Tuesday, 26 November 2013

James Hunt, Niki Lauda and Rush

‘Now I understand how people saw me’
Rush, a movie about his death-defying F1 duel with James Hunt in 1976, has been a revelation for Niki Lauda, says Jeff Dawson
Jeff Dawson Published: SUNDAY TIMES CULTURE, 8 September 2013

There’s a story George Best used to tell after his fall from grace — of a waiter delivering champagne to his hotel room and finding him lying on a bed awash with casino winnings, Miss World curled round him. “Mr Best,” the waiter asks, “where did it all go wrong?”
James Hunt was no stranger to the fruits of success, either. World Drivers’ Champion of 1976, he had, within three years, walked away from Formula One. Wind forward a decade and he had hit the skids — divorced, broke, beset by drink problems, he had taken to riding around London barefoot on a battered woman’s pushbike.
“I met him in the King’s Road for lunch,” recalls his great rival, Niki Lauda. “I had to pay, because he had no money. His bicycle had no air in its tyres. I said, ‘Listen, get your act together. If you go on like this, you’re not gonna survive.’” Although Hunt did hang a U-turn, cleaning himself up, he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1993, aged 45.
The year 1976, season of his sole triumph, is remembered equally for Lauda’s astonishing comeback. The Austrian, reigning champ, had been runaway points leader until his horrific crash at the Nürburgring, in Germany. Pulled from a fireball with third-degree burns, he was given the last rites. Yet, 42 days later, in great pain, he was behind the wheel, attempting to claw back the lead Hunt had accrued in his absence, and came within a whisker of doing so. Lauda today has no truck with those who claim Hunt was a victor by default. “It’s a bit unfair, because he did win it. He had some great drives that season.” But the drama, on the track and off, has marked theirs as one of sport’s great duels.
Rush, directed by Ron Howard from a script by Peter Morgan, is all about that showdown. As with the subject of the pair’s Oscar-nominated collaboration, Frost/Nixon, it’s a clash of opposite personality types: Teutonic automaton versus priapic playboy. “Peter writes these unlikely psychological combatants well, and the ‘fire and ice’ idea is something he’s drawn to,” Howard explains. “I also thought this could be visceral, a big-screen movie experience.”
Starring Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and the German actor Daniel Brühl as Lauda, Rush has oddball heroes such as Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay), Hunt’s first patron; villains in the shape of the Ferrari outfit; and the scandal sideshow of Hunt’s wife, Suzy (Olivia Wilde), running off with Richard Burton. “If you had to write a script about the season, you would have written that one,” Lauda says, endorsing it as enthusiastically as he used to do his own budget airline.
“I was approached a couple of times about making a movie about my life and this kind of bullshit,” shrugs Lauda, who, in a remarkable career coda, came out of retirement to win a third world title in 1984. “But Peter said he wanted to do a movie [just] about the 1976 season, and asked me if I would help him.”
The unsurprising consequence of Lauda’s advisory role is that the film feels more his than Hunt’s, which is in no small part down to Brühl, who nails Lauda’s deadpan humour. Brühl recalls: “The first conversation we had on the phone, Niki said, ‘Please just bring hand luggage to Vienna in case we don’t like each other.’” And if the film-makers weren’t thoroughly versed in the technicalities — an early version of Morgan’s script had drivers starting their cars with keys — it could be fine-tuned. “Ron Howard impressed me a lot,” Lauda says, “because he’s like a kid. He knew nothing about Formula One at all and got himself together quickly.”
In Rush, Howard diligently hits the historical marks — Hunt’s ascent to McLaren, Lauda becoming Ferrari’s Made Man. While Lauda hones his “good arse” for driving — “When you drive, you feel what the car is doing, and this was my talent, to link arse and brain” — Hunt’s cheek-work is reserved for the ladies, a wild goose chase through furtive quickies and mile-high grapples.
Meanwhile, Ferrari never misses an opportunity to have Hunt disqualified or denied points. (In real life, they were scathing of Lauda for his ultimate capitulation.) “Enzo Ferrari,” muses Lauda of the capo dei capi. “He was a very warm, Italian, charismatic monster.”
Where Rush takes liberties — an incident where the pugilistic Hunt slugs a tabloid hack is pure invention — you can forgive them for being in the spirit of reality. The biggest licence taken, though, is making Hunt and Lauda sworn enemies: they were in fact great pals, going back to their Formula Three days, when they shared a London flat and Hunt began notching up his reputed 5,000 female conquests. “The only thing [in the film] that upset me was that I was the non-lady man,” Lauda gripes. “I would say I was about 30% of James... let’s say 20%.”
Howard admits that Rush is a departure. “I tend to do stories about groups and families that pull together. Here are two guys who bow to no one.” Interestingly, Rush was due to be directed by Paul Greengrass. Not to suggest his version would have been grittier, but it is noticeable that Howard’s has soft-pedalled Hunt’s fondness for drugs. “We didn’t quite know when in his life that started to be prevalent,” he says in the driver’s defence. “We tried to be a little selective so as not to tilt the scales.”
Inevitably, on screen and off, it all comes down to the final race in Japan, the clincher that played out as farce. A near-monsoon had rendered the Fuji circuit undriveable, until the authorities ordered a delayed start due to the demands of TV. “At four in the afternoon, the same flooding, the same rain, the race director said, ‘We’re gonna start now.’ And I said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Lauda bristles. Three points clear, he needed to finish within reasonable proximity of Hunt. But, mindful of his own mortality, troubled by grafted eyelids that barely blinked, he pulled into the pits and out of the contest.
Lauda rates the devil-may-care “Hunt the Shunt” as one of the greats. “James was one of the quickest guys when he got his act together. One of these guys you always remember. A lot of people die, you don’t remember.” Hemsworth, an Australian and a keen boardsman, recognised in Hunt something else. “He looked like a Californian surfer and considered himself a hippie, you know.” A self-styled nonconformist, Hunt had a dislike for shoes and washing, and was indecently underdressed, whatever the function.
With Rush, there is an elephant in the room — the superlative 2010 documentary Senna. A similar story featuring Yin-Yang drivers, the late Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, it was compiled from genuine footage. Howard cites it as an inspiration, raising the bar regarding what was required to simulate racing a car at 200mph.
Certainly, Lauda feels Rush’s re-creation is authentic, as is the restaging of his crash. Typically, he had always dismissed it as a mere occupational prang, his memory of it blacked out. Only once, years later, did he have a flashback of his near-death experience, he says, while puffing on some superstrong marijuana: “I saw myself falling backwards into a big hole.”
The film has given him a fresh perspective on events. “When I saw the movie, I realised how other people looked at me. Some had a shock when they saw me after the accident. In the old days, I was always upset when people didn’t look in my eyes. When they were talking to me, all they wanted to do was see if my other ear was still there. Now I understand.”
Lauda saw the film for the first time in the company of other Formula One drivers. “Lewis Hamilton was sitting next to me. He asked me, ‘Was it really like this?’ I said, ‘Yes.’” Hunt’s two sons have also seen the film, Howard says, and are pleased their father has been presented at his peak.
Rush begins with Lauda reflecting that, of the 25 drivers who started every season back then, two would be killed. “Who else does a job like that?” Is it too safe now, I ask him. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “The element of danger has gone completely.”

Rush opens nationwide on Friday

Friday, 4 October 2013

Mia Farrow

A Life Less Ordinary

Given all the talk about Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, thought I'd dig out this...

