Tuesday, 10 October 2017

interview: Gerald Scarfe

I interviewed Gerald Scarfe at the old Museum of the Moving Image in London in September 1997. The reason was because he had provided design work for Disney's (greatly under-rated) Hercules, and MOMI was showing an exhibition of his work to tie in with the release. He was a lovely guy to interview and just a generally all-round nice bloke. When he saw a little kid pointing at him, he went over and asked if he would like an autograph. I'm posting this here because it's 20 years since Hercules was released.

How did Disney first contact you?
"I was over in Los Angeles doing The Magic Flute with Sir Peter Hall. I’d done the designs and the costumes for that. And one of the Disney artists rang me up and said, ‘Would you like to come round the Disney studios?’ I said yes. His name was Rik Maki, and he said he’d been a fan of my work and that sort of thing and he’d like to show me round. So I had the tour of Disney, which was fascinating, and towards the end he said, ‘Would you be interested in doing anything?’ and I said, ‘Yes, sure.’ He said, ‘Because I think someone might ring you at some point.’ I went back to the opera where Peter Hall was rehearsing and I told him this and he said, ‘Well, you’re alright now then’!

"But then nothing happened. I never heard any more about it for nine months or a year, then suddenly there was a fax or phone call or letter - I can’t remember which one it was now - saying: ‘We are developing a film called Hercules. We would very much like your involvement if you would like to come in as a sort of design consultant. What do you think?’ I thought: ‘Wow!’ They took me on at the beginning on a very sort of impermanent basis. Because at the beginning of all these movies they have designs from anybody just to get ideas flowing and going. I think they asked me for a dozen or so designs but I sent them 40 or 50 - I was so desperate to get the job!

"One of the heads of the studios, Tom Schumacher, came over to my studio where I’d plastered all these drawings on the wall. He was bowled sideways by (a), the size of my drawings, which were about two foot by three foot, and secondly by the colour of them, which was very, very immediate and vibrant. He liked the energy of the drawings and all of that. So he took them back to LA and got the same reaction. I hear all this because I wasn’t there, but apparently they all gathered around and looked at them for hours and said, ‘Wow. Very interesting but we’d never get it into a movie.’ Anyway, the directors, Ron and John...

"Just to go back a little bit, John Musker was growing up in Chicago in the ‘70s - I suppose he was at art school - at the time when I was having exhibitions of my sculptures there. I worked for Time magazine and he’d seen my Time covers and he’d cut those out and kept all my work. He was kind enough to say he’d been a fan over the years. Anyway, Ron and John - John especially, I think - wanted to make it work. So bit by bit they persuaded the artists that this would work. I sent more and more work and actually became very excited myself and more and more involved. It’s difficult for them, who’ve been trained in the Disney method, to step outside that. As John said in one article I read, it’s like suddenly having a tennis coach that tells you the exact opposite of what you’ve been doing for the last 13 years. Your grip’s different, or whatever.

"So they had to relearn. They covered the studio in things saying ‘This is the Scarfe line’, ‘This is how to draw like Scarfe’ - there was someone who was almost like my interpreter who was telling the others how to draw. Some of them adapted to it very quickly, others didn’t. There was some resistance, I read afterwards, but they were all incredibly charming to me. I did about a year’s work over here on my own, going back and forth to LA and showing it to the directors and Peter Schneider who’s the head of the studio. Then after about a year, all these animators came on from other projects - they’d just finished Hunchback and various other things they were working on there - and they took them on holiday with me up to Santa Barbara for about three or four days at the seaside."

That sounds alright.
"Yes, it was alright. Everybody enjoyed that very much, in this very nice Four Seasons hotel. There we had this conference room, where I spread all my work out and explained to them what I was after. How I’d gone back to the Greek vases and looked at the linear quality of those. And how I felt that the keynote of Greek art was its strength and its elegance. I said that I would very much like this to be an elegant film - as well as a funny cartoon. They were very enthusiastic. Then each of my characters that I’d devised - and I designed every one in the film, I didn’t want one to get away because I thought it wouldn’t look like my world. If you had the main characters by me and the other ones by someone else, the two worlds wouldn’t fit together.

"So I designed everything. Each animator takes one character. So I’d be handing over what I thought of as my babies, which I’d been working on for a year, to these animators. One would take Hades, one would take Phil, another would take Hercules. Then they would come to me with their particular problems, like how does Hercules look from the back? Or if Hades hair is going to catch fire, how would this happen? What sort of ears has he got? A million questions about the character. Then they’d put their input in. And if I thought it was getting a bit too Disney or whatever, I would say, ‘Can’t we make those feet a bit smaller?' Or those eyes a bit smaller? Or something, so it wasn’t too ‘cute-y’. I was all the time pressing the directors to just go for it. If you have a bad character or a wicked character, make him truly wicked and carry it through. Don’t say halfway through, ‘Oh, he’s not that bad. He’s a good bloke really.’ If he’s wicked, let’s make him truly wicked. He can still be funny.

"So the first year was me designing alone; the second and third years, after I met them, was really dealing with them. I did a lot of that by fax. Every week they would send me a huge pack of drawings by FedEx and I would select certain ones of those drawings that I thought were indicative of what I wanted to happen and I would go over them with my pencils. Then I’d fax back their drawing and my drawing alongside, so they could see what I’d done. It was mainly making this a bit more elegant, or not quite so obvious, and giving he line a certain look. By this time I was no longer one of the consultants or whatever they call it, I was then production designer. They’d taken me on board completely by then and decided to go with it. To the extent also of not only doing the characters but trying to get the line right, trying to get my look into the movie.  I think there was a breakthrough when some of the animators began to achieve it. Then we projected some of my drawings and they looked very clean and clear and immediate. The images were very clear to see. They weren’t diffused in any way.

"I worked with them for about a year with this FedEx and fax system, so it was in many ways designed by fax, or directed by fax. Then the last year was when the animators had finished their drawings, they then pass them to a department called ‘clean-up’. Whereas an animator might do a rough, fuzzy line, the clean-up people have to do the line which actually appears in the film which has to follow through naturally otherwise it would jump about all over the place. I decided that that was another important spot for me to stand, when it was coming from animators and going to clean-up, it could have gone wrong there. So I stood in the middle and went over a lot of examples of the animators’ drawings for clean-up to follow. That was really the way it was done over those three years."

In creating the characters right at the start, were there descriptions in the script?
"No, there weren’t. There was just a script, like any script. The directors had some ideas. They knew that Phil, for instance, was half-man, half-goat. And he was the only person who we knew was going to play it, so he had to look a bit Danny DeVito-ish. He couldn’t be tall and thin. But there were various things. Like on that, I did loads of drawings and suddenly I realised: if he’s half-goat, why not give him a goatee beard? Well, it’s obvious when you see it, but it isn’t until you think of it. Some of the characters when I was reading the script immediately jumped into my mind, like Zeus and Hera and even the centaur, Nesus. Others, like Hades and Hercules, I had to work on a bit to get them right. Partly because they were the main characters and I knew they’d carry a lot of weight.

"So of course there was some input from the directors, but not a lot. They never ever drew one for me and said, ‘This is what it looks like.’ I sent many, many interpretations. There are about 600 large drawings and literally thousands and thousands of faxes. So there were many interpretations that didn’t get to the screen. For instance in the case of the Hydra, which had to be computerised so they wanted that very early on, I remember I did about 20 drawings of the Hydra, all different, complete variations. So I gave them the choice of what to choose. In Burbank they’d all stand around these drawings and decide. When the Hydra was chosen, it was just one single drawing, ultimately. Then this guy called Kent Melton makes these three-dimensional sculptures of them, and its fed into the computer. You take the points and put it in."

Did the fact that the Hydra was being done by computer affect the way you designed it?
"No, not at all. I didn’t even think of the computer, because I thought that’s their problem. And it was a problem too, because having achieved their computer image, they naturally had to ‘Scarfe it up’ as they called it. They had to make it linear. A computer fist, if it comes forward, it comes forward looking real and not getting that much bigger, but if you draw a punch in cartoon terms, it gets much much bigger until it fills the whole screen, much more than in reality. So you have to cheat the computer to make it do unreality, otherwise the punch would have come forward and it wouldn’t have had the same sort of animated feel."

What was the organisational set-up with the 900 or so animators? Was there a sort of pyramid structure?
"Yes. Peter Schneider is the head of the whole organisation, then there was the the producer, Alice Dewey, then there were Ron and John the directors. Then I worked under those four people, and I would show all my stuff to them. Then it was my job to go to these 15 major animators, highly skilled, top of the field, Disney animators, the guys I met in Santa Barbara. I would talk to one about, say, Hades. He then had a team of, shall we say, ten people working on Hades under him, then they had people under them and so on. So as long as I told the main guy what’s happening, he would hopefully convey it to all the rest. But it’s a bit like Chinese Whispers; the more it goes on, the thinner it gets. It’s very difficult to maintain control over 900 people, but that’s the way it’s done. It’s like the army: you tell the various sergeants what you want and hopefully they tell the privates."

