Thursday, January 31, 2008

Some killings

In amongst a couple of weeks of personal life ups and downs - family stresses,sicknesses, taxes - I forgot to mention that 'Mum & Dad' is finally all done.Very remiss, I know. Still, it's not like it's taken up most of my brain for the past 18 months or so...

We watched the film off the DVD the other night at a friend's house, projecting onto their wall so it looked nice and big. I was really happy with it - I guess I'm so used to it now that there aren't that many surprises left - I think I know what works well and what could work better - but seeing it with a small audience and getting their response was great. It was like finally watching it as a film. Obviously, things like credits and logos help to cement the film as a 'proper' thing, but also knowing that there is nothing more that can be done to it (I mean in terms of money and time) means that when I watch it now I'm no longer watching an edit, but a finished film.

Next up, at the end of February, is the cast and crew screening (still to be confirmed) and then starts the long slog of trying to get the film out at festivals, seen by distributors and hopefully into cinemas. Or onto DVD. Or at the very least on its own page on IMDB, complete with dismissive reviews from internet punters. (I remember when Chris' Film 'One For The Road' came out on DVD in amongst the good and great reviews were a few really negative ones, some of the most dismissive coming online. There was one on Amazon which was really scathing, including the immortal line, in regard to the photography (which I was partially responsible for), 'prepare for your eyes to be raped'. Jesus, steady on now. )

In the meantime, I'm trying to get on with 'Empire of Flesh'. What with Jeanie still being in her 'Goth Cruise' edit and everything else going on, I've not had the time on it that I would have liked, so over the past week I've been really trying to crack on with it. I'm into the real meat of the horror part of the story now - I think I've killed five people this week (and permanently crippled another) - which tends to go a bit quicker in the actual writing, but probably takes more time up with planning and choreographing. Still, it's getting towards the end of the rough draft now, so hopefully by the time the cast and crew comes up, I'll have something approaching a first draft proper. It's going well, pretty smooth and linear. There's a bigger cast this time - about 20 speaking parts, with 7 or 8 primary characters - and a larger location, and there's a lot more blood and flesh than in 'Mum & Dad', but the themes are broadly similar and hopefully it'll still have the same mix of horror and domesticity.

Unless people hate that mix when they see 'Mum and Dad', in which case it'll be something completely different...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Turds like coal-barges

Recently, BBC4 has been running a season on pop music. Along with some great archive stuff - full editions of Top of the Pops from 1967 or 1978 - and some quirky documentaries - like Paul Morley examing 'Pop:What is it good for?' by going to interview the bloke from Mud who wrote 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' - and some really quite irritating stuff (my tolerance level for middle-aged, middle-class men in suits nodding along to Wyclef 'up there with Bob Marley' Jean CDS** (which, admittedly, wasn't very high in the first place) has plunged dramatically - they have also been showing some pop films - the Mayles' Brothers 'Gimme Shelter', Ken Russell and The Who's 'Tommy', hitting a peak (at least for me) last night with a rare screening of the Slade movie 'Flame'.

Made in 1975, but set about ten years earlier, the film is a drama starring Slade as the glampop group Flame, apparently based on a lot of real-life events, recounted by Slade to the writer during a lengthy American tour. I've heard about the film for years but never had the chance to see it before now. And it truly was, as someone reviewed it 'the missing link between A Hard Day's Night, Kes and Spinal Tap' (although, to be fair, no-one's probably ever tried to make a link between Kes and Spinal Tap before).

Starting off with a shot of a bloke having a piss (nothing like setting your stall out as far as dirty realism goes), the camera does a pretty elegant track down the front of the house and out into a marquee in the garden where the band-that-will-be-Flame are playing a shit wedding gig with their overblown, fat Elvis of a singer, Jack Daniels (played by Diana Dors husband Alan Lake)(who, apparently, looked and acted in real life exactly like he is in the film). Cheeky Dave Hill, apparently the lad-about-town, looker of the band......uses his guitar to lift up a girl's skirt, gets seen by a boozy guest and the next thing you know there's a full-on wedding fight going on. Cut to the blackest, grimmest factory you've ever seen in your life, where we find the soon-to-be-Flame-drummer working. A couple of minutes in and already it's great - funny, cynical and well-filmed with some pretty good performances all round.

