Tag Archives: movies

The birth of the movie industry’s admirable Toad of Shame award…

Certain bursts of original thinking should be celebrated.

One such is ‘The Toad of Shame’.

There is a private Facebook group called Crew Stories for members of film & TV crews. 

Someone posted on it the question: “What ‘traditions’ have you started or taken part in??”

Prop person Manuel John Baca replied a propos the TV series True Blood:


Until Covid hit, I was in charge of The Toad of Shame. An actual toad (but probably a frog) that I found flattened and dried while in the Santa Monica mountains filming. 

Rutger Hauer with his Toad and Manuel Baca…

I laminated and attached a lanyard to it. 

If anyone did anything to impede the filming process such as phone ringing, being late, breaking something, snoring while rolling etc…, that person would have to wear the Toad for the day, or until someone else did something wrong that day. 

It has its own Instagram page with lots of cast and crew wearing it. Rutger Hauer wore it!!… 

I believe his phone rang while we were rolling.


Actor Stephen Moyer, who played a vampire on the True Blood series, confirmed:


Our assistant property master @Truebloodhbo Manuel Baca found a flattened toad up at Greer Ranch in Malibu. (This is where we shoot most of our exteriors.) 

The three of them “did what any self respecting ‘toad finder’ would do in the circumstances….”

The poor little toad had all the air and blood and gubbins squashed out of him. So Manuel, Mike Horn (on set dressing) and Greg Manke (first assistant property master) did what any self respecting ‘toad finder’ would do in the circumstances. They laminated it. Within a few days it had a lanyard on it.

And before long… When any member of the cast or crew were late, or broke something, or their phone went off… They would be awarded with the ‘Toad’. 

At the end of the season, the crew member with the most ‘Toads’ throughout the season would be awarded a rather hideous trophy adorned with golden toads and be forced to make a speech.

The aim is for our fabulous toad to become an industry standard.


Digital Spy, reporting on a True Blood panel at Comic Con 2014, wrote:


Kristin Bauer van Straten got the Toad of Shame twice in her last week, once when her phone alarm went off because she was trying to bid on some plates on eBay! 

Deborah Ann Woll believed she committed a toad offence…

Deborah Ann Woll says she asked for the toad – she believed she committed a toad-worthy offence when she knocked over a prop beer barrel and got the floor all sticky. 

Everyone said it was okay, but she replied: “I’m not made of glass, give me the f**king toad!”


On Instagram, Rachel Bloom, co-creator and star of the TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend added:


This tradition continued when Manuel joined #crazyexgirlfriend. In our final season, the whole show went a little toad crazy, with numerous people getting the toad every day and friend turning on friend to throw someone under the toad bus.


Let us hope the Toad can survive Covid and be revived…

Some of the proud former winners of the Toad of Shame award on Instagram…

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Godzilla vs Kong: People are voyeurs – interested in re-action not just in action.

When I was at college, I read some research about movie violence.

By studying viewers’ eyes when watching violence on screen, they found that people do not watch the action, they watch the re-action.

So, when one man punches another in the stomach, the viewer does not look at the fist hitting the stomach, he (or she) looks at the face of the man being hit. 

When one man shoots another and a special effects blood capsule is exploded to spectacularly simulate the bullet hitting the body, they do not look at the spurting blood, they look at the face of the person being shot.

Human beings do not watch the action, they watch the re-action.

People are interested in people, not things.

This was brought to mind again when I saw the movie Godzilla vs Kong last night.

I can see why it made a fortune in China – the casting and plot are aimed to attract a Chinese audience. But… But…

Well, OK, it is a wonderful piece of film-making. The Special Effects should possibly be nominated for an Oscar and the Editing certainly should. Technically it is wonderful; but I was totally uninvolved. It was like watching a complex machine that had a lot of moving parts doing lots of complicated things. It was endless action (1 hour 53 mins) with almost no emotional involvement. It was about things happening, not about people experiencing things. It’s a nice distinction but I think it’s an important distinction. Movies at their best are about emotional voyeurism. 

Oddly, Godzilla vs Kong seemed, to me, a bit similar to another film I saw last week – Peter Rabbit 2. Which was not helped by the fact they seemed to attempt to graft a Guy Ritchie plot into a cute children’s situation.

Lots of things happening but emotionally uninvolving.

I have advised I think four people about writing their autobiographies and, each time, I have told them not to make the mistake of listing everything that has happened in their lives.

There is a limit to the amount of space they have. If they just list what happened in their lives, no matter how action-packed, it gets to be uninteresting.

People – ordinary readers/viewers – are interested in people not facts. They read autobiographies – and see movies – to get vicariously and voyeuristically involved in events which they have either experienced themselves or in events they could never themselves experience. In both cases, they want to identify with what the central character or central characters experienced.

With autobiographies, no ordinary reader is interested in ploughing through a long superficial list of brief ‘things that happened’. It is much better to find one event that epitomises what the central character was going through at a particular time… then expand on that event – make it more not less detailed; more vivid, more relatable.

With movies, 1 hour and 53 minutes of constant fast-cut action palls after a while. Godzilla vs Kong has no real central character (not even Kong). It is about things happening, not people.

And it also seems to be at least two – possibly three – different film plots sticky-taped together to appeal to too many disparate groups. The script was reportedly cobbled together by a writers’ room of at least eight people, with three credited for the story and two for the screenplay.

