My Pop Life #146 I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – The Beach Boys

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times  –   The Beach Boys

…they say I got brains, but they ain’t doin’ me no good.  I wish they could…

Late August 2003.   On the set of Red Light Runners, Harvey Keitel kneels by the altar. Mike Madsen walks slowly up the aisle and kneels next to him.  Keitel is first to speak.

Have you come to kill me dyood ?   he says

That’s how he says it.  Dyood.  The word I wrote is dude.   It’s my screenplay and we are in The Church Of Our Most Holy Redeemer, Exmouth St, Clerkenwell.  I cannot believe my ears.  The scene continues and finishes with Madsen walking back out.  The line-up is finished and the actors go back to their trailers while the lights are assembled and the camera positions established.  Nick Egan the director and I have a quick conflab.  Did you hear what he said ?  Dyood ??   What is going on ?  Nick decides that as the writer, I will go back to Harvey’s trailer and ‘discuss his problems with him’.  So a message is sent via a runner, and five minute later I’m knocking on Keitel’s wagon.

the church interior in Exmouth St

His PA invites me in.  Within a minute it is very clear that Harvey has not read the script. He thinks he is playing an Englishman, and he thinks we talk funny.  We clear that up.  It’s dude.  DUDE.  He asks me about another line.  I explain that his character, Sandy, an ex-CIA priest with a Fagin-esque gang of street kids at his beck and call, is gay.  He is horrified.  It gets weird.  I decide to leave and get myself some breakfast.

Director Nick Egan

I report back to Nick and Michael Wearing and we at least have Mike Madsen on our side. Eventually we get a decent scene, after much huffing and puffing.  I don’t think we turned over until just before lunch though.  By now Harvey is looking over at me after they cut each take and asking “was that OK?“.  It is all quite surreal.   But Red Light Runners was a very strange experience.  See earlier blogs My Pop Life #144 and My Pop Life #145 for the early part of the story.  Nick Egan was very cool and allowed me to sit by the monitors with headphones on, despite the producer Nigel whispering in his ear “Why are you letting Ralph sit there?  It looks weak”.  Nick told him to fuck off.  The central creative team, me, Nick and Michael Wearing were tight, and we weren’t about to be split up.  Various weird things were happening, some of which I knew about and some I didn’t.  But day by day, we were making a film.  It was thrilling.  Jenny was cast.  I was staying in Nick Egan’s flat a couple of days each week rather than slog down to Brighton every day.

           

 Mike Madsen   &   Harvey Keitel

The following day we had to shoot a later scene – Madsen killing Keitel by shooting him through the confession box grille.  It was now clear that one of Harvey’s techniques was to extend the rehearsal part of the day for as long as physically possible, for literally hours at a time, so that we would go over schedule and he would get an extra day’s wages.  It’s an old shitty trick and he was running with it.  So tedious.  Madsen was getting irritable too, but he held it down.  The other issue was very simple : Harvey didn’t want to die onscreen.  He was trying to talk his way out of it at one point and we had to stand firm on the script – we’re shooting this scene, now.  Oh yes we are !  It was truly mental.  Eventually we got it in the can, a day later than scheduled.  Later, much later when Harvey had wrapped and fucked off to Italy while the hotel bill for Claridges was run up – he’d left all his stuff in there – we were shooting another scene in a hotel when Madsen talks to Harvey on the phone.  On one take Madsen lost it and said something along the lines of “I’m glad you’ve wrapped Harvey because you’re a fucking pain in the ass, not only that but I killed you and everybody is gonna know that I killed you, so fuck you.”

