Archive | March, 2013

What’s up, Doc: So just Who is Matt Smith?

30 Mar
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“A wild ride”: Matt Smith with co-star Jenna-Louise Coleman in The Bells of St John

Matt Smith is not your typical leading man. Even his co-stars say he looks “odd”, “alien”, “like a mad scientist”… “everything about him is just weird”. He’s over six foot tall, yes, but thin as rake, and with a head like a shovel. You’d be more likely to use him on your garden than cast him in a drama.

And yet, as Doctor Who, he has turned his distinctive features to advantage: it’s not hard to convince viewers that he really is a super-sentient alien time-traveller with two hearts. 

When Smith was first announced as the 11th Doctor, viewers didn’t know what to make of him. David Tennant was a hard act to follow: handsome enough to have Casanova on his CV, he had made the part uniquely his own. Benedict Cumberbatch once told me he’d balked at the suggestion that he might step into Tennant’s shoes, taking on Sherlock Holmes instead. 

Matt Smith had no such fears. He threw himself into the role with such physical intensity and raw charisma that he became the first Doctor to be nominated for a BAFTA, and I’m not alone in thinking he is the best Doctor there has ever been. 

Strangely, he is only an actor by default. As Doctor Who would tell you, there is an infinite number of parallel universes, and in most of them Smith is a professional centre-back on even more than the £250,000-plus a year the BBC is said to pay him, employing those God-given gifts of gangly height and gigantic forehead to nod the ball to safety. 

In this universe, however, Smith’s career in Nottingham Forest and Leicester City’s youth teams was cut short at 16 by a back injury. His doting father, the boss of a plastics company, ferried him to Leicester for treatment every day for a year, but Smith never fully recovered. 

Smith was pressured into joining the National Youth Theatre by a school drama teacher, and went on to study Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The fearless way he threw himself into his roles, as he might tackle a speeding striker, got him noticed. An agent signed him even before he’d taken his finals.

Until 2008, Smith was still playing teenagers: he acted in The History Boys at the National Theatre, and won rave reviews as Lindsay Duncan’s son in That Face. And then, suddenly, he was playing a 900-year-old Time Lord. 

Smith was still only 26 when he became Doctor Who, the youngest ever. He’s turned it into a plus: on him, tweed jackets and bow ties look more chic than geek. He’s made the series into a US hit, too, tapping into a particular brand of Britishness that appeals to Americans: eccentric, bumbling, intelligent, more likely to challenge a woman to a game of chess than make a pass at her. Smith might have modelled his Doctor Who on the famous photograph in which Einstein playfully sticks out his tongue, but Americans are more likely to think of him as a younger, livelier, space-age Hugh Grant. 

So what’s next for our Matt? He made Bert and Dickie, a mismatched-buddy-movie for the BBC about two Brits who took rowing gold in the 1948 Olympics. He’s going to be filming a US movie opposite Ryan Gosling, and he keeps hinting that he’d love to be cast as a young Macbeth. He recently directed a Sky Arts drama, Cargese. But otherwise, it’s still not so much what, as Who. 

Smith is soon returning to Cardiff to film the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, and is clearly in no hurry to hang up his sonic screwdriver just yet. “It’s a wild wave when you get to surf it,” he smiles, “and I think you have to make the most of it while you can.”

A longer version of this post first appeared in Sense magazine 

 

 

 

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Easter special: Dave McKean picks his Passion films

29 Mar
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Dave McKean, illustrator, director and dead ringer for Orson Welles

Dave McKean is an astonishingly brilliant and prolific illustrator, graphic novelist, animator and director. His credits are too numerous to mention, but his films include Mirrormask, written by long-time collaborator Neil Gaiman, Luna (as yet unreleased) and last year The Gospel of Us, in which he filmed Michael Sheen being crucified on a beach in Port Talbot.

