to knuckle down and train, could still be an Olympic basketball champion?


Yay motherfucker.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

William Friedkin

‘You want to see the pyramids in 3D? Go the hell over to Egypt’

Now in his seventies and with a new thriller enjoying controversy, the Exorcist director William Friedkin still knows how to rough up Hollywood
Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 1 July 2012

From the top of wrought-iron gates, two winged lions scowl. In the hills of Bel Air, where the anonymity of the elite is secured by checkpoints and threats of “armed response”, the gothic adornment is a mischievous clue to the identity of the resident within, best known for directing The Exorcist in 1973. 
You press the buzzer, the gates glide open and you park near the sunken tennis court before an exquisite hacienda-style dwelling, framed by palm trees and a kaleidoscopic explosion of bougainvillea. It seems like something out of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, the film version of which featured William Friedkin’s first wife, Jeanne Moreau.
True to the old school, there’s not a publicist in sight, no ticking clock. “Call me Bill,” Friedkin says, dispatching the houseboy to fetch morning coffee and croissants, walking me past fine art and a baby grand adorned with photos of Sherry Lansing, his current (fourth) wife, the starlet who rose, in the 1990s, to become the all-powerful head of Paramount Pictures.
Dressed in striped shirt, chinos and trainers, Friedkin has a thick head of hair for a man in his seventies. He looks tanned and healthy. In the outhouse that serves as his office, an exercise bike stands before a flatscreen TV. Piled on the couch are moleskin-bound journals, from which he is compiling his autobiography for HarperCollins.
If there’s a moment to sear Friedkin into Hollywood legend, it’s the night of April 10, 1972, when he won an Oscar for directing the landmark cop thriller The French Connection, beating Norman Jewison, Peter Bogdanovich, John Schlesinger and Stanley Kubrick. His award was introduced by Jack Lemmon and presented by Natalie Wood and Frank Capra. Upstairs, on the gallery where he keeps his desk, Friedkin points to a framed envelope, with Capra’s name pencilled on the flap. “You should add one more thing,” he says. “That was the night Charlie Chaplin was welcomed back with an honorary Academy Award.”
Then 32, or so it is said, Friedkin is supposedly the youngest recipient of the best director accolade, although, given Hollywood’s capacity to lie through its teeth regarding dates of birth (Friedkin may well have been 36), nobody is entirely sure.
In Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the set text about the 1970s new wave, Friedkin is described as “a tough critter. He didn’t give a f*** about anybody else that walked the face of the earth... unfettered by the usual Hollywood inhibitions”. Certainly, it’s been a strange ride. Lately, Friedkin has diverted into opera, directing The Tales of Hoffman in Vienna. This month sees the release of Killer Joe, a low-budget psychological thriller from the pen of the Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts — “One of the few who can be compared with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. He’s that good” — and with whom Friedkin collaborated on 2006’s critically lauded horror flick Bug. Billed as “a totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story”, the film sees Matthew McConaughey — detective by day, contract killer by night — give a revelatory performance, exuding the raw power he displayed before the contractual shirtlessness and the romcoms with Kate Hudson.
If Killer Joe illustrates one thing, it is Friedkin’s continued fascination with moral complexity. “There are dual sides to our nature, and that’s what attracts me — the constant tension between good and evil that’s in all of us.”
Realism has always been essential, too. Such characters do exist, Friedkin says, as he learnt when researching The French Connection. “I knew a lot of guys in New York who did what Joe did, ex-cops who were also contract killers. If you met them, they were ordinarily decent, wonderful guys. Meanwhile, they were doing this other stuff.”
The French Connection’s impact came in part through the hand-held vérité camera techniques Friedkin had acquired in his early career as a documentarian. “I found that I was more interested in spontaneity than perfection.” The Exorcist, meanwhile, was the author William Peter Blatty’s fictionalised version of a real event that took place in Maryland in 1949. Among others, Cruising (1980), with Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover in New York’s hardcore gay scene, was filmed amid the genuine S&M fleshpots. Deemed exploitative at the time, it is now regarded as a historical pre-Aids curio.
