Blade Runner Day
The British Film Institute, London
(21 March 2009)

In mid-October 2008, the BFI promoted its ongoing 75th birthday celebrations by announcing the winner of its nationwide Visions for the Future poll. Industry leaders, film and TV professionals, and BFI members had chosen Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's seminal science-fiction film released in 1982, as the one film they wished to share with future generations. In addition to creating huge buzz around the institute’s Visions for the Future screenings from January 2009 (the films included Quadrophenia, The Godfather, Stalker and Pulp Fiction), the poll rounded off the BFI’s year-long birthday with a themed day of activities dedicated to the winner. Blade Runner Day took place on March 21 2009 and brought together a number of high-profile guests: author Paul M. Sammon, producer Michael Deeley, actor Rutger Hauer and director Ridley Scott. Following an onstage Q&A, Scott was presented with the BFI Fellowship, marking his contribution to British film and television culture, by director Stephen Frears. What follows is a brief overview of the day and some highlights of the best interviews.

The morning began with a screening of On the Edge of Blade Runner (UK, 2000), Andrew Abbott’s 52-minute documentary produced for Channel 4TV and written by film critic Mark Kermode. Shot seven years before Charles de Lauzirika’s Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner (2007) for Warner Home Video, Abbott’s film begins with the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and combines archival recording, special effects test reel footage and newly commissioned interview (circa-2000) to reprise the story of Blade Runner’s genesis, its production, reception and legacy. Like de Lauzirika’s film, On the Edge benefits from the testimony of key players: screenwriter Hampton Fancher recalls reeling from disagreements with Ridley before the hiring of co-writer David Peoples (“Ridley never said ‘if you don’t do what I want you to do then we’ll get somebody else to do it’; [he] was shy and manipulative”); executive producer Bud Yorkin reflects on Ridley’s style and his need for reshoots (“I think he was indulgent”); while Ridley himself recalls his strained relationship with certain crew members, including its executive producers (“On the film I became a screamer, I got really angry”). The film adds to the Blade Runner narrative with testimony from sources left out of the Dangerous Days history: science-fiction author Brian Aldiss describes Dick’s amphetamine use (“Dick was writing about what was happening to him and the drug culture of California with a little twist of lemon”); actors William Sanderson and Joe Turkel praise Ridley’s artistic sensibilities and his vision of twentieth-century urbanism; and actor M Emmett Walsh recalls tensions onset due to Ridley’s perfectionism and the pressures brought to bear by executive producers Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio. Unlike de Lauzirika’s film, On the Edge provides no interviews with Harrison Ford—placing the documentary in the context of its time, before Ford embraced his promotional role as an advocate for the 2007 Warner Home Video release—but includes descriptions from Ridley and production executive Katherine Haber addressing the actor’s unease during production.

It is a shame that Deeley’s comments on the Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner documentary are so diplomatic because, going on his anecdotal evidence at the BFI, Bud Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio were the clear villains of the Blade Runner production story

Following the screening, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (1997) author Paul M Sammon discussed Blade Runner onstage with Oscar-winning producer Michael Deeley and academic Will Brooker (ed. The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science-Fiction Classic). The amiable tone was set with questions about Yorkin and Perenchio, the film’s completion bond guarantors. Citing On the Edge, Sammon asked Deeley for his response to Yorkin’s onscreen claim that, having gone $5.5 million over budget, the Blade Runner production was at that point effectively “taking money out of his childrens’ pockets”. According to Deeley, “all that anger and bitterness was caused by greed”, “one knew that they were strictly amateur in this respect, especially Perenchio”, and on the matter of the film’s financial arrangement: “at the end of twenty years, the Ladd Company [which owned domestic distribution rights] and Run Run Shaw’s [foreign territories] rights were passed to Yorkin and Perenchio, so they now have everything. Curious to say that neither Ridley nor I have ever been paid a profit on the picture”. Indeed, almost every reference to Yorkin and Perenchio was critical: Sammon condemned Yorkin and Perenchio’s behaviour, referred to the “group” [Tandem Productions, run by Yorkin, Perenchio and Norman Lear] as “obstructionist” throughout production, and emphasised Deeley’s point that Tandem “wound up owning the film, [with] all the ancillary rights”—yet they simply “didn’t give a damn”. Noting that times have changed, with the release of the Blade Runner: The Final Cut (5-disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition) DVD two years ago, Sammon praised the work of Warner Home Video, which hired him as consultant and commissioned new materials to promote the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary; Deeley’s evaluation of the 1980s market for theatrical distribution reinforced the notion that a platform release could have benefited the film throughout awards season; Brooker, detailing how the film became a classic text for film scholarship in the early 1990s, discussed the subtle changes in the theatrical, Director’s Cut and Final Cut versions which help shape our understanding of the film across platforms (cinematic, literary, digital); and in Sammon’s personal reflections on Philip K Dick, he argued that drugs, rather than being a conduit to another reality as described by Scott Bukatman (1997), were energy boosters to sustain his productivity (“it was prosaic, he just needed the cash”). Sammon often followed up on Deeley’s statements and audience questions with his own interpretations. On the subject of the theatrical version’s original voice-over narration, Deeley's account did not identify the author responsible (only that he was “one of Yorkin’s friends”); Sammon identified the man as the late Roland Kibbee, a television writer then in his sixties, and recounted a story told to him by Ford about the (third and final) recording of the film’s narration: “Here was a man in a hobby suit, the cigarette ash falling all over the keyboard. Ford said, ‘Hello, I’m Harrison Ford’ and [Kibbee] said ‘Shut up and let me write your narration!’ [Ford] said right then, ‘I knew this was going to be a hard slog’”. Similarly, when recounting the production’s well documented ‘Yes Guvnor My Ass!’ T-Shirt incident, Sammon noted that it was Chief Makeup Artist Marvin Westmore who in Deeley’s amiable version of events “should have known better” than to leave a British newspaper (Deeley and Haber confirm The Guardian) where it could be found by the rest of the unionised American crew. On one unresolved matter, Sammon questioned Deeley about an alternate titles sequence—included in the Workprint section of the 2007 Final Cut Collector’s Edition—featuring single droplets of rain, or tears, gliding through frame. According to Deeley, Yorkin had already stepped in at this point to take over production and had arranged for the graphic to be shot without consulting either Deeley or Ridley. Finally, both Deeley and Sammon confirmed that writer William S Burroughs, who adapted Alan E Nourse’s cyberpunk novel The Bladerunner (1974) into a “half-assed” film treatment called Blade Runner (a movie) (“done to satisfy a contract” and published as a novella in 1979), was paid a $5,000 fee in exchange for rights to the highly desirable title.

