Music may have been my first love, but over the years my passion for film has grown to equally obsessive levels. As a kid I was a Disney nut and my parents got my little sister and I just about everything there was on VHS. We lapped up all the renowned titles like The Jungle Book, Pinocchio and Peter Pan, but our favourites were more underrated flicks such as The Fox and The Hound, The Sword in The Stone and The Land Before Time. We watched them endlessly, often enjoying back-to-back viewings of the same movie. Word perfect, we’d sing along to the songs, take on our favourite characters, recite whole scenes and laugh ourselves into a stupor over Alice In Wonderland’s The Mad Hatter. ‘‘Mustard!?! Don’t let’s be silly!’’
My earliest memories of live action films include The Journey Of Natty Gann, a family adventure starring a young John Cusack. Another favourite was the charming alien-robots caper Batteries Not Included, featuring Jessica Tandy. Not to mention the fantasy masterpiece The Neverending Story, with its wonderfully cheesy theme song. These are just a few of the films woven into the fabric of my childhood memories. I still wheel them out from time to time, enjoying them as much now as I did then.
My first trip to the cinema was with my dad to watch E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I remember the smell of buttery popcorn and the low rustle of pic ‘n’ mix. A palpable taste of communal anticipation, not a mobile phone to be seen or heard. The word Spielberg glowing ethereally in the opening credits, then the magnificent motion picture itself. As the corny old adage goes, I laughed, I cried. Tears of heartbreak at first, then joy and relief along with the revival of E.T.’s fortunes.
As a pre-teen in the 80s it was a fantastic period for kids flicks and family adventures. Who could forget The Goonies, Stand By Me and The Flight of the Navigator? Or The Princess Bride, The Karate Kid, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Big and Uncle Buck? It’s become a tired old cliché, but ‘‘They don’t make em’ like they used to’’ rings true.
I’m not saying movies were better, but rather things were different back in the day, more charming if you will. These movies just bleed societal idiosyncrasies, paired with a more innocent approach to filmmaking. I dig the practical, non-CGI effects from directors unhampered by pressures to be politically correct. They had fantastic theme songs, superior villains, bad hair and shocking fashion statements that made attractive people look laughable.
At college my innocence took a hit as I tapped into gangster movies, action flicks and crime thrillers. The cotton wool I’d been wearing over my eyes was beginning to come off and I was helped along the way by visionaries such as Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Santino Corleone gunned down at the toll booth (Nooooooooo!!!). Or when out of nowhere, John Travolta accidentally shot poor old Marvin in the face. (What the ****!?!).
I became devoted to Arnie, yippie-ki-yayed with Bruce and laughed myself silly at the ridiculous Jean-Claude van Damme. I recall exiting the cinema in an awed daze after late night viewings of Se7en, Natural Born Killers and True Romance.
With music I became a collector from a young age, but I was actually into my late 20s when I bought my first DVD. Based in the Belgian city of Leuven, it was Christmas and I was feeling more than a little homesick. The answer? A trip to the local video store for copies of It’s A Wonderful Life and Home Alone. ‘‘Keep the change you filthy animal!’’
Macauley Culkin’s mischievous escapades kicked off a lifelong journey into film collecting. As with music, I’d jump into anything and everything, often delighted by the unexpected gems I dug up along the way. I became an avid buff of horror, thrillers, biopics and comedies. Open but hard to please when it came to romance, westerns and sci-fi: I was and still am unashamedly impatient with musicals and superheroes. The more I watched, the more there seemed to be to watch; my traditional post-viewing homework on IMDB and Wikipedia opening up roads untraveled in all directions. My handwritten to-see list just growing longer and longer. In fact, I’ve never gotten on top of it and probably never will.
Somewhere along the way my genre of choice was real life drama. I drank it all in, from A Few Good Men, American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption and As Good As It Gets, to Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia and Dead Poets Society. I binge-watched The Bridges of Madison County, Revolutionary Road, The Ice Storm and Dead Man Walking. Leaving Las Vegas, Lost In Translation, Midnight Cowboy, Kramer vs Kramer. The Misfits, Rain Man, American History X. And so many more.
These films helped me understand my life better and had the biggest impact on my writing. When I eventually co-wrote my own screenplay, the terminally unfinished comedy drama Red Light, my initial wish was to create but a moment or two of magic equal to that of my favourite films. It was an impossible task.
Naturally I have my favoured stars, the people who really do it for me on a consistent basis. Folk who manage to light up even an average movie just by being their amazing selves. I followed Jim Carrey’s jaw-dropping career trajectory from rubber-faced goon to critical darling and discovered the criminally underrated Paul Dano, Guy Pearce, John Cazale, Elisha Cook Jr and John Hawkes. Other favourites included the uber-cool Steve McQueen and the durable legend that was Eli Wallach. And of course I fell for the incomparable talents of Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Joaquin Phoenix, John Candy, Woody Harrelson and Steve Buscemi.
A little easier to summarise are the filmmakers I most admire. John Hughes, The Coen Brothers, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and Oliver Stone. Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder and John Huston.
After years doing film reviews and feature pieces as a freelancer, I pretty much won the lottery by landing a job writing and voice-presenting movie magazine TV shows for a Dutch media company. This eventually led to interviews with various Hollywooders, including a one-on-one with the highly personable Jake Gyllenhaal in New York for his movie End of Watch. I also had a chat with rising director J.A. Bayona about his impressive English-language debut The Impossible. And I’ll never forget the afternoon of toilet-humour banter with the American Pie crew in Amsterdam, chewing the fat with Seann William Scott (Stifler) and Eddie Kaye Thomas (Finch). Later on in the evening, I found myself engaged in fashion nonsense with Tara Reid on the red carpet, her fussy stylist regarding me dubiously with a cocked eyebrow.
Another action-packed day that’ll live long in the memory involved back-to-back meetings with Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, James Marsden, Christina Applegate and Judd Apatow for Anchorman 2. They were all really friendly, with Paul Rudd treating me to a handful of jelly beans and Steve Carell gifting me a pink condom.
As with music, the process of watching new releases, rediscovering old classics and picking off those pesky titles that have somehow eluded me remains an addictive process. Quite literally there is no end. As I creep ever closer to forty, I find film to be more important to me than ever. It’s a medium that gives me great perspective on my life, on this at times insane world we live in. It helps me reflect and dissect the past, while emphasising the importance of living in the present. It frightens me, entertains me and makes me laugh; allows me to switch off and forget everything for a couple of hours. And crucially, as with all my passions, it inspires me to write.
Leighton – April 2017.