Remixing The Stone Tape: Interview with Peter Strickland

The Stone Tape

Format: Radio

Release date: 31 October 2015

Available to stream or download on Radio 4 iPlayer – 3D audio or original stereo broadcast – until 30 November 2015

Distributor: BBC Radio

Director: Peter Strickland

Writers: Matthew Graham, Peter Strickland

Based on the original teleplay by: Nigel Kneale

Cast: Romola Garai, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Dean Andrews, Julian Barratt, Jane Asher

UK 2015

60 mins

For Halloween 2015, BBC Radio 4 commissioned a pair of new radio adaptations of modern horror stories. Alongside an hour-long dramatization of Koji Suzuki’s The Ring (Ringu), the BBC also broadcast a revised version of Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV drama The Stone Tape directed by Peter Strickland, best known for his films Berberian Sound Studio (2012)and The Duke of Burgundy (2014). This chilling play, considered a classic of 1970s television, relates the tale of some audio researchers investigating a haunted Victorian mansion, using difference frequencies to try and explain ghosts as a playback phenomenon, due to the fact that the stones of buildings capture recordings of the past.

The 2015 radio adaptation moves the temporal location of the play forward to the end of the same decade, when home recording had started to become a normal occurrence, and removes some of the story elements concerning pre-existing ghosts, to concentrate on the arrogance of the researchers creating a dangerous and uncanny situation all by themselves. An alternate download version of the play (available alongside the traditional stereo mix as broadcast on Radio 4) was partially recorded using ‘3D audio’ a.k.a. binaural sound, where a manikin dummy is used in the studio to simulate the position of the listener, with microphones attached to the sides of the dummy’s head to capture sounds at the distance and location where they would be heard from a listener’s ears.

Alex Fitch spoke to the director of the new Stone Tape to talk about his move from cinema to radio, his interest in 1970s drama and the aural influences on his radio play.

Alex Fitch: This is your second radio play after The Len Continuum, which featured your Berberian Sound Studio collaborator Toby Jones, but with The Stone Tape you have brought more filmic techniques to radio, in the sense that you’ve created more of a surround sound soundscape.

Peter Strickland: Yeah. The first one was more of a straightforward drama; I didn’t want to do anything gratuitous with the sound in Len, but with The Stone Tape the sound is so inherently part of the narrative, and part of the appeal. There are a lot of records that I love and I felt that if they’re going to be shoe-horned into the script, there’s no point in doing it. With The Stone Tape it was crying out to have these ideas informing the whole play, such as Arvin Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’ or Robert Ashley’s ‘Automatic Writing’. So, it was a great opportunity to pay tribute to music, rather than anything to do with film. There’s the original Stone Tape, of course, but I wasn’t really thinking of any other films at all.

You used a 3D microphone set-up that records sounds coming from all directions. Did that make any difference to mixing the tracks for radio, or did you do two different edits – one for broadcast and one for download?

There are two different edits. When we did the assembly edit, the sound that was recorded using the microphones attached to the dummy head was mixed into one track. My editor John, who was doing this using ProTools, has one track for the straightforward edit and another for the sound from the dummy head. It was quite complicated – with radio it’s so complicated, you sometimes only listen to temporary audio, but for us it was sometimes two or three different edits within sentences, which can be a nightmare with the dummy head in terms of the whole special quality – if an actor moves slightly that’s going to disrupt things.

Only at the last minute did we realise there was a bit of spare time – not for the radio edit, but for the binaural download – so what we did was extend some of the things that had to be shortened for radio. So we extended the scream decay at the end of the play. James’s experiments with resonance were extended, but as far as I remember there were no extensions to the amount of dialogue; there was no time to do that.
It would be great if they released a soundtrack of the actual sounds; James Cargill did a lot of work and Andrew Liles did as well. There are five separate components: James did all the electronic tones and the library music at the beginning; Andrew did the vocal sounds; Steve Haywood and Raoul Brand took what was recorded and added all these analogue effects; Eloise Whitmore was on hand with the Nagra 4D, plus the whole mix, the foley and everything; and then Chris Pike worked with Eloise on the 3D sound.

When we recorded with the Nagra, the fidelity was so good that we could barely hear the difference between it and digital. So, we did this thing where you can feel the difference when you go from tape to ‘real sound’. We didn’t want to cheat it, Steve gave us the option of using a high gain to make it sound a bit ‘crunchier’, but I thought that was a bit of a shortcut. If the Nagra 4D is that good, let it sound that good. So what we did was: for the 3D sound we used mono, which seems kind of perverse! We’re spending all this money on this incredibly expensive studio and then we’re using mono for about 30% of the whole play, but what that does is really interesting regarding the contrast in sound. If you have 3D sound being used all the way through, you become numb to it somehow. By dipping into mono when it switches to tape, it seemed like a good way of solving the whole thing.

And also, because the play is very specifically located in 1979, you probably wanted to limit yourself to the technology of the time, so it sounded authentic…

Well, that was the thing. Even though we recorded the whole thing on digital, when we did the tape parts, that was recorded on the Nagra 4D, which has been around for donkeys’ years! Obviously the original play was 1972, but by moving it up to the end of that decade, a lot of the possibilities of sounds fitting into smaller spaces don’t sound quite as preposterous as it would have done 7 years earlier. I really wanted this idea that, if not clearly a ghost, there’s a lot more in this version on the fact that this is something much more that they can monetise, and either use it for the consumer market – which is essentially what the mp3 generation has done – or for MI5 or MI6, in terms of setting a whole house up as a recording device.

So, I wanted to expand on this and get into the idea of how we perceive recording and playback set against the time we live in. It’s all dictated by what’s happening at the time. In the 1970s you were still thinking about side A and side B – to get beyond that concept is quite strange – whereas now young people don’t even know about side A and side B.

It seems almost a natural progression for you to move into radio, particularly following Berberian Sound Studio, which was also an obsessive attempt to find some meaning in layered sound, which seems to offer many parallels with The Stone Tape. Is there something about audio, which you think other filmmakers don’t explore, that you’ve had an opportunity to do more with in your work?

I don’t pay too much attention to that. It’s just stuff that works for me in some way. I wouldn’t say it’s always that way – the last film I did, The Duke of Burgundy, had nothing to do with sound. We do our best with it, but we didn’t want to be emphatic with it, we don’t want to be gratuitous. I suppose a lot of filmmakers get their cues from painting, for me it’s always from sound. With my last film, the whole structure of it came from my listening to minimalist music, even though it wasn’t a film as concerned with sound.

I grew up listening to a lot of records that were fascinating. I was always dying to use some of Arvin Lucier’s ideas in something, and I think The Stone Tape was the first thing that was the perfect way of doing that – a way of looking backwards from what Lucier was doing. He was trying to annihilate his voice and we’re trying to do the opposite, bring back a voice from annihilation! On the one hand, it might be seen as a very dry, academic piece of work, but on the other hand it was something very sad – here’s this character that doesn’t like his voice and he wants the dominant frequencies of this room to smooth it out, he wants his voice to be subsumed. All of us can relate to that in some way.

But also thinking of your debut film – Katalin Varga (2009) – you created a lot of atmosphere in that film just from discordant noises overlaid with images of landscape. So I think it’s a tool that isn’t used enough by some filmmakers, and by using this technique, you’re experimenting with its possibilities as a threatening presence within the film.

In hindsight, yes. When we made that film, it was my habit of working. I took this long gap between making short films and my first feature and got into making sound stuff. So I’d developed this habit of working, which no one gave a damn about at the time! I’m not saying that out of sour grapes, it just took me by surprise when the film got recognised for its sound. I thought: ‘What?’, because people always did that on records and no one really paid attention.

So, I never thought in a million years that it was going to be special… I was just making this story, working by habit, and then all this. There was that very pleasant shock when we made that film, and that’s what led on to Berberian, thinking of all those records that I loved, and if you use those ideas, combined with imagery, somehow it clicks with people. The best example is Krzysztof Penderecki’s music for The Shining (1980); on vinyl people find it too academic, but on film there’s something about the timbre and the dissonance that really ignites how you see the scenes.

So, a long way of answering your question is: I just work that way out of habit! After Varga, I thought: ‘people are responding to the sound’, and that had never happened to me before.

Obviously you’re a child of the 1970s, but it’s also a temporal location you keep returning to. The Stone Tape is set in 1979, the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy hark back to the 60s and 70s’ style of credits, and Berberian Sound Studio is set in the 1970s as well. Is there something about that decade you’re almost trying to exorcise through your work?

I think it’s just childhood. Many directors just reference their childhood. If you think of the 1980s, the directors of Back to the Future (1985), Gremlins (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986) were all going back to their childhoods in the 1950s. People’s childhoods are just perhaps more intense; whatever you experience or perceive embeds itself in you more, whatever you perceive now just goes straight through your head, like water off a duck’s back!
The way I saw television, the way I heard music, it somehow had this uncanny feel to it, and that’s something that stays with you. Was it a particularly odd decade? Maybe not. This generation working now just happened to be kids in the 70s. Perhaps in 20 years’ time you’ll have people looking back at the 1990s in a strange way, but for me the 90s was completely strait-laced. I think that’s all it is. I’ve become aware of that; Varga was the only contemporary story I’ve directed, but for some reason I always end up in that blasted decade!

Was the original Stone Tape something that made an impression on you, when you were young?

No, because I didn’t see it when I was young. I was born in 1973 and must have missed it when it was repeated in the 80s – I saw it much later. I saw it sometime last decade, so it didn’t have the same resonance… A lot of people I spoke to found it absolutely terrifying when they were children, but I was more into it for the whole sonic notion that was being explored, these notions of natural acoustics and so on.
I found it uncanny, but what we wanted to do – when Matthew Graham and I wrote the script – was to focus more on the melancholic side of Jill, and the slightly creepy nature of it. But I think I never found it really terrifying. The stuff I found terrifying was more mainstream like The Omen (1976) – Billie Whitelaw’s eyes – and so on. It’s strange, even with M.R. James, the only one that scares me is Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).

With this radio version of The Stone Tape, you’ve cast comedy actors as two of your lead roles – Julian Barratt and Julian Rhind-Tutt. Is that because their heightened performances work well with horror, particularly on radio where it’s just voices?

I didn’t pay too much attention to that, there’s definitely some humour in the script, but in terms of casting I thought they would be interesting. What I wanted to do, and I guess it all goes back to when you hear bands like Joy Division, is that they have these gloomy personas, but when you hear about them, they’re just a bunch of lads messing around.

I think having worked in studios a lot, it is quite laddish in there. You get this kind of cabin fever, people just get on each other’s nerves, they start messing around and playing up, so I wanted an element of that kind of banter you get in the studio, especially back in the 70s where there was this casual sexism. To be a woman at that time, with all those blokes, must have been quite unpleasant. Also, what I like about that is that it sets up this fairly innocent framework, and when the creepiness does come in, it’s a bit more of a contrast, perhaps. I wasn’t interested in having a creepy atmosphere throughout the whole thing. The first half is more like a bad version of Fawlty Towers, and then slowly things happen. I never wanted to have any kind of background music, every single sound in the play is diegetic, and everything comes from what the characters are doing, even if the radio is on in the background. I never wanted to creep people out, the films I find scary are the ones where nothing is signposted too much. A lot of the terror I find is in Michele Haneke’s films – they’re stone cold silent. So, I’m only using the sound for when the characters are employing this machinery, this sonic drilling.

It’s a great sound in itself, and it’s a sound I like – you don’t need much more than that. There’s no emotive element to it. It’s cold and hard, and I really enjoy that.

Interview by Alex Fitch

The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies – London presents Live at Miskatonic: Nigel Kneale’s The Road, a live reading of Nigel Kneale’s lost drama featuring Jonathan Rigby, followed by a discussion of Kneale’s work with Stephen Volk and Kim Newman on Thursday 10 December at the Horse Hospital, 7-10pm.
Tickets are on sale now £10 advance / £8 concs / £11 on the door.

