The Lone Ranger: past and present

OK, in the UK right now, it might be a little bit too hot (very unusual) to think about films but by August this may all have changed. And hardened film buffs carry on film-watching regardless.

The Lone Ranger – starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer – is finally, after many delays, incidents and an accident, due to charge into UK cinemas on 9 August.

The challenge with a remake like this is to resonate with the original much loved stories while bringing something new and modern to the film. Time, then, for a look back to the original. The Lone Ranger was an early TV series in the 1950s, about an unnamed, masked Texas Ranger in the American Old West, who galloped about on his horse Silver, righting injustices with the aid of his wise but laconic Native American assistant, Tonto. Silver was introduced to the audience at the beginning of each episode as ‘A fiery horse with the speed of light!’ At the end, the Lone Ranger would famously say, ‘Hi-Yo, Silver, away!’ (often misheard by the audience as ‘Hi-Ho’), as they galloped off. The series theme tune was the ‘cavalry charge’ finale of Rossini’s William Tell overture. The Lone Ranger had well over two hundred episodes and ran from 1949 to 1961, including re-runs. It successfully made the leap from black and white to colour TV in 1956.

The original Silver was a magnificent horse, white all over except for a couple of black dots around one eye.

So what about the remake? The film dramatically reveals much of the back story to the old series: why the lone ranger was “lone” and why he wears a mask. Importantly, the film’s director Gore Verbinski has taken a similar line to Steven Spielberg’s in War Horse: he’s gone for real stunts wherever possible and spectacular real locations instead of taking the easy way out with CGI. From the trailers, it looks like this has really paid off in terms of the film’s excitement factor. 2013’s Silver, is also a fabulous white horse – but this one even gallops inside a train.

Check out the trailers. On YouTube there’s even a behind-the-scenes trailer which shows the sheer dangers involved in shooting hair-raising action sequences. For example, there’s some action set on a rickety scaffolding on top of one of the rocky buttes in Monument Valley. There’s also has a clip of Johnny Depp’s (real and unscheduled) dramatic accident as he falls off his horse and gets dragged.

Fast-moving, stunning Western locations – amazing train and horse scenes. Let’s hope the film lives up to its trailer hype. I’ll be going for the horse scenes anyhow.

For more, especially on Johnny Depp’s character, check out ScreenwritingU’s Jenny Miller recent interview with the film’s screenwriter Justin Haythe – see http://www.screenwritingu.com/blog/screenwriter-justin-haythe-writing-lone-ranger

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Beer, film, and historical thriller – out now

Ben Wheatley’s new film “A Field in England” is set in seventeenth England. It’s not just a thriller – the Hollywood reporter says it’s “A strikingly original historical thriller spiced with occult mysticism and mind-warping hallucinations”

The seventeenth century was a scary time all round. Many people genuinely believed in witchcraft, the supernatural and a very real presence of the devil. At least this gave them an explanation for wars, freak weather, crop failures and cattle deaths. And others used accusations of witchcraft and devils to settle old scores. You needed have to be a woman to be accused of witchcraft either (though it did help).

The seventeenth century was also the time of the on-off English Civil War, which drove families and neighbours to kill and betray each other. Throw hallucinogens (such as mushroom dust) into this mix – as Ben Wheatley’s “A Field in England” does – and you have the perfect ingredients for a very powerful historical thriller.

“A Field in England” is being released in different formats simultaneously – DVD, TV (Film4) and cinema. Wikipedia says there’s even a specially brewed (Weltons) slow-pour beer to go with it – tagline “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”  Sounds like a really good night in (or out) to me….

Think you might become hooked on the seventeenth century? “Because it is Written” is my short story set in seventeenth century England about witchcraft and a blacksmith’s on a mission for revenge. 

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Choosing your book’s title – a tip

As I found out – the hard way – including punctuation in your book’s title can hinder sales.

