Category Archives: Celebrity Interviews

JOHN MACKENZIE on 25 YEARS of THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY

A pleasure cruiser chugs up the Thames in the mellow sunlight of a beautiful summer evening. On board, a handful of journalists sip champagne on deck, watching London slide past – the Eye, the Town Hall, swanky apartment blocks and, up ahead, that little slice of Downtown Manhattan, Canary Wharf.

“I love it,” enthuses John Mackenzie, a film director who looks like a weather-beaten version of Jeremy Beadle. “I think it’s fantastic. I love high-rise buildings. I want them to spread up the river some more.”

Having been in the business since the late sixties, Mackenzie’s best known for classic Brit gangster movie The Long Good Friday, the Special Edition DVD release of which has prompted today’s jaunt.

Back in 1980, according to Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, Docklands represented “more acutely and extensively than any area in England the physical decline of the urban city and the need for urban regeneration”.

In a word, it was a shit-hole. Mackenzie knows better than most how radically Docklands has changed. Not only was the site utilised for its grimy locations, but it was integral to the plot. The film’s antihero, Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins), is a gangster desperate to turn legit who sees the undeveloped wasteground as the key to his salvation. Twenty-five years on, it adds an air of prophecy to an already outstanding film.

“We deliberately set it in Docklands because we knew it was going to be huge,” Mackenzie tells Hotdog. “We didn’t know how but we knew it was going to be developed.”

We’re below decks now, in a dining area that, alarmingly, recalls the room in the film where Hoskins brutally thrusts a wine glass into the neck of Derek Thompson, who later found fame as Charlie in Casualty. He’s just one of many ‘faces-of-the-future’ that further bolster the film’s visionary credentials. There’s Dexter Fletcher, Helen Mirren, Eastenders’ Gillian Taylforth and, as a homoerotic hitman, Pierce Brosnan. Mackenzie humbly attributes this talent spotting to “great casting director”, Simone Reynolds.

“Brosnan… As soon as we put him on the
screen… click.”

“She wheeled ‘em in and I picked ‘em. I’m a great believer that some people are born for celluloid. Brosnan was. As soon as we put him on the screen… click.”

With a first-rate supporting cast and a phenomenal performance from Hoskins, …Friday was considered an unequivocal success by all involved. Except the backers.

“They thought it was unpatriotic and pro-IRA,” Mackenzie recounts. “They thought they’d have their cinemas bombed. I said, ‘If it’s pro-IRA, why would they bomb it?’ They decided they’d sell it as a package for TV and chop it down from 105 to 70 minutes.”

If that wasn’t insulting enough, the company took the astonishing decision to dub over Hoskins’ allegedly impenetrable Cockney accent.

“I was so incensed when I heard about this that I went crazy in a corner of Soho,” laughs Mackenzie. “But, as it turned out, that was our ace card because they’d just gone too far. Bob was going to sue them and he got all sorts of high-profile actors like Alec Guinness willing to stand up in court. They got scared and so, when George Harrison and his Handmade company got involved, we were able to buy it pretty cheaply.”

A modest hit when it was eventually released, …Friday has since come to be recognised as one of the best British movies ever. Its influence can be felt in numerous other films, both homegrown (Lock, Stock) and foreign (Pusher). Given its popularity, it’s perhaps unsurprising that rumours of a sequel have been rife. Surely this would ruin the film’s audacious ending?

“I killed Harold 25 years ago and he’s staying dead.”

“It would,” agrees Mackenzie, “which is why I would never do one. But I’ve been inundated by Bob and Barry [Hanson, producer]. Because you never saw Harold get killed, they want him to have jumped out of the car or something. But there’s no way I’m going to cheat like that. I killed Harold 25 years ago and he’s staying dead.”

This article appeared in Hotdog Magazine in 2005.

INTERVIEW: DIRK MAGGS on ‘SANDMAN’

ENTER SANDMAN

With Audible’s Sandman adaptation due out in July, Ian Winterton spoke to radio drama pioneer Dirk Maggs about his 30 year quest to turn Neil Gaiman’s ground-breaking comic book into an “audio movie”.

“I will show you terror in a handful of dust.”

These words, featured in print adverts in 1988, introduced the worl d to a new comic book series from DC’s Vertigo imprint: The Sandman. Written by a then largely unknown Neil Gaiman, it told the tale of Dream, known to many as Morpheus, one of the seven Endless. A dizzyingly brilliant blend of mythology, history and fantasy, it quickly transitioned from cult hit to mainstream success and Gaiman, along with Alan Moore and Frank Miller, became part of the late-80s graphic novel renaissance.

Unlike countless other comic book creations, Sandman was never adapted into other mediums – until now. But it’s not a film, or a TV series or a video game, but an audio drama, with no less a legend than Dirk Maggs at the helm. A pioneer in

the field these past 30 years, his innovative and varied body of work includes radio versions of Batman, Spider-Man, Superman and Judge Dredd.

“I discovered early on,” he says, “in the late 80s, early 90s, that I had a knack for taking comic book material and editing and massaging it in such a way as to make driving, exciting audio which sounded just like a film but had no pictures – which were created in the listener’s brain. We expanded into Dolby Surround, we introduced especially composed scores – it was all happening.”

Of all the superheroes getting what Maggs describes as his “audio movie”, there was one above all others that he was desperate to adapt: Sandman.

“DC at that time were based in New York City,” Maggs recounts, “and I hit it off especially well with their Business Affairs Manager, Phyllis Hume, a feisty no-nonsense Brooklynite who had a wonderfully dry sense of humour and didn’t waste praise where it wasn’t earned. She told me to read this ‘amazing’ new series coming out on DC/Vertigo. I read the first issue and was blown away. It was a monumental work of literature written for a 22 page comic book –punchy, direct, uncluttered by stereotypes, and exactly the sort of material I knew I could turn in amazing audio.”

