Mark Kermode interview: movies, Michael Bay, Titanic, animation, projectionists and more

What’s your take on the state of modern movies? Mark Kermode has put his thoughts down in his latest book, and he’s been chatting to us about it...

Mark Kermode isn’t a man to shy away from opinions, and his new book, The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex, is chock-full of them. It’s an overview of his thoughts on the state of modern cinema, and where it’s going right and wrong. And as he embarked on his promotional tour for the book, he spared us some time for a chat about it…

Your book talks about what’s wrong with modern movies, and I wonder if DVD is one that you missed. 

Appreciating that DVD has been a positive thing in many ways, I do wonder if it’s exposed studios to too much money that they didn’t have in the VHS days. It’s made available films people would otherwise have to make a real effort to see, so you don’t need to seek out a small cinema showing them. And it’s DVD that perhaps has made cinemas look for different ways of distinguishing themselves?

My feeling about that is that what happened with the rise of first video, and then DVD, every time one of these things happens, the industry says oh, it’s the end of cinema, it’s a disaster, and of course it turns out to be nothing of the sort. It turns out to be another revenue stream.

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As far as DVD making cinemas behaving badly, I don’t think that’s the case. I think that having DVD availability of titles people couldn’t see elsewhere simply means that people are able to decide where and when they see a film.

What’s going to happen, and I’m sure you know this already, is that simultaneous releasing is going to happen. Movies will be simultaneously available on demand, to download, and in cinemas, and people will then be able to decide whether to see movies in the cinema, or they see them at home, or on their mobile phone. 

And actually, what I think will happen with that is that the cinemas that care to project movies properly and to treat their audiences like they’re audiences, and not drive through customers like they’re in the supermarket, will thrive. And the cinemas that don’t will have a problem.

As far as 3D is concerned, that’s clearly a response to the home viewing market. I do say this very clearly, 3D happened because the studios started to worry about people staying at home and watching movies, and people downloading movies from the Internet. And what they wanted to do is create something that said you have to go back to the cinema. The mistake is thinking that the thing that gets people into the cinema is stereoscopy, or smell-o-vision.

That’s not the solution to the problem. The thing that gets people back into the cinema is proper projection and ushers. If you ask people why they don’t go to the cinema anymore, they don’t say that there’s not enough 3D. They don’t say it’s because the seats aren’t wired up to vibrate.

They say they’ve got fed up of the cinema experience being so bad. It’s a really weird thing that the response from the studio end is, let’s solve this problem by ramming 3D down people’s throats, rather than saying, let’s solve this problem from the theatrical distribution point of view, and go back to the basics of cinema exhibition. And let’s start by saying that all cinemas should have a trained projectionist on hand at all times.

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That’s not happened as a result of DVD. But 3D happened as a result of piracy and home viewing. The problem isn’t DVD. It’s cinemas forgetting what constitutes a theatrical performance. There is a reason why the cinema screen started out as a 4:3 image, and kind of expanded to something that pretty much corresponds to the human field of vision, in 1.85 or 2.35. And stereo sound, too. Those being the big innovations, surround sound too, to some extent.

But actually cinema kind of settled on that, and said that’s what cinema looks like. And there’s a reason why that formula works. There’s a reason why cinema didn’t make the leap into 3D. And it was that 3D isn’t the next dimension. It distances you from the picture, and as you know, it’s very painful to watch, and doesn’t work with narrative cinema anyway.

What do you think cinema needs the most? Is it ushers, or projectionists?

It needs both.

The decline of the projectionist is, for me, talismanic. It’s at the very heart of what went wrong. I met you when I’d just written It’s Only A Movie and I was burblingly enthusiastic about everything, and at the same time as I was touring with that book, we were getting more and more letters from people saying they were having a terrible cinema experience, and that the picture was wrongly projected, and nobody was checking it.

I said that the projectionist should have looked out and fixed it. And then, of course, we got letters from projectionists saying don’t blame us, we lost our jobs.

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We’ve now got directors writing to projectionists too, of course.

