Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on March 31, 2013
I know Harry Harrison for his collaborative work with Wally Wood on EC Comics (circa 1948), his work on the revived Flash Gordon scripts (’58 – ’68), the first of 12 Stainless Steel Rat novels (published 1961), his contributions to The Saint TV series (Harrison did ghost-work for Leslie Charteris on the 1964 novel Vendetta for the Saint, later adapted as episodes in ’69), and – of course – I’ve seen Soylent Green (1973), based on his ’66 novel Make Room! Make Room! All of which is tip of the iceberg stuff for a very prolific career which includes Bill, the Galactic Hero, a science-fiction satire novel he published in 1965 and which was later followed up with six sequels. I only recently became familiar with Bill thanks to the efforts by director Alex Cox to adapt this work for the big screen. Last week, Alex launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film – and, yes, I can say “film” because Alex plans on shooting part of the action on B&W 35mm. Below are some questions Alex was kind enough to answer regarding his planned film adaption for Bill, the Galactic Hero:
Q) You optioned the rights for Bill, the Galactic Hero in the mid-’80s with some of the money made from Repo Man. Now, here you are, many years later, launching a Kickstarter campaign to finally bring Bill, the Galactic Hero to the big screen. Why did it take so long for the stars to align to bring Bill back to life?
A) The first script I wrote was for United Artists in 1982. When they read it they decided not to develop it further because it was “too English, too expensive, and too anti-war.” I didn’t know if was possible to be too anti-war! I had assumed being against war was like being opposed to sin. When I shopped Bill around the studios, the response was “too expensive, and too anti-war.” Was a pattern developing? Only when I found myself in an environment full of actors and technically skilled filmmakers – C.U. (University of Colorado, Boulder) – was it possible to come up with a new plan for Bill and propose it to Harry.
Q) I’m presuming you had many experiences with Harry Harrison before he passed away last year on August 15th. What else have you read by him, why did Bill, the Galactic Hero stick out for you, and what was Harrison like to work with?
A) I collected (the Flash Gordon) strips! They were in the Liverpool Echo and I would cut the Flash Gordon strip out every day and paste it into a book. I didn’t know who Harry or Wally were back in those days but the visuals – Flash Gordon versus thousands of robots – were incredible.Harry was a big drinker. The first time I met him was at 9 am and by 10.15 a.m. I had consumed three gin and limes. I left that meeting feeling absolutely wonderful. He was also a prolific writer and did masses of research (even for Bill as that was the result of several years of “research” as a machine gun instructor and prison guard during W.W.II. Apart from Bill I like best Make Room! Make Room! Harry was probably proudest of his dinosaurs-never-became-extinct trilogy, and was always hopeful that the Russians would make Deathworld as a blockbuster. He was a great collaborator, very disciplined, a very fast writer. Get it done and on to the cocktail hour!
Q) You say it’s hard to make an anti-war film. One case in point that comes to mind is Apocalypse Now (1979), which in terms of content is all about “the horror, the horror” – but in terms of form there is such a seductive quality to the craftsmanship and visuals behind it that the film now serves as a clarion call for soldiers. Jarhead (2005) based on Marine Anthony Swofford’s pre-Desert Storm experiences, even features a scene from Apocalypse Now where the Marines “sing along” while watching the Ride of the Valkyries segment as a way of getting pumped up for their mission. Very few films come to mind that can escape that seductive veneer inherent in portrayals of action and violence which, when viewed from a safe distance, can’t help but be exciting. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971) is one exception that comes to mind. What is it about Bill, the Galactic Hero that you feel will make it an unambiguous anti-war film?
A) In the book Jarhead the author talks about this phenomenon — that he and his colleagues loved Apocalypse Now, and Deerhunter, and Platoon — found them exciting war-porn. Now presumably this wasn’t the intention of the filmmakers. I think the danger may be in the notion that good art must be ambiguous. Perhaps this comes from abstract
I haven’t seen Trumbo’s film yet. All Quiet On the Western Front is unambiguously anti-war, and also good art. So is the Russian film Come and See, and
Q) You refer to your Bill, the Galactic Hero project as “the biggest student film of all time.” Aren’t you afraid this might turn off investors, especially as some people associate the words “student film” as a pejorative term that is synonymous with amateur work?