There is a Hollywood actor pecking-order of those who have killed, and those who have been killed.  And by whom.  Think about it.

the green dome of the British Museum from Centrepoint roof

Earlier Mike Madsen and I had shot a scene on the balcony at the top of Centrepoint at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road overlooking the British Museum, where we’d planned a major heist  (I was also in the cast).  We’d done car chases through central London, down the Embankment, Blackfriars all the way to the Millenium Dome, then an unused leftover from the celebrations.  We’d flown helicopters over the gherkin building and the river.  We’d shot the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton at a swanky art opening with the cognoscenti, a Turkish arms dealer off Green Lanes in Haringey, and a council block in Southwark with yardie gangs.  I’d had a long chat with Tricky on the top of a London bus (see My Pop Life #61) discussing Chuck D, Public Enemy and Elvis Presley (Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me) before I offered him my headphones and played him Todd Rundgren‘s  Just Another Onionhead from A Wizard, A True Star one of my top ten LPs.  I told you Red Light Runners was strange.

We’d had a Red Light Runners heist meeting in Centrepoint too, on the day when the bond company sent a man onto the set.  An interesting mix of actors : me, Madsen, Cillian Murphy, Kate Ashfield, Tricky,  Joe Van MoylandHeathcote Williams.  The DP Nick Knowland was great but (like Brian Wilson) deaf in one ear.  The Bond man was obsessed with the two Nicks not apparently communicating properly and demanded that one of them had to go.  We carried on and went to another bond company.  All films need a bond company to insure against loss, otherwise…well.  Let’s say it was a warning.

Chiswick – the CIA headquarters.  My friend Doreene Blackstock did a set visit.  Jonathan Ross and Film 2003 were there, filming interviews with the main cast and director.  Wossy was a big supporter of the project, and there was a buzz around the film by now.  We’d been filming for four weeks with two units: the main unit, and the car and stunt unit.  We had eight weeks of stuff in the can.  Roy Scheider was in town playing the CIA chief and lending an air of gravitas and utter professionalism to a scene with Madsen, Crispin Glover and Rich Hall in the HQ.

Roy Scheider, Rich Hall, Crispin Glover – the CIA

Crispin had his raw foods thanks to a lady from Birmingham we’d found specially.   But the producer Michael Casey wasn’t happy.  Stuff was going on behind the scenes, some kind of power struggle.  We still weren’t bonded.  Casey and his wife decided that day that they were personally taking over the funding of the film, and sacked all the co-producers.  They started talking about actors using the tube to get to work, sacking all the drivers, cutting corners.  Meanwhile none of us had been paid yet.  Normally on a movie the principles – the director, designer, writer, producers – get paid their fee in full on the first day of principal photography.  That day had come and gone.  It was four weeks ago in fact.  And Chris the designer decided that he wasn’t coming in on Monday unless he was paid.  It became clear that the caterer had been feeding the unit with his own money.  The word went round the set – we wouldn’t be shooting on Monday, but on Wednesday.  The schedule meant that Monday was in Salisbury, blowing up a church in the Iowa cornfields, the opening sequence and Jenny’s scenes.   Jenny had cancelled her last week on the Vagina Monologues in order to be in Red Light Runners.  We also had Peter O’Toole lined up for Salisbury Cathedral.  Now it wobbled.

Tuesday another phone call came – we wouldn’t shoot on Wednesday but the following Monday.  Then another call.  Then another.  Then another.  After two months of this Nick Egan flew back to Los Angeles, leaving his suits and luggage in the rented flat where he’d been staying and which was now locked by the landlords because they hadn’t been paid either.

Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself and what goes wrong ?

O cuando sere? Un dia sere” (“When will I be? One day I will be”)

Sometimes I feel very sad…

Originally I chose 2+2=5 for this story, because that was the feeling, and it was a 2003 song.  But it’s a Thom Yorke song about society, about passivity and 1984 so it was rejected for an ironic Hey Ya by Outkast, also a 2003 hit.  But it wasn’t right either.  Next up was Bowie’s Quicksand because that line

Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief…

was my primary feeling to emerge from this fiasco.  But that song doesn’t line up either and deserves better than this story.  I didn’t want to write another film, or a play, or anything.  My friends in StompLuke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas actually did commission a script in November from me, like a soft landing, that’s for another story, and after that another half-hearted film which flickered briefly and fell.  But my heart wasn’t in it, and in many ways still isn’t.  How easily discouraged I am.  How fragile the ego.  Where’s the resilience, the iron will, the inner strength.  No idea.  I squashed it I think.  I felt weak, I felt destroyed to be honest.  Devastated.

