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An Audience With Toby Jones

For the final part of the Oxford Literary Festival actor Toby Jones gave a talk at the Sheldonian Theatre with Professor Simon Kövesi. The immediate thing which struck me about Toby was his wit.

Toby JonesToby comes from a theatrical family but he originally wanted to be a director rather than an actor. He realised a knack for making people laugh around a table (being younger these weren’t the people you would ordinarily be invited to socialise with). He went on to studying Drama at Manchester for three years (and joked you could end almost any assignment with a statement along the lines of ‘and this is why the death of theatre is all but imminent’).

After this he then moved to L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris which was to be the making of him as an actor. Here he learned the important lesson to stop questioning what he thought the audience was thinking. Toby was candid enough to state some of the earlier performances could have been better. When you start out you are so keen to show the full range of skills and put absolutely everything into a performance, when in actual fact the performance will benefit from less range and sharper focus. He also stated the importance of ‘not over-analysing’, something he did initially.

He also talked a bit about ‘drama’ as a form of therapy. If you go to a therapist you are essentially telling a story. And indeed, you are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Now that Toby is an established name he doesn’t have to as much about auditioning – the roles now come to him. He did give an interesting insight into the world of ‘tapes’ (where an actor is filmed and told to read lines usually with very little preparation – cue classic actor line: “what is my motivation?”). Most established actors did this in their earlier days and agents would fire them off to Hollywood, most never seen again. He joked that this is every actors nightmare – knowing that some of this stuff may still exist and it could resurface at any point on an embarrassing clip show.

Toby also has done his fair share of biopics, including larger than life characters such as Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock and Neil Baldwin. It was interesting to hear how he approached playing these well-known characters. Rather than focus just aping mannerisms, he would dig a bit deeper and question like “why did he speak like that?” (eg. Capote had a notoriously high-pitched voice, which Jones put down to his upbringing with three older women – this was the only way he would get heard). Interesting when making Marvellous, Neil Baldwin was on set during the filming (must have been an odd experience). After acting one of the more affecting and difficult scenes Neil exclaimed: ‘We’re going to win a BAFTA’. And he wasn’t wrong!

Something coming across by this point is that Toby is interested in people and looks for the empathy within a scene – he’s even managed to sell falling in love with a giant flea (yes really)!

One audience member (presumably a budding thesp himself) asked “what advice would you give to aspiring actors starting out today?”. He chose to answer this carefully, but followed it up by saying “if you the type of person who listens to advice from others about acting, then maybe acting isn’t the best choice career path”. But he rattled off a range of skills and jobs actors who don’t make it can also do – being as actors are also gifted communicators. He ended by saying “there is no real reason for an actor to ever be out of work. If you aren’t acting, write material to perform.”

I didn’t get to ask the question lurking in the back of my mind: “being as you no doubt get so many offers, how do you pick your projects?”. You’d expect a standard answer like it was a good story or it was with someone I always wanted to work with. But then you shouldn’t necessarily expect the expected with Toby Jones.

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10 questions with Jonathan Newman

I’ve just returned from The Guerilla Filmmaking Masterclass run by Chris Jones over the weekend. With short-film The Choice in post-production, this seemed like the perfect time to get re-energised for the slog ahead (as well as try to meet other filmmakers and potential collaborators). The primary aim of this Masterclass was facing and overcoming fear (including getting audience members to do things they normally wouldn’t such as glass walking barefoot). Overcoming fear really resonates with me as it is the central theme of The Choice and this film has definitely taken me way out of my comfort zone (in a good way).

One of the surprises this weekend was a Q&A with Director Jonathan Newman who has made a number of prominent features and short films. A few years back Jonathan also kindly agreed to answer a few questions I posed to him. Hopefully this will inspire other filmmakers (and anyone who attended the Masterclass over the weekend).

Jonathan Newman

1. Can you go into the where’s and why’s which lead to that initial spark when you realised you wanted to become a film-maker?

Although i was born in London, I moved to LA when I was 5.  We lived in a lovely house on a cliff in Malibu.  When I was 8 they filmed Knight Rider, TJ Hooker, and Simon and Simon at our house!  I remember sitting in KIT and fiddling with all the buttons and then watching the show being filmed. My mother made me ask David Hasselhof if he wanted to stay for dinner (he did not).  But that gave me a very early glimpse into this magical world of storytelling and film.

