There are few cinematic experiences from the last few years as harrowing as the first time you watch Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Decorated with the BAFTA for Best Documentary as recently as Sunday, the film is a marvel of surrealistic grotesquery, and its erudite director is extremely forthcoming with his views on it various meanings and subtleties. It was a great pity, then, that such a wonderful picture was hamstrung on Monday night by the Union’s screening, with a mis-aligned projector draining all colours but green from each frame, losing much of the ridiculous vibrancy of its images, and poor speaker quality hampering moments of great tension. Oppenheimer himself observed the “foetid” conditions, but this did not affect the enlightening Q&A session which followed, however, in which Oppenheimer, tired from his BAFTA win, pushed through to illuminate what he saw as the most important questions the film raised – from those of “impunity, and how it’s asserted”, and “false moral paradigms”, to the realities of the “documentarian as a character” in their own films.
Joshua (it’s hard to call the director anything else after viewing the film multiple times) clearly had no interest in fielding the few repeated criticisms the film has already faced, and quickly explained that his filming of the Indonesian “death squad veterans” was in no way manipulative or deceitful – that they knew the whole time that “they were filming scenes for The Act of Killing, not for their own film”. This clarified, he answered each question in great detail, almost always using the query as a springboard onto a bigger topic. Repeated attention was given to the role the US and UK played in the 1965 genocide – organised by an Army “conceived of and largely funded by the US”. His first mini-speech, though, was a thorough explanation of how the film actually came to be made, with “Anwar Congo [the film’s primary character] the 41st perpetrator I filmed”, many years into a long and gruelling process. Oppenheimer had gone to Indonesia repeatedly, to try to make a film about survivors of the massacres, but had been denied access, and so, with survivors’ advice, set out “to film the perpetrators”, as they “openly boasted about the grizzly details” of what they had done. Anwar’s “absurd, grotesque” dance of the Cha-Cha on the rooftop where he had personally killed hundreds of people was a signal to Josh that he should follow this man. That Anwar opened up in this way on “the first day I’d met him” is remarkable.
The issue of “false moral paradigms”, of “good versus evil”, was one Oppenheimer wanted to circumvent, in order to not peg inauthentic simplicity onto the stories told. One of the key struggles he faced was to render the “mass murderers” he was filming empathetic and sympathetic. This, he explained, required a removal of all survivors from the film, leaving only the perpetrators – a difficult decision, but one which did not change the fact that “my loyalty was always 100% with the survivors”. The film walks a “a tightrope between empathy and repulsion” (as any viewer will agree), and the men portrayed, in particular Anwar and Herman, are often very pitiable. However, they are ultimately “monsters”, said Joshua; but monsters of the sort “we depend on every day”. Oppenheimer has nothing to hide in terms of agendas – he is openly against globalisation because of its “human cost”, and did not shy away from accusing “the underbelly of Oxford University” from being as complicit as the rest of the developed world. A particularly apt criticism when made in the Union, to so many an embodiment of problematic ideology. When he said that “everything we buy from across the global south is haunted by the suffering of those who made it”, it carried a force similar to that which The Act of Killing itself bears.
Another lengthy topic was that of documentary as a form, and the responsibility borne by its directors. Oppenheimer was happy to label the old-school, “fly-on-the-wall style” a form of “simulation” which disguises itself, an “arbitrary”, and “inherently self-conscious” deception, in which audiences buy into the myth of the invisible cameraman. In The Act of Killing, Joshua talks regularly, and sometimes bitingly, and this is a hint at his self-conception, as “a catalyst”, an agent trying to “make visible the fictions through which” we see ourselves. And if he, within the film, is a catalyst for the characters portrayed, he is also visibly proud of the film itself, which he says has acted as its own sort of catalyst, to start “a transformation in how Indonesia discusses its past”, and begin to end a “fifty year silence on the Genocide”. The film has been made available to download free of charge from Indonesian IP addresses, and is on YouTube in full (without English subtitles), so is spreading in ways it might not have done had it been marketed with profit alone in mind.
As is human, this information about the film’s growth lead many to wonder what has happened to Anwar Congo since its release – but Josh was happy to placate; the ex-killer might have “lost his swagger”, and might be “lonely”, and indeed may “never be okay”, but “as okay as he can be, that’s how he is”. “The media have focussed on Anwar not as a scapegoat for the genocide, but as one of thousands like him”, which has been a blessing for which both Anwar himself and Joshua are thankful. One of the biggest surprises Oppenheimer dropped was a small, related fact – that Herman, the overweight, at many times foul companion, has rejected the paramilitary Pancasila Youth, and is “brave enough” to be screening The Act of Killing for free as often as he can, without minding repercussions come his way. This bravery is the sort which Joshua surely hopes his film will inspire in others – “my hope is that anyone who watches this film… will be forced to acknowledge the rotten heart of the regime in Indonesia”. With a BAFTA in hand and an Oscar hopefully to follow, his hopes may not be vain at all.
