Wednesday 31 August 2022

Korean Film Festival - Barrie Pattison concludes his report on the 2022 offering

Editor's note: This is the second piece to appear about this year's Korean Film Festival in Australia. The event took place in Sydney from 18-23 August. It is screening in Canberra from 1-3 September, Melbourne from 1-5 September and Brisbane from 8-11 September. Visit the KOFFIA website for details and bookings BY CLICKING HERE  Barrie's earlier post can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE. Needless to say the opinions expressed are those of the author.


Yong-sun Jo’s Gonggisarin/Toxic/Air Murder is derived from an actual incident in the spring of 2011, where Koreans, mainly women, began falling victim to a mystery lung disease. Losing his wife and finding his son struck down, Trauma Center Doctor Kim Sang-kyung (Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder) joins the scientific detective work which traces the problem to a disinfectant used in home humidifiers. 

Rather than accept culpability, the villainous corporation responsible starts buying off experts and class action members. They plan to rebrand their accumulated stock. Looks like the doctor has taken the bribe of a costly transplant for his child, arousing the indignation of fellow victims. However, the film has a twist ending - of course.


This one is aimed at the Erin Brockovich audience, though it lacks the conviction of its model. Polished production values aren’t really a help.


The event also mustered a romcom, Eun-ji Jo’s Perhaps Love/Not on My Lips, neither plausibly romantic or funny as it struggles to be both edgy and wide appealing.


Academic Seung-ryong Ryu (Seoul Station) hasn't managed a book in seven years and he’s been caught making it with his ex-wife by their son, Yoo-Bin Sung. Publisher Kim Hee-won is talking legal action. To complicate matters, Mu jin-sung,  a boy in Seung’s literature class, has a crush on him and the draft of the kid’s novel was picked up by the publisher and taken to be Seung’s new work in progress. A writing collaboration, while the student keeps on coming on, seems the only solution.


Meanwhile, Yoo-Bin Sung has become involved with lively young married woman Yoo-Young Lee, who is the only one to register in all this. It works out with location shooting in Lithuania.  


Smooth production and yet another sex film without nudity. A Hollywood remake seems unlikely.


Dangsin-eolgul-apese/In Front of Your Face is the 26th feature from director, producer, writer, musician, cinematographer & film editor Hong Sang-soo, who is often compared to Woody Allen (Interiors maybe) because he makes modest, vaguely autobiographical films often featuring movie director characters.


Really he’s doing what Yasujiro Ozu was supposed to and, in my opinion, never managed - involve his audience with small scale, intimate character family studies.


In Front of Your Face is about a mature actress (Lee Hye-yeong) who returns to Seoul after years living in the US, where her career dwindled to running a Washington bottle shop. Reuniting with her sister (Yunhee Cho), their meeting reveals how far they have lost touch with each other’s lives.  After a walk in the park, they have a spicy broth snack at the sister’s favorite cafe, though our heroine has an afternoon lunch appointment. They visit the nephew’s cake shop and he catches up with them and makes his aunt a present of a leather wallet. She is touched.


With a little time to spare before her meeting, Lee Hye-yeong checks out the house where she used to live, with its now overgrown garden, and is welcomed by the young woman who now operates it as a clothing store.


The appointment proves to be with director Kwon Hae-hyo who was mesmerised by the honesty of a scene in one of her nineties movies and wants to work with her (and sleep with her). As they get through a stack of Chinese wine bottles (his assistant is standing by to drive him) he outlines a project that will take a year to prepare but she makes a revelation which colours everything we have seen. 

Kwon is moved and proposes instead a short film which they will make traveling together. The next morning when Lee Hye-yeong wakes in the shade cloth window room where we first saw her, he ‘phones in to cancel the plan and that’s the film.


It holds attention without action, mixing trivial and important events without emphasis. Most scenes are covered in a single run of the camera with the only image variation coming from panning or zooming. The park conversation where the sisters describe a disused rail bridge doesn't show it till the end of the scene that it’s a transition shot and, where there is a cutaway to the cafe sign in the dialogue with Kwon (again as a time-lapse), this disrupts the rhythm of the piece surprisingly. 


I’m hooked and would like to see more of the director’s work.


Best of what I watched in the event was another contemplative piece, Su-won Shin’s Omaju/Hommage.


