INTERVIEW: David G. Compton
“People seem to be queueing up to expose their souls to millions in front of the camera. Maybe I’m wrong to feel outraged about it”
In anticipation of our July screening we put some questions to David G. Compton, author of The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, the book which inspired the 1980 film Death Watch.
What inspired you to write The Continous Katherine Mortenhoe?*
Usually, when people ask writers where they get their ideas from, they receive vague, dusty answers. In the case of this book, though, my answer need be neither vague nor dusty. I remember the manner and the moment exactly.
The year was 1973, a tragic time in Northern Ireland, and I was in my London home, watching an evening TV news report from Belfast when the newsman, quite a well-known figure, brazenly asked the woman he was interviewing, ‘And can you tell us please, Mrs O’Hara, how you felt when you saw your daughter being blown to pieces by that IRA bomb?’ Or words to that effect. He really did.
I don’t remember her answer, but I do remember that the clip appeared again in the next news break. Clearly his network wasn’t bothered. It knew that its public’s appetite for the suffering of others was insatiable. What next? I thought. The sad private processes of actual dying on camera in prime time TV?
How did you feel when you learned that the book was to be made into a film?
I was obviously amazed and delighted, but wary also. One hears much of the travesties film directors make of books, and I was quite prepared for a crass, cigar-chewing mogul when I first went to meet Tavernier. A moral issue threatened – should I dig in my toes against unworthy changes and lose the sale, or should I simply, as the saying goes, ‘cry all the way to the bank’? Very luckily, of course, Bertrand was a treasure and had never chewed a cigar in his life.
Did Bertrand Tavernier face any difficulty getting the film made, considering it was based on such a bleak story?
As a sad confirmation of Hollywood crassness (back then anyway) Bertrand had a long and unsuccessful fundraising visit, during which several studios expressed serious interest in the project, but only if the ending was changed. Bertrand refused, of course, and finally gained backing from what he described to me as ‘a group of German dentists’. He made the film for a little over a million pounds, tiny even in those days. Louis Malle told him he’d just paid that much for a script. Bert was helped a bit, though, by the four stars accepting very small fees for their usually quite expensive services because they strongly approved its message. I certainly detected their commitment on the set. Maybe I was biased but it truly didn’t seem to be just a job.
What did you think of the finished film when it was released?
A brief story here – through odd film-world circumstances my first viewing of the film was with my wife at an SF film festival in Trieste, where a balls-up had resulted in the dubbed French-language version being shown. Our French was far from fluent but we kind of knew the story so we managed pretty well and left the cinema impressed and delighted. Fine performances (Romy a joy to watch), riveting scenery, story close to the book. A few weeks later, though, we saw the English language version in London and (I’ve never told Bertrand this) were frankly dismayed. In the second half of the film it seemed to us that the characters simply sat around and told each other things. I joked to friends that it was a great film as long as you couldn’t properly understand the dialogue. I think now that I was foolishly harsh. Maybe films (non-blockbuster ones) are allowed to be wordier these days.
I understand that you weren’t closely involved with the screenplay… is there anything you would have done differently if you were?
Writing for the screen is a very special skill. So is compressing a quite-thick-on-the-page novel into a two-hour film. I have neither. Bertrand had enormous difficulties in getting it down to length – acres of good stuff died on the cutting room floor – and the choices he made wouldn’t always have been mine. Katherine’s scene in the book after she’s been told she’s dying, for example, I sorely miss. We need to be with her in that difficult time. But in all honesty I don’t see other stuff in the film that could go to make room for it. Just one thing, though, I wish he hadn’t done. When she’s talking to Gerald at the very end she should never have worried about Vincent ‘winning’. That’s not what their relationship had been about.
How do you think the film holds up today? Do you enjoy watching it?
Viewing it again on its recent re-release after so long, I was pleasantly surprised. It was much better than I remembered. I really don’t understand why it bombed so badly when it first came out. Audiences not ready? That’s a very pretentious thought.
Has modern reality TV lived up to your ‘expectations’? Are you surprised by anything you see on TV anymore?
I’ve been warned so often about today’s reality TV that I admit I’ve never actually watched any. People seem to be queueing up to expose their souls to millions in front of the camera. Maybe I’m wrong to feel outraged about it.
Finally, what are your favourite science fiction films?
I’ve always avoided films with monsters or spaceships or mad scientists in them. I suppose I’m an earnest person. An SF film I’m fond of is Soylent Green, especially because of my beloved Edward G. Robinson. I believe it was, sadly but suitably, his last movie. I do wish, though, that the writers hadn’t treated the eating of compassionately-dead people as so shocking. The society portrayed would have grown out of that. Personally I’ve often used SF, maybe over-obviously, as a message medium – speculative sociology, really. Still, SF can be fun too. The movie Brazil is a treasure. So, very differently, is Memento. How about the preposterous Being John Malkovitch?