SCI-FI-LONDON 2014

OXV The Manual
OXV: The Manual

SCI-FI-LONDON

24 April – 4 May 2014

London, UK

SFL website

Out of synch numerically with each year it’s been in operation, this year SCI-FI-LONDON skipped (unlucky) no.13 and used November 2012’s first Stratford-based autumn festival to make up the numbers so that SCI-FI-LONDON 14 could take place in 2014. Taking place at Stratford East Picturehouse and BFI Southbank, and with notable events in other venues, the festival offered a rich array of films, taking on a wide range of topics from Star Wars to alien asteroid collision and subjugating frequencies.

Lost Time (Christian Sesma, 2014)
The opener to this year’s festival wasn’t a strong start. A mishmash of the last 30 years of genre clichés, from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) to The X-Files (1993-2002) with a healthy dose of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) thrown in, this half-baked smorgasbord of mysticism, alien abduction, parallel worlds and incarcerated lunatics would have been watchable if the script writers had chosen a couple of those themes rather than muddling through all of them. Stolid performances by B-movie actors Robert Davi and Luke Goss seem to be the project’s raison d’&#234tre. While the film opens well with an intriguing and disturbing juxtaposition of a cancer sufferer with her dreams of alien abduction and disembowelment, the following hour or so indeed feels like lost time for members of the audience waiting for the plot to successfully develop.

Watch the trailer for Lost Time:

Bunker 6 (Greg Jackson, 2013)
Luckily the second day of the festival saw not only the premiere of a terrific new Canadian sci-fi film but also the festival’s first use of an amazing, atmospheric screening location. Bunker 6 imagines an alternative 1970s where the increasingly claustrophobic survivors of an alternative Cuban Missile Crisis where the nukes flew are bickering over dwindling supplies in their subterranean fallout bunker. A tight, excellent cast and a real-life location – that apparently needed little kitting out to convince viewers of its period setting – combine to make a taut, intelligent thriller that deserves a larger audience. The screening at SCI-FI-LONDON took place in a genuine World War II bunker beneath the streets of Dalston and at times made the audience feel like a hole had been cut in the wall to reveal a drama beyond. One hopes the festival can programme more esoteric events like this in the future.

Watch the trailer for Bunker 6:

Beyond (Tom Large and Joseph Baker, 2014)
The third premiere of the festival apparently almost didn’t make it into the programme as there were doubts as to whether the film qualifies as science fiction (it depends on how you interpret the scenes set in the present). In any case, Beyond is a great new Scottish genre movie, set in two time periods – one before an extinction level asteroid is en route to the Earth and the other after aliens have depopulated the planet to a minority of survivors who successfully hid during the first cull. Cutting back and forth between the two, the plot follows the travails of a pair of engaging leads played by Richard J. Danum and Gillian MacGregor as the scenarios take their toll on the pair’s relationship. With a backdrop of impressive special effects and a sense of impending doom, the film often comes across as a sci-fi response to Once (2006), albeit one with aliens instead of singing, and that’s no bad thing at all.

Watch the trailer for Beyond:

Struggled Reagans (Gregg Golding, 2013)
If I described Struggled Reagans as a punk-trash porno tongue-in-cheek underground take on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993-present) then no matter how much I may explain how wretched a film-watching experience it is, it’s safe to say that it’d be bound to glean an audience of ironic hipster / student fans of gonzo filmmaking, or B-movie fanatics with a drink in their hands. For about half its running time Struggled Reagans is amusing or quirky enough to justify its existence, with the filmmakers channelling the style of early John Waters or Troma films reasonably well, but it is a struggle to persevere with the 85-minute runtime and the story would have been better received if delivered in shorter instalments like its TV forebear.

Watch the trailer for Struggled Reagans:

SOS: Save Our Skins (Kent Sobey, 2014)
Weirdly, SCI-FI-LONDON 14 had no fewer than three pairs of movies whose plots mirrored each other. SOS, like Beyond, is a British film that tells the tale of a giant rock about to hit the Earth, which presages an alien invasion (see below for reviews of another pair – OXV: The Manual and LFO), but here the story is told for comedic rather than tragic effect. In SOS, a duo of hapless geeks staying in New York to attend a sci-fi convention find a deserted city, with the only signs of life an elderly cannibal, an escaped female lunatic and a blue monster dogging their steps. The cast is filled with stalwarts from British TV comedy and the low budget is extremely well used, with shots of empty streets in Manhattan as effective and unnerving as anything from an American blockbuster. Films that juggle sci-fi, comedy and horror often struggle not to be uneven, but this is an amiable and accomplished piece that leaves the viewer wanting more.

Watch the trailer for SOS: Save Our Skins:

Saving Star Wars (Gary Wood, 2004)
A bittersweet comedy-drama that follows a Star Wars fan to a sci-fi convention with the hope of meeting George Lucas. Saving Star Wars has inevitably an early Kevin Smith vibe complete with longueurs and scenes that stay beyond their welcome. However, this is a hard film to dislike, made with love, obvious familiarity with the subject matter and contemporaneous genre films, and a lovely turn by Dave Prowse – the actor who wore the Darth Vader suit in the original Star Wars trilogy – playing himself. The director’s cut shown at SCI-FI-LONDON was apparently a little shorter than the original version, which the festival showed 10 years earlier, but could have been tightened further; perhaps another 10 minutes shorn off the length could have turned a likeable farce into a cult movie. As with early Smith, some of the performances are pretty good, some are fairly dire, but the script generally saves even the most leaden scenes, and for fans of George Lucas (who in this film, ironically, is played by the most wooden actor in the cast) the movie is worth watching for Prowse’s extended cameo alone.

Watch the trailer for Saving Star Wars:

Senn (Josh Feldman, 2013)
The artist Moebius (Jean Giraud) has been a great inspiration both directly and indirectly for SF cinema over the last five decades. Although only one film directly based on his comic book work – Blueberry (2004) – was made during his lifetime, this is possibly the thematically closest movie to his oeuvre since Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element in 1997. Senn features a couple who work on tedious production lines on a human-settled alien planet, making incomprehensible objets d’arts to be shipped off to other worlds. Their blue-collar existence seems prescribed until the day they die. But when lead character Senn finds a glowing sentience in his locker, which is soon followed by the arrival of a massive alien vessel, he and his girlfriend will be taken across the galaxy on an ark-like ship to uncover an ancient mystery. Senn looks terrific, with alien languages designed by a master of the medium (cinematic Star Trek’s Britton Watkins). The languid plot, devoid of the laser beams, space battles and ugly aliens which have cursed science fiction to casual onlookers, is refreshing to say the least. Let down only by perhaps too few plot incidents to fill the running time – which feels longer than its 84 minutes – Senn is a gem that will hopefully accrue the cult following it deserves.

Watch the trailer for Senn:

Who’s Changing? An Adventure in Time with Fans (Cameron McEwan, 2014)
A crowd-funded British documentary about the history and current face of Doctor Who fandom, Who’s Changing? is a brisk and enjoyable documentary by Who expert Cameron K. McEwan who has also written a coffee table book on the programme and runs a website devoted to it. Various actors associated with the TV show’s past – Sophie Aldred, Louise Jameson – and present – Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey – are interviewed along with comic book writers, producers and fans of the programme and its spin-offs. All the interviews are professionally conducted and filmed, many in the environs of SF conventions and festivals, and contrast Doctor Who fandom in the early years – when Whovians were somewhat ridiculed by society – and the present day – where there is more diversity in the gender and age of fans. McEwan touches on interesting aspects of all the above, but perhaps not with enough depth or the insight that an anthropologist or sociologist might bring to the project. Ultimately a documentary for the fans and by the fans, Who’s Changing? is worth watching for anyone with a casual interest in one of the BBC’s most loved programmes, but rarely rises above the quality of a Doctor Who DVD extra, when it could have been a lot more.

Watch the trailer for Who’s Changing?:

LFO: The Movie (Antonio Tublén, 2013)
The first of another pair of similarly themed and named movies (see below for OXV), LFO is a tight Scandinavian drama that is presented like a sitcom – based around the relationship between a loner, the ghost of his dead wife and the couple who live opposite him – but contrasts its comedic moments with increasingly dark themes. Picked by festival curator Louis Savy as the best film of the 2014 line-up (I’d disagree and give it to OXV) the plot depicts an unstable sociopath who discovers a low frequency tone that when played can hypnotise and subjugate others to his will. There are touches of both ever-so-hip Scandi-noir and Berberian Sound Studio (2012) as lead actor Patrik Karlson (a bit part actor in Wallander and The Bridge) becomes increasingly obsessed with manipulating the world around him, just as the soundtrack begins to suggest he may not be an entirely reliable narrator. Disturbing, intriguing, amusing and thought-provoking in turn, LFO shows that a great science-fiction idea can be convincingly presented on a small number of sets with a tiny budget, and if nothing less, is a masterclass in low-budget filmmaking.

Watch the trailer for LFO: The Movie:

OXV: The Manual (Darren Paul Fisher, 2013)
A companion piece to LFO (the third pair of films with similar plots at SCI-FI-LONDON 14 were Upside Down (2012) and Patema Inverted (2013), both about a boy falling in love with an upside down girl, neither of which I got a chance to see), OXV is a tremendous new film about a semi-dystopian Britain, where people’s lives are dictated by what ‘frequency’ their body emits. In a parallel to class, IQ or susceptibility to viruses (as explored in Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 a decade before), low frequency people get few perks or opportunities in life, along with a constant risk of bad luck, while high frequency people receive advantages, opportunities and good luck. This conceit is first used in the plot as a charming rom-com device to pair up a mismatched couple of opposing frequencies from school to adulthood. But it is then combined with the notion of secret, semi-magical words that can disrupt a person’s frequency and also bend a person’s will to your commands. A terrific cast, plot structure and cinematic aesthetic not only make OXV the finest film of this year’s SCI-FI-LONDON, but also the best British sci-fi film in years. OXV has found an American distributor – under the more prosaic title Frequencies – and one hopes an intelligent distribution company will also see it released in its country of origin.

Watch a scene from OXV: The Manual:

Alex Fitch

Crazies, Creeps and Living Dead: Interview with George A. Romero

Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead

In autumn 2013, acclaimed horror film director George A. Romero visited London to conduct an on-stage interview and special screening of Night of the Living Dead as part of the BFI’s Gothic season. Alex Fitch caught up with the director to talk about his career so far, concentrating on his genre-defining zombie hexalogy, which began in 1968.

Alex Fitch: This year is the 45th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead.

George A. Romero: Don’t remind me! (laughs)

It’s astonishing how influential and continuingly popular the film is from generation to generation. I wonder if part of that is the political resonance that the film has, whether that was something you intended in the first place or not. If you look at the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s, the students’ strike and other political unrest, these are themes in society that keep coming back, even in the present day.

Yeah. Certainly the racial aspect was not intentional, it was purely accident, because of the actor. He was the best actor from among our friends who we could get on the phone, and when he agreed to do it we consciously didn’t change the script. When we wrote the script, we never described his colour, and exactly the same things would have happened to him if he was white. So there’s that aspect of it…

Right when we finished the film, we were actually driving the first answer print of the film to New York, and that night we heard on the car radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. So, obviously, it then resonated that much more. When we were working on the film with Duane Jones, he was sensitive to it. We were all saying: ‘Come on, it’s 1968, we don’t have to worry about that’, but he was conscious of the fact that putting a black man in a role that wasn’t written for a black man was unusual. He thought it was bold, and we never recognised any of those issues, except only in conversation with him.

After Dr King was shot, did you think at all about changing the ending, or actually whether that happenstance made the film more powerful?

We had conversations in the car that night. We never talked about changing the ending, but in fact Columbia – who were the first ones who were interested in the film when we screened it on that trip, and wanted to distribute it – insisted that we change the ending, and we boldly said: ‘No! Of course not!’ We left New York without any distribution and then it took us a while to find some. We had to hire a producer’s representative to represent the film and he only found Walter Reade after Dr King was no longer in the headlines. I guess they weren’t as sensitive to it.

Most of the atrocities that were taking place in Vietnam at the time wouldn’t come to light until 1969 and beyond, but I assume you still felt that you were tapping into the zeitgeist.

