Category Archives: Movies

Short horror films and an international festival – probably not for chickens…

Tonight, Sunday 17th March, BBC4 is screening a selection of short films in the UK under the umbrella title Born Digital: First Cuts.

I saw a preview of all the films earlier this week and Janitor of Lunacy by London-based Japanese director Umi Ishihara is well worth watching. What on earth it is about is another matter. It runs 12 minutes.

Coincidentally producer, director and actress Amanda Fleming’s company De Profundis has started a new international festival for short films – specifically horror films. The first – free – one-day festival is being held in Manchester in two weekends’ time.

I asked her: “Why?”


Amanda Fleming with halo at Soho Theatre Bar in London

AMANDA: Well, since I make short films and my direct theatre pieces tend to have a lot of horror.

JOHN: Why are you plugging other people’s films?

AMANDA: There are a lot of films that don’t get seen and a lot of film festivals that are particularly picky about how much money is spent on the film. I want to showcase talented up-and-coming film makers, so I thought it would be good to have a forum and to actually make a creative day of it.

It’s also a platform to meet some of the international people who have been entered into the festival – there will be Q&As.

We’ve had 75 submissions, 30 of them from abroad. Some of them were not the right genre of horror. Some were more psychological thriller rather than horror. Not quite the genre we were looking for. Maybe on the next one we will add in extra categories.

JOHN: There is a very nice dividing line between psychological thriller and horror.

AMANDA: We labelled it a ‘horror’ film festival. I was interested to see what came in.

JOHN: How do you decide something is a psychological thriller but not a real horror film?

AMANDA: Psychological tends be twists and turns – like somebody who thinks she’s hearing something and thinks it’s ghosts, but it’s just her own insanity or a stalker or whatever. The type of horror we were looking for was supernatural/Gothic, a little bit of zombie, a little bit of vampire.

JOHN: Val Lewton films in particular were all about the things you don’t see being more frightening than the things you do see. Were there films submitted that were on the borderline of your definition?

AMANDA: There was one. It won’t fit in this first festival but it was so good I am going to put in the next one. The festival is going to be twice a year. The first one is one day. Six hours. This first festival will be a small start-up one to see how it goes, then we will move to a slightly bigger venue in October or November this year.

JOHN: And this film which ‘doesn’t fit’ would be in the second festival in October or November?

AMANDA: Yes. I’m going to add an extra specific type of category so it will fit in. 

JOHN: What’s that?

AMANDA: Comedy horror. This film’s amazing. It’s called Fowl Fury.

JOHN: Fowl?

AMANDA: Yes, so you know where it’s going to go, right?

JOHN: Why is it not horror?

AMANDA:
Too funny. We are looking for more horror-horror. But I might even put it in this first festival as a token laugh moment. The trouble is we already have so many worth screening.

JOHN: They are all short films?

AMANDA: The films run between 2 minutes and 20 minutes.

JOHN: Two minutes is a scene, not a film.

AMANDA: But the 2-minute one is so good… to the point I have actually emailed them and said: I can see this becoming a major production. We are interested in talent and potential.

JOHN: You should have a Phlegming Award for Horror.

AMANDA: If we could afford it, we would, but we are just starting up. We are just awarding certificates for Best UK Film and Best International Film for this first one.

JOHN: And we will have to wait until October or November to see Fowl Fury…?

AMANDA: Probably… But, if we can fit the chicken one in this time, we will.

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Ricky Gervais – “I haven’t really watched comedy for two years”

“Live long enough to punish the world…”

A couple of nights ago, I went to a preview of the first two episodes of After Life, Ricky Gervais’ new series for Netflix – available from next Friday (March 8th). He created, wrote, directed, executive produced and stars in it,

I have never really followed his career with that much interest – mea culpa – so I was taken aback by just how a good a writer – and director – he is.

The screenings were at BAFTA and there were loud, genuine laughs aplenty: sometimes because of tiny little subtleties in the scripts. A terrifically well-made six-part series. The premise is:

“Tony (Ricky Gervais) had a perfect life. But after his wife Lisa dies, Tony changes. After contemplating taking his own life, he decides instead to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes from now on. He thinks it’s like a Super Power — not caring about himself or anyone else — but it turns out to be tricky when everyone is trying to save the nice guy they used to know.”

