Mark Kermode interview: his new book, Mary Poppins, Film 2010, Exorcist and facing up to Helen Mirren

Interview Simon Brew 4 Feb 2010 - 06:22

Film critic Mark Kermode, as his latest book is published, sits down to talk about the movies. And facing down Helen Mirren...

Dr Mark Kermode is, to many of us in the UK, a film critic who needs little introduction. He's ranked as one of the ten most influential in the world by some, and freely admits that his life has, to some degree, been defined and shaped by the movies. So much so that he's put his story in a book.

So, in a posh office in London, we sat opposite the Good Doctor himself to talk about it. And here's what happened...

My first question whenever I get to someone's autobiography, is to quote Doc Emmett Brown from Back To The Future, always the same: why?

Well, I've written cinema books before - The Exorcist book and The Shawshank book - and I've contributed to Kim's [Newman] encyclopaedia of horror, that sort of thing. But I wanted to write a book about film in general, about the way in which film has affected me over the years. And what happened was, in doing that, it turned out that what I was writing was, in the very broadest sense ,autobiographical. Although it's not quite an autobiography. It's described only part-jokingly as a cinematic autobiography inspired by real events. Because I've been watching all these movies that are based on true stories which aren't. And I love that phrase - inspired by real events - because it's, as opposed to what, exactly?

So there's famous examples such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre where at the beginning it says ‘the events you are about to see are true' And you go, well, yeah. The events that you're basing it on didn't happen in Texas, didn't involve a chainsaw and probably didn't involve murder, just grave robbing. But other than that, fine.

You side with the Coen Brothers?

Exactly! Well the Fargo thing is great. The whole thing that this is all true, and it's not! That's fantastic, I love all that.

What happened was in writing something about how I respond to film, I ended up writing something that was about my life. Because it became apparent that I'd lived, or remember, most of my life through films. Whether it's through the films that I saw, where I was when I saw them, how I saw them. Or on a slightly more profound level than that, actually everything that I remember has been informed or twisted out of shape by my movie-going habits.

So I became very conscious of the fact that what I tend to remember everything as some form of movie. Hence the whole ‘it's only a movie' gag, which is only partly a gag.

Once I started doing it, and I did start at the beginning writing about going to see Silent Running and Exorcist and Village Of The Damned, all those sorts of things - or not seeing Village Of The Damned! - it kind of continued from there. It became like writing about films, it just happened to be about films that I was in occasionally. So that's how it happened.

The other key thing was that I wanted to write something that sounded like the way I sound on radio. Because, obviously, everything I've written before has been much more academic. The BFI books were designed to be that, the BFI is a journal of record. And I wanted to see if it was possible that I can write like I talk on the radio to Simon [Mayo]. That was what I was aiming for, and I think I got close to it. I hope I did, anyway.

I really liked the story in there about how you ended up on radio for the first time, and your first gabbled broadcast on LBC.

[Laughs] It was disastrous!

Yet, if you hadn't have done that, and babbled so much on your radio debut, then it seems your career could have ended up going down a much more formal route.

Yeah. Listen, I do think that's true. There have been key moments where I've been really lucky with the way things have worked out.

But that whole thing about going on LBC the first time, the funny thing about it is this: when I was doing the book, if I was writing about people, I got in touch with them to make sure of things, because I'm so aware that I misremember things. And I got in touch with Sarah Ward after I'd written it and asked if there was anything that I was completely making up about this. She went, "Well, you've got the address wrong, but other than that, that's essentially it!"

Just last night I was talking to Mum, because my mum has only just read the book as well. And I said, "What do you think?" And she said, "I just can't believe that I was that unhelpful about it." I said, "Mum, you weren't unhelpful, I was terrible." She went, "Yeah, but I could have said something nice to you at the time." And I went, "No, you couldn't, because I was terrible." And there was a pause and she went, "I was really excruciating to listen to!" Even after all these years, she remembers how excruciating it was hearing the first time I was on LBC.

But that happy accident, no matter how bad it was, what it demonstrated was that when you put it next to something that is read, reading off a sheet of paper that's prepared, the second one may be better, but it lacks something. So actually, everything that I've done since then - I wouldn't want to go on air and do what I did the first time at LBC ever again - but the one bit of it that worked was the sense that you're just doing this on the spur of the moment, and you're not reading off a sheet of paper. And you are saying exactly the thing that comes into your head. And it's not an act.