It did, it felt that way. The documentary The American Nightmare (2000), puts the relevance right in there. There are some interesting parallels. There were some things we recognised, were conscious of. When I was shooting hand-held stuff, everyone was talking to us about the film as if it were like a newsreel. I was actually completely encumbered by the fact that we were using a ‘Blimp’ 35mm camera that you couldn’t move at all. We had no Dolly, so I think it’s a very static film, but that same camera would come out of the Blimp and you could hand-hold it with a pistol grip in one hand. In the posse scenes at the end of the film, that was where I was running around like a newsman, and consciously trying to make it look like news footage – the stuff with the dogs coming out of the wagons, the posse coming across the fields and all of that. I was conscious that I wanted those scenes to look like news footage, but that’s the only part of the film that looks that way.

You finally got to realise the idea of doing a movie in the style of cinema vérité when you made Diary of the Dead in 2007 – shooting it as if it was found footage that might have been distributed on the internet. Was it that new technology finally got around to bringing you the kind of equipment that would allow you to make a film that way?

No, it wasn’t that. The idea came from doing a piece on ‘citizen journalism’, which is something I find dangerous! So, that’s really where that came from. The second thought was, ‘let’s actually shoot it that way,’ and I developed the concept that these kids are out shooting a film and that’s how the plot develops, through their use of portable equipment.

Watch the original trailer for Diary of the Dead :

But since you have been cast as a political filmmaker, whether by intent or design, it seems that some of the found footage that you also included in that film – such as bombs being dropped on people in the Middle East and so on – is commenting on how on the internet you can quickly go from channel to channel and have someone’s self-aggrandizing YouTube video be followed by horrendous atrocities from across the globe.

Yes, and we were conscious of that. We were cherry-picking from archives all over the place – Getty and all the standard images that we could afford on our budget. Unfortunately there are too many of them out there, but we were very conscious of trying to do that. I’d say that I get too much credit for being a political filmmaker, but I do care about that. I also want to have something to say, even if it’s just simplistically said.

Not with the first film: with Night we were only concerned with the disintegration of the family unit – things like that. That’s what we were rapping about. We were living in that farmhouse. It was never about race, and largely I think that was the big thing that made Night noticeable.

Based on the success of that though, you cast another charismatic black lead in Dawn of the Dead (1978).

Oh, I did. That was conscious! Dawn of the Dead I had resisted doing – people were already writing about Night as if it was ‘important’, so I thought, ‘I’ve got to have some kind of an idea before I think about trying to make a second one’. The idea came from the shopping mall. I knew socially the people who developed that mall, and it literally was the first one, the first indoor temple to consumerism that we’d ever seen, the first one in Pennsylvania.

When people talk about malls in Britain in the present day, they’re regarded as a bit of a scourge – they open these things on the outside of towns and then the town centres start to disintegrate.

Like Milton Keynes! (laughs) That is a mall, a city that became a mall!

That sort of potentially malign influence, was that something already present at that time?

Not at all. Like I said, this was the very first one. Once it was up and operating, that was the very beginning of young people hanging out there instead of on street corners. Soda shops disappeared then and everyone started to hang out at the mall. Even within the film, the characters don’t know what it is. When they’re looking down on it from the helicopter, one of them says: ‘It’s one of them new shopping malls, or something’. None of us had any idea that the mall culture was going to develop the way it did. I was responding to just the idea of this. Instead of a small farmhouse, it was all about having people holed up in a supermall – at that time it was a supermall, nowadays some of them are way more elaborate than that one – where you can buy anything you ever wanted.

It’s interesting that people mainly credit Night and Dawn in creating the modern zombie movie, but I think The Crazies (1973) also, in its own way, is responsible for some of the more recent films that use the idea of a pathogen spreading, of the enemy being a fast, mutated people. Do you think that film is appreciated for its legacy as much as your Dead movies?

Not that much. It’s amazing that my films have such a shelf life! When I go to these conventions – horror conventions and so forth – there are fans of all of the films, and that’s really great. I love talking about them with people, people who are discovering films that no one went to see in the first place. I don’t know about The Crazies… It has its fans – people who really like it a lot – but I don’t know about its legacy. Certainly the remake, that was a zombie movie, but I never thought of it that way. Thematically, I was sort of doing the same thing with The Crazies as Night – people responding to a situation, except there I made them mad!

Watch the original trailer for The Crazies :

It’s not easy from our modern standpoint to think of the cultural resonances that might have influenced The Crazies at the time. Were there concerns in the media about bioweapons, chemicals and the spread of diseases?

No more than at any other time. I would say that it was heightened, there was Vietnam and all that going on, so it was about Agent Orange, napalm, that kind of stuff. There wasn’t any particular concern at that point, as there is today, about dirty bombs, sarin and whatever else.

But, in terms of the military and scientists being responsible, or at least exacerbating a bad situation, Day of the Dead (1985) seemed to pick up on some of the themes of The Crazies and develop them still further: this is all that’s left and we’re stuck with the people who were responsible for it in the first place.

Yeah. Well, that’s exactly what the idea for that film was. Originally I had written it bigger in terms of the script, but the finance company wouldn’t do it unrated. They said, ‘we’ll pay to shoot this, but it’s going to cost a little bit too much to risk releasing it without a rating’, so they asked if we could do it for $3 million. They’d go for $3 million without a rating and there were negotiations based on the ratings, so I said, ‘sure’. I chose then to go for the unrated version and cut the script back. It’s essentially exactly what it was and that’s the theme of it: that the military that caused the infestation are preventing the people who were trying to cure it from solving the problem.

I think the claustrophobia really works in the film’s favour. If the apocalypse happens, it is just going to be handful of people in a hole in the ground…

…somewhere! Unfortunately, it’ll probably just be the President and his cabinet!

In the 80s, you got into adaptation as well, particularly stories by Stephen King, films like Creepshow (1982), Creepshow 2 (1987), and The Dark Half (1993). What was it about his books that attracted you?

I think it was being comfortable with Stephen himself, and we became friends. We were introduced by Warner Bros., years before, because they had seen Martin (1976), and in typical studio fashion they reasoned that Martin was about a vampire in a small town, Steve had just written Salem’s Lot, which was vampires in a small town, so they thought we should meet! They sent me up to Maine and we hung out. My doing an adaptation of that book never happened, but on that visit Steve gave me a copy of The Stand and said: ‘Let’s make this!’ and I said, ‘sure…

…but how many movies is this going to be?’

Quite. So, I never did make The Stand, but at that time, Steve didn’t want to do it for television because they’d water it down too much, and he never made a film deal to produce it. In the end he did do a television version, with my ex-producing partner – Richard P. Rubinstein – who we’d worked with on the Creepshow films. So, it was just really being comfortable with Steve and having access to him. When he wrote Pet Sematary, right away he called Richard and me, and said: ‘What do you think about this?’ That’s how that relationship went.

Watch the original trailer for Creepshow :

The Creepshow movies are the first obvious example of your interest in comics in your career. Had you been interested in EC Comics’ horror comics in the preceding years?

Under the covers, with a flashlight! They were the forbidden fruit! Of course that’s before the 1950s Comics Code Authority came in. The censorship code busted EC Comics and turned Mad into a magazine instead of a comic book. At least that lived on, but Tales from the Crypt and other comics like that were thought to be amoral! Stephen, in fact, wrote a tagline for Creepshow: ‘A Laurel Comic is a Moral Comic’!

In them, I always thought the bad guys got their comeuppance, good basically triumphed over evil, even though the Crypt Keeper always was there to chuckle, and there’s that dark humour… It’s funny, the humour was an important part of those comics. Even though it’s so hard to convince people today that humour is the flipside of the same coin as horror – they don’t like to mix it.

You’ve had elements of that mix of horror and slapstick comedy in your more recent zombie films. A particularly memorable scene in Diary shows an Amish character stabbing himself in the head with a scythe! It seems that when you can put in a gag, there’s no reason not to…

There is no reason not to, and I can’t resist doing it! Also, there’s that fire extinguisher gag in Survival of the Dead (2009), with the eyes popping out; that’s completely like a comic book. I love comics, and actually as a defence against all of these zombie things that are out there now, I’m writing a 15-issue Dead story for Marvel Comics right now. Hopefully when the zombie furore dies, if it ever does, I can come back and turn the comic into another film.

I certainly can’t do what I used to do. I used to be able to hide in the corner somewhere and bring the zombies out once in a while, when I had something I want to talk about. But for now, it doesn’t work. In order to sell a zombie film these days, you have to promise that you’ll spend $250 million at least!

…and with a comic book you can show what a $250 million zombie film looks like…

That’s right!

Interview by Alex Fitch

Interview with Roger Corman – Part 2

Cormans World
Roger Corman © American International Pictures, 1970 All Rights Reserved

As part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season, veteran film director and producer Roger Corman visited London in October 2013 to introduce a screening of his film The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Alex Fitch interviewed the filmmaker about his career from the 1950s to the present day, and continuing on from the first part of the interview, which looked at his work on Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and remixing Russian sci-fi films, here they discuss Corman’s work as a producer and pioneer of new technology.

Read the first part of Alex Fitch’s interview with Roger Corman here.

Alex Fitch: As a producer you’ve garnered a great reputation for finding young talent – directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Hill, Francis Ford Coppola and Joe Dante. Where do you think that instinct came from?

Roger Corman: It came from a specific reason. When I was making low-budget films, I could go for directors, cameramen, art directors, actors, and so forth, who would be all right for the task. Veterans of the industry had a certain level of expertise, but as a young man around Hollywood, I knew some of the brighter young people, and I thought it was better to gamble on somebody I knew and thought had potential, on the basis that even if he or she had less experience – or sometimes no experience – there was a talent there which would get me a better moving picture.

But it does almost seem like you had a bit of a preternatural instinct at finding good talent you could nurture. Were there dozens of people you turned down for every director that you did choose for a project?

More than dozens!

You’ve worked in various genres – science fiction, horror, Westerns. Do you think that in each decade you’ve worked in the business, different genres have reflected different themes of the times?

To a certain extent. I think they reflected my concerns as I’ve moved through time and through my life, and also what was happening at each particular time. For instance, in the 1960s, I moved from the classical Gothic horror films of the Edgar Allan Poe series to things like The Wild Angels (1966) and other Hell’s Angels and biker movies, then on to The Trip (1967) and LSD-inspired movies. They were subjects I was interested in, but they were about what was happening in culture at that time.

Watch the original trailer for The Trip:

Working with people like Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, you encouraged them not only to be actors, but also to work behind the camera. Did that go back to your days of having worked on set, and to the idea that to have a proper understanding of film, you need to try out more than one role?

Yes, I like to have everyone working in multiple capacities wherever possible.

Have they given you feedback on how that’s helped their careers?

Jack told me a very interesting story when he was doing The Shining (1980). When he was working with me, people said that I always printed the first take – I didn’t, generally I would use the second, third or maybe fourth take – and he said he did one scene with Stanley Kubrick, where it was over a hundred takes! He’s a good guy: he stood there until his 120th take or something like that, and finally Kubrick said: ’Print’ and that was it. Jack told me that he went up to Stanley and said: ‘I’m with you all the way, but I have to tell you, I generally peak around the 70th or 80th take!’

As the 1970s progressed, you became more of a producer than a director, and helped start the careers of the directors I mentioned. Did you feel like a proud parent as they went off to do other projects for other studios?

I was very pleased, particularly with Joe Dante and Peter Bogdanovich, and with Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, James Cameron… I always forget to mention somebody, and very often get a call from some Academy Award winner who says: ‘Hey, you forgot me!’

It’s interesting that a lot of those directors have gone on to make movies that cost $100 million and more. I wonder if there’s advice that you might give to directors starting out in the industry, that, actually, if you start off with low budgets – because you know how to efficiently spend money at that level – it prepares you better for the mega-budget films later on?

For more information on Roger Corman’s life and career, the documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is released in the UK on Blu-ray + DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Yes, and I talked to James Cameron about that after Titanic (1997)… I thought the special effects were great and I said to Jim: ‘How did you do it?’ He said: ‘I just did what I always did for you, I just had more money!’

By the end of the 1970s, you’d become – to use an uncomfortable word – a ‘brand’, with your name above the film title. Did you feel that as people got to know the kind of work you were making, you were under more pressure to deliver films that were beyond their expectations?

