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INTERVIEW: PAUL PROVENZA ON ‘THE ARISTOCRATS’

By Ian Winterton
First published in CityLife magazine in 2005

There’s a T-shirt, popular with scientists I’m told, that bears on its front the legend: “Memes don’t work”, while the reverse reads, “Tell a friend.” I think this is a great joke (because it makes me feel clever), which not only shows exactly how subjective comedy is, but how jokes work mimetically. For instance: did you ever hear the one about the man who went into a theatre agent’s office and said, “I’ve got a great act”? No? Well, now you have.

The joke, known as The Aristocrats, is the subject of an astounding new documentary by comedians Penn Jillette (the larger half of magicians Penn & Teller) and Paul Provenza, whom I meet for morning coffee in the Sheraton hotel during the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He’s a good-looking, square-jawed Italian-American, wearing a bright blue T-shirt that, while not sporting a dubious gag about memes, does show several photos of John Cleese performing his famous ‘silly walk’.

“We can trace it back at least as far as the mid to late nineteenth century,” he says in his confident, New York accent. “Jay Marshall, the older gentleman who first tells the joke in the film, he just died about two months ago at the age of 84. He first heard the joke when he was seven years old, by a guy who was in his eighties.”

Provenza finds it hilarious that “they think the perfect time to tell a child this joke is when they’re seven”. The joke is, you see, one of the filthiest ever told.

“We chose it because it’s got a set-up and a punchline and in between there’s a wide-open field,” says Provenza. “There’s no actual record of what that middle part is, but it usually contains sex, incest, scatology, bestiality. But it’s all subjective. In some parts of the world the joke would be about a guy eating pork.”

Needless to say, the pork joke doesn’t make it into Provenza’s movie. It’s outrageously foul and, therefore, one of the funniest movies ever made. But, in setting out to make the film, Provenza and Jillette’s intentions were serious.

“When Penn and I get together we talk very pretentiously about art, philosophy, politics, pussy – whatever it is, we’d talk pretentiously about it,” Provenza explains. “Penn was obsessing about jazz improvisation – what is genuine improvisation and what is just a sort of twisted recapitulation of something you’ve already heard? I said, ‘You know you’re talking about comedy?’ and then we started talking about the similarities between jazz and comedy.”

This line of thinking inspired the duo to investigate what it was that made comedians uniquely funny. They chose the Aristocrats.

“Not because it was transgressive,” Provenza insists, “but because it was simple. If you wanted to do the same with jazz musicians, you wouldn’t have them all perform Mozart, you’d have them do Mary Had A Little Lamb. And, with the Aristocrats, so many comedians already knew it so we didn’t have to explain anything. Everybody was on the same page right away.”

The film contains a roll-call of American comedians – Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Lewis, Drew Carey, Jason Alexander – with British contributions from Eric Idle, Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly. There’s even a South Park segment. Baring a few exceptions, they all live up to movie’s tag: “No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity.”

“We had to put that on,” says Provenza, “because, in the States, we have this thing that everything public has to be clean. Every journalist in the US asks us about the language, whereas in the UK, no-one could give a shit.”

At the time of our interview, Provenza hasn’t had much feedback from the British public (its UK premiere, later that evening, goes supremely well), nor indeed from our comics. This being the Edinburgh Festival, I tell him that I found myself having a pint with Stewart Lee the previous day who, it turned out, caught The Aristocrats while in the US. He looked at me very seriously and said, “That film is great. It totally made me reappraise my attitude to comedy. In fact, if I hadn’t seen The Aristocrats, I wouldn’t have written the act I’m performing this year.”

Provenza is delighted to hear this.

“I’m taken aback,” he exclaims. “That’s the hugest compliment I could ever get. I’m really, really, really in a good mood now. Stewart is phenomenal. One of the best stand-ups around. He makes me weep, he’s so funny.”

Later on, at Provenza’s invitation, I’m sitting in an audience comprised entirely by comedians who are in Edinburgh for the festival. As well as Lee, faces I spy include Jimmy Carr, Stephen Merchant, Barry Cryer, Andy Zaltzman, Lucy Porter, Brendon Burns, Dara O’Briain and Andy Parsons. When Provenza introduces the film, the warmth of the reception is palpable – he is clearly a well-loved figure. The film goes down incredibly well. Having seen it before, I get to watch the audience reacting, a pleasure equal to viewing the film for the first time.

“That’s why you’ve got to see this film in a theatre,” Provenza had told me before. “Half the fun is that the laughs aren’t all universal, and neither are the points at which some people walk out in disgust.”

No-one walks out during the comedians’ screening. It seems, as had happened in the States, comics have embraced the film.

“If comedians didn’t get it,” says Provenza, “that would mean we’ve got it really wrong. But they love it, not just because it’s funny, but because you get a real sense of camaraderie. Even though we shot 100 people in 100 different locations, there really is a sense that they’re in the same room. It’s got that sense of community that nobody has really captured before.”

And, importantly, it acknowledges stand-up as an artform.

“Yes,” agrees Provenza. “Everybody thinks they can do comedy just because they can make your friends laugh. They think they have what it takes but maybe they’re not up on stage. If Tchaikovsky’s up there on the piano, you wouldn’t think you were as talented as him just because you can play chopsticks. Comedy never gets the respect as an artform.”

The Aristocrats may change that. Or it may not. Either way, its barrage of “unspeakable obscenity” is stomach-crampingly funny. It really is. So spread the word. Tell a friend.

INTERVIEW: SIMON PEGG and NICK FROST ON ‘SHAUN OF THE DEAD’

By Ian Winterton
First published in CityLife magazine in April 2004

Blending those evergreen themes of cannibalism and the living dead into a tale of romance, Shaun of the Dead promises to believe life into British films. Again…

“Zombies…” says Simon Pegg. “Hmm. They’re…”

Beside him on the comfy-looking sofa is Pegg’s porky buddy, Nick Frost.

“Zombies are shit,’ he says matter-of-factly.

“Yes,” agrees Pegg. “Shit. But very scary.”

The first time I ‘meet’ Simon Pegg is at the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square. He’s just introduced the “firstever screening anywhere” of romantic-zombie-comedy (that’s a romzomcom to you, mate) Shaun of the Dead and, while on my way to purchase popcorn, I see him in the corridor. Pale and shaking, he is a picture of abject terror.

