Monday, 19 June 2017

Things We Leave Behind

I'm pleased to announce that my second collection, Things We Leave Behind, will be published by Dark Minds Press and launched (alongside Laura Mauro's excellent novella Naming The Bones) at Edge-Lit in Derby on Saturday 15th July.
cover art by Neil Williams (Mr Stix is there on the back cover)
This second volume of short stories (following Strange Tales, which was originally published in 2003) features eighteen tales spanning the length of my published career to date (the earliest here, All The Rage, appeared in 1999).

It's been a pleasure working with Anthony Watson & Ross Warren at Dark Minds on this (I approached them back in 2016 to see if they'd be interested and was nicely surprised that they were), though Ross continually mocks my two-spaces-after-the-full-stop technique.  Searching through my back catalogue was fun, the editing process was interesting (re-reading a story that's seventeen years old and having to resist the urge to re-write it all is hard) and the cover (with art by Neil Williams) is perfect (and it's good to see Mr Stix make an appearance).  To top it off, Johnny Mains offered to write the introduction and that was the icing on the cake.

Where I've blogged about the stories before, the link will take you to that post.

first published in Unhinged Magazine Issue 4, 1999

first published in The Fourth Book of Terror Tales, 2010

first published in Hauntings, 2004

first published in AltDead, 2011

first published in Ill at Ease, 2011

first published in Shoes, Ships and Cadavers: Tales from North Londonshire, 2010

first published in Fogbound from Five, 2012

first published in Darker Minds, 2012

first published in Hauntings, 2012

first published by Spectral Press (Chapbook #7), 2012

first published in Ill at Ease 2, 2013

original to this collection

first published in Urban Occult, 2013

first published in For the Night is Dark, 2013

first published in Anatomy of Death, 2013

first published in Darkest Minds, 2015

first published in The Grimorium Verum: Volume 3, 2015

original to this collection

"Mark and I have an uncomplicated friendship. We met through Facebook, both probably crowing over ratty old paperbacks, which we both have an affinity for, and met for the first time at Alt-Fiction, Leicester 2012. We had a beer or three, had a great chat, and became firm friends. We always talk guessed it…old ratty paperbacks. I love it when life is simple and you don’t need to talk about anything else except which author wrote what book about bubonic maggots eating spleens from a cabal of cannibal nuns…"
- Johnny Mains, from his introduction

With a range of stories, from quiet horror to gleefully gruesome, I'm very pleased with the collection and I hope - if you take a chance on it - that you are too.

The book will be available as both paperback and ebook editions.

Monday, 12 June 2017

A Literary Festival and me...

The first Earls Barton Literary Festival, organised by Carolyn Palot-Watts, ran over this past weekend, the 10th and 11th of June and thanks to my good friend Sue Moorcroft, I was asked to participate - chuffed to be invited to my first ever Lit Fest, I readily agreed.
Reading from The Mill - picture by Sue
My talk, which began at 2.15, was called “How can you write what you know when you write horror?”.  At the time I suggested it, some months beforehand, I thought it was broad enough that I could think of something smart to say and, late last week, I finally figured out what that was going to be.  That didn’t help my nerves - and nor did the fact that I had all morning on Sunday to worry about it.  Using my novella The Mill as the basis, I worked through the idea of how using real life - elements of my own and locations that are local to me - within my horror story grounded the supernatural elements and made them seem (hopefully) more believeable.
We - Alison, Dude and myself - arrived at the home of my event co-ordinator Mary Brown on time, we introduced ourselves and she took us up to the venue, the Parish Church Halls.  I was settled in the main area, a largish room with a small stage and Dude helped me figure out where I'd best be sat.  Mary & I chatted and she told me, in anticipation of our meeting, she'd read The Factory and, while it wasn't her normal thing, had enjoyed it (which was nice).  Even so, nerves started to eat at me, not just that I’d forget everything and spend the whole hour staring at my notes thinking “what the hell does that mean?” (assuming I could read my own hand-writing) but also that nobody would turn up.  Thankfully, they did.
Taken by Alison, this shows Sue taking the picture of me at the top of the post.  My co-ordinator, Mary, is sitting on the edge of the stage
At 2.15, Mary did her ‘house keeping’ duties (toilets are here, emergency exit is there, books are for sale on that table) and I set off.  I was lucky enough to have a decent sized audience, luckier still that they listened attentively (especially to my readings) and as the time wore on, my confidence grew and I even threw in some funny bits (which got laughs).  My timing of the speech was a bit off - I finished about thirty minutes into my scheduled hour - but there were some great questions and I loved them, especially since they allowed me to go off on tangents (which, if you've talked to me in real life, you'll know I tend to enjoy doing).  A question about the genre community got me talking about FantasyCon (I think the Grand Hotel in Scarborough gets more gothic every time I describe it) and I also managed to tell the story of the time I stood up at the book launch for Tourniquet Heart and read my short Up For Anything (and the disgusted groan that elicited from Paul Finch).  All too soon, it was 3.15 (I finished off the session with my Portugese ghost story, which you can read here) and that was it - people came up to thank me and chat, I sold and signed some books, Dude came and sat on the stage to help me and my paying audience seemed happy, which was wonderful.

We then retired to the Swan pub (where my writing group meets) with Neil & Donna Bond, for a chat and a drink and it was the perfect way to finish.

I wrote an afterword to The Mill, which you can read here.

Sue's event, held in the Methodist Church on Saturday morning, was a fascinating talk entitled "my route to number one".
The programme, featuring me and Sue.  I didn't grow up in Rushden...
It was a terrific afternoon and, for all my nerves, as soon as I finished I wanted to do it again.  Well done to Carolyn and her team and I hope this proves to be the first of many literary festivals in Earls Barton!

Monday, 5 June 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 6) - Production Design

For the sixth entry in my Star Wars At 40 celebrations thread, I thought I'd look at the design work which not only elevated the film but also shifted the way sci-fi would look forever afterwards...
The Millennium Falcon, showing off the design work on the hull
Until the 1970s, most sci-fi films tended to see the future as looking pristine, a trend that was bucked by Silent Running (1972) and Dark Star (1974).  Going into Star Wars, George Lucas wanted everything to look like it worked and had done so for a long time, introducing a 'used future' concept where rebel ships looked secondhand, well-used and beaten up against the clean designs of the Imperial ships.

“The Star Wars future was not showroom shiny but dented and rusty, as if it had hard use on the back roads on innumerable galaxies. Lucas told an interviewer during production in England that the Apollo capsules may have looked brand new when they soared away, but it was clear when they returned that the interior was littered with candy wrappers, empty Tang cans, and other trash, just like the family station wagon.”
 - Charles Champlin - George Lucas: The Creative Impulse

Whilst previous films had hardware that looked as if it had been built at the same time, Lucas wanted a “a future with a past”.  He told John Barry, his production designer, that the Millennium Falcon should look like a ship from 2001 “that had aged two hundred years”.