In the end I’ve gone for a Pet Sounds song from 1966, a very personal brave lyric from Tony Asher and Brian Wilson about Brian feeling that he was too advanced musically for his band The Beach Boys and that he was literally living in the wrong era.  It doesn’t fit either, but many of the lines kill me to this day, and the feeling is right.   It’s a mournful, rich, delicate ethereal song that is somehow true.   By then the Brighton Beach Boys, my beautiful tribute band were learning this number and preparing to unleash it with string quartet and horns and full harmonies.  It’s a tricky beast to learn but when we committed to it, it was and is glorious.  A mighty tune about disappointment, with oneself, with life, and everything.

Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into…

I had the golden ticket but it was fake.  No film.  No money.  No explanation.

The American actors got paid – Mike Madsen, Harvey Keitel, Roy Scheider, Crispin Glover. The Screen Actors Guild deal protects actors from this kind of thing, which isn’t actually that rare sadly.  Equity, the British equivalent of SAG, is hopeless.  Since living in the USA I have found that the Unions here have far more power than their British counterparts.

Michael Wearing

I was told by Michael Wearing later as the phone calls became fewer that Casey and his wife had decided to take over, sack the entire crew and re-employ them on worse rates.  As a hotel builder,  which is what he did before becoming a “Film Producer”- sorry a little bit of sick just came into my mouth – this was his mode-d’emploi – sack the workforce and undercut their wages.  It might work in the building trade in Portugal but it wasn’t going to wash in the film industry.  Then they started hawking the film around to other co-producers but if you collapse a film half-way through without paying key personnel, you essentially own a debt.  Who wants to buy that ?  It was over and the hope dwindled week by week, like water wearing down a stone.  It was a tunnel with no light at the end.

But things could always be worse.  The designer, Chris, clearly had other issues.  He was involved in a messy divorce apparently, and within weeks of the film closing down he had set light to a set building in our base at Three Mill Island, fire brigade were called but it was destroyed.  He then shot and killed his son, and himself.  Tragic.

The rest of us just carried on living, a little more cynical, a little more beaten down, a little more angry inside, but we carried on.  Anyone working in the film industry – this business we call ‘show’ – has dozens of stories like this.  I have at least a dozen.  This one perhaps the worst.  I still feel bitter about it.   But it’s just a film after all.   And I’m still here.

London now from the top of Centrepoint

And somehow matching this beautiful sad song with this moment of devastation makes me feel a little more healed.  This is the power of music.  If anyone knows and practises the healing power of music it is the fragile genius of Brian Wilson.  This may be his best piece of work.   In 2011, Brian said: “It was like saying: ‘Either I’m too far ahead of my time’ or ‘I’m not up to my time.’ … [The feeling has] stayed the same … a little bit, in some ways not … [but now] I do feel I was made for these times.

My Pop Life #144 : Flowers In The Window – Travis

Flowers In The Window   –   Travis

It’s yet another song with seagull noises in it.  I’m collecting them.  One of the great things about living in Brighton is the quality of live music there.  The Brighton Beach Boys were formed after many a joyful Monday night in The Dragon in St George’s Road watching Stephen Wrigley and Adrian Marshall play 90 minutes of pop music, inviting punters to come to the mic and sing.  Drink + music = joy.  Once the band was up and running, gigging, rehearsing regularly I had the impertinent hubris to feel as if I could play in the pub too.

