The Best and Worst of 2007

Looking back over the couple of hundred reviews I filed this year, I was struck by how many fine films I saw in 2007. On top of that, there were a couple of really good ones, films that slipped comfortably into the mantle of greatness.

I have listed them here in no particular order, but if I had to pick one above all the others, it would be The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is still playing in Irish cinemas – but only six of them. Andrew Dominik’s revisionist horse opera found a new and exciting way to tell an old story, a legend essentially. I saw four other movies that week, but there was only one still playing in my head.

The Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood are released here in January and February respectively. From the jumping arrows on my anticipation meter, either film would otherwise have vied for top spot.

American Gangster – Ridley Scott’s sprawling, funk-era narco-epic might be as shallow as a paddling pool, but it’s great fun to watch.

Inland Empire – David Lynch’s digital nightmare frightened the daylights out of me when I saw it, a sense of disintegration and collapse that lingered.

Eastern Promises – For the most galvanising scene of the year; Mortensen fighting off the Turks in the bathhouse. Outrageous.

Knocked Up / Superbad – A double-bill of instant comedy classics. Superbad just shades it, but there’s only a hair – dark and curly, obviously– between them.

The Lives Of Others – This coruscating history of the East Germany and the Stasi is a gripping spy thriller and a profound celebration of the human spirit.

The Bourne Ultimatum – Greengrass and Damon turn the dials all the way up for this balls-out trilogy-ender. Seriously smart and thrillingly stupid.

Zodiac – David Fincher returns to form for this open-ended dissection of San Francisco’s Zodiac killer. The best ensemble cast of the year, and a close second in the ‘best scene’ stakes. When Gyllenhaal went down to the basement with the creepy collector, the few hairs remaining on the back of my neck stood on end.

Into The Wild – Emile Hirsch and Sean Penn made the saddest and the most uplifting film of the year with this autobiographical road movie, with Hirsch establishing himself as one of the finest young actors working today through little more than empathy and understanding, two difficult emotions to communicate sincerely.

Atonement – Joe Wright’s lush adaptation of Ian McEwan’s doorstopper looked gorgeous, felt real and offered complete narrative satisfaction.

Days of Glory – A French war movie with heart and guts and deeper things to say about colonialism, patriotism and sacrifice.

This Is England – Shane Meadow’s brilliant Thatcher-era semi-autobiography had a captivating central performance from ten year old Thomas Turgoose and a cracking soundtrack of ska and reggae classics.

Ratatouille – Brad Bird’s visual feast was a delight varnished with genius.

Mr. Brooks – A serial killer movie that was as dumb as a bag of hammers, but Costner and Hurt were a great double act.

Michael Clayton –Clooney doing sullen in a fragmented story about a legal fixer. Bleak and smart, it was filled with ideas and talking points.

Notes On A Scandal – Dench and Blanchett teamed up for this blistering revenge story, a portrait of a demented bitch that never flinched from honest depiction.

Apocalypto – Say what you like about Mel Gibson, he can make action movies. Non stop thrills and a vivid sense of blood.

Away From Her – Sarah Polley’s Alzheimer’s drama was one of the saddest and most crisply drawn stories of the year.

Control – just for the horrible sense of fate that filled the shadows of Corbijn’s black and white screen.

The Last King Of Scotland – Forrest Whittaker and James McAvoy battle it out in Uganda for this scorching biopic of Idi Amin.

The Illusionist The Prestige is probably the better story, but I liked Edward Norton’s lush, dreamy film.

300 – Aaaaargh!

Yella – Kann Mann ‘David Lynch’ sagt? Still, this was a trippy, downbeat story of German capitalism.

Babel – Three sad stories, stretched to the point of agony.

Black Book – Verhoeven’s madcap Dutch Resistance adventure was a hoot.

The Science of Sleep –Gondry’s semi-autobiographical story had the most imagination of any film this year.

Once – Because success deserves applause as much as songs do.

Black Snake Moan – Soundtrack, soundtrack, soundtrack. And Ricci in her smalls.

The Family Friend – a scorching, sickly humorous story about a small-time Italian loan shark.

Ten Canoes – otherworldly.

Transformers – really, really loud and surprisingly funny.

The Simpsons Movie – just because.

Hallam Foe – More so for Sophia Myles than Billy Elliot, but I liked this Scottish drama’s sense of perversion.

Kings – for the lonliness.

The Darjeeling Limited – The bright, sweet road movie was cut with an acid sourness.

Worst of the Year

Or indeed, the worst of any year since the invention of the motion picture camera. If I had to pick one above all others, it'd be, oh sweet Jesus, don't make me pick...

The Dark Is Rising

Speed Dating

Are We Done Yet?

The Number 23

Southland Tales

I Want Candy

Goal! 2

Mr Bean's Holiday

Employee of the Month


The Last Legion

Perfect Stranger

Good Luck Chuck

Daddy Day Camp

Wild Hogs

Ghost Rider

Material Girls

For the best book about movies I read this year, it’s a toss up between Simon Callow’s brilliant Orson Welles biographies Road To Xanadu and Hello, Americans or Christopher Sandford's Polanski.

My song of the year would be Radiq’s 'Rude Boy Anthem' from the album Graffiti & Rude Boy 67', although I got a huge kick out of hearing Sam Cooke’s 'A Change Is Gonna Come' when it popped up, in its entirety, in the movie Talk To Me.

Emile Hirsch & Into The Wild

Emile Hirsch is a name you might not have heard before. The 23 year old Californian has only made a handful of movies and barring his debut in teen sex comedy The Girl Next Door, none of them have enjoyed popular success. There’s a chance too that his new film, Into The Wild, where he plays the real-life American hermit Christopher McCandless, might pass you by at the Cineplex. But it really shouldn’t, it is an astonishing performance and is the film that will make Hirsch’s name.

Directed by Sean Penn, who adapted John Krakauer’s best-selling book, the free-wheeling, poetic road movie introduces us to the idealistic McCandless as he graduates from university and prepares for law school. His demanding parents (played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) are trapped in an unhappy marriage, staying together for the sake of their business. Shortly after the ceremony, McCandless gives his life savings to a charity, packs a few clothes into his car and hits the road, not telling anyone where he is going. Inspired by Jack Kerouac, Jack London and the woodsman stories of David Henry Thoreau, McCandless plans to travel across the continent of America, north to Alaska, seeking adventure. On the way, he meets a series of fascinating people, who shape his life and his attitudes and who he in turn inspires.

Towards the end of the film, Hirsch as McCandless has spent a season alone in the Alaskan wilderness, without much food. Penn had his young star lose almost 30 pounds for this section of the film, and as he wanders into the London hotel room, he doesn’t look like he’s put much of it back on. Although his face is open and fresh, Hirsch is a small-framed young man, lost in a blue suit jacket, loose white t-shirt and frayed, baggy jeans. His shoulders rattle as he coughs loudly and asks me for a cigarette, which he smokes slowly and carefully while gulping down a sugary, milky coffee. Before we start into the questions, he tells me he has gotten used to silence since he spent eight months touring America with Penn, shooting the film. Consequently, Hirsch hums and haws a lot, leaving long gaps between my asking a question and answering it, but there is no reticence or hostility in these pauses, just a quiet consideration and a desire to be precisely understood.

After making complimentary noises about the film, which left a deep impression with me, I ask Hirsch how he prepared for such a difficult role. “For a commitment like this part”, he says, slowly, “you have to fall in love with the material. You have to be moved in a real way by the story, otherwise as much as you want to commit, and play the character, whoever it is, you just won’t be able to. It’s like being in love. If you’re not really in love, it will show on your face.”

“You know what I mean, right?” No, I reply. Tell me. Hirsch squirms slightly in his chair, flicking his floppy dark fringe from his eyes. “See, I loved Christopher McCandless’ story so much, just the idea of going on a spiritual quest, that I wanted to do him justice. That was the hardest part.” Unusually, the young actor didn’t audition for the role, he was offered the part by Penn before the director had finished his script. “Sean saw a movie I had made called Lords of Dogtown (about the origins of skateboarding culture in LA) and he really liked that. I think he saw a physicality in my performance there, and thought to himself that I would be able to handle the rough stuff in this story. So he got in touch and we got together and we talked and he gave me his copy of Krakauer’s book. Reading it was a life-changing experience. Seriously, I stayed up all night that night, devouring it”. I ask him for his first impression of McCandless and Hirsch smiles. “I was thinking practically, you know? Like, there’s so much in this story, there are a lot of places to go and people to meet. I thought the whole thing would be such an experience. It awoke this spirit of adventure in me. I suddenly developed these itchy feet.”