The Times Magazine, June 2006, by Jeff Dawson

Whatever way you cut it, Mia Farrow has certainly lived a life. Though she wouldn’t relish the comparison, the impression is of a pop-culture Zelig — a version of Woody Allen’s figure that pops up at key moments in history. She’s been pals with Salvador Dali, Roman Polanski, John Lennon; wife/partner to Frank Sinatra, Andre Previn and, infamously, Allen himself. Last year, when Farrow breezed into London, the star witness in the Polanski/Vanity Fair libel trial, there she was, right back in the storm’s eye of the Manson slayings. Recently, as some revisionist version of The Beatles/Maharishi bust-up surfaced, Farrow took centre stage again, getting transcendental with the Fab Four in Rishikesh. 
In modern times Farrow has become better known as a sort of reclusive Earth Mother, retreating from that sordid Woody Allen business (more of which later) to adopt a gaggle of waifs (she has had 14 kids in total); hitching her celebrity “concern” to assorted UNICEF missions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t question the nobility of any of Farrow’s humanitarian ventures — all power to her — but it isn’t half as interesting as the old days. I wonder whether it bothers her, this constant referral to the past. But no, she says, “because I was there[ital]. What are we going to talk about? The future?”
Farrow is more lively than you would imagine. Quite enchanting. She tells a story about a cottage she once acquired in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, which went mouldy inside because she never left the heating on and had some kind of trouble getting her utility bills forwarded from the local post office. “Everything turned green,” she groans. Polanski got the best handle on it. “There are 127 varieties of nut … and Mia’s 116 of them.” She chuckles. “He would know.”  
In a chi-chi hotel suite looming over Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Farrow sinks into the sumptuous sofa and beams beatifically. She’s certainly got the hair for her current incarnation, her long ash-blonde mane in hippy contrast to the elfin do of yore. In a couture cardie’n’trousers ensemble, she is spindly thin, her eyes bright, her skin so translucent I swear you can see a vein pumping in her temple. She could knock ten tears off her actual 61, reminding me of an anecdote about Sinatra, who spotted the 19-year-old starlet on a 20th Century Fox soundstage and sent a goon over to check she was of legal age. Ah yes, Old Blue Eyes. She married him in 1966, her 21, him 50. “Didn’t work out as a marriage (it lasted 18 months) but did work out as a friendship,” she assures. “We were good friends throughout out lives. He was a great guy.”
Farrow has opted out of film work for a decade, bringing up her kids at her Connecticut home. Having supplemented her own three children by Andre Previn in the early‘70s with a trio of adoptees (including an orphaned Korean girl named Soon-Yi), she has since become every placement agency’s favourite client. Some of her brood have been special needs kids, such as the blind Vietnamese girl, Tam, who died, sadly, in 2000, aged 19. Now, the later, younger additions are flying the coop. Come September, only Quincy Maureen, an African-American teenager, will remain. “So I can think about time and how I’m going to spend it,” says Farrow. Thus, after some periodic TV work and a lauded return to the New York stage, comes her first film since 1995. 
The movie, The Omen, is a big bump-in-the-night remake of the 1976 horror classic. In it, Farrow plays nanny to devilish young Damien. Her inclusion seems a deliberate nod to Rosemary’s Baby (directed by Polanski), the first of the Satan’s Spawn flicks (see also The Exorcist), and the film which made Farrow a star in 1968. She was just 23 then and won raves as the gamine wife of John Cassavetes, impregnated by Beelzebub. “Rosemary’s Baby was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally,” she enthuses, running through a mental checklist to meritocratically praise everyone in it. “It was success, fame and fortune and it was the ’60s, so everybody was into the spiritual journey, you know, Sergeant Pepper …”
The Beatles are never far away. After her marriage to Sinatra went belly-up (he had served divorce papers on the set of Rosemary’s Baby, miffed that she had chosen it over his own flop, The Detective), she and sister Prudence (the Dear Prudence of Lennon’s song) joined the boys on their magical mystery tour to India. In what has become a standard version of events at their meditation retreat, relations with the Maharishi soured when the yogi got a bit fresh with Farrow (“Maharishi, what have you done?/You made a fool of everyone” wrote Lennon in a lyric, the name changed later to Sexy Sadie). 
The story was recently contradicted by self-styled guru Deepak Chopra, who claimed it was rather the Maharishi who had evicted The Beatles for dropping acid in his ashram. But this gets Farrow agitated. “Deepak Chopra should talk about what he knows,” she snaps. “I[ital] was there. There were no drugs at the ashram, those guys were not kicked out. Ringo left because of the flies (she laughs), I left for my own reasons and the other guys left eventually because they just got bored. George stuck it pretty close to the end along with Prudence.”
Lennon eventually became a New York neighbour of Farrow’s, moving in to the famous Dakota building next door, the towers of which you can just see out of the window today, across Central Park. It was in it, coincidentally, that Rosemary’s Baby had been filmed, Lennon’s eventual murder outside the gates given as evidence of a curse attached to the movie. Usually such things are a concoction of the publicists (the new Omen, for good measure, opens on 06/06/06), but when it comes to Rosemary’s Baby, you’d be hard pushed to top the run of ill fortune. The year after release, Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was butchered by the Manson Family.
It was at Elaine’s restaurant, a Manhattan celeb eaterie, where Farrow had met a grief-stricken Polanski on his way to the funeral. In a 2002 article in Vanity Fair, it was claimed that Polanski had actually spent the evening trying to cop off with a “Swedish beauty”, a charge vehemently denied and the reason for last year’s libel trial (which Polanski won thanks to Farrow’s testimony). “It felt good to do that, it was the right thing,” she sighs. “Somebody was fibbing. Someone was getting a long nose, if you know what I mean.”
Tragedy follows Farrow. Though she was born into Hollywood royalty — daughter of writer/director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane from the Tarzan films) — the silver spoon was tarnished. At age nine, she contracted polio and spent time in an iron lung (one of her adoptees, Thaddeus, is a polio-afflicted paraplegic she plucked from the streets of Calcutta). At 13, she lost her brother Mike in a plane crash. At 17, her father — something of a womaniser — died of a heart attack. She was at her mother’s in New York when it happened, ignoring his phone calls, her father expiring with the receiver in his hand. Farrow says the early suffering made her want to become a nun — “a nun, then a doctor, a paediatrician working in Africa,”  prefiguring her later passions. Does she ever watch her mother’s old movies — Jane romping around in the tree house, a sassy proto-feminist to Johnny Weissmuller’s dumb ape man? “Yeah they’re great. I show them to my kids,” she gushes. “My mom is amazing. Gorgeous. Wow, what legs.”
Her parents had taken out some insurance on Mia’s passage into The Biz, enlisting George Cukor and gossip columnist Louella Parsons as godparents (a Catholic, she was born Maria de Lourdes Villiers Farrow). When she began theatre work, they employed family friend Vivien Leigh to hit up the talent-spotters. By 18 Mia had sprung from the stage to Peyton Place, the original glossy TV soap opera, and from there the would-be carmelite sashayed to Sinatra. “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a little boy,” snipped ex-wife Ava Gardner, who — in another confusing twist — had had a fling with Farrow’s father.
By 1970, Farrow was married to composer Andre Previn, living in leafy Surrey for nine years, acting with the RSC and doing occasional films like The Great Gatsby. But Previn’s constant touring led to another divorce. Farrow returned to New York and was introduced to the quirky, neurotic Woody Allen. Allen, in need of another muse after Diane Keaton, cast Farrow in 1982’s Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and they worked/played together pretty much exclusively, making 13 films in ten years — including big critical hits Hannah And Her Sisters and Crimes And Misdemeanours. They were the toast of gentrified New York — she in her apartment one side of Central Park, he in his garret opposite. They had one kid together, Satchel, and adopted two more. The clans meshed, according to her, into a big tantamount family.
What happens next is has been pored over endlessly but bears repetition. In 1992, when Farrow was rummaging around in Allen’s gaff, she discovered “nude” (read pornographic) polaroids of Soon-Yi, then aged 19-21 (there was never any birth record). Allen, at the time 56, confessed to an affair (the pair since married). To say that the bottom fell out of Farrow’s world is an understatement. Not only was her long-term lover sleeping with her daughter, but was also, as she alleged, committing “virtual incest” “There was just nothing in the books to tell me quite where to place all this,” she ponders. “I mean hard for the children, too. This is the father in their life. So we have a son whose father is married to his sister, or, if you like, a sister who’s married to the father.” 
The ensuing, and vicious custody battle over their three kids exonerated Allen (who, for the record, is now Farrow’s son-in-law) from a further charge of abuse against daughter Dylan, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. He lost all access to the children and, pointedly, all three have changed their names, refusing to have anything to do with him. Sinatra offered to break his legs.
She claims there is no “lingering vindictiveness” but can never reconcile. “It’s just not acceptable behaviour,” she says. Would she ever open a door to Soon-Yi one day? She chooses her words carefully. “I’ve had to close ranks in the family,” she expounds. “You can’t have a chair with a missing person forever and there are children who don’t know she exists in my family.” But they’ll hear things eventually, surely? “Yeah, and I’ll still say the family is complete. She can’t be my daughter any more. I just can’t go on thinking of her as a daughter.”
Only recently, Allen said he had considered casting Farrow again in one of his later movies. “Well it’s astounding really,” she replies. “What can I say? Well how nice, or how strange? Or how little he understood?” That said, she is surprisingly generous. “I’m very grateful to have made the films and grateful for some very good times as well.” Aside from Rosemary’s Baby, she adds, Purple Rose Of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose, in which she starred for him, make up her three favourite films (and clips from which she recently denied use of in an official Woody Allen documentary).”
But, onwards and upwards. Farrow has a couple of other film in the works. “I keep forgetting how much fun acting is, you know?” Meanwhile, on June 10, she will be heading with UNICEF to the hell-hole of Darfur, accompanied by 18-year-old son Ronan Seamus (formerly Satchel), an ex- child prodigy now studying Law at Yale. The horrors of the Sudan, she says, are making it a “Rwanda in slow motion” and she will do all she can to bring attention to it. I trot out the traditional cynicism. Haven’t the poor Africans suffered enough celebrity visitations? But. she is wise to such views. The press are simply denied accreditation there, she explains. By a quirk she is allowed in (she went two years ago) and if she can grab one headline, then it’s worth it. 
Outside, pootling on Madison Avenue, is the limo waiting to take her on the long drive back to New England. It will be in marked contrast to what lies ahead.“Do be careful,” I say. “I will, I really will, don’t worry” she promises. She gives a big warm smile. “And thank you.”