I’ve always felt that. I’ve always felt that I should give the audience more than they expect when they come to see a film. Generally that’s happened. Occasionally, it’s not happened.

One aspect of your career that perhaps you’re not that well known for is that you also became a distributor of foreign language films in America, presenting films that perhaps local audiences would have never seen if you hadn’t shown an interest in them. Did you get much in the way of thanks from the industry for doing that?

I don’t know if I got thanks, but I got recognition. What I felt was that I’d built my company New World Pictures into what was really the strongest independent distribution company in the 1970s, and I simply wanted to distribute the films of these auteurs. They were being distributed in two ways: very often by small companies that were little more than aficionados, and didn’t really have distribution strength to book the films the way they should be; or they were distributed by major studios who were great distributors, but for a certain type of film, they didn’t quite understand how these films should be distributed. I felt we were in between. We were small enough to give these films individual attention, but strong enough to book them into the right theatres in the right terms, and I simply wanted to distribute these filmmakers’ work. I wasn’t a charity, I wasn’t going to have nothing out of them, but I wasn’t expecting a big profit. I tried to break even or make a couple of dollars, so we ended up with Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Kurosawa, and the list goes on!

I guess to a certain extent, as you were saying, that meant presenting their films in a certain way because the American audience of the time didn’t know what to expect from international filmmaking.

Well, our general pattern was this: we would open the film in New York and Los Angeles, and get reviews from critics in those two cities. Based on the grosses from there, we would book the films around the country. We had a very interesting way of doing that: we went to a lot of college towns and if we opened, say, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) in somewhere like Detroit, we would then open in Ann Arbor, the home of the University of Michigan, because we found that way we made very big grosses. It became a little more complicated if we opened a film in San Francisco, we’d simultaneously open in Berkeley – home of the University of California – and Palo Alto, where you find Stanford.

Your final film as director was Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and I think it’s a really underrated gem. It’s a film that partially adapts Mary Shelley’s original novel and adds time travel to it. Suitably, one of the themes of the original book is the juxtaposition of old technology and new technology, and Frankenstein Unbound takes that to a different science-fictional level. Was that something you were considering when you made the film?

Those themes were definitely in my mind. What had happened was that Universal Pictures had done some market research and came up with the decision, result or whatever, that the idea of ‘Roger Corman’s Frankenstein’ would be successful, and they asked me if I wanted to make it! I said: ‘No, it’s going to be just another Frankenstein film, and there have been 50 or more of them. It’ll just be the 52nd…’ but they kept coming back to me every six months and kept offering me more and more money!

Finally I thought: if I can just find a new way to do Frankenstein, then I’ll make it. Brian Aldiss – a very good British science fiction author – had written a novel called Frankenstein Unbound, in which a statesman from the 21st century travels back in time and meets Doctor Frankenstein. I thought it was a great idea, but I changed the lead character to a scientist, because I wanted to do exactly what you said, I wanted a scientist of the future with knowledge of all future technology, to go back 200 years or so and meet a scientist at the beginning of modern science. I thought the juxtaposition would be interesting.

Watch the original trailer for Frankenstein Unbound:

But you didn’t film Aldiss’s sequel novel Dracula Unbound. Was it too difficult a book to adapt or did you want go in a different direction?

I just wasn’t quite that delighted with the film I’d made – some of the circumstances were beyond my control – I think I did a fairly decent job, but I felt the years piling up. It was easier, going back to being a producer.

Were you never tempted to direct again as the years progressed?

I’ve thought about it occasionally, but what would I do? There are two things I’d do: I would find a subject that was special to me that I definitely wanted to make, or I might just take the next script that comes off our assembly line and just shoot it as one of those types of films. Somehow I just didn’t get round to doing it.

In recent years you’ve been dealing with new technology. It may be smaller and faster, but there are all the little things like digitizing, adapting to different file formats and so on, to keep the machines happy. It’s not quite as simple as just turning a 35mm camera on…

I’d assumed it was. I felt I’d learned just about as much as you could with 35mm film without becoming a cameraman; digital came in and I only understand a part of it because every 90 days a new camera comes out or there’s a new technique, and it turns out that it’s far more difficult than I thought it was to shoot with. We have a technician on the set at all times doing I have no idea what, but he’s sitting with the cameraman. Then he goes through various stages of the work before you can cut with this stuff. So, I’d assumed this was immediately going to be faster and cheaper… It’s a little faster to shoot, but you lose time and money in the transferring back and forth.

You’ve also been encouraging directors to make what are called ‘micro-budget films’, an example of which was Alex Cox’s Searchers 2.0 (2007). Was that because new technology opened doors to even lower-budget movies than shooting on film, even with the problems you mentioned?

Yes. The idea actually originated with Jon Davison, who started his career with me, first as the head of our advertising department, then as a producer. He went on to produce Robocop (1987) and some giant-sized science fiction films. He’s younger than I am, but semi-retired and he came up with the idea of doing the film and doing it with Alex. The idea seemed to me a very good and interesting one and it wasn’t going to cost that much money, so we did it simply as an experiment. I thought the picture turned out well, I thought Alex and Jon did a very good job.

Watch the original trailer for Searchers 2.0:

You have a cameo in the film as a sort of parody of yourself. Whose idea was that?

It was Jon’s (laughs). You’re the first person to ask me about Searchers 2.0! The film did all right, but we expected more. It was such an unusual film, and it was such a hip idea. At the end we went up to Monument Valley, where John Ford shot many of his Westerns, and had the classic gun fight between the two guys, which I thought was great fun.

Frankenstein Unbound and Searchers 2.0 are available to import to the UK on Region 1 DVD.

I suppose that’s almost an inevitability when you’re working with a director like Alex Cox, who often has references to other movies in his films. It must have been so tempting for him.

It was his idea, originally, and again I thought: ‘This is a really unusual and good idea.’ Like I said, the film did all right, but you never know how things will turn out financially…

We’ve spoken about how you nurtured young talent on the set, and a few years ago, you brought out your autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. I was wondering if any young filmmakers come up to you and say that the book inspired them to work in the industry?

A surprising number have, and they’re not all Americans! I go fairly often to foreign film festivals and people come up to me out of the blue. A director in Odessa, at the Ukrainian film festival last year, said he’d read the book.

Do they say what skills it’s helped give them?

They’re never specific, just in general that it’s helped!

Another example of your use of new technology was Joe Dante’s mini-series Splatter (2009), which you produced. Having watched an episode, the audience could vote on how the story should progress, so for a three-part series, you had to shoot about twelve different variants. Was making cinema interactive something you’d been thinking of previously?

I’d been thinking about it, but the idea came from Netflix. They called me and said ‘Here’s what we’d like to do: three 10-to-15-minute segments of a horror story in which somebody is killed in the first segment and the audience votes on who they want to kill in the second. The second segment must be written, made, edited, and on the air one week later. Then the audience will vote again!’ I took the idea just because I thought it would be fun, that this is something new and an incredible challenge to do everything not in seven days but six, as we had to wait a day for the votes to come in on who was going to be killed. I called Joe and said: ‘This is going to be back to where we all started! Are you interested?’ And he said ‘Yes’ on the same basis that I did. He said: ‘It’ll be a challenge and it’ll be fun.’

It was actually my wife who came up with the solution. She said: ‘What we could really do is shoot the death of everybody in advance and then shoot connecting scenes’, so we’re still doing what the audience says. If they want character A killed in the second episode, we’ll give them that, but everything, including the multiple lines that lead to it, are already shot, and all we have to do is cut it all together to create the death of whoever everyone votes for. That was what enabled us to do the thing on a reasonable budget.

Watch the teaser trailer for the final episode of Splatter:

Do you think working at that speed helps to keep the filmmaking process fresh, because you’re not planning shots endlessly, and you’re working on instinct to a certain extent?

You’re doing both, because generally I do a lot of preproduction, but then during the filming I’m working partially on instinct as you never shoot the picture exactly the way you planned it. If something doesn’t work out or you get a better idea, at least you’re starting from that framework, but improvising as you go along. Maybe that keeps you fresh and it suits my personality – it’s attractive to be somewhere between a sprinter and a long distance runner…

Interview by Alex Fitch

Interview with Roger Corman – Part 1

The Pit and the Pendulum
Roger Corman and Vincent Price on the set of The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season. For more information visit the BFI website

Dates: 26 November 2013 (The Pit and the Pendulum), 27 November 2013 (The Masque of the Red Death)

Venue: BFI Southbank

As part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season, veteran film director and producer Roger Corman visited London in October 2013 to introduce a screening of his film The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The season also includes Corman’s lurid and unforgettable film The Masque of the Red Death (1964), the penultimate movie in his sequence of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.

In the first part of his interview with Roger Corman, Alex Fitch talks to the legendary director and producer about his early career, the differences between shooting in monochrome and colour, and his art of remixing other people’s movies.

Alex Fitch: You produced your first film at the age of 28 and directed your first film a year later. In terms of the start of your career, you trained as an industrial engineer before having a moment of clarity and realising that you’d made a terrible mistake. You worked as a mail boy at Twentieth Century Fox, then a script reader. Working at the fringes of the film industry at that point, was it a challenge to work your way up the ladder?

Roger Corman: It was very hard. At that time there were very few independents – there were some but not very many – almost everything was done within studios. The studios were 100% unionised, and you couldn’t get in to the union without all kinds of things happening. The only position in the studio that was not unionised was the messengers.

I suppose it’s quite similar today, that you get loads of people breaking into the British film industry by working as runners to get their foot in the door.

Yes.

The genres that you mainly worked in during the 1950s were Westerns, Horror, Gangster movies. Were they genres you were already interested in as a cinemagoer, or did you see a gap in the market?

A combination of both. Then, and to this day, the films I make are partially things I’m interested in, and partially things I believe will work in the market place. It’s the old statement: motion pictures are part art and part business.

You’ve gone back and forth between being a producer and being a director. Are they both roles you love equally?

I liked it best when I was producer and director, because as a producer/director, you truly are this overused word ‘auteur’; you are responsible specifically for what is going on. When I was a director only, I chafed a little bit at some of things suggested or sometimes ordered by the producer. When I’m a producer only, I’m sometimes amazed at some of the choices the directors make.

How hands on are you as a producer? Do you generally – when you’ve chosen someone – trust in their vision, or occasionally do you have to give them a prod?

As a producer I’m probably less hands on than just about any other producer I know; that is, I’m less hands on during the shooting. I’m very much there during preproduction and postproduction. The pictures are almost always ideas I’ve come up with: I’ll write a three-to-five page treatment, then hire a writer to do the screenplay, then bring in the director. Generally, I’ll bring in the director before the final draft of the screenplay, so that he gets his input into the screenplay, so it’s something he understands and can work with. Then I’ll collaborate or work with the director a great deal before shooting, particularly on the themes, how he plans to shoot, what his emphases are, what his interpretations of the characters are. So, I’m really there, all through preproduction, but once production starts, I just totally step away. I know some producers who are sitting there all day long, every day during shooting. To me there’s nothing duller than sitting on the set watching somebody else direct the picture. I’ll be there the first morning, and – if it’s all going well – by noon, I’ve left the set and probably will never come back.

Also, I suppose it’s unnerving for the director if the producer is always looking over their shoulder…

…and particularly, the first pictures on which I was a producer only, I found that the crews were coming to me, asking me questions that they should have been asking the director, and that was one of my reasons for stepping away. I know that having been a director, the director wants to be in charge, and should be, on the set.

Conversely, with the very first films you worked on in the 1950s, you were sitting in on the sets, to learn the craft by watching other people?

Yes. The first two films I produced, I was on the set every day. On the first film I was partially a grip, and I was the only producer/truck driver! I drove the truck as well… We shot the picture in a week. I would drive to the location, unload as much of the equipment as I could by myself, before the crew arrived, in order to save the amount of time they had to spend, and I’d be there all day. At the end of the day, the grips would load the heavy equipment onto the truck, everybody would leave, I would load the rest of the equipment and drive home, and repeat it the next day.

…and I suppose when you’re making low-budget movies, it garners you respect if you’re one of the gang…

They knew that I was working as hard, or harder than they were!