Everything that's worked with radio since then has been the situations where that has been the case. I think, for example, the reason the show with Mayo has worked as well as it has is quite apart from the fact that he is the best broadcaster in the country. What's brilliant about what he does is he enables people to speak as they would speak. Whoever he's in a radio studio with talks to him in the way that they would talk to everyone else.

It's more than that, though, isn't it? It's listening to the answers too.

But when people have conversations, people do listen to answers. The only time people don't listen to answers is in interviews. When have you ever been to the pub with somebody and asked them a question and not listened to the answer? You don't do that. But there are times in interviews, particularly, where that will happen. What Simon does is he talks, but the conversation is mainly getting them to say the thing that they want to say. And him just giving them enough room and intelligent questions to be able to do it.

Now, I've been really lucky twice. The LBC thing, discovering that there was some merit in sounding like you're just making it up. And then working with people like Simon who have enabled that to happen, because there are so many cases where that would have gone ... had I really understood how radio worked and gone in the first time with a prepared script, it probably would have ended there and then, because I'm not good at reading things out.

So the trick is to keep the style of your first radio appearance with the level of preparation of the second?

Yeah, that's exactly it, and I wish I'd put it that succinctly in the book. That is exactly it.

The preparation is everything. You really do have to prepare. It's like cramming for an exam. And here's the funny thing. When I'm doing the radio, for example, I have notes in front of me. I don't read them. It's the writing of the notes that's the thing that organises your thoughts.

In the same way that - I'm 46, so it's a long time since I did an exam - I remember when I was going into ‘O' Levels. You'd write things out, and then, of course, you're not allowed to take them in with you. But it's the physical act of writing stuff out that's like revising.

Before the Mayo show, that's what I do. I revise, but then I go in, I'm not working from the notes. And that was the key thing for me.

There's a randomness to the path that you seem to have followed, from your early days writing for City Life, which sounded fantastic, and exploring the late night double bills. But you've got kids now, and the film world that they're coming into is changing.

I grew up in Birmingham, not London, where we didn't have loads of cinemas around doing the same kind of late night double bills, which clearly gave you a far better schooling than you'd have otherwise had. The revelation for us was when BBC Two used to show something interesting late at night...

So, there wasn't a late night reps theatre?

There were one or two midnight shows, but, ironically, all they seemed to show at one point was the bloody Exorcist!

[Laughs] Sorry!

It's your fault!

It probably is.

London, though, just seemed to offer a lot more. But watching my kids grow up now, they're coming into a world infested by DVDs, television going cinematic and such like, just so much more access. You look at your son and you talk about taking him to see things like Transformers. But do you think he's actually got it better with so much more choice, but less being chosen for him?

Here's what I think. Firstly, your kids' opinions of films will always differ from yours. Everyone has got an opinion. All you can do is encourage people to have an opinion and to be able to discuss it. That's fine. My daughter loves Bride Wars, my son loves Transformers...

Are they doing it to wind you up?!

Who knows! We were coming back from Japan and my daughter watched Bride Wars four times back to back, laughed all the way through, and at the end of it turned to me and said,"You know nothing." And that was it! I'm not sure whether it was sarcasm, but it was very well delivered! But I think that going to the cinema is an important thing, and I do take my kids to the cinema.

The difference is that they're growing up with access to a DVD catalogue. And televisions are different now. There is an argument now that you can see a film projected better at home.

I remember seeing the DVD of Seven when it first came out, and David Fincher talking about the fact that only some of the cinema prints of Seven had been done with the nitrate retention thing. There was a very expensive way of producing the prints, and only some of them were right. And David Fincher was saying on the DVD commentary that on the DVD I've fixed it! This is how the film's meant to be seen.

I remember getting a sense of wow, what he's saying is that the film in the cinema was imperfect, but on DVD is as he wanted. Silver retention, that's what it was. It was to do with the blacks being really black. That idea that you were looking at the frame through a hole in the world. And I remember thinking blimey, the film director is saying it's better to see this at home.

The only difference is, and my kids have grown up with a lot of cinema - obviously, because my wife teaches film at Southampton University, and I'm a film critic - they've grown up with a lot of Hollywood musicals, they've grown up with a history of cinema. They are both very well versed. It's not just modern stuff. My daughter, what she couldn't tell you about Esther Williams is not worth knowing. She's 11.