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Breaking Bad Jumps the Shark

I love Breaking Bad. Coming to it relatively late, I have consumed the whole thing on Netflix in recent months, sometimes watching several episodes a night and driving my wife potty. I think it is a work of TV genius, though, by association, one should pay tribute to the also-brilliant Weeds whose fundamental premise is near identical and would, one have thought, been of significant influence.

That said, permit me to fly in the face of overwhelming acclaim and say that Breaking Bad has jumped its shark. For me, the new "second half" of Season 5 (why was it never just Season 6?) has royally disappointed. The essence of the show, surely, was Walter White's double life? The moment he was outed it was game over. To limp the series on through shootouts and excessive carnage, and to suddenly elevate to major status Todd and his clan, feels dramatically unsatisfying.

The golden moment was at the conclusion of Season 5a — Hank having his epiphany while sitting on the toilet. That was the perfect ending. They should have wrapped it there.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Naomi Watts "walks out" on Simon Mayo

I think Simon Mayo is a tremendous broadcaster. He still leaves a huge void in the Five Live afternoon schedule. That said, he let himself down over the alleged Naomi Watts walkout. I have met and interviewed Watts myself. She is a delight. A little serious until loosened up but not one to shirk a question. I haven't seen the Diana biopic but in the face of some very negative press I thought she gamely weathered Mayo's interrogation.

The problem lies with the setup — that of conducting a radio interview between a BBC studio and a remote location, i.e. a junket hotel, and disingenuously passing it off as a face-to-face (which is what they would have done otherwise, believe me). Let's be clear, as part of a global publicity tour, Watts will have given umpteen interviews that day, most probably brain-frazzled, jet-lagged and having had to field the same questions over and over. When put on the line to Mayo, I'm pretty sure she would have had no idea of the status of Mayo and Kermode's Film Review show (not that that should have mattered). Nor would she have taken their conversation to be anything other than pre-recorded for editing later, certainly not to be broadcast technical warts and all.

In these situations PR people swirl around, as do technicians, lackeys, etc. It is quite possible she mistook a signal for the interview to conclude after the allotted time has elapsed, saw a PR's head pop round the door or simply matched some gesture to her own watch. Either way, I do not believe she meant to cause offence or emulate the Bee Gees on Clive Anderson. To bill it as such was a bit cheap, I thought. If they'd simply edited it down and broadcast the extracts, as is normal practice, no one would have been any the wiser.

If there were consistency here, just about every broadcast of a "down the line" interview would feature a publicist jumping in to bark "last question" or "can we wrap it up now." Or indeed, as, Watts said, "Sorry, but I'm being given the windup" (or a variation thereof). Unfortunately for Watts, this one fit the narrative.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Remembering David Frost

Fare thee well, Sir David. The obits do not overstate your importance as a global media player. You were also one of my favourite ever interviews (reproduced below), an encounter where one felt only a degree removed from a significant event in history. A man of immense charm, I remember Frostie phoning me at home around the time of our meeting and us singing (please don't ask why) Jake The Peg together. He was less convivial as a businessman, I gather. Quite ruthless. With the Nixon sessions he also birthed Chequebook Journalism. But a towering figure nonetheless. Tremendously entertaining. A great loss.

Sir David Frost on Frost/Nixon
Published: The Sunday Times, 18 January 2009, by Jeff Dawson