Born in Chicago, the son of a clothes retailer, Friedkin fell in love with Citizen Kane and left school to work in the mail room of his local TV station, WGN, swiftly progressing through the ranks and directing by 22. Once, while helming The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, he was dressed down by the great man for not wearing a tie. Years later, at an award ceremony, he got his revenge: “I was wearing a rented tux. I went and snapped my bow tie at him — ‘How d’ya like the tie now, Hitch?’” He laughs. “He stared at me. He had no memory of it.”
The late 1960s saw him move into features, with the Sonny and Cher romp Good Times and the burlesque comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s. He also made a screen version of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. “I learnt everything I know about drama from a year I spent with him in London.” And, absolutely not for the last time, Friedkin courted controversy with The Boys in the Band, a gay-themed parlour piece that set off in a lifelong battle with the censors. (Killer Joe has been slapped with a restricted NC-17 rating in America.) By the time of The French Connection, with its winning performances by the little-known Gene Hackman (as Popeye Doyle) and Roy Scheider, not to mention the famous car chase, Friedkin was big news, a rare master of drama and action. The sensation caused by his follow-up, The Exorcist, with its bannings and mass hysteria, put Friedkin at the top of the directors’ A-list.
So impressed was Hollywood, it started ripping him off. The French Connection begat The French Connection II, with no official involvement from Friedkin: “I’d finished with it. I had nothing more to say.” That was nothing compared to the abominations passed off as Exorcist sequels, which were still being churned out as recently as 2005, again without his participation. “They’re awful beyond description,” he winces.
A great raconteur, Friedkin details the premiere of the execrable The Exorcist II: The Heretic. “About 10 minutes into the film, a guy stood up in the audience and shouted, ‘The people who made this piece of shit are in this room.’” The Warner Brothers dignitaries had to flee before an angry mob. “I seem to be telling that story with great relish,” he adds. “And I do have great relish.”
For someone who exudes the air of a genteel academic, Friedkin earned a reputation as a bruiser. He once declared that, were he not a director, he’d have been a serial killer. “It’s a bit of an exaggeration,” he muses. “But from time to time, I’ve had the impulse to kill.” On The Exorcist, he allegedly fired a gun behind the head of the actor Jason Miller to shake up his performance. He also delivered a full-on slap to the face of Father William O’Malley — a genuine priest, rather than a trained actor — to elicit the correct look of shock on screen, a trick “the old-timers used to use all the time”, he explains. “He thanked me for it and blessed me for it.”
Unfortunately, between marriages (including to the British actress Lesley-Anne Down and the newscaster Kelly Lange) following relationships with Howard Hawks’s daughter, Kitty, and the dancer Jennifer Nairn-Smith, his work became less “in sync with the zeitgeist”, as he puts it. One of his favourites, the 1977 thriller Sorcerer, tanked. His stylish 1985 counterfeiting film, To Live and Die in LA, came only to be appreciated retrospectively, although it did introduce the actor William Petersen, one of whose later episodes of the television show CSI Friedkin directed.
In 1995 came Jade, a big, glossy noir penned by Joe Eszterhas, an inferior retread of the writer’s Basic Instinct. Friedkin’s big-budget tale about Middle East terrorism, Rules of Engagement (2000), was slammed as anti-Arab in the PC climate pre-9/11.
Friedkin confesses he doesn’t watch much these days. “When I started, films were largely influenced by literature. Films today are largely based on comic books and video games. You don’t have to think any more.” He reserves his biggest tirade for the onslaught of 3D and the vacuous blockbuster showmanship of the likes of James Cameron, cited as a presence every bit as demonic as anything Max Von Sydow had to contend with. “You want to see the pyramids in 3D?” he growls. “Go the hell over to Egypt.”
Notwithstanding his concession that “film is a young man’s game”, the passion still burns. There’s the book to finish. Then there’s his next screen outing, Trapped, by the British writer Gary Young, who wrote Harry Brown.
Back in the blazing sun, Friedkin offers a thank-you. “You know, all most people ever want to know about is how I got Linda Blair’s head to spin around.” He nips off and returns with a volume of criticism by Ruskin. He selects a quotation, aimed at Cameron, about a charlatan architect who seeks to draw attention to the individual quality of his bricks.
He adds another one, from memory, by the producer David Brown, partner of Richard Zanuck, aimed not a little at himself. “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make successful in showbusiness.”