Author Paul M Sammon interviews Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty) for Blade Runner Day at the BFI Southbank (March, 2009)

One guest who was bound to attract attention was Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. Where Harrison Ford was less involved in the film’s traditional publicity campaign in the 1980s (though he did participate in on-set interviews), Hauer enjoyed the one-on-one interview, roundtable and press junket process, and has continued to support the film’s publicity efforts, including through multiple charity events, to the present day. Joining Sammon onstage, after a special theatrical screening of Ridley’s The Final Cut, Hauer lightened the tone of the event considerably with his implacable LA charm and star quality. The actor reinforced the notion that he conceived, with Ridley, Roy Batty’s “tears in rain” monologue (which may be accurate, but David Peoples provides conflicting testimony in the Dangerous Days documentary); expressed his delight that the film’s performance in ancillary markets sustains its popularity for global audiences (“the film has been underground for twenty-five years pretty much”); and was critical of the distributor’s approach to marketing the film theatrically in 2007: “They were releasing the film thinking they were hot, they were going to make a shitload of money, and I thought ‘I think they might be right, if they release it right this time’. Guess what? The closer you got to the [release] date, you saw the [distributor] support shrink ... I thought: ‘Amazing, isn’t this amazing. They’re doing it again. And I like it’”. Hauer’s answer to an audience question concerning the textual significance of his character’s body tattoos was equally amusing. Downplaying any explicit meaning that Ridley may have attributed to its design, Hauer described it as another unknowable “layer,” something we look at and wonder “what the hell is that now?” Since the accuracy of Hauer’s memory was probably in question here, Sammon tried to give his explanation for the tattoos based on interviews he had conducted personally with Ridley—but Hauer, with a glint in his eye and behaving like the olympian prankster and sneak, stopped Sammon twice during his explanation (with a cheeky wave of his water bottle that amused the crowd) in order to tell us “I don’t know the answer ... but I’m curious if Ridley answers that question”. For a short time, Hauer and Sammon signed autographs and posed for photographs at the BFI Shop with waves of enthusiasts.

Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty) hooks up with fans, signing autographs for Blade Runner Day at the BFI Southbank (March, 2009)

The highlight of the day came shortly afterwards with the arrival of Ridley Scott. In a preemptory move however, Ridley’s office had block-booked 2/3 of the auditorium for his private guests, few of whom actually showed (and news of which unfortunately unsettled a few in the crowd who hadn’t been able to book online as a result). His onstage interview spanned from the earliest days of his career as a trainee graphic artist in Hartlepool to his latest work on the $200 million blockbuster Robin Hood for Universal Pictures. Reflecting on the strengths of Alien (1979), he said that “the priority of the director is to cast well” and in describing his approach to the chestburster scene he repeated the oft-told elements of his version of the story: it was to be a one-take action, John Hurt’s (Kane) artificial chest was packed with high-pressure pumps loaded with blood and offal, and actress Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) slipped backwards in the carnage. Ridley also alluded to the difficulties he experienced onset with the Blade Runner crew—Special Photographic Effects Supervisor Douglas Trumbull cites one such example in relation to the lighting effects in the Tyrell building—and took aim at those who criticised his autocratic style: “[If] everyone and their mother gets in the kitchen [then] there’s too many chefs. The director is the chef, whether you like it or not, that’s the job and if you don’t like it don’t work on the movie. So I was always thought to be a little tough because [of that]. I don’t want advice, I’ll fall on my own sword thank you very much”. This response, though persuasive, was characteristic of Ridley’s account. He repeatedly identified his authority as a visual stylist, placing great emphasis on his early career as a media entrepreneur (his scholarship at the Royal Academy of Art; his role in television as set designer; the founding of RSA in 1968 where he shot 2,700 commercials, averaging two per week; this all before before The Duellists in 1977). And in his statements about actors he was both partisan and defensive: citing the five films on which he has partnered with actor Russell Crowe (Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster and Body of Lies; their current project Robin Hood marks the fifth collaboration), Ridley asserted the New Zealand star’s superiority as “probably the best actor in the world today”.

I haven’t been so excited by a director’s Q&A before. Twice in interview the houselights were brought down and clips were screened: the chestburster scene from Alien, in which Kane succumbs to his dreadful fate as carrier of a living organism that must literally eat its way out from within; and the rousing ten minute-long Germania battle sequence which opens the historical epic Gladiator (2000). There followed some light discussion, with Scott reflecting on the changing nature of the industry: for him, the second half of the 1970s was the heyday of Modern Horror which he linked to the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). This discussion did not thrill me quite as much as the experience of spectatorship—we were in the company of one of the most important directors of the New Hollywood whose name still carries enormous symbolic weight in commercial cinema and modern advertising. Like my fellow filmgoers, I’ve seen these clips hundreds of times in my life: the subtle concern in a look shared between the science officer Ash (Ian Holm) and Kane at the dinner table; the gruesome beauty of the alien as it emerges slowly, insidiously, from a gaping red cavity now in the latter’s chest; and in Gladiator the images of archers readying their arrows, an entire hillside in flame as fire pots strike every tree, every pitiful soldier. I was more interested in Scott’s response to his own images; and I admit to being fascinated with this very idea, the author onstage viewing iconic moments from his past work in real time with his audience. I was thrilled to be present.

