Sean Wilson chats with author Timon Singh…
What does it take the bring the requisite level of villainy to a beloved Hollywood action movie? That’s the question film fan and author Timon Singh embarked upon when researching his new book Born to Be Bad, one comprised of interviews with a host of actors who’ve appeared in classic actioners.
Bristol-based Ti is the founder of the city’s Bad Film Club, one that celebrates the finest B-movie trash put out by international filmmakers. (Tommy Wiseau’s infamous The Room features regularly.) Although his book deals with different subject matter (and, in many cases, films of a much higher calibre), Ti’s obvious affection for genre cinema resounds to endearing and entertaining effect throughout its pages. I caught up with him to discuss how the book came about.
So what’s the book about, to begin with?
Essentially, everyone I’ve interviewed in it has played bad guys. One thing that struck me about the action films I grew up watching is, as much as I love Arnie and Stallone and Willis, the villain is often more interesting. Or that the villain was played by, quote unquote, a ‘better’ actor. Or, if it wasn’t a better actor, it was a more flamboyant actor. Take Vernon Wells in Commando or Mad Max II, for example. He’s always been very open that he’s never seen himself as an actor per se, but he always threw himself into the role.
Then you’ve got all these British actors like David Warner and Paul Freeman and Alan Rickman who went to Hollywood with their RADA training. Showing up their American counterparts by dominating every scene they’re in.
So creating the book was really about me seeking out those who’d played the bad guys, all of whom come from a huge range of backgrounds, and asking about how they got involved in the film in question. Was it a benefit to their career, or a terrible mistake? Did it pigeonhole them? Just finding out about their experiences, and no one person had the same stories. That was the most fascinating thing.
How receptive were the actors? Was it a challenge getting some of them on the record?
Everyone was really open, to the point where I thought my publisher would want to censor some of it. I did take out a few stories because I thought I’d be opening myself up to all sorts of trouble. But everyone was really willing to talk to me. I didn’t get any responses from agents shutting me down. None of the actors I spoke to turned me down on the basis they were too busy or wanted too much money. There was, in fact, one actor who wanted an eye-watering sum of money, and given they hadn’t appeared in a film in the last 15 years or so, I thought their justification for that was insane. Two and half thousand dollars for an email interview, or five thousand for a phone interview. But everyone I did speak to was very open and friendly. Some of them were fascinated by the fact I wanted to talk to them, others liked the idea of the book, and others were like, well no one ever wants to talk to me, so I’ll gladly open up.
Do you have a favourite story from the book?
There are so many great stories and they’re all really different. Take Jack O’Halloran who played Non in the original Superman films. His father was the head of the Gambino crime family, so he has seen some shit growing up. And there, when he’s in Hollywood, he does not give a crap! So he’s telling stories about turning down enormous sums of money from producers to appear in these films, going up to producers the Sulkinds and verbally threatening them over his pay. If Jack O’Halloran wants to get paid, you pay him. So he was fascinating. He’s one of these actors who wasn’t an actor first. He did some shit back in the day and wasn’t afraid of Hollywood producers – he was like, let me give you the skinny!
Then there’s people like Bob Wall who trained with Bruce Lee, and whose best friend is Chuck Norris. Wall told stories about training with the toughest men of all time, and how they would go out into the street on a Friday night and pick fights with Marines. He was like, they don’t know how to fight and I’m like, what are you talking about?
But everyone had their own experiences. Sarah Douglas, who played Ursula in Superman, talked about how the producers wanted her to convey a she-bitch persona, which she was unwilling to do, but it waste only way she could secure work. At the same time, people like Bill Duke had played loads of henchmen in the likes of Commando, and he didn’t want to pigeonholed as a tall, threatening black man. As a result, he made a conscious decision to play police captains in the likes of Action Jackson. He also starts playing soldiers and eventually goes on to direct films, like Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
I’d totally forgotten about that!
He’s a guy who doesn’t want to be seen as just one thing. Everyone had so many stories and I couldn’t possibly tell them all. You’ll just have to buy the book.
Securing the introduction from [Die Hard screenwriter] Steven E. de Souza is a major coup for the book. How did that come about?
That came about through the Bristol Bad Film Club. A few years ago, we did a screening of Street Fighter and I reached out to him. I said that I didn’t want to be rude, but in light of the film’s poor reputation, would you mind answering a bunch of questions? I sent him, like, 10 questions, expecting one-word responses. And he sent back a fully produced video of him answering all my questions, going into great detail, telling all these stories, which I then transcribed and put on the website, along with the video.
He went out of his way to answer my ridiculous questions on Street Fighter – Steven E. de Souza, who wrote The Running Man, Commando, Die Hard, the man who created Hans Gruber, on paper at least, before Alan Rickman brought his unique sensibilities to the role. He’s the guy who created several of the most memorable villains in action cinema, so I reached out to him about this book and he said yes! I love that man. He’s incredibly gracious.
On the subject of the Bristol Bad Film Club, how did that start?
