Archive | July, 2013

A brief history of when I met Stephen Hawking on set

28 Jul
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Stephen Hawking enjoys his 65th birthday present: a zero gravity flight on a modified plane owned by the Zero Gravity Corp.

The paralysed cosmologist Stephen Hawking has already been played by Benedict Cumberbatch on screen, and will be followed next year by fellow “hunk who thunk” Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Before that, though, is Hawking, a documentary to be released on September 20, which reveals how very nearly none of this happened.

According to today’s Sunday Times, Hawking says in the new film that doctors recommended switching off his life-support back in 1985. He had only just been commissioned to write A Brief History of Time, the book which went on to sell ten million copies and made him so famous he has guested on The Simpsons five times, and the three weeks of intensive care that followed after his wife refused to let him die robbed him of what little remained of his speech. He wrote the book by raising his eyebrows to select letters on a computer program.

By 1991, when I met him on set of Errol Morris’s excellent documentary, he wrote and “spoke” through his voice synthesizer by twitching one finger on a toggle on his wheelchair. I’d known of Hawking for several years before he became globally famous. My elder brother studied Maths at King’s College, and he had pointed out to me the wheelchair ramps which made Cambridge the most disabled-friendly city in the world – built to facilitate Hawking’s passage from college to college.

I also read A Brief History of Time when it came out in 1988 – yes, from cover to cover. The first part is a very accessible overview of the history of physics and cosmology. The final part is a little hard to follow, though fascinating – especially for the Big Crunch theory, which is that at some point in the future there will be a reverse Big Bang, sending all matter hurtling back towards the single point from which it began: travelling backwards through time as well as space, so that at some point, untold billions of years from now, I will be alive again, and typing in the words of this blog, except in reverse; starting from the final sentence, deleting and deleting until I am left with nothing; then I will regurgitate my breakfast, get into bed, and sleep until Saturday night.

I will fondly watch my children grow younger and smaller and in greater need of my care. Having regressed to babies, one day they will be gone, but I will not be sad, it will be as if they never were. I will join The Times, leave it for AOL, then be appointed Editor of Time Out a few months after the chimes of Big Ben count down the historic twelve bongs from the 21st century into the 20th, then after a series of steadily less assured covers I will be moved into the less stressful roles of Deputy Editor, then Chief Sub Editor, then Sub Editor; I will go to Oxford university where I will spend carefree days with the former mother of my vanished children until, one day, we will see each other for one last coffee and part forever, without bitterness or regret.

I will go to school in Winchester; then emigrate to Canada to play in the snow; finally a confused and inchoate period of sleeping and crying and feeding and waking and being cradled in my parents’ arms, my father no longer dead but young and vigorous and beardless so that his bristly cheek would sandpaper over mine, until one day, I would simply… cease to be.

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Stephen Hawking and Errol Morris on set in 1991

I wanted to talk to Stephen Hawking about all this when I met him and Errol Morris on set (right), but the great man typed his sentences so painfully slowly that it was impossible to do much more than say hello. I noticed that, despite this, he still said “please” and “thank you” to everyone he dealt with, a courtesy that, for him, must have been important as every syllable cost him dear.

Watching him, I became obsessed with a thought, a truly terrible thought. Hawking was working, and is working still, on the Grand Unified Theory that will unite the contradictory worlds of Physics and Quantum Physics – “and then,” says he, “we will know the mind of God.”

What if, I thought, the motor neurone disease that paralyses him should progress so far that he loses even this small movement of the finger that, in 1992, enabled him to communicate? It’s all too close. These days, he says in the forthcoming film, he can only write and “speak” by flexing a single muscle in his cheek. One day soon he may lose even that movement. Kept alive, mechanically, for years after, his mind, floating free of earthly concerns, may finally solve the great riddle of science, the secret of life itself – and he will be unable to communicate this greatest of all discoveries to the world.

What will that be like? To apprehend the secrets of the universe but, imprisoned in his cage of flesh and bone, be able to do nothing, say nothing?

Perhaps he’d go mad and become God, like the intelligent bomb with the existential crisis in John Carpenter’s brilliant 1974 black comedy, Dark Star: “In the beginning, there was darkness. And the darkness was without form, and void. And in addition to the darkness there was also me. And I moved upon the face of the darkness. And I saw that I was alone…

“Let there be light.”

#11: Absolutely positively the very last Cannes diary extract from 1997. In which Mike Leigh is a “patronising twat”

26 Jul

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I found myself lunching with Alan Parker, fresh from directing Madonna in Evita

Cannes, Monday May 12, 1997. Having called a halt to post-party drinking at the Petit Carlton last night at 4.30am, I woke up just in time to get to the Polygram lunch at the posh Carlton at 12.30. I introduced myself to legend-in-his-own-lunchtime Baz Bamigboye from The Daily Mail, about whom everyone here has a story to tell.

