Archive | November, 2013

Soundcheque: putting movies and music together

28 Nov
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XFM’s Sunta Templeton and Liam Young with Soundcheque founder Laura Westcott (centre)

Film-makers: ever wished you could just magically find the perfect segment of music at a price you can afford? Musicians: ever wished your old compositions could bring in extra cash without you having to do any whoring around?

You might as well ask, “Bears: have you ever thought to avail yourselves of the bowel evacuation facilities provided by a sylvan environment?”

Soundcheque.com really is a no-brainer. Composers upload their music. Film-makers search by genre or mood and download the pieces they like. Or, even easier, they ask Soundcheque to suggest an artist and negotiate on their behalf according to their budget – this bespoke service comes at no extra cost, and overall Soundcheque take just 20% of the fee and 0% of any royalties, surely the best deal out there for composers.

The effervescent founder, Laura Westcott, is a classically trained musician and singer who founded the site for love rather than money, and is most definitely on the artists’ side. “My accountant thinks I’m mad not to take a bigger cut,” she confesses, “but for me it’s just the right thing to do.”

I first wrote about Soundcheque the day it soft-launched, back in January (click here to read). It had just 50 composers and 19 Facebook fans. Nearly a year later, it has 1,000 composers (twice as many as its nearest UK rival) and 35,000 Facebook fans, and on Tuesday night celebrated its relaunched website with a banging party at Concrete in Shoreditch. There were terrific sets from Soundcheque protégés Sykes and from beatboxing legend Beardyman; also in attendance were XFM DJs Sunta Templeton and Liam Young (pictured above), as well as the still utterly fabulous Patricia Quinn.*

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Laura with film producer Marcus Campbell Sinclair and the fabulous Patricia “Magenta” Quinn

The great thing about Soundcheque now is its range. It welcomes micro-budget film-makers who can only afford £50 for a track, but Laura Westcott has also been courting the big advertising agencies. The latest convert to the Soundcheque cause is Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP (only the world’s largest advertising company), whom she met at an awards ceremony in the House of Lords, as you do. Sky and the BBC have started using Soundcheque too.

As to the future, Laura will be doing a talk and workshop on music licensing at the BFI’s Future Film Festival in February. Caffè Nero plan to use Soundcheque music in their coffee shops, as well as getting Soundcheque bands to play live. There will be a songwriting competition in association with Gibson Guitars. And next summer, I can exclusively reveal, Soundcheque will be running a stage at the Latitude Festival in conjunction with Live Nation. The production team will be drawn from a pool of youngsters with the Prince’s Trust, with whom Laura does a lot of pro bono work.

It all sounds almost too good to be true – especially when Laura, at her party, is resplendent in a dress loaned by Vivienne Westwood. And then she reveals that there were times before the bigger business started coming in when, to make ends meet, she had to rent out her flat and sleep in her car. Now that’s passion. Long may she remain in the driving seat.

*Patricia Quinn, of course, played Magenta in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I first met her at a party of Kim Newman’s, where she sang the whole of Science Fiction Double Feature in the kitchen. This follows on from Richard O’Brien serenading me after dinner in the Ivy Club, so an open call to Susan Sarandon, wherever you are: I’m waiting for a burst of Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me!

Fashion’s unholy trinity: Isabella Blow, Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy

24 Nov

One of the most exciting exhibitions on fashion I have ever seen has just opened. Better even than the Louboutin at the Design Museum, and those who know me know I love shoes; better too than its current Paul Smith exhibition.

It’s Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset House. Even more than the V&A’s current Club to Catwalk, it makes one proud to be a Londoner – it’s impossible to imagine the wild, daring, inventive but still utterly wearable designs of Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, Isabella Blow’s most famous protégés, originating from any other city.

There are so many extraordinary outfits here, taken from Blow’s personal collection – she famously spotted McQueen at his Central Saint Martins graduation show, and bought the entire collection for £5,000. Most remarkable is a sailing ship fashioned as a black hat, its feather sails curling behind it as though permanently caught in the wind: this was inspired by Blow telling Treacy about the short-lived fashion for 18th century women to wear a ship in their vast wigs to commemorate a naval battle.

There are some lovely stories alongside the clothes. Sophie Dahl tells how she was crying by a parking meter when a regal apparition emerged from a taxi burdened with a gravity-defying hat and dozens of shopping bags. Dahl offered to help her, and Blow – for it was she – asked why she’d been crying.