Well actually, the funny thing is that in the past, Stanley Kubrick would write to projectionists and say, “We’ve taken great care with Barry Lyndon, we went to NASA to get lenses that allowed us to shoot in canned light. We’ve gone to great trouble to get the historical accuracy of the costumes right”.

Michael Bay sends out a letter saying, “We’ve spent a lot of money on this equipment, just put it up”.  That’s, actually, indicative of what happened. There was a very funny response to that Michael Bay letter, written, allegedly, by a projectionist. It was Dear Mr Michael Bay, thanks for your not-at-all patronising letter explaining to me how to do my job.

Maybe you could make a better movie so that when I’m watching it for the 58th time, it won’t give me such a headache.

It wasn’t just Michael Bay, though. David Yates, director of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2, sent one out as well. 

Did he?

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That was more interesting.

The thing is, the dialogue between filmmakers and projectionists is ongoing. But you can’t take projectionists out of the equation. It is true that the projectionist’s art has been lost somewhat in the last ten years, and to some extent, that has coincided with the rise of digital.

Digital projection itself is not the problem. The problem is imagining you can do it without having craftsman there to do it properly. Digital projection requires craftsmen, just like celluloid projection. 

You raise the example of Seven in the book, when a digital version was closer to what David Fincher intended.

Yeah, on DVD, yeah.

Playing devil’s advocate, what I find interesting in modern movies, if you go back to the 1990s, the mid-budget stuff, the $30-40m films, was the likes of Paramount churning out Ashley Judd thrillers.

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Now, it seems that a middle ground has developed. That a studio will exert a lot of control over a $150-200m project, but a lot interesting directors are bubbling up in the $40-50m budget area. And they’re getting to do things, because they know how to spend and stretch money a lot better. People like Duncan Jones.

Sure, sure. Source Code

I even think down to something like Skyline, which is arguably a rotten film, but in terms of what $20m can buy you…

In terms of Skyline, I thought it was an in interesting case. As you know, at one point the Strausse brothers (directors of Skyline), there was a question about whether Sony was going to sue them because there was some question that their special effects company had been originally enlisted to work on Battle: Los Angeles, and some were alleging that they were using some of the ideas for Skyline.

Actually, I don’t think Skyline is rotten. I didn’t think it was very good…

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At least it was entertaining, whereas Battle: Los Angeles wasn’t.

It was interesting, from the point of view that it demonstrated what you could do outside of the mega-budget movies. That’s definitely true. 

And, of course, at the same time as that, we did a piece with Gareth Edwards about Monsters. We did the Shetland Film Festival, and we showed Monsters, and I watched it again, projected. And you know? That movie is astonishing. Astonishing. What he did with that money. It may well be that the whole economical paradigm of big studio movies is breaking down as a result of what’s happened.

The funny thing was, people originally talked about the great video revolution. You’ve got a handheld camera, and you can go and shoot a movie that looks like a Lars Von Trier film.

Nowadays, people are demonstrating that you can go out and make a movie… I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the trailers for Iron Sky. Iron Sky is one of these things that’s been bubbling under for ages. The story is that in 1945, Nazis went to the moon. In 2012, they’re coming back. That’s it.

These guys have been self-financing this movie for years and years, and they’re now making it with Udo Kier in the lead role. But the way they started off is that they made a trailer for it on their home computers. And you look at it, and you go, “That’s unbelievable”. These guys knocked this up on their home computer, and it looks really good. It looks like Mars Attacks! 

Maybe things are changing.

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The other area of modern movies that I think has improved enormously is animation. I do wonder if that’s down to the sheer amount of diligence you have to put in, just to make an animated film anywhere near a screen. 

But at a point where you’re talking about a lot of modern movies becoming really quite homogenous, you’ve got in animation a lot of interesting film makers. I think the breadth of stuff from Waltz With Bashir, right through to How To Train Your Dragon…

I agree.

Rango I’ve got an awful lot of time for. The best 3D film of the year.

Yes, and it’s 2D isn’t it?

