Monday 25 April 2016

Maestra, by L S Hilton (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and really enjoyed.  This summer, I'm planning to write a dark psychological thriller and I'm reading more and more in that genre at the moment.
By day, Judith Rashleigh is a put-upon assistant at a London auction house - British Pictures

By night she's a hostess in one of the capital's unsavoury bars.

Desperate to make something of herself, Judith knows she has to play the game. She's learned to dress, speak and act in the interests of men. She's learned to be a good girl. But after uncovering a dark secret at the heart of the art world, Judith is fired and her dreams of a better life are torn apart. 

So she turns to a long-neglected friend. 

A friend that kept her chin up and back straight through every past slight. 

A friend that a good girl like her shouldn't have: Rage.

Where do you go when you've gone too far?

Judith Rashleigh, through hard work and natural intelligence rather than family connections, works at British Pictures, one of London’s most prestigious auction houses.  Unfortunately, it’s not the big break she’d hoped for, as she spends her time taking her boss’ dirty laundry to the dry cleaners and fending off advances from ageing sellers.  Heavily in debt, a chance encounter with an old school friend introduces her to work as a hostess at a club in Mayfair where she excels in the role.  Very soon, she’s off with a client to the South of France and then things start to spiral out of control.

The novel is broken into four parts (plus an epilogue) and Judith (or Lauren, as she becomes known) certainly gets about.  Set in London (part one), France and Italy (parts two and three), Paris (part four) and Venice (the epilogue), this makes excellent use of the locations and they’re well described, Paris especially (it perhaps helps that I know the area the book is set in).  For me, only the second part doesn’t work, a self-indulgent section where Judith meets an almost-autistic multi-millionaire and spends a month on his private yacht, forty one pages that could have been encapsulated in one line - “worked our way down the coast, didn’t talk much, shagged the captain and stole something that was never explained”.

Smart and assured, Judith is an observant character with a good eye for the finer things in life (art and fashion) who enjoys indulging in sensual pleasures (with men and women) and describes her clothing and accessories in detail (a trait I thought worked well).  She’s also a somewhat unreliable narrator who appears to start the book as Lauren Slaughter from Paul Theroux’s Dr Slaughter and morphs into Matty Walker from Body Heat part way through (with touches of Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct) but always works the angle and tries to keep the upper hand.  In fact, I found I was rooting for her even when she was at her worst (and that happens on a couple of occasions) - apparently this is the first in a planned trilogy and it’ll be interesting to see where she goes next.

Sold as “the most shocking thriller you’ll read all year” I didn’t find it that bad at all - though I’m obviously coming at it from a horror reader viewpoint.  The sex is explicit certainly but generally good fun and the violence is brutal and unflinching but never played for gore’s sake - I can see that people might find it offensive but if they do, they shouldn’t really have picked this up in the first place.

Tightly constructed, with everything layering in nicely as the novel progresses, this has a decent pace (the second section aside).  With a sure sense of the art world, peopled with believable (if occasionally grotesque) characters and built around a strong femme fatale lead, I enjoyed this and would recommend it.

Friday 22 April 2016

Gregory's Girl, at 35

In April 1982 I went to see Chariots Of Fire at Kettering Ohio cinema with my friend Steve and his older sister Sharon.  It must have been her choice - the film didn’t interest me then and I haven’t seen it since - but that re-issue (launched in the wake of the films success at the March Oscars) was a double-bill with a little Scottish film I’d never heard of called Gregory’s Girl.  It might have been that I was thirteen, it might have been (according to my diary at the time) that I was in love with a French girl called Murial (Montsaye Comprehensive was in the middle of a French exchange and several of my school-mates were hosting students) but I loved it - everything from Gregory’s struggles to Clare Grogan in a beret to the penguin wandering the corridors.  I’ve seen it a lot since and a few weeks back picked up the Second Sight widescreen edition and fell in love with it all over again.  Incredibly, the film was originally released in 1981, making this year it’s 35th anniversary!  And I never need an excuse to write a retrospective!
After working for small production companies - making public information and training films - for thirteen years, Bill Forsyth decided to make a feature film and wrote an outline about a shy Scots lad who falls for the female striker in his school football team.  To find his cast, he began - in 1977 - to sit in on workshops at the Glasgow Youth Theatre, which was run by a friend.  The children were suspicious at first of “the quiet bloke at the back who never said anything” but he overcame his natural shyness and began to work with them on the script.  He later said, “they didn’t know anything, I didn’t know anything. But I discussed their parts with them in the same way as I came to discussing adult parts with adults and they demanded exactly the same as adult actors. It was a big lesson”

