Movie Review: “District 9”

D9 POSTER

Reviewed by Gary Pollard (first aired on RTHK Radio 4’s “Morning Call”)

In “District 9”, man’s first encounter with extraterrestrial life is neither as spectacular nor as threatening as it’s been shown in most movies. Twenty-eight years ago, a huge alien spacecraft appeared in the sky over Johannesburg. And stayed there. It emitted no sound. No creature made an effort to contact the human race. It just hovered there for months.

Eventually humans decide to fly up to the ship and cut their way in. What they find is a dark, dank, and  filthy ship filled with millions of starving, sick aliens. The aliens are insect-like beings that walk on two legs, and have crustacean-like skins and tentacled mouths. Human beings give them the derogatory name “prawns”.

It appears the alien ship has come to Earth, and then broken down. According to one scientist who s being interviewed, after the ship’s arrival something detached from it and fell to Earth. Despite a search, it has not been found.

Mankind treats them as it does many refugee populations, settling them into a temporary housing area, the so-called “District 9”, where they are restored to health. Over time though, as world governments cannot decide what to do with them, the temporary housing becomes permanent. District 9 becomes a slum, its inhabitants taking on the characteristics of the disenfranchised everywhere, falling into alcoholism, addiction, and gang culture. South Africans of all races think of them with suspicion, occasional empathy, and, mostly, xenophobic hostility.

We’re told all this in the first fifteen minutes or so of Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9”. It’s shot in the manner of a television documentary, using clips from a corporate video about a private company called MNU, or Multi-National United, archive footage from assorted news organizations, and interviews with scientists, human rights activists, and people on the street. MNU is the company that’s been given the job of looking after the alien refugee population. It also has ulterior motives. The aliens brought weapons with them. However, they are coded to work only with the DNA of the extraterrestrials. Human beings can’t fire them. MNU is conducting experiments to work out how to make those weapons usable by man.

Meanwhile, some human groups move into the camp to profiteer off the aliens, and to collect their weapons, including a gang of Nigerians that is also determined to make those weapons work. They’re Nigerians are led by a warlord-like figure Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) who buys the weapons with cans of cat food, which the aliens consider a delicacy. They also kill the occasional extraterrestrial. The gang also believes that by eating the creatures they will gain their power and be able to use the weaponry.

In the opening interviews, we are introduced to Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) whose father-in-law (Louis Minnaar) is the head of the company. Nepotistically, Wikus has been put in charge of the transfer of aliens to the even more remote District 10. Blomkamp has based this on the forced removal of over 60,000 non-white inhabitants from District Six to the Cape Flats township during the 1970s by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

In a segment that looks like an episode of the US television series “Cops” Wikus and a team go from door-to-door in District 9 serving eviction notices. None of them cares whether the aliens understand the notices. They just have to get their scrawl on them so the eviction process has at least a semblance of legality.

Wikus is a little friendlier with the aliens than most of the other operatives, even if patronising. He still uses the terms “prawns” though, and clearly regards them as subhuman. In one hovel he finds a cache of weapons. In another, a cluster of alien eggs. The creatures are not allowed to breed without a permit, so Wikus calls in a team to destroy the shack with a flame-thrower.  As it burns, he cheerfully compares the popping sound the eggs make with the sound of baking popcorn.

As he continues to serve the notices and search the homes, Wikus accidentally ingests a black liquid the aliens have collected. Within hours, it begins altering his DNA so he is starts to take on alien characteristics. His fingernails drop off. His teeth fall out.

Soon he is wanted by MNU, as well as by the Nigerians. It seems he can fire the weapons that human beings have wanted to get their hands on for so long.

Increasingly an outcast from the human world, Wikus has to become part of the alien one. He teams up with a “prawn” that humans have named Christopher Johnson (voiced by Jason Cope), and his child, “Little CJ”. He wants a way to reverse his alien metamorphosis; they want to get their spaceship working and return to their planet.

It may seem from this outline that the allegory in “District 9” is a little too obvious. Clearly it’s about apartheid. But the script by Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell goes far beyond that. “District 9” is an expansion of a six-minute short “Alive in Joburg” that Blomkamp made in 2005, and like that earlier film it’s not interested in exploiting the aliens for cheap scares. It’s much more about reflecting our own xenophobia.

Horror and sci-fi fans will see many elements from other movies and TV programmes here, including the BBC’s 1950s “Quatermass” stories, “The X-files”, and even “ET”. Its pseudo-documentary style mixes humour, grisly news reportage, horrific scientific experiment, and even – eventually – a Transformers-like fight sequence. If one has a criticism of it, it may be that towards the end it becomes a more formulaic action movie, but by this point you do not care. Blomkamp has set up the situation with such intelligence and integrity, and got you so hooked on the characters, including the aliens, that you are highly invested in the outcome of that action.

The film’s special effects are among the best I’ve seen. The way the spaceship hovers above Johannesburg, partly obscured by heat haze and pollution, often seen shakily through hand-held cameras, makes it entirely real. The aliens are mostly computer-generated, and yet you come to believe in them fully as characters. One of the most impressive things is that, as superb as they are, you stop wondering at the special effects as the story progresses because they are secondary to it, not driving it.

Sharito Copley isn’t an actor most of us will know, but he makes Wikus a flawed and initially sometimes despicable human being whom we nevertheless end up supporting. By the end, as he has externally become less human, he has begun to represent what is best about humanity rather than what’s worst.

Made on a smallish budget “District 9”, produced by Peter Jackson after his “Halo” project fell through,  is the blockbuster movie of the summer, and proof – above all – that the blockbuster can be sharp, intelligent, and even have much of value to say about the human condition. It’s one of the best science fiction films for a long time. It’s one of the best movies of any kind for a long time.

Interview – Pianist Maurizio Pollini

polliniIn Hong Kong this week for a sold out one-night concert, Maurizio Pollini is renowned for playing composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, but particularly for his interpretation of the works of Chopin. It was Chopin that first boosted his career when, in 1960, he was awarded the first prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw at the age of 18. He was the youngest participant. Now 67, almost five decades after the Chopin competition, Pollini still features the composer prominently in his repertoire.

Ben Pelletier: You are known for playing a wide range of composers, including many modern ones, but you have a special affinity for Chopin. In fact, your Hong Kong concert is all Chopin.

Maurizio Pollini: Chopin is a composer that I started to frequent or like very much since youth. Many years ago I won the Chopin prize in Warsaw and from that time, I’ve extended the relationship. I have to say one thing: in fact my repertoire and curiosity is towards many composers. I don’t like specialists in general, and I’m not a specialist in Chopin. But certainly he’s a composer to whom I have dedicated a lot of my time and love. Chopin is a marvellous composer and marvellous person. I can tell you he’s one of the greatest musicians. His music is a test for great musicians who understand deeply music, who understand the greatness of this composer. Chopin has something absolutely magic and mysterious about him. He’s not a person you can understand with simple clichés, with simple definitions. He’s certainly not only the romantic sentimental composer who pleases very much young women, or even aged women, in an easy way. He is really one of the great composers. His miraculous treatment of harmony, of melody, is extraordinary.