2. What films and/or film-makers inspire you?

There are so many it is almost an unanswerable question.  I like movies that entertain and also move or somehow touch me.  ET, Amelie, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful all share that common power. Films that make you laugh but also connect emotionally with the characters are the best types of movies for me. I even cry every time I watch Ratatouille with my daughter!  When the story, characters, music all work perfectly, it’s magic.
I also just saw The Artist and was reminded how great storytelling can just be about images juxtaposed together. The whole film is silent, but it’s nostalgic and romantic and wonderful storytelling.

3. You’ve mostly made feel-good films.  Are you worried about being type-cast and is there a particular genre you would like to tackle but haven’t (yet)?

It’s easy to get typecast. I just love great stories and I don’t care about genre. As an audience member I love everything from surreal films, to small Australian films, to time travel to romantic comedies… so I don’t feel bound as a filmmaker to make one type of film.  If the story is great and you care enough about the characters it doesn’t matter where they are or what they are doing.

4. Both Foster and Finkles were short films which have been turned into features. Was this always part of your strategy and how did this all come about?
Not always.  My personal motto is to always stay active.  And it just so happens that it’s easier and cheaper to make a short film, especially when you are building your body of work, looking to get better at what you do, and it is a good forum to be able to show people you can direct and tell a story – though if you have not made a feature, that will always be the first hurdle to overcome.  Foster and Finkels were only ever intended as short films.  It just so happens that someone else encouraged me to make features of both.  Foster in particular, was difficult to adapt, and took my several years to think of the story for the feature.

5. How would you say that the shorts differ from the features?

They are different, living, breathing things – like different children.  I had to divorce myself from the shorts entirely.  Take what was good about them, in essence, and try to recreate that. Sometimes it works and is better, sometimes it is not. Finkels was a better short than it was a feature, for example. But that’s because a film evolves in every stage of production and sometimes it is or is not the film you visualised.  Foster, however, is a complete realisation of the film I set out to make.  It works really well. And it is already getting some incredible feedback from both critics and audiences.  It is most rewarding when your film touches someone else.

6. What aspects of the film-making process do you enjoy the best?

I love being on set – there is something very magical about the process of shooting a film. But ultimately, as I highlighted above, when you get it right, and you make a film you are personally proud of, and you sit with an audience and it touches them and they ‘get’ it’, that is possibly the best feeling in the world. After all, we make movies for other people, not just for ourselves.  And it only takes on a life (or death!) of its own when you push it out into the world for all to see.

7. The “creative” and “business” aspects to film-making can sometimes seem at odds with each other. How do you balance between the two?

Preferably you have a partner.  My strength and my preference is in the creative realm. There are some talented people out there who are good with money.  Find those people and partner up with them.

8. If you couldn’t be a film-maker, what would you want to be and why?

A chef or a professional magician.  I love cooking and creating.  I find it cathartic and almost meditative.  It is the one time I am able to switch off my inner voice and just be in the moment.  As for magic, well I have been into magic for many years and used to perform when I was younger.  Sadly it has fallen by the wayside but I do still love it.

9. What next?

I start pre-production in January (2012) on a rather large children’s adventure film set in the 1800s.  It is based on a best-selling book. I can’t quite talk about it in detail yet, but it’s tremendously exciting.

10. Do you have any final words of encouragement or advice which you would like to pass on to other aspiring film-makers?

Don’t give up the dream.  But at the same time, be proactive to make the ream a reality. Do not wait for anyone to come to you.  Create your own opportunities and get there.  And don’t let anyone tell you “you can’t do it…” – you CAN do it!

Thanks to Jonathan for this. You can also watch the trailer to Jonathan’s most recent project (referred to in question 9):

Take a break

Tomorrow has storms forecast, but there is no denying the weather was spectacular today. At lunch I decided to break routine and go for a walk.

I didn’t know where it might take me.

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I watched some sport for a bit.

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The sport looked exhausting, so I decided to move on and find a quiet spot to sit.

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I had the spot all to myself, which helped to clear my head.

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Nearby I saw some “modern art”.

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On the way back I made new friends

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Life can be hectic, we all deserve a break once in a while…

Be productive

So after a few weeks break, our Film Oxford Production Group met up for the first time this year and our third meeting. My what a long way we have come! The first meeting was an understandably dry affair covering necessities such as rules and regulations.

Production Meeting Number 1

The second meeting was less noisy/crowded and a more cohesive group was beginning to form. The focus of this latest meeting was pitching again – only this time with the prospect of taking one or more projects forward.