There's a lot to be said for the old school. Arranging an interview with Sir David Frost requires no haggling with PRs, press lackeys or intermediaries. You simply phone up Frost's production company and are, in an instant, put through to that distinct, much mimicked voice - one that's being awfully nice to you, while its owner rustles through his no doubt crammed diary. You don't dare contemplate with whom you will soon be sharing page space - Stephen Fry remembers Frost breaking off a conversation to greet another guest: "Boutros Boutros, always a pleasure" - but there is nobody too small in Frost's universe. Charm has always been part of the offensive. A little too offensive for the late Peter Cook, who claimed his biggest regret was having rescued Frost from a swimming pool.
As well as unparalleled media savvy, this particular commodity has served Frost supremely well over his 47 years in television. Far from the savage young satirist of That Was the Week That Was, he has evolved into a genial breaker of bread with the great and good. Where Humphrys and Paxo twist the thumbscrews, Frost eases his guests into a nice warm bath, tenderly administering enough verbal loofah to exfoliate the demons. "You can put just as testing a question in a relaxed way as you can in a hectoring way," he explains. "The late [Labour leader] John Smith said to me, 'You have a way of asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences.' Which I'm happy to have on my coffin."
Today, Frost is quite mellow himself - and unseasonably ochre - having returned hotfoot from Christmas in the Caribbean. He still represents about the most genial and attentive interviewee you are ever likely to encounter, bursting into the lobby in a sharp navy suit, pumping your hand, then ushering you into his cosy study, complete with fireplace and plumped sofa. The desk is piled with papers - cluttered enough to give the impression of a busy man, not messy enough to suggest he's been reading them.
Three months short of his 70th birthday, Frost these days is broadcasting's éminence grise. His main gig is his weekly show Frost over the World, on Al Jazeera, a station maligned in America, unfairly, as an Al-Qaeda mouthpiece. In its English-language version, it has been building itself as an alternatively focused rival to CNN. His show is received in 130m homes in 100 countries, he declares: "The thing is that we in the West are chauvinistic in our interests." He cites an interview with President Lula of Brazil: "Probably the most powerful man in South America, rarely, if ever, seen on British television."
Frost has done them all - premiers, prime ministers, princes, presidents, including every American leader since Kennedy. What is regarded as his Magnum Chinwag, though, is the exclusive series of interviews he conducted in 1977 with the disgraced Richard Nixon. Less than three years after the former president's resignation over Watergate, Frost got from him what those on Capitol Hill had failed to elicit - a mea culpa. "A 99.9 per cent apology," as Frost puts it. Certainly the furthest Tricky Dicky would ever go.
It was a hell of a scoop, not least because Nixon, with his agile legal mind, could run down the clock surer than the most artful contestant on Just a Minute, droning away until a question had no meaning. Funnily enough, my powwow today is not without its own Nixonian moment, as Frost kicks off proceedings with a tribute to the late Benazir Bhutto, with whom he had spoken just days before her assassination - eating into valuable allotted interview time, but done with such heart, it seems rude to interrupt. Frost, though, has been in the game long enough to give you what you want. Soon he is in full Nixon anecdotal mode.
He hunches forward, affecting Nixon's gruff, heavy-jowled demeanour, channelling the moment when the former president described how he had bade farewell to the White House staff: " 'I hope I haven't let you down.' " Their silence had been so deafening that, on recalling this moment to Frost, it had rolled into the famous confession.
" 'I hope I haven't let you down,' " growls the impersonating Frost. " 'Well... I had.' " ("I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government," Nixon had continued.) "That was a euphoric moment." With 45m viewers for the first US broadcast - it was transmitted in four 90-minute segments - and millions more worldwide, it remains the highest-rated political interview in TV history.
In 2006, Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan's play about these events, was a critical hit in the West End and on Broadway. Now, with the same stars - Frank Langella as Nixon, Michael Sheen as Frost - comes the screen version. The film has been nominated for numerous awards and looks a strong contender for the Oscars. "What [the director] Ron Howard's done, it's not spectacular," Frost says. "He didn't do anything like putting scenes in the middle of a football field, but he opened it out emotionally. He did a terrific job."
For the subject of a biographical film to give an interview on its behalf is an unusual thing, because a) they're usually deceased, or b) are most likely in litigation. The royal family hardly went out of their way to promote Morgan's The Queen. The writer had pitched the play to Frost as "a sort of intellectual Rocky", and Frost had been sufficiently soft-soaped by tales of theatrical impoverishment (it opened at the Donmar Warehouse) to grant his UK rights for free.
Yet not for nothing is Frost one of the smoothest operators in the business, said to be worth about £20m. This time, he followed the money. "I take the royalty," he whispers. There's also his book, Frost/Nixon, co-authored with Bob Zelnick, the Washington journalist who led Frost's research team, and the original television interviews, or rather the Watergate portion, released on DVD.
Wind back to 1977 and the tale remains fascinating. Although Nixon quit the Oval Office in August 1974 to avoid impeachment, Watergate still dominated the headlines. With Woodward and Bernstein's celebrated investigations transposed to the screen in the shape of All the President's Men, there was no letting up. Hungry both for public rehabilitation and a way to recoup his legal fees, Nixon was prepared to sell his story by way of a television exclusive.
Aside from the interviews themselves - nearly 29 hours of eventual recording - the behind-the-scenes activities proved of equal interest. Here, in the finest Frost tradition, came a collision of politics and showbiz, enhanced by the Southern California setting, as the 38-year-old Brit, holed up at the Beverly Hilton, wrung every last drop of cash from his investors, outbidding his rivals to the tune of $600,000. Negotiations were conducted through the hotshot agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones in the film). There followed intense rounds of talks between Frost and Colonel Jack Brennan, Nixon's chief of staff, as to the question of editorial control (which Frost retained), not to mention the infighting between Frost and his backroom boys - the journalists Zelnick and Jim Reston, and the producer John Birt (later DG of the BBC). For the two Americans, frustrated by Frost's passive-aggression, it merely confirmed suspicions - that Nixon had chosen Frost as a soft touch.
Nixon's home, the "Western White House", down the coast at San Clemente, was unusable as a location because of noise from aircraft, so the production repaired to a "set", a rented bungalow in nearby Monarch Bay. There, amid a bizarre suburban circus, the opposing entourages crowded into the kitchen while the protagonists duked it out in the living room. "The first day, I realised I had never interviewed anyone for two hours, much less for 12 such sessions," Frost recalls. (They were taped over March/April.) "But once you got him absorbed in a subject, he was very good."
Strategic breaks had been agreed so Nixon, a notorious heavy sweater, could have time with his handkerchief. Elsewhere, the primitive setup yielded its frustrating logistical moments. "Nixon was going on about making mistakes," Frost says, standing up to mime out the scenario. "Brennan walked in and held up a sign, which I thought said, 'Let us talk.' So I said, 'We've got to change the tapes.' As he came closer, I saw that it said, 'Let him talk,' because there was something Nixon really wanted to deliver."
What with The Deal and The Queen, as well as his adaptation of The Last King of Scotland (about Idi Amin), Morgan has become a prime screen essayist of modern historical figures. Sheen has played Blair for him twice and will do so again in the final instalment of the new Labour trilogy, The Special Relationship. Add to Frost Sheen's role as Kenneth Williams (Fantabulosa!), and his Brian Clough in the forthcoming The Damned United (Morgan again), and he is only a Tommy Cooper away from Mike Yarwood. His turn here, though, seems more "impressionistic" than outright impersonation. "You can't have an impression for two hours of drama - that wouldn't work," Frost agrees. "It's not David Frost, but David Frost-inspired."
A recurring gag centres on Frost's supposed annoyance with his celebrated salutation, "Hello, good evening and welcome", suggested to be a misquote. Certainly, Monty Python's merciless lampooning of Frost helped to create the caricature. He recalls the night the Pythons posted his home phone number on screen at the end of their sketch The Mouse Problem, as a hotline for people with a rodent fetish. Truth be told, Frost doesn't mind his catch phrase at all: "I did use that. I still do. So I'm not sure where that came from."
While most of the Pythons had started out in The Frost Report in the late 1960s, by the time the decade turned, they were still the punks, consigned to the late-night garage of BBC2. Frost was the supergroup, and one that broke America, all champagne, caviar, parties and beautiful women. At one point, he commuted weekly on Concorde. Which brings us back to the film and the one thing that doesn't sit right - its premise that Frost, pre-Nixon, was down on his uppers, a sort of lame variety-show host.
"I worked out that because I had done three years of talk shows in New York, in addition to presidents and prime ministers - Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and all of that - by the time I did Nixon, I'd done about 4,000 interviews," Frost asserts. "That was Peter [Morgan] letting his imagination run riot in terms of the boxing match, the underdog and overdog." Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed? He laughs. "Exactly."
Frost had already grilled Nixon in 1968 and had met him again in 1970. He had even produced a Christmas entertainment special from the White House. "My dear mother came alone," he asides. "She said, 'You know, I had to give up choir practice.' This was in Beccles, Suffolk." Not to mention Frost the burgeoning mogul, a co-founder of London Weekend Television. (He would later launch TV-am.) Given that the film will become the received history, maybe more than the original interviews, even, is his portrayal not a little disrespectful?
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, it builds to a happy ending, and I think that's the abiding image," he considers. "Word eventually gets around about what's true and what's not true. Given the question 'Would you rather or not this play/film came out?', the answer is that I'm delighted."
He gets off far more lightly than Nixon, played by Langella as a grotesque: "He has the soul, or lack of soul, of a Nixon, but not the looks." Even then, it's an image more favourable than the pill-popping schizophrenic suggested by Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's 1996 film Nixon. Frost has been sitting on another screenplay, Young Nixon, about the president's bleak Quaker upbringing, written by the late Robert Bolt - "The last thing he ever wrote. Bolt at his very best" - which he hopes will be made one day.
One thing Langella captures superbly, says Frost, is Nixon's fabled gaucheness: "He always insisted on five minutes of small talk, of which he had none." A remark, shown in the film, where Nixon asks Frost, off camera, "So, did you do any fornicating this weekend?", is accurate (although it happened in slightly different circumstances). "If there hadn't been eight people all looking stunned, I'd have thought I'd gone bonkers," Frost says. "I knew he didn't really want to know the answer, but it was touching in a way, because it was Nixon trying to reach out and getting the word wrong, being clumsy."
Nixon was a peculiar specimen, Frost recalls. There are guests who can be talkative in the green room, yet clam up on camera, but with Nixon, "it was the other round".
Even the former president, though, could have his light-hearted moments. "There was a wonderful story somebody told me. Six months after JFK's inaugural, Nixon was talking to Ted Sorensen, JFK's speechwriter. Nixon said, 'There were things in that speech I wish I'd said.' Sorensen says, 'You mean, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?" ' And Nixon said, 'No, I was thinking more of, "I hereby solemnly swear. . . ' " Which was a good gag."
Watch the interviews today and Frost does succeed in humanising Nixon. For a fleeting moment, you even feel sorry for him. "Not sympathy, but possibly empathy at times," Frost allows. "There were about 30 people in jail because they had done what he asked them to do." There's sadness, too: regret for the passing of a less frivolous time, armed with the knowledge that, 20 years later, the same judicial machinery that fingered Nixon would be used to check for presidential stains on an intern's dress; or the likelihood that even were George W Bush to confess on primetime that, yep, he stole the 2000 election, the ratings would hardly trouble The X Factor.
When Nixon died in April 1994, he received quite a sendoff; all the living ex-presidents attended his funeral. It accorded him a sort of real pardon, after the somewhat grubby one issued by Gerald Ford when he became president. His achievements - the opening of dialogue with China, detente with the Soviet Union, Southern desegregation, even the messy extrication from Vietnam - are to be lauded. "Basically, there was a good Nixon and a bad Nixon, and the bad Nixon won out in the end," Frost muses. "He was a sad man who so wanted to be great."
Frost never saw his interviewee again, but has stood by Nixon's conveyed assessment of those interrogations as "tough but fair" - though Nixon, in two separate memoirs, and as late as 1990, was still grumbling about a stitch-up (despite taking 20% of the profits). "I did not expect the telecast to be positive or even balanced," he wrote, "and I was not surprised when they turned out to be highly negative."
"It was rather a heart-warming reminder of the old Nixon," Frost says with a smile. As Reston says in the film, Nixon's greatest legacy is probably that "gate" has become a suffix to every significant political scandal. Or maybe it's that the nerdy kid in The Simpsons ended up with the name Milhouse.
On the way out, Frost launches into some corking anecdotes - about the playwright Neil Simon, regarding the Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun - but one in particular. "To finance the first $200,000 [for the interviews], I sold my shares in London Weekend Television - I had 5%," Frost says. "When, many years later, LWT had been bought by Granada, Ray Snoddy [a media commentator] called me. He said, 'Do you realise that if you hadn't sold your shares, you would today be getting a cheque for £37m?' I said: 'Thanks a lot, Ray.' But I'd make the same decision again."

