Monday, 22 May 2017

Just For The Holidays - an interview with Sue Moorcroft

As regular readers of the blog will know, I’ve been friends with Sue Moorcroft for a while (we met in 1999 when I joined the Kettering Writers Group) and it’s been my pleasure to interview her several times (you can read them here, here and here).  Last year, as part of her 2-book deal with Avon, she published The Christmas Promise (I wrote about the launch here) which became a Number One Amazon Bestseller (and none of this sub-category business for Sue, this was in the general chart) and I was really chuffed and proud of her.

Just For The Holidays is her second Avon novel and it was published last Thursday.  A summer tale, set in France and England and featuring the holiday from hell, it’s an excellent read and I would highly recommend it.

Sue’s a great Con-buddy (most of my UK horror writing chums will have met her at FantasyCon or Edge-Lit) and to help celebrate her latest publication, she & I sat down at The Trading Post to have a chat.

MW:  So how did you end up coming along to FantasyCon (her first one was WFC in Brighton, in 2013)?

SM:  At the time, I was teaching creative writing a lot more than I am now. I was invited to the Historical Novel Society conference and I not only enjoyed it but found it helpful when working with students writing books set in the past. You’d always seemed to enjoy FCon so I thought I’d repeat the experiment for the speculative genres. I hadn’t anticipated enjoying it quite so much!

MW:  What was your impression of the horror genre and those people you met in it?

SM:  Very friendly. This was perhaps covered by you knowing just about everyone there (it seemed like) but I was made welcome. I was also bowled over by the creativity but I suppose those who write in the speculative genres need to be highly imaginative. I enjoyed the general wit and humour, and the support people exhibited for one another. I know the horror genre has had its fair share of friction and commotion on Facebook but, from my experience, it hadn’t transferred to the conference.
At FantasyCon York, 2014 (which I wrote about here)
I am at the bottom of the pic in the centre and from left; Steven Chapman, Neil Williams, Sue, Stephen Bacon, John Travis, Terry Grimwood, James Everington, Steve Harris
MW:  I always think it’s nice to see how people who don’t normally read in your genre have embraced you and what you write.

SM:  I agree! There are a few who give me cautious smiles as if to say ‘What are you doing here?’ but with no ill will. Well … I do always feel I’m a handicap when it comes to CurryCon. I love curry but it’s spiteful towards me and I feel guilty when people change their choice of restaurant to accommodate that.

MW:  What do you enjoy about conferences and conventions?  Any tips for people who’ve always wanted to go to one but never plucked up the courage?

SM:  I love being with other writers. It’s like finding your tribe. You can talk and be understood. For example, I don’t find myself trying to put over what I do to promote a book on Twitter to someone who doesn’t read, write or tweet. When I attend the talks and panels of others I’m always interested, always prepared to expand my knowledge.

Sue’s con tips: 
If you’re not keen on going into big gatherings of people you don’t know, try and make friends on social media with people who are likely to attend. That way, you have reason to go up and shake hands (everyone wears name badges). Better yet, speak to them on social media and tell them you’re new and they’ll probably agree to meet you and introduce you to others. It’s only a tiny barrier and you’re soon over it.
Take money, especially if you like alcohol.
Wear comfy shoes. (The first year I was to attend FantasyCon I asked on Facebook what the shoe code would be. This would have been a valid question at a lot of conferences I’ve been to but was met with ‘Um, wear some?’)
Take more money, for books.
Just kick back and enjoy it.

MW:  Back when we were in Kettering Writers, we hatched this plan to swap genres for one story.  Did you still fancy doing that?

SM:  It didn’t work well, did it? We each got half way through a story and lost interest. I did find my story recently and I enjoyed what I’d written but realised it was going nowhere. I wasn’t interested enough in the genre to have that light bulb moment so I’ll probably file this idea under ‘too busy’, if you don’t mind!

MW:  Your new book, Just For The Holidays, came out last Thursday and, as you know, I love it.  Where did the idea come from?

SM:  Thank you! A friend told me about her holiday from hell. I immediately asked to be allowed to use the premise of a single woman being roped in to help her newly separated sister on a family holiday. It was a couple of years before the idea came to the top of my pile but then I just had to focus the vague premise and make it work. Luckily for me, there were several conflicts – Leah’s single and husbandless by choice yet she ends up looking after her sister’s children and husband. She barely speaks French and she’s in France. The sister, Michele, though her marriage is over, is not only pregnant but experiencing health problems. Alister, the husband from whom Michele is estranged is hurt. The children are distraught. Alister asks to be allowed to come on the holiday as he paid for the gîte before the split and he and the children are unhappy apart. Leah tries to bail but Michele doesn’t let her … That’s enough material for any novelist, I think!

Sue at Sywell Airfield
MW:  How enjoyable was the research?

SM:  Very. I not only spent four days with a friend who lives in Alsace but was taken up in a helicopter, which the pilot pretended to crash (more properly known as autorotation). It was awesome. NB There is a forced landing in the book – he didn’t just show me the autorotation manoeuvre on whim.

MW:  Did you find the process different from writing The Christmas Promise?

SM:  The actual process of writing? Not really. I’d been on a course run by Robert McKee, the screenwriter, just before I planned Just for the Holidays so I probably paid more attention to questions such as what the characters want consciously and whether it’s different to what they want subconsciously. (I find the best answer to this is ‘yes, it is different’.) I wasn’t pushed for time when I wrote Just for the Holidays. Now that my publishing schedule has tightened up I am taking more risks with the first draft and have adopted the ‘write quickly, edit slowly’ approach.

MW:  How did it feel hitting the top of the chart and becoming a genuine Amazon Best seller?