In the exhibition you say that you learnt a lot about your own style from doing this. What did you learn?
"Well, it was these things they kept writing about me on the wall, about the ‘Scarfe curve’ and the ‘Scarfe reverse’. Apparently, when I’m drawing I draw a line and go back on it, or something like that. And there’s the ‘Scarfe scallop’. It’s rather like being psychoanalysed."

Was it like being back at art school?
"No, it wasn’t so much like that. It was just: I didn’t know I did that. It’s like someone saying, ‘You’ve got funny handwriting’: ‘Have I?’ then they say, ‘Yes, look. That’s a funny sort of H.’ And you go, ‘Oh yes, maybe it is.’ A style is something that comes to you naturally."

In terms of the influence of original Greek art on this, did you do a lot of research in museums?
"Yes, I did. I’ve always been a bit of a Grecophile or whatever they call them. I’ve always loved Greek art. It’s a very weird thing, but it’s true: I love Disney, I love Greek art, and I love mythology. All those three elements were in my life early on. Disney very early, and mythology and Greek art around about the age of 15 or 16. I studied on my own, I didn’t go to classes or anything. I bought books on Greek art and just admired its simplicity and shape. At the beginning of this I went to the British museum to look at the Greek vases and studied them and discovered they had this beautiful serpentine line and very, very simple shapes. Which is very close to my style.

"Maybe I’ve been influenced by Greek art way, way back. When I first started drawing in my early days, I used to put every damn thing in: every pimple, every wart, every nostril, every nipple. Every little thing that I could do. Now I tend to go for the overall shape and put the detail in afterwards. It’s rather like some of the Italian painters like Piero de la Francesca. He draws a man in a gown or a cloak, you just get the simple cloak shape, almost like a block. Then he puts all this beautiful Florentine design all over the cloak so it looks extremely complicated, but in actual fact the shape itself is quite simple and straightforward. And all that of course reads very well on film. Because it’s moving fast, the simpler the image is, in a way, the better understood it is. So all that, I think, helped. I really did try to get a Greek influence into the film. But I didn’t go out and slavishly copy across. It was just an assimilation of Greek thoughts and ideas. Artists are sort of like computers themselves: you feed in all this stuff and then it hopefully comes down their arm and out of a pen."

With your experience of caricature, were any of these characters loosely based on real people?
"No, I decided not to. Some of them ultimately swayed towards... Hades for instance. After I’d designed him as a mercurial figure, James Woods, who’s quite a mercurial actor, came in, and the animator Nick and I changed the eyes to look a bit more like James Woods. We changed the lips: James Woods has rather fleshy lips. Little adjustments like that, but only in the case of James Woods and Danny DeVito, a slight leaning towards who they are. But the rest of them, no. I did try a couple of real people, but they didn’t look right. They’ve got to come out of your imagination, really. There’s an artist in the film that everybody’s convinced is me, and probably subconsciously it is me. It’s a painter who’s painting Hercules when he’s extremely famous."

Were you consciously trying to draw stuff that wasn’t Disney style?
"No, I was just trying to draw my stuff, the way I draw. And I must say there was absolutely no effort on their part to say, ‘Ooh, that’s a bit much’ or, ‘Can we make it a bit more rounded and Disney-ish?’ If anything, they encouraged me to go for it and the more extreme my drawings, the more they seemed to like it. Because it was a thrill for them to see something so much outside their style. I kept saying to the animators, ‘Please don’t think that I don’t respect your work. You are the top of your field. You are Disney animators. Don’t feel that I am saying my way to draw is the best way to draw. I’m simply saying that my way to draw is the way the directors would like this film to look. I’m here to help you achieve that if you want to.’ So I was trying to be diplomatic and respectful to them.

"So every effort was made to draw like me. However, in the interpretation, some achieved it better than others, and in some areas it has naturally slipped back to Disney. It’s a strange mixture, Scarfe and Disney, I can see that. In the book, they’ve written that they were after - what’s it called? - ‘Disney-Scarfian-Greco style’. But I think they really tried, I really do. There was definitely no effort to say, ‘Oh, he’s a bit on the dodgy side’ or, ‘That’s a bit much’. Never. Which I expected. I thought, as soon as I went into this project, that I was going to be extremely disappointed at the end. Because Disney is a very, very strong influence, and to arm-wrestle Disney, you don’t have a lot of hope. But I’m quite pleased with the amount I’ve won in this ‘battle’, which it was to a certain extent."

Do you remember when we met at the exhibition launch, there was that woman from the Sunday Times, who wanted to do a piece on you provided you had something bad to say about Hollywood?
"Oh yes! Well, that’s newspaper, isn’t it? It’s crazy. I said to her, ‘Well, if you want a story that isn’t a cliche, this is something that really worked well.’ That’s all they want to hear about Hollywood: it’s a bloody awful place. Which it is, I know. Perhaps I’m lucky. As I said to her, perhaps I’m the only happy person to come out of Hollywood."

Were you drawing turn-around sheets or single drawings?
"I was drawing single drawings initially. Then if they liked that, I did other views. But I never did a model sheet - side, back - they did that. And some of them, Ken Melton did models of - so you could turn that model and look at it. The major characters are done in three-dimensional model form so that the animator can just turn them and see what happens at the back. Some of them are a bit tricky from the back, or from above or from down below. I had to answer some questions. For instance, the guy who drew Zeus, I remember him coming to me and saying, ‘I’ve got his face right’ - I showed him how to draw the face - ‘But I’ve got this real problem. Because Zeus is so big I’m looking up under his chin. What does his beard look like underneath? How does it join his neck?’ So then I had to think about that myself, because it’s not an angle you normally see. But once a character is created, I would know what goes on. It’s like people who are writing books say, once they’ve invented a character, ‘Oh he wouldn’t do that. That’s not possible for this character.’ And I would know, once I’ve invented or designed these characters, what is possible under there. He wouldn’t have a thin neck - he’s Zeus - but I would know how it joins and so on."

Did you design the colours for the characters as well?
"To a certain extent. All my work is coloured and the palette we went for was influenced by the land of Greece itself: the olives and browns and rust-colours of that country. So I had a couple of sessions on the computer colouring things with the art director, and influenced it. I said, for instance, ‘These are gods. They haven’t got to be pink-faced.’ They’d done Pegasus in a sort of dull colour. It didn’t look like I’d imagined it. So I immediately made him white with a blue mane, which made him look something unusual. So yes, I did have an interest. But partly because I wasn’t there all the time, a lot of stuff had to go on without me, naturally. They sent as much as they could to check, but it’s just a huge locomotive once it gets moving. You know how many drawings there are and how much work goes into it. It just gets steaming down the track in the last year and it’s very difficult to turn certain things round."

Can any figure that’s drawn be animated?
"Well, I think anything can be animated but that’s because it comes from my imagination. I think my drawing of my imagination was sometimes very difficult for them to realise because I draw in a very graphic way. When I do a couple of lines, I imagine those lines enclosing a volume. Rather like Matisse, towards the end of his life, he could draw a naked woman with a line that side and a line that side. That contained the volume of that woman’s body, her full fleshiness. And I tried to do that with my drawings, but I think in the interpretation some people found it difficult to see what I mean, graphically. But I can see what I mean. The Hydra, for example, when it turns, is like a lot of snakes, so that was difficult, but that was on computer so that’s how you sort that out I suppose."

Is there any difference between designing human, non-human and semi-human characters?
"Very much so, yes. Especially for me. Most easy I found the monsters and the wicked characters. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s just me."

They’re the most fun to play.
"Maybe that. The most difficult ones were the human beings. Hercules and Meg were difficult for me because not only were they human beings, but they were the lead characters. He had to be hunky and handsome, she had to be pretty and attractive. They had to be all these things, and yet still fit into the world we’d created of these mythological beasts. I had difficulty I must say, with Hercules. At one time we thought he should be like the young Paul Newman, or even the young Elvis. That kind of Greek look: the straight nose, the wide-spaced eyes, the strong jaw, the thick neck. But the animator who came onto that, Andreas, is very, very experienced. He’s the guy who did Scar in The Lion King. I think this is the first time he’s done a hero - he’s usually done the villain. And he helped tremendously with that. With the human beings I was a bit at sea. I was fine with the wicked characters and the monsters."

Was it because Hercules and Meg are sympathetic characters and your drawings tend towards the grotesque?
"Yes, caricature is a grotesque art, and one couldn’t really caricature Hercules and Meg too much because once you caricature a good-looking person, all you can say about a good-looking person is not so much that they are not good-looking but that they are vain, they are stupid, they are empty-minded. You can say those things about them but you can’t really distort their nose right out there because they don’t have a nose right out there. You couldn’t do that and still make it look like them. So they had to look reasonably human.

