Friday, April 25, 2008

Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Folk

While I'm waiting to get some script feedback on 'Empire of Flesh', and with 'Mum & Dad' in the midst of having a raft of marketing materials (albeit a small raft, like a matchbox tied to two lolly-sticks) designed for it, ready for us to embark on our first screenings (more of which at a later date...), I've been working on another story idea. I hate waiting at the best of times, and although I've got some teaching work on, it's not enough to occupy me until EoF kicks back in, so I've started doing some research for a new project, titled 'Katie Cruel'. I think it's going to be a slightly harder pitch than either M&D or EoF, because it looks like it's going to be a bit more complicated structurally, but if anyone asks, I generally tell them that it's like a cross between 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?'
and 'Night of the Eagle'. (An AIU favourite).

My usual method of research is pretty haphazard - I tend to read a few books at once, making notes from them in various notebooks which I later gather together in one general folder. At the moment, I'm reading a biography of F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, an illustrated copy of Frazer's 'The Golden Bough', a couple of books about Aleister Crowley (although I'm finding them a bit of a slog), William Faulkner's late novel 'The Mansion' and Colin Wilson's book on 'The Occult'. I like switching between the books and having my notebooks alternate between fiction and biography and essay, because I like the idea that it all gets mashed together - that each of the elements starts to play off the others in the part of my head that's thinking about the film. At the moment, it's still early stages - I have a basic story idea and some characters planned out, but the structure and the full story arc are yet to be set in place. I know (at least, at the moment I do) that the film is going to be set in the present day and in the past, mostly the 1920s/30s - and that it's going to be set in America. One of the characters is a novelist from the 20s, hence the Fitzgerald and Faulkner research. Both of them were writers I studied at University and although I never really got heavily into F. Scott, at least not much past 'The Great Gatsby', I loved Faulkner and read a load of his novels - 'The Sound and The Fury', 'Absalom Absalom', 'Light in August' and the brilliant 'As I Lay Dying' among them.
Although they're not exactly light reads - Faulkner often used stream-of-consciousness and multiple timelines and narrators, and even in his more straightforwardly structured books, he would often run a single sentence over a whole paragraph, or even a page (meaning that if you like to read in short bursts, it can be really difficult to find your place if you don't polish off a whole section at one time) - but his books really reward the reader, with their intensity of language and their sense of place and their absolute free-flowing complexity of connections.

Another element that's feeding into the story - and which gives the film its title - is the song 'Katie Cruel'. I first heard this performed by Karen Dalton, a 60s folk singer who has recently had a bit of a popular renaissance, partly due to being mentioned in Bob Dylan's 'Chronicles' book. (Nick Cave is also a massive fan, and recorded a song inspired by 'Katie Cruel', "When I First Came To Town'). Of course, it's early days yet, and I don't know if it'll stay being the title, but I hope so.

It's funny, but 'Mum & Dad' also had an unofficial anthem in the shape of a folk song - '900 Miles' by Odetta. I first heard Odetta a few years ago, again through Bob Dylan (I'm going to have to start paying him royalties in a minute) when she was featured briefly in the Scorcese documentary about him 'No Direction Home.'

I remember thinking at the time that she had such an incredible voice and was such a strong performer that I wondered why I'd never heard of her before. I sought out a few of her recordings and came across '900 Miles', a version of an old folk song which I ended up playing over and over again while I was writing M&D. I knew we'd probably never get the original to use in the film, but we did get a new version recorded by a band called The Gemma Ray Ritual, which is terrific - a different take to the Odetta version, but really fitting in with the film.

I don't know what it is about traditional folk songs that makes me think of brutal horror films - maybe it's something to do with the fact that they seem - like the stories in 'The Golden Bough' - to be drawn from a well of sources, being changed in every telling along the way, but still retaining a primal story-truth that still echoes with audiences today. Well, it's either that, or the fact that you don't have to pay publishing on them...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Butterfly that Stands in the Centre of the Ever-Widening Pool of Red and other great imaginary films

As a belated addendum to the previous post concerning titles, an email from my friend Gareth featuring a great link, landed on my desk a couple of days ago. No discussion of film titles should, of course, omit the greatest titling genre of all, the giallo!