What the script has changed
The Watergate interviews are shown as the climax of the Frost/Nixon showdown. They actually occurred on days eight and nine of the 12 days of taping. The four shows were broadcast to address topics including Watergate, foreign affairs, civil unrest and his departure from office.
In the film, there is a dramatic "smoking gun" - evidence of key discrepancies relating to Nixon's conversations with Charles Colson, his chief counsel. They added to evidence of a Watergate cover-up. This information is shown being discovered by Jim Reston in the nick of time for Frost's interrogation.
"It was in our possession for eight months," Frost counters. Nor was it that crucial.
"It was helpful, but it wasn't relevant to the building climax." And as for that drunken, late-night call he is shown receiving from Nixon? "A complete piece of fiction. But brilliant, I thought."
Frost is shown picking up the wealthy socialite Caroline Cushing in the first-class cabin on the flight to America. She then accompanies him to meet Nixon and becomes a de facto member of his team. In reality, Frost had met her some time before, and she only showed up at the farewell to Nixon at San Clemente. Yet, as Frost recalls, their host was quite smitten: "He said, 'Marry that girl . . . She's a resident of Monaco. She lives tax-free.' "
Far from being adversarial, the atmosphere between the backroom teams was quite convivial. "There was the occasion when Nixon said, 'I'm paranoid, but Paranoia for Peace is no bad thing.' The next day, both groups arrived wearing buttons reading 'Paranoics for Peace'."
The movie has Nixon showing a particular fascination with Frost's trendy Italian shoes. "I was laughing in the car on the way down about the small talk, the awkwardness of it, and what Nixon chose to talk about. I said, 'Today he'll probably want to talk about my shoes.' Then we're filming and, bugger me, he said, 'Where did you get those shoes?' He actually did ask this incredibly prosaic question." Nonetheless, the footwear did not become the great totem, as suggested.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Aaron Taylor-Johnson

I couldn’t possibly comment
He may be keeping silent on whether he’ll play Christian Grey for his director wife, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance in Kick-Ass 2 will get everyone talking, says Jeff Dawson 
(from The Sunday Times 28/7/13)
For someone who won rave reviews ­playing the brittle young John Lennon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson catches you un­­awares. In he saunters, beefed-up, thick-necked, with vein-popping forearms and a haircut one buzz shy of a No 1. He’s currently playing a US Navy lieutenant, he explains, spraying lead at Godzilla in the $100m-plus, 3D, all-destructive remake of the Japanese monster stomp due to hit the multiplexes next May.
Taylor-Johnson is an actor with a penchant for maverick, indie roles, so one assumes his involvement marks a new, dark, postmodern spin on the reptilian legend. It’s not your typical brainless summer blockbuster, he insists. “But obviously it’s got special effects, right. It’s a big monster movie. It really is trying to keep the original kind of feel.” Plus, there’s gunplay and stunt work. “One of the perks of the job.” If, as Lennon claimed, Elvis died when he joined the army, you can forgive the King an ironic and spectral chuckle.
Taylor-Johnson is a friendly enough chap, softly spoken, a tad on the ­serious side. A bit spaced-out, too, he apologises, having zipped back to London on a few days’ break from filming in Vancouver. He has two young children who are entirely unsympathetic to jet lag. “With kids, you’re up,” he sighs — the first glimpse into a private life that has grabbed more headlines than his professional one of late.
Nipping home has afforded him the opportunity to get his first peek at Kick-Ass 2, a film that, in spirit, seems diametrically opposed to the piece of blockbuster work he’s currently engaged in. The original Kick-Ass (2010) trampled all over the whole post-9/11 superhero/disaster genre like a man in a rubber lizard suit. To recap, Aaron Taylor-Johnson — or just plain Aaron Johnson as he was then — starred as Dave Lizewski, a teen nerd blessed with no superpowers whatsoever, who became an accidental caped crusader. Though the film is set in the familiar milieu of an American high school, the team of Brits behind it (the director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman, adapting the comic book by Mark Millar) lent proceedings a humorous, off-kilter sensibility — a little too off-kilter for the big ­studios, who balked at financing it, thanks to its gleeful embrace of violence and profanity. “I remember Matthew, at one point, said, ‘This could be one of the most expensive home ­movies ever made.’  ”
But, $96m at the box office later, and here we are: a sequel, something that was never actually in the blueprint. “We all backed away from doing it for quite a long time, Matthew included. He felt he had a cult film that stands alone.” The problem with most franchises, he adds, is that the next instalment is rushed out while the ­previous one is still on DVD. “Whereas this one,” he points out, “had four years for it to build up enough appreciation.”
And perhaps the howls of indignation ­levelled at the vigilante character Hit-Girl, played by Chloë Grace Moretz — 11 years old when filming began — both in terms of her screen-death yield and her preternatural potty mouth, will not be repeated. This time round, her character is training up Dave to be her fully fledged sidekick — “like Batman and Robin” — socking it to the supervillain Red Mist, reinvented as the Mother F***** (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), whose evil-o-meter has ratcheted up since the first outing.
If there’s a different director (Jeff Wadlow) and the not insignificant finger of Universal Pictures to punch in the financial Pin number, be assured, says Taylor-Johnson, part two does not pull its punches. “I’ve just seen it. It’s so violent.”
Apparently so, for in the finest Kick-Ass tradition, there is fresh controversy. Jim Carrey — who plays a Captain America-ish avenger named Colonel Stars and Stripes — recently ­disassociated himself from the project, stating that he regrets his participation in it in the light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. “My apologies to others involve [sic] with the film,” he tweeted. “I am not ashamed of it, but recent events have caused a change in my heart.”

Taylor-Johnson has nothing but good to say about Carrey. “What he brought to it is what Nicolas Cage brought to the first one: that kooky, odd humour, that darkness. He does the job brilliantly.” Whether Carrey’s remarks will hurt the film or, perversely, put more bums on seats, remains to be seen.
For Taylor-Johnson, who is only just 23, a lot has happened since the first Kick-Ass. There have been some big roles in some pretty big movies — the bouffant Count Vronsky opposite Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina (“I play the typical blond”), a hippie marijuana cultivator in Oliver Stone’s Savages (“super-challenging”), not to mention his tour de force as the schoolboy John Winston Lennon in Nowhere Boy.
That film has a special significance for him, obviously. It’s the one on which he met his now wife, Sam Taylor-Wood, the visual artist/­photographer turned director. Their union is still causing something of a stir, she being literally twice his age and with two children, one a teenager, from a previous marriage (they have since added two nippers of their own). He, on first impression, seems something of an old soul; she, by various accounts, comes in on the youthful end of the cougar spectrum, putting their ­virtual, collision-path age, you imagine, somewhere in the early thirties.
Was there a symbiosis between life and art, I venture? Nowhere Boy, after all, was about a young man (Lennon) seeking love — besotted, moreover, with an older woman, his estranged birth mother, Julia. “Maybe, yeah, in retrospect, you can look at that and see it as that, for sure,” he muses. “It’s funny, I always think that with jobs, weirdly, you’re picking something you relate to in some respect. You embody that ­person, you live it, and you’ll start to see resemblances in both your worlds.”
Did his agent complain when he changed his name (he adopted her ­Taylor, she ditched her Wood for his Johnson)? What follows is a lengthy, meditative, soul-searching and actually rather sweet answer to what was only intended as a quip — all about his new stepdaughters and wanting to solidify the family and, anyway, why should the woman automatically be expected to adopt the man’s name? But as for film credits, industry profile and all that jazz... “I’m quite happy I can wipe all that shit away,” he laughs. “I don’t hold onto things, attachment-wise.”
Days after our interview, Mrs Taylor-Johnson makes news for herself with the announcement that she has landed the big one: anointed director of the big-screen version of EL James’s mummy-porn sensation, Fifty Shades of Grey. Inevitably, this news has led to speculation, as well as assertions from well-placed sources, that her hubby (along with every other young actor stud in Hollywood) will ­trouser up, or rather trouser down, as the story’s caddish woodsman, Christian Grey.
Officially, the film is nowhere near the casting stage. As yet, there’s not even a script. “He’s not pursuing the part and is not going to work this fall,” comes the brusque smackdown from his theatrical agency, William +Morris Endeavor, accompanied by an avowal from his publicist that “Aaron will be a supportive husband and father while Sam shoots her film”. But don’t expect his name to disappear as a rider in the media’s casting sweepstakes.
Taylor-Johnson’s path into acting was not typical. He hails from leafy High Wycombe, Bucks, with no showbiz genes in the family. He enjoyed acting as a hobby. “I was so manic at home, it was another activity I did after school to wear me out.” Dance and gymnastics became his thing. “I actually prefer movement to words,” he adds. “I struggle to find words for the way I feel.”
I’d read that he had an Ezekiel-like epiphany while watching Pulp Fiction, aged four — which, if nothing else, demonstrates a somewhat lax attitude on the part of his guardians towards the BBFC’s ratings system. “It came out when I was four,” he corrects (which only serves to make one feel old). Some mental arithmetic results in his recalculation that he was actually a more mature eight when he got round to catching it. “I remember seeing it with my sister,” he chuckles. “I was definitely very young, reciting lines from it.” But still.
Taylor-Johnson waxes lyrical about John ­Travolta, with whom he eventually got to work on Savages, a film about the two subjects dearest to Oliver Stone’s heart: drugs and war (albeit of the Tejano gang variety). I have met Stone. He’s bonkers, isn’t he? Taylor-Johnson smiles. “That’s an understatement.” He rates “people who are ambitious and bold and willing to take risks”, including Joe Wright, whose highly theatrical Anna Karenina divided critics. “If you’re not pushing boundaries, what’s the point?”
He later went to stage school and did commercials for clients such as McDonald’s and ­Persil, followed by assorted television gigs. His big break came as a teen heart-throb in Gurinder Chadha’s Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, the director’s follow-up to Bride & Prejudice and Bend It Like Beckham, though unfortunately not curled with quite the same accuracy.
He became a bit fed up with the parts he was offered in its wake. “These One Direction-type kids — Kick-Ass came out of that role because I wanted to be the complete opposite. You know, a bit rashy and spotty” (as he gets when he shaves, he says, bless him). Among other young bucks, there was the cyber-bully of Chatroom and the bit-of-rough Irishman in Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close’s Edwardian cross-dressing drama. By the time John Lennon came twisting and shouting, though, it was bye-bye boyband, hey-hey rock’n’roll.
The preparation period was frantic. “I was learning how to play guitar during my lunch breaks while doing Kick-Ass.” But he pulled it off magnificently, earning stamps of approval from both Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney. The new cool status even got him picked as one of the new faces of Prada. Interestingly, though, no job has yet come close to bringing him the attention he still gets from the music video for REM’s Uberlin (more than 3m hits on YouTube), filmed by his wife, which has him performing an improvised dance down a London backstreet, something that was meant to have been hoofed by his “good friend” Michael Stipe, until he went all bashful. “He said, ‘Get Aaron to do it.’  ”
So, will he and Sam work together again? “Yeah, yeah, I mean, there’s a film called A Reliable Wife [from Robert Goolrick’s bestseller]. She’s in the process of casting that. And there are possibilities and other projects we are thinking of doing together. That would be my ideal.” Anything specific? He checks himself. “Not that I can talk about.” If Fifty Shades of Grey is among them, we shall have to wait and see.

