Wednesday, 19 January 2011

And They Said Drama Was Dead














Here's my interview with Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech, from The Sunday Times, 16/1/11...


As the old Mel Brooks quip goes: “It’s good to be the king.” Perhaps not in the case of the Brothers Windsor, who, in 1936, were each making a compelling case as to why the Top Job was not a sensible career option. But certainly if you’re Tom Hooper.
Currently, in the business of entertainment, Hooper is the nearest thing you’ll get to a Roi Soleil— one to be showered with trinkets; a man whose bed-chamber, by the grace of Tinseltown, is quite possibly being licked clean, wit’ tongue.
Tonight, Sunday, January 16, the film he directed — The King’s Speech — is expected to bag substantial booty at the Golden Globes, where it is up for seven baubles, including one for Hooper himself. On Tuesday, January 18, comes the BAFTA shortlist; on January 25, the one for the Oscars, all likely to swell a trove including the top award at last year’s Toronto Festival and too many guild and critics’ gongs to mention.
The tall, slender, floppy-fringed 38-year-old is far too diffident to endure a fuss. But there’s no denying his film about the relationship between King and Commoner — the yet-to-be George VI (Colin Firth) and unorthodox speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an independent flick that cost less than £10million — has struck a chord. “Geoffrey liked to joke, ‘It’s about two middle aged nobodies becoming friends,’” says Hooper. “’But don’t put that on the poster.’”
In the States, The King’s Speech has out-performed studio bloaters like Gulliver’s Travels on a fraction of the screens and looks set for a $100m payday, due in no small part to producer Harvey Weinstein, whose career has been built spinning Oscar gold out of arthouse pictures like The English Patient and Shakespeare In Love.
Funny, then, that no studio wanted to touch the project. “The mantra we were told from the studios was, ‘We’re out of the drama business. Drama is dead,’” Hooper reminds, the lack of deemed commerciality leading the production to be funded, in part, by the now defunct UK Film Council. “What I’ve enjoyed in making this film is that I wasn’t chasing big box office success. I made it as I wanted to make it, as intelligent as I wanted to make it, to the standards I wanted to make it. I didn’t compromise. I didn’t dumb it down for a mass audience. The fact that it then translates, having kept your integrity, is really exciting.
“I read this stuff on the blogosphere which that implies that we drew up a recipe list of the things that guarantee success at the awards season,” he continues. “All I can say is it could not be further from the truth. It was a classic independent movie where the chances that it could fall apart came upon us regularly
The day we meet, a Friday, at the Covent Garden Hotel, is the very one on which the film gets its British opening — the film unrolling across the kingdom as we speak. “You do worry, because critics have the chance to see it as early as last September, they must tire of being nice about it,” shrugs Hooper. But they haven’t. The reviews are stunning. Somewhere, you fancy, is a ticker tape machine rattling away with the returns (£3.5m by Monday morning, straight in at number one).
Though Hooper can’t do so tonight (he’s togged up in his Savile Row finery to host a Q&A), he’s itching to go out and see it alongside real[ital] punters, trailers and all, loaded up with popcorn. As a kid, growing up in London, the Odeon Leicester Square was his venue of choice and he’ll head there tomorrow. “I remember having this ritual. As I left, I would do one glance back at the credits and make a vow to myself that I would have a film on that screen eventually. It will be actually be a rite of passage.”
The film’s contents have been pored over endlessly — poor old Bertie, tongue-tied Duke of York, seeks help for his speech impediment, turning to a maverick Antipodean with no official qualifications where court physicians have failed. Meanwhile, this sub-plot, lagging behind the abdication crisis and the rise of Hitler, gets elevated to the main attraction. Metamorphosing into George VI, the reluctant monarch must now address the nation on the brink of war. “I love that subversion of telling a very famous story through such a surprising prism,” says Hooper. “I don’t think I would have wanted to tell the story of Wallis and Edward head on.”
The film is personal for Hooper. Though born in London, a product of Westminster School (and with the slight plumminess to go with it), his mother, Meredith, is Australian. It was she who, by chance, had been invited, with a group of ex-pats, to see David Seidler’s yet-unproduced play of the story in North London. “She’s never been invited to a play reading in her life and almost didn’t go because it didn’t sound very promising,” Hooper recounts. On return, she phoned her son and enthusiastically suggested it as his next project. “If I hadn’t had an Australian mum I wouldn’t have found out about it, so there’s a lovely symmetry there.”
Hooper’s paternal grandfather, a navigator on a Lancaster, had been killed in 1942, perishing on his final mission. “It was very sad. They were coming in over the channel and they had taken enemy fire and they asked permission to land at the first available airstrip. In classic British bureaucratic tradition they were told, ‘No, you have to go to your home base,’ and they crashed. He was 30 years old.”
With his own orphaned father despatched to an authoritarian boarding school at the age of five — “that era of cold baths in the winter every day, five mile runs before six in the morning” — the whole experience rendered a man, he says, emotionally detached. It was his mother, appalled at such institutional barbarity, who proved his father’s own Logue, as he puts it, coaxing him out of his shell.
“My father wasn’t stiff upper-lipped he just wasn’t able to relate to us as kids particularly well. My mother took him on this journey.” He thumps his chest. “Now he says, ‘You’re one of my ribs, Tom.’ He’s emotionally very expressive and incredibly loving. Making this film made me appreciate it because you take those things for granted.”
The sense of duality, the ability to regard your own culture as an outsider, is intrinsic to his directorial being. “Baz Luhrmann said the thing that the film expresses beautifully, which is a key quality in the Australian personality, is that Australians are impervious to Majesty. And I know exactly what he means.”
So how does a story as specific as the struggle of a man to manage (rather than cure) a debilitating stutter yield such a universal response? “I’ve worked with (screenwriter) Peter Morgan twice. Peter has this wonderful image — we walk into the cinema holding an umbilical chord which we all want to plug in and mainline on emotion,” he says. “It’s partly this story of friendship that’s very powerful to people. I mean, we live in quite a selfish age… and actually this is a story about how a man is saved by reaching outside himself.”
And, in a year of two weddings, don’t discount the Royal factor. “Clearly our popular fascination with the monarchy is entirely undimmed.” Even in republics like France or the US, Hooper adds. “What’s so fascinating about the star system, the celebrity culture, is it seems to indicate that, without a monarchy, we culturally have this desire to elevate certain individuals and lose our rational sense over them.”
Hooper had always wanted to go into filmmaking. The son of a media exec (father Richard was deputy chairman of Ofcom), he had made his first film aged 13. At Oxford, where he read English, he directed plays starring contemporaries Kate Beckinsale and Emily Mortimer. Wishing to emulate hero Ridley Scott, he tried his hand at commercials but ended up directing episodes of Byker Grove, Eastenders and Cold Feet.
Impressed producers handed him Love in A Cold Climate and Daniel Deronda. And though he loathes the term “costume drama” (“Do not use that phrase. I will shoot you!”), he demonstrated he could handle big budgets, and, crucially, work “fast, fast, fast”
As he points out, he has done more than his fair share of “gritty”— the South African truth and reconciliation film, Red Dust, the sixth-series revival of Prime Suspect. He was hand-picked by Helen Mirren to do Elizabeth I (nine Emmys, three Golden Globes), bringing him into the fold of cable network HBO. After making the TV biopic, Longford, with them (three more Golden Globes), he went on to helm a truly epic piece of television, John Adams.
In seven parts and costing over $100m, his reinterpretation of the American Revolution through the life one its unsung presidents won plaudits for unravelling the complexity of America’s divorce from Britain. A further, and record, thirteen Emmys and four Golden Globes followed, with barely a murmur this side of the Pond.
When Hooper made The Damned United, turning David Peace’s dark novel about Clough into a far more comedic piece, it confirmed his love of viewing history from the wings — Clough via Peter Taylor, John Adams via his wife, Abigail, Myra Hyndley by way of Lord Longford. “I’m clearly very interest in the notion of collaboration,” he concedes. “Maybe it’s about being a director. As a director you are only great in collaboration. You can’t be great alone.”
If you grumble, with The King’s Speech, that facts have been tweaked —there is little mention of Appeasement and alleged royal flirtation with it, for example — then it is offset, says Hooper, by the authenticity of the relationship between the two main characters. It was only nine weeks before shooting that Logue’s personal diaries surfaced, confirming all that Seidler had conjectured.
“At the end of the big (finale) speech, Lionel says to the king ‘You still stammered on the W,’ and the king says, ‘Well I had to throw in a few so they knew that it was me.’ That was a direct quote from the diaries. But what does it tell us? That King George VI is clever and is witty. Some of the historians can’t look beyond the stammer as a sign of a lack of intelligence. As Geoffrey Rush said, ‘That’s a line worthy of Groucho Marx.’”
One production Hooper has been linked is a film version of the Nelson Mandela story, The Long Walk To Freedom, but it won’t happen this year. He will, too, be looking at Seidler’s script about Lady Hester Stanhope. Meanwhile, there is more pressing business — a flight to LA for the Golden Globes and the unveiling of Colin Firth’s star on Hollywood Boulevard.
Awards count for a lot. “Because a lot of the time it’s your industry peers voting for you and that’s very meaningful. But the mistake is to think that winning an award will give you a special key to a special door and in that room lies the perfect script for you to do next. The truth is the hard work of filming your next project begins from the ground up.”

