Disney/Act of Valor helmer Scott Waugh has signed up to direct the Hollywood feature film of my first international book, Outlaws Inc.
Incredibly exciting news in Deadline magazine, as it’s been announced that the director of last year’s sleeper Navy SEAL hit Act of Valor, Scott Waugh, is to direct. The team at Thunder Road Pictures behind the Outlaws Inc. film has also announced that the film is also fully financed by Fundamental Films. Basil Iwonyk and Mark Gao are to produce.
Scott Waugh is one of Hollywood’s hottest, with Disney’s Need For Speed and Act Of Valor both doing the business. There are a few more developments, including some very exciting news on casting for Outlaws Inc., but I’m sworn to secrecy for the time being.
About to throw this broken table football game out, I took one last look – this time, from the players’ point of view.
Everything can look confused, urgent, overwhelming and dramatic if you get sucked in too close to the action. Existentialist writer and philosopher Albert Camus once said, “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I know it from football.” Camus was also a goalkeeper. Look at this picture, taken from behind the goalkeeper; then picture the game from where you’d play it, holding the handles.
The tension between those two points of view drives Camus’ The Outsider (below): between the antihero Mersault’s killing of a man, and society’s judgement.
It’s no coincidence that the other great existentialist murder story (it’s the opposite of a mystery; you always know exactly whodunnit. It’s a whydunnit, maybe?) is called The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty – famous as Wim Wenders’ 1972 film (below), adapted from Peter Handke’s 1970 book.
The moment of the shot, and what comes next. Look at it from that goalkeeper’s point of view.
That shot. The next second. Life coming at you, thick and fast, non-stop, in the shape of sudden, sometimes seemingly random, arbitrary or inexplicable events. Which way will you dive? Do you decide, or does it just happen? Is that part of the game – the penalty – something you can direct, or is it being done to you?
Knowing it’s both at the same time – knowing you are at all times both inside the goalmouth awaiting what comes and dealing with the shots, and viewing the game from above, holding the handles – is consciousness. It’s the goalkeeper’s terrible burden, like it’s all of ours. But it’s salvation too – if you can take that high view when it matters, learn to switch focus, and zoom in and out at the right moment.
There’s a lot of noise about Jurassic World cleaning up in cinemas right now. But what about the real back story? Back in the 1990s, Jurassic Park was – unlikely as it might seem – part of the same global breakdown as grunge and the Berlin Wall.
With hindsight, the 1990s’ great theme was refusal; the decade’s core act was not the salute, but the shrug. The ironic, the uncommitted, were about to take over the world.
Across the world, and in Britain more than anywhere, the coming decade was to be a fruitful time for creative, public quitters. On my return in late 1990, I started collecting resignations and analysing their backgrounds in earnest. It wasn’t easy, simply because over here, too, there were suddenly so many flying around. Thatcherism was imploding, with Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe taking turns at playing Mark Antony and Brutus with their own parting shots. Then, as recession hit Britain and the West, and the eighties achievers’ party hit the buffers, it was business’s turn. These were not the quiet goodbyes of yesteryear, but great, furious, splattering media events.
This was the dawning of a great age of corporate dissent.
In the West, the slackers wandered off the career path with a shrug – their anti-aspiration the mirror image of all those refuseniks in the East now discovering the joys of consumer society – while Adbusters’ subversive ‘truth in advertising’ defacement campaigns echoed the theatrical marginalia of the Berlin Wall’s Eastside Gallery. Self-empowerment was in, and suddenly no soap opera, cabinet meeting, movie, international summit or AGM was complete without a grandstanding declaration of independence.
Climactic, public resignations became a powerful international currency, everywhere from Wall Street to Hollywood. The era’s defining movies – Slacker (1991), The Firm (1991), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), A Few Good Men (1992), Groundhog Day (1993), Clerks (1994), even Jurassic Park (1993), all feature stars plotting and rehearsing their eventual break from the hypocrisy, villainy or empty repetition of their professional roles.
(Surely a candidate for least likely resignation speech in history is the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park: Richard Attenborough’s park boss, micro-managing every aspect of the lives of the revenue-generating animals inside his hermetically sealed biodome, is as clear an early-1990s everyboss or Iron Curtain dictator as ever lived, with his insistence that everyone could be bought, and his creation of minutely surveilled spaces for workers, human and reptile alike.
It’s great fun to watch it now as Berlin Wall or corporate allegory: the literal iron curtain keeping humans and dinos apart! Jeff Goldblum’s ominous soliloquy on chaos! The heroes’ suspicion of being co-opted into branded ideology! It’s no coincidence that when they rebel, the animals not only wreck the commercial plan, but vandalise his company’s iconic logo. As T. Rex tears apart the logos on the branded Jurassic Park hoardings in the final scene, he becomes the movie’s anti-corporate hero; its Adbuster; he gives his notice with a roar of independence that brings the whole venture crumbling down. The inhabitants have wrestled their own land back.)