That's amazing.

It's great, and I'm very proud of that.

The difference is that when I was a teenager, if you went and saw a film by David Cronenberg and you thought wow, that director is great, you would have to read the listings magazines for the next three years to find out when one of his films was showing. Say somebody was showing a reissue of Shivers at the Baker Street Screen on Wednesday afternoon, you'd have to bunk off school. And now, everything is available at HMV. I talk in the book about going to HMV and buying Krakatoa: East Of Java, and there it is, five quid.

The problem with that is, on the one hand, it's brilliant, because if you're interested in something let's get this other stuff. What it removes is the sense of urgency. The sense that you have to see it now because there isn't going to be another chance. What I wonder is at the moment it's brilliant that all that stuff is available. But the only worry about it is if it's all available, are people actually going to see it in the way that we did?

There's something else too, though. The thing with the double bill is that someone's chosen for you, and I don't think that's a lazy thing. I think it's interesting for someone else to slam two films together for you.

You have to understand that, for me, the late night double bill was a ritual. That was where I learned everything. You can always remember the double bills - Eraserhead was always with The Crazies - they put those things together, and they were planned. And it's an evening's entertainment.

But there was something about going out to something that started at 10.30, 11 o'clock, and you wouldn't get out until late at night. It was a real education. That has, obviously, been replaced, although there are still places that still do double bills. There are few things more exciting than going in to see a late night double bill.

Particularly with... well, for example, I remember seeing The Possession Of Joel Delaney because it was on a double bill with something else I wanted to see. But I had to sit through that first, and I really enjoyed it. And I would never have seen that film if I hadn't have been waiting to see, it might have been The Devils, later on. That was the great thing.

And I agree with you, the idea of somebody actually programming those things together was great.

The Scala used to do this double bills thing in which they'd get people to programme double bills. And I programmed a couple. I always did Onibaba and The Exorcist, because, of course, it's the Japanese film that Friedkin describes as the scariest film he's ever seen. And Onibaba is clearly the thing that inspires the demonic face in The Exorcist. When you see those two films together, it is a very interesting double bill.

One of the highlights of the book for me was when Linda Blair casually walked up to you in a restaurant for an interview...

Oh, yeah! But that was such a great thing because, quite apart from the fact that I do think, quite honestly, that's she great, she's really nice. That, funnily enough, is what everyone says about Linda Blair: that she's really nice.

Also, there was one point where Variety did one of these polls and she was voted one of the hardest working actresses in Hollywood in terms of her output, the amount of days she works each year. And she's made loads and loads of films, and loads of them have gone straight to video, and loads of them aren't very good. But you never get the sense from her that she's not giving it her all.

The thing that meeting Linda Blair was such a big deal for me was, obviously, in terms of the kind of movies I like, Exorcist is actually very mainstream. But it's still a horror movie, and horror movies are all essentially seen as being somewhere over here [gestures to the side]. So the idea of Linda Blair existing in the real, as opposed to existing in the movies... by the time I met her, I'd seen everything she'd be in. I mean, really, everything. Meeting her was the first time that I got that sense that there was something almost other-worldly about seeing somebody you'd seen on screen for so many hours. And then they were really here. Really, right now. And then they were just incredibly down to earth and incredibly nice.

And heaven knows, Linda Blair has had enough experience of meeting mad people that she wouldn't have had to give me the time of day. But not only did she, but she was intelligent, she was engaged, she was friendly. It was great.

She's just great. She's a real indication that you can go through all that Hollywood stuff and most ridiculous media shitstorm and still come out of it incredibly well-adjusted.

My personal indulgence question is about the part in the book where you meet Jeffrey Katzenberg [ex-Disney studio chief, now heading up DreamWorks Animation]. It's only a very sly aside, but it ties into an overall theme about how mechanical the film business has become...

It is, and it's interesting that you picked that up. The Katzenberg thing, and I hope there are things in the book where, if there's an area in the book, you'll pick it up, my interaction with him was very brief and very fleeting.

But it seems to me that what works about cinema for me is passion. That you're interested in the art form, and you're really passionate about it.