More is not necessarily always better.

Variety‘s review coined a good phrase for what I experienced last night – “actively bored”.

But what do I know? At the time of writing this blog, the movie has made around $436 million at the theatrical box office on a relatively low production budget of $160 million plus a low $70 million promotional budget (Forbes‘ estimates) and the YouTube trailer has gathered over 93 million hits.

Variety reported that break-even would be $330 million, so expect a sequel…

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My Top Fifteen Favourite Films…

It’s that time of year when people start posting lists.

But I never fully realised until I made this one what an old fart I am…

Here are my Top Fifteen favourite films in alphabetical order…

Well, as far as I can remember… I’ve probably missed a lot out…


THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

FIGHT CLUB (1999)

GET CARTER (1971)

THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974)

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM (2019)

JOKER (2019)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR (1969)

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969)

SALT (all three versions, 2010)

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

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Books, films, songs, big toes and Trump – John Fleming’s Weekly Diary No 37

… CONTINUED FROM DIARY No 36

SUNDAY 27th SEPTEMBER

Until my illness in May, I never really remembered my dreams. Maybe once every six or nine months, I might wake up and remember what I was dreaming.

But now, because I wake up maybe six to twelve times during the night, dehydrated, I remember – or, at least, I am aware of – some dreams and I am amazed by the detail, though reality can be more surreal.

Today, Kunt AKA Kunt and The Gang said he was about to release two new limited edition Bumface Poohands books: Bumface Poohands – A Day At The Park and Bumface Poohands and the Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown.

With reality like this, who needs dreams?

MONDAY 28th SEPTEMBER

I have a low heart rate. Adults normally have a resting heart rate of 60-100. Mine is usually around the low 50s, sometimes the high 40s.

As I write this, it is 53. But my cousin Muriel also has a low heart-rate, so it must be a hereditary thing.

My medical problems in May (still continuing) were caused by a still-unexplained high calcium level resulting in a sudden drop in kidney function from 62 to 19.

My cousin Muriel says that, years ago, she was told she would get kidney problems as she got older because of very poor circulation in the base of her spine, bottom and back thighs. This has not happened.

My sticking-up big toes are not at all sock-friendly

And, fortunately, the circulation of my nether regions is, as far as I know, fine.

But, if memory serves me correctly (which it seldom does), Muriel and I both have a funny quick in our middle fingers, where it goes higher in the middle making it less easy/more sensitive to cut the nails.

We can both be easily and literally cut to the quick.

And we both have big toes that stick up.

Yes, I think it’s a bit odd too.

She tells me: “Finding comfy walking boots has been a problem through all my walking years.”

TUESDAY 29th SEPTEMBER

Ariane Sherine‘s latest serious-but-with-a-lot-of-humour-added-in book How to Live to 100 is published on Thursday and she has found that she is already selling well in unexpected quarters. The book is already, two days before publication, at No 174 in the Cheese & Dairy section of Amazon UK.

Mind you, for several years, Amazon UK listed comedian Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake as an academic textbook and could not be persuaded otherwise. Amazon UK is currently listing it as being published on 1st January 1638 and as being available at the bargain price of £45.60 (used) or ‘new’ at £995.36.

In other shocking news, my eternally-un-named friend lost her silver ring in the street in Borehamwood tonight. A search by iPhone torch and proper torch failed to find it.

WEDNESDAY 30th SEPTEMBER

Always be wary of what you say to plumbers. A good one is hard to find.

This afternoon, a plumber told me he had been doing the job for over 20 years. I told him:

“Wow! You know your shit, then.”

He heard it as: “You know you’re shit, then.”

Who knew the power of a single apostrophe?

I also got a handwritten postcard shoved through my letterbox today from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a bit worrying when they do not put their trust in the Lord enough to knock on doors and try their sales pitch face-to-face.

This follows the incident earlier in the year when the healing waters of Lourdes were closed because of the risk of visitors catching coronavirus.

It is all somewhat counterproductive for the sales pitch.

THURSDAY 1st OCTOBER

I’m honoured to be mentioned disparagingly…

I got a copy of Ariane Sherine’s much-anticipated book How to Live to 100.

It turns out I am mentioned in it halfway through, somewhat disparagingly – I had been asked before publication if the reference was OK and had, of course, forgotten.

Fortunately, I am not in the index, so you will have to buy it and read it to find where my image is wantonly crushed. Which you should do anyway.

I mean you should read it, not wantonly crush me.

Charlie Brooker says: “This book will probably save your life… Unfortunately“ and it includes interviews with Clive Anderson, Derren Brown, Bec Hill, Konnie Huq, Robin Ince, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Richard Osman, Lou Sanders, Arthur Smith, Jeremy Vine sans Uncle Tom Cobley et al.

FRIDAY 2nd OCTOBER

I slept from 7.15pm last night to 7.30am this morning and woke to the unsurprising news that Donald Trump has developed coronavirus: but he should be OK as he has long said it either doesn’t exist – it’s a hoax – or it is simply like a mild flu.

More interestingly, I got an email from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, who lives in Vancouver. She had seen a Facebook post of mine: showing the Academic Song and Dance Ensemble of the National Guard of the Russian Federation singing “Sex Bomb”.

