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The Blog of ALEX COX


A FEATURE FILM PROJECT FOR LIVERPOOL... ADVANCES!

2006.2.26

In addition to a very nice response from the Directors Guild, I've had some positive feedback from the Capital of Culture Company, who seem genuinely interested in a strand of low-budget, Liverpool-made features to be screened in 2008.

The CofC want "a more detailed overview" - specifically, what films might be in the project, who would write, produce, and direct them, who the crew would be, and what partners would be involved in production and post-production...

So, Liverpool-based filmmakers, over to you.

There are no guarantees, of course, that anything will come of this. But it's within the bounds of possibility - given the talent base of filmmakers, actors, and musicians in the city - to pull off some exciting low-budget features over the next few years. The CofC are interested, and they have money. The BBC are funding the Film London project: they have money too, plus a regional remit.

The purpose of the project is to showcase the talents of Liverpool's creative and cultural community in CofC year, by making four feature films.

More specific parameters as follows:

1) proposals should be from Liverpool-based producer-director teams, or producer-director-writer teams (this includes the CofC zone stretching from Prescot to Birkenhead...);

2) the story should be Liverpool-based, using our locations and studios. (If the story demands your shooting outside the CofC area you can, but you must be back before dark);

3) films must be 85 or more minutes in length, shootable for £75,000. Producers are encouraged to look for additional funding. A match from North West Vision's Objective One fund may be obtainable. Perhaps you can make a DVD or foreign pre-sale. More budget means you can pay your crew more money! But as a fallback you should be able to make the film - on DV or HDV - for £75,000;

4) films to be shot by local crews, star local actors, cut by local editors and musick'd locally;

5) productions will accept hard-working and useful trainees;

6) producers, writers, and directors promise to show up at the star-studied premiere of their film, and stand around with a glass of fizzy white wine, nodding, prior to the screening.

If you're a producer-director team, you're cordially invited to send me an email, or reply to this post on the forum, or drop me a line (c/o LFFP, School of Art & Design, 42 Hope St, L1 9HW) about a feature which you'd like to make. What harm can it do? All the CofC need at this stage are the following:

1) an idea in a couple of paragraphs or so (it doesn't have to be a script at this stage... unless it's already done)

2) a list of crew people you would like to work with

3) your casting ideas

That's it. There are no guarantees, but nothing to be lost at this stage, either. I can submit more than four ideas to the CofC, if appropriate.

Likewise it would be very helpful if North West Vision (who read this blog so scrupulously) and the NWPD could perhaps link to this page - or otherwise let Liverpool-based filmmakers know what's up, and how to contact me.

I await your proposals.

(On a lighter note, if you want to read a nice profile about Jack Valenti, ex-head of the Motion Picture Producers of America - who spent the night after the JFK hit in the Oval Office with LBJ - there's a fine one here.)

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A FILM PROJECT FOR LIVERPOOL?

2006.2.13

Five years ago it appeared that Liverpool might become the second feature film capital of Britain - in the same way as New York and San Francisco used to compete for that title in the USA.

Liverpool has been an attractive location for many years. Usually, though, it's served as a location for London- or LA-based movies or TV series, looking for a cheap place to shoot 'New York' exteriors, or Sherlock Holmes cobblestoned-streets. These foreign-based productions brought a certain amount of money into the local economy: their crews stayed in hotels, ate in restaurants, rode in taxis, and - if they were wise - hired local security.

But films like GUMSHOE, LET HIM HAVE IT! and HILARY AND JACKIE didn't do a great deal to develop the local crew base. Lacking local directors or producers, they didn't hire Liverpool cameramen or designers or composers or editors. They shot here, and went home.

By 2001, the city seemed on the verge of a sea change. Building on the example of Chris Bernard's highly successful LETTER TO BRESHNEV - locally produced, directed, and crewed - several local companies were making films. There was AL'S LADS, written by a Liveprool writer, Marc Gee, with producers on the Wirral. There was the Liverpool-based gangster epic, GOING OFF BIGTIME. There was the locally-produced LIAM, which - though it had a London-based director and crew - used many Liverpool actors. My own feature, REVENGERS TRAGEDY, was almost entirely Liverpool-crewed.

Today, no locally-produced features are in production (though the fantastic and indefatigable Frank Cottrell Boyce is trying out a feature with a Liverpool director, Carl Hunter, with a three-day shoot this week.)

