Monday 29 October 2012

Skyfall: Bond Beyond All Expectaion

In Skyfall Albert Finney plays the only grizzled old gamekeeper in the world who doesn’t know the difference between a rifle and a shotgun.
But now I’ve got that annoying solecism off my chest, I have to tell you that Skyfall is a masterpiece.

If you have a shred of interest in Bond movies, you should drop everything and go and see it right now.

Skyfall is written by the admirable team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who have been doing excellent work on the franchise for many years. (They also attended my alma mater, the University of Kent at Canterbury -- hi, guys.)

As has become traditional, the Purvis & Wade script was then rewritten by another hired gun, presumably to provide some additional fresh ideas.

On the previous Daniel Craig Bonds, this third writer was Paul Haggis. This time around it’s John Logan, who wrote Gladiator.

And James Bond was, of course, created by the great Ian Fleming.

I don’t know how to apportion credit for all the first-rate material in the Skyfall, but suffice to say the writers got it right.

Not just the writers. The cinematography is stunning. And Sam Mendes does a great job of directing.

The Thomas Newman music is the best Bond score in years; he’s new to the franchise and is on board because he’s composed all of Mendes’ films (perhaps most memorably American Beauty).

And the cast is splendid. Albert Finney is splendid – it certainly wasn’t his fault about the rifle dialogue. I suspect it wasn’t the writers’ fault, either. What probably happened was that the script specified a rifle, and then somebody decided a double barrelled shotgun was sexier and changed the prop without adjusting the script.
The problem is, both the characters in the shotgun scene are weapons experts. And in a Bond story, guns matter.

Other problems with the film? Well, in the initial motorcycle chase the bad guy looks rather too much like Bond (short cropped fair hair) causing confusion about who’s who.
I’m also not convinced about the effects of cyanide as discussed in the film (research continues on this topic).

And most of all, I’m not happy with the way Bond stalks a sniper and politely waits until the bad guy has murdered his prey before taking action against him.

But, really, none of that matters at all. Skyfall is a masterpiece.

It has a brilliant script.

It has a strikingly hot Bond girl (Naomie Harris, take a bow).

It has a memorable villain, something notably lacking from Quantum of Solace, this time in the shape of Javier Bardem (Javier, I forgive you for Before Night Falls).

And, praise the gods of espionage thrillers, it has a magnificent climactic action sequence. (Very unusually for a Bond film, moving into Straw Dogs territory.)

This last feature was notably lacking from Quantum of Solace (exploding modular hotel, yawn) and most recent Bonds — and indeed most recent American action movies.

The trend in big screen thrillers has been to open with a slam bang, jaw dropping set piece and then gradually decline to a weak ending (for a recent example, check out the execrable Expendables 2).

The terrific action conclusion was beginning to look like a lost art.

Not any more. Skyfall delivers beyond all expectation.

I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but it’s not just the best Bond movie of the Daniel Craig era…

 It’s the best Bond movie of all time.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Mr Hood, We're Needed

One of the most gratifying things about writing a book is getting feedback.

Okay, wait a minute, to be completely honest the most gratifying thing about writing a book is getting lots of money and sitting in your villa in Tuscany watching the rich colours of the sunset with a glass of vintage wine in your hand and the super model of your choice at your side.

But while you’re waiting for all that, one of the other gratifying things is getting feedback about your books.
Especially when it's perceptive.

Especially when it surprises you.

When I wrote my second Rupert Hood spy thriller, Event Driven, everyone agreed that it was a big improvement on the first. That was good to hear — certainly a lot better than the opposite.

But now that there are two books in the series, people are beginning to see patterns emerge.

To celebrate delivery of the manuscript I had a drink with my publisher Matt Lynn at the Frontline Club. He grinned at me and said, “Do you know what these stories remind me of? The Avengers. Not the American movie. The vintage Brit TV series.”

I hadn’t thought of this, but he was right. And I was delighted.

Because I loved The Avengers. Particularly the brilliant Diana Rigg/Emma Peel era.

Then, just after the book was published my friend the writer Keith Temple read it (and reviewed it on Amazon) and made the same connection with The Avengers.

Nothing could make me happier.

Rupert Hood is in distinguished company.

And, if the series continues, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

To quote John Steed, “Mrs Peel, we’re needed.” 

You certainly are. We need fast-moving thrillers peopled with engaging characters, drawn from the world of espionage, with an edge of fantasy and humour.

You’re needed now more than ever.

(PS: Since the geniuses at Google have redesigned Blogger it is now seems to be physically impossible to attach links to images, so thank you to the following sites who provided the images here: the wonderfully named Starlet Showcase, and Die Bilderwumme who created the lovely colour pic of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.)

Sunday 14 October 2012

Rupert Hood Strikes Again

Yes folks, Rupert Hood is back.

What's that you say? You don't know who Rupert Hood is? Good lord, then you need to hasten along and buy his first adventure, read it, and then get back to me.