“George wants to make it look like it’s shot on location on your average everyday Death Star or Mos Eisley Spaceport or local cantina,” Barry told American Cinematographer magazine in 1977.
The design team, 1976 - from left: Roger Christian, Leslie Dilley, John Barry, Bill Welch, Norman Reynolds
After a recommendation from Production designer Elliot Scott, George Lucas travelled to the Mexico set of Lucky Lady (1975), which was written by his friends Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz (who also did a polish on the Star Wars script).  There, he met Production designer John Barry and set dresser Roger Christian and was so taken by the sets that he offered them both a job.  "He looked at the set and couldn’t believe it wasn’t real,” Christian told Esquire magazine in interview.  Once finalised, the design department was made up of Production designer John Barry, Art Directors Norman Reynolds and Leslie Dilley and Set Decorator Roger Christian.  Norman Reynolds defined the job roles in an interview with the BBC.

“The Production designer," he said, "comes up with the ideas for the sets and does some of the drawings and sketches. The director will have some ideas of his own, as was the case with George Lucas, who had some of his people in the U.S. come up with some sketches as well. The final execution of the sets is the responsibility of the production designer.  The art director...helps execute the designs because sometimes the designer has to travel to see the various locations. [An Art Director is basically] the production designer's right-hand man.”
John Barry (left) and George Lucas examine photographs from location scouting expeditions
The designers started work on the film before it had been approved by 20th Century Fox, with Lucas covering expenses from his American Graffiti (1973) earnings.  For four months, the team worked in a studio in Kensal Rise, London, trying to figure out how to make the film and since the project had so little money (the eventual design budget would be $200k), Barry directed his team to use as many ‘found’ objects as they could.
Blueprints - from top left clockwise - Blockade runner corridor, R2-S2, Millennium Falcon cockpit and landing gear
At the time, some thirty years after World War 2, old Rolls-Royce aircraft engines were obsolete and being sent to scrapyards.  "Nobody wanted it,” Christian said in interview.  “They sold it by weight, I could buy almost an entire plane for £50 so I went around Britain buying up scrap aircraft, jet engines — all sorts of stuff. Out of that we did most of the set dressing.”

The added advantage was that the aircraft parts not only saved time and money, they added great complexity to the designs.  “We bought thousands of pounds worth of aircraft junk and took it to pieces,” said production designer John Barry in interview.  “You can imagine the complexity of drawing that would have to go into making those very complex sculpted forms. But when you just take apart a jet engine, you get wonderful things.”

“I taught the guys how to break [them] down,” said Christian, “and we made bins of different objects. They learned how to identify things that might look good on set.”

Working closely with Ralph McQuarrie, Barry embraced the idea his environments needed to look like real places and infused his work with striking architectural designs, focussing on function rather than creating elaborate, futuristic looking structures.  In total, 30 sets were produced for the film and the production took over all nine of the soundstages at Elstree Studios, whilst the massive Yavin-4 hangar set was built at Shepperton Studios (the exterior for which was filmed at Cardington Sheds in Bedfordshire).

For Tatooine, Barry used the environment as his design.  Since the summer heat is so intense in Tunisia, the locals live in caves cut into the sides of huge pits and Barry took advantage of this, using the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata as the Lars homestead.  It therefore felt real because it was real and he repeated the process with Ben Kenobi’s dwelling.
Set dressing in a real location - the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata, Tunisia
He also apparently enjoyed working on the Death Star as it suited his preferred minimalist style, allowing him to create environments of power that were appropriately cold and stark.  Taking inspiration from an aircraft carrier, the walls were painted matte grey and inset with grid patterns to help light the set.  The black floors were highly polished and allowed Gil Taylor, the director of photography, to “pull back and make the spaces feel expansive without compromising their functional intent as hallways.”
Three views of the Death Star corridors
The Cantina was imagined as a combination of a Casablanca bar and a turn-of-the-century chemistry set.  Barry said, at the time, “All the bar equipment in the cantina, those are all the combustion chambers from jet engines, which we sprayed with a metallic gold process and put light in the bubbles and all the rest. But they have an interest, because somebody’s worked over it and some intelligence has gone into them, so they are far more interesting than anything you could have made from scratch in the time available.”
A key part of the design aesthetic were what George Lucas called ‘greeblies’, which are basically items of fine detailing to make a surface - of a prop, set or costume - appear more complex and therefore more visually interesting.  They also add a sense of scale to models (ILM described them as “guts on the outside”), hence the Millennium Falcon and Star Destroyers are covered with them.  There is a possibly apocryphal tale that Tunisian customs asked what part of C3PO’s costume (listed as ‘assorted greebles’) was.  They were told “Something that looks cool but doesn’t actually do anything.”
Top - John Barry sketch of the Millennium Falcon
Bottom - the set, including a lot of greeblies
The Millennium Falcon was one of the most challenging sets to design and decorate, but benefited greatly from the scrap greeblies as once-pristine walls and doorframes were covered with pipes and parts, giving the ship a functional, well-used look.
top - Han Solo (Harrison Ford) - and bottom - Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) - in the Falcon gun turrets
(note how 'busy' but perfectly functional the walls look)

Whilst C3PO was originally sculpted by Liz Moore and finished by Brian Muir (as I wrote about here), Roger Christian supervised the construction of R2-D2 working from designs by Ralph McQuarrie and Norman Reynolds.
left - George Lucas with the Roger Christian, Leslie Dilley & Bill Harman prototype R2-D2
right - George Lucas and John Barry (far right) measure up the R2 legs for Kenny Baker (centre)
Christian and Les Dilley hired a carpenter called Bill Harman who’d built props for Monty Python - "he was brilliant - you could give him anything and he’d make it work.”  The body was made of marine plywood, bent around a frame they’d built with an old 1940s lamp fitted on top; Christian carved prongs for the front and more aircraft greeblies were attached.  After tests with 3ft 8” actor Kenny Baker, the design was approved and R2-D2 was built for the production by Tony Dyson of The White Horse Toy Company.

Even so, creating the droids went to the wire and Reynolds has since admitted to finishing C3PO’s hands the night before shooting began in Tunisia.  “We had the glove part of it and metal tips for the fingers, but it needed to be made to look authentic.  Adding those little 'greeblies' made it all finally came together.”