Amazing Spider-Man

Superhero with sticking power
Spider-Man the remake is out now — only 10 years after the original. What’s going on?
Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 1 July 2012

You know you’re getting on a bit when policemen start to look young. You know you’re really long in the tooth when the Spider-Man franchise is being relaunched from scratch while the ticket stub for the last film is still in your pocket. Wasn’t it only two minutes ago that Tobey Maguire was swinging from the skyscrapers and slingin’ web against the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus and co? In the hands of the director Sam Raimi, Spider-Man became the most lucrative of the Marvel film franchises, the jewel in the crown of Sony Pictures, with box-office takings of $2.5 billion and the DVDs still common currency.
That last outing, though, as the producer Matt Tolmach points out, was five years ago, and it’s been a full 10 since Maguire first pulled on the tights — a lifetime for any superhero audience. “The world we live in has changed, young people have changed, tech­nology has changed, attitudes towards life have changed.” So here we have it, The Amazing Spider-Man, the $230m reboot, in spanking new RealD 3-D, ­starring our very own Andrew Garfield and directed by the aptly named Marc Webb. “A Peter Parker of this world, post-Mark Zuckerberg,” Tolmach asserts. “Not the nerd knocking on the glass who’s rejected, but this outsider who’s a little bit damaged.”
The Zuckerberg remark has relevance. Garfield made his breakthrough in The Social Network, playing the Facebook cofounder Eduardo Savarin. His earnest Parker is more door-slammer than dweeb, pursuing the science whizz Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who preceded the simpering Mary Jane in the comic books. We are still on a familiar path, though: that of the orphan high-schooler who gets bitten, develops arachnoid superpowers and battles a supervillain. You can’t call it a “remake” — the word is blasphemy in Hollywood, where you “reinvent”, “reimagine”, “retool”, “reinterpret” and rethink your euphemisms.
The problem isn’t redoing it, though, says the producer Avi Arad, until recently the head of Marvel Studios, the comic-book film division, possessor of the nearest thing you’ll ever get to a licence to print money: “The risk is to do it wrong.” With great budget comes great responsibility. It was Marvel Studios that produced (for Disney) Aven­gers Assemble, the biggest opening in American movie history. Industry pre­dictions suggest thatThe Amazing Spider-Man’s entrance may shade even that.
Spidey is older than you think. In print, he turns 50 this year, having first appeared in Amazing Fantasy in August 1962, created by the pen-and-ink team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. In sync with his cold-war origins, Peter Parker was originally nipped by an atomic arachnid. Over the years, the story has been rehashed in many forms, including the current Broadway musical Spiderman: Turn off the Dark. “We believe that, as in the comics, we can tell these stories for ever and ever,” Arad says. “It’s a worthy enterprise.”
Of all the superheroes, Spider-Man is arguably the most relatable. “He’s working-class, not wealthy, not coming from a legacy,” Arad says. More specifically, he’s the most obvious metaphor for adolescence, all sticky palms, locked in his bedroom.
This loomed large when Raimi sat down with Tolmach, Arad and their fellow producer, the late Laura Ziskin, to plan a fourth film, which should have come out in summer 2011. There was a problem. Maguire was well into his thirties by this point. One rumoured story line would have pitched Parker and MJ into Incredibles territory — married with kids, juggling crime-busting with cosy domesticity. “The film didn’t have a fundamental emotional reason to exist,” Arad snaps. Tolmach agrees: “The essence of Spider-Man is a story about becoming a man. The further you get from that, the more you’re just making up plot. That’s where the light bulb went off for Raimi. It took him, in his infinite elegance, to say, ‘My story’s told.’”
With Raimi out, Webb’s recruitment was, in part, due to his eagerness to explore the question of what happened to Peter’s parents — “The story that nobody talks about,” Tolmach enthuses. With just one film to his name, the quirky romcom (500) Days of Summer, Webb would seem an unusual choice to wrangle such a behemoth. But this policy is in keeping with the vogue for bringing credible dramatic directors to the superhero party — Christopher Nolan, Ang Lee, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh — with the techie stuff presumably left to others. Garfield, too, is a classy import: he’s British, though born in America, and was recently Tony-nominated for playing Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway.
In person, he is suitably mild-mannered, lisping, rake-thin and armed with a pompadour that is part James Dean, part centurion helmet. “Tobey was Spider-Man and always will be Spider-Man,” he insists, fully on message. “But the symbol of the mask is much bigger than any movie, any comic, any animated series. The only responsibility I felt was to make that mask full.”
The delightfully sassy Stone, no slouch herself after hit roles in Easy A and The Help, also comes with a professional’s devotion to the corporate hymn sheet. “I fell in love with the story of Gwen and the idea of falling in love for the first time. I was lucky, because I wasn’t Mary Jane.” Garfield and Stone are now a real-life couple, a marketing dream.
Garfield turns 29 next month, so Sony will face another Maguire situation in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, watch this thing fly. There’s a second film shooting at the end of this year for a 2014 release, with a third one likely to follow two years after that.
If the return of Spider-Man tells us anything, it’s that reports of the superheroes’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. Marvel has both Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 filming. From the DC Comics stable, the new Batman adventure, The Dark Knight Rises, opens this month. Likewise, a new Superman film, Man of Steel, is set for release in 2013. And you can bet there will be as many Avengers outings as Marvel can concoct.
Spider-Man was a notable absentee from the megahit Avengers Assemble, and it is surely not without coincidence that the studio has spun a new Spidey just as that series is up and running. (A sequel is in development.) Tolmach insists they are focusing on the next Spider-Man adventure, nothing else. There may be a more practical reason for all this recycling: when it comes to superheroes, there’s only a limited supply of good ones. As the dear old Green Lantern will begrudgingly acknowledge, unless you are a premier-league cape merchant, or come as part of a squad, you might as well forget it. Take note Ant-Man, currently in preproduction — Spider-Man will have you for breakfast. 

