Archive | November, 2013

LSF #8: Steve Pemberton – a local talk for local people about Inside No 9

5 Nov

I absolutely freaking loved League of Gentlemen. Unlike Little Britain which it inspired, it wasn’t just a collection of catchphrases, though it had those – “This is a local shop for local people, your kind are not welcome here” or “You’re my wife now” – it was a whole, dark little world within the village of Royston Vasey. It was an extension of that uncomfortable scene in American Werewolf in London where the Americans enter a local British pub; or like that ‘50s sci-fi film where the village is cut off from the world by a glass dome, but in this case it’s an invisible force-field of weirdness.

Some nights, watching the black-faced Papa Lazarou, or the sex-change cabbie, or the sinister mystery meat that made everyone’s noses bleed, you just couldn’t believe the BBC had let them get away with this. They very nearly didn’t.

“They were terrified,” said Steve Pemberton at the London Screenwriters’ Festival recently. “They just didn’t get it. But we had influential people like Jon Plowman and Geoffrey Perkins protecting us, and saying you must back this.”

He and Reece Shearsmith did a Q&A session, where they described how they had got on straight away when they made lists of the funny things their parents said, and had many of the same things on there. Like what? “I don’t know,” said Pemberton, “like if you say you’re going to the cinema, and my dad says ‘I’ll bloody cinema you!’”

Shearsmith, incidentally, revealed how he’d agreed to play the part of a cannibalistic serial killer with agoraphobia last year in the short film Him Indoors. Quite simply, the director Tweeted him, and he said yes. “I liked the joke,” explained Shearsmith. “He couldn’t go out to get his victims so he had to get them to come to him. If these shorts are good, I’ll always do them. If not, I’ll pretend I’m busy!”

After the Q&A, I got some time alone with Pemberton, to quiz him about his latest project with Shearsmith – their most recent series Psychoville having come to an end last year after just two series. “The first thing we knew about it was we went in for a meeting, expecting it to be about the third series, and they said, ‘So, what’s next?’ We came up with a Tales of the Unexpected style thing called Inside No 9.”

It’s a surreal experience to sit on a bench in the courtyard of Regent’s Park College with the man who dreamed up and played such amiable grotesques as David Sowerbutts, Oscar Lomax, Tubbs Tattsyrup, Pauline and Herr Lipp, as well as Strackman Lux in Doctor Who and Edward Buchan in Whitechapel. And though he is happy to admit to his misfires – such as the League of Gentlemen film – he seems hugely enthusiastic about Inside No 9.

Inside No 9: Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Gemma Arterton

Inside No 9: Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Gemma Arterton

“Each episode takes place inside a different No 9,” he explains: “a theatre dressing room, a big country house, above a shop. Otherwise there’s no link between them. We were inspired by setting one episode of Psychoville in one room – as a cost-cutting exercise. We based it on Hitchcock’s Rope, shot in just two takes. It was exciting and liberating to do that, it harked back to our being on stage [where League of Gentlemen began]. The craft of writing becomes more important.

“We wanted to make this series simple. There’s so much fast cutting in TV, we felt we’d done enough of that. We’re thinking of Pinter here, or Ayckbourn. We’ve enjoyed placing our own restrictions on the show.

“In one of the episodes of Inside No 9, it actually all takes place inside a single wardrobe! It’s during a game of sardines: one by one, 12 people end up in there.

“Another one, called A Quiet Night In, is all physical, there’s no dialogue. It takes place during a heist, so the burglars have to be quiet, while the couple are having a row and not speaking to each other.

“Steve and I are not always in it, or we’re playing smaller characters, to showcase the writing more. But we’ve got a terrific cast: Gemma Arterton, Denis Lawson, Oona Chaplin, Tamsin Greig, Julia Davis, Anna Chancellor, Anna Reid… their commitment is just a week, so they are easier to get. It’s all in the can: I’m very, very excited, I can’t wait for people to see it. There’s an awful anticipation until next year when it’s shown.”

In the meantime, he says, Edward and Tubbs will man the tills of their local shop one last time: at a benefit gig at the Adelphi Theatre on December 1 in aid of the Royal Free Hospital. Also on the bill are Rowan Atkinson, Jo Brand, Julian Clary, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Matt Lucas, Mitchell & Webb and Paul Whitehouse.

Call it the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

More from the London Screenwriters’ Festival: for loads of great stuff about Joe Eszterhas, writer of Basic Instinct, start here; for Father Ted and The IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan, click here.

