FIX FILMS RETROSPECTIVE #6 – THE CHESS GAME (2012)
TITLE: THE CHESS GAME (2012) – short film (15 mins)
TAGLINE: “Not all of us are destined to be Kings!”
DIRECTOR: Gary O’Brien
WRITERS/PRODUCERS: Paul Laight and Gary O’Brien
CAST: Philip Delancy, Bill Thomas, Tyrone Atkins, Bobby Freeman and Andy Davies
I haven’t written one of these short film retrospectives for a while but I thought I’d look back on my sixth short film – The Chess Game – and how it came to be made.
We hadn’t written or produced a film since 2008 when Elephant Trunk (2008) was released. Looking back it was for a mixture of personal and financial reasons. I mean making short films is a passion but sometimes the amount of work you put in can sometimes be the only reward. It is pleasing to complete a film but then what do you do? With Elephant Trunk (2008) I should have tried to get it into more festivals but ultimately I did not market it well enough. Moreover, I’d started doing more stand-up comedy as a creative hobby so decided to commit to that for a few years. I basically did not have enough time for filmmaking, especially with other family and work commitments.
In 2012, my filmmaking partner, Gary got in touch and quite rightly said it was about time we got back on the horse, as it were, thus we began working on the script that would become The Chess Game (2012). He had a basic premise of a seemingly harmless person living in a village fully integrated into the community. However, that said individual was actually hiding a secret past. We wrote the screenplay and, in terms of its length, became an ambitious thriller focussing on themes of guilt, revenge and war. It starts simply with the offer of a ‘friendly’ chess match between two strangers and spirals into a game of cat and mouse culminating in a deadly end game. Arguably, the story would probably have suited a Tales of the Unexpected half-hour length but we felt, given the lack of budget, we could do it justice at fifteen minutes.
Once we were happy with the script we raised the very low budget from independent sources and set about casting. We decided to use the talented Phil Delancy, who we’d worked with before and could be trusted to deliver a great performance. We also cast three excellent actors I knew from the comedy circuit in Tyrone Atkins, Andy Davies and Bobby Freeman. With regard to the lead role of Viktor, we knew we’d have to cast someone of great experience. Here was a character with charm keeping a dark secret close to his chest. Eventually, we cast seasoned professional Bill Thomas; an experienced screen actor who had been in many television and film roles including: The House Of Eliot, Cutting It, The Bill, Doctors, Holby City, Pusher (2012) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) etc.
The rehearsal process was fantastic as myself, Gary, Phil and Bill really stress-tested the story and characters. Conversely, it was a script which changed a lot prior to production; not in terms of structure but rather the development of the characters’ motivations. Ultimately, the production would be a very successful shoot over two weekends in Oxfordshire. The story itself stands up to a re-watch as it twists and turns to a big reveal. My only regret is the end of the shoot was a bit rushed, however, the cast and crew were amazing and I think the film is not too bad, despite being shot on a shoestring budget.
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MOUNTVIEW FILM ACADEMY RETROSPECTIVE #1 – THE BLACK ROOM (2008)
A rather indulgent post this!!
Between the years of 2008 and 2011, I did some screenwriting work for the Mountview FilmAcademy; a filmic extension of the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. Based in London, they would produce a number of student acting projects including many low budget short films. Notable Mountview Alumni include: Craig Parkinson, Eddie Marsan, Lois Chimimba, Connie Fisher, Douglas Henshall, Rebecca Trehearn and many more.
Writers would be shuttled in and given a remit to create short films using specified actors,locations and length of film. In 2008, I wrote a film called THE BLACK ROOM. It featured some talented actors and was directed by Jonathan Wolff. It’s a black comedy farce, concerning a writer who is struggling so much to write a period drama he starts to go a bit mad.
Watching the film back after ten years is interesting from a creative perspective. I actually think it works really well still and the story holds up despite the very low budget. Indeed, in places I still think the short film is pretty funny; echoing, on a very minor level, Charlie Kaufman’s meta-textual work in the film Adaptation (2002). Anyway, here it is:
It goes without saying that I watch a lot of films and have over the last few years reviewed quite a few too. The last three I saw at the cinema were a bit hit and miss yet overall serviceable examples of, despite their flaws, the Hollywood genre film. The genre film is the staple of the Hollywood production model and the word genre can be used to describe and organize films according to: type, style, form, characteristics and marketing possibilities. Moreover, certain movie stars and actors would become synonymous with movie types such as: John Wayne and the Western; Humphrey Bogart and the crime or noir drama; Arnold Schwarzenegger and the action film; plus directors such as Martin Scorsese making a cinematic mark with the gangster film. In the 1950s genre film theory was debated by academics such as Andre Bazin. From then on many a film degree essay was delivered and arguments ensued between auteur and genre theories. More importantly the Hollywood movie-making monster which rose from the 1920s onwards used genre conventions and tropes, along with the star system, to promote a formula of mass production within their cinematic releases.