Anna wrote:


I REALLY enjoyed the Russian military police choir video (If only all the military could concentrate on music).

I have been having a somewhat difficult time here with the combo of COVID measures and inhaling wildfire smoke from the California forest fires (it was really bad here in Vancouver – worst air quality in the world for a bit – for ten days mid-September), then an enormous local pier caught fire… They couldn’t put that out for ten days. I was inhaling burning creosote… lovely…

Burnt California tastes way worse, though possibly we are also inhaling dead bodies too… it tastes metallic… maybe its all their cars and appliances.

The smoke has returned but it’s not as bad as it was…


SATURDAY 3rd OCTOBER

This afternoon, in a near miracle, my eternally-un-named friend was walking along the pavement in Borehamwood and saw, lying on the ground, the silver ring she had lost on Tuesday. It was about 15 or 20 feet away from the spot where she thinks she must have dropped it.

Spot the ring…

Let’s hope the luck of the British continues…

Tonight, a fascinating documentary about musical comic Robert White is being screened (and is up for an Audience Award) at the Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles – It’s an online virtual event this year because of COVID-19.

I think I am pretty safe in saying that Robert is the only Aspergic, dyslexic, web-toed, cross-lateral, gay, quarter-Welsh, gluten-intolerant professional musical comedian in the world who made it to the final of Britain’s Got Talent and came runner-up AND won the highly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The Autistic Comedian gives an extraordinary insight – warts and all – into what it’s like for a hyper-sensitive performer to grow up, undiagnosed, in the 1980s and 1990s, then feel his life spiralling out of control but then learn to deal with the challenges totally on his own.

It gains from the fact that director Joe Bor is also a comedy performer and Robert’s friend – so there is a unique access and insight. It reminded me of the 1997 Elton John documentary Tantrums and Tiaras, directed by David Furnish.

Both films manage to be an emotional rollercoaster with unique psychological insights.

 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Why “TENET” was incomprehensible…

Christopher Nolan: a great movie director (Photograph by Photo Georges Biard)

I saw TENET last night.

Christopher Nolan is a great movie director.

The Dark Knight was a wonderful piece of movie-making: direction, script, acting.

Dunkirk was amazing on a big screen with a good sound system.

TENET looks all of its $200million budget.

But it is bollocks.

Like Inception – which was also unecessarily impenetrable – he should have gone back to an earlier, simpler version of the script – perhaps Draft 2 or Draft 3. It was probably a great idea back then.

Although I hope it didn’t include the thrown-in-quite-late bit in TENET‘s plot which echoes the six Infinity Stones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and JRR Tolkien’s twenty Rings of Power. Maybe that was detritus left over from some discarded earlier version of the plot.

It is all very well to make intelligent or even mindless pure entertainment films which, with modern home technology, can benefit from being watched and re-watched several times, seeing more in them each time.

However, if the movie’s plot details are not intriguingly intricate but actually just bloody incomprehensible for stretches, then there is something wrong with the script.

And the problem with TENET is not just the labyrinthine impenetrability of the final script – It is the soundtrack.

Here you have the labyrinthine impenetrability of a script plus occasional added mumbling.

Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie (The Dark Knight Rises) had the main villain mumbling through a mask. But this time it is not just one person but loads of people mumbling semi-incomprehensibly through masks and over radios and phones and, at points, having to compete with very distracting overly-complicated music which interferes with the clarity of what’s being said.

And I saw TENET in a bleedin’ IMAX!

There was a fair amount of occasional unclear muttering in TENET, but I think that was mostly because of the sound mix at those points, not the acting.

I swear Christopher Nolan probably heard everything clearly in his super duper sound mixing suite but he should maybe do what Stanley Kubrick allegedly did – go round suburban cinemas with a light meter (though there’s nothing wrong with Tenet’s visuals) and hear the soundtrack through less good speakers.

Even in IMAX, there was unclear mumbling going on.

This morning, someone who saw TENET last week in a different cinema told me: “I thought I needed a hearing aid after watching it. Couldn’t hear all the vocals. Really spoilt it – or was it done on purpose so you have to watch it more than once?”

“It was like doing The Times crossword puzzle every day”

On the good side, Kenneth Branagh was wonderful, possibly deserving of a Best Supporting Actor (or Person) Oscar nomination.

This was maybe because Branagh rarely – or relatively rarely – had to be heard through a mask, a phone or sheets of glass.

So he could be (usually but not always) clearly heard.

Clarity should be one of the main tenets – yes, tenets – of film-making – clarity of script, clarity of diction, clarity of… well, everything.

In an interview in Total Film Kenneth Branagh said he constantly had to re-read the script in order to work out the storyline: “It was like doing The Times crossword puzzle every day.”

Robert Pattinson told Esquire that, during filming: “There were months at a time where I’m like: I actually, honestly have no idea if I’m even vaguely understanding what’s happening“.

If even your cast have trouble understanding what the hell is going on, pity the poor audience, especially if they can’t hear some of the muffled dialogue.

If you wanna write a novel, write a novel. But a movie ain’t a novel.

Apparently, Christopher Nolan developed the ideas and plot of TENET over the course of twenty years and had been working on this version of the script for about six or seven years. Well, that is part of the problem.