Kick-Ass 2 opens on Aug 14

Film Piracy

Tackling the jolly dodgers
Not all pirates are good for the film industry — illegal downloading is costing it millions, and whizzy technology is making covert recording easier than ever. Should we be worried? Definitely
(The Sunday Times, 5/5/13, Jeff Dawson)
There are perks to being a film journalist, as friends remind me — press previews, watching movies free — but these friends are overlooking the metal detectors, the waivers, the pat-downs, the bag searches, the monumental ruck when 2,000 people stampede back into the cinema’s lobby to retrieve their confiscated mobile phones. And the security goons patrolling the aisles, monitoring you with infrared night-vision goggles, quite possibly backed up by snipers. What was once a leisurely affair has been transformed into a process akin to boarding an El Al flight.
It’s piracy that’s done it. And one glance at the stats justifies the twitchiness of the film distributors. The figures are staggering. According to the market researchers Ipsos MediaCT, in Britain in 2011, bootlegging cost the film industry £448m in lost revenues, including a £216m chunk of the box office.
“It’s a serious problem,” says Phil Clapp, chief executive of the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association (CEA), which represents British movie theatres. “The cinema industry’s revenue last year was just north of £1bn, so £220m of that is about 10 weeks’ income.” That’s about 21% of business, or 36m admissions. If piracy were legit, it would be a FTSE 100 company.
This shady trade has been somewhat mis-sold: all those cautionary trailers with barrow boys shifting knockoff discs. More than two-thirds of “film theft”, as the industry prefers to call it, is conducted online, with films BitTorrent-streamed from websites. In America, MarkMonitor, a company that operates on behalf of Time-Warner, claims visits to such sites number about 53bn a year. Fifty-three BILLION.
The entertainment industry’s bête noire, the self-styled Kim Dotcom, a German national currently holed up in New Zealand, amassed a £100m fortune through his website Megaupload. Here, Anton Vickerman, currently doing four years for fraud, was pulling in up to £60,000 a month from surfthechannel.com, run from his house in Gateshead, with a file server in Sweden and a bank account in Latvia. Such sites dress themselves up with advertising and other trappings of legitimacy, but all in the game are dependent on the same raw material: footage.
“Consistently by volume, 90% of the films that appear online or on hard copy start their life as a recording in a cinema,” Clapp asserts. “We’re in something of an arms race. While the iPhone has brought a huge number of benefits to mankind, it is able to capture a full-length film in much better quality than you’d imagine in terms of the visuals, and good enough quality in terms of the audio.”
Not so long ago, a clunky camcorder with a glowing red light was difficult to smuggle into a cinema. Nowadays, it’s open season. “We’ve had people concealing devices in socks, in drinks containers, anything they can come up with,” says Simon Brown, a former policeman who is the theatrical investigator for Fact, the Federation Against Copyright Theft. “We had somebody genuinely disabled recording from a wheelchair, having ­covered the equipment with serviettes. Some people wedge the device between the seats or put it in the cup-holder. In one of the cases that went to crown court, someone simply held his iPhone under his chin for the duration of the film. That’s how easy it is.” And when your core audience — the same generation that expects everything online to be free — regards it as a human right to have a handheld device glued to their thumbs, where on earth do you begin?
There are other sources. In 2009, a copy of X-Men Origins: Wolverine found its way from the studio’s postproduction house onto the black market, sans special effects. Elsewhere, screeners, the DVDs sent out to Bafta and Academy voters, have entered circulation; and an illicit version of JJ Abrams’s film Super 8 was taken from a review copy destined for the New York shock jock Howard Stern.
Fact is also responsible, among other things, for deterring the illegal trade in TV shows and Premier League football. “Cinemas are on the front line of this, though, because the biggest demand for pirated movies is in the ‘window’,” explains Eddy Leviten, of Fact. That’s the period in which cinemas have exclusive rights to show a film before it moves into home entertainment such as DVD, Netflix, Lovefilm, Sky Movies et al.
“I don’t think we ever believe we are going to eradicate piracy,” Clapp admits. “It’s about making it difficult.” Watermarking and encrypted coding, for example, allow footage online to be traced back to the cinema of origin. Fact has spent much time, too, educating cinema staff in how to spot illegal tapers — off-peak screenings, people sitting dead centre, sometimes with children as cover. “The professionals work in teams,” Brown says. “They use ‘seat blockers’ to create a disruption-free zone where somebody’s not going to sit in front of them. It’s very tactical. But for them to get that first copy of a new release is invaluable. We even had an incident where someone was streaming footage live to a website.” Night-vision devices have been supplied to every cinema, and leaflets on the finer points of copyright law are available when the rozzers do show up.
Getting the authorities on side is not always easy. “We are losing the battle with government to understand the importance of taking steps to tackle this,” Clapp says. Indeed, Vickerman’s con­viction came after a private prosecution brought by Fact. “These are people who are technologically sophisticated,” Leviten insists. “Always trying to avoid detection, to keep their revenue streams going, to keep getting traffic to their sites, to be optimised on search engines.”
That said, the antipiracy movement has changed tack, no longer going after “the spotty 15-year-old who points his phone and gets a screen grab”, as Clapp puts it, but focusing on the Mr Bigs. “People who, quite often, counterfeit other things. They are involved in extreme pornography and a whole range of aspects.” (Including, formerly, in Northern Ireland, para­military activity.) In 2010, Fact aided the bust of a plant in southeast London run by a Chinese organised-crime outfit that was in the process of printing 900,000 DVDs with a street value of more than £2.7m. It continues to facilitate the arrest of one person a week and has brought about five high-profile prosecutions in recent times.
It doesn’t sound a lot. “But we haven’t had a UK-sourced recording now for 21 months,” Leviten says. Not even of Skyfall, which opened here two weeks ahead of America. Bully for us, but, given the global reach of the internet, little use if other countries aren’t as scrupulous. In Russia they simply hijack the projection reels on the way to the cinema. “Central and eastern Europe are hotspots,” Clapp concedes. “Russia and Ukraine, in particular.” It’s especially tough when search engines continue to enable it all. “The Googles of this world have become so all-powerful, governments don’t want to piss them off.”
In some ways, the film business has been its own worst enemy, forever awarding itself baubles, crowing about record receipts, doing the equivalent of rocking its bling through a dimly lit sink estate. In the Vickerman case, the judge pointed out the damage done to the livelihoods of people in the nether regions of the credits — the grips, the gaffers — as well as the loss to HMRC. “The long-term and pernicious impact is on production,” Clapp says. “The reduction of money coming in has had an effect on the slate of films. They tend to be more risk-averse, so you see more sequels and prequels.”
Entertainment has been down this road before. Ten years ago, the music business went through a painful rebirth with the advent of digital. It took a 50% hit in income over a decade of file-sharing. “Music didn’t smell the coffee,” Clapp says. “It didn’t provide legal means by which people could download music.” Aside from making movies legitimately available through Netflix, iTunes and the like, studios have responded by releasing big films “day and date” — globally and simultaneously — to prevent them from being available in one territory ahead of another. More locally, it has been suggested that criminal opportunities might be diminished by a truncation of the “window” (on average 115 days here), an anachronism founded in the era when a limited number of heavy prints had to be lugged around regional fleapits, giving everyone a bite of the cherry before a film entered rental outlets such as Blockbuster. (Britain is now virtually all digital projection.) An EU commission is currently questioning the window’s sacrosanctity, but cinemas would defend it to the last. “Piracy tends to happen within 48 hours of a film being released,” Clapp says.
Part of the CEA’s strategy remains to flog the good old picturehouse itself. “We must believe we are providing a gold-standard experience — nobody watching even a legitimate download on an iPad will share that communal experience of the big screen,” says Clapp, citing the year-on-year boost in cinema attendances and an average national ticket price of £6.37.
The landscape may yet shift again. In 2015 comes the rollout of high-speed broadband in Britain, something being trialled in Kansas City. It has been universal in South Korea for years: speeds are up to 500 times those currently available, allowing an HD movie to be downloaded in seconds. It is no coincidence that South Korea is one of the most pirated movie territories on the earth. “Levels there are stratospheric, such that they only have cinemas in the big cities,” Clapp says. “Others have been rendered unviable.” As for its home-entertainment industry? It doesn’t have one any more.

