Friday, 28 January 2011

Writing soundtrack 24-28 Jan

My life in the War Room

Continuing on with the end of the world theme. Gif from the sublime If we don't, remember me.

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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Me and The Bomb - films!

We go way back; I grew up down the road from one of Britain few nuclear missile bases, and even though it was long out of commission by the time I arrived, there were plenty of juicy military targets nearby. If the bomb were ever going to drop, it would be on my doorstep.

So naturally I was fascinated by nuclear war. I found it amazing that grown-ups, who told me to sit up straight, be good and not lie, also had this whole system in place that could bring about the end of the world in about three minutes. ‘Oh yeah it’ll never happen – Mutually Assured Destruction – nobody wants that.’ ‘Good Grief!’ my Charlie Brownself would cry, ‘These people are blockheads, how could they be so casual about it?’ Especially as everything around me at the time seemed connected to this system: military jets in the skies, some of them flew by people I knew – even secret underground bunkers. One time I was riding into town looking out the window at the same fields I’d seen fly by a thousand times before, except this time a man was climbing into the ground. I remember doing that classic double-take thing you do when you rub your eyes. If I had a bottle of wine or something, I would have looked at the label before throwing it away, never to touch a drop again. But I was ten. I didn’t drink.

Even so, I was worried my mum might think I was nuts, but I took the plunge and said as calmly as I could, ‘Mum, I just say a guy climb into the ground.’ ‘That’ll be Keith,’ said Mum, ‘it’s his turn to check on the bunker.’ She then explained how there was a network of similar bunkers across the UK, maintained by a specially chosen group of people from the local community – presumably a trusted clan who made sure the tins of beans were not out of date and there was enough toilet paper to survive Armageddon. Because should Armageddon come, another crew would have to ride it out, with clean arses and full tummies to re-establish civilisation using ham radio. I don’t think my Mum was part of this secret society, but it’s only recently I’ve come to learn I was closer to The Bomb than I realised – my granddad.

In the fifties, he was the CO of ground crew for the V-bomber force, so part of his job was arming the nuclear bombs they would carry. I saw him recently, and he described the process of attaching the firing caps onto these big, rotund bombs. Now my granddad has seen some things, and has a whole library of amazing stories, but the fact a member of my family had been part of this organised management of the end of the world, made me want to know what he thought of it.

‘As you were arming the bomb, didn’t you think about what you were doing? I know you were doing your duty, but you had your hand on a weapon that should it be used would bring about the end of the world in the most terrible way. Didn’t you think about any of that?’

He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah probably.’

So here’s a loose link to a subject that’s gripped filmmakers all over the world – and me: six films about nuclear annihilation.

First off, the story of MAD, as told exclusively with government stock footage. Old people may recognise the Coldcut sample.

In the sixities, the Government commissioned the BBC to create a docudrama about what might happen if nuclear war was declared. 'Bad shit', said the BBC film and The Government promptly banned it.

If that wasn't enough, in 1984, the BBC were at it again - this time with a film called Threads. It features the most depressing end to any film anywhere ever. Basically, if the bomb drops, stand outside with your mouth open.

Meanwhile, in America, Reagan pursued his dream of encircling the globe with a network of lazer toting satellites.

Aside from the fact, there was no practical way to launch enough satellites/'water melon sized missiles'/whatever, to make it work, or that the whole project would need at least 10 years of research, SDI also violated The Outer Space Treaty, which was introduced precisely to stop this sort of thing. During the Reykjavik talks in 1986, Reagan's response to Gorbachev's concerns about the imbalance of MAD caused by SDI was to suggest that should the project be a success, the USSR would be given the technology as well, you know, to even things up so it's fair. I suppose it's only expected from the man who decided that 'nuclear war may be a bad idea', after watching The Day After Tomorrow (not that one, the one with John Lythgow in). Here's the controversial bit:

There were quite a few films like this during the eighties. In Canada there was Countdown to Looking Glass. This film took the interesting angle: 'what will the end of the world look like on television?'. A little shoddy and a bit like a telethon, so let's cut to the good bit eh? It all starts at around the seven minute mark.

