Archive for David Brown

Wendy Light

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2013 by dcairns


By sheer chance, the assistant technician in the Edinburgh College of Art film department happened to be in a bookshop in her native Brighton one day when she stumbled upon a reading by Oscar-winning cinematographer David Watkin, who had just published a limited-edition memoir under the title Why Is There Only One Word For Thesaurus? She picked up a copy, and that’s how I got to read this very rare book about one of my favourite film-makers.

Flash forward fifteen years or so, and Richard Lester generously lends me the second volume of that book, a greatly expanded rewrite, Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag? “He certainly had a gift for titles.”

The book includes more everything — more excursions into irrelevant but fascinating sidetracks on Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Wilhelm Furtwangler and graffiti at Eton — more dazzling insights into the craft on filmmaking — more scandalous gossip and colourful character portraits. These are not really irrelevant at all as they add to the self-portrait of a man with interests outside of cinema. Not having to worry about his editor or his readership frees Watkin to simply write.

I was pleased to see that the second book was out of the closet. Watkin himself was too honest, I think, to ever seriously adopt a wooden shell around his sexuality, but as I remember the first book is deliberately obscure on this subject, though that didn’t stop the author including a chapter about how AIDS was undoubtedly manufactured in a lab to do exactly what it eventually did. Such hiding in plain sight is avoided in WCSAFH? and we get an ode to the virtues of rent boys and a gratifyingly frank discussion of the important men in DW’s life.

Also a glossary, which alternates between opinionated takes on various bits of film kit, and brilliant stuff like this ~

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX Often mistaken as an alternative to something, which it is not. Inside the box isn’t thinking.

And when John Wayne met Noel Coward ~

“Mr Coward, I’m John Wayne.”

Noel seized the outstretched hand and patted it reassuringly.

“Of course you are, dear boy, of course you are.”

Some of the best stuff is on CATCH 22, a gorgeous photographic job by Watkin, and a discomfiting experience for his American collaborators. Watkin was very British, but he also had his own personal way of shooting which didn’t correspond to any known school. Lester has called him a kind of primitive.

This seems as good a time as any to say that from the very beginning I have shot all my films for an audience of one, namely the director (though some of those may be surprised to hear it). It’s natural and I never thought about it — like a girl wishing to please a lover. If she is a sensible girl that does not mean doing everything the lover wants and there again, without needing to think about it, I was protected always by a deep respect for celluloid. Later on the phone Mike [Nichols, director] was telling us who strange he found the Brits. When contemplating my removal, he had asked Alan [McCabe, camera operator] how long it would take the crew to adjust to my replacement.

“No time at all — we’d all be on the plane with David.”

This was incomprehensible to Hollywood.

In fairness to Nichols, Watkin evidently drove him crazy: on the excellent commentary track he recorded with Steven Soderbergh, he reports Watkin creating such a forest of flags and lights for one scene that it became impossible to get the stand-ins out and the actors in. Still, Lester, a notoriously fast director liked Watkin because he could match his pace (and get beautiful and distinctive results).


The book also explains one of CATCH 22’s most eye-popping special effects ~

Hungry Joe standing on a raft in the sea to photograph McWatt’s plane gets sliced up by the propeller, leaving only his legs standing. It may appear difficult but in fact there is a simple way to do it. A shield with two hand-grips at the back to cover the top half of the body, and covered on the outside with front projection material, could be held by the actor against a waist-band of make-up blood. With a brute positioned just above the camera on the shore the density of the shield could be matched to that of the sky behind it. The actor could then dance a jog for as long as required, provided he kept face-on to camera and fell off the raft backwards. It was safe and effective, its only drawback being that it was suggested by me. The special effects department had built a dummy that could be blown in half by an explosive charge and to my disbelief this method was insisted on. I have never seen anyone cut in half by an aeroplane but I do not believe that their demise would be attended by an orange flash and clouds of black smoke, whatever they’d had for breakfast. I said this with due modesty and diffidence but to no purpose, and several ludicrous attempts were made. Finally a hand from the disintegrating dummy got lodged in the tail-plane and the pilot nearly crashed into the sea. Only then, faute de mieux, was my idea adopted and within twenty minutes the shot was made that is in the film.


(Actually, Nichols uses the exploding dummy in extreme long-shot, then cuts to Watkin’s effect, which is the amazing bit — the fact that the legs are clearly real and articulated sells the gag with horrific conviction.)

