Archive | August, 2014

Sir Richard Attenborough remembered: Time Out’s Chaplin interview

24 Aug

640px-RichardAttenborough07TIFF

What a sad fortnight for film. Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and now Sir Richard “Dickie” Attenborough has headed off to the great Green Room in the sky. Though young Americans may know him only as “that old bloke from Jurassic Park”, he was dark and brilliant in Brighton Rock way back in 1947, and became known as an actor’s director. Those who think of him only as a sentimental old “luvvie” are missing a trick.

In my third month as Time Out’s editor, in April 1992, I put Attenborough’s Charlie Chaplin biopic on the cover. This is an extract from the location piece and interview by our Senior Editor, Brian Case:

<<Attenborough is known for his tenacity. His manner – “Oh, you are so divine. Bless you, darling” – contrasts with the crimson vehemence of his face with its glaring nostrils. It had taken him 20 years to raise the money for Gandhi for which he deferred his own salary, and mortgaged his art collection to keep going. Chaplin’s widow, Oona, gave him total approval to film the autobiography, although she’d been turning down two offers a day since her husband’s death.

“It is not a hagiography, not sycophantic,” says Sir Dickie. “It is not a whitewash. The young girls? Yes. His ruthlessness? Yes. He was absolutely blinkered in his life in terms of his work. He was bound to be like that because, between the ages of five and six, he was in the workhouse and at 12 he had to commit his mother. For the first 14 years of his life he lived on the edge of starvation, digging up fish heads from the mudflats and taking them home for his mother to boil because she was so unbalanced that she could no longer take in sewing and earn any money.”

Financing Charlie had proved the usual endurance test. There was no British money, of course, and Universal suddenly put the project into turnaround. Over that weekend, Sir Dickie – a master of the pitch who once sang and danced his way through Oh! What A Lovely War to convince Paramount’s Charlie Bludhorn to invest – landed Carolco.

Sir Dickie’s other problem had been finding the right actor to play Chaplin from 19 to 83. Nijinsky described him as a great dancer and Olivier as the greatest actor of all time. “Anyone can do The Tramp,” says Sir Dickie. “We had to find that thing behind the eyes that gives the idea that there’s a tremendous amount going in the mind. Very difficult to convey. You think of the number of movies that have conveyed genius. Paul Muni once or twice, Charles Laughton once or twice – there’s not many. This boy has it.” [The “boy” in question, of course, was a then little-known young actor called Robert Downey Jr.]

In the background, Downey is practising tricks with his hat. Already, he gives the impression that objects have a life of their own, and a capacity for mischief. “Yes indeed,” agrees Sir Dickie, “and one of the great figures involved with that was Olivier. He fenced with the props in his particular sequence and then he would adopt some and thrust out others as if there was an antipathy, an aggressiveness towards them – an inkstand or something that he didn’t like.

“Props were absolutely vital to him. Robert [Downey Jr] is like Ben Kingsley when we went to India – for a year and a half he lived, breathed, talked, felt Gandhi, so that he was almost incapable of doing something which in character terms was incongruous.”>>

Even from this short extract, you get a glimpse of the determination and drive needed to shepherd a big-budget movie to completion, particularly in a country lacking any major studios; but also of the love and care and understanding with which he approached the craft of acting. Attenborough’s movie career spanned 65 years, from acting in In Which We Serve in 1942 (he has 78 acting credits to his name) to directing Closing The Ring in 2007. We may not see his like again.

Ghostbusters, 30 years on: proof that Bill Murray is the coolest man alive

21 Aug

Ghostbusters, outdoors at Somerset House

Ghostbusters, outdoors at the historic Somerset House

The Cult of Bill Murray has grown strong over the years. The Toronto Film Festival has declared September 5 “Bill Murray Day”. The internet is awash with posts such as “20 Reasons Why Bill Murray Is The Coolest Human Being Alive”. Even the Guardian headlined a piece on him “Actor, Hipster, Genius, FDR… God.” He crashes random parties. He doesn’t have an agent. He lets students film him walking in slow motion. He made Groundhog Day, a film so brilliant you can watch it again and again – even during the first time you watch it. And most of all, he never, ever, ever (any more) does a film just for the money.

When did you last see Bill Murray propping up some big action blockbuster with a cool supporting role, like every other respected thesp always, eventually, does? I’d put it at Charlie’s Angels (2000). He didn’t sign on for the sequel. I’m not including Zombieland, in which he played himself as a last-minute favour to his friend Woody Harrelson, since that was relatively low-budget and very cool. Okay, Garfield, but that’s just a voice-over.

All of that makes the upcoming US Labor Day 30th anniversary reissue of Ghostbusters, a genuinely good blockbuster in which Murray has, as it were, the starring supporting role, an extra thrill. How does his performance stand the test of time?