“I’ve had an argument with my mother about what I’m going to do with my life,” said Dahl. “Would you like to be a model?” asked Blow. “Yes, please,” she said. Blow helped her become the most famous plus-sized model in the world.

I also love the description of how, when Blow became Fashion Editor for the new Sunday Times Style magazine, its editor would have her walk the long way through the office so that everyone in that uptight, tie-wearing office could see her. The Sunday Times’ overall editor was, apparently, too terrified to meet her.

It reminds me of being at the Times, when the transvestite, Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry was a columnist for the Arts section. He would come to drinks parties dressed as his alter-ego, a little girl in a huge blue frock and hair bow called Claire.

There’s a dark side to the glitz and glamour. McQueen and Blow fell out when the former sold his label to Gucci, in a deal Blow had helped to broker, and she wasn’t rewarded. Both later committed suicide – Blow in 2007, McQueen in 2010.

I’ve followed the three for years. I own a fantastic pair of McQueen trousers, bought for a risible £30 at the Designer Warehouse Sale. From the same place, I own four Philip Treacy hats – a sensible black fedora, a blue in the same design, an Elvis hat and a Marilyn hat (see pics, below).

Back in 1997, when I edited Time Out, we were delighted to get Alexander McQueen for our London Fashion Week cover. The yellow liquid in which he and model Karen Ferrari were doused was intended by McQueen to represent a “golden shower”, but in the end the side of him that acted as head of respected fashion house Givenchy won over the punk side of him that once stitched “I am a c***” into the linings of Prince Charles’s jacket. At the last minute he begged us not to mention the golden shower idea, so our Fashion Editor, Lorna V, coyly referred to it in the cover interview as “a truly wicked portrait of his choice”.

As to Blow, we put her on the cover five months later, at the next London Fashion Week. To be honest, I had to be persuaded by Lorna V – Blow was, after all, not a designer or model but a stylist at another magazine – but I’m glad I was.

“She doesn’t seem to care,” wrote Lorna V, “that her dyed-red cropped fox-fur jacket by designer Tristan Webber is sweeping dust from the floor, that her silver lace dress by Alexander McQueen is twisted so tight it’s exposing her ample bosom, and that her neon-yellow Manolo Blahnik stilettos (worn with matching tights and knickers) are scratching the tiles.”

“I’m like an animal foraging for truffles, or an eagle looking for prey,” Blow told Lorna of her hunt for new talent. “I just can’t seem to stop. It’s in my blood.”

But working in fashion will inevitably warp your own sense of self. Blow admitted her obsession with hats started as a way to draw attention away from her face, saying: “I’m hideous. I won’t have mirrors in the house because I can’t bear to look at myself. I suppose that’s why my lipstick is never on evenly.”

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is on at Somerset House until March 2, 2014. Club to Catwalk is at the V&A until Feb 16, 2014. hello my Name Is Paul Smith is at the Design Museum until March 9, 2014. The next Designer Warehouse Sales are Dec 6-8 (women) and Dec 13-15 (men).

Gravity: just out of this world

21 Nov

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Seeing Gravity, late, now comes with crushing expectations: it’s got more stars than the Hubble telescope, an IMDB ranking at 59th of all time.

To me, it exceeded them all. If you go – and you should – do see it in IMAX. Expensive? They could have charged me £100 and I’d have thought it worth the ticket.

CGI seldom impresses any more: we expect the impossible. But damn – George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are actually floating. Those space stations are actually exploding. It feels as real as that first train did to terrified early audiences.

The camera-work is vertiginously virtuoso: long, long takes (the first is 17 minutes; take that, Orson!), drifting and revolving as we follow the space-walkers in their suits, spinning round until we’re inside the helmet looking out with them. (As Ender’s Game observes, there is no “up” in space.) This is what happens when you take a great art-movie director  like Alfonso Cuarón and give him a Hollywood blockbuster’s tool-box to play with.

David Hare is not a fan. In a talk I attended at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, he blasted: “Gravity is a film in which, from beginning to end, nobody says a single interesting thing. You think, ‘hang on, this film is at the cutting edge, you’ve spent $80 million for digital effects; it might be worth spending a quarter of that on someone who could write dialogue, not just spaghetti Bolognese coming out of their mouths.’”

I can’t agree. It’s simple, and it’s affecting. A little too patly “Hollywood” in its character arc perhaps – without spoiling anything for those who haven’t yet seen it, the emotional key-line is “you have to learn to let go” – but I was still literally on the edge of my seat throughout, I still cried at the end. Even if my tears didn’t drift away in shiny silver globules like Sandra Bullock’s.

