Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Conversation with Philip Pullman

During one of the coffee breaks on the British Film Institute tour of the National Archive last Wednesday, a small group of us chatted about how often we go to the cinema. I repeated my oft-expressed view that with current home cinema equipment, timely shiny disc release dates, and the nightmare that is a trip to the cinema these days it was hard to justify any visits to the local fleapit. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old git (again!) a cinema trip these days seems to mean having to watch a film surrounded by ringing mobile phones, kids asking dumb questions at the top of their voices, and individuals noisly chomping on huge buckets of popcorn that could feed a family of twelve. Since when did a trip to the movies become a meal time for the whole family? Add in some truly appalling prints, poor projection systems and ridiculously inflated ticket prices and travel delays courtesy of London's transport system, why would anyone not just wait a few weeks for the DVD?

After my trip to see The Golden Compass yesterday (reviewed here on my Movie Review blog, I have a new irritant to add to the long list of why cinema trips can be a nightmare - false fire alarms causing disruption and long delays in getting in to see your film! OK, so maybe this isn't a common problem and I was unlucky, but when the one or two inexperienced staff in charge advise all and sundry that there will be a 40 minute delay and it would be best to come back later, only to then start the screening 15 minutes earlier than they've just advised, you can perhaps see why people end up getting very annoyed (not me on this occasion as I've learnt from experience never to trust what poorly paid staff tell you!)

One way some of the specialist cinema's are trying to lure audiences back is through offering their own version of DVD Extra's and my local cinema, the Clapham Picture House, has taken to offering not just a great membership scheme with the occasional free preview, but also a series of 'satellite' interviews and Q&A sessions with key figures tied in with a film screening.

Next Friday they're offering a preview screening of Ang Lee's latest film Lust, Caution, with satellite transmission of a Q&A with the director immediately afterwards. Given that the film doesn't go on general release here until next year, this is a screening I'm certainly interested in attending, especially at the bargain basement price of £8.50 all-in, even if it is a 45 minute walk each way to attend.

Earlier this afternoon I followed up on yesterday's viewing of The Golden Compass, with a satellite interview with Philip Pullman, the writer of the original book on which the film is based.

Personally, I think the cinema missed an opportunity in not bundling this in with a screening of the film itself, and the half-empty cinema seemed to indicate that maybe £5 to watch one hour of someone being interviewed by someone rather nervous and inexperienced in the role was a little on the expensive side, particularly given that a Hollywood film running twice as long could be had for about the same price. That being said, the satellite screening, which was broadcast to cinema's across the whole of the UK, shows initiative and it will be interesting to see how much more of this sort of event local cinema's offer to combat the threat from home entertainment systems.

The Conversation with Philip Pullman was an interesting affair, mainly because Pullman has no qualms with deflating pompous rhetoric or theories about his work. At one point the interviewer asked if it was true he had several times walked out of interviews when he thought the questions were bad. "I'm far too well brought up to have done that", came the reply, and indeed it proved, although Pullman did manage to demonstrate without any fuss that he doesn't suffer fools gladly, and had no problems dismissing long, elaborate, pretentious theories about existential symbolism in his work, masquerading as questions with short, succint answers such as "I think that's complete tosh.". It proved to be an entertaining sixty minutes.

On the specifics of the film of the first book in his Dark Materials trilogy, the author made it quite clear that he is very happy with the film. When pushed and asked what he would have changed he could only think of two things: the final scene where he felt the conversation from Lydia is too long and should have been shortened, and that she and the bear should have shown more visible signs of what they'd just gone through by appearing more embattled, albeit determined and optimistic about the future; and a scene that was apparently shot but cut just after the witch appears to Lydia on the boat, in which her former lover appears and senses the witch's presence and talks of sensing 'a smell of the North'.

Most of the conversation centred around his writings, views on spirituality and philosophy, and perhaps most passionately his views on teaching (and the fact that the government have destroyed everything good about what teachers do with their insistence on 'measuring only things that can be measured, not the things that can't be measured and are actually more important' - he's not a fan of SATs!)