The thing with animation is, and I do point out that it’s outrageous how much animation has been overlooked by the Oscars, and farmed off into an animation category… I mean, I think Chico And Rita is wonderful. We showed that again at the Shetland Film Festival, and it’s just breathtaking. It’s just amazing how good that is. Waltz With Bashir, which was a big noise at Cannes, is very, very interesting. The idea of an animation documentary, which people couldn’t get their head around…  it was really beautiful.  What’s the name of that Belgian film, a really crazy, anarchic little film, with toy figures?

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A Town Called Panic?

That’s it. It was great. It reminded you of the weirdness of The Magic Roundabout. Then, of course, the Aardman animations, I do think that Wallace & Gromit: Curse Of The Were Rabbit was the best shot film of that year.  I agree with you. Animation has consistently been one of the most inventive areas of cinema, and it still remains a source of bafflement to me that people are so snotty about it.

It’s odd, as well, in that animation in a couple of ways is successful because it’s willing to go backwards as well as forwards. The new Aardman film, The Pirates!, is being made with computers still running Windows XP. Stop motion continues to find a place, and hand drawn.

The funny thing with animation is there was a point where it looked like digimation was wiping out hand drawn. There were the famous stories about people going through studios and turning off the lightboxes.

Actually, what’s happened is that the ‘old fashioned’ animation techniques have not only held their own, but have flourished in the wake of digital animation. Because nowadays, you look at a Miyazaki film, and what you are looking at is a combination of hand drawn and digital. That’s how it works. The distinction doesn’t exist any more. And on the one hand you have the mo-cap stuff, and on the other you have the hand-drawn work of Chico And Rita, which is very, very old fashioned, but it uses computers like anything else.

Animation has managed to ride out that moment when it looked like everything was going to be digimated, and that was it. And it’s diverse, and splendid. If only the rest of cinema could have that kind of level of success. I don’t know what the answer to it is, but it’s true that we’ve had a fantastic set of animations on offer recently. Really, really great.

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Barry Norman always used to say when he was asked whether films were getting better or worse, that his contention was, while it varies a little from year to year, the number of good and bad films being made doesn’t actually alter that much. Would you concur with that?

I would. And I’m not trying to say in the book that movies are getting worse. I’ve kind of been misrepresented there, as I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think what happened was that in any year, you’ll see stuff that’s really great, and stuff that’s really terrible. And it pretty much evens out. I think that my particular annoyance about blockbusters was because everything has been locked down so hard, they’ve kind of forgotten that it’s possible to make really expensive blockbusters that are intelligent, and not lose money.

The argument that we all heard was, look, you can’t complain about these movies being stupid. They’re blockbusters. That’s what they’re there for. And as a critic, I heard it so many times. “Oh, you’re just bringing highbrow critical criteria to bear on movies that don’t warrant it”. No. That’s not true. There are such things as good, expensive blockbusters, and bad, expensive blockbusters.

What Inception did was remind everybody of something they knew before: it doesn’t necessarily mean that if a film is intelligent, it’s not going to make its money back. It’s patently not the case. But what happens is if the marketplace becomes more and more homogenised, that you have to look a little bit harder to find the interesting stuff. 

But already this year, who knew I’d love a documentary about motor racing [Senna]? And every year, when I do the Kermode Awards for The Culture Show, there’s enough stuff to make you dance with joy at the possibilities of cinema.

What I was getting angry about was the contention that critics aren’t allowed to say that the problem with this film is it’s stupid. Which is the thing you’re always told when reviewing Pirates Of The Caribbean 3: it’s stupid. Yeah, it’s a blockbuster, but that’s not an answer.

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It’s interesting this year, because I think this year’s spread of blockbusters has featured more good to very good films than we’ve had in ages.

This year has. Yeah. In the wake of Inception… we’ve had Source Code, although you could question whether it’s a blockbuster, The Adjustment Bureau… 

I said this in The Observer just recently, whereas at the time Inception looked like an aberration, it now looks like being the tip of a very big iceberg of people. These films didn’t happen because Inception was successful. People around the same time just said you know, actually maybe there’s another way of doing this. And the market just swung back the other way. I think that’s true. I think things are getting better.

Even films that people weren’t expecting much of have worked. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, for example.

Yeah, yeah. Really surprised people.