By 1993, ‘getting on’ in your job had come to look, at least in pop-cultural terms, very much like being suckered. Irvine Welsh’s sarcastic jab at aspirational eighties consumerism in his bestseller of that year, Trainspotting – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham! T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – became a pop-culture mantra, appearing on albums, club singles, and finally on T-shirts of its own: ‘Choose life. Choose a job . . . Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future.’
Pop culture’s superstars were Homer Simpson and Kurt Cobain, its key image the swimming baby chasing a dollar. Beck defined the mood with ‘Loser’ (1994), and vowed he wasn’t ‘going to work for no soul-sucking jerk’ on an album that seemed to dramatise quitting jobs (blowing leaves/washing dishes/putting chicken in a bucket with a soda/whatever) over and over again, while Rage Against The Machine created the ultimate ’90s chorus with ‘Killing In The Name’’s “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” (1992).
The 1990s revolution was not about the fall of communism: it was about the realization by people all over the world that being a committed swallower of the post-war company line didn’t deliver what it promised. The ’80s contract, here as in the stagnating East, was a dud. The hour of the workplace dissident, the self-immolating truth-bomber, had come at last.
And in a lot of ways, Maïdan is that document. The cameras are simply installed, and left to run, picking up the crowd, in parts and whole. There is no narrator. Or at least, not of the kind of narrator we’re used to in films. More of that in a moment.
In some ways, it’s as much a video installation piece as a film. I actually think the cinema is the wrong place for it: for my first viewing, I sat and watched. It was a strange, gripping but occasionally frustrating experience. For my second, I watched while pottering about, eating and wandering in and out… And it was amazing.
It’s a film that invites you to be part of it, in an almost ambient, inclusive way. For long stretches, it even feels like those long, late-night live-broadcast hours they used to do from the Big Brother house outside of scheduled programme time. There’s a screen between you, but there might as well not be. Life is being lived, sandwiches eaten, tea drunk on both sides of the glass. You feel like following buskers past the edges of the frame as they wanderout of shot. Faces in the crowd peer out at points just past your shoulder. But then suddenly – very suddenly – things turn. And by that time, you’re… what… tuned in and on their wavelength somehow. You feel involved, without being offered easy hooks, personal stories, heroes. No leading men or ladies, no leading politicians. You are one of the crowd.
In particular, what struck me about the protestors is just how sauntering and adhoc and TheMouse That Roared it all was. Hot drinks are clutched, volunteers make soup. Community centres, street corners become meeting places. They look, for the most part, like people with jobs, and mums and dads, and wholesome aspirations. People like us. Of course, that’s just how they look, and talk, and act. And amid all the noise, that’s all we have to go on. We don’t know them. We don’t follow them as individuals. There are no emblematic stories. It’s as if to say that emblematic stories have caused enough problems already. As a voice cries over the PA when imploring the crowd to remain calm even as the violence begins: “Emotion is your enemy.”
Maïdan’s insistence on not entering the mad arms race of over-narration and assertion and theorising all sides were/are being sucked into around Ukraine really does feel like the only sane thing to do.
I think that act of asking us to look and see what’s happening, and getting out of the way, is an absolute masterstroke.
Maïdan is not bums-on-seats, Hollywood-style commercial dynamite. And yet it feels like something people will return to for far longer. It feels, at times, like we’re seeing cinema stretching itself again, in ways that will have value in decades to come, like TheBattle Of Algiers or even Eisenstein.
Of course, those are hardly examples of POV-free filmmaking. Which is, I guess, the twist.
Nothing is really that simple. Loznitsa shot more than a hundred hours of footage. We get two. Maybe Maidan does have more in common with narrated or polemical collages like Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake after all.
For me, though, this is where Maïdan gets really interesting. In fact, the longer it goes on, the more snatches of PA appeals for doctors, crowd chants, half-conversations-in-passing, painted slogans, odd shouts, noises off, radio pop songs and so on you hear, the more that circus of voices becomes the chorus, the narrator. It felt at times like those great Robert Altman films, M.A.S.H. (narration comes from tannoy), Nashville (chorus/narration comes from overheard snatches of event PA/DJs on the radio), Short Cuts (character scenes are accompanied by TVs on which you overhear news bulletins of the impending earthquake and crime stuff) etc. If it’s a composition of broken voices in an hour of chaos, maybe it’s our, or Ukraine’s version of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.
But even if it is a collage, a composition, it’s one that leaves you alone for long periods, including extraordinarily long static shots.
There are no characters. No individual stories are asked to be emblematic of the whole. The subject is the crowd, and your responses to it. And while the camera is there, trained on the square or the refectory like a CCTV or weathercam, there’s no-one telling you what to think. You’re forced to pick your way through those voices and faces and messages… watch, listen and interpret which way things are about to turn as you watch the crowd at that moment. The crowd is all.
