Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on September 25, 2011
Both are English, but the title is a trick question. To be more accurate, it would read: “What should H.G. Wells and Wallace and Gromit have had in common?” Around the mid-1990′s a very interesting project almost saw the light of day: a faithful film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds that was to fuse the talents of Aardman Animations and director Alex Cox. “It would have been the biggest project I’d ever done,” says the director. Sadly, the whole enterprise was torpedoed by one musician. I recently sat down with the director for more details to this story.
Keelsetter: Posting as I do here for TCM under the guise of a Morlock, which was a creature invented by H.G. Wells, I was fascinated to hear of a faithful film adaptation for The War of the Worlds that was to have been directed by you and that would have used the talents of Aardman Animations. We should clarify this further, because I’m guessing that what most people will think of is a Wallace and Gromit-like movie full of stop-motion and claymation that goes on from beginning to end. But if you were attached to direct, clearly there were different ideas for the execution of this film. Tell me more about how it came about, and what you had in mind.
Alex: This story begins with me as a little boy reading H.G. Wells, but it ends with the words “No Beatles for you,” for reasons that will soon become apparent…
I think H.G. asked of his brother Frank: “What would it be like if we here in the British empire were suddenly on the receiving end of a colonial war for our resources?” So that was one of the things that was very interesting to me about War of the Worlds, that it did a reversal, in a political way, that made me think about what would it be like if the shoe was on the other foot. Also: I detest Merchant Ivory… so the idea of doing a Merchant Ivory film where then the aliens come and fry it all and set fire to all those lovely manors, and those beautiful homes, gardens, and they destroy the flower of English manhood – it would just be a wonderful film to make. It would be an anti-Merchant Ivory film about the destruction of Edwardian England, which is something usually celebrated by sentimental English cinema with an eye toward the American market. That was the reason that Margaret Matheson, the producer, became excited about it.
Keelsetter: Tell me more about her role.
Alex: She was instrumental in the beginning of my career, and Stephen Frears career, Julien Temple, Alan Clarke… she gave a bunch of up-and-coming film directors their beginnings and she was the executive producer of Sid & Nancy (uncredited) and co-producer with Tod Davis on Revenger’s Tragedy. She also recently did Sleep Furiously.
Alex (cont.) Anyway, we both wanted to see Edwardian England set afire by Martian tripods, and I had read an interview with the former politician and author Michael Foot where he said in the interview that his book on H.G. Wells could at-last be published sometime in the early ’90′s. And the reason his book could finally be published was because Wells’ writings were about to fall in the public domain in Britain. They were already in the public domain almost everywhere else in the world, but in England copyright rules are a bit different. There, his work was still under copyright. So we thought we’d just wait a year (for it to finally fall into public domain) so as to really give it an English identity.
Keelsetter: It’s been said that H.G. Wells’ vision, first printed in 1898, anticipated the World Wars that followed in terms of the scope of destruction suddenly visited upon an empire nation. At this point I will have to admit that at first it struck me as a bit odd that you would want to helm such an operation, but then it occurred to me that there is a bit of overlap between you and H.G. Wells. You’re both British. You both have written about time machines. You’re both…
Alex: Socialists! (Laughs.)
Keelsetter: I was going to say free-thinking progressives, albeit in H.G. Wells’ case he later became more of a war proponent.
Alex: If we’d been caught up in the Spanish Civil War or WWII I think we’d have had a hard time not getting caught up in the wave of wanting to see fascism destroyed. How could you not? Orwell, for example, was very hostile toward communism as a result of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Had we lived through the 1930′s we’d have definitely worked for the Allies – you’d have been mad not too.
Keelsetter: Whose idea was it to get in touch with Aardman Animations?
Alex: That was mine. I suggested to Margaret that we should do it and she said “of course.”
Keelsetter: Was claymation to be involved?
Alex: No claymation involved. They were to be the Ray Harryhausen of the proceedings. I was to be Nathan Juran.
(Ed. note: Juran was the director of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and First Men in the Moon, both of which Harryhausen worked on, and among many other titles Juran directed.)
Keelsetter: So Aardman Animations wouldn’t have just been animating the Martian tripods. They would have been responsible for all the scenes of destruction.