At one point the understandably nervous interviewer, having already delivered what seemed to be a 'gay rights' speech on the importance of Daniel Craig in speedo's retaining his inner child (WTF?!!), asked Pullman about the 10,000 girls who'd auditioned for the part of Lydia in the film before Dakota Blue Richards got the role. Unfortunately it was like watching a car crash in slow motion as he launched into patronising piffle about the importance of children following their dreams, at the end of which Pullman delivered the killer blow: "I doubt the 9,999 children who didn't get the role would necessarily agree with you". Brilliant stuff that was only spoilt by the interviewer suffering from a bout of hubris, trying to defend his position and persuade Pullman to agree that his point had been well made.

Pullman's honesty and refusal to kotow to the interviewer, while sometimes blunt to the point that some might consider rude, encouraged me to look out some of his work and read it. He freely admitted to 'borrowing' from a lot of sources, singling out a couple of scenes from The Magnificent Seven, apparently one of his all-time favourite films, which he'd 'borrowed' for his books.

The hour came to a rather abrupt halt before audience questions could really be asked, but one audience member wasn't going to leave without getting the answer to his question. 'What daemon would you have?' he shouted as the interviewer tried to wrap things up. Pullman's reply was short, sweet and to the point. 'A magpie', he responded, before adding by way of explanation, 'They steal things'.


Anonymous said...

This is a very witty review. And it's great that despite the reviewer's acerbic criticisms of the interviewer, or because of them it almost seems, he found it a very entertaining sixty minutes. I am the person who conducted the interview and fortunately I don't take myself too seriously to take offense. I wasn't nervous actually, just keen to test Philip in numerous areas, and probably didn't articulate myself as well as I could have done. But Philip was an absolute joy throughout the build-up and interview itself, and it was a fantastic experience from where I was sitting, although stressful leading up to it as I am also the person at Picturehouse cinemas who coordinates the live filming and satellite links, so I had a lot on my plate that day. But reviews like this one help me smile, once all the dust has settled. When the reviewer suggests that I went on a "Gay Rights" speech (although I'm straight) about Daniel Craig in Speedos, I remembered how to laugh again after what had been a very long day. Bravo sir!

Ian said...

No, bravo to you!

I guess my point with regard to the Daniel Craig/speedo/inner child thing was (a) that the actor himself has stressed on numerous occasions how embarrassed he is by that whole thing and it was superfluous and rather irrelevant to the interview, (b) it crossed that thin line between fan boy gushing and 'catering to the dumbed-down ,masses' - perhaps acceptable if the interviewee was Craig himself, but really not relevant to a Pullman interview and smacking just a little too much of 'political correctness' to this cynical old fart! Unlike you, I AM a gay man and I just thought 'oh dear, another Mary getting carried away in front of an audience - how embarrassing!' Sorry for misreading the reasoning behind what you were saying and as I looked around me other folk were looking at each other and shrugging shoulders so I figured this wasn't just me!

As you say, it was an entertaining event and good luck with the next one. One tip for the future: keep an eye on the camera, especially if it's focussed on you. Part of my interpration of your being 'nervous' was that every time the camera stupidly switched to you while Pullman was answering a 'deep' question you'd just asked him you seemd to be reading your clipboard, or trying to work out what to ask next rather than listening to the answer, which just makes the audience nervous on your behalf.

Good luck, and I look forward to the next satellite event.

Anonymous said...

Nice of you to post of a comment back to me, thank you, although on the Craig/Speedo matter please do remember that it was Philip himself who mentioned that specific scene in Casino Royale, not me, so I was just following up in a way that may have seemed gushing but was actually only spontaneous, not intending to dumb anything down. I love your language,
"another Mary getting carried away" is priceless stuff :-) I am slightly surprised the vision mixer was cutting to me when Philip was answering as I specifically said not to do that and to stay on me for the questions and switch to Philip for answers, so I will definitely feed this back to the vision mixer next time, and appreciate your noting of this. And there I was thinking I was getting away with looking at my notes! Alas, the best laid plans ... anyway, it's been fun swapping blogs with you Ian, thanks for the kind wishes about future events. I do hope to come to more of them. You never know, you might see this "Mary" host another one and hopefully turn in an improved performance. Take care :-) Marc John

Anonymous said...

Meant to say at the end of my post I do hope YOU come to more of them! I'm at all of them, usually behind the scenes though :-)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, but have you read the books yet? It's Lyra mate, not Lydia...

Ian said...

Oops! Another brain fart on my part!

No, haven't read the books yet. Keep meaning to pick them up but there just aren't enough hours in a day at the moment.