Something good can come out of rowing. For Academy Award winning director and Univ alumnus Tom Hooper, it was the realisation made while walking back from the river along Merton Street that he wanted to eventually come back to the “architecturally compressed beauty” of Oxford to film it all.
At the impressively young age of 27, while filming Love in a Cold Climate for the BBC, he had the opportunity to return to the city and close down the whole street to film the series that would continue to propel him to his position today as one of the UK’s most prestigious directors, currently being courted to direct the Freddie Mercury biopic.
Though the charm of rowing lasted just a year, the lure of the dreaming spires is clearly something which has continued. Hooper explains that he has “always had a strong connection” with the city; it’s where his parents met and fell in love and he describes childhood experiences of being given guided tours of the city by his parents with fondness. Each part of Oxford held some memory for them: “on this street corner this happened” and “on that one, that.” He even made his first film in Oxfordshire, a fairly self-explanatory short entitled “Runaway Dog”. The city was always “slightly mythologised”.
The intensity which we all know of Oxford and the way that it “burns brightly but briefly”, is also a huge part of Hooper’s life – the way, when working on films, you “adopt a new family” and have an “intense experience” of filming, it ticks so many of the boxes of an Oxford term.
The names that Hooper reels off as having been contemporaries at Oxford are awe-inspiring and the word he uses continuously is “special” – it was a “special year”, or, that’s how it felt at the time, and part of the reason that he cast Eve Best in The King’s Speech was because of “that special connection”. While it’s easy to romanticise this relationship, and perhaps even look idealistically to the future for the alumni network that we’re all continuously informed exists, there is disconcerting whiff of nepotism about the whole thing.
The connection which develops with actors is something Hooper feels strongly about – the rehearsal period permissible in theatre, for example, is something he very much yearns for when directing film and he stresses again and again that he is keen to return to directing stage at some point. That he would cast people based on this link is, of course, understandable.
The theme of choice is something that comes up repeatedly in conversation with the director. He stresses that the hardest aspect of the film industry for him is this ‘choosing’ – after all “you spend two years of your life on a choice”. Though of course he is incredibly lucky to be in the position of making those choices, it is interesting to hear the director talk about his previous commercial work. If you want to be a director, direct anything and everything: this seems to be his overwhelming advice for other hopefuls.
When I ask if he has any regrets about his time at the university, or any particularly embarrassing highlights, he remains somewhat coy, but does note that he was once “spectacularly naïve” and attended a party called “spiked”, unaware of the connotations. With this boyish innocence firmly in the past, the overwhelming message which comes across in my brief time with Hooper is his fondness for this university and his nostalgia. His rowing days may have been inconsequentially put to bed, but his memories of juvenilia and student experience clearly still hold resonance.
PHOTOS\\ fashioninfilms, mmgn
Director Beeban Kidron is best known for directing Bridget Jones’s Diary: The Edge of Reason. But Kidron’s new documentary, InRealLife, sees her graduate from granny pants and supermarket wine to provide an incisive analysis of technology in the modern world and the negative consequences of growing up surrounded by technology.
Picturehouse celebrated the release with a Q&A hosted by Jon Snow, held at the Brixton Ritzy and broadcast live around the country. At the launch Kidron was keen to convey that she is not ‘anti-technology’, though she is concerned about issues including the obfuscation of data collection by sites such as Facebook, and the addictive nature of many devices.
I chatted with Beeban later, and she explained that she first started having reservations about technology after observing that ‘people were behaving like zombies a bit…in buses, the street, even in my kitchen they were head down and wholly occupied elsewhere…I wondered what that meant for relationships’. Indeed, one young woman in InRealLife seems to have a stronger bond to her phone than to the individuals it enables her to communicate with, suggesting that Kidron has not found her worries unfounded.
Yet her continuing enthusiasm for technology is evident, especially when she relates her pleasure at first owning a webcam: ‘the excitement was massive, only to discover that there were only three people we knew…who also had one so its use was limited!’ Of course, such tools were vital in making InRealLife, as evidenced by the fact that one of the film’s experts appears in a Skype frame. This demonstrates how bound up our lives are with technology; it is too late to go back, but as Kidron advocates we must go forward with a more challenging and critical attitude.