A series of films that you worked on, possibly your most renowned period of work, were the Technicolor Edgar Allan Poe films of the 1960s. Having worked on low budget black and white films in the 1950s, moving to colour must have created all sorts of new challenges – not as prevalent in monochrome – set dressing, lighting, costume design and so on. How did you find that experience? Was it at all terrifying or did you find it a natural progression?

It was a natural progression. There was very little change in the way I worked. I used the camera a little bit differently, and after talking to the cameraman, I was lighting a little bit differently. Danny Haller – a great friend of mine – was our art director, and he and I would discuss the sets. We worked with different colour schemes and patterns on the sets.

Watch the trailer for The Pit and the Pendulum:

You probably brought Poe to an entirely new audience. Did you feel at that time that he was a writer being under represented in the cinema?

Yes, I felt that Poe was under represented and was really not getting the attention he deserved in the American canon. He was thought of as an interesting writer, but not really one of the great writers, and I always felt he was one of the greats.

Presumably he still had a good reputation, so did that make it easier to choose him as the subject of your first colour movies?

Actually my first colour movie was a Western, but after that, with my next colour films, I chose Poe because I wanted to do an Edgar Allan Poe picture. I’d been making these ten-day, black-and-white films, two of them would go together as a double bill, and I convinced American International Pictures that they should let me go shoot for three weeks and make a picture in colour, and that was The Fall of the House of Usher (1960).

Towards the end of your Poe cycle, you had a young Nicholas Roeg as your cinematographer, shooting The Masque of the Red Death (1964). What was he like?

He was one of the best cinematographers I ever worked with. He was very inventive and his use of colour… We had discussed it before shooting started, and he went beyond what I anticipated. I thought the film was beautifully shot.

Watch the trailer for The Masque of the Red Death:

At the same time you were making those Poe films, you helped young directors remix various Russian sci-fi films that you’d bought the rights to. The art of remixing foreign films already existed, started with films like Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), Invasion of the Animal People (1959), and later in the 60s, Woody Allen would do What’s up, Tiger Lily? (1966), but it felt that you were almost nurturing a new art form.

Well, it was a new form, I’m not certain it was a new art form! What I was doing with the Russian science fiction films… I’d seen one of them and American science fiction films were very popular – I made a number of them myself – but we were making them on very low budgets and I’d seen this Russian film, which was clearly made on a big budget, a giant budget. It had wonderful sets and wonderful special effects, far superior to what we were doing. They only problem was the anti-American propaganda, so I wasn’t so much recutting the films as such, I was removing the anti-American sentiment. That was Francis Ford Coppola’s first job – cutting the propaganda out of Russian science fiction films.

Read Alex Fitch’s feature article on Roger Corman: The Producer as Jackdaw Filmmaker.

It was pretty wild. I remember I went to Moscow to buy those films and they had incredible anti-American propaganda in them. We of course had anti-Russian propaganda, but our propaganda was one tenth of theirs. Theirs was really outrageous, and I said to this guy in Moscow: ‘You know I’m going to have to cut this anti-American feeling, I’m going have to cut it all out.’ He laughed and said: ’I know that!’

By the time you got to Queen of Blood (1966), Curtis Harrington used about three different Russian films, so it really does feel like a remix of found footage.

At that time, it was our found footage! The only time I really did that was on these science fiction films.

Although, a film you produced in the late 1970s – Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) – you did reuse that later on in your career, with bits of special effects here and there, and I believe the score reappeared in a number of your films. Was it a project you were so proud of, you thought: ‘Let’s keep getting it out there?’

I was proud of it and also there was an economic factor. It was one of James Horner’s first scores, a brilliant score and really better than what I was getting from other composers. So, it just seemed illogical not to use his score again. We always used it in science fiction films. With the special effects, I was reusing primarily space ships that were designed by James Cameron. His first time in Hollywood was designing those model spaceships.

Watch the trailer for Battle Beyond the Stars:

Interview by Alex Fitch

Roger Corman: The Producer as Jackdaw Filmmaker

Battle Beyond the Sun
Battle Beyond the Sun

To paraphrase the title of his autobiography, Roger Corman is the director who made a hundred films in Hollywood and never lost a dime. Without access to the filmmaker’s accounts, it’s hard to tell if this statement is entirely true, but knowing the man’s reputation, it’s probably safe to say he at least balanced the books every few years. Credited with over 50 films as director and more than 400 as producer or executive producer, typical films in Corman’s oeuvre oscillated between thrift and excess (and often featured both).

While the director was reknowned for making films on the cheap – once famously shooting an entire semi-improvised film in a weekend (The Terror, 1963) after another (The Raven, 1963) wrapped early on the same sets – he didn’t recycle only locations but also entire sections of movies themselves. In the 1950s, Corman had toyed with science-fiction tropes in his films It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957) and War of the Satellites (1958), but in each case the unknown was represented by actors in rubber suitsand make-up and a few wobbly flying saucers. While the start of his technicolour Edgar Allen Poe sequence in 1960 would show that the director could be more adept with a larger budget, freed of monochrome austerity, his tin-foil aesthetic of the previous decade did little to inspire wonder (or terror) regarding life on other planets.

Watch the original trailer for It Conquered the World:

However, contemporary audiences did have an appetite for space opera and creatures from other planets, as exemplified by the trio of Oscar-winning sci-fi films produced by George Pal in the early 1950s – Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953) – that preempted the space race between America and the Soviet Union, which started in the summer of 1955. With the backdrop of the continuing Cold War, announcements by representatives of Eisenhower and Khrushchev of programmes to launch satellites into space cheered and intimidated Americans in equal amounts. Therefore, it’s safe to say that unadulterated Russian cinema of the time which showed the Soviet Union winning the race would be unlikely to find an audience in the US. But, with American sci-fi of the late 1950s looking increasingly inward – with Atom Age monsters providing a clumsy parallel with ‘Reds under the bed’ – there were few films that had the scale and breadth of vision of Pal’s films from the start of the decade.

Similar films were, in fact, being made in the Soviet Union, where a population dreaming of their country winning the technological marathon to the stars could see their hopes realised in darkened cinemas. The 1959 film Nebo zovyot (The Heavens Call) is an expensive Soviet drama about a group of Russian explorers making their first scientific expedition to Mars. The cosmonauts encouter Americans en route who are trying to beat their communist rivals, only to need their help when their mission gets into trouble. Except for the outerspace origins, it’s not a film likely to touch the hearts of farmers in Kansas…

In a 2003 issue of Kinoeye, Roger Corman told an interviewer that: ‘In the 1960s I bought the American rights to several Russian science fiction films. They were made with big budgets and tremendous special effects. They were, unfortunately, filled with anti-American propaganda. I said to the Russians, “I’m going to have to cut the anti-American propaganda out. I can’t show these pictures in America,” and they said that they totally understood.”

Remixing foreign sci-fi wasn’t a new idea, with 1954’s Gojira redubbed and new scenes featuring American actors added, and released in America as Godzilla (1956) to great success. Similarly, a bowdlerised version of 1959’s Swedish monster movie Rymdinvasion i Lappland (Invasion of the Animal People) did well at the box office under the more atmospheric title Terror in the Midnight Sun, with 18 minutes shorn from its running time. Corman though, unlike Godzilla producers Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine, didn’t care about keeping the majority of the source material intact, as long as the special effects could be repurposed. So, out went the propaganda, with these scenes replaced (along with the Russian dialogue) by rubber monsters to keep fans of the genre happy. The Corman re-edit of Nebo zovyot, with new scenes directed by Francis Ford Coppola and shot by Jack Hill, was released in 1962 as Battle Beyond the Sun, and while the resulting mish-mash does few involved any favours, it has the dubious pleasure of being an early example of a walking carnivorous vagina dentata, later to inspire the likes of Alien (1979).

Watch the original trailer for Battle Beyond the Sun:

Emboldened by the success of Battle Beyond the Sun, Corman next produced a remix of Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms, 1962) with new scenes directed by Curtis Harrington and released as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965). Harrington was unhappy with the resulting film and asked his name to be taken off the credits. Not only did the producer comply, he decided to have another of his proteges take a stab at the Russian footage, with Peter Bogdanovich directing alternate new scenes that lead to a second remix, called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968). By a strange coincidence, Bogdanovich also directed under a pseudonym.

I had the pleasure of catching the original Planeta Bur as part of the BFI’s season Red Skies: Soviet Science Fiction in 2011 and am happy to report the original is a fun, kitsch film about a Russian mission to Venus, which features rubbery prehistoric monsters and tin-foil robots quite similar to its American counterparts of the time. It’s telling that in this case, both of Corman’s remixes mainly took the opportunity to add scantily clad women rather than monsters to the mise-en-scene. Because of the film’s similarity to contemporaneous American B-movies, it’s mainly the soundtrack (and its subtitled translation) that is noticibly different, with speeches about the Motherland and loyality to one’s comrades, plus rousing militaristic music contrasting weirdly with the tentacled creatures that attack the cosmonauts. These strange juxtapositions make for a far more memorable experience than any American remix and it’s great that the original versions of these films are now seeing the light of day again.

Queen of Blood
Queen of Blood

Like Planeta Bur‘s twice-used footage, scenes from Nebo zovyot turned up again in 1966’s Queen of Blood, a film that Harrington was happy to keep his name on this time. This is a tour-de-force of the film remixer’s art, with the director using not one but two Russian sci-fi films for his smorgasbord. Nebo zovyot provides the spaceship footage, while Mechte navstrechu (A Dream Come True1964) supplies Queen of Blood with its famous imagery of an alien woman with sizable assets luring astronauts to their doom. While Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet saw a down-on-his-luck, elderly actor – Basil Rathbone – supply new linking footage with a touch of phoned-in gravitas, the actor’s second appearance in a Russian remix (shot the next day) sees the former Sherlock Holmes rub shoulders with Corman regulars Dennis Hopper and John Saxon. There’s also a cameo by horror-film afficiando Forrest J. Ackerman. Queen of Blood‘s resulting mash-up is so odd and off-kilter it somehow transcends the sum of its disjointed parts to make for a genuine cult classic.

Perhaps realising the recycled footage was starting to look a little ubiquitous, or perhaps because of the emergence of immediate sci-fi classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and Night of the Living Dead in 1968, Corman moved away from sci-fi and fantasy and back to exploitation in the early 1970s. Elsewhere, American cult audiences continued to enjoyed dubbed imports (with a Godzilla sequel, for example, released approximately every year between 1962 and 1975). However, with the birth of his own film distribution company – New World Pictures – in 1970, Corman started treating foreign imports with respect. It’s ironic that, if not for the interest of this shameless huckster in releasing such films as Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), American audiences might not have seen those films. That said, Corman’s company did still occassionally tinker, compressing, for example, a film and its sequel – Sword of Vengeance (Kozure &#332kami: Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru) and Baby Cart at the River Styx (Kozure &#332kami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma), both 1972 – into one: Shogun Assassin (1980). After he left, New World Pictures produced one more strange remix, crafting scenes from Mamoru Oshii’s animated feature Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago, 1985) into dream sequences for the underwhelming live-action film In the Aftermath: Angels Never Sleep (1988). Their former CEO would have been proud.

Planet of storms and Battle Beyond the Sun are available on Region 1 DVD. Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Queen of Blood and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women are available on Region 2 DVD.

When Corman himself found he was producing a film that went over budget, such as the strangely familiar sounding Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), he would strip-mine the footage for years to come, with scenes from this film turning up in Forbidden World (1982), Space Raiders (1983), Dead Space (1991) and Starquest II (1997). Music from the soundtrack also turns up in Raptor (2001), a film that already contains recycled footage from The Nest (1988)! This thin joblot of endless copies and stitched-together clips may have somewhat tarnished Roger Corman’s reputation in recent years, but his first round of recycling in the mid-20th century is an interesting sequence of cultural exchange, early directing experiences from great filmmakers to be, and exposure to fantastic scenes from another part of the world. For that, the spend-thrift producer can only be congratulated.

Watch the original trailer for Battle Beyond the Stars:

Alex Fitch

SCI-FI-LONDON 2013

Best Friends Forever
Best Friends Forever

SCI-FI-LONDON

30 April – 6 May 2013

London, UK

SFL website

Alex Fitch reviews some of the highlights of this year’s Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, which took up residence again at Stratford East Picturehouse and the BFI.