My book is a non-fiction, illustrated book about horses in film and on television. There are wild horses galore, chase scenes and lots of daring stunts. Horses rear, fight, buck, jump, dash through war zones, swim to deserted islands or play dead. Choosing the sub-title was relatively easy: “The Story of the Horse in Film” tells you what it’s about and “horse” and “film” and “horse in film” are going to show up in online searches. So far so good. But I wanted a title that would be able to convey some of the excitement there is in filming horses. Horses are unpredictable but fabulously fast and strong. I hit upon “Lights! Camera! Gallop!”

Everyone knows the director’s shout of “Lights! Camera! Action!” so I thought I can tap into that. Job done and eBook uploaded onto Amazon, Apple’s iTunes bookstore, Kobo, WH Smith and Waterstones.

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That was August 2012. Sales since then have been mostly through Amazon, as you’d expect from Amazon’s dominant place in eBook sales overall. And with the sales, usually, come some reviews, from a (fairly small percentage) of buyers on Amazon. Still, I thought I should check the others. And here’s where I found the problem. The really big search engines, like Google and Amazon’s own internal search engine, are sophisticated enough to pick up the book whether you type in “Lights! Camera! Gallop!” – or “Lights Camera Gallop”. Smaller or more specialist search engines, however, such as those within other eBook sellers’ sites do not always pick up the book from the search term which has the exclamation marks, although they will pick it up if you type in “Lights Camera Gallop” . You can see the problem: your would-be buyer is looking for your book but doesn’t find it with the first search. How many would-be buyers will try again, leaving out the punctuation?

I’ve noticed the same problem with hyphens. I was searching a company’s website for one of their own publications which does have a hyphen in its title. Nothing. I rang them up – “Try searching for it without the hyphen”, they said. So they knew about the problem but had done nothing to fix it.   

My tip, then, is to avoid punctuation in your book title. I’ve not firmed up yet on my next book’s title – I was thinking maybe something really simple, like “Colourful Horses”. But then I’ll have another problem – if I’m hoping for a US market, won’t they be searching for “Colorful Horses”? Time for a rethink perhaps….

Self-publishing – and Horse colours (tips please!)

Writing coming off hold! I’ve been a little quiet on the twitter/blog front recently. What happened was that the combination of hungry horse and awful winter weather (not to mention very long winter) here in Bedfordshire (UK) has meant that the grassy green field turned into a sludge brown field. So I’ve sent the hairy cob away to an equestrian centre in the next county over, for some expert schooling and to rest the field. Meanwhile, I’ve been picking up horse droppings, re-seeding the field and laying down fertiliser. Result: a few green shoots and a glimmer of hope for more.

So now, back to focus on the writing. I’ve now read no fewer than five of those books about how to succeed with self-publishing and marketing your e-book. Some of the main lessons in all these books (now they tell me…) are about things you should do BEFORE publication so I’ll be trying these out. One piece of advice many of these books give is about self-publishing on Kindle and then being able to give away free copies on selected days. Now neither of my e-books (“Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film” and the short story book “Because it is Written”) are in my control so I haven’t been able to do the give-away thing. But I’m determined to publish the new one myself through Kindle Direct Publishing.     

So, I’m starting the new book now. The plan is to aim it at a younger audience than Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film and I’ll give it a more playful focus. There will be some horse film stars in it and lots of pictures. It’s going to be about the huge variety of colours horses can have, and the different names for them (sometimes the same colours have different names in the UK and USA). The colour of a horse is often carefully considered in film-making and there’s been a whole raft of theories about the symbolism of a horse’s colour. Just as a director might have definite views about whether to choose a dark haired actress such as Angelina Jolie or a blonde like Reese Witherspoon, he or she would also decide carefully between a black stallion, which might hint at, say, power, mystery, secrecy or even death, or a white one, which would traditionally suggest innocence, light, sun, vitality or resurrection.

Such interpretations of colouring are not set in stone and are sometimes reversed, as for example a pale horse might symbolise death. The star horse in the various Black Beauty films, being all based on the book of the same name, had of course to be black in colour but his character was also very carefully and very strongly shown to be good: brave, faithful and patient. Then there is my own favourite colour: the Palomino. I’m thinking Roy Rogers’ Trigger or the legendary talking Mr Ed.

So, I’d very much value your input as I start this project:

Have you a favourite horse colour?