The ending of Episode 2 was very very dark indeed and I can’t see a terrestrial broadcaster having the confidence – well, the bollocks – to commission it. Whether it is better described as a dark sitcom or a drama with comic elements is a matter of opinion. The cast is full of comedians and comedy actors – Kerry Godliman, Penelope Wilton, Roisin Conaty, Paul Kaye, Joe Wilkinson etc etc and a dog

In a Q&A after the screening, Ricky Gervais talked about the series, including why he chose that cast:


“It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny”

It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny. If you’ve got people who haven’t got a funny bone and you are trying to make them funny, forget it.

But, if you’ve got a comedians and you tell them, “Just do that,” they get it.

It’s not really just a sitcom; it’s a drama. 

I haven’t really watched comedy for two years. I’ve watched ‘Scandi Noir’ – The Bridge, The Killing, Before We Die, Black Lake, Greyzone. They’re amazing. The pacing’s different. Uncompromised. It’s for grown-ups.

That’s where HBO made their mark. When HBO came out, people said: “Why would I pay for stuff?” – “Well, because you can’t get The Sopranos.” on ABC. You won’t get The Wire anywhere.

Now Netflix have done that even better. They drop it all at once.

Everyone who’s interviewed me, I say they have to watch all six episodes. It’s better to watch them all at once or two or three a night. It does matter. (Each episode) does start where it left off. There is a story. It’s like a novelisation: one long story. If you don’t watch one, you’ll be a bit confused. You can’t watch them out-of-order or miss one, because everything comes back. So it’s perfect for binge watching and Netflix are the perfect broadcaster. They tick every box slightly better than anyone else.

To get final edit (in the past), I’ve had to compromise a bit. So it was BBC2 instead of BBC1 or Channel 4 instead of ITV or HBO instead of NBC.

Then Netflix come along and there are no restrictions – less than anyone – the sky’s the limit – 140 million subscribers – and they’re very generous. They even have the ‘C word’ in the trailer. That’s never been done.

I think when you get older, you just want to be more honest.

It’s about someone struggling. He doesn’t want to feel anything. He’s trying to make himself a psychopath so it doesn’t feel so terrible every day. He used to be a nice guy. He had the perfect life and that was taken from him.

Imagine if a man lost everything and he had nothing left to lose. Ooh! That’s interesting! He can do anything he wants. We are constrained, restrained every day about consequences. But, if there wasn’t any… or you didn’t care that the worst consequence was being dead… you’ve got nothing to fear. 

So that’s the journey for him though, obviously, it’s not going to be as simple as that.

The worst thing is your partner dying. He had a perfect life, didn’t care about anything else. That goes and you’ve got nothing… in his mind.

That’s why he’s saying awful things. In the split second where you think: Shall I say something? – Oh, I’d better not… He doesn’t have the ‘better not’ now. He thinks: Why the fuck not?

He’s experimenting. You know how a toddler pushes the boundaries? He’s a bit spoiled. And he’s not well. He’s in the second phase of grief. He’s depressed and he’s angry and he’s just trying to lash out to make himself feel better for a split second. He’s an owl in a trap.

The overall message is Life is amazing and you are definitely going to die so things have got to be really bad for you to blow that little gift. Is it worth living another ten years? It just might be. And I think that. That is me. I’m an atheist. We didn’t exist for 13½ billion years; then we get 80 or 90 years, if we’re lucky, of this amazing experience. And we’ll never exist again. So you don’t want to go too early but, when the really bad days outweigh the good, then I’m all for it – let’s knock it on the head.

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Vincent Kamp – The representational Renaissance artist of UK underworlds

Painter Vincent Kamp is unusual in that he sometimes creates not just one painting but perhaps six or eight separate scenes from an single imagined narrative story.

His PR man told me that Vince is “fascinated by the dark, gritty, underground world of urban subculture. His paintings delve beneath the surface of social class, creating intense portraits of charismatic people in a fused background of atmospheric lighting, sexuality and impending violence.”

“Fuck me!” I thought.

So I went and had a chat with him.