He pitched it to the BBC and… they passed.

“It was frustrating,” he sighs, “but Neil wasn’t the figure he is nowadays and they were wary about having too much comic book entertainment – wary of ‘dumbing down’,  perhaps. It made no sense to me because it was ready made for the audience the BBC networks – particularly Radio 4 – supposedly wanted to attract: anyone under 50, basically. I pitched it several times over the years, but they just couldn’t see it, not even when Neil became a respected and applauded novelist and screenwriter.”

Disappointing though this was, Dirk’s correspondence with Gaiman turned into a friendship – and they discovered that they had both been close to Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who died aged just 49 in 2001.

“Neil was mentored early on by Douglas,” says Maggs, “while he changed my life when he chose me to adapt his later Hitchhiker novels for radio.”

While Sandman remained elusive, Maggs’ friendship with Gaiman bore other audio fruit as the years 2013-2017 saw BBC radio commissioning audio movies of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Stardust, Anansi Boys and, co-written with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens.

This flurry of activity coincided with one of the stranger consequences of our internet age: the return of audio drama. Though it had never gone away for UK citizens, thanks largely to BBC Radio 4, audiences across the globe rediscovered this lost artform. And were willing to pay for new content.

Enter Amazon’s audiobook arm, Audible, brandishing chequebook. Maggs, with his reputation for turning properties with cult cache into unmissable radio, was tasked with adapting Alien spin-off novels. The results were astounding and, as many reviewers noted, far superior to the dreary prequels being churned out by Ridley Scott at the same time.

Then it happened – DC contacted Maggs and Audible: would they like to adapt Sandman?

“I many ways it’s perfect that we’ve had to wait,” is Maggs’ philosophical take. “Neil says he’s glad, too, because we’re better at what we do. The Sandman is like a good wine – it grows richer and more complex the older you leave it, and I don’t think I could have brought out half of its quiet complexities 25 years ago.”

And there’s the added bonus of Amazon-Audible’s deep pockets, which enabled Maggs to assemble a huge cast, including many “very famous” actors – none of whom Maggs can yet reveal.

“Strictly embargoed, I’m afraid,” he says. “But all I’ll say is it’s strange we didn’t record in Los Angeles considering the Hollywood talent we secured.”

Of Dream, himself, Maggs won’t be drawn, except to say that the actor in question was his first and only choice.

“Oh heck, what can I say? He was always there. He has exactly what Dream needs to come to life … and he is amazing.”

Recording was divided between London, New York and Atlanta, Georgia – the location of The Walking Dead’s production base. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn from that, Maggs is keeping his lips firmly zipped. Either way, it’s “by far the biggest cast” Maggs has ever had on a single project.

“I make it 70, on a quick head count. All are brilliant, there really are no exceptions. Everybody brought their ‘A’ game. In the ensemble sessions last October we had up to 15 people at any one time in a studio built for a third of that number. But everybody was so into the material, and the characters and stories themselves are so gripping that where possible I ran the whole story in one go, recorded voices-only to the mics. It was absolutely enthralling to hear it performed like that. And it wasn’t just the stars who made it sing – the whole ensemble absolutely soared into the realms of Dream. Listening to it now, in post-production where I’m currently labouring, it’s all sounding amazing.”

One cast member who has been announced is Neil Gaiman himself, on board as the narrator. To create the narration, Maggs made the inspired choice to draw, not only on the words printed in the comic books, but Gaiman’s actual scripts.

“It is one of the most exciting things about this project,” Maggs enthuses. “The scripts are  a window into what is going on in Neil’s mind, as he is writing the stories. And they are poetry. There’s a scansion to his writing, a rhythm that can be gentle or formal, from blank verse to iambic pentameter – and of course Will Shakespeare does feature in two of the stories in this first series. Part of the joy of the process was to hear our actors – some senior Shakespearian ones too – breathing life into these lines, lifting them off the page, giving them that rhythm. There were times in studio where shivers ran up my back as dialogue I had only ever read off the page burst into vibrant, living existence.”

Maggs even incorporated a passage from Gaiman’s private papers.

“It’s never been heard, or read by anyone but Neil,” Maggs explains. “He wrote some background on the creation of Dream’s talisman, his Ruby, and I placed it during the confrontation with Doctor John Dee, because it’s the subject of the story and it is beautiful and riveting.”

The whole experience has been a “privilege” says Maggs. And not, it would seem, just for him. Gaiman himself has quietly expressed a joy at revisiting stories he wrote 30 years ago, though he doesn’t recognise the person he wrote them as himself. Maggs says:

“At the end of a particularly good mixing day a short while ago I emailed Neil and said, ‘This stuff just comes alive – damn, you’re good.’ He came back saying he’s not sure he recognises the person who wrote it because it was so long ago. I assured him that whoever that person was, they had created magic – and it translates beautifully into our strangely visual realm of pure audio.”

A slightly shorter version of this feature appeared in SciFiNow in April 2020.

INTERVIEW: ALAN BENNETT, RICHARD GRIFFITHS & JAMES CORDEN on ‘THE HISTORY BOYS’

“Leeds back then was very black and sooty,” says Alan Bennett. “When I first went to Cambridge, it just seemed like something out of a fairy story. It just looked so wonderful.”

Though these words might not be altogether loyal to the city of his birth, Bennett has done more than most to put Northern England, and Leeds in particular, on the map. With a few notable exceptions, his plays, monologues, screenplays and novels are distinctively Northern. The History Boys is no different, telling as it does the tale of seven working class Northern sixth formers who are studying for places at Oxbridge. Bennett admits that the story has its roots in his own life.

“I went to Leeds Modern, a state school, and they didn’t normally send students to Oxford or Cambridge, although it did often send pupils to Leeds University. But the headmaster happened to have gone to Cambridge and half a dozen of us tried and we all eventually got in.”

Unlike the characters in his play, the film version of which hit cinemas last week, Bennett couldn’t have cared less about Oxbridge.

