Archive | June, 2015

The revolution starts here: Toronto Open Tuning Festival

20 Jun
Mr. P's Ukulele Jam at the Open Tuning festival. Photo: Monica Gupta

Mr. P’s Ukulele Jam, Open Tuning Festival. Pic: Monica Gupta

I’ve just travelled 3,000 miles to see the second annual Open Tuning Festival in Seaton Village, Toronto. (If I were being boringly pedantic, I might specify that I travelled 3,000 miles to see my old friend Ian Sinclair, who happens to be helping put on this festival today, but why let that stand in the way of a good opener?)

It’s a lovely idea: a community-based free festival, using local shops, parks and houses for venues, where anyone who wants can turn up and play. There’s bluegrass, blues, punk, rock, and the brilliantly named ukulele band, Uke Till You Puke. A guy in his fifties played solo by a corner shop with an amp and a guitar, at first to just two people; a group of teens showed with their skateboards, and amazingly stayed to listen for a few songs, despite him ignoring repeated requests to play Smells Like Teen Spirit. A beautiful young girl with an Afro walked past, too cool to change expression, but she nodded to the beat as though signalling approval.

My friend Ian joined him on the bass, then went on to join the Raisins and Grapes a cappella choir, the pitched roof of the porch they sang on giving the effect of a tiny church. At 7pm he’ll be joining his old friend Frank in a jam at the Yoga Sanctuary on the corner of Clinton and Bloor. Genuine Canadian star Jane Siberry will provide the 9.30pm finale in Vermont Park.

This is a festival as it should be: no mud, no hassle; all smiles. You’d think it might be sad to see these men and women, some young but many in their fifties, even sixties – estate agents now, probably, or businessmen, or builders – dusting off their instruments and rekindling the fires of youth. But it’s not. It’s uplifting, and a helluva lotta fun. Because for them, as for most, it was never about the fame or the fortune or the fanfare of big audiences. It was simply because music moved them to pick up the guitar and create songs, and the music moves them still.

The brilliance of the Open Tuning festival is in realising that just as every garage can be a rehearsal space, so every porch can be a stage, and the lawn in front of it a mini-festival. Every town should have a free festival like this. But for now, the revolution starts here: in Seaton Village, Toronto.

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Online at last! Watch our acclaimed short film, Dotty

20 Jun

1620580_10151837018812062_1676636489_n1I am unbelievably thrilled to announce that Dotty, a truly lovely short film I wrote, is finally available online to view for free. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you anything about the plot, save that my influences were Harold and Maude, Alan Moore and The Usual Suspects.

It’s one of those rare films where everything comes together. Sadie Frost, the producer and award-winning star, gave me a terrifically useful note on my first draft: it was just “simpler, with less dialogue”. Ben Charles Edwards, the hugely talented director, put great care into the details as well as the big picture, from the gloves Sadie wears as Dotty to the long hours spent in the editing suite with editor Darren Baldwin making it just so. John Hicks’s cinematography is ravishing, and it was he who first suggested filming something about a mysterious older woman in a trailer near his home in Lanzarote. The landscape looked to me looked like an American desert – helping to inspire my key story idea. The music by Paul Honey still sends a shiver down my spine at the climax. And Sadie’s son Rudy Law really is a natural in front of the camera, as we first found when Ben filmed him in Suzie Lovitt.

To me, it was the best possible illustration of the way film is the ultimate collaborative medium: that it may start with a strong idea and a few words on a page, but it takes the combined talents of many to give them life and make them sing.

Anyway. I’m proud of our little film, as you can tell. The many festivals round the world who accepted it for screening, from Australia and Korea to Raindance and Hollywood, seemed to like it. I hope you’ll like it too. Let me know!

To watch Dotty on Nowness.com, click here.

Online at last: watch Rudy Law in Suzie Lovitt

15 Jun
A then eight-year-old Rudy Law stars as Suzie Lovitt

A then eight-year-old Rudy Law stars as Suzie Lovitt

At last! A short film I helped out on a few years ago has been put online for free viewing on Nowness.com. Suzie Lovitt is a quirky, avant-garde, ravishingly shot film starring a young Rudy Law, son of Sadie Frost (who produced the film) and Jude Law.