Top - Anakin's lightsaber, as given to Luke
Bottom - Obi-Wan's lightsaber
The iconic Star Wars weapon is, of course, the lightsaber.  Whilst a huge part of the appeal was the sound (by Ben Burtt, subject of a future blog-post), they looked fantastic too and were put together by Roger Christian, based on designs by Ralph McQuarrie.  Several mock-ups were rejected and, under pressure to have the props ready for Tunisia, Christian visited a camera-shop the production used and asked if they had any spare parts.  Directed to some old dusty boxes, he found “several Graflex flashgun handles. They were perfect, heavy, and had a red button for firing the flash.  I just sat in my office with superglue, stuck a T-strip round the handle, put a D-ring on the end and stuck on bits from a pocket calculator. It was weighty and it looked beautiful. I think I made it for about £8."  The lightsaber emitter at the top of the sword was another greebly, a balance pipe from a Derwent engine.

Top - Han Solo's blaster (prop)
Bottom - the original Mauser gun
George Lucas had a specific idea for the style of the Star Wars blasters and said in interview, before the film was completed, “I’m trying to make props that don’t stand out. I’m trying to make everything look very natural, a casual almost I’ve-seen-this-before look.”  What he didn't want was something that resembled the Buck Rogers style of ray-gun.  Roger Christian suggested adapting real guns, since they’d look used and natural.  “We could afford to do it that way, plus they worked, you could fire them and get the  recoil on-set, and not have the actors going, 'Beep beep'.”

“We went to one of the big weapon-hire companies that had endless rows of arms and armour," John Barry said.  "George, Roger Christian, and I got together a lot on those things. Rather than have your slick streamlined ray guns, we took actual World War II machine guns and cannibalized one into another.”

Han Solo’s iconic blaster, for example, started life as an antique broom-handled Mauser pistol.  Christian fitted it with a rifle telescopic sight, a custom mount and modified the barrel with a flash hider from a German M-81 machine gun.  Greeblies were added to the magazine block and the base to make it look more complex.

Christian wrote a 'memoir', Cinema Alchemist, which details his work on Star Wars and it's very informative and in-depth.  My review of the book can be found here.

At the 1978 Oscars - from left:
John Barry, Norma Reynolds, Greer Garson &
Henry Winkler (presenters),
Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian
In my opinion, George Lucas chose his collaborators well, none more so than the design team and the little kid version of me loved what they did, accepting the look readily.  By taking ‘found’ items and adding detail, they created a world that was realistic, lived-in and something altogether different that, crucially, hasn’t aged the film at all - it looks as fresh now as it did 40 years ago.

The design team of John Barry, Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley and Roger Christian shared the 1978 Academy Award for Best Art Direction.  You can read John Barry's speech here.

Harrison Ford on the Millennium Falcon set

John Barry was born in 1935 and trained as an architect, entering the film business as a draughtsman on Cleopatra (1963), while his first film as production designer was Kelly’s Heroes (1970).  Stanley Kubrick offered him a job on his never-completed film Napoleon then hired him again for A Clockwork Orange (1971).  Whilst working on Lucky Lady (1975) he was approached to work on Star Wars and, following that success and his work on  Superman (1978) and Superman 2 (1980), he was offered his own film, Saturn 3 to direct.  Unfortunately, he fell out with the star Kirk Douglas and was sacked, replaced by Stanley Donen.  Lucas hired him as second-unit director on The Empire Strikes Back but on 31st May 1979, two weeks into filming, he collapsed on-set and died at 2am on 1st June from meningitis.

Norman Reynolds was born on 26th March 1935 and began his career as an assistant Art director on Battle Of Britain (1969), before becoming Art director on The Little Prince (1974).  He performed the same role on Star Wars, Superman (1978) and Superman 2 (1980) before moving on to Production designer with The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  He stayed with Lucasfilm for Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and Return Of The Jedi (1983) and retired after making Bicentennial Man (1999).  He also directed two episodes of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories - The Pumpkin Competition (1986) and Gather Ye Acorns (1986) - and was 2nd unit director on The Exorcist III (1990) and Alive (1993).

He won two Academy Awards - Best Art Direction 1978 for Star Wars and Best Art Direction 1982 for Raiders of the Lost Ark (shared with Leslie Dilley and Michael D. Ford), as well as being nominated for four more.
He won one BAFTA - Best Production Design 1982 for Raiders of the Lost Ark (shared with Leslie Dilley and Michael D. Ford), as well as being nominated for one more.

Leslie Dilley was born on 11th January 1941 and started his career as Art director on The Three Musketeers (1973).  He worked with John Barry on Lucky Lady (1975), which led to him becoming Art director on Star Wars and Superman (1978).  He was Art director on The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), An American Werewolf In London (1981), moved up to Production designer with Bad Medicine (1985) and still works in the industry.

He won two Academy Awards - Best Art Direction 1978 for Star Wars and Best Art Direction 1982 for Raiders of the Lost Ark (shared with Norman Reynolds and Michael D. Ford), as well as being nominated for three more.
He won one BAFTA - Best Production Design 1982 for Raiders of the Lost Ark (shared with Norman Reynolds and Michael D. Ford)

Roger Christian was born on 25th February 1944 and worked in the art department on Oliver! (1968).  After working with John Barry on Lucky Lady (1975) he became set decorator for Star Wars and worked as Art director for Alien (1979) and Life Of Brian (1979).  He moved into directing with the short Black Angel (1980), under the mentorship of George Lucas and still directs.  He also served as 2nd unit director for Return Of The Jedi (1983) and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).

He won one Academy Award - Best Art Direction 1978 for Star Wars and was nominated for another.  His second short film, The Dollar Bottom (1981) was nominated for a BAFTA.

Esquire magazine
Laurel & Wolf Spotlight on John Barry
Den Of Geek
Skywalking, by Dale Pollock
George Lucas: The Creative Impulse, by Charles Champlin
Star Wars Modern blog
Star Wars insider interview with Norman Reynolds
Star Wars: The Blueprints, JW Rinzler
Cinema Alchemist, by Roger Christian

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday, 29 May 2017

Frenzy, at 45

Frenzy, Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s 52nd film as director, opened in the UK on 25th May 1972.  It was produced by William Hill, written by Anthony Shaffer (from the novel by Arthur La Bern) and the director of photography was Gil Taylor.  Syd Cain was the production designer, Albert Whitlock supervised the visual effects and John Jympson was the editor.

After the brutal murder of his ex-wife, down-on-his luck former RAF pilot Richard Blaney is suspected of being the ‘Neck Tie Murderer’, a vicious serial killer terrorising London. With the help of his friends, Blaney goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence.

In 1970, looking for a new project after Topaz (1969), Sir Alfred Hitchcock was given a copy of Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern and he later told journalist Rebecca Morehouse “I was attracted by the market [scenes] and by the central figure, an Air Force man who is always a loser. Today is the day of the non-hero, isn't it?”  Excited by the novel and its location, he pitched it to Lew Wasserman and Edd Henry at Universal over a lunchtime meeting and they agreed to make it, on a $2.8m budget.

