My Pop Life #219 : Work It – Missy Elliott

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Work It – Missy Elliott

Is it worth it? Let me work it
I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it

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September 2002 – Marrakesh, Morocco.  Sitting by the pool with various Max Factors – Andrew French, Eddie Osei, Israel Aduramo, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Julian Wadham, Ilario Bisi-Pedro, Billy Crawford – listening to the head honcho of Morgan Creek Mr Jim Robinson holding us in thrall with his hilarious stories as his well-endowed Asian girlfriend splashed around distractingly in the water.  Imogen Stubbs is here too, on holiday.  Stellan Skarsgard is off somewhere with director Paul Schrader whom I had auditioned for a few months ago in Shepperton Studios.

Yes. That Paul Schrader. Screenwriter extraordinaire – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Blue Collar, Obsession, The Last Temptation Of Christ.  Director of tight moral fables such as Blue Collar, Cat People, Mishima, American Gigolo.

We’re about to start shooting Dominion – a prequel to The Exorcist, in the hills to the north of this medieval city.  We can see the Atlas Mountains just to the south. It’s warm. We’re happy.

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Paul Schrader with some of Vittorio Storaro’s boys on location

I had many highlights on this job – and very few lowlights, despite the supposedly haunted nature of these films.  The original, the famous William Friedkin masterpiece came out in 1973 when I was 16, and a gang of callow youth from Lewes caught the bus into Brighton and queued outside the Odeon while being sprinkled with holy water as religious types prayed over us and the back two rows of the stalls were reserved for St John’s ambulance.  Despite the gruesome special effects – Linda Blair’s head famously revolving on her shoulders, green vomit and so on, the only time I covered my eyes was when she was take to hospital and they plunged a needle into her arm.  People carried their fainting girlfriends out. Next to me Jon Foreman, Martin Elkins, Conrad Ryle, Chris Clark laughed loudly at anything truly horrible to keep it at bay and dilute its undoubted power.  We were freaked.

Now I was getting my freak on making an Exorcist film.  Quite thrilling – this one takes place in 1947 in Turkanaland, northern Kenya where the priest Merrin (played by another Swedish actor Max Von Sydow in the original) and haunted by a WW2 massacre, is excavating a buried Christian Coptic Church when he finds something beneath the foundations…

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Clara Bellar & Stellan Skarsgard

Given that we were supposed to be in Turkanaland, the land of the Turkana, Morgan Creek had flown in 15 men from the Turkana tribe in Kenya to be in our movie. They also provided some music too because they were in a band.  Lovely fellas. I seem to remember buying each of them a watch from the market with my expenses which they accepted with grace and delight and proceeded to sell them the following day for local currency.  But the bulk of the film’s extras were local, originating from Senegal.  One Sunday we arranged a football match out on the recreation area near the hotel – Senegal v The Rest Of The World which ended up as crew & cast people from France, Morocco, Italy and England.  It was 1-1 at half time but we were over-run in the second half and lost 5-1. Just like real life !

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Billy in full gear as possessed Cheche

Up in Billy’s room we were bonding over music.  Billy Crawford is playing Cheche a young disabled boy who becomes the devil.  His face is sweet and clean and he is young and good fun, mixed-race Filipino and a pop star in Manila, although he lives in LA and sounds American.  His and my favourite song at this time is Missy Elliott’s Work It, which has just come out, and it tops all her other hits which we are also huge fans of – I Can’t Stand The Rain and She’s A Bitch and Get Ur Freak On.  There isn’t really an internet to speak of yet, but there is MTV.  So generally we get high and listen to a stereo and chat.  Missy’s videos are remarkably good though.

 

She wears expanding jumpsuits.  She is an awesome pop star. The beats, by her buddy Timbaland, are fantastic.  Her influences are global. Get Ur Freak On in particular opens in Japanese and includes an unlikely break in hindi in the 2nd verse.  Work It we obsess on however because it is brand new and also because :

Is it worth it? Let me work it
I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it

followed by

Ti esrever dna ti pilf, nwod gniht ym tup

which is the same line played backwards.  A simple trick you might think, but wow we spent quite a few stoned hours trying to actually say it.  Were we possessed by the devil?  Was she?  Remember the playout on the vinyl disc of Sgt Pepper after the final mighty chord of A Day In The Life has finally faded – sounds like something backwards – “we’ll fuck you like supermen” if you spin it back with your finger at the right speed….

Or all those heavy metal tunes with backwards growling supposed to raise Satan or one of his precious minions.  Coincidence?  Anyway. Other moments in this immense tune include the Chinese boys, her ass going aromba bomp bomp  – keep your eyes on my aromba bomp bomp and

Prince couldn’t get me change my name, papa
Kunta Kinte a slave again, no sir
Picture blacks saying, “Oh yess’a, massa”

It was an explosive song on so many levels for 2002 when she did indeed bestride the world like a colossus.