Rudy liked to make up characters, and in particular liked to “channel” the character of a middle-aged dry cleaner called Suzie Lovitt. When director Ben Charles Edwards saw him “doing” Suzie, he knew he had to put Rudy’s rich fantasy inner world on screen. I helped out with redrafting and restructuring Ben’s initial script, though much of it was jettisoned on the day to let Rudy do his own thing. Just don’t take the stories of family life in it to be a true reflection of the Frost household – that’s all fiction! In other words, it’s not Rudy playing the part of Suzie Lovitt, but Rudy playing the part of another boy who likes to play the part of Suzie Lovitt. Very meta.

Rudy proved to be such a natural on film that Ben, Sadie and I developed another short specially for him. That’s Dotty, my favourite of all the shorts I’ve been involved in, and I’m incredibly excited to say that it too will go online on Nowness.com later this week – watch this space!

Ben Charles Edwards has since made his debut feature film with Sadie Frost and Emma Comley’s production company Blonde to Black, out next year. Set The Thames On Fire is like a darker version of Withnail & I set in a retro-Dickensian dystopian future London. This one is written by musician Al Joshua, and I have no vested interest in it beyond a cameo in a party scene, so you can believe me when I say that, having seen a (very) rough cut, it promises to be one of the most bizarre and visually striking films you’ll ever see.

To watch Suzie Lovitt, click here.

Secret Cinema review and interview on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

13 Jun

Last night I took a trip to a galaxy far, far away – just 30 minutes from my door. Secret Cinema have pulled out all the stops this time for their immersive screening of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The world they created (see pics above) was as detailed as when I saw their Blade Runner, though the set was vastly bigger. And they sorted out the projection problems that had ruined Lawrence of Arabia in Alexandra Palace and caused me to leave in the interval: both image and sound were super-crisp and clear.

I can’t give away any of the surprises of the night – this is Secret Cinema, after all. But I will say that standing next to Imperial Stormtroopers can give you a surprising frisson of primal fear, however much you are aware these are actors in white suits (and that Stormtroopers never shoot straight anyway!); that Secret Cinema have recreated not just a Tatooine desert village, but some of the vehicles, too, moving and lifesized; and that whereas previous Secret Cinemas have disgorged you into the night, blinking, straight after the screening, this time you can party in a vast industrial nightclub space.

Is it worth £75? That depends on how big a Star Wars fan you are, and whether you are more used to spending £60-plus on a theatre ticket or £12 in the cinema. I can say that you do see where the money has gone. I recently interviewed Fabien Riggall, the founder of Secret Cinema, and he insisted he wasn’t in this to get rich – “Do I drive a Bentley? I don’t even have a car, just an old camper van that’s always breaking down” – but that doing justice to a cultural icon like Star Wars means putting on the show of a lifetime.

“I could list everything that goes into a production of this size,” Fabien said, “but that would spoil the mystery. I’d rather keep it in narrative, and say something like the final stage of the Clone Wars left massive destruction across the galaxy and the price of titanium has gone up.”

Secret Cinema receives no public arts funding (unlike, for instance, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk), even though Fabien Riggall says he has applied many times; and he refuses to do an overall sponsorship deal with a credit card company or similar. In fact, he has strong feelings about how big brands and corporations are ruining the arts.

Fabien Riggall

Secret Cinema’s rebel founder, Fabien Riggall: “Why is it not rock ‘n’ roll anymore, with girls throwing their knickers?”

“Every studio and label is owned by these huge corporations – it should be rock ‘n’ roll, there should be mystery, but instead we’re being taking over by giant shopping centres, the whole world is becoming like Dubai. There’s a distinct thread to those deciding how we live and what our experience of the theatre or the multiplex will be. If I ran Live Nation I would create a game, where if you get through it you can go to the front of the stage.

“Like, recently I was in Detroit and found out that Prince was playing. I tried to get tickets but they were $500, so I just went to the theatre and pretended I was distant family of his from England – I was just acting, pretending to myself I was in a show – and that created this confusion, so I managed to get in right to the front without a ticket!

“But when I got there it was filled with VIPs paying thousands of dollars. Why is it not rock ‘n’ roll anymore, with girls throwing their knickers? Culturally we are in a place where the wrong people are in charge. Every studio and label is owned by these huge corporations. We deserve to lose ourselves in another world, get some of that magic back.”

Fabien is planning to launch Secret Cinema in America soon, but, more intriguingly, he is also talking to top film-makers and musicians directly about how to make immersive art that connects more strongly with their audience. In short, he wants nothing less than to revolutionise the way art and entertainment is created and consumed.