This isn’t surprising – as co-writer and star, he has invested several years of his life to Shaun. He needn’t have worried, though – the film is, to use one of Pegg’s favourite self-invented phrases, “fried gold”.

Thursday at London’s Charlotte Street Hotel sees Pegg infinitely more relaxed. Both he and Frost exude the infectious jubilation of two guys who are having a bloody good week – feedback from the screening has been overwhelmingly positive and that bible of the movie industry, Screen International, is going to put them on the cover. The two of them are the living embodiment of a Homer Simpson ‘whoo-hooh!’

Signing Shaun posters when I walk in (“I’m going to draw a knob on this one,” Frost says), they retire to the aforementioned comfy-looking sofa.

“Zombies are shit,” says Pegg, “in that they’re not fast, but they’re scary because they’re like the nightmares where you can’t run away. Even though zombies are slow, you can sprint all you like but they’ll still catch you.”

Pegg and Frost like zombies a lot.

“We used to plan what we’d do if there was a zombie attack,” Frost tells me. “We decided we’d flee to the Isle of Wight, but every day we’d have to go on patrol because the zombies could enter the water at Portsmouth and walk along the sea bed and then stumble up onto the beach.”

For such rabid zombie fans, it was inevitable that a film like Shaun would come about. Inspired by an episode of Spaced – the surreal sitcom that earned both guys a cult following – in which Pegg’s character, Tim the slacker cartoonist, hallucinated that the zombies from the Resident Evil video game were real.

Pegg says: “Edgar [Wright, director] had so much fun with those zombies that we decided to make a feature film.”

How important was Edgar to the film?

“In many ways he is the project,” Pegg says. “I always said…”

“The owl is the pussycat?” Frost offers.

“The owl is the pussycat.” Pegg nods. “Smokey is the Bandit. I always said Edgar was the third writer on Spaced – he provided the visual side and that’s true of Shaun. Plus, we wrote it together.”

Pegg plays the titular hero, a regular bloke who finds his girlfriend trouble further complicated by a zombie plague. Accompanying him in his battle against the undead is Ed, a lardy Xbox addict played by Frost. Obviously not based on Frost himself in any way – how did he get into character?

“I’m a great believer in the Method,” Frost says in thespy tones. “First, I shaved a hole in my hair because I thought it would be funny for Ed to have this bald patch in his hair – like he’d been jackassed at a party. And [he grins, proudly] I shaved off my pubes. So instead of just acting itchy I’d actually be really itchy all the time”

Pegg shakes his head, pityingly. “He’s still shaved.”

“Yeah,”‘ Frost confirms. “I shave it once a week. I like the feel.”

He looks down at my tape recorder.

“Oh,” he says. “Bugger.”

This interview first appeared in City Life Magazine in 2004.

INTERVIEW: AUDREY TAUTOU and JEAN-PIERRE JEUNET ON ‘A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT’

By Ian Winterton
First published in The North Guide magazine in 2004

As premieres in Leicester Square go, A Very Long Engagement is a low-key affair. The red carpet is decidedly short and the crowd is nothing compared to the throng that gathered the previous week for Alexander. But the people here aren’t just curious gawkers – they’re standing in the drizzle to see the exquisitely beautiful Audrey Tautou and what they lack in numbers they make up in enthusiasm.

Of course, it’s 2001’s deliciously quirky Amelie that brought Tautou to the attention of hopeless romantics everywhere. What makes A Very Long Engagement such an exciting prospect is that it reunites the elfin ingénue with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. A heart-breaking love story set in and around World War One, it showcases both Jeunet’s peerless imagination and Tautou’s almost supernatural screen presence.

The morning after the premiere both Jeunet and Tautou are sitting in London’s swish Soho Hotel, looking healthy and happy despite staying at the post-screening party until midnight. Tautou spent most of the night catching up with her London friends whom she worked with on 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things – co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Stephen Frears.

“I don’t see Chiwetal very often because he’s very busy and I’m not coming to London very often,” she purrs in a French accent that’s so sexy it’s almost clichéd. “I have very happy memories of working on that film.”

If the rapport between her and Jeunet is anything to go by, the same can safely be said of it. Although this is only their second collaboration, they both express a great admiration for one another.

“She’s the perfect actress,” says Jeunet, “because now we know she can do everything from drama to very light comedy. That’s pretty rare. She has a great sense of timing. And, of course, she’s very special with her face, like an elf.”

“We just need to look at each other on set,” says Tautou, “and we understand. We always agree about a take.”

“Yes,” agrees Jeunet. “I made one or two mistakes on Amelie and she told me and I didn’t believe her but in the editing room I saw that she was right. Now I always listen to her.”

If Jeunet made any mistakes on A Very Long Engagement, none of them are in the final cut. A unique mixture of the director’s trademark magical realism that audiences have come to know through Delicatessen, City of Lost Children and Amelie, and uncompromising scenes depicting the horror of war. In many ways it’s quite a departure for both director and actor. But, for Jeunet, the First World War has been an obsession since childhood.

“I make the same joke all the time,” he laughs, “that maybe I died during that war. Maybe it’s not a joke, I don’t know. I met a guy in San Francisco and he told me exactly the same thing. Who knows, maybe we died together in the same trench. The first time I went on the set and climbed the ladder to see the No Man’s Land it was a pretty strange feeling.”

While Jeunet immersed himself in the background of the Great War, Tautou felt that knowing too much would be a hindrance to playing Mathilde, the young woman desperately trying to find out whether her fiancé, Manech, survived the war.

“Mathilde is trying to find Manech,” she says. “She has a little idea about what happened but not much because the soldiers who are coming back don’t talk a lot about what happened. I wanted to have the same knowledge as her, so in the film you can see the mystery unfolding.”

The element of Mathilde’s character that Tautou did research in depth is the effects of her childhood polio, meaning Tautou had to limp throughout the film.

“We both met with doctors who explained the consequences of the sickness and we decided which part of the leg had been withered,” she explains. “We decided that I would wear a kind of prosthetic so that I wouldn’t forget to limp.”

Despite the subject matter of the film and the fact that she plays an entirely different person, many critics have lazily dubbed it ‘Amelie Goes To War’. She must find this frustrating?

“They’re correct,” she says, playfully sarcastic. “The actress who plays Mathilde looks pretty much the same as the one who played Amelie and the director is the same as the one who made Amelie. I think it’s fair. But,” she adds, “it’s nice to be recognised for something – only one thing is better than nothing.”