Vincent Kamp: “For me, it’s all about stories… it’s all just about stories and journeys and character.”


JOHN: Someone must have said Hogarth when describing your paintings?

VINCE: I think Hogarth is much tighter than me. I think I’m much looser. If you see my paintings up close, there’s much more evidence of brushstrokes and paint.

JOHN: Hogarth did lowlifes and scum-of-the-earths. That’s what he did. That’s what you’re interested in.

VINCE:  A little bit. Yeah. Absolutely.

JOHN: But your background is ordinary middle class life?

VINCE: Pretty much. I worked at my parents’ company for a long time. My father is a designer of scientific instruments. And I’ve got my own family – two kids – So I painted in the evenings and at 4 o’clock in the morning. I was struggling away like that for many, many years.

JOHN: Any artistic influence from your parents?

VINCE: My parents are both from Holland. I have never lived in Holland, but there is a very strong connection to North Holland – that Flemish style. We were always taken to museums and art galleries. My parents have quite a few oil paintings. So I grew up with that. It has always been my sort of sensibilities: that sort of Renaissance style painting.

JOHN: So why the attraction to down-market East End of London type people?

VINCE: For me, it’s all about stories. Whether it is a glamorous story or whether it is just some scum-of-the-earth guy stealing and robbing… it’s all just about stories and journeys and character. That’s what I’m interested in more than anything.

“…a story with a whole cast of characters”

The first thing I do is write a back story with a whole cast of characters. Then I use a casting director to find the people I need. Actors. Then I find the location. So, essentially, it is like I am making a film and I paint a storyboard, essentially, for the narrative I have already written down.

JOHN: You use actors for faces? Not real Faces? Have you encountered genuine naughty men?

VINCE: Let’s just say I’ve brushed with that world a little bit.

JOHN: Very appropriate. Brushed. But why not use genuine dodgy men? 

VINCE: I am trying to create a narrative scene and, if you’re not an actor and I am trying to tell you the narrative, you may just look a bit wooden… If you could catch them in the middle of a deal or whatever else, then maybe that would be interesting, but actually a gangster being photographed when he’s not ‘gangstering’ is just going to be a guy sat there looking nervous because you are pointing a camera at him.

JOHN: You take photographs?

VINCE: Oh yeah. Yeah. I explain the background of the scene to the actors. I’m talking to them, directing them and snapping away with my camera.

JOHN: You paint from photographs?

VINCE: Yes. For me, if you ask a person to hold a pose for a painting, that is never reality. But, when you snatch that moment in time in a photograph and then paint from that – That is much more real than asking someone to pose for a certain amount of time while I paint for however many hours.

JOHN: And you may alter what is in the photograph to change the person’s emotional look.

VINCE: Of course. Yes. Absolutely. I take hundreds of photographs. I might borrow the hands from one; the face from another. I do charcoal studies and then think: You know, what I’m gonna do is tweak this guy to look a little more gnarly or more apprehensive or whatever. So I change subtle details here and there… and create my own lighting.

JOHN: Between the photograph and the painting, there might be Photoshopping?

VINCE: Loads of Photoshopping… Tons… 

JOHN: Why don’t you, in your head, do what the Photoshop will do? Wouldn’t that be quicker?

VINCE: Oh my God, no! Your reference is the most important part: getting that absolutely right. The painting, then, becomes more mechanical. Painting is very, very time-consuming. To hold an idea in your head for that length of time to get it exactly right is REALLY difficult. I have done it. But it is much better to use the tools that are available.

JOHN: With all this photographing of narrative stories, can a feature film be far off?

VINCE: I am directing a 15 minute short which we hope to start filming in mid-February. But it is at the early stages yet. It’s a screenplay I have written based on a show I did at the Ritz last month.

JOHN: That was a series of paintings…

“Being a director must have been in the back of your mind…”

VINCE: Yes. Called Diamond Roulette – six paintings… A heist thriller. The story is about a couple who are stealing from the high-end gamblers at the Ritz Club. People can lose £2 million or £3 million in a night – they have £10,000 chips there… In fact, they have £50,000 and £500,000 chips there… And these girls are often in the casinos and subtly take chips from the guys and someone spots this and sees an opportunity and that’s where the story starts.