Unfortunately, the British Film Institute felt Gregory’s Girl was too commercial and declined to fund it.  Instead, Forsyth and the young actors made the (much) cheaper That Sinking Feeling (1979), about a group of unemployed teenagers who steal a lorry-load of kitchen sinks.  It cost a few thousand pounds and Forsyth felt it was his last shot - “if we hadn’t made a go of it, my plan was just to disappear.”  That Sinking Feeling turned out to be the surprise hit of the 1979 Edinburgh Film Festival and allowed him to raise the funds for Gregory’s Girl, using many of the same actors.

Gregory’s Girl “wrote itself,” he later said as he knew which buttons to press: “young love and football”.  Designed as a calling card, a ticket to bigger films and bigger budgets, he originally planned to make it on 16mm for £29,000 but ended up shooting on 35mm for £200,000.

Although Forsyth used many of the Glasgow Youth Theatre actors, he spotted Dee Hepburn (Dorothy) dancing in a TV advert for a department store, whilst Clare Grogan (Susan) was working as a waitress at the Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Glasgow.  “[Bill] asked me for my phone number,” she said in interview, “but my mum had warned me about strange men, so I just said: “You know where to find me.”  I was 17, very naive, yet had incredible delusions of grandeur and glamour. I realise now how lucky I was: Bill had faith in me and was brilliant at making us all feel relaxed on set, spoonfeeding us ideas.”

John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory) was an apprentice electrician at the time and although he’d appeared in That Sinking Feeling, was surprised to get the lead.  “”Everyone was a bit in awe of Dee Hepburn,” he said in interview, “she was already a professional actor.”  After being cast, Hepburn was given six weeks of intensive football training at Partick Thistle FC.

Susan (Clare Grogan) and Gordon (John Gordon Sinclair)
“The chemistry between myself and Clare Grogan was real,” said John, “and we’ve been friends ever since.  [She] was into bands and incredibly cool, whereas I was in a combat jacket with long hair, listening to Rush.”

“When I first met Gordon,” said Clare, “I was staggered to see he was still in flares.  But Gordy, as he’ll always be to me, is the funniest person to be around.”

Forsyth took notice of how his young cast talked and acted with one another.  “Bill always had a wee notebook in his hands, watching us, writing down things we said,” said John.  “Then later, things wound up in the script and we'd think, 'Ah, that's one of our stories.'”

The setting of the film was deliberate.  “I wanted a backdrop where nothing was touched or old,” Forsyth said and the film was shot in the new town of Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, created in 1956 as a population overspill for Glasgow.  A reaction against the gritty locations of That Sinking Feeling, this was “a deliberate attempt to show a different face to Scotland.”  Gregory waits by the big clock at New Town Plaza, the Fish & Chip shop is in a small shopping arcade next to the Abronhill High School used as the school in the film and the restaurant was called Capaldi’s and owned by a member of the actor Peter Capaldi’s family.  The nurses home, from the opening scene, was the Electricity Board training centre in Seafar, which is now a Christian centre.  Abronhill High School was opened in 1978, earmarked for closure in 2012 and demolished in 2014.  Apparently, a small crowd gathered to say goodbye.
from left - Andy (Robert Buchanan), Charlie (Graham Thompson) and Gregory watch Dorothy
After the guerrilla-style filming of That Sinking FeelingGregory’s Girl was a different experience, with rigorous schedules and a bigger budget.  It didn’t affect Forsyth or his young cast too badly though, as he said in interview, “we were living the dream.  I think it worked because it didn’t patronise anyone; there was a level of honesty that you don’t normally get in teen films. It was hangdog, but very friendly.  [The cast’s] energy and enthusiasm was what carried it.”

