Archive | March, 2014

Three things screenwriters can learn from Starred Up

26 Mar

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Wow. A star is born. Jack O’Connell is absolutely extraordinary in the gritty British prison drama Starred Up. Tough and vulnerable, very physical but still intelligent, and with that infectious laugh he deployed so well in Skins that says “F**k it all, I’ve nothing to lose,” he gives a (literally) balls-out performance. Angelina Jolie cast him as the lead in her next movie after seeing an early preview. It is inconceivable that he will not become the next major British star to follow Ewan McGregor, James McAvoy, Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender.

But there’s another star born here, and that’s the first-time writer of Starred Up, Jonathan Asser. About three years ago, I met Jonathan at a film gathering, and we swapped the pitches for our current projects, as you do. When I heard his, I told him, and I have never said this before or since, that it wasn’t just a strong idea, but that it would get made. All he had to do was put it in front of some producers, and one would leap at it.

The reasons for that should be instructive to any would-be writer/film-maker.

— Write what you know. Producers are looking for inside knowledge that only you can bring. A tiny example: I went to a seminar with a British director who was hired to make a Hollywood cop movie, above more experienced American directors, because he said his Dad was a policeman.

Jonathan Asser worked as a prison therapist for 12 years, before his contract was abruptly and mysteriously terminated. When he talked about life in prison, you knew that whatever fiction he wrote was going to grounded in reality, that he knew the ins and outs that most writers-for-hire in their lonely garrets or beside their Hollywood pools could only guess at.

— Create your world. This point follows from the first, but whatever your genre, the world it’s set in must be convincingly “real”, however outlandish are the events that take place within it. This is even true in fantasy and science-fiction. The Lord of the Rings and Dune both endure because the writers created an elaborate alternate universe, with its own languages, history, races and customs.  

I remember Jonathan Asser was worried about his proposed title, Starred Up, being alienating. No, I said, it’s perfect. First, it just sounds good. But more importantly, even if you don’t understand it you can tell it’s some kind of slang (it means a young offender being transferred early to an adult prison), which conveys the message this will be a story told from the inside, with its own unique language and customs.

— Show them the passion. I once had a friendly meeting with a top producer. She listened to my ideas: a sci-fi film, a thriller, a rom-com. She said yes, fine, but what are you really passionate about? I was thrown. All of them, I said. No, she insisted, what are you really passionate about?

I think what she meant was, what’s the film you would die if you didn’t make, the film that is burning to erupt from inside you like molten lava? Starred Up is clearly that to Jonathan Asser. There’s even a line in the film when the prison therapist, modelled on himself, confesses that his group sessions are just as much therapy to him as to the inmates. “I need to be here,” he says simply. And this is a film, after his therapy project was pulled out from under him after 12 successful years, that Jonathan needed to write.

As the old Hollywood saying goes, “The most important thing in this business is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

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Playing poker at the Hippodrome: Six Things I Learned About Gus Hansen

20 Mar

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How often do you get the chance to play against one of the world’s top poker pros – in a humble 60-person, £80 tournament? I know; never. But last night the impossible happened. Thanks to its tie-in with PokerStars and Full Tilt, London’s Hippodrome casino brought Gus Hansen down to play with us mere mortals.

Gus Hansen!! This is how big a deal that is:

Two years ago, for an article in Conde Nast Traveller, I flew to Macau and tracked down the legendary “Big Game”. Here, in the Starworld casino, Chinese billionaires are locked nightly in mortal combat with the best poker players the West can throw at them – the whales against the sharks. The pros that night were John Juanda, Sam Trickett, Tom Dwan and, yes, Gus Hansen.

Gus had “only” about 40 orange chip plaques – each is worth HK$100,000, or about  £10,000, so that’s nearly half a million quid. The businessmen’s plaques, on the other hand, rose in front of them like the Great Wall of China.

From my lowly 1-2 table nearby, I crane my head to see Gus push half his stack into the centre of the table — £200,000 in a single hand! His opponent picks up some chips, seems about to call; reconsiders… and folds. Chalk one up to Gus.