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LSF #7: Graham Linehan on the Meaning of Laugh

4 Nov

Graham Linehan is an insanely talented comedy writer. He not only created Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd (and now Count Arthur Strong, which I haven’t yet seen), but co-created the Ted and Ralph characters on The Fast Show and wrote for Chris Morris. I met him once, in the early ‘90s, in a Soho media watering hole. He struck me as very serious. Funny, in a dry way, but essentially very serious about what he does. Which so many very good comedians are – always picking apart the Meaning of Laugh and the Theory of Fun.

Which is lucky for aspiring comedy writers, if he is giving a panel at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. Here were some of the highlights:

On his new production company: “I’m setting up a production company. Whoops, I shouldn’t say that in a room full of writers – try to space it out, don’t all send me stuff at once. Write a pitch; if we like it, then you write a draft. I want to get excited about a project so I can go in with the writers and help them sell it.”

On now directing his comedies as well as writing: “When you’re on set, you watch what the director does. One thing I realised quite quickly is that you don’t really need any skills! And when I’m writing, I see it like on a television screen in my head anyway. So if you want to direct, try to get in on a set and observe the director.”

On script gurus: “I think I screwed myself by going to a Robert McKee lecture too early. He does a terribly dangerous thing, which is to teach you to write a classic, not to write a first draft. You have to give yourself the freedom to be terrible on the first draft.”

On creating characters: “I’m not a fan of the character profiling thing – what their eye colour is, or where they went to school. I find lines of dialogue that suggest an attitude. There’s a great piece on this by Dan Harmon on his blog: his suggestion is to go through your phone contacts and stop on someone who provokes a strong reaction in you, then start writing down things that you associate with them or that describes them.

“I always make a distinction between above the line and below the line. ‘Above the line’ character traits are how that person sees themselves, and ‘below the line’ is how they really are. It’s brilliant when those are opposites.”

On the three moments: “Geoffrey Perkins said a great thing to me: you really need three great moments in an episode; the rest is filling it with gags. Three things that the next day people will say, ‘Did you see that?’ So any episode I ask myself, are there those three moments?”

On the trap: “Griff Rhys Jones said all sitcoms need a trap, a reason why the characters don’t just up and leave.”

On how, even if you’ve created something, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll consult the writer (yikes): “If I had to do The IT Crowd again I wouldn’t put it in a basement. It was a hook, an Upstairs, Downstairs sort of thing, but it made it hard to get people down into the basement plausibly. I found out about the American version of The IT Crowd online, and by the time I did it was shot, nearly, and it was an absolute carbon copy, including all our mistakes – like setting it in the basement. [The US series was commissioned in 2007, was written, and was to have starred Richard Adeoye again, but was cancelled before production by a new incoming head honcho.]

“Why did no one tell me about it? It was when Talkback were getting really big, and the left hand didn’t know what the right was doing. Also they just thought of it as a property that could be sold, like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire; but no, it’s not just changing ‘arse’ to ‘ass’, there’s a whole lot of tweaks you need.”

For the first of my London Screenwriters’ Festival blogs with Joe Eszterhas, click here. Tomorrow: Steve Pemberton of Psychoville and League of Gentlemen.

LSF #6: Joe Eszterhas final — my one-on-one interview

2 Nov
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Basic Instinct writer  Big Joe Eszterhas and me

“They Want to Kill You, Rape Your Wife, and Eat Your Children.” This was the heading of the chapter on critics in Joe Eszterhas’s wildly entertaining warts-and-all book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood. It made this critic laugh when I read it in 2006; less so when I re-read it the night before interviewing him!

Eszterhas is 68, his voice is still hoarse from the throat cancer he overcame in 2001, he has a bad foot (his wife Naomi says she told him not to wear those cowboy boots), and he had just given a two-hour Q&A and a near-two-hour script session with six lucky writers at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. I was expecting a rough ride.

In the event, he was a pussycat. A very large pussycat, admittedly: when I had my photo taken with him, I had to reach up to fit my arm round his broad shoulders, and his white hair is more leonine than feline. He even signed my book afterwards, “To Dominic, who asked me smart questions. I enjoyed our conversation.” The old smoothie…

Still in his own words, these are the highlights of our chat, from Hunter Thompson’s syringe to the death of his father:

On his warts-and-all books: “It’s all in the spirit of light-heartedness. I like to go for the humour. Julia Phillips’ book [You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again] is very bitter; the Joe Eszterhas character in all these books is a very human character. I don’t spare myself. The only way it works is if you’re as blunt and open about your own failings as those you are writing about.”