I have one thing to tell you which is pretty mysterious. If you play Chopin, you find always something strong if you really try to understand it entirely. He’s a composer who seems easy, because he has a tremendous fascination in his treatment of the sonority of the piano, that he invented. It’s a quality of him alone. There’s a magical and extremely seductive surface but he’s much more than that, and he’s difficult to understand. Especially if you don’t really love him, it’s hard to play him perfectly. I would say this is true with all composers, but this is particularly true with Chopin.

Ben Pelletier: Your concert in Hong Kong is an all-Chopin line-up, what choices went into coming up with the programme?

Maurizio Pollini: It’s a programme in which I have presented many pieces that I have played many times in other towns and in different programmes. What is special? Should I say something about the great B-flat minor sonata, which is absolutely well known by everybody. But it’s still an extraordinary piece, and the movement is in a minor key. Even Schumann is perplexed by this sonata, this great tragic mood that expresses itself in the finale. This piece has an incredible tragic unity. In my opinion, its form is absolutely perfect, as in every other work of Chopin. He never writes one note too much, or too few. He has this extraordinary control of the length of his work, which he works at very, very, hard. It has to be said about him that he is a person who is terribly demanding to everybody. He had a terribly fastidious taste. He didn’t like most of the music that he knew by great composers. And he is very severe with his own music. And he worked on it seriously for a long, long, time. He was never satisfied. He had a pencil. He put away the pencil. And he started again. Every bar and detail is sought after by a man who is never happy. Returning to the Sonata, what Schumann didn’t understand is the tragic unity of this piece, its particular character, and very great strength. In particular besides the famous Marche Funèbre, there is the finale, which is a very daring piece. It is a piece projected into modernity, and Schumann said of it “This is no more music”. It was indeed music that was much ahead of his time.

Ben Pelletier: You’ve had the luxury to revisit some of the recordings you made as a younger man. How has your interpretation of, especially, Chopin’s music changed over time?

Maurizio Pollini: My interpretation, I have to say, always changes, but it changes very gradually, because even the first interpretation was the fruit of a lot of thinking etc. So it has already established a certain line. But the line can enlarge itself with time, a new perspective can join it, and so there is a development. For Chopin it seems to me that I play with rather more freedom and rubato than I did in my first years. If I listen to my first recordings made in the early 1970s I still like it, there are some studies I like very much, but it is very strict in the timing. But now I think I play Chopin in a more free way. I still have a certain idea that perhaps too much rubato perhaps doesn’t add very much to the best image of this composer that we can have. A certain reserve in the rubato is absolutely necessary. It is said that it existed in Chopin’s playing so it’s absolutely necessary – the rubato. But the rubato extended to the limit could be not of great help to the understanding of this music as great music. It’s not a matter of how much rubato, it’s a question of the quality of the rubato. Some pianists have more freedom, some have more restraint. It’s a question of how they do it.

Widely praised for his exceptional skill and technique, Pollini is sometimes accused of being too cool in his interpretation. He plays with intensity and restraint, counteracting any tendency towards sentimentality in approaching the music. To Pollini, fidelity to the original text is as important as interpretation. It’s a balance

Ben Pelletier: Throughout your career, your unique perspective has allowed you to see how interpretations of other artists have changed over time. Is it your general feeling that people are getting more sentimental in their interpretations lately?

Maurizio Pollini: It’s a rather difficult question, because if you think of the great pianists of the 19th century, actually I didn’t hear them, but they’re supposed to be extremely free. In the beginning of the 20th century, the idea established itself of being the most faithful to the composer. Think of a man like Toscanini. Think of what Rubinstein has done for Chopin interpretation –  an interpretation somehow serious, and somehow more in the rubato, slightly restrained. It was a trend to being more reserved. Nowadays, yes there might be a trend towards more sentimentality. The people need and would like to have more romanticism in the performance. I absolutely agree with this idea, if this idea combines itself with a great faithfulness to the composer, which in my opinion is a conquest of the 20th century that shouldn’t be given up.

Ben Pelletier: Certain composers, such as the Russian romantics like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, have featured much less in your concert programmes and recordings. Why is that?

Maurizio Pollini: In fact there are great many composers that did not go into my repertoire, but I like them very, very much, I played very little Ravel. I almost didn’t play Scarlatti. It’s a pity I didn’t play Haydn. And of the Russian repertoire I did very little. Well, I did play 3 movements of Petruschka, but I didn’t play many others. Why? Perhaps I thought it was too much or too well played. But certainly you don’t have to have a clear picture from the repertoire of my real musical taste, which is much broader than my repertoire can be. The fact is the piano repertoire is marvellous, a million times marvellous. I think no one can afford to do all he’d like to do.

Ben Pelletier: Also over your career, you’ve championed contemporary composers like Stockhausen, Boulez just to name a couple. How do audiences react to this kind of music?

Maurizio Pollini: The audience reaction to, so to say, contemporary music … some of this music is not contemporary any more. But any way the reaction of the audience if the performance is good is excellent. The problem is that in normal concert life nowadays, the taste of the public is very backwards. They have not enough experience of the genius of the 20th century. All the area of the renewal of the language in the 20th century is not well known by the public unfortunately, and this is an enormous pity. If I have advice to young pianists, it is to do this too, to expose this music to impresarios, recording companies, etc. Because in my opinion, this araa of the more advanced repertoire is full of genius and consists of the most important compositions, composed for instance in the second half of the 20th century. So the best are works by Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and Berio. And many other composers. Also there are works of Schoenberg in the first half of the 20th century that are extremely important and great.

Ben Pelletier: You have done so much to date, what are a few of the upcoming projects that excite you?

Maurizio Pollini: I have various programmes. I would like to do more on advanced music, with commissions to good composers. I am also trying to arrange a series of concerts which combines composers of the past, old composers, with composers new to us, to try to promote aspects of modernity that audiences don’t know very well. I would like to do this. And to finish recording the Beethoven sonatas. To record again many of them, and then to continue with Bach, I would like to re-record Chopin’s work by chronological order and do modern works, and many more.

Ben Pelletier: Maestro, thank you very much.

Maurizio Pollini: Thank you.

Interview – Sue Williams, Director of “Young and Restless in China”

American documentary producer Sue Williams started making films on China in 1986 with a trilogy on modern Chinese history.

For “China in the Red”, she followed 10 individuals over 4 years as they struggled to adapt to the country’s economic reforms.