Monday, 23 July 2012

George Lucas

Bye George
George Lucas is retiring to his garage to make ‘hobby movies’. But before he goes, he’s bankrolling a second world war film, to the tune of $93m
Jeff Dawson Published: 10 June 2012, Sunday Times Culture

I have a bone to pick with George Lucas. More specifically, the knuckle on my right little finger, recently cracked by my six-year-old son’s red lightsaber. “You’re lucky it was just a toy,” Lucas chortles. “Don’t try to have a laser fight with someone who’s innately superior.” Famously, when 20th Century Fox allowed Lucas to forgo his director’s fee in return for the merchandising rights to Star Wars, the request seemed laughable. “I mean, no movie had ever done what Star Wars did,” Lucas says. “Movies didn’t do that.”
Four decades on, the tills of Star Wars Inc have kerchinged to the tune of $30 billion (£19.5 billion), more than $23 ­billion of it splashed on “consumer ­products”. Throw in Lucasfilm, his studio, ­Skywalker Sound, the special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic, the THX audio system, his founding of Pixar and his creation of Indiana Jones, and Lucas is far, far away the most commercially successful film-maker in the history of motion ­pictures. His personal worth is $3.2 ­billion; last year, according to Forbes, he trousered a casual $90m.
Did nobody take note of this? For when Lucas began touting his latest project — family-friendly derring-do, aerial dogfights and wholesome jock heroes socking it to evil-empire baddies — you’d have thought Hollywood would have reached for its spangliest Princess Leia two-piece to entice him into bed. But no. “I knew nobody would finance a movie like that,” he grumbles down the line from his home in northern California. “But I didn’t expect that people wouldn’t even release a picture like that.”
The problem? Lucas’s picture, Red Tails — starring Nate Parker, David ­Oyelowo, Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr — is the story of the first ­African-American flying outfit in the United States Air Force. “They don’t feel that movies with an all-black cast can make any money,” he gripes. So Lucas personally anted up the entire $58m budget of Red Tails, with another $35m invested in distribution/promotion. More fool the naysayers. When the film opened in America in ­January, it shot to No 2 at the box office, and it looks set to double its return once it premieres internationally.
Red Tails is “inspired by true events”, gleaned from consultation with the remaining pilots — the fabled “Tuskegee Airmen”, named after their Alabama training base. “Forty of them in the beginning,” Lucas says. “There are seven left. The best guys I’ve ever met.” In 1942, after Congress yielded to pressure to allow the training of “coloured” airmen, the newly formed squadron was dispatched to North Africa. They became highly decorated bomber escorts, their ­­P-51 Mustangs identified by crimson flashes on the tailplanes.
A script for the film had come to Lucas in 1988. “I thought it was a great story. Very inspirational.” The only obstacle, then, was how to stage the aerobatics. Lucas preferred to wait for technological advances that would allow the combat sequen­ces to be staged digitally, rather than shot using vintage planes. There’s no question that the simulated rat-a-tat-tatting has gone down well, thanks to a whopping 1,400 effects shots. “It’s the first feature film that’s got dogfighting the way you really want it to be done, which is on a level with Star Wars.”
There has been less enthusiasm for the stuff on the ground. Some of the ­dialogue and characterisation have been dismissed as simplistic, devoid of a political dimension. Indeed, save for an opening caption from a US Army War College study — “Blacks are mentally inferior, by nature subservient and cowards. They are therefore unfit for combat” — the film is almost all action, not affirmative action. “They expect you to make the civil-rights movie. The critics wanted The Help, poor black people being oppressed, then, at the end, the white guy getting his comeuppance. This isn’t like that at all. This is, ‘Hey, these guys are great guys, they’re heroes. They fought in the war, they are patriotic.’ It’s a different take on the stereotype.”