With both director and actor unafraid of being pigeonholed, is a third Jeunet-Tautou outing on the cards?

“Well,” Jeunet says, smiling cheekily Tautou, “I do keep asking her if she knows the meaning of the word trilogy. So, who knows, maybe one day?”

WHAT ABOUT… NICOL WILLIAMSON AS MERLIN IN EXCALIBUR?

He wore the metal skull cap and walked in the dragon’s breath. The big loony. One of Britain’s greatest actors – and biggest pains in the ass – puts the mental into Merlin

“The Dark Ages – the land was divided and without a king. Out of those lost centuries rose a legend… Of the sorcerer Merlin, of the coming of a king, of the sword of power… EXCALIBUR.”

 

So begins Excalibur, John Boorman’s definitive Arthurian movie. Based on Sir Thomas Malory’s romanticised version, it’s a world where shields glint, swords clash, knights wear armour even when feasting and everyone shouts. But no one shouts more loudly, or more weirdly, than Nicol Williamson’s Merlin.

We first see him striding towards us, swathed in mist, dressed in raggedy robes. His eyes, staring from beneath a steel skullcap that’s all but welded to his head, scream intelligence. And madness… a madness confirmed by the voice. A unique mix of growling, high-pitched hysteria and, best of all, inappropriate pauses, it’s the sound of “the greatest actor since Marlon Brando” (thanks John Osborne), losing a battle with his ego. And it’s awesome.

Although Boorman, fearing that famous faces would detract from the legend, cast unknowns, Williamson was the exception. Scottish born, he was one of the most celebrated Shakespearian actors of the Sixties and Seventies and was well known in the States, not least because he performed a Hamlet for that other troubled prince, Richard M Nixon.

Ironically, he was one the one actor that Boorman had to fight with the studio for. Williamson’s reputation was beyond dreadful. One story has it that, while touring Hamlet in the US, he exhibited behaviour so abominable that a fellow thesp felt obliged to apologise to the audience. Boorman, though, knew what he was doing. Williamson: brilliant, boorish, unpredictable egomaniac. Remind you of anyone?

“I have walked my way since the beginning of time. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take – it is mine to know which and where.”

Aided by his second sight, Merlin has meddled in the affairs of men for centuries, though with what success is debatable. Having decided that Uther Pendragon is destined to reunite the kingdom, Merlin gifts him Excalibur. This does the trick but, at the celebratory banquet, Uther starts to covet Lord Cornwall’s missus and war is back on the menu before they’ve even had dessert. Merlin then employs the magical equivalent of Rohypnol, enabling the horny king to bed Mrs Cornwall. His one proviso: “What issues from your lust shall be mine.” Luckily for Merlin, he doesn’t just get a beaker of baby-batter, but Arthur.

Merlin takes instantly to Arthur, perhaps because he’s one of the few mortals to confound his clairvoyance. When the king hands Excalibur to rebellious baron, Uryens, telling him to knight him or kill him, Merlin delightedly murmurs, “I never saw this.”

One thing Merlin fortells only too well is the king’s accursed love life. “You have a land to quell before you start this hair pulling and jumping about,” he chides when Arthur speaks of his love for Guinevere. Arthur isn’t listening and, like Uther, asks Merlin to make her love him. Merlin explodes.

“I once stood exposed to the dragon’s breath so a man could lie one night with a woman. It took me nine moons to recover and all for this lunacy called love, this mad distemper that strikes down both beggar and king. Never again!”

Merlin himself isn’t immune to love, though. Between him and Helen Mirren’s Morgana, there exists a simmering frisson of attraction and loathing. “Perhaps,” she taunts, “you ache for what you’ve never known.”

That this love-hate relationship is so convincing is due to the fact that Mirren and Williamson, former lovers, detested one another. To both actors’ irritation, Boorman put the two together so he could tap into their “awkward friction”.

Excalibur’s parallels with Williamson’s life run deeper than that. Just as the film shows Merlin’s last days, it also marks the high point of Williamson’s fame. While his ‘unknown’ co-stars – Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson – have become household names, Williamson hasn’t acted for years. “There are other worlds,” Merlin muses. “This one is done with me.” For Williamson, this translates as retirement on a Greek island.

He may have been one of the 20th century’s best Hamlets, but it’s as Merlin he’ll be remembered by most. Fittingly, his last screen role was Cogliostro in Spawn, a man later revealed in the comicbooks to be, yes, Merlin.

“He’s in our dreams now,” Arthur says. “He speaks to us from there.”

Or, in a sentiment no doubt echoed Williamson’s former colleagues, as Merlin himself puts it:

“A dream to some – a NIGHTMARE to others!”

INTERVIEW: ALAN MOORE ON ‘V FOR VENDETTA’

INTERVIEW Alan Moore on V For Vendetta

Transcript of telephone interview with Alan Moore by Ian Winterton on Monday 6th June, 2005

Hello, Alan, it’s Ian.

Hi there. How are you mate?

I’m good. Are you OK to talk?

Yes. How can I help you?

Well, with your take on the V For Vendetta movie.

You want me to outline the debacle for you?

Yeah. That would be good.

Well… you can edit this to whatever you need to edit it to but I’ll give you all the details and you can whittle them down, yeah?

That sounds good.

Well, basically, my relationship with DC comics has been a troubled one almost from its inception. This was mainly brought about by the fact that after signing contracts with DC for both Watchmen and V For Vendetta on the understanding that these properties would revert to me and the artists concerned once a certain time had elapsed from the books going out of print and then realising that in fact the books were never going to go out of print and that they were never going to revert to us. Looking back it does seem as if we’d gone into this a little naïve, a little blinkered but you have to remember that back at the time when I’d signed these contracts it was unheard of and no-one had got any anticipation of it ever happening. So this was why, amongst other reasons, why I quit working for DC comics the first time, way back in 1987. there were all sorts of other reasons, like the ratings controversy, where they were trying to put movie-style ratings on comic books which I thought was inane. After all, there aren’t ratings on books. So, I’d parted company with them back in the late eighties. At some point during the middle nineties I had decided to basically put together a raft of comic book titles and this would be with Jim Lee’s Wildstorm productions, which was an independent comic book publishers where Jim Lee was someone I respected and always got on well with. I’d also got a separate deal with Jim Lee’s creator-owned rights I was working on the league of extraordinary gentlemen with Kevin O’Neill. After I’d signed contracts for the whole of the other four books in the ABC line, Wildstorm was bought out by DC. Now I know that when I’d been previously working at Awesome comics and they’d gone bankrupt, I know that DC had offered to save the company by buying it but only on the understanding that I would be part of the deal. I hadn’t got any contracts signed with Awesome so I declined. I don’t know whether my presence was a contributing factor to DC buying Wildstorm but in this instance I had already signed contracts and made personal agreements with the artists that I would be doing these often quite lengthy comic strips with them which would be putting bread and butter on the table for them.