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Queen: The Movie








An Exclusive Sneak At Peter Morgan's Script (Possibly)







Scene 1

May 1977 – Five-star suite, George V Hotel, Paris -- dusk

Freddie Mercury is lying face-down on a bearskin-covered divan while a pretty-boy teen Moroccan massages his back. Nonchalantly, Mercury paints his nails with black polish.

In the corner stands Brian May, wearing a "Save the Badger" t-shirt, unplugged Red Special guitar round his neck, trying out twangy rock riffs.

Brian
Whatd’ya reckon, Fred?

No response. He tries another.

Brian
This?

Still nothing. May huffs over to the window, where stands his astronomer’s telescope. He stoops to look through the viewfinder.

Brian
You know, if atmospheric conditions are right tonight, we should get a glimpse of the ring around Uranus.

Mercury ignores him. He claps his hands. The boy stops pampering. Mercury gets up, dons a silk kimono and passes the young masseur a bag of gold, ushering him out of the room.

Freddie (to Brian)
Darling, don’t you just adore Paris?

Brian (without looking up)
Too much reflected light.

Freddie
Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars…

Freddie lays his arm on Brian’s.

Freddie
Darling, do I look different to you, somehow?

Brian (looking up briefly)
Your nails?

Freddie
No dammit. My face. Do I seem a little peachy? Do I? Do I?

May shrugs.

Freddie
I’ve been exercising.

May (sighing)
Exercising?

Freddie
Yes darling... the warm leather between the buttocks, the pounding of pedals.

Mercury flounces to the piano and picks out a few notes.

Freddie
I want to ride my bicycle.

Brian
I prefer a trip to the pictures. I liked that one with the shark.

Freddie
Oh Brian, you're so mainstream. Jaws was never my scene...

Suddenly inspired, his piano tinkering picks up momentum. He starts forming a tune.

Freddie
... and I don't like Star Wars.

Brian remains lost in his telescope.

Brian
How can you not like Star Wars?

Freddie
C’mon Bri’, put that thing down.

Brian
But Uranus.

Freddie
… can wait. I feel a ditty coming on.

He starts up the piano riff to Bicycle Race.

Freddie
Humour me, you hippie.

May comes over.

Freddie
Remember the formula: showtune for the verse, opera for the chorus, then you can scream and bend all you like on the solo.

Brian
What do we tell the others?

Freddie
They’re big girls. They’ll understand.

The pair launch into the embryonic song, warbling like Hinge and Bracket.



Scene 2

A few hours later -- onstage at the Marshal P├ętain Velodrome.

The band finishes up a big bombastic number. Freddie hands his characteristic stick-mic to a roadie and takes to the piano stool.

Freddie (to the crowd)
Merci beaucoup, merci beaucoup.

He waits for quiet.

Freddie
Now, for all you dirty little whores out there -- yes, yes darlings, you know who you are -- we’re going to do something a bit special tonight. A brand new song…

He starts playing the new composition, Bicycle Race. Roger Taylor and John Deacon look at each other and shrug. They cast eyes towards Brian, who gives them a “don’t blame me, guys” grimace.

Brian (mouthing)
F sharp major. 4/4. The usual.

John and Roger nod. Roger tips a can of lager on his snare drum and does his trademark drum roll/spray, bringing the house down.



Scene 3

Two hours later -- stage door.

The band is ushered through a throng of screaming fans straight into a waiting limo, still in their 70s satin/silk stage gear, long hair sweaty. Their driver is a black man named Dominic.

Dominic
You are comfortable messieurs? Then we go.

They drive off, fans banging on the roof and windows.