The perils of piracy
Illegal film sites are not only killing the movie business, they’re murdering your computer. A recent YouGov study revealed that one in five of those who had used pirated websites had unwittingly downloaded viruses and spyware, corrupting their software.
According to Childnet International, a not-for-profit organisation set up to promote internet safety for youngsters, the infiltration of malware also poses huge risks to online security and privacy within the household. “It can be confusing for users to know whether the entertainment content they have found online is legal or not. One really helpful way of checking is to type the website’s URL into the search function on thecontentmap.com, which lists all the legal film, music and TV services in the UK.”
Further guidance for parents and carers can be found at childnet.com.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Le Tournoi, 1997

Read an interesting nostalgia piece in the Guardian yesterday about Le Tournoi, 1997. Remember it? The forerunner of the Confederations Cup? Staged in France as a rehearsal for the following year's World Cup? It featured France, Brazil, Italy and England. And, bloody hell, England won it!

Look at the youtube footage of England beating Italy 2-0 and it makes you realise just how dynamite Paul Scholes was. Interesting that when Scholes retired (the first time) a couple of years back, the leading Spanish and Italian players all came out and declared him to be the greatest English player of his generation.

How come no England national manager recognised this? I find it utterly mystifying that he was never used as the linchpin around which the England team revolved, a succession of coaches preferring the more media-assured Gerrard, Lampard and (yawn) Beckham. Sven played Scholes on the left wing. Two successful European Cup campaigns, multiple Premierships and assorted Cups for Manchester United, all with Scholes as the fulcrum. Did no one notice? Alex Ferguson was no mug. So missed was Scholes, they had to bring him back.

I also felt sorry for coach, Glenn Hoddle, dismissed for remarks in a phone interview that were never recorded or substantiated. Unpicking someone's religious beliefs all boils down to a nonsensical debate about angels dancing on a pinhead. Would the FA ban Catholic players because of their belief in Original Sin? Utter nonsense.

Look at the England squad then. Look at England now. Quite sad really. If there's a self-destruct button, be sure the FA will always push it.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Man Of Steel

A question. What is the essence of Superman? His speeding-bullet velocity, his ability to leap tall buildings at a single bound? 

No. The core joy of Superman is the Clark Kent story — that of the mild-mannered reporter who must keep his talents and identity hidden, a tad problematic with regard to his pursuit of the ballsy Lois Lane, of course, whom he can only woo through his alter-ego.

Another question. What is fundamentally wrong with the god-awful Man Of Steel? It has no Clark Kent story. Not as such. Only at the very end when — SPOILER ALERT — after having just saved humanity and had his true identity broadcast to the entire universe, Clark Kent goes and gets a job undercover at the Daily Planet (sequel, blah blah blah). UNDER HIS OWN NAME!

There are logic glitches aplenty in Man Of Steel, but that's not the problem. Too cool is it to even utter the word "Superman" — the "S" on the suit is some Krypton peace symbol — so leaden with earnestness, it has left every last shred of wit and humanity in the phone booth. Not that there are any phone booths in this miserable grey cadaver of a movie. (Lois Lane is now a Pulitzer prize-winning war reporter-cum-mystifying paramilitary airborne bomb-arming specialist.) 

Superman is the granddaddy of superheroes, the rock from which they are all hewn.  A Christian parable too (co-created, paradoxically, by Jews) — cosmic being gives up only son; boy of extraordinary gifts is raised by humble adoptive parents till it is time to become the Saviour. In this film they've stated it more explicitly, it being mentioned more than once that Clark Kent is 33. Indeed, Superman forgoes seeking truth and justice (the American way) for an (entirely incomprehensible) cataclysmic power struggle with a galactic Devil, one bent on obliterating Son of Man.

But really, who cares? I tell you now, I've had it with "re-inventions" and "re-imaginings" and "re-boots" and "re-awakenings" and "origin stories" and "creation myths" and "post modern" spins. Let's speak a truth — this movie, the entire second half of it, is nothing but a CGI explosionfest, a cartoon, a video game, yet another Hollywood spin on "blow shit up".

At the screening I went to, Man Of Steel was preceded by a trailer for Pacific Rim, a "film" about earth being attacked by space monsters and defended by giant robots. God, please no! People, I appeal to you — how many times can you sit there with your silly 3D glasses on and watch major cities being napalm-fucked by aliens? (And there's another Godzilla on the way.) Me? I cannot take it any more. ENOUGH!

I always regarded Superman (1978), starring Christopher Reeve, as an enjoyable romp. Compared to Man Of Steel it is a work of genius.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Saw the new Star Trek flick last Friday morning in the unusual setting of a near-empty Empire Leicester Square, alongside a friendly Big Name Critic. I'm a big fan of JJ Abrams, having both met him and sung his praises, in print, on several occasions. Indeed, I boldly go-ed into the West End to see this purely for pleasure — no review, no feature.

I'm not a Trekkie in the strict sense, though the original series were an integral part of my childhood, as they were for many gentlemen of a certain vintage. I was a too-cool teen by the time Star Wars rolled around and which was why, for me, Abrams' 2009 Roddenberry re-boot proved one of the most deliriously enjoyable summer films of recent memory — a real thumb in the eye to those dreadful George Lucas exhumations. Abrams had absolutely nailed it — an enjoyable romp, reintroducing the old Enterprise gang and all pulled off with spot-on humour (and which was why, presumably, they have since hired him to revive the Star Wars saga as well).

But this?... Oh dear. This was like a man telling you the same joke twice... and on autopilot. It even has a repeat "cameo" stunt. More than that, the film makes the dreadful error of eschewing much of the first's levity for straight-out, earnest, Michael Bay-esque action, and with a hackneyed 911 subplot to give it a self-sense of import. JJ, you've forgotten the very thing that has made your stuff so entertaining: character, character, CHARACTER!

So utterly incomprehensible is the story here, something to do with Benedict Cumberbatch's stock British baddie (I understand you have to be familiar with the first round of Shatner/Trek spin-off movies), that the first words out of the mouth of said Big Name Critic, once emerging into the sunshine and pigeon-droppings, were "The franchise. He's killed it."

Maybe it was due to the empty venue, but — note to theatre owners — full-on 3D and Ted Nugent decibelage do not a pain-free experience make, either.

Monday, 18 March 2013

David Bailey

Was just researching something on photographers when I came across this piece I wrote for The Guardian in February, 1999. A very entertaining conversation (for me, anyway)...

So this fat little bloke from the East End is directing a film. Who does he think he is?