SM:  Wow. It was truly amazing. I’d been euphoric enough when The Christmas Promise entered the top ten. When it got into the top three …! It stayed at either #2 or #3 for quite some time but when I finally saw it at #1 I had trouble believing my eyes. I literally screamed. I broke into a sweat, I began to shake, I cried (tears of joy, of course!). And then I went onto Twitter to tell everyone. My editor had beaten me to it so we had a joyfest. Others came on to congratulate me, I texted my agent. And after a while I remembered to tell my family. It stayed at #1 for about five days in the week before Christmas and it definitely made me like Christmas more than usual.
At FantasyCon Nottingham, 2015 (which I wrote about here)
from left; Stephen Bacon, Steve Harris, Sue, me, Neil Williams
MW:  Does the success of The Christmas Promise set up an expectation for you, with regards to Just For The Holidays?

SM:  Yes, there is that. But you can look at things in two ways. Negatively: ‘Wow, I’ll never do that again. We’ll never beat that. Nothing can ever live up to it.’ Or positively: ‘It might happen again! We have the last success to build upon! Amazon has the contact details of everybody who bought The Christmas Promise so can send them all emails about Just for the Holidays!’ I choose to be positive but I’m a realist so I know I can’t take a single thing for granted.

What both The Christmas Promise and Just for the Holidays did was set up was a great working relationship with Avon Books UK.

MW:  So what’s next for you?

SM:  I’ve sent in Give Me Till Christmas to my editor, which is scheduled for publication for Christmas this year. And I’ve begun (just) my summer 2018 book, provisionally entitled The Summer of Finding Out. Those two books are the first of a new three-book deal – and I’ve just signed the contract!

MW:  Congratulations on the new contract and, as I've just read it to critique, I can say I was very impressed with Give Me Till Christmas and I'm sure your fans will love it!

is published by Avon Books UK, HarperCollins

The #1 bestselling author returns for summer! Grab your sun hat, a cool glass of wine, and the only book you need on holiday…

In theory, nothing could be better than a summer spent basking in the French sun. That is, until you add in three teenagers, two love interests, one divorcing couple, and a very unexpected pregnancy.

Admittedly, this isn’t exactly the relaxing holiday Leah Beaumont was hoping for – but it’s the one she’s got. With her sister Michele’s family falling apart at the seams, it’s up to Leah to pick up the pieces and try to hold them all together.

But with a handsome helicopter pilot staying next door, Leah can’t help but think she might have a few distractions of her own to deal with…

A glorious summer read, for you to devour in one sitting - perfect for fans of Katie Fforde, Carole Matthews and Trisha Ashley.

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Monday, 15 May 2017

Star Wars At 40 (pop-up 2) - An appreciation of George Lucas

George Walton Lucas, Jr was born on May 14th 1944 in Modesto, California, the only son of George Walton Lucas, Sr (who owned and operated the L M Morris Stationers store) and Dorothy Lucas (nee Bomberger).  He has three sisters - Ann (born 1934), Kate (born 1936) and Wendy (born 1947) - and the family lived on a walnut ranch his father owed.  His mother suffered ill health and was often confined to bed whilst George was a child.  Fascinated by comic books and movie serials - especially Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon - Lucas was a poor student who developed a passion for cars and motor racing; during high school, he raced on the underground circuit at fairgrounds and helped out in local garages, planning to make that his career until a bad accident, three days before graduation, changed that.
George Lucas, during the filming of "The Rain People" (1968), which his award-winning documentary "Filmmaker" covered
On 12th June 1962, on his way home from Modesto library (in a last ditch effort to improve his grades), his Fiat Bianchina was broadsided by a Chevy Impala driven by a classmate.  The impact flipped the Fiat several times before the regulation racing seatbelt snapped - which it shouldn’t have - throwing him clear before the car wrapped itself around a solid walnut tree.  He was badly injured but ultimately okay, though the accident scared him.  “You can’t have that kind of experience and not feel that there must be a reason why you’re here,” Lucas told Dale Pollock in Skywalking.  “I realised I should be spending my time trying to figure out what that reason is and trying to fulfill it.”

After recovering, he attended Modesto Junior College and applied himself hard.  He also began filming car races with an 8mm camera and when talking to his school friend John Plummer, who was studying at the University of Southern California (USC), discovered the cinema school there might be easy to get into.  Through a shared interest in racing, Lucas met acclaimed cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler who was impressed with Lucas’ talent and also advised him to try USC - “George had a very good eye and he thought visually,” Wexler told Pollock.

Lucas began studying at USC in 1963, at a time when several great talents were emerging.  Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese were studying in New York, Steven Spielberg was making shorts at Long Beach State and Francis Ford Coppola’s UCLA thesis, You’re a Big Boy Now, was being turned into a studio film.  USC was something of a hub and Lucas and his classmates - including Walter Murch. John Milius, Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins, Randal Kleiser (Lucas’ room-mate), Caleb Deschanel, Howard Kazanjian, Willard Huyck and Dan O’Bannon - became known as the Dirty Dozen.  Walter Murch told Dale Pollock, “if you went and saw a student film and said, ‘Gee, this is kind of a boring film’, you just didn’t ever associate with that guy.  But if you went and saw an exciting film, you became friends with this guy.  That was the way we all got together.”

Deeply influenced by a Film Expression course, which concentrated on non-narrative elements such as colour, light, movement and time, he was inspired by the visual films from the Nation Film Board of Canada, especially Arthur Lipsett’s 21-87 (1964 - it would later become Princess Leia’s cell number).  It was “the kind of movie I wanted to  make,” Lucas said, “ a very off-the-wall, abstract kind of film.”  At USC he made several non-story films in this vein, such as Look At Life, Herbie and 1:42.08, defining himself a filmmaker rather than director, particularly interested in camerawork and editing.

