“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” So said Albert Einstein. I, Mike Hodges, am now an old man and on closely examining my life can only concur. When I was young no one told me life was a messy business. Living it revealed that without a doubt it is. All-in-all I think I’m well qualified - not uniquely of course - to write with some insight and humility into our deliciously human foibles and crimes against intelligence.
My rose-tinted image of America (too many Doris Day movies!) was tempered while working on the investigative television programme WORLD IN ACTION. One assignment took me to Vietnam where I witnessed the almost childlike innocence of the average G.I. blindly indoctrinated with fervid nationalism and anti-communism. Another found me in Dallas, 1964, a year after Kennedy’s assassination, covering the presidential campaign of the rabid extremist Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater Jr. Both experiences led me to reappraise a country I now found to be seriously dysfunctional and driven by the worst excesses of capitalism. As the UK consistently shadowed US culture I was anxious to raise a warning signal. In 1973 I found the perfect vehicle to do just that. Living in Los Angeles, filming THE TERMINAL MAN, I heard about a supposed self-improvement course advocating blatantly ruthless techniques to achieve success. Further investigation revealed that a range of bizarre props were used as psychological correctives - among them a coffin, a hangman’s rope, a man-sized cage and crucifix. When I returned to the UK I was recounting all this to a friend who told me the same course had checked into a London hotel but had vanished after being infiltrated by an investigative journalist. This was to be my starting point. I’d set it in the UK and it would be a thriller laced with black comedy. The screenplay was entitled MID-ATLANTIC. Malcolm McDowell agreed to play the provincial PR man involved in the course organisers search for an alternative venue, and Jack Nicholson in the role of the course’s èminence grise. Even with that cast we couldn’t get it financed. Now it’s transposed into a novel called BAIT.
A best-selling American crime writer who wrote wonderfully witty and realistic novels about city low life based much of his material on characters and locations researched by an ex-journalist he employed. I spent time with both at a literary festival some years back and can guarantee neither remotely resemble the characters in my novel. That was the first thread in my story. The second was the number of novelists I noticed who ruthlessly, and often painfully, exploit those close to them. Graham Greene referred to that chip of ice in every writer’s heart but that chip has a very different function from abusing and laying bare someone you know and, even more bizarrely, love. Being incapable of creating characters that are real but not replicants seems to me a desperate lack of imagination The same creative barrenness is revealed in the current trend for movie remakes. These threads eventually germinated in a movie treatment. Interest was shown - but sadly no dosh. It lay in my bottom drawer for years. By the time I recovered it maybe a third thread had permeated my thinking - Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author? The characters in GRIST, however, are seeking a very different kind of justice for having their personalities stolen and exposed to the world. Sadly I can go no further without committing - what us now called - a spoiler!
Moviemaking is often described by its practitioners as war. For any dedicated director the blood-letting comes in the clash between art and commerce. Don’t forget a movie is an expensive commodity. Worse, its success is a gamble as crazy as rolling dice. No wonder the industry, for that’s what it is, neurotically ticks over on insecurity. Naked egos, narcissism, arrogance constantly wait in the wings ready to bang around like pinballs. All involved are trapped in a bubble that can be either heaven - or hell. A unit on location is literally a portable city catering for the needs of its transient citizens. Huge trucks form the structure. Lights, cables, generators, wardrobe, make-up, props, each have to have a base. The stars need luxury accommodation. Kitchens, dining facilities, latrines are required to provide every link in the cycle of human nourishment. On a night shoot the whole shebang takes on a surreal quality. It becomes a circus with the brightest lights centred in the ring where the camera sits supreme. This machine’s function is to capture the fleeting images of a fantasy jig-saw that ends up being a movie. It was during one such night shoot that I witnessed an unusual incident. A man dressed all in black, posing as part of our security team, when confronted vanished into the surrounding darkness. In his haste he left a shoulder bag. Inside was a rubber thong, a black mask, a Bible and a copy of the Tao Te Ching. Whoops! My imagination went into overdrive. The result is SECURITY.
Summer is Hell here.
Winter is the only time to be in this place. On a wet night preferably.
The dark sea, flattened by rain, laps against the long curving beach. White painted iron railings and ill-lit weather shelters recede into the mist. An amusement arcade, boarded up, sits like a blind man watching nothing. The Grand Atlantic Hotel, a vast corroding edifice, looms over the deserted esplanade. A torn canvas banner flaps over its darkened entrance announcing the presence of the Brotherhood of Magicians Conference. Bedroom windows stacked up to the murky sky are but black patches.
The magicians are long in bed.
They’ll need steady hands in the morning.
The clock tower strikes on the hour.
An approaching motorbike cuts through the sound of rain water smacking the tarmac. The red Yamaha rounds a corner slowly, ominously, powerful as a shark. A metallic titanium flip-front helmet glints under the street lamps. Moulded gloves with visor wipes, grinder boots, cowhide jeans and a leather jacket embossed with a bloody knife embedded in the occupant’s back. The occupant steers his machine along the esplanade before circling a traffic island housing the public urinals, all the while constantly scanning the empty street.
A municipal shelter with a notice board advertising local events for wet winter nights stands beside the amusement arcade. It’s here the bike comes to rest. The rider leaves the engine running as he nervously pulls posters from a saddle bag.
He works fast, skilfully.
Soon the forthcoming amateur operatic production of Annie Get Your Gun is no longer forthcoming. But The Personal Improvement Institute: A Course in Leadership Dynamics is. The etched face of some wild-eyed mountaineer intending to give a slide lecture the very next evening is replaced by the well-fed features of Dr Hermann P Temple who will show you the QUICK way to the TOP! during his impending weekend course on SUCCESS-POWER GETTING!
A similar fate is accorded Pinkie and Barrie, the Comedy Duo; Diana Barnham playing Bach on the Clavichord; and the providers of Merrie England Banquets. Book now to avoid disappointment. All disappear within seconds to be replaced by five identical images of Dr Temple. A quintet of pointing forefingers, quiffs and eyes that would make a cobra back off.
These people are helping to fund Bait, Grist and Security.