Death Watch will be screened at the Victoria on Monday 20th July. Advance tickets are just £3.50 and are available via the shop.
*the answer to this first question was taken, with permission, from a 2012 interview by Jonathan Melville, which can be read in full here.
Science Fiction Theatre: Godzilla (1954)
“If we don’t defend ourselves from Godzilla now, what will become of us?”
In 1954, a legend was born. Well, technically it was resurrected, but we’ll get on to that later. Directed by Ishiro Honda, and costing ten times as much as the average feature film, Gojira (Godzilla to us) was Japan’s first attempt at big budget science fiction. With a monster that would enter the lexicon of popular culture, sixty years of sequels and remakes, and the spawning of an entirely new genre: the kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movie), I think it’s fair to say that their ‘attempt’ was a successful one.
When a Japanese fishing boat is destroyed near Odo Island, Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) leads an investigation crew to the island, where giant radioactive footprints are discovered. An alarm rings and Dr. Yamane and the villagers encounter Godzilla, an ancient sea creature that has been resurrected by repeated nuclear tests. Fearing an attack on their homeland, Government officials appeal to the doctor for ideas to kill the monster, but Yamane wants him kept alive and studied. When Godzilla surfaces from Tokyo Bay and attacks the city, Yamane is forced to take drastic measures to destroy the beast.
In 1956 the film was sold to an American distributor (Jewell Enterprises), who cut a whopping 30 minutes out, dubbed it into English, and re-titled it Godzilla: King of the Monsters! New scenes were added starring Raymond Burr as an American reporter observing the monsters rampage from the side-lines. All trace of the anti-nuclear message was excised. For many years, this US version of the film was, for many people, thought to be the original. It was only in 2004 when the complete and uncut Japanese Godzilla was re-released that audiences were finally given the opportunity to see the authentic article.
In the 60 years since Godzilla was released, Toho Studios (the Japanese film company responsible for the franchise) produced over 25 sequels in which Godzilla meets, battles and sometimes even befriends a host of different kaiju, including fan favourites such as Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidora. An awful 1998 US remake has recently been shown up as the travesty that it is by a particularly fresh and faithful 2014 reboot from Monsters director Gareth Edwards, in which Godzilla awakes to save the world from two giant radiation-eating creatures known as MUTOs.
The latest Godzilla film is impressive, but it’s not a patch on the original. Celebrating its 60th birthday this year, Gojira/Godzilla is still an incredibly poignant film, and a fierce indictment of the atomic age. A behemoth of a film (in scope of production as well as name), it is a mesmerising depiction of widespread destruction and human despair that had never been seen in cinema before.
Godzilla will be screened at The Duke of Wellington, N1 4BL on Thursday 11th December at 8pm. Tickets are available here.
Science Fiction Theatre: Outland (1981)
“You’re supposed to protect us! You’re the police! It’s your job!”
Director Peter Hyam wanted to make a Western. But he was told that the genre was dead, that nobody would make one, and nobody wanted to see one. His ingenious solution in the face of such adversity – transport the story to outer space. Inspired by the mood and visuals of Alien, and thematically similar to Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon, Outland is the story of the great frontier, of drugs, of the dangers of space exploration, but ultimately of an unwanted sheriff in a lawless town.
The story takes place on Io, Jupiter’s moon. Federal Marshall William O’Niel (Sean Connery) arrives on mining outpost ‘Con-Am 27’ for a tour of duty and soon finds himself investigating a series of grizzly deaths whereby miners have suffered extreme psychotic attacks and have seemingly gone on to commit suicide. With the help of Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Neil slowly peels back the layers of the outpost’s dirty underbelly, and discovers the dark secrets that have helped ‘Con-Am 27’ and its general manager Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle) break all previous productivity records…
Hyams was no stranger to science fiction. In 1984 he took on the virtually impossible task of following up Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with an adaption of the sequel 2010. A pretty tepid affair, made all the more interesting because of the material, but let down by a slightly cringe-worthy alteration to the film’s end message (quite literally). But more importantly (as far as we’re concerned), back in 1978 he directed Capricorn One, a superb sf thriller, inspired in part by numerous Apollo conspiracy theories, about a fake Mars landing. Starring Elliot Gould and…O. J. Simpson, it’s a favourite around these parts and it’s only a matter of time before we screen it. Oh, and here’s some fun trivia – the mining company in Outland (Con-Amalgamate) is the same name given to the company that manufactured the defective life support system in Capricorn One.