On his next project: “I’m writing a book, a big novel [his first non-fiction book] about the immigrants and refugees and becoming American. I was an immigrant, six when I came out from Hungary. English is my second language. Some critics say I butcher it. When I was a kid, I stole cars, I carried a knife, I almost killed another kid with a baseball bat. I was a D student, but I did win almost every writing competition.”

On disowning his father after discovering, late in life, that he had collaborated with the Nazis: “It’s the biggest mistake I ever made. I thought that some things are unforgivable, but where I was wrong was not to see him when he was dying. I couldn’t have done the things I did in life without my dad’s support; my mother was schizophrenic, and it got worse and worse. I was right to indicate to him how reprehensible what he had done was, but not to see him when he was dying in the nursing home, crying out my name in Hungarian [he is tearing up here], I will regret until my dying day.”

On leaving his then wife for Naomi, and moving back to his home town of Cleveland. “I really lost my balance in LA. The seduction and glamour of what ultimately I viewed as evil [he is a born-again Christian, though not a “lobotomised” one] is overwhelming, and I only recovered when I met Naomi. We married in 1994; I met her in 1993 when my father died.

“Naomi is Italian/Polish, she grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, 60 miles from Cleveland where I grew up. We were both journalism majors. Our backgrounds were so similar. When I walked into her dad’s house, it was just like my dad’s: the La-Z-Boy armchair, the paintings, the crucifix on the wall.”

On why his fingernails are bitten beyond the quick, like mine. “I had chain-smoked since I was 12. The doctors told me I had to stop smoking and drinking at the same time. My then wife told me to bite my fingernails instead. I stopped for nine years, then the doctors told me that, for cardiac purposes, I could have a glass or two of wine, but never a cigarette.”

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Fear and no clothing: Hunter S Thompson

On his unusual first meeting with a bare-chested Hunter S Thompson, who recommended Eszterhas to Rolling Stone magazine. “When I was a journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer I covered a shooting in a bar by biker gangs. I wrote these articles, and Hunter read one, and sent me a note which said: ‘I read your article and it really pissed me off. Now there are two of us who can write about biker gangs.’

“I was fired from my newspaper when I wrote a critical article about my Editor over the selling of the Mai Lai photos [from the now notorious Vietnam war massacre, which Eszterhas got hold of first]. Hunter shared some of my writing with Jan Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, and he said come write an article about narcotics. My first day there, Rolling Stone has a big party – understand that I’m just a kid from the Mid-West with a fake leather jacket; I don’t know these fancy New York parties. There’s a lot of shit there, dope, and over there I see this guy surrounded by people on the floor. It’s Hunter.

“He’s bare-chested, sticking a gigantic hypodermic needle into his navel. He turns around, sees me, and says, ‘Hey, want some of this?’ I say, ‘What the hell is it?’ ‘Ebogaine,’ he says. I hadn’t even heard of it, some crazy shit Hunter found.”

On whether he’s still “got it” in Hollywood: his last produced feature film (apart from one in Hungary) was in 1997. “The truth is, it’s very tough to be a screenwriter or director in that town when you’re pushing 70. The last piece I wrote was called Desire, and there’s another piece I’m doing now, but I’m smart enough to know that I’ll write something and sometimes it will get made, and sometimes it won’t.”

On whether it’s got even harder for scriptwriters since his day. “It’s gone backwards in several ways. There are groups of writers now under the aegis of the director, and now it’s ‘A Film By’ the director. In the ‘90s, if you got one person who liked it, they would make it. Now it’s a committee. That’s why we’re being fed all this candy-cane shit.”

And that’s all from Battlin’ Joe Eszterhas. I have four more wildly entertaining blog posts about him, starting here. After a Sunday break, I will post some more daily blogs of London Screenwriters’ Festival highlights… come back on Monday!

LSF #5: From Showgirls to mad Mel, Joe Eszterhas’s glorious disasters

1 Nov
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Cult: Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls

We’re not done with Joe Eszterhas yet! At the London Screenwriters’ Festival, the wildly entertaining raconteur discussed some of his less successful projects, and the lessons to be learned. From the crazed fiasco that is Showgirls to the even more crazed fiasco that is Mel Gibson, these are the best bits:

Showgirls, 1995. Lesson: don’t do so much “research” you forget about the movie.