Hitchcock decided it would be best to make the film in London with an all-British cast and rang playwright Anthony Shaffer, whose Sleuth was then a hit on Broadway, to ask him to adapt the novel.  After Shaffer (who originally thought the call was from friends playing a joke) agreed, the two men met in New York in January 1971 to discuss the adaption, before going to London to scout locations, looking over Hyde Park, Leicester Square, Piccadilly, Oxford Street, Bayswater, Hammersmith and Covent Garden Market.

The script meetings continued throughout February and several parts of the novel were cut back, such as the court scenes, or excised altogether, such as Blaney's escape to France.  In addition, Hitchcock insisted on using phrases from his childhood (spent in London), as Shaffer explained to Donald Spoto, “[he] was intractable about not modernising the dialogue of the picture, and he kept inserting antique phrases I knew would cause the British public a hearty laugh or even some annoyance.”

The downbeat ending of the book was changed to a more satisfying conclusion and Hitchcock and Shaffer added a recurring theme of food, along with biblical references to the Garden of Eden and Original Sin. The part of Chief Inspector Oxford was also enhanced and light relief added during mealtime scenes with his haute cuisine interested wife who was busy carrying out culinary experiments.  Although Shaffer wrote the screenplay on his own, which was completed well before filming began, Hitchcock had a firm idea of where he wanted the story to go and co-wrote the 55-page treatment the 160-page script was based on.
Mrs Oxford (Vivien Merchant) serves up another delight for Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen)
Casting for actors and crew began in May and Hitchcock renewed some old professional acquaintances.  Cinematographer Gil Taylor had been clapper-boy on Number Seventeen (1932), sound mixer Peter Handford worked on Under Capricorn (1949) and Elsie Randolph (who plays Gladys the hotel clerk) had appeared in East Of Shanghai (1931).

Hitchcock cast seasoned British actors for the other roles, recognised in the UK but relatively unknown in Hollywood at the time.  Alec McCowen (Chief Inspector Oxford), Barry Foster (Bob Rusk), Billie Whitelaw (Hetty Porter), Anna Massey (Barbara Milligan), Vivien Merchant (Mrs Oxford) and Barbara Leigh-Hunt (as Brenda Blaney) from the stage were joined by TV stars Bernard Cribbens (Felix Forsythe), Michael Bates (Sergeant Spearman), Clive Swift (Johnny Porter) and Jean Marsh (Monica Barling).  As he had with Psycho (1960), where Norman Bates is much older than Anthony Perkins, Hitchcock cast the much younger Jon Finch as the anti-hero Richard Blaney (who, named Blarney, is nearly fifty in the novel) though when he later openly criticised the script to journalists, Hitchcock was close to recasting.  He wanted Michael Caine for the Rusk role but the actor turned it down (“I don’t want to be associated with the part”) - Hitchcock had seen both Foster and Billie Whitelaw in Twisted Nerve (1968).
Bob Rusk (Barry Foster, on the right) helps out his old friend Richard Blaney (Jon Finch)
With regard to the look, Hitchcock told Gil Taylor he wanted “a realistic nightmare, rather than a ‘Hammer Horror’” with Covent Garden as the backdrop, referring back to a selection of Vermeer paintings.  The son of a Covent Garden merchant, Hitchcock was keen to film at the market and, perhaps aware its working days were numbered (it remains a thriving tourist part of London today), to document it too.

Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, had flown to London intending to spend a few weeks in England before embarking on a European tour with their daughter Patricia and granddaughter Mary.  After a weekend break to Scotland, Alma suffered a serious stroke and was treated at Claridge’s Hotel by Hitchcock’s personal physician.  She recovered enough to watch dailies with her husband and Barry Foster said later that Hitchcock awaited her reaction “like a schoolboy, showing his homework to the teacher.” Alma flew home to Los Angeles in October to receive further treatment.
Hitchcock on the Thames
Filming began in the last week of July 1971 with assistant director Colin Brewer heading the second unit, as well as handling many of the first unit set-ups for Hitchcock, who was suffering badly with arthritis.
Hitchcock in Covent Garden with Gil Taylor (centre) and Colin Brewer
Filming progressed smoothly and though a lot of the exteriors were filmed around Covent Garden, plenty of other London locations were utilised including Tower Bridge and County Hall (for the opening sequence), the Coburg Hotel on Bayswater Road, Hyde Park and the London Hilton on Park Lane.  Brenda Blaney’s flat is in Ennismore Gardens Mews and her matrimonial agency is at Dryden Chambers (since demolished), just off Oxford Street.  Filming also took place at New Scotland Yard, Wormwood Scrubs and St Mary Abbot’s hospital and the production was granted permission to film inside the Old Bailey the first full weekend in August.  The interiors were filmed at Pinewood Studios, with sets often on stand-by to serve as ‘weather cover’.
Hitchcock with Anna Massey

Hitchcock puts in his traditional cameo appearance during the opening scene at County Hall, where he’s in the middle of the crowd wearing a bowler hat.  Teaser trailers showed his dummy floating in the River Thames.

The final three weeks of filming were taken up with the complex sequence on the potato truck and principal photography ended after thirteen weeks on 14th October, though the second-unit worked for another week.

The celebrated tracking shot out of Rusk's flat, which is as stunning now as it was then, was filmed using a camera dolly since the steadicam wouldn’t be invented for a couple of years.  The interior was filmed at Pinewood Studios, the exterior (the edit masked by a passing porter) at 3 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.
During the shoot, Hitchcock was reportedly happiest when filming around Covent Garden, a place he hadn’t visited in decades but where he’d spent time with his father.  Anna Massey later said, “It’s a brutal film, but full of things Hitchcock loved - like food, and London - and it’s a very loving portrayal of Covent Garden market.”

In interview, Anthony Shaffer said, “An old chap made his way up to Hitchcock at the market...and said, ‘I remember your father here, in all this mud.’ Hitchcock was delighted, took the man for an expensive lunch and had a long talk to him about his dad.”
Hitchcock, at Pinewood Studios, works with Barry Foster (left) and Alex McCowen
The film also included this incredible Albert Whitlock matte painting of Covent Garden - the only 'live' section is the space between the green door and the truck.

Hitchcock returned to Los Angeles on 26th October and he and John Jympson created the rough cut of the film during November.  The editor then flew back to London to supervise post-synching of the dialogue and Henry Mancini began work on the score.

Best known for Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) and the Pink Panther series, Mancini had also scored The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and Touch of Evil (1958).  He told Catherine Scott of The Guardian, “‘Frenzy’ is very low-key picture about a neck-tie murderer, and what I have done is to just cut off the orchestra round middle C. There is none of the screeching, high, intense sounds that would be thought a little melodramatic today. It is very sparse... there's not a lot going on, but what there is will, I trust, sound pretty spooky.”