Over the next four months, Hirsch and Penn would get together every couple of weeks and talk about McCandless and his quest. “We’d have dinner with Sean’s family or go drinking or just hang out at his house. I think what he was trying to do was get a sense of me as a person, and he’s very careful about that. The first thing he told me was, ‘I know you can act this part, but what I’m looking for is a commitment’. He told me he wanted to be sure that I was mature enough to be able to handle what needs to be done for this role, between the action stuff, the weight loss, the mental preparation. All of that. So I went away and made my considerations, then a while later Sean called me up and said he’d just finished the script and would I come up to San Francisco right then and there, to read it. ‘If you like it’, he said, ‘the part is yours’. I was on a plane a couple of hours later and a couple of hours after that I was sitting at his kitchen table reading the pages and that was it”. I tell Hirsch that my impression of Penn is that he would be the ideal man to take an epic, trans-continental adventure with and the young actor’s face light up. “Right on!”, he replies, lifting himself out of his seat. “Penn is a real man. He’s got a fire in his gut and he’s full of ideas and questions and answers. He’s got so much energy and passion. When we were shooting, if a scene called for a hole in the ground, say, Sean would grab a shovel and start digging. He’s a natural born leader, and when we set out on this adventure, an adventure that took eight months in total, we needed that”.

Into The Wild is as much about family and society as it is about the search for identity and philosophical truth. I ask Hirsch what he thinks an audience might take away from the film? He sighs a very big sigh and there is a long pause, twenty seconds or more. Finally he says, with a laugh, “I have no idea”. It's my turn to be quiet now, so I wait for Hirsch to speak again. “Hopefully an audience would come away with the same feelings that I had. This was an ordinary guy who was also extraordinary. McCandless asked himself the big questions: Why are we here? What are we doing? What makes a life worth living? These are not new questions, but nobody has really ever answered them satisfactorily. Look at the pile of books he brought with him, when he didn’t even bring a map. Look at Thoreau, who I also read before I set off. In ‘Walden’, Thoreau says “I went into the woods not to escape life, but to discover that I had a life worth living”. Those are valid questions, and they’re not ones you can answer two minutes after you walk out of the film. Hopefully, in the movie there is something that can help people. Not ‘help’ as in ‘self-help book’, but that there’s something in there that will excite people about life and remind them that they are alive in the world.”

I ask Hirsch if he was conscious at the time that he was making the movie that he was making a statement about the individual’s place in this huge American society. “Absolutely”, he says. “For me, McCandless was on a search for truth, if that’s not too simple a word. He wasn’t a hermit or someone who hated life. He was looking to define those core American values – like liberty and freedom and independence. Who knows where those values are today, but that’s what McCandless was looking for. Whether we like it or not, we are all in a rat-race, constantly rushing around concerned with getting the next thing done. The idea that you can just put that all away, and go and live a simple life as a human being, not worried about where you have to go, what you have to do, how you have to speak or dress or behave, that is an exhilarating notion.” Like when McCandless burns the last of his money and walks off into the Arizona desert? “Right! Isn’t that an exciting idea?”

Into The Wild is Hirsch’s third biopic in a row. I ask him if it is a conscious choice, to play real people, and the actor rapidly nods his head. “There is something about real-life people I find more interesting, you know? The idea that there was a reality there gives me as an actor something concrete to hold on to. Chris McCandless was not an ordinary guy. He was a complicated person, who got along so well with all of the various people he met on the road, but at the same time closed himself off from his family, or from people he thought were getting too close. He wanted multiple things, he could be social and anti-social. In the end, and this is the saddest part, he wasn’t able to satisfy any of them.”

And what about the actor himself? What changed in his mind, after making the film? “Well, even though there’s a crew around, I enjoyed being pretty much alone a lot of the time”. He launches into a little sing-song rap, out of nowhere. “The sensation of the isolation is not alienation in our nation”. He takes another gulp of coffee and sits back in his chair. “Up there in Alaska, that was totally freeing, man. I felt fulfilled and I felt content. I had a constant state of well-being. I never felt alone, exactly, because nature was there all around me. Looking out from the bus at Mt Denali, the highest peak in North America, as the sun rises was a wonderful thing. It was just constant sensation, the whole day long. I don’t want to sound hippy-trippy, but it does make you feel at one with the universe when you’re in a place like that for any length of time."

As soon as he wrapped Into The Wild, after what he calls “the best year of my life”, it was back to the business of making movies and the lead role in the Wachowski Brother’s Speed Racer, a live-action version of the classic Japanese kid’s cartoon. Quite a change of pace, according to Hirsch. “Well, it was weird, that’s what it was. Such a polar opposite, to go from the outdoors and the wilderness to this cutting edge technological wonderland of special effects and green screens and all the creature comforts that come with a big-budget movie. At the same time, those extremes were very engaging. It’s a fast, fun movie, but The Wachowski’s have added this very serious dramatic backbone that I could really get my teeth into."

Our time almost up, Hirsch stands as I stand and walks me out of the room. We talk in asides about a subject I didn’t really want to bring up, for fear of a jinx, next year’s Oscars. Into The Wild and Hirsch in particular are already being tipped by the internet nabobs for nominations in January. “Aw, man, don’t”, he says. “It’ll be cool, obviously but I don’t want to think too much about that. I am hoping that I’m not the kind of person who cares about that and nothing else, you know? Titles and honours are irrelevant, according to McCandless, so there would be a certain guilty irony there, if it happens.”

“If”, he repeats, opening the door and shaking my hand. “Big if...”

Brad Bird & Ratatouille

Name the guy who directed Shrek? Any of the three. Or Shark Tale, The Wild, Hoodwinked? How about the Best Picture Oscar nominee Beauty and the Beast from 1991? Even for cinéastes, there’s no shame in struggling to recall the names of these talented filmmakers, animation directors rarely get the recognition and acclaim lavished on their live action counterparts, but there are a few exceptions. Matt Groening's bearded face is as well-known as any of his yellow creations. Walt Disney was canny enough to use his looping signature as the company masthead. Chuck Jones, the genius behind the Warner Brothers Loony Tunes, did likewise, filling the screen with his name at the end of the title credits. You might have heard of John Lasseter, who directed Toy Story and Cars. “Brad Bird”, he declares, “is the most talented filmmaker working in all of cinema in America today, animation, live action, whatever”.

Lasseter, media-savvy head of Pixar and producer of their new movie Ratatouille, might be expected to say exactly that, but on the day I met Bird, The New York Times’ powerful critic AO Scott called him ‘the greatest living American filmmaker”. People who know movies, know Brad Bird’s name. A graduate of Cal-Arts prestigious animation department, Bird got his start with Disney before going on to direct episodes of The Simpsons for Fox and making his criminally undervalued feature debut with The Iron Giant in 1999. Over the years, Bird has built up a considerable reputation as a cartoon virtuoso; through his indelible character design, his sparkling writing, his cinematic photography and the instantaneous personality his films acquire. Bird, a tanned Californian who looks exactly like a photograph of himself as a child, takes the compliments with a grin and a shrug. “I’m not the greatest anything, but it’s nice to have people say nice things about you and your work”.

Ratatouille, the story of a rat named Remy who dreams of becoming a gourmet chef, is the first of his film’s that Bird didn’t have a hand in from the start. The Czech animator Jan Pinkava came up with the unique premise and designed the characters but his progress was too slow, even for animation, and Bird took over. I ask him if he had reservations about appropriating another person’s project, and Bird nods his head sincerely. “Of course, yes. Absolutely. I have a lot of respect for Jan, and nobody likes talking over someone else’s ‘baby’. But the film had been in development for a long time and the story wasn’t progressing to the point that it needed to. It was a beautiful looking concept, and everybody at Pixar loved the idea, the world and the collection of character types.” He emphasises the last word with a straightened index finger. “But they were just ‘types’. They were not characters and they needed to be. The film needed to be simplified so that you could follow it and be emotionally engaged by it”. Pinkava left Pixar shortly after Bird took over the film, although the director is at pains to explain that everyone is still friends.