Such genre production is still very much in place today. But, as audiences get seemingly both attention-deficient and more cinema-knowing the melding of genres is very much a postmodern trend for the now. While a perennial spy classic like James Bond still holds onto the genre conventions like: gadgets, action and over-the-top villains, films such as American Werewolf in London (1981), Evil Dead II (1987), Shaun of the Dead (2004) successfully combined horror and comedy. Furthermore, of late Marvel instilled many of their superhero films with properties from the heist, thriller, comedy and horror genres in order differentiate and market their stories. Indeed, filmmaking has become so sophisticated some filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers cross a multitude of genres within their works. As so happens I watched three proper genre films at the cinema recently so would like to review them from both a critical and genre perspective. As usual I will give them marks out of eleven.
THE NUN (2018)
As marketing departments attempt to find new ways to promote their products we have now entered the arena of the film “Universe”. This finds events, characters, places and in this case, demons, all linked within the same historical timeline and world. The Nun is part of The Conjuring “Universe”. The demonic monster Valak first appeared in the James Wan sequel The Conjuring 2 (2016); thus, within the horror genre The Nun is both a prequel and origins film. Set in 1950s Romania is concerns a haunted Catholic nunnery which is under threat from an unholy evil. Taissa Farmiga’s novice Nun and Demian Bechir’s grizzled Father Burke are dispatched to have a look about and of course are thrown into a face-off with something from the pits of hell.
The main genre requirement of a horror film is to create fear and excitement in the audience and while The Conjuring films, directed by the brilliant James Wan did just that, this film is, aside from a couple of moments, not scary enough. It has lots of shadows, darkness, blood, screams and a gruesome supernatural monster but, despite Farmiga’s committed performance, makes little narrative sense and suffers from poor characterisation. Having said that, while watching The Nun, I at times felt it was on the cusp of being a surrealist horror classic with much hallucinatory trickery of a “what’s real and what isn’t real” variety. However, by the end I decided that while the director is clearly a talented filmmaker the screenplay did not really serve the horror genre or story well as it was illogical at best and had no defining “rules of the world” substance. Ultimately, though the main draw for studios is that horror films are one of the cheapest genre films to make yet reap rewards from the cinema-paying public. Indeed, The Nun has so far grossed $330 million dollars from a $20 million outlay. Now, that is scary!!
(Mark: 5 out of 11)
THE PREDATOR (2018)
Talking of genre-crossing directors, the writer and director of The Predator (2018), Shane Black has had an interesting career trajectory. He was a supporting actor in the original classic Predator (1987) and would subsequently become a more successful screenwriter and wrote scripts for: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Last Action Hero (1993) and most memorably Lethal Weapon (1987). Such movies put Black firmly in the Hollywood blockbuster territory so it was no surprise when Marvel employed him to write and direct Iron Man 3 (2013). Arguably his best films though were the buddy-buddy comedy-thrillers Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Nice Guys (2016) which benefited from great chemistry from their male leads. Coming full circle then to write and direct The Predator (2018), Black has delivered the best elements of his genre work but also the worst. He’s often a writer of excess, with a succession of ideas, gags, set-ups and punchlines which, if allied to a decent story, create a barrage of fine entertainment.
From a genre perspective The Predator is a mash-up of: science fiction, action, war, spy, and TV-movie-of-the-week tropes. It moves at such an alarming pace you barely have a chance to breathe. In a nutshell Boyd Holbrook’s crack soldier must save his son and the world from both nefarious Government agents and not just one Predator, but another incredibly kick-ass uber-Predator. Chuck in a dirty-half-dozen motley crew of “insane” soldiers, plus an autistic kid (Jacob Tremblay) who may or may not have the power to defeat the Predators, and you get an explosive film which, while moving rapidly, does not make much logical sense in places. For example, characters, vehicles and animals pop up in the narrative out of nowhere then disappear, which created a hell of a lot of confusion for me. Still, Black is a great writer of concepts and punchy dialogue so you’re never far away from something cool-looking, something blowing up or a funny gag or three. It’s just a shame the story was so confusing and plot delivered in such an illogical fashion.