Indulging in a liberal guilt trip is to miss the point of Red Tails, he tuts. “It’s not an esoteric movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s like Star Wars, in that it’s designed to be an old-fashioned 1940s gung-ho movie — a corny old war movie.” Some attribute Lucas’s aroused black consciousness to his relationship with Mellody Hobson, a leading African-American financier, friend of Obama and Oprah. At recent functions, Lucas has been hobnobbing with Spike Lee, Al Sharpton and other African-American luminaries, who have rallied round the film. He still felt insufficiently empathetic with the material to direct Red Tails, that task going to the black director Anthony Hemingway, best known for The Wire, but he did end up unofficially co-directing, steering it through reshoots and complex ­special-effects insertions. “Something,” he sniggers, “I know how to do really well.”
At 68, Lucas remains an enigma: a card-carrying progressive, yet an arch capitalist; bubble-gum mainstream, yet a confirmed outsider, operating from his Skywalker Ranch; in sensibility, more Silicon Valley mogul than Tinseltown (like Bill Gates, Lucas has just vowed to give half his fortune to charity); and, astonishingly, a screen titan who has ­formally directed only six films. After his debut, THX 1138, and fresh from the ­success of his Oscar-nominated American Graffiti in 1973, he went off, he says, “and did this young people’s ­Saturday-matinée movie with dogs flying spaceships. A lot of my friends were doing something important — and I got hijacked by it”.
Some would say it was more a case of Stockholm syndrome, with Lucas obsessively re-editing and reformatting his space opera. (The Phantom Menace has just been rereleased in 3D.) But you can’t deny him his place in the pantheon, bracketed as one of the “movie brats”, that group of film-makers who burst onto the scene in the early 1970s and redefined movies as we know them. “I didn’t think we were going to change cinema, but, you know, whether it’s the Renaissance or Paris in the 1920s, we happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he muses. Between the passing of the tycoons and the takeover of the business by multinational cor­porations, there was a change in the structure, he says, a “crack in the door” that allowed the young creatives to rush in. Lucas and Steven Spielberg were the class nerds; their affection for their craft is adolescently pure. “We went to film school and made movies because we absolutely loved them.”
After trippy beginnings at the Uni­versity of Southern California — surrealist films about cloud formations — Lucas made his full directorial debut with the low-budget sci-fi THX 1138. Two years later came his tale of hot-rodding ­Californian teens. “American Graffiti I did on a lark because Francis [Ford Coppola] challenged me to make a comedy instead of these weird artsy-fartsy movies,” he says. “That sort of sent me down a path I didn’t expect to go.”
Lucas announced recently that he was jacking in mainstream film-making, going back to his roots. “I’m gonna retire from the company and the business, and all the things I have,” he confirms. “I’m gonna just go back to my garage, get out my hammer and nails and build hobby movies — model movies that I can fly around in the back yard.”
Some garage. There’s Indiana Jones 5 in the offing, and talk of Harrison Ford (70 next month) reaching for the whip again. “I’m working on a script for those guys, but they have to approve it,” Lucas says. “It took me 14 years to get ’em to do In­di­­ana 4. Harrison wanted this and Steven wanted that...
“In the beginning, it was easy. I said, ‘This is the script, we’re shoo­ting it, let’s go to work.’ Now they’re all superstars.”   
Red Tails is reviewed in this section

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

I hate the tendency to pseudo-intellectualise popular entertainment and stand guilty as charged on multiple counts. If anything has come to exemplify highbrow vacuity it's the guff surrounding Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series, perpetuated both by the makers and the feature writers.

