Friday, February 22, 2008

The Black Milk of Hell

With ‘Mum & Dad’ finished and the first rough draft of ‘Empire of Flesh’ sent out to my producers Lisa and Sol to read, I feel like I’m in a bit of a dual limbo – waiting to get responses. To stave off the bad thoughts, I’ve started working up a few more ideas which I’ve had hovering around in my back brain (and in various notebooks, Word files and the backs of envelopes) for the past couple of years. There’s a couple of feature ideas which I’m developing – one’s a kind of sci-fi film set in an alternate version of today which is built around themes of identity, terrorism and Victorian values, and a second one is another horror film – inspired by Night of the Eagle, Suspiria and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, involving modern witchery. Also, I’ve been discussing with Chris Cooke, Gareth Howell and John Ross the idea of putting together a portmanteau film, in the vein of ‘Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors’ or ‘Asylum’, with each of us contributing a segment. It’s something that we’ve often talked about over the years and it’s an appealing idea, but there’s always the worry (at least for me) that you end up making something that’s too much of a homage or too spoofy. Especially hard to pull off is the framing sections, without it ending up looking too hokey. Still, it’s early days, and I did start thinking about an idea, based around the idea of two crime fiction co-writers falling out. It’s provisionally called ‘Wet’, and I’m hoping that if it comes off it’ll give me a chance to do a dream sequence, inspired by the great one that was in ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’.

The trick with each of these projects, as they’re all ‘genre’ ideas, is to figure out how much you go with the genre and how much you go against it, what you take and what you leave. Do you take a genre story engine and hide it under a non-genre design or do you take the design and form of a genre piece and use it to tell a non-genre story? I suppose I always try and cook up all the elements that are influencing me for a particular story – whether they’ve come from real life, other films, books, photos, comics – and bounce them around enough so that they meld into a new thing that works on its own terms rather than just as homage (or, to put it less politely, rip-off), kind of like burying the influence inside the body of the work rather than wearing it as a human flesh-mask.

Maybe the trick is trying to make sure that the influences are as diverse and far-flung as possible – not just ripping off your favourite genre film, but stealing from a variety of sources.

One of my favourite writers at the moment is a comic writer called Matt Fraction. He’s the writer of Casanova (a sci-fi adventure which references everything from Michael Moorcock to Barbarella to The Beatles to Fellini), The Order and The Immortal Iron Fist, in which (along with co-writer Ed Brubaker), he's taken what used to be a pretty second-string character (a 70s kung-fu millionaire) and invented a whole new back history for that character's superhero legacy, allowing him to throw in as many pulpy, Golden Age adventure story elements as possible.
From manga/martial arts style character names:including the great Fat Cobrathrough to, in the latest issue 'The Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death', a group of Russ Meyer-style Cowgirls from Hell and the Son of Frankenstein. (A previous issue also featured another group, the Harem Harlots of Harlem, which is either a very great name for an all-female team of New York based, machine-gun-toting Chinese villains, or the worst).

What's great about it is that the whole thing works both as a homage and as a modern take on those kind of Golden Age adventures. Fraction's never afraid to throw in a whole raft of allusions and references, keeping the whole thing afloat by a narrative propulsion that means that you're never too far away from someone getting kung-fu kicked in the face. (Even the moves have great names:'Cudgel of Misfortune', 'Whirlwind of Impending Doom', 'The Black Milk of Hell')

Of course, The Immortal Iron Fist is firmly in one genre (the superhero comic) while being heavily influenced by another (kung-fu movies), with a host of other pulp genres flying in as need be, so it's not exactly the kind of thing that I'd look to be doing with film, where it's harder to be as throwaway (in a good way) as it is in comics. But the sleekness of it is very appealing - the melding of the genre elements and references with a new and orginal story so that it's always the story that's pulling you along, dragging you through the pulp rather than asking you to stand there and admire it.

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