I told Baz the one I’d heard about him crawling for hours through bushes to get into a closed set, and finally getting caught by a security guard at which Baz says, “It’s okay, I’m a security guard too.” The guy replies – this is in America, mind – “No you’re not, you’re Baz Bamigboye. Now f**k off.”

Jonathan Pryce was there, but having seen his ground-breaking Hamlet when I was 13, where he was both Hamlet and, in a voice ripped from somewhere deep inside of him, the ghost of his father, I was too awed to say hi. Geoff Andrew is an old hand at these things, and told me he’d work out the best table to sit at for lunch. Accordingly he latched onto veteran BBC film critic Barry Norman – a good plan, since host Stewart Till turned out to be sat next to him, and the Guest of Honour, Alan Parker, turned out to be the man whose Reserved notice we shoved one along to make way for Geoff and me.

The director of Midnight Express and Fame was never high on Time Out film critics’ list of beloved auteurs, and his appointment as head the BFI was proving controversial, so I introduced myself as “editor of your least favourite magazine”, and we got on famously. Parker looks completely square, block-headed, compact, like a human battering ram; younger and healthier than I expected, especially after surfacing from filming Evita with Madonna; amusing, articulate and definitely not suffering fools gladly. He was particularly undiplomatic about Mike Leigh, whom he called a “patronising twat” – Parker had offered him the cash to make two films, only to find Leigh taking the piss out of his accent later.

I also asked Barry Norman what he thought of Dennis Pennis, who asks embarrassing questions of stars on the red carpet by pretending to be a “proper” BBC interviewer, which I imagine makes life hard for the real arts journos. Barry said he saw him chased by some bodyguards last year after some prank and all but shouted out “Yes! Get him!”

After which, my time in Cannes was nearly up. I just had time to look in on the New Producers’ Alliance party on the way to the station, carrying my bags with me, but for the first time fell foul of Cannes accreditation bureaucracy. Instead I found a BFI party at the British Pavilion to spend my final hour with. And then, too soon, it was time to go. Will I ever make it back here?

Little did I know that, 15 years later, I’d be back with a short film of my own I had co-written, Colonel Badd: see here. My previous 1997 Cannes diary extracts start here.

#10: Secret Cannes Diary of a Time Out Editor, Aged 33¼. Spice Girls v James Woods!

25 Jul
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Spice 1997: the Spice Girls bring girl power to a Cannes rooftop

I have finally been reunited with my Cannes diary from 1997, so I can at last continue with my extracts. (You can read the first 1997 extract here.) Is it just me, or was life more colourful back then? 🙂

Cannes, Sunday May 11, 1997: Jon Ronson [with whom I was staying while he wrote gags for Dennis Pennis, see past 1997 Cannes diaries] went to cover the press conference for Spice World this morning. I didn’t bother, but I did see the Spice Girls posing on a roof above the Croisette, the tarty little troopers, Geri Halliwell at one stage running right across it ostensibly to blow someone a kiss, but really just to make her breasts jiggle up and down; Victoria competing by showing more cleavage than the norm but looking as vacant as ever. (I love the story of Frank Skinner impersonating her by looking completely blank from different angles for a good two minutes, as the laughter built.) Each Cannes needs a starlet, and this year it’s our Spices.

Which reminds me: Emma from Electric was furious last night at Demi Moore’s upstaging antics: she rushed into Woody Harrelson’s car at the lights and went up the red carpet with him and tried to deflect the snappers’ bulbs on to her, which apparently just isn’t done my dear, all because she hadn’t got quite enough attention for her own film a couple of nights back.

I bumped into two people I had previously met at the peculiar 18 Awards which I judged at the Savoy, where they literally pushed my partner off the dancefloor in order to snap me with two nude body-painted showgirls – made me sympathise with set-up Tory MPs. The first was Nigel Wingrove, head of Redemption Films and director of Visions of Ecstasy which is the only film to have been banned on grounds of blasphemy; the second was Mark Deitch, programming director for cable channel Bravo, who waxed irate about censorship laws. The BBC is governed by the BBFC, whereas other channels are by the arcane and loosely worded code of the ITC – meaning that films shown uncut on the Beeb such as Day of the Dead can’t be shown on Bravo, which is arguably a cultier audience more likely to know they are getting transgressive material.

That evening I met up with Jon and Bugs actress Jaye Griffiths at the Soho House boat, chatted to Nigel Floyd finally, and headed off a beach party, which we weren’t kicked out of till 2.30am. Metrodome’s Tony Kirkhope apologised to me for trying to pour his G&T into my trousers at the London Film Festival party last year – I’d seen the mischievous glint in his eye and jumped back just in time. He claims to be sober now, and looked miserable. [Foot-note: he sadly died in his sleep a few weeks later, at just 47 years old.]