JOHN: Being a director must have always been in the back of your mind.

VINCE: Of course I’m a massive film fan. I’ve always been fascinated about telling stories, always been writing stories.

JOHN: So, if you do shoot in mid-February, the short film will be ready for screening by…

VINCE: …by May at the latest, I hope.

JOHN: You are linked to a gallery near The Ritz.

VINCE: Yes. Clarendon Fine Art in Dover Street, Mayfair. They represent me. I’m exclusive. DeMontfort Fine Art, who own Clarendon, has 55 galleries around the country who sell my prints as well.

JOHN: You have made money out of art. You have supported a wife and two children – aged 12 and 9 – not cheap. Yet you have no art school training at all. How did you build a career?

VINCE: Well, you sell a load of work first of all. Then you start getting people talking about you. And, pretty soon, the art galleries come knocking.

JOHN: How did DeMontfort know you existed?

VINCE: On Instagram.

JOHN: Was there a turning point when you started being really successful?

VINCE: Well…

… CONCLUDED HERE

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Director/sales agent Julian Richards on film finance, sales and making a profit.

Julian: “The tail doesn’t necessarily wag the dog”

In yesterday’s blog, Julian Richards – part film director, part film sales businessman – talked about the two horror films he made this year – Daddy’s Girl and Reborn.

In today’s blog, he puts on his sales agent hat…


JOHN: You direct movies but you also work as a sales agent, through your company Jinga Films. Surely film-making and sales are two different mind-sets.

JULIAN: It’s full of contradictions: sales and production. But it does improve your skills in terms of film-making and the tail doesn’t necessarily wag the dog. Making decisions from a sales point of view can be creative.

JOHN: Directing is a vocation and sales is a profession.

JULIAN: But I enjoy it as well, maybe because I have achieved a certain level of success with it, which was kind of unexpected. Also it provides me with a regular income and quite a degree of autonomy.

JOHN: You have said that horror films are better money-makers than thrillers.

JULIAN: Absolutely. Horror has a very loyal fan base. People don’t go and see a horror film because of the cast. They go to see the core ingredients of the genre. Whereas a thriller needs a central cast member that is going to draw the audience in.

There are basically three niches in the mainstream movie market – there’s horror, Faith and sports documentaries.

JOHN: And sex.

JULIAN: And sex. Porn.

JOHN: Why Faith?

JULIAN: Because there’s an awful lot of Christians out there who will watch a film that is Faith based. And not just Christians. Other religions as well. A film like The Shack.

Prophets and profits are good bedfellows

JOHN: The Shack?

JULIAN: It is from a best-selling, Faith-based novel. I think it made something like $60 million in the US on something like a $20 million production.

JOHN: The rule-of-thumb used to be that the break-even point for a movie was 2½ times your negative cost.

JULIAN: Probably the same now. But another statistic is that it costs around $20 million to release a film theatrically in the US on 1,000 screens for the first week. So you can make a film for $100,000 but it is still going to cost $20 million to get it in theatres.

From a business and investment point of view, a lot of people talk about Box Office Gross… “Oh! I made a film for $100.000 and it made $25 million at the box office!” … But when you subtract $20 million for P&A – Prints and Advertising – then the whole idea of profit comes right down.

When somebody says to me: “The film made such-and-such, I am not interested in Box Office; I am interested in how much the film sold for to distributors via the sales agent. What really matters is the money that comes back to the sales agent from the distributor. That is the only money that ever comes back. The rest is consumed by marketing costs. What comes back is surprisingly small.

Right now, I think the sweet spot is around $300,000. That is what most horror films will sell for, outside of the studio system, no matter what the budget. So, if you make the film for $100,000, you are in profit. If you make it for $1 million, someone is losing a lot of money.

JOHN: There can be tax incentives.

JULIAN: Yes.. If you make a film in the UK, you make 25% back. If you shoot in Georgia in Eastern Europe, you get 25% back. But you can’t really make a film for $100,000 and expect it to compete in the market. What are you going to do? An anthology? A single location? It’s gonna look cheap and you are entering a very competitive market. There is too much product and the shelf space has shrunk enormously.