Dominic
You just need to tell me where to stop to pick up the girls.

Brian
Girls?

Dominic
You know. Les oiseaux…

Silence.

Dominic
For the jiggy-jiggy?

Roger
Er, we’re not really a girl kind of band.

He nods discreetly at Mercury, who’s dozing behind huge shades.

Brian
We’re artists.

Dominic
You know I ‘ad Zeppelin in here last month. Heheheh. Those boys have PhDs in pussy.

Brian
I've got A Level Maths.

Dominic shrugs. Roger starts admiring the car.

Roger
This is a sweet ride. What horses you pulling?

Dominic (confused)
Horses? Cheval? You want something to eat?

Brian
LOOK!

He nudges Freddie. They all turn to John.

Brian
He’s trying to say something.

John’s mouth is starting to move.

Roger
Slowly chum, no rush.

Brian
Let the words form.

Brian motions to Freddie. Freddie produces a silver salver and whips off the lid to reveal a pile of Turkish Delight. John takes one and starts to chew.

John (quietly)
I’ve been waiting for the moment… and I guess this is the closest we’ll get to the right time…

Roger pats his shoulder.

Roger
Easy, easy…

John
You know when we were in New York… and you all came back, but I stayed on?

They all nod.

John
Well I was hanging out with… Chic.

Brian
Chic?

Roger
Le Freak.

Freddie
C’est chic.

Dominic
Heheheh. Magnifique!

John pulls out his Fender bass and plugs it into a portable amp. He nods at Roger, who gets his sticks and starts tapping a rhythm on the window. John launches into the super funked up bassline to Another One Bites The Dust. Freddie and Brian can’t help but clap along. Even Dominic is bopping away behind the wheel as they get a serious groove on.

Dominic
Man, that some serious brother shit!

John segues into the hook for Under Pressure. The handclaps switch to finger snaps. Dominic is screaming his approval from up front. The limo is rocking.

Suddenly Mercury starts waving his hands.

Freddie
Stop! Stop!

They stop. He takes the Turkish Delight away from John.

Freddie
It’s not really what we do, dear. Is it?

John’s eyes drop to the floor.

John
No Freddie.

Freddie
But never let it be said I’m not a merciful mummy.

He pours them all a glass of Cristal.

Freddie
Ladies, I think we could all use a little holiday.

He whips out of his handbag four golden tickets with “first class” stamped on them.

Freddie
How’s two weeks in South Africa sound?

Dominic winces in the rearview.

Brian examines a ticket.

Brian
Sun City. The Vegas of the Transvaal. Wow!

Roger
Will they have dodgems?



Scene 4

One month later -- The PKBothadome, Sun City.

The band wait in the wings to go onstage. Freddie has grown a big fruity moustache and transformed into a full leather-clad S&M clone, complete with cap and mirror shades.

Freddie
Who’d have thought Africa would get so hot?

He removes his biker jacket, throws it to one side and is now naked from the waist up. Roger and John titter like naughty schoolboys. Brian sees what they’re laughing at. Into Freddie’s extremely hairy back they have shaved a cartoon penis. Brian slaps his hand to his forehead.

Brian
Oh Lord!

It is too late. As the taped stamp-clap of We Will Rock You begins, Freddie has already begun marching into the spotlight.

There is stunned silence. A lone Afrikaner voice yells out: “Bladdy homo.”



Scene 5

July 1985 -- Live Aid, Wembley Stadium

Greatest gig of all time, “Hello possums,” etc., etc.


ends

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The big yahoo


Jack Black reveals why playing Gulliver as a time-travelling American slob really wasn’t that huge a stretch



Jeff Dawson

Published: 19 December 2010, Sunday Times

On a sound stage at Pinewood Studios sits a huge mocked-up rock structure that resembles a cross between the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave. Torches flame along its walls, the basalt columns have been sprayed to an ocean-pounded sheen and, in one of its many crannies, Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate have been banged up behind bars.

We are in Lilliput, where this huge sea cavern serves as the island’s jail; inmates are interned in every crevice. Following their overthrow by the army of neighbouring Blefuscu, Connolly and Tate, Lilliput’s monarchs, have been reduced to the rank of ordinary felons. Would-be salvation comes in the shape of oversized Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black), erstwhile court favourite, since disgraced, who has arrived to kiss and make up. “King, if it’s all right, I’d like to be your guardian protector again,” he says. “And if I don’t kick that robot’s butt...”

Because the original was written at a time when there was so much unknown out there, there could possibly be a land of tiny people

While the royals are togged up in their Ruritanian finery, Black stands on the top of a stepladder, in a pair of jeans whose hems hover above his ankles, like a schoolboy after a growth spurt.

He reads his lines back off camera, hand in pocket, while his supposed 70ft eyeline is simulated by the high-tech arrangement of a tennis ball on a pole, a discombobulating process for those schooled in more traditional methods.

“Go and tell the Blefuscians that our protector has returned,” Connolly pronounces, “and he is... Ah, f***, I’m sorry.” King Connolly and Queen Tate must now jump into the friendly giant’s outstretched hand — actually a crash mat. Billy’s back isn’t up to it, poor dear. They’ll have to think of a way round it.

When Jonathan Swift published Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts, in 1726, it is fair to assume that he didn’t envisage Gulliver getting wedgied by a large mechanical android, even in one of the earlier drafts. To Swift, the prospect of capturing his story on celluloid would have been as fanciful as the name of his monkey humans — the Yahoos — being appropriated by an internet search engine. His classic was written as a satire on European government, rather than a children’s story, with A Voyage to Lilliput the most enduring of the tales. His hero was a ship’s surgeon, rather than the film’s LemueL, a Wii-guitar-playing schlub, who toils in a newspaper mailroom and for whom — hey! — “It doesn’t get any bigger than this”.

In modern Hollywood, however, where movie ideas are reduced to a one-line sell, you can imagine the studio execs high-fiving the moment one of them looked up from his soy latte and piped “Jack Black is Gulliver”, with someone else chiming in: “And in 3D!”

The film’s producer, Ben Cooley, confirms: “We had no idea what the take was. Do we do it in the future, and Lilliput is on another planet, Jack is in a spaceship? There were a lot of ideas circulating.” This interstellar option was dunked, mercifully, through the basketball hoop over the wastepaper bin. The script, co-written by Joe Stillman, who penned Shrek, opted for Gulliver having a thing for the newspaper’s princess of a travel editor (Amanda Peet). He rises from his basement swamp to masquerade as a writer, bagging an assignment to Bermuda and a date with its Triangle.

