Charlie Kaufman has made his scripts available as pdfs for download ... For free.
All his work is here for the eager script-writing student to pore over, including drafts and redrafts of the same scripts, in some cases.
What an incredible insight into the head of the most audacious, literate and thoughtful script-writer of the last decade.
The link, if you fancy a bit of cut'n'paste action is: http://www.beingcharliekaufman.com/index.php
Furthermore, if that puts you in a dangerously Kaufmaniacal frame of mind, you might care to dedicate the afternoon to listening to two and a half hours of Kaufman being interviewed by Wired magazine here.
They also go on to show how the finished article evolved through the rewrites and design stages which is, in itself, interesting and unusual!
Finally, below, is a video interview with Kaufman as guest of honour at the Göteborg International Film Festival in February this year. This interview is over an hour long.
I think these three resources between them give you an invaluable insight into the working practices and personality of one of the few people working in mainstream American cinema today to whom the word 'genius' could be applied without too much hyperbole.
Having dug around a little further on the huge Being Charlie Kaufman.com website I have also found a chance to own The Theatre of the New Ear. This was a piece of drama written by Kaufman and The Coen Brothers in conjunction with their composer Carter Burwell. It was performed live infront of an audience, but was designed to be listened to rather than watched.
You can read all about it on Carter Burwell's website, here.
So, fire up your Paypal account and head here.
Right, without further ado - that video interview:
So, finally, for this mini cyberpunk smorgasbord, along with my audio interview with Mr. William Gibson, here, and my in-depth review of Johnny Mnemonic, here, I thought I would present you with my piece on the almost-forgotten film New Rose Hotel which escaped into a few arthouse cinemas in 1998 and which I reviewed in the late, lamented magazine, Science Fiction World:
Gibson’s Sprawl books and stories are not noted for their cheer. Neither are Ferrara’s movies. So, a match made in Hell then!
The original short story concerns an unnamed man lying in a one of those stacked-coffin hotels so loved by Japanese businessmen. As he stares at the low ceiling, his mind runs over the events of the previous months which have led to him lying there, waiting for the soldiers of a global conglomerate to come and kill him.
In the film, he is X. His business partner is the charismatic Fox. Together they operate a very successful industrial espionage operation. Their latest target is the zaibatsu Maas Biolab’s resident geneticist genius, Hiroshi. (Remember, Gibson wrote this story some fifteen years before most of us had even heard the name ‘Monsanto’, let alone begun to understand the potential power of genetic engineering.) If they manage to persuade Hiroshi to defect to the rival multinational, Hosaka, they stand to make a cool $100 million.
To do this, they employ a honey trap, baited with X’s favourite hooker, Sandii. Unfortunately, X falls in lust with Sandii, and the idea of her sleeping with their prey maddens him. Dafoe is skilled at playing vulnerability and pain, so he is a perfect choice as X; whilst Ferrara regular Walken, more accustomed to playing icy-cool, enigmatic villains, brings a real Edge to Fox. You never know whether X should really trust him or not. Never.
Their relationships are played out in long, sedate scenes in colour-co-ordinated rooms. Rosa’s night-club is smoky and red, Dafoe’s apartment is a stark white, the scenes between he and Sandii are generally a chilly blue, whilst the hotel coffin in which he eventually finds himself, is an unsympathetic grey.
These scenes are then intercut with montages of televisual images, cut and pasted together from CCTVs and computer monitors. This is not a world for relaxation, this is a world of Edge.
|Call yourself a completist? Here's another Walken film you haven't seen!|
Living on The Edge, is very important to Fox, and likewise to Ferrara, who never indulges in the complacency of actually making his characters likeable. When he is dealing with a corrupted soul (in ‘Bad Lieutenant’) or the self-destruction of a violent family (‘The Funeral’), his cool, analytical eye is perfectly appropriate. Here, however, his tale is about a yearning love played out against a harsh and unforgiving background. If the characters are just as stark and hollow as the rooms in which they live, it is difficult for the viewer to care for them.
So, when the sting goes terribly wrong, and Dafoe is a hunted man, he spends the latter half of the film reliving the first half; analysing it and fretting over it. Unfortunately, since the film is so emotionally hollow, this simply feels like repetition, not exploration.
Still, it is a treat to see an SF movie (albeit one apparently only set about five years hence) made on a zero budget, with a concentrated effort to avoid the flash-bang-wallop of most near-future fare, which focuses, instead, on the people we will be, in the future.
Directed by Abel Ferrara.
Starring: Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Asia Argento, Annabella Sciorra, Ryuichi Sakamoto
Dur: 87 mins
Carrying on from my William Gibson post, featuring a half hour recording of the great man talking to me - which you can listen to here ... I thought I would also present the article that interview turned into. This was written for the book The Crime Time Filmbook which I editing in (oh, God) 1997. The movie adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic had not been out long, then, so I reviewed it and used that as my hook on which to hang the text of the interview. So, now you can compare the text to the original recording and see how many of those beautifully turned quotes I simply made up.
|He ISN'T The One, just deal with it ...|
Johnny Mnemonic opens with a slow crawl of text, explaining that the world of multi-national power corps is falling apart because of a cerebral disease called Nerve Attenuation Syndrome. The Holy Grail of the Man/Machine Interface is now a global reality, replacing hardware and software with wetware - wiring that is woven into the tissue of muscle, or replacing selected synaptic matter in the brain. The NAS disease is the organism’s rejection of the artificial implants.
It is a world of new flesh, where no one has to be how nature made them, where roles are constantly being re-negotiated. This is the future, and it doesn’t work. Welcome to 2021, some eighteen months after the setting of Blade Runner, the original science-fiction noirmare and spiritual father of Cyberpunk culture. This slow-crawl of information is designed to evoke Blade Runner, the swooping flight over a virtual landscape that follows reminds of the apocalyptic LA skyline of 2019.