The film’s most positive story is that of Tom, a closeted gay teen conducting a secret relationship via instant messaging and video chat services. For Tom the capabilities of the internet provided a place where he could be honest about his identity, and enabled him to find companionship. His story brings balance to a film which largely illuminates the ways in which extensive internet use can be detrimental to a person’s life.
One young man explains how a fixation with online pornography has rendered him unable to make emotional connections with women he knows. Throughout, the teenagers and adults featured are remarkably frank, and their stories can be both desperately sad and shocking.
A breadth of coverage was one of Kidron’s aims, and a desire to ‘show a range of technologies, people, geographies and class[es]’ motivated her decisions concerning who to include in the film, having met hundreds of young adults during its gestation. She’s not afraid to criticise the final product, lamenting ‘my great sadness is that because I had to drop a young woman for personal reasons (her’s not mine)…issues specifically faced by young woman are underrepresented’.
A less warranted criticism came from Empire magazine. In the meagre 50 words of InRealLife coverage, the reviewer trivialised the issues Kidron addresses, and claimed ‘this feels more like a pitch for a series than a coherent thesis’. It’s true that the film raises as many questions as it answers, but the relative newness of the internet and its growing prevalence in our daily lives means that our relationship to it is still developing. Kidron has provoked awareness to worthwhile concerns, but as yet these are not finite, so there is no conclusion for the film to document.
Speaking from Brixton, Kidron stated that with InRealLife she wished to ‘start a conversation’ challenging modern relationships to the digital world. One Oxford viewer tweeted ‘so what needs to happen?’, and Kidron responded by advocating self-regulation of our behaviours concerning the use of the internet and internet-enabled devices. She also has demands to make of corporations such as Google and Apple, who are among a group of influential companies who declined to be interviewed for the film: ‘I think [the values of the internet] should be no different from the collective values we have designed for off line life, and that there should be absolute transparency about data and how it is gathered and disseminated’.
InRealLife is an eye-opening educational experience for those using the internet in an ignorant manner, and is encouraging for anyone already questioning their online behaviour. John Carr’s suggestion that InRealLife be ‘compulsory viewing’ for parents and teens may seem drastic, but Kidron’s film gives us some of the knowledge we need to make informed decisions about how we live in the modern world.
Despite her successful background in TV and film drama, Beeban has almost exclusively directed documentaries during the last ten years. When I asked her what will come next she professed a love of both mediums: ‘[I] intend to do both, but as I get older I get more radical and want to ask more immediate questions. Having said that I plan to do a drama next year’. But it won’t be the recently announced adaptation of Helen Fielding’s new Bridget Jones’ novel, Mad About the Boy, as although Kidron ‘loved’ working with the Bridget cast, she wants to do ‘something more personal’ next. Watch this space.
PHOTOS// theguardian, realscreen, bfi
Jessica Benhamou graduated from Oxford in 2012, and has since worked predominantly in journalism. Among other things, this afforded her the opportunity of interviewing filmmakers such as Cosmopolis director David Cronenberg. Jessica is now happy to be producing her own short film, The Maiden, which has just wrapped filming. The Maiden is inspired by (and in fact takes its title from) Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Jessica’s screenplay relocates Hardy’s story to the modern-day, and focuses on a short but crucial episode in which the impoverished Tess, commissioned by her parents to visit wealthier relatives in the hope of financial support, is raped (or seduced as some would have it) by her alleged cousin, Alec Stoke-Durberville. The OxStu caught up with Jessica to hear about her thoughts on the novel and what inspired her to adapt it.
Have you ever adapted a literary work for the screen before?
“Not at all. This was my first attempt at screenwriting. I rarely let anyone, besides a few close friends, read my fictional work in general. You tend to put more of yourself into fiction than journalism.”
When did you first read Hardy’s novel, and what was your first reaction to the way Tess is treated by the men in her life?
“The first time I read Tess I was about 15 and had never been in a relationship. Angel, therefore, pulled the wool over my eyes in much the same way as he does to Tess. His unforgiveable hypocrisy and conceit went completely over my head. Re-reading the novel this summer, I found Angel far more distasteful than Alec. I have more respect for the man who is bad and knows he is bad than the man who is bad, but thinks he is good.”
