No fence

moonlightchiron3

Some context. In less than a week, I’ve seen three major awards-season movies with significant African-American roots: Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary The 13th (nominated for Best Documentary); the adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play and Denzel Washington vehicle Fences (nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay); and Moonlight (nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Score and Cinematography). By further coincidence, I also saw episode two of the History Channel’s 2016 remake of Roots, showing here for unfathomable reasons on BBC Four, and different from the 1977 original mainly in the more visceral depiction of its violence, which is a sign of the times.

But it’s Moonlight I want to talk about, as I believe it’s as close to a perfect film I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s going to be hard to beat. It’s behind a paywall but I’ve picked up via social media that Moonlight was trashed for effect by the just-passing-through film critic Camilla Long in the Sunday Times Culture section. The gist of her pasting seems to be that its story of a young black male coming of age in Miami has been made to appease a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class audience. This is bullshit, and I speak as a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class man. This charge devalues the fact that it is adapted from an unpublished stage play about a specific black experience by a black writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, and yet it is a film so universal it will appeal to any demographic. (She disparages the central character for lacking any defining characteristics beyond “sad” and “gay”. That we’re talking about a low-budget indie film whose central characteristics are being “sad” and “gay” but which has broken through to the mainstream feels like a massive breakthrough.)

Long’s misrepresentation also subtracts from the fact that the film’s cast is almost 100% black, a straightforward reflection of the milieu in which it’s set, and thereby not an “issue”. (No need for handy white racists to prop up the story of black kids dealing with prejudice that comes in many colours. Sadistic, whip-wielding, white plantation owners are not required on this particular voyage.) Moonlight is not a film about the African-American experience through which we are led by the colonial hand of a white interpreter. Nor is it a film that wrings its hands about the statistical odds stacked against a child born black in 21st century America. That Chiron, our protagonist, is born to a single parent who is herself an addict who turns tricks to feed her habit, and has to fend for himself on the streets and at school, is not the defining narrative. For Moonlight is a love story. It is also a “gay” love story.

moonlightchironkev

The love that dare not speak its name is, we intuit, even less verbose among black males in what we’ll call working-class neighbourhoods. You have to assume progress is being made every day in terms of sexual diversity as well as racial diversity, even in more “traditional” social groups, but the story of Chiron from school age to manhood is all about keeping a dark secret. (I’ll refrain from detailing the plot too much, as you’ll want to experience its revelations in the moment, without forewarning. There is one that’s simply devastating. You’ll know it when it comes.)

I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. He’s still pretty young, 37, but I never caught his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2007. Moonlight nails him to the map. Sometimes it’s just timing. This is his time. Arriving, as it does, in an America of #BlackLivesMatter and reinvigorated prejudice of all kinds, Moonlight shines especially brightly and beautifully. (You can see from the stills that it’s a picture to behold – cinematographer James Laxton has also been working for years, but this is his calling card – but its often moonlit, often sun-bleached beauty is played for sincerity and irony, aesthetically. What I mean is: even its violence, or the result of its violence, has a certain artistry. But it never detracts.)

moonlightsea

We have to commend the cast. Only the better established actors, Mahershala Ali (a mainstay on House of Cards) and Naomie Harris (one of our best known BME exports, and it’s a crowded field), have been nominated for major awards. I suspect the sublime Ali – playing paternalistic but conflicted drug dealer Juan – might take Supporting Actor on Oscar night. But while both are strong, it’s the unknowns who pump the blood through the film. Let’s hear it for Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who cumulatively play Chiron; and for Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland (familiar to fans of The Knick), who give life to Chiron’s best friend Kevin. The casting is almost magical: the two acting trios look enough like each other to convince, but not enough like each other to distract. And each acts with the same relaxed, unforced poise. Kevin talks constantly, while Chiron keeps his own counsel (adult Kevin observes that he never says more than three words at a time). Both characters require care and attention to get right, and if the world was fair, all three could be nominated collectively for a single Oscar, or Bafta, or Globe.

moonlightlittle2

You might argue that no film is perfect. You might be right. But back to context. I saw Fences the day before I saw Moonlight, and without wishing to judge Fences too harshly (it, too, contains a performance worthy of accolade: Viola Davis), it feels almost pantomimic next to Moonlight’s grace and subtlety. Denzel Washington, directing himself, simply puts the camera down and points it at a Pulitzer-winning play. It’s not cinematic; it’s theatrical, and didactic. Jenkins never moves his camera without meaning, or subtext. Sure, its tracking shots could be dismissed as showing off, but the opening one, detailing Juan’s routine, checking up on a corner boy, asking about his mother, is surrounded by the camera, which spins around not for technical effect, but to reveal the wide open space of the dealer’s world: flat, bleached out, salt-flecked, while expressing the practical truth that a dealer needs to be able to see at 360 degrees. When a gaggle of schoolkids races past him suddenly, we feel his surprise; we didn’t see them coming either. (Jenkins cuts here to the boys, chasing through wasteland, and it’s only then that we see that it’s a pursuit, and a homophobic one. I cannot wait to see this opening sequence again.)

moonlightchiron

Moonlight is a serious film, but not without humour, or hope, and certainly not one without tender mercies. It’s an acting and directing masterclass that’s all the things Camilla Long seems to think it isn’t: necessary, important, urgent, relevant. It’s also warm and sensual and streaked with tears.

Some fences are built to keep people out, some fences are built to keep people in, but Moonlight contains no clunky fence metaphors.

Advertisements

Whatever | April 2010

Whatever | 3D or not 3D
Will Avatar take Hollywood to the next dimension, or are those glasses making us blind?