Lengthy, lurid and often only very loosely connected to the plot, giallos feature titles such as 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin', 'The Black Belly of the Tarantual', 'Short Night of the Glass Dolls' (directed by AIU favourite Aldo Lado) and 'Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key' amongst many many others, and now this site allows you to generate your own, along with a handy synopsis. My own favourites so far have been 'Six Dead Orchids in an Eagles' Talons', 'Five Victims for the Maniac with the Eyes of Jade', the evocative 'The Madman Laughs in a Field of Lillies' and the actually quite great 'My Heart is an Assassin With Bloodstained Lips.' Hey, maybe I can nick that...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bad Friends, Phantoms and The Boss

In conversation with Chris Cooke the other day, he was talking about a title for a film that he wishes he'd used - 'Bad Friend'. (Apparently, the actual film with that name is a horror about a man who orders a zombie off the internet). It sounds like a Cooke title, as the unreliability and often corrosive nature of friendship is one of the themes that often crops up in his scripts (speaking as his friend, yeah, that is weird and slightly discomfiting), so I told him he should just nick it. I mean, who's going to mind? It's not as though the original is that well known (and for that matter, there's at least four other films called 'One For The Road'...). 'Mum and Dad' got its title courtesy of me reading about 'The most notorious Exploitation/Sex Hygiene film ever made!', and just anglicizing it. I don't think that anyone's going to get the two confused (and I don't even mind the link to the other one - in fact, it just increases the exploitation element that I tried to get into the film).

I like thinking up titles - I can spend days doing it, sometimes longer (and sometimes still not get anywhere - some of my projects have been gestating for years, slouching slowly towards becoming scripts, and I still haven't got good titles for them - with others, I've got a great title, but precious little story to go with them.) I don't think that there's any real formula to it (although there's probably whole chapters in some scriptwriting manuals dedicated to finding the perfect title) - I guess it's more to do with finding something that has the right feel for the film.

The first horror short I made was called 'Autopsy' (although for a long time it was labouring under the distinctly underwhelming 'Phantoms' (which sounds like a terrible made-for-TV-drama, or a terrible conjunction between Dean R. Koontz and Ben Affleck). I think 'Autopsy' came about through reading an Alan Moore comic that listed the dictionary definition of the word as being both 'an examination and dissection of a dead body to determine cause of death' and 'Personal observation or examination; seeing with one's own eyes'. Because the film was about a woman investigating the death of her brother and being quite skeptical about the prospect of some supernatural force behind it, thus being propelled into a first-hand witnessing of it, it seemed to fit. Also, it had a more horror-filmy feel to it than the wet 'Phantoms'.

Next up was 'Cry' - and I think the film had the title pretty much from the off. In the orginal script, the film was going to feature the famous cursed 'Crying Boy' painting, kind of like this: (Note: there are very many different versions of the 'Crying Boy' painting, which was reputedly cursed, but I always had this one in mind because when I was a kid it used to hang over our stairwell at home and creep me out.) Anyway, despite the painting getting lost from the script, I still kept the motif and I liked the idea that the film would start and end with a cry. I didn't, at the time, realise that it sounded like a weak rip-off of 'Scream', probably one of the most famous horror films of the time, but there you go.

'Through A Vulture Eye' came from a line in Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart', which was a direct influence on the script, while 'Awake' was pretty self-explanatory within the context of the film, although even now I'm wishing that it had a more dynamic title.

'Deliver Me' was another one of those projects which didn't really have a proper title for quite a long time. I think I eventually got the title from, of all places, Bruce Springsteen (stay with me..) - I love the 'Nebraska' album and one of the lines that's featured in a couple of the songs is 'Deliver me from nowhere'. The line stuck in my head and one day it just butted up against a thought about faith healing and then it seemed to fit. It's not as though the essence of The Boss permeates the very fabric of the film - more like in listening to the album something hooked into the spot where I was thinking up the feel for the film. (My next film, a zombie massacre, is going to be called 'Wrap Your Legs Round These Velvet Rims and Strap Your Hands Across My Engines'...)

A title I always wanted to use, but never was able was 'Provisions For Survival In A World Less Fantastic'. I wrote a script with that name which got rejected from Cinema Extreme (alongside every other script I ever submitted to them, the fuckers), which was a story about a bloke having a mid-life crisis and going to live in the woods. The title itself comes from a line in a Thomas Pynchon book, 'Mason and Dixon'. I remember reading the line, liking it, memorising it and then never being able to find it again, so it's most probably misquoted (and I can't even go back and check - the book got mangled years ago, during my days as an usher, when I had an altercation with a boozed-up Spaniard (which was a bit less dramatic than I've just made it sound - I wasn't having a smackdown with El Cid or anything)). Although long titles are sometimes really pretentious and annoying (and possibly even so in this case), sometimes they feel right. (While searching for Cooke's 'Bad Friend' film on IMDB, I also came across the fantastically lengthy 1914 silent short 'The Fable of the Fellow Who Had a Friend Who Knew a Girl Who Had a Friend' (which already sounds like a contemporary Hollywood romcom, probably starring Ryan Reynolds and, making her screen debut, I dunno, Rihanna). The same writer also did 'The Fable of the Preacher Who Flew His Kite But Not Because He Wished to Do So', 'The Fable of the Kid Who Shifted His Ideals to Golf and Finally Became a Baseball Fan and Took the Only Known Cure' and 'The Fable of the Kittenish Super-Anns and the World-Weary Snipes' which sounds like a Joss Whedon series waiting to happen.)