It parallels the misfortunes of dumpy Lee Jeong-eun (Parasite’s housekeeper and the voice of Okja) as her marriage, her health and her movie director career all disintegrate. While super hero blockbusters draw crowds, Lee’s new film is playing to empty theatres. Our heroine’s teenage son turned her work off when watching with friends and her producer partner is giving up. Husband Hae-hyo Kwon, doing much the same characterhe does in In Front of Your Face, rolls home drunk and shows no sympathy, so Lee decides to separate, which consists of taking a rack of her clothes into the next room.


Her situation and the film’s comment are made more obvious as a young producer offers the job of restoring the battered and fragmentary 1962 Yeopansa A Woman Judge, made by Hong Eun-won, possibly Korea’s first woman movie director, (the actual restoration is on YouTube). The sixties film’s subject matter creates a further comparison as a study of a pioneer female figure in the Korean legal system. 


This schematic is not allowed to dominate, with the detail of the film recovery work becoming more involving - the expert dubbing actor shown picking up synchronisation with lip movements as the shot on screen runs, following missing footage to a derelict cinema which once premiered Ben Hur but now does porn, with light coming in through a hole in the roof and passing traffic throws reflections on the screen through the open doors, or the meeting with the original continuity girl in, her house in the field of feather grass where she produces a black Eiki in remarkably good running order to unveil the secret of the recovered censor cut.


Nicely played and handled Hommage shows a welcome light touch with its message.


Simultaneous with the festival, there was a multiplex release of Han Jae-rim’s Bisang seoneon/Emergency Declaration. You could walk between the two events.


Here Song Kang-ho, the most recognisable face of Korean cinema (Parasite, A Taxi Driver, Snowpiercer), plays a veteran Police Detective who has just seen his wife off for a flight to Hawaii when he’s called to the discovery of a body which proves to be the victim of a disgruntled researcher become bio-terrorist. While investigating, Song discovers that the suspect has actually boarded flight no. KI501 out of Incheon, of course the one his wife took. At the airport, former pilot Lee Byung-hung (Joint Security Area), now afflicted with fear-of-flying but accompanying his young eczema afflicted daughter, has a brush with a weird fellow passenger.


Sure enough, panic spreads in the air as the passengers and crew are struck down, while back on the ground Song heavies the crazy’s scientist industrialist former employer and Transport Minister Jeon Do-yeon marshals a counterterrorism task force. Destination countries threaten to shoot down the plane rather than risk them spreading contagion - distant runway shots and fuel shortage as they approach the last accessible airport, calling in their emergency declaration. The montage of black framed I-Phone images of passengers making their last calls from the descending plane is the film’s one resonant passage.


Yes it’s The High & the Mighty re-tooled for a contemporary audience. 


The film seems to have had some success but it really is too formulaic (though they do pull a switch with the Song Kang-ho plot). It looks like money was spent on it. Performances and production are polished, with touches like the pattern of light through the windows moving as the flight changes direction but there are more of those toy plane in the air shots which undermine these films. The festival’s small productions were a better investment of my time.


When it was over, the Korean Film Festival was more interesting for its possibly misleading glimpse of  (South) Korean film-making and the country it projects. This was not unlike Australian product where the technical resources are in place but what they are used for suggests a society with no significant voice of its own, leaving it only intermittently able to command audience attention. I was struck by the contrast with the Kazakh films I saw a couple of years back, all asserting the attention their emerging society rated. Those recalled the mind opening discovery of the world from its movies which marked my first experience of film festivals, now a long time ago.


Tuesday 30 August 2022

On Blu-ray - David Hare welcomes further restoration work on LA REGLE DU JEU (Jean Renoir, France, 1939)

If you buy this and begin to watch, do not expect to see anything as remotely beautiful as a Warner Archive 4K scan and restoration of a Black and White 1939 movie.

