I’m launching a sci-fi comedy podcast called Sir Callahan in two weeks. After years of talking shit about other people’s work, I’m finally giving my faithful readers the opportunity to return the favor.
To honor the enduring concept of fortnights, I’ve selected fourteen films that greatly influenced the writing and production of the show–fourteen films for the fourteen days before the launch.
Some are science-fiction films while others merely reflect the themes and attitudes that concerned me most while writing this first season. I don’t know if it’s in the spirit of good P.R. to say this, but I can assure you that this podcast is actually very funny despite what the following list of mindfucks suggests:
1. Akira (1988)
Dir. Katsuhiro Ôtomo / Scr. Katsuhiro Ôtomo and Izô Hashimoto
Akira is one of the first films I remember seeing that frustrated me to the point of revisiting it multiple times. If you’ve never seen it before, you will most likely feel exhausted after your first viewing. Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s film is a sensory overload, which is something that we attempted to accomplish on the sound design of Sir Callahan. Akira blends puerile slapstick humor with gruesome scenes of violence and an eerily optimistic interpretation of the Apocalypse. It tricks me into thinking that I might actually appreciate the beauty in the forthcoming destruction of humankind. But at the heart of Akira’s madness is a poignant story of an insecure teenager struggling to reconcile his innate and destructive superpowers with his simple and human desire to be accepted by his peers. Whether you love Akira or loathe it, this is a film that you won’t quickly forget–especially when you get to that giant fucking arm. NOTE: There are several different dubs for this film, but it really doesn’t matter because more than half the dialogue is characters variously yelling each other’s names.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola / Scr. Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and Michael Herr
Apocalypse Now is my favorite film of all-time, so I suspect I’ve ripped it off in everything I’ve ever done. One episode, in particular, contains a character that tips its bald head to Marlon Brando’s oddball performance as Colonel Kurtz. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well as Werner Herzog’s masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Apocalypse Now rejects social realism and portrays the Vietnam War as a nightmarish odyssey down the river to a Hell of America’s own making. Hell, in this case, is Marlon Brando droning on about horror while Dennis Hopper on the verge of a coke-induced breakdown rants about how kind and wise Colonel Kurtz is. I personally love the point at which Apocalypse Now goes as insane as Coppola did while making it, but even if the Brando section bothers you, you can always nip out for a cup of coffee and return just in time for the jaw-dropping climax. I wanted to create something psychedelic with Sir Callahan, and Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece of unhinged psychedelic filmmaking. “Never get out of the boat,” Captain Willard (a brilliant Martin Sheen) muses, “unless you’re prepared to go all the way.” Like its central character, Apocalypse Now dives into its heart of darkness and, indeed, takes the viewer all the way. NOTE: This blurb refers to the 1979 cut as opposed to 2001’s Apocalypse Now Redux, which goes on for about six days.
3. Brazil (1985)
Dir. Terry Gilliam / Scr. Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard
Terry Gilliam has always been a hero of mine, not only for his work with Monty Python but also for his astonishing tenacity as an uncompromising artist who consistently delivers despite the myriad forces determined to get in his way. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the experience that was about to unfold when I watched Brazil for the first time, although I was delighted to discover somebody else who hates paperwork as much as I do. Originally titled 1984 & 1/2, Brazil is a satirical masterpiece about the pitfalls of bureaucracy, capitalism, and so much more. The script is arguably one of the wittiest ever written, thanks in no small part to Tom Stoppard’s brilliant literary flourishes (e.g. “that Buttle/Tuttle thing.”) Like Apocalypse Now, Brazil is a film in which I notice new things upon every viewing. Brazil is a tremendous showcase for the talents of one of cinema’s boldest and ballsiest filmmakers at the peak of his powers. It also features Robert De Niro as a renegade plumber, and if that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what will. However, if you get to the end and they all live happily ever after, you watched the wrong version.
4. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Dir. Stanley Kubrick / Scr. Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George
Sir Callahan exists because Dr. Strangelove taught me to laugh at death. Considering the current state of affairs, this has paid dividends in the mental health department. Dr. Strangelove might be the perfect black comedy due to Stanley Kubrick’s decision to direct the film as a straight-up cold war thriller, aided in no small part to Bond designer Ken Adam’s chillingly accurate sets. The characters, no matter how psychotic and absurd, always take the threat of nuclear oblivion seriously, which keeps their lunacy as fresh and funny as ever. Everyone working in comedy today can learn a thing or two from the restraint shown in Strangelove’s deadpan execution. All the performances are outstanding—none more so than Sterling Hayden as General Ripper, who manages to rant and rave about Soviets sapping his bodily fluids without ever indicating that this is supposed to be a comedy. Today, it practically feels like a documentary.
5. The Falls (1980)
Dir./Scr. Peter Greenaway
If just one of you watches The Falls after reading this, I will consider this article a success. This three-hour sci-fi mockumentary is a series of ninety-two short films about victims of the Violent Unknown Event (the V.U.E. for short), a condition that induces bizarre symptoms, more often than not involving birds. Fans of Douglas Adams and the more surreal side of Monty Python will appreciate Peter Greenaway’s macabre sense of humor, not to mention his gleeful disregard for the conventions of the cinematic medium–Greenaway is one of cinema’s strangest, most idiosyncratic filmmakers and his work is well overdue a reappraisal. The Falls boasts a lively score from composer Michael Nyman, one of many in their extraordinary collaboration that lasted throughout the richest period of Greenaway’s filmmaking. There are also a few Brian Eno and Syd Barrett cues scattered throughout. The Falls is proof that great science-fiction has nothing to do with spaceships or special effects. The Falls showed me that anything in art is possible; a work of art can be disturbing and hilarious at the same time. Well, that’s my excuse, anyway.
6. A Field in England (2013)
Dir. Ben Wheatley / Scr. Amy Jump
“What this party lacks is the civilizing influence of women.”
Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump are two of the most exciting filmmakers around today, subverting genre conventions with brutally violent yet frequently hysterical stories of class-driven conflicts. A Field in England tells the story of English Civil War deserters who go looking for an alehouse. En route, an alchemist (the sensational Michael Smiley) manipulates the band into hunting buried treasure for him. Along the way, they eat magic mushrooms for sustenance, and you can imagine how things escalate from there. Like all of Wheatley and Jump’s films, A Field in England frustrates some because it doesn’t easily fit into one category and it refuses to explain itself. My reading is that their films are allegories about the low-level soldiers and criminals whose blood is perpetually spilled to keep the old and often occult-based institutions protected. I realize how pretentious that sounds, so let me remind you that A Field in England is really about a bunch of hapless soldiers in the 17th century who trip their nuts off and lose their minds. It also manages to make a man walking out of a tent look like the scariest thing you’ve ever seen, so there’s that. A Field in England is an absurd hallucinatory experience and a trip worth taking.
7. Hard to Be a God (2013)
Dir. Aleksey German / Scr. Aleksey German and Svetlana Karmalita
I feel especially obligated to talk about Hard to Be a God because the third episode of Sir Callahan owes an exorbitant debt to Aleksey German’s final film. Based on a book by the Sturgatsky Brothers (who wrote the short story that inspired Tarkovsky’s Stalker), Hard to Be a God is about a planet whose people are frozen in their Dark Ages. Thus a scientist is sent down to the foul Kingdom of Arkanar in the hopes of ushering this society into the Renaissance. Beautifully described by critic Robbie Collin as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail meets a Pieter Bruegel painting,” Hard to Be a God is revolting, stunning, frustrating, perplexing, unpleasant, occasionally hilarious and thoroughly engrossing–these are exactly the things that I like. If you’re willing to give yourself over to it, Hard to Be a God – like The Falls – works on its own terms and doesn’t give a shit about what the audience thinks. I can’t help but admire that kind of artistic courage in an age when everyone working in media is desperate for you to like them. You will either love or hate this film, but it’s better to have an extreme reaction than to have no reaction at all. I envy you if you’ve never seen it before because you are in for a gorgeous yet grotesque experience.