Whatever he did, it worked. Despite trailing in the wake of dozens of digital animated features, Ratatouille has the power to astound; beautiful to look at, brilliantly written and filled with precisely tailored individual moments that are among the best in Pixar’s illustrious repertoire. Bird acknowledges the compliment with a nod, but seems uncomfortable when I bring up the the film's difficult path to completion. He tugs his fingers through his swept-back red hair and groans. “Movies are hard, man! They are not easy things to do and the route to getting a film, any film, realized is not always a clean, easy route. Sometimes it is really tortured and hard.” Bird, clad in the Californian uniform of pressed jeans and a suit jacket, is proud of his results. “I think this is a unique film, and an odd film. Hopefully, odd in a good way. It is an unusual combination of ingredients.”

In the film, Remy (voiced by comic Patton Oswalt) lives with his family in a rubbish tip outside Paris. Blessed with a supernatural nose, Remy tries to get the rest of the pack to eat the best scraps, but they’re only interested in him sniffing out rat poison. When he becomes separated from his family, Remy travels through the sewers of the French capital, arriving underneath a five-star restaurant, and silently befriends a young kitchen porter named Linguini (Lou Romaro). Linguini too dreams of becoming a chef, but he is hopelessly clumsy. The film’s stroke of genius is to have Remy hide under Linguini’s toque and operate the gangling teenager like a marionette. With Remy operating his hands, by pulling on his hair, Linguini becomes a feted cook and the restaurant is saved.

I tell Bird that his screenplay is more complicated and far-reaching than the usual animated fare. “That seems to be the reaction”, he agrees. “It seems to be one of those films that is difficult to sum up in thirty seconds or convey on a poster, not like ‘Superhero Family’, or ‘Missing Fish’”. He is proud of the story, however, and of the efforts he made to ensure the quirkiness of the original idea was maintained in the finished film. “When you’re telling the story, you’re only in control of it about half the time. You have, in your own mind, what you want it to be, but in order to get the most out of a movie, you have to listen to what it wants to be itself. When I was getting towards the end of Ratatouille, all my screenwriter training was telling me, ‘here’s where you amp it up and make it faster and louder’. But when it came down to it, it felt like the movie wanted me to slow down, reflect on events and get contemplative. It became more emotional and romantic. So, I just wrote it that way”.

There is an obvious challenge in the film; somehow making the combination of rats and food appeal to an audience. Bird stops me again with the raised finger. “I get what your saying, but I don’t really spent all that much time thinking about what I think kids are going to like or not like. I think that’s a mistake. I just make a movie that I want to see and hope that kids will be interested. When I was a kid, I didn’t always understand every tiny detail of what was going on in a movie, and that was ok. As long as the film was engaging and had an underlying structure, I was captivated. And it fires your curiosity too, right? I think kids are both smart and curious about the world, and a lot of films treat them as if they were not”.

Regardless of health and safety issues, Ratatouille has all the elements that make up a classic children’s adventure. Remy the rat, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, is a fish out of water. Passionate about food, he follows his dream, overcoming obstacles and challenges to become who he wants to be. I ask Bird about splitting the story, and introducing Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garret), a ghostly mentor that is a figment of the tiny blue rat’s imagination. “Separating Remy from his family allowed me to open up the narrative and let Remy to make this leap into the kitchen with no competition for his attention. That meant also though, that he couldn’t talk to anybody, because he was on his own. So he’s a figment of his imagination. If you’re going to explain complicated things like the workings of a kitchen and the world of restaurants and cuisine to a rat, it becomes very handy for Gusteau to be a guide. Like Jiminy Cricket or Obi Wan Kenobi”.

Later, the film resolves the separation by examining a very grown-up concept, the difficulty in balancing family life and career. Bird, who tells me ‘in a good week’, he works 60 hours at Pixar, empathises with his character. “It’s an issue, sure. Although I’m looking at four months vacation now, it isn’t easy to divide your time between work and home. The challenge is to be in the moment. I can’t say I always succeed, but I am much more aware of when I am disconnected and slap myself out of it". He has a ready-made test market sitting in his living room, that he makes as much use of as he can. “My kids have seen the movie, several times. I use them as a preview audience, and why not? I worry about their reactions, actually. They were down with The Incredibles and Iron Giant because they’re about giant robots and superheroes but when I started talking about Ratatouille and rats and cooking, they were like, ‘er, OK Dad’. The fact that they love it is a significant relief to me”.

Special attention is paid at Pixar to the voice talent that brings their characters to life. The standout in the current cast is the growling, cobwebbed tones of Peter O’Toole. “When I was writing the script, Peter’s was the voice I was hearing in my mind. I was hoping against hope that he would agree to voice the food critic, Anton Ego. I ask him about that character - who looks like a corpse, lives in a coffin shaped room and has a typewriter shaped like a skull - and whether or not his appearance and demeanour had anything to do with the lukewarm critical reaction to Pixar’s last film, Cars. Bird widens his eyes, as if the idea had never occurred to him beforehand, and says, “Nope. The character of Anton is supposed to represent somebody who has become disconnected from what they love, and that they have become so revered and feared that he is caring more about what he says about things, than the things themselves. This is a dangerous thing for a critic, and for an artist, too. If an artist cares more for box office or pleasing the critics or indeed, anything other than the work itself, then they too become disconnected. So, the film in it’s way, is saying, ‘stick with your passions”.

Quentin Tarantino & Death Proof

It’s no wonder the dialogue in his movies is so memorable and, although much imitated, uniquely Quentin Tarantino. That’s how he talks in real life. Since people first started asking him questions about movies, the director has been tripping over himself to tell it how he sees it. His machine-gun voice - instantly recognisable with its dude-spattered intonations - rises and falls according to his state of passion. It is rarely less than excited. Although smiling and relaxed, amused by his own ability to enthuse, he is constantly in motion. When he talks really quickly, he chops the air for emphasis. Every sentence he utters sounds like it should end with an exclamation mark. “I’m not only a writer, I’m a dialogue writer”, he spits. “I was born with this magical ear!”


Leaning back in his chair, Tarantino strikes an imposing figure, six foot something and stocky with it, in an ornately embroidered cowboy shirt, baggy pants and crisp, white boxing boots. “I’ll tell you how it works. I think listening and interpreting what characters say to one another is the best part of the job, getting into peoples heads and into their humanity. For the last five years or so I’ve been hanging out with these various groups of women. The majority of my deep friendships come from these different female posses, black girls and Korean girls and white girls. So we hang out and eat and go to the movies or whatever. I’m not one of the girls or anything, but they don’t edit themselves around me anymore. So it was cool, once I had finished Death Proof, to realise that in a twisted way the film was a love letter to these women that had become friends of mine and are such a big part of my life”.

In that same twisted way, his women friends should thank him. Splitting Death Proof down the middle gives Tarantino two fascinating gangs of beautiful, resourceful and super-tough chicks to conjure with. The first posse, Texan townies played by Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito, strike up a talkative flirt with Kurt Russel’s Stuntman Mike that ends spectacularly, if badly for them. The next, entirely different crowd (Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell), are far better prepared to dish out some payback when Mike tries the same trick again.

As a cackling bad guy, Stuntman Mike arrived in Tarantino’s head almost fully formed. “I knew I wanted to do a 70s style horror thriller, specifically a slasher movie, because I especially like that genre. So the challenge is to see if I could do for the slasher picture what I did with the heist movie in Reservoir Dogs, use that initial idea as the place to jump off from”. Tarantino pauses to take a sip from a pint of Guinness delivered as we sat down. His demeanour clearly indicates he is the middle of an anecdote, and there appear to be no short-winded Tarantino stories. “So, there I am, sitting around with this notion in my head and then I remember something from years before. I had decided I wanted a really safe car and I bought a Volvo. Later I was on a movie set, talking to a guy who handles cars for movies and I’m telling him about my nice, safe, brown Volvo. He told me I could bring any car to a good stunt team and they would ‘death-proof’ it for me for 10 thousand dollars. ‘You could drive it into a wall and walk away” he said, and that stuck with me, along with the words he used, ‘death proof’.”

“That’s the job of a writer, as I see it. When something sticks in your ear, it sticks there for a reason. So, I’m asking myself all these questions. What if my killer had that car? He could get into the worst wreck in the world and be sure he would live. What if he was killing women that way? He would have to be a stuntman, the way I figure it. Add it up and I had a demented ex-stuntman killer pervert out there who is getting off on these deadly crashes he painstakingly engineers. He claps his hands together, letting one slide off the other palm and on towards the ceiling – “Bam! From that point on, I was off to the races”.

