Sunday, August 24, 2014

'The Elephants of Shanghai': A Talk with Author Stephen Jared

Recently I chatted with Stephen Jared, the author of “The Elephants of Shanghai.” Over the past several years, I’ve blogged about Stephen’s previous books, “Jack and the Jungle Lion” and “Ten-A-Week Steale.”

Stephen is a classic film lover, and his books clearly reflect it. “Elephants” is a sequel to “Jack and the Jungle Lion,” and it’s a terrific, rip-roaring adventure set during World War II, with the hero – film star Jack Hunter – finding himself embroiled in an international caper.

If you’re interested in reading it, Classicfilmboy, Solstice Publishing and Stephen Jared have worked together to make “The Elephants of Shanghai” available as a FREE download corresponding with the publication of this blog post. It will be available for five days only, so rush over to Amazon and get yours now.

Below is my interview with Stephen. I hope you enjoy it and please take advantage of the special! 

After Jack and the Jungle Lion, how did you come up with The Elephants of Shanghai?  Thirty years ago Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out. As that movie starts a title reads: Shanghai 1935. For thirty years I’ve wanted to time-travel to old Shanghai because of that movie. This book allowed me to do that somewhat. The Rocketeer was also a big influence. I love the cohesiveness of The Rocketeerdespite so much variety in the visual components. Not only does it have a rocket-man, it has Nazis and Hollywood and Howard Hughes and gangsters. Hard to throw all that into a single story and keep the narrative from running off the tracks. I wanted to see if I could manage that. As to the actual story, in the previous one Jack becomes the hero he always pretended to be in movies in order to save the woman he loves. I thought it would be interesting with this new one if WWII started and Jack feels he must contribute something, so he steps into the role of hero again, this time to save the world. Of course the effort is clumsy in the beginning because Jack is more Bob Hope than Indiana Jones, but as the story moves along Jack changes. He summons the courage he needs to do what must be done, and even becomes a bit of an inspirational figure to those around him. 

It’s amazing how much is going on in The Elephants of Shanghai, especially once Jack realizes that his mission is nothing like the fictional ones he pursued in his films. There’s hardly a chance to catch your breath – and I mean that as a big compliment. I began to wonder if Jack felt like he was trapped in a more expansive version of one of his films. I put myself in a tough spot after the first story because it was essentially a love story. How do you write a sequel to a love story? You can’t have them fall in love again. So, I wrote a straightforward, hard-driving adventure story. That said, I think all stories have to be rooted in some kind of emotion that people can relate to. The emotional foundation for Elephantsis that Jack feels insignificant as the world is at war around him. When he decides to do something about it, his wife can’t stand that he’s taking such risks. In the first story, Jack has the biggest arc. He grows as a person thanks to this woman he’s fallen in love with. In the sequel, his wife has the biggest arc. Through Jack she comes to realize the need for looking beyond her family to the world around her. 

And yet Jack does come to understand his worth beyond acting and doing his part for the war effort. I love the idea that he’s an actor who has come to the end of his usefulness – in the eyes of Hollywood – in films. But he’s not just sitting around drinking himself to death. Yes, he feels a bit useless at the beginning, but he has this determination in this novel to prove his worth, not only in the eyes of the ones he loves but also in his own eyes. I think that’s a relatable theme that goes well beyond the action. At the time this story takes place, five years have gone by since the events in Jack and the Jungle Lion. I imagine Jack has spent a good deal of that time feeling regret for all the years spent as a self-absorbed actor. When he’s first introduced in Jack and the Jungle Lion, he’s drunk, not only because of his loveless marriage, but because his life is meaningless. He had been having a great deal of fun thanks to his good looks, charm and fame, but he’s not been happy. He’s got insecurities, all rooted in self-centeredness. So, with The Elephants of Shanghai, it’s been five years since he started becoming a different person, and I had the opportunity to take him even further down a road of selflessness. This is not as easy as pulling a switch; it wouldn’t be for anybody. There are lingering personality traits, and Jack has to repeatedly summon the courage within to do what’s right. With all that emotional distance traveled, all that change within, in the end he is a little surprised and more than a little proud of what he manages to pull off. 