"Yes, I’m known for tending towards the grotesque, but there’s acres and acres of my work which is not generally known. I think I’m mostly recognised for my political caricature in which I deal with politicians and those in power. I don’t like politicians so I really go for them. But if I’m designing an opera or a theatre piece - or indeed the Disney piece - it’s a complete world. They’re not all wicked: there are goodies and there are baddies. So if I’m designing a whole world, I have to design reasonable people as well as bad people. So I’m quite used to doing that, but that’s not what I’m generally known for. For instance in The Magic Flute, the one that I did with Sir Peter Hall, all the goodies looked quite nice. They’re not going around all distorted with club feet."

So was designing this similar to designing for an opera?
"Yes, I suppose it is. I think I approach everything exactly the same. When I was given my first opera, which was Orpheus in the Underworld - the ENO gave me that - I thought, ‘Ooh, hello: opera. This is smart, this is intellectual.’ And I started looking rather stupidly at opera design. It seemed to be huge drapes and great big black girders, lots and lots of monotone. I did a series of designs influenced by that, and David Powteney of the ENO looked at them and it was a very difficult moment. I was trying to do something else, and suddenly I got it. What they wanted from me was what I do anyway. They had come to me for what I do, not for what somebody else does.

"And so, having learnt that lesson, 25 years ago or whenever it was, I now know that if people come to me, they come to me for what I do. When I worked with the Pink Floyd, when they first sent me their tapes I tried to do something that was ‘from the cosmos’, that was out there and unknown. In actual fact, I realised much later that what they wanted was what I do all the time: fat grotesque businessmen or whatever. So I’m not influenced by the job. I do try and find a way of varying it, not making it always look the same."

How different was this from working on the animated sections of The Wall?
"Well, the animated sections of The Wall I had much more control over because I was directing. I designed it and wrote it really, and directed it - the animated bits. Whereas on this I was just a production designer and in charge of the animators. The Wall was very much smaller, a much smaller crew. I should think, tops, that was about 40 people. I had probably five main artists I had to work with. And I managed to convince them that you don’t have to draw like Tom and Jerry, you don’t have to draw like Disney. There is another way for animation to go.

"Not that I’m against Tom and Jerry and Disney, but I wanted to make them relearn. It’s very difficult to make people relearn. They think, ‘Why should I?’ All of us, when we’re in trouble, we fall back on what we know, we don’t really want to try something new. I think everybody’s tempted by something new - ‘That would be fun. It’s a real challenge.’ - but whether they can achieve it is another matter. Then if they can’t achieve it, they fall back on the way they’ve always done it because that’s comfortable and they know where they’re going."

Was the experience of animation useful in knowing how these characters were going to be treated?
"Oh yes. I really learnt from The Wall. First of all, back in the ‘70s I went to Los Angeles and did a film called Long Drawn Out Trip which I drew the whole thing myself on 70mm film."

Good lord!
"It was supposed to be for BBC television, they were the ones who sent me to use a sort of computerised system. And to my horror when I got there it was not computerised at all. What I’d heard was that you drew one frame and then another frame and then the computer would fill in, say, three to four frames in the middle. I thought, ‘That’s not possible. How’s it going to do that?’ Of course you can now. But when I went there I discovered it was really a system of dissolves. They would dissolve between this image and that image, so it was really a series of melting images, one coming and one going all the time.

"When I discovered that I got very despondent and thought about coming home. But I thought No, I’ve come all this way. I’ll really try and make a go of it.’ So I drew every frame myself, and I started making them closer together, because I realised with this dissolve system you couldn’t make them too far apart otherwise it jumped. So I stayed there and I drew this stream of consciousness about America at the time. What was happening in the '70s was black power, Coca Cola, Playboy magazine, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse... I did Mickey Mouse on drugs, which I showed to the Disney people. There was then a hushed silence."

You’re probably one of the few people to have got away with something like that.
"Yes, and the BBC showed it too, so they’ll probably come steaming in for a huge commission now. So I haven’t really much done animation myself, but I’m not a professional animator. I couldn’t animate like the Disney guys do. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t have that patience to be able to sit there hour after hour doing that. I discovered when I was directing The Wall that animators must go at their own pace. Because I used to think, ‘We’re not getting enough footage in. Can’t we speed up? Can’t we do this?’ I would go in and give them this pep talk about getting more done and pushing on, and it would just upset them all. They’d all get jangled nerves, and at the end of the week I’d find I’d achieved less than I normally would, by upsetting them. So eventually I thought ,‘Well, they’ve got to sit there with their ear-pieces listening to Radio One or Radio Four or whatever it is, and doing it at their speed.’"

Do you have any influence on the spin-off TV series or any of the merchandise?
"No, I haven’t had any influence on that. They tell me that they’re going back to my drawings to take other characters from those. There’s a whole mass of characters that didn’t appear in the movie. People who were planned. And there are those I did quite elaborate drawings of, like Medusa, who’s in the exhibition: she’s in the movie about two seconds. You’ve got to be very quick to spot her. She doesn’t look much like that. But I’ve done something on the website. I’ve taken part in as many things as I can, but I haven’t had anything to do with the spin-offs or the TV series."

If they offered you another film like this, would you take it?
"Yes, I think I would. Partly because I’ve enjoyed it so much and everybody was so incredibly kind to me. And I did think (a) they would alter my work tremendously, and (b) I’d heard so many horrible stories about Hollywood. But they were all extremely nice. They were all very laid back and very Californian, walking round in jeans and T-shirts all the time. There was no feeling of hierarchy over there. Just a feeling of trying to achieve the best art possible. I don’t feel any cynicism there - going for this or going for that for any particular reason. But then I suppose to a certain extent I’ve benefited from being in England. I didn’t get too much caught up in the system. Every time I went over there with a new batch of drawings, I was welcomed because I brought new stuff. Maybe if I’d been on the spot all the time it might have got little more tired."

Are you completely happy with the way the film’s turned out?
"Yes. But having said that, I’m never completely happy with anything that I do, even if I’ve got complete control over it myself. It’s just part of being an artist - or anybody of a creative nature. You just always see the worst bits, when you look at something. I’ve done it many times. Sometimes I can look at a drawing of mine and there’s just one line out of place, but that one line jumps out at me. It looks like a California tree trunk rather than a tiny line. You always tend to be self-critical. If you’re going to push on and try things, you are self-critical. But I’m incredibly flattered that they asked me. It’s the first time they’ve ever asked an outside designer in, and the first time the designer’s been allowed to stay around for the whole movie and have that much influence, and altered the look of the movie. So I’ve achieved a lot more than I though I would achieve."

website: www.geraldscarfe.com

Monday, 25 September 2017

Here’s why I won’t be reviewing films any more

This isn’t a fit of pique and I’m not upset about anything. I love writing reviews on my website and I would love to carry on writing them. It’s just that I want to do something else. I want to write something else.

When the original version of my website was launched in January 2002, the web was still in its first decade. YouTube wouldn’t be invented for another three years, Twitter a year after that. There were only four Harry Potter books. It was less than a year since Douglas Adams passed away. The BBC had no plans to revive Doctor Who.

Since then, lots of other movie review websites have come and gone.  To the best of my knowledge, no single author film site has lasted as long as mine.

Since 2002 I have written 709 reviews and posted 321 interviews. Total wordcount: 1,655,073. That’s an average of 105,000 words every year. Or one book. If I had been working in print instead of on the web, I could potentially have 18 books with my name on instead of three. Or maybe 16 books and a couple of movie scripts.

This, my friends, is why I’m regretfully packing in the film reviewing. I will be 50 next February, and while I am incredibly proud of my three published volumes, it irks me that I haven’t written more. I have several in various states of completion, not least the long gestating biography of Elsa Lanchester, which I would love to get finished in time for the 2019 remake of Bride of Frankenstein.

I'm also working on a massive catalogue of all 21st century British horror films (so I’m still writing reviews, but in 200 words not 4,000). I also have several non-film-related books I want to write.

What irks me even more than my lack of literary production is that, as I approach my half century, I don’t have a feature film writing credit. Ever since I was at primary school, I have written scripts. Back in 2002 I was finishing off my Masters Degree in TV Scriptwriting – but in those pre-Who days there was no market for sci-fi, fantasy or adventure.

My scriptwriting ‘career’ has been one of near misses: an episode of Urban Gothic (promptly cancelled); an unmade episode of the Captain Scarlet remake (stories about Gerry Anderson turned out to be true, though I did at least squeeze some money out of him); a version of Xtro 4 for a guy who claimed he owned the rights but didn’t; an adaptation of The Beetle which Variety claimed I had sold to Hammer (I hadn’t); and so on. The only script of mine that ever got made was Waiting for Gorgo, a 17-minute film that spent two years in post and then wasn't submitted to any genre festivals. Sigh.