I remember, years ago – last century – having a conversation with a fellow TV researcher about good interviewees. We agreed that the best interviewee to explain something clearly to a general audience was not an expert but a fan. If you know too much about a subject, you can’t communicate it simply and comprehensibly. You know too much. If you are a fan, you know what the key features are and why a stranger to the subject could get hooked.

In the first two or three drafts of a script, there is the raw enthusiasm for the concept.

After six or seven or twenty years into it, you are fiddling with the detail, not communicating the raw originality.

My advice. If you have been refining something for twenty years, maybe go back to the original script which had the passion and simplify your 200th draft, don’t make it even more complicated.

And, when you sound-mix, counter-intuitively, listen to it on worse speakers.

Clarity in all things.

Give the punters half a chance.

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There’s more to Richard O’Brien than the Rocky Horror Show’s Riff Raff…

Three weeks ago in this blog I mentioned the sad death of Douglas Gray of The Alberts, the extraordinary surreal brothers little remembered by ordinary punters now but whose influence on British comedy was so great that Douglas got a full-page obituary in The Times.

Richard O’Brien – creator of The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – commented on the blog: “I had the great pleasure of working with Tony and Douglas, plus Tony’s son Sinbad, in Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid theatre in 1969. Each day was a delightful excursion into organised chaos…”

So obviously, I had to ask him about it. He now lives in New Zealand…


Richard O’Brien with a statue of him as Riff Raff erected in Hamilton, New Zealand, at the site of the barber shop where he cut hair in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

JOHN: New Zealand? Why on earth New Zealand?

RICHARD: Well, my parents emigrated to New Zealand in 1952 when I was ten and I was brought up there – went through puberty, adolescence, all that kind of stuff – the BIG bit of growing-up, basically.

JOHN: New Zealand seems a very sensible place. Not surreal or anarchic or OTT…

RICHARD: What was really nice about it was that it was a middle classless society. Nobody was your social superior. It was an egalitarian meritocracy, about as good as it could get. Not ideal but still wonderful.

JOHN: So when you came back to Britain in 1964, you found they couldn’t socially classify you because you had not been brought up here?

RICHARD: I had a great card to play. If I was with people who were a bit snobby, I was out of the equation. I had a go-anywhere card because England at that time was a deeply class-ridden society – still is to an extent – look at Boris and his chums.

BBC reported that Richard “delighted in shaking up the conservative sexual attitudes of the 1970s”

It was wonderful. I could go absolutely anywhere and I was not on any level of their thinking. So it was wonderful.

Being under-educated and unsophisticated, I kept my mouth shut and I wasn’t a bad-looking boy, so I was invited to places because, well, we ARE so fucking shallow, aren’t we? And, as long as I was well-mannered and a good listener, I was welcome anywhere. It was great.

JOHN: One of the first things you did over here was work as a stuntman on the movie Carry On Cowboy… Whaaat? 

RICHARD: It was simply because, in 1965, there was an opening to do that. I did three movies in 1965: Carry On Cowboy, The Fighting Prince of Donegal and that early version of Casino Royale which nobody understands. But I didn’t really want to be a stuntman. I wanted to be an actor.

JOHN: Which you became…

“Delightful excursion into organised chaos”

RICHARD: And, in 1968, Sean Kenny decided to direct and design Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid Theatre and he got together an incredible cast. A huge range of actors. It was quite wonderful. Some real ‘characters’. And, of course, The Alberts were part of that.

JOHN: You said that the Mermaid show experience with The Alberts was “a delightful excursion into organised chaos”

RICHARD: Douglas would turn up in a kilt and in all kinds of uniforms. They might come on stage with a wheelbarrow but there was bound to be an explosion somewhere. They would wear pinafores with naked bodies painted on the front. Quite childish; very childish. You couldn’t really call it professional. It was like throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what would stick. But it was delightful.

“I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs” (Photograph c 1964)

JOHN: You are an actor/writer/musician/TV person. Which one did you want to be when you were 16?

RICHARD: I am ‘musical’. I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I play the guitar a little and I sing and I have a good ear.

I wrote songs when I was in my teenage years: mostly derivative rock n roll stuff. I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs.

I wouldn’t have minded singing folk songs – going round the world learning different countries’ folk songs.

I like writing songs, but mostly because I like storytelling. I love narrative poetry. I think probably my strength more than anything else is writing lyrics. Dressing-up and making-believe was always a kind of joy. Acting is not really a job for grown-ups. It’s a childish kind of thing to want to dress up and make-believe. But it’s a very enjoyable one.

…as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show…

JOHN: Your obituary in The Times is inevitably going to have “Rocky Horror” in the headline. 

RICHARD: Well, of course it will. It’s one of the longest-running movies ever in movie history. It’s a silly piece of adolescent fun and nonsense. You can’t take it seriously and yet it’s had an incredible effect on a lot of people. It’s given a lot of people hope in their world if they’re lonely and lost. Rocky Horror’s got a sense of Well, you’re not alone.

It would be perverse for me not to acknowledge Rocky Horror.

JOHN: Rocky Horror re-routed your career?

RICHARD: It probably took me away from acting. I maybe thought I should stay at home and be writing more. The nice thing was I was successful without anybody knowing who I was if I walked down the street.

