Monday, December 6, 2010

Confessions of a film journalist: Pt 1

In my first contribution to the Oz Film Blogathon I warm up by discussing how I got started in film journalism. Part two which I'll have ready tomorrow will look more specifically at the role of a film journalist...

As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a film journalist…

Not quite Henry Hill, I’ll give you that. But the sentiment remains. Growing up there were two things that dominated my world: football and movies, and I devoured both with equal relish. Football was what all the kids were into. Movies, however, well they came from my Grandpa.

The two earliest films I remember seeing at the cinema were E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial around 1983 with my mum and Basil The Great Mouse Detective with my Grandpa around 1986. The memory that holds the most water though is of the Global Video shop my Grandpa took me to whenever I stayed with him and my Gran, which was frequently.

Duncan McKinnon was a tech savvy guy and a diligent video pirate. Anything we rented deemed of decent quality and of high rewatchability was 'doubled' using the two VHS recorders he owned (one of which used old cartridge loading dock on top of casing). Furthermore, he numbered all the tapes and maintained a record in a little notepad of the two or three films recorded on each video (depending on whether they’ve been dubbed using Slow Play or Long Play). Of course he was also taping lots of films off the telly and pausing during the commercial breaks – there were always a few films where he’d forget pause was on and the film would continue five minutes after the break had ended. He would have loved PVRs.

The other thing my Grandpa did was buy cases for all his dubbed films, the kind of cases that looked like hardback covers of anthology books from a stately library. Those cases were bigger than regular packaging, about the size of the rental cases.

The Global Video shop in East Kilbride’s village was the greatest place on Earth as far as I was concerned. Filled with posters of the most amazing American movies I was no-where near old enough to watch. Gremlins was an early favourite of mine along with, I’m not ashamed to admit, the Police Academy series. My Grandpa though also instilled a taste for older cinematic offerings in me. As a singer he was a big fan of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, as such films like Top Hat, Swing Time and, of course, Singin’ In The Rain have always been a part of my film vernacular.

His other favourite was the Westerns, which seemed to be uniformly on daytime television at the weekends in the 80s, perhaps because of the rampant popularity of Reagan-era Americas at the time – he had, after all, been a star of the Westerns. It comes as no surprise, looking back, that stories of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ were my first great cinematic love and probably played a large part in my decision to study American Studies at university.

It’s impossible, however, to quantify how much of an influence my Grandpa had on my career as a result of those first 11 years of my life, for which he was the biggest part. My mother was a single mom those first three years and I’m told I called my Grandpa ‘dad’. Duncan McKinnon passed away on 14 December 1989, but his presence is still very much felt by my book shelf, my DVD collection, the words you’re reading right now and the boxes of dubbed videotapes in my parents' attic.

After my Grandpa passed my Gran picked up the slack, lying about my age to get me into all the films I wanted to see at the cinema but wasn’t old enough. There was JFK at age 12, rated 15 by the BBFC – I honestly had never heard the word ‘fuck’ so many times in my life. My Gran slept through a good portion of the film. I think she’s wishes she’d slept through Event Horizon, during which I was more scared of her having a heart attack than I was by the film (which was terrifying) itself.

People often ask what American Studies, was all about. I always thought the answer to that question pretty obvious, what I will say is I did a lot of film studies as part of the course. How could one even pretend to have an understanding of American culture without understanding film, its history and its mechanisms?

In 1999-2000 I lived and studied at Utah State University as part of my exchange year where Prof Jay Anderson's film classes were a highlight. When I returned for my fourth and final year at University Of Leicester I took the opportunity to write film reviews for The Ripple, our student newspaper (the film editor, Nikki Baughan, went on to become the editor of Film Review). My first published criticism, if you could call it that, was for a reparatory screening of Natural Born Killers and boy was it horrible. Reading it back today at least offers encouragement that time has afforded me some improvement. Excessive plot description, and a fusion of standard critic clich├ęs and academia speak are what’s most notable about the review – some might argue little has changed.

There were other opportunities, Legend Of Bagger Vance was my first 10am screening inside an almost empty Odeon Cinema, and although I had never heard the phrase ‘magic negro’ before, I certainly recognised his presence. Pay It Forward and Gone In 60 Seconds were the other gems I was unleashed upon in my spell for The Ripple. If I wanted to be cynical I would suggest those four films represented a microcosm of nearly every year in my cinematic life since. The truth is, every year since I’ve experienced moments of transcendence in the movie theatre.