Images: by me.
23 March, 2009

Producer Michael Deeley signing autographs for Blade Runner Day at the BFI Southbank (March, 2009)


Hans Zimmer Revealed:
Live at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith
(10 October performance)

South-African singer Lebo M. joins composer Hans Zimmer onstage for a rendition of The Lion King

The eightieth birthday of the legendary Hollywood film composer John Williams in 2012 gave several major symphony orchestras in this country, among them the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), license to programme special concerts dedicated to his music. The big theme pieces of his repertoire—Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial—in mood bright, lively and romantic compositions, guaranteed high audience turnouts for both the RPO (John Williams: 80th birthday tribute to the world’s leading film composer, Royal Albert Hall 2012, 2014) and LSO (Music for the big screen: the best of John Williams, Barbican Hall 2012) events; and indeed these works have formed internationally the backbone of the many other Williams sets performed live in recent years—cf. concerts in Chicago (2008), Cleveland (2012), Massachusetts (2012), San Pedro (2012), Hong Kong (2012) and Deauville (2012). Meanwhile, the BBC Concert Orchestra and LSO recently developed successful programmes showcasing the work of Danny Elfman (Danny Elfman’s music from the films of Tim Burton, Royal Albert Hall 2013) and Patrick Doyle (LSO on film: celebrating the music of Patrick Doyle, Barbican Hall 2013), with the former—a world premiere here, which included personal contributions from Elfman as well as actress Helena Bonham Carter—returning in December, this time with the London Concert Orchestra. However, these high-profile events warranted, disappointingly, only brief guest appearances from their star composers—the few exceptions being the performance live of Clint Mansell with his band for an audience at a far smaller venue (Clint Mansell film music from the Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated British composer, Barbican Hall 2014) and the debut of David Arnold (David Arnold: live in concert, Royal Festival Hall 2014).

Composer Hans Zimmer, violin soloist Ann Marie Simpson-Calhoun,
guitarist Guthrie Govan
Hans Zimmer Revealed (Hammersmith Apollo, October 10-11 2014) promotes change in this sort of commercial programming, redressing the balance by positively rattling the cage. Though, structurally, the programming here conformed to the traditional model (a repertoire of familiar music cues written for middle-budget films and commercial blockbusters, each given their own introduction by an announcer), the event was tailored to attract a larger number of attendees by altering performance location, presentation and musical style. Promoter Harvey Goldsmith’s foreword in the concert programme leans heavily on this distinction: “There are a number of touring concerts with orchestras playing film music with the movie projected … Tonight, Hans will be presenting his music, his way” (my emphasis). Thus rather than having a concert host present works in an ‘appropriate’ fashion (Tommy Pearson’s commentary for the John Williams: 80th birthday tribute in 2012 is a fine example of the extent to which modern orchestras still don’t know how to present different works for younger audiences), here Zimmer introduced the pieces himself, combining personal anecdotes about his early professional work (director Barry Levinson doorstepped Zimmer at his London-based studio Lillie Yard one evening to discuss his forthcoming production Rain Man) with stories about the modern entertainment industry (Zimmer approached singer/musician Lisa Gerrard to collaborate on Gladiator, but was turned down initially because the artist had just completed work on another Russell Crowe film, The Insider). In an interesting artistic shift which also enhanced the individuality of the event, Zimmer assumed a confessional tone (in a, seemingly, spontaneous outpouring similar to the popular dramatic monologues of Bruce Springsteen) in the middle of one set. In this case, the voice was still that of Zimmer the artist, Zimmer the composer, but the intimate tone of his to-audience storytelling reflected the sensitivity and importance of his subject (the death of film star Heath Ledger in 2008; the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012–“this is not just a career, it’s a life, it’s the life we live together and we become this family”).

Another factor to consider in this non-traditional approach is the incorporation (and promotion) of so many soloists from Zimmer’s studio Remote Control Productions. This, broadly speaking, is not an unorthodox practice. Additional ensembles play vital roles in traditional programming, and the appearances of guest soloists will necessitate at least two major solo cues, typically, to justify their artistic fees (for instance, violinist Carmine Lauri performing ‘Remembrances,’ ‘Jewish Town’ and ‘Main Theme’ from Schindler’s List (1993) for the LSO’s Music for the big screen: the best of John Williams). The difference with Zimmer and director Peter Asher’s approach is that, wonderfully, they required their soloists to be active performers, and indeed some of the most appealing music cues were choreographed to highlight their endless contributions, as each made a grand display of a violin, guitar or cello. Of the many artists highlighted by Zimmer, five were absolutely unforgettable: Ann Marie Simpson-Calhoun was a contributing writer on Sherlock Holmes (2009) and its sequel A Game of Shadows (2011), in addition to her role as featured violin soloist on other Zimmer-recordings for Man of Steel (2013), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and The Lone Ranger (2013); her onstage sparring partner Aleksey Igudesman was, likewise, a featured violinist on Sherlock Holmes, with recording credits on non-Zimmer films, such as The Road to El Dorado (2000) and Spanglish (2004); Richard Harvey’s relationship with Zimmer (in his capacity as woodwinds musician) extends back to The Lion King (1994) and includes recordings for Kingdom of Heaven (2005), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008); Czarina Russell began work for Zimmer as score co-ordinator on Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and is credited as a studio manager on over fifty other feature films; she was most recently the female vocalist on Zimmer’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014); and Nick Glennie-Smith, a long-time collaborator and prolific composer/conductor, has worked on almost all of Zimmer’s soundtracks, from The Rock (1996, composer) and Crimson Tide (1995, additional music), through Gladiator (2000, additional music) and Hannibal (2001, additional music), to Man of Steel (2013, conductor) and Transformers – Age of Extinction (2014, conductor). Much of the focus here went on the two violinists Simpson and Igudesman (unsurprisingly, given Simpson’s proven flair for performance and Igudesman’s ‘other’ career as one half of the comedy duo Igudesman & Joo)—their ‘scene’-stealing moments, as each artist played across and spurred on the other (often taking centre-stage in order to do so), bolstered the rousing, celebratory mood of Zimmer’s major anthems. In addition, one of the most refreshing aspects of Hans Zimmer Revealed was its technical production. The lighting design (produced by industry expert Marc Brickman) was characterised by striking colours, selective blackouts (which threw controlled sections of the stage into darkness) and intense strobe lighting—techniques befitting of a modern rock concert as opposed to the traditional theatrical lighting of a Barbican or Albert Hall event.