Willie Rushton was a lovely man whom I got to know – he was in Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid. He was on television all the time and I would walk down the street with him and everybody would come up to him and I would stand beside him and, in monetary terms and in theatrical terms, I was doing as well as he was but nobody knew who I was. I had this wonderful anonymity… but that disappeared when I started doing The Crystal Maze on TV. The anonymity all went out the window.

Richard’s anonymity disappeared doing The Crystal Maze

JOHN: Everyone wants fame and fortune…

RICHARD: I didn’t want to be famous. Honestly. And I didn’t want to have a lot of money. Luckily, something went wrong and I achieved both those ends. But I wasn’t searching for it. Never was.

JOHN: What is the least known or least appreciated creative thing you have been involved in that you are most proud of?

RICHARD: Proud of? I don’t like pride. It comes before a fall. 

Even with Gay Pride… I think it’s really silly to be proud of something which you are by default… Be glad. Over the moon. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes. Deliriously happy. Fantastic. Yes. 

Proud to be black? Proud to be white? Proud to be straight? Proud to be what you are by default?… Proud to be blond? – How stupid would that be?

JOHN: But, if I pushed you on what is most underestimated…

RICHARD: I adapted The Dancing Years by Ivor Novello which we did with Gillian Lynne (the choreographer of Cats and Phantom of The Opera). I think we did a wonderful job on it and we had two stagings of it upstairs in a rehearsal room at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London – lots and lots of people there – and grown men were crying at the end. They were weeping. I think we did that very well but we weren’t allowed to go further with it, which was a great, great shame.

JOHN: You’re knocking on a bit. Old blokes cannot be creative…

RICHARD: Well, I’m 78, I’ve just had a stroke, but I’m still working… 

JOHN: On what?

RICHARD: A satirical fairy tale.

JOHN: And then?

RICHARD: I’m going to go and have a sit-down and maybe a cup of tea.

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The ‘lost’ Aardman Animations feature film and a new type of storytelling…

In yesterday’s blog animator and director Derek Hayes talked about his early career.

Here, he continues and updates… 


Derek Hayes talked to me from his West Country home via Skype during the coronavirus lockdown…

JOHN: You were trained in and got experience in drawn animation and then computer animation arrives. A totally different mindset required, surely?

DEREK: Yes and no. I got to be a director before the computers came in so, when they did, what I did was just stand there and tell someone technical: “Make it do that…” All I need to know is what it CAN do. I don’t need to know how to press the buttons to make it happen. I just need to know if the operator is bullshitting me about what it can and can’t do. 

I can use things like PhotoShop, but don’t ask me to get into the technicalities. It is just a tool. At the beginning, you had to have a big desk with big machines and you needed an operator with it and you had to sit there and point at the screen and say “Could you put it there” or “Lower it a little bit” or “Make it a little bit more red”. It was really frustrating. But, as things got smaller, you could start to use it yourself.

JOHN: In 2000, you helped develop The Tortoise and The Hare at Aardman Animations. But The Tortoise and The Hare never happened because…?

DEREK: It disappeared when Dreamworks and Aardman separated. That had, I think, a 5-picture deal. Chicken Run was the first one, which did pretty well at the box office.

They were just coming to the end of production on Chicken Run and Dreamworks was insistent they should get straight into the next feature – just keep ‘em turning over and keep all the crew on board. They were still six months or more before the end of production on Chicken Run and they asked me to come in and chat to Karey Kirkpatrick, who had been a writer on Chicken Run.

He was going to develop a new idea and they wanted me to come in, help develop it and maybe then direct it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, because I had just agreed to do Otherworld.

When we discussed the idea, there was nothing really except that it would be a cross between Creature Comforts and Brookside. 

JOHN: (LAUGHS) Run that Elevator Pitch past me again…

DEREK: A domestic story set in some normal city but with animals as the characters… and what came out of that was The Tortoise and The Hare.

The Tortoise and The Hare – Aardman’s ‘lost’ feature film

JOHN: The Greek fable?

DEREK: Yes. They developed a script for it and actually went into production. This was while I was doing Otherworld. They were making sets, doing all kinds of stuff. But, pretty soon, they realised the script wasn’t right. So they had to stop it, get rid of everybody; and they then pushed on with the first Wallace & Gromit feature.

The basic problem was that, with The Tortoise and The Hare, you only have two outcomes to that story. If you use the Aesop one, the hare loses. And the other is where the hare wins.

No-one is going to sit watching, waiting for either of those – because it’s just too obvious. That was the main problem and they didn’t solve it for quite a while.

But, when I had finished Otherworld, they came back to me and said: “We have sorted it out. Do you want to come on board again and carry on developing?”

JOHN: How had they solved the problem?

DEREK: They had basically put the race at the beginning. They had Harry the Hare, who was the fastest athlete in the world and really big-headed and stuck-up and was really getting on his manager’s nerves. And there was the Park Keeper, Maurice the Tortoise. They had known each other as kids.

So Harry the Hare is coming back to his home town for this race and the manager, who is sick of him, decides he is going to sabotage him, make the tortoise win and the tortoise will be a much better kind of client because the manager can manipulate him and what is bigger and more interesting than The tortoise that beat the fastest animal in the world?

It’s just a ‘changing places’ story after that.

Harry the Hare gets fatter and Maurice the Tortoise goes on to fame and fortune, until they finally realise that they are being manipulated and they have to get together to sort it out.