A few years ago, you might have been able to get a ‘found footage’ film or an anthology into that space. Now you maybe even need ‘cast’ because it’s become so competitive.

You need to find money that doesn’t need to be returned to the investor – which is usually some kind of tax deal or it’s…

JOHN: …money laundering.”

JULIAN: (LAUGHS) Well, there’s that and there’s a lot of that goes on.

JOHN: Can I print that?”

Julian Richards (right) directing

JULIAN: Yeah. I’ve been involved in a number of productions where that has been an issue. The question of it being ‘laundering’ or being ‘avoidance’ is another issue. There are a lot of grey areas with finance through the EIS and the SEIS and Sale & Leaseback. I have worked with producers who are now in prison, serving 9-year sentences for raising finance through tax incentive schemes that they thought were kosher but, retrospectively, ten years down the line, they have been the subject on an HMRC witch hunt. So it is scary.

JOHN: Elsewhere, you have said there is no real theatrical market for horror films in the UK, Germany and America. The market is really places like Vietnam.

JULIAN: Yeah. Latin America and South East Asia. The reason being that, in the past, these films never went to those territories, because the cost of a 35mm print was too expensive. Now that it has all been digitised, releasing a film theatrically in Vietnam or in Peru is achievable. It’s pretty cheap, apart from the licensing fee, which is a nightmare: they will charge a distributor $500 to use a digital projector which is really crushing for any independent film scenario.

JOHN: I’m surprised there is any theatrical distribution left. Surely everything gets pirated out of profit by Indonesian and Serbian and Western criminals?

JULIAN: Erm… You can buy yourself what they call a ‘black window’. In China, the Chinese distributors have to pay the pirates a sum of money to hold back the piracy of the film so they have a ‘black window’ to release their film.

JOHN: How long is the black window?

JULIAN: I don’t know. Probably about three months.

JOHN: I’m surprised the Chinese government tolerates piracy in such a sensitive cultural area as movies.

JULIAN: If you do it legitimately in China, you run into all sorts of problems: to do with censorship and the quota. You CAN get independent films through, but you are up against all the Hollywood studio films. If you are just doing transactional VOD, though, then all of those rules and regulations don’t apply in the same way, so it is possible to get a small, independent horror movie released in China.

The anti-hero of Julian’s latest film as director – Reborn

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Julian Richards: horror, Brookside and Carrie Reborn for the Z Generation?

Julian Richards is an interesting Welshman.

Part film director and part film sales businessman through his company Jinga Films. He has made two horror films this year.

I was invited (not by him) to see his movie Daddy’s Girl at the recent Raindance festival in London. When I saw it, I had reservations about it.

So I was interested to see his even newer movie Reborn, the pitch for which is: “A stillborn baby girl is abducted by a morgue attendant and brought back to life by electrokinetic power. On her sixteenth birthday she escapes captivity and sets out to find her birth mother leaving a trail of destruction behind her.”

The poster pitch is: CARRIE FOR THE Z GENERATION.

Yesterday, Reborn had its North American premiere at the Another Hole in the Head festival in San Francisco.

So I had a chat with Julian Richards.


JOHN: Daddy’s Girl… The first half or so was torture porn, which I disliked, then the female central character looks in a mirror and the whole film changes – it turns on a sixpence – and becomes totally different.

JULIAN: Well… Daddy’s Girl was an interesting journey… I first came across the script 12 years ago and to get to make it 12 years later was a bit of a challenge. There were several characters in a story and the big twist at the end is you discover they are all the same character. When we got to make it, after 12 years, the first thing the producer said to me was: We were not going to do that.

He was right, because, under the circumstances, we would have needed an enormous amount of control with the casting, which we didn’t have working in Tbilisi in Georgia and on the budget we had. We had a deadline to start shooting which was four weeks away and, even shifting the story in a different direction, the whole casting and crewing experience was a… a game of musical chairs. It really was.

Daddy’s Girl starts as ‘torture porn’, ends somewhere different

JOHN: It’s set in the US. Why shoot in Georgia – the Eastern European country not the US state?

JULIAN: Because there was a tax incentive to shoot there and, in terms of labour costs, it’s probably the cheapest place in Europe at the moment

JOHN: The producers were Indians based in Dubai.