It’s easy to cheer for Jack throughout this story. Despite his flaws, you want him to succeed and grow. But even though Jack is an action movie hero, the real action in this story has a movie feel to it. What choices did you make to keep it from sliding into the cartoonish? The characters have to be relatable, and their motivations have to be clear. If you can pull that off, you can pretty much be as imaginative as you want with the story. I’ve been reading Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet. His main character throughout those books is a cop who is prone to fits of nostalgia for his old school friends. On one level Padura is capturing the disillusionment experienced by the Cuban people over time, but from a strictly narrative perspective the nostalgia and the heartbreak for how things have changed, makes the character relatable. I’m not a cop, not a tough guy, have never been to Cuba, nevertheless, I can relate to Mario Conde. Through him, when I sit down to read, I go to Cuba. I’m right there, soaking in the atmosphere, sharing in his heartbreaks. These stories could easily be cartoonish. A tough cop, loner, likes to drink, investigates missing persons and murders—how many times have we seen this? Yet, it’s original because the character has depth. We feel we know him. We get into his head and understand what motivates him.
You’ve created many original new characters in this book – Summer, Johnny, Kyo, Chenglei. And you created a breathless pace that escalates with every chapter. Beyond being inspired by Indiana Jones, where did all of these characters and the creative plot thrusts come from? The Mask of Fu Manchu with Boris Karloff was an inspiration. I'm not a huge fan of The Dead End Kids but they, along with Cagney, influenced Johnny Marbles. A lot of this comes from being enamored with old Hollywood set pieces.  As example, the sultry singer with her ballroom or nightclub scene. Summer was created for that, and to provide a temptation for Jack, which I thought would be fun. As to the plot, I can't think of any big influences. If someone told me they liked The Elephants of Shanghai and wanted to see a movie that was similar, I don't know what I could point to. Over time, I've picked up a few skills. I just keep telling myself the plot must thicken. I bang my head against the desk thinking of ways to make it more thrilling. Jack and the Jungle Lion, on the other hand, did have a big influence behind its story, which was Romancing the Stone. One of the major influences on Max's character that I've never mentioned before was Bess Armstrong's character in an old Tom Selleck adventure called High Road to China. 

You certainly succeeded in making this more thrilling. It’s the best kind of page-turner! Thanks, it’s gratifying to hear. As I’m sure you’re aware, I’m not alone among writers influenced by classic Hollywood. Not long ago I read Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage, which I liked a lot. He’s clearly inspired by those foreign-set espionage thrillers from the forties. I’ve not read The Good German but given what Steven Soderbergh did with it as a film, I’m sure it too has the feel of those old movies. 

So what’s next for Jack? He’s a terrific character and I’d love to see you write a third adventure for him. I intend to write more Jack Hunter stories. I started one set in 1952 where his ex-wife, the ever-dramatic, former silent film queen, Theda Lomond, has a very young boyfriend who is a communist. This gets her in trouble, and she calls the only person she can think of to offer help as a character witness—Jack Hunter. Meanwhile, with television around now, Jack is seeing some of his old movies again, and he misses his younger self, only wishes his movies weren’t so idiotic. So, this trip reunites Jack with Theda, only to prove that fifteen years later they still hate each other, and it gives Jack the chance to put in a few calls, see if he can appear in just one last picture, this time he insists on a serious drama. The tone is more old-fashioned farce than adventure, but I think it’s a fun idea, and would bookend well with the beginning of Jack and the Jungle Lion. 

Sounds like a great idea. I will definitely look forward to reading it. As always, Stephen, a pleasure to chat with you. You as well. Thanks.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

'Viva Villa'

When I was preparing to watch “Viva Villa,” I was bracing myself for Wallace Beery playing the title hero, Pancho Villa.

I’m not sure anyone, when thinking of the Mexican revolutionary, would immediately say, “Oh, Wallace Beery would be perfect for that.”

Well, my apologies to the late Mr. Beery, because I thought he was wonderful in the role. In fact, I would dare say it was one of his best performances. Perhaps this is because he surprised me so.