It must have been a sickener having to go back with DC.

Well, yeah. I was told by a somewhat nervous Jim Reid that something had been brought out by Wildstorm, so I was in something of a dilemma of going back on my word, which is something I’m not actually accustomed to doing, and working for DC, however remotely, when I’d said I wouldn’t do this. On the one hand I could turn round to the artists I’d promised work to and tell them it wouldn’t be happening. So, I don’t know, call it moral cowardice but the former seemed easier to take, if I could just swallow my bile, that option seemed easier than the second option. I buckled down to work at ABC and I’m incredibly pleased with all of the books that we produced. I think we did some fantastic work. There were a couple of times during that relationship when DC would interfere. There was the ridiculous incident when a whole print run of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was pulped, because of an advert in the back which I hadn’t even noticed, frankly, for a 19th century vaginal douche provided by the Marvel Company of New York. This was pulped because DC were worried that this would sour their rosy and otherwise agreeable relationship with Marvel. They actually thought that the whole affair was fairly funny and ridiculous, as did I. I think Marvel actually published the same Victorian ad in one of their publications.

They’re worth a fortune those pulped issues.

Yeah, I wish I’d kept more of them. And there was an incident with a Cobweb strip in Tomorrow’s Stories where we told the story of the rocket scientist and magician, Grant Whiteside Parsons. It contained references to L Ron Hubbard and the Scientologists and DC eventually said that they didn’t feel they could publish it. After I’d thrown a tantrum and inadvertently put a stop on the Watchmen 15th anniversary edition or whatever they were planning, then DC found out they’d already published the same story in one of their other comic book collections. So, again, it was something that was completely unnecessary and pointless. We got over these things, just about, and I was able to carry on and bring the entire line to a conclusion, at which point, over a year ago, I told Scott Dunbear that DC understood that once I’d finished all of the ABC books I would no longer have any contractual ties to ABC, Wildstorm or DC comics and that the sole remaining title was The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen which me and Kevin owned. As I explained it to Scott, we were very happy to continue to publish League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen through ABC and Wildstorm because, you know, we’d been working with Scott and the rest of them there and we were more than happy. So, if nothing else happened… as I put it to Scott, you know, if I don’t have anything else happen that reminds me that DC comics exists then I’m quite happy for it to be published by ABC/Wildstorm in any future volumes that we might do. So Scott spoke to DC and then assured me that they would be on their best behaviour and if there were any further pulpings or whatever that we would just be taking the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen to another publisher. That would be a final severance between me and DC comics. Now, running parallel with all this is my growing disenchantment with the movie industry, with Hollywood. Right from the start when there was talk of films being made of… of Terry Gilliam making Watchmen, or various talks about V For Vendetta – I’m talking back in the Eighties now, I was always fairly dismissive of the idea and actually thought the things had been best realised as comics and that just because something worked as a comicbook, that didn’t mean you should make it into a film or a television series or a whole franchise. It was probably at its best in its original form. So I didn’t really have very much to do with the early genesis of any of these films. My feeling was by then that, since technically DC owned these properties, and since I was disenchanted with DC then, you know, I had no interest in the films. If they got made then DC would give me the money but that I wouldn’t be expected to do anything else with them. Then there was the From Hell film which was owned by myself and Eddie Campbell, and my attitude to that was OK, make the film, give me and Eddie the money for it but I maintained the position that the film and my work were two very separate entities and that I wasn’t interested in the film and that I probably wouldn’t be going to see it, that there was no offence intended to any of the people involved in the film but films weren’t really my medium of choice and that I’d prefer to keep my work completely separate. I didn’t see the From Hell film when it came out. I think I got ten minutes into it and realised that it had been a bad idea to watch it after all. I thought the trailer was enough but I thought I should at least try to be fair. I just thought it was a travesty, so I turned it off. I’m the last person who could be fair about a film like that. There didn’t seem to be any point either tormenting myself or being unfairly uncritical about a film that, obviously, isn’t going to be like the book. So I continued this attitude with League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, that I probably wouldn’t be going to see the film, that I wasn’t interested in it, we’d accept the money for it but that would be the extent of my involvement. The book would be a separate entity. However, while this was OK as far as it went, there was an incident after the film had been released.

The court case.

Some plaintive in America, some screenwriter, had apparently sent some screenplay around with an entirely different bunch of Victorian characters to the ones portrayed in my book but who did have some similarities to those in the film which had one or two Hollywood additions. Tom Sawyer, characters like that. Apparently, the only way this person could have any chance of the case getting into court was to actually claim this unlikely string of circumstances where the head of 20th Century Fox had stolen this guy’s ideas and phoned me up, because we’re such good friends, and suggested that I write a comic book purely to disguise his theft of this guy’s ideas. Now, as soon as I heard that, I was appalled, because I don’t get my ideas from Hollywood screenwriters. In fact, generally, it’s the other way round. I’ve noticed a few films that have had, to my eyes, perhaps, Alan Moore touches you might call them. No big deal, that’s what you kind of expect. In my own medium I am fairly well respected and I really could not stand still for the inference that I was stealing ideas from a second-string writer in another medium, especially a medium that I don’t have a great deal of respect for. At this point I decided that I would have to draw a hard line so I said I cannot tolerate the possibility of this ever happening again. I realised that Hollywood is filled with people who, with every film that comes out there’s probably a few court cases from people who are trying to get some of the action. I thought the only thing to do was to cut all connections between myself and Hollywood. I didn’t want any films made of my work, this is talking about work that I’ve purely contributed to myself. There was talk about somebody wanting to make a Voice Of The Fire film which would just involve me because that was a novel that didn’t have an artist. So that is completely out. I didn’t want film adaptations of work that I own entirely. Pieces of my own work that are owned by other people, such as Watchmen or V For Vendetta, where I haven’t really got a say over whether they’re made into a film or not, then what I want is for my name not to be attached to the film and for any money I’m due to be distributed amongst the artists or other writers or creators on the project. That seemed to me to be a stringent enough measure to actually make it clear that I had no connection with the film industry, nor did I want any connection with the film industry. I thought that, you know, turning down thousands and thousands of dollars might have given an indication of how strongly my feelings were on this matter.