This year, she has come back with a new film, made for PBS. “Young and Restless in China” is described by PBS as “an intimate look into the lives of nine young Chinese, coming of age in a society that’s changing at breathtaking speed.” For this film, Williams followed her nine young subjects for four years, documenting the changes in their professional and personal lives.

In Hong Kong recently, she spoke to The Works’ Han-yan Yuen.

Han-yan Yuen
You’ve made many films in China? How did your interest in the country come about?

Sue Williams
I have a long family background there. My mother was born and raised in China. So I grew up hearing a lot about China. It was kind of familiar to me when I was growing up. When I was working in TV, I always thought I’d like to go to China one day. And in the mid 80s, I was doing film research for public TV in the States, and I was having a conversation with this guy in New Jersey who has a private collection of film. We were just chatting and I asked him if he had any footage of China. And he took me to the back of his house, and it was just one wall full of 35mm cans of footage of China. The first can of film I opened was a 1912 film made in Hong Kong about the 1911 revolution in China. I didn’t know anything about China then. I kind of felt like I won a lottery, I stumbled across this amazing collection and that became the genesis of the China trilogy.

Han-yan Yuen
How did your first project develop into a trilogy?

Sue Williams
China is just endlessly fascinating. You know, I wanted to understand the people better, the society, everything is so complex and that was in the mid 80-s, when I think things were kind of more opaque in China, and there was more influence of Maoism, and reform and opening is just starting. And I went on to make the second film, “The Mao Years”, because I was sort of the same age as the Red Guard generation and I was very interested in how people that are sort of my age, could have had such different experiences. It was a way to understand people who are my contemporaries. And really, PBS just sort of kept saying” “What happened next? What happened next?” So I just kept coming back.

Han-yan Yuen
Did you take on a conscious role of countering stereotypes?

Sue Williams
In America we hear so much about China, and we understand so little. And so much of what we hear is China as the rising threat, China as this economy that will take over the world. And so I was very interested in talking to young people who would be running China in a few years’ time. Who they are, what they are interested in, what moves them, what excites them. So I think I came up with a very different picture of what young people are like in China than what most Americans would think.

Han-yan Yuen
Where did the theme of “Young and Restless Come from?”

Sue Williams
Before talking specifically about “Young and Restless”, I should say my interest in making films about China for so long has been to let the Chinese people, or the Chinese people I interviewed to talk directly to Americans, to let them tell their stories, without it being framed: why is it important to American politically. But just to hear people’s stories so we can understand each other better. I think in this current economic crisis, if it’s shown us anything, it’s shown us how interconnected we are. And we have to understand each other.

Han-yan Yuen
How different was the reality of these young people from the US perception?

Sue Williams
The little bit that one hears in America about young Chinese people is that they are all very selfish, the singleton generation, the one-child generation. I sort of expect, well I didn’t expect, but a lot of Americans expect to find very egotistical, selfish generation, and I found people who were had much more in common with young people in American and Europe than they would think. They are concerned about figuring out who they are, what they want to do, finding a partner, finding someone they want to be in love with, finding someone they want to have a family life with. They’re concerned about education and health care. They’re starting to take care of their parents. And yet some people are selfish at that age all around the world. That’s when you’re trying to figure out who you are. I find a lot of commonalities pretty surprising for American audience.

Han-yan Yuen
There seems to be a lot of hostility in the US towards China.

Sue Williams
I don’t think America hates China. I think they are very suspicious of the government, just as I suspect a lot of Chinese might be suspicious of the American government for good reasons. Do the American people hate the Chinese people? I don’t think so. But I don’t think they know enough to even begin to be able to begin a dialogue. So we have to work very hard to break those gaps, the chasms in communication. I don’t think Americans want to keep China down, that’s what I hear: Do we want to keep China down. No, but again, there’s a sort of history in America about “Red China”, “Communist China”. And in many ways, America’s really never gotten over that, and in many ways that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

Han-yan Yuen
So communication is all.

Sue Williams
I say that’s my goal: to further communication, but I don’t make propaganda, I don’t set out with a fixed agenda. I think if you let people talk to each other, you find there are lots of things you have in common. I picked the characters in the films because there are certain issues in China. I am really interested in the environment, not just in China, but the environment in general. That’s why I picked Zhang Jing Jing. I’m interested in the Health Care System. In America we don’t even have a Health Care System. And I was curious to know what was happening in China about Health Care. And obviously we hear so much about business and the booming Chinese economy. Or up till recently, the booming Chinese Economy. So I wanted to have some business people, so I did look into specific areas in the characters. But in the end, I just wanted good characters, who were relaxed in front of the camera, who were willing to share the stories.

Han-yan Yuen
How did you focus in on your subjects?

Sue Williams
We started with about 15, but a couple dropped out during the process. We kept in close touch with them over a long period. I loved that because you feel like you can get to know people so much better. This device of returning enables you to get to know people much better.

Han-yan Yuen
The project’s release coincided with an Olympics year for China?

Sue Williams
We felt that there would be a lot of interest in America before the Olympics, and this film … this film was the PBS Olympics offering. They wanted one big programme focused on China before the Olympics …

Han-yan Yuen
You were talking about people being selfish and materialistic, but some of your subjects seem to be moving away from that.

Sue Williams
I feel that the last two months, everything has changed so entirely that I don’t know where anything is headed. Everything’s just imploded so much. But at the end of the film, you really see that certainly the older people in the film are thinking a bit beyond the material. Ben Wu, even though a complete workaholic, he’s thinking he wants to do his solar panel start-up. Doctor Yau is thinking how he can help the healthcare system. I think everyone is questioning why they’re doing what they’re doing. Is the money enough? Is that the meaning of life? I think certainly those who are privileged in the film – by privileged I mean those who have a good education – they start to question that pretty young. For the migrant workers, it’s just a matter of keeping your head above water, putting food on the table, bringing up your kids.

Han-yan Yuen
But there is the rapaciousness too?

Sue Williams
It’s like the poor kid who goes to the candy store and he just wants to fill his mouth. That’s an analogy Lu Dong makes. I think that’s a perfectly valid interpretation. It’s not my interpretation. I did include it in the film. It does seem to me a way to explain a lot of what’s been happening in China with the kind of frenzied full-on economic growth that doesn’t seem to have taken too much into consideration the social problems, and certainly the environmental problems it is creating. I think that’s an analogy that helps Americans understand. You can understand that, and it’s very visual. I’m really looking forward to going to China again and see how different it feels, because I understand people there are feeling the economic slump perhaps as much as we are in the States. That’s all anyone is talking about at the moment. I feel like I don’t know where everything is headed….

Han-yan Yuen
Have you developed close personal relationships with the people in the film after all this time?