I told Lester something line producer David Brown once told me, that on his later films Watkin would have a return ticket to Brighton taped to the side of the camera. If anybody said anything he didn’t care for, he could simply point toward this, as if to say “I can leave whenever I like, you know.” We agreed that when you’re David Watkin, this is a perfectly reasonable position to take.

Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag?: v.2: The Second Volume of an Autobiography Mainly, But Not Entirely, About the Film Business: Vol 2



Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2013 by dcairns


I was predisposed to like CLOUD ATLAS because I directed part of it. Not a large part — not as much as Tom Tykwer or Andy or Lana Wachowski. Just around five seconds of the bottom left hand corner.

Around a year ago, our friend David Brown, who was line producing the Scottish section of the shoot, got in touch with me and asked if the students at Edinburgh College of Art might be persuaded to shoot material for a big split-screen montage showing the media sensation caused when London Irish gangster throws a literary critic off a rooftop for dissing his book. I volunteered my own services and produced a short TV segment debating the merits of murdering critics, and was joined by a number of students, all of us seizing the chance of a decent payday and an exciting CV entry.

It’s possible that the DVD contains the unexpurgated versions of our films, I’ll get back to you on that.

The trailer for the movie was kind of a wow, but did worry me with its VO pontifications. Happily, the movie digests all the philosophizing a lot better than the MATRIX sequels, and struck me as that rare phenomenon, a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. Following in the path of DW Griffith and INTOLERANCE, Buster Keaton and THE THREE AGES and Bill Forsyth and BEING HUMAN (only the middle movie was a real success), the movie tells six stories in different historical periods, and connects them mainly thematically and with a few little motifs — the gimmick of David Mitchell’s source novel, in which the characters from one story read others, or see movies based on them, isn’t as central here, which means the script has to work to establish why exactly it IS telling so many apparently unrelated yarns. I liked the effect.

We’d heard that the script was around 180 pages and rumours hinted that the rough cut of the first half of the movie came in at three hours, but the finished product, though long, never felt it. Multi-narrative things can drag easily, as it takes longer for each narrative strand to get started, interrupted as it is by others. The team here are buoyed along by the sheer puzzlement of what all these stories have to do with each other. It’s a very different plan from the book’s nested narratives, but a pleasingly perverse one.

It’s also fun trying to figure out the literary and/or cinematic influences behind each story, and which sources inspired Mitchell versus which influenced the filmmakers, something I’m not smart enough to do. But here are some guesses —


South Pacific 1849

No idea where this derives from, but it’s another take on the slave trade, which suddenly seems the topic du jour. It’s quite moving, and improves on DJANGO UNCHAINED with its pseudo-science phrenology monologue from Leo DiCaprio, by giving its slave-owning characters philosophical self-justifications that aren’t just nonsense — they have a particular kind of self-serving pseudo-logic.

Best perf: Jim Sturgess is lovely. I saw THE BROWNING VERSION back in 1994 so I guess I saw him as a kid, but this was my first real exposure. Keith David is also great, but I most enjoyed Tom Hanks grotesque fancy-dress turn.


Cambridge and Edinburgh 1936

The amanuensis set-up made me think of Ken Russell’s TV play Song of Summer, but like all the storylines, this one turns into a thriller. I would have liked to see more of Edinburgh, of course.

Best perfs: Ben Whishaw is very affecting.


San Francisco 1973

Seems to channel bits of SILKWOOD, with its nuclear industry whistle-blower plot. Funny seeing West George Street in Glasgow, situated on a steep hill, standing in for San Francisco. Likewise, a Scottish bridge forms the approach to the power plant, which has been digitally painted in to the shot.

Best perfs: This is Berry’s chance to shine, but I also loved Brody Nicholas Lee, and Hugo Weaving as hitman Bill Smoke, a variant on his MATRIX nasty.


Niall Fulton, who plays The False Natan in NATAN, is standing just offscreen on the right, playing one of the diabolical Hoggins Brothers.

UK 2012

Tykwer’s comic relief episode (to which I contributed my few seconds) ties into the theme of the struggle for liberation, as Jim Broadbent tries to escape from an oppressive old people’s home. I guess it has some antecedents in the English comic novel, but I don’t know what. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST certainly seems relevant though.

Best perfs: It’s Broadbent’s show all the way, but the other oldsters are terrif.


Neo Seoul, Korea, 2144

This one has quite a lot in common with V FOR VENDETTA, which the Wachowskis produced, and it makes sense that this section of the novel would appeal to them. An innocent woman is adopted by a seemingly superhuman terrorist to battle oppression in a future society where some kind of holocaust has been instigated — it’s very similar, but the story world itself is very different, incorporated imagery reminiscent of BLADE RUNNER, ATTACK OF THE CLONES, THX 1138 and even SPEED RACER.