It’s pretty admirable.

Well, you know, it’s probably mad and self-destructive but it’s just what I felt needed to be done. I think if you’re going to react to something, you might as well over-react. So, anyway, pretty soon after I’d made this perhaps rash declaration, I got a phone call from Karen Berger telling me that, good news, there was lots of money going to coming my way before Christmas because of this Constantine film that was going to be made. I said, OK, divide my money up between people who worked on the character, most notably Rick Veitch who was the first person to draw the character but who wouldn’t have got anything from it. Make sure that my name doesn’t go on the film. I told Karen that this would go for any future films as well. I didn’t want any money from them, that it should be distributed amongst the other people and that I didn’t want my name on the films. I then got a cheque through the mail, just for $8,000 which was an option cheque for the V For Vendetta film which I thought was dead in the water. So I was a bit surprised. I got back on the phone to Karen and said can you send the money to Dave Lloyd or write it out to Dave Lloyd and make sure I have my name taken off the film. She sent me some paperwork so I could officially assign this $8,000 to Dave Lloyd. And then, out of the blue, I got a phone call from one of the Wachowski brothers. He called in the middle of work. I tried to be as polite as possible – I don’t like being rude to people and I hadn’t got anything personal against anyone working on the film – and told him that I didn’t want anything to do with the V For Vendetta film and that I wasn’t taking any money for it and didn’t want a credit on it and didn’t have any interest in it. He sounded a bit doleful, asked if we could get together and talk. I explained to him that I was very busy and I wouldn’t be able to get together with him any time this year. I didn’t mean it as a snub, it was simply the truth. I’d got work to do and then I’d got a long deserved and long delayed holiday to take care of, and the rest of my life, you know. There was simply no advantage to us talking. It would be a waste of both of our times. I finally got him off the phone and was able to return to whatever work I was doing and then, sometime later, I was told that, yes, the film was going ahead and I said, OK, and they asked if I was really serious about turning down the completion money. Option payments are relatively small amounts that you get whether the film is eventually made or not. If the film finally goes into production then you get your completion money. This is the big amount. I had phone calls from Karen Berger asking if I was really sure I wanted to give this money to Dave Lloyd and I told her I was absolutely sure. She said OK and I stressed that I wanted my name taken off the film and that I was absolutely sure I wanted to give the money to Dave Lloyd. She sent me the necessary paperwork and it was round about then that a friend of mine, who’d received some promotional material about the film, phoned me up and asked if I was aware that, in the press release recap of the press conference, Joel Silver said I was very excited about the film and that I’ve talked to the Wachowski brothers and that we’d be meeting together so I could have input into this film I’m so excited about. Obviously I was less than pleased, because it seemed as though the side of the deal whereby I give all my money away, that had gone through smoothly. The sides of the deal where I actually got what I wanted, which was utter none involvement with these films, that somehow didn’t seem to have worked out. So I contacted Scott Dundear and basically explained to him that I was about 18 pages away from finishing my contracted work and I reminded him what I’d said about the possible future of League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and that being my only connection to DC and I said, “I understand that this is not directly DC’s fault, that this movie producer has, well, knowingly lied about what the position was. So it’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility. You were able to make sure my money was reassigned, you know, and so it’s your responsibility if you weren’t able to make sure that the other part of the deal wasn’t taken care of.” What I said was, give it a couple of weeks, what I wanted was a written apology in a forum that was made in as large a forum as that in which it was made. This didn’t need to be anything embarrassing. I didn’t want anybody to actually have to say, “I am a fat liar” even if that was indeed the case. I would have been quite happy with something like, “Owing to misunderstandings, we have stated that Alan Moore’s feelings about the V For Vendetta film are blah, blah, blah, when they are in fact, blah, blah, blah. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.” That didn’t seem to me to be punitive. I would have accepted that. I would’ve allowed DC to carry on, through Wildstorm, ABC, publishing the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But I think somehow I knew from the moment I asked for this that it wasn’t going to happen. When the two weeks were up, I think DC offered me all that they could offer me, in fairness, which was a little piece on the DC website, which is significantly different to a Warner Bros press release. I sort of had to tell them that, in that case, this would be a severance between me and DC. I would still be publishing bits of my work that I’ve finished working on, like the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen dossier, two specialist editions of Tomorrow’s Stories that are yet to come out, the last edition of Tom Strong. Beyond that point, a projected third volume of League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I think that me and Kevin have both agreed that we’d like to see it published as a joint venture between Knockabout Comics in the UK and Topshelf Comics in America – both small publishers that we get along with and trust. I feel pretty good about the whole thing. I could have done without all of this drama when I was on me way out the door and looking forward to a quiet holiday but, you know, on the other hand there’s a nice finality about it that means I am shot of a company that I didn’t want to work for and haven’t really wanted to work for since about 1984. There’s a whole field of possibilities in front of me that I’m eagerly exploring. Life feels pretty good at the moment. That’s basically the story.

Is that the reason you changed your phone number?

Oh, no, no. The reason I changed my phone number was because of something that happened six months ago. I had some nutty stalker. Nothing of any great consequence and it was all sorted out.

It wasn’t the Wachowski’s then?

No, but I did mention to Scott Dundear that if that happened again then I would be changing my phone number and that this time even he might not have it. I think this time I’m pretty safe from Hollywood stalkers.

It must be very strange, especially since you announced your retirement and suddenly all these movies are getting brought out. How does it feel… the film was shooting in London and the next day all the tabloids were full of people in V For Vendetta masks and tanks outside the Houses of Parliament. Very surreal.

The thing is, seeing as I don’t read the tabloids, and since I don’t watch films, then the only things that I see are… I notice on the front of Mad Magazine, I noticed that they were taking a sideways look at the Constantine movie. That was pretty devastating. I suppose I just take it one day at a time. It is pretty savage having Mad Magazine satirising one of your creations, other than that, I don’t really see much of it, or pay any attention to it, especially when the tabloids come out with some ridiculous rumours. A few months ago, I had somebody asking me about a story that had been in one of the tabloids about Shane Ritchie who was going to be appearing in a BBC television production of From Hell, which is the first and last that I’ve heard of it. I’ve made my point to DC and I’ve also explained to them that should, despite all of my protests and my withdrawing of my labours from them in the future – and will be making sure there is a clause in any contract with any company in future that, should the company be bought out by a large company then my contract is null and void – even though there is no chance of me ever working for them again, don’t think that this situation can’t get worse. I’ve said that basically, if my name is attached to this film then I shall be taking my name off all of the books that I do for DC. I shall be refusing money for Watchmen, V For Vendetta, any of the other books that they do. There’s quite a few of them by now. As the only way left to make my point. Then they can bring out David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta, Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Steve Bisette’s Swamp Thing, and I shall be shot of the American comic industry in every respect. Forever.