WhateverAvatarApr2010 Just before Christmas in 1952, United Artists released a functional African jungle adventure called Bwana Devil. The first feature to be exhibited in Natural Vision 3D, its publicity made the famous promise, “A lion in your lap!” Advertising standards would take a dim view of the flimsiness of this leonine proximity claim today, but desperate times – as the 1950s were for Hollywood during TV’s first boom – called for desperate measures.

Just before Christmas in 2009, 20th Century Fox released a functional Pandoran jungle adventure called Avatar. The first feature to be shot in 3D using various bespoke gizmos in the field of motion-capture, its publicity revolved around special tie-in bottles of Coke Zero and director James Cameron talking the film up big-style at sci-fi conventions. No explicit promises were made, but Avatar might have been sold with the guarantee, “Little floaty specs of ash caused by an air strike raining down around your shoulders like dandruff!”

This is not meant as a facetious comparison, even though I have carefully written it as one. In actual fact, not that much has changed between the lion in the lap and the dandruff down the back, except that 21st century audiences are less gullible and more reticent to tear themselves away from small glowing boxes. Bwana Devil did well enough at the box office, as did the knock-on 3D flea circuses that propagated in its wake – House Of Wax, It Came From Outer Space, Robot Monster, The Creature From The Black Lagoon – at least until the sums stopped adding up. But none of them performed like Avatar, even if figures are adjusted for inflation, which they never are or else Gone With The Wind would always be number one and the all-time box office charts would cease to act as a team-building exercise for studio accountants.

WhateverAvatarApr2010

The tin-hat difference between Bwana Devil and Avatar is that the former was conspicuous by its absence at the 25th Academy Awards – it was all 2D confections like High Noon and The Quiet Man that year – while the latter scored nine nominations at the 82nd. By the time you read this, you’ll know whether or not it took home Best Picture. If not, having already shamed his last film Titanic into second place with a world-beating $2.3 billion take (at time of going to press), Cameron will be able to dry his eyes on hundred dollar bills and toss them into a waste paper basket woven from the eyelashes of angels.

The twinkling aura of success that fizzes and pops around Avatar provides a welcome firework display to momentarily distract from an inconvenient truth: that the movies are in trouble. In posh film journal Sight & Sound, Nick James made his own prediction: that the Oscar will indeed go to Avatar, because, as he foresaw it, “this year the industry will vote for the financial, not the aesthetic Best Picture … The business will cheer the money, because they’re scared and they hope that 3D can save them.” In the same issue, Nick Roddick, writing as “Mr Busy”, penned a de facto obituary for Hollywood as we know it: “the studio system is like a dinosaur in a tar pit.” With execs being fired on a daily basis – two of them, Universal co-chairmen Marc Schmuger and David Linde announced that we live in “an era where brands have become the new stars” just before they received their redundancy packages – the impression is of an industry in panic. Why? Didn’t some film called Avatar just make, like, more money than any other film ever except Gone With The Wind and who cares about that old thing? Yes it did. In 17 days. (Now there’s a block graph on an overhead projector that’s going to make up for the lack of croissants at the News Corps shareholders meeting.)

Just as the success of Nirvana led to the signing of Tad, post-Avatar, film studios are literally sending completed blockbusters back to the menders and ordering up an extra dimension, from Clash Of The Titans to the final Harry Potter double-bill Deathly Hallows. The Times reported that LA’s celluloid-to-digital conversion labs are fully booked (“We can turn an older film into 3-D in around 16 weeks,” said the man at one such, Legend Films in San Diego), while super-geeks Peter Jackson and George Lucas are salivating at the prospect of running their respective sagas through the machine, just as Pixar have done with Toy Story. “2D or not 2D?” – that is not the question.

WhateverAvatarApr2010

I wish it was a passing craze, like Sensurround™, Illusion-O™ and Vinnie Jones™, but with 3D tellys being rolled out, 3D Blu-Ray on the horizon and 3D football matches bringing new meaning to collecting up the glasses in pubs, it may be that the man from cinema chain USC was right when he told the Times, “It’s no longer a gimmick, but an expectation.” Not in my house. And I speak as someone who queued up to see Friday The 13th 3D as a teenager in order to experience a pitchfork handle in my face. Nick James is astute when he describes Avatar as “a film for 15-year-olds that grown-ups enjoy for its technological breakthroughs.” I also worry that all this tech-fetishism makes gawping idiots of us all.

Hey, I’m all for the industry being saved – I really like films – but Avatar is not exactly a quick fix. It took years to make and cost $310 million, plus $150 to market. It would be cheaper to release an actual lion into every punter’s lap.

Having said that, those wraparound 3D specs did create the dazzling illusion that Camerons one-dimensional characters were two-dimensional.

2014: My Top 50 Films

UnderTheSkinCalvaryAStoryofChildrenFilmAmericanInteriorGruff20000DaysOnEarthCitizenfourTheRovertwo-days-one-nightShowrunnersBonesNymphomaniacofficeIdaS2dallasbuyersclub2

I have a simple, private, binary grading system with films. Once I have logged a film as “seen”, I either give it a star or not. This is quite a relief after the minefield of having to award stars out of five for professional reviewing purposes. Either a film feels like it was worth seeing, or it wasn’t. I sometimes go back and add or remove the star, depending on how I feel at a later date about the film. This makes collating an end of year list much easier, as it sifts the wheat from the chaff before I start. (This is why a bit of airborne nonsense like the Liam Neeson thriller Non Stop gets into the Top 50; I liked it enough at the time to give it a tick.)

Of the 142 films I saw in 2014, 92 were new, in that they were released in the UK for the first time this year. (For quick but odious comparison, of the 153 films I saw in 2013, 122 were new. I don’t know why I saw less films, especially less new films, but it may have something to do with having worked harder for less money in 2014, and having to make some tough choices simply in terms of sparing the time. I regret this.) Here they are, in order – and I have been tinkering with this for about a fortnight. An important note: I did not get to see Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Winter Sleep in December, as it is three hours long and I had no-one to go and see it with. I know in my bones it would be in the list, possibly near the top. Its absence is glaring and unbalancing. So it goes.