My experience of Katzenberg, and I did an on-stage with him at the Bristol Close Encounters Animation Festival, it was at the time when he was flying backwards and forwards overseeing Aardman [Animation] while that deal was on. I did a thing with him, and what it was meant to be was him introducing his ten favourite animations. I'd done it for a few years. I'd done it with Terry Gilliam beforehand.

Katzenberg was introducing this list of things, and two things struck me. Firstly, what he didn't seem to be was passionate about anything but the actual success of the movies. I don't mean success artistically. He knew how they'd performed.

And then there was that weird moment where in his top ten list of films was Mary Poppins. And I feel very passionately about Mary Poppins. The whole film - not just the animated sequence, but he chose that sequence. And we showed a clip of the sequence, and I was just trying to get him to engage emotionally. Rather than engage as a businessman, to engage emotionally with it.

I said something about the most brilliant thing about Mary Poppins is, in spite of what everyone jokes about, that firstly, I think the animated sequence is brilliant in terms of what they were doing with the stuff they had. The bit where they're walking over the fence, and what they've done is they've built the box to look like a piece of animation. It's just clever, it's not CGI, it's just clever.

And the other thing is that, actually, if you understand anything about the story of Mary Poppins, it works on many different levels. Firstly, it's not a story about kids anyway, it's a story about the father. There is a moment in it, it's to do with she's the witch, and it's to do with heaven... And I said, "On some level is it metaphysical?" And he just looked at me and went, "You've just made a total fool of yourself."

Did he say that, or was it in the look he gave you?

No, no he said. He either said, "You're an idiot."...

... did you ring him to check?

No, I didn't! I figured with the famous people they're on their own!

Then the rest of the thing we continued, it was a joke. And I was hahaha, yes, I'm such a fool. But part of me thought, hang on a minute! You're the one who's meant to think that this is one of the ten greatest animations of all time! Did you even choose this list?

And that's why I mentioned it. When I met him, he was not cuddly. And what he didn't have was what you had when you put any two film geeks in a room together. Look at what we're doing now. We understand the thing.

It was like being in a room with an accountant. And anyone who doesn't get Mary Poppins... well, what are you going to say? You don't think Mary Poppins is a work of genius, even though it's in your list of top ten animations?

Everything right and wrong with Katzenberg is in the Shrek franchise.

Yes, yes. I agree. And he can tell you exactly how much money it took!

I enjoyed reading the story of your journey through Russia, and re-read it after the bit where you're handbagged by Helen Mirren, and I couldn't work out which was scarier?

[Laughs] Well the Mirren thing was strange because it was ‘get yourself together now'. The thing that I didn't want to do was say I didn't mean it, I'm really sorry [Helen Mirren tackled Mark about a review he gave of The Queen]. It is Helen Mirren, and she is incredibly impressive. I think she's great and I've watched loads of films with her in.

And also I thought what chutzpah from her point of view to think, hang on, he's said this about my film, there he is, I'm going to go and have a word with him. So that's great,

As far as the Russia thing [where Mark and his colleague Nige travelled across Russia in a failed attempt to cover the film Dark Waters] was concerned...

[at this point Mark gets up to show his scars on his lower back. We can confirm that they are there, but resisted the urge to show him ours in some kind of Lethal Weapon trade off]

... that's the scar where I had the discs taken out! It's like that whole thing when my back finally pinged in Russia.

I was talking to Mum about it just yesterday, because I've told that story before. But she said reading it, she got, for the first time, a sense that that was a really dangerous trip. But the funny thing was, it didn't seem dangerous at the time. It just seemed fantastically depressing and grim. Flying on that mad aeroplane and being driven across Ukraine by Mister Nyeh, and his bonkers girlfriend. It didn't seem dangerous because, partly we were younger, and partly because just the amount of gloom and despondency was so great.

So oddly enough, Helen Mirren was scarier because she was there and saying it. There was no physical danger, but she was so impressive. The Russia thing never seemed dangerous at the time. It just seemed that it's never going to end, we're never going to get to the set, we're never going to get out of here.

And the irony of it was that we got there, and didn't see a single frame of footage being shot.

I got a sense from the book that it was a relief to write about, that the journey had finally had a written purpose...

Yeah! It was funny because Nige and I have told that story so many times. It became like a dinner party routine. But, as I said in the book, when it becomes a funny story, what you lose is the pain. I really do have the scars! I genuinely did have the insides of two discs taken out of my back, and the doctor said it's to do with genetics. I was like yeah, right, it's down to being in a Lada with a flat tyre driving across the fucking Ukraine!