Going back to Star Wars, Fabien says that this is not just a film “cherished by millions”, that has “ignited thousands of creative careers”, but also feels very personal to him. “The Rebel Alliance represents fighting for a world of mystery, excitement and adventure, a world of quests and dreams: that represents the ethos of Secret Cinema.”

In other words, Fabien is a maverick pilot, with Secret Cinema as his Millennium Falcon; the big corporations are the Death Star. The Force is indeed strong with this one.

Secret Cinema presents Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back runs now until 27 September. http://www.secretcinema.org/tickets

RIP Sir Christopher Lee: my recent interview with a giant among men

11 Jun
Christopher Lee in 2009, the year I interviewed him

Christopher Lee in 2009, the year I interviewed him

A few years ago, I interviewed Christopher Lee for The Times. We talked about the war (he was a spy and, after it ended, a Nazi hunter), about his many injuries (one caused by “a long lunch” – you’ll see why), and he threatened, after a fashion, to smash my face in with his stick when talking about immigration.

Lee’s death was announced today, making the start and ending to my interview retrospectively poignant, but I reprint it here unvarnished. Always elevating whatever film he was in, Lee was the most cultured of actors. He will be missed.

Christopher Lee is late. Not as in “the late Christopher Lee”, thankfully, not yet, though when you break a vertebra and undergo back surgery at 87 that’s always a worrying possibility. But still, half an hour late. Minders are on edge. Calls are made.

And finally here he is, unfolding his 6ft 5in frame from a black Merc with more than the usual difficulty. He walks haltingly, leaning on his cane. But with his raffish hat, white hair and patrician bearing, you would see that this was a man of distinction even if you didn’t recognise him from his films. Still, why wouldn’t you? He holds the record for the most screen credits, 250-plus, from Dracula and Sherlock Holmes through to a remarkable late flowering in Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

“So sorry I’m late,” he intones in the warm bass that nearly made him a professional opera singer. “It’s the Queen, you know.” The Queen’s Speech. Many London streets have closed. Having been knighted only two weeks ago, Sir Christopher can hardly complain.

We edge towards the National Portrait Gallery, where Lee later has a lunch date. He refuses painkillers because, he says, catch 22, they affect your balance. How did he bend down to be knighted if his back is so bad? “I couldn’t!” he reveals. “And also they have this platform for you to stand on, no bigger than a square tile. Well I had to tell Prince Charles’s equerry I didn’t think I could do it.”

At the restaurant entrance, while fumbling with his coat, he drops his stick. “The story of my life,” he deadpans. “Either my stick falls down or I do.”

‘A long lunch’

An athlete who does his own stunts, Lee has often injured himself for art. He was thrown from a chariot in Quo Vadis; cracked three ribs in The Mummy when breaking down a door that had accidentally been locked for real; crashed a car after filming Battle of the V-1. He stumbled around, still in his SS uniform, terrifying the residents of Hove. He holds the record for the most screen swordfights. He raises a crooked little finger. Broken by Errol Flynn, apparently. “After lunch.” He cocks a single bushy brow. “A long lunch.”

This latest back injury was less spectacular. He tripped over two small cables while working on a new Hammer horror picture in New Mexico. The company that made Lee’s name (or was it the other way around?) has been resurrected by John De Mol, the founder of the media giant behind Big Brother. The double Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays the lead, which gives some idea of the stakes (sorry) this time round. How does it feel to come back full circle? “It is ironic, isn’t it?” says Lee. “And I am one of only a handful of actors from that period, 50 years ago, to survive.”

Descended from an aristocratic Italian family, Lee honed his elocution, deportment, breathing and fencing at the Rank Charm School. A literate and thoughtful actor, he invests even villains with a depth and a quiet dignity in what he refers to as their “loneliness of evil”. He researches parts meticulously, fighting with directors over authenticity: his SS officers wear grey, not black; his Dracula dresses all in black as Bram Stoker intended, with no flashy red.

But it’s a fight he can never win. Recently he filmed Season of the Witch in Budapest with Nicolas Cage. “I was a cardinal who had contracted the plague,” he explains, “so you can imagine what I looked like! But I got to spend the five days filming in bed, which was very nice.” He was glad to see they had a language expert on set to advise the film-makers, until he got his instructions: his Italian cardinal was to be played with an American accent.