There are two apocryphal stories about David Bailey that say a lot about the celebrated snapper. The first has him on a flight to Dublin, striking up a conversation with the woman next to him. Completely oblivious as to the identity of the man beside her, the lady reveals that her husband is a photographer.
"He's what you might call the David Bailey of Ireland," she explains, before enquiring as to the nature of her travel companion's line of work. "I'm what you might call the David Bailey of England," retorts the garrulous Cockney.
The second story has Bailey, in a restaurant, noticing the coy glances of a radiant beauty across the room. On finishing his meal, he strides over to introduce himself. "Don't you remember me, Bailey?" ventures the woman. "No." "I'm your first wife."
David Bailey is almost more famous for the string of glamorous women hanging off his arm - his first and second wives, Catherine Deneuve and Marie Helvin, Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree - as for the era-defining photography hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. He may be in his 60th year, but in spirit he's still the bright young Cockney who helped make London swing in the sixties, bringing a breath of fresh air to the hitherto crusty world of formal studio portraiture.
"I walk down the street and people say, 'Who do you think you are - David Bailey?' " he laughs, living up to the legacy of those now famous Olympus TV commercials. "What they don't know is that you've heard it three times that day already. Every taxi driver. Good for Olympus but not good for me..."
David Bailey's credentials are without question - "Arguably the finest English photographer since Cecil Beaton," pronounced American Photographer magazine - his reputation having been built in the sixties on his stark black and white portraits of the likes of Michael Caine, Lennon and McCartney and Marianne Faithfull, his fashion work, painting, and commercials (most famously the Volkswagen ad in which Paula Hamilton ditches her engagement ring and fur coat but stops short of chucking the car keys). Now he's directing The Intruder, a supernatural thriller he describes as having "a Hitchcock old-fashioned type of thriller thing about it. And it's a bit like Noel Coward's Blythe Spirit - one of my favourite movies."
It's surprising that he has only now turned his hand to film-making when, by his own estimate, he has directed "between 400-500 commercials, shorts and documentaries - including last year's Channel 4 documentary, Models Close-Up - with a handful of Emmys, Cleos and Golden Lions to show for it. "Probably in terms of film, I've shot more than most directors," he chirps.
It's not that film offers haven't been forthcoming. His name was connected, somewhere along the production line, to A Clockwork Orange, Being There and Out Of Africa. For the last, he even spent three pre-production months in Kenya. "People don't understand," he explains. "It's not a career move. I've just as much respect for Richard Avedon as I have for Stanley Kubrick. It's not that one's better than the other. They do different things. Photography's different to movie-making, not less. In fact, movie-making's probably less artistic than photography. In photographs and painting, you've got total control..."
Bailey has chosen to make his low-budget entree away from British prying eyes in Montreal - a cost-effective, film-friendly city that churns out 80-odd films a year. "It went down to 50 degrees below one night," he shudders, in his cosy production office, fugging up the windows with expensive cigar smoke. "Believe it or not, we had fake snow." Today, thankfully, the filming is indoors and, on a soundstage rigged as a spacious loft apartment somewhere in a non-specific North American city, Bailey is walking two of his leading ladies, Nastassja Kinski and Charlotte Gainsbourg through a scene in which their characters discuss the spectral vision that seems to be haunting their building.
There's something incongruous about Bailey directing these sophisticated Continental actresses with jovial effing and blinding, and his use of the C-word (occasionally switched to "James Hunt" when decorum dictates). But no one seems to care.
"Do you like my face?" asks Kinski, concerned about the light. "Nah, it's fine," Bailey replies, before diving into a monitor, as Kinski sits down on the edge of a bed against the fairly spartan interior.
"In all modesty, it's got a Bailey look about it," Bailey explains. "It's like my stills, it has that look that's slightly off-centre and not fashionable. I've never been fashionable in spite of what people think."
Being Bailey, the look naturally entails Gainsbourg rolling on a pair of stockings (several times) but it's briskly done and soon in the bag, in accordance with the director's reputation as something of a speed merchant. "Yeah, I'm fast," he laughs. "Sometimes two clicks, but I'd rather be quick. It either works or it doesn't, because what I do, it's about emotion. I don't like to see photography in photography and I don't like to see photography in movies. I like it to be fairly subtle. Great photography is when you don't see it."
There's something endearing about Bailey. Though he has avoided the ageing love-god image of the likes of Peter Stringfellow (he's been happily married for 13 years to wife number four, Catherine - the subject of his racy coffee-table book The Lady Is A Tramp), you sense that his fascination with women is unabated. Suspicious that his image might be tarnished by recent reports that his waistline is on an outward march ("They always write about my weight, which has nothing to do with anything"), he fears the "little fat feminists" who have it in for him.
"This fat little bloke from the East End managed to sleep with all the most beautiful girls in the world, hahahahaha. Must annoy the shit out of them." But then, "I like women," he stresses. "If I was gay, I'd probably have slept with a lot of men. Like Herb Ritts. I'd be doing pictures of boys rather than girls."
His Cockney background marked him out from an early age as something of a yobby upstart. Leaving his East Ham school at 15, he worked as a tailor's assistant and a Fleet Street messenger before doing two years' National Service in the Far East. He wanted to become the new Chet Baker, until someone nicked his trumpet. Unable to find a replacement, he bought a second-hand Canon instead ("cameras were so cheap then"). The rest, as they say, is history.
"I didn't really think about it as art. It just seemed a nice thing to do. I've never really been clear what art is," he muses. Demobbed back to Blighty in 1959, he got a job with photographer John French and fell into glossy magazine work. "I couldn't believe it when Vogue gave me a contract to photograph women and get paid for it."
By the end of the decade he had a two-tone Rolls Royce, a £100,000 salary (previously unthinkable for a smudge) and had become not only a fully-paid-up member of London's hippest clique, but also its underworld. In fact it was his portrait of his pals the Krays in an East End pub that spawned the Olympus catchphrase. When a fight broke out, he was accosted by a goon demanding: "Who the fuck do you think you are - David Bailey?" ("Then Ronnie hit him," adds Bailey.)
Ironically, his best-known portraits are of men - "You can be crueller with men. I find it harder to be cruel with women. That's not chavinistic" - though he loathes lad culture: "Most disgusting thing in the world? Four smelly blokes in a car talking about football."
But those sixties connections just won't go away. If you look at the cast of his film, the link with Kinski comes from their mutual friend Roman Polanski: "Polanski introduced me to Deneuve and I think I introduced him to Sharon [Tate]". And Charlotte Gainsbourg's mother is Jane Birkin, whose first real portrait was done by Bailey.
There is another link with Birkin, of course. She appeared in Antonioni's cult 1966 film Blow Up - the surreal story of a libidinous sixties snapper, based partly on the Bailey myth. Bailey still has mixed feelings about Blow-Up, having thought he had killed off the project when spurning producer Carlo Ponti's overtures. "I thought they wanted me to direct," he says. "Then they started talking about the way I dressed. I said, 'What's that got to do with it?' They were asking me if I was interested in being in it. Then I wouldn't talk to Antonioni because he thought I was trying to shag Monica Vitti. It wasn't me, it was Terence Stamp."
Stamp was offered the part, but pulled out two weeks before shooting to be replaced by the unknown David Hemmings. But though Bailey gamely admits that Hemmings captured the attitude, and that the film revealed some obscure real-life detail ("I never understood how they knew that I'd paid £8 for that propeller"), the film did him no favours.
He tells how an old lady, coming out of a cinema, told him, "I think you're disgusting." Bailey laughs, "Hahahahahaha." The sixties, he maintains, was a horrible, superficial decade. "It was great for 2,000 people living in London, a very elitist thing, a naive kind of attitude before the accountants took over. Now the accountants have taken over and the world is dull..."
With bean-counting at the core of modern film-making, it's unlikely that Bailey will pursue movies full-time. Though he has plans for a feature about Gulf war syndrome, the immediate future sees him planning a retrospective at the Barbican in April, followed by the first of a series of five books, Archival 1, documenting his career to date.
"There are less good photographers than anything else," he declares. "You'd be hard pushed to name 20 great photographers, but you could certainly name 200 great directors. More. Photography's kind of difficult because it's so easy. Anything that's that easy to do is really difficult to excel at."
Nonetheless, he has no intention of sitting back while technological advances complicate it - something that led to the disillusionment and ultimate suicide of his good friend Terence Donovan. "It proves that I've never been fashionable because I've managed to stay around. Most of the people I started with are gone. The only one left is Helmut Newton. All the others are either dead or selling antiques somewhere. That's what failed photographers do, isn't it? Set up antique shops in Wiltshire."
Bailey, however, has no such intentions: "I hate that Puttnam thing of moving over for the young," he chuckles. "Fuck the young, I'm not finished yet."