The rape/seduction of Hardy’s novel is a critical issue which has been debated for years, and each new film or TV adaptation must take a stance. The BBC’s 2008 adaptation, starring Gemma Arterton as Tess, somewhat skirted the issue by cloaking the scene in mist, retaining some of Hardy’s ambiguity. However, even here the actions of the actors strongly suggest a narrative of rape rather than consensual sex. Jessica was inspired to adapt Hardy’s text due to feeling that “all the adaptations have misinterpreted that pivotal rape scene between Alec and Tess. While it is strongly implied to have been rape, there is nothing to suggest Alec physically attacks Tess. Rape doesn’t have to involve physical abuse or threats. What Hardy tells us is that Alec plies Tess with alcohol and makes her feel obliged to him for financially assisting her family.”
The Maiden recognizes a parallel with the plot of Hardy’s novel and the problematic nature of sexual consent in modern day cases, and Jessica “wanted to focus on this event and reinforce the idea that violation does not necessarily involve violence. Tess was seduced by a powerful figure when she was incapable of giving her consent. How is it that Hardy, writing over a century ago, is unswerving in his compassion for Tess when young girls are told today they were “asking for it” for having a couple of mojitos on a night out?”
In this new version, Hardy’s Angel is translated into AC, the man who Tess loves, and Alec becomes Alex. However, it’s not just names and the era that have been changed. A quick glance at the cast information for The Maiden lists a potentially unrecognisable character, Carrie. Jessica tells us more… “Carrie is based on a minor character in the novel called Car, who works with Tess at the D’Urberville mansion. Everyone forgets about Car, until she blazes onto the screen and lunges at Tess. I didn’t feel obliged to make her character true to the novel. I’m not even sure what she is supposed to look like. In the short, she is fiery, drunk and enraged.”
Although the response to Hardy’s text that The Maiden will give presents Alec/Alex as a villain, the original novel also suggests that other parties may be partially culpable for Tess’ ‘fall’. A chain of events began by Mr Durbeyfield’s drunkenness places Tess in her vulnerable position with Alec.
Arguably, in the novel Tess’ parents are to blame for some of her misfortune. Will Tess’ family play a part in your version of the story?
“It’s very interesting that you mention the parents, because, yet again, I feel that the family drama hasn’t been untangled as much as it could have been in the various adaptations. The only reason I have left out her family is because I am making a short film. If I had the budget to adapt a full, modern Tess, her parents would indeed feature very heavily. In the novel, Tess challenges her mother and chastises her for knowingly sending her into danger. Her mother knows full well what Alec is like and hopes that if he knocks up her daughter he will have to marry her.”
It’s clear that adapting a classic novel for the screen is a work of interpretation as well as creation. The Maiden will bring together one interpretation of the thorny issue at the centre of Hardy’s plot, whilst making intelligent connections to similar concerns in our own culture.
Finally, Jessica offered some advice for others aspiring to work in the film industry, such as interning in order to “explore the different roles or areas available”, and meeting others in the industry: “It helps to find people a little older than yourself who can serve as role models. They enable you to get a clear idea of where you want to be heading and how your career could develop.”
The Maiden is being made by a team of young graduates hoping to get a start in the film industry. You can find out more about the film and its cast and crew, watch the trailer, or support the team while there’s still time at
Photos// stills supplied by Jessica Benhamou.
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Ilana Masad talks to the director/writer and cast of the new Much Ado About Nothing about combining theatre and film, sex scenes, and getting drunk on set.
The Oxford Union’s Gladstone Room couldn’t be more different than the space I’d just inhabited: the Gladstone is dark, heavily curtained, wood-panelled, reeking of aged books and history; the entire set of Much Ado About Nothing, in whose cinematic coils I’d been captured for the last 108 minutes, is airy, windowed, and sunny, conveying bright colours despite being shot entirely in black and white.
Joss Whedon, director, composer and co-producer of this newest Shakespeare adaptation, was waiting in the Gladstone Room along with Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who, respectively, played Beatrice and Benedick. Much Ado has been opening to mostly enthusiastic and positive reviews, and the trio have been touring with the film for far longer than it took to shoot – a mere 12 days, in Whedon’s house in Santa Monica, California. The house, designed by Whedon’s wife, an architect, was also the setting for casual weekend Shakespeare readings that Whedon had been hosting for some time. Despite Much Ado’s careful cinematic editing, it still has a very theatrical feel.
“We wanted the energy of the readings, the energy of live performance and the spontaneity,” Whedon said. “As for the staging, for me, all I wanted to do was use the space, make it natural. I did use a lot of windows, peering around, because so much of [Much Ado About Nothing] is about perception and misperception.”