So we were just developing that… 

Chicken Run had done well at the box office, but Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-RabbitIt did really well around the world EXCEPT in America,

JOHN: Too British…

DEREK: Yeah. That’s right. Basically, it was all a bit too British for the Americans. They were asking weird things like: “So there’s this guy and he lives alone with a dog?? What is he? Weird or something??” They couldn’t make him into an ordinary family man and all the rest of it.

JOHN: The Americans want ‘family’ all the time…

DEREK: Yes. I always felt it was really weird that Dreamworks would take on Aardman for what they did and then try to change what they did.

JOHN: That’s Hollywood. You buy something original and you try to change it into ‘normal’…

DEREK: Yeah.

JOHN: According to the Falmouth University website, you are currently “researching different models of storytelling”. Is this just waffle?

DEREK: Well, I am making a film, which may never see the light of day, that basically tells one story through lots of different films.

JOHN: Lots of different full-length films?

DEREK: No, I usually describe it like… Well… You could make a new Western out of all the old ones, because they all have the same structure. You have the bar room fight. How many times have you seen that? Someone smashes a chair over someone else’s head. Somebody falls on the table and it collapses. Somebody jumps off the balcony.

You could make a bar room fight out of all the Westerns you’ve ever seen. One actor could throw a punch and a completely different actor in another film would get punched.

So the idea was to marry that idea with another idea I had about scratches and dirt on film. Inside every scratch and on every piece of dirt, there would be a different movie… So you could go through a scratch and you would find yourself in a different movie or scratches would transform into other movies. 

They would all be different genres. Some would be animation; some live-action. But they would all star the same people. You could have a period drama that had a scene relevant to the story and you would have a science fiction film that carried the story on and you would be able to collapse it down and tell a story quite quickly.

You could use existing footage. A guy could put the McGuffin – a holdall – into the station locker. How many times have you seen that? So why re-shoot it? Just find an existing film with that scene in it.

JOHN: Copyright problems?

DEREK: (LAUGHS) Well, yes, of course, there IS that. But, if you think about something like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, the number of films in that – the copyright must have been hideous but he got over it.

JOHN: Maybe there’s some legal loophole. Like sampling songs…

DEREK: If it’s a work of art… maybe you can do what you like, pretty much…


Two of Derek’s early animation collaborations with the late Phil Austin are currently online…

Skywhales (1983) is on YouTube… 

…and The Victor (1985) is on the BFI website

https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-victor-1985-online

 

 

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“Max Beeza and the City in the Sky” – an amazingly original British animation

A long time ago, in a lifetime far, far away, I saw an amazingly original British animation and decided to chat to its two young directors. The animation was made in 1977. Below is the resultant article, exactly as it appeared in the March 1979 edition of Starburst magazine. Yup: 41 years ago…


For two years a film made by two National Film School students has been surfacing in some of the most unlikely places. Starburst has tracked down the creators of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, two young film-makers called Philip Austin and Derek Hayes, and now presents an exclusive look at this rare animated movie.


The film’s hero is a spiv, a con-man/comedian/magician…

Starburst: How much did it cost to make the movie? 

Philip Austin: About £4,000. We put our budgets together and came up with that amount. 

Derek Hayes: The point is that at film school you’re not paying for a lot of things. 

Starburst: I liked the credit at the end. Head Grip: Albert de Salvo. 

Philip Austin: That’s good. Not many people get these things. Few people even notice.


Few people have had the chance to notice the Boston Strangler’s name at the end of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. National Film School graduates Philip Austin and Derek Hayes have made one of the most original and inventive animated films since the heyday of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Technically, it looks flawless. But almost no-one has seen their movie. It has been shown only at the 1977 London Film Festival; during lunchtimes at London’s Essential Cinema in early 1978; and at the 1978 Edinburgh Film Festival and Ottawa Animation Festival. 

“The entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city”

It is a future world. Poison gas has spread across the planet and the entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city twelve miles high ringed by clouds. Mrs Ron Weetabix is making her way home along a narrow ledge — until she falls off. A clergyman is preaching a hellfire sermon on sin — until he gradually lapses into the title song of Champion The Wonder Horse. Max Beeza is entertaining a laughing audience — until The Airship attacks. 

The original idea for the 24-minute film came partly from a dream of Philip Austin’s and partly from the “strange tower cities” which fan Derek Hayes used to draw at school. Austin and Hayes met at Sheffield Art College, where they made Custard, a cartoon satire on the obsessions people have in a northern industrial town.

You can see Custard on the BFI website

This won them places in the National Film School at Beaconsfield. Because that was “such a dull place to be”, they decided they would have to resort to pure imagination for their next project. It took 18,000 drawings and 20 months to complete. 

The film’s hero, Max Beeza, is an Arthur English-type spiv, a con-man/ comedian/magician, whose stage act is a cross between Bruce Forsyth (constantly insulting his audience), a slightly demented Max Bygraves and (according to Austin) Elmer Gantry — the sort of person whose only talent is getting on well with an audience. Billed as Max, The Merry Missionary, Beeza’s latest show is in aid of ‘Bison for the Deaf’. 