I’ve interviewed Dave a few times, and had the pleasure of asking him about his favourite movies involving Christ and crucifixion, to get us all in the Easter spirit:

“There are a lot of screen depictions of the Passion of Christ that I love. King of Kings, the silent film, has a beautiful atmosphere. There’s the Christ sequence in Ben Hur, which goes from a sepia image to glowing  Technicolor. Pasolino’s The Gospel According to St Matthew has these incredible faces of these non-actors he got to play the parts. Jesus of Montreal is probably the closest to The Gospel of Us. The Last Temptation of Christ is fantastic, it’s close to being my favourite Scorsese film. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ is brutal and over the top in the scourging sequence but it has some amazing stuff in it. But nothing beats Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain.

Holy Mountain was hard to find for a very long time. The original prints were embargoed by the producer and it was only available in Japan in degraded and often heavily censored form: glowing orbs would appear over people’s genitals. But Jodorowsky finally got the rights back recently, and it’s an astounding film to look at, though it makes variable sense depending on who you are and how much you’ve had to drink.

“Jodorowsky has said he basically rounded up his actors and kidnapped them, kept them in isolation, broke them mentally, then put them back together on screen. In a key scene the Christ figure, who is a complete innocent, gets cast in papier mache by his followers. When he wakes up, he sees a thousand versions of himself and is driven insane, smashes them all up, and the last sequence is him eating one, ripping great chunks out of it.

“But the whole film is incredible. You start with this man, who wakes up, covered in flies… it doesn’t make much sense but it’s incredibly compelling. It’s one of those films where you arrive somewhere, look back, and you think ‘How the hell did I get here’ and you can’t imagine where you’ll be in ten minutes’ time.

“My own approach to Gospel of Us wasn’t much more sensible. We basically raced down to Port Talbot, where Michael Sheen was re-enacting the Passion over 72 hours with a cast of a thousand locals, taking ten cameras to shoot what the hell we could. It took eight months to whittle it down to a two-hour film.”

So there you go. That’s your Easter weekend movie viewing sorted. And we didn’t even mention The Life of Brian

A shorter version of this post first appeared in The Book magazine

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Here comes the son: Sam’s ‘Circus Freak’ short

20 Mar

Circus Freak by Sam Wells and Matt Hooks

Forgive me Blogfather, for I have sinned: it has been 23 days since my last post. I’ve been working literally day and night on a bunch of different journalistic assignments. Still am, for the next week. But I couldn’t not write about this.

My son Sam has directed and acted in his first short film, Circus Freak (above). Aww! But actually, if you watch it, you’ll see only two of those letters are correct. The response should be “Wow”.

Am I biased? You betcha. So see what you think. Once you’ve watched it, let me tell you a bit more about it:

As part of his AS Level Film Studies, Sam was told to make a 2.5 min short. No more. His initial script idea would, I worried, run to nearly five. That was pretty much my only input (that, and the pizza phone call joke). Everything else he and his collaborator Matt Hooks worked out themselves.

Eventually they stripped out the character of the annoyingly eager younger brother who makes the protagonist realise, at the end, that family is what really counts. It ate up valuable screen time, and never quite rang true. Instead they substituted a terrific visual ending which still makes me laugh every time I see Sam’s goofy grin.

sam circus freak 2

Is it a coruscating commentary on talent-show dreams of instant gratification? Or a paean to boundless optimism and the hope that springs eternal? I favour the latter, but either way it’s a great lesson in narrative economy.

Every second was pre-planned and storyboarded. Note the details: the shot from under the bed; the camera following the ball as it bounces along the pavement; the close up on the balls in the air before the long shot of Sam juggling; the tight shots on feet, hands, eyes and mouth when preparing for his public show. It’s nice to know that a lifetime of being shown film classics by myself and the estimable Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com) has been put to good use.

The action is amazingly well edited to the music. This is how precise it is: Sam showed me a near-final cut in which the transition from initial voiceover/montage to live action seemed too abrupt. He thought that carrying the music over by two more notes would solve the problem. It did.

My final take-home from this? If a pair of 17-year-old kids can make a good-looking short with a digital camera and a laptop, so can we all. You don’t need a big budget. You don’t even need a big idea. You just need a tight script, a lot of planning – and boundless optimism. Get out and do it.