Then the end

But what about us kids eh? All these films were for adults, surely there was some sort of Newsround style report? Yep, Raymond Briggs, When The Wind Blows. The book was created as response to the handy Government pamphlets that started appearing in libraries in the early eighties suggesting all you had to do was lie under a door to survive the end of the world. I take it all back, this fiilm has the most depressing end ever - an old couple - like your grandparents - slowly dying of radiation sickness as they recite the Lord's Prayer.

Here's a skateboard video to cheer you up:

It's a good job none of this will ever, ever happen eh?


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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Against The Clock diary: choosing a style

How I was going to make my film? And 'make' in the sense of what style I’d shoot it. There are a number of ways to skin a story.

The most basic, is to shoot the action with a narrator voiceover. Most news reports use this technique (although not exclusively): you see some stuff and a journalist explains what’s going on over the top. It’s quick, simple and overcomes any editorial problems you might have – such as not having enough footage. But it’s fairly prescriptive, a bit old-fashioned and a technique cheap Channel 5 docs use. I didn’t want that.

The other way is with a presenter. If you have a good one, they can transform a film. Jonathan Meades is a great filmmaker who consistently manipulates the format of on-screen presenter to great effect – although his recent films have been more conservative in their style. It would be easy to dismiss his insightful studies on culture and topography as having limited appeal, but he regularly pulls in viewing figures of three million: roughly the same as Match of the Day. There’s a whole YouTube channel dedicated to his work and a great boxset too.

Jonathan Meades on branding

Louis Theroux is another good proponent of this technique. Some find his small-child-walking-in-on-his-parents-having-sex interview technique grating, but I think he’s pretty good, and not afraid to look the fool either.

Louis Theroux: ‘So you’re a former Nazi Lowrider in love with a Jewish man?’

The advantage of having a presenter is it’s their job is to look after the interview. That might sound obvious, but it’s surprising how much you miss when you’ve got to worry about the sound, light and whether the manager of the Tesco Metro in shot is going to cross the road and hassle you. Should your subject say something controversial, your presenter is there to jump on it. Louis Theroux does this extremely well – in fact you could say it’s his MO.

I’m a good interviewer, but I didn’t have the confidence to present. I’d have a go now. But at the time I had everything else to worry. So I settled on a Direct Cinema style.

Direct Cinema could be best described as fly-on-the-wall. The action unfolds before you and the narrative is carried in the way the film is edited. As I’m editing now, it’s clear my film is not a true Direct Cinema doc, like the work of Frederick Wiseman.

The characters in Wiseman’s films do not talk to the camera, they are unaware the camera is there. This is an extremely hard style to pull off because you have to film an enormous amount of footage to construct a story. I didn’t have the experience or the time to do this, so I decided early on that I would have Nigel talk to the camera.

Wiseman’s method is also extremely difficult to do because people are now media literate: if there’s a camera trained on someone, they moderate their behaviour. And it seems to be that documentary’s appeal, and to an extent, measurement of success, is how well a filmmaker breaks away this façade. Here’s an example of when it’s done well with the most media literate bunch of people about: Metallica. 

Some Kind of Monster: Defences up

Some Kind of Monster: Defences down

There is a problem with this approach. Your focus as a filmmaker can become clouded. You start thinking your job is to ‘find the true story’ – the story your subject is unwilling to reveal. But there may not be a conspiracy to uncover – and it’s worth remembering that if there is, it ‘s quite likely to be beyond your imagination should you find it. But arriving at a shoot with a preconceived idea is the wrong way to make a doc. You ask leading questions; you edit with an agenda.

My idea was to simply follow Nigel around and ask him questions. I decided to do shoot in a loose Direct Cinema style and have my subject (Nigel), tell the story with VO and sound bites.

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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Monday, 17 January 2011

I used to live here...

I found a couple of albums back home. Unfortunately, the photos were fused to the cellophane, so I had to shoot through them - hence the reflections. I think these were all taken in Sharjah in 1978. I would have been about 18 months. 

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X Men family tree

No me neither...

