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Comic Nick Revell explains how Tai Chi and comedy let The Force be with him

Nick Revell practises Tai Chi in the Pull The Other One flat in Leipzig

Nick practises Tai Chi at Pull The Other One’s flat in Leipzig

Today, I am on a 12-hour train journey back to London from Leipzig. I am posting this blog from Frankfurt.

Comedian Nick Revell left Leipzig yesterday morning.

Before he left, I asked him about his daily Tai Chi exercises.

“Any similarity with stand-up comedy?” I asked.

“Well, I suppose stand-up is like a dance,” he replied, “in that you’re interacting with the audience, ideally imposing your plan on them.

“In Tai Chi, you are learning the martial arts moves. If someone attacks, you deflect and defend and then you hit. In stand-up, you’re rolling with whatever comes your way and incorporating that into the act, whether it’s changes of direction or deflections of a heckle or whatever.”

“I suppose,” I said, “that, once you’ve done comedy for a fair bit of time, you’ve learnt a set of moves…”

“Yes,” agreed Nick, “In Tai Chi, you learn a set of moves and link them together in a standard way – a learnt sequence of appropriate responses. In comedy, once you’ve done it for a fair time, you have also learnt a sequence of appropriate responses which you can adapt to fit the situation. But then, when you’re in a real situation, of course, you do whatever is necessary in the moment. To get to the point where all those moves are natural to you and they’ve got into the muscle memory, it’s practice practice practice. Then you can bring one out at the right time and then change to something else.”

“Have you read William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade,” I asked, “where he says….”

“Yes,” said Nick, completing my sentence: “Nobody KNOWS anything.

“Because creating things is not a science,” I said. “It’s an art… Also a performer cares what the audience thinks of them as a person.”

“Except I certainly don’t get worked up about an audience ‘liking’ me or not,” said Nick. “The idea of wanting to be ‘liked’ by the audience and doing it to be admired in some kind of pervy I wanna be your friend way… That just seems really odd to me.”

“For me it’s about having some vague sense of an instinct about how you want to communicate certain ideas and opinions through a particular medium which, for whatever reason, I have some kind of aptitude for. It’s not about using it in order to make friends that I’m never going to meet. That’s what Facebook is for.”

“So,” I said, why ARE you doing it? To force your ideas down other people’s throats?”

“No,” said Nick, “not to force ‘em at all. Absolutely not.”

“Isn’t it like going to Speakers’ Corner and getting paid?” I suggested.

Nick Revell

Nick Revell mediating it through the generation of a laugh

“No it’s not,” argued Nick.”Because you have the rule to judge it by that it has to be funny or it has to get a laugh or, if it’s not getting a laugh at a certain point, it’s because you’re doing so deliberately. You can guarantee you’re not shoving anything down someone’s throat if you’re generating a laugh. I think mediating it through the generation of a laugh is what keeps it as Art rather that just a nutter yelling at people at Speakers’ Corner.”

“But there is the performer’s wild insecurity,” I said.

“Well,” said Nick, “when you see people starting off in comedy, very often the fundamental attitude that does come across is Please like me and that really has nothing to do with it at all. The more you do it, the more points you can go to anywhere from where you are and you don’t have to do things in a set order. The attitude should not be Please like me. It should be I’m here and I know what I’m doing. Whether it’s surrealist or polemical  or satirical, it’s about a sense of authority.”

“But,” I said, “after 10 or 20 years, most comedians are still terrified, aren’t they? They have just learnt how to mask the Please like me face.”

“I don’t think it’s about masking it,” said Nick. “I think you find different ways of focussing.”

“You mean masking it from yourself,” I suggested.

“I don’t think you…” said Nick, “Well, maybe. But it’s more a case that once you know what you’re doing, the focus is at a different level. You’re always aware it could go tits-up. Like, in cricket, a batsman might get an incredible unplayable first ball so, to an extent, you have to accept what’s in the hands of Fate that you can’t control.

“In stand-up, you get a sense of what you can expect from the room and what’s possible or not possible. Sometimes playing an unplayable room is really relaxing because, if it’s unplayable, then you know you can’t succeed, so you might as well do it with no fear of failure.”

“But,” I said, “surely being a stand-up comedian is just masochism. If a comedian goes on stage and does the most brilliant gig of their career, they think I can never be that good again. If they do a shit gig, it just confirms they are as bad as they have always feared they might be.”

Nick Revell

Nick Revell was worried when he re-started

“Well, when I started again in stand-up around 2003 after ten years off,” replied Nick, “I was terrified because I had not done it for so long and I thought All I can do is lose my reputation. I knew I would inevitably lose my reputation before I regained it. I knew it would take time to get back into it. So I thought I’m not going to judge myself on every gig. I’m going to take it in stages and assess it every six months. I think to judge yourself gig by gig is silly but, again, maybe it relates to why you’re doing it.”

“You seem to be doing it,” I suggested, “because you want to show to yourself that you have a mastery of the technique.”

“No,” said Nick. “I do like the feeling of entertaining an audience. There’s nothing more delightful than feeling the audience in a room are, in some way, bonded in the same energy. I honestly don’t think it’s a case of Look at me. Look at me. Look at me. It’s just that on certain lucky, rare nights, you are the agency that generates something which exists in-between you and the audience and really feels fantastic. It has fuck-all to do with showing off; it’s about channeling that ‘thing’ and also about expressing your own ideas. I don’t see it as being liked. I see it as talking about ideas that interest me in a way that generates laughs or, at least, generates interest in other people.”