Sometimes a title doesn't come to you even when you've finished the script. The last project I put in for Cinema Extreme (blah blah fuckers blah blah) was called 'Damaged' which was relevant to the story, but still sounded quite generic, and also awakes memories of the Jeremy Irons artfilmsexfest 'Damage' (which probably isn't good). I recently started tooling around with the project again, but still couldn't come up with a better title. Maybe it means it's not meant to be. Or maybe I just need to get The Boss on the case...

Eye Crawling in a Sex Noise Sandwich

As a follow-up to this post from a few days ago, I'd like to further report a worrying trend among those people who find themselves directed here: No, it's not the constant hunt for 'sex noises' (or even 'nasty sex noises'), but rather that search term sandwiched in between. What the hell is going on out there? I mean, first it was 'it feels like something is crawling on my head' and now its 'why does my eye feel like it has something crawling in it'. Jesus Christ, people, go and see a doctor. I can't help you.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Pissy actor

I'm not the only person who's been busy making a low-budget feature in Nottingham over the past couple of years. My friend Mark Devenport has also been working on a film, which is just nearing completion. Produced by Luke Dennis (of Anonymous Room Productions) and co-written with Tony Claasen (who also plays the lead role), Big Things is a comedy about a frustrated bike courier trying to make a low-budget feature film. Mark and his crew have been filming on and off for over two years, with a hardcore of crew, including DOP John Ross, who have stuck with the project for the duration.

Although the film involves a lot of people I know - Chris Cooke and Donna Bowyer have both done some additional camera work, Micaiah Dring (from 'Cry' and 'Mum, & Dad') plays Tony's girlfriend in the film, and Ruper Proctor (King of Short Film) and Johnny Philips, both from 'One For The Road' have parts in the film - I haven't been involved. At least, I wasn't until last week when Mark asked if I'd play a small role in one of the new scenes they're shooting for the film. Which is how I ended up dressed in a Seventies shirt and a pirate hat, as the shop assistant in a fancy dress shop for an afternoon last week. It was just a short scene, a couple of minutes long, between me and Tony. My direction from Mark was that my character was 'pissy' - he thought that was something I'd be good at. Although there was a basic outline for the scene and there were a few lines that Mark and Tony wanted to get in, it was left quite open for me and Tony to improvise the dialogue for the scene, which we managed to hone down into something workable (and hopefully funny).

I'm not an actor, although in common with most people involved in low-budget filmmaking, I've ended up appearing on screen out of necessity (or as a favour to a friend) a few times in my career. My last notable part was probably in another Mark Devenport film, 'Still Life' where I was dragged in at the last minute to play a guy auditioning for a role in a porn film. (It'd probably be wise to stress at this point that the audition was more like a job interview than anything more 'physical'). I was told to take my shirt off and put on a leather jacket, sit on a sofa and answer the questions fired at me. I decided that my character Terry Leather (a name we pulled out of nowhere, or more likely, from the fact that I was wearing the leather jacket) would be quite matter-of-fact about what he did, almost as though he considered it akin to plumbing. (Weirdly, a character with exactly the same name appears in the new film 'The Bank Job', played by Jason Statham. Probably with a shirt on.) (In the same film I also ended up being a body double for one of the lead actors, who had to go to work one day when he was needed for some scenes. I played his hands in a couple of cutaways and, with his hat on my head and a big light behind me, his shadow on the wall.)

Prior to that role, and probably the reason Mark thought I'd be up for it, I'd played the lead character in a film that I'd made called Valentine, which was all about a man tied naked to a chair. Not having made a film before (at that time), I had no idea about where to get actors from, and even less confidence about convincing somebody to take their clothes off and let me strap them to a dining chair, so I ended up doing it. (It was very tastefully done, though. Nothing to frighten the horses.) The film seemed to go well (despite the trauma of having to watch myself naked on the big screen at Broadway during one of the early Bang! film festivals), but made me certain that I didn't want to carry on acting in my own films.

In a way, although I've got no ambitions in that direction at all, I think it's good for directors to put themselves in that position (I mean acting, rather than being tied naked to a chair) - it helps to have an idea of what is going through an actor's head, at least to a small degree, when they're in front of the camera and being directed. Trying to remember your lines, stay in shot, not bash into the mike or the furniture and on top of that, be convincing, is a real job, and it's good to have that in mind when you come back to the other side of the camera.

Apologies to all those who were directed here by Google looking for something completely different

I know I try to cover a variety of subjects here at AIU, and the watching and making of horror films often leads me down some dark alleyways, sometimes causing me to enter the most random and potentially disturbing of phrases into Google, but even so, the most recent list of search terms which have led peope here makes for some strange reading. And that's not even mentioning the person who was looking for"man making sex noises", or the individual who was desperately seeking "how much coal can a barge carry". And as for the lone Googler who was moved to enter the words "it feels like it something is crawling on my head" into the search engine at two minutes past four in the morning - well, that's just fucking terrifying.