8. HyperNormalisation (2016)
Dir./Scr. Adam Curtis
I started writing Sir Callahan in the summer of 2016 and finished writing it last spring. In between, the world went even crazier than I could’ve possibly imagined and Adam Curtis made an online documentary about it. Although HyperNormalisation might have benefitted from being broken up into a miniseries, this film is a wry, complex, and riveting look at how corruption came to hide in plain sight due to an increasingly passive electorate—a major theme in Sir Callahan’s storyline. As ever, Curtis’ blend of uncanny stock footage and a wall-to-wall hypnotic soundtrack elevates the film from a fact-based documentary to an abstract video essay that borders on science-fiction in its presentation. HyperNormalisation was released a few weeks before the Presidential Election; watching it today is an especially unnerving experience. Some have, unfairly, dismissed Curtis as a fringe conspiracy theorist of the Alex Jones variety. While I don’t always agree with Curtis’ arguments, I’m nevertheless in awe of the way in which he manipulates form and content as a means of exploring the darker side of society. NOTE: Avoid watching it on YouTube lest you miss out on some extraordinary music cues, including the greatest Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich supercut ever.
9. Mad Max Fury Road (2015)
Dir. George Miller / Scr. George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris
After years of audiences enduring Bayhem and all its equally loathsome copycats, George Miller delivered Mad Max Fury Road and showed all of his contemporaries how great action cinema is done. Mad Max Fury Road is a seamless blend of action, politics, and storytelling. Without shoving messages down the viewer’s throat, Miller incorporates themes about climate change and misogyny into the narrative without once forgetting that he’s making an action movie. He also gave us the Doof Warrior and a truck full of drummers, both of which are among my favorite things I’ve ever seen committed to film (Science-fiction needs more rock music in general.) One of the lead characters in Sir Callahan is a bit like Furiosa except if she actually enjoyed killing things. Although some purists maintain that the excellent Road Warrior will always be the best, Fury Road feels like the Mad Max film that George Miller always wanted to make. While I loved Mel Gibson’s sly performance in the original trilogy, Tom Hardy’s vulnerability feels right for a 21st-century Max Rockatansky. This reboot was worth the wait.
10. Repo Man (1984)
Dir./Scr. Alex Cox
“Look at those assholes over there,” says American icon Harry Dean Stanton to Charlie Sheen’s brother Emilio Estevez. “Ordinary fuckin’ people, I hate ‘em.”
Repo Man is one of the funniest science-fiction films I’ve ever seen. It was produced by Michael Nesmith of The Monkees, which is one of many reasons that The Monkees were a lot cooler than you realize. The theme tune was written and performed by Iggy Pop with Steve Jones, the coolest Sex Pistol, on lead guitar. In case you need further convincing, Stanton plays a speed-freak repo man who takes an aimless young punk (Emilio Estevez) under his wing. Along the way, there are gangs of violent punks, shady government agents, and space aliens. What starts as a sneering satire of the mundanity of Reagan’s suburban America evolves into wild goose chase for a vehicle whose incandescent contents in no way inspired the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Alex Cox was one of many young filmmakers in the 1980s who took in the lessons of punk rock and imbued it into the independent film movement. His dark and irreverent vision of the world, most exemplified in Repo Man and the little-seen Walker, continues to inspire me today. To quote Nicolas Winding Refn as he stood wistfully in the Criterion closet, “Alex Cox…please come back.”
11. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Dir. Lewis Gilbert / Scr. Richard Maibum and Christopher Wood
I’ve already written extensively about The Spy Who Loved Me on PopChomp, so I’ll just say this: Whenever I describe Sir Callahan to people, I pitch the character as a somewhere between Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor and Roger Moore as James Bond. While the Bond films have never been regarded for their prestige, there is an undeniable craftsmanship about the early films, culminating in The Spy Who Loved Me–the crowning jewel of the Roger Moore era. While no Bond film can be considered a narrative ground-breaker, the best films follow the standard A-B-C formula while reflecting the personality of the time period, and The Spy Who Loved Me is no exception. This film is a good place to start if you’ve never seen a classic Bond film before. This is by far one of the most purely entertaining films in the franchise. Best of all, unlike some of the newer Bond films, The Spy Who Loved Me has the courage to get silly.