“I’ve always done a lot of research for my films. For Showgirls, Paul and I went to Vegas and did a lot of research – that was before I met Naomi here! [Aha, that kind of research.] Paul accused me of being relentless about it. But yeah, we really got nailed both commercially and critically for Showgirls. The problem is it was an NC17, and I desperately wanted it to be an R.

“The movie is over the top – flagrantly, violently, viciously over the top [laughter]. It’s globally over the top [laughter]. Perhaps that’s why it’s found a cult audience. I saw the movie last about 12 years ago, at a special screening in New York, where the audience were dressing up and reciting lines of dialogue. So many people over the years have come up and whispered to me, ‘I love Showgirls’. It is what it is. It became something I never intended, but if so many people found something they love in it, God bless ‘em even if I didn’t intend it.”

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Cu*t: Mel Gibson in two police mug shots: after anti-Semitic remarks and drunk-driving in 2006, and booked for alleged battery of his former girlfriend in 2011

The Maccabees, unproduced. Lesson: if Mel calls, hang up.

“I was commissioned to do a piece [Eszterhas always says ‘piece’, not script or screenplay] on The Maccabees for Mel Gibson. As I researched, I thought it was one of the most profound and moving stories about Jewish independence I had ever read. I asked Mel why he wanted to do it, he said, ‘Because I think I should.’ We took it to be a sign of repentance for his anti-Semitic statements, which were undeniable.

“Then one day, he said, ‘What I really want to do with this movie is,’ quote, ‘convert the Jews to Christianity.’

“I came to realise there is a dark well of wild-eyed anger and hate there towards people he has worked with, and an overall volcanic rage. Mel needs an intervention. We were in his house in Costa Rica once when he went off completely, screaming at the guests, knocking over totem poles – my 15-year-old son was so frightened he grabbed a butcher’s knife from the kitchen and slept with it under the bed. But I loved the story, so I decided I would write it in my way, and let the chips fall where they may.

“Then it hit the fan.

“Part of the experience that was very painful is I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever done. It was very violent in the fight scenes, but it ended with the words ‘Never again’, which had an echo across the ages. I was fired because Mel didn’t like the script, and I can’t now do anything with it because he commissioned me. It truly was a tragic and heart-breaking human experience on all levels.”

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Did you know Mel Gibson went on to make a film called The Beaver? Why Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2 reminds me of that, I don’t know

Basic Instinct 2, 2006. Lesson: take the money, do nothing.

“The executive in charge thought that Basic Instinct was misogynistic, and she wasn’t going to let the sequel be. So they made me an offer I could easily refuse. My deal on Basic Instinct called for me to get $2m for any sequel, whether or not I worked on it. They offered me $2m. For the sequel to the biggest-grossing movie of 1992 [NB: he often claims it’s the biggest, but it’s actually No9 domestically or No4 worldwide], they offer me the same as I would get if I did no work at all. Hollywood does these screwy things. They’ve got the golden egg and they screw it up.” [Basic Instinct 2, which Joe had no hand in, grossed only $39m worldwide. Sharon Stone’s salary alone cost a third of that.]

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Debra Winger and Tom Berenger, Betrayed by the margins

Betrayed, 1988. Lesson: don’t cheat the margins.

“My original script for Betrayed was too long – so I just made the page margins wider! That made the right page-count. I got a call half-way through filming from the producer, saying ‘Come up here, we’re screwed, the film’s going to be too long because the margins are too wide, so we have to cut’ – from what hasn’t yet been shot. It was the ugliest creative process. I never cheated the margins again!”

Original Sin, unproduced. Lesson: the postman always fakes twice.

“I wrote a piece called Original Sin, and they had trouble putting it together. I’m in Hawaii a year later, and I get this desperate call that a scriptwriter had sold this script to a TV company – he was paid $350,000 or something. And it was my physical script: I always type on a manual typewriter, he’d just put his name on the top!

“I discovered it was a mailman who’d taken a screenwriting course, and they gave out scripts as samples, and one was Original Sin. He just Xeroxed it and put his name on it. The final pinpoint I love is that they discovered that a couple of years before he had tried to sell another of my scripts, and this one he couldn’t sell – but then it was a film called Sacred Cows, about the President having sex with a cow!”

More Joe Eszterhas: click here for his advice to screenwriters; click here for the origins of Basic Instinct; click here for his blow-by-blow live commentary. NEW: for my one-on-one interview, from his dying father to Hunter S Thompson and his syringe, click here