Boyhood

1. Boyhood | Richard Linklater | US
2. Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev | Russia
3. Stranger By The Lake | Alain Guiraudie | France
4. Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski | Poland/Denmark
5. 20,000 Days On Earth | Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard | UK/US/Canada
6. Dallas Buyers Club | Jean-Marc Vallée | US
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson | Germany/UK
8. Two Days, One Night | Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne | France/Belgium/Italy
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 | Lars Von Trier | Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium
10. Calvary | John Michael McDonagh | Ireland/UK

11. American Interior | Gruff Rhys, Dylan Goch | UK
12. Under The Skin | Jonathan Glazer | UK
13. Citizenfour | Laura Poitras | US
14. Lilting | Hong Khaou | UK
15. The Lego Movie | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US/Australia/Denmark
16. Starred Up | David Mackenzie | UK
17. Showrunners | Des Doyle | Ireland/US
18. Belle | Amma Asante | UK
19. Locke | Steven Knight | UK
20. A Story Of Children And Film | Mark Cousins | UK

21. Nightcrawler | Guy Gilroy | US
22. The Rover | David Michôd | Australia
23. 22 Jump Street | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US
24. Inside Llewyn Davis | Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | US
25. Noah | Darren Aronofsky | US
26. Jimmy’s Hall | Ken Loach | UK/Ireland
27. Cold In July | Jim Mickle | US/France
28. The Past | Asghar Farhadi | France/Italy
29. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes | Matt Reeves | US
30. Chef | Jon Favreau | US

31. ’71 | Yann Demange | UK
32. X-Men: Days Of Future Past | Bryan Singer | UK/US
33. The Wolf Of Wall Street | Martin Scorsese | US
34. August: Osage County | John Wells | US
35. Only Lovers Left Alive | Jim Jarmusch | UK/Germany
36. Northern Soul | Elaine Constantine | UK
37. Her | Spike Jonze | US
38. Edge Of Tomorrow | Doug Liman | US/UK
39. Non-Stop | Jaume Collet-Serra | US/France
40. A Most Wanted Man | Anton Corbijn | UK/Germany/US

41. The Riot Club | Lone Scherfig | UK
42. Maps To The Stars | David Cronenberg | Canada/US
43. The Guest | Adam Wingard | US
44. The Armstrong Lie | Alex Gibney | US
45. The Unknown Known | Errol Morris | US
46. American Hustle | David O. Russell | US
47. The Heat | Paul Feig | US
48. The Two Faces Of January | Hossein Amini | US/UK
49. Easy Money III | Jens Jonsson | Sweden
50. Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | US

Leviathanwhale

Really, I don’t think there has ever really been anything like Boyhood, but its technical and logistical achievements might just have been that had it not been for Richard Linklater’s guiding hand and a cracking cast, most remarkably Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, respectively seven and eight years old when shooting began in 2002. Rarely have 165 minutes passed in a cinema without anybody looking at their watch. This film singlehandedly made a case for the occasional preeminence of American filmmaking in the 21st century, where noise and surface are often all it’s got. (I say that, but the US dominates my list, if not the Top 10, as the bulk of the films I saw were American, or American co-productions. As ever, a bit of Danish or French often rises to the top.)

In a year without Boyhood, Leviathan would have sat comfortably at the top of a the pile. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere, symbolically rich tale of contemporary smalltown corruption plays out as a David and Goliath struggle between a car mechanic and a grotesque mayor on the coast of Northwestern Russia over a patch of land (the mechanic, Alexei Serebriakov, lives on it, in a house he built himself; the mayor, Roman Madyanov, wants it). A slow, downbeat, naturalistic and unshowy slice of life, Leviathan nonetheless rears up into moments of pure beauty and portent, not least when one character glimpses an actual whale breaking the surf in the bay, or when the teeth of a JCB tear into a house like a dinosaur searching for prey. It’s all about scale.

I’m pleased that a large number of UK and Irish releases made the final cut – Starred Up, Belle, Locke, Calvary, Under The Skin, American Interior, Jimmy’s Hall – as well as a clutch of documentaries, although I can think of half a dozen I’ve missed, too. I also missed Pride, which I feel might have been in there, had I seen it. Feel free to tell me yours, but don’t take it personally if a film you’ve loved this year isn’t in my Top 50; I might simply have missed it. And I really didn’t like Mr Turner.

StarredUp2

A postcript: I continue to hold a Curzon cinemas membership, and it is my lifeline. It should be noted that in 2014, the chain announced that it had finally recognised the union Bectu and agreed to pay its workers a living wage. So far, this agreement seems to have held, and no funny business has emerged. I am in touch with the previously aggrieved Curzon workers via Twitter and have heard nothing to the contrary. I sincerely hope this continues to remain true. Other cinema chains have not been as willing to compromise, and it blights the whole business of cinemagoing.

TV monitors

ShowrunnersPOI

It’s not every day I have an actual article printed in the actual, papery version of the Guardian, so forgive me if I provide a link to the piece I have written about a new, feature-length documentary with the self-explanatory title Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show, which is available to buy from its website from 31 October. I first crossed paths with its tenacious and very friendly director, Des Doyle, a year ago, when I was writing a shorter piece on the subject of showrunners for the Guardian. He’d contacted me as he was using Kickstarter to fund the final stage of post-production, and – being the target audience for his film ie. a US telly geek – I was more than happy to help promote the initiative. Mainly because I wanted to see the finished film.