Warner would have made a scan of an original nitrate neg, and access to a multitude of other elements - interpositive, fine grains etc - which enable, simply perfection.
Neither the original neg, nor any first generation element of Renoir’s 1939 La Règle du Jeu has survived. The most recent restoration which is presented here had to be scrounged from much later elements and we are left with a less than perfect composite.
Putting on this new 4K UHD delivers a series of shocks. Never before has the exact quality of the surviving elements been so nakedly on display. What you are seeing, thanks to the optimum resolution and quality of the UHD format is as close to 35mm projection as possible. It is in effect the same. Then you begin to notice how much
“darker” is the image, after the last Blu-rays. And that’s where this new disc really takes off. Sharpness is variable, as it must be and always was given the appalling condition of the elements. But composition and depth are here in spades. HDR has been applied with great skill to extract every last grain of grayscale, shadow detail and degrees of light as they can exist in the 35mm format.
Whether you think this exercise is worth it or not is a quandary. I vote yes, but others may not. Criterion/Janus is one of the stakeholders in this 4K release and when/if they choose to release this in 4K is yet to be seen. The French disc from ESC label only carries a short extra, with none of the plenitude of supplements on the older Criterion (and BFI) Blu's.

Monday 29 August 2022

Korean Film Festival - Barrie Pattison gives an extensive once over - Part One

Editor's Note: This event took place in Sydney from 18-23 August. It is screening in Canberra from 1-3 September, Melbourne from 1-5 September and Brisbane from 8-11 September. Visit the KOFFIA website for details and bookings BY CLICKING HERE


Well the national film events are back. We’ve had the traditionally profitable French and Scandi presentations with an Italian season coming up. There’s even a Lebanese week running in a couple of theatres with a personal appearance of Zouad Doueiri. None of this activity will help if you’re an admirer of Philippino or Kazakh cinema and I would guess that we’re not going to score another Russian Resurrection event for some time. However, we were just offered a (South) Korean Film Week. 


It ran quite smoothly with all the films turning up as advertised. No retrospective included but they did manage a nicely printed souvenir booklet laying out the material in screening order. I thought they were slacking with such limited English language credits but the on-screen copies only translated that same information. At four films for thirty dollars concession, the prices were approachable.


Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s prize winning Broker sold out but I did get to see director Yoon Joe-kuen fronting a screening of his popular Yu-che-i-tal-ja/Spritwalker.This proved to be another go-round for the formula of Somewhere in the Night,Total Recall or the Liam Neeson Unknown. Throw in a bit of The Hidden and a lot of Christopher Nolan or you could reference the 2018 Korean TV series Byuti Insaide/Beauty Inside.


Spiritwalker kicks off with a dazed Yoon Kye-sang, with a bullet wound, staggering out of a crashed van to face hobo witness Ji-hwan Park. It all gets to be pretty hard to follow as the lead tries to find someone who is (yet again) himself and his spirit migrates among his criminal associates every twelve hours, with lady friend Ji-Yeon Lim trying to take down his new personae with a Glock, while the organisation’s multi-million revolutionary drug deal goes down.


Director Yoon’s most interesting observation was that the way they covered the action was to film each scene twice, once using the lead and once his shifted shape actor and manipulating the result in editing The stunt team from Squid Game put in a lot of work on the action material and the piece looked good.


It had the edge on the event’s other crime pieces. Kyu-maan Lee’s Dòng Máu Ðac Cânh/The Policeman's Lineage which wasn’t all that easy to comprehend either. In a dim (literally) return to the world of Infernal Affairs, young second generation cop Choi Wo-sik is recruited by I.A, after a customs inspector is killed in an action run by a secret organisation within the force. Turns out his target Cho Jin-woong is an old associate of his police officer dad - predictable divided loyalties.


It’s all too familiar. Even the most interesting element, the history of an under-financed force, without petrol to put into their cars, setting up their own operations to generate a “slush fund” and bank roll their needs, is the basis of the Brazilian Tropa da elite.


Cheon Meyong-kwan’s  Ddeu-geo-un pi: di o-ri-ji-neol/Hot Blooded has a few atmospheric passages, like the raucous greeting from the young gangster's hoon mates as he is released from prison or the opening with Woo Jung’s launch arriving at Busan's Kuam port for a waterfront open air lunch with the Dons, a scene like those in Justin de Marseilles or Borsalino.


Now no longer a young man, career criminal Woo is mainly occupied by stopping warfare breaking out among the factions of the largely forgotten area, once a thriving vice center under the wartime Japanese but now reduced to a few hotels, brothels and slot arcades. The threat of new mayhem has him exposing a master plan which strikes down the few people he cares about.


Strong cast and production don’t carry it. This all played better in the Godfather and Beat Takeshi movies.