(Mark: 7 out of 11)
A SIMPLE FAVOUR (2018)
Once again here is a filmmaker who, while predominantly working from a genre perspective has taken their comedic skills and light touch and infused it within other genres. Indeed, the very talented Paul Feig has marshalled some extremely funny films and TV shows in recent times including: The Office (U.S.), Arrested Development (2004), Nurse Jackie (2009), Bridesmaids (2011) and Spy (2015). His Ghostbusters (2016) update starring Melissa McCarthy was arguably not very successful from both a genre or reboot perspective, however, his latest film A Simple Favour (2018) is much, much better. It stars Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as polar-opposite mums, whose paths criss-cross one fateful day when the latter asks the other to look after her son. Blake Lively absolutely nails her role as the stylish, beautiful and brutally honest PR executive. Her spiteful Emily Nelson is a career best performance and when her character vanishes, the effervescent Kendrick’s go-getting, busy-body-single-mom, Stephanie Smothers, decides to hunt for her “friend”.
What follows is more comedic but still suspenseful as the plot twists from one exciting turn to another. As the unlikely detective Kendrick hilariously enlists the help of her “Mums-Net” video-log subscribers in trying to track down Emily. As the story moves forward Emily’s husband (Henry Golding) and Stephanie herself become suspects until the final revelations dig up something totally unexpected. A Simple Favour is the most successful of the genre films I watched. Feig is able to blend the comedy, noir and thriller very well and while I would have preferred the tone to be darker, I accept that Feig is what I call a “day” director; in that all his scenes seem to happen during the day. Thus, in the hands of say, David Fincher, the original novel this is based on would have been a totally different beast. Having said that we may not have got Blake Lively’s stunning comedic turn as the bitchy femme fatale and that is worth the admission fee alone.
My third directorial short film effort went into production this year and the weekend shoot took place in the last week of July 2018. Thus, a small crew and two cast members put all of our preparations and rehearsals into action, in order to produce a compelling work of fiction. I am now at the editing/score stage but in the meantime here are some cast and crew details, on-set photos and story pitch.
Sadie Cort is out for revenge. Her ex-boyfriend Stephen is coming to dinner and she has prepared a beautifully set candlelit table. The wine is uncorked and chilled before Sadie pours poison into it. As it drifts slowly to the bottom of the bottle, the doorbell chimes. Stephen is here but will he drink the wine? And why does Sadie want him dead? All will be revealed in the short horror and darkly comedic film Tolerance (2018), inspired by Roald Dahl, Inside No. 9 and Tales of the Unexpected.
CAST AND CREW
Written, produced, catered and directed by: Paul Laight
Fix Films are a filmmaking collective consisting of dynamic duo Paul Laight and Gary O’Brien. Since 2005 they have been involved in the creation of many short films and promos. They self-produce, write, direct, edit and score their own films to a very high standard despite the low budgets. They are true independent filmmakers. Flatmates is Paul’s first directorial effort.
Stanley Kubrick and I do not have many things in common. But one of them is we both, when he was still with us, hate flying. From some limited research I learnt that Kubrick was in fact a qualified pilot but following an incident in the air it scared him to the extent he refused to fly again. The famous story of recreating the major parts of war-torn Vietnam in London because of this during the making of Full Metal Jacket (1987) has subsequently gone into cinematic folklore.
I hate flying for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am a science ignoramus and therefore cannot get my head around how that big hunk of metal can actually take off. Moreover, the fear of being trapped somewhere that in a crash situation means I am NOT getting out alive is too much to bear. I mean, on a boat or train or driving in your car you’ve got a fighting chance, but on a plane you’re up cloud creek without a paddle. More prosaically, I do NOT enjoy travelling on planes. Aside from being able to get a beer at seven in the morning, flying is just pointless to me. I don’t really even like holidays. You only have to come back and the relaxation you earned is ruined by the stress of having to fly back home.
I realise these are first world problems but for me to get on a plane is a big deal. Yet, my wife loves travelling and visiting new places so as an appeasement exercise I agreed to go to Copenhagen. What sweetened the deal though is we both love the films of Stanley Kubrick and, given it has yet to come to London, decided to go visit said exhibition before it ended in January 2018. I am glad I did. It was brilliant.