Sue Williams
That’s one thing when you spend time with people. I spent a lot of time on-camera, but I spent even more time off camera with these people. In a way, they start to come to me for advice. It’s actually a very interesting and a very tricky balance for me, to maintain that kind of reporter’s distance. I can’t get involved in their lives. I can’t change their lives. Yet when they’re wondering about what to do, a lot of the dilemmas about relationships and having a child are all things I have been through myself. I guess I got to know them quite well, it’s extraordinary that they just forgot about the camera in the end.

Han-yan Yuen
Did they say things they might regret saying?

Sue Williams
It is surprising how much they opened up, but a number of people are coming to the screenings in China. They’ve seen the films, and obviously they’re not embarrassed.

Han-yan Yuen
How about the authorities? Were there any problems shooting what you wanted?

Sue Williams
This film is actually not bad in comparison to earlier ones, because it’s not overtly political. I call it “Young and Restless in China”. Many people here won’t get my reference. But it’s a very obvious reference to an American audience, because there’s a soap opera that’s been running in the States for 40 years, it’s called “The Young and the Restless”. So I was making a conscious reference to this soap opera which has run for decades. And I call it my Chinese soap opera, because it’s really just people’s lives. I’ve had more problems with other films. The only time we really had problems with this is when we would go to villages, more local levels. There I think local officials tend to be a little more cautious, they watch you a little more. Because somehow in Beijing and Shanghai, it’s a little more relaxed, but I can’t complain on this film. We had a couple of things. We didn’t really have major problems. There were a lot more problems with China in the Red.

Han-yan Yuen
Of course, another difficulty with documentaries is getting the funding.

Sue Williams
There are a lot of problems. It’s really difficult to fundraise for documentaries. I don’t know about Hong Kong, but in the States, we were lucky in that PBS is always a big supporter of my work. But we always had to raise a lot of money, and then I found quite a few Chinese Americans who have done well, who are anxious to help Americans understand China, who were very supportive and helpful. But we were literally fund-raising all the way through., We finished editing and we were in post and we were still raising the last 20,000 dollars.

Han-yan Yuen
How did the financing break down?

Sue Williams
PBS gave us about one third to forty per cent. The rest we raised from foundations and private individuals.

Han-yan Yuen
How do you think it will be accepted in China itself?

Sue Williams
I showed “China in the Red” in a few places in China. It was interesting because some people got really angry at me. I was showing it in factories. Some people said: “Why do you have the right to come and make a film like this?” I thought that was an interesting question. But as we had longer conversations, they became very positive and interesting and responsive. I hope I get a good response, but I don’t know …

Interview: Jazz Pianist Bob James

In his 45-year career, smooth jazz composer and pianist Bob James has produced more than 40 albums. He may be best known for “Angela”, the theme from the TV sitcom, “Taxi”.

He’s collaborated with musicians from all genres, winning two Grammys in the process.

And he’s a favourite of hip-hop and R&B artists, who have sampled many of his tracks in their works.

“Nautilus” from 1974 is probably the most sampled piece in hip-hop history, having been “borrowed” by Slick Rick and Puff Daddy among many others.

Five years ago, Bob James began collaborating with five students of traditional Chinese instruments that he’d met at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. They became “The Angels of Shanghai”, with whom he performed in Hong Kong last week.

The Works’ Ben Pelletier spoke to him.

Ben Pelletier
We’re here with Bob James who is part of the lineup of the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival. Welcome to the programme, and welcome indeed to Hong Kong.

Bob James
Thank you Ben. Very excited to be here.

Ben Pelletier
I should say welcome back to Hong Kong. You were here with Fourplay earlier.

Bob James
Last year. We had a wonderful time. Unfortunately in the music business we are always in places for too short a time. I was here for one day. Of course you get to see the hotel, the concert hall and the airport, but you don’t really get a chance to do the sightseeing I would love in this beautiful city.

Ben Pelletier
This time, with the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, you have a project you’ve put together over the past several years, “The Angels of Shanghai”. Can you tell me how the project came about, and what the project entails?

Bob James
It’s been a five year adventure, and this actual trip to China is the culmination a of really wonderful life experience that I have had, that came about almost by accident. I was at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music five years ago with a Japanese friend who was doing some research about opening up a Chinese division of the record company. And I had no plan to get actively involved in any kind of recording because I was very busy with other stuff. But I had a really magical day, first becoming acquainted with traditional Chinese instruments. I humbly admit that I knew nothing about this music prior to that visit. But they had arranged for some of the best of the students to demonstrate some of the instruments to us, and I was supposed to give some advice to my Japanese friend. The bottom line is I just fell in love with the sound and with the fantastic musicians. We bonded. We had one of these incredible examples of music being the universal language. Because they knew nothing about my music, they were meeting me for the first time, I had never performed in China, so there was no advance hype about it. We just sat down and started making music. I couldn’t speak any Chinese. I only found out later that they were quite good with English but they were very shy about it. So we didn’t have any verbal communication at all. But to my amazement they were totally open to my improvising, starting up some new hybrid experiment. And that’s how we started.

Ben Pelletier
Did you end up writing music fresh for this project or adapting previous compositions?

Bob James
It was mostly new music that happened, but I also adapted a few older compositions for instrumentation. I was given some very good advice that I think it would be …  since the project was so different … what I was basically trying to do was combine American jazz and traditional Chinese music and form this hybrid east-west thing. And I didn’t know what it was going to turn out to be, but it was intriguing to me from the very beginning. But some advice that I got was that, in addition to making completely new music, it would be interesting to my fans if I took music that was familiar to them already and rearranged it with this new sound to see how it would sound in the new version.

So I took what was probably my most recognized theme which is a theme from a TV show that was very successful in the States called “Taxi”. The theme song is a piece called “Angela”, which was another coincidence because I ended up calling this group “The Angels..” and the name “Angela” is derived from “angel”. So many, many coincidences. But this “Angela” theme is very well known because of all the exposure it got from the television. So I got a completely new arrangement of that. And actually one of the most exciting times during the project was when I first played that theme for them. I could tell immediately that they responded and loved it, and I thought that was very flattering and very nice. And as I was playing for them, I realized that the entire first part of the melody uses the exactly the same mode or scale that is in their traditional Chinese folk music that they play all the time. So they felt very at home with this theme.

And as I was listening to it, I thought why did I even write it for a TV series that is based on New York City cab drivers? It really has nothing to do with Chinese folk music. But now all of the sudden, this thing unfolds …  and it was as if it was meant to be somehow.

Ben Pelletier
Was it surprising to you how readily these musicians adapted to improvising in a Jazz format?