An Outland novelisation was written by film novelisation-extraordinaire Alan Dean Foster, and during the summer of 1981 a gorgeous comic strip adaption appeared in Heavy Metal magazine. The latter is now particularly hard to find (oh how we’ve tried), and artist Jim Steranko is pretty strict when it comes to putting his material on the internet. So, er, if anyone happens to have a copy, would you consider selling?
Rumours abound that a remake of Outland is in the works, news which these days strikes us as so inevitable that it’s hardly worth mentioning. What it does do however is make it even more important to join us next week, or dig the film out at home if you can’t, and enjoy a “tight, intriguing old-fashioned drama that gives audiences a hero worth rooting for” (Variety). And when that hero is Sean Connery, you know you’re in for a treat.
Outland will be screened at The Duke of Wellington, N1 4BL on Wednesday 12th November at 8pm.
Science Fiction Theatre: Seconds (1966)
“The question of death selection may be the most important decision in your life”
Seconds is just one of those films. Those who like, it love it. Those who don’t, well, they probably have no idea the film exists. The former spend a lot of time recommending the film to the latter.
In it, directionless/depressed/disappointed/disappointing Arthur Hamilton is given the chance to be ‘reborn’ as successful Malibu artist Tony Wilson. We’re talking faked death, new face, new body, new name, new life – the works. It’s not a story about technology or science gone wrong, though. This is a thriller, a horror, a political parable and a moral lesson – all shot through with a whiff of science fiction.
It died on its feet at the box office, which we’ve always found strange. Sure, it’s not typical Hollywood material. This wasn’t the kind of Rock Hudson Rock Hudson fans wanted to see. But you could say the same about director John Frankenheimer’s earlier film, the 1962 The Manchurian Candidate. That wasn’t the Frank Sinatra your average filmgoer had in mind, but it did well.
Maybe it was just too bleak. And let’s be clear, this film is bleak. We don’t want to give too much away, but a new life hardly does wonders for Arthur. This is a film about alienation, paranoia, a lack of freedom and a spiritual void, and there isn’t a happy ending. Oh boy is there not a happy ending.
Which isn’t to say it’s a depressing watch. Far from it. It’s dark but it’s clever, and it never shows off. This isn’t directionless arthouse. It’s tight. Seconds is an expertly crafted thriller, and visually, it’s on another level. James Wong Howe’s cinematography here is just something else. Way ahead of its time.
The Manchurian Candidate was Frankenheimer’s masterpiece. Seconds pushes it a close, well, second. It’s not a ‘cult’ film. It’s simply a really, really good film you haven’t seen yet.
Seconds will be screened at The Duke of Wellington, N1 4BL on Thursday 16th October at 8pm.
Science Fiction Theatre: Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
“Linda, you’re absolutely fantastic”
It’s a strange film this. Tends to divide opinion. Critics see it as a rather tame imagining of Bradbury’s impassioned tale, while fans are quite taken by what Time labelled a ‘weirdly gay little picture’. It’s not a cult film as such, but it’s definitely one of those that either takes or it doesn’t.
It was Truffaut’s first English language film, and at times you wonder if it shows. It can feel like a quite mechanical interpretation if you’re expecting a line by line representation of the book you love. It’s littered with some charming characters though (we could listen to Cyril Cusack’s Captain all day long) and there are some truly joyous moments. The line we feature on the poster, where an ‘interactive’ episode of the mind-numbing soap The Family congratulates Linda’s contribution, fills us with glee every time we hear it.#
The scenes involving the ‘wall screens’ (now the size of your average TV – worth pondering) and the unfalteringly banal news and entertainment people are exposed to are some of the film’s most effective. They wouldn’t look out of place in a Kubrick dystopia. In a way, they’re what the film (and the book) are really about. It’s not a case of government censorship ala Orwell’s 1984, but rather, people simply choosing to give up on the arrogance and effort of words in favour of images.
Bradbury himself was quite pleased with the film, apparently. He was open about it not being perfect (don’t think he was a fan of Julie Christie playing the part of the two lead women), but he felt Truffaut was loyal to the spirt of the book. Now Ray Bradbury aint shy, so this is high praise indeed. Martin Scorcese is a fan too by all accounts. There are rumours of a remake in the offing, and according to a 2009 interview with Bradbury, Mel Gibson owns the rights to the book at the moment. If that ever comes to fruition, you’ll be looking back longingly at Truffaut’s strangely affecting little romp and wondering why you ever treated it so badly.
