Sunday, 23 July 2017

Here’s why I won’t be reviewing films any more

This isn’t a fit of pique and I’m not upset about anything. I love writing reviews on my website and I would love to carry on writing them. It’s just that I want to do something else. I want to write something else.

When the original version of my website was launched in January 2002, the web was still in its first decade. YouTube wouldn’t be invented for another three years, Twitter a year after that. There were only four Harry Potter books. It was less than a year since Douglas Adams passed away. The BBC had no plans to revive Doctor Who.

Since then, lots of other movie review websites have come and gone.  To the best of my knowledge, no single author film site has lasted as long as mine.

Since 2002 I have written 709 reviews and posted 321 interviews. Total wordcount: 1,655,073. That’s an average of 105,000 words every year. Or one book. If I had been working in print instead of on the web, I could potentially have 18 books with my name on instead of three. Or maybe 16 books and a couple of movie scripts.

This, my friends, is why I’m regretfully packing in the film reviewing. I will be 50 next February, and while I am incredibly proud of my three published volumes, it irks me that I haven’t written more. I have several in various states of completion, not least the long gestating biography of Elsa Lanchester, which I would love to get finished in time for the 2019 remake of Bride of Frankenstein.

I'm also working on a massive catalogue of all 21st century British horror films (so I’m still writing reviews, but in 200 words not 4,000). I also have several non-film-related books I want to write.

What irks me even more than my lack of literary production is that, as I approach my half century, I don’t have a feature film writing credit. Ever since I was at primary school, I have written scripts. Back in 2002 I was finishing off my Masters Degree in TV Scriptwriting – but in those pre-Who days there was no market for sci-fi, fantasy or adventure.

My scriptwriting ‘career’ has been one of near misses: an episode of Urban Gothic (promptly cancelled); an unmade episode of the Captain Scarlet remake (stories about Gerry Anderson turned out to be true, though I did at least squeeze some money out of him); a version of Xtro 4 for a guy who claimed he owned the rights but didn’t; an adaptation of The Beetle which Variety claimed I had sold to Hammer (I hadn’t); and so on. The only script of mine that ever got made was Waiting for Gorgo, a 17-minute film that spent two years in post and then wasn't submitted to any genre festivals. Sigh.

I have spent 15 years analysing what does and doesn’t work in films, particularly low-budget independent British horror films. Theoretically, I should be the go-to guy for screenplays. But not once has anyone come to me and said, “Mike, I need you to write a script for me.” (Actually a couple of people did, but neither worked out and they joined the near-miss pile.)

I know some people who want to write meaningful, artistic works, or aspire to one day write the next Hollywood blockbuster. I don’t. All I’ve ever wanted to do is write some silly microbudget monster movie that people will complain about on Amazon. That’s what I love watching, that’s what I want to write, instead of writing about.

And if you’re thinking: go out there and make the films yourself. I appreciate the sentiment, but I have no desire to direct, and have neither the business skills to produce nor the technical skills to do anything else. All I do is write. I pick the right words and put them in the right order. It’s all I’ve ever done, all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve been told I’m quite good at it. It’s paid the rent, in one way or another, for 22 years.

But it seems to me that what has stopped me from writing the books and screenplays I want to write is spending all my spare time (outside my writing day job at Leicester University) writing my website. While I’ve been reviewing Zombiesaurus and its ilk, I’ve not been finishing Elsa Lanchester: Bride of the Hunchback or My Big Fat Zombie Wedding.

This website will stay live, and I’ve got a handful of reviews I’ve promised people that I’ll get up over the summer, but as of now I’m not accepting any more review copies. If you care to send me a screener, I’ll certainly appreciate it and will tweet about it enthusiastically. But there will be no more reviews. Sorry.

I’m also knocking my British Horror Revival blog on the head. Hardly anyone ever looks at it anyway. I’ll keep both Twitter accounts going. I’ll also keep writing my column for Scream.

It’s been a great 15 and a half years. Coincidentally that’s exactly how long I’ve got to retirement (if I make it that far..., cough cough) so now seems a perfect time to change direction.