So I got a regular, or perhaps irregular Monday night gig in The Robin Hood on the border of Hove, a charity pub (Britain’s first!) with a benign and knowledgeable landlord in the form of Neil Hayward, brother to Paul, sports writer and Albion fan.  The BBBs had the residency and we took it in turns to play two-handers.  I played with Adrian Marshall himself on the bass and bvs, and when we went to look at a set-list there were a list of my favourite things I could already play :  Golden Lady, The Man With The Child In His Eyes, Julia, Sunny Afternoon and then a bunch of newer songs – it’s good to stay contemporary in the pub rock game.  So we chose this song by Travis, and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful because I wanted to appear open-minded (and because I secretly loved it) and some Ben Folds and Todd Rundgren too.  In the end you’re just plonking away while people drink and chat, the living background music, but it is an honourable profession and I felt like I needed to do it for some inner compulsive reason.  I took to it pretty well, the amp broke down on the first gig and Ade took about 20 minutes fixing it.  I had no sustain pedal, and David Keys (thanks David) mentioned that it might be a good idea to get one.  Despite these handicaps I still enjoyed the gig in a nerve-wracked kind of way.   Flowers in the Window stayed in the set and we played it every gig, people loved it.  It was from the third LP by Travis, effortless pop brilliance from a Scottish four-piece gathered about the person of Fran Healy, songwriter and lead vocalist.

I’d bought the 2nd album The Man Who in 1999 with its gracious songwriting and harmonised easy pop  – Driftwood, Turn and the inescapable Why Does It Always Rain On Me?  There is a sweet jangly flow to their songs which sounds easy, but is rare in music, because it’s not as easy to write as it is to listen to.

The third album The Invisible Band came out in late 2001, with lead single Sing, but Flowers In The Window was in the charts as a single in April 2002.  I was playing it in the pub late in 2002 into early 2003.

Around this time we had a place in Los Feliz in LA, and went back and forth.    We’d found it through a contact of Gwen Wynne‘s.  It was the top floor of a rambling mansion at the bottom of beautiful Griffith Park, right on the corner of Western Avenue and Los Feliz Boulevard.  We were in the treetops, with squirrels, birds and magnificent butterflies as company.  Old school Los Angeles, wooden floors, tiled bathrooms, overgrown back garden that stretched back up the hill.  We could walk to the shops but we never did.  Our landlords, a lovely old Hollywood couple called Patrick and Alma Sexton, lived below us.  Patrick had Parkinsons Disease which caused mini-earthquakes to his left arm from time to time.  He also had a thin Clark Gable-esque white moustache on his top lip and a twinkle in his eye. He was the most charming cultured man.  Alma his wife was a naturalised Mexican, but you’d never know from superficial contact, only after she’d told us their story, and she was just a dear. We would walk down the stairs and hang out and talk with them from time to time, go out for meals now and again.  They would leave us a bottle of wine if we’d been away for a few weeks.  It was a dream house, expensive yes, but beautiful.  We had close friends Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading just down the road from us.  Convivial.  At that point we were essentially commuting between Brighton and LA.

Then early in 2003 Catherine Wearing‘s dad Michael asked me if I wanted to take a look at a rewrite on a project he was involved with producing.  Catherine was our friend from London days – us in Archway Rd, she in Finsbury Park and we stayed in touch regularly – she would come down to our Brighton parties, we would go up to hers for screenings of things she was producing for the BBC.  Michael Wearing had been a top producer at the Beeb since the late 70s and made his name with Edge Of Darkness and Boys From The Blackstuff, and carried on as Head of Series at the Beeb and Our Friends In The North.   He needed a writer, and bless her cotton socks, Catherine had suggested me.  I wasn’t brand new (don’t forget) – this was two years after New Year’s Day (see My Pop Life #75) was finally released (and seven years after it was written) and I’d also just finished writing a commissioned film about Howard Marks called High Times which despite being the finest screenplay I’ve ever created remains unmade.  And unpaid.  Another story.  So.  Michael and I had a meeting in London and he handed me a mess of a screenplay entitled Red Light Runners.  At its core was a brilliant film idea – but the script delivered nowt but cliches, risible dialogue and non-sequiturs.  I said I’d take a look.