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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Writing soundtrack 10 – 14 Jan

Soft, soft, soft comfort food

Macaroni cheese

300g of macaroni
100g of lentils (puy – teat yourself)
75g of bog standard Cheddar cheese
25g Manchego
25g Grana Padano
1 clove of garlic, crushed if you’ve got a hot date, otherwise 2
A ball of butter
Spoon or so of flour
A bunch of milk
A good surface area of breadcrumbs
Enough sliced tomato to make a smiley face or your favourite band's logo
A bay leaf
A buttered oven dish
Salt n Pepa

First set up your stereo/iPhone dock etc and turn the oven on. Make sure nothing’s in there and it’s clean. Remember, dirty oven, dirty bits. Set the temperature for around 180 degrees, but don’t get too wound up about it, the oven’s job here is to crisp everything up, finish the pasta and infuse flavour.

Making macaroni and cheese is mostly about getting everything ready for one intense moment (Italians call this bit ‘l'evento’ – The Event). You need a big pan and a lot of boiling water for the pasta, so boil a full kettle and once you got it on the stove add salt and splash of oil so nothing sticks.

Now macaroni, do you have to use macaroni? Each pasta sauce has a specific pasta to go with it. The shape, weight and the inclusion of areas for sauce to collect (think shells) compliment the individual qualities of their respective sauce. The Guardian did an article on this subject. Remember don’t read the comments or you’ll lose your mind.  But the short answer with macaroni cheese is yes, you need to use pasta that’s small and will soak up the sauce; and for it to do that you need to par-cook the macaroni. So if it says 10 minutes on the packet, cook for five.

Next, wash and then simmer the lentils for whatever it says on the packet. Get a bowl ready to put the cooked lentils in. And get some bowls out to put all the other ingredients in (except the garlic, which you should pre-load into your crusher), because you must prepare for ‘l'evento’.

While the pasta and lentils are cooking, grate the cheese into a bowl. If you want to use different cheeses in different amounts you can. This is my favourite combination. I must add that like the hamburger, it pays to keep it simple and not gourmet it up too much. This is a simple dish, the kind author Stephen King might eat. I know Manchego is a bit ‘Taste the Difference’, but it’s my favourite cheese. Anyway the whole lifestyle pornography of food and food culture is a different kettle of fish and now – mid-recipe – is not the time to discuss it.

At this point your macaroni should be par cooked, drain and return to the big saucepan and take a deep breath. Look at your kitchen counter. You should see a bowl of cheese, bowl of lentils, your ball of butter, your flour with a spoon sticking in it, your garlic in the crusher and your milk – opened and ready by the stove. Grab a small saucepan and a wooden spoon; it’s time for ‘l'evento’. It’s time to make a Roux.

Melt the butter in the pan, fry the garlic and add flour a little bit at a time and stir. You want to make a paste – not too thin, but it shouldn’t ball up either. You might have to start again, but don’t worry you’re not a failure, just a regular guy.

So you got your paste and this is when you realise why everything has to be in bowls. You need everything to hand because you have to keep stirring. Stop and you’ve got lumps. Now work that arm as you add the milk. You want a sauce: so not too thin, but remember when you add cheese that will thicken it up too, so the whole thing is adding a dash of milk and a bit of cheese, and stirring. You want enough sauce to make a big sloppy mass when you add it to the macaroni – so make enough to fill two thirds of your saucepan. Don’t stop stirring; add salt and pepper, add the lentils. Now give it one last stir and dump that sucka all over your macaroni in the big pan. Then stir that. Mmm. Don’t eat it just yet.

Slop it into the dish you buttered earlier. Why buttered? Well like life, if you don’t butter your dish it’s going to get caked in a layer of cheese no wire brush will shift.

Finally sprinkle the breadcrumbs on the top for a bit crisp. Arrange your tomatoes into a smiley face/Batman logo/whatever and dust with even more grated cheese.

Then it’s in the fuggin’ oven for fifteen or so minutes. While you wait, relax with a nice whisky sour. When it’s done, you’ll find your mac n cheese won’t be that runny because the pasta has absorbed the sauce. This is good and makes for an intensely cheesy taste. Serve with watercress or a salad and prepare for a bunch of wild dreams later.

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Pink Ponies: a case study

This has been doing the rounds in ad circles, mainly because this sort of case study is all too close to the truth.