“It wasn’t the Holy Grail,” he says, “in the sense that I’d never been to Oxford or Cambridge. Also, unlike in the play, the masters at my school had no idea what was expected of us during the entrance exam so we just had to busk it, really.”

The History Boys has been an incredible adventure, and not just for Bennett. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also worked on play and film of Bennett’s The Madness Of George III (famously renamed The Madness Of King George for its cinematic release, lest dull-witted Americans think its the third in a trilogy), it was an instant hit when it played at London’s National Theatre. A film version was greenlit, starring every principle actor from the stage version. Once shooting was over, the production moved on to a triumphant Broadway run, garnering awards galore, including a Tony for Richard Griffiths. His troubled teacher Hector, who believes in learning for the sake of learning, is an astonishing creation. Was it, like many of Bennett’s parts, written with him in mind?

“No,” says Bennett. “I had no idea who could play Hector, no notion, really. And then Richard came to see us. As soon as you’ve chosen somebody, it obscures anybody else who you might have thought of. It’s like going to a place where you’ve never been and having a picture of it in your head and then going there in real life and having that picture wiped out by reality.”

Griffiths does indeed inhabit the role completely, although his own experience of academia is a million miles away from Hector’s.

“I went to the drama school at what became Manchester polytechnic,” he says.  “I was working in Littlewoods in Stockton-on-Tees and handling money and being very good at mathematics. They sent me off to college to get some qualifications so I could come back and be a manager. I did an arts course instead. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just blundered into it.”

That blundering led to a celebratory career that has seen him become one of the UK’s best known actors. And, with The History Boys’ success in New York – which garnered Griffiths a Tony Award – he’s set to become famous in the States for more than just being Harry Potter’s nasty uncle. But the child-hating side is something he likes to play on. He talks of his eight young co-stars with mock vehemence:

“I don’t think those boys know the meaning of the word respect. There was certainly no visible demonstration or awareness of the word. The insults they used were usually fairly scatological and involving issues of personal hygiene and sexual mores. I would have them all beaten regularly.”

Of the eight boys, the best known is James Corden, a familiar face from films such as Mike Leigh’s All Or Nothing and Kay Mellor’s TV drama, Fat Friends. Cheeky and confident, he’s the very embodiment of the youthful impetuousness that Griffiths pretends delights in finding so infuriating. As Corden explains, it was all done out of love:

“When you find yourself working with people who have had such an impact on you growing up,” he says, “there are two things you can do: you can either put them on a pedestal or you can take them down a peg or two. We thought the best way to show our love and respect was to be absolutely vile and horrible to them.”

Bennett finds this both hilarious and understandable.

“The writer is quite low down on the hierarchy, really” he says, “but the fact that they took the piss out of Nick, who is also the director of the National Theatre, I would have thought was slightly more risky. They might never work again.”

Considering the success of The History Boys, this seems unlikely. Indeed, even if the film isn’t a huge box-office success, their lives will never be the same again. Corden is philosophical.

“Whatever happens in the future, I know that we’ve had this amazing time and I’ve spent two years working with seven other people who will be my friends for life. And that’s not just luvvie speak, that’s genuine. If we didn’t all get on, none of us have been contractually obliged to go with the project all the way; none of us had to go to New York, none of us had to sign on to do the film. But we all did.”

 

He does admit that there have been a few arguments.

“You’ve got eight young egos thrown together – you’re bound to have a few fights. There’s been a point when I’ve hated every single one of them, but it never lasts long. One thing is, if you’re throwing a fit, you’ll have seven people laughing at you and calling you Diana Ross.”

For Bennett, it takes him back to his own early career in the 1960s, when he first became a household name writing and acting in Beyond The Fringe.

“I spent three and a half years working closely with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and, even though we didn’t see each other that often afterwards, whenever we did we went back to that relationship because we had that shared experience. That wasn’t so good for me, because back then I was always the one who got sat on.”

Though he delivers this last with a wry smile, one senses that he’s acutely aware that everyone in his anecdote is dead. Always of a morbid bent and a notorious hypochondriac, Bennett seems more aware of mortality than ever, especially given his recent revelation that, back in 1997, he almost lost his life to colon cancer. He’s even unwilling to properly enjoy the success of History Boys.

“Being a writer, you’re always thinking about what to do next,” he says. “It’s much easier to follow something that hasn’t been as successful. Success slows you down, really. But at the moment I’m very conscious that I’m getting on a bit. I just want to get as much done as I can.”

This feature first appeared on the FilmFour website in 2006

INTERVIEW: LENA HEADY on ‘IMAGINE ME & YOU’

“It wasn’t about ‘I’m a big lesbian!’” laughs Lena Heady, of her latest film, Imagine Me & You. “It’s just about love.”

Heady, a resident of Huddersfield, was actually born in Bermuda in 1976.

“That always sounds very exciting,” she says, “but I have a British passport. My family are from Huddersfield. My father was a policeman and he was sent out there to train. I don’t have any memories of Bermuda. I’m quite glad, because I’d probably be very cynical about the British weather.”

Set far away from Huddersfield, in London’s leafy Primrose Hill, Imagine Me & You is the sort of romantic comedy that, ever since Four Weddings, Americans lap up. While it won’t play as well over here, writer-director Ol Parker does at least have fun with the genre’s clichés. Not least because, for once, the requisite unrequited love is between two women. Heady plays Luce, a lesbian florist, who falls for Rachel, played by the beautiful Piper Perabo.

“We’d just shot The Cave together in Romania,” says Heady, “and then both got to play Luce and Rachel together. That was good for bonding – if you spend any amount of time with anyone in Romania you’ll bond. It’s pretty harsh out there. I was a vegetarian, but I’m not anymore.”

The Romanians broke her?

“The Romanians broke me, yes,” she chuckles, adding in an Eastern European accent, “‘You must have the dog-stew or nothing.’ I’m joking.”