This absence of local features isn't because of a lack of talent in the city. Nor is it because of a lack of desire for local feature films. Making features demands talent and inspiration. But it also takes money. Local features aren't being made here mainly because no one has taken responsibility for encouraging their production in Liverpool, in the way, say, Rotterdam Film Fonds or Film London have done. North West Vision, the regional 'screen' agency, has a wide remit - including TV producers in Manchester and web designers in Lake Windermere - and no experience of making feature films. And NWV must follow Film Council (i.e. New Labour) policy to deindustrialise the regions, and to concentrate on servicing American production at studios within the M-25.

Is feature film production important? I think so: 90-120 minute features are a commercial product, which can be exported, sold to terrestrial and satellite television, and marketed as DVDs and videotapes. Short films may be useful as simple training exercises, but there is no commercial market for them at all.

Three weeks ago, I proposed to the Liverpool Capital of Culture Company that they create a Liverpool feature film project, specifically designed to produce and market Liverpool-made feature films.

Since then, Film London have announced a similar project: a strand of six very-low-budget features, to be made in London by independent producers. Each film will have a budget of 75,000 pounds (though producers are encouraged to raise more money). The films will be selected, and the projects guided, not by the Film Council, but by professional feature directors and producers, such as Jeremy Thomas and Steven Frears.

This is an exellent idea. I would say that, of couse, since it's essentially the plan I put to the CofC Company. But I genuinely believe that such a project, targeting talent within the city, would enormously benefit the city over the next three years (the Year of Performance 2006, the anniversary of the City's charter, 2007, and Capital of Culture Year 2008).

My proposal was that the CofC create a Liverpool Feature Project, and fund four local feature films: one to be made this year, and screened in the next, the others to be shot in 2007 and premiered, with great pride and fanfare, in 2008.

75,000 pounds would be an excellent starting budget for each of these local features: a total investment of 300,000 pounds over three years.

(75 grand is an important budgetary figure. Low-budget features historically break even more quickly, and earn more in terms of dollars or pounds spent, than more expensive films. REVENGERS TRAGEDY cost a million pounds; THREE BUSINESSMEN, which I shot in Liverpool and Rotterdam in 1998 for 100K (some of it from Film Fonds), is an equal cultural commodity - but due to its lower cost is more likely return a profit to the investors.)

The Liverpool Feature Project would create work within the cultural sector and re-activate a potentially-vital local industry. It would revitalise Windsor Street and Toxteth TV - a fantastic TV and film studio, and a creative community within one of Liverpool's poorest areas, currently languishing for lack of work. It would assist not only filmmakers but writers, actors, composers and musicians: something very important when the music sector is currently threatened by the closure of Parr Street Studios.

The Liverpool Feature Project would have a natural tie-in with FACT (where Liverpool film night has dwindled from a monthly to a bi-annual event), the Crosby Plaza, and the long-awaited Lpool film festival.

Most importantly, a Liverpool Feature Project would involve creative people who are in danger of being sidelined by a 'cultural industry' which tends - like the Biennial - to view culture as something imported from outside the city.

Of course, culture is created outside the city, as well as within it. But that is NOT why Liverpool received CofC status. In giving the award, the judges stressed that it was the unique, dynamic creativity of the city's people which made them pick us, rather than Newcastle/Gateshead, or Birmingham.

This is exactly the wrong time to sideline Liverpool's creative community. We are already faced with a near-inexorable process of attrition, pushing us down to London, where the work is, or even further afield.

It would be a tragedy, and also a travesty, if in by 2008 there were no working filmmakers or composers left in the city. Nobody wants this - certainly nobody who lives here, and who wishes the CofC to be a success.

The day after my meeting with the Culture Company, the Liverpool Film Office gave out a press release, blithely entitled LIVERPOOL'S FILM INDUSTRY CONTINUES TO BOOM. The release claimed that 2005 had been a bumper year for filming in Liverpool, with a total of 632 shooting days... Council leader Warren Bradley exclaimed, delightedly, "we are seeing an unprecedented level of interest in using Liverpool for making TV series and feature films."

But how many of these 632 days of filming were by Liverpool-based producers or directors? How many hired Liverpool crews, actors, cameramen? How many were edited here?