There are several reasons for writer William Gibson and director Robert Longo to evoke Blade Runner, partially, I expect, because comparisons were always going to be inevitable, so why not acknowledge the fact; more significantly, Gibson has never hidden the fact that his seminal creations of The Sprawl and Cyberspace came out of his perceptions of the early eighties, a time when popular culture was swamped with Blade Runner references, from fashion fads (such as the re-birth of the padded shoulder) to the grandiosity of Russell Mulcahy’s Duran Duran videos (particularly Union of the Snake and The Wild Boys). By return, nineties dance culture and ‘net’ culture have heralded Gibson as some notional messiah, and appended the modifier ‘cyber’ to any number of nouns and verbs:
|Those 'wild' boys. The title might be William Burroughs, but the look is pure William Gibson.|
When asked about this, Gibson is nothing if not philosophical: “Well, considering the way that I quite consciously appropriated the visual aspect of my work, if you can call it that, from pop culture at large and particularly from rock culture, it seems only appropriate. It’s the sort of thing that goes around and around - y‘know, I appropriate, they re-appropriate, then the whole thing gets re-comodified and goes around again to sell another batch of magazines, games, bands or whatever. It‘s the nature of late-stage capitalism, it‘s what we do. So I can scarcely complain if they do to me what I did to them.”
Unlike many S.F. writers who seem to write their first bestsellers in their early twenties, promptly going on to win the Hugo and Nebula, and then embark on sickeningly successful careers as research physicists and S.F. novelists, Gibson approached writing more steadily, engaging first in what he likes to refer to as ‘some sort of life’.
“Of course, the real classic career for a science fiction writer in America is to be a child prodigy, twenty or twenty-one is quite a late start. A lot of them, especially the last couple of generations, would start in their late teens; but that wasn’t my experience at all. I forget the actual ages involved, but if you look at Asimov or Robert Silverberg, people like that, they started really young. Silverberg put himself through college in high style by writing and selling lots and lots of pulp S.F.
“Coming at it late just gave me a different kind of aesthetic agenda. I started writing science-fiction after having been exposed to literature of various kinds, and after having had some adult experiences. That just made me a different sort of animal as far as writing this stuff goes.”
Having read a lot of his work, I always imagined him to be a keen science-watcher, with expertise in many areas, but he denies this with, I might add, just as much grace as he deflects compliments:
“No, no, quite the opposite; it’s just that, in order to do my job, I had to leave that impression! An important thing to remember when you read science fiction, is that it is the work of a charlatan, possibly a benevolent charlatan, but a charlatan none the less. No, science fiction writers are not the God-Priests of high-technology they're credited with being, far from it. We are, by and large, a delightfully shabby lot, particularly intellectually. We are not necessarily your hot ticket to the future. If you’re interested in what the future’s really gonna be like, you should temper a little more serious thought. Go and see what professional futurists are doing, not just the kind who try to write bestselling books.”
So what was it he saw in the early eighties, bumming around the West coast of his adopted Canada, that led to formation of the great urban cage of The Sprawl, where mutated people are kept in technological bondage by unbelievably vast zhiabatsu corporations? What led him to explore the conceptual space inside a computer, now universally known by his term ‘cyberspace’?
|'Cyberspace' as envisioned in Johnny Mnemonic, one part Tron to two parts 2001.|
“It wasn’t really that I knew about VR before other people did, I still deny that what I did was predictive. Besides, my real ability in what appears to be a predictive function, is really nothing more than a kind of trend spotter, if you will. I’d never heard the term ‘Virtual Reality’ then, I’m not even sure it existed, but there were enough bits of nascent VR technology around in 1981 to put it all together.
“There were things you could look at - such as the rumours floating about, about various pilot/aircraft interfaces the American Airforce was working on. Fighterplanes to be flown by computers, where the computer would fly the plane, while the pilot interfaced with the computer. And I’d heard various stories about pilots sitting at the hearts of windowless aircraft, which were covered with television cameras. The pilot’s head was inside a huge helmet with all these screens inside, so the plane, in effect, became transparent and he was looking through it, except he was looking at television pictures. So, just from that image, from about 1980, you can infer the kind of VR technology we have today.”
However, the idea of total immersion experiences (more real than real, to coin a phrase) is hardly a new one, Aldous Huxley called it ‘The Feelies’ in Brave New World, where a combination of drugs and recreational technology kept a whole society docile, functional and at peace. In the Sprawl, the drugs are digital and flight into the non-dimension inside the computer is the only escape from a cracked and leaking real-life society. Never the less, Gibson was more likely to take his inspiration from The Scientific American than the literature section.
Thusly, the ideas of VR and telepresence, had been around in a larval form for quite a while, but never before had their use and popularization afforded their author the chance to influence a technology’s development as it happened. Most of the ex-hippy scientists we see in documentaries working out on the virtual cutting edge, insist on referring to VR as ‘Cyberspace’.
“ I’m quite pleased, my hopes for ‘Cyberspace’ are coming true, in so far as it is my baby. Y’know, when I produced this neologism, it was hollow; it kinda came out of the oven empty. And since then various people, including myself, have attempted to fill it with meaning. But my real ambition for it is that it will wind up in the dictionary. I’ve been watching the updates on the new OED with some interest.
“ ‘Cyberpunk’ has already appeared in some dictionaries specializing in American contemporary language, but that’s not my word, and I’m not particularly fond of it. But I would love to contribute a word to the language, that would be a great coup! I think the only other science-fiction writer who’s done that is Robert Heinlein with the term ‘waldo’ for those remote control robot hands they use for handling isotopes. I suspect that in laboratories, even now, people are referring to those things as waldos, never knowing where it came from or why they’re calling ‘em that. “
And so it came to pass. The Cyberpunk Movement was a product of the early eighties, a metaphor for the cold, dark hole western society was being propelled towards. Now, in the late eighties, we’re so far down the hole it is hard to see Gibson’s work as fiction. And now, finally, his vision hits the screen.