“The way into the world had to change,” Black explains. “Because the original was written at a time when there was so much unknown out there, there could possibly be a land of tiny people. We go through a wormhole to another dimension. But once we get to Lilliput, it’s more like the book.” Sort of.

The director, Rob Letterman, who made Monsters vs Aliens, wanted to avoid the book’s South Sea island setting, to steer it clear of Lost. So, Lilliput is Little England, and we get a culture clash: a brash infantile American (Black) bouncing off the barbs of Britain’s finest, all clad in Quality Street finery to boot (Connolly, Tate, Emily Blunt, James Corden and the Irishman Chris O’Dowd). “People don’t realise how sarcastic the book was,” Letterman says. “The spirit of it we stick to. We make fun of what’s going on in the world.”

Black’s Gulliver, the self-styled “Prince Awesome of Manhattan”, turns out to be quite the cultural imperialist, remodelling downtown Lilliput into a facsimile of Times Square and having the locals build him a beachside condo, complete with “media room”, where his tiny pals re-create scenes from Star Wars and Titanic. “Bringing fun to Lilliput corrupts it at the same time,” Letterman adds. “He Americanises it in a bad way. It’s not the same thing that happened in the book, but it’s the same ideas of allegory.”

In body-perfect Hollywood, there’s always been a soft spot reserved for the slob king, a sort of unkempt everyman — a tradition running in recent times through John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley. Black is a direct descendant and has no qualms about flouting his credentials, treating us to the panoramic spectacle of his bare wobbling belly repelling the cannonballs of the Blefuscu navy.

“Don’t talk about food,” Connolly whispers. “His love of food is just a joy. It’s quite dreamy. Say lamb pasanda if you want to see him sweat and dance.” Black’s acquired love of Indian nosh has been offset by the four flights of stairs he must master at his rented house in Kensington, he assures me. “Feel my butt. Feel. It’s made of steel.”

If someone has a drama that I’m perfect for, I’ll consider it, but there has to be a comedic element to it... I’m just a clown

Now 41, Black has been an A-list star for some years, his made-flesh Beavis and Butt-Head persona exemplified in his signature film, School of Rock. The son of rocket-scientist parents, he grew up in Santa Monica and juggled early acting gigs with band ones. His rock duo, Tenacious D, with his chum Kyle Gass, has since gone on to cult status. He finally made it after his turn as a smartarse record-shop employee in High Fidelity; starring roles followed in Shallow Hal, King Kong, Nacho Libre, Be Kind Rewind and Tropic Thunder, as well as the animation Kung Fu Panda, directly modelled on his manic persona. Gulliver is probably the first film in which you will remember his character’s name.

In some of his earlier movies, such as Dead Man Walking, he played it straight.

In others, like the romcom The Holiday, there has been a hint of vulnerability, suggesting there’s a serious actor inside, itching to break out. But no, says Black. “It’s not my mission to show people that I can do this or that. I like comedies. If someone has a drama that I’m perfect for, I’ll consider it, but there has to be a comedic element to it... I’m just a clown.” One that’s permanently “on”, either joyously or infuriatingly, depending on your point of view. Black does a trick with his eyes, making them turn inwards individually, then hams through some t’ai chi moves. He breaks off. “I let a little gas go. I had to stop...”

As everyone keeps saying, though, he’s dedicated, a hard worker. Across the way, mounted on a table, is a scaled-down version of the same rock cave. At a future point, the scene will be filmed again, this time with Black mugging through the little cave’s mouth. After four months in Britain, filming at Pinewood, the Old Royal Naval College, in Greenwich and Blenheim Palace, the project will repair to LA for the actor to do the scene once more in front of a green screen. “It’s a lot for him,” Letterman says. “He basically has to shoot the movie three times. He doesn’t have to be here on a day like this — I can get anyone to read his lines — but he really commits to it.”

In the corridor, Jason Segel, star of I Love You, Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the only Yank among the Lilliputians, is struggling with a cold. He’s huge, Segel — 6ft 4in — with the physique of a circus strongman. “This is the first time I’ve ever been shorter than one of my co-stars,” he quips. As Horatio, he plays a commoner besotted with Blunt’s Princess Mary, bringing him into conflict with her betrothed, the pompous General Edward (O’Dowd).

Despite Letterman’s assurance that there’s “a lot of scatological humour in the book — there’s 300-year-old poop jokes”, you can anticipate groans from purists bemoaning the desecration of yet another literary classic. Actually, Gulliver has been recast in all manner of guises over the years, from Mickey Mouse (1934) to Ted Danson (1996). Most versions owe their imagery to the 1939 animation by Max Fleischer. “It did have a lasting impact,” Letterman says. “There are two quintessential images — Gulliver waking up on the beach and the armada, when he pulls the boats. I spent a lot of time crafting them into this movie, trying to do our best version.”

Outside, later on, on a re-creation of Blenheim’s facade, soldiers are arrayed, the royal thrones laid out on a roll of Astroturf. Blunt and Tate, in elegant gowns, mess around under parasols, speaking in Australian accents (“Because it just gets you through the day,” Tate says). Blunt coos about how “witty and charming” the film is. “It reminds me of The Princess Bride.” They are being set up for the showdown between Gulliver and the tin robot. Instructions are barked through a megaphone about how the invisible Gulliver will be grabbing the big gold orb off the top of the palace and lobbing it like a basketball. “Annihilate him, Gulliver!” Blunt shrieks, acting to nothing.

On an American website recently, one female moviegoer threatened to boycott the film for fear of Black’s habitual need to go to the lavatory on screen. She’ll be sorry to hear that he does so again. Only bigger. (Although it has to be said, it is actually in the book.)

Gulliver’s Travels opens on December 26

Out on a limb


He amputated his own arm to save himself. Now Aron Ralston’s tale is the Danny Boyle-directed, Oscar-bound 127 Hours


Jeff Dawson

Published: 12 December 2010, Sunday Times

Aron Ralston is pretty much what you’d expect for a 35-year-old outdoorsman from the Rockies: tall, sinewy, trim beard, a touch weather-beaten, a little awkward in a suit — like a kid at a wedding, fresh from a maternal spit wash. The left-handed shake is firm, a bit too so. Hell of a grip you’ve got there, I say. He laughs: “I could give you a better one with this.”