In their way of thinking, they see you as a strong brand which is why-

Yeah, well, that’s what I think too so that’s why I’ll be taking my name off all the books. It would be something that would be a very hurtful thing for me to do, emotionally, financially, in all sorts of ways. As I explained to Scott Dundear, you know that I’ll do this in a second, you know that I don’t bluff about these things. I don’t like to make threats, I just like to make statements of what reality is going to be like.

Why do you think it is that movies don’t seem to be able to come remotely close to books that are so good?

Well, I think that… I think, originally, I did intend to put my disenchantment with movies down to a matter of taste but, now that they’ve brought themselves to my attention, I think that my disenchantment goes deeper. It strikes me that movies as a medium are kind of flawed from their inception in that cinema is a technologically intensive, and thus cash intensive, medium. Unlike say comic strips or writing or drawing, you can’t just pick up a piece of paper and a biro. You are going to need a certain level of expensive equipment in order to make even the most rudimentary film. This means that, in practical terms, in most circumstances, you’re going to have, not artists in control of the work of art, but accountants. There are going to be overriding financial concerns that will steamroller all over any creative concerns. This is not to say that wonderful films haven’t been made and can’t be made. Of course they have. I find that most of my favourite films look like they were made for about five bob. Jean Cocteau has a magical scene that has a character start to walk into a mirror. He hadn’t got CGI or half a million dollars to spend on the effect, so he filled a tray with mercury and turned the camera on its side. That has got an elegance and an artistry that I am in awe of and that I would never want to detract from. But, it seems to me that when we’re talking about the great majority of the output of modern cinema, we’re not talking about Jean Cocteau. We’re mainly talking about fairly idiotic films that seem to have been largely made by and for people with reading difficulties, people who are, perhaps, emotionally, intellectually, a bit retarded. So I suppose that we’re talking about 18 year old boys, which I should imagine is the main target audience for movies. We were all emotionally and intellectually retarded at 18. I certainly was, you know. I’ve got no objection to entertainment for people in that bracket, it’s just a shame that it should have taken over an entire artform. Consequentially, I don’t really watch movies, I’m not really interested in them. There’ll occasionally be one that has something genuinely wonderful about it but the majority of them, it feels like a waste of two hours of my life that I could have been doing something else with. This is probably because I’m an increasingly kranky and reclusive weirdo. Perhaps it should be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s perhaps purely subjective.

I was reading in an interview Jonathan Ross did with you and you said you really liked the Sopranos.

Yeah, but I went off that. For a time I really did like it because I thought it was like a genuine Shakespearian drama. He had said that it would run for five series and then that would be the end. So I thought, great, it’s not a soap opera. This is something that’s not an indefinite, ever-lasting middle, it’s something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a story. When I was watching it as if it was going to end, as if it was a finite story, I thought it had the capacity to be something that was very close to Shakespearian tragedy. It’s got these monumental tragic figures in these classic situations. It could be something really wonderful and then, about three series in, once I realised that it was going to go on forever because it was making so much money, I lost all respect for it because it just became a soap opera. I’m not interested in soap operas even if they are mob soap operas where you can say ‘cunt’. You know, it’s sort of, I didn’t bother watching the last two series. I just stopped dead. I’m quite disenchanted with, I don’t really watch… screens is not my favourite way of enjoying something. There’s something a bit bullying about screen entertainment. It doesn’t leave room for the audience’s own imagination. It’s there with books, with radio, with painting, with comicbooks, you know. All of these things require a little bit of work on the part of the audience which I think is a really, really important part of the creative experience of enjoying art. You have to do a little bit of work, otherwise you won’t enjoy it. This spoon-fed culture, I think we’re probably hoarding up trouble for the future. I don’t know where the space is for imagination anymore. I don’t know which parts of the imagination haven’t yet been colonised by the various franchises of children’s television and all of the children’s films and the merchandise connected to them. I don’t know, I might be being unduly pessimistic but I do sometimes worry because no one’s imagination is actually encouraged and I don’t think the popularity of, say, the Harry Potter books, is an encouragement to the imagination. Irrespective of the value of the actual books, they’re part of a massive franchise, a massive phenomenon, where probably there’ll be more people go to see the films than will ever read the books and that’s saying something. All these books, all these comics that are made into films, I don’t think they do any favours to the comics medium. A lot of people in the medium seem to regard the fact that ‘Oh, they’re making a Spider-Man movie, that means all the kids will be coming into the comic shops’. Not necessarily and even if they do, is this the sort of audience comicbooks want to attract? Even if they make a good movie… I heard that the American Splendor movie was very, very good but my point would be that I don’t think… I haven’t seen it because I’m mates with Joyce and Harvey so when they were over here last summer I got American Splendor live. They came round my gaff and we chilled with them all day. Fantastic. There was no CGI effects, no bluescreen technology. The thing is that American Splendor is a wonderful comicbook, I’m sure it’s a good film but is it better than the wonderful comicbook? The Ghostworld film – any improvement on Dan Clowes wonderful comicbook? So, I’m fairly jaundiced in my opinion. I haven’t seen any of these films. I don’t go and see films that are made of my own work so I’m damned if I’m going to see anyone else’s. That’s my basic opinion anyway, Ian.

We had Frank Miller in town the other day. He’s taken almost exactly the opposite direction to you with Sin City. He’s a bona fide movie director now.

[With great sarcasm] Ooh, yes, fantastic. Good luck to him. I haven’t really had much to do with Frank for the past decade or something.

He said the reason he did it was because he’d seen how Hollywood had ruined other people’s work, he wanted complete control over the film. That was his take on it.