Composer Hans Zimmer and soloist Ann Marie Simpson-Calhoun performing 'Discombobulate' from Sherlock Holmes

For me personally, the highpoints of past events have involved old familiar friends: music cues that have been with us for years (if not for most of our lifetime, via different formats and media), which when performed for us live have us positively levitating in our seats, the entire piece singing within us

The evening began with a selection of music cues which successfully established Zimmer, his band, the orchestra and then chorus in a sleek introduction—a lively ensemble piece (‘Driving’) from Driving Miss Daisy (1989) featuring Zimmer on piano, the upbeat deliberately untidy Holmes theme (‘Discombobulate’) from Sherlock Holmes (with Zimmer on banjo), a strings-based fast-tempo piece (‘Zoosters Breakout’) from Madagascar (2005) that unveiled the full symphony just beyond the band, and an impressive display of the Crouch End Festival Chorus for the towering Crimson Tide (1995) piece ‘Roll Tide’. This segued into the flamboyant midsection of Act One—an extended rendition of the main theme (‘160 BPM’) from Angels and Demons (2009) with drum solo by percussionist Satnam Ramgotra, a suite of themes from Gladiator featuring mezzo-soprano Miriam Blennerhassett (‘The Wheat’, ‘The Battle’, ‘Honour Him’, ‘Now We Are Free’), and the slow-building anthem ‘Chevaliers de Sangreal’ from The Da Vinci Code (2006). The ensemble was perhaps at its best in a special rendition of ‘Circle of Life’ from The Lion King, which brought together Czarina Russell (as vocalist) with the wonderful South-African singer Lebo M (Lebohang Morake). In the final piece before the intermission, Zimmer highlighted Tristan Schulze on the cello for a turbulent, at times bittersweet, set from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels Dead Man’s Chest (‘Jack Sparrow’) and At World’s End (‘Up Is Down’).

For Act Two, ostensibly the freer session of the evening allowing for some experimentation, Zimmer took care to include more of his guest musicians and Remote Control Productions artists in the frame. Opening the first set: the always delightful ‘You Are So Cool’ from True Romance (1993), foregrounding percussionists Frank Ricotti and Gary Kettle; an otherworldly piece from Rain Man (1988) in which synthesisers and steel drums mix with pan pipes; and a show-piece (again) for Russell in the form of Green Card (1990), a grandiose work which embellished the melodies and oriental tones of the original cue ‘Instinct’. The midsection combined two show-off set pieces: ‘What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World?’ from Man Of Steel, and ‘Journey To The Line’ from The Thin Red Line (1998). In the final set, violinist Igudesman delivered a simultaneously impressive and hair-raising performance as the schizophrenic voice of ‘My Enemy’ from this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (on the subsequent evening of the 11th, Pharrell Williams performed his Oscar-nominated ‘Happy’ from Despicable Me 2 (2013), and relieved Igudesman as vocalist on ‘My Enemy’); and lastly, Zimmer’s rampaging Dark Knight suite included The Dark Knight’s (2008) ‘Why So Serious?’, which drew melodies briefly from ‘Like A Dog Chasing Cars’ and ‘Introduce A Little Anarchy’, and from The Dark Knight Rises (2012) the music cue ‘Gotham’s Reckoning’, in which Zimmer himself led the memorable chanting effect (an aspect of the soundtrack much publicised prior to release)—this successfully brought the ensemble to a point where they could introduce ‘Aurora’, Zimmer’s “heartfelt tribute to the victims and families” of the Colorado shootings noted above (and see, ‘Hans Zimmer composes song for Aurora shooting victims’, Hollywood Reporter, Tina Daunt, 2012). An encore then turned us to the project for which Zimmer is perhaps most revered and sadly reviled: Inception (2010). The suite combined ‘Dream Is Collapsing’, the energetic ‘Mombasa’ and the comparatively subtle ‘Time.’

Hans Zimmer receives a standing ovation at the close of his concert, Hans Zimmer Revealed