The film's got the look of the late Sixties/early Seventies distilled into an almost perfectly grim form - every other shot seems to be filled with boarded-up windows or overflowing bins. The texture of the film is piss, booze and tobacco (there's a hell of a lot of smoking and drinking)(and quite a bit of pissing), and at every moment where there's an option to make something look as fucked-up and desolate as possible, it's taken.

One of the best examples of this is where drummer Charlie (Don Powell) goes back to his home town and visits his old factory boss. The scene is staged with the two walking down a canal bank and under a bridge, the boss pushing his bike and talking about how when he was a kid he used to swim in the canal: "Mind you" he says, "it was always more turds than fishes. You used to see them float past you, like coal barges." There's a lovely kind of poetry there - a poetry comprised of childhood innocence and shit.

The story of the film is the classic rock film trajectory of struggle-success-everythingfallsapart, but it's done with humour and style and the band always seem convincing. It's not perfect - it's hard to tell how much time is supposed to have passed in the film (four years apparently, but it feels like about 3 months), and some of the sound is appallling. Also, you sometimes want to see more of what the band are actually doing, in terms of their career and in terms of their interpersonal relationships - the film focuses probabaly a little too much on the subplot of agents Tom Conti and Johnny Shannon battling to control the band - maybe because it was felt that they, as more 'proper' actors, could carry a lot more of the scenes - with the result that it's one music film where you actually feel you want to see more of the band. But for all those faults, it's still great, with nice little touches (Noddy Holder's character is called Stoker, after Bram - maybe because his first band, patterned on Lord Sutch, is called The Undertakers and has a ghoulish stage-act) and odd little moments (as part of The Undertakers stage act, Noddy sings from inside a coffin, which is fine, except each time they cut to the shot, there appear to be, without any explanation, three moving hands in the coffin.)And part of it (I don't know which part) was apparently filmed in Nottingham. Which means we can legitimately claim it as part of the East Midlands cinematic heritage.

Bet it was the bit about the turds.

**(go to about 39 minutes to see what I mean)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Happy endings

Back to London this week for an intensive few days attempting to finish off 'Mum & Dad'. With the sound mix done, we had only the picture to sort out, and Lisa organised to do it at Rainbow Post in London. Of course, our limited budget meant that it was always going to be a fairly condensed process. I got there on Wednesday, by which time the whole film had been conformed (basically turned from rough, compressed offline into proper HD) and they had made a start on a couple of the corrections (getting rid of booms in shot, extraneous crew shadows, that sort of thing) and a composite shot which I had always had in mind, but had put off really thinking about until the online. So, in two and a half days, we basically had to grade the film, do all the titles and sync it up to the sound mix. Luckily, the online editor Steve, was a fast worker and we managed to plough through it at a respectable rate. Actually grading the film doesn't take that much time - it's more the decision-making that can be laborious. Having been aware of the lack of budget and the concomitant tightness of the schedule from the moment I started writing the script, I've got used to making my mind up (for good or ill...) really quickly - and at this point in the process, I really wanted the film to be done, so we just got on with it.

The good thing about the arse-about-tit way that we've ended up doing the post (normally the picture post would come before the sound) is that seeing the film in its original HD for the first time as a cut already made me feel really good about the film, even before we started grading it. I'd got so used to seeing it really compressed in the Avid suite (and even more compressed on the screen at Spool when we did the sound mix. No fault of Spool's, but because of the way they got the video and had to process it to get it in their machine, it was like watching the film through a tea bag), that seeing it as it was shot was a real joy (and a massive relief - I'd woken up the night before fearing that the whole thing was going to be out of focus.)