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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Back now

I’ve been on my holidays, so it’s been a bit quiet round here. But while I was away I read these beauties:

Fup by Jim Dodge
I rate Stone Junction even when it wobbles a bit towards the end. But this is a perfect little novella; an understated fairy tale of a duck that changes the lives of two men. It’s so carefully written it could be set during any time, except the bit when they got to the drive-in. It’s only 117, very narrow set pages. I read it in a couple of hours, and then I went straight on to:

Theft by Peter Carey
I completely loved His Illegal Self and this was another perfectly tuned tale. Meet the Butcher brothers; Michael, a disgraced painter on his heels and his "damaged two hundred and twenty pound brother", Hugh. Together they get involved with a tale of love and art theft that takes them from the Outback to Tokyo and New York. I’ve nearly finished his first novel Bliss, which is a completely different tone and has that rare quality of making laugh out loud. Oh and his writing makes me jealous.

I can never sleep on planes and seeing as I had two nine and a half hour flights I had plenty of time to watch these. I started Animal Kingdom, a tense, claustrophobic film about a family of bank robbers being hunted by corrupt police; it’ll probably get remade by Hollywood, but check out the original, the acting is superb:

Then I had a bit of double bill of one of my favourite directors, David Fincher. So I started with Se7en. How on earth this got made with the ending I have no idea. Check out the trailer with the ‘there was a time…’ narrator:

Then it was time for The Game. This is a bit of an oddity – almost seventies like in its paranoia. I wonder how it did on release? I’m guessing not that well, which is a shame because it’s a crafted film. The lighting, cinematography have that understated Fincher polish and even when it starts to get silly, Michael Douglas gives a great performance as the remote and lonely businessman in the big house on the hill. Plus Sean Penn shouting always makes me laugh:

So, I thought I’d follow it up with Wall Street Money Never Sleeps. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s Wall Street 2 now, because it isn’t. Oliver Stone’s new film is squarely on the side of the bankers. They are a noble profession, keeping the wheels of capitalism turning. Or are they? Because here comes Gordon Gekko with his book about how we’re all going to hell in a handcart. Are we? I don’t know, I found the whole film a dreary mess. At some point I was being asked to solicit sympathy for a self-serving financial industry – yeah right. And Shia Le Beouf as an energy investor who only invests in nice companies doing nice things was completely unbelievable. They might as well have had him running around in a Gundam suit. At least he could smash up a few buildings. Yeah I know that sounds like Transformers, but all he ever does is shout his lines. He needs something smashed up in the background for his style of acting to make any sense. Josh Brolin’s in it too. I expect they offered him a pallet of cash. Oh here’s the trailer:

Poor old Carey Mulligan who played Shia’s boyfriend also stars in the adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go. It’s a great book, perhaps not as good as The Remains of the Day, but weaved from a cloth of closely examined detail. Unfortunately, the film throws all this out to get mired in a bizarre post-war styling of a Britain that clearly never existed. Now I know this is in the book, and although I was never convinced it worked, it was in the background enough for it not to affect the story. Unfortunately this aesthetic has been really taken to town in the film so the finished result looks like a gruesome retelling of The Island in the style of Atonement. And they reveal the purpose of the children in the first five minutes. And they cut the whole concept of Norfolk. Total miss. Read the book instead. Here’s the trailer anyway. Isn’t it British?

And finally before sleep, I checked out Takers. Meet the ultimate crew of LA bank robbers. They’re tight, do a job a year and each one is well planned and executed. Hmm sounds like Heat. Yeah, but this one’s got Hayden Christensen in it, playing a character who looks as if he fell asleep in a playgroup and let the kids scrawl all over him. But at least he’s got a bit of work eh? This is a funny one. There are loads of things wrong with it: the first lines in the movie are ‘you look like shit’, the action scenes are lame, the characters are two dimensional (the Russians all have ropey tattoos), the whole thing seems to be art directed by CSI Miami production crew and the premise simply doesn’t add up. If these guys are so rich from their exploits, with plenty of shiny clothes, money in offshore accounts and a twatty club, why are they doing scores? Because they’re takers! Oh right. But there are some redeemable points. It’s got Idris Elba in it. He can act and I really liked the subplot with his character’s sister. Especially when it starts to draw Matt Dillon’s cop close to the group. Matt Dillon can act too, but it’s a shame his cop is a collection of clichés. Except they’ve been updated. Troubled cops don’t drink and smoke now, they chug spring water and chuck the bottle out of the car window. Don’t worry he still tells IA to get off his back man! There’s a good film in here, shame it was made by Michael Mann 15 years ago.

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