Alex: Yes, they were to be the special-effects guys behind the tripods, the burning horizons, the sinking of the HMS Thunder Child, all that. I was going to direct the actors and all the little guys running around the deck of the Thunder Child as it sunk. I would have offloaded all the visual aspects to Aardman. They were brilliant at that. Some of the backgrounds in Wallace and Gromit are the best thing in it. When they’re on the streets and you see the English back-to-back houses falling away down the hill it looks like a Ridley Scott commercial for Brown Bread circa 1966.
Keelsetter: Was Aardman Animations fully on board with the project?
Alex: Yeah, yeah, yeah – they were going to do it.
Keelsetter: What about the finances?
Alex: We were going to worry about that later. Our numeric value, or rating, was much higher back in those days so we could have gone to either the BBC or Channel 4. The script would have been a breeze because it would have been a mini-series… a four-parter.
The European Commission, which is an unelected body that exists to prevent any possibility of democracy in the European Union, changed the copyright laws to add 20 years to the duration of the copyright law, so that all the work that was about to fall into the public domain stayed in copyright for another 20 years. This was a huge shock to us because we’d been planning on embarking on this great big project… It would have been the biggest project I’d ever done.
But all of a sudden we were stymied by copyright law, and only stymied in England because England was one of the few countries where The War of the Worlds was still under copyright. So we then had to look for who was the owner of the copyright in order to attempt to make a deal with him and proceed with our project.
The rights to The War of the Worlds are currently owned or optioned by an individual by the name of Jeff Wayne. Jeff Wayne was the triangle-player in the Electric Light Orchestra – a tragic band that never did any good work… Hippies in the seventies with multi-colored hair. (Pauses to rethink… ) Okay, not Roy Wood. Roy Wood was a hippie that may have founded the Electric Light Orchestra and then left, like Peter Gabriel in Genesis. I like Peter Gabriel but don’t much care for Genesis.
(Ed. note: Roy Wood was indeed a member, co-founder, and songwriter to E.L.O. He left in 1972 to form Wizzard. On an H.G. Wells related note: he later contributed vocals on one track to Rick Wakeman’s The Time Machine. I can’t find any evidence Jeff Wayne ever played the triangle, cow-bell, or anything else for E.L.O., so can’t help but wonder if Alex is confusing him with other E.L.O. co-founder Jeff Lynne, who also later went on to score Xanadu. Jeff Wayne did play the Moog synthesizer on David Essex’s Rock On album, so perhaps he contributed some rainy-day Moog work on an E.L.O. tour somewhere, but that would be conjecture only.
Addendum, 9/26/11: Alex emailed me this morning to say: “I believe your research is accurate and if you don’t mind I would like to add an apology to Messrs. Wayne, Lynn and Wood and all other members of the ELO for claiming Wayne was one of their number.”
Alex (cont.): So anyway, this Jeff Wayne had this one thing going: a concept for a stage musical for The War of the Worlds which was going to star David Essex and the ghost of Richard Burton. Richard Burton had died, but they’d taped his voice before he died and they were going to use his voice as the narrator of this very expensive musical.
Keelsetter: It sounds like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Alex: And it would have failed for the same reasons in terms of the mechanical stuff being too large for a touring show. It would have had to stay in one place and been hugely expensive.
Keelsetter: But they did it, right?
Keelsetter: I thought there was a tour.
Alex: They made a music CD with the voice of Richard Burton. If it’s on Wikipedia bear in mind that Jeff Wayne may be creating the Wikipedia entry for this tale. It never existed as the originally conceived stage show. Margaret and I went to meet Jeff Wayne to talk to him about us buying the rights off of him. He was convinced that his musical was going to happen, that it was just a matter of time even though it’d been many years that he’d been pursuing it and renewing the option. He gave us the CD, which I gave to Dan Wool, a professional film composer in the United States. I’m not competent to judge music so I asked him what he thought of it. He said it was one of the worst things he’d ever heard, just a bunch of notes in a row.
Keelsetter: For lack of better words, Jeff Wayne Cox-blocked the project.
Alex: He locked it up. Only because he had the British rights. The American rights were free-and-clear. We couldn’t make it with American money, because we weren’t trying to make an American film. We were trying to make an English-country, London-based, nightmare-horror, Martian-invasion film.
(Editor’s note: A YouTube clip for Jeff Wayne’s musical orchestration is available at very bottom of this post, and even as of this year was playing to live audiences. It appears to feature some “motion-capture technology projected as a 3-D hologram” – aka: Richard Burton’s disembodied head floating on a screen – along with some props, a big orchestra, and a few other things. When I told Alex about this later he reminds me that this is still not the originally designed huge animatronic project that Wayne originally had in mind. That a multi-media orchestration to The War of The Worlds does exist does not refute the obvious: why should this have prevented a faithful film adaptation from existing when they are so clearly two completely different entities? The answer is…)
Keelsetter: How do The Beatles figure into all of this?