I am hoping to sneak a quick interview with Gus, having played on his table at the World Series of Poker Europe (I outlasted him, too), but the pit boss says simply, “No break.” “I’ll catch him when he goes to the toilet, then,” I say. The pit boss just laughs: “That won’t happen. Sometimes they play for 20 hours straight.”

Even so, I hang around, playing 1-2, watching as much of the game as I can see beyond the protective screens. I pack it in at 8am; they’re still going strong. By this time Gus has tripled up – that’s £800,000 profit in six hours. And now I see why he hasn’t stood up from the table, not even once. At that rate, I calculate that a five-minute break to “spend a penny” would cost him, on average, £10,000.

And now we few, we lucky 60 who have braved no more than a Tube journey to sit at the PokerStars Live Lounge’s fourth-floor balcony tables, have the chance to pit our wits against this Poker Master for a measly £80.

So what is it like to play against a man whose live tournament earnings alone surpass $11million? Here’s Six Things I Learned About Gus Hansen…

1. He’s generous. He’s nice to everyone on the table, trading small talk and jokes. When the waitress hands him some water, he slips her a £5 note. “What’s that for?” she asks. “For you,” says Gus.  She still looks baffled. “A tip,” explains Gus. The waitress grins like a schoolgirl. She’s not used to seeing anything bigger than a £1 chip tossed on to her tray.

2. Then again, he can afford to be. I tell Gus I saw him at the Big Game in Starworld a while back. He grins. “I’m doing gooood in that one,” he says, elongating the ‘o’ for emphasis. “Doing real good.”

3. He knows when to fold ‘em. Early in the tournament, with the big blind still at 100 on a starting stack of 5,000, Gus raises to 350. Fellow Full Tilt pro Sin Menis Melin shoves all-in. She even gets another caller – now Gus has value. He dwells… and folds Ace-King. Dead right. Sin had pocket Aces.

4. And he knows when to hold ‘em. “I’ve just got this weird feeling I’m ahead,” he says, calling an all-in shove of 2,800 by a previously tight player on the button, with the big blind still at 200. The other guy shows J6, more commonly known as “Jack-sh**”. Gus has A8. Good call! Even so, Gus is just 64% to win… which plunges to 13% when the Jack comes on the flop… until Gus catches an Ace on the river. That’s poker.

5. Even Gus Hansen is still learning. “How’s it going?” asks a passing friend. “Pretty good,” says Gus, “I’ve introduced a new element to my game.” “What’s that?” “Folding!” he laughs.

6. But apparently not fast enough! I twice saw Gus make smallish river bets on a dangerous board, presumably to test the water and dampen down any potential bluffs, as well as maybe squeezing out a little value. One board had three sixes showing; Gus had pocket Aces. The second time, I myself called his river bet with just a pair of fives, on a board with four cards to the straight, just because it would have been cool to say that I had caught Gus bluffing. No chance. He’d actually made trips on the flop with pocket sevens. Later in the tournament, however, the new-found love of folding Gus had joked about deserted him: he was knocked out with what he later called a “ridiculous” river bluff.

What a great night. Daniel Taylor was the guy who knocked Gus out: the bounty on the pro’s head was a seat at the PokerStars UKIPT series here on April 11-13. The first prize of £1490 was won by Sarah Berry. And, I console myself after I bust out against Sin’s second pocket Aces of the night, in a very real sense we’re all winners: the Hippodrome has just introduced a leaderboard, with points for every player – eventual grand prize, a PokerStars sponsorship to all weekend multi-day tournaments including the UKIPT.

Tournaments at the Hippodrome’s PokerStars Live Lounge run Sunday-Wednesday; cash games daily. For my guide to playing in Vegas, click here

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It’s Miller time! Sin Sity: A Dame To Kill For trailer

7 Mar

I am unreasonably excited by the new teaser trailer for Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, which has just been released. The first film was a stone-cold, hard-boiled cult classic, echoing Frank Miller’s Expressionist (in film terms) art with amazing precision while still adding life to the book – it didn’t feel like a second-hand reproduction as Watchmen did. That they didn’t tone down the violence was something of a miracle, though not every viewer had the stomach for a Harry Potter lookalike getting his arms and legs eaten off by dogs while still alive.