A) I have never found the words student film to be off-putting. It depends on the film, and the student! When I was at UCLA, Charles Burnett had just make Killer of Sheep – a 90-minute black and white feature, incredible and original and good – as one of his student projects. My colleagues and I were in awe of this: for us a student film was an opportunity to try and do likewise, to experiment and play around with editing and long takes and other peoples’ copyright music (!). It was a chance to do non-commercial narrative filmmaking — the kind of films a lot of students at CU make nowadays. Some of their work, on a technical and on a conceptual level, is quite brilliant.
So I don’t think the biggest student film of all time has proved off-putting to people wanting to support the project. Probably the reverse –because
Q) I like what you have to say about “the impossible triangle of quality.” Anyone reading this can easily come up with a list of films that fall into the category of “good, and fast, but not cheap,” or “fast, and cheap, but not good.” You, however, are aiming for the third category of “good, and cheap, but not fast.” You obviously have experience in this latter category, but even your excellent (and criminally under-rated film) Highway Patrolman (1991) had a budget of well over a million dollars. So cheap is a relative term, and you are here seeking to put together a science fiction with only $100,000 – a mere pittance by most filmmaking standards. Are there any contemporary examples by other directors out there that you think fall under the category of “good, and cheap, but not fast” that also required elaborate setups evoking fantastic worlds or monsters?
A) Phil Tippett’s Mad God — which is almost entirely stop-motion animation. Phil’s been working on it for 20 years with no money at all. He recently got a $120,000 infusion from Kickstarter, which was my inspiration. One of my films took four years to finish! I shot Death & the Compass as a 50 minute TV drama for the BBC in 1992. Karl Braun, the producer, persuaded some Japanese producers to give us extra money so that we could expand the film into a feature. This we did. But Karl’s calculations had not included post, and so the long version went into limbo until I directed another picture, and used the money from that to complete the long Death & the Compass, in 1996. So that was a four-year project.
Whereas 18 months for Bill sounds less hectic. A bit less than the schedule of 2001, so about right.
Q) Bill, the Galactic Hero was created by Harrison as a response to the pro-military views in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. I haven’t read Heinlein’s book, but I thought Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 movie adaption was terrifically subversive of military jingoism and eerily prescient of the “9-11″ mentality to come. What are your feelings about Starship Troopers, as book and as film?
A) I like the book Bill, the Galactic Hero much more than the book Starship Troopers! It is the better work. Of Verhoven’s SF films I preferred Robo Cop, which seemed completely successful. But isn’t it interesting that pro-war SF books like Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game get made into blockbuster Hollywood features, whereas a work like Bill remains unseen… up until now.
Q) Last question: you mentioned shooting on black-and-white 35mm film. What is your reasoning behind that aesthetic choice?
A) Black and white is beautiful. I have always wanted to shoot a film in 35mm black and white. Repo Man should have been in black and white! And Sid & Nancy! Conventional financial financiers say the public doesn’t like monochrome; Kickstarter backers, on the other hand, seem not to have a problem with it.
Yesterday, the Kickstarter campaign to fund Bill, the Galactic Hero went past the half-way mark. There are now three weeks left in which to meet the goal. Any pledge amount will help, and possible rewards include a downloadable script, autographed DVD’s, props, galactic decorations, and much, much more. At the top level one can even get an Executive Producer credit and the actual spacesuit worn by Bill, the Galactic Hero. Whups… spoke too soon; that one just got snapped up two days ago, now leaving only two Executive Credit slots and two spacesuits for top-pledgers. Alex, however, is guessing most people will help bring the film to life via the more accessible pledge rates that are available for recruits, deserters, mutineers, and Fusetenders. To be part of the crew, click below:
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