“ Johnny Mnemonic was only the second work of fiction I ever wrote, it would be about 1980, and it was the start of it all for me, got the creative juices flowing, and led right on to Neuromancer. That’s why I wanted to write the script for the movie-version myself, I wanted to see how well it stands up after all these years, and it stands up pretty well.”
Gibson’s previous experiences with Hollywood had been abortive: a rejected script for Alien3 ( “I think the only thing of mine that remained in the film was a barcode on the back of someone’s neck”), several futile attempts to hang on to his vision with adaptations of Burning Chrome and New Rose Hotel (both Sprawl stories) which slowly suffocated in development hell. Consequently the plan for Johnny (originally hatched in 1989) was to do it small - to be filmed in Toronto and directed by Gibson’s very good friend, sculptor and painter Robert Longo. “This is his first feature after working on things like REM videos, so for Robert and for me, it’s a sort of shot in the dark. ‘Cos I’ve never had a screenplay produced before, and he’s never directed a film before.
“Unfortunately, making it small and personal proved difficult: We weren’t asking for enough money. We were going to financiers and asking for one million dollars, which is nothing for a movie. They didn’t take us seriously. So we re-worked it, made it bigger, more complex, more expansive, then Robert went to Hollywood, took the script and his design sketches and asked for 30 million dollars. Suddenly they were impressed.”
The end result book-ends Gibson’s career thus far. His first Sprawl story, the foundation-stone for so many disparate dystopias (including aspects of the one we all now live in) has become the first grown-up science-fiction movie in a decade, and an amalgam of all his works. The opening swoop through infospace is taken from Burning Chrome (via Steven Lisberger’s still-cutting-edge Tron). The law has broken down (or been privatized ... which is pretty much the same thing) leaving life-support to be the task of vigilantes, as in Count Zero. The tough underbelly of society - the lo-teks - don’t just live in a giant scaffolding web, as in the original story, but have woven their habitat between the high-tension cables of a suspension bridge - as in Virtual Light.
The obvious way to go would have been for the spastic lighting and ragged editing of Cyberpunk à la MTV, but they deliberately rejected that direction. “If we’d filmed the story as-is, it would have seemed passé, the ‘cyberpunk look’, if you will, has been very hip, but for how much longer? Billy Idol has taken it (with his ‘Cyberpunk’ album) and killed it dead, as far as I’m concerned. That aesthetic will now forever be identified with a particular movement of the mid-90s, which is already as good as over. If we’d followed that style, our film would have been born old.
|It's official - the day cyberpunk died!|
“Johnny Mnemonic isn’t about flashy graphics and rock music, although we’ve used ‘em when appropriate, it’s about The Politics Of Information. It’s about a strange, but consistent world, not quite like our own, but similar.”
It’s a world swamped with devices, technologies machines that surround us and even penetrate us (the whole plot of the movie concerns the hard-drive Johnny has wired into his brain) yet that technology consistently fails to make the human condition happier.
“My response to this stuff is one of the deepest ambivalence, I’m inclined to think that that’s the only sane response. I wouldn’t want to be a luddite, but by the same token, I wouldn’t want to be a technophiliac sucker who’s just waiting for the next new medium to come down the pike, and who believes that science always makes it all better.”
How do the Americans, who are notorious for their love of a happy ending, take to his Dystopic vision?
“Well, y’know, I sell more copies overall in the United States, but I think I’ve probably always done better proportionally in the UK. And certainly there was recognition early on over here of a certain kind of irony and comic content which is remarkably rare with American critics when they look at my work. They just don’t see that grimness can co-exist with comedy. They don’t see that extremes, the very, very, very deadly grim, can co-exist with humour, so, with my work, they just ignore it.
“It’s like when they were looking at Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, it just baffled them, they said ‘My God, it’s neither fish nor fowl’. But with my work they don’t even see the humour, so they think, ‘Wow, this guy’s great, he’s deadly serious about this stuff, let's go and build these machines right now'!”
|Fascinating, is it not, that Brazil, one of the core texts of Cyberpunk, also had such a profound influence on the creation of Steampunk ...|
“Well, actually, that was kinda predictive for me, because, when I wrote it, I hadn’t spent much time in Hollywood. I now sometimes think of Ralphie Face sauntering around Melrose looking at these technically very, very beautiful women who have lost any degree of individuality to the knife. Because something like that is actually happening. If plastic surgery became something you could get at the 7-11, or your local gas station, people would wind up with these rather unoriginal jobs that were a composite of three or four people; y'know, Sharon Stone and Bridget Fonda and Madonna, and by the time you’ve loaded six on, you’ve got a generic face. There are a lot of people around who wanna be actresses in Hollywood, who have generic faces, and if enough of them get into movies and become role models, well ...”
Finally then, accepting that he claims his fiction isn’t predictive, I was curious to know what one of literature’s more celebrated prophets of gloom really expected the future to hold in store.
“Well, on the whole, I’m as hopeful as I can be. There’s an American philosopher named Frederic Jameson, who’s the guy who brought the idea of post-modernism to literary criticism, and he said that the characteristic emotion of our era is something he called ‘The Post Modern Sublime’, which consists of an equal admixture of ecstasy and dread. And I think that comes pretty close to describing what I really feel, when I look at the future!”
|At the time, so soon after Bill and Ted and Point Break, it was difficult to imagine Keanu had anything in his head, let alone 300-odd gig.|
But what of the film? How does it fare in a market already cluttered with cyber-thrillers from The Net to Hackers? Well, as you might expect, Gibson digs further into the ramifications of future-tech than any of his competitors - even Cameron and Bigelow’s excellent Strange Days. He explores how an entire society - and a global society at that - can be affected by technological development. He shows how scientific progress can become evolution. Because he is accustomed to working in the future, he isn’t overawed by it, it isn’t a foreign country to him. Consequently, as with any science fiction story worth its Theramin, Johnny Mnemonic isn’t really about tomorrow, it’s about today, it’s about our Blade Runner Culture, it’s about techno-fascism and what we’ll really find at the end of the information superhighway.