“I just flew out to LA on my last pennies to try and get a job. And thank God I landed a pilot which hopefully will get picked up and go to series and everything will be gorgeous.”

Lena Heady in ‘The Brothers Grimm’ (2005)

This wasn’t the first time Heady’s dietary choices had caused trouble on a film set. While shooting The Brothers Grimm in Prague, Heady had a run-in with the film’s director, Terry Gilliam. He had a rabbit bought from a pet-shop and was going to have it killed so Heady’s character, a huntress, could gut it.

“I rescued it,” Heady reveals, “and took it back to the shop. The owner said she loved him [the rabbit] although she may have put him in a pie for all I know.”

Reading between the lines, it seems as though she and Gilliam didn’t get on at all.

“I don’t think Terry and I will be spending time together anytime soon, let’s put it that way,” is all Heady will say. “For me, Brothers Grimm pretty much lived up to its title. In fact, it was hideous.”

Lena Heady and Ian Hart in ‘Loved Up’ (1995)

Heady first came to mainstream attention following Loved Up, a 1995 TV film about the highs and lows of the rave scene. Critically acclaimed, it was the first screenplay by none other than Ol Parker.

“It was a sort of launch pad for me and Ol and [co-star] Ian Hart,” says Heady. “People remember it which is always a good accolade. I think it was a great piece of work.”

Since Loved Up, Ian Hart has worked with the likes of Ken Loach, Neil Jordan, Tony Scott and Michael Winterbottom and Ol Parker, having set up camp in Los Angeles, married Thandie Newton. Heady, though she’s never been out of work, hasn’t enjoyed the same sort of success.

“I just flew out to LA on my last pennies to try and get a job,” Heady cheerfully admits. “And thank God I landed a pilot which hopefully will get picked up and go to series and everything will be gorgeous.”

Even if the TV series isn’t forthcoming, Heady has no shortage of work. She’s soon to be seen playing Queen Gorgo in 300, Zack ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s ultra-violent Spartans v. Persians graphic novel. (“I’ve got some funny eye make-up in that one,” confesses Heady).

Above all, she obviously loves her job.

“Oh yeah. I mean, in Imagine Me & You, I get to stand on top of a car, in a full traffic jam, and shout ‘I love you!’ in front of loads of people. There’s something lovely about getting to do something you’d never do in real life.”

This article first appeared in The Leeds Guide in 2006.

INTERVIEW: MUSE on ‘BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS’

It’s midday on a Friday and I’ve accidentally got drunk. Now, the floaty, vaguely tripped-out feeling may be down to the four pints I’ve just glugged down, but I’m more inclined to blame the fact that I’ve been locked in a bar in London’s Soho Hotel with a dozen journalists for the playback of Muse’s new album. It’s a fantastically weird mix of prog-rock, electro, metal and sci-fi noodlings Hawkwind would have been proud of. And, at the stipulation of the band’s management, we had to listen to it twice, “in case we missed something”.

So, yeah, I’m feeling a little odd when, in a suite upstairs, I get to meet the man behind the madness, Matt Bellamy. In contrast to myself, he turns out to be both sober and sane, not to mention thoroughly pleasant and polite. With his designer casual clothes, prominent cheekbones and scrunchy hair, you’d sooner imagine him folding up jumpers in a swanky clothes shop than fronting one of the UK’s most successful rock bands. Then again, Muse have never been associated with rock ‘n’ roll excess. I put it to him that the band’s clean living is one reason they’re still going strong a decade after their debut album.

“We’ve had some very good times on tour in the past,” he says a tad defensively. “And we were young guys and at one point we were all single, but I don’t think we need to tell everyone about it. We’ve always wanted to get attention for being good musicians and for making good music.”

And good music they most certainly do make, although it’s not to everyone’s taste. For some, it’s silly, pretentious and overblown. To those who’ve drunk from the cup, however, it’s silly, pretentious and overblown. AND THAT’S THE POINT. With Black Holes And Revelations, Bellamy and his fellow bandmates – Chris Wolstenholme (bass) and Dominic Howard (drums) – have really pulled out the stops. In between beers during the playback, I jot down the names of other bands that come to mind, producing a list that includes New Order, The Scissor Sisters, The Pixies, Pet Shop Boys, Ennio Morricone and Spinal Tap.

“Yeah, we’ve got Morricone and flamenco going on,” Bellamy allows. “We recorded some sections in Northern Italy, which is why I think we took on that south European sound. I’ve always loved that stuff but never found a way of getting it into the songs. I tried a bit on the second album with Screenager but it came out a bit crap.”

“Cydonia is the area of Mars where they think there’s that big-faced temple thing. Mars used to be the same distance from the Sun as we are now and so some people think that maybe there was a civilisation there. I find that idea quite appealing.”

In amongst the electro and the flamenco, it’s still the same old Muse: Bellamy’s falsetto vocals, pounding drums and loud ‘n’ fast rock guitar. For me, all the disparate elements of the album come together on the brilliantly titled closer Knights Of Cydonia. It begins with laser-guns and horses galloping.

“We really pushed that song to its limits,” says Bellamy. “We pushed the fantastical elements so far, maybe too far, so it sounds like a sci-fi film. Cydonia is the area of Mars where they think there’s that big-faced temple thing. Mars used to be the same distance from the Sun as we are now and so some people think that maybe there was a civilisation there. I find that idea quite appealing.”

Which brings us to Bellamy’s much publicised love of conspiracy theories and other wacky notions. Interviewed in the Guardian, he admitted that he found a lot of David Icke’s ideas compelling. Maybe he is mad after all. Are the giant lizards of the Babylonian Brotherhood running the planet?

“I think that’s a little far fetched,” he laughs, adding, “It’s a slippery slope. Once you start reading that stuff it takes you over a bit. I quite like alternative thinking. My girlfriend studies psychology and she’s working in a hospital in Milan where there are patients that actually believe the end of the world is nigh and that sort of thing. It’s interesting hearing about people who’ve been completely overtaken by these theories.”