I wasn’t planning to pitch anything yet ended up doing the very first pitch (if nothing else this hopefully broke the ice). Two things struck me: firstly that all were fictional pieces and secondly how varied they all were. Here is a brief run down of the projects discussed:

  1. Above and Beyond (Romantic: one minute short about a boy, a girl and an ice-cream vendor – a match made to last).
  2. Death by Mobile (Drama: his life in tatters, Alex clings to on the window ledge with one hand and a mobile phone in the other. Does he really have what it takes to let go?)
  3. Flying With Angels (Drama: A tale of two very different train journeys from different eras travelling the same line)
  4. Funeral (Comedy/Drama: amusing yet poignant, a widow plans the ultimate send off which quickly escalates)
  5. Kiss (Experimental/Drama: two-minute short about altered states of consciousness)
  6. Let Nothing You Dismay (Comedy: Feeling somewhat bored –  Death decides to shake-up the routine a bit – it is Christmas after all)
  7. Portal (Horror/Thriller: Ghost story set in a creepy lighthouse – Scooby Doo meets Sixth Sense)
  8. Red Rag (Experimental/Thriller: Following a cycling accident Daniel, suffering mild concussion thinks he has witnessed an attack on a young woman. But has he really?)
  9. Seeing Me: (Drama: A man misjudges the way his partner is actually feeling on her birthday. Can he win her back before the end of the road and the bus reaches the destination?)
  10. The Choice (Drama: Hard-hitting story of young-mum who doesn’t want her baby and Sarah who would dearly love nothing more than having one)
  11. The Hairdresser (Comedy: “Based on a true story” – the salon’s latest customer causes quite a stir – especially with regards to some of his personal habits).
  12. The Screens (Sci-Fi: A dystopian vision of the ‘surveillance society’ set on a subway train in the near future)

Tonight is the final deadline to submit proposals and we will then all vote on which projects might go forward (based on the most popular choices). Which one would be your personal favourite based on the taglines?

Year Review 2013

This is the part where I sign off for the current year and write a review for 2013 – in a similar vein to my previous review from 2012.

Well it’s been a busy year one way or another – juggling family life, film-making and full-time work.

Let’s start with the fact there has been a large array of talented individuals who have passed away all leaving behind large irreplaceable voids. Elmore Leonard. David Frost. Tom Clancy. Roger Ebert. Iain Banks. Alan Whicker. Far too many to write about here – therefore I will just mention a few who were personally significant to me. It begins with the recent announcement about the sublime Polish composer Wojciech Kilar – who wrote some particularly stunning scores including The Pianist. I first discovered him on Bram Stroker’s Dracula, this score is a massive favourite of mine.

Then there was the amazing trumpet player Derek Watkins who had the honour of playing on EVERY official Bond score from Dr. No all the way up to Skyfall. This is some achievement considering the variety of composers over the years. For me, he is that brassy Wah-Wah Bond sound –  it is never going to be quite the same again without him.

In May the king of stop-motion Ray Harryhausen passed. He created many of the most iconic movie monsters – for me there is still something about stop-motion which is always going to trump cold and clinical CGI (even if I still can’t quite put my finger on it!).

A number of high-profile actors passed including Dennis Farina, James Gandolfini, Joan Fontaine, Karen Black, Marcia Wallace, Mel Smith, Paul Walker, Peter O’Toole, Richard Briars and Richard Griffith. The largest shock for me was in the form of Lewis Collins (best known as Bodie from The Professionals), who I think would have made a superb Bond and marks a serious missed opportunity for the franchise.

January saw me join SoundCloud under the pseudonym Satorious. Little did I know that music composing was to be my main focus for 2013. My music composition is all from an untrained ear which develops every day (and hopefully also improves?). I’ll openly admit that some of my compositions still require further work/tweaking. It began with a very basic lullaby (written whilst lamenting the fact my children don’t want to go to sleep most evenings). I had no idea where this might take me. I guess I could have predicted back in May this was the way I was heading – but for some reason it still wasn’t entirely clear in my mind. By October I had pretty much worked it out!

Personally I feel the tunes are not a popular part of this blog. I will monitor how future releases go – but have something waiting in the wings for 2014! In this time I orchestrated some pretty dodgy renditions including things I really shouldn’t mess with such as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The renditions have always proved more popular than my original material (perhaps unsurprisingly) – but I cringe at them! 🙂 I’ve tried to counter this by linking the tunes in somehow – usually via some casting  announcement for Doctor Who or Batman.

