Alex McDowell RDI was in town today to pick up the D&AD President's Award from Neville Brody.
It also coincided with the launch of Man of Steel which Alex has art directed with his usual brilliance.
During the D&AD presentation Neville Brody said that "...his name is more or less unknown (in the UK)." Well, that is not quite true. Alex was made a Royal Designer by the RSA in 2006. And last year I recored a facinating interview with him which you can listen to here.
Earlier this month I visited Aardman Animations in Bristol. I was there to
interview Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit, Creature Comforts and Shaun
the Sheep, and recipient of a shedload of awards, including a staggering four Oscars.
Now, you would think all that success would have serious ego inflation. Not a
bit of it. Park is one of the most modest creatives I have ever met, reinforcing my view that
truly talented people don’t have to go around shouting about themselves: their work says it
5ft (1.5m) models of Gromit ready to be displayed across Bristol.
In July, the large-scale Gromit statues (above) will be put on display around the city of
Bristol, before being auctioned off in September in aid of the Bristol Children's Hospital.
They have been individually decorated by a range of invited artists and
designers, including Sir Paul Smith, Cath Kidston, illustrator Simon Tofield
and animator Richard Williams, along with Aardman’s own creative team.
Okay, so let’s kick off with the first Graphic Journey Radio interview: No.1
Nick Park/Stop-motion animator.
Long before that small clutch of British commercial directors of the late ‘70s
– Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Hugh Hudson and Adrian Lyne – transferred their
creative skills to the big screen, there was a quieter, less showy and more literary
group of British directors who created work of great sensitivity
that still stands up today and, if anything, is better with the passing of
Jack Clayton (1921 - 1995)
One of these directors was Jack Clayton. He only directed nine features from
1959 to 1987. His first four are, to my mind, his very best: Room at the Top
(1959), The Innocents (1961), The Pumpkin Eater (1964) and Our
Mother’s House (1967).
Our Mother's House
The latter is a strange little tale about seven
children, the eldest aged 13, who stick together to carry on life as normal
after their mother’s death. But disruption comes when their estranged father,
played by Dirk Bogarde, returns to the fold. The film has some astonishing
performances from the children: a knack that Clayton also showed in The
Innocents and The Pumpkin Eater.
Martin Stephens and Deborah Kerr in The
Peter Finch and Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater
Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret in Room at the Top
There was a seven-year gap from Our Mother’s House to The Great
Gatsby. This transfer to a big Hollywood production didn’t suit the
controlled intimacy of Clayton’s earlier films. Almost a decade passed before
his next film, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). His last feature
was The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, which was a little more on home
ground, albeit Ireland, but lacking in his original brilliance. He made a drama
for TV in 1992. He died three years after that.
This is Elia Kazan. He was one of America’s greatest film directors.
He started his
professional life as an actor, working in theatre for eight years. In 1932, he
joined the Group Theatre, where he met Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler – the principle architects of the American
version of the Stanislavski discipline of acting.
In 1947, along with Strasberg, Kazan co-founded
the Actors Studio.
Elia Kazan in front of the Actors Studio in New York City circa 1950s
This was to become America’s premier acting school
developing a variation on Stanislavsky’s ‘method’, a highly naturalistic style
of self-expression in performance. Many of America’s greatest actors, past and
present, have passed through its doors.
Paul Newman in class at the Actors Studio in the 1950s
And Marilyn Monroe around the same time
Kazan had a passion for exposing the social and
personal issues that concerned him. His first film of note in this area was Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) starring Gregory Peck. It dealt
head on with the subtle anti-Semitism in America at the time and received three
Oscars, including Best Director. Later came A
Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954), all starring Marlon Brando, a
method actor Kazan had nurtured along with the young James Dean, who he
directed in East of Eden (1955). He later directed Warren
Beatty in Splendor in the Grass (1961).
Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire 1951
Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! 1952
Patricia Neal and Andy Griffith in A Face
in The Crowd 1957
James Dean and Julie Harris in East of Eden
Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in Splendor
in The Grass 1961
He was very much an actor’s director, drawing
out astonishing performances, 21 of which led to Oscar nominations and 9 wins.
In his own life, Kazan received two best director Oscars for Gentleman’s
Agreement and On the Waterfront.
Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement 1947
Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando in On The
Water Front 1954
But not all revered Kazan. He was heavily
criticised for testifying before the Congressional Committee in 1952. Nicknamed
‘the witch hunt’, it was headed up by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Kazan ‘named
names’ of people and friends who might have little or no connection to the
Communist Party, the dreaded enemy of the United States. Among the people he
named were Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett and Clifford Odets. Many were
blacklisted, destroying their careers and ruining their lives. In 1999, when
Kazan received a lifetime achievement Oscar from the Academy, many of the
audience protested and others refused to clap him on the night.
Kazan reciving his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999
But, for all that, he has left a magnificent
body of films well worth watching.
James Dunn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 1943
Do look at his earlier A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), which verges on sentimental
but is a delightful film with a wonderful performance from James Dunn, for
which he won an Oscar.
Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Haliee Sinfield in the Coen Brothers True Grit 2010, looking remarkably similar to Garner above
If you’ve seen Fight Club, Minority Report, The Terminal, Lawnmower Man, Corpse Bride and Watchman thenyou will be aware of his work as one of the most sought after production designers in the film industry today.
Minority Report 2002
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 2005
New City Concept Peter Frankfurt, Greg Lynn, and Alex McDowell 2008
Stage design for the opera Death and the Powers 2006
But he is much more than that. I caught up with Alex recently to record an interview when he was visiting London from his home inLos Angeles. Listen to the interview here.