The best thing by far about the party was seeing livewire actor James Woods, a great hero of mine: shorter, fatter, older in real life, but Jesus! What a great dancer! He was with this preposterous bimbo woman, to whom he’d apparently just got engaged that afternoon. She was so straight and brittle you felt she’d break if anyone put their hand around her wasp-waist, a plastic face under blonde hair, and there was a great to-do over a purse she thought was stolen. She had PR Annabel rushing all over the place looking for it until eventually she saw the woman with it after all: “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, not very apologetically, “I should probably have told you. I found it already.”

“I’m sorry,” I mimicked to PR Tina, “I should have told you, I found it was lodged up my ass all this time…”

For my 2013 Cannes blogs, click here. Final 1997 extract is here.

Alas Smith: on set with the late Mel Smith

21 Jul

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Sorry to hear of the death of Mel Smith, from a heart attack aged 60. His head-to-head dialogues with Griff Rhys Jones on the BBC’s Alas Smith And Jones (above) were must-see viewing when I was young, and the company they co-founded – Talkback – changed the face of TV comedy with series including I’m Alan Partridge, Da Ali G Show and Smack The Pony.

As a film director Mel Smith had mixed success. I went on set of The Tall Guy, his 1989 directorial debut, which was also Richard Curtis’s first produced screenplay, though in Mel’s hands it did not achieve quite the success that Four Weddings later would (“uninhibited by finesse”, was Time Out’s verdict of The Tall Guy). He seemed somewhat at sea.

Jeff Goldblum, uncontrollable and fizzing with nervous energy, gave a wildly different performance and line reading with every take, regardless of whether it was being redone for dramatic or purely technical reasons. And I could be wrong, but I thought I detected a hint of superciliousness towards Mel on the part of the crew, crowded into the sitting room of a north London house. When Mel asked for a shot to be set up just so, the cameraman said words to the effect of “Interesting idea. To have the mike visible in frame.” Instead of confessing to an error, Mel blustered that yes, he thought he would just try a take like that…

He went on to make several more comedy features, equally uninhibited by finesse but with some great moments: Radioland Murders, Bean, High Heels And Low Lifes, and Blackball. One of them at least was a huge box-office success.

Mel Smith was clearly much loved by his peers. As Griff Rhys Jones said yesterday, ““He was a gentleman and a scholar, a gambler and a wit. We are all in a state of shock. We have lost a very, very dear friend.”

Dearth in Venice: the premiere of “The Island”

18 Jul
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Danish Wakeel with his girl-next-door from his short film, The Island

You need bags of self-belief to make a film. But where does self-belief end and hubris begin? The Island, which proudly announces it is “A Film By Danish Wakeel”, even though two lesser mortals are credited with script-writing and directing, may cross that line.

An early teaser proclaimed “Brace yourself… IT’S HAPPENING… 2013”. The tagline says the film is “inspired by the Italian cornucopia supervened by the heritage and the avalanche of Venice”. That’s not a synopsis. It’s more a series of grandiose words connected at random, as though Wakeel, a fashion designer and model whom I met at the London Film Entrepreneurs night, had gone into a wardrobe of words and thrown together an outfit blindfolded.

The Island had a much-touted red-carpet Leicester Square premiere last week, hosted by the London Model Academy – at Ruby Blue nightclub. The 18-minute film was due to start at 9pm, but with red-carpet interviews it ran late, as premieres often will, and didn’t get going, finally, until 9.45… by which time I had to leave. Though judging from the first few minutes, this didn’t feel like a tragedy.

Danish Wakeel is an absurdly handsome man: gigantic pecs, pouty lips, narrowed eyes, enviably thick hair, permanent serious-face. You could picture him as a film star, if not, perhaps, a great auteur. To him, it probably makes sense that his character could sashay into a masked ball, sit down on his own, and so impress two giggly babes with his sheer radiant masculinity that they would come over to invite him wordlessly to a bed-based private view of their lingerie collection. But this audience member found it harder to suspend disbelief. And that’s as far as I got.

Viewing the rest of the film on YouTube is no more enlightening. Wakeel’s character has a beautiful female neighbour, who complains about the noise from his techno-soundtracked orgies. (The following night he is joined by a third girl; how the five of them – I am including Wakeel’s ego – all fit in one bed I don’t know.) However, his pouty lips and narrowed eyes soon win her over.

Her mother is being unfaithful to her father; her father has a gun. But even this creates no sense of drama, and an absurd amount of dialogue takes place one-sidedly, on the phone. No editor is listed in the credits, and it shows. The interiors could be anywhere, and no one speaks Italian, so any connection with Venice aside from a travel montage at the start is unclear; nor, for that matter, with cornucopias and avalanches.