That’s fair enough. I didn’t want complete control over the film, I just didn’t want there to be a film. It’s unambiguous and straightforward I would have thought. I’ve heard that there’s this Sin City movie but I won’t be going to see that, either. Between you and me, I didn’t actually like the book very much. It seemed to be a tribute to Micky Spillane who was a brutal, stupid, misogynist twat, not to put to fine a point on it. The hard-boiled genre, you’ve got to something different with it if you’re going to interest me. Like I say, these are my own bigoted, prejudiced opinions.

Any news on Watchmen movie?

Well, I heard that’s not happening.

Again?

Again. But if it does happen, the same thing applies. I don’t want my name on it, I don’t want any money from it and if there’s any problem with that I’ll take my name off all the comicbooks.

I think Terry Gilliam was right when he said any movie of the book would just be less than the book.

Well, he didn’t think that way originally. We went to dinner in a little Indian restaurant at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road and he asked me how I’d make the Watchmen movie and I said, “To be perfectly honest Terry, if anyone had asked me to start with, I wouldn’t. It was written to be a comicbook, it was written to show things about the comicbook medium that couldn’t be duplicated in any other medium because I didn’t want comics to be seen as a poor cousin of cinema, as films that didn’t move.” People are always saying, “Yes, comics are very cinematic” which is kind of trite. Certainly it’s true that if somebody understands cinematic storytelling, they’re going to make a better comicbook artist or writer as somebody who doesn’t. But if that is the only way we see comics, in cinematic terms, then it’s just going to be films that don’t have a soundtrack and don’t move. I thought it was better to do things that comics can do that no other medium can, which was a lot of what Watchmen was about, and what a lot of my subsequent work was about.

Anything happening with Big Numbers?

No. No, there’s never going to be anything happening with Big Numbers. I mean, I tried to get that going twice and twice it failed disastrously. It’s just too painful to revisit again.

I hear you’ve got engaged?

Yes. This was part of my feeling of uplift and joy after finally throwing off the shackles of DC, I proposed to Mel and she was drunk so she said yes.

END

Excerpts from this interview appeared in the February edition of EMPIRE magazine. Visit www.empireonline.com

INTERVIEW: TOM HANKS and ROBERT ZEMECKIS ON ‘POLAR EXPRESS’

By Ian Winterton
First published in The North Guide magazine in 2004

“It takes me a couple of years to understand what I get out of the process of making a movie. I couldn’t answer that right now. All the pain and suffering is just too close.”

Believe it or not, jovial grump Robert Zemeckis, director of Castaway, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future and Framing Roger Rabbit, is answering a question about the Christmas Spirit. He’s sitting behind a desk in the ballroom of London’s Dorchester Hotel, in front of over a hundred reporters and photographers from all over Europe. To his right, star Tom Hanks, feigns despair and sinks beneath the table.

“Make sure you get that quote into the first paragraph of your stories,” Hanks laughs. “’Polar Express. Pain and suffering’ – that’s really what we want.”

Consider it done, Mr Hanks. Although I’m sure neither Zemeckis, Hanks or, also present, producer Steve Starkey, would disagree violently with me, “pain and suffering” pretty much sums up the viewing experience of the movie – it’s a pretty dull movie. That said, its visuals are stunning, a fact backed up by the decorations at this press conference: a backdrop of eight 10 feet tall Christmas trees (just to mess up any allegory, they’re real) and more fake snow than the Christmas window-display at Harrods.

Although Hanks plays five roles in the movie, the real star of the piece is the technology that made it possible. Developed for the film and dubbed “performance capture”, it’s an advanced version of the wizardry that brought

Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings. This time, though, every character in the film is an actor. Wearing electronic sensitive bodysuits and 300 sensors on their face, the actors performed in an empty room, a 360 degree camera-coverage negating even the need for a green-screen. Its implications for the future of filmmaking are mind-boggling.

As filmmakers, putting so much faith into new technology must be nerve-wracking, with the spectre of box-office bomb Final Fantasy looming over any CGI project.

“Anytime you try something new, it’s a big risk,” admits Starkey. “But, hey, I had Bob and Tom so the risk was minimised. At the same time it’s exciting and challenging, and that’s the only way we know how to make movies.”

“That’s harsh on Final Fantasy,” Hanks adds. “It was an OK movie. It was like a videogame story – I don’t know how great that is. But those guys weren’t diabolical geniuses. They took a shot, it didn’t work out. What you gonna do?”

Easy for him to say, with Polar Express already going down a storm across the Pond. But, while the results might not be to everyone’s taste, the process involved in “performance capture” is fascinating, not least because of the face-sensors.

“It really hurt when they nailed them in,” Hanks jokes. “The tack hammers are very small but the actual tacks themselves are very sharp. No, they just glued them to your face. They had to be glued on in a very specific pattern so the computers could read the data. The only thing is, if you touch your face, it’s, like, ‘Jeez, looks like we’re breaking for lunch.’ They come off very easily.”

Aside from the bizarre experience of acting with nothing but a sensor-suit (green-screen hater Ewan McGregor should count himself lucky he at least had a costume), Hanks loves the fact that it enabled him to play five roles in Polar Express, including both the film’s eight-year old hero, his father and a certain fat, bearded chap (no, not Michael Moore) with a reindeer fetish.

“It’s not just the multiple roles,” he says. “You can do that with hair and makeup like Peter Sellers or Robin Williams did. It’s the fact that I play an eight-year old kid that’s the best example of the technology’s potential. You’re no longer limited by your size, shape, skin-colour, gender. For example, Peter Jackson’s remaking King Kong with Andy Serkis, who played Gollum, as King Kong.”

For Zemeckis, too, who has dealt with special effects in most of his movies, the new technology was liberating. Once he’d captured a 3D digital record of the performers, the backgrounds and camera angles were all chosen and spliced together in post-production.

“It was really a fantastic experience,” he begrudgingly lets on. “It was the most relaxed movie I’d ever worked on. I had to compromise less because I wasn’t limited by the physical world.”

Blurring the lines between regular film acting and CGI, the film has already provoked debate in Hollywood as to whether it should be classed as an animated feature. Zemeckis is quite clear on the subject:

“This isn’t an animated film, even though it’s digitally rendered. It’s all acting and the directing is all directing.”

“There’s a distinction,” Starkey agrees. “In an animated movie there isn’t a real acting performance – it’s a vocal interpretation of an animation. This is a real human performance.”

What about rumours about a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars?

“Unless they create a new category,” says Zemeckis, “which I don’t think they’re going to do, I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be up for best picture.”

“Besides,” chips in Hanks. “I think anybody who releases a movie offers it up for Best Picture. The Academy has to decide.”