Lee has nothing but warmth for Cage, bearing no grudges for his misguided remake of The Wicker Man, the 1973 chiller that until The Lord of the Rings was Lee’s favourite of his long career. In fact, Lee is also making a new film with the original Wicker Man director, Robin Hardy. It’s not actually a sequel, Lee reveals, despite being called The Wicker Tree. He is also logging his fifth collaboration with Tim Burton, as the voice of the Jabberwock in Alice in Wonderland.

‘Involved in “certain operations”‘

But the film closest to his heart is Glorious 39. Stephen Poliakoff’s latest historical thriller takes Lee back 70 years, to the start of the Second World War. It is set among the appeasers who believed that war would destroy England, and that striking a deal with Hitler was the only way to survive. Of the stellar cast, which includes Bill Nighy, Julie Christie, David Tennant and Jenny Agutter, Lee is the only one who was actually there.

“See now,” he says, “I remember so well. I was 17, working as an office boy for £1 a week, and I could see what was happening. After the Munich Agreement in ’38, lots of people breathed a sigh of relief, but I was old enough to know what was going on, I’d seen the parades. I remember telling my mother and my sister: ‘I don’t know about this wonderful news about peace in our time, I don’t believe it’.”

He enlisted two years later. By the age of 21 he was working as an intelligence officer, daily holding the life of thousands in his hands. He left this period out of his autobiography, Lord of Misrule. “Just because one was involved in certain operations,” he says, with typical self-effacement, “it looks as though you are saying ‘I did it’. But really it’s ‘we’.” Much of his service in North Africa was, in a strange kind of way, fun. He was nicknamed Duke, or Spy. Senior Air Force officers were called things such as Oswald Gayford and had huge handlebar moustaches. You could end up on planes to places “just like hitching a ride”.

But the end of the war was anything but fun. Because he was fluent in French and German (among other languages), he was attached to the Central Registry of War Criminals. Along with representatives of other nations, he became a Nazi hunter.

“We were given dossiers of what they’d done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority. In view of the fact that there were Palestinians with us, which simply means Jews, because of course Israel was not its own country until 1948, you can imagine how they felt. We saw these concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not.”

Lee looks away. He has no wish to project such visions on to the screen of memory, much less talk about them. But in an age when the BNP’s Nick Griffin, a man who once denied the Holocaust, can end up on Question Time, is it not important to bear witness?

“It’s not possible to deny it,” Lee says. “You can’t fake an entire camp with dying people. You can’t. Like when you see a film, even if it’s a good film, you can’t expect the camps to be accurate, for actors to look like they would really look, like they were dying. You can only go so far.”

The pain in his eyes is real, and you get a glimpse into what might animate the lonely tortured creatures he creates so effectively on screen. The doomy romanticism of his Dracula made it the surprise smash of 1958, the Twilight of its day. Five decades later, as the human face of evil in The Lord of the Rings, he proved himself the only actor on the planet able to out-thesp Ian McKellen.

‘Bursting at the seams’

Once, just once, he allows a flash of this fire to enter his otherwise unfailingly courteous conversation. We are discussing politics. Lee is staunchly Tory, a David Cameron fan. “It’s a question of ideas. And he has them. I like William Hague, too, he makes the best speeches.” He believes in stronger immigration controls. “This country is bursting at the seams. That’s not a racist position, simply that there are too many people in a small country, and that results in increased crime.”

But it’s on Europe that he feels strongest. “I’m not in favour, no. Each nation should have its own laws, its own government, its own culture. I don’t think you can create a vast melting pot. And for an unelected president to be able to tell everyone what to do, no matter who it is, is a complete disaster.

“To me, the worst thing about the European Parliament is the question of human rights. We should have our own bill of rights. I don’t want one man deciding whatever you can and can’t do. I mean if,” and here his eyes take on a peculiar intensity as if seriously contemplating such a course of action, “if I were to upend this table and smash your face with my stick and plead human rights — you see what I mean.”

Not entirely, but it would take a brave man to argue the point, bad back or no. Besides, Lee is late for his lunch guests. They are veterans, too, Special Forces, sitting tweed-jacketed in the panoramic Portrait Gallery restaurant, eye-to-eye with Nelson’s stone buttocks. Lee introduces himself, all smiles, his body language strangely deferential. Sixty years of achievement and awards melt away: it’s what you did in the war that counts.

Watching him, you are reminded of his story about playing Jinnah in 1998. Leaving aside ethnic origin, the founder of Pakistan looked remarkably like Lee. “But,” Lee says, “one person did complain to me: ‘Jinnah wasn’t as tall as you’. So I replied: ‘Maybe not, but he was a giant’.”