I have spent 15 years analysing what does and doesn’t work in films, particularly low-budget independent British horror films. Theoretically, I should be the go-to guy for screenplays. But not once has anyone come to me and said, “Mike, I need you to write a script for me.” (Actually a couple of people did, but neither worked out and they joined the near-miss pile.)

I know some people who want to write meaningful, artistic works, or aspire to one day write the next Hollywood blockbuster. I don’t. All I’ve ever wanted to do is write some silly microbudget monster movie that people will complain about on Amazon. That’s what I love watching, that’s what I want to write, instead of writing about.

And if you’re thinking: go out there and make the films yourself. I appreciate the sentiment, but I have no desire to direct, and have neither the business skills to produce nor the technical skills to do anything else. All I do is write. I pick the right words and put them in the right order. It’s all I’ve ever done, all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve been told I’m quite good at it. It’s paid the rent, in one way or another, for 22 years.

But it seems to me that what has stopped me from writing the books and screenplays I want to write is spending all my spare time (outside my writing day job at Leicester University) writing my website. While I’ve been reviewing Zombiesaurus and its ilk, I’ve not been finishing Elsa Lanchester: Bride of the Hunchback or My Big Fat Zombie Wedding.

This website will stay live, and I’ve got a handful of reviews I’ve promised people that I’ll get up over the summer, but as of now I’m not accepting any more review copies. If you care to send me a screener, I’ll certainly appreciate it and will tweet about it enthusiastically. But there will be no more reviews. Sorry.

I’m also knocking my British Horror Revival blog on the head. Hardly anyone ever looks at it anyway. I’ll keep both Twitter accounts going. I’ll also keep writing my column for Scream.

It’s been a great 15 and a half years. Coincidentally that’s exactly how long I’ve got to retirement (if I make it that far..., cough cough) so now seems a perfect time to change direction.

Finally, I want to thank absolutely everyone who has helped me: people who sent me screeners, or invited me to screenings, or agreed to interviews, or commented, or tweeted or contributed in any way. Cheers, folks!

interview: John Williams

In January 2017 I sent four questions to 100 movie legends. Composer John Williams responded in June, sending me a print-out of questions he often gets asked. I thought fair enough, at least he was kind enough to respond. Three months later, I was puzzled to receive another envelope marked 'Boston Pops', containing the same printed FAQ. Then I noticed that some of the answers were highlighted in biro - and realised that John Williams had updated his FAQ by adding my four questions! So here's my interview with the man who has received more Oscar nominations than anyone ever (except Walt Disney):

Which technological or social development during your career has changed cinema the most?
"The use of synthesizers and of layered pre-recordings in film scores is now prevalent, but I'm still writing for orchestra. Technology has had very little influence on me. However, thanks to the computerization of post-production work such as editing, it goes much more quickly now."

Which deceased film-maker or actor do you wish you could have worked with?
"Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn."

What is the one question you’re fed up with answering in interviews?
"What was it like to succeed Arthur Fiedler?"

What would you rather be asked instead?
"It depends who's asking!"

Sunday, 23 July 2017

interview: Martin Landau

In the summer of 1999, my pal Omar Kaczmarczyk invited me to Luxembourg to visit the set of The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Unfortunately Martin Landau, who reprised his role of Geppetto from the first film, had wrapped when I was there but Omar kindly arrange a phoner when I got home. In 2000 I finally met Martin Landau when I was in Cannes and spotted him in a restaurant. I approached him, explained who I was and thanked him for this gracious interview. I’m posting it now in tribute to this great actor who passed away last week.

What attracted you to the role of Geppetto in the first Pinocchio film?
“To begin with? Well, it is a classic book and the Collodi book is something that I think everyone has grown up with. And I felt that the technology had finally caught up with the ability to do it as a live-action movie with a wooden actor. I’ve worked with a lot of wooden actors in my time and this was one of the better ones! But I guess I read the script and I found it charming, I found it moving, I found it sweet. I knew the Henson group as well were very gifted, and other laboratories of that kind were extant at the moment. It intrigued me. I felt there was something classical about it. We’d all grown up on the Disney cartoon which is charming but deviated more. Pepe the cricket was Jiminy Cricket and so on. This was truer and closer to the original piece and I felt it was something I wanted to do it.

“It’s a classic part and I also found it moving and sweet. Here’s a man who has avoided marriage and avoided his love. He’s a man who would never actually have a family because he’s past that. He’s run away from life. He’s spent his time talking to inanimate objects and puppets and created a life for himself that makes him comfortable. And suddenly here this strange event happens where he is thrust into fatherhood and isn’t really ready for it emotionally. This is how I looked at it. He has this love of his life who’s crazy about him that he’s ignored his entire life, which is added to the script. There’s a nice arc and a catharsis that occurs where he becomes a much rounder, fuller, better human being through this experience that takes him by surprise.”

Given that the first film was close to the book and had that closure, what did you think when you were approached about a sequel?
“Well, I said ‘Let me see the script.’ Obviously any time something works pretty well, they want to do a second one, and usually it’s the idea of doing it as opposed to doing what. The ‘what’ is very important. When they sent me the script I said this is kind of fun, because what a turn: Geppetto becoming a puppet and Pinocchio basically on the other side of the fence. But Pinocchio still misbehaving and creating the problems that cause this strange occurrence. But again the idea of a puppet coming to life is just as whimsical and fantastic as a character like Geppetto becoming a puppet.

“So I said, ‘Well, this is in keeping with it in a certain sense. And again it is a morality piece. It’s about not paying attention and being penalised forbeing remiss in life. I also found it kind of fun and cute and again it’s a switch, particularly at the end when the two of them are puppets and have to be reconstructed into human beings. But Geppetto is also kind of enjoying the experience. I just sort it was kind of whimsical and sweet.”

What did you find were the biggest differences between the two films?
“I do pictures with different directors all the time, and different cinematographers. Also though the fact that it’s a different period historically. I don’t know whether you know that or not - this is a much later time. This is 19th century and the other one I guess was 18th century. So, jokingly I say this, Genevieve Bujold’s character didn’t manage to last that hundred years! So it’s still a period piece - it’s not a modern piece - but they felt it would be truer to the Collodi piece in a way if they brought it into that century. So there were differences in wardrobe and differences in design, by and large, but not radically.

Michael Anderson is a wonderfully professional director. He did Around the World in 80 Days among other things. So it’s not like going into a black hole. There’s a solid core to this production. Of course, a first-time director I would have qualms - because it’s complicated. It’s not an easy picture, when you’re dealing with these special effects. In terms of today, you think of car crashes and explosions and fireballs. But this is a very subtle kind of thing; it has to be believable and done well. And you need a director who can handle it because it’s really character driven. Pinocchio 1 was a character-driven movie, albeit that one of the characters is a wooden puppet, but very human. And it’s a human tale. And I think that’s why they wanted to have someone who can recognise the humanity as well as the technical areas at the helm of this. You need a good skipper. So when I heard it was Michael Anderson I was very pleased.”

Had you worked with him before?
“No, I’d worked with his son on The Greatest Story Ever Told, Michael Anderson Jr, as an actor. But I knew Michael. We’d met on a number of times but I hadn’t worked with him. I’d worked with a lot of ‘classmates’: people like Hitchcock and a lot of his contemporaries.”

Did you find that the technology had advanced much since the last film?
“Clearly technology continues to grow and people are working on all kinds of things. The technology was pretty damn good in the first one. It’s probably made some positive steps since then but we’re not talking about George Lucas’ company. It’s close-ups on puppets. In the first film, that puppet had a lot of expression, a lot of subtlety, a lot of sweetness and wickedness, and all the things necessary. So I think maybe things are a little better in that area, but it was pretty good the first time around is what I’m saying.”

Have you advanced the character in the second film from what he was in the first?
“Well, I think he’s essentially the same guy. I don’t want to do anything radical that would disturb people; he is the same guy. It’s a hundred years later but he’s still very much the same guy. The script allows for different areas to emerge in terms of where he’s ‘coming from’. You see different sides of Geppetto but it’s the same guy allowing other colours to come into his behaviour.”

How did you find working in Luxembourg?
“I liked it. I found it very clean and clear and pleasant. It’s not very big and if you’re in a long train I think the front of it is in one country and the back of it’s in another. But I found the people friendly. I found that the crews at the studio were very professional, and the studio itself. I think Gertrude Stein said ‘a sound stage is a sound stage is a sound stage’: you don’t know where you are until you walk outside and see a street with foreign signs.