Alex: The reason we were prevented from making our film, a genuinely faithful adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which has never been made, is copyright law. Copyright law was extended, but not to the benefit of the creative artist or even their children, or grand-children, but rather for the benefit of those who had hung onto the rights through thick-and-thin in isolated territories.
And again, just last week the European Commission, this un-elected body which serves to prevent democracy in the European Union, in a private meeting, without any discussion, acceded to the demands of the American Recording Industry and extended the period on copyright for music another 20 more years. They did this, it is assumed, because The Beatles catalog was about to fall into the public domain. Otherwise, in 2012, the early Beatles song would have started to enter the public domain. 2013, Revolver would have come into the public domain. Followed by Sgt. Pepper’s, followed by all the others; The Rolling Stone catalog, everything else.
And the European Commission, a completely autonomous and secretive body, extended copyright protections for the rights to these musical works for another 20 years. This is done supposedly so that the musicians can make a bit more money, ‘cuz they’re getting old. George Harrison’s dead, but if he wasn’t dead he might need a bit more money than he already has. And Paul McCartney and Ringo the same.
On the ArsTechnica site (arstechnica.com), a really good site that’s all about technology and operating systems, you can scroll down there and see the link titled “No Beatles for You.” It’s interesting because nobody covers copyright laws except for computer sites, but everybody else, the regular media, they ignore it.
A later article on ArsTechnica estimated that that decision by the European Commission cost at least a billion Euros in lost revenue from all the derivative art that would have been created if The Beatles catalog had come into the public domain. Can you imagine all the new work that would have been created? All the mash-ups? We could have gone out and made a film called Revolver in 2013, but we can’t anymore.
Keelsetter: On the subject of science-fiction and copyright issues, let’s finish with Mars Attacks! That was also something you worked on, right?
Alex: Oh, we never had the rights to that either! I would just develop these projects and I don’t know why the producers never acquired the rights.
Keelsetter: How did that come about?
Alex: As a young boy, having read The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine, and other great works, I also started chewing bubble gum. So it was natural that I would acquire a series of bubble-gum cards; about the American Civil War, which were tremendously blood-thirsty and exciting, and also a series of bubble-gum cards about the Martian invasion of Earth in the late fifties, early sixties, which were titled Mars Attacks!
There were 52 units, maybe 53 including the last card, which was the index. It was about Martians in flying saucers that kind of related to the flying-saucer scare of the 1950′s. Martians in flying saucers attacked Earth using a variety of cruel devices including a giant robot, a freezing ray, a giant flame-thrower, and everything else that you can imagine. For whatever reason, they weren’t killed by bugs or microbes. They were killed by a retaliatory attack. Somehow the Earth people or military forces had managed to hide themselves and create a rocket force to destroy the Martians on their home planet.
Alex (cont.): I brought this collection of bubble-gum cards to the attention of the Hollywood Studios and was involved, for awhile, with John Davison, in a project called Mars Attacks! It was based on the bubble-gum cards, ending with the Earth’s retaliation against Mars. But the Earth’s expeditionary force got lost on Mars, could never find the capital city, and ultimately all died killed by microbes in the alien environment. The film that I was planning was never made. But year later it was resurrected by Tim Burton, with the same casting director, Vicky Thomas, who at one point called me to ask if I’d owned the rights to the bubble-gum cards. But no one had ever secured the rights to the bubble-gum cards, so – unfortunately – I said I didn’t. At which point I never heard anything more.
But the Tim Burton film got made. The opening scene was the best, with the burning cattle. Even if you think of it; it’s impossible that cattle could catch on fire like that, burning for a period of time, but it was a great opening scene, and Vicky cast it, and – as far as I know – she also provided the “wee-ack-ack-ack-ack” Martian voices.
(With this, the interview ends. But if you still can’t get enough of those Martians, click below for a visual peak at the Jeff Wayne project that blocked Alex and Aardman Animations from putting out a faithful film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Ironically, while trying to post the second part of the video I was informed that: “This video contains content from SME and NBC Universal, one or more of whom have blocked it on copyright grounds.” Apparently, Mr. Wayne is poised to experience a bit of his own ill-advised medicine.)
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