I caught up with the film recently at Somerset House’s outdoor Summer Screen series in central London, and it seems as fresh as when I first saw it, at a Saturday matinee at Muswell Hill’s art deco Odeon, packed with kids who screamed ‘GhostBUSTERS!’ during the theme song. Sure, the special effects are ropey, even for the time – the big special-effects houses were pre-booked for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Return of the Jedi – but Murray is flat-out fantastic.

Like John Belushi, who was originally slated for Murray’s role in Ghosbusters, but OD’d instead, Murray specialised at the time in teen comedies: Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981). Unlike Belushi, he radiated a keen intelligence while doing so, as though he had already explored every possible intellectual branch of endeavour and decided that dumb comedy was the smartest response to life. A Zen comedian, if you will.

Murray’s skip-hopping walk, when he meets Sigourney Weaver in a public square, is the funniest since John Cleese’s and all the sweeter for being understated.  A lot of his lines are improvised, but also co-writer Harold Ramis had written for him in the above three films, and says he was familiar with “certain insane instincts of his”. The result is a lot of jokes that are strikingly inappropriate for a family audience. “Yes it’s true… this man has no dick.” “Mr Stay Puft’s okay! He’s a sailor, he’s in New York; we get this guy laid, we won’t have any trouble!” Not to mention a possessed Sigourney Weaver moaning that she wants him “inside me”: “It sounds like you’ve got at least two or three people in there already.”

One scene, however, has dated badly, in this Operation Yewtree age. The introduction to Murray’s character – intended to showcase him as cool, confident, funny, a rule-breaker, someone to be admired – is him administering a telepathy test to two students. To the man, Murray delivers painful electric shocks, calling all his guesses wrong (even when correct); the attractive blonde he praises for her miraculously correct guesses (even when wrong), and proposes an evening in which they can discuss her gifts further. In other words, he’s using his position of professorial influence to con his way into bed with a young student. Ha ha.

Columbia Pictures are still officially at work on a Ghostbusters III, despite the death in February of Harold Ramis and resultant departure of original director Ivan Reitman. Dan Aykroyd is keen, but on current form Murray will take some persuading to sign up. On Letterman in 2010 he called it “my nightmare”. Earlier this year, he eloquently answered a journalist’s question about whether he would do it with, “Are you thinking of going back to high school?”

Make that 21 reasons why Bill Murray is the Coolest Human Being Alive.

The tears of a clown: RIP Robin Williams

12 Aug
Robin Williams' star-making turn in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Robin Williams’ star-making turn in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

 

I am shocked and devastated to read, just as I was going to bed, that Robin Williams has died, seemingly from suicide due to asphyxia. It’s common now for sit-com stars to move on to film –  Woody Harrelson, Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston – but Williams, along with John Travolta, paved the way.

Mork and Mindy was one of the sweetest programmes of my youth. Williams’s innocent alien, Mork from Ork, first appeared in Happy Days (Williams got the part before the audition even began, when the director asked him to take a chair and he sat on it on his head), and was so popular he got his own show, and catchphrase, “Nanu Nanu” (you had to have been there).

As a film actor he always risked overpowering his co-stars, being a barely contained tornado of irrepressible energy. He was a coke addict until 1982, though he claimed it was “a place to hide”, and that whereas it sped most people up, it slowed him down. He was at his best in roles which allowed his astonishing improvisational genius full rein, such as the army DJ in his breakthrough film, Good Morning, Vietnam, or the Genie in Aladdin, both of which we featured on the cover of Time Out. I put him on the cover again for his Golden Globe-winning turn as Mrs Doubtfire, headlined “How Hollywood’s funniest man became Hollywood’s funniest woman.”

As a dramatic actor, in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), Dead Poets Society (1993) or even Good Will Hunting (1997), he could seem schmaltzy to European sensibilities. But whenever he issued some Hallmark homily, he seemed at the same time utterly sincere: eyes narrowed and glistening, face creased, smiling in pain and sorrow and empathy. You sensed a real inner grief at and understanding of the follies of human nature.

In 2002 he was given a chance at darker fare, as the lonely photo technician in One Hour Photo, and a killer in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. He was excellent in both, but it wasn’t the Robin Williams the public wanted to pay to see. He hasn’t had a bona fide hit since, aside from supporting roles in the Night In the Museum series, and his return to sit-com last autumn, The Crazy Ones, was not given a second season. He had recently signed on for Mrs Doubtfire 2, which, two decades on, might have seemed like a last resort.

Williams’s agent said he had recently been battling depression. No one but those closest to him can really know why. But it’s a trope that comedians are often not themselves happy people: it is, after all, their job to point out the absurdity of the human condition. Not for nothing did Beckett, in his original stage directions, have the protagonists of Waiting for Godot as clowns rather than tramps.