I’ve already covered Sang-yong Lee’s Ma Dong-seok/Don Lee vehicle Beomjoidosi 2/ The Roundup on its theatrical run. Lee offers a winning mix of Charles Bronson and Sammo Hung. In its home market, the film was Korea’s biggest hit since Covid and taking its Beast Cop hero to Vietnam brings a little novelty to the formula crime action.

Seung-wan Ryu’s Mogadisyu/Escape from Mogadishu proved more entertaining than the crime pieces and has a hint of substance in its historical background.


This presentable (filmed in Morocco) historico-action spectacle kicks off with Kim (The Chaser, The Yellow Sea) Yoon-seok’s South Korean Consular Delegation struggling to get to the long awaited appointment, bringing gifts for Somalian President Barré, prised out of customs guys who only acknowledge passports that have bank notes inside them. It’s 1991 and they are after the country’s support in their struggle to be recognised for the Korean seat in the U.N. Their time slot has however been taken by the scornful North Korean delegation.


Meanwhile, the streets are filling with rioting supporters of the opposition rebels. A menacing, gap tooth police officer heavies the embassy where they shelter and they face (best invention) giggling boy soldiers with assault weapons who prove to want to play at war, with only the ambassador’s own child understanding and faking dead for their game. 


When the main rebel force arrives, the diplomats and their families find themselves dependent on half a dozen government troops paid to maintain their security. The North Koreans have lost their base and the two Korean delegations find they have to merge to survive. Their guards consider this an increase in their piecework and quit. After a prayer meeting of which the Buddhist secretary takes a dim view and punch up between the security officers, they make separate trips to the Egyptian and Italian Embassies which are still regarded favorably. The Italians manage to find places for them on a relief plane, with the Northern delegation passed off as defectors, though their families all have children retained in Pyongyang as leverage to prevent them switching allegiances.


Action climax offers the Mercedes motorcade, armored with a layer of books and sandbags, making a dash for the airport past checkpoints with troops who open fire. One pursuer with a machine gun mounted on a ute makes a vicious sustained pursuit. This is the film’s most memorable element, vigorously handled in the best action movie manner, though the low body count destroys impact built by impressive staging and sound. 


The excitement that the chase has generated is sustained on landing where the South Koreans have to obscure the fact that their new associates are merging with the other passengers to avoid the Southern government escort waiting to claim them as defectors. 


The political stuff is only passable but the action material, if implausible, is rousing and comes supported by the film's superior production values. Can't help noticing that this film's murderous simple-minded blacks are a good match for the ones in Wolf Warrior 2. Asian films tend not to be all that good on race.

(Part Two of this report will be published tomorrow).

Thursday 25 August 2022

Streaming on Binge, at MIFF online and the Current Cinema - Movies and the Movies - IRMA VEP (Olivier Assayas, France, 2022), PETROL (Alena Lodkina, Australia, 2022), OFFICIAL COMPETITION ( Gastón Duprat, Mariano Cohn, Spain 2021)

The Orb, Twin Peaks (series 3)

A scene setting comparison.

When David Lynch made his latest Twin Peaks series it was episode eight that set us back on our heels. Shot near entirely in black and white (I think) here’s the summary of the Part, as they were called. In a standoff, Ray shoots Cooper's doppelgänger. Woodsmen tear at his body, revealing an orb with BOB's face. Ray flees and informs Jeffries that the doppelgänger may have survived. The doppelgänger awakens. In 1945 New Mexico, the first atomic bom is detonated. Woodsmen occupy a convenience store and the Experiment spews smoke containing an orb bearing BOB's face. In the building above the purple sea, the Fireman observes these events and levitates, emanating a golden mist and an orb containing Laura Palmer's face. His companion, Señorita Dido, sends the orb to Earth. In 1956 New Mexico, a woodsman descends to the ground, enters a radio station and repeatedly broadcasts a mysterious message, rendering listeners unconscious. A bug/frog-like creature hatches from an egg, enters an unconscious girl's room and climbs down her throat.


It was so far off-piste that you didn’t quite know what you’d seen. The summary hardly helps.

Regina (Devon Ross) Irma Vep 2022

In Episode 6 of Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep  a similar revelation takes place. The eight part series is basically a tale of making a remake of Louis Feuillade's 1915-1916 serial, an enormous hit in its day and a continuing source of inspiration and study for film-makers and scholars alike. Director Rene Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) is making a series, though in his view he is echoing Feuillade and making a single long film, which will go out in parts on TV. But he is hyperactive and slowly being overcome by low self-esteem. 