A lot of people are no fans of Frank Miller, and in some ways he’s the anti-Alan Moore. Right-wing in sensibility where Moore is left-wing to the point of anarchy, he also despises realism in superhero comics, pushing for archetypal stories of violence, desire and redemption. Whatever you may think of his politics and view of women, I’ve interviewed him and found him eloquent, intelligent, mildly irascible and good company.

It’s Frank’s year: 300, the movie you’d think couldn’t possibly have a sequel, gets a second go-round with Rise of an Empire. I visited the studios in Bulgaria when they had just finished shooting, and the crew were agog at what a monumental production it was, using up every single one of their massive soundstages for green-screen work. But to me, it looks overwrought from the trailer. No fun; just brutal.

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, in contrast, looks to be a visual feast, with a knock-out cast that reunites Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Jaime King, Powers Boothe, Mickey Rourke, and Bruce Willis, as well as adding Eva Green, Josh Brolin, Jamie Chung, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Juno Temple, Ray Liotta, Stacy Keach and, er, Lady Gaga. It’s been nine long years since the first film. Welcome back, big Marv.

Spam’s off: Viking set menu at the Great Court Restaurant

6 Mar

Further to my blog about how the metrosexual Vikings at the British Museum exhibition are at odds with their screen portrayals, I have further evidence. After my tour, I had lunch in the revamped Great Court Restaurant — new and quietly improved by the architects Softroom, with the previously echoing sound cleverly dampened by a canopy and mosaic floor. I found its Viking Set Menu quite at odds with what Hollywood encourages you to expect.

No flagons of mead; no gigantic drinking horns; no rending sheep limb from limb and chucking the bones in a heap. Instead, I had a starter of nettle soup, with chopped egg and chive; a main course of guinea fowl (rabbit was off) in a mead reduction; and for dessert, blossom honey cheesecake in a ligonberry compote.

I had no idea the Vikings feasted on blossom honey cheesecake in a ligonberry compote, but there it is in the British Museum, so it must be true. More plausible, perhaps, is the other dessert: roast plums and ice cream. Maybe not the ice cream part, but you can certainly imagine the Vikings roasting their enemies’ plums, which is precisely why I politely declined  that dish.

The final blow to the Vikings’ macho screen image was the assembled company. Directly behind me, Sir Richard Rogers (under Norman Foster’s roof!) was intently talking business with a table of architects. As a result of a certain television programme, I was expecting the restaurant to be full instead of men in horned helmets dining on, and singing about, spam, spam, spam, wonderful spam.

The British Museum’s metrosexual Vikings are no good for Hollywood

6 Mar

Swords and skeletons! Giant longships and hoards of coins! Sorcerers’ staffs and, er, chess pieces! Today is the opening of the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum. I write about my guided tour from the curator in the International Business Times (click to read), as well as the cover feature in Where London magazine.

One of the sad things about getting better educated about the Vikings is what that does to the films I love. [There is a commendably obsessive website that reviews every Viking-related film ever made, right down to Roger Corman’s best-forgotten The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957). Try sticking that on a cinema marquee in huge type.] The Vikings weren’t all about warfare, despite their scarily filed teeth and weird hair (shaved at the back, long at the front). They were traders, settlers, explorers, farmers. And, worst of all, they were rather picky about their grooming.

Far from being the football hooligans and punk rockers of the Middle Ages, they were in fact the metrosexuals. Contemporaries disapproved of their excessive cleanliness in washing every Saturday. Archaeological digs keep unearthing combs, tweezers, and ear spoons for removing wax – there is a gold one in the exhibition. They even dyed their hair blond. Thor, on the other hand, had red hair, despite what Chris Hemsworth would have you believe, so bang goes the Marvel franchise.