Fahrenheit 451 will be screened at the Dalston CLR James Library, E8 3BQ, on Thursday 8th August at 6:45pm.
Science Fiction Theatre: Rollerball (1975)
“Even a plant, uh, feels something”
Science Fiction Theatre is a small, independent sci-fi film club. The nice people at Time Out have called us “London’s leading sci-fi film club”. May have something to do with us being the only one, but hey, we’ll take it. We’ve put on eight films to date, and next week we’re showing the original Rollerball. We’ve been looking forward to this one for a while.
The seventies was a cracking period for science fiction film. Ignoring Star Trek and Star Wars (easily done at SFT, we’ll be honest), it started with A Clockwork Orange and ended with Alien. Those two alone give the decade a gold star. Before Shatner and Lucas did their thing though, there was an enjoyably dystopian little cluster of films. Silent Running in 1972, Soylent Green and Westworld in 1973, Logan’s Run in 1976 and of course, Norman Jewison’s Rollerball in 1975.
Whether it was a post-Vietnam despondency or a fear of looming Reaganomics, the mood in all of these is decidedly pessimistic. What’s humanity got coming for it? Starships and laser-swords? Not quite. Here we’ve got subservience to technology, totalitarian rule and environmental catastrophe to look forward to, with only rampant vanity and media fuelled consumerism to soften the blow. We’ve seen them described them as “message-y”, which fits. The message is invariably a doomed one.
Rollerball is a perfect example of this post-apocalyptic, dystopian mean streak. In a world where politics has failed, a hegemony of transnational corporations run the whole planet. Big business has solved the problems of war, poverty and unrest at the expense of personal freedom. The cartels make all the decisions, while the masses enjoy a docile, enforced peace of TV, consumer satisfaction and ultraviolent sport. Real bread and circuses stuff. And the sport of rollerball is set up as the ultimate circus. Corporate backed, cathartic violence to channel an entire planet’s worth of animal nature into smooth, predictable social control.
All set up perfectly, of course, for a hero – James Caan’s Jonathan E. – to challenge the system by fighting for individual identity and free will in opposition to the business elites. You know the drill.
The appeal of Rollerball isn’t in the detail of this future history, though. Sure, the social commentary is amusing in a heavy handed way, but as world-building goes, the story is never really fully formed. There’s a checklist of dystopian themes here, all only partially explored. How did the corporations take over? Why are women treated so badly? What does the super-computer ‘Zero’ do? Rather than make you switch off though, this lack of detail adds to a strangely pleasant, unsettling feel to the film. The violence of the sport itself doesn’t stick in the mind. At the time it no doubt garnered attention but it ages badly. What sticks now is just this general, sometimes directionless sense of something gone awry.
Is Jonathan E. a hero? Sometimes. On the rollerball track, for sure. He also shouts down the Executives and longs for his one true love. Tick, tick, tick. At other times though, he’s sombre and aimless. Unguided. When he’s asked by a doctor to turn off his fellow rollerballer Moonpie’s life support, there’s no real moment of realisation or resolve. What you get is mumbled, half-formed discontent. “But even, uh, a plant… uh, feels something”. This isn’t an articulate resistance to the system. This is a confused, well-meaning global celebrity who’s got a feeling quite a lot of things aren’t right with his life. A dystopian science fiction mid-life crisis. Poor Jonathan.
The film’s finest moment is like something out of the European avant-garde and a million miles away from the bike and ball scenes that get most of the attention. Well-to-do guests at a lavish dinner party end the evening by walking through the grounds incinerating trees with a small, handheld atomic gun. Are these the manipulative corporate executives revelling to excess? Or are they playing their part as privileged members of the duped masses, the real power brokers hidden from view? Is this casual violence? Vacuous leisure? Disregard for life? It’s not clear, and whether it’s luck or design, this unsettles. In a nice way.
Rollerball is a satire on big business, mass media, and violent sport. It’s also a tale of a hero fighting the system, and of the free individual versus an all-seeing illuminati. It never focuses on any of these long enough for one to take hold, but that’s why it works. It’s a general, all-purpose dystopia.
Rollerball will be screened at The Duke of Wellington, N1 4BL, on Thursday 17th July at 7pm.
P.S. In the short story the film is based on (William Harrison’s Roller Ball Murder) Jonathan’s anger is a touch more focused and explicit. It includes one of the finest lines we’ve ever read in science fiction. “Everything will happen. They’ll change the rules until we skate on a slick of blood, we all know that”. Harrison adapted the story for the screen himself – why didn’t he keep that in? Anyway, it’s a tight little piece. Definitely worth a read. Mindwebs did an audio version too.