He went on: “I realised that the way to capture the theatre of it was to make it more intimate and cinematic [with] the use of close ups and reactions shots.” In much of his previous work, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly to the latest blockbuster superhero ensemble film, The Avengers, Whedon has discussed his “natural bent” towards getting as much physical or emotional action as possible into a single frame and letting the camera roll for as long as it can. “But in this instance,” he said, “the more we used the language of the cinema the more we got inside and captured the electricity of the theatre, which is a paradox which interests me.”
Denisof agreed: “You wouldn’t normally shoot a movie or do a play and feel that it would be successful together, but I think in this case we’ve found a way through where we’ve used some of the techniques and some of the advantages of theatre and likewise some of the techniques and some of the advantages of film. It has an alive quality of theatre but Joss has carefully guided the viewer through his camera, through his shot selection, and everything else that the director does to shape it.”
Acker added: “We also had the most beautiful set, which was Joss’s house. Usually if you’re filming, you walk through a door and there’s nothing there. We had the benefit that when you’d go in the kitchen and you’d open the refrigerator, and…” Acker waved her arm, implying the several scenes in the film in which dialogue is shot in Whedon’s kitchen. Unlike the usual film set, in which the fridge would be a prop, this one to be filled with prop-food – everything was already there, part of Whedon’s real life.
Whedon, Denisof and Acker are clearly very comfortable together. Denisof joked: “You know, we wanted to take advantage of the fact that it was his house, eat as much of his food and sleep in his beds while we could.” Whedon countered: “That got weird.” We all laughed. I ventured to ask whether the (prodigious amount of) wine drunk in the films was real, since I’d heard an interview in which a cast member had claimed as much. The actors and director chuckled and rolled their eyes, saying it was Brian McElhaney (of BriTANick) who had claimed this, and that “he’s very young.” Although the wine bottles were all props, Whedon did admit that “a lot of hard work went into creating those props.” He said he would have been very impressed if anyone had managed the gruelling 12-day filming schedule while inebriated: “Memorise Elizabethan dialogue and you’re drunk: GO.”
On the subject of this Elizabethan dialogue, Whedon, Denisof and Acker all discovered Shakespeare at different times. Acker “grew up going to ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ in Dallas and had teachers all along the way who were passionate and taught it in exciting ways”, but it wasn’t until she went to college and spent a summer at a Shakespeare camp in New Mexico (Whedon broke in to say “Where Shakespeare was from.”) that she really began to love the Bard. Denisof was much younger: “I remember being in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when I was probably 12 or 13; I was pretty young, and that’s a lasting memory. I played First Fairy.” He and Whedon exchanged knowing looks and, alluding to Denisof’s role as Weseley Wyndam-Pryce on Buffy and Angel, Denisof added, laughing: “And nothing has changed!”
Whedon said he couldn’t put a date on his discovery of Shakespeare. “He’s always sort of been around. My parents loved him and read him and I started aping them.” He continued: “It was when I came to high school and I started to really study it and see productions that Shakespeare – I was going to say blew my mind, but that doesn’t sound nearly as intellectual as I would like to come off, so – blew my incredibly intelligent mind. There. That sounds intellectual.”
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When asked to choose which Shakespeare character of the opposite gender each of them would choose to play if they could (“Can I be young for this?” Joss asked), Denisof chose Portia from The Merchant of Venice, Whedon chose Lady Macbeth from Macbeth, and Acker chose Hamlet. Whedon had a picture on his phone of her standing theatrically with a Yorrick-skull in hand to prove her worthiness for the part.
Without spoiling the film – do see it if you have the chance – I will say that Whedon made the decision of giving Benedick and Beatrice, Much Ado’s sparring wits, a history, a knowledge of one another that precedes the play’s usual opening scenes. Denisof opined: “Otherwise you just have a Beatrice and Benedick who pontificate, which is amusing for a little while, but we wanted more than that.”
Acker added: “I just really wanted to have a sex scene with Alexis.”
Click here for a further Q&A.
[caption id="attachment_42290" align="alignright" width="300"] PHOTO // skittledog[/caption]
Filling the Oxford Union debating chamber, Joss Whedon, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof walked in with genuine smiles and some waves, as well as a few glances around at the impressive room. On tour for Whedon’s newest film, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, first released at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2012, the trio has been traveling together for some time now. They were at the Union for a Q&A session, and the questions came quickly, both about the new film, which had just been screened, and about the director/writer and actors’ previous work. The answers, despite the tour’s grueling schedule, were graceful, enthusiastic, and often hilarious.