I attended the multimedia preview of The Dark Knight Rises last night and found the film to be overblown, confusing, disjointed, often inaudible and with too many subplots shoehorned into it for its own good (someone please explain to me the Matthew Modine business). I may stand in a minority here but, for me, Christian Bale — good in other things — simply lacks the requisite charisma.

It is of note that the current cinematic wave of superheroes surfed in on the back of 911. Where the first Spider-man film had the Twin Towers sensitively airbrushed from the movie, ten years on and the likes of The Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man and now this film are trashing Manhattan with gay abandon.

In the case of the The Dark Knight Rises there is something sinister about its destructiveness, a devil's advocate suggestion that there are times when it is acceptable to mass-slaughter civilians — I mean, they brought it on themselves, right?

It seems an unimaginative word to use to describe the film but, moreover, I simply found The Dark Knight Rises nasty, the unpleasant aftertaste compounded by knowledge of Bale's real-life abusive tendencies and the tragic death of Heath Ledger, whose ghost still seems to haunt this picture.

I'm not against violence in a movie at all, but this seemed — in its cod-French Revolutionary tone — a wilful exercise in amorality. The online venom unleashed on sceptical film critics is shocking but weirdly in sync. And now I just hear on the radio about the thing in Denver...

Of course one can't hold the film or its makers responsible for such a terrible crime. They made a film. No more, no less. But $250m is a lot of money for a very bad vibe.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Idris Elba

Man On The Move

It's Idris Elba’s year, the one where he gets to play Ahab, Luther and Nelson Mandela

Jeff Dawson Published: 27 May 2012 (Sunday Times)

Pinning down Idris Elba isn’t easy. There is a vague plan to meet in Atlanta, where he lives... No, hang on, New York... Er, make that Atlanta again. An 11th-hour switch finds us in LA, where Elba has jetted in on his day off, a Sunday, from shooting the thriller No Good Deed. Even then, there’s a mix-up with the time, until our elusive subject is tracked to Soho House on Sunset Strip, ensconced on the penthouse terrace, thumbing fruitlessly at his flatlining iPhone.

Elba extracts himself from a swallow-you-whole sofa, an imposing presence. He’s built like a heavyweight: 6ft 3in; solid muscle; 15st-16st? He has a trim beard, tattoos — every inch, physically, the man who played Stringer Bell, the mesmeric, malevolent drug lord in the super­lative television police series The Wire.

Appearances can be deceptive. Ask America, where, until Elba’s BBC detective drama, Luther, began to be shown, there was frequent confusion on talk shows over his cockney tones, the locals having assumed him to be one of their own. Dressed in jeans, Nikes, a D&G flat cap and a bluey-white T-shirt that looks suspiciously as if it has been chucked in the wrong laundry pile, he’s a long way, too, from the suits — the sharp ones of Stringer or the ­crumpled ones of poor John Luther, he of the perennial hangdog expression, by comparison with whom Elba seems exceedingly perky.

He springs over, pumping my hand. “Wanna drink?” he chirrups, having already performed sterling work on an industrial-size G&T. On a scorcher of an afternoon, we have a panoramic vista across the LA basin, humps of the Hollywood Hills to the left, all the way to the ­skyscrapers downtown. Though his name may not be household — “There was a trend in the reviews where it went from ‘little-known British actor’ to ‘formerly known as Stringer Bell’, then to ‘Elba’,” he jokes — this year could change all that.

Exhibit A comes in the shape of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s hotly anticipated prequel to the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien. Elba plays Janek, a spaceship skipper, blasting off into the void in search of the key to life on earth. The marketers are in hyperdrive back home, I say: the trailer premiere during Homeland; the live Twitter responses; blah, blah, blah. And there’s the rub. For the intrigue of the promotional campaign, viral ads and all, lies in titillation, not revelation.