From his right side, Ralston raises what is conventionally described as a “hook”, actually a mean-looking pincer, the kind of thing a Bond villain would tote. This afternoon, a Saturday, as part of the hospitality laid out, Ralston is being taken to see Arsenal play. He might have trouble getting that contraption through security. It’s okay, he says, this is his “dress prosthetic”. He’ll slip into something more comfortable — though probably not the customised Edward Scissorhands device he uses when mountaineering, a sort of Swiss Army multitool featuring an ice axe and, no doubt, an implement for prising stones out of horses’ hooves. “I actually flew with it on a plane a couple of times before they figured out, ‘That’s actually like a weapon. We can’t let you take that on,’ ” he says. “Trust me, nobody’s going to storm the cockpit while I’m sitting up there.”

A likeable westerner, Ralston also happens to be one of the most inspiring people you’ll ever meet. In April 2003, after a solo trip into the wilds of Utah, he found himself trapped under a boulder in Bluejohn Canyon, a shoulder-width ravine. After six long days, having exhausted every method of extraction and with scant chance of rescue, Ralston freed himself by severing his own limb. So cast-iron are the man’s cojones, having completed his auto-amputation, he then packaged his wound, abseiled down a 65ft rock face and set out on an eight-mile hike back to his car, pondering how he would change gear when driving himself to the hospital. He had been walking for five hours, the latter part aided by a family from Holland, when a helicopter arrived.

Ralston pops his claw attachment on and off, then does a trick with a glass of water

Ralston’s book about the accident, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, became a bestseller. Now it is the subject of a film, 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle, who bagged Oscars galore for Slumdog Millionaire. There are gongs being tipped again, not least for the actor James Franco, who puts in a riveting turn as Ralston. “My family and friends have said, that was so you,” enthuses Ralston, who was on hand throughout, on a set re-created “to millimetre accuracy”.

“He’s done an amazing job. He makes himself become a corpse over time. My sister said that, 15 minutes into the movie, she was no longer watching James, she was watching me.”

So, here he is: Aron Ralston, the “arm guy”. On stage, as a motivational speaker, he grumbles that he doesn’t want to be defined as such. He fell in love with his wife, Jessica, precisely because she didn’t ask him about his loss. But that was before the film.

Ralston pops his claw attachment on and off, then does a trick with a glass of water — almost, the glass being a little too wide for his mechanical clasp. Doesn’t he feel like a performing seal? He makes some mock arf-arf noises. “This is always going to be a part of my life,” he shrugs. “But what I meant, too, is that it’s not all that I’m here to do. The film is part of this closure.”

Its gruesome finale notwithstanding, the prospect of a drama about a man trapped in one spot for 127 hours would seem to defy the term “movie”. Ralston was interested in his tale being presented as a Touching the Void-style documentary. Then came Boyle, persuading him his experience was worthy of a dramatic canvas. “I went through six days where I came to even accept that I was going to die. It was, ‘What has my life been?’ Going deep into that, philosophically. Realising regrets, mistakes.” Indeed, via the pen of another Brit, the screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), the film becomes altogether existential. Boyle makes clever use of the camcorder on which Ralston had logged his last goodbyes, throwing in flashbacks as Ralston slips into out-of-body delirium, so much so that, even today, he often refers to himself in the third person. The arm severance? It’s rather an “ecstasy of liberation”, as Ralston puts it, the climax of a journey “from the deepest despair to highest euphoria through this crucible of pain”.

That said, it’s still not one for the faint-hearted. The film has grabbed headlines for people being carried out during screenings. “Oh, they are, pretty regularly,” Ralston chortles. “Yes, it can be overwhelming. You do have to keep breathing, people. But it’s also that affirmation of life. It’s why I wanted to work with Danny. He didn’t want it to be a horror story.”

He was a silly boy, was Aron. An experienced mountaineer, he not only made the mistake of striking out on his own, but committed the cardinal sin of not informing anybody where he was heading, save for a note saying, rather unhelpfully, “Utah”. But it all seems to fit with the way Franco plays him, the borderline adrenaline junkie whom we first meet barrelling through the desert on his bike. On the way to Bluejohn Canyon, Ralston had shown off to a couple of comely hikeresses. Later, full of bravado, he stepped on a “chockstone”, assuming it would take his weight. It didn’t. Both came tumbling down, the half-ton boulder rammed tight below his right elbow, pinning him to the wall. At first, Ralston treated his predicament like an extreme boy-scout project, rigging up a pulley system to try to budge the boulder. By day six, reduced to drinking fetid urine, he began his surgery — a process hampered by a useless penknife blunted by

days of chipping at stone.

The most striking thing is just how methodical Ralston was, testament to his engineering background. That he had to remove his arm was a no-brainer. His hand was gangrenous. He’d have lost it anyway. The accursed rock — by now a respected foe — had actually done him a favour by stemming the blood flow, preventing the toxins from flooding back. “Ultimately, it’s more of a puzzle, a riddle almost. How do you cut through an arm with a knife too dull to get through the bones?” he says. “Until finally, the epiphany — boom. It’s not the knife that’s gonna get me free, it’s the boulder.” Levering his body till his radius and ulna snapped, Ralston made his literal breakthrough: “It was this eureka moment for me.”

He makes the rest of the operation sound rather ho-hum — hacking through the skin and flesh, the tough old tendons, then the electrifyingly painful bundle of nerves, which he plucked “like a guitar string”. Last came the arteries. “It was one step at a time,” he recalls. “I’m thinking it through just like anybody would. I had a lot of time, that’s all I had. I mean, I can use a tourniquet, I’ve watched ER. That’s what you do, right?”

Salvation came when he hallucinated a vision of a small boy. Ralston describes the child as being his future son. He hadn’t then met his wife

The procedure took about 40 minutes.

Ralston’s speech is peppered with references to “epiphany” and “miracle” and “ecstasy”. “There was a defining moment in the aftermath when I chose that this was going to be the greatest thing that happened to me, which is why I wrote the book, so that it could touch other people,” he says. “It was a gift I then gave to Danny, so he could share it with other people.”

He takes on a predestinarian tone. It was all meant to be. The two girls he met were “angels”, there to lead him from danger, till he spurned them for his date with destiny. “As one of my friends said, ‘Dude, if there’s a lesson in all this, it’s go with the girls. What were you thinking?’ ”

Is he religious? “I was raised as a Protestant. In terms of practising, I’m a once-a-year kind of guy... The way I practise is, I go out into nature and I touch my spirituality in that place,” he says. He talks further about “these energies that connect us, the spiritual energies that I call God”. If he could turn back the clock, would he still go into that canyon? “Absolutely. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t have taken a sharper knife, I wouldn’t have taken a jacket.” That bloody useless knife came up trumps. A keener blade would have precipitated an earlier release, but he’d have died because he’d have bled out. The progressive dehydration made his blood more viscous. “I wouldn’t trade back any of this life experience I have today,” he restates. “There’s no way I would trade back this gift to have my hand back.”

