Archive | November, 2012

Exclusive: The Exorcist to air on Radio 4

30 Nov

ImageFirst the Jimmy Savile scandal for Radio 1, now Radio 4 is set to scandalise its listeners with the news, which I can exclusively reveal, that it has just bought the rights to The Exorcist. The radio adaptation will be aired next year. The horror film caused a sensation in 1973, with its scenes of projectile vomiting, head-twisting and sexual uses for a crucifix by a 12-year-old girl. Barf bags were issued in cinemas for patrons. When the film was released in the UK, it was banned by several councils, and was not awarded a video certification until 1999.

Jeremy Howe, Radio 4’s Commissioning Editor for Drama, made the revelation at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. “Horror is an underexplored genre for us,” said Howe, with commendable understatement, saying he was keen to diversify Radio 4’s drama output.

In May Morgan Creek announced it would make a ten-part TV series based on The Exorcist, to which original director William Friedkin tweeted, “There is no way I would even watch it”, and author William Peter Blatty cast doubt on the announcement by saying he had not cleared the rights to his book.

ImageRadio 4 clearly has ambitions to reach out to a new demongraphic, sorry, demographic. Yesterday Neil Gaiman announced on his blog that Radio 4 was adapting Neverwhere, his fantastical vision of an alternative London beneath our feet. It was mishandled as a BBC TV series in 1996, which couldn’t seem to decide whether to pitch it at adults or children. It should work well on radio, and has attracted a stellar cast: James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Head, Natalie Domer and, yes, Christopher Lee. “This makes me happier than I have any right to be,” commented Neil.

It’s Radio 4, let’s not forget, that was the original home of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, still superior to the TV or film versions. Caroline Raphael, BBC Radio’s Commissioning Editor for Comedy, points out that radio can be far more “cinematic” than film can: “Johnny Vegas calls radio ‘the CGI of the soul’,” said Raphael at the Screenwriters’ Festival. “You can do epic things that otherwise you can only do with a huge film budget.”

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Hooray for Bulgaria-wood

24 Nov
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Ancient Rome… just outside Sofia, Bulgaria

I’ve spent this week at the new hub of big-budget action movies. It’s not in California. It’s not in London. It’s in… Bulgaria.

Whoever thought, given its ending, that 300 could even have a sequel? But it does, and it has just finished shooting entirely in green-screen on Nu Boyana Studios’ 13 massive sound stages. In October, Robert De Niro and John Travolta squared off here for Killing Season. Before that, Nu Boyana reinforced its floors for the musclebound casts of Expendables 2 and Conan.

And, for the last few months, it has stood in for Ancient Rome. I’ve been on the set of Plebs, an ITV2 sit-com slated for spring 2013, doing interviews with the terrific young cast, and it looks very impressive indeed. Nu Boyana, you see, just happens to have a fantastically detailed recreation of the Eternal City in its backlot, complete with forum, temple, bank, living quarters and Coliseum.

But that’s not all. As you can see from my snaps, it also has a realistic 1940s New York (except for misspelling “Veronika” Lake on the cinema marquee for This Gun For Hire); a war-torn Middle Eastern town; and some crashed fighter planes on a back lot. With Santa Claus painted on their fuselage. If someone can tell me why, please do.

The studios were built by the Soviets in 1962, inspired apparently by a trip to MGM, in order to churn out propaganda films.  They have been in private ownership since 2005, and a heavy programme of investment is underway. The crew are hard-working, efficient and wildly experienced (they also specialise in Blowing S*** Up), and everything here seems to be half UK prices or less. Pinewood had better look to its laurels.

“I see famous people!”

14 Nov

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I saw Jenny Agutter, the other day. It was at the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain. It’s strange to have such a potent figure of one’s boyhood imaginings step suddenly off the screen and into real life. It’s not the first time: I actually lived round the corner from her for several years, in Camberwell. The English rose of Walkabout, Logan’s Run (above) and American Werewolf in London was suddenly a bloomin’ neighbour. She passed me once in brown leather trousers, straight-backed, with three large hounds on a lead, a living Richard Avedon shoot.

That Purple Rose of Cairo moment (or Last Action Hero, if you prefer Arnie to Woody) happens a lot, in London. The worst thing is when you see someone in a bar, realise you know them, smile, wave, then realise, actually, that you’ve never met. It’s just that bloke you’ve seen on the TV.

Keira Knightley suddenly popped up on the bar table next to mine a few months ago. I’ve recently passed Mike Leigh in the street, looking lost; Ricky Gervais, jogging; Tim Spall with his son Rafe.

You feel like Dermot in Father Ted, with sheep leaping about between the confused thought clouds above your head marked ‘Reality’ and ‘Dreams’.

And what has this to do with film-making, rather than name-dropping? Well. It’s less a Heat mag version of Sixth Sense – ‘I see famous people!’ – than about six degrees of separation, which Kevin Bacon is currently plugging for the EE network. But in London, it can be two degrees, or one. You just need to bump into people. And be ready.

The reason the wonderful Sally Phillips was in Animal Charm, the Gothic horror-comedy featurette I co-wrote, is that I got in touch with her through the director of The Decoy Bride (screenplay by Sally) whom I had met on a poker boat down the Thames several years before. As you do. The reason Boy George had a hilarious cameo as a policeman was that director/co-writer Ben Charles Edwards met him at a party, and had the brass balls to just ask him.

Serendipity nearly worked again for my forthcoming collaboration with director Tony Errico, a mockumentary about a retired supervillain. A friend recommended a lovely veteran thesp with whom she played online Scrabble, and put us in touch. He was to have been the lead, but has just dropped out, having landing a lucrative Christmas show. A week before shooting. Yikes.