Best Friends Forever (Brea Grant, 2013)
An unlikely mash-up of Thelma and Louise (1991), Clueless (1995) and When the Wind Blows (1986), Best Friends Forever is a terrific, low-budget road movie which sees a pair of friends travel cross country from L. A. to Austin, Texas, oblivious to the apocalypse that is taking place around them. Written, produced by and starring Vera Miao and Brea Grant, the director, the film obviously relies heavily on the chemistry between the two leads. Luckily, they make for an endearing pair of travelling companions, unaware that the usual travails that beset unwary voyagers (being car jacked, breaking down, visiting remote rest stops) are now tinged with additional despair and calamity as news reports bring info about nuclear attacks on the USA.

Gritty cinematography and snatches of doom-laden radio on the soundtrack reflect the legacy of 1970s road movies, but with a refreshingly female-orientated storyline and lightness of touch. The film ends with a comic-book illustrated credit sequence that presages a possible Mad Max-style sequel, and the preceding mixture of slapstick and pathos that accompany Miao and Grant’s adventures make the trip fly by. On the basis of this first sojourn, I for one would be more than happy to spend more time in their company.

Listen to Alex Fitch’s interview with actress Vera Miao.

Watch the trailer for Best Friends Forever:

Birdemic II: The Resurrection (James Nguyen, 2013)
While Sci-Fi-London has screened some tremendous films over the years, including numerous gems that might never have seen the light of day otherwise, the festival also has the dubious honour of having screened two of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life. Following 2002’s The Fall of the Louse of Usher (sic), a film I would like to see wiped from the face of the earth so director Ken Russell’s reputation can be preserved in his dotage, we now have a film so incompetent in its construction that it beggars belief that anyone wanted to commit it to film, assuming the preceding Birdemic I is even half as bad. Unbelievably, I found myself in the minority at the London premiere, as an audience filled with Birdemic fans whooped and cheered every clunky line of dialogue, woeful ‘special effect’ and inept editing decision. To add insult to injury, a film critic sitting next to me thought it was wonderful, which increasingly made me feel I was in a room full of people who were drunk, insane, members of a cult, or all three.

Certainly Sci-Fi-London has a regular and loyal audience for its MST3K screenings – all night marathons of B-movies which are heckled by onscreen comedians – but this cherishing of terrible films by audiences (pace The Room phenomenon) is inexplicable to me, particularly during a recession, unless somehow the postage-stamp budget is enough to justify the existence of such train wrecks. It would be churlish of me to point out the flaws in the 1980s video-game style CGI, the interminable opening scene or the ham-fisted edits of the cast (seemingly filmed on separate days), so I’ll leave the last word to a member of the audience who innocently asked the following of the director, at the Q & A after the film: ‘In the scene where the girl is attacked by a giant jellyfish, why is she taken away by what looks like a cartoon ambulance?’

Dark by Noon
Dark by Noon

Dark by Noon (Alan Leonard & Michael O’Flaherty, 2012)
Since the start of this decade, Ireland has produced an unexpected number of sci-fi films, following a history of next to none. These have included post-apocalyptic drama One Hundred Mornings (2009), comedy monster movie Grabbers (2012), UFO rom-com Earthbound (2012) and now time-travel thriller Dark by Noon. The latter closed this year’s festival and, as a low-budget local film that punches above its weight in terms of ambition and concept, was a good choice for this slot.

While ostensibly set in a futuristic Dublin, the film has a mid-Atlantic feel, mixing the grit and clenched teeth of Anglo-Irish gangster films and the post-industrial noir look of Blade Runner (1982). The second of this year’s ‘mid-apocalyptic’ films at Sci-Fi-London, following Best Friends Forever, Dark by Noon’s aptly oppressive atmosphere presages a terror attack on the city, which the lead character – a time-travelling eidetic savant played by Patrick Buchanan – tries to prevent from happening.

In the Q&A following the film, the movie’s directors, Alan Leonard and Michael O’Flaherty, talked about how this type of character might be seen as the origin of a new superhero (or villain), as well as how various cuts of the film exist, with the one shown at the festival probably not the one that will gain further release. With the cut shown, the interest in the intriguing plot and excellent production design is offset by a slightly obtuse narrative and somewhat one-note performances by all involved. With a bit more light shone into the darkness (in terms of both tone and plot clarification), sequels and longer cuts would certainly be welcome.

Dead Meat Walking (Omar J. Pineda, 2012)
Over the past 10 years, the phenomenon of zombie walks has become increasingly visible in metropolitan environments across the globe, as members of the public – with varying skills at make-up and choreography – meet up, dress as the living dead and lurch from one place to another in the glare of smartphone cameras and bemused onlookers. Dead Meat Walking tracks this meme from its early days at the turn of the century as an ill-attended gathering of half-a-dozen Canadians in Toronto to the improbable occasions of several thousand people gathering for zombie events in North and Latin American cities.

First-time director Omar J. Pineda frames the proceedings with a confident air and a very slick presentation for most interviews included in the film. Only the brief exchanges with zombie alumni – such as director/make-up expert Tom Savini, Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus and Night of the Living Dead co-author John Russo – seem grabbed in haste at memorabilia conventions, where the sound and picture aren’t quite up to the professional standard of the humble interviewees on the zombie walks themselves. As an introduction to a somewhat bizarre subculture, this is an essential opening salvo, with particularly good interrogations of Reedus and a senior Rabbi who see a parallel between zombie walkers and the disaffected Occupy/99% movements. Elsewhere, while the enthusiasm of everyone involved is endearingly obvious, it would have been great to have a psychologist’s opinion of the phenomenon to counterbalance the occasionally vacuous pronouncements of the walkers themselves, but then I suppose one shouldn’t expect great self-examinations from the shuffling dead, when their presence is more about spectacle than insight.

Watch the trailer for Dead Meat Walking:

Piercing Brightness (Shezad Dawood, 2012)
Armed with the desire to engage with local immigrant culture and people, and curious to explore Lancashire’s reputation for the largest number of UFO sightings in the UK, filmmaker and fine artist Shezad Dawood travelled to Preston to make a film that addressed some of these concerns. Following the artist’s first film, Feature, a beguiling mash-up of cowboys, blue-skinned aliens, musical numbers and funeral arrangements, Dawood tackles a longer length project and provides almost enough visual material and intriguing narrative ellipses to engage the viewer for the 75 minute running time.

Listen to Alex Fitch’s discussion with director Shezad Dawood here. Piercing Brightness is released by Soda Film+Art in cinemas and art spaces across the UK on 7 June.

Piercing Brightness premiered in a shorter cut called Trailer, which was about half the running time of the feature, as part of a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. Although perhaps better framed in the gallery environment than a traditional cinema, the shorter cut is almost entirely impenetrable, with its disparate and disjointed elements of Close Encounters, mass observation and skateboard culture. Additional dialogue in the longer cut gives us some insight into the lives of the participants, but this is a film primarily about the juxtaposition of images of the ‘kitchen sink’ North with flying saucers. As a provocation to more traditional films set in and around these subjects, the film has enough set pieces to engage viewers used to the alienating (pun intended) extremes of art-house cinema, such as that practised by Lukas Moodysson or Abbas Kiarostami. However, for more casual viewers of traditional sci-fi, to quote a member of the audience at the screening: ‘I had no idea what it was all about…’

sado_tempest
Sado Tempest

Sado Tempest (John Williams, 2012)
A dystopian reworking of The Tempest featuring a Japanese alt-rock band isn’t the most obvious adaptation of Shakespeare, but speaking as someone who first enjoyed the Bard on screen via Kurosawa’s samurai interpretations of King Lear (Ran, 1985) and Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957), sometimes the most obscure translations are the best. Sado Tempest sees members of the band Jitterbug locked up in an inhospitable island prison for inspiring their audiences to rebel against a future government’s totalitarian regime. There, tortured and browbeaten by inmates and guards alike, the band are forced to record bland new ‘unreleased’ material to fill the pockets of record company execs who want to satiate an eager public who think their heroes are dead. If you’re wondering where the travails of Miranda and Prospero come in, this is all against the backdrop of a wild island inhabited by demons, once scoured by an apocalyptic storm, which threatens to return again…

This is a beautifully shot film with engaging musical numbers and a convincing dystopian environment. But for a sci-fi film, the fantastical elements are strangely subdued and the filmmakers shy away from parallels with the 2011 T&#333hoku tsunami, both being elements that could have improved the saga immeasurably. The prison drama is captivating but the leaden pace undermines the film, which ironically is at its most memorable when a character quotes the original wording of Ariel’s song from The Tempest, rather than any of the new songs or poetry commissioned for this version.

Watch the trailer for Sado Tempest:

The Search for Simon (Martin Gooch, 2013)
A new British film that mixes travelogue and conspiracy theories to make a low budget sci-fi comedy isn’t the most obvious choice for a gala screening at the BFI, but as Sci-Fi-London’s first feature film (produced in association with the festival), it made a lot of sense as a PR opportunity. Filming on the fly necessitated director Martin Gooch be the main actor and he makes for a likeable, affable lead, even though he doesn’t have quite the emotional range to pull off the more dramatic scenes. The cameos by telefantasy actors Simon Jones, Sophie Aldred and Tom Price work well, even when the occasional stunt casting elsewhere – such as a reoccurring role for fantasy games author Ian Livingstone – kills certain scenes stone dead through the gravitational pull of wooden acting by non-professionals.

The plot – about a UFO obsessive looking for proof of alien life and his ‘abducted’ brother – toys with our expectations well, with a daft and incongruous robot in one scene offset by an excellent bit of CGI at the end. Overall, The Search for Simon is a bit of a mixed bag, no doubt due to the haphazard construction of the film, through footage shot before the script was finalised, crowd-funding that necessitated cameos by the public and a strange war-themed (but amusing) opening scene, but the charm of the production as a whole makes up for its handful of flaws.

Stress Position_1
Stress Position

Stress Position (A.J. Bond, 2013)
An accomplished, chilling collision between fact and fiction, this Canadian psycho-drama follows in the footsteps of other mutually assured torture films such as last year’s True Love and The Wave (2008), but with a freshness and relevance to reality television post-Guantanamo Bay, which made it one of the most notable films of this year’s Sci-Fi-London. Ironically, for a film screening in a sci-fi festival, the film isn’t science fiction (only a bit of futuristic set dressing hints in that direction). However, as much of the best speculative fiction provokes debate and works as satire of the present day, the controversial subject matter makes it an apt subject for inclusion at the festival, rather than perhaps a lesbian and gay film festival, where it might have been lost in the mix.

Filmmaker A.J. Bond – recalling a flippant conversation with his friend, actor David Amito – decides to find out how long each of them might last if trapped in a modern torture camp like Guantanamo. The rules are: no actual pain or injury to be inflicted, no bringing of families into the arena, and when the tortured gives up a secret code, the test is to stop. Trapping David in a high tech, white-walled prison, with a sharp edged, metallic, modernist sculpture in the middle, the experiment begins and A.J. starts ignoring the rules, one by one.

Stress Position is an intelligent, thought-provoking film, which can only become increasingly relevant as we cast everyone we know in the filmed dramas of our lives, as captured on smart phones and Google glass, uploaded to the web. Although the plot falters towards the end – after the more realistic battle of wits between the two for most of the running time, A.J. becomes the victim of more overt tortures like waterboarding, which seem contrived – the overall effect is a film you both want to see again because of its numerous admirable qualities, and never want to re-endure because the psychological tortures are so convincing and the verisimilitude too unnerving.

Strange Frame: Love and Sax (GB Hajim, 2012)
A fun sci-fi animated musical drama, Strange Frame wears its garish Metal Hurlant / bande dessinée influences loudly on its sleeve, which is no bad thing. While Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1998) and Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) have captured the anarchic spirit of European comics well, other examples such as Enki Bilal’s Immortal Ad Vitam (2004) have relied on an insufficient CGI budget to capture the lurid colour schemes and landscapes typical of the medium. Strange Frame lands halfway between these two directors’ achievements. Visually, the film is stunning, capturing a hallucinogenic Jovian environment replete with all manner of aliens, space craft and futuristic architecture, but the quality of the individual images is let down by the animation involved in making them move.