A smitten Gregory examines Dorothy's injured knee
With the bigger canvas to work on, there were more compromises.  Forsyth found directing difficult and he “couldn’t deal with more than three people in a scene at any one time.”  It rained a lot, which changed the colour of the football pitch as they were filming and he felt like he “was killing the script, never bringing it to life” which I find odd, since it seems to buzz with life.

John later said in interview.  “Shooting was fun, it never felt like work. You knew you were getting it right because you’d see Bill’s shoulders shaking with laughter behind the camera. I had to ask him to move out of my eyeline, because it would get quite distracting.”

Three months before filming began, Clare Grogan was an innocent bystander at a fight at the Glasgow Technical college.  A broken bottle hit her and she was severely injured, suffering a prominent scar on the left side of her face.  The film producers wanted to change actress but Forsyth refused to recast and she was filmed mostly in profile.  When close-ups were required, such as at the park, make-up artists covered her scar with morticians wax.
Bill Forsyth (right) chats through a scene with Mr Menzies (Jake D'Arcy) and Dorothy (Dee Hepburn)
Gregory’s Girl is wonderfully observational - as Forsyth said in 1985, “my style is to be as unobtrusive as possible.”  As the actors play out their scenes, the camera catches little nuances and mannerisms as well as embracing the life around them.  “I was just recording their acting,” he said.  “I didn’t have any cinematic ambition. It was an attempt to make a film I thought people might want to see, and quite divorced from the films I imagined myself making.”  Forsyth heard Chic Murray, a veteran of vaudeville who plays the headmaster, playing a piano in the school gym to entertain the cast between filming his scenes.  Delighted with this, Forsyth included the scene where two pupils watch him as he plays during lunch and shoos them away with “Off you go, you small boys!”

My favourite example of this humour is the penguin, never referred to but often seen wandering the corridors.  This came from Forsyth seeing someone at Abronhill High school carrying a papier-mâché head down a corridor.  “None batted an eyelid,” he said, “a school is a place where anything can happen.”  The person in the penguin suit was Christopher Higson, son of production supervisor Paddy Higson and is his only credited role.

The film is filled with affection for its characters and quickly establishes the idea that the younger you are, the sharper you are.  From the kids at the beginning, who witness the teenagers watch the nurse undress and brush it off with “a lot of fuss about a bit of tit” to Madeline (Allison Forster) being Gregory’s mentor and the teachers in the staff room, more like giggling kids than their pupils.  Gregory’s friends are never mocked, from his best friend Steve (William Greenless), a budding pastry chef who runs a black market business selling cakes from the boys toilet whilst taking orders from the teachers to Eric (Alan Love) the photographer who sells photo’s of Dorothy from the stall next to the cakes, conducting his conversation in terms of f-stops and lenses.  And Andy (Robert Buchanan) trotting out dubious trivia (often beginning with “It’s a well known fact…”) as attempted pick-up lines, never deterred by his lack of success.

Madeline (Allison Forster) fills Gregory in on love
“I love all the role reversal,” said Clare Grogan.  Generally naïve, the boys are fascinated and mystified by the girls who appear knowing and sophisticated - from Madeline to the well-meaning group who play matchmaker as he moves from one-to-another in a sense of confusion before ending up with Gregory’s Girl.

There’s also a wonderful use of the summer evening.  Forsyth wanted “something that was slightly magic but isn’t corny magic, it was just human magic. It could be something like this sudden midsummer’s atmosphere that overtakes people and even the two boys that are wandering around catch it. They say, ‘There’s something in the atmosphere.’  It was just allowing every individual their eccentricity without taking it to a point where it’s just pure comedy.”
Susan and Gregory in the park
For me, the perfect highlight of this is in the park, as the summer evening winds down when Gregory and Susan talk numbers and arm dance so as not to fall off the earth.  Their characters connect and it’s a cheering moment, the camera magically tilting with them (an effect created by tying it to a piece of rope).  Later, on his doorstep, Susan says “a million and nine”.  “How come you know all the good numbers?” he asks, a quizzical tone in his voice.  Superb.

“I especially remember the scene after our date in the park,” said John later, “where there’s a shot of us walking off into the sunset. We were both in tears. It was the last day of filming. It was all over. This magical bubble we’d been in was about to burst.”

“To this day, I’ve never seen Gregory’s Girl in its entirety,” said Clare at a 30th anniversary showing of the film.  “I always have to leave at some point because I find it too much.”

Gregory’s Girl was written and directed by Bill Forsyth and produced by Clive Parsons.  The music was written by Colin Tully, Michael Coulter was the cinematographer and John Gow was editor.

The film was released in the UK on 23rd April 1981 and distributed by ITC Entertainment.  Watching it at the 1981 London Film Festival, John was “mortified, I looked terrible and gangly” and suddenly understood why Forsyth had “made me exaggerate all those stretches and lunges when he was filming me exercising”, worried his performance “ruined the film”.  Clare, whose band Altered Images had signed with CBS during production, was a bit more used to showbusiness and recognised the charm of the film and its “smart, progressive view of a girl's world”.  Even though the film got a great reception, all involved thought the fuss would soon die down.

It never did, really.  The film Forsyth called “an act of desperation - I was in my early thirties, it was a last roll of the dice” was ranked number 30 in the British Film Institute's list of the top 100 British films and  number 29 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 best high school movies.  It was nominated for three BAFTA’s - Best Newcomer (John Gordon Sinclair), Best Direction and Best Film - and won the BAFTA Best Original Screenplay, the London Critics Circle Film Award: Special Achievement and the Variety Club Actress Of The Year Award (Dee Hepburn).
Dee Hepburn, John Gordon Sinclair, Clare Grogan - at the 30th anniversary screening at the Glasgow Film Festival, 2011
At a special 30th anniversary screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre, John said “it was such a big part of my life, like watching my old diary.”  Clare said “It was just so pivotal in my life. Everywhere I go, all round the world, I always find myself in the company of somebody who loves it, and that is an amazing thing.”

The film was first shown on Channel 4 on 8th January 1985 and attracted 10.75 million viewers, Channel 4's third biggest audience of that year.  ITV repeated the film the following Christmas Day.

The film was released in America on 26th May 1982 by The Samuel Goldwyn Company, opening small and relying on word of mouth praise which was consistently good.  It performed well in New York and other US cities and whilst it wasn’t a blockbuster, at one point it was number 7 in the US Top Fifty.  Learning their lesson from Ken Loach’s Kes, which was withdrawn after two days because Americans couldn’t understand it, the film was re-dubbed with milder Scottish accents (with some of the original actors, thankfully - both versions are available on the US DVD).  Subtitles were originally suggested but Goldwyn’s Larry Jackson was quoted as saying “we thought it was a wholesome entertaining story with a general appeal, and we didn't want it to end up with an art house audience only.”  It’s said he loved the film the first time he saw it, though he did have a script to follow the dialogue.  Critic Richard Skorman wrote, “Unlike the film's American counterparts, Gregory’s Girl is refreshingly free of mean-spirited characters and horny young studs bemoaning their virginity.”

The success of Gregory’s Girl led to the development of the Scottish Film Production Fund, Glasgow Film Fund and other financing organisations which allowed for talents like Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, 1994) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999) to get their first features made.  It was been cited as an influence on Wes Anderson and Shane Meadows and, according to Clare Grogan, is one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films.

On its budget of £200,000, Gregory’s Girl went on to make £25.8m around the world and played in some London cinemas for an astonishing 75 weeks.

Watching it now in widescreen, I was delighted to find the film hadn’t really dated at all.  I was watching it as a different person, certainly, but it still spoke to me and even though some of that might have been nostalgia - from my first viewings, perhaps from my teenaged years - it was also because the film stands up well.  There is an air of youthful naivety, of course, but it’s warm and smart and the humour makes you smile.

Gregory’s Girl is a wonderful film.  If you’ve seen it before, watch it again and if you’ve never seen it, I envy you that first viewing experience.

Happy birthday Gregory, bella bella!

John Gordon Sinclair (born Gordon John Sinclair - Equity already had someone of that name registered - in Glasgow in 1962) also appeared in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) and reprised his title role in Gregory’s Two Girls (1999).  He has continued to act on TV, stage and screen, appeared on the 1982 Scottish squad's World Cup song We Have a Dream and won the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1995 for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in She Loves Me.  His first novel, Seventy Times Seven was published in 2012 and he lives in Surrey with his wife and two daughters.

Clare Grogan (born Claire Patricia Grogan in Glasgow in 1962) went on to play Charlotte in Bill Forsyth’s Comfort & Joy (1984) and was Kristine Kochanski in the 1st, 2nd and 6th series of Red Dwarf.  She is perhaps better known the lead singer of 80s new wave group Altered Images, whose debut album Happy Birthday was released in 1981.  Grogan continues to act and sing, presents on BBC 6 Music and her first book, a children’s novel called Tallulah And The Teenstars was published in October 2008.  She lives in Haringay with her husband Stephen Lironi (her former bandmate) and their adopted daughter.

Dee Hepburn (born in Airdrie in 1961) won the Variety Club Actress Of The Year Award for her performance as Dorothy.  After working in TV, she appeared in The Bruce (1996) with Oliver Reed but has now left showbusiness.  She lives in East Kilbride with her second husband and two children, working in business development.
Bill Forsyth, Clare Grogan, John Gordon Sinclair
Bill Forsyth (born William David Forsyth in Glasgow in 1946) started his career making short documentary films.  After the success of Gregory’s Girl (1981) he made Local Hero (1983), produced by David Puttnam and featuring Burt Lancaster and followed it up with Comfort & Joy (1984).  When Puttnam served as Columbia Studios chairman from 1986 to 1987, he picked up Housekeeping (1987) which was Forsyth’s first American film.  Following a poor critical reception to Being Human (1994), Forysth didn’t direct again until Gregory’s Two Girls (1999), which also received mixed reviews.  He hasn’t directed a film since.  Nominated for five BAFTAs, he won two (including Best Direction for Local Hero ), received the Special Achievement Award from the London Critics Circle in 1982 and Local Hero  won the 1983 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay.  He lives in Western Scotland with his partner and has two children from his first marriage.

Astonishingly, there isn't a trailer for the film on YouTube (apart from the Samuel Goldwyn version, which is mostly review quotes) so instead I'll leave you with one of my favourite moments...

The UK quad poster of the double-bill I went to see
The US release poster
Susan and Dorothy talk about Gregory in Chemistry
Susan, Gregory and Steve (William Greenlees) in cookery class
Dorothy on the pitch
The boys at the nurses home
I hope you've enjoyed this as much as I did researching and writing it.

Monday 18 April 2016

Star Wars The Force Awakens (book reviews)

Not that I need much of an excuse to talk about Star Wars on the blog (see here if you don't believe me), but to tie in with the DVD release of The Force Awakens, I thought I'd post a couple of reviews relating to the film.
Dude and me at Kettering Odeon, 18th December 2015
The three of us - Alison, Dude & me - went to see it on the 18th of December (I booked the tickets as soon as I was able, having been looking forward to the film since it was announced).

Alison is a Star Wars fan almost by osmosis (when the special editions were re-released in 1997, she came to see Star Wars and Jedi with me) and Dude likes the original trilogy (since he's seen it so often) and the prequels (it's his age, not me forcing him to, I'm not that awful a parent).

Dude & I loved the film (there were parts where I wanted to cheer) so he & I went back to see it again on the 9th of January.

And now it's on DVD...

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
by Alan Dean Foster
Set years after Return of the Jedi, this stunning new action-packed adventure rockets us back into the world of Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Luke Skywalker, while introducing a host of exciting new characters. Darth Vader may have been redeemed and the Emperor vanquished, but peace can be fleeting, and evil does not easily relent. Yet the simple belief in good can still empower ordinary individuals to rise and meet the greatest challenges.

So return to that galaxy far, far away, and prepare yourself for what happens when the Force awakens. . . .

Set 30 years after the events of “Return Of The Jedi”, Luke Skywalker has vanished after a pupil of his turned to the Dark Side.  In his absence, the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire and is intent on finding him.  General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance, has learned from an old ally that there might be a clue to Luke’s whereabouts and she sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron, to retrieve it.

To set my stall from the off, I am a huge “Star Wars” fan and my first introduction to the work of Alan Dean Foster was his novelisation for the original film in 1977 though I haven’t read that for a while (but I’m tempted to go back now).  Sticking fairly close to the script (with some nice additions), Foster does a good job of dealing with all of the various locales, easing older characters back into the action (and it’s nice to see Han & Leia interact again) but also doing well with the new characters and his work with Rey on Jakku is particularly good, capturing her sense of loneliness well.  Kylo Ren also comes across more clearly here, his inner struggle well realised - and the professional jealousy he & Hux share - and Leader Snoke casts a more chilling presence too.

The novel makes good use of location, especially Starkiller Base and Foster’s a sure hand at dealing with technology, giving the reader just enough to picture the item and then treating it as though it’s been around forever.  He also does a good job with the dialogue - one of my highlights from the film was the verbal interplay between the characters and it’s captured well here, reading as funny as it did on screen.  It also has that wonderful sense, of time having passed and adventures moving into history - “Luke Skywalker?” asks Rey, “I thought he was just a myth.”  On the Falcon, Finn knows Solo as a Rebellion General but Rey knows him as a smuggler and when she mistakes the time the ship made the Kessel Run (she says fourteen), he sharply corrects her to twelve.

Foster also includes a few sequences that, although they were probably deleted from the film for timing reasons, work well.  Beyond the opening sequence with Leia, the first new part is Poe’s escape from Jakku, an adventure with Naka Iit which is good fun.  There’s a sequence with Korr Sella (an aide of Leia) who’s sent on a mission to the Hosnian system just before it’s wiped out by Starkiller (she’s in the film but we don’t find out her name) and, wonderfully, Chewie finally gets to rip someone’s arm off at Maz Katana’s place.  The last key sequence is on Starkiller, which features a speeder chase between Rey & Finn and a load of troopers which is exciting and explains why they’re so far above Han and Chewie for the final showdown with Kylo Ren.

Well written (though I got the curious sense that Foster was under-writing and certainly not creating something as lush and deep as the original novelisation), well realised and full of pace, this does the film proud and I would highly recommend it.

The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
by Phil Szostak
Lucasfilm have long known how to produce good art books and, thankfully, this is absolutely no different.  Taking the story from the very start of the process in 2012, Szostak follows the team of Visualists working under Rick Carter - and, later, Darren Gilford, though it’s not made clear why it was necessary to bring him in - as they come up with concepts for sequences, even before the scriptwriter and director are on board.  Seeing the story - and images - evolve organically is fascinating and the artwork is exemplary.  Helping the book, for me, is a production diary that starts around the time of pre-production, a few paragraphs for every month, following the process up to post and giving out little details that help build a bigger picture.

But the art is the real star here and the beautifully reproduced images - from a varied team including Doug Chiang, Ryan Church and Eric Tiemens (who all worked on the prequels), Christian Alzmann, Chris Bonura, Andree Wallin and more - are gorgeous.  Of the hundreds of pieces on display, my favourites include “The Sunset”, Chiang’s wonderful riff on “Apocalypse Now”, Andree Wallin’s “AT-AT Idea”, Kevin Jenkins’ “Rally Site Troops View”, “Spotlight” by Kevin Jenkins (which presents the reasoning why concept art is so important as this immediately shows you the moment when Han and Ren confront one another which might not work so well with words) and “Rey Emerges” by Yanick Dusseault, which shows the scale superbly.

I read a little while back that George Lucas was disappointed at how retro some of the film looked and whilst I enjoyed seeing little things in the film - the heads-up display in the Falcon, the Brutalist aspects of the Empire - I do understand what he means and the book confirms it.  Ralph McQuarrie’s work, both used and unused, was re-examined by the Visualists and pieces were cherry-picked for the new film.  Admittedly, when I read this, all I could think was “the lucky devils!” for gaining access to the fabled Lucasfilm archives.

My one gripe would be the way that Szostak and (especially) Carter see themselves - the writer mentions Kathleen Kennedy (the producer) “reaching out” to him, rather than calling him and asking for a meeting.  Carter goes further in the pretension stakes (I’d like to believe he’s being ironic about his own abilities but I really don’t think he is) and contrasts badly with the way Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston have talked about themselves over the years plus you wouldn’t need to argue very hard that their contribution to the Star Wars universe - and, by extension, pop culture - is far greater than Carter will ever manage.