A kind of non-traditional film concert then—combining modern compositions with ‘new’ renditions of mid-1990s classic scores—Hans Zimmer Revealed delivered on at least two fronts: it showcased the talents of Remote Control artists, particularly Ann Marie Simpson-Calhoun and Aleksey Igudesman, giving them ample space to thrill and entertain audiences with their dynamic performances; secondly, it gave Zimmer a forum to present his own compositions in a knockabout way that sits, if not arrogantly, then uneasily alongside the other conservative programmes of film music still lined up for the remainder of the year. The musical selection, though broadly predictable, was also very well received. For me personally, the highpoints of past events have involved old familiar friends: music cues that have been with us for years (if not for most of our lifetime, via different formats and media), which when performed for us live in a room of thousands or a few hundred have us positively levitating in our seats, the entire piece singing within us. With Hans Zimmer Revealed I felt very much a reversal of this tendency, the cues which I consider to be ‘old friends’ passing me by, leaving little or no impression: Gladiator failed, perhaps unsurprisingly, to match the sheer strength and stomp of the Philharmonia Film Orchestra’s performance of Gladiator Live earlier this year (Royal Albert Hall, 2014), which did itself feature a star appearance by an impeccable Lisa Gerrard; similarly, ‘Journey to the Line’ from The Thin Red Line, for some a standout piece that evening, failed to move me as once it certainly did in my teens, its repetitive nature and simplicity a bit underwhelming to me now. Suffice to say, the more pulse-racing, bass-pounding tunes which Zimmer assembled for his recent collaborations with Christopher Nolan, and to an extent Gore Verbinski, electrified the crowd and impressed the most. Dark Knight I enjoyed immensely, as well as cues I hadn’t previously heard, such as Green Card and Madagascar; and with both Richard Harvey and Lebo M onstage together, you can imagine how utterly uplifting the ensemble’s rendition of The Lion King turned out to be. The sense of fun that was persistent throughout this performance, for me returned again in ‘What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World?’, the slow-build crescendo from Man Of Steel—and so much took me by surprise with this piece: the emphatic violin work of Simpson particularly (but Igudesman also) sits with me still as a lasting image, the wild drum rhythm of Ramgotra, the slick guitar riff played by Johnny Marr (who has worked with Zimmer on the soundtracks for Inception and The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and Zimmer himself at the keyboard. And though ‘My Enemy’ erupted with a force and mania that coloured pretty much everything that followed it (some soundtrack fans have complained that it had no place in the repertoire at all), it nonetheless served a purpose in reflecting the tastes of Zimmer as a programmer of unconventional music (Goldsmith: “his music, his way”).

I confess to loving the sheer volume of sound here—this was the one performance in over a dozen now that I’ve attended in which causing myself actual hearing loss might well have been on the cards throughout the course of the evening! Add to this an impressive line-up of soloists and some very well rehearsed set-pieces, and Zimmer’s ambitious debut (“his first public concert”) registers more strongly than any film concert that has preceded it. Many people have reservations about Zimmer’s material, the influence he has on the contemporary Hollywood film industry which is seen as disproportionate compared to other star composers, and the impact of his methodology on the conventions of classical film scoring—I, for one, entered the Hammersmith Apollo expecting to be beaten over the head, and left believing I’d experienced something quite phenomenal.

Images: by me.

16 October, 2014


Unstable States:
Park Kwang-su, The Year of the 12 Directors

There is not much doubt that Park Kwang-su, the former deputy director of the Busan International Film Festival—now fifty-seven years old, and a Dean in the National University of Arts’ Department of Filmmaking—is one of the most important filmmakers to ever be invited to the Korean movie scene in London. His earliest films were instrumental in charging mainstream cinema with a sense of political purpose and ideological critique at a time when the creative industries were still under heavy scrutiny from the state. Chilsu and Mansu (Chil-su hwa Man-su, 1988), Park’s debut feature raised basic questions concerning political reform under two of Korea’s major dictatorships; A Single Spark (Aleumda-un cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il, 1995), released three years after the election of the South’s first civilian president, brought Park wider attention in the mainstream for dramatising the self-immolation of Jeon Tae-il, a workers’ rights activist who fought for social transformation and better working conditions in the seventies, and who is probably still a household name given that national boycotts concerning labour matters still persist. His other films—Black Republic (Guedeuldo ulicheoleom, 1990), Berlin Report (Beleulin lipoteu, 1991), To the Starry Island (Geu seom-e gago sipda, 1993) and The Uprising (I Jaesu-ui nan, 1998)—continued in a similar vein, underscoring the impact of state-sanctioned violence on student protestors and isolating aspects of the nation’s history to critique its forward momentum. Park regards the socio-political scene with the same analytical eye today, but he is taking on other assignments, other films: Meet Mr. Daddy (Shiny Day, Nunbushin Nal-ae, 2007), which played here this evening, in the third event of ‘The Year Of The 12 Directors’ series, was full of kiddies and footballs and terminal illness, and left not one dry face in the room.

At the post-film Q & A, Park was a paragon of decency, answering in a soft-spoken manner that settled everyone; from time to time he joked with the interpreter about adding something more in her notebook after saying his piece and their friendly interaction lightened the tone. At the meet-and-greet session later, he regarded the whole act of autographing and posing with fans for photographs as both an amusement and mystery, as if not quite believing that for each and every person here at least one film of his had left its mark. Our host, Dr. Mark Morris, a heavyweight in East Asian film studies and lecturer at Cambridge, explained that Park’s films matched political criticism with artistic integrity, and that no other Korean filmmaker, besides perhaps Im Kwon-taek, had been more influential in steering the course and development of the Korean New Wave.

The first comments from the director were cool and short. “In contrast to my previous films, which I always prepared and had the ideas for, Meet Mr. Daddy was the investor’s idea . . .” “I don’t know exactly where my ideas come from, but I would choose the story I most wanted to tell people and then go right on ahead and tell it.”

Things got rolling when the subject of censorship under the two major regimes—President Park Chung-hee in the seventies and Chun Doo-hwan in the eighties—was raised. “Indeed, censorship was a very serious issue in the beginning, and I was careful with my films. If we had rubbish on the street in one scene then it would be edited out, or I would otherwise have to substitute scenes in order to get a film distributed.” These cuts would have been imposed by the Public Performance Ethics Committee (PPEC), a government board which screened each and every film produced by a company expecting a licensed commercial release and reviewing it carefully in its pre- and post-production phases to make sure everything was acceptable for the state; when Park submitted his second feature film, Black Republic, in 1990 the PPEC deleted a flashback sequence on the grounds that it depicted, and in all likelihood would have “encouraged,” antigovernment activity. “Nowadays in Korea,” he continued, “it’s hardly an issue anymore, but back then I had to release Chilsu and Mansu on the opening day of the Olympics ceremony, when no one was really paying attention, just to get it shown.”