“I worked at Pinewood for years on Space: 1999 and I felt very much at home there. Having done as many films as I have and shot in as many countries as I have, I’m quite adaptable. Because when you’re inside a sound stage you really don’t know where you are. You’re in that world. It’s only when you go back the hotel that you realise other languages are being spoken.”

Space: 1999 is quite topical because the Moon gets blown out of orbit in about four weeks.
“I know. A year from now it will be a period piece!”

When you made that series, 1999 was way in the future.
“Well, it was 25 years ahead exactly.”

As the date approaches, what are your thoughts on the series now?
“It was a valiant effort. It’s not easy to do that kind of a show on a weekly basis, and I also think that our special effects at the time were really amazing. If you look back they still hold up very well. Star Trek was a wonderful series but their effects were certainly much more primitive than ours. People like Brian Johnston wound up working with Lucas on projects. Our unit at Bray was really doing miraculous stuff and tying it into the main stuff we were doing at Pinewood, and I felt it was quite seamless and quite well done. Some of the stories of course were not as dramatic or little lacking, but some of them were excellent little movies. Again, I don’t know any series that’s consistent and wonderful all the time, but I think it was a valiant effort to do something on a different level than had been done before.

“When I say ‘hadn’t been done before’, the concept of the Moon being blown out of orbit and not being able to affect your trajectory and being at the whims of fate. In other words these 300 people from different countries not actually in control of their destiny, and able to stay alive because of hydroponics but not being able to procreate until they found a planet - this was the concept initially - that was compatible with our needs so we could continue the human race. And that idea is a good idea.

“Everybody’s a critic and people compared us to Star Trek. We didn’t intend to be Star Trek. It was a differently textured show, and there were episodes that I would proudly screen for anybody. I just think it was time well spent and we did some very, very interesting work at that point in time. Again, it’s 25 years ago. If you look at those shows they don’t look as if they were made 25 years ago; they look as if they were made yesterday. We don’t suffer from the styles of the day.

“Last night I hosted a screening of North By Northwest at a theatre here because Warner Brothers is re-releasing the movie with brand new sound and a restored print. It’s impeccable and beautiful. I did a question and answer and I did some anecdotes on the stage for about an hour last night before the screening. Well, that picture holds up. The cars are old and the suits are ‘50s suits and the hairdos too, and the ties are skinny, so you’re reminded continually of the ‘50s when you watch it. Whereas in Space: 1999, you’re not. It’s as new and futuristic today as it was then.”

The fans often cite a big difference between the two seasons of Space: 1999.
“Definitely, because Freddie Freiburger came in and as I say, everyone’s a critic and everyone was second-guessing the show. I liked the first season better. I felt if it could have evolved from that point it would have become a much, much, much richer and better show. I felt there were things in the second season that were inconsistent and sometimes the characters were made inconsistent because they did things unilaterally that they wouldn’t have done - to accommodate the storyline as opposed to the storyline accommodating the characters.”

A lot of old shows have been revived. Do you think there’s room for Space: 2099?
“Well, I’m not in charge of that. I’m sure there’s always room for something that’s well done. There’s a nucleus of followers of that show who would be interested in that show and those people could introduce their kids to the show because of the nostalgic aspect to it. But it takes a certain amount of money. Space certainly didn’t have the success that Star Trek had - though Star Trek was a failure when it was first on the air.

“Because I was doing Mission: Impossible at the same studio at the same time, and we were very successful and they were a struggling show. They only did three seasons and we did many more. And I was offered Spock before Lenny and passed on it to do Mission, so I understand, I’ve been close to that. I knew Gene Roddenberry because Gene Roddenberry’s office was right next to Bruce Gellar’s office at Desilu Studios which ultimately became Paramount. So I sort of grew up there: we were on stages 7 and 8 and they were on 9 and 10. Those numbers have changed because of Paramount’s acquisition of Desilu, but we were side by side. We had the two stages next to the Star Trek stages, and Lenny’s dressing room was in the same building as mine. I knew Bill Shatner and all of them very well; we’d see each other all the time in the commissary and visit each other’s sets and the like.

“So I’m aware of the Star Trek phenomenon but it took a long time to happen, remember. It wasn't overnight. And the show barely stayed on the air from season to season. It was on the basis of a lot of letters and very zealous fanatical fans - that’s a little redundant, but... - that kept that show on the air. It just scraped by, whereas we were riding high. It was a wonderful concept and well done, but when it comes to special effects it couldn't hold a candle to Space.”

When both shows were prepping for their first seasons, what attracted you to Rollin Hand over Spock?
“Well, I’m an actor who likes a wide range of stuff, and to play a lobotomy, which is what Spock was to me, someone without emotion, did not interest me. It’s not why I became an actor. I could see the fact that it could be very successful: pointy ears, and a guy who knows all the answers in the 1960s is like a pothead of a certain kind, and I felt that would be very successful. Whereas on Mission I played everything from Adolf Hitler to Martin Boorman, to myself younger, older, every accent. I was a one-man rep company actually, and that interested me. To this day I would not want to do Spock if you handed it to me and offered to pay me a million dollars. I wouldn’t do it. The character does not interest me. My answering machine has more expression.”

What did you think of the Mission: Impossible movie?
“I thought it had nothing to do with the series. The series is a team of people who get in and get out, having accomplished what they did without anyone ever knowing they were there. In the movie, the team is killed early in the picture, the Phelps character is turned into a double agent, and everyone knows Tom Cruise is there because he’s announcing it all the time. It’s a different idea. Tom basically played the same character I played, but the idea was not to let them know we were infiltrating. When you’re a movie star I guess you have to let people know you’re there.”

One of my favourite films is 12:01. What do you remember of that?
“I remember Jonathan Silverman and Jack Sholder, I remember working on it. Jack Sholder: I had done his first picture ever, a picture called Alone in the Dark, which was one of New Line’s very first pictures. I got to know Bob Shea and all of those people. I just remember that I had a good time. Helen Slater and Jonathan. I also did an HBO movie with the same director called By Dawn’s Early Light, in which I played the President. Kind of a catastrophic event, with Washington blown up by atomic bombs.”

Thanks for this. I’m looking forward to Pinocchio.
“I think it’s going to be quite charming, and I know Michael Anderson is very happy with it. I’m going into a dubbing studio for the next little bit to post-synch a bunch of stuff with the puppet. It’s the first time I’ve done that with a puppet, but as I say I’m not generally thought of as a wooden actor.”

RIP Martin Landau 1928-2017

Friday, 30 June 2017


Director: Milko Davis
Writer: Michele Pacitto
Producers: Michele Pacitto, Andy Haman
Cast: Andy Haman, Mia Klosterman, Cooper Elliott
Country: USA
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: UK DVD (101 Films)

When I first encountered Zombiesaurus it was just a listing on Amazon. Just a title. But what a title. Boy, that’s how you sell a movie. I knew I had to see it.

A little later, the sleeve image appeared. It was obviously misleading and hyperbolic in the grand tradition of B-movie marketing. After staring at the design, wondering why it rang a bell, I realised that 101 Films had used exactly the same stock library dinosaur illustration that 88 Films (who are presumably either 13 places higher or lower on some sort of arbitrary scale) had already used for Steve Lawson’s Killersaurus.

This week I was in Morrisons, browsing the video shelf as is my wont, and there it was. Zombiesaurus. Five quid. Into the basket it went. It had only been released that very day. Bought it on Monday, watched it on Tuesday, started the review on Wednesday, finished it on Thursday, posted it on Friday and I’ll stop now before people mistake me for Craig David.

I’m not going to lie to you. Zombiesaurus is not a good movie. However you measure it, this is pretty terrible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. Genuinely entertaining. Not in a snide, so-bad-it’s-good, mocking way. Regular readers know that I would never approach a film like that. No, Zombiesaurus is considerably entertaining in a bizarre and strangely fascinating way, and frankly it’s not without its occasional moment of genuine cinematic cleverness and quality. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty much exactly as bad as you expect, just not in the way that you expect.

I think the people who made this can be proud of what they have created. I’m just not sure they know what it is they have actually created. Because it certainly beats the hell out of me.

The core of the story is pretty simple and straightforward, and original too. There’s a bunch of people being chased around a sort of military/scientific/industrial building by a fiercesome, hungry dinosaur. The unique schtick is that this dino can’t be killed because it’s already dead (hence the green, glowing eyes). Furthermore, anyone unlucky enough to become dino-chow returns from the dead as a zombie, also with the green, glowing eyes. That’s pretty much the second half of the film right there.

I have no problems with the second half. Well, I do in fact have a whole bunch of problems, but we’ll come to them in due course. But let’s start with the first half, which really makes very little sense.

