Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Take Me to Your Leader

Director: Keith Wright
Writer: Keith Wright
Producer: Keith Wright
Cast: Roger Bingham, Keith Wright’s dad, Keith Wright’s mum
Country: UK
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener
Watch now - Distrify link at end of review

You know that film, Ed Wood? The Edward D Wood Jr biopic directed by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp? Imagine if that was set not in 1950s Hollywood but in present day Yorkshire. With a script by Alan Bennett.

Take Me to Your Leader belongs, like Mark WithersHardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice, in the subgenre of ‘recursive mockumentaries’: fictional, narrative films which pretend to be non-fictional documentaries about the making of an entirely imaginary fictional, narrative film. Hardcore was about the making of a porno flick, in Take Me to Your Leader the genre in question is science fiction.

The film follows the efforts of Corbin West (Roger Bingham, who was in episodes of The League of Gentlemen and The Last Train), a predominantly cheerful 55-year-old underachiever who decides to make a 1950s-style alien invasion epic on a shoe-string, starring himself as the alien leader Zortan. He ropes in a motley crew including American cinematographer Joe Palentino (Tristian Cooper with a completely convincing LA accent), stunt arranger Chet Harris (director Keith Wright’s father, who is also called Keith and is credited here as Keith S Wright) who claims to have worked on a Bond film, costume designer Margaret Fipps (Margaret Wright, mother of Keith and wife of Keith S) and elderly production designer Ray Pickles (retired roofing contractor Ray Ledger). The cast of this sci-fi movie includes aggressively self-confident leading man Simon Delgado (Grant Bridges) playing a character called ‘Wildboy’ and leading lady Jennifer Almon (Penelope Ellis).

Rounding out the family connection, Keith’s gran Margaret Collier plays Corbin’s estranged mother Betty who, in a continuation of the Ed Wood angle, wanted a girl so christened him Shirley and dressed him in skirts. Keith S Wright (as ‘Keith Wright Snr’) and Margaret Collier previously appeared in Keith Wright’s short film Long in the Tooth (available on the Frisson Film website) as a vampire scarecrow and his mum.

Over the course of 71 minutes we see these intrepid film-makers, armed with a surfeit of self-confidence but no discernible talent, attempt to make an SF feature called... Take Me to Your Leader. There is a mixture of fly-on-the-wall observation and to-camera interviews although the interviewer himself is only rarely heard. Other participants appear occasionally, notably a young special effects enthusiast with a slightly overdeveloped enthusiasm for explosives (whose appearances are, to be honest, too few and too brief to really register) and two double glazing salesmen persuaded to provide financial backing. Bubbling under this story is a subplot about the mother-son estrangement.

It’s slightly misleading to call this a mockumentary because it doesn’t mock anything. The characters are all massively sympathetic and portrayed with enormous affection, even the arrogant leading man and the loudmouthed Yank DP. There is a gentleness to Take Me to Your Leader which one doesn’t see in the likes of This is Spinal Tap (which Wright acknowledges as an inspiration) and this has the curious effect of making the film undeniably enjoyable without ever being laugh-out-loud funny. This is wry Northern character comedy; Keith Wright and co. may not thank me for saying this but it sometimes feels more Lancashire than Yorkshire in its humour - although I appreciate that to soft, shandy-drinking Southerners there may be no discernible difference.

What suffuses the entire film is pathos. The pathos of Corbin West’s confidence that he can make a film (not a great film, just a little one); the pathos of those who trust and follow him; and the pathos of his mother who, interviewed separately, has finally come to accept that her child is male not female and wishes to see him again.

If there is a fault it’s that the character conflict, which is indispensable to good films but especially to one like this, when it comes, comes too suddenly. Everyone is having a jolly time, buoyed up by West’s positive attitude, then about halfway through people start arguing and in some instances fighting. And this conflict comes solely from characters rather than from the situation of a semi-amateur film shoot; one gets the impression that the same characters, if thrown together in any situation, would have the same disputes.

Contrary to expectations (and the tropes of this particular subgenre) the film-making process itself does not throw external problems into the mix as one might expect. The fact that the cast can’t act, the script is clichéed and facile and the designs are ridiculous - none of this creates problems for West. And to be fair it’s not really a problem for the viewer either except insofar as it’s not what one expects when popping the disc into the player.

What can be said - indeed, what should be emphasised - is that despite many of the real cast being amateurs (including several who are not directly related to Keith Wright) the level of performance here is wonderful. Entirely naturalistic, there’s not a bad performance on screen, not even a bad moment in an otherwise good performance. These characters are so real that the line between Keith Wright’s cut-price feature film and Corbin West’s even more meagrely budgeted effort becomes blurred. We utterly, utterly believe that these are real people. There are a couple of moments in the accompanying 15-minute Making Of when it is very difficult to tell whether we are watching Roger Bingham talking about a spoof documentary called Take Me to Your Leader or an out-take of Corbin West talking about a sci-fi picture called Take Me to Your Leader.

Because, boy are there out-takes (albeit none on the actual disc). Keith Wright shot a massive eighty hours of footage, meaning there’s about 78 hours and fifty minutes sat on a hard drive somewhere (including some 16mm and super-8 clips of the ‘actual film’). The whole of Take Me to Your Leader was improvised, with the actors (both pro and am) developing their characters over the course of production. There was no script, just a basic list of scenes with starting points, key elements and approximate, hoped-for finishing points. Which, let’s face it, is also how they did Spinal Tap.

But the important thing about a film is not how it was made (despite the aforementioned Making Of and a Wright/Bingham commentary). To the viewer, it shouldn’t make any difference whether the actors are pros or the director’s parents, whether the film was improvised then distilled from nearly a week of raw footage or whether every word was carefully scripted beforehand. It’s what’s on screen that counts and, while we can all admire Keith Wright’s determination (especially a fortnight of self-imposed isolation in a caravan park to do the bulk of the edit), we must judge the film on the film alone.

In which respect I think I can declare Take Me To Your Leader a thorough success. It’s a wonderful slice of very British humour, about underdogs who fail to triumph (in America, everything would end happily - even Ed Wood culminated in a fictitious successful premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space). There is redemption and development here but above all there are characters: rounded, fully believable characters with hopes and dreams and lives beyond the 71 minutes that we see.

Making a film about film-making is considerably trickier than it sounds because one must balance what it’s really like against what people think it’s like. Most film sets are incredibly dull places but Corbin West’s location work looks like great fun. During the ‘zombie walk’ scene it’s entirely unclear whether the people being zombies think they’re making a real film for Corbin West or a fake film for Keith Wright. That surely is the sign of a good spoof documentary (I’m not going to call it a mockumentary again, I think it’s misleading).

Take Me to Your Leader is a warm, gentle, slice-of-life comedy that just happens to be about a man trying to make a science fiction film. Maybe it’s a little too short - and I don’t say that very often! - with room for another ten minutes or so in the middle to make the transition from calm to conflict less sudden. But that’s not a major problem by any means. Kudos to one-man-band Keith Wright (who did everything except the music, basically) for doing something different and making it work, despite the obvious odds stacked against him. And fictional kudos to Corbin West for exactly the same thing!

(The disc also includes Wright's award-winning short Where's Bingo Betty?)

MJS rating: A-


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