With Marcia, in 1969
After graduating, he applied to join the United States Air Force as an officer but wasn’t eligible due to speeding tickets picked up in his youth and was later excluded from the draft when medical tests showed he had diabetes.  In 1967, he enrolled at USC as a graduate student and worked as a teacher for a class of US Navy students.  Using them - and their funding - he directed the short film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB which won first prize at the 1967-68 National Student Film Festival.  Earning a student scholarship from Warner Bros., he chose to observe the making of Finian’s Rainbow (1968) which was being directed by Coppola and the two men got on immediately, becoming lifelong friends.  In 1969, Lucas married Marcia Lou Griffin, also a Modesto native, who he met whilst helping celebrated editor Verna Fields cut newsreel footage.

Lucas and Coppola formed their own production company, American Zoetrope, in San Francisco, as part of their dream for making films outside the Hollywood system and exercising greater creative control over their own projects.  Zoetrope signed a deal with Warner Brothers for seven films, the first of which was THX 1138, a feature adaption of Lucas’ student film (the title, apparently, came from his college telephone number: 849-1138).  Lucas co-wrote the script with Walter Murch and the film was made between September and November 1969, filmed on location in the San Francisco area (including the unfinished tunnels of the Bay Area Rapid Transport system).  When Coppola took the completed film to Warners, they disliked it and re-edited the film in-house, incensing Lucas by cutting four minutes.  Released in March 1971, it wasn’t a commercial success and critical reception was mixed, but improved over the years and it was re-released in the wake of Star Wars (including the deleted footage) with Lucas releasing his Directors Cut in 2004.  Warners pulled their financing and American Zoetrope, vastly under-capitalised, fell apart, leaving Coppolla personally responsible for $300k of debt.  Lucas, embittered by the situation (he has never worked with Warner Brothers again) and Coppola were forced to split apart, with Francis accepting an offer from Paramount to direct The Godfather (1972).

Lucas created his own company, Lucasfilm Ltd and took some of Coppola’s advice, writing a script that would appeal to a mainstream audience by taking his cue from his teenaged years cruising in Modesto.  “Cruising was gone,” he told Marcus Hearn, “and I felt compelled to document the whole experience and what my generation used as a way of meeting girls.”
On set during the making of "American Graffiti" (1973)
Lucas co-wrote the script for American Graffiti (1973) with old friends Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz while producer Gary Kurtz eventually got Universal to finance it on a budget of $600k (raised to $775k when Coppola, hot off the success of The Godfather, agreed to co-produce).  Filming took place in Petaluma, North California from June to August 1972 and utilised a stellar cast (most taking their first steps to stardom) with old friend Haskell Wexler acting as unpaid director of photography.  Kurtz sorted the music rights, helped after old friend Brian Wilson allowed him to use the Beach Boys tracks at a reduced rate (all music publishers fell in line with this except RCA, which is why Elvis Presley doesn’t appear).  The music rights cost $90k, leaving no funds for a traditional score and so created a new kind of soundtrack, made up entirely of hit records.

Universal weren’t happy (even though Francis Coppola, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures all offered to buy the film from them) and cut three scenes (equating to four minutes) but word of mouth was good and it made over £55m on a combined budget of £1.27m.  Re-released in 1978 - with stereo sound and restored scenes - it earned a further $63m making it one of the most successful studio films ever in terms of cost-to-profit ratio.  Critically praised, it was nominated for five Oscars (but didn’t win), four Golden Globes (Paul Le Mat won Most Promising Newcomer), a BAFTA, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing and the Writers Guild of America for Best Original Comedy.
On location in Tunisia with Mark Hamill, 1976
Getting used to his newfound status and wealth, Lucas began working on his next project which had been around before Graffiti.  Originally planning to make Flash Gordon (he couldn't get the rights), he'd instead invented his own space fantasy - Star Wars - and found a willing partner in Alan Ladd jr at Twentieth Century-Fox (who didn't understand the treatment but believed in Lucas).  Wary of history, Lucas waived higher fees for writing and directing, to keep hold of more rights and protect the film from changes by the studio.
Looking glum, during filming at Elstree Studios, London, 1976
He began writing Star Wars in January 1973 (“eight hours a day, five days a week”) and came up with enough material for not only the original trilogy but a planned nine-film series.  In 1975, he established Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to produce the special effects after discovering Fox’s visual effects department had been disbanded.  Principal photography began on 22nd March 1976 in Tunisia, before moving to Elstree Studios in London and finished in July.  It was, by all accounts, thoroughly gruelling and at one point Lucas was diagnosed with hypertension and exhaustion and warned to reduce his stress level.  This wasn’t helped when it was discovered ILM were behind on their schedule - though to be fair, they were working on an unprecedented number of shots using brand new technology that, often, they’d invented themselves.  Originally planned for release at Christmas 1976, the delays pushed that back to summer 1977, adding to his stress.
Working at ILM with (from left) Richard Edlund, Jane Bay, John Dykstra, Lucas, Joe Johnston
“My main reason for making it,” he said in 1977, “was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life, the kind my generation had. We had westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things.”

Star Wars was released in the US on 25th May 1977 in 32 cinemas and immediately broke box office records, earning $1.6m in its opening weekend.  It earned $220m during its initial run and went into international release at the end of the year (the UK got it in January 1978) - by the end of 1978, it had earned $410m.  Re-released in 1978, 1979, 1981 and 1982 - with the Special Edition appearing in 1997 - it has, to date, earned over $775m worldwide ($2.5bn adjusted for inflation).  Critically praised, Star Wars was nominated for ten Oscars (won six), four Golden Globes (won two) and six BAFTA nominations (won two).  The film was also selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress in 1989.
Marcia wins the Best Editing Oscar
In late May, to escape Star Wars, George & Marcia went to Hawaii and met Steven Spielberg, who had just finished Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  As the two old friends built a sandcastle, they talked about future plans and Spielberg admitted he’d love to direct a James Bond film.  Lucas told him an idea that was “better than Bond” about an adventurer called Indiana Smith.  Spielberg liked the idea but not the name (“okay then,” Lucas apparently replied, “what about Jones?”) and signed on to direct, with Lucas co-writing the story and producing the film.  The deal he proposed was tough and only Paramount would agree to the terms, wherein they financed the $20m budget with Lucas owning over 40% of the film and collecting almost half the profits after a certain income level.