We start with a man we will come to know as Dr Wojick Borge (Cooper Elliott) – bearded and bald with a rather alarming cauliflower ear – who is making a shady deal in a car park in the middle of the night, for some reason, with some guy. The guy gives him a box containing some hypodermic needles, each of which has some sort of green, glowing liquid inside it (green and glowing is a recurring motif in this motion picture). Borge accepts this consignment and has, for no apparent reason, a living dinosaur under a tarpaulin on a trailer.

Wait, what?

Never mind because one year later Dr Borge, resplendent in lab coat and bow tie, is teaching a (small) class at a university. Let’s just listen in to some of the lecture he delivers to a dozen or so bored-looking students:

“Why not break the chain? The chain that causes the expiration of life. Why not expand on Darwin’s theory of evolution – and push further? I stand before you today, representing and educating the idea of progressing life. I want to eliminate the thought that forces us to believe that life must end. Remove the gauge.”

Anyone? Anyone got any ideas? Any suggestions what on Earth any of this is supposed to mean? No? Oh well. At least it’s not just me.

It’s not exactly clear what subject Borge is teaching, but it involves a dead cat at the front of the lecture theatre. He injects this with some of the green, glowing stuff and it comes back to life, to the shock and horror of the students. For this misbehaviour, Borge is chewed out by the Dean (Mary Jo Mauro) and given the boot. He will return to our story later. But for now, he’s crossing the road, getting hit by a car and swearing vengeance on humanity.

Cut to a shot of an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, with the curious caption ‘0515 HRS ZULU TIME’. I looked this up and apparently ‘Zulu Time’ is what the US Navy calls the time at the Prime Meridian, so they have a single reference for their ships around the globe who don’t have to wonder whether a given time is ten o’clock in New York or ten o’clock in San Francisco. Except there’s already a perfectly good name for this. It’s called Greenwich Mean Time. Silly Yanks.

Ten minutes in, we finally get the opening titles, which introduce us to five quasi-military types in a Humvee, driving through the desert accompanied by a CGI helicopter. There’s Duque (professional bodybuilder Andy Haman), the muscle mountain leader who someone later says looks exactly like Duke Nukem. There’s Spivey (Shale Le Page), the cocky, slightly crazy one. There’s Stick (Ruselis Aumeen Perry) the thankfully not wisecracking or hiphop-loving black one, Cuchilla (UFC fighter Raquel ‘Rocky’ Pennington) the taciturn, sword-wielding, kick-ass female one and Swat (Juan Gonzalez) the other one. The titles provide the lead actors’ names and tell us ‘Screenplay by Michele Pacitto’ but in defiance of tradition don’t mention either the producer(s) or the director(s).

A bizarre caption now appears – on screen and read aloud – which I think is worth reproducing in full (complete with incorrect apostrophe):

During a great time of peril on Earth, a deranged scientist emerged and took control of a secret military bunker deep in the desert…
Evil would unleash it’s monstrous secrets to destroy Earth…
Five commandos set out to eliminate the threat…
Out of the five commandos…
Two survived…
Out of the two…
One told the story…

What? I mean, what? I mean, right at the start: “a great time of peril” – do you mean a time of great peril? Has this been translated from Japanese?

Now we meet yet another set of characters: four young people in a car, also driving across the desert. Roxanne (Nicole Goeke) is a bimbo, her boyfriend Gunnar (Ben Johnson, who has played Superman in several Justice League fan films) is a jock. In the back seat are Sadie (Mia Klosterman) and her boyfriend Cameron (Adam Singer) who are kind of stoner gamer nerds.

Despite the somewhat simplistic descriptions that I’m using here, one thing the movie has going for it is characterisation. There are nine main characters and they are all different and distinctive. They all speak in different ways and act in different ways and have enough depth to them that they feel like individual, semi-real people, not just off-the-peg cardboard cut-outs.

Except for Swat. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about him. But that’s okay because – fuck spoilers – he’s the first to get killed.

As the kids’ car is overtaken by the commandos’ Hummer, Spivey waves a gun at them and throws something horrible onto their windscreen. And another shot of  that asteroid assures us that there’s just three minutes to impact. And whaddaya know, exactly three minutes later – in both real and movie time – it does indeed hit Earth. Causing untold devastation and destruction and…

Nah, it causes a bright, large, quiet explosion in the background which the kids in the car don’t even notice. It also causes an electromagnetic pulse which takes out their phones – and the car (which is not, as far as I can tell, electric). But evidently it doesn’t affect the Humvee and its occupants who overtook them three and a half minutes ago.

Somewhere up ahead the Hummer has stopped, the commandos get out, the CGI helicopter lands in the background and promptly explodes. Spivey’s rant at this (“Are you fucking kidding me?”) contrasts with his oppos’ insouciance in one of those genuinely clever and enjoyable moments which I referenced above.

Leaving their vehicle, the four youngsters trudge off across the desert (Sadie has an R2-D2 rucksack!) until they come across a CGI bunker in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a security fence. The EMP has evidently cut off the electricity to the fence. Apparently it has also cut off the barbed wire around the top since they climb over with nary a scratch. The door is slightly open, so in they go.

There’s then a considerable amount of creeping around, intercut with shots of the five commandos also creeping around, plus shots of someone (it’s Dr Borge – remember him?) wearing a hooded cowl and a mask that makes him look like the missing link between Bane and Palpatine. For some reason he’s listening to an old vinyl record.

There are canisters of something, labelled in Arabic. There’s a digital countdown timer with 47 minutes still to go. A green gas emerges from some pipes, which prompts Cameron’s helpful instruction “Back up. Don’t inhale that gas.” After which he and his three companions avoid its toxic effects by putting their hands over their mouths.

Elsewhere, poor old characterless Swat, who has somehow become detached from his team, omits to put his hand over his mouth when similar gas pumps out at him – and becomes our first actual zombie. Meanwhile, Duque and co find an old scrapbook, which Stick identifies as “Arabic codex pentagram (something)”, which contains drawings of dinosaurs and some convenient newspaper cuttings:

“Infamous for accidentally releasing toxins into the Colorado River during a stint at the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr Wojik Borge’s government career ended when he was terminated by the US Department of Energy for mental instability and obsessive claims of conspiracy.”

Spivey identifies this as “more of that Illuminati mumbo-jumbo” while Stick avers “I’ve seen some messed-up stuff but this is off the chain.” And the viewer just comments: “What?”

“Borge says,” continues Stick, reading with ease some tiny handwriting in a dark room, “that he has calculated the impending hit location, approximate date and time of impact, but government authorities have repeatedly warned the public to avoid his apocalyptic workshops and events as opportunistic fear-mongering.”

What’s really great here – and it’s only just occurred to me – is that this is an infodump scene which, because of the obtusely unfathomable script, completely fails to dump any actual info.

After Gunnar shoots zombie Swat, the two groups meet up. Then a hologram of a coughing Borge appears to tell them that a meteorite has hit, just as he predicted, and “every major electrical grid in North America will be down for months. There will be mass hysteria and the tartans will be released.”

Listening to that again he possibly says ‘toxins’, but given how little sense this all makes, it might well be ‘tartans’. He also assures them that “the Jurassic monster will be reanimated and America will destroy itself.” Throughout the past ten minutes or so we have had recurrent cut-aways to a large metal crate suspended on a chain being slowly lowered to the floor. Now the hatch on the front of the crate slowly opens. A pair of green, glowing eyes can be seen within. Out emerges… zombiesaurus!

And you know what, I’m going to give some serious props here. This film may have cost about ten bucks and change, it may have a script written by someone who had smoked way too much weed, it may feature large amounts of over-acting so ripe that it just falls off the tree… but the dino effects are pretty damn good. Not Jurassic Park good obviously, but better than SyFy movie crap. It’s a therapod, about eight feet high at the hip, portrayed by an effective mix of puppetry and CGI. Much of the time it seems to be a full-body costume (inhabited by Jason Hagan). Honestly, it’s way better than you expect in something like this. There are nice, Harryhausen-esque movements: the tilt of the head, the swing of the tail. I really dug the dino.

But not as much as I dug what happens next, which is that Duque, cowering behind oil drums with the others, decides to stand up, put down his big-ass gun and walk right up to the beast. He then proceeds to punch it repeatedly around the head until it falls unmoving to the ground, spilling a handful of teeth.

This is my absolute favourite thing I’ve seen in a film this year! It’s only a few seconds but it is awesome in its audaciousness, reminiscent of the gag when Mongo lays out a horse with one punch in Blazing Saddles. Honestly, it’s moments like this which elevate a film like this from crap to ‘Holy crap!’

That’s at the 40-minute mark. It’s followed by 26 minutes of the characters trying to escape the building while avoiding (or not) the not-as-dead-as-they-thought dinosaur and their zombified friends. Highlights include a touching moment between Roxie and zombie Gunnar, an unexpected gunshot fatality in the gents’ toilets, Stick sliding between the dino’s legs then shooting it up the arse, and the astoundingly bloody and protracted destruction of zombie Duque. The pace is well maintained while the editing and camera-work in the fight sequences are genuinely well-handled.

