MORE THAN HALF WAY…

A nice write-up about the BILL project in the Boulder Weekly was picked up by USA Today, and with 22 Kickstarter days left, we’re more than half way to raising $100,000 to make the film of Harry Harrison’s immortal science fiction novel.

What is very noteworthy is that in the crowdfunding world none of the caveats of “film finance” seem to apply. For as long as I’ve been making features I’ve been told I can’t shoot them in black and white. “Audiences won’t stand for it” is a refrain film directors and cinematographers have been subjected to since the 1970s. “Television won’t accept it” was another frequently heard claim. Both were always demonstrably untrue since commercials and pop promos continued to be made in monochrome, and their only destination was the telly. Yet the caveat, for studios and British film funders, remained written in stone. Whereas not one of our 500+ backers has complained about the monochrome stock, or suggested we shoot the film in 120-fps 4K 3-D video instead. It’s almost as if Kickstarter backers have a clearer idea of what a film is, and what they want it to be, than Hollywood studio execs… Could this be so?

I have had a couple of enquiries about the student aspect of the production. One person is worried that the term “student film” has a negative connotation which could put supporters of the project off. This might be a valid point, but it isn’t something I’ve felt. I was a film student, at Bristol in England and at UCLA, and had a great education and a great time. At UCLA our role model was Charles Burnett, who had made, as one of his student projects, a black-and-white feature: KILLER OF SHEEP. When we shot REPO MAN I re-enrolled at UCLA so that we could use the video studio and the sound stages. Much of the work done at CU Boulder is technically and creatively of a very high standard: check it out here. So I reckon this attempt at making the biggest student film of all time is a plus, rather than a minus.

The other query was as to the ethics of getting students to work without pay on a feature film which may one day make money. This, too, is a fair point. No one working on BILL will get paid. The budget will be spent entirely on film stock, processing, props, costumes, visual effects materials, food, travel, and shipping out Kickstarter rewards. Most sane people in the middle of their lives cannot live this way. They need to be paid, to support their families, and homes, and cars. Only students, and those with a vocation, or a vacation, can create art without hope of pay.

What if BILL makes money? Let’s raise the budget first, and make the film, and hope it’s good and blessed with great fortune. Everyone who works on the film, as a crew person or an actor, including me, will receive one producer’s point. What will this be worth? Who knows? There are so many stages in the progress of a film. Finishing it is just part of the process. Getting it out and seen by an audience is another part. Happy retirement in a sunny fishing village is probably something else. Right now, one must concentrate on fundraising, and making the best film possible.

And on other things unrelated. For, as Harry wrote, “I know of no serious writer who does not need his solitude, his sitting and thinking time, in addition to his writing time.

Advertisements

INSPIRATION

From the pages of Popular Photographer magazine comes an inspiration for BILL THE GALACTIC HERO — the trash-based art of Mandy Barker, whose work can be seen here and numerous other places… I showed the picture below to Victor Jendras, who has been designing the medals which Bill and his colleagues will wear and which will be awarded to our Kickstarter backers.

Image It seemed to me that Ms. Barker’s fantastically detailed design and beautiful sense of proportion could provide BILL with an entirely appropriate star-scape. Victor observed that this is what Bill and his fellow Troopers would see out of their portholes. Does the star-bound battle-cruiser Christine Keeler have portholes? Of course she does!

Anyway I emailed Ms. Barker to ask if she would consider being our star field designer. Victor and I can think of no more appropriate aesthetic!

ImageActive Duty Engagement Award

TROOPERS TO THE SKIES AVAUNT!

The Bill The Galactic Hero Kickstarter campaign went live yesterday. So far just over $15,000 has been pledged by 170 backers. This seems very good. Among those offering their support for the Bill feature are Harry’s two children, an actor I have known since we made Repo Man, my favourite film composer, an independent bookseller, Japanese and British journalists, and the programmer of the International Film Series at CU. Plus many people I don’t know! Which is very important as $85,000 remains to be raised. Still, these are auspicious beginnings. We shall see how things progress.

Bill the Galactic Hero - a Japanese Edition

Bill the Galactic Hero – a Japanese Edition from Mr. Negishi’s collection

Oh! Please visit the Bill The Galactic Hero Kickstarter Campaign here!

HARRY HARRISON AND THE RUSSIANS

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Steven M Norris, Blockbuster History in the New Russia. It deals with something I didn’t even know existed: the apparent plethora of very big-budget, visual-effects-heavy, action films which began when Putin took over from Yeltsin. Apparently the Yeltsin years were marked not only by economic collapse and the shelling of the Russian parliament, but by a depressing national cinema featuring drug addicts, petty crooks, and prostitutes: the kind of film that Liverpool filmmakers were expected to turn out during that grim decade. Since the turn of the century, the Russian oligarchs have been putting serious money into patriotic blockbusters of which, mysteriously, we in the West hear nothing at all.