How are they going to reproduce the sound of such a wilfully diverse and bonkers album live?

“With great difficulty!” Bellamy exclaims. “But we’ve actually got a fourth person in to do some of the electronic stuff for the first time. Morgan Nicholls, who’s actually in The Streets, took over on bass when Chris broke his wrist. It turns out he’s a really good keyboard player. We decided that next time we should give him a go.”

As thousands of fans can testify, Muse are awesome live – and, unlike most bands, they’re actually better playing huge gigs. Are they excited to be playing Leeds and Reading?

“Absolutely,” enthuses Bellamy. “Reading and Leeds are the biggest rock festivals you can play.  When I was younger I remember seeing bands playing there – I saw Jeff Buckley, one of my all-time heroes, there in ’94 and I remember thinking if I could get up there it would be amazing. Also, it feels nice to be a band that can do a gig like Glastonbury but also do Reading and Leeds, which is more of a rock audience. It’s nice to be able to move between the two.”

Just look out for those giant lizards.

This article first appeared in The Leeds Guide magazine in 2006.

INTERVIEW: ROBIN HARDY on ‘THE WICKER MAN’

Something Wicker This Way Comes…

Ahead of a new re-mastered release, Ian Winterton chats paganism, Christopher Lee and Nicolas Cage in a bear-suit with Wicker Man director Robin Hardy.

Though consistently rated as one of the best horror films ever, that epithet doesn’t quite do The Wicker Man justice. It’s horrifying in places, for sure, but there’s barely a splash of fake blood in sight.

Telling the story of a devout Christian police sergeant (played by the inestimable Edward Woodward) investigating a suspected pagan sacrifice on a remote Scottish island, it’s more unsettling than horrifying, but the creeping dread it instils stays with the audience for, well, 40 years.

Its director, Robin Hardy, now an avuncular and infectiously cheerful 83, confesses he can’t quite believe people are still asking him about it.

“I’m immensely proud of it, of course, but I’ve done many other things beside. I’m a novelist and I’ve made and written other films. Day to day, though, it’s not a large factor in my life.”

That may be how it feels to Hardy but to the wider world – especially those who access information via the internet – that little movie he made in 1973 is the definitive work of his life. On the movie website IMDb his credits are 99 per cent Wicker Man related – he’s either appearing ‘as himself’ in making-of documentaries or he’s writing and directing sequels. One, The Wicker Tree, was released in 2011 and based on Cowboys For Christ, a novel by Hardy. It was universally savaged by the critics and even the hardcore fans stayed away. It was, by all accounts, a troubled project.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get a film made,” says Hardy. “Raising finance and so on. But getting The Wicker Tree together took far longer than it should have.”

The final nail in the coffin, many would say, was when Christopher Lee was forced to drop out due to injury.

“It was a real blow,” admits Hardy. “Christopher was filming in New Mexico, on a movie called The Resident. He tripped over cables, I understand, and has had to walk with a cane since. Back injuries don’t go away easily. And also they’re very difficult to operate on because if something goes wrong your spine, well…so you put up with the pain. He only has a cameo in The Wicker Tree but he was going to play the main adversary.”

Hardy’s disappointment at losing Lee – whose charismatic but, frankly, bonkers Lord Summerisle is the perfect counterpoint to Woodward’s dour copper – remains palpable. It’s fair to say Lee has a reputation for being a bit of a diva. This reporter was once told, by Robert ‘Freddy Kruger’ Englund no less, that Lee “feels most genre films” – i.e. all The Hammer horrors that made his name – “are beneath an actor of his talents”.

“I can’t comment on that,” says Hardy. “All I can say is Christopher was a joy to work with. Apart from everything else he brought to the part, he understood The Wicker Man and what it was about, and it’s about a great many things and he understood them all. He knew a lot about the associated mythology before he came on board.”

It probably helped the part was written with Lee in mind.

“Perhaps, yes,” chuckles Hardy.

The Wicker ManThe original film came about as a collaboration between Hardy and screenwriter and playwright Anthony Shaffer, best known for penning the play Sleuth and its 1972 Michael Caine/Laurence Olivier outing on the silver screen. Because Hardy did the lion’s share of the research into the pagan beliefs featured in the film, he has occasionally come under attack from modern pagans who feel the film helps perpetuate negative connotations towards their beliefs. Hardy finds this bemusing.

“I don’t think The Wicker Man has a negative attitude to their religions at all and I know Shaffer didn’t. I mean, pagans on this island and throughout Europe did practice human sacrifice. But I’m by no means anti-pagan. Lots of things in our culture date back to before Christianity. A lot of my research came from The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer and we did rely heavily on that. Ironically, when that book was published [in 1890] it offended Christians because it dared to approach and catalogue Christianity equally and on a par with other religions.

“I think,” he continues, “our film showed paganism as it really was [rather than] all those rather hokey things which are about witchcraft and all the rest that are supposedly based on paganism in the Hammer Films. I would have thought they’d have been much more angry about that.”

“Nicholas Cage is a good actor but in this he just looks ridiculous, especially when he’s disguised as a bear… Oh good grief. A bear!”

Mention of anger brings me neatly to the Hollywood remake of The Wicker Man. Directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicolas Cage, it’s execrable in the extreme. Hardy is quick to agree.

“I have a theory about it which I think will amuse you,” he says, mock-conspiratorially. “You see, Shaffer died a few years ago and I think he put a proper old-fashioned curse on any projects based on his scripts he doesn’t approve of. I mean, I don’t know if you saw Sleuth, the [2007] remake. It’s directed by Kenneth Brannagh and the screenplay’s by Harold Pinter, for goodness’ sake. All these very talented people and it’s awful. A complete disaster. I think there’s some supernatural force that makes all these talented people make fools of themselves.

