I went to a Buckinghamshire library the other day to talk about my new book. It was a good night, chatting Professor Brian Cox. That’s who I wrote about – an unauthorised biography of the science guru behind Wonders Of The Solar System and Wonders Of The Universe.
I was asked what conclusions I have come to about the man himself. My answer? Nice guy, intelligent guy, brilliant communicator. Someone wondered whether I thought he would win a Nobel prize. I said no. They looked a little disappointed.
Writing an unauthorised biography is a peculiar thing, especially if the person you’re writing about isn’t a megalomaniac. The recent book about Simon Cowell was ostensibly unauthorised, but writer Tom Bower got hours of access to Cowell and he even turned up to the book launch. Cox knows about my book – we’ve exchanged a few brief, personable emails – but he’s never going to endorse me. There’s nothing in there that’s particularly damaging to him, but he’ll want to write his own one day I’m sure and he’s holding stuff back. I don’t blame him.
So what other conclusions did I come to? Well, while it seems as though Professor Cox dropped out of the sky into the laps of science-lovers the world over, that’s not really the case. Frankly, in my experience as an entertainment journalist of more than 12 years, most celebrities have been trying to be such for longer than you realise. That’s not to say Cox is merely hellbent on being famous. No, I simply mean he’s thought about being a television star further back than his mega-success in 2010.
I’ve tried to find his early appearances on proto-broadband internet TV channel Network Of The World (apparently still broadcast in China) but to no avail. Please do contact me if you find something.
The Oldham band Dare – Brian Cox is on the far right
Still, it’s been a fun project. I can talk intelligently but VERY briefly about the Law of Entropy. I’ve listened to mediocre but hard-working Northern rock (he was in a band called Dare in the late 80s/early 90s for far longer than his supposed attachment to D:Ream). And I’ve been to a lecture about quantum physics.
Plus, I’m the only person in my group of friends who actually knows what the Higgs Boson is. But then most of my friends did Humanities at university.
I would like to do an authorised biography some time soon. But then how would I end up eating dim sum in a Chinese restaurant opposite the Manchester science block in the rain?
There’s been plenty of talk about the state of the British film industry lately – calls for more King’s Speeches, more commercially viable movie product that will generate money and is worth investing in in the first place. What the bigwigs fail to understand is how frail the infrastructure of the homegrown industry is.
Lots of movies are made here, sure, but they’re mostly Hollywood flicks. And it continues to be true that unlike the States or our friends on the continent, there is a lack of interest on the part of cinemas, distributors, film companies and most of all audiences to watch independent British cinema.
But might that be changing and might it come courtesy of the kind of movie that is consistently smeared in the U.K. press? After all, Tinseltown churns out hundreds of horror pics, crime thrillers and romcoms and even the least Oscar-worthy still tend to be preferred over those made in Bromley.
Simon Phillips and his crew hope so. “I sat down with someone the other day,” muses the 31-year-old actor/producer who decided to make his own movies rather than wait for the phone to ring. “He described Harry Potter to me as a British film. I was like, Harry Potter is very, very American. It’s Warner Brothers, the money all goes back to New York. It’s an American film shot on location.”
Phillips is taking a different tack – sheer bloody volume. “If you make one film, it’s easy to be ignored,” he says. “Even if you make two, it could be passed off as a fluke. But once you get to nine, 10, people have to pay attention otherwise they look a touch out of the loop.”
His company Black & Blue Films, which he runs alongside Billy Murray (ex-The Bill and those lawyer ads) and Martin Kemp amongst others, are looking to make six movies a year. Yes, six. Their latest – at least in terms of release – is How To Stop Being A Loser, a romantic comedy about a nerd who turns to a pick-up artist to get the girl of his dreams (Hollyoaks‘ Gemma Atkinson).
They have at least five in various stages of post-production, with a repertory company-style cast and regular crew. It’s a work rate similar to New York’s Mumblecore movement, the micro-indie wave whose denizens now populate mainstream Hollywood like flies, but previously just made films with their friends on the Big Apple streets.
Phillips is hoping for similar recognition. “We make low-budget films,” he says. “There’s not much aspiration to make higher budget films than the ones we’re working on at the moment. We’d rather we had a breakout at this budget level than raise ten million quid to make something. We’re not really interested in sitting on our hands for 12, 18 months for one film to get off the ground.”
Their approach is intriguing – private investors who fund a slate of small films rather than one bigger one, as well as direct contact with distributors who are finally realising despite critical savaging, those swaggering gangster pics make money once they hit the shelves of Tesco and Asda.