Joan, Harry, and the pup Vladimir

Joan, Harry, and the pup Vladimir

Harry Harrison was well aware of this. By the late 1990s Harry had become the most popular science fiction writer in Russia. The Russians – not distinguishing between the H and the G – apparently call him Garry Garrison. Why were his books so big there? I suspect because, in addition to being wildly adventurous and often very funny, they were invariably anti-authoritarian and anti-war. Unlike the British and the Americans, the Russians apparently learned a lesson from the Second World War (25 million dead?), and so were in less of a hurry to jump-start the apocalypse.

Harry sold the Deathworld rights to one of Gazprom’s media offshoots, and I tried to help connect the Russian moguls with an American director: Norris points out that the new generation of Russian blockbuster directors comes from commercials and MTV, just as they do in the West, and clearly the Gazinvest guys were interested in a heavier hitter. I was pretty sure that we could get them a meeting with just about any working American director: even Spielberg wouldn’t turn down millions and millions of free dollars, while the blacklisted Coppola might have jumped at it. My efforts were to no avail. Turned out the Russians wanted one American director, and one only: George Lucas.

Harry and I marvelled at the ironic joke as it unfurled. Of all the directors in the world, the Russians had picked the one they couldn’t have: the only one who really, seriously, didn’t need Gazprom’s money. We tried to explain that Lucas was rich beyond anyone’s dreams thanks to his toy franchise (this was before he sold the farm to Disney), that he hadn’t made a good film since American Grafitti, and that he didn’t live in Los Angeles. It made no difference. I visualised the Gazprom execs, in their black suits and ties, sitting in the Presidential Suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, with champagne and similar accoutrements, waiting for George to come knocking…

This did not occur. But Harry was sanguine, amused by just about everything. And in a way this total misunderstanding tells us a lot about Americans and Russians, and how they always fail to understand what makes the other “tick”. The only time I ever saw Harry get annoyed was when, some weeks after the Gazprom fiasco, it was revealed that Julian Assange had borrowed his name to go internet dating, and some Australians made a play about Assange, and called it The Stainless Steel Rat. Of this, Harry did not approve.

As far as I know Gazinvest never exercised their option on Deathworld. A smaller Russian company did option West of Eden, Harry’s first novel about an Earth on which dinosaurs never became extinct. I don’t know what became of that: Harry told me he thought they were working on an animated version, and those things take time.

There is still time, O Gazprom guys, to participate in a Harrison science fiction feature. Kickstarter for Bill, The Galactic Hero goes live this Friday. I’ll keep y’all posted.

SHOOTING ON FILM: THE FATE OF SUPER 16mm

The BBC have told producers that they will no longer accept delivery of programmes shot on Super 16mm film. This is more serious than it sounds: I would imagine it’s been years since the BBC took delivery of anything on film – producers deliver on tape, or, in a pinch, on hard drives. But the broadcaster isn’t just rejecting film as a delivery medium: it’s rejecting anything shot on Super 16mm: which includes many British and independent features and TV shows, and a couple of my own features.

That these are dire days for film is no secret. The last manufacturer of black and white 35mm film is bankrupt. Kodak still makes monochrome stock. But for how long? Of course, broadcasters rejected black and white as a medium long ago (if you make a show for broadcast on the BBC or Channel 4 or the IFC or PBS you make it in colour!) but rejecting film as a medium seems arbitrary.

Image  Perhaps part of the problem is that Super 16mm is harder to shoot with than 35mm. Financiers never believe this, imagining that a cost saving on stock and processing means cost savings everywhere – rejoice! But it is not so. The comparatively small area of film exposed translates into a need for lots more light. So what the production saves in one area it spends elsewhere: on more lamps and grip equipment, on extra crew, and on time wasted as lighting setups become more critical. You can “run and gun” an independent feature shooting on 35mm. It’s much harder on Super 16mm. So maybe indy productions shot on Super 16mm are tending to look under-lit and grainy. Still, one feels the BBC should not reject drama on the basis of film grain (especially when video producers often add “grain” to make their output look more filmlike), or make arbitrary rules proscribing all the work made on a good, if difficult, medium.

Image  Rumour hath it that Alan Yentob, former BBC arts supremo, will intervene to grant Super 16mm a reprieve – at least for drama (does anyone still shoot documentaries on film?). Let’s hope so: otherwise films as diverse at THIS IS SPINAL TAP, LEAVING LAS VEGAS and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS can ne’er again be shown. The small pix accompanying this article are from my own film THREE BUSINESSMEN, shot and edited on Super 16mm. They’re taken from DVD screengrabs, not the original 35mm blowup, which would show considerably more detail. They look nice to me. You just need to shoot in daylight, or spend the time lighting!