12. Sunshine (2007)
Dir. Danny Boyle / Scr. Alex Garland
If you need proof that there is more to Danny Boyle than Slumdog Millionaire, look no further than Sunshine, a philosophical journey into the heart of the Sun. Now, I’ll be the first to concede that, on paper, Sunshine makes no sense: they are literally sending a nuclear bomb into the Sun to reignite it. On the other hand, they got TV Professor Brian Cox to do a DVD commentary, which means the science has to be accurate. It’s also fair to admit that the third act of Sunshine is bonkers and plays out like the remake of Solaris meets Jason X; I just don’t happen to think that any of these things are negatives. Boyle sells the ludicrous premise with his lush and unusually restrained camera work, resulting in some of the most breathtaking sequences of his career. In an era when most science-fiction is little more than recycled space opera tropes, Sunshine stands out, warts and all, as an ideas-driven sci-fi epic about science and religion whose rewards become clearer upon multiple viewings. Sunshine failed to find an audience in 2007, but its cult following justifiably continues to grow. In fact, I often listened to John Murphy and Underworld’s soundtrack while writing the Callahan scripts. One of Danny Boyle’s finest and perhaps the most underrated movie of 2007.
13. The Wicker Man (1973)
Dir. Robin Hardy / Scr. Anthony Shaffer
I think it’s safe to say that The Wicker Man is a cultural institution at this point. Its influence extends from hippy music festivals to unsettling Radiohead videos. Not even a catastrophic Hollywood remake starring Nicolas Cage covered in CGI bees and Ellen Burstyn covered in Braveheart makeup could tarnish the legacy of this folk horror masterpiece. No ghost story is as terrifying as society’s capacity for mass violence, and The Wicker Man is a bone-chilling tale of the clash between two religious zealots, one of whom is too dogmatic to see the ghastly conspiracy unfolding before his very eyes. But The Wicker Man is more than a horror movie: it has moments of tense eroticism, it lapses into whimsical musical numbers, and unlike the remake, this film is actually intended to be funny. It wasn’t until halfway through recording the podcast that I realized how much of Sgt. Neil Howie’s obstinacy made it into Callahan’s character. Featuring career-best performances from Christopher Lee and especially Edward Woodward, The Wicker Man is an endlessly fascinating cult classic that has the power to enrapture and obsess its viewers for years.
14. Zardoz (1974)
Dir./Scr. John Boorman
I’d like you to imagine the following scenario. It is the year 2022–three years since Daniel Craig turned in his license to kill and handed over the reigns to some six-year-old. During this time, Daniel Craig hasn’t been heard from much. Suddenly, it is revealed that Daniel Craig is returning to the silver screen. The film is called Zardoz and in his first major post-Bond role, Daniel Craig plays a savage named Zed who runs around raping and pillaging at the behest of a giant floating head spouting nonsense catchphrases like “The Gun is Good” and “The Penis is Evil.” Oh and Zed is wearing mutton chops and a red leather jockstrap, too.
Yes, Zardoz is the film that Sean Connery probably wants you to forget, yet John Boorman’s foray into science-fiction isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. There aren’t many filmmakers today who’d have the courage to make a film as unabashedly strange as Zardoz, and frankly, I think that’s a bad thing. What is the purpose of making art without some form of risk? As David St. Hubbins pointed out in This is Spinal Tap, there’s a thin line between stupid and clever; Zardoz doesn’t know where that line is, and if it does, it doesn’t give a shit. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur Ice Show. Although there’s plenty of unintentional hilarity to be had, Zardoz is also a strangely compelling allegory about eugenics and the price that some will pay to achieve immortality. That and the perpetual look of disdain on Sean Connery’s face is fucking hilarious and worth the price of admission alone, especially when Boorman makes him wear a bridal gown.
I can only hope that Sir Callahan is even half as stupid and clever.
Sir Callahan appears as part of The Unseen Network on Friday, September 8th! For more updates, be sure to like us on Facebook!