For the first time, Tarantino shot his movie himself, having “listened to and learned from every cinematographer I’ve ever worked with”. He says he’s delighted with the results, especially the horrified reactions from the laboratory technicians when he explained what he wanted to do to the negatives. There's more giggling and twitching as he explains how he achieved his 'dupey' look, to make the film look like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. He is most proud of the fact that he shot his elaborate car stunt sequences in camera. “No CGI, no body doubles, no cranking the film. That really is Zoe Bell on the hood of that car and it really is going that fast.” The originator of the crashes, Russell plays Stuntman Mike with a smirk, playing on his own B-movie heritage to make the murderous stalker and a likeable and compelling road buddy. At one point, he even breaks the third wall to tip us a wink. “You are supposed to like him”, Tarantino says. “It’s good to be conflicted about how you feel about him. It was just amazing to get to make a movie with Kurt Russell and I’m proud to say that Stuntman Mike is as mean and ornery a character as he’s ever played. The weird part about it is that when, in the second part of the movie, Mike gets his just desserts, you feel just a little bit sorry for the poor bastard.”

The version of Death Proof that we get to see is ‘about a half-hour, maybe more’, longer now than it was in the US double release, but Tarantino claims that was the way it was planned. “The big difference between the two movies is that this version is the screenplay I wrote, you know, with all of my narrative strategies and dialogue and everything. But what me and Robert ended up doing is using both of our movies to make a third movie – Grindhouse – to try and capture that whole experience. So that movie had to work on that gut level and also on a creative level that was interesting for us. Part of that was cutting our movies down to the bone. I got it in under 87 minutes but the point is, I knew even before I started shooting that the movie would be coming out by itself in the rest of the world and DVD in the US. I loved experimenting with Robert on Grindhouse, but a stand-alone Death Proof was there, right from the get-go”.

Changing the subject, I tell Tarantino that I recognised his handwriting on the jukebox in the bar. “Yes, that’s my own jukebox. I shipped it down especially and I hand-wrote all the title cards, like you spotted. Not only are the records all my own 45s, but they’re the original pressings of all those records. No re-issues”. He chuckles, amused by his own geekiness. The director and his music are so closely connected, I ask him how he comes up with his final selection. “When I decide to make a movie, I go up to the record room in my house – it’s all set up like an old time record store – and flip through my vinyl. It’s not just about finding the music that will play in the movie, it’s about finding the beat, the rhythm. Now, if you’re talking Pulp Fiction, you’re talking about 60s surf guitar. Jackie Brown, its 70s Soul music. Kill Bill Vol. II is Spaghetti Western soundtracks. But with Death Proof, it was a little different because for the most part, all the actual songs came straight off that jukebox. It was ridiculously sort of…organic”.

Hip mood music is a essential to the Tarantino brand, but there are dozens of familiar idiosyncratic touches and references that go into his movies; extravagant cars, made-up products, recurring characters, long takes, colour schemes, black and white reels. And women’s feet. It has become blindingly obvious that Tarantino has a thing for women’s feet. He chuckles madly when I bring it up, jiggling his shoulders and creasing his face. “Well, yeah”. It’s obvious too that he’s enjoying himself, but isn’t he in danger of becoming too knowing and wind up caught in a loop? “Actually, it’s all pretty intentional on this movie, Death Proof has a lot of those self-referential bits in it. I didn’t think it has gone too far in a bad way, but I can see how I might get nailed on it, a little bit. But it’s supposed to be that kind of movie and the audience can take a joke. I can frame it from the perspective that this is the universe my characters live in. So, it’s my universe, where people eat Big Kahuna burgers and the theme song from here is the ring tone over there. Right? And actually, I’m not making that one up. Kill Bill Theme is like, the best selling ring-tone in Eastern Europe!” At this point, Tarantino is literally out of his seat, his arms going like Hong Kong Phooey.

It’s all a bit tawdry and inconsequential, though, isn’t it? “Well, that’s partly the point, with this one. Death Proof comes straight from the gutter.” There is no doubt Tarantino is a serious and significant filmmaker, but a crust of critical apathy has built up around the legend. His recent output has been compared to a Michelin-starred chef who chooses instead to make hot dogs. I’m explaining this opinion to him in the context of Inglorious Bastards while Tarnatino leans forward in his chair and takes a sip of his pint. He looks at me over the rim of the glass. “For all it’s low-minded origins, Death Proof still has enough layers to make it a pretty intense, seriously delicious hot dog. And I wouldn’t call Kill Bill a hot dog, it’s like a ten course gourmet banquet. At least it is for me”.

“I thought about this very point when another critic said Kill Bill ‘was the B-movie to end all B-movies’. I knew I wasn’t exactly moving on when I did Death Proof, but I didn’t realise it was going to be such a big deal. I get it, of course…”. He hesitates, opens his mouth to say something and closes it again. “I make the movies I want to make. My stuff will always be fun, until it’s not. Even for me. It will be enjoyable until it’s terrible. It’ll be funny until it turns horrific”. He laughs again, and pauses for effect before delivering his judgement on the whole thing, Grindhouse and The Weinsteins, ego-trips and exploitation, himself and his critics. “There will always be movies, right? Even if only to give teenagers somewhere to go on a Friday night.”

On Friday night, Tarantino pulled out of an appearance on The Late Late Show at the last minute, preferring to sit and watch Death Proof with the throng gathered in the Savoy to hear him speak, than play nice for a few hours with Pat Kenny across town. This crowd-pleasing move no doubt quickened the pulse of his already harried handler, who had spent the day with an ear to the phone and both eyes on their watch, but it seems Tarantino does what he pleases, exactly when he pleases and more power to him.

Seth Rogen and Knocked Up

There’s an extraordinary noise echoing through the elaborately over-designed halls of the Haymarket Hotel in London, a booming laugh – Hur Hur Hur – emanating from the curly-headed, barrel-chested Seth Rogen as he appears in the doorway and saunters across the room to shake my hand, nod politely and slouch down in a bulky, lime-green armchair. The 25 year old Rogen has emerged from the crowd to lead a new generation of comedic actors, writers and producers. Starting out as a thirteen year old stand-up comedian in his native Vancouver, “delivering one-liners about how there’s nothing to do in Canada, basically”, Rogen moved to Los Angeles when he was sixteen. He soon landed roles in Knocked Up director Judd Apatow’s two critically acclaimed television sit-coms, Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, on which he was also hired as a staff writer at the tender age of 18. In 2005, “after serving my apprenticeship” Rogen graduated to a supporting role in Apatow’s smash hit comedy The 40 Year Old Virgin, while also writing the first series of the US version of Da Ali G Show for Sacha Baron Cohen.

Having settled in his chair, I ask the supernaturally relaxed-looking actor about his steady progression, from the sarcastic background character to leading man. “As far as being a leading man goes, I know I’m no Jude Law, right. It’s more about my own level of comfort in front of the camera. At the start, on Freaks & Geeks, I really had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I really wasn’t an actor at that point. As the series went on, I was telling Judd that I wanted to do more, and he took me at my word and gave me the opportunities. When it came around to The 40 Year Old Virgin, initially my role was just to be one of the guys who occasionally comes out with a wise-crack. I went to Judd and said that I was ready for something a little more, to be a real character that becomes friends with Steve and gives him advice and encouragement and he said, ‘OK, cool’. It’s as if he was waiting for me to come to him and express that desire, you know”. I ask him if now, after working for a couple of years, he’s finally comfortable in calling himself an actor. “Almost, dude. I wrote ‘actor’ on that customs form when I arrived in the UK, so once it’s on a government document, it’s official, right?”

Shortly after the cherry-popping sex-comedy opened in 2005, to rave reviews and phenomenal box-office, Apatow came to Rogen with the idea for Knocked Up. “His notion initially was, ‘Seth Gets A Girl Pregnant’, which he found to be absolutely hilarious. I didn’t take it personally, so we started from there and went backwards. We asked ourselves, ‘what’s the worst kind of girl that this could happen to?’ Somebody who is very together, beautiful and ambitious. What kind of job could she have that would be completely ruined by such an event – a glamorous entertainment television presenter. So that was enough to get started.”