Bob James
I think that was the most inspiring thing. And that led me to believe that I could make this into a project that makes sense as a jazz … some kind of a hybrid jazz project. Because I discovered on that first day, that they were totally open and free about the idea of improvising, which is a big deal to me, because that’s at the very root of what I have always loved about the jazz idiom. It’s that it’s unpredictable, you never know what’s going to happen. The most exciting moments are the times when you use your techniques to respond to something that happens instantly. If you have this Chinese sound coming back to it, you try to respond to it and react to it, in a musical way. And they were so fantastic at being able to do that. And I would play something in my jazz style and they would come back to me, with it reinterpreted by them instantly into their Chinese version of it. I was not asking them to play jazz, but I was asking them to enter into that kind of spirit. And they were just great. And we’ve had a wonderful time ever since. Every time I get together with them, it’s more of the same.

Ben Pelletier
You’ve never stood in one place with your career, musically or otherwise. What comes next. And how do you stay motivated to move to new areas?

Bob James
Well, age I guess happens to all of us, and I’m just trying to refuse to let it slow me down. I’ve had the good fortune to have pretty good health. I love what I do. I’m very much unhappy if I am away from my piano too far. It’s just part of my body now. So I’m still always wanting to be doing something. And I’ve had a real basic feeling that jazz, philosophically, is an idiom that needs to keep changing. There are some people in our area of music who believe that there is a more pure way, or more correct way to play jazz and I’m not one of those people. I don’t think there’s any correct way to play it. I think it changes daily because the next day when you play an improvised solo. I believe you should be responding to what’s going on around you. And when it comes to the Far East, my mindset is different from when I’m in New York city. So whatever comes up in 2009 it’s going to be related to that same basic philosophy.

I just ran into an old friend who I think is one of the most brilliant jazz artists in the world, and one of the few jazz artists who have specialized in playing the clarinet in recent years. Back in the swing era, many many years ago, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw – some of the great jazz artists – made the clarinet a very popular jazz instrument, but somehow it’s been usurped by the soprano sax and you rarely hear jazz clarinet anymore. But Eddie Daniels plays it like a dream, and he is just a phenomenal artist and we rediscovered each other. I had known him many many years ago in New York, but I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but we bumped into each other at the Chicago airport about a month ago and almost immediately started talking about collaborating and doing a project.

So that’s one that’s in the back of my mind, but we both understand the fact that the music business is drastically different than it was when I was first making records. And the economy has had a major impact on us, as it has on anybody else, so most record companies, I feel, are very conservative and very reluctant to take on any CD music projects. There’s a major marketing plan, a touring plan. They put so much baggage on the idea of making records that it’s frustrating for me. Because I had a period of time for 15-20 years when I was very fortunate to be in an environment where, when we had any kind of good creative ideas, we’d just go in and make a record. And maybe we’d end up touring, maybe we wouldn’t. But the record would exist, and it flowed economically. Now it’s more complicated than that. So I really don’t know where the support from a company would be next year.

I would for example love to do “Return of Angels of Shanghai”. Now that we know each other so well, it would be fantastic to see what music we can make now that we’ve broken the ice, and gotten through the start up phase. But whether or not we will get support from the record company, we don’t know yet. 

Ben Pelletier
You talked records and touring, and the “Angels of Shanghai” album came out a few years ago. Have you noticed any differences in the way people either react to the album or react live between the West and doing that same material in Asia?

Bob James
The US audience are much more confused, but at the same time, if I get them into the theatre, they are almost without exception, very intrigued. They don’t believe it at first. How can you have these five weird instruments that they’ve never seen before combined with the jazz quartet? When I talk about it, the hardest thing is to publicize this kind of concert and to get the publicity people and concert promoters to imagine that it could work. And yet on the US tour, without exception, when we started performing, I could always tell that the audience are really intrigued when they physically see us on stage and how much fun we are having, and they can begin to understand how similar in many ways the Chinese instruments are to our history.

It was a different experience with the Asian audience. We performed in Japan, we performed in Korea, Thailand, now finally here in China. But throughout Asia, the traditional instruments historically are all kind of similar, so it’s not as much of a surprise for Asian audiences to hear these instruments.

Ben Pelletier
After your all too brief stay with us, you are heading to Shanghai, with the Angels of Shanghai, sort of appropriately bringing this music to the mainland for the first time, but sort of rounding things up, taking things full circle. How do you anticipate it will go down with a Chinese audience?

Bob James
I’m smiling as you even bring this up because you are absolutely right, it is full circle. I am very proud of this project. I went from being totally naïve about Chinese traditional music and in many ways about China in general, because I’d never visited here, I’ve never performed in China. I just feel that we are in this new global community and it’s so important for us to get to know each other better. And if, even in a small way, I can be a good will ambassador … I didn’t set out to do it that way, it certainly wasn’t anything pretentious like that. I just love the idea of making this music. But over the five years I’ve done it I’ve had the chance to meet, and become good friends with, extremely talented young, fresh Chinese musicians that have taught me much more than I know I have taught them. But we bonded. We learned from each other’s cultures. It’s been a fantastic experience. And I’m so excited to go to Shanghai, their home, and I know it will be a friendly audience because I have a feeling that many of their family and friends are going to be there to celebrate this great occasion, that after five years I am finally having the opportunity to perform in mainland China.

Ben Pelletier
Well, all the best with that and I look forward to your next project as well.

Bob James
Thank you Ben. It’s been a pleasure.

Interview: Laurent Cantet, director of “The Class” (Entre Les Murs)

Laurent Cantet’s movie “The Class” or “Entre Les Murs” (“Between the Walls”) looks at a group of French  students as they go through a year of high school.

It was filmed with three digital cameras over the course of a school year. Most of it takes place in a classroom in a secondary school in the 20th arrondissement, a multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Paris, but the story the movie tells reaches beyond the walls of the classroom, into French society itself.

the-class

The movie stars real students and teachers, including François Bégaudeau, who wrote the autobiographical book on which it is based.

Laurent Cantet was in Hong Kong during this year’s French Cinepanorama. The Works interviewed him.

The Works
“The Class” is the first French movie to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes since 1987? How did you feel taking the stage with your group of young actors?

Laurent Cantet
Getting this award in Cannes was a big surprise for all of us. This film was made in a very particular way of production, a very experimenting way. We don’t have any stars or any professional actors, and the script was always being rewritten during the shooting. It was a real experiment for all of us. The fact this kind of film can find its place in a festival like the Cannes festival is very important for me and we are all very The second thing that made me feel very happy was that we shared this moment with the children that played in the film, with the teacher that played in the film, with the two co-writers in the film. I think this film is a collective work and I feel myself like, how you say, the conductor in music who choose what the best point of view in the situation. But I always tried to involve the people I am working with in the process of creating.

The Works
Why did you choose a docu-drama approach?

Laurent Cantet
I think we have a more and more important part of the cinema that deals with reality, with what’s happening in the world, because the world is getting more and more complex. It’s always more difficult to live in it, and the cinema is showing that more and more precisely. This award also says that the public is able to feel involved in a film that shows the world as it is.