Hitchcock attended the London recording sessions in mid-December and then rejected the completed score outright.  Mancini later said, “he decided that it didn’t work, [he felt] the score was macabre, which puzzled me because it was a film with many macabre things it in. It wasn't an easy decision to accept, and it was crushing when it happened...”  Unlike his acrimonious split with Bernard Hermann over the rejected score for Torn Curtain (1966), relations remained amicable and Mancini mentions in his autobiography that Hitchcock sent him a case of Château Haut-Brion magnums.

Hitchcock then hired British composer Ron Goodwin, providing him with thorough instructions and notes regarding the new score.  The recording sessions for this took a week, beginning Monday 31st January 1972.  By mid-February, Jympson had edited in Goodwin’s score and the film was sent back to Los Angeles where small adjustments were made before the end of the month.

Due to the content - it’s the first Hitchcock film to show nudity and the sex killing was very strong for the time (it still is, to be honest) - this was the first of the director’s films to receive an ‘R’ rating in the US and an ‘X’ in the UK.
Hitchcock in Cannes
Frenzy was shown, out of competition, at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1972 where it was hailed as a “late-career masterpiece”.  He’d been worried - as hard as it is to believe now, there were people at the time who believed Hitchcock was becoming irrelevant - but the critical praise buoyed him.  At a screening in Paris, Francois Truffaut (a great fan and terrific director in his own right) said the Hitchcock touch was much in evidence and that the old master was “still experimenting”.

Alma, with the dummy Hitchcock head 
The trailer also features Hitchcock, in amusing mood.  “This,” he says, “is the scene of a horrible murder - it’s the famous wholesale fruit and vegetable market, Covent Garden. Here, you may buy the fruits of evil and the horrors of vegetables.” At that point, a foot sticks up out of a potato sack.

The London premiere was held on 25th May 1972 and critical reception was generally very good though several complained it was distasteful.  One of these was Arthur La Bern who wrote, in a letter to the editor of The Times, “Sir, I wish I could share John Russell Taylor's enthusiasm for Hitchcock's distasteful film. The result on the screen is appalling.”  The issue of the films graphic nature was discussed widely and both the US and UK censors had required minor cuts to the murder sequence (though Hitchcock and Shaffer had toned down the violence from the novel).

By this time, Alma had recovered sufficiently well that she was able to accompany Hitchcock on the publicity tour which lasted well into the year.

Frenzy received four Golden Globe Award nominations - Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Original Score - but didn’t win any.  It ended 1972 listed at number 33 in Variety’s “Top 50 Grossing Films of the Year” list, with a box-office take of $4.8m.  On a budget of $2.8m, to date it has earned over $21m.

Happy anniversary, Frenzy.  As Bob Rusk might say, “lovely...”

sources: Locations
About time magazine
Once Upon A Screen
Covent Garden: Frenzy

Monday, 22 May 2017

Just For The Holidays - an interview with Sue Moorcroft

As regular readers of the blog will know, I’ve been friends with Sue Moorcroft for a while (we met in 1999 when I joined the Kettering Writers Group) and it’s been my pleasure to interview her several times (you can read them here, here and here).  Last year, as part of her 2-book deal with Avon, she published The Christmas Promise (I wrote about the launch here) which became a Number One Amazon Bestseller (and none of this sub-category business for Sue, this was in the general chart) and I was really chuffed and proud of her.

Just For The Holidays is her second Avon novel and it was published last Thursday.  A summer tale, set in France and England and featuring the holiday from hell, it’s an excellent read and I would highly recommend it.

Sue’s a great Con-buddy (most of my UK horror writing chums will have met her at FantasyCon or Edge-Lit) and to help celebrate her latest publication, she & I sat down at The Trading Post to have a chat.

MW:  So how did you end up coming along to FantasyCon (her first one was WFC in Brighton, in 2013)?

SM:  At the time, I was teaching creative writing a lot more than I am now. I was invited to the Historical Novel Society conference and I not only enjoyed it but found it helpful when working with students writing books set in the past. You’d always seemed to enjoy FCon so I thought I’d repeat the experiment for the speculative genres. I hadn’t anticipated enjoying it quite so much!

MW:  What was your impression of the horror genre and those people you met in it?

SM:  Very friendly. This was perhaps covered by you knowing just about everyone there (it seemed like) but I was made welcome. I was also bowled over by the creativity but I suppose those who write in the speculative genres need to be highly imaginative. I enjoyed the general wit and humour, and the support people exhibited for one another. I know the horror genre has had its fair share of friction and commotion on Facebook but, from my experience, it hadn’t transferred to the conference.
At FantasyCon York, 2014 (which I wrote about here)
I am at the bottom of the pic in the centre and from left; Steven Chapman, Neil Williams, Sue, Stephen Bacon, John Travis, Terry Grimwood, James Everington, Steve Harris
MW:  I always think it’s nice to see how people who don’t normally read in your genre have embraced you and what you write.

SM:  I agree! There are a few who give me cautious smiles as if to say ‘What are you doing here?’ but with no ill will. Well … I do always feel I’m a handicap when it comes to CurryCon. I love curry but it’s spiteful towards me and I feel guilty when people change their choice of restaurant to accommodate that.

MW:  What do you enjoy about conferences and conventions?  Any tips for people who’ve always wanted to go to one but never plucked up the courage?

SM:  I love being with other writers. It’s like finding your tribe. You can talk and be understood. For example, I don’t find myself trying to put over what I do to promote a book on Twitter to someone who doesn’t read, write or tweet. When I attend the talks and panels of others I’m always interested, always prepared to expand my knowledge.

Sue’s con tips: 
If you’re not keen on going into big gatherings of people you don’t know, try and make friends on social media with people who are likely to attend. That way, you have reason to go up and shake hands (everyone wears name badges). Better yet, speak to them on social media and tell them you’re new and they’ll probably agree to meet you and introduce you to others. It’s only a tiny barrier and you’re soon over it.
Take money, especially if you like alcohol.
Wear comfy shoes. (The first year I was to attend FantasyCon I asked on Facebook what the shoe code would be. This would have been a valid question at a lot of conferences I’ve been to but was met with ‘Um, wear some?’)
Take more money, for books.
Just kick back and enjoy it.

MW:  Back when we were in Kettering Writers, we hatched this plan to swap genres for one story.  Did you still fancy doing that?

SM:  It didn’t work well, did it? We each got half way through a story and lost interest. I did find my story recently and I enjoyed what I’d written but realised it was going nowhere. I wasn’t interested enough in the genre to have that light bulb moment so I’ll probably file this idea under ‘too busy’, if you don’t mind!

MW:  Your new book, Just For The Holidays, came out last Thursday and, as you know, I love it.  Where did the idea come from?