JULIAN: Yes. They had been shooting Bollywood films in Georgia and now they wanted to make horror films.

JOHN: So, in the original, the central girl had multiple personalities who were on screen as different people?

JULIAN: When all the characters in the story were her, it was part of her fractured view of the world. And her mother as well. There was a lot more of her almost being haunted. Haunted by the suicide of her mother. It was supernatural but actually more psychological.

JOHN: We can’t really talk about the very end of the film. But it ends up in a totally different place from where you might assume it would from the beginning.

JULIAN: That was actually the producer’s idea. And it was what we needed because, if you take out all of those elements – about all the characters being the same character – she becomes two separate characters and so I think the end worked for what we needed to do with that kind of film.

Reborn poster: Carrie for the Z Generation

JOHN: We can’t really talk about the end of Reborn either because of the multiple twists. But I think you have some sort of writer’s gene in you, as well as director’s. The end of Reborn is a writer’s ending. And, earlier in your career, you wrote something for Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.

JULIAN: When I graduated from film school, I went to LA for a year and my first job was writing a screenplay for Amblin, based on a novel Chris Westwood, a friend of mine, had written: Calling All Monsters. It was very much an In The Mouth of Madness kind of story, about an author haunted by his own creations. But, when Amblin turned into Dreamworks, new people came in, looked at all the old projects and it got caught in turnaround and never happened.

JOHN: So then you came back to the UK to…

JULIAN: …direct on the TV series Brookside and to get my first movie Darklands off the ground.

Darklands was screened at a film festival in Korea and (movie producer/director) Roger Corman was on the jury. He released The Wicker Man in the US and he came up to me after Darklands was screened and said: “I’d like to release Darklands in the US.” 

“I was jumping for joy. Corman was a god.”

So I was jumping for joy. Corman was a god to me. I introduced him to the producer of the film, but they couldn’t work out a deal so it never got released there. The producer’s company went bust and it took me 16 years to get the rights back. I eventually got it released in the US a couple of years ago.

JOHN: You seem to be attracted to horror. You directed the body-under-the-patio plot on Brookside. So you brought horror into TV soaps?

JULIAN: No. That was just the timing. I was there when they happened to be doing the body under the patio, the lesbian kiss and the plague that wiped out half the cast. I did episodes in each of those storylines. 

JOHN: What is the attraction of horror? Just that it sells? Why are you not making RomCom movies? They sell. 

JULIAN: I’m not driven to horror by money. It was a boyhood fascination and passion I had. I started making films on super 8 when I was 13.

JOHN: What was the 13-year-old you’s first film?

JULIAN: The Curse of Cormac, based on a graphic story strip in a House of Hammer magazine.

JOHN: You used to read House of Hammer?

JULIAN:
I did. And Monster Mag and Fangoria magazine.

JOHN: So an early fascination with horror.

JULIAN: Yes. Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre was very interesting: defining the key ingredients of horror as suspense, surprise and gross-out. If you are going to make a successful horror film, it is going to have all those three ingredients.

JOHN: Reborn is difficult to categorise. It is not in one little box.

“You are sympathetic with the monster. Tess appealed to me.”

JULIAN: What attracted me was it was a classic horror story. I love monster movies where you are sympathetic with the monster and Tess (the ‘reborn’ daughter) appealed to me. When I read the story, I was torn between whether it was Tess’ story or Lena’s (her mother) and I decided the story was actually Lena’s. Tess is an anti-hero. Lena’s objective is to get back into her career as an actress and that’s how I came up with the ending.

JOHN: Which we can’t talk about.

JULIAN: No… But, from a meta point of view, I wanted it to have a new, contemporary twist at the end. Let’s have fun with it.

JOHN: You are involved in an upcoming anthology film called Deathcember.

JULIAN: Yes. It’s based round the idea of an advent calendar and every time you open up a window, that opens up a new story. The German producers have chosen 24 directors and I am one of them.

JOHN: How long is your section?

JULIAN: Five minutes. We will probably be shooting it in February/March next year, ready for the Sitges festival in September.

JOHN: And you are possibly making Rabies.