Cuarón, incidentally, deserves major credit for sticking to his guns: the studio wanted Bullock’s character to be a man.  Well, we’re up to $527,756,931 and still counting. With Bridesmaids having re-written the rules for female comedy (it’s the highest grossing of all Judd Apatow movies), this may be the defining moment when Hollywood finally catches up with the music industry, and realises that women can take the lead.

Though hopefully not naked and perched on top of a wrecking ball.

Hooray for London Hollywood: 5 highlights from 1 year and 100 blog posts

19 Nov

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This is my 100th post. It’s also a year since I started LondonHollywood.net.

A big thank you to all readers, with an extra peck on the cheek to anyone who Shares or Retweets or even Comments when they like a post.

I’m passionate about film; that’s why I do this. It’s good to spread the love. [Though if any commissioning editors read this, I am still more than happy to write for money, as well as love!]

In celebration of a year of blogging, these were the highlights. Click the links to read the posts.

Most popular: My four-part interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, ranging from Sherlock to Madonna to his time with Tibetan monks. The Cumberbabes went nuts for this — at one stage racking up 3,000 views a day

Most unpopular: To the horror of many, I greeted Django Unchained with something less than rapture. Now that I have seen 12 Years A Slave (coming soon to this blog), I stand by my opinion even more firmly. 

Most epic: Colonel Badd, the short film I co-wrote, was accepted into the Court Métrage section of the Cannes Film Festival. I went out there, writing 11 blogs: half were from this trip, half from my 1997 diary from when I went out there with Jon Ronson as Editor of Time Out. Divine madness, with a cast that includes Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, Jonathan King, Alan Parker, Paul Kaye and the Spice Girls. 

Only slightly less epic: I wrote ten blogs on the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival, for those who couldn’t be there, ranging from one-on-one interviews to panels on better writing. Four posts were on the irrepressible Joe “Basic Instinct” Eszterhas, the highest-paid screenwriter of all time. Trust me, they’re a hoot. 

Most controversial: I wrote two blogs about heart-breaking YouTube videos by bullied teens, two of whom went on to commit suicide. One man, ‘Philip Rose’, wrote to me many times, at some length, saying the story of Amanda Todd is not all it seems; he then started his own blog, here. Intriguing. Murky. Very hard to unravel. 

So there it is. Hope to see you back here soon (bring your friends!), and here’s to the next year. A short version of this URL, btw, is www.londonhollywood.net.

London Bollywood: Indian film through vintage posters

16 Nov
Raj Kapoor's Bobby: a racy poster for 1976

Raj Kapoor’s Bobby: a racy poster for 1973 — though see below for more extreme

William Goldman noted that romantic comedies and dramas are all about obstacles. We know the couple will get together in the end – the fun lies in preventing them for as long as possible.

In the Western world, there are fewer and fewer barriers of class, wealth, religion and race, leading to ever-more desperate devices to stop couples just shagging on their first date: he’s in a coma (While You Were Sleeping); she’s lost her memory (50 First Dates); he’s mildly nuts (Silver Linings Playbook). But in India, many of the old barriers still apply. It’s one reason why Shakespeare works so well transposed to an Indian setting. And one reason why Bollywood movies can pack such a powerful emotional punch.

Though Bollywood is the world’s second biggest movie producer, until a few years ago I’d hardly seen any Indian films, bar the odd Satyajit Ray (hardly typical!). Now I love them. The drama is bigger, colours are brighter, wounds cut deeper. So I leaped at the chance to get a whistlestop tour of Indian cinema from Bollywood expert Ashanti Omkar.

The occasion was an exhibition of rare posters at the Westbury Gallery in the Westbury Hotel, prior to an auction on Nov 29 by Conferro Auctions. These were some of the highlights:

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Mother India (1957)

The plot is about the difficulties of a single mother that symbolise India’s post-Independence struggles. Equally notable is the fact that Nargis, the famous actress playing the mother, fell in love with the man playing her son (!), and they married soon after. It’s like when I saw Ralph Fiennes’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire in 1995, alongside Francesca Annis as his mother – I had never seen such an Oedipal production, the heat between them in the ‘rank sweat of an enseamed bed’ scene was blistering. They too became an item, despite the 19-year age gap. With Mother India, Nargis was actually only 26 at the time, though playing much older: she fell in love with Sunil Dutt after he risked his life to save her from a fire on set. Awww.