In 1978, Lucas bought the 1,882 acre Bulltail Ranch in San Rafael, with the intention of building a creative centre there, which later became the celebrated Skywalker Ranch.  The same year, he satisfied his two-film contract with Universal by producing and helping edit More American Graffiti (1979), written and directed by Bill L Norton.  It was a box office failure.

Lucas executive produced and came up with the story for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but left Lawrence Kasdan to re-write Leigh Brackett’s screenplay and Irvin Kershner to direct.  Lucasfilm funded the production with Star Wars earnings but Kershner’s directorial style meant the film went hugely over-budget and Lucas was forced to go back to 20th Century Fox for funding.  The film, however, was extremely successful and the final part of the original trilogy, Return Of The Jedi (1983) was completely funded by Lucasfilm.  Lucas was executive producer and co-wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan.
Steven Spielberg & George Lucas, 1983
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), delayed because of Spielberg’s previous directing commitments, was a great success, setting up a whole new franchise with the three sequels - Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989) and (the frankly too late in the cycle) Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) all directed by him.

Throughout the 80s, Lucas used his clout to help get several films made, often by friends, that wouldn’t have stood much chance otherwise.  Amongst others, he produced (or executive produced) Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), Lawrence Kasdan's excellent Body Heat (1981) - he didn’t take a credit as he was worried people would think the Star Wars team was now making porn, Haskell Wexler’s Latino (1985), Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986), Godfrey Reggio's Powaqqatsi (1986), Willard Huyck’s Howard The Duck (1986), Ron Howard’s Willow (1988), Don Bluth's The Land Before Time (1988) and Coppola’s Tucker: The Man And His Dream (1988).

Powerful friends indeed - from left, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese,
Brian De Palma, Lucas, Francis Coppola
Lucas was also influential behind the scenes.  In 1979 he set up the Graphics Group, a computer research division within Lucasfilm, run by Ed Catmull.  They developed the Pixar system, creating early CGI effects for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) and the group was bought by Steve Jobs in 1986 for $5m - renamed Pixar, they’ve gone on to re-define computer animation.  Lucas also helped develop industry-standard post-production equipment, like the Avid System (originally known as Edit Droid) and Sound Droid (which later became Digi-Design Pro Tools) and in 1983 set up THX Ltd with Tom Holman to produce equipment for stereo, digital and theatrical sound for films and music.

Lucas’ midas touch at the cinema in the early 80s helped build his business empire - by 1985, Lucasfilm encompassed Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound and LucasArts.   Skywalker Ranch was functioning as Lucas wanted it to - a creative think-tank as well as the base of his operations - with the land assembled over the years parcel-by-parcel (it now occupies 4,700 acres off Lucas Valley Road though only 15 acres have been developed).  Having adopted a daughter, Amanda, in 1981, Lucas’ marriage to Marcia broke down in 1983 and the divorce was finalised in 1987, resulting in him losing much of his fortune.  He was in a relationship (and engaged) for the remainder of the 80s with singer Linda Ronstadt and, as a single parent, adopted Katie (born in 1988) and Jett (born in 1993).  He and his children appear in the prequel trilogy.
Skywalker Ranch - the main house is towards the centre of the picture, above the lake
Star Wars (aside from die-hards like myself) grew dormant though interest was renewed with a Dark Horse comic line and Timothy Zahn’s Heir To The Empire trilogy.  In 1993, Variety announced Lucas would make a prequel trilogy, having enthused over the CGI possibilities seen in Jurassic Park (which Spielberg asked him to supervise in post production) and he took a sabbatical from running Lucasfilm to write the script through 1994.  In 1997, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Star Wars, the Special Edition trilogy was released to cinemas featuring digital modifications to all three films.

The Phantom Menace (1999), the first film Lucas had directed in more than twenty years, was released to incredible expectations and although a huge success financially, it didn’t fare so well with critics or original trilogy fans.  Having enjoyed the process, Lucas directed the sequels - Attack Of The Clones (2002) and Revenge Of The Sith (2005).  In 2012, he wrote the story and executive produced Red Tails, a war film based on the Tuskegee Airmen in the US Air Force during World War 2.
In Tunisia, filming "Attack Of The Clones" (2002)
Lucas married Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and chairperson of DreamWorks Animation on 22nd June 2013 at Skywalker Ranch.  Their daughter, Everest Hobson Lucas, was born by surrogate in 2013.  In January 2012, he announced “I'm moving away from the business... From the company, from all this kind of stuff” and said he would be looking to make small, esoteric films.  In June 2012, Kathleen Kennedy, a longtime collaborator of both Lucas and Spielberg, was appointed co-chair of Lucasfilm Ltd with the intention of succeeding him after a year.  On 30th October 2012, Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05bn, taking over the Star Wars and Indiana Jones brands and retaining all subsidiary companies, including Industrial Light & Magic.  The deal - paid half in cash, half in shares - made Lucas Disney’s second largest shareholder after the estate of Steve Jobs though, in a December 2015 interview, he likened his decision to sell to a “divorce”.