JULIAN: I am in talks with the Israeli producers about possibly shooting that in Wales. Based on my experience of shooting Reborn in Tbilisi, Georgia, as America, I could probably shoot in Wales for the US too. A tree is a tree. As long as the cars and costumes look American, then it feels American.

JOHN: There must be a more personal film you really want to make.

JULIAN: I would love to make a film in Brazil.

JOHN: Your wife is Brazilian.

JULIAN: Yes. I have this idea which is basically Elite Squad meets Cannibal Holocaust – about a crack force of urban cops who fight the cartels. It’s political theatre… My idea is that they are sent into the jungle to fight the indigenous… It is illogical to take urban fighters to the jungle, but the politicians do it to make a statement. They take them out of the favelas of Rio and put them into the jungle of Manaus.

JOHN: Sounds like a thriller.

JULIAN: It’s action and it’s political. They will fight tribes that have had little contact with humanity and maybe they will be cannibals and all kinds of things as well. I am taking it down the horror route.

JOHN: You want to do something serious but mask it with genre elements?

JULIAN: A little bit of both. I always like to do that. I did that with Darklands with Welsh nationalism.

… TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW …

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How to write almost anything – The basic story structure of the classic plot.

Painting of The Damsel of The Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

Yesterday, I went to a talk by Robert Thirkell at Elstree Film Studios. He describes himself as “a TV repair man”.

He is said to be the first ‘go-to’ person if your TV script or factual TV series is not working and needs re-structuring – “arguably the world’s leading story consultant for television and factual features”.

He is worth listening to and part of his basic structural theory is the same as in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book (which I have not read) famously analyses the structure of fairy tales and myths to come up with ‘the one’ universal story structure to rule them all; the one story structure to find them, the one universal story to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It is much-lauded in Hollywood and, as well as being the basis of Star Wars et al, has influenced the whole Movie Brat generation of film-makers.

Campbell’s story structure is for works of fiction, but Thirkell uses it as a structure to grab and hold the attention of the viewers of factual TV shows.

The Campbell structure is basically this:

A hero leaves his castle on a quest… overcomes obstacles along the way… and, at the end, succeeds in his quest. That quest may be to find an object – the Lord of the Rings or the Holy Grail or the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III – or to rescue a damsel in distress as in John Ford’s The Searchers.

But The Quest it is basically the same, it is said, in any classic and effective work of fiction… and can be used in factual narratives.

You set up an unresolved problem at the very start of the story – the classic movie ‘hook’ to grab the audience’s attention. The development of the plot involves a series of attempts to uncover a way to resolve the problem and overcome the multiple obstacles encountered. And the climax involves the resolution of the problem.

That holds for books, movies, plays, even narrative comedy routines.

Any successful American movie or TV show has traditionally had a tendency to set up the ‘problem’ – the ‘hook’ – and to introduce the main characters within the first 2-5 minutes of the narrative. To hook the audience from the very outset.

I have sat through endless dull movies which do NOT do this. They are endless because they are startless.

They start by setting up atmosphere, place and time and even characters aplenty, but no plot. My internal reaction is always: “What the fuck is this story actually going to be about?” Watching atmosphere bereft of plot is like watching weatherproof paint dry. You have to have it, but you need to build the bloody shed first.

Another of the classic structural underpinnings of the universal story is that the hero starts a boy and ends a man because, under pressure of the problems surmounted in the course of the plot, there is a transformation in his character. He ends a wiser, braver and transformed character.

(NB ‘he’ can be ‘she’…! But, in traditional fairy tales and myths it tends to have been ‘he’ and the Campbell book is about Heroes. I did not invent the English language. Don’t give me unnecessary PC grief.)

Robert Thirkell has a theory that the hero has to lose some of his battles in the middle, retreat, re-think, try again and then win on the re-attempt. Because that makes the character more sympathetic and more admirable. If the hero constantly surmounts problems effortlessly, the reader/viewer finds it difficult to empathise with him.

Personally, the best opening to a movie I have ever seen – and all the better because it is not noticeable – is the opening credit sequence of the first Die Hard movie because all the central characters, their backgrounds, relationships and the basic starting ‘hooks’ of the plot are set up before the film actually starts for real. 