“It’s the same with Neil LaBute’s Wicker Man. He’s very interested in transgender issues but putting them into the Wicker Man doesn’t really make any sense, although we had Christopher Lee kitted out in a dress at one point. Nicholas Cage is a good actor but in this he just looks ridiculous, especially when he’s disguised as a bear.” Hardy breaks into a warm giggle. “Oh good grief. A bear!”

I’m too polite, and too charmed by this lovely octogenarian, to suggest that Shaffer’s curse perhaps put the kibosh on The Wicker Tree, too. Because, whatever Shaffer’s ghost felt about that project, he evidently approves of Hardy’s restoration of The Wicker Man.

“It was amazing when the news came in that they’d found a 35mm print at the Harvard Film Archive,” says Hardy. “We’ve basically scanned it in digitally from that. It’s been laborious but painless. We’ve also inserted a sequence that got left out of the original cut. I can’t wait for people to see it.”

It might have been 40 years, he might have done a lot of other things, but there’s no doubting that, when it comes to The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy is still one of the faithful.

This article first appeared on the Northern Soul website in 2013. Link here.

ANNE HATHAWAY on ‘BECOMING JANE’

“It was never my intention to become the Princess of Genovia. It was my intention to become an actress.”

So says 24-year old Brooklyn-born Anne Hathaway, referring to the fictional kingdom that made her famous in The Princess Diaries, the 2001 film that, together with its 2003 sequel, made her a hit with 12-year old girls. Having already starred in US teen drama Get Real and going on to play another soppy princess in dire kids’ fantasy Ella Enchanted, she looked to set to remain as the human equivalent of a McFlurry. And then Brokeback Mountain got her good.

“I’d got my fill of those early roles,” she tells The Big Issue from a room at London’s Dorchester Hotel. “It was really Brokeback when I first played a character that was so different to who I was. I loved the way it fired up my imagination and how terrified I was of failure. It kinda becomes addictive.”

As Luveen, the brassy Texan gal who finds herself married to Jake Gyllenhaal’s gay cowboy, Hathaway was a revelation; those critics who’d dismissed her as fit only for soporific live-action Disney movies were forced to eat their words. Hollywood, though, had long been aware of her potential, with Princess Diaries director Garry Marshall describing Hathaway in Variety magazine as, “multi-talented… a combination Julia Roberts, Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland.”

“I’ve been obsessed with Austen since I was 14 and I didn’t want to take the part at first because I felt there was a very good chance, as there is with every role, that you’re just going to mess up and be horrible and unwatchable.”

It wasn’t long before Hathaway was trusted with a lead role and last year’s The Devil Wears Prada proved to be the ideal choice. The frothy story of a wholesome, unpretentious young woman dropped suddenly into the snake-pit of a fashion magazine, it appealed both to Hathaway’s teen fans and adults (especially, it has to be said, gay men, making Marshall’s Hepburn and Garland comments seem particularly prescient). Most importantly, it proved Hathaway could hold her own against the mighty Meryl Streep, who delivered an Oscar nominated and Golden Globe-winning performance as bitch-queen editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly.

All of which brings us to the reason Hathaway is in London: Becoming Jane in which she stars as no less a literary giant as Jane Austen. Based on the biography by Jon Spence of the same name, it focuses on Austen’s early years, postulating that Austen, far from being a bookish spinster, met and fell in love with charming Irishman Thomas Langlois Lefroy, here played brilliantly by James McAvoy.

Unlike the similarly themed Shakespeare In Love, much of Becoming Jane’s hypothesis can be supported. It is documented that Austen and Lefroy met at a ball in Hampshire shortly before Christmas 1795, when he was visiting his Aunt and Uncle Lefroy, the Austens’ neighbours. He was a recent graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and was bound for London where he was to study law. Austen had just completed Elinor and Marianne, the first version of Sense and Sensibility. Both 20 years old, there’s strong evidence that the two were mutually attracted and, against the prescriptive morés of the time, did little to hide it. Indeed, faced by disapproval from her sister, Cassandra,, Austen teasingly described her relationship with Lefroy as “every thing most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” The sauce-pot.

For Hathaway, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, but one she was reluctant to take.

“I’ve been obsessed with Austen since I was 14,” she admits, “and I didn’t want to take the part at first because I felt there was a very good chance, as there is with every role, that you’re just going to mess up and be horrible and unwatchable.”

It was Ang Lee, who’d just directed Hathaway in Brokeback Mountain and was responsible for arguably the finest movie adaptation of Austen’s work, Sense And Sensibility, who persuaded her to take the part. However initially reticent, once Hathaway had made the decision, she threw herself into task.

“I thought, even if I do a really crap job, at least they won’t be able to get me on the research,” she says. “I moved to England for a month before we started filming and worked on the accent and I started research about the period, about what it would have been like to live in the countryside at that time and we read her letters, learned sign language [Austen had a deaf mute brother], learned to play the piano…” She laughs, adding: “The skills portion of my resumé greatly improved after this role.”

Another essential component of becoming Jane was learning to dance.

“These days you just shake your butt and you’re a good dancer,” Hathaway says. “Back then there was actual choreography. I’d had dance training before; I think like a dancer so that was one aspect of the role I wasn’t worried about.”

Hathaway’s heightened fear of failure proved to be almost crippling.

“It became paralysing, the fear that I’d mess up portraying someone who I admire, who I respect. I put a lot of pressure on myself. And I forgot about it while we were filming and then, inexplicably, about a month after we wrapped I started having panic attacks and nightmares about being stabbed to death by Jane Austen’s ghost. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sweating and breathing really heavily. That stopped once I got to watch the film and really liked it.”

This, despite the film’s lowly budget and the fact that it was shot almost entirely on location in the Irish countryside, fantastic for the overabundance of intact Georgian architecture but not so great in terms of weather.