In the movie Rogen plays Ben Stone, a clueless, marijuana-smoking twenty-something who lives with his friends in a run-down house in an Los Angeles suburb. One night, while out at a club, he meets the beautiful Alison (brilliantly played by Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl). They go back to her place, where one unlikely thing leads to another. A couple of weeks later, soon after getting a promotion at work, Alison discovers she’s pregnant and after contacting Ben, decides against her better judgement to keep the baby and see if they can make it as a family. “What we like to do is cast the roles as early as possible, and try to create the characters around specific actors. It was really hard to cast the role of Alison because a lot of actresses are physically small and you would fear for their safety when it came to doing an energetic sex scene with a man of my size. Added to that, I can be very loud and very aggressive and rambunctious, you know, so some 95 pound actress would find it a challenge to stay upright. Literally, my voice would knock them over. When Katherine came in, she is around my height, she’s very statuesque and strong and beautiful to the point of being intimidating. When she yells, and she has to do a lot of that with my character, you feel your hair move, you know? We thought she was perfect.”

Knocked Up opens with a montage of a gang of immature guys sitting around the house, smoking bongs and dancing spasmodically to hip-hop. Rogan unleashes his booming laugh again, Hur Hur Hur. “That’s directly lifted from the real, absolutely wasted lives of all those people you see, including my good self. Those guys are my actual best friends and I’ve lived with all of them at one point or another. I hate to admit it, but that’s how it was. We all have girlfriends now and have grown up a bit, but if you were to visit my apartment two or three years ago, that’s exactly the scene you would have faced, down to the tiniest detail.”

In the movie, Rogan and his slacker friends have formed an internet company that provides a catalogue of female nudity in Hollywood movies, not the actor’s first experience with web-based celebrity skin. “No, not at all. Far from it, in fact. I’m online nearly every day, and that stuff is unavoidable. But more than that, the idea for the internet company came from us thinking what a great job it would be to watch movies and pick out the naked bits, We were thinking, ‘what’s the worst thing you could tell a girl that you do for a living’, and that seemed funny to us. But hey, I could go on all day about nude scenes in movies. It’s what I know best.” We pass a giggly couple of minutes discussing our most memorable moments. Rogan doesn’t have to think for long in selecting his. “Fast Times At Ridgemount High. Number one of all time. Oh, man. I remember thinking when I saw Phoebe Cates taking her bikini top off that I had made it happen with my brain. I wanted to see her breasts so badly that I had willed it to occur.”

One of the funniest films of this year, or any year, Knocked Up is far more than just a succession of easy dope jokes and sex talk. The uproarious comedy is generously cut with genuine, sweet emotion, which pours from the generously drawn, likeable characters. I ask Rogen if the underlying theme is that any guy – even a smut-peddling, pot-addled slacker like Ben – can be redeemed by the love of a good woman. “Well, that’s part of it”, he replies. “I do think that any guy can be redeemed but I think the real message is that, like Spike Lee said, ‘just do the right thing’. That’s all you need. What we start out with is the real emotional stuff and we assume that the comedy will follow after. It’s a weird thing to say, but the comedy really is the easy part of making a movie like this. The hard part is finding the right flow of events and finding the right moments that the audience can relate to and believe in. Jokes come later, when Judd gets his cast together and gives them the freedom to be funny. He’s better at that than anyone, I think. He trusts us to be funny and that’s a powerful thing.”

I tell Rogen that I read somewhere that Apatow had shot about 1.5 million feet of film on Knocked Up, more than enough for four or five movies. “That does sound like a lot”, he explains, “but that comes from the way that we work, which has a lot to do with improvising in character.” I tell him that I had always had the impression that comedy was difficult, that being truly funny was something that required a lot of hard work and long nights at the keyboard and he answers with a shrug. “It depends on what you’re doing. When I wrote for Ali G, it was like that, because we had to try and predict what people’s reactions would be to this character. That was tough, planning five steps ahead of where you were at any given moment. But when you’re going for something naturalistic like we are in Knocked Up, and you have a lot of very funny people around, the hard thing becomes keeping track of the story and making it emotionally resonant.”

He describes the approach, which to an outsider, sounds more like playtime than work. “In rehearsals, we don’t just read the script, over and over again, but we sit around and talk about things that we’ve done in relationships and the hopes and fears that we have. Just talking, really. A lot of that stuff works its way into the script and even if it doesn’t, we write it down in a book and keep it there to remember. There’s a part in the finished movie where we have this long talk about a time-machine. That was something that came out of a conversation we had throughout the rehearsals that somebody wrote down and we kept coming back to. So when Judd is shooting the scene, we’ll hear this voice coming from behind the camera – “talk about the time-machine”, so we riff for a couple of minutes. It becomes very difficult to distinguish between something we improvise and something we’ve written in the script, because the whole process leads itself to a lot of talking and laughing at the jokes that come out.”

Belying his sleepy, slacker attitude, Rogan is also the executive producer on Knocked Up (more than just a vanity credit, he assures me), and has written and produced the marijuana-themed high-school comedy Superbad and the action-comedy adventure The Pineapple Express, which recently wrapped production with director David Gordon Green. It’s difficult to believe that Rogen is still just 25 years of age. “Believe it, baby”, he replies. I ask him what part of the work he likes best, writing, producing or acting. “My favourite part of the entire movie-making process is just being on set and being part of it all. The way we work, it’s difficult to distinguish between the parts that we play in making it all happen. I can find myself acting, writing and producing simultaneously, or at least that’s what it feels like. But, those are just titles. The point is that we are all trying to make a movie and trying to make it funny. That’s all it is, really. Me being called a producer simply means that people have to listen when I talk and in case you haven’t realised, I’m a guy with a lot of opinions”. He says something else, laughing as he does so, but when I played it back later all I could distinguish was that deep sonic-boom, distorting his words into a charming babble of crackle and hiss.

The Devil In Disguise: Michael Bay & Transformers

There’s no sinister kettle-drum beat when the director of Transformers lopes into the room. The window’s don’t rattle, the sky doesn’t darken, there’s no flash of lightning. The man Entertainment Weekly once called The Devil is a lanky, long-haired Californian with a tanned face, a wide grin and an easy handshake. Why do people hate you, Michael Bay? “I dunno”, he drawls. “Maybe those guys just don’t like having a good time. That’s a thing, you know. A psychological thing”.

Bay guffaws. That's the best word to describe it. "No, but if you go back and read that article, and I’ve actually put it on my website, that writer really got me. He says that my movies have been held up as representing everything that’s wrong with Hollywood, but explains how that perception is incorrect. I changed how action movies were made, changed peoples idea of what an action movie could be. All the way though the history of movies, whenever a director changed how things were done, they were hated for it, because it meant everyone else had to change too, to follow the lead. If you know anything about directors, they hate to be followers, yeah?”

The 42 year old Bay changed things in Hollywood Spinal Tap fashion, by turning every dial up to eleven. Since his debut with 1995s Bad Boys, quickly followed by The Rock, Armageddeon, Pearl Harbour and back again for Bad Boys II, Bay has been all about scale – the biggest stars, biggest budgets, the loudest explosions, the most destructive action. It’s a formula that has worked, his films have generated a billion dollars so far, and although when we sat down the director wasn’t to know it, Transformers looks like being his biggest success yet, passing the $400 million mark just two weeks after opening around the world and garnering the best reviews of the director’s career.

“Did you say formula?”, Bay asks, shaking his head slowly with exaggerated regret. “I don’t believe in formula, either on this movie, or anything else that I’ve done. People like to think they can figure it all out, but I just want my movies to be fun and entertaining”. Transformers is unexpectedly funny, so to get around his resistance, I ask him how he achieves a balance, between the action stuff, the metal robots, and the humans at the centre of the story. Bay likes this question a little better. “It is important to have a balance, like you put it, between all the various elements of Transformers. You have to draw the audience in with the action, obviously, but with touches of humour and romance and whatever observations you can make about society, because characters can’t be taken out of the world that they live in. If I can do that with a joke, that’s all the better for me”.