The Works
The school comes across as a microcosm of French society?

Laurent Cantet
We entered the school just to see what’s happening behind those walls, and nobody knows what exactly except the teachers and students, if you were not students or teachers you don’t know what exactly happened between those walls. And the film stays here. It’s important for me that through this littlie microcosmos we could describe the whole world, that those walls are not cutting the school from the world, and all the problems the society has to deal with can enter the school too.

The Works
Were there special challenges or advantages in filming “The Class” as docudrama, with just a small crew and a cast of non-professional actors?

Laurent Cantet
I’m used to working with non-professional actors because I always try to enrich the film by their life experience. And I always listen to what they have to say about their own lives, and to put it into the film. That’s important for me, and that’s the best part of the work for me because I learned a lot from it and I tried to introduce that in my point of view. I also like to work with a small crew, as small as possible, because when there are not too many people around in filming you can feel you are all involved in the same story. And everybody wants to fight for the film for the same film. That’s partly why I have worked with the same producer for 15 years, and had the same cinematographer for all my films. Now we can understand each other almost without speaking.

The Works
The film is based on François Bégaudeau’s book and filmed through the academic year with the students. How close is it to the book and how much is it following the reality unfolding in the classroom?

Laurent Cantet
The film is not a real adaptation of the book. It’s more an extension of the book. It means that I use a lot of things coming from the book, all the documentary aspect of the film. François Bégaudeau, the writer of the book, has been teacher for 10 years. He knew that world much better than I do. He had a point of view from  inside that I would never get. Even though I stayed in the classroom watching lessons I wouldn’t get this kind of insight. So it was important for me to get this image. But I also wrote part of the film that is not in the book, which is all the narrative story. The story of Suleyman comes out of the book progressively in the film. And we followed his story and it becomes the story of the film which is not in the book. François accepted that there would be two aspects of the film: his book and the part of the film that I wrote without him. I think the two aspects really mix together quite well.

The Works
So is it more documentary or drama?

Laurent Cantet
I think the film is a documented film, I want the reality to exist and appear in the film. I want to describe the word as it is, but I never try to be a representative of the whole world. I just try to show a little part of the world, thinking that after that viewers can think by themselves about what it means. My films always ask a lot of questions but never answer them precisely because I don’t have any answers.  The world is too complex and everybody tries to find his place in this world, tries to find his role in the world. But there is no true answer, there is no unique answer to all the questions.

The Works
What do you really want people to take away from “The Class”?

Laurent Cantet
I think the film tries to show that the diversity of our society and culture make them richer, and our teachers have to deal with the mix of all the cultures in the town in their schools. I think what people usually consider as a problem: immigration, integration of all the people coming from all over the world trying to live together, is more like something very good for our society and for our culture. It’s not a problem. That’s the main idea I want to show. I also want to show the school system is very complex. You don’t have one answer to it. There is a lot of contradiction in the system, and this system helps people to live together but at the same time excludes a lot of people because they don’t find their place in the system. The situation shown in the film is not always very comfortable. It’s always very tense between the children and teachers and between the children themselves. But at the same time I think it’s important this kind of space exists just to make them learn to become citizens. You can test things here in the classroom. You can test what it means to be a citizen. You can argue to find a good argument, to impose your way of thinking. And it’s a place where you can really think about what you are becoming.

The Works
How did you choose your actors?

Laurent Cantet
I don’t have the feeling that I chose them. I think they chose to be part of the story. At the beginning of the school year they organised workshops in the school and all the volunteers were welcomed. At the beginning when they came, about 15 students came to see what it was. After a few weeks a lot of them left the workshop because they have many things to do better than this one. So the 25 that stayed are the 25 that are in the film, I never had to say: “You, yes. You, no”. We just made the film with those that are involved in the process.

The Works
Your previous films such as “Time Out”, “Heading South” and now “The Class” tackle social and political issues. Are these what concern you most as a filmmaker?

Laurent Cantet
I am very involved in what’s happening around me when I am making a film. I like to give a view of the world to people that are watching it. It’s important for me because the films I like are the films that ask questions about our society. I’m trying to do the same when I am making films. But I always try to avoid very dogmatic film. I always try to speak of the world through the experience of the characters through the feelings of characters, through the stories, because I like to write stories. That approach makes films that don’t’ say: “Here is what you have to think,” but let people just think with the film, and draw from the film, and not to tell them what to think.

Interview: Wei Te-sheng, director and writer of “Cape No. 7”

The Taiwanese film “Cape No 7” has broken box office records in Taiwan and is also set to be a success in Hong Kong. The first feature film by director Wei Te-sheng, it’s a romantic comedy, with music, set mostly in Hengchun, a small town in the southernmost part of Taiwan.

The protagonist of the main story is Aga, a failed rock-star who returns to his hometown from Taipei and becomes a postal worker.

His interest in music is reawakened when the town decides to put together a local band hastily as the opening act to a beach concert by a famous Japanese singer.

A relationship develops between Aga and the Japanese woman who is helping to organise the band. It’s mirrored by seven love letters written by a Japanese teacher to the Taiwanese woman he is leaving, as the Japanese left Taiwan after the Second World War.

cape-7

During the making of the film, director Wei ran into many obstacles, from a string of typhoons at the beginning of the shoot to serious financial difficulties. To make the film, he refinanced his home, initially with his wife’s full support, but got himself heavily into debt as the production went on.

He spoke to The Works’ Diana Wan.

(This interview was conducted in Chinese, and translated)

Diana Wan
When did you first come up with the idea for “Cape No. 7”?

Wei Te-sheng
It was back in 2006. At that time I couldn’t get finance for my previous project. I remember thinking that I wanted to make a film that could move the hearts of people, which was about our local culture, but which could at the same time be commercially successful. So I spent a year in preparation and research and took about a month to write the script.

Diana Wan
You took a lot of personal risks financially to make the film.

Wei Te-sheng
Yes. It was very tough when we first got the film together. When we started filming in the southern part of Taiwan we had only NT$5 million to make the film. The reason we still went ahead with the shooting was that we had applied for a guarantee fund from the government to insure any bank that would give us a loan. But I couldn’t believe it. No bank wanted to lend us the money. We had the guarantee fund from the government but we still couldn’t get a loan. We had thought we’d definitely get it. So as we started filming we were waiting for a loan to come but no bank would help out. In the end, finally, one bank turned up that was willing to lend us the money and we had to overcome so many obstacles. Before we got that loan I was really worried and scared. It was so terrible! What could we do? In the end the film was made and it was quite something. I made this film with NT$50 million and it took in NT$500 million at the box office in Taipei.

Diana Wan
Your wife was very supportive of the risks you were taking.