Crossed fingers that London can bring us another star. So if anyone knows any talented actors, late 40s to 70s, who can do a German accent and wants to bulk out their showreel, do get in touch…

The write stuff: Robert McKee

10 Nov

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Robert McKee is often accused of ruining cinema. That’s because, more than anyone, he popularised the notion of three-act structures, turning points, inciting incidents and all the beats in between that rake in so many £250 cheques at screenwriting courses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here’s what McKee had to say about that at the Barbican today. “You’ve heard people talk of the ‘tyranny of the three-act structure’. What the f*** is that? Was Tennessee Williams a tyrant? These things are said by people with their heads so far up their asses they need endos in their stomachs to see where they’re going.

“Yes, there is a crisis [in film]. But it’s not a crisis of form. We know how to tell stories, we’re getting really good at it; right now I see a resurrection in the skill and craft of storytelling. This is a crisis of content. Films are being made by people who have nothing to f***ing say! They think it’s all a game, a technique, just marketing.”

Over a tour-de-force two hours, McKee took the audience of 250 right back to first principles. This was not the “how” of story-telling. This was the “why”.

He went back to the Greek philosophers, and their key question: why and how should we live our life? And he examined, one by one, where in the 21st century you might find the answer:

* Philosophy: “Yeah, but who today reads Kant or Spinoza?”

* Science: “In the 19th century, people thought science was the answer, it would cure everything. We realise now that science has utterly failed us. Cellphones are toxic, the internet and Tweeting have almost eliminated human relations, emails are a Tower of Babel.”

* Religion: “For many of us it’s an evangelical joke. The worst things humans do are in the name of God.”

* Art: “So where the hell do people go to answer Aristotle’s great question about how to lead your life? They go to the movies! The most civilising of all arts is story. Music, art, dance create feeling, but story is, as Kenneth Burke said, ‘equipment for living’. Stories are metaphors for life. Each and every one of you [who writes scripts] is a life poet. You create a metaphor that express a meaningful, emotional truth about what it is to be a human being.”

I’ve been to a lot of scriptwriting courses and seminars, but this was the most inspiring. Simply put: find your voice; write what matters.

Amen to that.

When Dominic Met Noel

8 Nov

Noel Clarke and Me

Noel Clarke’s a funny guy. Inspiring, too. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival at the end of October, the one-man British film industry was asked if he saw himself primarily as a writer, an actor or a director. “I see myself as a bill-payer,” was his pragmatic answer. “I only wanted to be an actor at first, then I realised it wasn’t going to pay the bills.”

That’s especially true for a black actor. “I’d be reading for the part of Bank Robber No 2, or Gang member No 1. Then, finally a character with a name! Yes!  You’d look (through the script) – what’s his first line? Oh. ‘Open the safe!’”

He started to think, auditioning for these scripts, that even he could write better. “And after a while, you have to stop complaining and start doing it.”

He wrote three or four spec screenplays – science-fiction, multiple-narrative drama —  but the first that got made was Kidulthood. No one would back it at first. “They all said, ‘take out the swearing. Kids don’t behave like that, our kids certainly don’t.’ I told them, ‘I f***ing think they might do!’”

So his team cobbled some cash together independently, mostly from the owner of a coffee shop. People liked the finished film, edgy and raw as it was, but no one dared release it. It sat on the shelf for nearly two years before finding a distributor who thought they could at least get some money from DVD sales. And the fact that Noel Clarke had landed a role in the relaunched Doctor Who didn’t hurt – another reason to diversify.

The film was a cult hit. I doubt there’s a teenager in south London who hasn’t seen it. Now, Noel thought, he could get his other scripts produced. Wrong. They kept asking, “But where’s your voice?” Meaning, why don’t you stick to writing inner-city gang films? So eventually, he gave them what they wanted: Adulthood, a low-budget sequel that made an impressive £3.7m, which he also directed.

Only now, finally, can he get other projects made: Storage 24 (sci-fi), The Knot (rom-com) and Fast Girls (sports drama) all came out this summer. Even so, he says, you have to just keep writing. He has two co-writers, and together they churn out half a dozen screenplays a year, in order to get one made.

He gave me some one-on-one time after the panel, and it’s heartening how he dares to dream big: Storage 24 was made very much with an eye to global sales on a micro-budget, and has now sold, he proudly says, in every territory in the world, including China and America. He was recently in LA for two months, acting in the new Star Trek, setting up meetings of his own. “If I was of a lighter persuasion,” he admits, “yeah, I would be living in the ‘H’ in ‘Hollywood’.”

But for now, fortunately, he’s staying. His energy is infectious. If there’s one message scriptwriters can take home, it’s don’t be precious. Write a bunch of spec screenplays, including one calling-card script that is your “unique voice”. Keep plugging away, and one day you too will have some project power. Until then, dream big.

Fasten Your Seatbelts…

8 Nov

Welcome to my new blog. I’m Dominic Wells, a film critic and former Time Out editor who has tunnelled under the electrified fence to write screenplays myself.

After two decades of sending other journalists out to write about other people’s creations, I left my cushy, outrageously well paid job editing supplements at the Times to make films instead.

I’m doing it for love, not money. At the same time, let’s hope I start to get paid before the savings run out altogether!

So please join me on my journey. Tell your friends to come, too. You’ll meet the odd celebrity in my posts. You’ll read rants and reviews. And you’ll find out about the world of London indie film-making as we try to build a palace of dreams on a shoestring.

My last featurette was Animal Charm, a high-fashion Gothic horror-comedy co-written with and directed by the ridiculously talented Ben Charles Edwards. It starred Sadie Frost, Sally Phillips and Boy George.

My next, shooting this month, is a mockumentary interview with a retired supervillain. More about that in due course. But for now, it’s When Dominic Met Noel. Enjoy.