Back in 1984, Transformers – ‘robots in disguise’ - took the world by storm. The Pokémon of another generation, they were an internationally successful Japanese cartoon series that sold countless millions of plastic toys, alongside comic books, lunch boxes, t-shirts and even an animated feature that boasts Orson Welles’ final performance. Bay’s take on Transformers has rising stars Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox playing high-school students who find themselves caught up in an ancient battle between two races of giant alien robots, whose fight has erupted on present-day Earth. For the first hour, the movie is a funny, beautifully observed Southern Californian teen comedy which then becomes a breathtakingly realised triumph of action cinema. It would be easy to dismiss the movie as a money-grabbing exercise in recycling and bombast, but Bay’s Transformers is that rare thing nowadays, a surprisingly entertaining summer blockbuster that outperforms expectations; of the concept itself and the director who made it.

I ask him how he got involved in reviving the property and Bay, who says he has been offered countless superhero movies over the years and turned them all down, puts his thumb and little finger up to his ear. “It was a phone call from Steven”. The Steven is Spielberg, the executive producer. “And it went like this”. “Michael, I want you to make Transformers. We don’t have a script, but it’s about a kid buying his first car. Turns out the car is an alien robot. Isn’t that great?” “So I said, cool Steven, I’ll think about it”. Bay replaces his imaginary handset, leans back in his chair and says “There’s no way I’m doing this stupid movie”.

Seeing as he’s sitting here, having done the stupid movie, I ask him what changed his mind. The director recalls his initiation into Transformers lore, which is surprisingly dense and complicated for a Saturday morning cartoon, describing the various robot names and their unique characteristics. “I learnt all this at the Hasbro museum. They have an actual museum at the factory where they made the toys back in the 1980s. It’s in New Jersey. I watched the whole cartoon series there, went through their collection and read everything they had. Eventually I was just completely turned around on it. I like to think I know my own mind but it goes to show, you should challenge your own assumptions sometimes. Your first reaction isn’t always the right one.”

“For me”, he explains, “there has to be a moral. It’s like when Optimus Prime (the red and blue leader of the good guys) says, ‘we’re a strong race, but we’re a violent race and we are in danger of destroying ourselves’. That’s something we can all learn from, right? Especially nowadays. What stands out for me, however, from the whole story is the line ‘No Sacrifice, No Victory’, and I think that’s true in life and its certainly been true for me”. Bay has a reputation for being a tough, demanding director but even before I can finish my question, he interrupts me. “I don’t get that. There’s no sacrifice there. I’ve been with the same crew for more than fifteen years now, which is a long time in Hollywood. I will tease them, encourage them, lead them, but they can see that I never leave the set. I’m there just as long as they are, from the first camera-set up in the morning. These are twelve hour days, you know. I work hard and fast and always ensure that I am organized to get the maximum out of the time and the money and if that means leapfrogging from one shot to another, and coming back and keeping both elements working, then that’s what it takes and I’m always ready to go”.

I ask him if there’s an element of risk in his approach and Bay takes it to mean physical risk. He explains how there is always danger in shooting action sequences, with fire and pyrotechnics and how everyone is trained and insured. I clarify that the risk I’m talking about is that by doing so much, so quickly, he might miss a trick. “No”, he says, “and I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. I think that by moving fast and keeping everybody going, I get more opportunities to work with my actors. I can do more takes, and keep them in the right place for longer I can try improvisation, which I love to do. By keeping that frantic pace, I can make more time for myself, if that makes any sense”. Bay goes on to describe the origins of a very funny scene between a flustered LaBeouf and his parents, played by veterans Kevin Dunn and Julie White. “That was something I made up there on the set, and asked the actors to work into the scene. I thought what was written was dumb, so I said, we have to come up with something and we have an hour. As far as the humour in the movie goes, that’s one of my favourite scenes. You can see it in the actors faces, too, it has that authenticity and immediacy and that’s part of the heart and the charm of the movie”.

With Bay, part of his own charm is his reputation for extravagance and swagger. I tell him there’s a story about him, since the early days, that he can order the US Army up like other people order Chinese food. “Yeah, that’s true”, he says, deadpan. “Nah, of course not, man. This is the United States armed forces we’re talking about here. The Military have been good with me because I’ve been good with them. On Transformers, I knew early on that from the script, that I’d be making an approach. I called my liaison guy at the Pentagon and I said, we’re doing this action movie and its about giant alien robots battling each other in suburban Los Angles. We’d really like if you could be involved.”

He just made the call. It’s that easy? “This is the guy who speaks for the President or whoever, right? He goes, ‘you know Mr Bay, if it really were the case that giant alien robots were invading Earth, we would be there to fight them’. So we all had a good laugh at that”. He seems to be having a good laugh now, but Bay clears his throat and goes earnest for a minute and admits that sure, Mr Hollywood has to carefully pick his way through the channels in order to secure that essential co-operation. “For a project this size, on any project, they don’t take it lightly. Short version, all the military care about is that they are portrayed in a realistic way. So if we shoot an air-strike, for example, it’s as close to reality as we can make it in our story. For this movie, we had the real pilots, in their planes, to do it for us.”

“The brass don’t really care about the fact that in the script, the robots are virtually unbeatable. What they are concerned about is that the service men and women we show are doing what it is they are supposed to be doing. That it is accurate and according to code. If you’re just making that part of the story up, then they don’t want to be involved.” Half joking, I ask him if he knows there’s a war on? “Our country is having some troubles, that’s for sure”, he replies, meeting my throwaway line with an unexpected gravity. “This war is a mess and everyone in America knows it’s a mess. Even the military people I talk to say it’s a mess. But if you knew the guys I talk to, you would respect them the same way as I do. I respect anyone who loves their country and it’s people enough to put their lives on the line to protect them. I think war is terrible, I really do, but I’m dealing in fantasy.” Just in case we hadn’t realised.

Niall Heery and Small Engine Repair

Niall Heery, director of the new Irish film Small Engine Repair, looks like he could do with an oil change himself. After a full day spent talking to the press, the 33 year old Dubliners long face has a weary cast and his drooping eyes are ringed with tired smudges. As we sit in the bright, airy library of the Irish Film Institute, it might not help matters that my first question asks him to recall his film’s long journey to the screen. “Yeah”, he says, with a blink and there’s a momentary hesitation while he gets his timeline arranged in his head. “I wrote the script maybe four or five years ago, and like you say, it took a long time to get it off the ground. I had completed two or three drafts when I thought it was in good enough shape to approach Subotica (the producers, whose track record includes Song For A Raggy Boy and the TV series Proof). Thankfully, they expressed an interest in it and they were confident they would be able to make it happen quite quickly. That’s not really the way it worked out, mainly because I had no track record in feature films and I had never directed before.”

Heery, who got his first start in the industry as an assistant to Antoine Fuqua on the big-budget King Arthur and subsequently directed shorts and a couple of music videos, knew that pulling a €2.5 million production budget together was going to be a challenge. “Even though four years seems like a long time, it’s not unusual in film to have that kind of gap between the initial idea and an audience sitting down to watch it, and in a funny way it was time well spent because it gave me the time to work on the script. When I made my first approach, to be honest, it wasn’t like everything was ready to go. It did need work and it did change somewhat over that period of time. When I first wrote it, it was called In Like Flynn and there was more comedy in it, but as I got into the characters and the situation they find themselves in, I found it had edged towards a more human drama.”

In the film, which took it’s new title from a Tom Russell song, Iain Glen plays Doug, a shy, timid man who dreams of becoming a country and western singer. Having lost his job, his home and his wife Agnes (Kathy Keira Clarke) in quick succession, Doug is at a crossroads. Together with his best friend Bill (Steven Macintosh), he puts together a demo tape of a few songs and plays a gig at his local pub. In the process of overcoming his own troubles and confronting his fear of failure, Doug realises there is a place for his ambitions and his creativity outside of the claustrophobic community. “I always saw the movie, on a basic level, as a buddy movie”, Heery says. “And I always saw these characters as being immature. When I looked at the relationships between them, they weren’t those of middle-aged, well-adjusted men, as I know them. I thought of teenagers, or younger men in their twenties. Its like they have been arrested, and become almost stagnant in this small, enclosed world. They haven’t had the opportunity to progress as people”.