“We reverse engineer a little bit”, explains Phillips. “We ask the distribution company we sell to what sort of films they’d like. What works for them. What the market wants.” The result is a football movie called The Rise & Fall of a White Collar Hooligan.
I’ll be perfectly honest – these films aren’t great, though there’s enough technical skill and the acting’s good enough (for the most part) to put it on a par with similar American low-budget output, even if the accent or locations aren’t as sexy. The scripts are written very fast: “I really want to be able to go back to that company in six months and say here’s your hooligan film”, reveals Phillips. “With a finished movie”. And it shows. They could use a few more drafts.
But the Roger Corman-esque spirit is something to be celebrated for cinema fans and you’ve got to love a group of guys who phone up Mark Hamill or Robert Englund because they loved them as kids in Star Wars and Nightmare On Elm Street in order to ask them to star in their films. They did – Hamill’s in Airborne and Englund in Strippers vs. Werewolves, both due out later this year. They even got Jean-Claude Van Damme.
It’s doubtful when David Cameron or Chris Smith discusses British filmmaking, they’re thinking about a sci-fi starring Van Damme’s daughter and Pierce Brosnan’s son. But BAFTA is full of people who spend their days talking about how they’re “waiting for Jude to read the script” and live on development money doled out thanks to cronyism as opposed to talent.
Phillips and his ilk (and there are a few – just go to your nearest big supermarket) are far from the finished article. And no, they’re not going to be winning any awards any time soon.
But they’re making movies and responding to the market. And it’s just possible that’s worth a whole lot more than one arthouse hit every two years.
“I think the plan for myself is to stay here and keep working here”, says Phillips. “We’re looking for our Blair Witch Project or our Shaun Of The Dead. And then we’ll be in a better position to decide what the next move is. And my guys will keep working very hard until that happens.”
After all, Kermit said so. The legendary frog (as well as director James Bobin, Fozzie and Miss Piggy) all showed up on the big screen for a live link-up with a packed crowd at Indigo2 and introduced a great clip from the upcoming movie featuring Kermit singing. Co-written by Jason Segel, who also stars alongside Amy Adams, the film really looks a cracker – combining the Muppet mix of self-awareness, surrealism, satire, stupidity and family fun in a story which sees the gang having to come back together for a tribute concert to save their old theatre. In other words, just like the old TV show. I for one, am incredibly excited and that’s not just because Kermit has always been my dream interview as a journalist. The Muppets is out in U.K. on February 10th next year.
2. They’re tackling the big Sherlock Holmes stories…
…in the second series of the BBC’s modern take, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman that is. Despite both of the leads being cast in The Hobbit (Freeman as Bilbo and Cumberbatch as the voice of dragon Smaug), co-creator/writer Mark Gatiss revealed that the Peter Jackson production is working around the Sherlock schedule. And while we didn’t get to see any new footage, Gatiss said this series they’re taking on at least two of the most famous Conan Doyle stories – The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Final Problem. How? We don’t know!
3. There’s hardcore alien porn at the end of British indie smash Monsters
“I made sure one of the tentacles went in,” said Brit director Gareth Edwards, who also did the visual effects on the film, talking about a climactic sequence between two extra-terrestrials. “It’s really quick, it just dabs her.” It must have impressed the Tinseltown brass, because now he’s developing a new studio blockbuster version of Godzilla. He was VERY scant on details, only divulging “realism is incredibly important” when asked whether he’ll bring Monsters’ improv-style approach to his sophomore effort. However, he did give his blessing to a planned Monsters 2, which will push ahead without him (production company Vertigo own the copyright). “I’d have revisited it in a few films time,” he admitted, before explaining he would have nothing to do with the follow-up personally.
4. People from Hollyoaks dream of bigger things
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes director Rupert Wyatt is testament to the fact there’s screen life beyond the sexy small screen village. And judging by the appearance of Max and OB off the show at the talk by Gareth Edwards, there are other folk from that Chester-y hamlet hoping to make the leap from Hollyoaks to Hollywood.
5. Idris Is Available
Idris Elba may be one of the most in-demand actors around these days, but he revealed at this weekend how to get his attention. Apparently, it’s all about a good sob story. The Luther star appeared to support his new effort as producer Demons Never Die, a UK teen slasher starring Ashley Walters and Tulisa from N-Dubz. Out later this year, it’s written and directed by newcomer Arjun Rose and Idris explained how the neophyte filmmaker approached him at a premiere of one his movies, handed him a script and told him his life story. That was enough to interest the actor, who asked for more and ended up helping to get the film made. Now the pair are working on two more scripts. Elba might be starring in one of them, but for now he’s concentrating on Pacific Rim, a giant monster movie directed by Guillermo Del Toro.