On the subject of why Whedon decided to shoot Much Ado in black and white (it was filmed entirely in his Santa Monica home, on a low budget, produced by his and his wife’s joint company), Whedon quipped that, contrary to popular belief, “most Shakespearian theatre was in colour!” He added that he wanted to create “a feeling of wanting something a little old-fashioned”, of evoking “just enough of a remove from your daily life”. He added that if it had just been “a home movie, the cognitive dissonance would’ve been too far.”
Acker and Denisof clearly have high opinions of their director, who’s worked with them before, on projects such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dollhouse. When asked about her ability to play a range of difficult and emotionally charged characters, Acker gave credit to Whedon’s scripts and to his direction: “He gives you opportunities for things you think you’re not capable of doing, and this sounds cheesy, but makes you find new parts of yourself.” Denisof said that ‘visionary’ wouldn’t be “too strong a word” for describing Whedon. He went on: “Collaboration with Joss and Amy has a kind of magic that defies description. It’s not a complicated process for us. He’ll take a scene that’s pretty good and he’ll make it amazing.” Whedon looked up at the ceiling and called out: “You’re welcome, Shakespeare!”
Denisof discussed the process of working with Whedon and Acker in such intense scenes – both in previous work and in Much Ado: “We’ve found this trust that’s allowed us to go to difficult places that has deepened our relationship even off screen.” He also sympathised with Whedon’s process: “Writing is a lonely job, part of its payoff is being realised, and what are we without him going through that lonely process?” He seemed alarmed by his serious tone, though, and surely the jet-lag began to kick in, since he cut himself short, saying: “God, this room…. Who am I right now? Yeah, dude, it was awesome!”
[caption id="attachment_42292" align="alignleft" width="217"] PHOTO // skittledog[/caption]
Joking aside, Whedon appears to feel just as strongly about his actors. Asked about the parallel between previous roles that Acker and Denisof have played – Fred and Wesley, in Angel – which also found them lip-locked, much like their newest roles as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado, Whedon said: “I’ve been throwing them into each other’s arms for some time now… They are my stars, they are my thesps.” Denisof added: “Or meat puppets, as he sometimes calls us.” Acker confessed, though: “We never made the connection of Wes and Fred until after the movie was finished, which seems kind of stupid.”
Another question from the audience was about Whedon’s transition from the peak of pop-culture in writing and filming The Avengers, to what may be considered ‘high’ culture with the making of Much Ado. Whedon didn’t see the negation: “Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were stealing from Shakespeare almost as baldly as I do. Shakespeare is popular culture.” He pointed out Shakespeare’s plays’ popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries: “He wasn’t esoteric back then.”
However, there was a big difference in the filmmaking process – Much Ado was already written when he approached it. “Writing is my first and greatest love,” he said, “but I love telling stories on all different levels. To have the script done meant I could just work with that I had. After The Avengers, which was extraordinarily hard to piece together, it was nice to have something already there.”
Whedon’s first writing job was writing for the sitcom Roseanne. “I was 24, the whole staff had just been fired. […] I was thrown into the fire, and I wrote six scripts, four of which they filmed.” But he ended up quitting, he explained, after an episode he’d written dealing with an abortion was changed in order to smooth out the politics. The character who was going to have the abortion had a miscarriage instead, and Whedon said the episode ended up not being about anything of substance at all. His excitement waned: “We’re not going to tell the truth here – this is America.”
“Yes, I would call myself a feminist,” he said. But he also hedged that once “you declare yourself as anything, everything you do is defined by that.” He went on: “I do have a very strong feminist bent, and a political bent. You can’t deny who you are while you’re making something; neither can you be trapped by it.”
With regards to Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon said that he didn’t choose the play specifically because of its strong female lead, Beatrice. He explained that the choice was broader, having more to do with Shakespeare’s anticipation of a genre that, in essence, didn’t exist until he made it up: “The idea that Shakespeare was inventing the romantic comedy and deconstructing it at the same time blows my mind.”
Exiting to loud claps and some cheers, it’s safe to say that Whedon blew our minds, too.
Click here for a further interview with the director and cast.
If you didn’t know the context, some things Kate Spicer says could sound really wanky. “I have a really deep connection with Tom”; “I feel very, very, very close to my brothers.” Lots of celebrities surrounded by PRs seem instructed to insert the odd spurt of emotion like this to make their otherwise sterilised answers sound a little bit human. The result is just, well, wanky.
But Kate, a journalist, talks about “deep connections” without sounding fake. When you take a road trip across America with your two brothers to meet Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and record the arguments and the anguish – “this beast that took on its own identity” – those family relationships are picked apart. And rebuilt stronger.