Eventually our three survivors burst out of the building in a (different?) Humvee, just as the countdown timer reaches zero, unleashing a chain reaction of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads across the cities of the world. There is a final incomprehensible, rambling monologue from Dr Borge which I can’t be bothered to transcribe here. Hopefully by now I have whetted your appetite enough that you are determined to view this surreal masterpiece for itself. I want to leave you a few unspoiled moments.

The final scene is these three driving across the desert, only now they all have zombie eyes and voices. Except that they have black and white contact lenses, not green glowing eyes. Now I’m really confused. The whole film lasts 69 minutes before the end credits appear under an extremely autotuned song, starting with a shot of each character that freezes and turns into a comic-book image.

But wait, just as you’re expecting ten minutes of glacially slow, Full Moon-style credits, there’s an extra scene of Stick being interviewed by TV host Cara O’Nightly (Julie Crisante) about a book he wrote about what we have just seen. Or something. Even in and of itself, this little coda makes no sense. She says, “I’m speaking of the fact that the journals had been stolen in the aftermath and were sold for profit.” He replies, “Cara, no-one really knows the full story. I am a soldier and I can say this with confidence: everything written in my bestselling thriller Z Rex – available in hardcover and paperback – is true.”

Seriously: what?

And that is indeed followed by nearly seven minutes of glacially slow, Full Moon-style credits. Director Milko Davis is credited with ‘story’ (and with ‘miniatures’) but not, so far as I can tell, with directing. A bizarre snafu on the Inaccurate Movie Database means that his name is listed there as ‘Milko Davis Main Director’! Davis has two previous features to his credit: Raiders of the Damned and Tsnambee: The Wrath Cometh.

As per Stick’s book referenced in the epilogue, before release this film was variously titled Z/Rex: The Jurassic Dead and also Z-Rex: Jurassic Apocalypse. But fair play to 101 Films, their new title is both more commercial and just plain better. Zombiesaurus. Love it. Filmed in Colorado in February 2016, the movie had a local premiere screening in April 2017, then this 101 Films disc on the other side of the Atlantic seems to be its first actual commercial release. It is, incidentally, an utterly vanilla DVD without even a trailer or chapter selection.

So let’s cut to the chase here: why does Zombiesaurus work as a movie, despite all expectations (and a fair bit of evidence) to the contrary? First, although it’s not a comedy or spoof it certainly doesn’t take itself seriously. Second, although it doesn’t take itself seriously, one can see that cast and crew took the making of it seriously.

But mostly I think it’s that the film has – more by accident than design, I suspect – found a perfect balance between on the one hand unpretentious, well-made, lightweight scifi-horror action and on the other a batshit insane scenario/context. What the hell is all that about the meteorite and its strangely selective EMP? Why does the helicopter explode? What are all the oil-drum canisters and why are they labelled in Arabic? In what sense does any of this take place in a “time of great evil” (or even a “great time of evil”)? Why do the survivors have different scary eyes to everyone else? What’s all that stuff about Stick writing a book? Why does Dr Borge reanimate a dead cat in front of his students? What is the Arabic Codex Pentagram (something)? What happens when the tartans are released? And above all, where the hell has that dinosaur come from?

I really, really don’t understand the story of this film. I understand the bit in the middle, the bulk of the second half when the dinosaur and zombies are chasing them – that’s cool. But I honestly don’t know what bigger story the film-makers were trying to tell. And I really honestly do have to wonder whether they do either. What were they trying to make? What do they think they’ve made? What have they actually made? I don’t know the answers to those three questions but I’m pretty sure they’re all different.

I get sent a lot of films for free, and pick up others cheap on eBay or in charity shops. Only occasionally do I buy a brand new film on DVD, and when I do the question to be asked is: do I want my money back? Or did I get good value? In the case of Zombiesaurus I can state with certainty that I got way more than five pounds’ worth of entertainment. Just the literary enjoyment of spending two evenings writing this review has been worth a fiver.

Somehow, in some way, Zombiesaurus transcends simple dichotomous concepts of good/bad or sense/nonsense. It's an extraordinary, amazing film. Should you buy it and watch it? Hell yeah.

MJS rating: A-

Thursday, 29 June 2017

interview: Warren Dudley

In June 2017, Warren Dudley kindly answered some questions about his film Cage.

What are the practical pros and cons of shooting a film with one actor on one set?
"I have to say the best thing about working in one location and with one actor on screen is that you can shoot the whole movie in order. You NEVER get to do this usually. It makes telling the story so much easier because you can see it happening right in front of you. The downside I suppose is that you can all get a bit stir crazy after ten 12-hour days in a damp warehouse with just a cage in it -  so you need to really get on with your crew... this was put to the test a few times!"

I’m assuming you wrote this with Lucy-Jane Quinlan in mind. What did she bring to the role and the film? 
"I worked with Lucy on The Cutting Room and thought she was massively talented... and almost as importantly a right laugh. I didn’t audition anyone else for the role which probably goes against all the rules a bit but it just seemed right. Luckily for me her performance was incredible. To bring so much emotion to the part whilst also pulling off an immaculate US accent is quite an achievement. In short - Lucy-Jane Quinlan should be famous and it confuses me as to why she isn’t yet."

What did you learn on The Cutting Room that you were able to use when making Cage?
"Write to your budget. The budgets on both films were similar (about £20K) but with TCR we had multiple locations and a big cast so it gets spread a bit thin. Saying that I am still really proud of it – it still gets some nice reviews around the internet. With Cage I wanted to put all the money on screen. So between Lucas (DOP), Lucy, the talented crew and myself I think we succeeded in making something that looks like it has a bigger budget.

"One Amazon viewer, attempting to be rude, said – ‘If this is all that Hollywood can come up with we’re in trouble’... I took this as a massive compliment! Little did they know it was shot in rainy Newhaven in an old warehouse."

There are two endings on the DVD. Why did you decide on the ending you chose? (I will spoiler-protect your answer!)
"Lucas and I talked and debated for hours on which ending to use and went with the one we did just because we both felt the film may lose some of its impact if you suddenly introduced lots of other characters at the end. I think of all the people who have mentioned the endings it’s about 50/50 so I still don’t know if I made the right decision!"

What aspect of the film are you most proud of? What would you change if you could?
"I like to think that it stands up as a legitimate piece of film-making and not a well-meaning low budget effort. The twist at the start of the third act is something I am pleased with but has really split the audience – some thinking it’s a stroke of genius others informing me that it’s incredibly offensive... often in not such polite terms. I think it’s the former obviously!

"What would I change? I think if I could I would have gone for a metal cage. Once again, we toyed with it for ages but decided that the wood would be so much more beautiful on film... and it is. A lot of people (yourself included) have mentioned that she could have tried to escape with a bit more vigour so in hindsight I would have added a couple of scenes early on with Gracie attacking the cage..."

What are you working on now? 
"I wrote a screenplay called The Bromley Boys which was made last year and stars Alan Davies and Martine McCutcheon. It’s about a young lad in the early '70s who supports the world’s worst football team. I’ve seen the film and it’s amazing – I really hope the footballing public agrees. I think they are hoping for a cinema release late in the year... very exciting.

"Personally, my next one will be another low budget horror called Prankz starring Betsy-Blue English – a film about a pair of YouTube pranksters who get in to all sorts of horror film trouble. We start filming in late August."

website: www.sixty6media.co.uk

Saturday, 24 June 2017


Director: Warren Dudley
Writer: Warren Dudley
Producer: Warren Dudley
Cast: Lucy-Jane Quinlan, Patrick Bergin, Jake Unsworth
Country: UK
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: UK DVD
Website: www.cage-movie.com

Cage is not the first British horror film to have a single on-screen actor. For accuracy’s sake, it’s worth noting that there was Cam Girl: The Movie and Lady of the Dark: Genesis of the Serpent Vampire. However, they were both Philip Gardiner joints. Despite Cam Girl being an early, atypically not completely terrible effort, neither is what you could call good. Or adequate.

Warren Dudley’s Cage on the other hand, starring Lucy-Jane Quinlan, is pretty damn brilliant. An impulse buy in Morrisons, where it is currently on sale for a princely three quid, why wouldn’t I take a chance on this? The boy is at his drama club, the wife is at her mother’s, I have a couple of hours to myself. Hell yeah, let’s pick up a bargain-priced new British horror about which I know little more than that I plugged the Amazon release on Twitter and added it to my master list recently.

The premise is simple. Gracie Blake is a 27-year-old in Seattle, earning a crust as a chat-line girl. It’s 2001, before the technology existed for cam girls to be a thing (even YouTube was still a few years away). Back in those days, it was all done over the telephone. Or so I’m told.