The way we went with the grade was, for the most part, to desaturate the image a little, while crushing the blacks - essentially making them fuller and blacker. With the exteriors, we went a little harsher, partially because of the nature of the original footage, but also partly to make it seem more ugly, in keeping with how the film gets more garish and fucked-up as you get towards the end.

I left late on Friday night with only the end credit sequence left to do, which Steve and Lisa are going to do on Monday morning. Then, all going well, we should have, by the end of Monday, a finished (at least to HD master) version of the film. And I can finally have an answer to people when they ask, 'What's happening with your film then?'. I can't quite believe that we've got to the (an?) end. I don't think it's going to feel properly finished until I get it in front of a cinema audience - that'll be the point where it feels like a real film. And we won't have the excuse of 'well, there's still work to be done on it, of course' anymore...

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Stranger in the night

One of the great things about the Christmas holidays is that terrestrial TV channels bung on a load of stuff which normally wouldn't see the light of day (actually, seeing as how most of what I'm talking about was shown between 1 and 3am, it still doesn't, but you know what I mean). This year we had successive nights of classic Val Lewton horrors like 'Cat People', 'Leopard Man' and 'Curse of the Cat People', as well as appearances by films like 'Build My Gallows High' (like 'Leopard Man' and 'Cat People', directed by Jacques Tourneur) and Nicholas Ray's fantastically bleak 'In a Lonely Place' (possibly even more downbeat than the Joy Division song which nicked its title). I don't know what happens - maybe the guy who usually programmes the late night stuff gets in early to book out the whole of Christmas off, so that the only people left in the office are a bunch of noir nerds and horror geeks who just riff on what they want to put on -

"How about 'Cat People'?"
"Jacques Tourner? Great - how about 'Build My Gallows High' then? Same director."
"Well if we're going noir, how about 'Stranger on The Third Floor'"
"You must have heard of it - proto-film noir? Peter Lorre? Elisha Cook Jr.? It's a rare and underappreciated classic!"
"Fuck it, let's stick it on at half past two."
"Yeah, it's a great film for insomniacs, drunks and lonley stoners!"
"Especially as its laced with dread, foreboding and a sweat-soaked paranoid edge! Great."

Not being awake, pissed or caned, I taped 'Stranger on the Third Floor', since I'd never heard of it, and watched it a couple of days later. It has the reputation for being one of, if not the first, film noir, pre-dating John Huston's 'The Maltese Falcon'. A lot of the classic noir tropes are there - the high contrast lighting, the voice-over, the sense of dread - plus, it's got a great extended expressionistic dream sequence.

The story concerns a struggling reporter who gets his big break by apparently witnessing a murder. He fingers a homeless man as the killer after finding him at the scene. The man, Elisha Cook Jr, desperately pleads his innocence, which really strikes at the heart of the reporter's girlfriend. When the reporter goes home to his grotty little rented room, he finds, yes, a 'stranger' right there on 'the third floor' - Peter Lorre. Lorre flees, but then the reporter worries that his next door neighbour has been killed - but worries even more that if he goes in to discover the body, he too will be fingered as the prime suspect (for reasons which we discover in a series of flashbacks). As his paranoia grows - along with a previously absent empathy with Cook's situation - the reporter falls into the aforementioned dream sequence - all looming shadows, Dr Caligari-like sets and cackling lawyers. It's great. From then on, with the reporter under the cosh, its up to his girlfriend to try and track down Lorre - who no-one remembers seeing, despite Lorre looking unforgettably weird (like a cross between Pete Doherty and a housefly).

It's a terrific film - and really good to get the chance to see. The leads (John McGuire as Mike Ward
Margaret Tallichet as Jane) are okay, but a little forgettable, but all of the supporting cast are great especially Lorre, who just seems to be having fun - I mean, he's playing a maniac who's motive seems to be "I'm just fucking nuts, basically", so why shouldn't he?

God, I hope that regular scheduler guy caught that vomiting bug over Christmas, or next week it'll be back to darts or Ewan McGregor and Charley bloody Boorman again.