Johnny is a professional, he is a courier who carries earth’s most valuable remaining resource - information- around in a chip wet-wired into his head. As the story begins he is about to take on board his largest and most precious cargo. He plays down what he is about to do - but uploading 320 gigabytes of information (which I am confidently assured is a hell of a lot) a shockingly visceral experience, like taking a stationary roller-coaster and pulling twenty virtual gees. The synaptic seepage he suffers (because 320 gig is way too much for him) has instantaneous affects and he has to repair to the bathroom to practice a few breathing exercises and re-compose his Zen ... or something. This just shows how far-Eastern fashion and practice has penetrated into the Western mindset by 2021.
Whilst Johnny is in there, re-composing, the other side of Eastern society - the Yakuza - arrive, including one soldier who has made the traditional sacrifice of having a finger removed - and has turned it to his advantage by having it replaced with a weapon capable of slicing people in half. We know this, because he demonstrates on more than one unwilling participant.
There is a refreshing mix of weaponry on show here, from cutting-edge pistols to bazookas, right down to a mixture of explosives and swords and Dolph Lundgren’s cruciknife. He plays the Street Preacher, a flamboyant hired killer, wet-ware addict and leader of the (seemingly one-man-operation) Church of the Re-Transfiguration. As insurance, he is hired by the Yakuza leader Takahashi to get Johnny’s head - with the chip intact - if the Yakuza troops should fail.
|This man has a Masters Degree ... Can you tell?|
Takahashi is played with dry humour by Takeshi Kitano, probably better known over here as ‘Beat’ Takeshi, director of such odd-ball wonders as Violent Cop and Sonatine. His very presence in this film is a quote, his introduction - looking through a venetian blind at a night-bound industrial wasteland - is at once a nudge towards both Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now.
This film is crammed almost to choking with illusory and literal quotes, mostly from Gibson’s own previous works, and from Blade Runner: As Johnny is about to beat one of his assailants over the head he tells him Time to die! Ralphi Face, Johnny’s agent, holds court in a bar that is half Tech Noir, half Taffy’s. Finally, just to stretch the point to breaking, Jones, the wetwired dolphin (who eventually sucks the data out of Johnny, if you see what I mean) is a nod to Alien’s Jones The Cat and, of course, since Johnny’s only known name is John Smith, he and the dolphin together become alias Smith and Jones.
Okay, enough; but, on a more fundamental level, the very story of one man with a finite amount of time to download his data before it pollutes his nervous system and kills him, is taken as much from the computer game Burn Cycle as it is from Rudolph Maté’s 1950 noir D.O.A. It may well be that Gibson isn’t afraid to quote his peers, but there comes a point when doing so leaves room for little else.
Where Johnny Mnemonic falls down, it does so because of the self-confessed lack of experience Gibson and Longo have in movies. Gibson’s script, although messy, is simply in need of tightening up, but that needs a good strong director, which, unfortunately, Robert Longo is not.
This film pulsates with great ideas and convincing futurology, but the flaccid pace and frankly bizarre casting (particularly Lundgren and Henry Rollins as flesh mechanic ‘Spider’) betray the potential shown. Keanu Reeves has never been the most charismatic nor convincing of leading men, but Point Break and Speed both showed that he can cut the proverbial mustard when his performance is sculpted from a strong script by a stronger director. Lacking that, his big soliloquy about the iniquities of life, ending with his bellowed plea "I want room service!" creates great hilarity in all who witness it. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t the point.
Johnny Mnemonic is a disappointment, not just because I, along with many, many Gibson fans, have been waiting a long time for him to put his vision on screen, but because the lost potential bleeds out of nearly every scene. They came so frustratingly close, yet just missed.
Dir: Robert Longo.
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Dina Meyer, Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano
Dur: 103 mins
And, if you's like to know more about Mr. Gibson's movies, you can find my review of New Rose Hotel here.
It has been announced, here, that Neuromancer the Movie is finally (probably) going to happen. If this comes to pass, this is a cause of no small celebration. It is also the wafer-thin excuse I needed to post this previously unheard audio interview I conducted with Mr. William Gibson back in the mists of 1993:
I hate phone-quality radio. Phone-ins, phone-pranks, that sort of thing; hate 'em.
I think part of the reason for this was my BBC training, back in the early 90's, when we were admonished for only having guests on the phone. The local station I worked at had a network or remote recording booths, mobile outside broadcast units and expensive quarter-inch tape recorders ... There were really no excuses for having a guest on the phone.
Therefore, when the walking legend who is (and was) William Gibson was in the UK - promoting his book Virtual Light, which would become the first of his 'Bridge' trilogy - well, I just had to arrange to interview him in person. It would have been rude not to.
|Looking at this picture might give readers some hint why Mr. Gibson's Twitter handle is @greatdismal|
As I remember it, the interview began well. I was nervous and more than a little star-struck, but I had done my research and prepared my questions. Then I glanced at my sturdy recording device and noticed that the wheels weren’t turning. The all-important red light wasn’t on. The battery had died!
A real dilemma. Did I carry on with the interview, bluff it out or fess up and look a fool? Well, I’ve never been afraid of looking a fool – so I came clean. Apologised profusely, blamed myself for not checking the battery, and threw myself on Mr. Gibson’s mercy.