I had no idea if anyone would ever want to pay to see bad films. It was never going to be a money-making thing so it was always the idea to give money to charity, so subsequently the whole idea of bad movies doing some good plays well in the press. Our first screening was Plan 9 From Outer Space, which sold out. The next film was Samurai Cop, which also sold out. We only have 100 to 120 people in each screening, which is enough for it to sell out. Five pounds a ticket, and once you’ve paid for the venue hire and screening rights, you’ve only got a couple of hundred pounds left. We’re only doing it once a month, so we don’t make gratuitous amounts of money. I prefer to give it to charity.
We recently had Shark Attack 3 and we gave all the money from that screening to the Ocean Clean-Up Project. The Club was always set up to scratch that itch to show bad films to people. It was never set up as a money-making scheme but, off the back of it, I’ve been able to write this book. On the back of that, I’ve been hired to act as a producer on a documentary about eighties action movies. It’s OK that the Bad Film Club isn’t commercial, but I did take it on the road this September, taking Samurai Cop to four different cities. Those are commercial enterprises!
No one’s ever said the sentence, ‘I’m taking Samurai Cop on the road’ before.
Yeah, I think even the studio holding the rights we’re surprised. I want to take Samurai Cop to Bath, people! They haven’t seen it!
So, given your role as the founder of the Bristol Bad Film Club, what constitutes a ‘good’ bad movie and what makes a ‘bad’ bad movie?
Well, at the Bad Film Club, we’ve decided not to show films like Sharknado or Arachnoquake. Films that are made to wink at the audience, you know? At the same time, we’re also not showing something like Transformers 5, which is bad, but a slog, a two and a half hour long slog. The films we show are, at most, 90 mins, or one hour forty five minutes, films built with the purest of intentions. For example, Tommy Wiseau with The Room – he wanted to make the next A Streetcar Named Desire, but lacked the filmmaking ability to make that a reality. Films like Samurai Cop, like Birdemic: Shock and Terror, like Night of the Lepus – films in which a studio head went, ‘I want to make a movie about killer, giant rabbits’, without thinking that through, or how ridiculous that would be.
So those are the films that we show. Sometimes they’re not even bad, they’re just entertaining, to the extent you can’t believe they were actually greenlit. It’s a mixture of films that are so bad, they’re entertaining, and genuine curios where the nature of the finance itself is a mystery. Like, how did no one during the shoot flag whether it was a terrible idea? Let’s just walk away now with our respect intact, because if anyone sees this, we’re never going to work again.
So there’s a kind of delicious pleasure to watching a bad movie?
Yeah, what’s that word… schadenfreude. Deriving pleasure from other people’s failure.
What was the inception point for you, then? Was there a particular bad film that sparked all this off?
I watched loads of rubbish growing up because my dad’s business was next to a video store. He would often go in and come back with a movie that he thought was the latest blockbuster – he would get sucked in by the cover art. They would either be a crap, straight to video ripoff or a Cannon film production. One film I remember enjoying, while also being fully aware of how rubbish an Indiana Jones knockoff it was, was King Solomon’s Mines. Sharon Stone and Richard Chamberlain. You’re watching it going, they’re trying so hard to be Raiders of the Lost Ark, they’ve even got John Rhys Davies in there, it’s so cheap and borderline racist, but I’m really enjoying it! And Jerry Goldsmith’s score is amazing!
Thank you for saying that! I love Goldsmith’s work on that film.
So there are little things that I love in the movie. I’ve watched it so many times. In fact it’s on Netflix at the moment and I watched it as a recently as six months ago. At that point I realised it wasn’t good, watching it with that glorious Jerry Goldsmith score while also noticing the awful rear projection behind Richard Chamberlain when he’s holding onto the wing of a plane. That’s stuff I didn’t pick up on as a kid. So I clearly was aware there were bad films I got a kick out of, Masters of the Universe, Superman III and so on. And at university there was this realisation I enjoyed films that were pretty shit, like Deep Rising.
Hands up, I really enjoy Deep Rising too.
Yeah, Stephen Sommers should just go back to making mid-budget action-adventure films. No one should give that man more than $150m, ever. The Mummy was the last good movie he made. But to return to the original question, it was when I was watching a double bill of The Room and Samurai Cop that the desire to put on Bristol screenings came about.
It’s an interesting point you raise about Stephen Sommers because do you think the creation of a bad film stems from a filmmaker working within their means? That these films can lose the residual personality of their directors when bigger budgets are involved?
Well, we recently had The Last Jedi, which I would say is very much Rian Johnson’s film. That didn’t feel like a film made by a studio. And if it was, then Kathleen Kennedy very clearly just let Johnson do his thing. I appreciated that more than The Force Awakens, which felt like a Star Wars film made by a studio. It was like give them the hits, give them what they want. And The Last Jedi didn’t do that, which clearly narked a lot of people. But fuck ‘em. I’d take a Star Wars film that surprised me with its bold choices over The Force Awakens, something that’s fun, but which is not surprising in any way.
Born to Be Bad is available to purchase now from stockists. Listen to Ti discuss Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Pick of the Flicks Podcast here.