By part 6 he has gone off his rocker, abandoned the sets and locations and cant be found. We the audience see him heading off to see his psychiatrist (with a calico bag from Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato over his shoulder). Discussions take place about a replacement director and settle on the American Herman (Byron Bowers).  He’s in LA and needs a day or so to get to Paris. Step up Regina (Devon Ross), aspiring film-maker, film school graduate and the young, wise, if cold, personal assistant to Mira (Alicia Vikander)  an American star actress who has been brought to Paris to play Irma Vep and brings with her a busload of complexes and a chequered romantic history .


With a prospect of directing for a day Regina then launches into an explanation of spiritual cinema, or maybe just the spiritual and Assayas explodes the screen with Regina’s short treatise on the work, influence, imagery and purpose of the cinema of Kenneth Anger. I’m betting most of the audience have absolutely no idea who Anger is/was or any experience of his movies. They may even think all those hallucinatory image excerpts have been created as a spoof by Assayas himself. But Regina gets the job. She’ll direct a day (presumably uncredited but who knows these days) of the new version of Feuiilade’s Les Vampires currently being shot, in English, in Paris. The best of many offhand cinephiliac observations dotted throughout comes from Mira when she's discussing Feuillade's original. "It's not like Feuillade is Dreyer or Lang." Some would disagree about the film-maker whom, in David Thomson's words, is "the first director for whom no historical allowances have to be made."

Assayas burrows into Feuillade's film-making incorporating Feuillade's original and references to his previous 1996 feature with Maggie Cheung, out of which came a marriage to his star, an event which also seems to be reflected on with some regret. Macaigne also plays Feuillade in the sequences drawn from Musidora's autobiography and which recreate filming back in the day, a time when actors had to accept far more physical risk most notably shown in the sequence where an entire train passes over her as she lies on the track, another where she is actually shot and another where she goes to see the Paris Chief of Police who has closed down production after hearing that it might contain something far too risqué


René Vidal may or may not be close to the way Assayas directs his films but whatever that truth  you get the feeling that over the four hundred minutes of the series there is a lot of Assayas autobiography packed into it. Squabbles with stars, producers, insurers and backers form sub-plots in each episode. Gottfried (Lars Eidinger)  who is playing Moreno even manages, quite without remorse, to near kill himself performing  a private auto-erotic act with a noose.


Hannah Lynch, Petrol

Something similar happens with Alena Lodkina’s Petrol.  There is no noose equivalent but its about film-making and the magic of it. And specifically the problems faced by a young film-maker grappling with her life as well as her movie. The film has had screenings at Locarno and MIFF in recent times and will likely be on SBS and its channels and streaming service in the near future. Lodkina doesn’t bring over forty years of film criticism and  film-making to the table as Assayas does. This is her second feature, made on a shoestring with a cast of unknowns. As Assayas brings out the beauties of Paris, Lodkina finds  a small scale equivalent in the back lanes and terraces of a tiny part of Melbourne. But she does share with Assayas a sense of fun, mystery, intrigue and cinematic reference. Her god is the enigmatic Andrei Tarkovsky, not the most humorous of beings but one who revelled in spectacle and magic. She does not explain what the title means. “The evasively titled Petrol” one critic called it. 


Penelope Cruz, Official Competition

Meanwhile lingering around the art houses is a Spanish film called Official Competition, another reflection on modern film-making. It shares one trope with Irma Vep. Production funds are coming from a big corporation. In the French movie it’s all about selling perfume. In the Spanish it’s all about the self-aggrandisement of the billionaire pharma manufacturer who wants a place in the limelight. Penelope Cruz plays a director who, to provoke her two leading players, puts their awards through a metal grinder and runs rehearsals with humiliation of her actors as a key purpose. I guess  there’s a place for it…. 

Tuesday 23 August 2022

An Overlooked Australian film (4) - DEVIL IN THE FLESH (Scott Murray, 1986)

Of all the Australian films that have made it into the various official selection sessions at Cannes, probably the most overlooked is Scott Murray's debut, and only, feature Devil in the Flesh.  Made in 1986 the film had its premiere as part of Critic's Week at Cannes that same year. The distributor of the film Hoyts Premium then its time, only releasing the film in 1989.