I've been looking you up on the Internet, and you do seem to attract quite a lot of comments wherever you go. What I particularly like is on the IMDB, where they've been recasting The Exorcist for you. A 12A version, starring Anthony Hopkins...

... Sir Anthony Hopkins...!

... Julian Sands clearly, Michael Bay producing, Gore Verbinski directing, and Ewan McGregor, presumably with his Star Wars accent...

Very good, very good.

The funny thing is that there's a story I'll tell you and whether it's true or not you can decide for yourself. But there's a story that's been in the press recently that Friedkin and Blatty are remaking The Exorcist as a TV miniseries. This is actually a story that's ages and ages old. Back in the 1990s, Blatty wrote - this is true - a TV mini-series of The Exorcist, which, in his mind, put back all the theology into the thing. It was for TV, but American TV can be quite edgy.

It was on and off and on and off for a while, and I know that Blatty had talked to Friedkin about it. But I don't think it's ever going to happen with Friedkin at the helm. At one point Nic Roeg was vaguely in the frame.

It's been on and off and it's a project that's come and gone, and about six or twelve months ago, there was a story that Blatty and Friedkin were going to remake The Exorcist. I said at the time that I don't think this is going to happen, I've heard the story lots of times.

But back in the 1990s, one of the stories that I was told - and I can't guarantee that this is true - from somebody that was associated with that project, was that one of the reasons the TV mini-series of The Exorcist didn't happen in the 1990s was down to various people who have a hand in funding and doing this and doing that. And then they wanted to get involved in casting. And apparently, at some point, somebody at the production stage - and it never got off the ground - suggested for the role of Lt Kinderman [played by Lee J Cobb in the film], and I'm not making this up... Whoopi Goldberg.

And I promise you I heard that from someone actually involved with the development of that thing that somebody actually said Whoopi Goldberg. And, at that point, Blatty went, let's not take this any further...! So, believe me, you can come up with whatever casting you want, but you'd be hard pressed to come up with something like that that somebody actually thought was a good idea. Not as a joke. They thought it was a good idea.

Finally, the inevitable Film 2010 question, about whether there's interest from you, if you've heard anything?

The answer to it is rather boring, I'm afraid. I don't have any idea what's happening with Film 2010. The only thing I'd say is don't trust anything you read in the press.

The problem is this. When Jonathan Ross said he was leaving, that's a paragraph on an article. What's the second paragraph? The second is er, what do we do now?

So, the first thing was everyone said that Graham Norton is going to take over the chat show, which turned out to be not true. But it also turned out to be not only not true, but not based on anything. The second thing was who's going to take on Film 2010, and I think everybody thought well, who do we know? Oh, him. So consequently, the next day, Paddy Power were offering 3/1 on that I was taking over, and suddenly there are hundreds of news stories saying he's taking over.

It's all flim-flam. It's nothing other than that. I honestly don't know what's happening with that. And at the same time all that was happening - and this was the thing that was overlooked - we were relaunching the Mayo show as a two hour stretch. So, that whole week what we were doing was getting our heads round two hours rather than one hour.

It was the strangest thing. It was like suddenly there was a story in the newspapers that had my name all over, that I had nothing to do with. And I had no comment because there wasn't any comment to make.

But it was a really interesting thing because, for the first time ever, I understood something. Which is I've interviewed people and they've said, look, I read things about me in the press and, believe me, they're nothing to do with me. And you always think yeah, right. Of course they are. For the first time ever, I had that experience. Somebody actually wrote that this has been sewn up for ages and nobody knew about it!

Personally, I tend to prefer listening to reviews on the radio, because there's generally more than one person in the room. Unless the BBC is going to go down a Siskel & Ebert route...

Well, me and Mayo do what we do, and I'd love to do that, and we've done versions on telly. And I think there's a future in that, in what we do. We've done some little segments for The Culture Show which are a little taster, a little experiment to see whether it would work. But that's my ideal thing: him and me, doing what we do. So that makes sense to me.

But seriously, I genuinely have no idea what is happening. We're operating over here in radio, they're over there in television, and our paths haven't really crossed!

And with that, our time was up! Mark Kermode, thank you very much!

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