As the photos show every one of Kubrick’s completed and non-completed projects were given a wonderfully curated and considered display. There were: props; scripts; clapperboards, letters from fans; video and audio-clips; letters of protests from angry cinemagoers; costumes; set miniatures; and hundreds of production documents identifying the famed meticulousness of Kubrick’s productions. It was an Aladdin’s Cave of Kubrick’s filmic life and well worth getting lost in for several hours. One hopes it comes to London soon so I can go again!
So much has been written about Stanley Kubrick’s techniques, philosophies and film modus operandi, that rather than offer technical or thematic analysis I’d like to consider the personal impact Kubrick has had on my life. All I can say is that from an emotional level here is a filmmaker who has been with me as far back as I can remember. I recall watching The Killing (1956) on BBC2 in England when I was eleven and marvelling at the incredibly metronomic and overlapping structure. Then, at Christmas later that year, I recall watching Spartacus (1960) on TV with the family and enjoying the blood and guts and heroism of the lead character. I revelled in the Roman baddies being thwarted by a mere slave. When I found out a few years later they were directed by the same person I did not believe it; it blew my mind.
With this knowledge and experience in mind, I consciously or otherwise looked out for other works by Stanley Kubrick. My memory is hazy but in my late teens I found Paths of Glory (1957) showing, no doubt on BBC2 (we still only had four channels then in England), and I recorded it on VHS and watched it over and over. Knowing nothing of the filmmaking process I was impacted by the incredible tracking shots putting us in the heart of the action. Timothy Carey, who stole the show as a vicious criminal in The Killing, again really stood out in this classic WWI anti-war film. But like in Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was fierce in his performance and his noble character protests against the injustice of the ruling powers within the poisonous French hierarchy.
One film of Kubrick’s I never quite got into was Lolita (1962). I tried to read the novel many years ago but my young brain found it impenetrable. Similarly, the film is a very dark comedy with a risqué theme of illicit romance and sexual awakening. The film was very controversial on release and Kubrick’s one film I have not watched many times but my feeling is that Kubrick was attracted to the weaknesses of masculinity in this work. Now, perhaps it is a sexist and lascivious film but I would need to re-watch it now to be able to fully commit to a clear critical view. One wonders if it would be made now given its context and complexity of gender and paedophilic representations. The PC, Neo-Millenials and feminist agendas would certainly have something to say about it and they would probably have a point. My feeling is though we should be allowed to make up our own mind on controversial works rather than carrying flaming torches on the internet threatening to burn anything that may be deemed controversial.
Another film which is sexual, but this time more symbolically when compared to Lolita, is the anti-nuclear masterpiece Dr Strangelove: or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Having watched it more recently and gained knowledge from the wonderful Kubrick exhibition, this scary and hilarious satire is filled with stupid, impotent and warring men bickering and squabbling over the future of a possible nuclear attack. It’s incredible to think that at the time of the Cold War a filmmaker could turn the fear of an atomic bomb attack into a comedy. But that is the genius of Stanley Kubrick because as an iconoclast he did just that. Like Paths of Glory, which was banned by the French government, the film garnered the ire of the military as Kubrick showed he wasn’t afraid to criticize those in power once again.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is another film which, like Lolita, was one I did not see until years later. It was rarely on the television and only watching subsequent cinematic re-releases have I basked in the glory of this science-fiction classic. Kubrick’s work has sometimes been accused of formalism and technique over emotion and arguably 2001: A Space Odyssey is his most accomplished technical achievement. Yet the emotion is derived from the intellectual and philosophical journey of early man to that of enigmatic ‘Star Child’. One wonders at the combination of music and images to create a startling dialectic of wonderment, awe and enigma. What it all means is open to many interpretations and that too was the genius of Kubrick; there was rarely an easy answer to the themes raised in his films.
While I admire 2001: A Space Odyssey more from afar, his next film A Clockwork Orange (1971), is one which I have close cultural connections to. Of course, it was released when I was a baby but on entering my late teens the controversy caused on its release had still managed to reach the chattering testosterone of the boys’ school I attended. Here was a violent, sexual, sexist, profane, dystopic, misanthropic film with blood and nudity that had been banned (later I would find it had been withdrawn by Kubrick himself) AND WE MUST NOT SEE! Obviously that meant we HAD to see it. Alas, I didn’t see it until one evening, as a surprised 22 year old, at the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross when it shown illegally as a ‘secret’ film. Subsequently, this action by the above-underground repertory cinema caused legal action by Warner Bros., eventually forcing the cinema to close.
