You Don’t Make Crap
THE KILLOUGH CHRONICLES | THE INDIA FILES
by James Killough
Flipping mindlessly, sleepily through the chattering polyglot channels of Indian TV last night in my hotel room, I landed on a station that screens Hollywood films, the kind I would never ordinarily watch, i.e., the majority of films that are made. Ivan Reitman’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend was on. Wow, what a crock of shit. Unwatchable. I cannot imagine how Uma Thurman must have made it through a single day of shooting that clownish cack without taking her eye off her mortgage payments.
During a showdown between Uma Thurman’s ex-girlfriend character and Anna Faris’s current girlfriend character, the word “bitch” was bleeped so as not to offend sensitive Indian ears. The subtitles, which translated American into standard English, substituted “bitch” with “witch.” That blip of stringent censorship helps to understand why studios are so relentlessly inclined toward making nothing more rattling than a PG-13 film. Even the anodyne The King’s Speech has been modified to take out the whole “fuck” sequence with a view to broadening the film’s marketability, as if an Oscar sweep weren’t enough. As a result, it has made over four hundred million worldwide, and will continuing pumping money for years to come.
Indeed, what someone like me thinks of a movie isn’t part of the equation when it comes to greenlighting mindless noise like Ex-Girlfriend. When you take into account that even the Keanu Reeves flop Johnny Mnemonic from 1995 still makes over two million dollars a year in sales to terrestrial television in Asia, from a financial standpoint you can understand why it’s preferable to spend those gazzlions of millions making safe mindless noise than it is to pander to my esoteric tastes, when in all likelihood I’m going to poach some kind of a free screening rather than paying for a ticket, anyway.
If you flip channels in a country like India back and forth from something like Ex-Girlfriend and whatever homegrown dreck they’re showing, you begin to see why this sort of over-acted, cartoonish pablum is so popular; it’s familiar to all viewers across cultures. It makes Westerners less exotic, more relatable. It’s as if Charlie Chaplin is the global benchmark; you can turn off the sound and still get the gist.
There are two moments in my career that come to mind whenever I contemplate how hard it is to get quality film projects off the ground. One was a few years ago, when I was in LA pitching to a producer, whom I notice from the IMDb has since wisely moved completely out of film into new media. After I’d finished giving a brief synopsis of five or six of the more advanced projects we had in development, he said, “So. How does any of this appeal to the lowest common denominator?” The answer, of course, was “none of it,” but I was so taken aback that I couldn’t even come up with that answer.
The second zap of wisdom came from an agent at William Morris, to whom I was moaning about the seemingly insurmountable challenges of getting a project greenlit. “James,” she said. “The problem is, you don’t make crap.”
I try not to read the industry news coming out of Cannes, with all of the optimistic announcements about financing and attachments; film deals are such ephemeral, fragile things, and I’ve swallowed more disappointment in my day than victory. Nobody is invulnerable to the vagaries of what has to be the toughest profession in the world to succeed in. I watch the Olympics of film at Cannes with a mixture of “there but for the grace of God go I,” a dollop of schadenfreude, and the good wishes of an athlete watching others compete who understands the difficulties and admires those who triumph at the finish line.
For me, the most riveting announcement out of Cannes is the financing of the film version of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I have yet to get the inside dish on what’s really going on — trade announcements are basically rewritings of press releases — but anything Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run, Perfume) does has my attention. I’m one of the few outside Germany who genuinely loved Perfume; I really have no clue why it so underperformed worldwide. I saw it twice, and there are maybe a dozen films ever I can say that about. Tykwer took a book even Stanley Kubrick considered impossible to adapt and fashioned an admirably lush tapestry from it.
When an ex of mine, a successful published author, read Cloud Atlas, he pretty much summed up how I felt with a gesture and a word. He finished the last page, tossed the book at the wall and growled, “Bastard.” Atlas is complex yet seemingly so effortless, dazzlingly deft: six narratives interwoven across time and countries, from an island in the South Pacific in the nineteenth century through modern Britain to a dystopian future in some unidentified jungle after mankind has reverted to a primitive state. All six narratives are broken in their middles and resume to conclude in the second half of the book so that you end up back where you started. Each narrative has its distinctive voice and language. The final, dystopian portion is in such garbled English that it takes a few pages to decipher what is being said.
The former Wachowski Brothers of Matrix fame — I say ‘former’ because following sex reassignment, Larry Wachowski is now Lana, and therefore Andy’s sister — are both producers and screenwriters on Atlas. I wish them the best of luck trying to adapt this and fit it within a two-hour, or even three-hour timeframe. It’s not a task that I would take on willingly; in fact, I don’t think I’d have the cojones for fear of fucking it up atrociously, but I’m not sure that’s a relevant concern for people sitting atop the Hollywood crap heap, with all due respect to the makers of this film.
Having said that, the Wachowskis are risk-takers. Despite the wacky, garish Speed Racer — a film with such visual overload I was almost rendered color blind, but which was nevertheless audacious in concept — they remain accomplished, talented filmmakers. Most of all, they are gutsy: in my opinion, one of the bravest acts in the world is to undergo gender reassignment surgery. The casting of the unctuous Tom Hanks notwithstanding, the whole team, which includes Focus Features head James Shamus, one of the too few good guys in his position in Hollywood, should deliver enormous bang for the one hundred million they are spending on this. Knowing the text as I do, I imagine they will have to rein themselves in considerably to make Cloud Atlas for that little in this day and age. Regardless of my nitpicking, for my ticket money, or screening pass, this is the most exciting film project of the decade. These are the kinds of fellow athletes I hope triumph at the finishing line.
Speaking of lyrical, futuristic narratives — oh boy, that was a forced leap if I’ve ever made one — India isn’t at all what I expected her to have turned herself into after ten years. She’s still very much the same as I left her, and I’m staying in the hyper-modern technology center Gurgaon outside of Delhi. I had thought she would have been China-fied, that the took-took motorcycle rickshaws clattering around cows and chaos in the streets would now be Jetsons-like flying Jet Skis, that gleaming towers rivaling Dubai would have consumed her eccentric, seductive exoticism. There are obvious technological improvements, and the prices are now on a par with New York, but what seems to have changed the most is the spirit of India herself, very much for the brighter. She is finally blossoming into the proud, glimmering, brilliant enchantress I first fell in love with almost twenty-five years ago, who thought the opposite about herself, cowering on her own somewhat miserably in a remote, incense-smoked room with sporadic electricity, locked in and tethered by cumbersome shackles of her own forging.
It’s good to be back.