It is indeed a splendid thing, as Council leader Bradley says, "to welcome filmmakers with open arms." The Film Office already does this well. But it's something else again to do the hard work of developing a local industry, supporting local cultural creators, and preventing them from leaving town.

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THE OXFORD PLAYHOUSE

2006.2.3

To Blighty, in search of work.

In Liverpool the feature film thing seems finally over, absent a Damascene intervention by the Australian artistic director of the Culture Capital, who currently has no English work permit. The local screen agency is content to make short films and give development cash to companies based in London. This is the way the Film Council and New Labour want it: destroy the provincial feature industry - fragile as it ever was - so as to concentrate on servicing Hollywood films at Pinewood, Elstree and Shepperton.

Interestingly, two of my best meetings are with theatre directors - Gemma Bodinetz of the Liverpool Playhouse/Everyman, and Tish Francis at the Oxford Playhouse. Thanks to the Capital of Culture, Liverpool City Council can't really be seen to cut the Everyman/Playhouse funding: although 'Sir' David Henshaw's resignation from the council - so as to avoid paying tax on an unbelievable three hundred and forty thousand pound pension - must take a slice out of the city's funds.

But the Oxford Playhouse hasn't been so lucky. The building itself is owned and rented by St Johns College, famous for its love of the arts and the good taste of its governing body. St Johns would never do anything to harm this wonderful institution. But since time immemorial the Playhouse has also received production funding from the University. Now Oxford University has a new Vice Chancellor (also recently arrived from the Antipodes... I assume he has a work permit), and said Vice Chancellor has decided that the University's funding is going to end.

This is a terrible mistake. Luckily this VC has wise people around him, and such a daft proposal may yet be rescinded. Let me state a serious interest here. I was an undergraduate at Oxford, from 1973 to 1976. And I directed two plays at the Playhouse. This is how I got into directing drama, and later feature films.

Oxford and Cambridge, as you probably know, don't 'do' theatre as such. They are still 'proper' universities, teaching 'real' subjects like History, French, Plant Sciences, and, er, Business Studies. Yet, thanks to several lively college and university-wide drama societies, both universities are simultaneously incubators of serious drama queens such as the likes of me. During my three years at Oxford, I pretended to study law, but really concentrated on acting in innumerable plays. By 1975 I'd realised I wasn't good enough to be a professional actor, and so I started directing plays, instead. I directed four, in total - two of which, Brecht's ARTURO UI and the musical CABARET, were at the Playhouse.

I can't begin to estimate the imprtance of this experience. The Oxford Playhouse (much improved since I was there, with more seats, better sound and lighting, and a deeper stage) is a professional theatre. People - real people - pay to see the plays there, and when they see a student show, they expect it to be of the highest standard; upt to the level of TOP GIRLS, or YELLOWMAN, or the other professional productions which play there.

In my first term at Oxford I saw a production of Kyd's THE SPANISH TRAGEDY. This is the first original English tragic drama, the precursor of HAMLET, LEAR, and THE REVENGERS TRAGEDY. It has a large cast - it's about war between two nations, and the tragic aftermath - and, prior to the Experimental Theatre Company's 1973 production, it hadn't been performed in Britain for three hundred years.

Only a student production - with enthusiastic, unpaid actors - could have pulled off THE SPANISH TRAGEDY. And only a professional theatre like the Playhouse could have provided an appropriate venue for Kyd's great tragedy to succeed. This was no stuffy, doublet-and-hose interpretation. The producer and director knew that Kyd was Marlowe's roommate, and their interpretation was superbly bisexual, with all the actors clad in Ziggy Stardust costumes and Alladin Sane face-paint. Professional productions, in London and Stratford-on-Avon followed. But it was students, working in a professional environment, that showed the pros the way.

When I directed ARTURO UI - with a fantastic set, designed by a professional stage designer, Bernard Canavan (doing postgraduate studies at Ruskin, the trade union college) - the Hitler character was played by a 20-year-old actor called Philip Franks. You know Franks now, of course, as an actor at the National Theatre, and the stage director of BLITHE SPIRIT and THE TEMPEST. But the show we did together was his, and my, first taste of the professional theatre, our first work on a real, professional stage. Another actor in that production was Greg Hersov, who is now artistic director of the Manchester Royal Exchange.