Have you an anecdote about horse colours?

And – have you any hints on marketing self-published books or on the Kindle Direct Publishing please? 

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Ray Harryhausen: creator of magical, animated horses

Sad news that Ray Harryhausen, visual effects master and creator of fabled animated horses Pegasus and Eohippus has passed away aged 92. These horses were in creaky old films admittedly – Clash of the Titans (1981) and the even older and creakier  Valley of Gwangi (1969) (in the fortunately very genre of cowboys vs dinosaurs – but the prehistoric horse Eohippus stole the show). They were however magical (especially but not only in wine-fuelled all-nighter showings somewhere like the old Electric cinema, in London’s Notting Hill, sometime, let’s say, Back in the Day. Heyho)

Much of this blog is based on Chapter 8 of Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film.

Ray Harryhausen worked extensively with stop-motion animation. He was called, with justification, ‘the world’s greatest stop-motion animator’. During a thirty-year career, he did much of the writing, directing, lighting, modelling and animating in his films single-handedly, creating some of the most remarkable moments in stop-motion animation. Much of his work focused on mythical beings or incredible monsters, and two of his greatest creations were horses: Pegasus and Eohippus.

Harryhausen used an advanced form of stop-motion animation (think Chicken Run or Wallace and Gromit to know what stop-motion looks like) which he himself had developed, because he wanted to integrate his model creatures into real settings rather than having to keep on building tiny and elaborate sets (his films were never given anything near a huge budget). When the whole film was later developed and projected on-screen, the horse or monster would appear to be its full intended size yet moving about inside real-life settings and interacting with human actors.

Anyhow, Harryhausen used stop-motion to bring the legendary flying horse Pegasus to the screen in his 1981 film Clash of the Titans, starring Laurence Olivier. Based on Greek mythology, this is a film about how the gods manipulate the lives of mortals, focusing on the courage of one mortal, Perseus, in the face of such manipulation. It has quite a complex plot in which, essentially, one goddess supports Calibos, a deformed outcast cursed by Zeus for hunting to death his winged horses, while other immortals help the film’s hero, Perseus.

In the film, Perseus finds Pegasus, the one remaining flying horse, when the latter comes by night to drink at the Wells of the Moon. In a magical sequence, we first see Pegasus flying through the night sky to land on the ground bathed in moonlight. Perseus lassoes Pegasus, who resists vigorously, but Perseus leaps on to his back; his riding skills have been hinted at earlier in the film, in a scene where he appears as a young boy cantering along a beach on a horse – with neither reins nor saddle. Pegasus at first reacts to Perseus riding him by bucking and rearing in the sky, like some wild rodeo horse. Eventually, though, he is tamed by Perseus giving him water to drink. Perseus flies off on Pegasus into the night – a beautiful scene, shot in silhouette.

Later in the film, the evil Calibos captures Pegasus at the Wells of the Moon by throwing a large net over him. That scene ends horribly, as Calibos’s henchmen beat at Pegasus through the net with huge clubs. The audience is left to presume that he dies an agonising death. But at the film’s climax, just as a giant sea monster is about to grab the heroine and sacrifice her, Pegasus flies in to help Perseus save her. Then, job done, Pegasus poses on a rock in the sea, rears up as if to say farewell, then flies off, up into the sky.

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Throughout the film, Harryhausen uses three main types of shot in the scenes with Pegasus. Close shots tend to focus on his huge white feathered wings and flowing white mane. Close-ups of his head are clearly those of a real white horse. More distant shots showing the whole of Pegasus, especially when he is flying, use a stop-motion model of the horse. Throughout the film, Pegasus flies and canters gracefully with only a hint of jerkiness. In the context of such a powerful and mythical storyline, that slight element of unreality in Pegasus’s gait caused by the stop-motion animation process actually helped to enhance the horse’s magical status, giving him a kind of dreamlike quality.

Harryhausen’s other important stop-motion horse is the Eohippus in The Valley of Gwangi. The first quarter of this film is remarkable for the presence of the Eohippus, a creature that did actually exist but over fifty million years ago and which is said to be the earliest ancestor of the horse. To judge from the fossil remains, it must have looked like a miniature horse, though it was only about the size of a small dog. It had toes rather than hooves: three toes on the front legs and four on its back legs.