SM:  Thank you! A friend told me about her holiday from hell. I immediately asked to be allowed to use the premise of a single woman being roped in to help her newly separated sister on a family holiday. It was a couple of years before the idea came to the top of my pile but then I just had to focus the vague premise and make it work. Luckily for me, there were several conflicts – Leah’s single and husbandless by choice yet she ends up looking after her sister’s children and husband. She barely speaks French and she’s in France. The sister, Michele, though her marriage is over, is not only pregnant but experiencing health problems. Alister, the husband from whom Michele is estranged is hurt. The children are distraught. Alister asks to be allowed to come on the holiday as he paid for the gîte before the split and he and the children are unhappy apart. Leah tries to bail but Michele doesn’t let her … That’s enough material for any novelist, I think!

Sue at Sywell Airfield
MW:  How enjoyable was the research?

SM:  Very. I not only spent four days with a friend who lives in Alsace but was taken up in a helicopter, which the pilot pretended to crash (more properly known as autorotation). It was awesome. NB There is a forced landing in the book – he didn’t just show me the autorotation manoeuvre on whim.

MW:  Did you find the process different from writing The Christmas Promise?

SM:  The actual process of writing? Not really. I’d been on a course run by Robert McKee, the screenwriter, just before I planned Just for the Holidays so I probably paid more attention to questions such as what the characters want consciously and whether it’s different to what they want subconsciously. (I find the best answer to this is ‘yes, it is different’.) I wasn’t pushed for time when I wrote Just for the Holidays. Now that my publishing schedule has tightened up I am taking more risks with the first draft and have adopted the ‘write quickly, edit slowly’ approach.

MW:  How did it feel hitting the top of the chart and becoming a genuine Amazon Best seller?

SM:  Wow. It was truly amazing. I’d been euphoric enough when The Christmas Promise entered the top ten. When it got into the top three …! It stayed at either #2 or #3 for quite some time but when I finally saw it at #1 I had trouble believing my eyes. I literally screamed. I broke into a sweat, I began to shake, I cried (tears of joy, of course!). And then I went onto Twitter to tell everyone. My editor had beaten me to it so we had a joyfest. Others came on to congratulate me, I texted my agent. And after a while I remembered to tell my family. It stayed at #1 for about five days in the week before Christmas and it definitely made me like Christmas more than usual.
At FantasyCon Nottingham, 2015 (which I wrote about here)
from left; Stephen Bacon, Steve Harris, Sue, me, Neil Williams
MW:  Does the success of The Christmas Promise set up an expectation for you, with regards to Just For The Holidays?

SM:  Yes, there is that. But you can look at things in two ways. Negatively: ‘Wow, I’ll never do that again. We’ll never beat that. Nothing can ever live up to it.’ Or positively: ‘It might happen again! We have the last success to build upon! Amazon has the contact details of everybody who bought The Christmas Promise so can send them all emails about Just for the Holidays!’ I choose to be positive but I’m a realist so I know I can’t take a single thing for granted.

What both The Christmas Promise and Just for the Holidays did was set up was a great working relationship with Avon Books UK.

MW:  So what’s next for you?

SM:  I’ve sent in Give Me Till Christmas to my editor, which is scheduled for publication for Christmas this year. And I’ve begun (just) my summer 2018 book, provisionally entitled The Summer of Finding Out. Those two books are the first of a new three-book deal – and I’ve just signed the contract!

MW:  Congratulations on the new contract and, as I've just read it to critique, I can say I was very impressed with Give Me Till Christmas and I'm sure your fans will love it!

is published by Avon Books UK, HarperCollins

The #1 bestselling author returns for summer! Grab your sun hat, a cool glass of wine, and the only book you need on holiday…

In theory, nothing could be better than a summer spent basking in the French sun. That is, until you add in three teenagers, two love interests, one divorcing couple, and a very unexpected pregnancy.

Admittedly, this isn’t exactly the relaxing holiday Leah Beaumont was hoping for – but it’s the one she’s got. With her sister Michele’s family falling apart at the seams, it’s up to Leah to pick up the pieces and try to hold them all together.

But with a handsome helicopter pilot staying next door, Leah can’t help but think she might have a few distractions of her own to deal with…

A glorious summer read, for you to devour in one sitting - perfect for fans of Katie Fforde, Carole Matthews and Trisha Ashley.

Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3
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Monday, 15 May 2017

Star Wars At 40 (pop-up 2) - An appreciation of George Lucas

George Walton Lucas, Jr was born on May 14th 1944 in Modesto, California, the only son of George Walton Lucas, Sr (who owned and operated the L M Morris Stationers store) and Dorothy Lucas (nee Bomberger).  He has three sisters - Ann (born 1934), Kate (born 1936) and Wendy (born 1947) - and the family lived on a walnut ranch his father owed.  His mother suffered ill health and was often confined to bed whilst George was a child.  Fascinated by comic books and movie serials - especially Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon - Lucas was a poor student who developed a passion for cars and motor racing; during high school, he raced on the underground circuit at fairgrounds and helped out in local garages, planning to make that his career until a bad accident, three days before graduation, changed that.
George Lucas, during the filming of "The Rain People" (1968), which his award-winning documentary "Filmmaker" covered
On 12th June 1962, on his way home from Modesto library (in a last ditch effort to improve his grades), his Fiat Bianchina was broadsided by a Chevy Impala driven by a classmate.  The impact flipped the Fiat several times before the regulation racing seatbelt snapped - which it shouldn’t have - throwing him clear before the car wrapped itself around a solid walnut tree.  He was badly injured but ultimately okay, though the accident scared him.  “You can’t have that kind of experience and not feel that there must be a reason why you’re here,” Lucas told Dale Pollock in Skywalking.  “I realised I should be spending my time trying to figure out what that reason is and trying to fulfill it.”

After recovering, he attended Modesto Junior College and applied himself hard.  He also began filming car races with an 8mm camera and when talking to his school friend John Plummer, who was studying at the University of Southern California (USC), discovered the cinema school there might be easy to get into.  Through a shared interest in racing, Lucas met acclaimed cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler who was impressed with Lucas’ talent and also advised him to try USC - “George had a very good eye and he thought visually,” Wexler told Pollock.

Lucas began studying at USC in 1963, at a time when several great talents were emerging.  Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese were studying in New York, Steven Spielberg was making shorts at Long Beach State and Francis Ford Coppola’s UCLA thesis, You’re a Big Boy Now, was being turned into a studio film.  USC was something of a hub and Lucas and his classmates - including Walter Murch. John Milius, Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins, Randal Kleiser (Lucas’ room-mate), Caleb Deschanel, Howard Kazanjian, Willard Huyck and Dan O’Bannon - became known as the Dirty Dozen.  Walter Murch told Dale Pollock, “if you went and saw a student film and said, ‘Gee, this is kind of a boring film’, you just didn’t ever associate with that guy.  But if you went and saw an exciting film, you became friends with this guy.  That was the way we all got together.”