He was extraordinarily gracious. I didn’t notice even a momentary flicker of annoyance cross his face and, indeed, he was most concerned for me. He even told me an anecdote, as we packed up and Rog re-opened, concerning the journalist Mikal Gilmore, from an obscure little rag called Rolling Stone, who had serious microphone problems when he interviewed Bob Dylan. I guess it can happen to the best of us.
We left on good terms, laughing about the foolishness of the situation and I headed back to the studio, trying to think of convincing excuses.
When I got back, there was a message from the publicist telling me that Mr. Gibson had been concerned that I hadn’t got my interview and did I want to reschedule for the next day? He would be in London by then, so we would have to do it on the phone, would that be okay?
I was honoured and truly blessed.
So, I hate phone quality radio, but not on this occasion. On this occasion, he saved my hide and that’s great in any quality!
So here, completely uncut, is that interview. Never before heard in this form. You’ll hear my nervous, rambling questions; you’ll hear Mr. Gibson’s warm, witty and immensely good humoured answers.
Oddly, it feels right to hear this ghost from a distant past. I barely remember that life now, but here it still exists, recorded, archived, digitised and cast broad through a medium which, at that time, only existed in the minds of Mr. Gibson and his contemporaries. How thoroughly appropriate.
Ladies and gentlemen, a little under half an hour in the company of Mr. William Gibson circa 1993. Truly, the post-modern sublime!
|Featuring the very latest in ghost-busting chic ...|
I can understand perfectly why the marketing for this film concentrates on the fact that it is written and directed by the guys who wrote and/or directed Saw I, II and III (2004, 5 and 6). They originated what is now the most lucrative horror franchise ever, that’s the sort of thing that should be top of their CV.
Problem with that is, to their credit, they are doing something totally different here. They’ve decided to put their own spin on the traditional Haunted House story and the end result is much more like their odd 2007 collaboration Dead Silence than Saw.
So, the traditional Haunted House signifiers are quickly put in place: Young (ish) married couple move into old creaky house? Check. Big spooky loft full of previous tenants’ clutter? Check. Lots of nooks and crannies and interior doors? Check. Wifey has lots of experiences; hubby doesn’t believe any of it? Check. Family attacked through their children? Check. Hints of a troubled past that are obviously going to explain the present predicament? Check and check!
But, unlike either of the Paranormal Activity films (2007, 2010), which have brought these tropes back to the forefront of cinema-goer’s minds, this movie doesn’t hang around … I nearly dropped off to sleep during both PA films, waiting for the end of the hour of nothing-much that precedes the jumpy bits. No such problems here!
It is to the credit of both writer, Whannell, and director, Wan, that they are quite restrained in their use of cattle-prods. There are several moments when you are set up for a traditional cheap-shot jumpy bit, but it’s just a red herring; which, of course, puts you at your ease, so the real cattle-prod can get you!
It’s a long time since I fell for a cheap-shot in a horror, but there’s one in here which got me! Good on 'em!
As is so often the case, the people who chop together the trailer have successfully spoiled the film by giving you the piece of information which, in script-writing classes, is called ‘The Reversal’. This is when the film pulls the metaphorical rug from under your hypothetical feet. Sadly, if you have seen the trailer, you won’t share a lot of the anxiety the family feels, because you’ll already know the problem … So, avoid the trailer if you can.
|Probably best not to look at this poster either ... Oh, too late.|
One of the other ways Whannell and Co have experimented with the Haunted House form is by having a variety of spectres visiting, residual ones that seem to be doing their own thing and intelligent ones that are consciously making everyone’s day more interesting than it should be. The film certainly turns some unusual corners, most particularly when the family, in desperation, call the paranormal investigators and get a sort-of Laurel and Hardy of Ghost-Busters: Specs and Tucker, who are two bumbling nerds, seemingly brothers, who bicker nerdily as they bust ghost.
They help leaven the tension with a humour that very few films of this nature manage. Patrick Wilson manages to avoid coming across as a total prick as the husband and father who doesn’t believe in all that voodoo nonsense, whilst Rose Byrne makes the most of the bulk of the screen-time she gets as the long-suffering hausfrau. Barbara Hershey gives excellent support as the mother who, inevitably, knows more than she’s letting on. Hershey, notoriously, had her own encounter with the supernatural in The Entity (1982) so she’s an old hand at this.
Speaking of 1982, this film does evolve into an updated remake of Poltergeist, especially as it charges headlong into its third act. Just without the swimming pool and ancient Amerindian curse.
So, all-in-all we have a film which feels very like The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Exorcist (1973), whilst looking and sounding like Poltergeist, which is certainly a refreshing and ambitious mix for what it now a tried, trusted and, let’s face it, rather dull genre.
Creepy rather than terrifying (or, indeed, insidious) but with some genuinely imaginative jumpy-bits and a few chilling images that will stay with you, it’s just a shame that the demon behind all the spooky goings-on looks like the bastard son of Freddie Krueger and Darth Maul.
|He's behiiiiiiind you!!|
Dir: James Wan
Stars: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Barbara Hershey, Leigh Whannell
Dur: 100 mins
No, this isn’t a film about the bloke who co-created The Flintstones, it’s about a family who wear animal skins and live in a cave. Totally different thing.
|Poor Ms. Ronan seems cursed to forever wear silly hats in movies ... Remember the woolly bonnet from The Lovely Bones? Shudder.|
Hanna begins with considerable promise, showing scenes of a teenage girl being taught advanced survival skills as well as armed and unarmed combat by her father in the depths of a snowy forest, where they live a bare-bones life in a hut that is barely more than a primordial cave. Sort of Big Daddy and Hit Girl above the Arctic Circle.