In the film, the Eohippus is kidnapped from the Forbidden Valley, a haven blocked off from civilisation and one where dinosaurs have not died out. The kidnappers’ aim is to sell it to Buffalo Bill’s Circus Show for entertainment. Their plan is to have a normal sized horse carrying a tea-tray-sized platform on its back, with Eohippus trotting about on the platform. This, they reckon, will earn them a fortune in ticket sales. Before this plan can be carried out, though, superstitious local villagers decide to return the Eohippus to the Forbidden Valley, lest it bring them bad luck. The cowboys follow the villagers and find the valley. The rest of the film focuses on their disastrous encounters with the dinosaurs (also brought to life through stop animation).

When we first see the Eohippus in the film, it is in a tiny horse pen on a table top, complete with miniature stable. Harryhausen used cardboard cut-outs of the Eohippus in rehearsals with the actors, so that they would know which way to look, thus making it seem as if they could really see the creature. He filmed these scenes without the Eohippus (with its cardboard cut-out out of shot). He then filmed a stop-motion model of the Eohippus separately and merged the two films together afterwards. The Eohippus is so fascinating – a creature previously seen only as a sketch in an encyclopaedia, if at all, is brought to life on the screen – that it seems far more plausible than the rather plastic-looking dinosaurs that appear later in the movie. The Eohippus model used has short, tan-coloured hair and a sloping back, and moves rather like a small antelope, nervously stopping and starting – as any creature might do if it suddenly found itself on a table top. So the slight jerkiness caused by the stop-motion technique goes unnoticed. The visual impact is further reinforced by sound effects: the Eohippus has a high-pitched and convincing neigh.

Ray Harryhausen – great film-maker, sad loss.

http://tinyurl.com/horseinfilmstory  

Horses spotted in Costa Rica

My brief pause in blogging here has been due to two-week holiday in Costa Rica. (Note to self: I really should crack the art of setting up blogs and tweets for release while I’m away). I had a fabulous time in the rainforest – huge sloths (with long green hair) hanging from the trees, howler monkeys leaping on the roof every night (cute – but believe me the novelty wears off when you’re tired), brightly coloured frogs (poisonous, can be deadly, but hallucinogenic, I’m told – if you get the dose right though you’d need to be pretty foolhardy to try). Above all there were exotic birds. We even glimpsed the famed and rare Quetzal bird.

Whenever I go to another country, I’m always interested in the horses and how they are treated. I’ll never forget the shock of seeing underfed and badly treated horses and donkeys in Greece when I went there many years ago on a school trip. Happily the treatment of horses in most European countries has improved enormously (if only because their owners realised bad treatment upset the tourists and might jeopardise the income from them).

Developing countries are another matter though. Poverty and sheer ignorance sometimes lead to overwork and poor nutrition for horses, donkeys and mules, whether they pull farm equipment, carry loads or pull fancy pony traps for round-the-town tourist rides. I was very impressed with Costa Rica overall. They’ve been democratic for ages, abolished their army in 1948 and have an admirable programme of green and sustainable tourism and rainforest management. They do not seem to have many horses (probably just as well since they do have venomous snakes. I experienced one magical moment on an expedition in the depths of the rainforest though – suddenly, as I looked uphill, to my amazement I saw two beautiful white horses jumping over a fence. They’d stopped by the time we got the camera focused – but here they are.

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Interestingly, the museum in the capital San Jose showed that there were horses back in the days of mammoths. I hadn’t realised there had been horses on the American continent before the Spanish conquistadors arrived but apparently there were (until they were hunted to extinction). Here toImageo is a picture of some Costa Rican riding trail horses. You’ll see they don’t look neglected.