The only thing is that in the last couple of years, there haven’t been a lot of very good blockbusters, but there’s generally been one great one. I think that’s the only thing lacking this year. I think the trend has come back that Hollywood is trusting really interesting directors with lots of money, but compromising the final act of their films.

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That’s always been the case. I remember back in the 1980s, 90s, whatever, the ‘scandal’ that surrounded the ending of Fatal Attraction. The suggestion was that they went back and reshot the ending, and the filmmakers said no we didn’t, we just did a couple of pick-ups. And then, what they did was they released the Madame Butterfly ending in Japan, where it did really well.

I wrote an article for 20/20 magazine, on the subject of changed endings, which at that point, people were saying, “The ending was changed because of preview screening audiences?! You made the film, and a bunch of people went no, that’s not how it should end, and you went back and changed it?”

And then Joe Dante told me this lovely story, that it’s got so bad that I’m going to be on set, and they’re going to have a sofa with four kids from Redondo Beach, and we’ll shoot a scene, and we’ll go what did you think? Did you like him? Did you like that? The funny thing is we now take [changed endings] for granted. And I remember writing that story in the late 80s/early 90s, and people going, you’re kidding? Is that really how it works?

And the interesting thing is, with Fatal Attraction being the classic case, if you look at the Madame Butterfly ending, it’s much better. Because for a start, the movie with the “Kill the bitch” ending doesn’t make any sense. But, of course, that goes back through the history of cinema, but we now all accept it.

Before, it was considered to be a little bit not quite right. We all accept now that movies are preview screened. We now accept that the version of The Wolfman that appeared on the Internet wasn’t the finished version.

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You talked about Kevin Smith in the book, and I wondered what you thought on what he’s doing in terms of challenging film distribution?

As I say in the book, what he’s doing with Red State is a demonstration that he might actually mean it. And, although I haven’t seen it, it looks potentially much more interesting. But at least he’s as good as his word.

My specific response to the Cop Out rant was, come on, you know it was a bad film, and don’t go round whinging at us for criticising it. That’s our job. He’s worth more than that. And I suspect he would say the same thing himself. It just seemed odd that this tirade against critics seeing his movies for free, and applying highbrow criticism, I’m sorry, that argument won’t wash. That’s what film criticism is about. And you’re saying it because you know as well as I do that that film isn’t any good. Cop Out is not a good film. We’re not saying it because we’re terrible, over-privileged, whingy critics.

According to your book, 97% of people don’t trust you anyway!

[Laughs] Exactly. And I think what he’s doing with Red State is interesting.

Hammering down to the core of many of the points you make in the book, there’s a constant theme that cinema is diluting human beings. 

I think that what happened was we lost the human touch, and the talismanic thing is projectionists, and artists rather than spreadsheets. The history of cinema is littered with great films being made by individuals saying I believe in this, and I think I’m right.

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And actually, one of the examples of that is Titanic. I don’t like Titanic, but you can’t deny that a lot of people really do like Titanic. And that doesn’t look like a film that was made by committee. I do believe that James Cameron believes that to be the best movie possible. I don’t think that Titanic was dumbed down for anyone. I think it’s dumb, but I don’t think it was dumbed down. Pearl Harbor was dumbed down. It was a bunch of people sitting around a meeting table, doing the maths on how they can reproduce Titanic.

Finally, are there more books to come in the near future?

At the moment, it’s only the two. I do plan to write more, and I’ve started the next one already.

Any hints on what it is?

I’ll tell you once I’ve finished writing the first chapter! I’m slightly superstitious about it. If I say now, then read the first chapter… in the case of The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex, even the producers didn’t really know what it was until I’d written the opening chapter.

It’s Michael Bay’s biography isn’t it? 

[Laughs] Yes, that’s right! But remember this: Michael Bay might make a good film. You have to believe in the possibility of it.

I quite like one or two of his films.

Fine, fine. And I remember when Bad Boys came out, we all went, yeah, a bit stupid, but there you go. But you have to be open minded about the fact that it might happen. Look, Guy Ritchie made Sherlock Holmes. Who knew? Who knew, genuinely?

Mark Kermode, thank you very much!

The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex is out now, and is published by Random House. Our review is here.