“Are you thinking?” he asks his audience: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking.” In his hands, a brick becomes a chocolate biscuit. In fact, it is a chocolate biscuit. Just as a top hat could be, can be and is a flower-pot, a frog-catcher, a bucket, a catapult for custard pies, a frisbee and … a top hat. “Are you thinking?” he yells: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking. After all, you thought it was a brick — didn’t you!” Suddenly shells whistle through the air, blood spurts, people panic, grenades and bodies explode. 

The tower city is under attack by an airship. In the chaos, a game of cricket has an explosive ending, a suicidal man has problems killing himself and a drunk can’t drink until his head is blown off. The newspaper headlines scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.” 

Scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.”

But who is sending the Airship? No-one knows. They can’t see because they’re thinking. Members of the Soccer Hooligans’ Union meet city leader Victor Troutskillet for emergency talks, the war rages on, devastation is everywhere, the bright colours become dulled, Victor Troutskillet forms a Secret Police to stop subversion, Max is excused military service and starts a new show in aid of shell-shocked gulls. 

Part of the enjoyment of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky is the detail. Small bits of graffiti barely-glimpsed in the background; the baroque architecture; in-jokes and obscure references. Directors Austin and Hayes, in fact, think there are too many details in some places. “The script as we originally conceived it would have made a longer film,” says Hayes…

“We had to cut a lot of the story,” says Austin. 

Both are interested in the idea of an animated documentary. “You can make a documentary on a thing that doesn’t exist, like that city,” Hayes claims: “That’s what science fiction does best. It takes people and people’s emotions and it says Right, what IF this happened? How would people react? And some of the best science fiction comes out of that. What we wanted to do with all the characters was to try to make the city look like a real place. Shove everything in and repeat things. Repeat characters — have them pass by in the background — people you’ve seen before — so that it seems to expand outside the confines of the frame and you think there’s something more going on.”

Beware of the innocent-looking but actually armed chair…!

Some of the details can only be seen on a second or third viewing. “That’s where thinking it through quite well is helpful,” continues Hayes: “Even if you don’t get everything right up-front, it’s there in the background and it gives that rich feeling of depth to it.”

The two directors are also aware that, in the future, people are likely to buy films on videocassettes. An animated feature for that market will have to be able to stand up to repeated viewings:, “You just put it on in the evening and just see what you can see in it this time. If it’s very, very dense, it will actually stand up to repeated viewings.” Meanwhile, back in the sky . . . 

As Mr Ron Weetabix sits at home listening to a radio speech by Victor Troutskillet, he mutters: “Rubbish.” Arms rise out of his armchair. He is swallowed by the chair, which walks off-screen with him. His son yells out. The settee hits him on the head with a mallet. Gradually, as the film progresses, this surrealism increases. Max discovers who is sending The Airship, but our hero is under the surveillance of four neo-Nazi pieces of furniture, all members of the Secret Police … A chest-of-drawers, a cooker, an armchair and their leader The Deadly Lightshade (a standard lamp). They decide to kill Max. 

Lights burst out! – Sitting on its motor bike is… the cooker…

One dark, snowy night, as Max is trudging home, lights burst out of the blackness. Engines rev up. There, sitting on their motor bikes, are the chest-of-drawers, the cooker and the armchair. They drive their bikes at him, but he escapes by climbing  up a scratch on the film, which leads him to a caption: The next scene contains 20  startling revelations — count them all. 

“A lot of the film is to do with Tex Avery, I think,” says Philip Austin: “Going up the scratch is a Tex Avery gag. He never actually used that gag, but he must have come close to it. He did hairs in the gate and running up the side of the film — stuff like that. Those sort of free-wheeling gags. Disney knocked them out of cartoons. We saw a lot of Tex Avery films at college and we were really knocked out by how zany the gags were and amazed that nobody was doing that sort of stuff any more. So we’re very strongly influenced by Tex Avery. Loony non-sequitur gags . . . chuck them all in.” 

And so to the film’s climax — the confrontation between Max and Victor Troutskillet, the city’s ‘Big Brother’ — a Billy Bunter figure with traces of Frankie Howerd in his voice. The original design for Troutskillet was much thinner: both in name and in style he was originally conceived as a Mervyn Peake-type character. But when his voice was pre-recorded (as it had to be for synchronised mouth movements), the thin character did not work — “So we tubbied him up and turned him into a Bunter-like thing.” 

But Troutskillet is not the ultimate villain of the film, as we discover in the final 20 startling revelations. In the climactic confrontation. Max faces The Deadly Lightshade, The Wicked Stepladder (from Snow White), an array of gun-toting armchairs and The Airship itself, which turns out to be none other than . . . No, I won’t tell you. But look out for the hare — a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny, who turns up without warning and without explanation throughout the film.

“Look out for…a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny”

Max Beeza is well-worth seeing — if it’s shown. Part of its success is due to the fact that both Austin and Hayes have also worked on live-action films. They try to shoot and cut animated films as if they were live-action ones. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate two things,” says Hayes:

“One is the live-action way of doing things with its emphasis on cutting — because in a live-action film, as opposed to a cartoon, usually you have a lot more cuts and the action is shown through the cuts whereas, in a cartoon, you have things develop within the shot. Also, we wanted to be able to keep on the cartoon things: the kind of graphic shot that leads you into things and gives you fluidity.” 