If asked my which my personal favourite compositions were for this year, I’d go with Hostile Takeover (in terms of how much fun it was to write) and Petal (which is just special as I wrote it with my daughters in mind).

I also did some film scoring over the year – off the back of Legacy in 2012 (which was a difficult but ultimately rewarding score to do). Film scoring is still the area I enjoy most. I even managed two instances of “speed-scoring” for After the Bombs and the International 48 hour film-making challenge (which turned me in a Zombie!).

Speaking of Legacy, the film won the Audience choice award in the Cardiff short-film festival. Audience choices award have a tendency to be more of a popularity contest, but to be fair – this wasn’t the case for Legacy – so the win means a tremendous amount to the team. Thanks to anyone who voted!

The other significant film-related things which happened in 2013 included:

It wasn’t all successes however, at least one project has fallen by the wayside – The Lonely Bear. This said, I have revisited past projects on many an occasion – so don’t write this off yet!

My blog is still somewhat random and I appreciate that not everything will be of interest to everybody. Therefore one of the changes I made during the year was to use tags to order things. In case you hadn’t already noticed you can click “Blog Index” at the top which presents you with a list of topics:

What do I hope for 2014? To be honest I felt 2013 was a crowded and difficult year – it was unstable and largely unfocused (despite the successes mentioned). My priority is to address this instability and do further work with film scoring and on local projects which allow me to spend more time with my family. Hopefully it will be a much quieter but more focused year. As keen as I am to direct again (and have a project in mind), the timing isn’t quite right. Fingers crossed everything might ultimately slot into place before the end of 2014. And with that, I sign off from 2013 and I wish all of you who read my ramblings – the very best for 2014 – hope you all have a brilliant one!!

This is Halloween!

So it’s all about Halloween-mania right now! Later on 7 small costumed children will decemate the house screeching, screaming, full of sugar trying to scare each other and no-doubt us in the process. Halloween is something new thing for me (thanks to my small children showing interest). Up until a few years ago I hadn’t even carved a pumpkin (don’t laugh: my first efforts from a couple of years back below):

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There are some ridiculously talents carvers out there!

Incidently one of the nicest beers I have ever tasted (called ‘Alloween) was a pumpkin ale – the best description would be it was like drinking toffee but in beer form! Anyway, to celebrate (and to post my favourite musical number from the children’s favourite film of the moment: The Nightmare Before Christmas) is a cover of “This is Halloween”. This guy really nails the voices.

Here is the original so you can compare how good this guy’s voice work actually is!

Despite the fact Tim Burton gets the lion’s share of credit (being as has his name in the title), this film was actually directed by Henry Selick – who would go on to form Laika (a film company I love).  They have also made a couple of similar “dark” stop motion gems “for children”: Paranorman and Coraline. Both of which are pretty dark and not really for children.

Laika

Which means children will be scared to death and love them! Happy Halloween to all of you big and small children out there!!

Moment of madness

This weekend is the 48 hour film challenge in London.

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Unsurprisingly this is where you make a film completely from complete scratch in 48 hours. Complete madness and clearly only mad people would get involved. Mad people just like me! I have offered my musical services to a local group called Team Mutant Candy. Yes, that right – I will write a film-score from scratch in just a few hours. And I agreed to do this!!!

We aren’t sure what the theme/genre will be – but narrowing it down – I’ve been told it won’t be a war film, western or period-drama. Phew! But it could be any of the following:

  • B Movie
  • Buddy Film
  • Comedy
  • Crime/Gangster
  • Dark Comedy
  • Drama
  • Fantasy
  • Film de Femme
  • Found Footage
  • Horror
  • Martial Arts
  • Mistaken Identity
  • Musical or Western
  • Mystery
  • Operetta
  • Romance
  • Sci Fi
  • Sports/games/competitions
  • Spy
  • Superhero
  • Thriller/Suspense
  • Vacation or Holiday Film
  • Zombie

We will find out what the genre tomorrow evening. Goodness knows what will happen if it’s an Operetta or Musical! Why am I doing this crazy challenge? Partly for the challenge and to test my limits. Partly because it also sounds rather fun – and let’s be fair – it won’t drag on! I no doubt have it a lot easier than some of the other crew involved (in particular the writer, producer and director – who all have their work cut out for them). Will this be my finest work? Doubtful, but it depends how inspired/stressed I get and how much time I have to work. As preparation I am setting myself the challenge of scoring the entirety of After the Bombs tomorrow (which is a comparable time-frame). Keep you posted!