Either way, “performance capture” is here to stay. Starkey is already involved in a project using an improved version of the technology. What does the future hold?

“The next big leap is going to be when photo-real characters can be created in the computer,” is how Starkey puts it. “That way they can live side by side with live actors. At that stage you can have any performer do any role that you wish in any likeness that you wish.”

Hanks makes one very important point, though.

“It’s always going to be defined by the story you need to tell,” he says. “The technology shouldn’t override the story.”

Shame, because that’s exactly what happens in Polar Express. Bah, humbug.

CLOSER

Mike Nichols, 2004 US. Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen.

“What do you wank about?” “Ex-girlfriends.” “Not current ones?” “Never.”

A typical exchange from Closer. Bitingly funny but unremittingly cynical, it’s a merciless dissection of relationships. Nichols, director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is on familiar ground and, once again, he elicits bravura performances from his cast.

Law and Roberts haven’t been this good in years, but it’s Owen’s doctor and Portman’s stripper who steal the show. They don’t share much screen time but the scene in which he hires her for a lapdance is perfect; aggressive and self-loathing, he’s the epitome of wounded masculinity, pathetically susceptible to Portman’s mind-games.

None of this brilliance would be possible without Patrick Marber’s faultless script. By retaining the structure of his original play – we visit the characters only when they’re getting together or breaking apart – he ensures every scene is compelling, if not entirely heart-warming.

Essential cinema, just don’t take a date.

Ian Winterton

★★★★

First published in The Leeds Guide magazine in 2004

ALEXANDER

Oliver Stone, 2004 US. Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto, Anthony Hopkins.

By Zeus, what in Hades happened here?

A cinematic folly to rival Ishtar, Oliver Stone’s Alexander is the most ill conceived and poorly executed movie for many an age. Just plain bad on every level – even the costumes fail to look cool – it’s guaranteed to ruin a few careers, especially Colin Farrell’s.

Dressed up like David Lee Roth for most of the film, he either screams hysterically (a Homer Simpson-style “N-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” for every fallen comrade), pouts (steely-eyed determination) or looks constipated (simmering passion).

The rest of the cast deliver equally OTT performances, all of which indicates that Mr Stone wanted it that way. Internet rumours that he was freebasing during the shoot seem entirely credible – the whole decadent debacle is the cinematic equivalent of a 1970’s concept album.

One star then, and that’s for the unintentional laughs. And because I’ve never seen a war-elephant have its trunk hacked off before.

Ian Winterton

First published in The Leeds Guide magazine in 2004

A COCK AND BULL STORY

UK 2005. Cert: 15. 94 mins. Dir: Michael Winterbottom. Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Shirley Henderson, Dylan Moran, David Walliams, Jeremy Northam, James Fleet, Stephen Fry, Naomie Harris, Ian Hart, Gillian Anderson

Movie Review by Ian Winterton

You don’t have to be familiar with The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gent, Laurence Sterne’s groundbreaking 18th century novel, to get a lot out of A Cock And Bull Story. Indeed, all you need to know about the book is that it is considered the most unfilmable book in history. As Coogan intones in the film, Sterne was “post-modern before there was any modernism to be post about”, with his narrator trying to give us the story of his life but getting so caught up in the lives of his forebears that, by the end of 312 chapters, he hasn’t finished describing his birth yet.

The filmmakers’ approach is simple – make the movie about the making of the film of Tristram Shandy, simultaneously exposing the follies of the film business, illuminating the novel’s major themes (mortality, unreliable narrators, human vanity) while stating from the off that they don’t stand a chance of succeeding – and works brilliantly.

Flitting back and forth between scenes set within the novel and the foolhardy struggle of the filmmakers, A Cock And Bull Story is consistently hilarious, thought-provoking and brimming with energy. The post-modernism isn’t just a one-way street, as it spills out into our world with stars Coogan, Brydon and, in a cameo, Gillian Anderson, starring as themselves. As with the book, knowledge of these celebrities isn’t essential to enjoying the movie but, particularly when Coogan is shown discussing his extra-marital affairs with his agent, it adds an extra level of enjoyment.

Shot primarily on hand-held digital, A Cock And Bull Story is similar to Winterbottom’s triumphant 24 Hour Party People (the real Tony Wilson appears as himself, interviewing Coogan), only even better. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that, while the earlier film relied on the sublime talents of Coogan, here he’s joined by the equally talented Rob Brydon.

A Cock And Bull Story was one of the audience favourites at last year’s Leeds International Film Festival – if you didn’t catch it then, now’s your chance to see the most pretentious, self-referential, unsufferable smug and – oh yes – fantastic British film for years.

★★★★

First published in The Leeds Guide magazine in 2005.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

USA 2005. Cert: 15. 134 mins. Dir: Ang Lee. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Review by Ian Winterton

As is so often the way, after the full-on cheese-fest of summer, which merges with the commerciality of Christmas, January sees the release of what, 12 months from now, will still be seen as one of 2006’s best films.

Maestro Ang Lee returns to form after the shambles that was Hulk with an epic American love story. It’s the early 1960’s and herders for hire Jack (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Ledger) are sent up into the mountains of Wyoming to look after a herd of sheep. Sharing a tent, it soon becomes apparent that they both want to be more than just friends and. Ennis insists that he “ain’t queer”. “Neither am I,” says Jack, although you get the impression he’s saying this for Ennis’ sake. After their initial affair, it’s obvious that they’re both in love. But Ennis, having witnessed “what happens to queers” as a young boy, is keen to bury his feelings and goes ahead and marries. Jack does the same, though with even less enthusiasm, and both men raise families. Before long, however, they’re embarking on ‘fishing trips’ together, living a lie for 20 years, only able to be their true selves for a few weeks.

A masterpiece on every level, Brokeback Mountain will bring a tear to the eye of all but the most hard-hearted homophobe. That said, the two men don’t have the monopoly on heart-rending emotion; their wives, played brilliantly by Hathaway (as a brassy Texan gal, she’s unrecognisable as the lead from The Princess Diaries) and Williams (The Station Agent), suffer awfully as the truth about their husbands becomes apparent.

Whether Hollywood can overcome its prejudices to give this the Oscars it deserves remains to be seen. In the meantime, I urge everybody to see Brokeback Mountain and not just because it’s the right-on thing to do; whatever you’re sexual preference, this is one of the best love stories for years.

★★★★

First published in The Leeds Guide magazine in 2006.