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Dara Singh (1960s)

Dara Singh was India’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: a 6’2” wrestler who got into film in 1952, and was especially loved for his roles as Hanuman, the super-strong Monkey God. He later turned successfully to producing, writing and directing, became the head of a studio, and even the first sportsman nominated to the Upper House of the Indian parliament. He died just last year.

cdbp-19Baarish (1957)

According to Ashanti, this poster was exceptionally racy for its day. Why? Because the sari has – gasp! – slipped off Nutan’s (not even bare) shoulder. It is one of the brilliant things about Indian film that the consummation of romance is taboo – until relatively recently, even kisses were pretty much unknown. It gives a yearning and an erotic tension to so many Bollywood movies that Hollywood sex scenes can never match.

Bobby (1973 — see top of blog)

This was, says Ashanti, the movie every young person wanted to see in 1973. Partly because of the racy poster of Dimple Kapadia (Bobby) in a red bikini (see top of blog), and partly because it introduced to Bollywood the genre of star-cross’d teenage lovers from opposite sides of the class/wealth divide. It also introduced director Raj Kapoor’s son in the male lead role: Bollywood is very much a family business.

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Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978)

This translates as The Good, The True, and The Beautiful, which sounds like the airline edit of a Spaghetti Western classic. As well as possibly the raciest mainstream Indian film poster EVER (more so than the film, needless to say), the film, again directed by Raj Kapoor, has a terrific plot. A virtuous young woman with a burned face marries a handsome young engineer. Somehow he fails to notice the imperfection beforehand; when he does, he spurns her. She then comes to him in the night; they make love, he not realising it is his wife. When his wife falls pregnant (with his child), he assumes she has been unfaithful… As Ashanti puts, it’s a classic love triangle – with only two people.

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Shree 420 (1955)

Bollywood was HUGE in the Soviet Union, thanks to Raj Kapoor and his Charlie Chaplin-esque character in 1951’s Awaara and in Shree 420. A piece of trivia for Gravity fans: the song the Indian astronaut sings a snatch of is Mera Joota hai Japani (“My shoes are Japanese”) – the big hit from the film.

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Sholay (1975)

Of all the posters at the exhibition, this was the one most photographed. In 2002 a BFI poll ranked it the best Indian film of all time; it’s also, adjusted for inflation, the biggest-grossing. The first Indian movie to be released in 70mm wide-screen format and stereophonic sound, it’s a “Curry Western” that draws heavily from Western tropes even though it’s a cop movie (and musical; and romance; and…). You’ll note from the poster that the producers didn’t sell it short. It is, apparently, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

 

LSF #10: Creating character with Pilar Alessandra

8 Nov

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I hope you’ve enjoyed my blogs from the London Screenwriters’ Festival: this tenth post pretty much exhausts the good material. I want to close on character, and the excellent workshop by Pilar Alessandra (left), director of the writing programme On The Page.

But first, a confession. My earlier screenplays, I realised after far too many years, were plot-based. That is, I had a good premise, puzzled it through a variety of twists [my first was a time-travel movie eerily reminiscent of Looper], and then tried to shoehorn the characters into them. As Julia Roberts would say, “Big mistake. Huge.”

Drama is conflict that emerges from character. It is not clever plotting. And as any writer will tell you, when your characters are alive, in your head, they do all the work for you: they decide what to do and say; you just take dictation.

My grandfather was a famous novelist: Richard Hughes, author of A High Wind in Jamaica and The Fox in the Attic. There is a family story that he came out of his study one day, white as a sheet. My grandmother rushed up and asked him what was wrong. “It’s Molly,” he said (Molly was a character in the book he was writing). “She’s just fallen from her horse. I rather think she might die.”

Back to Pilar Alessandra. She took us through an intriguing exercise in brainstorming a film structure from scratch, based on character. You can do it yourself, now. You’ll see you have the framework for a workable film within minutes.

First, pick a flaw, any flaw – vanity, laziness, wrath, mendacity, greed, whatever. Then give it to a character.

Now: what’s the worst situation a character with that flaw can find themselves in? So a lazy person might have to win a race; a wrathful person might have to control their temper; a mendacious person might have to tell the truth. [Having written those three things, I realise they already are movies: the first might be Simon Pegg’s Run, Fat Boy, Run; the second might be Jack Nicholson’s Anger Management; the third, Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar. See? It’s working already.]