Deeply influenced by a Film Expression course, which concentrated on non-narrative elements such as colour, light, movement and time, he was inspired by the visual films from the Nation Film Board of Canada, especially Arthur Lipsett’s 21-87 (1964 - it would later become Princess Leia’s cell number).  It was “the kind of movie I wanted to  make,” Lucas said, “ a very off-the-wall, abstract kind of film.”  At USC he made several non-story films in this vein, such as Look At Life, Herbie and 1:42.08, defining himself a filmmaker rather than director, particularly interested in camerawork and editing.

With Marcia, in 1969
After graduating, he applied to join the United States Air Force as an officer but wasn’t eligible due to speeding tickets picked up in his youth and was later excluded from the draft when medical tests showed he had diabetes.  In 1967, he enrolled at USC as a graduate student and worked as a teacher for a class of US Navy students.  Using them - and their funding - he directed the short film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB which won first prize at the 1967-68 National Student Film Festival.  Earning a student scholarship from Warner Bros., he chose to observe the making of Finian’s Rainbow (1968) which was being directed by Coppola and the two men got on immediately, becoming lifelong friends.  In 1969, Lucas married Marcia Lou Griffin, also a Modesto native, who he met whilst helping celebrated editor Verna Fields cut newsreel footage.

Lucas and Coppola formed their own production company, American Zoetrope, in San Francisco, as part of their dream for making films outside the Hollywood system and exercising greater creative control over their own projects.  Zoetrope signed a deal with Warner Brothers for seven films, the first of which was THX 1138, a feature adaption of Lucas’ student film (the title, apparently, came from his college telephone number: 849-1138).  Lucas co-wrote the script with Walter Murch and the film was made between September and November 1969, filmed on location in the San Francisco area (including the unfinished tunnels of the Bay Area Rapid Transport system).  When Coppola took the completed film to Warners, they disliked it and re-edited the film in-house, incensing Lucas by cutting four minutes.  Released in March 1971, it wasn’t a commercial success and critical reception was mixed, but improved over the years and it was re-released in the wake of Star Wars (including the deleted footage) with Lucas releasing his Directors Cut in 2004.  Warners pulled their financing and American Zoetrope, vastly under-capitalised, fell apart, leaving Coppolla personally responsible for $300k of debt.  Lucas, embittered by the situation (he has never worked with Warner Brothers again) and Coppola were forced to split apart, with Francis accepting an offer from Paramount to direct The Godfather (1972).

Lucas created his own company, Lucasfilm Ltd and took some of Coppola’s advice, writing a script that would appeal to a mainstream audience by taking his cue from his teenaged years cruising in Modesto.  “Cruising was gone,” he told Marcus Hearn, “and I felt compelled to document the whole experience and what my generation used as a way of meeting girls.”
On set during the making of "American Graffiti" (1973)
Lucas co-wrote the script for American Graffiti (1973) with old friends Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz while producer Gary Kurtz eventually got Universal to finance it on a budget of $600k (raised to $775k when Coppola, hot off the success of The Godfather, agreed to co-produce).  Filming took place in Petaluma, North California from June to August 1972 and utilised a stellar cast (most taking their first steps to stardom) with old friend Haskell Wexler acting as unpaid director of photography.  Kurtz sorted the music rights, helped after old friend Brian Wilson allowed him to use the Beach Boys tracks at a reduced rate (all music publishers fell in line with this except RCA, which is why Elvis Presley doesn’t appear).  The music rights cost $90k, leaving no funds for a traditional score and so created a new kind of soundtrack, made up entirely of hit records.

Universal weren’t happy (even though Francis Coppola, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures all offered to buy the film from them) and cut three scenes (equating to four minutes) but word of mouth was good and it made over £55m on a combined budget of £1.27m.  Re-released in 1978 - with stereo sound and restored scenes - it earned a further $63m making it one of the most successful studio films ever in terms of cost-to-profit ratio.  Critically praised, it was nominated for five Oscars (but didn’t win), four Golden Globes (Paul Le Mat won Most Promising Newcomer), a BAFTA, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing and the Writers Guild of America for Best Original Comedy.
On location in Tunisia with Mark Hamill, 1976
Getting used to his newfound status and wealth, Lucas began working on his next project which had been around before Graffiti.  Originally planning to make Flash Gordon (he couldn't get the rights), he'd instead invented his own space fantasy - Star Wars - and found a willing partner in Alan Ladd jr at Twentieth Century-Fox (who didn't understand the treatment but believed in Lucas).  Wary of history, Lucas waived higher fees for writing and directing, to keep hold of more rights and protect the film from changes by the studio.
Looking glum, during filming at Elstree Studios, London, 1976
He began writing Star Wars in January 1973 (“eight hours a day, five days a week”) and came up with enough material for not only the original trilogy but a planned nine-film series.  In 1975, he established Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to produce the special effects after discovering Fox’s visual effects department had been disbanded.  Principal photography began on 22nd March 1976 in Tunisia, before moving to Elstree Studios in London and finished in July.  It was, by all accounts, thoroughly gruelling and at one point Lucas was diagnosed with hypertension and exhaustion and warned to reduce his stress level.  This wasn’t helped when it was discovered ILM were behind on their schedule - though to be fair, they were working on an unprecedented number of shots using brand new technology that, often, they’d invented themselves.  Originally planned for release at Christmas 1976, the delays pushed that back to summer 1977, adding to his stress.
Working at ILM with (from left) Richard Edlund, Jane Bay, John Dykstra, Lucas, Joe Johnston
“My main reason for making it,” he said in 1977, “was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life, the kind my generation had. We had westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things.”

Star Wars was released in the US on 25th May 1977 in 32 cinemas and immediately broke box office records, earning $1.6m in its opening weekend.  It earned $220m during its initial run and went into international release at the end of the year (the UK got it in January 1978) - by the end of 1978, it had earned $410m.  Re-released in 1978, 1979, 1981 and 1982 - with the Special Edition appearing in 1997 - it has, to date, earned over $775m worldwide ($2.5bn adjusted for inflation).  Critically praised, Star Wars was nominated for ten Oscars (won six), four Golden Globes (won two) and six BAFTA nominations (won two).  The film was also selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress in 1989.
Marcia wins the Best Editing Oscar
In late May, to escape Star Wars, George & Marcia went to Hawaii and met Steven Spielberg, who had just finished Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  As the two old friends built a sandcastle, they talked about future plans and Spielberg admitted he’d love to direct a James Bond film.  Lucas told him an idea that was “better than Bond” about an adventurer called Indiana Smith.  Spielberg liked the idea but not the name (“okay then,” Lucas apparently replied, “what about Jones?”) and signed on to direct, with Lucas co-writing the story and producing the film.  The deal he proposed was tough and only Paramount would agree to the terms, wherein they financed the $20m budget with Lucas owning over 40% of the film and collecting almost half the profits after a certain income level.