In terms of dynamism, this isn’t as low down the scale as South Park, but movement is somewhat jerky and unnatural, presumably because of a reliance on a flash animation rendering programme or similar. For fans of machinima or Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s work, this won’t be a problem, but it’s a shame that when nearly every other aspect of the production is terrific, it’s diminished by this element. In terms of the soundtrack: animation voice stalwart Tara Strong stars as the film’s object of desire Naia, surrounded by a host of familiar telefantasy stars such as Ron Glass, Juliet Landau, Claudia Christian, Michael Dorn and George Takei, while an infectious score mixes jazz and 1980s rock. As the demonic head of a record label, Tim Curry is perfectly cast in a role that recalls both Legend (1985) and inevitably The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), as much of the film is aimed at fans of his most famous film.

Overall: well worth a look for anyone interested in animation not produced by the mainstream studios, and one can only hope this film does well enough to warrant a sequel to allow the audience to explore this rich world further, albeit next time with perhaps more experienced puppeteers guiding the animation team.

Watch the trailer for Strange Frame: Love and Sax:

Alex Fitch

Six Decades of Django

Django Unchained

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 January 2013

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Sony Pictures

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

USA 2012

165 mins

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained mixes a narrative of oppression – being a thematic follow-up to Inglourious Basterds (2009) – with the director’s trademark ultra-violence and profanities. Both films, and presumably also the forthcoming Killer Crow (mooted as the third film in his trilogy of oppression), also specifically reference Italian action films from the 1960s and 70s. Basterds was loosely inspired by Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards (1978) while the second is not only inspired by Django (1966), but also exists as the latest instalment of the long-running saga that followed Sergio Corbucci’s film.

In Corbucci’s original, Django arrives in the form of taciturn gunslinger Franco Nero. As he settles into a one-street town as the de facto sheriff, a ubiquitous Western / samurai film plot ensues, with a Mexican gang and the soldiers vying over a cache of buried gold. Corbucci makes his hero one to remember – from the iconic coffin the gunslinger pulls behind him to the casual torture the bad guys inflict on anyone who crosses them, including a graphic ear-severing scene probably stuck in Tarantino’s mind long before he considered making a sequel to the film.

Django (1966), Django Shoots First (1966), Some Dollars for Django (1966), Django Kill! (1967), Django, Prepare a Coffin (1968) and Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) are all available on Region 2 DVD, with Django (1966), Django Kill! (1967) and Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) also available on Blu-Ray.

In the Electric Sheep anthology The End , I wrote about Italy’s laissez faire approach to (zombie) sequels, and similarly when Django proved a hit, a variety of other Westerns already in production saw their names changed to capitalise on its success, including 1966’s Some Dollars for Django (cashing in on two Italo-Western franchises) and Django Shoots First (1966). One of these, Django Kill! (aka If you live, shoot! 1967) is an unusual homoerotic Western / horror hybrid particularly worth tracking down. Its touches of surrealism, Christian iconography and dreamlike flashbacks prefigure Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) while the graphic disembowelling of a man shot with golden bullets anticipate the gore in Italy’s cannibal films in the following decade.

A craze of retitling led to another seven Django films in 1967 alone, and by 1968 Italian directors had had enough time to start making actual Django sequels rather than just naming unrelated films as such. One of the most notable is Ferdinando Baldi’s Django, Prepare a Coffin (1968), a prequel best known for its soundtrack by Gianfranco Reverberi, which was sampled by Gnarls Barkley for their hit ‘Crazy’. In Prepare a Coffin Terence Hill takes on the title role, undercover as a hangman in order to create a gang of his own to revenge his murdered wife. Although somewhat slow, the neat plot and iconic music give the film some credibility as a bona fide Django film and it’s nice to see Hill take the lead in a non-comedic Western.

Double bill DVDs of Django Kills Silently (1968) / Django’s Cut Price Corpses (1970) and Django and Sartana’s Showdown in the West (1970) / A Man Called Django! (1971) are available on Region 1 DVD

Another eight Django films turned up between Baldi’s film and the following year’s One Damned Day at Dawn… Django Meets Sartana! (1969), in which two iconic gunmen meet for the first of five team-ups. By the end of 1972, the number of films that were either made as sequels to Django or merely titled as such had reached the improbable total of 30. By that time, the entire genre was on its last legs, and apart from continuing international capitalisation on the success of the franchise – such as the Nero-starring Keoma (1976), retitled Django Rides Again in some countries – it took the interest of the original actor himself for the saga to be belatedly revived on its twentieth anniversary.

Django 2 / Django Strikes Again (1987) sees the character return from self-imposed exile to save his daughter from Hungarian slave traders, and like the following year’s Rambo III (1988), features a monastic anti-hero, cheesy 1980s production values and signs of franchise fatigue. Apart from an extended cameo by Italophile Donald Pleasence, Django 2 has little to recommend it beyond the novelty of seeing Nero back in the title role.

The combination of Luis Enríquez Bacalov’s returning classic Django theme, stylised ultra-violence, and Quentin Tarantino attempting an improbable accent is actually not first found in the latter’s Django film but rather in Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), in which Tarantino stars as the mentor of a female assassin. Cultural references fly thick and fast as Miike mixes the War of the Roses, flamenco, a schizophrenic sheriff in the mould of Gollum, cowboy-versus-samurai action and a small boy caught in the middle, destined to grow up to be gunslinger Django. This Japanese remix is a heady brew of all that has gone before, marred only by the director’s ill-advised decision to have his cast speak English, learned phonetically.

Django 2 / Django Strikes Again (1987) is available as a Korean DVD import

Racial tension was present in some of the more Zapata-type Django instalments and Django Unchained (2013) brings racism to the fore in the latest version of the character. Unlike his predecessors, Jamie Foxx isn’t cast as another incarnation of the original, but rather as a freed slave turned hunter under the aegis of Christoph Waltz’s mild-mannered bounty killer. Waltz steals the movie, but Foxx himself is an appealing lead with nouveau riche affectations, wearing a bright blue outfit with ruffs for his first visit to a plantation as a free man. Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction allows the director to combine the tropes of a buddy movie with a Western that tackles the intolerance of the old West head on, leading to a variety of uncomfortable moments for the audience, in which they have to challenge the appropriateness of their own enjoyment.

Gravedigger, hangman, undead messianic widower, orphaned samurai, freed slave: the Django franchise has encompassed a multitude of styles, actors and directors over the last six decades and inspired enough genre-defying movies to make both the most famous instalments and some of the least known Django films worth tracking down before the title character drags his gun-filled coffin into that final Western sunset.

Alex Fitch

Watch the trailer:

Prometheus and Panspermia

Prometheus

When considering the origin of life on Earth, it’s worth thinking of the planet as a giant petri dish. Between 3.9 and 3.5 billion years ago life began to evolve. It’s unknown exactly what started the conversion of the primordial soup into the single-celled and then multi-celled organisms that would first populate the seas and then climb out of them, but there are two main theories. Abiogenesis suggests life naturally began to evolve when the surrounding conditions of the soup, the temperature of the Earth, cloud cover and so on, became ideal for the amino acids in the quagmire to start to coalesce. The other, exogenesis, requires an outside element, some kind of cosmic dust (rather than, say, a dissolving 8-foot albino humanoid) falling to Earth in a meteorite and starting off the chemical reactions.

The exogenesis theory is part of the notion of panspermia: that life – in the form of dormant bacteria (perhaps from the disintegration of older planets) floating through space – might seed a planet like ours and lead to the long process of evolution. More fanciful ideas of exogenesis and panspermia involve fully formed aliens (rather than bacteria) landing in spaceships and using the planet as a laboratory to create new life or give the existing fauna a push in the right direction.

This science-fictional concept was at its most popular in 1968 thanks to the book Chariots of the Gods: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, written by Swiss author Erich Anton Paul von Dä;niken, who, not long after the publication of his most famous pseudo-scientific work, was arrested for other successes in the fields of fraud and forgery, in particular the embezzlement of $130,000 over a twelve-year period. The uncredited co-author of the book, filmmaker Wilhelm Utermann, found fame for disseminating another story that captured the imagination of the public a decade later – the adventures of the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music.

Chariots of the Gods puts forward the theory that aliens visited the Earth in ancient history and had a hand in forming religions and civilisations. The popularity of this notion in the late 60s was further bolstered by the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the same year. Kubrick’s film shows aliens playing an active role in evolution, leaving a black monolith in prehistory, which inspires our primate ancestors to first pick up tools, and another on the moon to act as a calling card, suggesting that modern man, having found this second monolith, should travel on further to the next sign post on the galactic road.

All of the above, in a tangential way, brings us to the $120 million entertaining sci-fi epic Prometheus. Including elements from the science and pseudo-science I’ve talked about so far – the film mixes elements of panspermia, exogenesis, Chariots of the Gods, alien star maps and so on – Prometheus is a prequel to the seminal (and I mean that in every sense of the word) sci-fi horror film Alien (1979). Its status as part of the ongoing Alien franchise is something that the filmmakers became ambiguous about as the film neared release, which is understandable given the failure of many recent prequels. Furthermore, ‘prequel’ implies a direct narrative link to an existing story, which Prometheus doesn’t specifically have; the film certainly puts some of the 1979 film’s events in motion but it doesn’t end in a way that immediately sets up the plot of Alien, so using the term ‘prequel’ could lead to disappointment.

That said, I think any fan of Alien who sees Prometheus is much more likely to be disappointed not by the lack of explicit joining of dots, but rather by the poor quality of the dialogue and plot details that drive the film forward. There are lamentable lines of dialogue such as a geologist defining his character with the immortal line, ‘I’m a rock guy, I fucking love rocks’. Another problematic area is the cavalier attitude the characters display while on a scientific mission (compared to the miners in the original film, who might be forgiven for their actions): they open their helmets in an alien environment; finger the exogenic slime in a subterranean chamber; and try to befriend extra-terrestrial snake creatures when they rear from said obsidian goo… These are dumb movie characters acting in dumb movie ways and saying dumb movie lines; something that was not true of the original Alien films but did characterise the Alien vs Predator spin-offs, which this new film was supposedly created to replace and eradicate from our memories.

In fact, Prometheus can’t help but evoke the first AvP movie (2004), which echoes Chariots of the Gods with the existence of an ancient Mayan-style temple covered in alien symbols built beneath or before the Antarctic permafrost; this was designed as a weapons testing ground and discovered by a group of archaeologists, led by the titular head of the Weyland Industries corporation. That film received a worse critical reception than Prometheus has and certainly is the less impressive film of the two, but it also contained the input of some of the creators of the original Alien, in this case, the writers rather than the director.

There is one thing that AvP does better than Prometheus: the lighting of the sets. Much of the atmosphere of Prometheus is undone by overly lit chambers, in contrast to the stygian locales of Alien, which allowed the eponymous creature to hide in the shadows and create a genuinely disturbing world. One of the reasons for the existence of Prometheus seems to be to render some of the unused designs H.R. Giger had produced for the original film, such as the wall relief depicting the messianic original alien, a giant head in a mysterious cavern and more of his archetypal biomechanoid set designs. While it’s great to be able to see these on screen finally, having them too well lit destroys much of the atmosphere that made the first film so great.

Prometheus tries to be scientifically credible – the recent discovery of extremophiles, creatures that can withstand environments we didn’t believe could sustain life, improves the odds of finding life on another planet or moon – but it ultimately disappoints for having loftier aims than its predecessors, which it doesn’t realise in nearly as satisfying a way. In its characters and scenarios, Prometheus mines the rest of the franchise. Ripley’s iconic flame-thrower makes a return, as do mad scientists who mix alien DNA with humans – previously seen in Alien Resurrection (1997) – and an emotionless android who acts both in the interests of his human colleagues (as did Bishop in Aliens, 1986) and against them (as did Ash in Alien), and meets the same fate as one of his fellow robots. All this means that you could see the franchise itself working as panspermia, with characters and plot elements dispersed among the sequels where they take root and grow in different directions. Prometheus sows the seeds for a possible sequel, and leaves the door open for its makers to try and correct their flawed creation through further evolution in a future Prometheus 2.