“The great thing is, it doesn’t spoil the surprise. In our culture, everything is wanted now, now, now,” he says, suggesting that, in story terms, you take your hints from the Greek myth — Prometheus was the Titan who filched fire from Zeus and gave it to man. “Of course, the Alien films are embedded in us, but I wasn’t fanatical,” he adds. “It was that Ridley’s a great film-maker. He said, ‘Hey, I’m doing another instalment. Would you like to be in it?’ I said yes without even reading the script.”

In space, they say, no one can hear you scream. Or the smoke alarms going off, apparently. Janek, an employee of the technology giant Weyland Corp — “very much a working man, a sea merchant, if you like. Ridley told me to read Moby-Dick to understand him” — chomps heroically on a stogy throughout. It recalls an amusing detail in the original, where the astronauts, released from their pods after years in suspended animation, reach immediately for their cigarettes.

Elba has worked with Scott before, on the film­ ­American Gangster. He likes the way the British director does things — CGI to the minimum, the more “real” stage sets the better, lots of tricks to get the cast playing off each other. “There are mind games going on.”

He’s quite tactile, Elba, touching your arm to emphasise a point. (When we part, I get a man hug.) He has been in the States, what, 10 years? “Bit longer, coming up for 15.” In the wake of Luther, shooting Prometheus at ­Pinewood afforded him another chunk of time on home turf. “I use it as an excuse to live in parts of London I haven’t lived in. I found a beautiful house in Richmond. Mick Jagger lived up the street. I’m an east London boy, and east London boys don’t move to Richmond.”

Born to immigrant parents from Sierra Leone (father) and Ghana (mother), Idrissa Akuna Elba is a card-­carrying East Ender — “Hackney, then Canning Town, then East Ham.” Where he came from, a career in acting was not high on anyone’s agenda. As a kid, he says, he got hooked on Saturday cinema matinées. Later, a school visit by Paul Barber — Horse from The Full Monty — convinced him thesping could be pursued professionally. “All the boys thought it was a bit nancy doing drama. It was, ‘You’re going to college to do what? Scene painting, dancing? Wait, what-what-what? Dancing?’”

Yet he had always been a performer. When his DJ uncle got drunk at weddings, the 14-year-old would take over. Elba still works the decks, under the handle 7Wallace. He has rapped with Jay-Z  and hangs with his new showbiz chum P Diddy. Three years ago, he cemented himself in the bling firmament by starring opposite Beyoncé in the popcorn bunny-boiler Obsessed (Elba in yet more bespoke cloth, Beyoncé catfighting in her pants).

He toured with the National Youth Music Theatre, did ­jobbing work in Crimewatch reconstructions, juggling it with the night shift at Ford Dagenham before full-time exposure on the soap Family Affairs.

Already up against the classical actor Adrian Lester for parts, however (“I thought, ‘I can’t be in the same room as him.’ He was a god”), he did something highly ambitious. “I figured to myself, ‘There’s that glass ceiling. Smash!’” So he moved to New York with his wife, selling the house to “live our dream”.

Already up against the classical actor Adrian Lester for parts, however (“I thought, ‘I can’t be in the same room as him.’ He was a god”), he did something highly ambitious. “I figured to myself, ‘There’s that glass ceiling. Smash!’” So he moved to New York with his wife, selling the house to “live our dream”.

The marriage didn’t last. (Elba lives in Atlanta to be near his daughter.) The job market, too, was tough. “My accent was horrible. I was in a pool of actors — Omar Epps, Mekhi Phifer, Taye Diggs — and I was never gonna get jobs against these guys.” He reverted to being a club DJ, commuting back to Britain for the odd acting gig. One show, Ultraviolet, was picked up in America. It was followed by Elba’s acclaimed turn as Achilles in Peter Hall’s off-Broadway Troilus and Cressida, which led to a part in the television series Law & Order. That put him in the frame for a gritty new HBO cop series set in Baltimore.

