Mad Hacks Beyond Thunderdome

December 18, 2009 by Simon Kinnear in Opinion with 0 Comments

The new issue of Total Film (#163) is out now. Which, obviously, you should go and buy. Not least to read my thoughts on subjects as diverse as Marilyn Monroe, The Usual Suspects, Spielberg’s Pearl Harbor moment and some new Thai action flick called Fireball about a sport that combines kickboxing with… wait for it… basketball. Not as interesting as it sounds, sadly.

But once you’ve checked out pages 54, 139, 142, 157, 159 and 160-1, you should read the rest of the issue anyway, as it’s the mag’s big ‘end of the decade’ issue, with a choice of 10 covers and lots of reflection/insight on the films that shaped the past 10 years – The Dark Knight article is particularly ace.

End of the Noughties, eh? It’s got me thinking about my own experiences this decade. Not just the usual ‘Best Films 2000-2009’ gubbins, although fear not, ‘My Totally Self-Indulgent List of My Favourite Filmz Wot I Like To Watch’ is on the way. No, I’ve been reflecting on the mad route by which I’ve managed to stumble into writing about films – something I’ve always wanted to do – despite spending the best part of 10 years in hiding from my own ambitions.

Back in 1999, pretty much all I was qualified to do was writing, pontificating and generally talking bollocks about movies (oh, and The Simpsons, subject of my MA dissertation…and something that would come back to haunt me later, as you’ll see). But somehow I stumbled instead into real life: mortgage, marriage and a proper job that, while still predominantly words-based, wasn’t anything remotely to do with film. I kept my critical mind sharp writing the reviews you can read here, but that was it… just a hobby, more for my own amusement than anything else.

Until, in late Summer 2006, Empire magazine launched Thunderdome – its own version of The X Factor, a mighty cage-fight between aspiring hacks presided over by Tina Turner… or, more accurately, the mag’s staffers (wearing combat armour and orange fright wigs, obviously). I entered the comp, then promptly forgot about it while I helped put the finishing touches to my wedding. Then, while on honeymoon in Cape Town, I got an email saying I’d made the finals. Double-win.

Empire, to their credit, took the thing seriously, carting the 10 finalists down to London for an old-school photo-shoot (tuxedos, hair and make-up, the works) and giving Thunderdome plenty of coverage in the mag. However, they also – to the eternal scorn of their readers and the perpetual embarrassment of those of us who took part – gave us all nicknames. Based on my expert knowledge of Springfield, I got christened Homer. Still, could’ve been worse. One guy was called Fork Boy. I still have no idea why.

We battled it out, penning different assignments every month from the sublime (offering a revisionist take on the reviews Empire got wrong*) to the ridiculous (if you were a movie star, who would you be?**). Trouble is, the mag had got it fundamentally wrong – in the Venn diagram of movie buffs and reality show lovers, there’s the tiniest of crossovers, and outside of the contestants’ cosy bubble, nobody really gave a shit.

Still, I didn’t care. I was getting published and I wanted it to last. So, of course, I cheated, coercing an 100+ army of friends, family and often random strangers into voting for me. Yes, there was a vote, in true X Factor fashion, to evict somebody out every month, and influencing an online vote (click, click, click…) is the easiest thing in the world, as they say in the Coens’ version of The Ladykillers. [Actually, one guy – The Heckler, aka Chris Laverty – was summarily thrown out of the comp for being a little too obvious with his touting for votes online. Still, that bad-boy image didn’t do him any harm. Chris is doing OK. Check out his intriguingly insightful costume design blog, Clothes on Film.]

Long story short, I made it to the final, up against Fork Boy and Gandalf in a battle to see who could create the best Empire cover. I knew I’d have to do something pretty wow-tastic to topple Fork Boy, long the favourite (and rightly so), so I conjured up a mad vision of Homer Simpson at war with Megatron. Eye-catching, for sure, but nothing like what would be published in real-life. Fork Boy’s more sober but eloquent effort proved strong enough to win Thunderdome. His prize: a freelance contract with the mag. Two-and-a-half years on, he’s still writing excellent stuff for them. His name’s Owen Williams. Look him up.

As for me, it was back to reality – and not even an offer to switch on any Christmas lights. Bollocks to that. I was going to carry on regardless. After all, history’s ‘winners’ include Steve Brookstein, David Sneddon and Michelle McManus; the ‘losers’ team has Lemar, JLS and Gareth Gates. I’d be like them…only not ploughing out inane MOR rubbish.

So I got in touch with Total Film…and pestered and pestered until the then Reviews Ed took pity on me and gave me a few things to do. Then, presumably to check I was actually serious about this, he commissioned me to source fresh interviews for two epic ‘making of’ features on Eyes Wide Shut and Dazed and Confused. On the one hand, hooray: this is what I’m talking about. On the other, bugger. How was I going to do that?

One steep learning curve, and lots of late nights, later, I’d spoken to various cast and crew, delivered the articles and saw them in print. World was my oyster. Or, rather, would have been had my wife not been heavily pregnant with our first child. Timing, huh? My foot was in the door and already I needed to take a sabbatical. That said, while mid-to-late 2008 might have been a fallow period, writing-wise, it was the best time of my life in every other respect.

Still, by the end of the year, I was ready to take on snippets of work and, over the course of 2009 that’s snowballed to the point where I’m losing track of which deadline is looming the largest. Nowadays, I usually have a few pieces in the mag each issue (mostly reviews, occasionally something more substantial) and I’ve just started penning punchy, pitchy stuff for Total Film online. I’ve also written the odd bit for SFX and Doctor Who Magazine, and recently, I’ve started to introduce film screenings at my local art-house cinema, the mighty Derby QUAD.

With luck, I’ll be able to upload some of my old articles and talks here soon; if not, I’m sure I’ll find some other gubbins to write about. After all, there’s a whole new decade around the corner just waiting to surprise us.

Merry Christmas and all that jazz.


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