Best perfs: Doona Bae and Xun Zhu are both great, but I also loved James D’Arcy’s coolly “sympathetic” interrogator.


The Big Island of Hawaii 2321

Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, a post-nuclear adventure where everybody speaks a strange patois of degenerated English, must have been the influence here. By coincidence I just reading Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley, and since that features the culture clash between those who have devolved to barbarism and those who still have technology, that may also have figured in the mix. The filmmakers’ exploded structure pulls this out from the centre of the novel where it’s the only uninterrupted tale, and allows it to bookend the whole film, while weaving in and out. The last shot is a winner.

Best perf: Tom Hanks gets to do his conflicted hero thing here.


Asides from the good performances, the film is also full of strange impersonations, as actors are got up in prosthetics and funny voices to play different ages, genders and races, though interestingly the movie squeamishly eschews the blackface that so enlivened O LUCKY MAN!, the last obvious case of an ensemble cast playing multiple roles. Instead we get a lot of yellowface and some equally unconvincing instances of Korean actors playing white. This is all interesting.

I wasn’t offended in the least. I did wonder slightly at the intended effect, since the makeups are elaborate but not convincing at all, and not all of the actors are suited to chameleonic performances. Hanks makes a nicely repulsive quack, and an amusing Scottish landlord, and he does have a knack for the grotesque. Likewise, Hugo Weaving makes a good manly female nurse, and it’s a role which suits drag. I enjoyed Hugh Grant’s old age turn, even though he looks like a Spitting Image puppet under all that latex. (Incidentally, that humiliating arrest of his has really opened up a useful line in villainous sleaze for Grant: all his characters in CLOUD ATLAS are baddies.)

But mostly the film shows that actors are often better playing characters they are a little bit like — and one reason the film works as well as it does is that the more blatant disguises function mostly as novelty turns in storylines centred around characters played by actors roughly the right age, race and sex for their roles. It does add an amusing guessing-game element to the film, and the end credits have a LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER moment of revelation.

Bottom Left Hand Corner

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by dcairns

knuckle 020

I took this picture of the curtains of the Savoy, Dublin, while waiting for CLOUD ATLAS, the new film from Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, to start. Little dreaming that I would be standing up there three hours later —

Here’s what happened: Fiona and I were in the audience as ordinary punters, but also curious to see how much of my work ended up in the movie. Line producer David Brown, a friend, had contacted me about the idea of getting students from the Edinburgh College of Art film course to shoot additional material for the movie. We agreed a deal whereby the students would get paid, and I volunteered to take part too.

At a certain point in one of CLOUD ATLAS’s six stories, Tom Hanks, playing a London criminal who’s authored a book, throws a literary critic off a roof and his memoir suddenly becomes a best-seller. My students and I were shooting material that would be incorporated into a splitscreen montage showing the media sensation this causes. We were never exactly sure whether any of our stuff would wind up in the movie, but to our pleasure we heard that some of it had.

A whole five seconds of the bottom left-hand corner! I was delighted.

(It’s possible that the DVD contains the unexpurgated versions of our films, I’ll get back to you on that.)

So, the film (to be reviewed later) finished, and then I was thrilled to see my name in the credits — hadn’t been sure that would happen. And then festival director Grainne Humphreys took the stage with one of the film’s stars, James D’Arcy, for a Q&A. D’Arcy is terrific in the film, in all his roles, and it was fun hearing from him — he seems really nice. And then the audience had their questions, but I couldn’t think of any. Fiona was nudging me, saying “Are you going to ask a question?” And then they asked for one last question, but the audience had run out. So I stuck my hand up.

“False pretenses,” I confessed, when the microphone got to me.” I just wanted to say that I directed five seconds of the bottom left hand corner of this film.”

“The fourth director!” cried Grainne, my new best pal, “Get up here!”

(In fact I’m one of seven additional directors for that montage, and we have to factor in second-unit directors who probably shot twenty times as much of the finished film as me, but it’s the thought that counts. And they weren’t there, or didn’t stick their hands up during the q&a.)

And that is how I ended up on the stage of the Savoy in front of the audience of the CLOUD ATLAS premiere. “It was a pleasure collaborating with you,” I told Mr. D’Arcy as I shook his hand. When I returned to Fiona, one of the women sitting next to me asked for my autograph. A moment of silly glory snatched from the jaws of oblivion.