When Elba auditioned for The Wire, he concealed his British origins. “Even though Dominic West was in it, with the Baltimore street characters, [the creator] David Simon was, like, ‘I don’t want anyone that is fake.’” The bluff worked, and Russell “Stringer” Bell was his. The rest, as they say, is history.
Much ink has been used extolling The Wire’s virtues, more recently in Britain, where it wasn’t broadcast in earnest until 2009. For Elba, it’s old news. He has barely watched an episode of the three series he graced (“I’m a horrible critic”), though he acknowledges the show’s impact, with its morally complex drug dealers and the brooding Stringer merchandising his product in line with orthodox economic theory. Stringer cast a long shadow. “It’s some big shoes to fill once you’ve done something as magnificent as that, as well written and so culturally on point.” Later, Elba got involved in London anti-gang initiatives. “I just felt a sense of responsibility, because Stringer Bell was so glorified, and the glorification is dangerous.” Careerwise, he was stereotyped, not least with the thematically similar American Gangster.

No surprise, then, that the projects that have followed have been deliberately diverse — comedy (he has had recurring roles in the American version of The Office and The Big C), some Andy McNab-ishness (Legacy: Black Ops) and what they call in America, employing a clumsy demographic euphemism, “urban” films, most notably Daddy’s Little Girls.

It’s tiresome to bring up, but in several interviews, Elba is reported to have griped about the limitations for black actors in Britain. Not so, he says, bemoaning the repeated regurgitation of this non-remark. He does some arm-touching again. “My audience, you know, we’ve just evolved. We’re not seeing in black and white in the same way as we did before, and that’s worldwide, interestingly enough.”
If anything exemplifies this, it’s Luther. “I love Luther,” he trills. So does the BBC. So do the Americans. In ­January, they gave him a Golden Globe for it. Luther’s director, Sam Miller, is helming Elba’s current film, and there has been talk of a big-screen version of the London cop. “It’s on the cards, yeah,” he says. What is certain is that Elba will begin shooting a third series of Luther in London in September, his only complaint being the insistence on doing it over the winter — necessary for all those moody, drab exteriors.

“Warren Brown, who plays Ripley, a good friend of mine — there’s about 15 scenes where he and I have bloodshot eyes. After work, we’d go out and get a proper drink, because we knew we had to do the cold in the morning, and we’d wake up with horrible hangovers.”

There are other things in the works: another sci-fi extravaganza, Pacific Rim, for Guillermo del Toro, and a return to his role as Heimdall in Thor 2. There are smaller projects, too, including Swift, about a street kid turned star athlete, made by Elba’s production ­company, Green Door, which he didn’t realise was also the name of a notorious porn film, but now finds amusing. All thoughts, however, will soon be turning to Nelson Mandela, for Elba has just been cast as the former South African president in the film version of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which covers the 27 years of his incarceration.

The pressure is enormous, he concedes: “Absolutely. More than any other role. One, because Mandela’s very old. More so because the family have chosen me. It goes without saying he is an adored human being. He’s a saint. I won’t lie to you — I can’t put into words how fortunate I feel as an actor.”

Elba clearly feels a connection with Africa. He has appeared in Sometimes in April, about the Rwandan genocide, and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, shot in Botswana. “I grew up in a household that taught me everything I wanted to know about Congolese music, about Ghanaian food, about Sierra Leonean tribesmen, about Ethiopia. My dad has a wealth of knowledge about Africa, is so proud of Africa, and Mandela is very much part of that pride.”

He’s in demand, is Elba. A feature of our conversation is its interruptions by glad-handers — the director Antoine Fuqua; the actor Gerard Butler, with whom Elba swaps stories about fluffing sitters in charity football matches, and how Elba (an Arsenal fan) was coached in his most recent celebrity hoofing by none other than Harry Redknapp. Afterwards, downstairs, while Elba waits for a limo, his girlfriend, Melissa, on his arm, the producer/director Jon Favreau shuffles over to press the flesh.
There’s a big birthday coming up. “Four-zero,” Elba says. He quotes his father (channelling Edward Young): “A fool at 40 is a fool for life.” He’s been getting himself together, he says. “Taking huge strides to be a better man. As I approach 40, I’m at the pinnacle of my career.” Half-time in the game of life, I say; munching on the oranges.

“And, right now, I’m hopefully not getting a bollocking in the dressing room,” he chuckles. “I’m getting, ‘You’re doing well, son, keep it up.’”  
Prometheus opens on Friday.

Jeff Dawson travelled to LA as a guest of 20th Century Fox