At the time of the sale, Lucas said “for forty-one years, the majority of my time and money has been put into the company. As I start a new chapter in my life, it is gratifying that I have the opportunity to devote more time and resources to philanthropy.”  Since 1991, his George Lucas Educational Foundation has worked to celebrate and encourage innovation in schools.  In addition, he gave $1m in 2005 to help build the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C., $180m in 2006 to USC (adding to previous donations which saw the building of the George Lucas Instructional Building and Marcia Lucas Post-Production building), $25m in 2013 to the Chicago-based not-for-profit After School Matters, of which his wife Mellody Hobson is the chair and $1m in 2016 to the Obama Foundation.  In 2015, when wealthy neighbours around Skywalker Ranch opposed plans to extend the film-making facilities, he countered with plans to build affordable housing on the land, which he would pay for himself.

Lucas has been nominated for four Academy Awards - Best Directing and Writing for American Graffiti and Star Wars - and received the Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1991.  He was a co-presenter, with Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, at the 2007 Academy Awards to present the Best Director Oscar to their friend Martin Scorsese - in the speech, Spielberg and Coppola talked about the joy of winning an Oscar, poking fun at Lucas.

The American Film Institure awarded him its Life Achievement Award in June 2005 and the Science Fiction Hall Of Fame inducted him in 2006, the second 'Film, Television and Media' contributor after Spielberg.

In July 2013 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama for his contributions to American cinema.  In October 2014 he received Honorary Membership of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, was inducted as a Disney Legend in August 2015 and in December 2015 was an honoree at the Kennedy Centre Honours.
Posing with some of the miniatures created for the Star Wars original trilogy, at the Lucasfilm Archives, 1983
Skywalking, by Dale Pollock
The Creative Impulse, by Charles Champlin
Biography at
Lifetime biography

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday, 8 May 2017

Glorious (Painted) Movie Posters

I was talking recently with my friend Wayne Parkin - a fellow fan of old school film posters - and we were discussing the demise of the painted, action-packed style which now seems to have been replaced by a single (often photo-shopped) photographic image.  Our complaint was that, apart from often being very bland, they often don't really tell you much about the film.

Is it us?  Are we out of step with the rest of the world, holding onto something artistic that other people are willing to let go?

We might be but, for what it's worth, I'd much rather have the exciting (and painted) For Your Eyes Only quad as opposed to the (almost a fashion spread) one for Spectre (or, to be honest, any of the Daniel Craig Bond-era ones, the worst - in my opinion - being the terrible Quantum Of Solace quad where they're walking in the desert).

So to that end, with (of course) some personal commentary as to why I've chosen these particular images, here are some glorious UK quad posters from back in the day...

I was two when this was released so didn't see it until much, much later when it was shown on TV, but this poster - by Arnaldo Putzu (who painted a lot of covers for Look-In magazine that I read through the 70s and which I wrote about here) - has so much going for it, it's terrific (though I don't remember Michael Caine wearing a flowery suit).
Okay so with hindsight the film's a bit daft and the effects are a bit ropey but this is a 'b' picture, it's supposed to be like that.  And hey, any poster this busy - dinosaurs! flying plane attacked by pterodactyls! volcanoes! men fighting! - has to be admired.
I've written before that I was convinced, as a 9-year-old in 1978, this was going to be as big as Star Wars (and oh, how wrong I was) but what else was I expected to think having seen this poster? The film remains a guilty pleasure, though I do pity my poor Dad who, as this was an A rating, had to accompany me to the cinema.
I was intrigued by this from the first time I read about it (probably in Starburst magazine) but didn't see it until a couple of years later when it appeared on TV and it was as good as I'd hoped (Nicholas Meyer did a great job, helped by an exceptional cast).  There was one image - a hand in the middle of a room - that haunted me for a long time afterwards.
"Flash - a-ah (dun dun) - saviour of the universe"
The fantastic For Your Eyes Only poster gives you as much action as you could want.  I had a copy of this on my bedroom wall for years when I was a teenager.
I saw this (on VHS) courtesy of my friend David Ratcliff, who loved films set in New York.  I wanted to watch it because of Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer and thoroughly enjoyed it - it's grubby, unpleasant, gripping and fast paced (I watched it recently and it stands up really well).  The artwork here looks a bit quick and unrefined (with the kind of brushstroke backgrounds Hong Kong Phooey loved so much) but, if anything, I think that works even better.
1981 (for the 1982 re-release)
The original poster (which I've blogged about before) by Richard Amsel was excellent and instantly iconic.  For the re-release in 1982 (and for Indy ever after), Steven Spielberg and George Lucas tapped the excellent Drew Struzan and this is one of two posters he produced for the film.
Everything about this film appealed to me and a lot of the key points were captured in this beautiful poster.  Dad & I went to see it at Kettering cinema (it was the Savoy then, later to become the Ohio) on Russell Street (it's since been demolished and replaced with housing - I blogged about it here).
Released in the UK in 1985, I saw this at Bentley's in Burton Latimer, intrigued that it was the first film to feature fully CGI ships.  To be honest, I can't remember a great deal about it now though a quick watch of the trailer on YouTube suggests it might be something worth revisiting.
Back before Freddy became a wise-cracking anti-hero, this film (to my memory) seemed to appear from nowhere and was (and remains) properly frightening.  This beautiful poster (painted by Graham Humphreys, who did a lot of artwork for Palace Pictures) works perfectly and, essentially, keeps Freddy in the shadows.
This beautifully painted poster grabs your attention, as true today as it was back in 1985 and this became a must-see for me and my friends.  Using the Steve Johnson-created make-up for Amanda Bearse was a very clever ploy - we didn't know who or what she was, but we knew we wanted to see it!  As it was, a gang of us ended up watching it at Kettering Ohio.
Released in December in the UK, me and my friends had been waiting for this for a while and the wonderful Drew Struzan poster just made us all the more eager.  For me, everything about this works - the car, the flames, Michael J Fox looking at his watch, it's pretty much perfect.
Another great piece by Drew Struzan, this was so full of action it almost demanded to be watched.  I still love it though it was interesting to hear Struzan himself (in the excellent documentary Drew: The Man Behind The Poster) say he thought it was too busy.
I would have first read about this in Premiere magazine but didn't get to see it until it appeared on VHS, by which time we knew to look out for the digit in the burger and that sequence with Jennifer Jason Leigh and the truck.  Superb film.
This kind of contradicts my general point but as a teaser image, this was everywhere in the summer of 1989, you couldn't miss it.  The first run of posters just featured the bat symbol - no names or credits - and it took me a while to NOT see a mouth with a few straggly teeth in it.  Can you also see that, or is it just me?