You decide on this slightly mad plan because for ten years your brother Tom Spicer has said, “wanna meet Lars”. You do it because he has a learning disability called Fragile X syndrome, which shares some traits with autism, and you want to make possible the relationships he struggles to build for himself. You do it because while you and your other sibling, Will, a film maker, have been getting on with cosmopolitan London lives, Tom lives in a care home in Devon. You realise you’ve drifted apart.
Mission to Lars is not an art house documentary. It’s about a real family on a real trip to make a real dream happen for Tom. The three siblings pack their bags, hire a camper van and take off, following the heavy metal band on the last three dates of their US tour.
The film rebuilds the Spicers’ relationship. Their parents divorced when all three children were very young, and the family split. At the beginning of the film, Kate admits: “I’ve never earned that mug [Tom] gave me with ‘Best sister in the world’ on it, and Will – he hasn’t even got a mug.”
“I think all of us were hoping and dreaming it [Mission to Lars] would rebuild our relationship, which it did,” Kate explains. “But then what’s kind of annoying is people then look at it as if it’s this kind of passion project and you’re taken less seriously as a film. I think that’s a bit unfair, you’ve got to take something on its merits.”
She’s right. That family nucleus does not detract from Mission to Lars as a film. It makes it all the better. Kate says: “A lot of people have said this when they come out of the film – they go, ‘Look, don’t worry, that’s not a portrait of a learning disabled family – that’s the portrait of a family.’” The strewn coffee cups, Kate filmed in an old nightie at 7am, Tom’s protests. People with Fragile X find unexpected situations very difficult. They get upset about being outside their comfort zone. And about lateness. And noise. Unsurprisingly, as the three siblings roll along American motorways, and through Las Vegas, there are a lot of unexpected situations, lateness, and noise. Tom is definitely outside of his comfort zone. At times, he just says, “I want to go home.”
But the film is about learning, and all three siblings do.
“We had to do it [Tom’s] way – and that’s what’s humbling about it.” Kate and Will learn to listen to the clues “that we were so up ourselves we hadn’t noticed before.” So when Tom says one of the Metallica concerts is too loud (people with Fragile X hear sound about ten times louder than others) headphones are provided. It makes sense.
I’m going to spoil it. They do complete the mission. Tom does meet Lars.
On the last date of the tour, the very small drummer of the biggest metal band in the world walks through a backstage door. Tom beams, and leaves clutching his own pair of Ulrich’s drum sticks.
You might cry watching Mission to Lars. But you will more probably sit there with a big smile on your face. Kate says that was one of the aims: “The point of the film was to entertain people. If you entertain people, they will think about it. That was it.”
Mark Goldring, CEO of learning disabilities charity Mencap, spoke at the film’s premier. He tells me now: “What is also important is that the film highlights that Tom is not just a person with a learning disability. He is a complex, likeable person with dreams and aspirations, and plenty of challenges, just like any of us.”
Kate laughs a lot, but she speaks seriously about society’s treatment of people with learning disabilities. She says there is “massive, massive prejudice … Our treatment of them is still barbaric.”
But the point of the film is not to create pity. Kate says she did not want to represent her brother, “like an African kid with flies round his eyes. That wasn’t how we were going to represent Tom.”
The family learn to show their love in Lars, and there’s nothing wanky about it. Kate wants to hug Tom a lot in the film. Was that a new feeling? “I started to want to hug Tom a long time ago, cos I wanted to communicate love to him, because you can’t communicate it in other ways.”
Hugs bind the film together. “[Tom] knows it’s funny, you can see, like I chase him for a hug and then we have one and it’s quite fun.”
It’s probably fair to say that by the end of Lars, Kate has earnt her “best sister in the world” mug.
Mission to Lars is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 8th April. 50p from the cover price goes to Mencap.
Having gone from studying law at Wadham to writing screenplays for the BBC, Abby Ajayi can attest to the full range of opportunities opened up by an Oxford degree. She chatted with me from London via Skype and recounted her unique journey into the world of film and television. She has written episodes of Eastenders, Holby City and Casualty, and was selected as a Broadcast Now Hotshot in 2008. In 2010, her original drama, The Future WAGs of Great Britain was broadcast on Channel 4 as part of the Coming Up series, which aimed to promote the work of new writers. At the moment she is writing a relationship driven anti-rom com and a legal drama series, which was optioned by ITV this summer. She had the idea “in some form or another for four years”, but the success of American series like The Good Wife, Homeland, and Damages, finally enabled her to pitch it to an executive at ITV. Now that she has written the first episode, “it hopefully might go somewhere, you never know.”