There were other future celebs in that show too, and also in CABARET. But I'm not going to boast about my cleverness in picking actors. We were all just spotty students then - united by our unhinged keenness and the lack of visible limits - given an enormous career boost by the mere fact of going to Oxford, and, even more importantly, gifted with confidence and real work experience on the Playhouse's professional stage.

(There were downsides, too. I remember seeing Rowan Atkinson's first appearance at a variety show at the Oxford Playhouse, and finding him just as intolerable then as now. But thousands of Kenyan and Japanese pre-schoolers might disagree with me. For better or worse, Mr Bean got his start at the Playhouse, too.)

One day, while we were practising ARTURO UI in the newly-opened Burton rehearsal rooms, we had a visitor. It was the actor Richard Burton, come to see what his money had been spent on. Can you imagine what it's like to be rehearsing a student show, and having flippin' RIchard Burton show up, and watch you play a scene? The acting took off. Even the bad actors were suddenly brilliant, or at least a good bit better.

Today the equivalent would be having DeNiro appear at your rehearsal, I suppose. Or Diana Quick. Or Derek Jacobi. When you put students into a professional environment these things are suddenly possible. Not only possible, they're likely to occur.

Which is why I'm writing this unadorned plea to Oxford University to reconsider its position viz-a-viz the Oxford Playhouse. Yes, I know 'drama' isn't on the curriculum. It's something students do in their 'spare time.' And now that the lasses and lads have to pay for their own education (which I didn't) and run up huge debts (ditto), it takes a lot more brass and even more self-confidence to act in, or direct, a serious play. The University's actual cash outlay in supporting the Oxford Playhouse is quite small, and yet the cultural benefits (Mr Bean notwithstanding) are infinite.

The Vice Chancellor mustn't seek modest financial savings by cutting the Playhouse's funding. To do so will force the Playhouse to act more conventionally (and it's already a serious, commercial theatre) by dropping the weeks available to students, and replacing them with more familiar fare. Students work for free, for the experience, and - at their best - produce massive, ground-breaking drama which points the way for their professional colleagues, and sets them afoot in their careers.

There is hard-nosed realism, and there is stupidity. The latter is already practiced in spades by New Labour and the Film Council. Let's not extend such dumbing-down to one of the finest interfaces of professional and aspirant drama in the world.

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TO MEXICO LINDO

BLOG 2006.1.19

In the new year, the independent filmmaker's thoughts turn to money. I have two projects which I would like to make in Mexico, and so off I go.

I change aircraft in Los Angeles. Since I was last there, the airport has been filled with screens running the most pathetic, amateurish tourist videos imaginable. "Welcome to LA, home of the STARS!" shouts the narrator, as a series of endless jarring cuts treats us to hackneyed images of Beverly Hills, the Hollywood sign, and roller skaters on Venice Beach. The videos are crasser, louder, and have worse production values, than the ones that used to play at Speke Airport in Liverpool in 1998.

If anyone still imagines the USA to be a sophisticated, modern, or worthwhile place, I urge them to spend some time watching the idiotic videos at LAX.

In Mexico City I visit friends and sniff around for coproduction possibilities. As always, the country is in crisis. But now it's worse. The North American Free Trade Agreement has destroyed a large portion of the national economy. In the last five years, two thousand Mexicans have died trying to cross the border without documents: President Fox's official spokesman has declared that they died because they like American culture, since there is no poverty or lack of work here.

Fox seems very like our own Mr Tony Blair. Obviously he's bigger - in excess of six feet - and better looking - but he shares the same instinctive obedience to the White House (Fox was once the head of Coca Cola here). His levels of denial and delusion are identical to Blair's. In the last two months he has insulted the presidents of Cuba, Venezuela, and Argentina: on the day I arrive, he insults the president-elect of Bolivia, as well. In every case, the insults are provoked by his colleagues' refusal to follow the Neoliberal project. As the newspaper LA JORNADA observes, Fox appears to be trying to drive a wedge between Mexico and the rest of Latin America, in the same way as Blair is wrecking Britain's shaky relationship with Europe.

On Wednesday I go out with my agent, Claudia Becker, and two very beautiful actors of a certain age. I've worked with both these women before, and they are old friends - intelligent, thoughtful people. I make the mistake of asking them a question about politics, and they almost come to blows.