The Groucho Club, 45 Dean St, London

A few weeks later I was sitting in a room at The Groucho Club pitching my version of the story to the producers: Michael, Nigel Warren-Green, Marcus Vinton and Mark O’Sullivan, and the director Nick Egan.  I was confident and, in retrospect, at 46 years old, at the top of my game.  Flowers In The Window.  I think it may have been peak Brown to be honest.  April 2003.  I had been a member of Groucho since 1989.  I’d just done a film in Morocco and Rome with Paul Schrader, my own band were learning Pet Sounds after being inspired by the Brian Wilson resurgence, my nephew Thomas Jules had just been in the charts with his pop band 3rd Edge.  Supergrass and Cate Blanchett lived down the road.   The music of 2002 had been all positive (no it wasn’t said Skippy) – Groove Armada, Justin Timberlake, Queens Of The Stone Age, Norah Jones, Flaming Lips, Electric Soft Parade, Common, N.E.R.D.   Live LPs from Ben Folds and Brian Wilson, the latter almost a miracle moment.  And I’d done my first TV show in Los Angeles in 2002 – The Agency for CBS, only one episode, but I felt that I existed on many planes of existence and that all was well.   Not all – that’s impossible, because I have bipolar disturbance which means that anxiety goes up and down, anger rages around then turns to depression, regardless of pubs and other distractions.  But if I’m working, I don’t usually have time to be depressed.  Futile perhaps, but not usually the full darkness.  This was as good as it gets.

Travis

I felt the meeting had gone well.  I’d come up with a decent new plot involving an ex-CIA gay Fagin-esque priest in London, a manhunt, and yardie gangs all circulating what was essentially a heist in the British Museum.  A phone call from Michael confirmed I was to rewrite the screenplay.  We agreed a fee and I was flown down to Cannes that May to meet Michael Madsen complete with black cowboy boots and cultivated ‘cousin-of-elvis’ image.  He was already cast as Killian.  And Michael Casey – the money.  The hype had started.  Talk of sponsors, money, meals, champagne, everything was free.  To those who can afford it of course.

Michael, Nick and I sat down and thrashed out some wrinkles together in Cannes and in London, and then it was down to me to produce something.

Looking down Western Avenue from Los Feliz Boulevard

Later that May Jenny and I flew to Los Angeles and I sat down in the Los Feliz treetops at the desk we had just bought and I wrote my version of Red Light Runners.  This often meant lighting up a spliff at 8 in the morning with my coffee – because I write best in the morning.  And in those days, I wrote best on spliff.  The spliff undoes knots in the plot, speeds things up a bit.  Unblocks the stupid fucking brain.  There was usually a sag, a dip, a plunge, a decline in the mid-afternoon, which is organic and natural, so we’d go out shopping or something, or sit on the sun terrace in the treetops then I’d get back on it at 6pm through to sundown or later.  On a fucking roll.  Such a great feeling when the top of your head becomes a huge funnel into which the universe is pouring itself, everything now and ever is grist to your particular subjective all-encompassing mill.  I’ve felt it about a dozen times in my life so far, and it is thrilling, fulfilling and magical.  WRITING.  I don’t actually know why I’ve carried on acting when the writing is so Right, but perhaps it will become clear.   At some point we had dinner on Sunset Strip with Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais the British writing team who created The Likely Lads and Porridge among other gems.  They were introduced to us by Neil Morrissey who was in LA with his new girlfriend Emma Killick, talking to Dick and Ian about writing a film called Baker Street.   Dick Clement in particular was charming and twinkly, and shared this nugget with me, and he was serious : “Never tell the producers how long it takes you to rewrite a scene“.  I agreed with him.  We remembered (although neither of us were there) the old writing rooms in the Hollywood Studios in the 1940s when the writers had to sit at their desks from 9-5 every day churning it out.  So I won’t tell you how long it took me to write Red Light Runners.  And I won’t tell you how much I got as an advance either.  But I delivered the screenplay later that spring.  And it was, within months, greenlit. We were up and running.

And although my special talent in life is to find the worst in any situation, to be in-un-endingly half-empty, to seek out the meaningless darkness behind a beautiful sunset, I will resist that instinct for once and allow that moment to be perfect.   I think Flowers In The Window is probably the happiest song I know.   It’s so hard to be happy isn’t it ?