Devil in the Flesh was and remains a rarity, an adaptation to an Australian setting of a classic European novel of the same name by Raymond Radiguet. The book had been filmed by Claude Autant-Lara way back in 1947, starring Gerard Philipe  and Micheline Presle, and was a major success in its day. Almost simultaneously with Murray's film Marco Bellocchio also did an adaptation which also premiered at Cannes in 1986. 

No point here in analysing the changes made to settings from the novel and the Autant-Lara version except to say that Murray constructed a very thoughtful update in the times, changing it from an early 20th century locale to Australia during WW2.

Katia Caballero, Keith Smith, Devil in the Flesh

The film was highly praised by Rolando Caputo's entry in Australian Film 1978-1992: "From the opening image of a car moving into frame and taking with it the gaze of the audience into this imaginary world of the screen, Murray directs the drama with subtle and stylish delicacy. He is complemented by Andrew De Groot's brilliant cinematography which captures every nuance of colour - especiallystriking in the Balthus-inspired production design of Marthe's apartment - and aided by Philippe Sarde's quietly effective music score."

In the Oxford Companion to Australian Film Brian McFarlane is similarly enthusiastic: "...a comparative rarity in new Australian cinema in the way it directly confronts issues arising from sexual love. Scott Murray, editor of Cinema Papers directed his first feature film with a firm focus on this central governing idea, and this separates it somewhat from the rites-of-passage films common in the local film revival."

Katia Caballero, Keith Smith, Devil in the Flesh

The film was produced by the late John Murray whose body of work is currently being privately restored. The original cut was 104 minutes but the film was released in Australian cinemas at 99 minutes. The  2K restoration is hoped to produce a version corresponding to the original cut.

Previous entries in this series

The Golden Cage (Ayten Kuyululu)

The Phallic Forest (Kit Guyatt)

Aya (Solrun Hoaas)

Friday 19 August 2022

"You Like What You Like”: Tom Ryan’s 2003 interview with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest

It was mid-winter, 2003. By way of promoting the release of its latest film, Roadshow had arranged for me to lunch with Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean in a cosy space in a plush South Yarra restaurant. Members of a wonderfully inventive, loosely constructed repertory company, they’d all starred in a series of hugely enjoyable Guest-directed mockumentaries: Waiting for Guffman (1996), about a small-town repertory group’s musical production, Best in Show (2000), about the canine aristocracy and their guardians, and A Mighty Wind (2003), about a memorial concert that reunites folk singers from the 1960s. And I had them all to myself.


The company was made up of a remarkably talented ensemble who’d work together on the films and then go off to pursue their many and varied other interests. In addition to Guest, Shearer and McKean, there was also Eugene Levy (Guest’s occasional co-writer and the creator and star of Schitt’s Creek), Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard (who died in 2020), Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock and Jennifer Coolidge. 


Shearer and McKean were Guest’s co-writers and co-stars on the Rob Reiner-directed This Is Spinal Tap (1983), the wicked film that single-handedly turned the “rockumentary” (the rock documentary, in case you’ve forgotten) into an endangered species. It also introduced Spinal Tap’s lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, to the world (played by Guest), a man extremely proud of his unique amp system that went “all the way to eleven”. The trio is currently at work preparing Spinal Tap II, with Reiner again directing.


Harry Shearer and Simpsons characters

Amongst many other things – including uncredited child-star roles in Abbott and Costello go to Mars and The Robe (both 1953) – Shearer is famous for voicing 17 characters in The Simpsons. When I took away from the lunch a hand-written and signed message from him for an eight-year-old family friend named George, whose mother had banned him from watching the show, George was overjoyed. For his part, Shearer was won over by the fact that, despite the prohibition, the brilliant George had somehow managed to learn episodes off by heart and would make a practice of reciting them as often as he could around the dinner table.


McKean is a versatile actor who was responsible for two of pop culture's more memorable icons: Lenny from TV's Laverne and Shirley (1976 – 1983) and Spinal Tap’s rhythm guitarist, David St. Hubbins. He began his career as a member of the comedy group Credibility Gap with fellow Tap member Harry Shearer and David Lander, all subsequently working as writers on Laverne and Shirley. He also co-wrote and acted in the Hollywood satire, The Big Picture (1989), which was directed by Guest, and was an occasional regular on Better Call Saul (2015 – 2022).