It hasn’t all been rapture. Initially, Ralston felt himself indestructible: “Arrogant bastard that I was, I was like, ‘Look how badass I am.” Then three friends of his died in quick succession — suicides. A girlfriend left him. “It nearly crushed me. It nearly killed me, the depression. But that’s part of life — there’s balance, there’s positives and negatives.”

Salvation came when he hallucinated a vision of a small boy, who gave him the will to live. In the book, he describes the child in detail, his future son. He hadn’t then met his wife. Eleven months ago, Jessica gave birth to a boy, Leo, who fits the description exactly. Ralston is starting to sound like a Hal David lyric — “Love: at the deepest point that’s what connects us” — but you get where he’s coming from. Meanwhile, he makes a mockery of his “disability”. He’s scaled all 59 peaks over 14,000ft in Colorado. He’s climbed Kilimanjaro. Everest was supposed to happen, but life intervened. “Getting back was regaining my identity, but with time it became more, ‘When I’m in the outdoors, it’s about being with my friends.’”

After the accident, forest rangers retrieved his arm and cremated it. Ralston returned to scatter the ashes and still visits the site, like a shrine. “I stood on that rock this past spring, on the anniversary of my entrapment. I’m looking at digital photographs on my camera of Leo, because I’m reminded about the joy of being alive. Then I turn and I’m showing the rock! It’s that literal touchstone, this place where I can go.”

He still lives in Colorado... in a town called Boulder.

127 Hours opens on January 7

A long time coming






Peter Weir’s epic new film is the story of a 4,500-mile walk by seven fugitives. But this true tale of bravery still had a bizarre twist

Jeff Dawson

Published: 5 December 2010, Sunday Times

For the 6,000 brutalised souls interned in Soviet prison camp 303, a gulag on the Arctic fringes of Russia’s far east, escape was not deemed viable. Beyond the immediate obstacles of guards, dogs, razor wire, walls and watchtowers lay the biggest deterrent of all: Siberia. Such things held little sway with Slavomir Rawicz, late of the Polish cavalry. In April 1941, under cover of a pre-dawn blizzard, not only did he lead an improbable breakout from his confines, he determined that his ragged gang of seven escapees — ill-clad and underprovisioned — should tackle the hostile wilds head-on. They would march right through it and out of the Soviet Union altogether.

Ensnared in the Soviet “liberation” of his homeland in September 1939, Lieutenant Rawicz was one of 400,000 Poles swept up by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Arrested on a trumped-up charge, effectively for being “bourgeois”, Rawicz, at 24, was sentenced to 25 years’ hard labour. Recapture would convert this tantamount death sentence to an actual one. Lingering on Russian soil was not an option. The shortest passage to freedom lay east: a yomp to the Pacific coast and hope of stowing on a boat to Japan, still a perilous 1,500-mile slog.

Instead, Rawicz made a more radical choice: to follow a route due south, over the frontier into Mongolia, across the Gobi desert, then Tibet, and over the Himalayas to the sanctuary of British India. This 4,500-mile, 18-month journey through climatic extremes and some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth has since been celebrated as a benchmark of human indefatigability, a haul of Homeric proportions. After the war, Rawicz settled in the Midlands. In 1956, his memoir, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, became an international bestseller, translated into 30 languages.

“It was in 2007 that I read the book,” says the film director Peter Weir. “It was my sort of thing. As a kid growing up in the 1950s, I read Colditz, The Wooden Horse, Reach for the Sky.

"I had a great interest in Shackleton and endurance and escaped people pressed to their limits. And I was fascinated because it also led me to think about how little I knew about the gulag system, about the repression under Stalin.”

I just have to find something I believe I can bring something to. Sometimes I read a script and say, ‘It’s a fine script, but anybody can do it'

Hollywood had wrestled for more than half a century with how to transpose Rawicz’s story to the screen — it was originally optioned by Laurence Harvey as a vehicle for Burt Lancaster. Part of the problem lay in selecting just which aspect of Rawicz’s epic to dramatise: the escape itself or, more ambitious, the eventual walk. By focusing on the latter, Weir has finally pulled it off. His film, The Way Back, stars Jim Sturgess as the youthful officer leading his ragtag team of Slavs, including Colin Farrell as an unstable Russian, Valka, and Saoirse Ronan as Irena, a Polish girl they pick up en route, who has run away from a prison farm. Be warned, says Weir, it is devoid of the movie conventions of “literal cliffhangers or pursuit by Russian guards — I didn’t want to make that kind of film. I wanted to make it about these people”.

True to the book, there’s even an American, a “Mr Smith” (Ed Harris), one of many westerners legitimately employed in the USSR in the interwar period — in Smith’s case as an engineer constructing the Moscow Metro — whose status was revised to “enemy of the people”.

Sharing top billing, though, is the backdrop itself — this is the first feature film to be produced by National Geographic. Shot on a moderate budget of $30m, the film has Bulgaria standing in for the Asian taiga, with versatile Morocco as most points south of the Trans-Siberian Railway. “They are avoiding settled areas because of the danger of being turned in,” Weir says. “So that made it a film about landscapes, and these individuals isolated in them, which is part of their problem.”

Man and his environment is a running theme of Weir’s work, a keynote of his most famous film, The Truman Show. More often than not, he sets his films in the past, lavishing his chosen world with period detail: the Victorian gentility of Picnic at Hanging Rock; the Anzac landings at Gallipoli; 1960s Indonesia in The Year of Living Dangerously; or the pain­staking re-creation of life on a Nelsonian warship in Master and Commander.

The genial Australian, now 66, makes films sparingly, this being only his second release in 12 years. “I don’t think it’s the only way to make films. In a way, I’d prefer to work at a faster rate, but I just have to find something I believe I can bring something to. Sometimes I read a script and say, ‘It’s a fine script, but anybody can do it.’ ” The fascination with The Way Back lay with sinking his teeth into the research, poring over the archives, interviewing the handful of gulag survivors still with us. “It was absorbing. I suppose that’s another aspect of choosing a subject — it has to be something that will engross you over what is inevitably going to be a couple of years, minimum.”