Monday, 1 May 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 5) - 1st Public Screening

For any Star Wars fan, the legend that has grown up around the Northpoint theatre preview is one they wish they could have participated in.  So, for the fifth entry in the Star Wars At 40 thread, I thought I'd take a look at it.
In March 1977, after a screening to the executives of 20th Century Fox, Lucas invited several of his close friends to watch the rough-cut of Star Wars (the special effects weren’t completed, so he’d edited in black and white dogfight footage from World War II films) at his home in San Anselmo.  The group consisted of Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz (who’d co-written American Graffiti ,helped polish the script for Star Wars and would go on to write Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Howard The Duck for Lucasfilm), John Milius, Matthew Robbins & Hal Barwood (who’d steered Lucas towards Ralph McQuarrie), Jay Cocks (the film critic for Time magazine), Steven Spielberg and Brian DePalma.  By all accounts, it didn’t go well - “they all thought it was a disaster,” Lucas later told Dale Pollock.
Discussing the screening, from left: Gloria Katz, Brian DePalma, Hal Barwood, Gary Kurtz, Paul Hirsch, Steven Spielberg (yellow cap) and George Lucas
No-one said anything at the end of the film - Huyck felt the opening scrawl looked like “somebody had written on a driveway with the camera on a trash barrel” and DePalma, who teased Lucas about the “almighty force”, reckoned the rough cut was one of the worst things he’d ever seen.  In a BBC Omnibus documentary, Katz remembers De Palma saying “You call that a shot when you introduce Darth Vader? I mean, that’s your villain and that’s the best you can do?”  Marcia Lucas, Lucas’ then-wife, said “It’s the At Long Last Love (a notorious flop musical from 1975) of science fiction” and began to cry.  Only Cocks and Spielberg reacted with enthusiasm as they all went out for a Chinese meal afterwards proclaiming, “George, it’s great.  It’s gonna make $100 million!”  Lucas let DePalma and Cocks re-write the opening scrawl, which he edited, but otherwise he left the film alone, saying “I figured, well, it’s just a silly movie.  It ain’t going to work.”

When the effects, soundtrack (designed by Ben Burtt and mixed by him and Lucas working 12 hours shifts) and musical score (Lucas wanted “something original that would evoke a heroic era,” said John Williams, who delivered in spades) were finally finished, Lucas screened it again.  As he had - to great success - with American Graffiti, he scheduled a Sunday morning screening at San Francisco’s Northpoint Theatre on 1st May.  In the audience was a small delegation from 20th Century Fox (including studio head and staunch supporter of Lucas and the film, Alan Ladd jr, with his wife), Lucas’ family and close friends and a cross section of movie audience.  Attendance was invite-only, with flyers handed out at other local cinemas and the film was described as “A Live Action Fantasy Adventure Filmed in England, Tunisia and Guatemala”.  To keep the uninvited away, the cinema marquee referred to the film as Alaska (Lucas’s dog was an Alaskan Malamute, who apparently inspired Chewbacca and was named Indiana, a name that came in useful a while later).  Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz had their tape recorders running, to gauge the audience reaction.
The reaction was almost immediate.  As soon as the opening scrawl ended and the Star Destroyer flew overhead, the audience “went crazy.  I was relieved more than anything else,” Lucas said.  “It was a very high moment, I knew the film worked.”

“They made the jump to hyperspace and you could see bodies flying around the room in excitement,” said Paul Hirsch, one of the editors (along with Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew).  “When they get to the shot where the Millennium Falcon appears at the last minute, not only did they cheer, they stood up in their seats and raised their arms like a home run in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series.  So we came out, I said to George “So, whaddya think?” He said, “I guess we won’t recut it after all.”  Also in the audience was Paul Huston, a model-maker at Industrial Light & Magic (who has now worked on all seven Star Wars films), who didn’t expect the audience’s reaction.  "I was as surprised as anyone when the audience loved it, and gave a standing ovation at the end," he says. "People back at ILM were quite amazed when I told them the reaction at the screening.”  Alan Ladd jr, who’d put his career on the line to support the film, reportedly cried with happiness.
Marcia & George Lucas, 1977
When Fox was asked to release a further $20,000 for some second unit work of Luke’s landspeeder to be filmed in Death Valley, Ladd was called up to the board and asked why they were still paying for a film whose budget had over-run.  He is said to told them “because it’s possibly the greatest picture ever made.”
The 25th May release date was looming and studio executives were getting very nervous, with contemporary reports suggested Fox was “bracing itself for a $10 million flop”.  Since the film had already missed its planned Christmas 1976 opening date, there was no turning back and Lucas was also under a lot of strain.  Blockbusters, as we understand them now, didn’t really exist then (aside from Jaws) and nobody really understood how this odd little sci-fi film would work.  In order to distance himself from the issue, the Lucas’ flew to Hawaii to try and enjoy a holiday as Star Wars opened quietly (on only 32 screens across America).  As it turned out, nobody needed to worry - the film made a then-record gross of $2.8m in its first week (on only 32 screens, remember) and critics were soon falling over themselves to proclaim Star Wars as a masterpiece of entertainment.