She understands that she is being readied for her return to The World, but not why or, indeed, what that actually means. However, she is a teenager, wilful and curious, so her father (played with straight-faced restraint by Eric Bana) unearths a radio with a big red button on it. If she presses the button – The World will come a-calling and all her training will come into play.
Well, come on, it’d be a pretty short film if she didn’t push the button.
Hm. Maybe that’s why director Joe Wright made the unusual choice of hiring The Chemical Brothers to provide his soundtrack. Their score is stark and alienating and a throw-back to their nineties work. It’s excellent to listen to but, unlike the magnificent work done by Daft Punk for Tron Legacy, the Chemicals’ tracks fit with neither the pace not the tone of the film. The film is redolent with chilly seventies paranoia, much closer to the work of Kraftwerk. Given that Hanna and her father are German, a soundtrack by the ‘man machine’ would be appropriate in all sorts of ways. But, no.
A word or several about that German accent. Saoirse Ronan is, you may recall, the girl from The Lovely Bones (2009) which was, arguably, her breakthrough role; but she was actually ‘discovered’ by Joe Wright when he cast her in a key role in Atonement (2007). She was 13 at the time. She is now 17 but could pass for four or five years younger. She carries this huge, unwieldy film on her slender shoulders almost alone for much of its run-time, makes the task look effortless and does so throughout with a (to my tin ears) flawless German accent. Excellent work, there!
|This is Ronan's sixth major films and she's just 17. I have t-shirts older than that which have never been in a film. Just saying.|
After she escapes the capture her father trained her for, Hanna decides to sample The World, by walking across it and so the film turns into a road movie as she tags along with some hippies (Jason Flemyng and Olivia Williams) and travels through various picturesque parts of North Africa. We visit an idyllic oasis full of quaint locals … being quaint; there’s a fire-lit sing-a-long with some joyful locals who are … quaint and there’s some fun with a hotel manager who has to explain to Hanna what electricity and television are whilst maintaining a demeanour of curmudgeonly quaintness. All these Third World sequences are shot in shades of orange and russets to make them warm and welcoming and (in case I haven’t made my point yet) quaint.
When Hanna crosses over into Europe, the film’s colour palette changes again, to steely greys and blues. She walks between dank, graffitied walls and past mad homeless people who are very far from quaint. Message received guys.
|Back in Europe ... Ever had the feeling you were being watched?|
Then we get to the mystifying inclusion of Isaacs (Tom Hollander) a camp, sadistic, Udo Kier-alike who is clearly an assassin but who is hired simply to follow the girl. Hollander is simply terrible. Utterly unconvincing, not remotely scary and, even worse, inadvertently funny. There is one scene when he is covered in blood but there’s no one hurt. This leads me to surmise that his role was re-cut and toned-down to earn the film that all-important 12A certificate, but rendered nonsensical in the process.
Too many of the plot’s twists rely on coincidence and happy accidents; a sign of lazy writing (or too many ‘notes’ from producers, maybe). However, what is even more distracting is the way that the film heaves with art-school subtext. We have festoons of Fairy Tale imagery. The only book Hanna was allowed to have whilst growing up in The Wild was an aged copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and elements from these stories run through her story; from a woodsman (her father) to a gingerbread house in an amusement park to a big bad wolf’s head sticking out the ground at one key moment.
|Cate Blanchett doing her best Tilda Swinton impersonation as the cold, obsessive, murderous woman in 'fuck you' heels.|
This, then, makes the head of the CIA, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) - who is obsessed with stopping the child at all costs - into The Wicked Step-Mother. As the film builds towards the inevitable confrontation between them in Germany, the Fairy Tale references becomes really distracting and you are forced to wonder what Wright and crew were thinking … Surely all that subtext stuff should be got out of the way earlier, so the show-down can be got on with? But, no.
So, Hanna is a patch-work girl of a film, with some delightful moments and some mystifyingly half-arsed moments. It has great locations, beautifully shot, but pantomime caricatures populating those landscapes. Ultimately, it has a great first ten minutes (a sure sign that scribe, Seth Lochhead, was paying keen attention during those expensive script-writing seminars) which promise one film – a mix of Leon and Nikita and Bourne – but, sadly, delivers something unfocussed, confused and disappointing instead.
Dir: Joe Wright
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana,
Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett
Dur: 111 mins
Egad. It's almost twenty years.
I was working at a local radio station, long since closed down, and running a film review show there. Once in a blue moon I might be fortunate enough to hook a celebrity to be interviewed on my show. Of course, my idea of 'celebrity' was not necessarily my listeners' ... Which might have contributed to the station shutting down. Anyway ...
In 1992, Anne Rice was in the country promoting The Tale of the Body Thief, and I was able to talk my way into interviewing her for my show, given the undying popularity of the vampire genre.
She was very pleasant and indulged my stupid questions with consumate professionalism. I played the interview on air, and that was that.
Then, about a year later, when she was releasing Lasher (a non-vampire book), I transcribed the interview, wrote it up as a feature article and hocked it around a few magazines, but no one wanted to buy it, even with the anticipation of the upcoming Interview with a Vampire movie. This was a different time, before the interwebs, when pre-release hype was a relatively rare thing.
So I buried it on a floppy disc and forgot about it. Over the years since, the popularity of the vampire has transformed: Along came Joss Whedon and Buffy, Charlaine Harris and Sookie then last, and certainly least, Stephanie Meyers and Bella. As a consequence, vampires have never been sexier.
So, a propos of nothing in particular, I dug my old article up for you to sink your teeth into.