In 1978, Lucas bought the 1,882 acre Bulltail Ranch in San Rafael, with the intention of building a creative centre there, which later became the celebrated Skywalker Ranch.  The same year, he satisfied his two-film contract with Universal by producing and helping edit More American Graffiti (1979), written and directed by Bill L Norton.  It was a box office failure.

Lucas executive produced and came up with the story for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but left Lawrence Kasdan to re-write Leigh Brackett’s screenplay and Irvin Kershner to direct.  Lucasfilm funded the production with Star Wars earnings but Kershner’s directorial style meant the film went hugely over-budget and Lucas was forced to go back to 20th Century Fox for funding.  The film, however, was extremely successful and the final part of the original trilogy, Return Of The Jedi (1983) was completely funded by Lucasfilm.  Lucas was executive producer and co-wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan.
Steven Spielberg & George Lucas, 1983
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), delayed because of Spielberg’s previous directing commitments, was a great success, setting up a whole new franchise with the three sequels - Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989) and (the frankly too late in the cycle) Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) all directed by him.

Throughout the 80s, Lucas used his clout to help get several films made, often by friends, that wouldn’t have stood much chance otherwise.  Amongst others, he produced (or executive produced) Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), Lawrence Kasdan's excellent Body Heat (1981) - he didn’t take a credit as he was worried people would think the Star Wars team was now making porn, Haskell Wexler’s Latino (1985), Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986), Godfrey Reggio's Powaqqatsi (1986), Willard Huyck’s Howard The Duck (1986), Ron Howard’s Willow (1988), Don Bluth's The Land Before Time (1988) and Coppola’s Tucker: The Man And His Dream (1988).

Powerful friends indeed - from left, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese,
Brian De Palma, Lucas, Francis Coppola
Lucas was also influential behind the scenes.  In 1979 he set up the Graphics Group, a computer research division within Lucasfilm, run by Ed Catmull.  They developed the Pixar system, creating early CGI effects for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) and the group was bought by Steve Jobs in 1986 for $5m - renamed Pixar, they’ve gone on to re-define computer animation.  Lucas also helped develop industry-standard post-production equipment, like the Avid System (originally known as Edit Droid) and Sound Droid (which later became Digi-Design Pro Tools) and in 1983 set up THX Ltd with Tom Holman to produce equipment for stereo, digital and theatrical sound for films and music.

Lucas’ midas touch at the cinema in the early 80s helped build his business empire - by 1985, Lucasfilm encompassed Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound and LucasArts.   Skywalker Ranch was functioning as Lucas wanted it to - a creative think-tank as well as the base of his operations - with the land assembled over the years parcel-by-parcel (it now occupies 4,700 acres off Lucas Valley Road though only 15 acres have been developed).  Having adopted a daughter, Amanda, in 1981, Lucas’ marriage to Marcia broke down in 1983 and the divorce was finalised in 1987, resulting in him losing much of his fortune.  He was in a relationship (and engaged) for the remainder of the 80s with singer Linda Ronstadt and, as a single parent, adopted Katie (born in 1988) and Jett (born in 1993).  He and his children appear in the prequel trilogy.
Skywalker Ranch - the main house is towards the centre of the picture, above the lake
Star Wars (aside from die-hards like myself) grew dormant though interest was renewed with a Dark Horse comic line and Timothy Zahn’s Heir To The Empire trilogy.  In 1993, Variety announced Lucas would make a prequel trilogy, having enthused over the CGI possibilities seen in Jurassic Park (which Spielberg asked him to supervise in post production) and he took a sabbatical from running Lucasfilm to write the script through 1994.  In 1997, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Star Wars, the Special Edition trilogy was released to cinemas featuring digital modifications to all three films.

The Phantom Menace (1999), the first film Lucas had directed in more than twenty years, was released to incredible expectations and although a huge success financially, it didn’t fare so well with critics or original trilogy fans.  Having enjoyed the process, Lucas directed the sequels - Attack Of The Clones (2002) and Revenge Of The Sith (2005).  In 2012, he wrote the story and executive produced Red Tails, a war film based on the Tuskegee Airmen in the US Air Force during World War 2.
In Tunisia, filming "Attack Of The Clones" (2002)
Lucas married Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and chairperson of DreamWorks Animation on 22nd June 2013 at Skywalker Ranch.  Their daughter, Everest Hobson Lucas, was born by surrogate in 2013.  In January 2012, he announced “I'm moving away from the business... From the company, from all this kind of stuff” and said he would be looking to make small, esoteric films.  In June 2012, Kathleen Kennedy, a longtime collaborator of both Lucas and Spielberg, was appointed co-chair of Lucasfilm Ltd with the intention of succeeding him after a year.  On 30th October 2012, Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05bn, taking over the Star Wars and Indiana Jones brands and retaining all subsidiary companies, including Industrial Light & Magic.  The deal - paid half in cash, half in shares - made Lucas Disney’s second largest shareholder after the estate of Steve Jobs though, in a December 2015 interview, he likened his decision to sell to a “divorce”.

At the time of the sale, Lucas said “for forty-one years, the majority of my time and money has been put into the company. As I start a new chapter in my life, it is gratifying that I have the opportunity to devote more time and resources to philanthropy.”  Since 1991, his George Lucas Educational Foundation has worked to celebrate and encourage innovation in schools.  In addition, he gave $1m in 2005 to help build the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C., $180m in 2006 to USC (adding to previous donations which saw the building of the George Lucas Instructional Building and Marcia Lucas Post-Production building), $25m in 2013 to the Chicago-based not-for-profit After School Matters, of which his wife Mellody Hobson is the chair and $1m in 2016 to the Obama Foundation.  In 2015, when wealthy neighbours around Skywalker Ranch opposed plans to extend the film-making facilities, he countered with plans to build affordable housing on the land, which he would pay for himself.

Lucas has been nominated for four Academy Awards - Best Directing and Writing for American Graffiti and Star Wars - and received the Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1991.  He was a co-presenter, with Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, at the 2007 Academy Awards to present the Best Director Oscar to their friend Martin Scorsese - in the speech, Spielberg and Coppola talked about the joy of winning an Oscar, poking fun at Lucas.

The American Film Institure awarded him its Life Achievement Award in June 2005 and the Science Fiction Hall Of Fame inducted him in 2006, the second 'Film, Television and Media' contributor after Spielberg.

In July 2013 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama for his contributions to American cinema.  In October 2014 he received Honorary Membership of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, was inducted as a Disney Legend in August 2015 and in December 2015 was an honoree at the Kennedy Centre Honours.
Posing with some of the miniatures created for the Star Wars original trilogy, at the Lucasfilm Archives, 1983
Skywalking, by Dale Pollock
The Creative Impulse, by Charles Champlin
Biography at
Lifetime biography

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here