HOLLYWOOD’S WRETCHED FUTURE

It was inevitable, given the advance of the technology and big finance’s distaste for living human beings. But the appearance of a long-dead actor, Audrey Hepburn, in a chocolate commercial should give filmmakers – and actors – pause. While it’s been clear for years that the studios and big content producers hate directors, and make a point of pairing them with inappropriate material so as to reduce their capacity to create, up until now they have been forced to treat actors (at least famous ones) with some respect. No more. A company called Framestore has, at enormous expense, resurrected the deceased Hepburn to promote a chocolate bar.

Image

Above is a still. You can watch the commercial here. Note that it isn’t a still from an old Hepburn movie. The technology doesn’t just involve taking old clips and matting them into new environments, Zelig-style. These guys have actually modelled a virtual Hepburn, using all the footage they could find, and stills as well, to create the simulacrum. VoIla! You can read the dull details of how this wonder was achieved here.

What has this to do with us? Not much. I’m not a big fan of the actor in question, nor of the chocolate bar. The problem, for actors and filmmakers, is that the line has been crossed in a unique way. Never mind animations or cartoons or talking animals or costumed superheroes (all recent efforts by the studios to wean themselves off the greedy big star problem), big money now has the means to do without actors entirely. Why cast some troublesome alleged star in a picture when you can make a deal with the next of kin and cast (the dead) John Wayne instead?

This is a real issue. Walk into any big box store and check out the DVD section. For the average couch-potato DVD consumer, Wayne is still a bigger draw than Brangelina. Consider the situation of celebrity children: Wayne’s kids may love him, but the value of his simulacrum will be enormous. And what of kids who detest their actor parent: Joan Crawford’s, say? Done deal! Sell mommie dearest’s likeness to the highest bidder.

We’re looking at a strange and wretched future, as far as the product of the Hollywood studios is concerned. Whereas independent film, unable to afford either the technology or the license from the next-of-kin, will struggle on, employing real living actors and telling stories that weren’t dreamed up by studio execs. Which may not be a bad outcome. Want to see THE SEARCHERS re-made for a hundred million dollars as a cops-versus-the-ghetto drug war movie, starring John Wayne and Marky-Mark? Nor do I. But here it comes…

HARRISON & HEINLEIN

What a surprise to read two biographies, one of Robert A. Heinlein, one of his arch-nemesis Harry Harrison, by the same author — Leon Stover, of the Illinois Institute of Tech. Both are very clear histories of their subject — though the one about Harry is also a history of science fiction itself, and not a bad one, in a short book. Stover writes that Harry was “only the second author after Robert Heinlein to make a full-time living through science fiction” in the 1960s and 1970s, and observes, on the basis of many conversations with the author, that there are no villains in Harry’s books. People, robots, animals and aliens therein act the way they do as a result of their circumstances.

Stover also points out that Harry responded to another of Heinlein’s books, Universe, as well as to Starship Troopers. In this case, per. Stover, it was an inspired development rather than a horrified retort: Captive Universe, another story of what I learn is an sf sub-genre, the “generation starship” story.

According to the author, while Bill was rejected by the editor who commissioned it, Harry’s book proved a favorite with publishers. Both Bill and Make Room! Make Room! were snapped up in Britain by Penguin, with splendid covers:

Make_Room!_Make_Room! Bill_Penguin   What a difference between the two designs, though! Make Room! Make Room! was designed by Alan Aldridge, a popular and highly original graphic designer of the sixties who had been hired to spice up Penguin’s sf output. This he did, apparently offending the publisher and certain authors in the process. I doubt that Harry was offended. By contrast, Franco Grignani’s cover for the Penguin edition of Bill pleases the eye but tells us nothing about the book. I bought just about all Penguin’s sf output in the 1960s and think it was much, much better
than the crude illustrative covers which followed in the 1970s and 80s. The Art of Penguin Science Fiction gives us the opportunity to compare how the company’s cover art evolved and to wonder why the later art is so darn bad by comparison:

Bill_1983   Make_Room_2009    These are the 1983 and 2009 Penguin editions, respectively. For those who puzzle over such things, the designation “4/6” on the Aldridge cover is the price, from the days before decimalization of the British pound. “Four shillings and sixpence” was six pennies shy of five shillings, i.e. a quarter of a pound. So in the mid-60s you could buy four sf books for less than a quid and have some money left for beer. (Actually 4/6 was pretty expensive for a paperback of that era — most paperbacks cost 3/6 and American imports 2/6 — i.e. eight American sf books with dyed-yellow page edges, for a pound.)

Harry told Leon Stover that “the highest input function of the brain is reading fiction.”

I think this is true, though listening to music and observing animals are close competitors.