Michael McKean as Charles McGill, Better Call Saul

Their repartee around the lunch table was a joy to watch. They bounced off each other in ways that made it patently clear how they go about making their films. Not only did they frequently finish each other’s sentences, but their conversations were like musical riffs, one picking up on a theme, the others playing their own variations on it. The analogy that Guest draws between what they do and a jazz improvisation perfectly catches the flavour of how they go about their business. They’re also as hilarious in person as they are inside their characters on screen.

In one glorious exchange during an earlier Q & A session at Village’s Europa cinemas (in Melbourne’s Jam Factory), an eager questioner asked Guest if he’d selected the actors to go with the dogs or the dogs to go with the actors in Best in Show. While Shearer and McKean laughed their heads off, Guest deadpanned his response: “We cast the talking parts first.” But the questioner wasn’t finished. Did the dogs have to live for an extended period with the actors in order to be become as comfortable with them as they appear to be in the film? “Security!” called Guest, summoning a non-existent army of protectors at the rear of the cinema.

The parameters I took with me to the lunchtime interview were (a) that, wherever the conversation went, there should be a focus on their working methods and (b) that I needed to tell them that they shouldn’t feel insulted if they noticed me looking at my watch. It wouldn’t be because I was bored but because I needed to change the tape after 30 minutes and that I wanted to make sure that I squeezed in all the questions I had in the available time.




Tom Ryan: Don’t say anything you don’t want to be recorded because I’ve just switched the tape machine on.


Michael McKean: Harry, I beg you, for God’s sake, please don’t mention...


Harry Shearer: Hey, hey, hey [pretending to have been gagged]. 


MMcK: Don’t worry, Tom, I’m only planning to be fascinating.


HS: You say that all the time. You wrote it into your wedding vows…


MMcK: Hehehehehe!… You notice I’m the one sitting opposite the mirror, so as I can see how bald I am. But that’s alright.


I want to talk about the ensemble comedies. I know you’ve all had extensive careers apart from that, but I need to narrow it down a bit. And if I look at my watch, it’s not because I’m getting bored. It’s because I’m checking the time because…


MMcK: Well, you could be getting bored. But now that you’ve said that, you’ve got great cover.

[Christopher Guest looks at his watch. Laughter all round.]


[To Guest] You’ll check for me then?


CG: Yes.


Christopher Guest

And if I ask one of you a question that someone else wants to answer, feel free to jump in.


HS: Well, what I wanted to say…


MMcK: No, not yet…

But go ahead, if you wish…


HS: No, no. You go.


Where to start? After watching the three of you on ‘The Panel’ the other night, I know that you didn’t all meet on a bus. 


MMcK: Hehehehehe.

Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, Laverne and Shirley

My research on where you did meet up has taken me back to 1976 and ‘Laverne and Shirley’. I can connect all of you with the show in that year, but not with the same episode.


MMcK: I was in every episode. Harry did one on-camera part and a few voice-overs. And, in fact, was the voice of The Boss for short time, and also David Lander, Harry and I were hired as apprentice writers. Harry left after… 

[Interrupting himself] Did I just say Harry laughed? He didn’t laugh at all. 


HS: Didn’t laugh at all. That’s right. 


MMcK: Harry left after 15 shows. But we had been working together as a comedy group that preceded Laverne and Shirley since 1970, when I came out to Los Angeles. Harry had, in fact, been on that show – it was a radio show called The Credibility Gap – for two years at that point. I had known Chris before that, from ’67 when we did in fact meet at college. 

We were both acting students at New York University and guitar aficionados and we had both just seen Mike Bloomfield who had come through town with his band, The Electric Flag, and we were both blues fans and guitar players. And so that’s really where that happened.

It’s bizarre to have our association dated to Laverne and Shirley, however. Before one gets into TV or the movies, there are all these other connections that always crop up in show business. In Harry’s and my case, The Credibility Gap evolved, or devolved, whichever, from radio into a stage act and records as The Credibility Gap.


HS: And we were touring.


Kevin Bacon, The Big Picture

And you wrote The Big Picture together…


CG: Yes.

[To Guest] Which you directed. Was that based on personal experience?


CG: No.


MMcK: Totally.


CG: It was the first film I directed, but I didn’t have that experience. I didn’t go to film school.