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from the album, came the single

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[Jenny and I went to see her much later in 2005 at Brixton Academy – we were very excited to see the living Missy Elliott in person – but despite a few cracking moments she didn’t deliver a great gig, spending much time inviting audience members on the stage to dance or chat shit or wiggle their arsecracks, then Missy herself wandering out into the audience – and up onto the balcony – which took at least 20 minutes out of the set.  Pretty poor all in all. A review of said gig in the NME reveals all] :

https://www.nme.com/reviews/live/reviews-nme-5188

Meanwhile back in Marrakesh I am five minutes late for the bus and get severely told off by Stellan Skarsgard who is travelling with us, not in a private sedan which is usually the way with leading actors.  In irritable early-morning Swedish-English he tells me that it is unacceptable to be five minutes late and don’t let it happen again.  He’s right of course.

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Julian, Gabriel, Stellan

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Weeks later, in the hotel bar where we all gather Every Night he has further lessons to impart :

Where were you today Ralph?  You did your shot, your close-up, all fireworks and action, then they turn around on me and there’s hardly anything going on

I blanch and think about it.  Possibly some Hollywood A-lister has previously said to me “Ralph – turn it down, it’s not your shot“, so I have got into the habit of not giving everything in my opposite number’s shot.  I’m wrong.

Ralph, the scene isn’t about you, or me.  It’s about the energy between us. So we both have to turn up every time they turn over

A valuable lesson and I love him even more.  We worked together back in 1996 in Newport, Rhode Island on Spielberg’s Amistad.  The rest of the cast are new to me apart from The Wad, Julian Wadham who I’ve met round at Richard E. Grant’s house a few times.  He’s a good man.

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Sgt Major Harris reporting to Major Granville (The Wad)

But in the end I spend most of my time with Billy Crawford and Andrew French on days off, walking around the Djma-El-Fnaa which is a medieval North African souk not just for the tourists, but displays traditions that clearly go back centuries – acrobats, snake charmers, fire-eaters and jugglers mix with the carpet & slipper sellers and the endless silk scarves. It is a wonderful place that I returned to briefly in 2005 with Stoned, my old friend Stephen Woolley’s film on the death of Brian Jones.

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with Rick Warden, Stellan Skarsgard & Andrew French

But we are filming miles away from Marrakesh. About an hour in the bus every morning and every night. In the desert, with a lunch under a tent.  I am Sgt Major Harris in the British army.  Vittorio Storaro the legendary Italian cinematographer has his huge team of assistants and students lighting the film. He does some extraordinary work and I watch mesmerised as his lights fade and rise, dip and pan with the action. So graceful, so beautiful.

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Israel Aduramo playing Jomo

Earlier in the process I had arrived with a strange rash on my chest which had started to manifest on the palms of my hands.  Given the film we were doing, certain people thought it was an Omen, or perhaps a Conjuring.  One of the British actors, Israel Aduramo offered to help me with this affliction. He came into my trailer and prayed for about twenty minutes over me.  It didn’t do anything I’m sorry to report.  when I went home that weekend a lovely woman in Brighton Miriam Greene (RIP) examined me and announced that I had a recent and temporary allergic reaction to citrus fruits.  My mother had been ill the previous month and I was under a great deal of stress.  At the same time I was drinking this new drink Oasis that had appeared  – a lemon-type refresco citrus punch full of aspartame which was addictively delicious.  I stopped it immediately along with oranges, lemons and the bells of st clementines.

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Schrader was an interesting dude.  He would meet me in the lift, look me up and down at my shirt & trouser colour combo and say “Ralph.  Red and Blue just don’t go together. Sorry“.  He would sit in a djellaba smoking a hookah and regale us with tales of Hollywood which I won’t recount here because these people are still alive.  But he had strong opinions.  Brought up as a strict Calvinist he wasn’t allowed to watch a film until he was 18.  I liked him, but he appeared to be under immense pressure.  Directors always are.  When we were in Rome towards the end of the shoot he saw me sitting in a hotel lobby reading something and came over to thank me, for “making something interesting out of what is essentially a yeoman character“.  I was pleased with this acknowledgement, and it remains the only time that anyone has used the word “yeoman” in a conversation with me.

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Earlier on, when we had checked into the Hotel Excelsior in Rome, I had a special thrill.  This was the hotel from the original film, so the rumour went, when a character goes to see the Pope in the holiest of the holies, but I can find no reference to this “scene” in any of the previous Exorcist films. We were shooting some interiors of the haunted buried pre-Coptic church in Cinecitta Studios.  I check in and was given a key to Room 666.  I decided to invite the chaps over for a quick spliff before we went out to dinner together and got a message from Gabriel Mann who was playing the priest – “Sorry Ralph but I won’t be able to come into your room.  I’m sure you’ll understand.”

After we’d finished shooting loads of stuff happened which I won’t go into here, another director (Renny Harlin) was hired and indeed another film was made, with some of the original cast, not me.  Sometime thereafter two Exorcist : Dominion movies were released.  Paul Schrader didn’t get the funds to finish his SFX or the score, or colour correction, but his, our version remained the better one of the two, and most of us were reunited in Belgium at a film festival for the film’s premiere. After the Antwerp show I travelled to Paris with Billy because he was doing a gig there.  Those were the days huh.

I saw Billy a couple of times after that but we’ve long since lost touch. I’ve seen Julian too, but none of the others I’m afraid.  I heard that Ilario passed away. That is the way of the long swim. But I cherish these memories and add them to my museum of recollections.  Go well, dear reader.

 

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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 ?