On Thursday I have dinner with the director Arturo Ripstein and Paz Alicia Garciadiego, his partner and screenwriter. Ripstein was once Buñuel's assistant; Paz has written many scripts for Rip, and did the Mexican re-write on EL PATRULLERO. Ripstein was the first Latin American director to shoot a digital feature. He's just finished his latest, on HD. I ask who will distribute it, and they both laugh. Our positions are peculiarly similar. Rip and I are middle-aged white guys who like to piss people off. We refuse to die, or to watch American movies. For some reason, we continue to make films.

Rip and Paz, like me and Tod, have no health insurance. Fortunately, they've both been given honorary Spanish citizenship, so now we all have the same health plan: if you get sick, try and make it to the airport, fly to Europe, and go the hospital. It's a fine plan if you're diagnosed with cancer or a wasting disease, but I'm not sure it works in the case of apendicitis, or a broken leg.

I always have fun with Rip and Paz. We spend the evening shouting at each other ("I'm talking now! Let me finish!" and so forth). They both hate political correctness; I support it but I hate identity politics; so we have a lot to shout about. As in England, the Mexican state film agency is pushing filmmakers to make shorts, which of course have no commercial value or chance of distribution: the goal - largely accomplished - is to convert both Mexico and Britain into maquilladoras for the Hollywood studios, making quaint, folkloric crap. Mexican filmmakers, if they're lucky, can work on American Zorro pictures, while London's film technicians can help out on the Harry Potter films.

The only filmmaker Ripstein thinks highly of is a Hungarian called Bela Tarr: he recommends in particular Tarr's VERGMEISTER HARMONIAC. Suddenly it's 0130 and past our bedtimes. I give Rip a DVD of REVENGERS TRAGEDY; he gives me a DVD of CADENA PERPETUA, one of his dozen or so great films.

On Friday, to the National Museum to see the Velasco landscapes and an exhibition of work by Goya. There are a couple of paintings from the Prado, but the Spanish haven't released the really great stuff - the black paintings, and the huge Disasters of War.

On Sunday I have two lunches - first with John Ross, the blind and brilliant journalist and Zapatista chronicler, and second with my dear friend Pedro Armendariz. He and Ripstein have fought and don't speak to each other. Almost everyone here has fought with everybody else and so nobody talks to anyone.

Pedro advises me to drop one of my projects, and concentrate on the other. I think he's right. On Monday, at Churubusco Studios, I hook up with my brother director, Luis Estrada, and see the fine cut of his new film, UNA VIDA MARAVILLOSA (formerly called GOD DOES NOT EXIST). Luis made LA LEY DE HERODES, which caused a political scandal here six years ago. I'm pleased to report that his new film is far more scandalous than the last. Beautifully photographed and designed, it stars the same actor, Damian Alcazar. It is Luis' best film by far.

Will it be as successful as LA LEY DE HERODES? I don't know. It's better in every way - funnier, more ironic, more pertinent to a modern nation where seventy million people live in poverty. But its intelligence may count against it. It opens on 17 March, with 300 prints (now THAT is distribution!), so we shall see.

All of these guys are second-generation filmmakers. Claudia Becker, the casting director, is the daughter of Lonka Becker, Mexico's most famous actors' agent. Ripstein is the son of Don Alfredo Ripstein, the producer. Pedro is - of course - the son of Pedro Armendariz, the best-loved of all Mexican actors. And Luis is the son of El Perro Estrada, another director. Interestingly, a third generation of filmmakers isn't really developing. There's no money to be made from features now, and so their kids are going into legitimate professions, instead.

Who are the new filmmakers? As in Britain and the US, it's now the children of the rich. Who else can afford to work as a production assistant, for no money, in Mexico, or London, or LA, except the independently wealthy?

In 2005, Mexican cinemas screened 274 feature films. 156 of them were American, 93 came from other countries, and only 25 were Mexican. In the same year, 53 Mexican films - most of them extremely low-budget - were made. On average, prints of each American picture outnumbered Mexican prints by a factor of 10-1.

Most of my Mexican friends are looking south, to Argentina, which has repudiated its IMF debt, pissed off the Americans, and seen a resurgence of state and public support for nationally-themed films.

Poor Mexico! Pobre England! So far from God, so near to LAX...

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