ShowrunnersBones

He and his producers reached the funding target and finished the film. This summer we crossed paths again, as Des was looking to make contact with the Edinburgh TV Festival with a view to perhaps showing his film to like-minded TV nuts. I was able to make introductions and the next thing I knew, I was down to host the film at the mighty Filmhouse in Edinburgh and chair a Q&A not just with Des himself, but also with Battlestar Galactica supremo Ronald D. Moore (who happened to be filming his latest series Outlander in Scotland in August and whom I felt honoured to “hang out” in the bar with). I wrote about the experience here (although you have to scroll down a bit).

Anyway, the film’s about to become available to buy and download, so it’s almost in the public domain. I highly recommend it if you’re even half-interested in the way TV is made, especially in the States. It’s particularly good on Showtime’s House Of Lies and its journey from pilot to air, and TNT comedy-drama Men Of A Certain Age, which I don’t think we’ve had in the UK, and which – before our very eyes in Showrunners – goes from pilot to air to cancellation. It’s a heartbreaking arc in the documentary, and shows just how cruel US TV can be, even on cable. As a UK-based TV scriptwriter and editor, I am that sucker who mythologises the American model, in transatlantic awe of all those guys – and occasionally women! – who sit around conference tables in Burbank “bullshitting” in the most creative fashion, filling up whiteboards and eating doughnuts on a salary. (I’ve been writing the same pilot script in my house all year.)

Needless to say, when I was able to pin down the great Terence Winter, showrunner of Boardwalk Empire (whose series finale airs on Sky Atlantic this Saturday after five incredible, slow-burning seasons), for a 20-minute phone interview about Des’s film and about showrunning in general, I had to jettison a large chunk of what I’d already written for the Guardian in order to insert Winter’s words of wisdom. So I thought I’d publish some of the material I couldn’t fit into my 1,200-word commission here. You’ll have to be super-interested in the subject to find it as fascinating as I do, but I’m going to guess that one or two of you are.

ShowrunnersSpart

First, here’s my interview with Des Doyle, the director. (He’s on the left of this illustrious lineup from one of the many convention screenings they’ve done in the States.)

ShowrunnersDeslineup

AC: Which was the first writers’ room you gained access to, and how were you received as outsiders?

DD: The first room we got into was Men Of A Certain Age. It was a little pressurised for us because we had just one hour with the guys and we knew Ray Romano had to leave early to fly to NY to do Letterman. The good thing was that it was a very lively room – comedy writers tend to like to crack jokes a lot and that helped ease them into the cameras being on. They were also intrigued why somebody from Ireland would be particularly interested in them or what they did and my “uniqueness” in that regard certainly helped with a number of people we filmed with. And Mike Royce the showrunner for that series was a very gracious host to us and helped make sure we got what we needed. But for me as a first-time director in a room with so many people to try and cover with two cameras it was a big learning experience and the other writers’ rooms we did a little differently.

AC: Can you just confirm the dates of production so I can get an accurate figure for how long Showrunners took to make?

DD: We started in September 2010: first people on camera Dec 2010, principal photography in blocks continued to November 2012. We ran Kickstarter in Dec 2012; editing/post production/clearances and licensing up till April 2014.

EdTV14ACRDMDD

AC: Did the experience of making the film and getting under the bonnet in any way spoil your perhaps romantic view of the process of turning out quality TV drama?

DD: I think making the film has increased my respect for what showrunners do tenfold! Even if they’re making a show I may not like I still have huge respect for the amount of work that goes into that. Considering all of the challenges they face in terms of time, money and politics it’s remarkable that a) any show gets made on time and budget and b) that so many great shows are made under this system.

AC: The rise and fall of Men Of A Certain Age is one of the film’s great arcs, if bittersweet. As a filmmaker, it’s gold, but did it break your heart to be with Mike Royce on the set of the show after it had been cancelled?

DD: One of the things that really surprised me in making the film was how candid people were with me – both in words and emotionally. I tried very hard never to “interview” someone but instead to have a conversation with them. When we spoke with Mike about the ratings for MOACA he had literally just gotten the news that morning so it was still very raw for him and certainly my heart went out to him as he told us about it because I could empathise with him greatly. These were really personal stories they were telling and Mike, Ray and the writers really loved making that show. It’s not always like that for a showrunner which is what made that experience even more painful for Mike. I think anyone who watches that story unfold will really feel for Mike because apart from being an extremely talented writer he’s also a really lovely guy and that comes across in the film very much.

AC: What’s next for you?

DD: I’m currently in very early development on another doc also set in a creative field which we have just attached first talent to and will be filming a little with them in LA later this month. There are also one or two other ideas I’m pursuing and some of the showrunners in the film have very kindly agreed to read my pilot script although that needs a major rewrite first!

ShowrunnersTerrence-Winter

The big catch for me while writing this piece was Terence Winter. The PR for Showrunners foolishly promised him to me early on in the process and although it happened last-minute, the 20 minutes I spent on the phone to him at his New York office were gold. I am such a fan of Boardwalk Empire, which ended forever this week in the States, but you have to remember, “Terry” – as I discovered everybody calls him – had nothing to gain from helping to promote Des’s film by talking to me, so all credit to him, and to Des for having engendered such a happy, symbiotic relationship with these high-powered execs.

While I waited to be connected to “Terry” (I still think of him as Terence), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough was playing. I applauded him for his “hold” music when we first spoke, and he said, “I like to have that as my theme music going into every interview.”

I confirmed that he’d seen the finished film. He had, and really enjoyed it: “It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about the business and to see the different ways people run shows and get a look behind that curtain. Occasionally we’ll be panels for different things and say hello to each other but for the most part the business of running a show is more than a full-time job.”