There’s an old joke about a man who goes to see a psychiatrist, complaining of depression. “Laughter is the best medicine,” says the doctor, much as Robin Williams did as Patch Adams (1998). “The Great Gandini is performing in town tonight: I’ll prescribe you a ticket to see his show, he’s hilarious.” The man looks mournfully at the psychiatrist, and says, “But that doesn’t help me. I am the Great Gandini.”

Young Gunn: how I “discovered” the director of Guardians of the Galaxy

7 Aug
Director/writer James Gunn on set of Guardians of the Galaxy

Director/writer James Gunn, now 44, on set of Guardians of the Galaxy

Giving a $150 million movie such as Guardians of the Galaxy to a relatively unknown writer/director was a huge gamble, as I wrote here. James Gunn is a graduate of the Troma school of schlock (see here for my meeting last year with Troma head Lloyd Kaufman), and his chief writing credits previously were on Scooby-Doo. But I’d like to think Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, somehow read my review in The Times a decade ago.

Scooby-Doo 2 did not find favour with most mainstream critics in 2004. It languishes in the IMDB with a pitiful 4.9 rating. But to me, James Gunn’s script fizzed with energy. Here’s an extract from my Times review:

“On the way, something unexpected happens. The film acquires a life beyond the formula. ‘Oh no!’ cries Shaggy, as the monsters begin taking over the town. ‘They’re turning Coolsville into Ghoulsville!’ And, excusing himself from Velma’s potentially criminal boyfriend: ‘We’ve got to make like your personality — and split!’

“In fact, the film is almost too good, piling sensation on to sensation and chase on to chase, until the overall effect is deadening. But all credit to James Gunn, a young veteran of the low-budget Troma studio who also wrote the fine Dawn of the Dead remake, for creating that rare beast — a sequel that improves upon the original. And all credit to the audience for demanding better. Because they might have just remade it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids.”

 

Guardians of the Galaxy: Marvel rolls the dice, and…

7 Aug

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Poster-Art1

Playing poker, like making films, is all about taking calculated risks. Last night I called a £200 re-raise with just a pair, to someone who was representing a straight, because I sensed he might be bluffing. I was right, and doubled up.

Hollywood seems to know all about the calculation, but has forgotten about the risk. This summer’s blockbusters are, yet again, all franchise sequels (22 Jump Street, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Expendables 3) or properties with existing brand recognition (Hercules). So when a new film by a relatively untried but hugely talented director (James Gunn) gets a mammoth budget, forgive us jaded viewers if we go a bit ga-ga.

Guardians of the Galaxy, currently scoring 8.8 on IMDB, is every bit as fun as people say it is: brash, colourful, irreverent, risky, and both incredibly smart and incredibly dumb at the same time. As a tiny example, Stan Lee gets a Hitchcockian cameo in every Marvel movie. Usually it’s something pretty innocuous, but here the revered 91-year-old founder of Marvel is shown talking to a pretty girl young enough to be his great-granddaughter, at which a wise-cracking alien raccoon comments: “What a Class-A Pre-vert.” Or this: the climactic battle scene turns on a moving plea from the roguish leader of the Guardians: “I am an A-hole but I’m not 100% a dick.” If Shakespeare were alive today – and smoking a lot of dope – he could surely do no better.

Yes, there are spectacular action scenes and spaceships and explosions and aliens and strange new worlds. But it’s the left-field dialogue and characters that really sing. The closest comparison might be Avengers Assemble, also brilliantly scripted. But that was based on established, well known superheroes who had already been set up over the course of multiple movies. Guardians was not a comic many people read or knew about; the film seems to have come out of nowhere.

All credit, then, to Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios. In 2008, I interviewed Feige for The Times on the eve of the biggest gamble of his career. Instead of licensing their comics to studios who barely understood them in return for a fee, he reckoned Marvel could do better. So he bet the company’s future on a $550 million loan to fund an initial three movies. It worked. The first, Iron Man, took over half a billion dollars worldwide; Avengers Assemble, which in 2012 brought all their different superhero movies together, made over $1.5 billion.

With figures like these, it would be tempting to stick with a sure thing. But Feige rolled the dice once again, pitting the full might of Marvel behind a much quirkier, edgier, cultish sort of film. It’s paid off in spades: Guardians of the Galaxy had by far the biggest August opening in Hollywood history, taking $172 million worldwide in its opening weekend.

So c’mon, execs. Lighten up a little. Take some risks. Give us something fresh. And who knows? You might just get another franchise to milk out of it. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is already slated for summer 2017.

See also: how I “discovered” the young James Gunn