“It was really changeable,” recalls Hathaway. “We didn’t know if it was the Gods or Jane being upset that I was playing her but every single time I had to do a close-up, it would rain. And it was cold! The accent took a lot of work but when you’ve been in a field for five hours waiting for the rain to stop and just standing there freezing… I just sound drunk in a lot of scenes.”

Hathaway is too hard on herself. Her English accent is the best to come from an American since Gwyneth seduced the Bard. Her performance, too, is immensely likeable, cementing her reputation as a leading lady who can carry a movie. With that in mind, does she feel her turn as Austen precludes her from taking on any of the novelist’s celebrated heroines. Hathaway hopes not.

“I’m a hack,” she jokes. “I love to work so I’d love to play any of them. I’d love to play Anne Elliot. I think they’re remaking that [Persuasion]. There was the wonderful BBC version with Amanda Root ten years back. She kind of did the perfect job. There have been some very definitive performances with Austen’s heroines, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in Sense And Sensibility for instance. I’d love to join them.”

This article first appeared in The Big Issue in 2007.

INTERVIEW: JAY ROACH and BORAT on ‘BORAT’

A room full of jaded hacks from all corners of the globe isn’t exactly a comedian’s dream audience. Add to this the fact that the press conference is actually scripted, all questions having been submitted in advance, making the assembled journos little more than unpaid background artistes for the filming of a DVD extra. Worse still, they’ve been kept waiting in a hot room in London’s Dorchester Hotel for over an hour with no food except for biscuits and no booze; there are only so many cups of coffee one can drink. And yet, when finally Borat – AKA actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen –deigns to appear, he has people falling off their chairs laughing.

“You are Scottish, like Braveheart?
Like anti-Jew warrior Melvin Gibson.”

Preceded on stage by Azamat Bagatov (played by Californian-born character actor Ken Davitian), Borat’s overweight producer whose eyebrows are, alarmingly, even bigger today than in the film, Borat bounds into the room, glad-handing those sitting on the aisle and, in the case of one lucky man, giving out an enthusiastic kiss.

“Jagshemash!” he booms from behind a podium, in front of which stand auto-cue screens; so much for Baron Cohen the master improviser. Much of his resolutely un-PC material has been heard before at other press conferences available online, as have some of his put-downs to members of the press asking questions.

“Hello, little boy,” he addresses a diminutive woman with short hair, or, on hearing a Scottish accent, he remarks, “You are Scottish, like Braveheart? Like anti-Jew warrior Melvin Gibson.”

To a room full of people for whom this is a job of work, it does feel slightly pointless, especially when he keeps to Borat’s persona by refusing to answer questions from a woman. The journo in question, wearily and reluctantly, plays along with the pantomime of getting a male colleague to pass on the message. Even so, there’s no doubting that, recycled though his material is, it’s hilarious.

“Very popular in Kazakhstan is singing transvestite Madonna. He really looks like a womans! Only thing that give him away is his huge hands.”

Or, when asked if he’d consider going out with a British girl, he answers that he’s particular keen to make the acquaintance of “Welsh prostitute, Charlotte Church”.

It’s a surreal day, that’s for sure, but not one that does justice to Borat’s movie – a semi-improvised road-trip that sees Borat’s racism, anti-Semiticism, ignorance and misogyny used as a tool to hold a mirror up to modern America’s prejudices. In a hotel room in London, it’s amusing and risqué, but that’s not the whole Borat story.

Borat started out life as a minor character on Channel 4’s Da Ali G Show, Baron Cohen’s chatshow format for his wannabe gangsta persona, Ali G. When the show was picked up by HBO in the US, Baron Cohen suddenly started swimming with the big fish in Hollywood’s comedy pond. It was director/producer Jay Roach (Meet The Parents, the Austin Powers movies) who first saw the potential of giving Borat his own film.

“We saw an opportunity to do a film that was bold, subversive and fresh,” he tells The Big Issue. “We wanted to transplant the reality TV show, which has Sacha in character, interacting with real people. Then, we created a story that supports a feature film.”

Writers Peter Baynham (I’m Alan Partridge), Anthony Hines (Dennis Pennis, Da Ali G Show) and Dan Mazer (also executive producer) were recruited to provide a basic storyline. But there was no script – the movie was an audacious experiment to bring a fictional character crashing into our world. Real events with real people push the film’s fictional story, and when scenes played out in unexpected ways, the team had to rewrite the outline. As director, Roach brought in Larry Charles, a man best known for Seinfeld and its wholly improvised spin-off, Curb Your Enthusiasm. The result is possibly the funniest, darkest, most compellingly subversive film ever made.

“I think what Sacha does in this film is revolutionary,” agrees Roach. “He’s created a totally believable, hilarious, fish-out-of-water character. Then Sacha takes Borat into often dangerous predicaments with real people who have to believe that Borat is authentic the entire time – or else Sacha could face serious consequences.”

As it was, the production’s guerrilla-style filmmaking involved the cops on numerous occasions. A warrant was issued for Baron Cohen’s arrest in New York, after he – as Borat – ran naked through a hotel waving a rubber fist-shaped dildo. While he narrowly avoided incarceration, producer Monica Levinson and production manager Dale Stern didn’t fare so well, thrown in a cell by the NYPD for ‘borrowing’ a phone, alarm clock and comforter from a local hotel to use as props. Even though the filmmakers had a location agreement and a $5 million insurance policy, the police went ahead with the arrests. To protect his colleagues, Stern ate a sheet listing the names and phone numbers of the film’s crew.

“Monica and Dale’s night in jail raised the bar for a filmmaker sacrificing for his or her art,” says Roach admiringly.

Baron Cohen no doubt has similar stories, especially as he reportedly r#main#d as Borat even when being beaten to the ground by security guards. But his insistence on staying in character and refusal to appear before the press as himself, while no doubt th# k#y to his fantastic performance, is intensely frustrating. Back in the Dorchester, the final question comes from a man who tells Borat that he’s from Israel.