Alex Fitch

Repo Man: Interview with Alex Cox

Repo Man

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 20 February 2012

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Alex Cox

Writer: Alex Cox

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Miguel Sandoval, Fox Harris, Del Zamora

USA 1984

92 mins

To coincide with the release of Repo Man as a new Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema, Alex Fitch caught up with director Alex Cox to talk about the film, its sequels and his career over the last 28 years.

Alex Fitch: Most people have seen Repo Man on video or pre-digital TV. The Blu-ray release will allow audiences to see Robby Müller’s cinematography in its full glory for the first time since the original cinema release.

Alex Cox: Yes, it’s probably the best it’s looked since the 35mm print. Robby’s work is really wonderful in the film. His lighting is so beautiful and the locations are fabulous. Those Los Angeles landscapes… It’s really fun, looking back.

In your book, X Films, you said that at the time of making Repo Man you felt that you were more like a writer who also directs, rather than a director. But Repo Man has a notable directorial style: from your choice of the distinctive blue and white packaging for the comestibles, to the framing of shots and the mise en scène. Looking back on it, do you feel you were developing as a director?

More as a script writer. The mise en scène is Robby Müller! He had these opinions at the time – he didn’t like to move the camera unless it was necessary, he preferred medium shots to close-ups, he liked to play things in master shots if it was possible, and I just went along with Robby’s aesthetic. Obviously later, everyone changes their aesthetic – Robby’s work on 24 Hour Party People, where they’re shooting on 20 little video cameras, is completely different, or his work for Lars von Trier. Also, perhaps Robby brought the somewhat austere style – there aren’t many fast cuts, cutaways and useless shots such as one encounters in the cinema of today. Although, interestingly, a fair bit of Repo Man was made in post-production. We did extra shots, reconstructed extra scenes, moved things around, and so there were two other cinematographers involved: Robert Richardson, who has become quite famous as the cinematographer of Oliver Stone and the Coen Brothers, but for whom this was the first feature, and Tom Richmond with whom I’ve worked many times since, who shot Straight to Hell.

Listen to the podcast of the interview with Alex Cox.

When you talk about Repo Man, and reading the chapter on it in X Films, it seems very obvious that working with Müller and Harry Dean Stanton meant you were able to indulge your love of cinema as well as making a film yourself.

Well, it’s true, and also those locations… The LA River has such a rich filmic historical importance: it’s where the giant ants were in Them! and where the assassination takes place in Point Blank. Immediately after Repo Man, Robby shot To Live and Die in LA for William Friedkin, which included a big-shoot-em up in the LA River. Drive has a scene where they race down it, very similar to our little car race.

Repo Man, along with other films of yours – Three Businessmen, Revengers Tragedy, Death and the Compass – seems to be a meditation on man’s relationship with the city. Is that something you’ve always been interested in, or did it start when you moved to LA?

No, I like the country the best. In almost all my films the characters go out to the desert, though not in Revengers Tragedy, because we couldn’t find a desert near Liverpool! The desert is where Three Businessmen ends up, where Straight to Hell takes place, where Walker meets Vanderbilt, where the Villa Triste-le-Roi is located in the Borges film. So, I’m really the desert guy.

Tenuously linking Death and the Compass to Repo Man, there does seem to be a bit of a Borgesian narrative at play in the earlier film: there are all of these characters in search of that undefinable thing, and it’s almost as if the city is the thing that keeps them down, that stops them from fully realising their dreams…

It is! There was one shot that we could have done in Death and the Compass but didn’t have the budget for. I really wanted to have a big night-time shot of this futuristic city interlaced with all of these freeways and overpasses, which would be full of police cars with all of their flashing red and blue lights on, so that you realise the city exists purely as an authoritarian exercise. It’s entirely about domination and control, and of course there’s the underside of the city, which is an entire criminal class arrayed against the forces of authority, like two sets of teeth constantly gnashing against each other, somehow in one shot! That’s the shot that isn’t in there yet. One day!

When you were shopping the script for Repo Man around, it had a four-page comic book prequel on the cover that you drew as well as wrote and it’s reproduced in the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray booklet.

The whole Blu-ray booklet is a quasi-comic book itself. It’s all pretty much: ‘What might have been…’ I was going to try and make a whole comic book of Repo Man, but it’s hard work drawing good comic books. You can’t just dash it off, you’ve got to spend a lot of time on it, so I did four pages and I gave up!

Things like the blue and white packaging for the comestibles, the radioactive car, the name of Edge City all seem to have a comic book aesthetic. I was wondering if comics were an influence on the making of the film.

I do think so. I was very influenced by Robert Crumb and by The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. The Rodriguez Brothers in the film are like the Freak Brothers, only with a revolutionary purpose. It’s definitely influenced by those 60s and 70s comic books that came out of San Francisco – Gilbert Shelton and Crumb.

Even though you didn’t get to direct the sequel to Repo ManWaldo’s Hawaiian Holiday – yourself, I believe you gave permission to a bunch of Texan filmmakers to adapt it at the beginning of the century. I was wondering why that production fell apart.

I don’t know. What I did was: I gave a whole bunch of people year-long options on that. I thought you could open source it – anyone can make this film if they want, or if they want to make a comic book out of it or a video game or whatever. That’s when Chris Bones got in touch with me about the comic book, and there were two guys in Texas who wanted to make it as a film and they shot part of it. It’s one of these things. It was a successful experiment in the sense that Chris Bones did a very good comic book. He was very expert at what he was doing. In other cases, if you try and open source something, not everybody in the community who takes it on is going to be able to accomplish it

I’m surprised you haven’t written more comics over the years. You wrote four issues of a Godzilla comic in the 90s but then nothing until your script for Waldo was turned into a graphic novel.

I was going to do another one with Chris Bones, called Helltown. I think the thing is: it’s a big investment of one’s time and my guess is that the Waldo comic book didn’t sell that many copies, and even the Godzilla series didn’t do that well because they didn’t continue the series after a certain point. Comics are maybe a speciality item, maybe guys prefer to play games now than to read comic books. What do you think?

Well, due to the whole democratisation of the app store where the price of a comic is the same as the price of something like Angry Birds, maybe comics are going to become popular again due to mobile devices.

Interesting. I think something has to change in the cinema – I don’t mean 3D or getting rid of film, those are just fantasies of the studios – but the idea that maybe film and games will have some kind of merger, or films will be somewhat interactive. In his most recent film, Twixt, Francis Coppola tried to have alternative scenes, so he’ll sit at the back and he’ll decide, ‘Now we’ll have the happy bit’ or ‘Now they’re going to go in a sad direction’, and at the end of a scene he’ll take you somewhere quite different, depending on what screening you’re at. I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know how successful it is and I think it’s become muddied as well by having 3D sequences – the 3D thing has overshadowed the alternate aspect.

Are you familiar with the Italian western The Big Silence? It ends very sadly with the death of the hero and the murdering of all the hostages, but Corbucci shot a happy alternative ending. Trintignant bows in, shoots all the bad guys, and he’s wearing a gauntlet or suit of armour he’s got from somewhere, so the bullets bounce off and he saves everybody. So, in a way, Corbucci was saying: ‘For other territories that can’t accept the other brilliant ending of my film, here’s a happy ending, guys!’ Corbucci was a master of these possibilities, and maybe we’ll do films like that in the future, maybe we’ll start getting films with multiple endings or multiple narrative paths. Maybe they’ll play arbitrarily in the cinema and you can pick them at home or maybe people will be electronically wired to the seats, so their emotions drive the movie. Though that’s very dangerous, so they won’t do that! Who knows what will happen?

One of Joe Dante’s most recent projects, Splatter, was an interactive TV mini-series where people could vote on what would happen in the next episode, and he shot two different versions of each five-minute segment.

Exactly! So it’s already happening.

I was going to mention video games, as Repo Chick seems to have that aesthetic in some of the backgrounds.

It depends on which bit. They’re in a game at the beginning when they’re in their car and then the car segues into the model railway.

What made you want to do Repo Chick? Was it to get the supporting cast back together and relive those heady days?

I was trying to get going again after Waldo and all the producers went down to LA. Again I was going through the process of trying to get a sequel made at Universal and failed – they weren’t interested and were very rude and hostile. Then the economic crash occurred and I realised that the Repo outfit, the criminal Repo outfit that Repo Man is about, is based on General Motors Acceptance Corporation. What happened in the 90s, in the Clinton years, is that the Democrats deregulated the banks and allowed GMAC to become a bank. So a lot of those bad mortgages and subsequent evictions that occurred when the depression began were at the behest of GMAC bank, and literally all our (American) tax money went to bail them out. Instead of poor people losing their cars, they were being thrown out on the streets by GMAC, and I just thought: ‘Man, this has got to be addressed. I just cannot sit around and watch these guys laugh as our lives are wrecked’. And that’s why I made Repo Chick. There’s just this five-minute thing at the beginning of Repo Chick about GMAC and how they were largely responsible, at least in the United States, for wrecking the economy and throwing some of the people into poverty. If it was a documentary it would be neither here nor there, but it was important to get that little bit out.

I have to say that my favourite of your films is Death and the Compass. The way I describe it to friends is: ‘An episode of Columbo where it turns out that the villain is The Joker!’ Again it felt like you had a great comic book aesthetic in that movie.

It’s really comic booky. To tell you the truth, I and Cecilia Montiel, who was the production designer, had both seen Dick Tracy not long before, and we were very impressed by Warren Beatty! His direction of Dick Tracy and the visual choices that he made were just sensational. I think he’s a very talented individual, and of course he was working with a very adroit production designer – Richard Sylbert – plus a great cinematographer, some big cast members and all the rest of it. Cecilia, I and the same cinematographer had done another film in Mexico a year before, Highway Patrolman, which was much more naturalistic and much more muted, and we wanted to have a visual break with what we’d done and do something quite different.

There are two different cuts of Death and the Compass. Can you see yourself returning to them, remastering them, adding new scenes? I suppose there’s a director’s cut of Straight to Hell just out…

This is the weird thing, Straight to Hell Returns has done fantastically over here in the States and it’s still playing theatrically, more than a year later, but I’ve had no enquiries from the UK about it. I’ll tell you what I think it is: when Straight to Hell first came out, it was generally not liked by critics or audiences, but in the US it’s acquired a cult reputation. The Returns version’s got additional digital violence, extra scenes, extra music by Joe Strummer and more footage of Courtney Love and Shane MacGowan. There’s a new sound design and a new visual aspect because Tom Richmond went through it and completely changed the colour palette – it’s like a new film, and yet, like Repo Man, it’s also a trip down memory lane because you get to see Strummer, The Pogues, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Courtney when they were still young-ish. In England, the critics and the audience haven’t come to terms with the fact that they were wrong about Straight to Hell! Thank you very much for liking Death and the Compass, a film that almost no one has seen!

My pleasure! In film magazines, there’s always such joy when a critic discovers a film that’d slipped under their radar.

Yeah, but the thing is, they were so mad about my films in the past! Two of the films I made really upset people – Straight to Hell and Walker. It takes people a long time to realise they were wrong and the filmmaker knew best and they should have dug it at the time. I don’t want to sound arrogant but Straight to Hell and Walker were good films. In the US, Criterion have brought out a copy of Walker. It’s a new print, and it’s got a fascinating new documentary by Terry Schwartz about the making of the film, in the political context of Nicaragua at the time. Somehow the Americans have got around Walker. The English take a bit longer… I wish Masters of Cinema would bring it out in the UK. Their Blu-Ray is the most complete version of Repo Man there’s ever been or ever could be, because it’s also got the television version – completely re-edited to take out all the swearing and drug use – and all the various things we’ve made about Repo Man over the years. It’s the only version that’s come out to have the cleaned up TV version, where they say ‘Melon Farmers’!

I’ve got a real soft spot for ‘Melon Farmers’ as an expletive…

Isn’t it great? Although that expression has become frequently heard since then, I think Dick Rude came up with that, because he was on set, with the actors working on things they could say instead of rude words.

Interview by Alex Fitch

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews