Thursday, April 28, 2011

Javier Bardem Confirmed to Play Roland Deschain!

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed”…

With these words began the epic journey of Stephen King’s magnum opus, ‘The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower by Stephen King
It has been a long and winding road since the first of seven books was published in 1982. The Gunslinger, written as a stand-alone or possibly to be continued to a bigger story was a relatively simple western yarn, albeit with an otherworldly twist. The book was inspired by a poem by Robert Browning, The Lord of the Rings and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. The ‘slinger himself Roland Deschain was a hero modelled on Clint Eastwood and had many characteristics of Tolkien’s Aragorn character. The Gunslinger is one of King’s classics and although often forgotten, given that it’s outside of his usual generic realm, the book is considered one of his greatest works. The scope and beauty of the novel. The unique landscape, the moral ambuguity, the shocking conclusion and the mythical chase between the gunslinger and the man in black are all reasons why this book stands as one of Kings most legendary contributions to the world of literature.

In 1987, King followed up The Gunslinger with it’s rather more sci-fi tinged sequel The Drawing of the Three. The series progressed from here, expanding it’s world from our dimension, to many other ones, spiritual and otherwise. It entered the world of the post-modern when characters from other King novels became characters in the series and, in Song of Susannah (2004), the sixth book in the series, Roland and his friends travel to Maine to meet and save the life of Stephen King himself. The story finally found its resolution with the publication of the aptly-titled The Dark Tower in 2004, though the stories have lived on in the form of some fantastic graphic novels and comics and King has recently announced a new book set for publication in 2012.
The world created by King in his Dark Tower series is incredibly ambitious, post-modern, maddeningly unapologetic and always unpredictable. Because of the story’s non-linear format, it’s massive scope, unusual use of language and its less than crowd-pleasing ending (no spoilers here, you’ll have to read for yourselves) the inevitable film adaptation has frightened off many a filmmaker. In November 2010, Ron Howard announced that he, along with producer Brian Grazer and writer Akiva Goldsman were manning up to tackle the project. But they warned that this will not be just any project. It will consist of at least three epic films, accompanied by television mini-series in between. This sparked debate amongst us members of the ka-tet as to whether this team was the right team or not. Of course the first and best way for them to prove themselves is in the casting. Popular suggestions were Viggo Mortensen, best known for playing the character of Aragorn in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Josh Holloway, who played Sawyer on ‘Lost’, Hugh Jackman and Guy Pearce. More recently Christian Bale was rumoured but this wasn’t a particularly popular choice with fans.

It has been confirmed that Oscar-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem has been officially cast to play Roland. It makes sense in many ways. He is ruggedly masculine and tough as nails as displayed in his Oscar-winning turn in No Country For Old Men but has a deeply intelligent kindness in his manner (see his Oscar nominated role in The Sea Inside). Roland must embody the kind of old-fashioned masculinity rarely found in cinema these days but he must also be able to show a deeply spiritual, romantic and passionate side that seeps out slowly (very slowly!) over time. The Roland we think we know from the first book evolves as the series progresses, completing the classic heroic character arc over time.
So can Javier Bardem fill the boots of Roland Deschain? Would you have preferred one of the other actors? Or would you have waited until we eventually found the right portal in Mid-World that could transport us to a dimension where Clint Eastwood was still young enough to play him? Or should ‘The Dark Tower’ series be left alone altogether? 
  - Charlene Lydon

Monday, April 18, 2011

Insidious: Q&A with Leigh Whannell and James Wan

After a terrifying ninety minutes sitting through Insidious I wondered, as I always do, why is it that I can’t reason myself out of being scared in the cinema. As a seasoned cinema-goer and horror-lover I still find myself being extremely uncool in the cinema when it comes to scary films. Not all scary films, mind you. Just the ones where you sense from the first minute that the director knows horror films and intends to use and/or subvert every trick in the book to scare you. From that moment on I trust nothing. Every camera move is a potential lurking creature. If I spot a little too much space in the frame I worry that it is to allow space for the monster/killer/evil puppet to jump out.

From what I know of James Wan as a director, I know he is a huge fan of the genre and knows all the tricks and isn’t afraid to exploit them to scare the pants off an audience. Having said that, Insidious is a relatively slow-moving haunted house thriller with admirable restraint and for all my hiding behind my fingers, staring at the floor and taking off my glasses so the screen would be blurry, the actual scares were spread out nicely.

   When we first met Leigh and James they gave a brief introduction to the film and complain that the audiences they have seen the film with in the UK during this tour have not responded like the Americans do, with screaming and yelling. They ask us to be sure to let loose with the reactions (which we Irish are not capable of doing in the cinema). To egg us on Leigh stays behind for the opening credits to shout "Boo!" at us a few times. I think to myself that this sums up what these guys are about. They are filmmaking tricksters who scare people out of mischief and delight in their reactions.

The post-screening Q&A with the writer/director team behind the movie and also such films as Saw and Dead Silence was illuminating and confirmed my suspicion that these guys were intent on proving themselves capable of making something truly frightening, not dependent on blood and gore.

Leigh and James explain that when they first met at university, RMIT in Melbourne, they were outcasts, “everyone was into Wim Wenders and whatever film Yoko Ono had made and we were into Sam Raimi and Dario Argento”. They began working together in college and after they graduated they found themselves and going from job to job and writing together on the side. When asked why Saw was so successful Leigh admits, “we were surprised at how it connected with the public zeitgeist. It played at Sundance and in Toronto and was released at Halloween 2004 up against The Grudge which was huge but it connected with audiences and it turned out to be a great word of mouth movie.”

When it was pointed out that there really isn’t much violence in the first Saw movie, especially in comparison to its sequels, Leigh is in complete agreement. “There’s not much at all because the first movie was completely focussed on the main plot, the two guys trapped in the room, not the jigsaw traps. We loved the story and we loved the ending.” But how has the success of Saw and in particular it’s six (yes, SIX) sequels affected their careers? Is it difficult to avoid being typecase. James passionately exclaims that “I’m branded with a label I don’t really care for”, perhaps he is referring to the label of originator of the torture porn sub-genre and not just typecast as a horror director. Saw is often cited as the first film to popularise the torture porn film, which would become worryingly popular in the mid-late noughties. “I’m really proud of Saw but I’m not into gore, I just love scary films. With Insidious, as a director, I just wanted to prove to people that I can make an atmospheric film with no blood and guts.”

The discussion moved on to the process of making a scary film and how you make a film scary. Leigh insists that it is “instinctual” and goes on to explain that there are three phases of filmmaking and each one gives an opportunity to refine the scares. “There’s writing, shooting and editing. With each phase comes changes and new scares are added”. They tried to capture what they themselves found scary and much of the film comes from stories they heard growing up. The first idea was astral projection and then they worked from there.

When asked about the film’s obvious allusions to Poltergeist they denied there was any sort of homage happening. “We don’t approach films as homages. We were excited when we had an idea that nobody has seen before (astral projection) but we housed the film within a “haunted house” and that’s why it’s like Poltergeist. It’s a staple. Certain staples you need to do if you’re working within a genre. If you make a western you need a man with a gun. Otherwise it’s just a film about farmers.”

Insidious proudly avoids using special effects as much as possible. The film is all about atmosphere and lurking shadows and scary -looking people. They were asked if horror films get less scary as special effects get more advanced. The early Saw films were more simple but later it became about the traps. Leigh points out that “me and James believe that special effects are the antithesis of good horror”.

One thing that is essential in a haunted house story is a creepy kid. Insidious has no shortage of those. But is working with children a horror film unto itself? James explains, “I have worked with kids a lot in my movies but I have never them through this much. Ty (Simpkins, who plays the comatose son of Renais and Josh) was a lovely kid but he had a tough time doing scenes with the demon. He would cry, real tears, and I’d feel so sorry for him! He was eight years old and terrified of the dark. He just couldn’t get past the fact that it wasn’t real. We would bring him to the makeup trailer to see the actor who played the demon getting his makeup done. Over time he started to relax a little.”

Despite the Saw franchise being such a huge success, Leigh and James wanted to keep the budget for Insidious small in order to obtain complete creative control, a point that the guys agree is essential in order to make a good horror film. As a result of the restrictive budget, the shoot was a mere 22 days and it was shot entirely on the Red digital camera. James co-edited the film himself which he felt was a great help in shooting so quickly, “It was certainly challenging but I knew what I wanted and knew how I would edit as I went along. It was the first time I’d used the digital format and in post I could do a lot more.” The change in technology was symbolic of the style he was going for. “I was making an old-fashioned horror film but with a contemporary edge.”

Throughout the film, there’s an extremely frightening tune “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim. The sing is highly effective and undoubtedly would give anyone a case of the willies even were it not in any way connected to a scary film. A member of the audience was curious where the song had come from. It turns out it was as simple as James calling Leigh during the writing of the script and asking him if there’s any way we can fit this creepy song into the script. They exchange knowing looks and laugh; this has happened a number of times and Leigh tells the stories of Saw’s infamous jaw-trap. “James calls me up, explains the idea of the jaw, trap and how the victim has to find a key or this thing is gonna rip her head apart but they ket is in this guy’s stomach. I said “Great!” and he said “If you put a creepy doll in it this will be brilliant!” I asked “How are we gonna get a creepy doll in there?” and James said “He’ll just ride in on a bike”” and that’s exactly how the story ended up going. It seems James is to be held responsible for the creepy puppet imagery in their films (his Twitter handle is actually creepypuppet). 

As the Q&A is drawing to a close they are asking the obligatory “what are you doing next” question. Leigh explains that he is writing a sci-fi with James in mind to direct. They want to get away from the horror genre. Leigh is also working on an animated film, an Australian drama and a comedy. When asked if it is hard to sell other genres, James makes the fair point that it’s easier for Leigh as a writer because if he writes something they can physically see it and if they like it they’ll go with it but it’s harder for someone to take a chance on a director.

A final question asked how long the film took to edit. James explained that when he edits he eats, sleeps and edits. He had a rough cut finished in three weeks. It was important to him to edit the film and he insisted to the producers who were apparently pleased to hear that they wouldn’t have to use their limited funds to hire and editor.

 - Charlene Lydon

Monday, April 11, 2011

Scream - A Retrospective

It has long been known that teenagers are where it’s at when it comes to the horror genre. In the 1950’s it was discovered by some shifty studio executive that teenagers have money to spend and they love to spend it on being scared. So Hollywood began to churn out inexpensive B-pictures with provocative titles such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Attack of the Giant Leeches and Teenagers From Outer Space. These titles were silly, not very creative and had some really dreadful special effects but they still managed to pack the drive-in on a Saturday night.

The 1970’s saw teen horror re-popularised mostly by the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween. To this day it is one of the most successful indie films of all time and it created a sub-genre, the “stalk n’ slash” movie which of course went on to inspire thousands of imitators, none of which would ever match the terrifying heights of Halloween. Teenagers and adults alike were piling into cinemas for movies such as Friday the 13th, Prom Night and When a Stranger Calls, all similar to Halloween in their depiction of teen behaviour and the killers who track them.

The 1980s was better known for the “video nasty” phase of horror history. Not that it didn’t give us some classics but the direction of the films veered away from teenage babysitters in general during that period. The 80’s did however give us Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street which went on to become one of the most revered horror films of all time, along with it’s outrageously beloved child murderer, Freddy Kreuger.

Many would claim that Scream was the first “meta” horror and while it was certainly the film that popularised self-referential horror, lets not forget that Wes Craven made New Nightmare two years before Scream, which was a film, set in the real world in which the actress, Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street becomes haunted by Freddy Kreuger as she is on the brink of making a new Freddy movie. The self-referential nature of this film makes it one of the most historically important films of the genre but it was unfortunately overlooked, possibly presumed to be yet another stinker of a sequel. It was with Scream in 1996 that the “ironic slasher” was born.

Those who remember the release of Scream will undoubtedly remember it as something of a genre revolution. For a period, teenagers sneaked into cinemas all over the world to scream and giggle; sleepovers full of teenage girls had never been so afraid and no one answered the phone when they were in the house alone. 
For those unfamiliar with the premise, Scream tells the story of Sidney Prescott, whose mother was brutally murdered a year earlier and now a ghost-masked serial killer is tormenting her with phone calls, movie trivia and a series of bloody murders. The fictional town of Woodsboro is in a panic. Who is the masked serial killer? Can hot-shot reporter Gale Weathers solve the crime and win her Emmy with the help of the sweet but dim Deputy Dewey? The plot is as basic as they come but what sets this film apart is Scream's borderline satirical awareness of the genre allowing it to play homage to all the great slasher films of the past while bursting the door wide open for a new wave of slice n’ dice murderous mayhem in cinema.

Scream follows the same basic conventions of a slasher film but with a knowing smile. These kids are well-versed in movie terminology and the sagely nerd Randy explains the conventions of the horror genre. Rule #1: You can't have sex, since only virgins can outsmart the killer in the end; Rule #2: You can't drink or do drugs, since like rule #1, they are sins. Rule #3: Don't ever say "I'll be right back." Needless to say, Randy’s rules are fairly accurate and allow the audience a tantalising prediction of who’s going to die.

Scream stands out, not only because of its tongue-in-cheek genre-bending but also because it is damn scary! The scares come hard and fast, starting with the classic Drew Barrymore opening sequence. There is something untrustworthy about Scream’s “the rules are there are no rules” cavalier attitude towards scares that keeps the audiences feeling uncomfortable for the entire film. You think you know where the jumps are coming, but since you also know that they are playing with expectations, you can never quite trust the rules you think you know. Another unique element of Scream is the self-aware nature of these teenagers. Kevin Williamson would go on to create an entire generation of over-thinking, verbose teenagers with his TV show Dawson’s Creek and it’s clear to see his pattern emerging here. The cast and characters are equally colourful and much of Scream’s power is wielded in the energy and likeability of the young cast. Unlike the teenagers in previous horror films, these kids were not so interested in sex and drugs that they are oblivious to the fact that they are being picked off one by one. These teens are well aware of horror movie clich├ęs. They know what is expected of them and know how to avoid being killed. As the panic spreads, they look to the movies to figure out how to survive. Also, when the films killers are finally revealed it is their disturbing relationship to the horror genre that has inspired them. But they are quick to dismiss that horror movies actually make people commit murder, they just help them come up with interesting ways to do it; “movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative”. Williamson was unafraid to create two sides to the “video nasties” argument, giving the audience something meaty to mull over after the movie ended, if they were so inclined.

Scream was a gigantic success both critically and financially and so it sparked a new wave in teen horror, many of which were pretty terrible. There were even two sequels to Scream, the first of which was a winking discussion of the rules of the sequel. It was reasonably clever but not as good as the first (but then again, isn’t that the rule about sequels?). Scream 3 however was an absolute disaster, hated by pretty much everyone and especially infuriating because its twist ending managed to ruin elements of the original film. Scream 4 is a dissection, fifteen years on, of the effect of the original film on horror films and how the genre has moved on, with particular attention paid to the Blair Witch inspired tendency of horror films to be based on supposed “found footage”. Whether or not the fourth film manages to become a worthy addition to the franchise, it gives us the perfect opportunity to reflect on the original Scream film and to appreciate it for its sense of humour, its cinematic wisdom, it’s uniquely postmodern concept (this is a concept that could only be used once, any followers were mere copycats), and it’s ability to scare the crap out of audiences all over the world, even the most seasoned horror buff!