“What?!” rails Borat, horrified. “Do not attack! I see your claws!”

Even though everyone in the room is in on the joke and knows that Baron Cohen is himself Jewish, a palpable sense of unease still comes to the room. And then it hits: we’re in a room watching a man who, unapologetically, is coming out with anti-Semitic bile that Hitler or Bin Laden might baulk at. And – this is Baron Cohen’s genius – we’re all laughing our asses off.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue in 2006.

INTERVIEW: CILLIAN MURPHY on ‘SUNSHINE’

By the very nature of their profession, actors are paid to pretend, but it’s not often – on film at least – that they have to make believe they’re looking at the Sun without it actually being there. But, when he says, “The Sun was all put in afterwards in post-production”, Irish-born Cillian Murphy isn’t joking.

“Like all stars, the Sun will burn out and it will implode and die. We’re just exaggerating that by a few million years for dramatic purposes.”

All becomes clear when you learn that his latest role is in sci-fi thriller Sunshine and the reason he couldn’t look at the Sun is because his character views it from an unusual vantage point – namely, on a spaceship that, a la Pink Floyd, has set its controls for the heart of the Sun. Why? To save the human race, of course.

“Like all stars, the Sun will burn out,” explains Murphy, “and it will implode and die. We’re just exaggerating that by a few million years for dramatic purposes.”

Set in the year 2057, Sunshine’s astronauts are heading towards the Sun, shielded from the worst of the Sun’s rays, on a spacecraft that is a “bomb the size of Manhattan Island”. With a premise as simple as it is compelling, Sunshine is fantastic, cerebral sci-fi in the mould of Alien or Solaris. On directing duties is Manchester’s own Danny ‘Trainspotting’ Boyle, while the screenwriter is Alex Garland, author of best-selling novel The Beach (the film version was directed by Boyle) and the screenplay for Boyle’s 2003 zombie hit, 28 Days Later. A surprise hit internationally, it made Murphy a star, resulting in lead roles in a number of films, including Ken Loach’s Palm d’Or-winning tale of the Irish Civil War, The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Like many an actor before him, Murphy, who turned 30 last year, finds himself beholden to a genre of which he’s not necessarily a fan.

“I did at least grow up absolutely loving Star Wars,” he insists, before admitting, “but I was never into the Star Trek movies or the series really. Like Danny [Boyle], my sci-fi tastes are along the lines of Alien, 2001, Solaris. I went to the ComiCon convention in San Diego which was intense. We did this press conference in front of like, 6,000 fans. It was mad, but you realise that they’re the people who buy the tickets. They’re the people who know these characters as well as you do so you have to make movies that they enjoy.”

Whether fanboys enjoy the movie or not (though I’m guessing they will – Sunshine really is the best sci-fi film in decades), Murphy and his co-stars had a hoot making it. To indicate the co-operation required for humankind’s “last, best hope”, the ensemble cast is deliberately internationalist and includes Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Hiroyuki Sanada (The Twilight Samurai) and Chris Evans (not our own carrot-top DJ but The Fantastic Four’s Human Torch). To help the eight ‘astronauts’ bond, they were forced to live together in student accommodation in London.

“It wasn’t supposed to be luxurious and it wasn’t,” chuckles Murphy. “A lot of the time as actors you come in on a Monday morning and the director says, ‘Right, you’ve known each other for ten years.’ And you can do it, you can do the job. There’s that classic scene in Alien where they’re around the table and they get an amazing sense of familiarity. You really believe that they’ve been travelling together in space for however long. We wanted to get that sense as well so the best way to do that, other than actually acting it is to live together and then let the experience inform the performance. We all lived together and ate and cooked and drank together.”

As well as recreating what sounds like a Thespian version of The Young Ones, the actors were all sent on an “astronaut bootcamp” which saw them attend lectures, go scuba diving (the nearest we can get to space-walking on Earth) and a trip in a light aircraft to stimulate zero-G.

“Humans are not meant to experience this,” says Murphy. “Nothing is, not monkeys or dogs either. It was sickening, horrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.”

Another vital piece of preparation for Murphy was hanging out with the film’s scientific adviser, Dr Brian Cox. Though employed at the Centre for European Nuclear Research, the world’s largest particle-physics laboratory, his varied CV includes a stint as D:Ream’s keyboardist. He doesn’t sound like your typical egghead.

“No,” agrees Murphy. “He’s not your quintessential physicist by any stretch of the imagination. But he’s so bright and so approachable. I hung out with him for some time and pestered him with idiotic questions about life, the Universe and everything.”

Boyle also used Cox to light-heartedly defend his casting of Murphy, rather than, say, some dweeby brainiac:

“For those who think [Cillian] is a bit good-looking for a physicist, the uncanny thing is that he looks remarkably like our science consultant.”

“He does have a certain boyish charm about him, I’d hand him that,” is all Murphy will bashfully say on the subject.

It was Cox who helped Garland and Boyle come up with their sci-fi vision that was “more NASA than Star Wars”. Indeed, Cox even pointed out that Sunshine’s posited scenario – the Sun going nova in the near future rather than in two billion years – could well be possible. The scary thing about scientists is, as Murphy puts it, “how much they don’t know.

“It’s terrifying, or wonderful, depending on how you choose to look at it. They know what five percent of the universe is, but 95 percent of it we don’t have a clue what it is. That’s amazing.”

Thanks to Cox, the science of the movie, which will no doubt make a great DVD extra six months from now, is pretty much watertight. As a result, the spaceship and attendant technology, all feels brilliantly plausible. Even its bomb is theoretically sound.

“While I have no authority to judge it,” Murphy cheerfully admits, “but from what Brian says the idea that you could fire a bomb of dark matter into a star and re-ignite it is possible. They have the equations for it.”

This article first appeared in The Big Issue In The North in 2005.