In fact, if you hasten hastily enough, you don't even need to buy it. It's available today on free download. My wily publisher believes this will boost the sales of the new book.

I certainly hope so because the new book, Event Driven, is a giant leap forward for Rupert Hood, everybody's favourite secret agent masquerading as an estate agent. (Well okay, my favourite)

You see Operation Herod, the first book was written about three years ago.

I sat down to write a high octane espionage thriller with an interesting villain and some memorable action set pieces. Me being me, it also had a distinct comic edge.

The book got me an agent — indeed one of the top agents in the country (hi, Julian) but despite his heroic efforts he couldn't win a publishing deal for the book. He was as frustrated as I was. The difficulty seemed to be that no one could grasp the notion of a thriller with some humour in it.

I particularly cherish one email he sent, updating me on the latest response: "Boring rejection, sadly typical of feeble minded editors."

Fast-forward three years. A far from feeble minded editor at a new e-publishing house, Endeavour Press, contacted me to see if I had any unpublished material  they could look at. Indeed I did. And so Operation Herod saw the light of day.

However, I hadn't been idle in those intervening years. I'd written three (count 'em) other books. You'll be hearing more about those shortly.

But the crucial thing is this: writing is a craft that you learn by doing. You improve through practise. I am a considerably better writer now thanks to the experience of fashioning those other novels.

Which is why Event Driven is more fun than Operation Herod and a superior piece of work. At least I think so.

And so does my publisher and my editor. My friend Ben will think so too, when he reads it.

Far from being the difficult second novel it was a sheer pleasure to write, and I'm delighted to see it out there. the only difficult thing was getting the cover right (I loved the cover for Operation Herod).

I've included various versions of prospective cover designs here for your consideration. My personal favourite? The strongest, graphically speaking, is definitely the one with the red shoe on it which is the work of my friend the brilliant designer Peri Godbold. Sadly it wasn't considered quite butch enough.

What's my reaction to the final choice?

Well, I'm a little concerned that people will think I'd put ice cubes in a glass of good single malt whisky. James Bond would never approve.

Neither would Rupert Hood. 

Sunday 7 October 2012

Writers and Directors

I love screenwriting. I love writing scripts, reading them, and reading about them — and the screenwriters behind them.

So finding this book was like Christmas coming early. Weighing in at nearly 500 pages it is a big, juicy read devoted entirely to the screenwriting contingent in Hollywood.

And, best of all, it is written by a screenwriter. And a major one at that. Marc Norman's Oklahoma Crude is now pretty much forgotten, but at the time the script sold for a record sum.

More recently his screenplay for Shakespeare In Love won an Oscar — admittedly after a rewrite by Tom Stoppard.

But, as Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) remarked of a similar experience on Sleepy Hollow, if you're going to be rewritten, that's the guy you want to be rewritten by.

Anyway, Marc Norman's splendid What Happens Next is a feast of fact, opinion and anecdote.

And, not unexpectedly, a lot of the book is devoted to the, ahem, tension between writers and directors about who is really responsible for creating a movie. In particular the mendacious "auteur" theory can be seen coming over the hill in the 1950s like the Chinese army launching an attack during the Korean police action.

Just to give one example, Frank Capra directed nine classic films written by Robert Riskin. But as soon as Riskin was safely dead Capra made a massive credit grab, claiming he was the sole author of his output. Marc Norman writes that Capra "seized the newly hatched auteur theory like someone clutching a governor's reprieve."

A supplementary example of this kind of behaviour which comes to mind is Michael Winner and Gerald Wilson. Wilson wrote five of Winner's movies, including some of the most successful. But in Winner's autobiography Gerald Wilson gets mentioned, in passing, about once.

Ah, well. What Happens Next is a great read and a must for anyone interested in screenwriting. It is particularly strong about the evolution of the screenplay in the first days of film. Towards the end of the book Marc Norman unfortunately glosses over more recent developments.
If he'd gone into detail, I suppose the book would have been twice as long.

But I, for one, would have been delighted to read a thousand pages on the subject. Any chance of a sequel, Marc?

Before I close, as a world class nit-picker I need to point out a few small solecisms in the text:

Leon Uris couldn't have been famous for writing Exodus when Nicholas Ray was looking for a screenwriter for Rebel Without a Cause, because annoying Exodus was published in 1958 and Rebel Without a Cause was released in 1955. 

Roger Corman's The Trip is not a biker flick (not a motorcycle in sight).

Simon Moore's brilliant television serial Traffik was was written for Channel 4, not the BBC — but really, that hardly matters since Marc Norman mentions it while giving Simon Moore proper credit for his contribution to the Oscar winning film Traffic.

There is a rather snooty review of What Happens Next which you can read if you want to know more. 

But I suggest you just buy the book.

(Incidentally, the writer depicted on the cover is Ogden Stewart and his fascinating story makes him a particularly apt choice.)