Here 'tis, exactly as written up at the time, warts and all - my previously unpublished 1992 interview with Anne Rice:
Some fans of Anne Rice’s Lestat books may be terribly disappointed to learn that their favourite author, chronicler of the undead, queen of the damned, doesn’t actually believe in Vampires:
“I believe in ghosts, I think there’s a lot of evidence for ghosts; but vampires, no; they’re just creations of our imagination, a mythic, literary creation. Having said that, when I write about them they’re absolutely real to me. I’m part of their world, I’m one of them; they’re really all there is for me at that point. In fact, I believe in them so much when I’m writing that I sometimes think Lestat or Louis could come walking into the room at any time. Particularly Lestat, he’s my real favourite and I feel his presence all the time!”
This is an unusual confession for a horror writer, most would rather keep a healthy distance between themselves and their creations, but then Rice is an unusual example of the type. In a field where female writers are still as much a conspicuous minority as female horror fans, she has transcended the shackles of stalk-and-slash contrivance and drawn together a cross-over fan-base of both sexes by feeding so much of herself into her work. An autobiography would be redundant, as everything has already been written down.
Firstly there is the religion - old fashioned Catholicism in the sticky heat of New Orleans, with all the mysticism and ritual that implies. This played a significant part in her upbringing, and it hangs like a shroud over the novels, not in an orthodox, moralising sense, but in an air of mystery, of guilt, in the sure and certain knowledge that something is going on which we can’t fully comprehend. Then there is her background - a devout though alcoholic mother who died when Anne was a child, her marriage to Stan Rice, a painter and poet whose verses occasionally appear as frontispieces in her books, then the final deciding factor - the untimely death of her daughter. This had a devastating effect on both parents, leading to years of depression. Anne even inherited her mother’s alcoholism. In synopsis this all sounds rather like the plot of a not-terribly-good melodrama, but it happened, and the Anne Rice, the novelist who sells a book on average every thirty seconds, is the woman who grew out of this tragedy.
What drew her out of the cold emptiness of Haight-Ashbury after the Summer of Love had faded into memory, and helped her come to terms with the loss, was the writing of the first novel. A dense and heartfelt text, it deals with mutability in such a personal way that reading it almost makes one feel like a voyeur into her life - especially regarding the Claudia character, a little girl whom Lestat takes, Vampirises and therefore consigns to un-dead eternity as a cute six year-old.
Back in 1976 this was eerie and radical writing, made all the more so by the personal connotations for Rice herself, but, eighteen years and several copyists later, it has turned into something of a cliché:
“They turn up in the movies now with amazing regularity - little girls with large eyes looming towards the camera ...”
In subsequent volumes the emphasis of the series has changed slightly to allow Lestat to become the enduring character, far more-so than any of his converts; but the point of the project hasn’t changed for Rice, it is still to explore the hypothetical potential of being a Vampire.
“I wanted to go into that enigmatic figure and have him tell me what it was like to be a vampire. When I was a child, I read a vampire story that I loved; Richard Matheson’s A Dress of White Silk. It is also written in the first person, from the point of view of a vampire child, a little girl. I never forgot that story.”
So, what about Dracula?
“I didn’t actually read Dracula until much later, after I’d written Interview. I had gotten it out of the library when I was a child and read the beginning, but it so frightened and upset me that I took it back. The Count had hauled a baby in a bag up for his three concubines to drink the blood of, and it was just too much for me, so I took it back and didn’t make the connection that that actually was Dracula until years later. So, after Interview had been out a while, I decided I’d better tackle the damn thing ... and there was Jonathan Harker, and there were the three concubines with that baby in the bag, and I thought ‘Oh God, I remember this ... I have to admit I never did finish the whole book.”
Almost one hundred years on from Dracula, the interest seems as keen as ever, last year brought us Coppola’s adaptation, next year will bring us the already notorious film version of Interview, and meanwhile a veritable bandwagon of books, other films and comics is constantly gaining momentum.
“What keeps the genre alive is the fact that the vampire is such a powerful metaphor for the outsider. He’s such a great heroic character, he’s a wonderful character to deal with, he’s the supernatural monster who can talk to you, he can seduce you with words as well as gestures; and whom you can seduce and reason with. Y’know, he’s Mephistopheles, and that’s always interesting in literature. The Vampire is the charmer, the aristocrat of the supernatural pantheon.”
Which rather brings up the subject of sympathies; the seductive power of a lover with fangs is obvious in Freudian terms, and the more secular attraction of eternal life is something we have all dallied with, but the Lestat books show the life of the undead in such unflinching detail, yet without apparent judgement, that one has to wonder if Ms Rice’s sympathies are with the killer or the victim. When asked about this she politely lifts the question onto a higher level, explaining that the morals being investigated are far too complex to be dealt with simply through sympathy.
“I think the dilemma of the books, for me, is the dilemma that exists for the characters - how to live with being bad. Lestat says at one point ‘I refuse to be bad at being bad, if I’m gonna be bad I’m gonna be good at it!’ And I go over and over that in these books, how do you live when you have a conscience and you know you have to kill to live? How do you deal with that? But the reason that is so powerful, so meaningful, is that it’s a metaphor for many things we do in life, for the ruthless decisions we make, that have to do with our preservation of ourselves on every level.
“Turn on the news today and just watch what’s happening all over the world; you can see how ruthless we all are being just by staying where we are and doing what we’re doing instead of rushing out to help all the people who are sick and suffering and starving and need comfort and shelter. It’s a powerful, powerful thing, talking about the evil of the vampire, because it’s a metaphor for that human evil, the outcast part of all of us, the predator in all of us, and of the sufferer in all of us. And for the person who perseveres stylistically and gracefully despite feeling very, very guilty about things.” Then, with a wry smile: “It can’t miss.”