Did he have a well-earned holiday once Boardwalk had wrapped? Apparently not. “I’m going pretty much right into preparing for what I hope is my next series, a show set in the world of rock’n’roll in 1973 in New York City with Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, and Mick Jagger is also one of the producers. We’ve shot the pilot and I’m already starting to look at writers. So no real break but this is the highest class problem I could possibly have.”

It’s for HBO, right? “Right. HBO has been my home for 15 years and I hope it’s my only home.”

BoardwalkEmpire1

I asked if he had time to see his family – something he touches on in Showrunners. “I certainly get home to put my kids to bed, and weekends are really sacred to me. They know Daddy’s at work during the week but I’m always around to go to baseball games and soccer games, and I always make school functions. If you wanted to you could live at the office. The business of running a show is so massive.” They shoot 14-15 hours a day. “If you never wanted to leave there’s always something to do.”

Were you worried the documentary might “let light in upon magic”? “I’m one of those people that buys a DVD and goes right to the DVD extras, the behind-the-scenes interview, the auditions … The same when I go to a museum, I like to know about the paintings, the story of who painted it and when, what was going on in the world around him. I talk to young film students about what a great movie Citizen Kane was, and they see it say and go, It was OK. You have to put it in context of when it was made.”

Especially that it was a flop at the time of release. “Right. The Wire wasn’t really a hit when it was on the air, that found its audience on DVD. It’s A Wonderful Life is another one.”

I asked how he personally ran the Boardwalk writers’ room. “Very similar to The Sopranos in terms of how it was run. I would come in at the beginning of the year with a broad-strokes roadmap of where I thought the season should go. We averaged about five writers at any given time, I think at one point we had as many as eight, and as few as four.” He cites Howard Korder as his “main writer – he wrote more episodes than I did. I truly could not have done the show without him.” Meanwhile his other right-hand man, writer-director Tim Van Patten “ran the set.”

BoardwalkEmpireMKW

So, the methodology. “We’d sit down and I’d say, What happens in Episode One? It’s a lot of sitting around a table, eating potato chips, ordering lunch, a lot of digression, telling stories about your own life – those are the things that get made into TV shows. To the untrained ear it may sound like a bunch of people sitting around bullshitting.”

A showrunner, for Winter, is “part psychologist, part motivational speaker, cheerleader, you’re almost like a host at a dinner party, you’re trying to get everybody to talk, open up a little bit. I’m glad to have a roomful of funny, smart, interesting people to bat around ideas with and bullshit with. That’s not a bad way to spend your day.”

I bring up the subject of UK drama’s attempts to emulate the American model. But he doesn’t think we should try. “I will say this, whatever you guys are doing over there in England, it’s working pretty damn well. Whether there’s a writers’ room or a showrunner or not, some of the best dramas ever have come out of that system. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” I push him to name names and he cites The Singing Detective (“I re-watch that once every two years”), Luther, The Hour … “I’ve always been a fan of the BBC, I’ve just started re-watching Fawlty Towers.” I tell him that, like Citizen Kane and The Wire, this was not an instant hit either. He did not know that.

On the more vexed subject of the lack of female showrunners in American TV, he admits that a writers’ room “can be” a male environment, “depending on the make up of a room. I always try to get a balance between men and women. Not to say that if there are female characters on the show so therefore you need female writers. A writer should be able to write men, women, children, all different races, religions, backgrounds. With writing, the blank page is the great equaliser. If I read a script and it’s good, I don’t care where it came from.”

For the record, Boardwalk had six female writers: Margaret Nagle, Meg Jackson, Bathsheba Doran, Diane Frolov, Jennifer Ames, Cristine Chambers. “You’re sitting in a room for eight to ten hours a day around a conference table, so there’s gotta be what I call ‘hangability’. These are people you gotta want to hang out with. You can be the greatest writers in the world, but if they drive you insane, it’s pointless, because you can’t stand being around them. You ultimately spend more time with these people than your own family. It’s like putting together a football team.”

Could a great writer who’s not sociable survive? “Yeah, anything’s workable. If there’s a writer you can give an outline to and have them go away and they come back with something you can shoot, I’d work with somebody like that any day of the week. Some people are good at writing and not good at verbally explaining or pitching. Some are great and dialogue, some have great ideas but can’t execute them. But if you can round out your team with those different people you’re in pretty good shape.”

How does he feel about having to get involved with a show’s publicity as a showrunner? “It’s always a little jarring when I get recognised on the street in New York. Once a month it happens, and my initial instinct is that I must have gone to school with this person or we have a mutual friend, but they’ve seen my face on an HBO behind-the-scenes. It’s part of your responsibility to get out there and be the face of the show, to be the ambassador, if you will, of that material.”

Winter watches his shows when they air. As he did with The Sopranos, although he hasn’t seen it since it went off the air. “David [Chase] used to always say: you’re here to entertain people. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. It’s very simple advice but it’s the truth, it’s what we’re doing here. All the other stuff comes later.”

ShowrunnersMOACA

Thanks to Des and “Terry” for sparing the time to answer my questions. Now watch the film.

Film threat

StarredUp2

Two violent films, seen within 24 hours of one another. Starred Up is out this week on DVD. Joe is in cinemas. The first, from debuting writer Jonathan Asser – who, as a psychotherapist who’s worked with prisoners and young offenders, knows of which he speaks – is a prison drama. And already you’re thinking: oh no, not another prison drama. It’s true, the genre has long since hardened into if not cliché, certainly formality. But Starred Up – and you’ve heard this before, but stick with me – is different.

Yes, it resonates with the clanging of metal doors and gates, and makeshift weapons are furtively manufactured from toothbrushes and razor blades, and everyone says “fuck” or “cunt”, and there’s a sadistic, unsmiling deputy governor whose faith in rehabilitation is not devout, and a prisoner hierarchy with an unlikely, weaselly geezer at the top, and lags walk around in a circle in the exercise yard, but … it’s not about prison, no more than Hunger or Un prophète were about prison. It’s about a father and son.