Tips for Book Clubs

Lots of people are still catching on to the fun of Book clubs. In the UK, maybe this has something to do with the unrelenting cold, wet and dreary weather. Book Club night can be something you look forward to, brightening up the week and giving you a chance to participate in something actively (whereas something like going to the cinema is more passive). If you’re still struggling with the setting up process for your book club there are plenty of tips out there on the internet. Some of the more obvious suggestions are:

  • decide what sort of book club you want it to be, within the range of say a friendly group focusing on the social side for the evening to a pretty seriously academic kind of discussion group.
  • Aim for numbers between around 9 and 16. That’s because you need enough for a discussion when some don’t turn up but not so many members that some never get to say anything
  • aim to vary the sorts of books that you discuss, from the lighter and more popular books to those a bit more challenging. I’m not suggesting Dickens here but maybe something a little bit on the side of classic but still easily readable such as, say, Graham Greene or Neville Shute. (I’m being very much influenced here by the last two books I’ve read – but you get the idea).

Okay so once your book club is up and running there are a couple more traps you might fall into and you should probably think about these even if you decide that you are going to fall into one or both traps only too willingly! Firstly you will almost certainly want some food even if it’s only in the category of nibbles. Now this wouldn’t be me at all but I hear there have been some book clubs where the provision of food has become a bit competitive. No real harm in that but it is likely to take away from the focus on books. The other danger is around the issue of alcohol. Many book clubs of course include a certain amount of wine drinking. It’s all part of the being sociable aim of the evening but I have heard (surely not?) of the occasional book club evening turning into such fun that nobody can remember whether they actually discussed the book or not. The trick here is probably to phase the wine slowly at the beginning of the discussion at least.

There is another problem that many of the more informal book clubs face that few of their members feel brave enough to mention out loud. That is the problem of one or two people being much less comfortable or much too busy actually to read the whole book that has been set for that meeting. This can be embarrassing for person(s) concerned  – and four the other members.  A suggestion I’ve not seen anywhere else is that of choosing short stories occasionally. There are huge numbers of short story collections, from a classical short story writers. See for example websites such as www.onlineclasses.org which has a list of “The 50 best short Stories of all Time”. Amazon’s Kindle store is now promoting sales of short stories and articles.

If you fancy trying out this idea, I’ve got two very different short stories of revenge and redemption: Because It Is Written. This booklet contains one story set in 17th century England about a blacksmith presented with the perfect opportunity for revenge on the man who hanged his wife. The second story, Hoodies, is by contrast about a drug dealer killing on a modern day problem housing estate and seen through the eyes of his ex-girlfriend and of a naive press reporter. 

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Cobs – victims of neglect more than other horse breeds?

Worryingly there are more and more reports of abandoned horses as the financial crisis continues and people are unable to afford their upkeep. There have been some nasty cases of neglect in the news:

In Hertfordshire, an abandoned horse – described as looking like a “walking skeleton,” forced to eat tree bark to survive, was rescued from a field. It was a three-year-old, called Maggie, and was “underweight, with lice, mange and signs of serious neglect”. Fortunately this one, after being rescued from a flooded field and given urgent treatment, was taken to The Horse Trust in Buckinghamshire. In February, the report goes on to mention, five horses are known to have died within five miles of where Maggie was found – but there may be other cases that have not been reported.

There’s a picture at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-21775639

And yes, Maggie looks a Cob type to me.

There continue to be news stories of “fly-grazing” where horses are let loose on public land or on grass verges beside A roads or even motorways. Sometimes the horses are tethered, if the owner’s motive if simply to get grazing because they can’t afford hay or even field rent. But sometimes they are simply abandoned, just left to fend for themselves.

Even more worrying is the case of a horse that had to be rescued from a beach cliff face where it was found hanging by a rope round its neck. This one was rescued just in time before the tide would have reached and rushed to Redwings Horse Sanctuary for treatment.

Tethering a horse with a rope round its neck is something often seen in old Westerns. So too is lassoing a horse by the neck and pulling it to halt. See, for example, The 1961 film The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable or the 1952 film Wild Stallion (shown recently on TV in the UK).Yes horses’ necks are much stronger than ours – but tethering this way and leaving a horse is downright dangerous. Sadly – but unsurprisingly, in this case, despite the best efforts of the rescuers, the horse died from a collapsed windpipe. Again, you can see a picture at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-21640420

And yes, this one looks like a Cob too.