This was a critical period in South Korean history and Chilsu and Mansu a vital product of that time. The Summer Olympics of 1988 was a massive propaganda show intended exclusively for party political purposes. With President Chun Doo-hwan at the helm throughout most of the eighties, any form of legitimate opposition or political protest against the military regime was forbidden and violently repressed. Television, film, radio and print were tightly controlled and used to plug the red scare message with news of impending doom coming from the North. But when Chun went down in 1987, the disputed 17 December election went to his hand-picked successor Roh Tae-woo. The Olympics went ahead as Chun had planned but according to David Black and Shona Bezanson “the combination of widespread internal dissent” and massive international scrutiny at this time “had a signal effect on the pace and peacefulness” of the transition towards democracy. A paper for the John Hopkins University which considered the legacy of the Seoul Olympics said that, on the subject of activism, the Chun government had successfully “constrained radical action” by giving the public (“students and the middle class”) a stake in the Olympic preparations. A more comprehensive study by James Larson and Park Heung-soo found that although the Summer Olympics could not be separated from the Chun government in the mass consciousness, the ideological message nevertheless filtered through, via President Roh, that the eyes of the world were watching and a concerted effort should be made to “work for the Olympics out of national pride.”

Screaming at the bastards of Seoul: billboard painters Man-su (Ahn Sung-ki) and Chil-su (Park Joon-hoon) in Park Kwang-su’s Chilsu and Mansu (1988)

It was in this context that Park’s screen version of Chil-su hwa Man-su, which was deeply aligned with the play directed by Kim Sok-man for the Yonu Theatre Company in 1986, became so valuable. The film and play were almost seen as failures by radicals deeply committed to the removal of military influence from all aspects of Korean public life—they pushed, instead, for hard art, plays and films that could beat the crackdown and disseminate their message more widely. But above ground, both Kim’s play and Park’s screen version expressed criticism of the major regimes in unprecedented ways, thus earning a definite place in the history of the cultural movement. Eugène Van Erven, in his 1988 discussion of resistance theatre, explains the political significance of the play, but above all he points to the value of improving the aesthetics of the theatre movement and migrating “underground” ideas to nervous popular audiences. For his part, Park Kwang-su successfully brought some of these ideas to the cinematic mainstream and to this day he is remembered for it.

Looking back he says that he was simply writing and filming honestly about the basic issues of the day; he had no desire to whip the people into an agitated frenzy, as some might suppose he did, and whatever progressive ideas or questions he teased and prodded in his film were not necessarily isolated from the everyday realities and artistic considerations of filmmaking.

“Every night I would go home, work on the script, then come back and devise the next scene. The first half of the film was very haphazard and I just told the actors to say whatever so we could get it done. But in the second half we had to make do . . . [In retrospect] I think that part of the film is quite weak.”

Kim Gi-young (Moon Sung-keun) and Young-sook (Shim Hye-jin) in Black Republic (1990)

Ha Sun-young (Ye Ji-won) with daughter Joon (Seo Sin-ae) in Meet Mr. Daddy (2007)

On this matter, Park includes the film’s most iconic scene: two downtrodden sign-painters, having completed a giant billboard in the city featuring a tanned blonde in a bikini, suffer a meltdown and release their pent-up frustrations on the general public below. “In the 1980s, it was illegal for foreign men and women to be models in Korea. Of course, for the last scene in Chilsu and Mansu we had to use an advertisement with a foreign female model on it. Well, the police came and ordered us to pull it down immediately. So I rushed to shoot coverage of all the scenes with the billboard in shot, and then later filmed everything in the other direction.”

With his most on-the-edge work now behind him, a few in the audience wondered if the director was on extended sabbatical from filmmaking to prioritise study . . . or would he change his mind some day soon and take on the domestic political arena again: go strong with a batch of films about the conservatives, the American problem, anything. To this, Park said that his hands were tied until the summer break, and though he would be putting together some action later this year he was keen to avoid the political merry-go-round and go straight with a different demographic.

“In the past I focussed a lot on the pure arts and theatre, which spoke to a minority audience of educated people. I moved into film in order to communicate with a larger, more-everyday audience, but it transpired that the intellectual viewers picked up on my films again, partially due to my methodology. So the driving question for me remains: how best to communicate with the audience? Back then there was hardly anyone making serious or political films, but today many directors are tackling these issues, anyone can do it . . . It’s time for me to think about what kind of film I should make, and my desire is to communicate with a more popular audience. That’s not to say that I will avoid making films with social and political issues in the future—but hopefully I can produce something that will satisfy that driving question.”
What interested me about his quote there was the emphasis on personal expression. Park has spoken before about needing to steer away from certain audiences, and since he is no longer pushed by the ideological issues of the day, or by a sense of duty to lift the restrictions on cinematic expression, he sounds more relaxed and optimistic about the market for film. It was the closest we would come that evening to a personal reflection on whatever it was that he had in mind next. On that score, there is no shortage of bad motion pictures in South Korea today; a good lot of them are destined for the waste-bin and serve no real purpose other than to sustain the domestic market share and hold it in its current shape. What keeps our interest and hope alive, at least those of us in the West who still see in Korean exports a spirit and conviction that may not necessarily be present or firing satisfactorily enough for our tastes in other national cinemas, are the growing number of socially-conscious filmmakers who occasionally take the harder line and produce something of sublime quality, something political, sensual, a thing that moves us, a thing at best intimate, imaginative and delightful.