That niggle aside (easily done, just skip the Foreword), this is an excellent companion to a superb film and one I would highly recommend.

Some examples of the superb concept art
Artwork by Andree Wallin
Artwork by Doug Chiang
Artwork by Doug Chiang, which he acknowledges is a riff on "Apocalypse Now"

And just because this clip, first shown at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2015, gets better after you see the film, here it is...

Monday 11 April 2016

Polly, a new novella...

Coming soon from Stormblade Productions, available in print, digital and audio editions.

Polly Harper had always wanted to visit the City of Love

She just didn't expect to be doing it on her own...
More similar in tone to Drive than my horror output, Polly is a thriller featuring a woman who discovers, on the eve of her twentieth anniversary, that her marriage isn’t all that she thought it was.  Fleeing to Paris for the weekend, she befriends an American tourist and then meets a man in a bar...

Neil Buchanan, at Stormblade Productions, asked if I’d like to write something for him and I readily agreed (I thoroughly enjoyed their Everett Smiles audio book).  Knowing that Carrie Buchanan would be narrating, hearing the INXS song New Sensation and memories of an afternoon in Paris combined to give me the seeds of the novella, which I pitched at FantasyCon in Nottingham.  Thankfully they liked it and I had great fun working on it.

Polly will be released later in the summer, supported by an online launch and the print and digital editions will include an afterword.

More details to come...

Monday 4 April 2016

North By Northwest (Hitchcock at the cinema)

My friend Jon & I are Alfred Hitchcock fans of long-standing (I won’t go into detail again about when my interest started) so when he discovered that the Errol Flynn cinema (attached to the Derngate theatre) in Northampton was showing a season of the Master’s films, we leapt at the chance to go and went to see North By Northwest.
Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) suffers a bad case of mistaken identity when two spies confuse him for fictional FBI agent George Kaplan.  Kidnapped by a gang led by the suave Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and framed for the murder of a UN diplomat, Thornhill is forced to go on the run.  Encountering Vandamm’s mistress Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and his sinister right-hand-man Leonard (Martin Landau) along the way, he races to clear his name before he’s caught, taking in a close encounter with a crop-duster plane, an exploding petrol tanker and being shot, before the famous climax atop the Mount Rushmore monument.

I loved it.  It had been long enough since I last saw it that I didn’t recall everything, which made for a more entertaining viewing but seeing it on the big screen with great sound was a revelation after TV and DVD showings.  Cary Grant was effortlessly stylish and cool whilst Eva Marie Saint (her Eve Kendall is a ‘very’ modern woman) was luminous - if anything, I wanted to see more of her.  James Mason, Martin Landau and Adam Williams made convincing villains (and hearing Grant and Mason together, talking over each other with their gloriously rich accents, was wonderful), the plot is airtight (and based on the most simple of premises) and, of course, the direction is peerless.  From the mundane - Thornill and his mother (Jesse Royce Landis) in the hotel room - to the exciting - the crop duster scene or the Mount Rushmore climax - Hitchcock writes the grammar of modern cinema and in doing so sets up the template that spy thrillers still follow.

Cary Crant & Alfred Hitchcock at Mount Rushmore
Following Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman put aside their planned project, The Wreck Of The Mary Deare and began work on creating an original screenplay.  “The Man On Lincoln’s Nose”, as Hitchcock called it, was inspired by a story the journalist Otis Guernsey had told him, about an innocent man who is mistaken for a master spy.  Purchasing the story rights for $10,000, Hitchcock’s plans for the film included an assassination at the United Nations, a chase across America and a climax at Mount Rushmore.  This appealed to Lehman, who started work in August 1957 and completed his first draft, which Hitchcock liked, in early 1958.  The title, suggested by MGM story editor Kenneth MacKenna, didn’t satisfy Hitchcock and other titles were suggested, including “Breathless” and “The CIA Story”, though favourable pre-publicity persuaded him to stick to the original.