Finally, I want to thank absolutely everyone who has helped me: people who sent me screeners, or invited me to screenings, or agreed to interviews, or commented, or tweeted or contributed in any way. Cheers, folks!

interview: Martin Landau

In the summer of 1999, my pal Omar Kaczmarczyk invited me to Luxembourg to visit the set of The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Unfortunately Martin Landau, who reprised his role of Geppetto from the first film, had wrapped when I was there but Omar kindly arrange a phoner when I got home. In 2000 I finally met Martin Landau when I was in Cannes and spotted him in a restaurant. I approached him, explained who I was and thanked him for this gracious interview. I’m posting it now in tribute to this great actor who passed away last week.

What attracted you to the role of Geppetto in the first Pinocchio film?
“To begin with? Well, it is a classic book and the Collodi book is something that I think everyone has grown up with. And I felt that the technology had finally caught up with the ability to do it as a live-action movie with a wooden actor. I’ve worked with a lot of wooden actors in my time and this was one of the better ones! But I guess I read the script and I found it charming, I found it moving, I found it sweet. I knew the Henson group as well were very gifted, and other laboratories of that kind were extant at the moment. It intrigued me. I felt there was something classical about it. We’d all grown up on the Disney cartoon which is charming but deviated more. Pepe the cricket was Jiminy Cricket and so on. This was truer and closer to the original piece and I felt it was something I wanted to do it.

“It’s a classic part and I also found it moving and sweet. Here’s a man who has avoided marriage and avoided his love. He’s a man who would never actually have a family because he’s past that. He’s run away from life. He’s spent his time talking to inanimate objects and puppets and created a life for himself that makes him comfortable. And suddenly here this strange event happens where he is thrust into fatherhood and isn’t really ready for it emotionally. This is how I looked at it. He has this love of his life who’s crazy about him that he’s ignored his entire life, which is added to the script. There’s a nice arc and a catharsis that occurs where he becomes a much rounder, fuller, better human being through this experience that takes him by surprise.”

Given that the first film was close to the book and had that closure, what did you think when you were approached about a sequel?
“Well, I said ‘Let me see the script.’ Obviously any time something works pretty well, they want to do a second one, and usually it’s the idea of doing it as opposed to doing what. The ‘what’ is very important. When they sent me the script I said this is kind of fun, because what a turn: Geppetto becoming a puppet and Pinocchio basically on the other side of the fence. But Pinocchio still misbehaving and creating the problems that cause this strange occurrence. But again the idea of a puppet coming to life is just as whimsical and fantastic as a character like Geppetto becoming a puppet.

“So I said, ‘Well, this is in keeping with it in a certain sense. And again it is a morality piece. It’s about not paying attention and being penalised forbeing remiss in life. I also found it kind of fun and cute and again it’s a switch, particularly at the end when the two of them are puppets and have to be reconstructed into human beings. But Geppetto is also kind of enjoying the experience. I just sort it was kind of whimsical and sweet.”

What did you find were the biggest differences between the two films?
“I do pictures with different directors all the time, and different cinematographers. Also though the fact that it’s a different period historically. I don’t know whether you know that or not - this is a much later time. This is 19th century and the other one I guess was 18th century. So, jokingly I say this, Genevieve Bujold’s character didn’t manage to last that hundred years! So it’s still a period piece - it’s not a modern piece - but they felt it would be truer to the Collodi piece in a way if they brought it into that century. So there were differences in wardrobe and differences in design, by and large, but not radically.

Michael Anderson is a wonderfully professional director. He did Around the World in 80 Days among other things. So it’s not like going into a black hole. There’s a solid core to this production. Of course, a first-time director I would have qualms - because it’s complicated. It’s not an easy picture, when you’re dealing with these special effects. In terms of today, you think of car crashes and explosions and fireballs. But this is a very subtle kind of thing; it has to be believable and done well. And you need a director who can handle it because it’s really character driven. Pinocchio 1 was a character-driven movie, albeit that one of the characters is a wooden puppet, but very human. And it’s a human tale. And I think that’s why they wanted to have someone who can recognise the humanity as well as the technical areas at the helm of this. You need a good skipper. So when I heard it was Michael Anderson I was very pleased.”