For his debut feature, Heery says he was determined to assemble the best cast he could, no easy task first time out and a process he says he found fascinating. “Especially finding Doug. I would talk to actors and they’d be interested in the role but the whole music element was a worry. It had to be somebody who was excited about expressing themselves musically, because otherwise it would become a chore for the actor and I didn’t want to dub the songs either. A friend of mine suggested I watch a film called Silent Scream, a biopic of a guy called Larry Winters, that David Hayman had made back in 1990. Iain plays the lead and in the final scene we see him in a jail cell, singing and playing the guitar and he’s really, really, good. I had been talking to him about playing another role, the town bully Burley, and he had shown an interest. But after watching that movie, I mentioned playing Doug to him and he was ecstatic. He said that when he read the script, it was the part that had jumped off the page, so he had that enthusiasm I was looking for and of course he can really sing and play so it came together for us very naturally in the end."

One of the most striking aspects of Small Engine Repair is that it refuses to represent the movie Ireland of Darby O’Gill, a verdant, craic-filled Tír na nÓg of high-kicking maidens and turf-slinging sleveens. Heery says this was a conscious decision that had its origins in the melancholy songs he chose for the soundtrack. “In terms of the landscape, I could have gone for a more traditional, rose-tinted representation of the Irish countryside but that just wasn’t exciting for me, especially when I thought about the nature of the story and the characters themselves. I saw Small Engine Repair as an opportunity to do something different, so I decided early on to filter that mournful American folk music ethos through the place I had written. So I ended up with a world that wasn’t intrinsically Ireland as we know it, and at the same time certainly wasn’t American, but was its own kind of universe. That felt like a comfortable place to set this story.”

Citing Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as musical influences, Heery never thought he was making a musical, but telling a story that was both inspired by and told through songs about heartache and loss. I ask him which came first, the songs or the scenes. “I would say that, by and large, the scenes came first and while I was writing it I had ideas for songs that would fit, that would go with the images that I was putting down. It developed over the years. For example there’s a song by the Willard Grant Conspiracy called ‘The Suffering Song’ that features in the scene where the guys are driving to the first gig in the pub, and that was a song I knew, I mean it was very clear in my head, should be there for that moment in the film. When I was writing I was very aware of the music, because a lot of the heartache the Doug goes through – he loses his wife and his job and he feels hopeless and afraid – are almost clichés in country and western. His dog doesn’t die, but only because he doesn’t have a dog. I was confident though, that I could put all of that in an entirely different format, and have it feel fresh again through the nature of the film-making process”.

The unnamed town is a place almost entirely without women, and the one woman we meet, Doug’s wife Agnes, is sneaking around behind his back. Heery explains his choices, saying he hopes that absence can be felt. “I always thought that these characters behaved in the way they did because they had no women around them. Doug spends a lot of the film trying to win his woman back. Bill, at least in my head, is a guy who has never dealt with the fact that his wife had left him. That’s something we don’t deal with in terms of the story, but it speaks to how he behaves. This is a film about men, but its also about how they cannot exist in isolation”. It’s a theme that makes the film occasionally frustrating to watch and adds to the mood of helplessness and vulnerability. Doug in particular is a character that, the more time you spend with him, you feel the desire to slap him out of his stupor. “Yeah, but that’s the split in the guy. He’s a good man, a good soul, but at the same time he has no motivation, no ambition and totally lacks self-belief. And that feeds into the problems he has with Agnes; she’s been living with this guy for a long time and he has become increasingly difficult to be around. So, I would like to think that when we pick up their story in the film, she’s at the end of her tether. She’s been with this guy for ten years, and it’s taken it’s toll on her and you can sympathise with that”.

Before it’s Irish release, Small Engine Repair has been shown at festivals all over the world, winning a guitar-case full of awards including last year’s Galway Fleadh and a breakthrough award at this year’s IFTAs. I ask him about that response, which must be as overwhelming as it is heartening. “Yeah”, Heery agrees, his face showing just the right mix of pride and modesty. “It helps the film along enormously. When you’re making low-budget, independent films, it’s almost impossible to get distribution. Changes in technology mean it’s easier, and I use that word carefully, to make films but because there are so many more films out there, its increasingly difficult to get distribution. Winning awards is great, really it is, but what it boils down to is that more people might potentially see your film."

Heery had been present at the Nashville film festival just a week before to pick up a double award for the film, including an audience award for best film. I ask him about the process of selling ice to the Inuits, or Stetsons to cowboys. “I had been to Nashville once before, kind of as research, and I said to myself that if I ever eventually got the film made, I would bring it back. A lot of the musicians on the soundtrack were from Nashville, and its where they would have originally recorded the songs, so it was something that excited me”. As we wrap up, I ask Heery if he’s been to see Once, and he admits he hasn’t yet but is looking forward to seeing it. We talk for a couple of minutes about how the two films are superficially similar being Irish-set musicals, but are very different both in tone and theme. Heery says he is delighted at the success of John Carney’s film, which is still showing at the US box-office more than two months after a low-key opening and tells me that Small Engine Repair, likewise, has secured American and international distribution. “We open in the UK in September, and then across the US towards the end of the year. That’s very exciting, obviously. Before Once, low-budget Irish films haven’t been all that well received in the States. That’s not to say that this one will be but I like to think that they will understand it and recognize where it’s coming from. Where it’s heart is.”

Harry Potter And The Attention To Detail

From the outside, there isn’t much to get excited about when you pull up at Leavesden Studios, a squat, post-industrial spread of concrete and glass on the London road outside Watford. Inside, it’s a different story. The old Rolls-Royce factory has been home to the Harry Potter films since 2000 and, even allowing for the excitable hyperbole that sometimes infects movie journalism, this is a wonderland filled with indescribable glories.

I’ve just watched Brendan Gleeson shoot a scene with newcomer Natalia Tena (who plays teenage witch Tonks) – a simple set-up where she opens the door to Harry Potter’s suburban bedroom and they share a couple of lines of dialogue. Tena waves her wand around, to Gleeson’s comical annoyance, the blue bulb at the end washing the boxy set in a ghostly glow. As a courtesy, Daniel Radcliffe is hunched down beside the camera, running his lines and offering his fellow actors something to play against. Order of the Phoenix director David Yates pops around the door to give the players a few whispered notes, adjusting their pacing and positions while the cinematographer checks the lighting and waves his script through a few wisps of movie smoke. Gleeson leans against the door jamb on the perfectly realised set, elevated on stilts over the studio floor. His laugh booms across the sound stage, over the bustling crew and squawking walkie-talkies. As I sit on a stool beside a bank of plasma screen monitors, trying to take it all in, a tall man strides past in a luminous turquoise cape, scattered with embroidered golden stars. In a far corner, a handler smoothes the feathers on a brilliant white owl as it hops on his outstretched arm. It’s yellow eyes are as wide as mine.

The scene completed to everyone’s satisfaction, Gleeson weaves through the throng in his Mad Eye Moody costume, a carefully assembled dishevelment of heavy trousers and vest under a couple of matted coats, his long ginger hair on end. There’s the unsettling bonus of his character’s bright blue wandering eyeball still strapped across his face. It jumps around with a life of its own as he arranges his attire and sits down. I ask him how the effect works and he looks at me with the good eye. “Magic”.

Gleeson’s Moody is an Auror, a kind-of policeman charged with protecting the schoolboy wizard and capturing those who break the law. He is a tough character, gruff and direct, and Gleeson plays him with an obvious relish. “Moody is such a daft creation, a bizarre character really, so he’s always going to surprise you. That’s the real fun of it.” At the start of the new adventure, Moody and his lieutenants rescue Potter from the threat of the soul-sucking Dementors who have tracked him to Little Whinging and, after mounting their broomsticks, return him to the safety of Hogwarts. “There was a lot of people who thought Moody would be killed off at the end of the last book”, Gleeson says, “and I’m certainly glad he wasn’t. There were aspects of him that were being taken over by the events around him, so hopefully this time it will pay off in the sense that I know who he is. Moody is in the next movie too (The Half Blood Prince) and I from what JK Rowling has been saying, he’ll make an appearance in the finale. It’s getting to finish the story out and see where everyone ends up, that’s what’s driving everybody. I’m very glad to be a part of that”.

As we’re talking, the publication date for the seventh and final book, The Deathly Hallows, is still months away. I ask Gleeson if he has any thoughts on how this phenomenal series will wrap itself up? “JK has been flawless up to now, so I trust her to do the right things. In a way, Moody was all done in the last film, so it’s more about where is he going to bring me. I wouldn’t feel right dumping him half way and I want to see for myself where he ends up”. I point at his impressively detailed coat and enormous boots and ask how the costume helps with creating his character. “Well, the original designs were far more complicated, with a mask and computer effects, but there didn’t seem to me to be much point in doing all that. They could have done it all on a computer and had the same result. So we’ve tried to keep it some way recognisable and something I can work in for the day. We get to keep the actor in there, under all this stuff, and that’s important.”