We don’t get to see inside anyone’s head. We’re among strangers. The anthem swells and disappears. People read demands to Putin. People talk about what Putin’s said back. People make and eat sandwiches. Mill about. Someone strums a guitar. There are moments when it feels closer to the infamous, unreleasable outtake-as-feature footage that made up Robert Franks’ Rolling Stones doc Cocksucker Blues, or Bob Dylan’s abandoned ’66 tour chronicle Eat the Document than anything else. Aimlessness as purpose. Chaos as direction. Crowd as motivational force.
In fact, for the most part – including the endless lulls, the itch to interpret someone coming towards us as a sign that ‘things are about to happen’, the comic moments, the slow-train-crash horror of things turning ugly and uncontrollable, whatever we intend – really is just like being part of a big demonstration/protest crowd. Key events are happening are out of sight. You hear that they’ve happened, or may be about to happen, elsewhere. You’re always reading the mood of the people around you and seeing how things are about to turn/who to be close to and who not/what happens next should someone kick off, etc.
This is a huge part of what I take from the film. The beginning really immerses you – sort of stretches your idea of what to expect I think. It’s like those long, fixed-camera hours broadcast live from the Big Brother house, or Andy Warhol films. You start getting itchy feet, thinking ‘When is something going to happen? Why all the waiting around in one place, camera?’ And of course that’s very much the start of any movement, if I recall my Iraq Demo, Occupy and Poll Tax Protest days right.
Maybe no-one telling you what to think is the point about revolutions. And about Maïdan. It’s messy. It’s bewildering.
And it might only make sense later, when it’s slipping away again.
Back in 1998, I was part of a team of academics, medics, journalists and psychonauts who created a TV documentary series called Sacred Weeds.
Over the years, the series has since become something of a cult item. First shown on Channel 4 in the UK and syndicated around the world, Sacred Weeds examined a different psychoactive plant or fungus – Blue Lily, Henbane, Fly Agaric, Salvia Divinorum – in each of its four hour-long programmes.
The premise was simple. Each of the ‘weeds’ is used in shamanic rituals somewhere in the world. Our job was to investigate their properties using research, anecdote, laboratory testing, and finally self-administration.
Everything was carefully regulated. There were psychiatrists; risk assessments; special import licences; an American ethnobotanist called Daniel Siebert; and a resident cultural archaeologist, Dr Andrew Sherratt. We hired out Hammerwood Park, a near-derelict old stately home near East Grinstead that had once been Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s retreat. We stayed there, slowly working our way through the weeds: their histories, their mythologies, their effects.
I was chronicling the production, as well as participating. I remember everything about my own turn as guinea-pig very clearly. But I only discovered the programme on YouTube recently. I present ‘my’ episode – in which I took my turn to be lab-rat for the Salvia Divinorum test – in its entirety at the top of this post. And if you just want to know what a brush with Salvinorin A looks like (how it feels is an entirely different ballgame) the crucial point in the test is below.
In posting this, I hope I can steer a few people towards the Sacred Weeds DVD. Its on-sceeen graphics are of their time, and for those of us who were there, it feels like there was so much more explored than made the edit.
Still, there’s also an almost Open University seriousness to it that feels oddly fresh all these years later. There are no celebrities undertaking personal journeys. It’s not in a challenge format. People speak, and finish what they say, before the camera moves on. And for me, it’s that – and not the on-screen taking of psychotropic drugs – that feels most edgy today.
The Merchant of Death, behind bars in Thailand (Used by kind permission, from the film ‘The Notorious Mr Bout’)
The 90-minute documentary is produced and directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin and Tony Gerber, whose latest film on Pussy Riot won international acclaim and was banned in Russia. Its screening at Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival in Utah this January comes in advance of its international release and tour of European and American festivals.
The film follows the rise and fall of Viktor Bout – family man, polyglot, raconteur, and the world’s most notorious smuggler of illicit arms, currently serving time in a US jail – from Soviet military days to Africa, Afghanistan, through his arrest in Thailand for offering to supply arms to Colombia’s FARC rebels, to his conviction in a New York courtroom and beyond.
It’s exciting news here, and if you’re interested in organised crime, arms trafficking, the violent chaos of the Soviet breakup, modern terror tactics or the shadow world uncovered in Outlaws Inc, my guess is you’ll love it.
It promises to be a great film, and I’m making myself available for interview and comment both around the Sundance schedule and through the year’s releases. Just contact me via the comments, or on Twitter, where I’m @MattPotter.
As things progress, I’ll be working on the project as Consultant Scriptwriter. So it’s all pretty exciting. And it’s thanks in large part to my agent, Humfrey Hunter, and film/TV rights agent, Rebecca Watson at Valerie Hoskins Associates. (See, I’m doing the Oscar Speech Thing already.) Rebecca is the lady who represents Fifty Shades Of Grey, so the studios seemed to take her calls for some reason.
Now, where will we get all the Russian planes for the movie, cheap? Oh hang on, I know just the people…