As a young man, Weir says, he read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. It had gone “deeply into the memory banks”. It was the writings of this dissident, expelled from the USSR in 1974, that played a huge part in raising western awareness of the barbarity of the Soviet penal system, something he had explored earlier in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, propelling him to a Nobel prize.

During the Stalinist era (1922-53), it is estimated that more than 18m people passed through Gulag — the letters are a Russian acronym for Main Camp Administration, an Orwellian repository for reactionary thought criminals as well as a conventional institution for ordinary felons. The camps were scattered across the remote wilderness of the Russian interior. Conservative tallies suggest that 3m didn’t survive, with many perishing on the cattle trucks or enforced death marches just to get there.

She feels uneasy when she sees the hammer-and-sickle insignia used on western fashion clothing. 'You wouldn’t wear a swastika, would you?'

Though Gulag was dismantled post-Stalin, some camps remained until the dying days of the Soviet Union. Until recently, Rawicz’s epic narrative, superbly written, was regarded as an essential chronicle of this subject, a significant first-person account. Only there’s a slight problem. A couple of years after his death in 2004, it was revealed, pretty conclusively, that he had made his story up. He had genuinely been interned in a camp somewhere, but his official records — or, rather, a lack of them — pointed to his liberty coming by way of a general amnesty granted to Poles in 1942, as the hard-pressed Soviets sought to raise a Polish division to resist the German advance. Rawicz was probably one of the thousands caught up in a maelstrom of migration in which released Poles were shuttled across the vast wastes by train, many ending up alongside the British armed forces in Persia.

Rather, it is said, Rawicz had done a bit of a Marco Polo, appropriating the lives of ­others — most specifically the personal experience of a Pole named Witold Glinski, now an octogenarian living in Hayle, Cornwall, who came forward last year. “I didn’t even know about him [Glinski] until I was well under way,” Weir sighs. “I’d kind of been burnt by this in a way, by this controversy.” The Way Back, he points out, is “inspired by” Rawicz’s book, rather than “based on” it (Sturgess plays a character called Janusz), and it comes with a dedication to all those who made it out of the camps and out of the wilds. “Yes, I fictionalised. But it made me very determined that everything in the film would have some provenance, that I wouldn’t make up anything that didn’t happen.” Indeed, according to Anne Applebaum, who won a Pulitzer prize for her definitive work Gulag: A History, there were certainly others who had made similar treks to freedom — “People who are said to have walked across Siberia and into India, and who later wrote memoirs; or across into Afghanistan.” Some even resorted to cannibalism, which is hinted at in Weir’s film.

Applebaum, who is married to Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, met Weir several times during his research. Unequivocal in her use of the term “slave labour”, she points to the fact that, in addition to their function as an instrument of terror, the gulag camps were deliberately designed by Stalin to power the Soviet economy. More than 28m people, either gulag inmates or internal exiles, were forcibly engaged in forestry, mining, farming and industry. Whole modern cities, such as Norilsk and Vorkuta, sprang from the toils of those who were worked, literally, to death. Applebaum still feels uneasy when she sees the hammer-and-sickle insignia used on western fashion clothing. “You wouldn’t wear a swastika, would you?”

Unlike the precision extermination machine created by the Nazis, the Russian setup was never designed as such. Instead, it was a chaotic organisation, leaving little photographic evidence and with the full archives only recently made available. There’s also good old western guilt — the lingering discomfort over the unholy wartime alliance of America and Britain with “Uncle Joe”. “It’s awkward to say that we destroyed one genocidal dictator with the help of another,” Applebaum says. “It was uncomfortable to condemn the Soviet Union in the same language as the Nazis.”

In film terms, the “Soviet holocaust” still awaits its Schindler’s List, whereas the historical and literary worlds have begun to address the fact “that Hitler and Stalin committed the same kinds of crimes in the same place, often to the same people — the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Balts”, Applebaum says. “It hasn’t filtered down to popular culture yet, and, of course, I’m hoping Peter’s film will help that.”

Weir, meanwhile, mulls over his next project, delving into his “bottom drawer” of screenplays and wondering what’s going to keep him sufficiently captivated. One thing it won’t be, as many had hoped, is another Patrick O’Brian adaptation. Unless, he jokes, they can furnish him with a novel that was more land-based. “I sometimes walk into a mate’s place,” he says. “He’s one of those people who’s always working on cars — he has this garage with several vehicles in bits and pieces on the floor — and I think, ‘God, I’ve got scripts like that.’ ” Time isn’t necessarily on his side, he adds. “You know, I have to be realistic. There’s a clock ticking somewhere. But I’m sort of curious to get back to work and not make the next interval so long.”

The Way Back opens on December 26

If she looks this good on Facebook...








A handsome New Yorker’s online flirtation with this girl set off a bizarre chain of events captured in the year’s most talked-about documentary

Jeff Dawson

Published: 28 November 2010, Sunday Times

As I switch on my digital recorder, Henry Joost whips out his own and punches it on with almost perfect synchronicity. “Do you mind if we record you?” he asks. “As long as you don’t make me look stupid,” I say. I regret it instantly. This is the most unoriginal thing you can utter to someone about to tape a conversation. According to their friends, Joost and his directing partner, Rel Schulman, have a propensity to record stuff that borders on the obsessive. Today it’s audio, but usually it’s film. They may leave the house sans keys, but never without cameras. “We film things for fun. We just film things,” Joost shrugs. “We fool around.”

Joost, a fresh-faced New Yorker of 28, who shoots promotional videos, looks barely out of his teens. Next to him sits Nev Schulman, Rel’s younger brother — 26, darkly handsome, a tad mannered, with the lithe physique of a ballet dancer: a lame one currently, grumbling about a crick in his back from the flight over and sending down to the hotel lobby for some Nurofen. Whether Nev dances or not, I never find out, but, circuitously, it is his interest in ballet — as a photographer of it — that has landed him and Joost here today. (Rel is stuck in New York.)

In late 2007, Nev received a painting in the post from a dance-crazy eight-year-old named Abby, who had made a watercolour copy of one of his prints — “Basically, ‘I’m learning how to paint, what do you think of my artwork?’” was her pitch, he says. The trio could not have comprehended where it might lead. The result is Catfish, the most talked-about documentary of recent months.With Joost and Rel directing, and Nev the film’s star, it wowed Sundance and has been a hit on the festival circuit. It opened in America in September, taking more than $3m at the box office — not bad on a production budget of “I think, like fourteen-hundred bucks”, mulls Joost.