Had you worked with him before?
“No, I’d worked with his son on The Greatest Story Ever Told, Michael Anderson Jr, as an actor. But I knew Michael. We’d met on a number of times but I hadn’t worked with him. I’d worked with a lot of ‘classmates’: people like Hitchcock and a lot of his contemporaries.”

Did you find that the technology had advanced much since the last film?
“Clearly technology continues to grow and people are working on all kinds of things. The technology was pretty damn good in the first one. It’s probably made some positive steps since then but we’re not talking about George Lucas’ company. It’s close-ups on puppets. In the first film, that puppet had a lot of expression, a lot of subtlety, a lot of sweetness and wickedness, and all the things necessary. So I think maybe things are a little better in that area, but it was pretty good the first time around is what I’m saying.”

Have you advanced the character in the second film from what he was in the first?
“Well, I think he’s essentially the same guy. I don’t want to do anything radical that would disturb people; he is the same guy. It’s a hundred years later but he’s still very much the same guy. The script allows for different areas to emerge in terms of where he’s ‘coming from’. You see different sides of Geppetto but it’s the same guy allowing other colours to come into his behaviour.”

How did you find working in Luxembourg?
“I liked it. I found it very clean and clear and pleasant. It’s not very big and if you’re in a long train I think the front of it is in one country and the back of it’s in another. But I found the people friendly. I found that the crews at the studio were very professional, and the studio itself. I think Gertrude Stein said ‘a sound stage is a sound stage is a sound stage’: you don’t know where you are until you walk outside and see a street with foreign signs.

“I worked at Pinewood for years on Space: 1999 and I felt very much at home there. Having done as many films as I have and shot in as many countries as I have, I’m quite adaptable. Because when you’re inside a sound stage you really don’t know where you are. You’re in that world. It’s only when you go back the hotel that you realise other languages are being spoken.”

Space: 1999 is quite topical because the Moon gets blown out of orbit in about four weeks.
“I know. A year from now it will be a period piece!”

When you made that series, 1999 was way in the future.
“Well, it was 25 years ahead exactly.”

As the date approaches, what are your thoughts on the series now?
“It was a valiant effort. It’s not easy to do that kind of a show on a weekly basis, and I also think that our special effects at the time were really amazing. If you look back they still hold up very well. Star Trek was a wonderful series but their effects were certainly much more primitive than ours. People like Brian Johnston wound up working with Lucas on projects. Our unit at Bray was really doing miraculous stuff and tying it into the main stuff we were doing at Pinewood, and I felt it was quite seamless and quite well done. Some of the stories of course were not as dramatic or little lacking, but some of them were excellent little movies. Again, I don’t know any series that’s consistent and wonderful all the time, but I think it was a valiant effort to do something on a different level than had been done before.

“When I say ‘hadn’t been done before’, the concept of the Moon being blown out of orbit and not being able to affect your trajectory and being at the whims of fate. In other words these 300 people from different countries not actually in control of their destiny, and able to stay alive because of hydroponics but not being able to procreate until they found a planet - this was the concept initially - that was compatible with our needs so we could continue the human race. And that idea is a good idea.

“Everybody’s a critic and people compared us to Star Trek. We didn’t intend to be Star Trek. It was a differently textured show, and there were episodes that I would proudly screen for anybody. I just think it was time well spent and we did some very, very interesting work at that point in time. Again, it’s 25 years ago. If you look at those shows they don’t look as if they were made 25 years ago; they look as if they were made yesterday. We don’t suffer from the styles of the day.

“Last night I hosted a screening of North By Northwest at a theatre here because Warner Brothers is re-releasing the movie with brand new sound and a restored print. It’s impeccable and beautiful. I did a question and answer and I did some anecdotes on the stage for about an hour last night before the screening. Well, that picture holds up. The cars are old and the suits are ‘50s suits and the hairdos too, and the ties are skinny, so you’re reminded continually of the ‘50s when you watch it. Whereas in Space: 1999, you’re not. It’s as new and futuristic today as it was then.”