And so began a new era of movie-making - and movie-going.

Skywalking, by Dale Pollock
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday, 24 April 2017

Old School Horrors 6: The Intruder, by Thomas Altman

The sixth, in an occasional thread, of blog posts celebrating those cheesy, sleazy old-school pulp paperbacks from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  Yes, we’re not talking great art here but these books have their place - for better or worse - in the genre and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time around, I'm looking at a novel that isn't quite as it appears...
cover scan of my copy - published in 1986 by Corgi
A stranger is bringing a gift to Las Cosimas... A gift no woman can endure

Caroline Cassidy is beautiful and bored.  When a wealthy, attractive stranger enters her life, she has no reason to fear.

Tobias Manning, sharp ex-cop and now security officer in Las Cosimas, is bored too - but he likes it that way.  Until, one by one, the women of this wealthy, fashionable community begin to die, some in compromising positions.

Soon boredom seems like paradise, as the town is trapped in a nightmare of fear.  And now, with the killer due to strike again at any moment, Manning is afraid too - especially for Caroline.  Her new lover's face is starting to look frighteningly familiar.

A suspense novel that is slightly mis-sold by its glorious mid-80s cover art (though that’s not really a problem), this was written by Campbell Armstrong under his 80s genre pseudonym and works well.  The new coastal town of Las Cosimas - built around an old Mexican village by the millionaire J M Dunbar - is home to the rich young executives and experts of the burgeoning computer industry, as well as a small population of Mexicans who have their own quarter.  Caroline Cassidy is marketing chief for Dunbar, young and beautiful and fiesty, who is seduced by newcomer Daniel Romero, a man who enjoys his sexual kinks and might not be who he says he is.  Tobias Manning is an ex-New York city cop, now pounding the beat and trying to live with the grief of losing his son to a heart condition that later killed his wife.  His other son, Paul, is a medical student who is studying away but comes home to visit for the Fourth Of July weekend.  When the wife of a software executive disappears, it’s the most action the town has seen in a while and when she’s later found dead on the beach, stabbed through the heart, panic ensues.  Two more women die in similar circumstances, the list of suspects grows and includes local doctor Andrew Conturas who only treats patients with cardiac issues (the only link between the three deaths) - he also treated Tobias’ wife and came to the town under a cloud after an illegal medical procedure saw him temporarily struck off.  Tobias makes the link and realises that if his suspicion of the pattern of victims is correct, Caroline Cassidy is next...

I enjoyed this a lot, though it took me a while (thanks to the cover) to realise it wasn’t going to be as sleazy as the artwork suggested.  Tightly written and paced, the characters are well rounded - Tobias’ grief is affecting and not over-done whilse Caroline is more charismatic than most sensual 80s young women were portrayed - and surrounded by a decently drawn supporting cast.  Las Cosimas is nicely constructed, there’s a good sense of atmosphere (the early morning mists and cool evenings especially) and the climax, which takes place during the Fourth Of July fireworks display and the light/dark conditions that allows, is gripping and brisk.  The band of red herrings aren’t overdone, the authority figures - especially the town Sheriff who is clearly out of his league - have more depth than normal and as the noose tightens and Tobias tries to save Caroline the last few pages fly by.  As ever, your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance but as a mid-80s suspense novel, this was well written and enjoyable and I’d very much recommend it.

* * *
Campbell Armstrong/Thomas Altman
Campbell Armstrong was born (as Thomas Campbell Black) in Glasgow on 25th February 1944 and received a degree in philosophy from the University of Sussex.  He was married to Rebecca, they had three sons and a daughter and he died in Dublin on 1st March 2013.

His first novel, Assassins & Victims was published in 1969 and three years later he moved to New York where he taught creative writing at the State University at Oswego before moving, in 1975, to teach at Arizona State University.

Growing to dislike teaching, he moved into fulltime writing in 1979, remaining in Arizona until 1991 when he moved to Ireland (living in an old house that was reputed to be haunted).  He once said his work was mainly influenced by R L Stevenson, attributing darker aspects of his wrinting to the opening scenes of Treasure Island.

His novels Assassins & Victims and The Punctual Rape both won Scottish Arts Council Awards, whilst The Last Darkness and White Rage were nominees for the Prix du Polar.

As Campbell Black:
Assassins and Victims (1969)
The Punctual Rape (1970)
Death’s Head (1972)
The Homing (1980) (written as Jeffrey Campbell)
Dressed To Kill (1980) (movie novelisation)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (movie novelisation - the first time I was aware of him)
Mr. Apology (1984)
Letters from the Dead (1985)
The Piper (1986)
The Wanting (1986)
The Trader’s Wife (1997) (written as Thomas Weldon)
The Surgeon’s Daughter (1998) (written as Thomas Weldon)

Written as Campbell Armstrong:
Asterisk Destiny (1978)
Brainfire (1979)
Agents of Darkness (1991)
A Concert of Ghosts (1992)
Silencer (1997)
Blackout (1998)
Deadline (2000)

As Campbell Armstrong (featuring his character Frank Pagan):
Jig (1987)
Mazurka (1988)
Mambo (1990)
Jigsaw (1994)
Heat (1996)

As Campbell Armstrong (featuring his character Lou Perlman):
The Bad Fire (2001)
The Last Darkness (2002)
White Rage (2004)
Butcher (2006)
Written as Thomas Altman:
Kiss Daddy Goodbye (1980)
The True Bride (1982)
Black Christmas (1983)
Dark Places (1984)
The Intruder (1985)

For a few years now, I've been collecting old 70s and 80s paperbacks (mostly horror), picking them up cheaply in secondhand bookshops and at car boot sales and slowly building a collection.  My friend (and fellow collector) Johnny Mains once told me that charity shops sometimes pulp old books like this because the market for them is so small - I understand why but I think it's terrible.  We might not be talking great art here but on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis (too much cheese isn't good for anyone's diet), I'm going to review these "old-school" horrors (and perhaps include some bonus material, if I can find it).