Even without seeing A Clockwork Orange, before it’s bootleg London screening, I had immersed myself in the music on vinyl, bought posters, watched a theatrical presentation starring Phil Daniels; and of course read Burgess’s incredible novel a number of times. Myself and my brother loved the language and iconography and the danger of the piece. This is why censorship of all kinds can backfire because when you’re told you’re not allowed to see something it makes you want to watch it even more. Nonetheless, A Clockwork Orange would eventually be released openly and it still stands the test of time as a virulent and scathing attack on Governmental control of the proletariat. Of course, Alex the anti-hero is a psychopathic nightmare and a reflection of the brutal society established within the film and book. Again, Kubrick and Burgess’ original book can offer little in the way of solutions but rather a coruscating critique of humanity via an ultra-stylish and formidable cinematic and literary language.
Kubrick’s next film following the Clockwork Orange controversy was Barry Lyndon (1975). Kubrick had put his typically meticulous planning into a film about Napoleon Bonaparte only for this to fall down for commercial reasons and the budget was then put towards another period drama. I have to admit I did not see Barry Lyndon in full until it was shown on Film Four a few years ago. I subsequently saw it again last year – restored to a 35mm print – at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square and was thoroughly absorbed by the tragic tale of the eponymous leading character. Kubrick’s insistent to shoot in low or candlelight gave the film a heavenly and picturesque glow; fascinating also was the structure of the film as Barry Lyndon’s life plays out via fate and a series of random misadventures. It reminded me somewhat of Forrest Gump (1994) where war and misfortune happen to and around him, while both films end similarly with familial tragedy. Many of Kubrick’s other films have rightly gained classic status with Barry Lyndon perhaps seen as a lesser film. But for me, the imagery and cinematography alone make it a masterpiece for me.
Like A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was a film released around the time of the 1980s “video-nasty” era and I watched a lot of those films on VHS. This was the time where my love of horror was formed and despite the enigmatic ending being lost on a dopey 12 year-old, I loved this story of a psychotic Jack Nicholson going mad and attacking his family. It was only years later on further re-watches that I fully appreciated the macabre psychological subtlety of the unfolding detachment from reality, which occurs to Jack Torrance. Of course, everyone recalls the “Here’s Johnny!” moment and is scared to death by his twisted actions, but everything before that is brilliant, as it masterfully builds and creates dread amidst iconic images including: the twin girls, red-patterned carpet, the maze and the creepy barman in the Overlook Hotel. Stephen King, apparently doesn’t rate Kubrick’s The Shining but I think he is wrong. I know he changed King’s excellent novel to fit his own vision but Kubrick’s The Shining stands the test of time today.
Kubrick’s final two films, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) thankfully came out when I was old enough to see them at the cinema. Both are what I consider classic Kubrick mirrored structures. That is they are split into two long acts rather than the traditional three-act structure present in most classical Hollywood films. In Full Metal Jacket we establish the rigours of training Marines involving, from the film’s point-of-view, the dehumanizing stripping of humanity in order to turn men into killing machines. The second-half places such men into the Vietnam War and finds them lost in a black mirror of death and despair, attempting to make sense of the carnage around them. Such themes as the follies of war and damaging arrogance of those in rule are prevalent throughout his work including this film, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove and Paths of Glory.
Having failed to get projects such as The Aryan Papers and Artificial Intelligence to the screen his next feature, Eyes Wide Shut, alas, was Kubrick’s final film. It benefits from close to career best performances from then married Nicole Kidman and Hollywood star Tom Cruise. I recall seeing it at a cinema in Fulham Road and my first reaction was it seemed unreal and ungrounded. The explicit sex scenes seemed stagey and were exploitational; plus Nicole Kidman’s acting aside the whole thing did not work for me on any level. Of course though the film, like many of Kubrick’s works, need to be viewed more than once for the nuance and subtle psychologies at work to seep through into one’s psyche. On further views of Eyes Wide Shut, the dark comedy and tragedy at work contextualises the sexual depravity on show revealing a dreamlike structure and strong moral compass which leads you to the conclusion hedonism and freedom of physical expression are empty vessels and vacuous pursuits compared to the relative safety of love, family and marriage.
Walking round the Stanley Kubrick exhibition was a fantastic experience. Not only to revel in the artistic bricolage of the genius filmmakers’ oeuvre and history, but also to tread through my own memories of growing older watching Kubrick’s works. This and Copenhagen as a whole made it worth my while getting on a plane and suffering the stress of flight to venture to Denmark; where something totally not rotten was going on.