This article was originally published by New Korean Cinema.
9 April, 2012


Part I

Interview with Kim Han-min, director of War of the Arrows:
“It’s technically very difficult getting a tiger into a film”

“It was the one military practice, the one token of martial skill, which ever held its own among a people who for thousands of years have preferred silks, pictures, poems and music, the stately crane in the paddy fields and the knarled [sic] pine on the mountainside.”
—Historian J. L. Boots on Korean archery, from Korean Weapons
and Armour Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic
, December 1934

Having made it through to the semi-finals of the national championships, successful young target shooter Park Nam-joo is ready to blow her chances in a playoff against Olympic Gold medallist Yun Ok-hee. She can see the counter on the red timing clock ticking over fast, but her breathing is all wrong, and the only thing that concerns her now is holding position to regain her rhythm. But she buckles and breaks stance. No mistaking that reaction. At full draw again, arrow tethered and ready for release, the counter hits zero and she’s left staring in disbelief at the target . . . “She failed!” croak the announcers; and then a blizzard of criticisms pinpointing her rotten sense of timing in shootoffs. The tournament’s over for Park Nam-joo. Returning to her family, tear-stricken and breathing heavily, she presents her runners-up medal to a photograph of her missing thirteen year-old niece, a bright young thing who within minutes of Nam-joo’s defeat had been whisked off by a shambling mutant fish-beast from the Han river and presumably drowned en route to the banks lining the far side. Sobbing, pained, exhausted, the Park family unite behind Nam-joo in filial piety. “It’s bronze,” her brother says to the photograph, wiping aside his tears. “Bronze!” And then the weeping grandfather: “Your aunt brought you a . . .” his voice breaking, bone in his throat, “. . . a bronze medal.” Then follow hysterics and misery like you have never seen.

You wonder if they’ve not simply gone bonkers over Nam-joo’s terminal underachievement. If it is widely known that archery is practically Korea’s national sport, it is also known that Korean coaches try not to do anything halfway . . . Passing on to your missing thirteen year-old niece the news that her bright and talented aunt Nam-joo has returned from the national championships a bronze medallist is about as pale and meaningless a piece of information as telling your ancestors there is a new Barbara Streisand album in the works. And if the reality is indeed very different, then many in the West can be forgiven for assuming that a bronze in Korean archery is someone’s idea of a bad joke. One reason why this sequence from Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (Goemul, 2006) is so cutting is that it embraces precisely this heritage and uses it to frame the Park family’s inadequacies. This opening line from a New York Times article about the Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008 gets right to the heart of it: “The South Korean women started Sunday by smashing the world record and then got what they really came to the Olympics to get, what they always come to get: the archery team gold.”

What they always come to get.

Park Hae-il, as master archer Nam-Yi, readies an arrow using a three finger under case grip in War of the Arrows

There is no reason why I should have spent time after my interview with director Kim Han-min thinking of this scene specifically. Set in the middle of the seventeenth century, when Chosŏn Korea was invaded by the Manchu for the second time in ten years, Kim’s propulsive, whiz-bang historical/action drama War of the Arrows has nothing to do with the national championships or target shooting in modern Korea. It instead condenses a savage and traumatic historical event into a punchy and poignant return-of-the-hero tale. But in its last few moments our conversation switched to the broader subject of Korean archery as tradition, and it is precisely because there was not enough time to get seriously into the thing that I left with this perspective.

Kim has said he considers the bow and arrow to be the vital element of his film. It is a pitch I hear first hand in interview—“I wanted to make a historical drama which introduced and focused on the arrow and the bow”—and again later at the press screening where he fields questions from the audience. I had planned originally to de-emphasise this aspect of the film for our discussion, feeling that if War of the Arrows should be viewed as anything then it shouldn’t be as, primarily, a “bow and arrow movie” (especially in light of the marketing push). But then Kim observes, with some pride, that like thousands of other children in South Korea he was taught archery in his junior years (archery is taught at elementary school, high-school and college level by designated coaches who spend between three and six months running drills); that the sound of an arrow striking its target left an indelible impression on him—and with that he cuts right through the one-dimensional note of the marketing message and has my attention.

This exciting contemporary form, he says, is directly rooted in a long and excellent tradition which extends back to Chosŏn Korea. His assertion that “the arrow and bow is one of the [few] iconic symbols that hasn’t been severed from history,” in fact, pinpoints the thinking behind, among others, Yun Ok-hee’s own public attempts to promote the historical legacy of Korean archery. Yun, whose F.I.T.A. world ranking has floated consistently between first and third place since 2006, argues that the achievements of Korean archers in Olympic and world championships is evidence of this legacy: “Our sensitive fingertips handed down from our ancestors and our spiritual strength and willingness to fight to the very end are our secrets.” Set in this context, then, Kim’s film might even be viewed as a tribute.

Director Kim Han-min at the London Korean Cultural Centre (photo I London)

We’re holding the interview in the library corner of the Korean Cultural Centre at a time when the film’s total ticket sales are 450,000 shy of Sunny (Sseoni, 2011), the friendships-and-terminal-illness tale from writer-director Kang Hyung-chul which has mushroomed beyond anything we might have expected and currently holds the top spot for biggest domestic draw of the year. Within the month, War of the Arrows will pass the 7.4 million admissions mark, moving it safely out of the commercial blockbusters zone but still short of the sort of numbers racked up by the disaster phenomenon Haeundae (aka., Tidal Wave, 2009) and the 2008 sleeper comedy Scandal Makers (aka., Speed Scandal, Gwasokseukaendeul). But the train doesn’t stop there. At this point, Kim and his sales team are skilfully carving out an international platform for the film that will take it from London to the States, where it’s set to play in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Dallas; to Canada where it’s confirmed in Toronto and Vancouver; and then back here for the festival stint where it opens the London Korean Film Festival in November.