For some time now, Philip Austin has been working at the Richard Williams animation studio in Soho. Early in 1978, Derek Hayes worked on BBC Bristol’s Animated Conversations: a series of six programmes which combined real conversations with animated visuals. And, in Autumn 1978, the two worked together for two months on an animated sequence featuring Sid Vicious in the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (directed by Julian Temple, another National Film School graduate). Austin and Hayes’ next project together will (hopefully) be about a man who keeps an alien in his bedroom. Hayes is also threatening a story entirely, people with animated furniture. 

As for Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, they are still trying to get British distributors to accept it as a supporting feature, if the mechanics of the British distribution system will allow that — there are problems because it was made by students as a student film. It took four years for the brilliantly inventive US movie Dark Star to be publicly shown in this country. I hope Max Beeza doesn’t take that long. It’s British, highly inventive, highly entertaining and well worth seeing.


You can now (in 2020) can see Max Beeza and the City in the Sky for free (it runs 24 minutes) on the British Film Institute website:

… CONTINUED HERE
… after a gap of 41 years …
… in A NEW INTERVIEW with DEREK HAYES …

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Where “Terminator: Dark Fate” went wrong and could now lose $150 million

Last night I went and belatedly saw the sixth movie in the Terminator series, which is sort-of the third because the script wisely ignores what happened in the 3rd, 4th and 5th movies and the TV series.

It needs a gross of $450-$480 million just to break even.

It cost $185 or $196 million to make depending on whom you believe and it needs to gross $450-$480 million just to break even.

It is reportedly facing an estimated loss of $100 million to $150 million. Now I know why.

The action scenes were edited too tightly and the non-action scenes were edited too slackly.

Only my opinion, of course – and what do I know?

But parts of the action sequences were cut to the point of disjointed abstraction – a style which seems to me to have started with the overly-edited action scenes in Joel Schumacher’s un-involving Batman & Robin in 1997.

And, in non-action scenes in a modern movie, you really do not need to see what I sat through in Terminator: Dark Fate – people walking or driving to a new location to get into the next scene. It’s padding; just as some conversational scenes were thrown in to create atmosphere but without any plot point. They were padding which varied the pace (good) but did not develop the plot (bad).

There was one missed chance where a mini-revelation which might have been quite effective was ruined by a shot in the promotional trailer.

Arnie may have aged 27 years, but why did the machine?

And – a big thing because it troubled me all the way through – it was never explained how or why Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character – a terminator – had physically aged 27 years since the second film. He’s a robot! Arnold Schwarzenegger has aged 27 years, but why would a robot/cyborg/machine age like a human?

At least try to throw in an explanation.

For fuck’s sake, the movie cost $185 or $196 million to make: at least plug any holes which might detract from the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.

It’s all the more surprising because there were signs that the whole thing might have been influenced by some committee which included (God help us) marketing people.

I like movies with kick-ass female action heroes but this one had three central female action heroes (well, two-and-a-half) and no male action hero – Yes, Arnie was introduced after a bit, but he really filled the traditional ‘sidekick to the hero’ role with action added. The feminist role casting, good in itself, may have arguably backfired because it was over-calculated.

Perhaps the commendable feminist role-casting backfired?

One other, admittedly very minor, point is that the title Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t really mean anything specific. It can be argued in vague terms that a ‘dark fate’ for the human race is averted but, really, there is nothing specific to the plot of this movie. 

It’s a generic piece of title waffle.

It smacks of some focus group or studio suit coming up with a seemingly ‘sexy’ but generic movie title.

Dark Fate is a phrase with a seeming ‘hook’ for an audience. But, really, you could sub-title any movie that – from Iron Man: Dark Fate to Beverly Hills Cop: Dark Fate to Snow White: Dark Fate – with as much relevance and effect.

It’s not big; it’s not clever. Not mean, not lean, not clean.

Just titular waffle, missus.

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Hairy moments for Harry H Corbett filming Terry Gilliam’s “Jabberwocky”

Hirsute, suited Harry H Corbett in the 1970s

In my last blog, I mentioned I had buggered my back.

Before that, I went to a one-off screening of Terry Gilliam’s 1977 movie Jabberwocky.

Before the screening, Terry Gilliam mentioned what it was like working with Harry H Corbett. 

Corbett achieved fame in the BBC TV sitcom Steptoe and Son and played a small but memorable part in Jabberwocky. Terry Gilliam said:


Harry H Corbett (right) & Wilfred Brambell in Steptoe and Son

Harry H Corbett – Steptoe & Son – brilliant, absolutely brilliant. But there was a little problem on Jabberwocky.

My wife Maggie was head of the make-up department and she had to go see Harry and talk about his medieval haircut. 

He was there with a nice full head of hair.

She said: “We can do it by cutting it like this…”

And he said: “Neuwaaagh….” and said he thought maybe a wig would be better.

Well OK…

So Maggie goes into her kit and pulls out a wig and starts putting it on him and she’s fiddling with his head and his hair is… Wait!… He is wearing a wig already! 

And he was not going to have that trimmed in a medieval style. Clearly.

So, throughout the whole film, he is wearing a wig over a wig.

“When it came to lying under a bed and getting the bed squashed on him… He was happy with those things…”

Harry was brilliant. I wouldn’t say he was the easiest person to work with, but he was absolutely wonderful.

When it came to lying under a bed and getting the bed squashed on him… He was happy with those things. 

It was just bizarre knowing this man was wearing two wigs.

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