Film reviewer (don’t mention the word critic!) Danny Leigh has been writing about movies since the early 90s, in everything from indie-zines to nationwide newspapers like The Guardian. He has also published two novels, with a third in the pipeline, and more recently, became the co-host of the BBCs institution: The FIlm Programme.
PFR: Danny, thanks for taking some time out to do this interview, it’s much appreciated. First off, what’s it like being a reviewer on the country’s most cherished film show, and how do you cope with the added pressure of being broadcast live?
Danny: It’s always been a privilege to do the show – it still has heft, the audience is smart and curious, and most importantly we’ve never been less than honest and independent of the distributors and PRs. I’m pretty ambivalent about being involved with film criticism, but if you’re going to do it, do it on the Film Programme. The experience of TV has been an interesting one because I don’t belong in that world, so hopefully I’ve been able to stand outside it a little rather than it swallowing me whole. I find doing the show live exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure.
Personality-wise, you and Claudia are appear to be polar opposites but the chemistry and chat works surprisingly well. Were you initially surprised? and did you have any reservations about working alongside such a large, ‘marmite’, personality?
Claudia is a performer, which is just as well because one of us has to be. If it works between us it’s probably because I’m always intrigued by what she makes of things, and off air I think we have similar priorities and both know TV is deeply transitory. A lot of people in the media are monsters – she isn’t.
Are you ever tempted to Google yourself, or read reviews of the Show?
I don’t Google myself, I’m not sure that road leads anywhere good, though a few times during each series of the show I’ve followed the programme’s hashtag on Twitter. It would be silly of me to object to people passing judgement on us given that the show itself is based on exactly that process, you just have to filter it a little when you’re on the receiving end. It’s always nice to hear praise and it’s always unpleasant to be slagged off, but what’s been helpful is that I’ve experienced both of them before – I’ve written novels and had them reviewed very favourably and pretty badly.
Most importantly, are there any freebies or other perks that come with the national exposure?
Not really, other than the gold sedan chair and staff of license-payer funded footmen. I get asked to do more stuff for free than I used to.
Film 2012 aside, you’re clearly very cine-literate, with a huge background knowledge to pull from – did you ever study cinema academically?
Thank you. I didn’t, but film has been a significant chunk of my life since I was very young, I’ve written about it professionally for a long time, and I think if you’re fortunate enough to be able to discuss cinema with any kind of audience, and still more to get paid to do it, then the least you can do is treat the subject with the reverence it deserves. Also, my personality lends itself to sitting and sifting through film history more than it does badgering actors on a red carpet.
Is there a particular author or book ‘on cinema’ – or even a film – that really opened your eyes?
The first film book that spun around the way I thought about movies was William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade – dry, impeccably-written, doubling as a beginner’s guide to scriptwriting and a pulling back of the curtain on the studio system. For illuminating the art and mechanics of cinema both at once, David Bordwell’s Film Art is pretty much unimprovable. On screen La Jetée made me think more seriously than I’d ever done before about what film actually was, and Stalker gave me the purest moment of hardcore, gaping-jaw transcendence.
Could you briefly describe the difference between a press screening and a regular one? And which experience do you prefer?
I’m not so much of an ingrate that I’m going to complain about being able to see films for free ahead of their release, but I’ve never been a fan of press screenings. They’re generally quieter and less prone to anti-social behaviour from the attendees, but the atmosphere can be a little self-congratulatory and they’re not something I look forward to. In a perfect world I’d just go to see movies with my wife and kid.
A quick Google hit informs us that Mulholland Drive is your favourite film ever – are you able to balance out this by revealing a couple of your favourites that most Lynch fans wouldn’t usually go for?
I couldn’t narrow down a favourite film to one, but Mulholland Drive would be among them. Films I love that don’t get enough adoration from the world, Lynch fans or otherwise, would include John Frankenheimer’s Seconds and Henri Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres. Even Lynch fans don’t often give enough kudos to Lost Highway.
South Korea is our favourite country for film talent at the moment as the calibre of Actors, Writers and Directors has been superb for well over a decade now, do you have one?
I’ve liked a lot of Argentine and Greek cinema in the last few years – not sure if there’s a correlation with economic crises, but I was also just about to say that oddly, Britain is having one of its purplest patches in my lifetime too…
And are there any individual up-and-coming talents in the film industry that you have high hopes for?
Is Peter Strickland still up-and-coming, or has he upped already? Mahalia Belo if so.
And do you have any movie heroes from in front of, or behind, the camera?
Always has been Buster Keaton, always will be Buster Keaton.
Also, could you reveal something that nobody knows about you?
I’ve never wanted to be on television.
Finally, some quick-fire questions, What does your A/V setup at home look like?
What’s the breakdown of films you watch in an average week (i.e. For reviewing / personal / research?)
When the Film programme is on air, I’ll watch four or five new releases a week, and a couple of older movies as a treat. I’ll watch a lot more old stuff when the programme is off, and then other projects generate clusters of films I need to see or revisit – I’ve been working on a documentary for BBC4 about boxing films for the last couple of months, so I’ve been re-acquainting myself with movies like Body and Soul and The Set Up, both of which are glorious.
What’s been your favourite advance in movie technology since your interest in the medium started?
As bland as it sounds, probably DVD – it’s easy to forget how cumbersome, glitchy and unrewarding the simple act of watching a film outside a cinema could be for most of us before the end of the 90s (with all due respect to laserdisc pioneers).
… and least favourite?
The unholy combination of torrents and everything the studios have come up with to foil them.
Who’s been the most surprising person in the film industry that you’ve met?
I think I caught Juliette Binoche on a very bad day, and after making all manner of snotty comments about the BAFTAs down the years I winced on discovering the man in charge of them was smart, gracious and good company.
Are you still a resident in the pro Eddie Murphy camp, and what’s it like over there these days?
Pretty much down to me and Brett Ratner these days. We just get a kebab and whack on Pluto Nash.
Any other future projects that we should be looking out for?
I’m writing a novel about a London family, and the boxing movie documentary I mentioned a couple of answers ago will be on BBC4 later this year.
Finally, in a previous interview you noted – “start a blog, update it obsessively, and ensure every word of it is imbued with your own personality rather than mimicry of popular but often dreary and identikit film sites” – great advice; but can we expect to see a Danny Leigh blog/outlet to keep us going between the series of the Film Programme?
It’s something I’ve thought about, but it won’t happen anytime soon. One of the reasons I stopped doing the weekly piece I used to write for The Guardian because I needed to claw back the time for writing fiction, and for now I’m still committed to that. I know the world favours ever smaller nuggets of “content”, but I’m still in love with the idea of writing books. At this stage I’m more likely to stop doing film stuff and nip through a back door to be an English teacher than seek out more ways to build the brand.
– February 2013