The fans often cite a big difference between the two seasons of Space: 1999.
“Definitely, because Freddie Freiburger came in and as I say, everyone’s a critic and everyone was second-guessing the show. I liked the first season better. I felt if it could have evolved from that point it would have become a much, much, much richer and better show. I felt there were things in the second season that were inconsistent and sometimes the characters were made inconsistent because they did things unilaterally that they wouldn’t have done - to accommodate the storyline as opposed to the storyline accommodating the characters.”

A lot of old shows have been revived. Do you think there’s room for Space: 2099?
“Well, I’m not in charge of that. I’m sure there’s always room for something that’s well done. There’s a nucleus of followers of that show who would be interested in that show and those people could introduce their kids to the show because of the nostalgic aspect to it. But it takes a certain amount of money. Space certainly didn’t have the success that Star Trek had - though Star Trek was a failure when it was first on the air.

“Because I was doing Mission: Impossible at the same studio at the same time, and we were very successful and they were a struggling show. They only did three seasons and we did many more. And I was offered Spock before Lenny and passed on it to do Mission, so I understand, I’ve been close to that. I knew Gene Roddenberry because Gene Roddenberry’s office was right next to Bruce Gellar’s office at Desilu Studios which ultimately became Paramount. So I sort of grew up there: we were on stages 7 and 8 and they were on 9 and 10. Those numbers have changed because of Paramount’s acquisition of Desilu, but we were side by side. We had the two stages next to the Star Trek stages, and Lenny’s dressing room was in the same building as mine. I knew Bill Shatner and all of them very well; we’d see each other all the time in the commissary and visit each other’s sets and the like.

“So I’m aware of the Star Trek phenomenon but it took a long time to happen, remember. It wasn't overnight. And the show barely stayed on the air from season to season. It was on the basis of a lot of letters and very zealous fanatical fans - that’s a little redundant, but... - that kept that show on the air. It just scraped by, whereas we were riding high. It was a wonderful concept and well done, but when it comes to special effects it couldn't hold a candle to Space.”

When both shows were prepping for their first seasons, what attracted you to Rollin Hand over Spock?
“Well, I’m an actor who likes a wide range of stuff, and to play a lobotomy, which is what Spock was to me, someone without emotion, did not interest me. It’s not why I became an actor. I could see the fact that it could be very successful: pointy ears, and a guy who knows all the answers in the 1960s is like a pothead of a certain kind, and I felt that would be very successful. Whereas on Mission I played everything from Adolf Hitler to Martin Boorman, to myself younger, older, every accent. I was a one-man rep company actually, and that interested me. To this day I would not want to do Spock if you handed it to me and offered to pay me a million dollars. I wouldn’t do it. The character does not interest me. My answering machine has more expression.”

What did you think of the Mission: Impossible movie?
“I thought it had nothing to do with the series. The series is a team of people who get in and get out, having accomplished what they did without anyone ever knowing they were there. In the movie, the team is killed early in the picture, the Phelps character is turned into a double agent, and everyone knows Tom Cruise is there because he’s announcing it all the time. It’s a different idea. Tom basically played the same character I played, but the idea was not to let them know we were infiltrating. When you’re a movie star I guess you have to let people know you’re there.”

One of my favourite films is 12:01. What do you remember of that?
“I remember Jonathan Silverman and Jack Sholder, I remember working on it. Jack Sholder: I had done his first picture ever, a picture called Alone in the Dark, which was one of New Line’s very first pictures. I got to know Bob Shea and all of those people. I just remember that I had a good time. Helen Slater and Jonathan. I also did an HBO movie with the same director called By Dawn’s Early Light, in which I played the President. Kind of a catastrophic event, with Washington blown up by atomic bombs.”

Thanks for this. I’m looking forward to Pinocchio.
“I think it’s going to be quite charming, and I know Michael Anderson is very happy with it. I’m going into a dubbing studio for the next little bit to post-synch a bunch of stuff with the puppet. It’s the first time I’ve done that with a puppet, but as I say I’m not generally thought of as a wooden actor.”

RIP Martin Landau 1928-2017