Unwisely, Gracie agrees to meet a client named Peter (voice of Patrick Bergin). She knows she shouldn’t, but he offers her a lot of money. When she wakes up, she’s in, well, a cage. Stout wooden two-by-fours. Whole thing about ten by ten by ten feet so room to stand up and walk about a bit. Five-digit combination lock on the door. Chain on her ankle. There’s a camp bed, a bucket and a week’s worth of food, water and bog roll. Plus Gracie’s bag, containing her cellphone.

The reason this needs to be set 16 years ago is because it enables Gracie to talk with Peter, and other folk, but she has no other communication (except texting). If she had a smartphone, she could pinpoint her location, she could email, she could take photos, all sorts of plot-inconvenient convenience. Plus: dumbphones – and I speak as the proud owner of a phone that cost me £2.99 from Tesco – have batteries that last for ever. I charge my phone about once a month.

Other film-makers would do well to notice how this benefits the plot. Perhaps we’ll start to see a rash of horror films set in the early noughties, recent enough to not worry too much about clothes, cars and hairstyles but just before the personal communication event horizon when everyone suddenly decided they had to be in constant contact with everyone else all the time.

Except me.


Any road, Gracie is a prisoner. The cage is inside some sort of warehouse and her only clue to the location is the occasional sound of an aeroplane, so she’s somewhere quite near an airport. But there are a lot of airports in the US. Is she even still in Seattle?

She receives occasional phone calls from Peter (number withheld of course) who warns her not to call the police. She also sends and receives calls from her mum (voice of Sharon Drain) and her boyfriend Eddy (voice of Jake Unsworth: Eden Lodge, The Awakening). The former she has to lie to, because explaining her situation would mean explaining how she earns money by talking dirty to men whacking themselves off. The latter knows about her income stream so she can tell him. He does call the police, but Gracie counts as a ‘missing person’, and then only after 48 hours. People go missing in America all the time. It’s not a priority. Gracie, who is on some sort of medication, also has a young daughter from a previous relationship, currently in foster care.

After the initial ineffective screaming and yelling, she becomes resigned to her fate. Peter tells her he’s flying around the country and he will visit her soon, before her supplies run out. We never really find out anything about Peter, and that’s a strength of the film. Bergin plays him as a calm, rational, organised man. No creepy voice, no bouts of anger. He won’t say why he’s locked Gracie up but he assures her it’s not sexual. The fact that he’s not an obvious nutter makes him far more scary and disturbing than he might have been if he was frothing at the mouth.

Things take a turn for the worse when Gracie’s father (voice of Andy Costello) has to go into hospital. At this point she does call the cops, but then wakes up to find her food, water and phone outside the cage as a punishment.

And then, an hour into this eighty-minute feature, as Act Two turns into Act Three, there is the most audacious plot twist I have encountered for a very, very long time. A real ‘shout at the screen’ game changer that will leave your jaw on the floor. I’m not even going to give you a hint what it is. Some other reviewers have, which I think is unfair.

The film’s ending, which obviously I’m not going to spoil for you, is commendably ambiguous. The disc also includes an ‘alternate ending’ which doesn’t contradict the existing one but puts an entire new spin on the whole story, a final narrative jab in the guts that works brilliantly as a coda to the main film. (I recommend avoiding the movie’s IMDB page before watching as that gives a clue about what you’ll see.)

Cage is very good indeed, thanks to a fine script and adroit direction by Mr Dudley and an absolute belter of a performance by Ms Quinlan. Warren Dudley’s first feature was The Cutting Room which, entirely coincidentally, I watched last week. And it’s a measure of the difference between these two films that, when I checked his filmography and spotted that title, I couldn’t remember a damn thing about it. It is a thoroughly generic and forgettable found footage, and it’s genericity and forgettableness were literally all I could remember. Fortunately, I wrote a capsule review (for the next book) so could read what my week-ago self thought.

It has three students – one played by the busy Lucy-Jane Q – making a documentary about cyber-bullying for their A-level media studies. They talk to the father and ex-boyfriend of a local missing girl and then somehow end up in an abandoned army barracks where a masked psycho spends the final acting chasing them up and down dark corridors. The film’s only notable moment is the final reveal of the killer’s identity which is well-handled (albeit completely obvious).

I guess The Cutting Room is the sort of movie that a young film-maker has to get out of their system before progressing to better things. Rest assured that Cage is definitely better things. Obviously the budget has been kept very, very low. One location. One costume. One actor. Patrick Bergin’s a name but it doesn’t cost much to get even a name actor into an audio studio near their house for a day. When actors play a ‘phone voice’, sometimes they can even literally do the role over the phone.

Despite the constraints of the set and minimalist cast, Dudley never lets the film feel static or repetitive. He uses the geometry of the cage and its shadows to create impressive effects, including a stand-out spinning shot where the bars behind Quinlan whizz past like a zoetrope.

Of Lucy-Jane Quinlan, the first thing to note is that for an actor to take on a role like this, alone on screen for 80 minutes, takes extraordinary confidence and courage. LJQ steps up to the bat magnificently, imbuing Gracie with real humanity and with a range of credible emotions from determination to despair and all points inbetween. I first encountered Quinlan when I watched and reviewed Weaverfish. I see that my comment was “Quinlan gives a particularly fine performance, balancing Charlotte on a fine line between vulnerability and resilience.” So (a) I’m slightly proud to have spotted this talent early and seen my critical assessment confirmed with Cage, and (b) I think we’ll see a lot more of this actress.

Quinlan has an extensive IMDB page already, with lots of short films, some of them fantasy/scifi/horror. She is in mega-anthology 60 Seconds to Die (but then, who isn’t?) and she has an ‘additional voices’ credit for Anthony Woodley’s virus-on-a-plane feature The Carrier. We’ll see her soon in the remake of Unhinged and in Warren Dudley-scripted football comedy The Bromley Boys. She is also attached to Kindred, an upcoming horror feature from David Bryant (Dead Wood) alongside Jane Asher and Mark ‘cast MJ Simpson if he’s unavailable’ Benton.

A quick aside on the old Inaccurate Movie Database folks. First, it’s clear that Warren Dudley has really, really pissed off someone because the User Reviews page for Cage has a series of one-star reviews, mostly by people who have never reviewed anything else, and most of them with suspiciously similar style, language and tone. I surmise that Dudley has made an enemy of someone whose childish idea of revenge is to troll his film with bad reviews. In terms of user rating, Cage is 4.0 from 149 votes while The Cutting Room is 3.9 from 310 votes, which just shows that such things are arbitrary and not reflective of actual quality. Apparently a couple of months ago the IMDB nerks managed to delete Cage from the system entirely, which hasn’t helped matters, wiping out early positive votes from festival audiences. Good grief.

More to the point, at time of writing, the IMDB lists the current state of Cage (which played a festival in Toronto in November 2016 and is currently on sale in UK supermarkets, remember) as ‘post-production’. Meanwhile on Patrick Bergin’s page, When the Devil Rides Out is also listed as ‘post-production’ while Grindhouse 2wo is apparently ‘completed’ – despite neither of them existing outside the fevered imagination of Richard Driscoll. Bergin has been in a lot of stuff over the years (including Driscoll’s magnum opus Eldorado) but to me he will always be Victor in the early 1990s David Wickes version of Frankenstein.

Cinematography and editing are credited to Lucas Tucknott, who should take significant credit for his contribution to the film’s success. His other genre gigs include Cruel Summer, kid-friendly cryptozoology flick Young Hunters: The Beast of Bevendean and unreleased horror oddity 301 Troop: Arawn Rising (which the IMDB confidently describes as ‘announced’ even though it was at least partly shot back in 2013). Also important is the make-up job which convinces us that Gracie has spent two weeks stuck in one place without washing. Full marks to Sophie Brown (Blood Moon, World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen, The Carrier) and Ruby Lonsdale (Carnivore: Werewolf of London) for that.

If I’m going to pick a hole with Cage (because no film is perfect) it seems a little unlikely that Gracie doesn’t put more effort into attempting to escape. The cage is solid (not ‘flimsy’ as that IMDB troll would have us believe) but nevertheless it is wooden, and wood can be chipped. If I was her I would have been at one of the bars with a fork, picking away. But to be fair, she’s in a bad place mentally, not helped by missing her meds. Who can say what any of us would really do in such a situation? We can only say what we would like to think we would do.

Shot in November 2015, Cage was released on Amazon Prime and other VOD platforms in April 2017 and came out on DVD the following month. There was a one-off screening (with director and star Q&A) in Seaford (East Sussex, apparently) in March 2017 to raise funds for a local theatre.

A gripping, clever horror-thriller with a bravura central performance, Cage is a fine film that deserves more attention than it has received. Get yourself down to Morrisons or Asda (or Amazon) and grab yourself a copy now.

MJS rating: A-