In fact she is convinced that, far from being outdated in this technological age, that vein of superstition which can be found just beneath the skin of most of us is more significant than ever before:
“Oh this is just the beginning! For the whole treatment of the supernatural in fiction, it’s just the beginning. I think there was a foolish perception, for a while, that the Victorians had done everything there was to do, that they’d taken the supernatural novel as far as it could go, and that we would never be able to top them; but we’re learning now that that’s not true at all. There are all kinds of things that can be done with supernatural fiction, and we’re likely to have hundreds more years of vampire novels and ghost stories and so forth. It’s a very exciting time to be writing! We’re already seeing more of an investment, spiritually and financially, in horror fiction, it’ll get much more respect now I think.”
Having recently signed a book deal reported to be worth $17 million, you would expect her to know of whence she speaks. Fantasy films are rarely if ever off our screens these days (look at this summer’s slew of comic-book adaptations), and Gothicism is rising out of the night-clubs to become a major (if transitory) part of society again. Are these black-clad, white faced people the only ones who expose themselves to the rich supernatural tapestry of an Anne Rice novel? Of course not, nor are they the only ones who will queue in the rain this winter to see Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of Frankenstein and eagerly await the eventual arrival of Interview With The Vampire, scripted and directed by Neil Jordan and, far more controversially, starring well-known dental hygiene advert Tom Cruise.
Rice’s opinion of Cruise’s casting is more than a matter of record, it has already become legend. Signing sessions in America for the latest novel, Lasher (being a sequel to The Witching Hour and therefore not a Vampire book) have become the settings for public demonstrations by incensed Riceans determined to show solidarity by chanting ‘No Tom Cruise, No Tom Cruise.’ Not much grey area there really, but one cannot help wondering what this demonstrates, apart from the rock-star status Anne Rice enjoys in her native country.
My opinion is mixed:
Firstly, and most significantly, I think it shows how deeply involved she is with her work. Her complaint against the film version has not been the usual one concerning its faithfulness to the source material; in fact, in the years since the film rights were first bought, she has contributed various draft scripts herself, including one which changed the sex of Louis (Interview’s narrator, or interviewee if you will) to female with, apparently, Cher in mind for the rôle. In a different draft, where Louis was male again, she worked quite hard at reducing the homoerotic content by giving Louis a wife and family. Despite persistent rumour, this is not something which Jordan is guilty of, in fact the writer and director of The Crying Game has, by all accounts, stuck quite closely to the book.
Rice’s complaint must then be against Cruise as an individual. I doubt that it will be anything as petty as disdain for him as a person but rather because, when she writes with Lestat in the room with her, watching her, he doesn’t look like Tom Cruise, he looks like Daniel Day-Lewis, or John Malkovich. He isn’t clean and wholesome like Cruise, he has a dark side, a ragged edge of bitter experience and pain. If this is her concern - a conviction that he simply can’t pull it off, then she should maybe take solace from the fact that, in the days before he was the biggest box-office draw of his age (his contemporaries, in terms of the fees they can demand and grosses they can expect to earn, such as Eastwood, Nicholson and Ford are getting on for twice his age) he showed flashes of exemplary acting ability and could, if sufficiently motivated, do so again. Who would have believed that Michael Keaton could play Bruce Wayne convincingly and seriously, before it happened? Who could have predicted that Tom Hanks would win an Oscar in a serious rôle on the evidence of, say, Big? Surprises do happen occasionally in Hollywood, this may well be one.
But what if Rice’s misgivings are far deeper than that? What if she can’t bear to have her personal imaginings, her dream-world visualised in an inappropriate form? Will it ruin the dream, will it spoil her imaginary world?
Of the many things Anne Rice is, there is very little evidence to suggest that she is naïve, that she hasn’t considered this eventuality, over the years. So we come to my second possible explanation of her very public reaction, one that, in some ways, contradicts the first: Publicity.
It has long been held that there is no such thing as bad publicity (take the recent success of The Crow and Cool Runnings, both of which found longevity at the cinema partly through the interest generated by their being respectively Brandon Lee and John Candy’s last performances). If this is so, then an advance whispering campaign about a film is very, very good news for the box-office. Audience recognition leads to audience anticipation which leads in turn to big-bucks over the opening weekend.
A word to the right person at the right time, once blown out of proportion either by accident or design, can produce a very satisfying publicity campaign without a penny being spent. Open a tabloid newspaper and you can see this process under way any day of the week. But whether this media coverage is deliberate or not, and whether it has the blessing of Rice herself or of Warner Bros. (who are producing the movie) or neither of them, is a moot point. The inevitable result of it will be increased interest in the movie, and an increased profile for Anne Rice and her books.
Which makes one wonder how late-comers will take to her works. I asked her how deliberate it was that the books were connected and yet didn’t follow a precise sequence like direct sequels:
“Oh, it was always an important part of the concept of The Vampire Chronicles that they should each be independent from the others, that each would be a complete book; and I’m confident that they can be pulled off the shelf that way, in any order.”
When asked if there will be more volumes in what is, to be fair, a series as potentially endless as its protagonists, she thought for a moment and then affirmed that there will be one more.
“Well, that’s all I see at this point, but that’s all I ever see: the next book ... they take possession of me, you see, and they have to do that one at a time.” This is partly through the passionate way she writes, and partly through expediency, after-all, millionaire novelists are a rare and popular breed: “I have to block out various months when I will do nothing except write. But it really is a bit of a struggle now; I mean, if I accepted all the invitations to speak or to appear and sign, I would have to retire as a writer and just do that. Writing is almost like eating ice-cream these days, to just be alone with the computer and be able to write is a dream.
“But, when I do write, I start every day, no matter how I feel ... and if nothing comes after about an hour and a half, then I give up. Usually, though, I love to work right through, if I wasn’t interrupted I’d probably go on for twelve hours a day. Once I get going, I guess the only thing that’ll stop me writing is downright physical illness, if I have a terrible headache then I’ll quit because, if I don’t, everyone in the novel will get a headache!”