Thundering Typhoons! It’s Tintin!

DreamWorks has just released the first trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Tintin, which arrives in cinemas this Christmas. It looks rather more like an animation test reel than a trailer at this point, but it’s certainly enough to whet the appetite:

It’s also stuffed with great British talent, both on-screen (or at least motion-captured) with Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, and in its screenplay, which was written by Doctor Who‘s Steven Moffat with Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish.

Here’s Herge himself showing you how to draw the plucky reporter:

And here’s a South Bank Show film by the late Harry Thompson, featuring a rare interview with Herge:

Steven Spielberg directing Empire of the Sun

Here’s a fascinating clip (not my note at the front, I should add) from the making of Spielberg’s masterly Empire of the Sun, which shows the director at work with Christian Bale in his first major role. The voiceover interview is with J.G.Ballard, who wrote the novel and its deeply affecting sequel, The Kindness of Women. Incidentally, Bale is now exactly the right age to play the adult Ballard, so if you’re reading this, Steven … please?

How to make an Indiana Jones movie

2008_indiana_jones_4_050jpg

A couple of months ago a fascinating document appeared on the internet: the transcript of a story conference between George Lucas (producer), Steven Spielberg (director) and Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter), during the development of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Normally I’m pretty dubious about these things, but once people who had worked closely with Spielberg, like John August, said that it felt accurate I thought it would be worth a look. And it is. It’s a fascinating insight into the relationship between different talents on a movie, into the development of Indiana Jones across what is now four pictures, and into the curious balancing act between inspiration, pragmatism and craft that helps an idea become a film.

The concept of the series was clear from the start: as Lucas says in the transcript, it would be based on the Republic serials of the Thirties, set in period, with a cliffhanger every twenty minutes. Its hero would be a rogue archaeologist — half grave robber, half professor; half Clint Eastwood, half James Bond — and the first actor that they talk about is Harrison Ford. Although, to be fair, they also mention, bizarrely, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Reading the three men working together, Lucas brings an absolute structural discipline: “the way I work generally is I figure a code, a general measuring stick perameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes depending on which scale you want to work on … assuming that what we really want at the end of this is a hundred and twenty page script” (i.e. two hours on screen). He has also mapped out the basics of the story, in this case with an earlier writer, Philip Kaufman (director of The Right Stuff, Quills and Rising Sun). Spielberg brings a vivid sense of how this will translate on screen: “They’re walking and our hero goes into a shadow. When he comes out of the shadow there’s two tarantulas on him. He doesn’t notice right away. He goes into another shadow, and he comes out with four tarantulas on him”. He’s also the audience’s proxy in the room. Kasdan, as the screenwriter, is there to marshall the various ideas, force the other two to make decisions (should the temple fill with sand or water?) and figure out the practicalities (what are the different physics of each?).

The debates that they have will strike a chord with anyone who’s worked on a screenplay’s development. How dubious should our hero’s morality be? How cartoonish can we make the villains? What’s the real bond between Indiana and Marion? With Spielberg coming off the disastrous, expensive 1941 they are also keenly aware of budget issues, constantly trying to figure out how to do things cheaply, and to minimise expensive sets. Whole sequences are suggested then discarded, saved for later movies in the series: the mine shaft chase from Temple of Doom, the motorbike sequence from Last Crusade. You also get an uncomfortably insightful picture of the dubious moralities of screenwriting: how much violence is exciting, but how much would be a step too far? Should Marion be raped or merely tortured? And which characters should be expediently killed?

The whole document is a dense 126 pages, so here are Ten key principles to making an Indiana Jones movie. Or indeed, improving any other: what movie wouldn’t be better with some strategically placed mummies?

1. “What’s he afraid of? He’s got to be afraid of something?” (Spielberg)

2. “He should have a mentor.” (Spielberg)

3. “Try to keep it on a very modest scale. A la the first James Bond.” (Lucas)

4. “This scene should at least four major screams.” (Spielberg)

5. “It’s in Cairo but it doesn’t have to be … I only use that because it’s one of those Thirties cities.” (Lucas)

6. “How does he get to her?” “Some local picturesque travel mode.” (Lucas)

7. “She should have hair like Veronica Lake. You only see one eye at a time” (Spielberg)

8. “With Nazis you have to you use your fists, because they’re despicable people” (Spielberg)

9. “I like hearing English with a German accent” (Spielberg)

10. “It’s better if there are some mummies around” (Spielberg)

How to write a movie score

Remembering Maurice Jarre last week we looked at his working partnership with David Lean. But of course there are many long composer-director relationships, sometimes spanning whole careers. Steven Spielberg, for example, has been working with John Williams since Sugarland Express in 1974, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman (with a couple of exceptions) since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985 and the Coen Brothers with Carter Burwell since Blood Simple in 1984. At their best these lasting partnerships create an extraordinary shared aesthetic, in which images and music become absolutely fused. When you think of Tim Burton, for example, I bet you have something like this sound in your head:

Or when you think of Hitchcock, the sound of Bernard Herrmann:

One of the best known of these collaborations is between David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, whose work on Blue Velvet and perhaps most of all Twin Peaks helped cement Lynch’s lush, romantic paranoia in the public consciousness. Here’s a fascinating (and ever so slightly disturbing) clip in which Badalamenti explains how he and Lynch worked together to create Laura Palmer’s theme:

And here’s an interview with John Williams about creating the music for Indiana Jones:

Spielberg on Lean and Kubrick

If Steven Spielberg hadn’t become a great director, he would have made a great critic. In the recent Jonathan Ross documentary about David Lean, no-one else came close to Spielberg’s analysis of Lean’s work. Here’s an earlier interview, in which he discusses Lawrence of Arabia:

And here’s an interview that Spielberg gave when Stanley Kubrick died, about their movies, their collaboration and their friendship.

J.G.Ballard

author-jg-ballard-dies-ag-001jpg

J.G.Ballard is where it all began for me. When I was 13 I was auditioned for the film of Empire of the Sun, his autobiographical novel about his years in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. Over a month or so of train rides to interviews and camera tests I devoured most of his fiction. Then a year or so later, on a chilly Sunday morning, I went to the London cast and crew screening of the movie, and for two hours was transported from London 1987 to Shanghai 1945. To one degree or another, I’m not sure I ever left. To a kid brought up on Octopussy and The Goonies, the movie was a revelation: gorgeous and brutal, epic and personal, funny and tragic, all wrapped in the soaring music of John Williams.

It’s brilliantly acted too: John Malkovich prefigures Dangerous Liaisons as the seductive, scheming Basie, and Leslie Philips and Nigel Havers reach far beyond their comfort zones to show depths we’d never seen before. And of course there’s Batman: Christian Bale, unforgettable as Jim, the pampered choirboy turned hard-eyed cynic, stealing the shoes from a still-warm corpse. Looked at from this distance, Empire of the Sun seems like a curious prequel to many of his later films: who, with such a childhood, would not grow up to be a Dark Knight, or an American Psycho? The most bizarre example is Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, in which Bale plays a fighter pilot — that childhood obsession with planes! — shot down in Vietnam: when he ends up as a prisoner you can’t help thinking, “well, he’ll know how to get along”.

Ballard loved the movie: when I interviewed him some years later he defended it fiercely against critics who’d attacked Spielberg for sanitising life in the camp. The film, said Ballard, like the book, was a portrayal of how it had seemed to him as a child: so yes there were games to be played in the ruins, beauty in the bombs that fell. Looking at the film today, it still seems startling, and one of Spielberg’s most creatively daring. Here’s a sequence early in the movie, where young Jim, obsessed with aeroplanes, takes his model aircraft to a fancy dress party, a scene that Spielberg turns into boyish fantasy, then sobering fact. You also have to love the irony of Leslie Philips’ final line:

This sequence in particular is almost an encapsulation of the movie. It’s both pure Spielberg and pure Ballard, beautiful and shocking all at once:

But Ballard, of course, was far more than Empire of the Sun and its tender, under-rated sequel, The Kindness of Women. Along with Harold Pinter he was the only contemporary British author whose name became an adjective; an adjective that seemed increasingly to apply not just to his world, but our own. The landscapes of his fiction — airports, motorways and shopping malls – and the themes of his work — sexuality, celebrity, consumerism and surveillance — feel ever more relevant, and his best work, far from feeling dated, feels like a guidebook to the future, not the past.

Along with John le Carre, Ballard in his seventies was writing books that felt more engaged, more passionate and more contemporary than those of writers half his age. His cool, clear, amused pessimism shone from his books, reviews and interviews, and you can’t read his work without hearing his voice. In a week whose news is dominated by police brutality, popular rage, climate disaster and the crisis of capitalism, it feels as if we need him more than ever, just as he is snatched away.

Thundering Typhoons!

tintin-firstlook-empirelogo-bigjpg

Here’s the first production still from Tintin, released to Empire by Steven Spielberg. It shows Tintin (Jamie Bell) and Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), dressed in the motion capture suits that will render them as 3d versions of the characters. And according to popbitch:

Steven Spielberg invited Clint Eastwood onto the set for a tour. Part of that day’s shoot involved several of the actors wearing green spandex and with motion sensors over the face. When the shoot was done, Spielberg took Eastwood around to meet the cast, including Daniel Craig, who plays Red Rackham. After he met Clint, the James Bond actor turned to a colleague and said: “I can’t believe I just met Dirty fucking Harry dressed up as an utter cunt.”