She was into things I don’t have access to, like horseback riding, ice climbing, adventurous stuff. And the huge trump card that she was a virgin

What’s it about? To reveal too much is to ruin the experience of watching it. Let’s just say that Catfish is the flip side of The Social Network — not so much what happens when Facebook goes wrong as what happens when Facebook gets weird.

While the film’s events were unspooling, as they do still, Joost and the Schulmans shared an office in downtown Manhattan. “Rel had always wanted to make a movie about Nev, because Nev has this magnetic attraction to strange things happening,” Joost explains. So it would seem. The film begins innocently, as an internet friendship develops between Nev and Abby, their conversations monitored by her genial mum, Angela, from the family home in Michigan. “All it really was was the potential for a cute, short film that would end with Nev and Abby meeting in real life,” Joost says. But enter Megan, Abby’s winsome 19-year-old sister... For Nev, it’s love at first byte.

“What had me captivated was that, unlike the girls in New York City, she was a polar opposite: very outdoorsy, into things I don’t have access to, like horseback riding, ice climbing, cool, adventurous stuff,” he says. “Then there’s the huge trump card that she was a virgin. I mean, what guy doesn’t dream of having some beautiful virgin in love with him?” The attraction is mutual, their e-chats supplemented by phone cooing, suggestive texts and come-hither photographs. Nev and Megan yearn to meet. They yearn to get naked.

Meanwhile, with the child prodigy Abby even splitting her art-competition winnings with Nev, he has no reason to suspect anything is awry. “It seemed, if they were scamming me, they were terrible at it,” he says. Eventually, though, things don’t quite stack up, and Catfish suddenly turns amateur detective story, as the three amigos zip through the backwoods of the Midwest to uncover the truth. It gets bizarre, even fairly creepy — Blair Witch meets Deliverance. You do question the boys’ sanity. “I just didn’t imagine how any of this potentially would lead to a negative outcome,” Nev says. “It never occurred to us that there was a huge, elaborate, dangerous thing going on.”

Catfish’s central theme is explored, quite coincidentally, in another new release, Easier with Practice. Although shot as a drama, it is based on real events, as recounted in the American author Davy Rothbart’s autobiographical short story What Are You Wearing?, which first appeared in American GQ. It tells of Davy’s long-running relationship with an unseen woman — in this case, a phone-sex hook-up with the mellifluous Nicole, their compulsive telephonic affair blissfully devoid of the courtship politics that blight Davy’s flesh-and-blood couplings.

“There are titillating aspects of it, I know, but it’s really about people trying to connect in the 21st century and finding that, by concealing parts of their identity, they are able to reveal themselves sometimes more fully to each other,” says Rothbart — who is also the creator of Found magazine, an ingenious collection of “the best lost, tossed and forgotten items from around the world”, such as discarded letters, windscreen flyers and shop-door Post-its, which tell fragments of a story, but never the whole. “Catfish and Easier with Practice are very similar in terms of speaking to you about the power of fantasy,” he muses. “It’s easy, when you know only a part of someone, to fill in the blanks. It’s amazing how vivid and potent our imaginations can be, especially when it comes to romantic fantasy.”

Ah, l’amour... Inevitably, the infatuated Davy desires something more profound than a cordless quickie or a spot of aural. He wants tenderness. He wants to “cuddle”. And, as in Catfish, he seeks a face-to-face with his siren.

Easier with Practice has received the restrictive NC-17 rating, even though it contains no on-screen nudity or violence. The censors have taken umbrage at some dialogue that, admittedly, would have curled Alexander Graham Bell’s moustache, but it can’t be construed as controversial.

The makers of Catfish, by contrast, have found themselves facing something of a backlash, with suggestions that their film is not all it claims — compounded by the assertion of Morgan Spurlock (the maker of Super Size Me) that it is “the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen”.

I had this exciting, entertaining soap opera unfolding every day on my computer screen, and I didn’t want to change the channel

As there are nearly as many “mockumentaries” these days as bona-fide ones, you can understand the confusion. It has not been helped by the presence in the Catfish credits of the producers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, makers of Capturing the Friedmans, a celebrated documentary about a family’s dark secrets of paedophilia — a film that later became mired in controversy when allegations were made about its journalistic integrity. Joost points out, however, that the producers were not involved in Catfish’s creative process.

So, cards on the table. Catfish: is it a hoax or what? “No, because none of the movie is fictionalised or staged or shot out of sequence. It is all real, the way it happened. The only thing we went back and shot later is the computer-screen close-ups,” Joost says.

“We were very strict about not making stuff up. All of the emails in the film are real emails. All of the chats are the real chats they had.” You can allege that, as the film proceeds, Nev hams up his part, having fun at his subjects’ expense, possibly even exploiting them (though they did all sign releases). And how about the little piece of music, midway through, that Megan plays on the piano, a Philip Glass refrain better known as the theme from The Truman Show? Surely a little hint that reality might be being manipulated? Were they really that gullible?

It’s the first time anyone’s brought this up, Nev and Joost say — an extraordinary admission, but one that fits with their apparent naivety. “There were plenty of things along the way that stood out, that were red flags. If I had wanted to focus on them, I’m sure I could have uncovered the truth sooner,” Nev reflects. “But I was so engaged and captivated by the fantasy. I had this exciting, entertaining soap opera unfolding every day on my computer screen, and I didn’t want to change the channel.” In the end, it is Catfish’s sheer “stranger than fiction” quality that is the most compelling evidence of its veracity.

The suggestion that any documentary is “faux” is in itself a red herring, they argue. Are, say, Borat, or the recent Joaquin Phoenix documentary, I’m Still Here, any less valid as works of journalism simply because the reporter is wearing a red nose? True objectivity is a myth, Joost adds. “You have 200 to 250 hours of footage, and just by making it into 90 minutes, you’re cutting almost everything out, shaping the story. The film does not equal the experience we had, but it’s an accurate distillation of it. And that’s kind of all you can shoot for.”

Catfish might stand, in years to come, as a film for our age, the epitome of our “sofa­lising” existence. But it also highlights something that’s always gone on, from Henry VIII being duped by a portrait of Anne of Cleves to the silver surfers of Ambridge — that the timeless art of seduction involves no small measure of masquerade.

Davy Rothbart still uses Facebook, but has given up on phone sex. “IRL is a lot awesomer. I’ve become a big fan,” he says. “You ever do IRL? It’s like when you hang out with people... In Real Life.”  

Easier with Practice opens on Friday, Catfish on December 17