“The other way I try to goad comedians,” I pointed out, “is to say they’re all psychopaths. You want to control the audience to such an extent that they lose control over their basic bodily functions. They can’t stop themselves from laughing: you control their laughter.”

“For me, it’s not about controlling an audience,’ said Nick. “It’s the feeling that something I can do can put people into this mood. Do you see the distinction?”

“You get a kick out of your workmanlike ability,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Nick. “Absolutely. And sometimes it becomes so totally instinctive. Like in martial arts. Friends of mine who are really good martial artists tell me that, when they’re fighting and really in the zone, everything slows down and there’s some kind of sense you’re so in control of it you’re not aware of doing it.

Nick Revell practises Tai Chi in the Pull The Other One flat in Leipzig

Nick Revell trying to get to an instinctive point in Leipzig

“Through technical ability and practice practice practice you can get to a point where it’s so instinctive that, if you trust yourself far enough not to think about being in control of it, you can get to a place where all the instincts that have been tempered and put in place through practice practice practice take over.”

“That sounds like Luke Skywalker at the end of the first Star Wars,” I said, “learning he has to let The Force be with him.”

“Absolutely it is,” agreed Nick.

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A British film about a South American psycho killer made by a kung fu master

Chet Jethwa - kung fu master

Chet Jethwa – kung fu man

The enterprising Chet Jethwa is a chum of the equally enterprising Borehamwood-based Jason Cook, about whom I’ve blogged before.

Chet has a movie he directed currently being sold at the Cannes Film Festival. So we had a chat via Skype this morning.

“I’m originally a kung fu martial artist,” he told me. “I got into the film world when I was asked to do a fight scene in a low budget film a friend was making – The Estate. I went along for the day and played a Bruce Lee type character in a fight scene and had fun.”

“So how did you end up directing your own full-length feature film?” I asked.

“Well,” he told me, “I decided to do more movies, but no-one gave me the time of day, which basically pissed me off. So I told myself: I’m going to do it myself. So I decided to make a few short films and get some producing, acting and directing experience.

“My first 10-minute film – D.O.D. – won at the Angel Film Festival in London in 2009. This gave me the confidence to continue and I met Jason Cook on that. The second short I made – 55 Hill Rise – was the incentive I needed to move onto feature films. Jason helped me to produce that. I shot it, completed the final edit, put it on the shelf and then started writing my feature Carlos Gustavo – the one that’s now at Cannes.”

“Why this particular idea?” I asked.

Carlos Gustavo

Carlos Gustavo – the psychopath with instructions not to kill

“Well, because it’s not your typical British film,” explained Chet. “Carlos Gustavo is a South American hit man who has been hired to come to Britain and find a biological weapon by hunting down a scientist. He is a psychopath – Carlos is – but, on this mission, he’s not allowed to kill the guy because he has to bring him in alive. In the process, you’ve got MI5 chasing him, but they are not as competent as they should be.”

“And,” I asked, “he manages to kill a few people using kung fu?”

“There isn’t a lot of martial arts in the film,” said Chet. “It’s more to do with the characters.”

“How did you get finance for a film about a South American hit man running around Britain not killing people with kung fu?” I asked.

“It was very difficult,” said Chet, “and I pulled-in a lot of favours from everyone. But we shot it in just under thirty days in HD. We had to change a couple of cast members halfway through filming, so we had to re-shoot all those scenes, which added another couple of days, then we went straight to post production.”

“Why did you have to change the actors?” I asked.

“They didn’t get the concept, basically.”

“Which bit of the concept didn’t they get?”

“Their roles.”

“Well, Apocalypse Now!,” I said, “was re-cast after a week’s shooting. Martin Sheen replaced Harvey Keitel. And that worked well.”

“It happens,” said Chet. “Whatever the budget.”

“When did you finish Carlos Gustavo?” I asked.

“About a month before Cannes started,” said Chet, “so there was a lot of rush going on to get it out there in time. We got an international sales agent involved – Eddie Leahy.”

“What interested him?” I asked.

Cannes poster for Chet’s new movie

Current Cannes poster for Chet’s new movie

“That Carlos Gustavo is a different type of action thriller,” said Chet. “It has a lot of interesting twists. What you see at the beginning and what you think all the way through the film… In the end, you find out something completely different. It’s a really big story twist. What attracted everyone to get involved was the storyline.

“We’re hoping to get the international territories first and then bring it over to the UK and USA. I did a lot of research before shooting and people want strong characters rather than it all being action. This film, hopefully, will create an emotional response, rather than just having lots of action thrown in. It focuses more on emotional response.”

“I did see research once,” I said, “which found that, when audiences watch violence, they don’t look at the punch or the bullet hitting the victim; they look at the face of the victim. So their eyes don’t watch the action, they watch the reaction.

“In martial arts,” I prompted, “you’re in total control of what’s going on, but making a film is anarchy and everything changing…”

“Yes,” said Chet, “ it’s very difficult. You just work hard and keep hopeful, really. It’s certainly very difficult to get finance up-front.”

“And the cliché,” I said, “is that you never make money out of movies because the distributors nick it all.”

“It happens,” said Chet. “Creative accounting. But I’ve done my maths and we’ll have to be hopeful, really. Just get the film out there.”

“What about piracy?” I asked. “If you have a film that makes $200 million, you can afford to lose $20 million but, with small-budget films, online piracy can wipe them out and the distributors don’t/can’t stop it.”

“You can never be sure what will happen,” said Chet. “It’s really difficult to get the support you need from the industry people, so you’ve got to do it yourself. It’s very hard to get an opportunity, so you’ve gotta make the opportunities yourself.”

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