Jack O’Connell, whom I never really saw in Skins but appreciated in Chris Chibnall’s United and James Moran’s Tower Block, is the son, and Ben Mendelsohn, one of the Aussie breakout stars of Animal Kingdom and brilliant in supporting roles in Killing Them Softy and Girls, is the father. The son, Eric Love (brilliant name), has been “starred up”, that is, moved from a young offenders’ institution to a grown-ups’ prison, where his dad, Neville, has carved out a functional life for himself, nearer to the top of the tree than the bottom, but he’s no Mr Big. He and his son have been estranged for most of Eric’s life, who grew up in care. He’s still in care. So is Neville.

What differentiates Starred Up – the best work from Scottish director David Mackenzie since the brooding and alarming Young Adam (although I’ve enjoyed plenty of his commercially under-loved work) – is that from the first scene we glimpse the human being under the self-generated armour of Eric’s cocksure invincibility when, after the long walk through the prison induction system to his cell, the door is shut on him and he allows his face and posture to retract from self-preservation and convey sadness, frustration and fallibility. It’s incredible acting from O’Connell (this film will make him if he isn’t made already), and infuses the rest of the film with depth.

StarredUp

Eric is a coiled spring of curtailed ambition whose reflex reaction is to lash out (a request for the borrow of a lighter results in a brutal attack very early on), which makes his introduction to a modest therapy group run by Rupert Friend all the more jarring and counterintuitive. This is not a film about fairytale transformations, but the way Eric’s story plays out is not predictable. Nor is the way the father-son reunification unfolds. Mendelsohn plays Neville as recalcitrant and proud – also a man who thinks with his fists and would clearly have parented with slaps had he actually attempted to do so – but not without a heart. Friend is a chameleonic actor (proven by his transformation into an American CIA officer in Homeland) who is utterly believable from word one as this voluntary shrink whose commitment to rehabilitation is everything Sam Spruell’s cold governor’s isn’t. A peacemaking speech he makes later on in the story where he calls the black prisoners in his group “black cunts” and Eric “a white cunt … I’m a cunt, we’re all cunts” is far more profound than it sounds.

Asser’s screenplay, worked through over a number of years, with the help of many professionals at workshops – to whom he pays sincere tribute in interview – was also honed during the tight 24-day location shoot at Belfast’s former Crumlin Road Prison and the infamous Maze, with Mendelsohn particularly involved in fine-tuning his character. All of this shows in the incredible depth throughout, even in exchanges that seem trite or functional. And there’s a terrifying stand-up stand-off in the therapy group that’s as exquisitely and exactingly choreographed by Mackenzie as a dance routine.

However, and here’s why I suspect Starred Up only showed for a week at my local arthouse in March and then disappeared: it’s defiantly repellent stuff. Strong meat. Hard on the ears as well as the eyes. A film I love, but not a film I would recommend to anybody with a weak constitution. A low-level threat of violence persists throughout the entire 106-minute running time. It’s not if, but when it explodes. The violence is not as explicit as it seems (that’s clever directing and editing), but the sheer physical force with which it erupts is quite distressing. Blades, table legs, teeth, fists, all are pressed into service. Fathers and surrogate fathers are attacked by their sons and surrogate sons, and their sons and surrogate sons are beaten back. It’s tactile-Oedipal. And they’re “all cunts”. (It was a hot evening when we watched the DVD but we eventually had to close the skylights for fear of our neighbours being offended by the language.)

I appreciate that the violence inherent in the system is a valid subject for fiction, and Starred Up is a supremely intelligent depiction of that violence. But I would actually warn people from watching it. You have been warned. (Actually, I found myself wholeheartedly evangelising it to a woman I met at the Inbetweeners 2 aftershow and literally gave that warning.)

joe-nicolas-cage

I’d read a lot of praise for Joe, the new film from director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express – that’s some CV), adapted by Gary Hawkins from the 1991 novel I’ve never heard of by Mississippian Larry Brown (about whom Hawkins once made a documentary). It’s also violent. It’s also about fathers and sons, and surrogate fathers and sons. It’s also tactile-Oedipal, and a lesson in restraint. What a coincidence.

It’s also very different. Shot in areas around Austin in Central Texas, it’s not quite a Southern Gothic, although the relationship between Tye Sheridan’s 15-year-old grown-up Gary and his good-for-nothin’ dad Wade, played with unadulterated authenticity by non-actor and actual alcoholic drifter Gary Poulter (who died after filming), is a dark entry indeed. In the very first scene, Gary berates his wizened soak of a father without any fear until Wade slaps him, hard, around the face, and retreats to his preferred cycle of guzzling spirit and passing out. Gary’s surrogate father turns out to be Joe, an ex-con played with admirable restraint by Nic Cage – a restraint that has earned him endless plaudits, although it turns out that this is all relative.

Joe runs a gang of casual workers – all black – whose task it is to literally poison trees to make way for a corporate re-planting, a job they merrily do without gloves, let alone masks. But their camaraderie and joshing are genuine and inspiring, and there’s two-way respect between the workers and their genial employer. Everyone knows Joe has “a past”, and he himself explains that “restraint” keeps him from “hurting people” and keeps him out of jail. He drinks, loves his guard-dog (who lives in the crawlspace under his home, always tethered), and uses prostitutes. He also knows his way around skinning and butchering a deer. He’s more than a little bit country.