The Future WAGs of Great Britain is one of the projects she is most proud of; she explained that “I don’t really see myself represented on the screen as a black woman so it was great to be able to do that”, and added, “it was great to write something about the armpit of north London where I grew up and just be able to say ‘this is what it’s like’ and have a bit of fun with it.” On the subject of genres, she said, “I don’t ever write things that are just really dour,” since “humor is key to telling some of the most miserable dramatic stories.”
She has always wanted to write in some form. While at Oxford, she reviewed films for the Cherwell, edited a college magazine, and travelled to the Edinburgh Festival as part of a program called Television and Young People. After graduating, her aim was to get a job because she couldn’t afford to go to film school, so she got the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and set about e-mailing every production company. She remembers that “one of my things was that I couldn’t have a shower until I’d written 15 letters,” and “I got as far as the letter S and no one had responded.” In her view, one of the greatest hurdles facing screenwriters is “the constant need to keep exposing yourself in a sense by e-mailing strangers, saying ‘Advice? Job? Help?’”
Of the fifty to sixty letters she sent out, two people responded with “we have nothing yet but we’ll keep your CV on file” and only Georgina Abrahams from a “tiny production company” called Friday Productions said “come in for a chat”. When I asked Abby Ajayi if her Oxford degree had aided her career, she replied with a resounding affirmative. Georgia Abrahams took all her interns from Oxford because she felt that was a “stamp of quality”. Abby Ajayi continued to work for the BBC for three years, reading scripts by the likes of Andrew Davies, at which point she felt she had what she would have got from film school. She started out not knowing a single person, but showed people in her department her work and they grew to like it. Her first commission was to write an episode of a children’s television program called The Story of Tracey Beaker; she recalls that “they came straight to me and said ‘we want to commission you’, so I was able to e-mail an agent and show that I’d got my first commission so I was able to earn money”. She emphasized the importance of agents not only as a form of legal protection but as “conduits to lots of producers, lots of soap operas”. But she added an important caveat; “your agent is only as effective as you are hot at that point. Your agent can’t make you hot but if you are they can capitalize on that.” Until you have an agent, she recommends entering contests as a way of lifting your work off of the dreaded “slush-pile”, particularly those on the BBC Writersroom website.
She described longstanding soap operas like EastEnders and Casualty as “machines” that are “slightly conveyor belt-ish” and admitted that “you can struggle to keep your voice.” Although “you get given a lot of information that’s been storylined,” “the truth of the matter is, you’re supposed to get the information, throw it up in the air and make your own narrative.” On Casualty “you get to create the big accidents and all the general regulars. You’ll get told that this doctor is having an affair with that doctor but you get to create the people coming into hospital so you can create all these crazy, outlandish accidents and injuries.” On EastEnders however, “you have much less control”. I asked her if she thought it was important to actually care about the projects you are working on, and she said no. “For soap operas, you are probably doing it just for the money and you can find a way to care.” She recommends finding one character where you can say, “ok, this is where I’m really going to give it some”; in her episode of Casualty, for instance, she felt she “said something about how we perceive pregnancy.” On the other hand, “if it’s a film you might work on it for six years if it goes. If it’s a television series it could go on forever. You’ve got to find the motivation to get out of bed every morning, if it takes working from 9 am from midnight on it. If you hate it that’s a really miserable place.” She added that, “I tend to try and avoid those situations because I just don’t think it’s worth it, really.”
She acknowledged that life as a writer is “famine or feast.” But as a writer, “you’ve got to find a different way of measuring success to most people.” Since “it would be really miserable” to measure success by how often you got paid, she recommended measuring success by “how many scripts you finish, how much you write.” Given the cost of drama and the tough economic conditions of the recession, “there’s no development money, so more and more people are writing on spec, which means not getting paid and taking the burden and the risk.” I told her I thought it would be amazing to be a screenwriter, but admitted that I had always wondered if it’s possible to make a living at it. She affirmed that “it is possible, I’m still doing it, but it is tough, there’s no denying that. But if you really want to tell a story and if you love film and TV, then it can be really rewarding.” She advised “finding a balance that makes you feel emotionally settled and comfortable.” For some people, that means “doing a day job somewhere and writing at night,” and others who are more financially able can “just go at it”. She currently has two years of money and high hopes of selling something in that time. At the end of the day, “if you want to write, go for it. It keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure.”