And now: what does he/she do about that situation? Then: how does this backfire?

Next: what is their overall goal? Next: who would be the absolute worst/least likely person to help them out with it? Now, what action might this person push the protagonist to take? And who or what might now get in the way?

The protagonist needs to be learning something, maybe helping someone else – so now, how can that flaw be turned into a skill? What final action can they take that is the least likely thing they would ever previously have done to take us to the resolution?

Try it. You’ll see it generates plot; interesting/funny scenes; and of course has a built-in character arc.

Two more things I liked from Pilar’s workshop.

One, her description of “3D” characters. The three dimensions she identifies are A) Public: what is your character like when out and about? B) Personal: in one-on-one scenes? C) When he or she thinks no one else is looking? [Contrast with Graham Linehan’s distinction between “above the line” and “below the line” character in post 7.]

Two: her simple rule for introducing a character in a script. You must express essence, and action. An example from one of her students: “EMMA BALE, tough by necessity, furiously packs the crabs into straw boxes.” From that short line we have character, location, employment, history and some idea of looks without just describing the heroine as “pretty” or “brunette”. Note that the less specific detail about physical attributes you give, the more widely open to casting the role is, and the more actors who might be interested in playing the role.

And th-th-that’s all for now, folks! But y’all come back now, y’hear?

Tickets to next year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival are currently available to pre-book at a £70 discount. There are also monthly instalment plans to spread the cost. http://www.londonscreenwritersfestival.com/lsf2014/. For my other blogs from the festival, including a lot of wildly entertaining stuff from Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas, start here.

LSF #9: Stuart Hazeldine on writing Blade Runner 2, and running naked in traffic

6 Nov
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Big in Hollywood: British screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine

Of all the “how-to” seminars at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, the one I got the biggest kick from was The Epic Spec: How to EXPLODE on to the Hollywood Scene. It was given by British writer Stuart Hazeldine (left), and though his IMDB credits may not seem that impressive, that’s a lesson in itself. The regular money comes from optioned spec scripts that remain unproduced, and rewrites and polishes that may never generate a credit.

So you won’t see this on IMDB, but he’s recently written the screenplay for Paradise Lost, which got him Spielberg’s attention to write his (now dropped) Moses film Gods and Kings, which got him Michael Mann’s attention to write Agincourt.

Not bad.

Here’s Stuart’s advice on starting out in Hollywood: “Sometimes, to get noticed, you have to take your clothes off and run in the traffic.”

He means this metaphorically. I hope.

And here’s how he did it: he wrote a sequel to Blade Runner. No one asked him to do it. He didn’t have the rights to do it. But he loved the movie and had an idea of where it should go next, so he did it. And because every Hollywood exec knew Blade Runner, and wanted to know what happened next, that was the spec script they all asked for.

Stuart did the same with Aliens, and that even got recommended to the people actually making the third Aliens movie, though for legal reasons they couldn’t read his version at the time. Afterwards, when the film was made, Stuart met with the exec responsible… and told him he’d screwed it up and his script was better. The exec was not amused. But it did add to Stuart’s notoriety in Hollywood.

With hindsight, Stuart wouldn’t exactly recommend these routes to success. Knowing better now, he advises taking an existing property that’s out of copyright but which everyone has heard of. Think of The Taming of the Shrew remade as 10 Things I Hate About You; the Theseus myth updated as The Hunger Games; and all those fairytale reboots like Jack The Giant Slayer or Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Stuart pitched Paradise Lost (which I always thought, when studying it for A-Level, would make a great graphic novel – at the time I thought it was unfilmable, but special effects may have caught up) to the studios as “sci-fi set in the past”, or as “Genesis meets Lord of the Rings”. Milton’s epic poem describes the archangel Lucifer’s war against God which led him to become the Devil – “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven” is, as Stuart rightly says, the keyline. I hope it gets made; I would love to see it.

A final few pieces of advice from Stuart. A) “The buying seasons in LA are roughly from the end of Sundance till the beginning of Cannes, and from Labor Day to Thanksgiving; these are the best times to go out and pitch.” B) “Think of yourself as your own agent. If you have an agent, they can be your support team, but ultimately you have to look after your own career.” C) “Write what you are passionate about. I do think passion is detectable on the page. I’ve written things I thought other people would want, and they didn’t sell.”

Now, whatever way you can find to take your clothes off and run in traffic, go do it.