James Stewart was originally earmarked for Thornhill but delays to the completion of Vertigo (plus the cool reception that film received) edged him out in favour of Cary Grant.  Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor were considered for Eve Kendall before Hitchcock chose Eva Marie Saint and James Mason was cast as Vandamm when original choice (at which point the character was called Mendoza) Yul Brynner was unavailable.  Hitchcock makes his signature cameo appearance at the start, having a bus door slam shut in his face.
Principal photography began in New York on 27th August 1958, though it didn’t start well as the UN refused a filming permit to the production.  Instead, Grant was filmed walking towards the building and still shots and matte paintings were used at all other times (including the famous overhead shot).  Other locations included Madison Avenue, Grand Central Station, the Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue, and Westbury House and gardens on Long Island.  Moving to Chicago by train, the production filmed at LaSalle Street Station, the Omni Ambassador Hotel and Midway Airport.  In South Dakota, location shooting was limited to the Mount Rushmore car park, the café and its adjoining terrace and was completed in two days.

Although permission was initially granted by the National Park Service at Mount Rushmore, it was on the strict instruction that no violent scenes be filmed “near the sculpture, on the talus slopes below the structure” or on “any simulation or mock-up of the sculpture or talus slope.”  After a local journalist published an article describing a violent chase Hitchcock had planned, permission was withdrawn though after further negotations, officials allowed for the action to take place on a studio set “on the condition that the presidents' faces be shown below the chin line in scenes involving live actors.”

The crop duster scene was filmed on Garces Highway, between Wasco and Delano at the San Joaquin Valley in California.  A suitable location had been hard to find as Hitchcock wanted “a scene where our hero is standing all alone in a wide open space and there's nobody and nothing else in sight for 360 degrees around, as far as the eye can see.”  The plane was flown by local pilot Bob Coe.
Starting in September, all the interiors - as well as elements of Mount Rushmore to complement matte paintings - were filmed at MGM Studios in Culver City on sets by production designer Robert Boyle.  Vandamm’s house was designed to look like it had been built by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright but apart from a few portions of the structure built on the set, it was mainly a series of superb Matthew Yurichich matte paintings.
Top - Matthew Yurichich's matte painting of the Vandamm House
bottom - film still
Since the film went over budget, Hitchcock had to abandon his original opening sequence, which was to have shown Thornhill in his office alongside various advert layouts.  Instead, graphic designer Saul Bass created his second credit sequence for Hitchcock, which was the first to use kinetic typography where the credits fly into the frame from off-screen (and mirrors the use of straight lines and intersections - note the crop duster sequence - throughout the film).
Filming finished in mid-December and the post-production period lasted until early April 1959.  Hitchcock argued with the Production Code Administration officials over the final sequence (where Thornhill pulls Eve into the train compartment bed) and also her line “I never make love on an empty stomach”.  He agreed to re-dub the line to “I never discuss love…” and changed the dialogue in the end sequence to imply the couple were married, but then inserted the famous final shot, where a train is seen entering a tunnel (which wasn’t in the script and wasn’t submitted for approval by the Code).

After the initial screening, the MGM board raised concerns over the films length, wanting it under two hours.  Hitchcock, who had final cut, refused to take anything out.  As publicity began, the mischievous Hitchcock led journalists to believe the Mount Rushmore climax was filmed on location.  Elmer F. Bennett of the Department of the Interior complained to the MGM present Joseph R. Vogel about it, which led to the removal of a screen credit acknowledging the Department’s co-operation with the film.

North by Northwest premiered in Chicago on July 1st 1959, attended by Hitchcock, Eva Marie Saint and Leo G. Carroll.  It became the sixth highest-grossing film of 1959 and was nominated for three Oscars - for art direction (Robert Boyle), film editing (George Tomasini), and screenplay (Ernest Lehman) - but didn’t win any, though Lehman received the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1960 for his screenplay.

In 1995, it became the fourth Hitchcock film to be selected for preservation by the United States National Film Preservation Board.  The Writers Guild Of America ranked the screenplay No. 21 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written while the American Film Institute ranks it as the 40th greatest American film (as well as 7th on its ‘Top Ten Mysteries’ list).  Ian Fleming was also a fan - he sent a telegram outlining a plot for a novel, asking if Hitchcock would “be interested in directing this Bond film...?”

Produced on a budget of $3.1m, the film has so far grossed £44.4m.

Hitchcock's original trailer for the film

If you get a chance to see this at the cinema then take it, it's a superb experience!