Once there were giants in British film, too. Sir Christopher Lee is one of the last of his kind. Long may he tower above us.

Gained in translation: top 10 adaptations of foreign films

5 Jun

We’ve all heard of “lost in translation”. But what about “gained in translation”? It can happen. A good friend, Frank Wynne, is an award-winning translator of novels who often picks up errors and infelicities and corrects them along the way. I can’t always judge the quality of the original prose, but I can say his books read wonderfully.

What of film? I was asked this question by someone at www.smartling.com, who specialise in translation software. They clearly want to promote their product (so: Smartling! Smartling! Smartling!), but since I find the question intriguing, I’m happy to answer. Do please add your tuppence-worth in the Comments section.

There is a tendency to regard Hollywood adaptations of foreign films as lazy knock-offs. Whatever induced them to take Godard’s joyful New Wave game-changer A Bout de Souffle and remake it as the hollow 1980s Richard Gere vehicle Breathless? But there are honourable exceptions. Here’s my Top 10, in no particular order:

for-a-fistful-of-dollars-pictures-12A Fistful of Dollars (1964). This is the film that single-handedly invented the Spaghetti Western genre, and turned Clint Eastwood from the clean-cut, yawnsome hunk of TV’s Rawhide to an edgy counter-cultural anti-hero. It is also heavily based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a fact which landed director Sergio Leone with a hefty lawsuit. But since Kurosawa himself was inspired by Westerns, notably the films of John Ford, perhaps it’s a fair cultural trade.

magseven-e1314596581742The Magnificent Seven (1960). I couldn’t claim that this is better, artistically, than Kurosawa’s masterly The Seven Samurai, on which it is based (the original script was more faithful than what the studio eventually produced). But it was a classic of its time. A remake is due in 2017.

a-the-departed-HD-WallpaperThe Departed (2006). For me, the Hong Kong original, Internal Affairs, is tighter than the Scorsese version, though it finally won him the Best Director Oscar he’d been denied for so long. But this is certainly a gripping piece of film-making, with the wonderful central premise intact: an undercover police agent is placed within a criminal gang; a gangster is placed undercover within the police force; each must uncover the other without blowing their cover. Confused much?

willis12 Monkeys (1995). Great though the French short La Jetée is, 12 Monkeys goes the Whole Gilliam, taking Hollywood’s then biggest action star (Bruce Willis) and weaving around him a nigh-on incomprehensible, genre-bending dystopian sci-fi with philosophical heft.

true-lies-arnold-schwarzenegger-jamie-lee-curtis1True Lies (1994). If you like Arnie films (and I do, I do!), this loose remake of 1991’s La Totale is a superior example of the genre. Directed and written by James Cameron, it was at the time the most expensive movie ever made. Until Titanic, of course.

Vanilla_Sky_G_01Vanilla Sky (2001). Amenábar’s original Open Your Eyes was excellent, but Vanilla Sky has direction from Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise at the peak of his powers, and even had the good grace to retain Penélope Cruz in her original role. How the BBC’s otherwise wonderful Life on Mars thought it could get away with lifting the rooftop scenes after not one but two films had used it, however, I don’t know.

InsomniaInsomnia (2002). I haven’t seen the apparently excellent Norwegian film on which this is faithfully based, but Christopher Nolan’s adaptation is certainly a goodie. It contains one of Robin Williams’ least annoying roles, and even Pacino is prevented from going over the top.

Some_like_it_hotSome Like It Hot (1959). I haven’t seen the 1951 original of this, either: Fanfaren der Liebe. But no comedy could possibly beat the chemistry of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, Marilyn Monroe at Peak Sex, and the genius of director Billy Wilder. “Nobody’s perfect”? This film is.

Let-Me-In---2010-007Let Me In (2010). There’s no question that the original modern vampire pic Let The Right One In was better. But the adaptation that followed it with indecent haste was not far off it, thanks largely to a typically precocious performance by Chloë Grace Moretz.

birdcageThe Birdcage (1996). This kind of ultra-broad farce is not really my cup of tea; and the American adaptation is even broader than the French La Cage Aux Folles. All the same, it can be a joy to see Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, as the drag queen who has to play it straight to impress their son’s potential in-laws, go way over the top. Hank Azaria as the butler is flat-out hilarious.

Do you prefer The Ring to Ringu? Clooney’s Solaris to Tarkovsky’s? Have your say in Comments, below.