Wei Te-sheng
That was a long time ago. Towards the end of the film project she lost faith in me totally. It was true very early on. Five years ago she said to me, “Go ahead and do it. Don’t wait till you get old and complain that you didn’t do this because of this and that. If you want to do it, do it.” We were talking about NT$2 million back then, which was something we could afford at the time. But at a later stage, when we were making Cape No. 7 she had to sign off on a loan for NT$15 million, and she thought I was actually going crazy. She thought I didn’t know what I was doing and our lives were going to be ruined once we signed for this loan. But I still wanted to do it, and she lost faith in me.

Diana Wan
You weren’t tempted to give up?

Wei Te-sheng
There was no turning back. Money had been spent. You can’t quit in the middle of filming. If you quit you’ll be in debt and you won’t have made your film. I couldn’t afford to lose in this, and the only way I could win in the circumstances was to finish this film. I couldn’t compromise on even one frame. I could only say okay when it really was okay. If it was not okay it was not okay. Even when I was just half way through I knew I had to finish it. I couldn’t spend the money and come back empty handed. There should be no regrets. I realised my vision to the best of my ability and if that failed there was nothing more I could to. And if it turned out to be successful, it’s something we achieved. There was no turning back because we were already so much in debt, We had to continue, take the gamble.

Diana Wan
So you felt exonerated in the end?

Wei Te-sheng
It was totally out of my expectations. In the end I realised that if you do something honestly and with sincerity, the result can be overwhelming. It went far beyond what we considered to be commercially successful. What is successful with our audience is sometimes not the kind of commercially successful films we expect. What makes a movie commercially successful for the audience is to have a story that’s close to their hearts, close to their language and thinking, something that they would like to see. It’s not always about using a star-studded cast or expensive sets. Of course, those things could be of commercial value, but what is the real value in all of this? Can they relate to the film? Can it say what they have always wanted to say in their heart? Is it the dream they have that they can’t bring to life? Could it make them think again about the dreams they had when they were young?

In everyone’s life, no matter how ordinary he or she is, there should be one thing that you can talk proudly about, that one thing. Even though you can maybe tell it in ten minutes, it’s good enough. An old man should have a story to tell. “Grandad or grandma, what did you do when you were young that you could tell me about?” Nothing? How can you tell your grandson or granddaughter that your life is a blank? Nothing. It’s what you achieved that matters. People nowadays give up their dreams very early. At most they allow themselves ten years to realise their dreams. If you live to 100, spending just 10 years to realise your dream is too short. People give up too soon and too easily these days.

Diana Wan
What’s the role of the music in the film?

Wei Te-sheng
A film about music is a method, it can easily provoke an audience’s emotions. But what the film actually talks about is dreams and the value of love. A romance is filled with regrets. After 60 years can this love take on a new set of values? It’s about the realisation of dreams, and the regrets of romance and dream, but told through the use of music.

Diana Wan
Some people praise the film for it’s “local” sensibility. Will it sell worldwide?

Wei Te-sheng
When we are blindly chasing the so-called world trends and trying hard to make ourselves fit into this global perspective do we notice how much we give up in the process? We try hard to chase these things and at the same time we are losing our own values. I want to look at this from another perspective, and to show people around the world our own unique culture. I think things can coexist: we can have new things but at the same time not forget our existing culture. Of course new culture and old traditions can conflict with each other. I also look into this in the film to see whether the new and old can work together. What I’ve always advocates is that we shouldn’t be scared of new culture but at the same time we shouldn’t forget our heritage because the two are closely related. So when we try to become internationally recognised or take on this global perspective can we use a local perspective to do so? Or should we lose ourselves totally to pursue this? Can we look at this from our own perspective and create something new from it?

Diana Wan
You have plans for another epic movie on Taiwan’s indigenous people. Is the global economic downturn going to make it hard to finance an epic?

Wei Te-sheng
Filmmakers shouldn’t have this mindset and say: “Oh, the financial situation is bad, so let’s forget about making this film.” It should be the other way around: “How can we make this film or project a reality despite the financial difficulties?” The first lesson in making films is problem solving. Isn’t this the first thing we learn in film school?

Diana Wan
How do you think audiences outside of Taiwan will receive it?

Wei Te-sheng
I think they will understand. Music, love and dreams are universal themes. Which places on this planet don’t have love? Don’t talk about music or dreams? These are all universally accepted. I just focused on the culture of Taiwan in talking about these themes.

Diana Wan
You used mostly non actors?

Wei Te-sheng
Our actors are all very real and natural. People found them funny not because they said something funny but because they act like people you know. For instance, the village political representatives do talk like that. People’s uncles and aunts do talk like that. Their friends’ children do talk like that. So the audience feels that these people do live around them. They won’t treat them as actors. It’s like watching people they know on screen. These ordinary people realising their dreams, the group of losers trying to put their first music performance together, these things happen around the world. There is no language barrier and it’s a common value we all share.

Diana Wan
For a long time the Taiwanese commercial movie scene hasn’t been very competitive.

Wei Te-sheng
Maybe noodle shop A sells a bowl of noodles for $100, and noodle shop B also sells it for $100. But one bowl has noodles, beef, egg and vegetables for $100, while the other has just noodles and soup and still charges $100. This is the dilemma the Taiwan film industry faces at the moment. Our budgets have dwindled but you have to try to give the same value for money, so how do you attract the audience?

Maybe the soup I made the bowl of noodles with was brewed for more than 20 hours. Do we want to spend the time to make this 20-hour soup? You can’t say I don’t want to spend the time and effort. If you do, why should the audience want to come to see this film if they could spend the same amount of money somewhere else? Maybe I don’t have the beef or all the other extra condiments but my soup has to be worth the money. This is the area we need to work on. That’s what I’m trying to do and I’m not quite sure whether I can do it. At that time I took a big risk. I was encouraged and ridiculed at pretty much the same rate. They encouraged me because they knew how tough it was and they laughed at me because they thought I was heading to my doom. But we made it, we made it and proved we were right.

I think whether it’s a Taiwanese film, or a Hong Kong film, or a movie from other parts of Asia, we lack the spirit of risk-taking. Not many people want to risk testing the potential of the market or wanting to do something good. We compromise because of the market situation. We encourage others to follow their dreams but we don’t actually make our own dreams come true.

Interview – Meg Cabot

Author Meg Cabot has published more than 40 books, most of which have been dubbed “chick-lit” for teenagers and young adults. Her best-known novels are those in “The Princess Diaries” series. They’ve been published in more than 35 countries and sold over five million copies worldwide. The series includes 10 full-length novels.

Last week, as part of her Asian tour, Meg was in Hong Kong to meet, and answer questions from, her young local fans.

While she was here, she spoke to The Works’ Diana Wan.

We presented edited highlights of that conversation in the show. This is the full interview.

Diana Wan:
How did you find the Hong Kong fans’ response to you and your reading of your work?