* 5 randomly selected moments of cinematic transcendence in my life:

1. The Ecstasy Of Gold, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (Sergio Leone)

2. Prejudice, 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
3. Interrogation, Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
4. Welcome wagon, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Steven Spielberg)
5. Four million-year match-cut, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

* 5 randomly selected moments of cinematic transcendence in the past 10 years:

1. Train to Zaniba’s cottage, Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
2. Corridor fight, Oldboy (Park-Chan Wook)
3. Ratatouille, Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
4. Chicken run, City Of God (Fernando Mirielles)

5. Ceasefire, Children Of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)

Leaving university I knew had to be a journalist, and more specifically I wanted to write about film. I really had no idea how to get started or what to do, and after my first failed attempted to live in London I ended up back in Leeds. There I wrote a couple of reviews for excellent local magazine The Leeds Guide while Laurence Boyce was Film Editor, mostly I temped at a variety of banks and published poetry on websites that shall go unnamed. It was a difficult beginning during which I nearly lost hope of becoming a writer, let alone a film journalist.

One year after graduating university I signed up to study an NCTJ post-grad in magazine journalism at a college in Brighton. It was the best decision of my life if for no other reason than it awakened a journalistic instinct for storytelling and gave me confidence to approach publications for work. Soon after I was putting together a section focussing on the local digital filmmaking scene in street press mag The Insight. I was launch editor for the new section and was very proud to compile stories each month for my little page in the magazine.

One of the first interviews I ever did was with a filmaker called Simon Wilkinson who ran an independent production company called Junk TV along with Paul Dutnall. It was a formative interview for me, opening up the world of short filmmakers, their dedication to the form and their communal nature. Junk TV not only made short films, but they organised screenings and worked as educators encouraging and training at-risk youth to make films. I've never been far from like-minded people since and it's my firm believe that any film journalist worth their salt should engage with their local community of short filmmakers.

At the same time, along with my friend Jonathan Crocker, I tracked down publicists for all the major studios and got onto their regional media screening lists. I started getting invited to previews at private cinemas in London such as Mr Young’s (later known as Soho Screening Rooms), and to press conferences (the earliest I can remember were 25th Hour, City Of God, Solaris, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and The Quiet American). Jon went on to become Contributing Editor of Total Film, Associate Editor of Little White Lies and Film Editor for ID, among other prestigious titles.

As any film writer will tell you, it's quite a moment going to your first movie in a private screening room early in the morning. Coffee and biscuits usually awaited your arrival at Mr Young's, along with the film's press notes and a friendly publicist to welcome you.

At the time I was more excited about the venerable critics in my midst than the celebrity press conferences. To see films with the likes of Peter Bradshaw, Kim Newman, Mark Kermode or whoever was something of a privilege and also an affirmation of my career aspirations.

My journey though would next take me to Bournemouth. After a stint of work experience on late, great cult film magazine Hotdog, I was offered a job on Essential Home Cinema (I actually wrote one of the first consumer articles in the UK about HD) and less than a year later I was the Features Editor for DVD Review, the best home entertainment magazine in the UK and third highest-selling film magazine behind Empire and Total Film. I couldn’t believe I’d finally scored my dream job of being paid to write about movies as a full time job.

Okay, I suspect this article is starting to get a little bit boring now. There’s a lot I want to share about my experiences as a film journalist and how I came to be plying my trade in Sydney, but I think it’s nice to leave some things to mystery. Needless to say in the last eight years I’ve seen many magazines come and go, written a few hundred film reviews, conducted a few hundred interviews with filmmakers, actors and musicians. But the best part has been the dozens of wonderful film journalists just mad passionate about their work, despite its economic challenges.

When I return for part two of this article I'd like to give more insight and guidance in how to get started, advice on good journalistic practice, the challenges we face as film writers and some perspectives on the differences between the trade in Sydney and London.

I'm building towards some things I want to get off my chest about the importance of local content production. We often talk about Australian film, the quality of, and audience's disposition to see those local productions. Similar quandries apply to content producers of film criticism, and although Australia is only my adopted home I believe passionately in the need to have a strong, independent local film press, supported by distributors. More than this, I believe we have a role to play in the development of quality local cinema, from the grassroots of digital shorts to the big league production companies.