As for the rest of the film, I must admit that it didn’t hold my attention as strongly as it should have. This biography, released by MGM in 1934, has the feel of something important, but it’s not always compelling. It has that scope of an epic, and that may be attributed to producer David O. Selznick. You can see that sweep of storytelling that Selznick was fond of, the narrative style that Selznick would employ so well with the release of “Gone With the Wind” five years later.

It also has that stereotypical “cast of thousands” look to several of the scenes, although I was struck by how the film managed to intersperse the battle and crowd scenes with more intimate set-ups of smaller groups in single-room settings. Famed cinematographer James Wong Howe, known for his deep focus work later in his career, was just starting to work on this look (based upon existing technology at the time), and he filmed all close-ups with wide-angle lenses.

I just wish the story had more to engage me.  The screenplay by Ben Hecht fictionalizes Villa and turns him into a folk hero, skipping over anything in his life that would turn the audience against him. It starts with young Villa killing a man in revenge for his father being killed. The rest of the screenplay follows a familiar cycle – Pancho getting mad, fighting, loving, being attacked, fighting again, loving, being attacked. Perhaps watching it all these years later, we can see the Hollywood machine working predictably on this film, although in 1934 it was one of a rash of prestige biographies, like “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” “Cleopatra,” “Queen Christina” and “House of Rothschild.” 

But “Viva Villa” does have Beery. Big loveable Beery who was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars at this point. He really sinks his teeth into the role of Pancho Villa, bringing strength to the title character while cutting back on his trademark blustery persona. He receives good support from the rest of the cast, including Fay Wray and Stuart Erwin.  

“Viva Villa” was an Oscar nominee for best picture in 1934, a year that saw 12 nominees in that category. Not for Beery, though, as the lead acting categories saw only three nominees. Regardless, if you’re a Beery fan, then definitely check out “Viva Villa.”

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Audrey of the Month

Hello everyone! So my short break took longer than expected, but I am back and ready to go. 

It's been a good year, but my life outside of the blog has been crazy busy. I went to London for the first time in May; it was a fantastic trip. One happy incident was stumbling across one of those "so and so lived here" markers, and this one was for Daphne du Maurier in Hampstead, where she lived for two years in the 1930s after marrying. You have to believe she was working on "Rebecca" during that time, so it was a fun find. 

I have been mentoring a young man for many years who recently graduated with his bachelor's -- first in his family to do so. He took a film course this past spring, and I'm happy to say he really loved "The Maltese Falcon" and "Public Enemy." He even had kind things to say about "42nd Street," although "The Magnificent Ambersons" was not a favorite. I did sit him down to watch "The Best Years of Our Lives" on my birthday, and he did like it (I may have hurt him if he didn't!).

So ... I'm back here at my blog. Why the long break? For one, I work in PR, so in my free time I tend to get away from writing. Also, I was losing the joy of watching classic films as I rushed to see movies simply for a blog post. That was unexpected, and during the past eight months I've watched plenty of films just to enjoy them. 

And, I've always known that I am my own worst enemy. I expect nothing less than the best from myself when good enough will do just fine. Last fall, I was frustrated that I didn't have time to produce my best, and that left long gaps between posts. 

I am but one voice among the many fine movie bloggers out there, and CMBA is a tremendous organization that includes many of these voices. I don't believe I am offering anything that cannot be found elsewhere and better. But I also know that this is the best group with which to share my love of movies, and I just can't contain my love of movies for long periods of time. 

So I am back for what I hope is a long while. If I post twice a month, I think I will be content with that. I thank everyone for their patience -- especially CMBA, which has graciously allowed me to linger in limbo during the past eight or so months. If I don't participate as much in CMBA as I should, I apologize but please understand it is due to a shortness of time, not a lack of desire.

And I miss my Audrey of the Month! Dear Audrey -- how I do love her. 

Next week I will return. And in two weeks I have a special interview to post. And ... after that, I actually will finish my Ginger Rogers-a-thon that I started last year. I can hear my mother saying "Finish what you start" in the back of my mind, so that I will do!