Monday, 17 April 2017

Switching Genre, a guest post by Sue Fortin

To mark the paperback publication of her latest (and best-selling) novel, Sister, Sister, here's a guest post from my friend Sue Fortin.

Whenever I tell someone I’m a writer, the next question that almost always follows is ‘What sort of books do you write?’. I find this question a tricky one to answer, not because I don’t know what I write, but because I’ve written in two or three different genres, yet there is a cross-over in all of them.

The first book I had published by Harper Impulse was a contemporary romance. I’ve always enjoyed reading romance and relationship stories; how the hero and heroine conquer all and finally get together for their happy ever after or at least hopefully ending.  However, I always had a yearning to write a thriller. They are the books I love to read. I’m a bit of an armchair-thrill-seeking junkie and action, mystery adventure films and books are always to ones I gravitate to.

So, when I came to write my second novel, Closing In, I decided to combine romance and crime together, giving it my own personal tagline of Crimance. I later learned that it was, in fact, officially known as Romantic Suspense. I thoroughly enjoyed writing that book, I loved the different aspects of suspense and tension alongside a relationship and this encouraged me to adopt the same style for my next book, The Half Truth. There I brought in a Russian crime element and a police investigation, as well as romance. I have to say, it was one of my favourite books to write.

Fast forward to my next book The Girl Who Lied - this had originally started off life as a contemporary romance which I had shelved several years earlier after grinding to a halt with a storyline which seemed to be doing nowhere. There was something missing and I didn’t know what. I think writing two suspense novels while this one was on the back-burner, made me realise that bringing in an element of suspense would give the book the legs it was otherwise missing. Although it was billed as a psychological thriller, in my mind, it was always a romantic suspense.

When I wrote my latest book, Sister, Sister, I had intended there to be a romantic element and to write another romantic suspense, but as the story evolved, I realised my hero didn’t really have much to say for himself and the romantic element wasn’t a key part in the story. His point of view was taken out and the book then became much more about the heroine and her struggle. Ultimately, it meant Sister Sister ticked more of the boxes psychological suspense readers expected and it slipped into that genre with ease.

Having now stepped into new territory, I’ve found there are still subtle boundaries within the broader suspense genre, which I have roughly divided into three categories.

The Twist. Where the writer delivers an unexpected surprise/turn in the story, typically at the very end, just when the reader thinks they know everything.

The Whodunnit. Where the reader has to work out who the bad guy is as the story progresses. They only have as much information as the good guy.

The He’s Behind You. Where the reader is privy to who the bad guy is and what they are up to, thus giving a nail-biting read where the reader urges the main character not to go downstairs in the dark as they already know the bad guy is down there and what they have planned.

I think it would be fair to say that my move from contemporary romance to suspense has not been a conscious decision, but a more organic process where I’ve written the type of books I would enjoy reading myself and who knows where it will lead – perhaps one day I’ll get to write that historical novel I’ve always wanted to.

* * *
My review:

Claire Tennison leads a happy life, living with her husband Luke, two small daughters and mother and working as a solicitor.  The only dark cloud is her missing sister Alice, who was taken on holiday twenty years ago by their father but he absconded, moving to America and starting a new life.  Claire and her mother have tried for years to find the girl but now she’s made contact.  Overjoyed, Claire can’t wait to meet her long-lost sister but the young woman who arrives isn’t the person she was expecting and the joy of reunion turns sour.  It seems that Alice is different and strange, playing mind games that are pulling her into the bosom of the family whilst pushing Claire out - and she’s the only one who can see it.  She turns to her boss, Leonard, who appears to have more than a passing interest in events and her colleague Tom, with whom she had a relationship at Uni, but can they help her uncover the truth?

This is an intriguing novel, setting up the pleasant and routine life of Claire and her family before introducing Alice, who steadily begins to upend things in a beautifully played, insidious fashion that never feels overly constructed.  The characters work well and are clearly-defined (I wasn’t too keen on Luke and agreed with Tom that he was a bit of a free-loader), the children are excellent and the tense relationship between Claire, Alice and their mother is well observed and detailed.  Brighton is a well-used location, especially towards the end and the pace is strong throughout as the twists start to come (one of them is very obvious, the others less so).  With a gripping last act - I raced through it - and a clever denouement, this is a smart and very capable psychological thriller and I’d recommend it.

* * *
Me, with Sue (on the right) and Jan Brigden, at the London Blogger/Writer
meet-up, 19th March 2016 (which I wrote about here)
Published by Harper Collins' imprint Harper Impulse, Sue Fortin writes romance, mystery and suspense.

Sue is a USA Today and an Amazon bestselling author. The Girl Who Lied reached #1 in the Amazon UK Kindle chart and her latest novel, Sister, Sister, reached #2, with both books securing international publishing deals.

A lover of cake, Dragonflies and France; a hater of calories, maths and snakes, Sue was born in Hertfordshire but had a nomadic childhood, moving often with her family, before eventually settling in West Sussex.

Sue is married with four children, all of whom patiently give her time to write but, when not behind the keyboard, she likes to spend her time with them, enjoying both the coast and the South Downs, between which they are nestled.

Sue is represented by Kate Nash of Kate Nash Literary Agency.

You can catch up with Sue at
Sue Fortin Author Facebook page
Twitter @suefortin1
Website & Blog
Amazon Author Page