And then the film just… stops. There are apparently another two parts of this oeuvre to come. Ye gods.

Kudos to Wakeel, however, for making a film at all; it is a ridiculously difficult thing to do. Perhaps the ensuing parts will gain from the experience of making the first – a professional editor might be a good start. And one interesting insight comes out of it, at least: who knew Zoolander was such a well-observed documentary?

Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man’: what I saw from behind the mask

17 Jul

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The lift doors open. I feel my way down a corridor. It’s dark, and the mask over my face impedes my vision. Suddenly I stumble out into a vast room, with a knot of masked spectators at one end. What are they watching so intently?

I rush over to see a hunky cowboy in a Stetson, dancing on and over a park bench with two women, alternatively sisterly and bitchy as they compete for his favour. Their pas de trois continues for a few tense minutes – who will he end up with? – before the women go off together instead, and the cowboy is whisked off to a bar by a bearded drag queen in a shimmering scarlet dress who lip-synchs to the Shangri-Las’ I Can Never Go Home Any More.

And then the night starts to get really weird.

Welcome to Temple Studios, a vast film set created by immersive theatre company Punchdrunk across four storeys of the old Post Sorting Office by Paddington Station, for their new show The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. One among 600 masked audience members free to wander at will through a hundred different rooms, all painstakingly decked out with props, books and notes, you feel like a ghost: silent, invisible to the actors except in rare moments when, thrillingly and transgressively, a veil seems to part and they gaze directly into a spectator’s eyes, noticing them for the first time.

On the night I went the spectator next to me was desperately hugged by an actress who had just committed an unspeakable crime; on a different floor, inside a tent, I found an audience member sponging down a dancer’s naked torso; elsewhere, a doctor who had just injected himself with heroin picked out a young masked girl, beckoned her into a small room, and locked the door behind them. The stifling heat, with sweat running down your face from the mask, adds to the claustrophobic sexual tension generated by multiple scenes of lust and infidelity, like so many fragments of a broken dressing-room mirror.

Initially the jumbled, elliptical narrative is disorientating, until your imagination starts to fill in the gaps. There is little or no dialogue, as Punchdrunk believe that emotions can be expressed on a grander scale through dance – which is, after all, the vertical expression of horizontal desire.

What does gnaw at you is FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. My first decision was to follow the cowboy and the drag queen – but what if I had followed the girls? What happened next to them? You often feel that, whatever is going on in front of you, on another floor, in another room, there might be something more interesting still.

There’s only one remedy: go again, on another night. Punchdrunk’s New York production, Sleep No More, which I saw last year, was meant to run for just six weeks but is still playing two and a half years later; fans return dozens of times, and swap notes on the most exciting rooms and actors to follow. The Drowned Man is, in my opinion, even more fun and accessible, the space is twice as big at 200,000 square feet, and the tickets (£39.50) cost half as much.

There is still good availability on dates, but trust me: there won’t be for much longer. It is big, and it is clever.

My 2010 interview with Punchdrunk’s founders in The Times, for those with a subscription, is here

Pacific Rim: putting the “armour” into “Armageddon”

13 Jul

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Let’s get one thing out of the way first. “Pacific Rim” is not, in fact, a scatalogical sexual practice performed in an extremely calm manner. It is the edges of the Pacific Ocean, which are threatened with annihilation when a gateway opens up underwater to another dimension filled with giant monsters. Oh no! However can Mankind fight back? But of course. WITH GIANT ROBOTS.

It’s basically the climax of Aliens, where Ripley straps on an exo-skeleton and kicks Alien ass, magnified a hundred times and stretched to a whole movie. Or think of it as Godzilla crossed with Transformers, except good. And if that doesn’t strike you as ten shades of awesome, this is definitely not the film for you.

It’s admirably single-minded. There is a love interest; there is family to avenge; there is noble sacrifice. But only up to a point. Guillermo del Toro apparently stripped an hour of character stuff out in the edit, so there are practically no sub-plots or back-story. In one of the film’s many great jokes – albeit one that only scriptwriters are likely to slap their thighs over – the grizzled commander (Idris Elba) snaps, speaking for grizzled commanders in pretty much all movies, “You have NO idea who I am and where I come from, and I’m not about to tell you my whole life story. All I need is to be a fixed point.”

So if you’re expecting character development, or any real plot other than “robots smash!”, you are, as the American expression quaintly has it, s**t out of luck. But if you like some armour in your Armageddon, and if you can hoot at lines such as “Guess who’s back you one-eyed bitch, and you owe me a Kaiju brain!” or “I’m cancelling the Apocalypse!”, Pacific Rim is an instant classic.