Like so many things, it looks like it all comes down to money. As Jeanette Allen, chief executive of The Horse Trust is quoted by the BBC as saying “Horses like Maggie” – that’s basically cobs then – “have little commercial value and sadly this means more and more horses are being abandoned and left to fend for themselves.”

What to do? Well I suppose until the Government comes up with a Plan B to rescue the economy, all we can do is keep an eye out, report neglect and support organisations such as the Horse Trust and Redwings Horse Sanctuary.

For more on horses in film see Lights! Camera! Gallop!  http://tinyurl.com/horseinfilmstorycover alone not pdf small

Mother’s Day – and horses in film

10 March – Mother’s Day (at least, it is in the UK – think it’s in May in the US AND they get a holiday). So, what to write in blog that’s (so far) mostly about film, horses and writing? Well, how about a film that begins with about a horse and foal?

[warning: some plot spoilers but really this is a film you see for the beauty of the wild horses in the film rather than the plot]

There’s a 1999 film Running Free, directed by Sergei Bodrov and set mostly in southern Africa before and during World War One, that starts with a horse birth scene.  The film opens with Lucky, a colt, being born on board a ship carrying horses from Germany to work in the mines in Namibia. Lucky will be the lead character in the film and his story is mostly told by voice-over, but the focus is on his mother in the early part of the film. Because of the unpredictability of when horses give birth (much the same range of unpredictability as with humans when there’s no medical intervention), a number of pregnant grey mares were recruited for the scene where he is born, and the film unit simply waited on stand-by at all hours for one of them to foal. The birth finally occurred one night during the third week of filming. That’s a lot of waiting. This documentary bit of filming was then edited into the scripted narrative of the film.

During the filming, Lucky was played by a total of ten horses in all, five of them foals who play young Lucky.  The use of voice-over to tell the story helps the audience to see the horse’s point of view and this at its most graphic when the ship finally docks in Africa. The first men Lucky sees are armed with whips and they are very brutal and frightening as they force the horses to swim to shore.

Later in the film, there’s quite a lot about the mother-foal bond. Both are desolated and frightened when they are separated.  At one point, he is briefly reunited with his mother – but the mine-owner’s evil stallion Caesar, knocks down Lucky’s mother and she dies. Much later, when Lucky has grown up and grown strong, Lucky manages to avenge his mother’s death: he defeats Caesar in a fight. And he wins over the filly, Beauty, Caesar’s daughter, as his mate.

Happy Mother’s Day All.

For more horses in film, see Lights! Camera! Gallop! at: http://tinyurl.com/horseinfilmstory

Publicity tip for writers – avoid my mistake!

This week was a roller-coaster. Now that my book is (self)published in paperback I decided to give press releasing another go – when I had the Kindle / eBook version published my press releases didn’t seem to provoke any press interest. So, I sent off press releases to two local papers. I followed the advice I’d gathered from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook excellent Self-Publishing conference some months back. I gave the press release a topical “hook.” I linked the current horsemeat scandal to a snippet in my book on the story of the horse in film – as I recount in the book, Roy Rogers’ beautiful horse Trigger ended up in a number of burgers.

 

Well, there was no response at first, then I got  a short email asking for more details. Then nothing. Oh well, I thought and got on with other work. Then, one wet windy day I got a phonecall from the newspaper – a telephone interview and – “we’re sending the photographer round”. That’s now. 45 minutes to get me – and the horse – ready. The horse was covered in mud and both of us were having a bad hair day. Oh, and what to wear? Cue some frantic scrabbling around.

So my point is, once you send off a press release, be prepared for the press to react – just in case they do.

For any of you whose publicity photo might include a horse – another tip would be: test said horse with flash photography first! My horse Freddie reacted badly to the flash – she broke her headcollar and was off.   Anyway, here’s the picture the paper finally got:

Picture courtesy of Premier Newspapers

 

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http://www.lesleylodge.co.uk Lights! Camera! Gallop” The Story of the Horse in Film from only £1.53 at:

http://tinyurl.com/horseinfilmstory