Violence erupts more than once, and again, that threat lingers. It’s difficult to relax into the scenes of socialising and ball-breaking, as bad things are always round the corner. The director paints his pictures in dark greens, buff browns and queasy yellows, but finds beauty in the way sunlight bounces off surfaces, or through a glugged bottle of rose wine. Coincidentally, Mackenzie creates a red light in Eric’s cell when material is fixed up over the only window – an effect akin to that which Green conjures for the brothel. It ain’t pretty, this backwoods world he depicts, but it is not without natural beauty, perhaps best personified by a box bridge (a key location) that’s being gradually wrapped in vine. You can poison nature at the behest of a corporation, but it always finds a way. Perhaps, Joe seems to be saying, male violence is a natural state, and restraint is unnatural.

The characters in Starred Up are in a physical prison. In Joe, they’re out in the wide open spaces; there are worse places to work than a forest, even if you’re poisoning it, but it still feels like a high-viz chain-gang, especially as the workforce is exclusively African-American. When hardworking, personable Gary and – briefly – the workshy Wade join the herbicide detail, they are in the minority. But there’s little to elevate Wade from the bottom of any social heap: he’s cruel, selfish, vicious and callow. When he launches into an implausible breakdancing routine, it is the only ray of humanity we are privileged to see. (We must imagine that Poulter, who apparently enjoyed acting in the film, started a Twitter account and had been in and out of rehab, was more redeemable than Wade.)

Gary’s relationship with his father is less complex than Eric’s with Neville. Gary is the de facto adult, but Wade is dominant through threat of violence (and actual enaction of violence); we barely see the submissive mother, who also seems to drink, and Gary’s sister appears to have been rendered mute by family life. He’s the one who must go out and earn money (he saves to buy a truck from his new role model, Joe). I won’t go into the plot, as you may wish to see it, but I have to say, I felt Joe was over-praised. I felt like I’d seen all this before. Calling a drama noir doesn’t instantly bestow it with class. Some of the story is too neat – the way it’s bookended, for instance – some of it is too messy. There’s no resolution to some strands (such as Joe’s relationship with an ex who sort of moves in with him and then just moves out), and too much resolution to others (a stand-off that brings Joe’s relationship with the local law enforcement to a head).

There’s a scene in Joe that’s more explicitly violent than even the most violent scene in Starred Up. (People in the cinema audibly groaned and said “No!” when it happened.) I’m not against violence artistically, or politically, but I can personally do without seeing a skull being caved in, or a cheek slashed with a blade. There are a lot of movies about violence. We live in a violent world. Hundreds of men, women and children are killed every day in acts of violence – albeit much of it long-range, and not perpetrated with metal bars on bone – and these acts do not act as neat catalysts for dramatic resolutions.

But I can tell you, I was in the mood to watch The Inbetweeners 2 last night.

 

Script-wanker!

Inbetweenerscript2

If you’re even halfway intrigued as to what this script is, with its unhelpful title Script Title and its near complete lack of information on what’s supposed to be its title page, and why it might have “Andrew Collins” stamped diagonally across it like a watermark (an addendum to every single one of the 139 pages therein), then I’ll let you in on my big secret, assuming you don’t take Radio Times, or click on the regular Twitter links to my tireless work for the magazine. I played a very small part in The Inbetweeners 2, which enjoys its world premiere tomorrow night and opens nationwide on Wednesday.

When I say I played a small part, I’m not in it. Not even in the background, as I have been in other productions I’ve worked on (uncredited as “Man With Hummus In Pub” in Grass, and “Man Walking Behind Bench” in Colin). In fact, I suspect you’ll have to stay to the very end of the credits – possibly even after the Dolby logo – to see my name, as I was a “script consultant” on it. Although I was told by the writers/producers/directors/creators Iain Morris and Damon Beesley that mine were the “first outside pair of eyes” on their screenplay, I may be one of a whole raft of script consultants credited. Either way, and as prosaic and self-effacing as I am naturally being about my small part, I am very, very, very excited to have any credit whatsoever on an actual film.

The_Inbetweeners_2

I have written a fairly exhaustive piece for Radio Times about how it all happened, and you may read it here. What I didn’t manage to get into that piece is that, as script consultant, I was invited to attend the first, full cast read-through at a church in Shoreditch in London’s fashionable East End in November. On that day, I assume for top-level secrecy, the film was referred to as The Long Goodbye. I can’t say for certain how many people attended, but it must have been around 100, maybe more, counting the entire cast, all those producers and key production crew. Even though I was a script consultant (I think Robert Popper might be one, too, although he might also have an even fancier title), I was asked to read for a certain castmember who wasn’t able to attend. They only had one scene, but it was nerve-wracking all the same. I’m only a script consultant!

It was a memorable event in my chequered career. As will be the act of seeing my name whizz past in the end-credits roll at the premiere in London’s busy Leicester Square. Can it really be four summers since we last attended an Inbetweeners premiere in Leicester Square? Yes it can.

I attended the premiere of The Inbetweeners Movie in the sweltering, post-riots heat haze of August 2011, even though I didn’t work on it, as I am a friend of Bwark, Iain and Damon’s production company. I don’t attend many premieres, mostly out of choice. But it’s always weird walking up a red carpet when you’re not famous. Best thing is to hold your head up, eyes front, and walk as fast as possible. My most vivid memory of the night was standing talking to Rhys Thomas and Lucy Montgomery in Leicester Square after the film while a drain overflowed next to us, flooding foul effluent on the piazza, as if in mockery of the film’s baser instincts. It’s weird, but sort of not, that none of us could have known that the film would break box office records over the following weeks and go on to take £57 million, a record for a British comedy.)

inbetweenersposter

I am minded at this sensitive stage of the cautionary anecdote told by Richard Attenborough. In 1942, aged 19, he attended the gala charity premiere of In Which We Serve, the film in which he made his credited debut (playing “Young Stoker” – I know, it’s no “Man In Pub With Hummus”). He, too, sat expectantly through to the end credits, with his family in tow, and discovered that his name had been missed off. That’s showbiz. He never worked again.

