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.