And out of the costume, does he get recognised as Moody? “I’m a very boring man in real life. Honestly. I prefer to keep the kids in particular from being disappointed if they meet me. I remember when I played the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz years ago in panto. People would bring kids backstage and they’d see me sitting there with the head on the table, face red after sweating for three hours. I could see their faces fall at the realisation. Kids will have bought into the character, not the actor playing the part. That’s one of the great things about this whole series, that kids have been inspired to believe in it. So when people ask me, well, how did you do this or that, I try not to explain, like you asking about the eyeball. I could tell you, but I feel I owe it to people to let them wonder.”

Wonder is the word that sticks in my head as the studio publicist gathers the assembled journalists together and takes us on a tour of the sets. First stop is Dumbledore’s office, a recurring set that is kept dressed throughout production. Familiar from the movies as a book-filled, two-tiered room, still only a fraction of the set’s microscopic detail makes it onto the screen. Every surface is covered in props, vellum-bound volumes, hand-written letters, copies of the Daily Prophet, all unique. Two shelved walls are full of ornately crafted brass astrolabes, from ceiling to floor. Walking up the stone steps to the upper level, I sit behind the headmaster’s heavy wooden desk, scattered with magical ephemera; papers, quills, talismans. I open a drawer at the front. It is filled with more props. Although there will never be a scene where Dumbledore fumbles in a drawer in the seven films, the publicity people tell me the art department like to fill the drawers and cupboards with stuff to help the actors feel like they are in a real space. For an outsider, it is a disconcerting sight that hints both at the extraordinary skills of the art department and their obsessive immersion in the fantasy world of Harry Potter.

Our guides walk us through the labyrinthine warehouse of old sets and props, connected by broad pathways with taped off cycle lanes and painted directional arrows. Here, every single item ever made for the films – from Ford Anglias to carved stone gargoyles - is catalogued and stored, ready for shipment to Florida for the Potter theme park once production is completed on the series. As we walk, our guides fire statistics about the production over their shoulders: the whole backlot is spread over 85 acres. Before Rolls Royce, it was a military airport. There is half a million square feet of studio space, where around four hundred crew members work at any given time. There can be another four hundred extras on set for crowd scenes. There are almost ten thousand costumes in a series of wardrobe rooms, somewhere out back.

We stop outside the set for the atrium of the Ministry of Magic, which they tell me has taken three months to build. The green painted floor is still wet, so we can’t walk through. “We use forced perspective to make it look bigger than it really is”, they say. It’s still huge, an indoor cathedral that stretches to the back wall of the studio and is immaculately detailed. Down another corridor, past the Great Hall, being prepared for a feasting scene, I turn a corner and am confronted with an astonishing set – thousands of glittering black tiles completely covering a vast, circular room. There is a pile of black rock built up in the centre, where art department technicians are putting the finishing touches to a towering archway. This will be the setting for one of the film’s climactic battles, between Dumbledore’s army led by their emerging hero Potter and the forces of darkness led by the pernicious Lucius Malfoy. Just to one side, two sculptors are sizing up a twenty foot block of polystyrene, using a thin, red-hot iron rod to score the outline of a centaur on it’s knobbly surface. One of them shows me the design for the finished statue, which will be painted gold and placed in the centre of the atrium set. When I pass by again later, the piece is nearly complete, a perfectly rendered half-man, half-horse rearing out of the lumpy material. Covered in flecks of dust, faces set in concentration, their pride in their work is obvious.

Throughout the tour, which took us from the mock-suburbia of Privet Lane in one corner of the studio, to the chilly mortuary of the Black family home, the predominance of shadows, soot and black lace hinted at the dark days that Potter faces in his fifth adventure. Not that you’d realise that from the bright, smiling Radcliffe, as he bounds across the studio floor barefoot in a loose-fitting tracksuit. The boy who became Harry Potter is all grown up now. Not up in the vertical sense, like most actors the young star is just about average height, but when compared to the ten year old that first waved his wand in The Philosophers Stone, Radcliffe, with a faint trace of teenage stubble tufting his upper lip, looks like Harry Potter’s uncle, one who might spend his weekends in the garage with his amateur rock band.

In this film, Harry and his friends are starting their transition into adulthood and are dealing with increasingly serious and significant issues. Not only does Harry have to stand trial for using magic outside of Hogwarts, he must raise and train an army from his classmates to battle the returning Lord Voldemort. There’s also the threat from his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Dolores Umbridge, who has usurped his beloved Dumbledore and brought regime change to Hogwarts. I ask him about the changes in his character, and how he dealt with the onset of maturity. “I haven’t analysed it really. I hope I have gotten better, because that’s the one thing I try to do between each film. At this point we have all grown up, and so the films have to be grown up films with grown up performances in them. That’s what I’ve been striving for. The fourth film was really fun to play, full of spectacle and amazing set-pieces, even for me. That’s great, but what is exciting for me now is that I get to grow with Harry. Personally, I would much rather do an emotional scene with Gary Oldman (who plays father-figure Sirius Black) than fight a dragon or something, you know?"

Radcliffe, all polite enthusiasm, bobs his head a lot and emphasises his positive message with smiles and nods and strident hands. After Rowling, he is the most important person in this billion-dollar enterprise. He’s seen directors come and go over the past seven years, so I ask him how he is getting on with the new one, David Yates. “It wasn’t a massive readjustment. He’s an easy guy to get to know, sure of what he wants and able to communicate that. He’s a fantastic director and we are having the most fun on this movie because, at least I hope, I’m at a point in my acting where I can be pushed further. David seems to be relishing that opportunity to really challenge me, so this has been the best time so far out of all the films. How does that challenge come about? “Well, If I think I’ve done a good take, David might whisper in my ear that he thinks I can do better. It’s not a demand, you know, but he isn’t willing to settle for less. He doesn’t want good, he wants really good and honest and subtle and real.”

Although the teenage celebrity Radcliffe is bound to have kissed a few girls at this stage of his life, his character up to now has been chaste and pure. In the new movie, he falls for Cho Chang (Katie Leung), a fellow student who joins his rag-tag army. “I have a bet on with my publicity liaison for how long it takes that question to appear in interviews. It’s usually first, so you’re being reserved by comparison. It was fine, good, er, you know. Ahem.” Radcliffe reddens and looks at his toes. This is before he stripped off on the West End stage for Equus. “Any actor will tell you that it’s like any other scene really, because there are hundreds of people around. At first I did feel really nervous because it is a bit odd, a bit strange, but it is such a clinical, professional process that after five takes there is nothing exciting about it.”

The blush proves that the seventeen year old Radcliffe is still very young. Does he have any ideas for the future, once the final film is made and a new phase of his life and career begins? “I won’t be going on to university, I don’t think. Most people go to college to find out what it is that they want to do, and I know already, or I have a pretty good idea at least. If I wanted to be a physicist, I wouldn’t have an option, because you can’t teach yourself physics. But the subjects I love are English, religion and history, and those are the kinds of subjects you can take away and read about by yourself. I’m not a religious person, at all, but I am very much influenced by the philosophical side of it.”

I tell him I find that interesting, when you consider how steeped in old ideologies of good and evil the books and films are, but Radcliffe doesn’t agree. “To me, Harry suffers a loss of innocence. Obviously the battle between the forces of good and evil is there, and that’s something people can relate to, but I see Harry as being a boy who doesn’t know the truth about who he is or anything about his heritage. He goes from the real world, where he is being mistreated and bullied, into the wizard world, where life at first is fantastic and magical but where bad things can happen just as easily. And life can be a lot worse than what happens in the world outside”.

Having wandered this enormous, close-horizoned space for a day, it’s easy to forget there is a world outside. Radcliffe nods and laughs. “I take all this for granted, walking around the sets and watching the shots come together, but I know it can be a shock for outsiders to come in and see what it is we’re doing here and how it all comes together. I see it every day, so I hardly notice it. You forget just how incredible and beautiful this place is. But after you’ve sat in the Great Hall for two weeks under hot lights, with lines to remember and marks to hit and disintegrating food props in front of you, you get a different perspective.”