To reiterate: I have not seen The Inbetweeners 2. But I have read it, a number of times, and even suggested changes and additions to it, all of which may have been ignored. I look forward, in an almost parental way, to seeing how it came out. There’s at least one disgusting gross-out moment, I’ll tell you that much and risk excommunication. Or at least there was last time I read Script Title. Curiously, script consultants don’t get invited to Australia to consult on set.

Is this thing on?

Thunk. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Sorry, that was the sound of feedback. And this is the look of feedback: I saw the tremendous new movie Berberian Sound Studio yesterday and it’s all about the audio. Not since The Conversation do I remember seeing so much sound on the screen. Writer-director Peter Strickland has, with his second film, created a hymn to magnetic tape, but shaped it as a period thriller that weaves psychological shocks into an everyday story of recording folk.

Strickland wowed the festival circuit in 2009 with his first film, horse-and-cart revenge thriller Katalin Varga, which I watched on DVD during the Olympics. He funded it with inheritance money, having struggled to get his short films seen previously. Though British, I think he lived and taught in Hungary and Katalin Varga is set and shot in Hungarian-speaking Romania. A labour of love, it’s anything but indulgent: spare, slow-moving, modern-yet-ancient and genuinely gripping.

But Berberian Sound Studio is something else entirely.

It’s the 1970s; all browns and more browns. Toby Jones is intuitively cast as Gilderoy, a polite, suburban, mummy’s-boy sound engineer out of water at an Italian dubbing, foley and effects studio. Having seemingly made his reputation recording the sound for travelogues about his native Dorking, he has been hired by an Argento-like Italian horror director and his severe producer to weave his radiophonic magic on their latest witchcraft slasher, The Equestrian Vortex. If all this sounds a little spoofy, it is, with some spot-on blood-red credits for the movie-within-a-movie. It’s a movie about the movies, seeped in nostalgia for a more hands-on, analogue era, when tape spooled and great big, clunky switches were thrown and, in the world of grisly foley, watermelons were hacked up. In the first act, Strickland has plenty of fun with the in-jokes. More seasoned students of Italian giallo cinema will no doubt find even more to enjoy than I did, as, for all the hints of darkness, anxiety and intrigue, it’s OK to snigger along as a marrow is adjudged “too watery” to sound like a witch’s body falling from a tower and splatting on the ground below, and a seasoned thespian stands in the booth making disgusting noises to convey a goblin who is “dangerously aroused.”

It is a dark, ridiculous, eccentric, hermetic world, but an utterly convincing one. Strickland ensures that every footstep on the lino of a sanitised corridor feels real; this film takes tactile to new levels – when a spider gently crawls over Gilderoy’s hand, gently blown free, you half-expect to be able to hear its footsteps too. By turning up the mics, just as Gilderoy does, Strickland accentuates every seemingly insignificant click and crunch and hiss. Close-ups of needles and gauges and call sheets infuse this psychological horror movie about horror movies with love for the world it inhabits. Those around Gilderoy often speak in Italian, so that we know what they’re saying, via subtitles, but he is an alien landscape, his paranoia building.

I won’t go into any story details – even though the trailer, which has been on heavy location at the Curzon for months, gives a lot away – other than to say it’s a claustrophobic experience that very rarely ventures outside of the studio. If you hear footsteps on dried leaves, they are as likely to be footsteps on dried leaves in a pit in the studio as, well, dried leaves on the ground. Gilderoy’s mother’s letters, which Strickland blows up, full-screen, and allows us time to read, offer a glimpse of simple, bucolic Surrey life, and of the shed he usually works in (“room for two people at a time”, he says), and the effect is quite profound, even moving.

If you’re a cinephile, or someone who, like me, loves the 70s, Berberian Sound Studio has been made for you. But it is so much more than a magic carpet ride for valve-freaks. It is frequently terrifying, without ever showing the depraved Italian film that’s being so inventively and mundanely dubbed – it’s a case of what you don’t see.

This is a film that should be seen and heard. It’s not totally conventional, and plays the occasional temporal and narrative trick, but these flourishes are always underpinned by a truly thrilling sense of place. By the end of the film, you’ll feel as if you could find your way around Berberian Sound Studios, from the reception desk where Gilderoy’s plane ticket waits vainly to be reimbursed, to the mixing room where a taciturn, overall-wearing engineer grimly blanks Gilderoy because he interfered with his faders.

For the record, I really think we should give a ripple of applause to the Sound Department, which numbers around 20 people, from ADR recordist Ruben Aguirre Barba and sound consultant Emanuele Carcone to sound re-recording mixer Doug Cooper and Robert Karlsson, who, according to imdb, is the uncredited Dolby sound consultant (what a mysterious man).

Although it’s eerie and sad to see the name of Broadcast singer Trish Keenan, who died last year aged just 42, in the credits, she and James Cargill have supplied a suitably esoteric and period-appropriate soundtrack which stands as a fitting memorial to her. In a film about sound, this is not background music. Broadcast are signed to Warp Records, whose impressive film arm Warp X produced Berberian Sound Studio, with funding from Screen Yorkshire and the old Film Council. One imagines that Peter Strickland will not have to rely on an uncle’s inheritance to make feature films any more. This puts him on the map. And not just a map of Dorking and Box Hill.

Ooh, and if you’re not lucky enough to live near an arthouse cinema – and I appreciate that not everybody is – you can stream Berberian Sound Studio via Curzon On Demand right now, if you can afford £10 a pop. It’s here. (It’s a rich archive, too; Katalin Varga is also there.)