Still, we can at least look forward to the TV miniseries of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which though no longer with HBO was picked up last month by FremantleMedia. The facts can’t argue with an out-and-out fantasy.

The book cleverly posits that the powers of gods are in direct proportion to the fervour of worship they receive. Thus Odin, having sailed across to America with the Viking explorers at the turn of the first millennium, finds himself in the present day with greatly diminished powers, performing magical parlour tricks, as he wanders the land with other forgotten gods from Egypt and elsewhere.

And as to whether the Vikings really sat around the table singing about spam, I also ate the Viking Set Menu at the Great Court Restaurant: see here.

Academy Awards 2014: the winners and blingers of an Oscar night with no grouches

3 Mar

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That was actually a pretty great Oscar ceremony. Jennifer “J-Law” Lawrence took a little tumble before it even began this time, back on the red carpet. Any more trips and she’ll get sponsored by Expedia.com. As for the compere, Ellen Degeneres was never going to sail too close to the edge – a blessing, after the Seth McFarlane “boobies” embarrassment of last year – but she did bring a breath of fresh air.

She broke Twitter, briefly, by organising the most celebtastic selfie of all time (above), and, surreally, ordered in pizza. Chiwetel Ejiofor took the first slice; Harrison Ford looked at his dubiously, as though inspecting an archaeological relic. Ellen’s Oscars seemed to break down the barriers between celebrity and public, toppling the screen icons from a pedestal that most of them never wanted to be on in the first place. Though of course J-Law toppled from hers first.

Most of all, though, it helped that this was the strongest year for film in ages: there was never a moment where you thought, “the Oscar went to whaaaat?” And so, without further ado, the winners are…

Best Film: 12 Years A Slave. Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! So happy to see justice done. It is an extraordinary film. Chief producer Brad Pitt nobly and sensibly turned the speech over straight away to co-producer/director Steve McQueen, who was a sweet mess of nerves. He read out a long list of thanks, saying “I’m sorry about this” in a very British way for taking so long about it, and when he had finished, bounced up and down across the stage like a cuddly pogo stick. Brilliant.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón. I loved loved loved Gravity, but I wish Steve McQueen had won for 12 Years A Slave. Still, a worthy winner. Great to have two foreign art-movie directors vying for Hollywood’s most glittering prize.

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey. Gutted that Chiwetel Ejiofor didn’t win this, but he’s unlucky to have come up against one of the strongest fields in ages. McConaughey is one of Hollywood’s own, and he was extraordinary in Dallas Buyers Club: a complete transformation. And he did say “all right all right all right” in his speech.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett. Well of course. Always the bookies’ favourite, and it really couldn’t be otherwise. She absolutely carries Blue Jasmine, and what’s more, she’s about the only person ever in a Woody Allen film not to sound exactly like Woody Allen. “Julia hashtag suck it,” Blanchett said to Julia Roberts in her speech, continuing “The world is round, people!” Love her.

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto. He didn’t win me over. He was maybe as good as he could be in a part that was just a rainbow coalition of clichés, but I would rather have seen Jonah Hill win for his gutsy, literally balls-out performance in Wolf Of Wall Street.

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o. Yay!!! J-Law was fantastic in American Hustle, but we already know she’s that good. Lupita, however, is a new, fresh, raw talent, and so elegant and dignified off screen and in her speech: “When I look down at this little statue, may it remind me and every child that no matter where you are from your dreams are valid.” Somehow she makes this utterly heartfelt and charming, not hokey as you would expect.

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze. Oooh, good for him! Her was a fresh, quirky, thought-provoking script, but I’m still surprised that the American Hustle bandwagon petered out quite so comprehensively as not to win this.

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley for 12 Years A Slave. Fantastic to win this, I’m all for 12 Years winning as many as possible, though as Ridley himself said in the speech, the main credit goes to Solomon Northup. Scary speech by presenter Robert De Niro, incidentally: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing,” he said. “Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” Thanks, Bob! Mostly, it’s scary because it’s true.