I have been revisiting some of my favourite British films from the 1960’s.
If you are unfamiliar with the period, The Pumpkin Eater (1964) directed by Jack Clayton is a very good place to start. It tells the story of a woman (sensitively played by Ann Bancroft above) in slow emotional disintegration brought about by her husband’s philandering and deceit. Photographed in sumptuous black and white by Oswald Morris with some beautiful compositions…
Above, Morris's composition and framing are superb throughout the film.
All under the sure direction of the great Jack Clayton, who knows exactly what he is doing even with children… The film is peppered with some stalwart British character actors giving gravitas to every performance. And not forgetting lead actor Peter Finch who is as always superb along with a great cameo from James Mason makes for a highly watchable film.
A Hitchcockian moment with this series on progressive close ups of James Mason's mouth delivering some venomous Pinter dialog
And if that were not enough Harold Pinter penned a terrifically taut script. The great French composer Georges Delerue created a beautifully charged score, full of emotion.
Above, Jack Clayton (right) on set directing Ann Bancroft and Richard Johnson.
The film is unhurriedly paced with a quiet integrity along with supreme elegance. It allows the viewer space to think and engage with the characters and immerse themselves into the story. Give it a whirl.
Another British film that I rate very highly is John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday 1971 staring Peter Finch, Glenda Jackson and Murray Head.
It is an incredibly well paced and cinematically elegant film, with wonderful performances from Jackson and Finch. They are involved in a love triangle with the same man. Finch plays a gay GP with incredible sympathy.
The film is a microcosm of 70’s middle class Britain. In the closing scene, Finch is seen learning Italian from a recording. He abruptly stops, looks up and addresses the cinema audience directly in the most touching way, summarising his life, living alone and being gay.
The film caused a sensational at the time for showing Finch and Head kissing full on the lips. Frivolous now, but 40 years ago things were quite different.
Two see Finch's moving closing scene, in a continuous 2.5 minute shot, and hear Mozart's wonderful trio from Così fan tutte from the closing titles click here.
Why is it, that when it comes to capturing the past in drama, it often goes spectacularly wrong? In 2010 we had Sam Taylor Wood’s lamentable film Nowhere Boy...
Nowhere Boy 2010.
wildly over art directed. Plus the equally dismal BBC drama about John and Yoko, Lennon Naked with Christopher Eccleston decked out in a ridiculous ill-fitting wig.
"I'm John Lennon. Honest, I really am."
And just last week the BBC aired We’ll take 'Manhattan, a drama centring on the love affair between photographer David Bailey and model Jean Shrimpton.
We’ll take 'Manhattan 2012
It was so bad I burst out laughing in disbelief – I was in bed at the time watching it on my iPad, which catapulted off the duvet.
Mad Men 2007. The grandaddy of the current 60s frenzy
Since the success of the excellent Mad Men, every TV and film executive has been clamouring to jump on the 50’s and 60’s bandwagon. As in BBCs The Hour last year…
The Hour 2011. Imagined BBC studio life in 1956, featuring a telephone not introduced until 1959. It's the little things that really count.
The real thing. The BBC in the 50s with the correct telephone.
Out come the black horn rimmed glasses, pipes, shift style dresses, Dansette record players, overly immaculate vintage cars and trucks, along with a scattering of period magazines, conspicuously displayed in shot. I wonder if any of the directors of these efforts ever bother to talk ‘in depth’ to people who lived through the period they are trying to evoke? Only the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy got near a 60s feel.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 2011
But even that featured the most bizarre sound proofed portacabin affairs placed in the middle of the spy headquarters. They were far more suited to the set of Doctor Who.
The original Tinker Tailor Solider Spy 1979 BBC series with Alec Guinness
In 2009, An Education was passable with its 60s look...
An Education 2009, with the ubiquitous Dansette to set the 60s scene
and Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control was an extremely good rendition of mid 70s mood, but opted
for a more 60s Dick Lester, Hard Days Night cinematic quality rather than the more appropriate grainy pushed coloured film stock of the 70s.
Hard Days Night 1964
We also have the current TV series Call the Midwife featuring the cleanest 1950s East End slums I have ever seen.
Call the Midwife 2012. The cosy myth...
and the harsh reality.
I recently went to see Mike Leigh’s new play Grief at the National and, although it only had one static set, it manage to utterly capture the sprit of the late 50’s middle class…
Just as he did so wonderfully in the working class world of Vera Drake…
Vera Drake 2004
It is directors of a certain age and experience, like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Alan Parker, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick and Terrence Davies who tend to get things right when it come to evoking a period.
Terence Davies's perfect The Long Day Closes 1992
Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory 1957.
A refreshing exception was the 2-part dramatisation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong a stunningly realised evocation of the First World. Made possible by the perfect sets designed by Grant Montgomery, beautiful cinematography by Julian Court and costumes design by Charlotte Walter. Plus the sterling work of the many make up artists involved. But I feel it would have been even better if they had shot it on film rather than HD. The dancing grain of film just adds the magic and takes away that 21st century hyper pristine clarity. Capturing the past is a combination of period detail, casting - especially the extras, who often stand out for being so wrong. Costumes, make up, the overall look of the period - often everything is far too clean and shiny. And the voices and language, overlooked by many directors. It's rare to to see a film where all of those things in sync.
We seem to be drifting deeper into a world of nostalgia. The Oscar nominated The Artist (a perfect example of getting it right) is testament to this along with a myriad of period TV dramas.
The Artist 2011. A love letter to the silent era.
When things are depressing in the present, we seem to take solace in the past. It seems more comforting somehow.