(I should, at this point, mention that I wrote a similar but different blog about story structure in January 2011, titled How to write the perfect film script: “Die Hard” meets Pixar animated feature “The Incredibles”. But – hey – if something is worth saying…)

Rule 2 of writing anything…

Don’t be silly. Nothing is truly 100% original.

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The Kray Twins and why violence is more effective when it is unexpected

So I was having a chat with Micky Fawcett at Westfield in Stratford, East London.

Micky wrote Krayzy Days – arguably the definitive book about his sometime close associates the Kray Twins.


(L-R) Micky Fawcett, Reggie Kray & Reggie’s wife Frances

JOHN: A few weeks ago, you were telling me about a director who was writing a film script from your book, but there were disagreements over the script.

MICKY: Yeah. 

JOHN: One was the incident where, instead of sudden, unexpected violence, he wanted to build up the tension.

MICKY: Yeah. There was a feller I was friendly with – Ronnie Curtis – and his wife was having an affair with his best friend – Albert Lovett.

JOHN: Are these people still alive?

MICKY: No.

JOHN: Thank God for that. Carry on, then…

MICKY: Ronnie said to me: “Albert’s been seeing Sheila. I’m going to…” You know. And a couple of days went on and he never did anything and I thought to myself: Oh, well, nothing much is going to happen here.

But there was three of us all working together and we had a meeting at 10 o’clock one morning in Joe’s caff in Upton Park, just off Green Street. We had our meeting and coffee or whatever we had and, as we walked out of the caff, Ronnie Curtis said to me: “Oh, I got a letter from a pal of ours. The heading is in red ink. I wonder if that means anything?”

So I got the letter and I’m looking at it and – BOOM! as quick as that – the blade has gone right through down Albert’s cheek and into this mouth… Cut all his gums. And Albert has turned round and he’s got his overcoat on and Ronnie is slashing at his arse and it’s all being shredded and there’s blood everywhere. And two policemen were walking along in plain clothes on the other side of the road and they ran across and there was chaos but I was gone and so was Ronnie Curtis gone.

JOHN: And the argument with the film director writing the script was…?

MICKY: He said: “What we do in a film is, in the cafe, we build up the tension – We will have Ronnie fiddling around with his dinner and we can see something is wrong and something is going to happen.”

And I said, “No. No. No. The whole thing about it was the surprise. The shock.” We really argued about that. He’s not doing the script now. I don’t see him any more.

JOHN: Well, I think you’re right. Ultra-violence happening without warning is much more shocking than seeing people’s foreheads sweating and the audience knowing something is about to happen.

MICKY: Yeah. That’s what it’s all about.

JOHN: If anyone ever says: “The way it is normally done in the movies is…” that is a very good reason NOT to do it that way. It is usually better to tell the truth. Though the only problem about the truth is that it’s often so OTT it is unbelievable. The truth is often just so Over The Top you have to tone it down.

MICKEY: That thing that happened at Joe’s caff is just something that has always stuck in my mind. Second only to when I was out having a glass of beer with Reggie (Kray) and he shot a feller in the toilet.

JOHN: What had the other guy done?

MICKEY: Well, we went to a drinking club in Islington. We went downstairs to the toilet and BAAAAAAAAAAAANNNGG!!!! and Reggie has shot the feller standing at the next urinal in the leg. The echo!!! It was deafening!

JOHN: Why did he shoot him?

MICKY: He never explained it and I didn’t ask. We went back upstairs and we left as casually as I could muster.

JOHN: Who was the guy?

MICKY: Soppy Cooper was his name. All I know about him is he came from Hoxton. That was probably enough for Reggie. Neither of them – the Twins – liked people from Hoxton.

JOHN: Because…?

MICKY: I dunno. They had come from Hoxton. It was before they had got their own way with the world. They were ordinary people once, weren’t they… Frances, Reggie’s wife, came from Hoxton.

JOHN: But Reggie never said why he shot the bloke?

MICKY: No. He said: “I think I shot him in the head.”

And I said: “No, it was definitely the leg.”

“But as I shot him,” Reggie told me, “the gun jumped and he put his hands up to his head.”

“That was because it was so loud,” I said. “He was putting his hands up to his ears. It was deafening.”

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