Which is nice for Kim, and good for K.O.F.I.C., the state-supported organisation responsible for promoting Korean films abroad and supplying the majority of us in the west with information . . . But all of this has an effect on the realities of interviewing. With War of the Arrows imagery everywhere and PR staff politely hustling, Kim has the confidence and edge of a man who has turned a full-bore, 100-day long, multi-million dollar production into possibly the year’s single biggest attraction at the Korean multiplex. “The amount of pressure was immense,” admits the director. “I started filming in February this year and had to finish on June 9 for an August 10 release date.” While principal photography is usually shorter for Korean films—obviously this part of the production process was very much influenced by the unique aesthetic and technical demands, as well as economic factors, of the historical film; by contrast, typical productions can be turned around in well under twelve weeks—there is no question at all that War of the Arrows’ post-production period was alarmingly short, even with the benefits of Korea’s growing post-production services and industry. “It was an incredibly short period of time, it required very clear and succinct communication with a lot of different people. I received help from specialist members of staff and liaised with the special effects departments very closely. The pressure was huge, but I was very lucky to have met such good crew members this year—sometimes they came up with better ideas than me so this made things easier!” A Korea Times piece on War of the Arrows, published in August (‘Arrows aims for new horizons’), gives the impression that the film’s production budget was low; this is true of historical films produced in the globalised Hollywood system but not in the current Korean industry where lavish budgets on the scale of I Saw the Devil (Angmareul Boatda, 2010) are exceptionally rare. In 2010, the average production budget, excluding prints and advertising, was KW 1.42 billion (US$1.2 million); by contrast, Kim’s film, earmarked from the start as a big-budget historical production, cost KW 9 billion (US$8.5 million). I quote this information to Kim, primarily because it is worth getting confirmation on production budgets at every unusual opportunity but also because I want to test The Korea Times’ contention that a US$8-9 million budget should be restrictive at all in the current Korean film industry. Kim laughs. “There was nothing I couldn’t do with that money. If it was a bit more I could maybe have looked after the staff a bit better . . .”

Moon Chae-won as Ja-in, sister to Na-mi, on the day of her wedding

Kim seems to prefer writing and directing his own projects. Though he has worked with other screenwriters—on his short-film debut Sympathy (Yeonmin, 1998) and then again on his second feature, the occasionally daffy blackmail thriller Handphone (Haendeupon, 2009), written by Kim Mi-hyun—his self-authored output has performed more respectably at the box office and garnered local festival awards. To date he has written and directed the short films Sunflower Blues (1999) and Three Hungry Brothers (Galchiguidam, 2003), his feature debut Paradise Murdered, aka. Paradise 1986 (Geukrakdo Salinsageon, 2007), which made the top best selling films list in the year of its release, and of course War of the Arrows. “My first priority and main job is directing. It is a bit unfortunate that I can’t find a like-minded writer, I just end up doing the job myself . . . Strangely, the films where I’ve had another writer onboard, like Handphone, were not the ones that were commercially successful. I’ve been mulling that point over recently, to see what that’s about.”

Park Sol-mi as teacher Jang Gwi-nam—a role that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 2007 Blue Dragon Film Awards—in Kim Han-min’s debut feature
Paradise Murdered (Geukradko Salinsageon, 2007)

Jeong Yi-gyu (Park Yong-woo) pesters entertainment agency rep
Oh Seung-min (Eom Tae-woong) in Handphone (Haendeupon, 2009)

Paradise Murdered and Handphone were received as “serious” thriller mysteries, attracting a more sophisticated audience than your typical adolescent, though on reflection both films surprise with their dark comic register. Consider one early sequence in Paradise Murdered. The surviving residents on Geukrak Island have all assembled in an empty schoolroom to discuss the recent murders of two locals and the unexplained disappearance of a third, Deok-su. En passant, Kim for no apparent reason inserts a gaggle of vignettes which would not look out of place in a Daffy Duck cartoon: an elasticised killer in wetsuit, white gloves and a snorkel tossing a bright red body-bag into the ocean; in the next, the same man seen from overhead, this time tunnelling out a six-foot burial plot for the tied-up, not-yet-dead corpse itching for freedom nearby; and the punchline has a pair of (apparently) conjoined rocks sprouting from the blue sea, a spiralling arrow pointing down towards them and the accompanying caption: “Deok-su’s ass.” Gamely overturning the dramatic pace and structure of the schoolroom scene in this manner, Kim flits schizophrenically between, on the one hand, suspenseful half-sinister debate and, on the other, the tempestuous exertions of an anonymous killer with all the wit and grace of a Chuck Jones villain. On the subject of Paradise Murdered, I ask about this scene and if, given that the entire film must bear his stamp as a writer-director, he feels that any of this madcap zaniness channels his personal idiosyncrasies. After hearing the translation, he belts out the sort of laugh which is probably heard at the far end of the building and maybe in reception too. Settling back with a broad, mischievous grin, he replies simply: “Most definitely yes.” But as he is prone to do on the publicity circuit he launches immediately into a direct question of his own, pointing to a scene in his new film—in which our dazed hero Nam-Yi (Park Hae-il), having engaged his prospective brother-in-law (Kim Mu-yeol) in a drunken, sprawling tavern fight, is compelled to yield, and then vomits all over his opponent’s face—and asking if it does roughly the same trick.

Moments earlier Kim asked another pointed question, this time about the different weapon systems used in his film by the Ch’ing and Chosŏn dynasty armies, and the subtle variations within these systems. He evidently enjoys asking the questions. More than being civil or reserved in interview, Kim seems genuinely interested in finding out what you have to say to him in this short, sharp time slot; not for nothing does he want to understand how well the film—its nationalist themes and archetypes—plays with an international audience: this is, lest we forget, the most well-publicised Korean blockbuster of the year. It’s an instinct which shines later at the festival press launch, where he implores a hundred journalists, embassy staff, hotel and theatre personnel, event organisers and excitable young film geeks to bring any film-specific questions right up to him in person once the grim, for being so formal, business of the onstage Q & A is over. To this end, he succeeds in charming the audience, speaking with a humility and confidence that engages us all, but I wonder how far any of this goes in serving his contention that War of the Arrows is “a deep and meaningful film.”

1 November, 2011