But you were familiar with Hollywood. You knew the scene…


CG: Yes. But it was not based on anything literal in the sense that I had tried to sell a movie and gone through the things that the guy in the movie does. I never had those experiences at all. To that extent, it was made up and what really happens is a lot stranger than happens in that film, as it turns out.

Is it the Faustian story? Is selling your soul what one needs to do?


MMcK: It’s more like renting your soul than selling it.


CG: Every day.


But you guys have very much steered clear of the mainstream.


MMcK: I don’t think so. 


HS: We’ve dipped in and out of it. We are in it but not of it. We’ve all done mainstream movies – Chris has directed commercials, which is mainstream – but I think we’re all very protective of our sensibilities. I think the key is that you can get into the mainstream and it can – I’ll use a probably too expressive verb – it can suck your sensibility out of you, if you let it. So you have to really be protective of whatever you think your inner voice is that’s keeping you tuned in to your own sense of humour. So we’re all protective of our own sensibilities. You can use the mainstream for what it’s worth and yet still be able to do your own work.


MMcK: There’s a difference between working as a hired gun on any kind of film, whether it’s a very big film or a very small one, or TV show – you go on there to do the job that they hired you to do – but there are other projects where you’re one of the movers. 

In Chris’s films, everyone’s involved as a creator to some extent. Chris and Eugene [Levy] have done all the hard stuff to begin with: structuring the story, breaking down each scene and creating the characters. Then we come in and we do the fun part, you know, which is playing and staying true to what we’re doing. But everyone in the film is creative to a greater extent than it would be if…. 

Michael McKean, The Brady Bunch Movie

I did a film called The Brady Bunch Movie [1995]. It was very much a commercial film and I had fun… and I’m pretty good in it. And it’s a very funny movie, you know. But it’s not something that started with me or with my friends.

TR: Or that you had any emotions invested in?


MMcK: Not at the time. I’m just glad it was a hit.


And you’ve all done that kind of work.


MMcK: To some extent.

Is that just a way of staying afloat then?


CG: Well, we find ways to do that and to make a living and still try to get to do what we want to do. I think most actors in Los Angeles, that’s what they do: they act. They don’t write, they’re not composing music. And we’re lucky enough to have several different areas. Harry has a radio show and we write pieces for journals and Michael and I have directed, and Harry’s directed. We write songs. There’s a lot of different ways of approaching a career.


HS: And I think the main distinction between the mainstream route and what we do is that – I’ve experienced it; I don’t know about you guys – there’s a tremendous tendency on the part of people who think they have to advise you or tell you how to handle your career to ask, ‘What is it you really want to do?’

We’re talking agents here?

HS: Or managers, or journalists, or producers, or anything. They say, ‘What do you really wanna do?’ And I say, ‘What I really wanna do is everything I do.’ If you let yourself be pigeon-holed – ‘Well I’m just, um…’ – and you just do that all the time, that’s the most mainstream mistake you can make.


CG: That’s easy for them. That’s what they said to me when I started… And I never understood what the problem was. They said, ‘Which would you rather do?’ 


MMcK:  ‘Why?’ is an important question. 


CG: Yes. ‘Why are you even asking the question? I wanna do this and then I wanna do this….’ They just want me to make it simple for them.


MMcK: If you’re confused, then they can come and help you.


CG: And it’s a strange thing. If you have this choice…


MMcK:  I do have my choice. It’s why I’m doing both.


[Menus passed around during this. Pause while we make our orders]


MMcK: But seriously, that’s the most non-mainstream thing we could do. Refuse to answer that question.  


[Everybody gives their orders]


CG: A beef fillet, please.


Waiter [who I think was being slightly condescending]: Medium?


CG: Well.


I can see the head they’ll put on my story now: Three Americans Aghast at Size of Steaks in Australian Restaurant.


[Both Harry and Michael select the Caesar salad; then Michael sees something else and starts to think]


HS: Michael, which would you really like?


MMcK: To tell you the truth, if I had to make a choice I want to have both.


TR: Can I have the beef as well, please? I don’t want an entrée. And a nice glass of pinot or….


Waiter: Something on the lighter side?


TR: That’d be perfect.


Waiter: And you, sir?


MMcK: I’m fine with the water, thank you. Just leave me a top up.


Waiter: How would you like your beef done?...

(To be continued)