Meg Cabot:
It’s fun. It’s always different. Because I’ve noticed that every different audience all over the world is a little bit different. And they laughed at different parts. And it’s true in America too. In different parts of America people laugh at different parts. So It’s funny.

Diana Wan:
Do you see Mia as an example for your readers?

Meg Cabot:
As a heroine who does something very brave, yes. I write about girls I would like to be. I’m not necessarily that brave or royal but, yeah, all of my books are about a girl who is seeking to find herself in some way. And trying to figure out what her place is in the universe or in the world. So that comes first, and sometimes she may or may not find romance.

Diana Wan:
So romance doesn’t come first in your stories? How about in the books you admire?

Meg Cabot:
There’s “Jane Eyre” for instance, “Pride and Prejudice” for instance. And some of my favorite stores aren’t necessarily romance first. I think they are more about the heroine finding herself and kind of, as I was saying, her place in the world. And then by doing that, she is able to find romance. That’s how I think of my books.

They are primarily books where the heroine is able to really grasp who she is, and when she does that and realises what she is meant to do in the world, then she is able to find romance. So I think that’s funny, what I think people call “chick-lit”. And that’s, I think, really what I do, although in my “chick-lit” a lot of the time the heroines have psychic powers, which isn’t true of all “chick-lit”.

Diana Wan:
How did you start writing?

Meg Cabot:
I always wrote. Gosh! I don’t remember ever not writing stories. I do remember not being able to write and not knowing how to write, and drawing stories. I was obsessed with narrative, I don’t know why, ever since I was a little kid. I think I wrote my first story when I was seven. It was called “Benny The Puppy”. And Benny has horrible disasters happened to him and his family. And I have just been writing ever since.

Dian Wan:
Did you feel you were an overnight success?

Meg Cabot
It was really weird for me because I read so many stories about writers that turned their manuscripts in, and the next day they got a huge cheque and they were overnight successes. And that didn’t happen to me. It was a very slow progress. And I think maybe it’s a little bit better to go the slow route because you really learn to appreciate it.

I think it’s really given me a sense of gratitude towards, certainly, my readers because I really just appreciate how they’ve stood by me through all the weird name changes I’ve been through. They’ve been able to find the books. And certainly my publishers going back and re-publishing books that I wrote under other names under my real names has been great. I’ve been so appreciative of that. So I think it’s certainly given me … gosh! I just feel so lucky. It’s been really great!

Diana Wan:
Did those rejections make you want to give up?

Meg Cabot:
I was frustrated certainly. The thing about it is I just knew I was just going to write, no matter what. Even if I hadn’t – I shouldn’t say this because I don’t want my publisher to know – but even if I hadn’t been published I would still have been writing because I love it so much I’d have kept doing it.

I did keep doing it while I kept getting rejection letters every day in the mail for years. I continued to write in spite of that, because I considered it as a challenge to keep on trying to get published. And even now that I am being published, I’m still challenging myself to write, you know, what I consider better and better stories, and to try to get more and more readers, and different kinds of readers. So it was really upsetting. Sometimes I’d get frustrated, but I sort of just saw it as a challenge that I needed to overcome and I just continued to do it. What else was I going to do? It’s what I love to do! So I had to keep doing it.

Diana Wan:
Many writers draw on autobiographical elements in their work. Are there elements from your life in “The Princess Diaries”?

Meg Cabot:
Everything that happens to Princess Mia in high school. I’m not a princess actually, and “Grandmere” is made up. But everything that happens to her: the boy problems, and the parent problems, and all the problems with the best friends, are totally taken directly from my diaries. Even the notes that the girls passed back and forth in schools, which now been turned into text messages, are notes that I did save from high school and that my girlfriends and I passed back and forth. So yeah, sadly, a lot of it is really true.

I just saved all my notes like I just said, but I also think it doesn’t really change. You retain it. At least I retained it from when I was a kid. Because I had such a horrible time being a teenager. it’s kind of ingrained in my memory. I don’t know, I guess I’m really interested in teen stuff because I just think that is such an interesting time in your life, as you are growing up. Because they haven’t really, teenagers …. they are fascinating to talk to, they are really fun to hang out with.

Sometimes I’d rather hang out with teenagers than adults. Actually, most of the time. So when I’m going to an adult party, I always end up in the kids’ room talking to the kids. So I’m the person who is, I don’t know, everybody’s big sister, who’s always hanging out with the kids. And I guess that’s why I’m able to retain that youthful voice.

Diana Wan:
Do negative reviews of your work affect you?

Meg Cabot?
I don’t really read the reviews that much. You know, as many bad reviews as there are, I know there are good reviews because my agent does send me the good ones. So I don’t really care. It means more to me what my readers are saying, and my readers love them. I constantly get emails from girls and some boys, mostly girls, saying: “I never wanted to read and I didn’t like reading until I opened up your book and I started reading it.”

To me the fact that I am able to write a book that is accessible to someone who hated reading and is now suddenly reading a book … that means more to me than anything. So I don’t really care what anybody else says.

Diana Wan:
The Disney film of “The Princess Diaries” has been criticised by some fans for not being close to the book.

Meg Cabot:
I think it stays true to the spirit of the book. And I understand that the changes that they made, they made for specific reasons – like killing off Mia’s father who is alive in the book. So I do get letters from little kids saying, “Just to let you know, I saw the movie of your book and read the book and you got the book wrong. The father is supposed to be dead!” So that was really funny. Actually I thought it was cute. They did make the second movie which has nothing whatsoever to do with the books, which is really funny. So sometimes people think, when they buy the book, that’s how it’s going to go, and it’s not. Because Disney just make their own versions. So there are two Princess Diary versions. There is mine and there is Disney’s. Disney’s is really nice, and mine is the right one. It’s great! It’s the greatest one. The movie really brought more readers into the series and people write all the time that they wouldn’t have heard of Princess Mia and now they’ve seen the movies and are reading the books and can’t stop reading them. Its fantastic!

Diana Wan:
What’s your favourite place to write?

Meg Cabot:
I do love to write in my bed with my cat at my side. I don’t really get under the cover, but I like to write in my neatly-made bed. And that’s really my favourite place to write, with my laptop, just having everything be nice and quiet. But I do listen to loud rock music on my headphones.

Diana Wan:
Do you have as much time to write as you’d like?

Meg Cabot:
I’ve just been really lucky I guess. I don’t have any kids, so I don’t have any responsibilities at home. My husband is a great chef, so he does all the cooking and he does the taxes! So it has been great, and all I do is to concentrate on writing which is just really, I’m living my dream which is really fantastic. And sometimes I worry that it will all come crashing down and I should take advantage of it while I can. So I’ve just been really lucky I guess.

Diana Wan:
So do you live like “a princess”?

Meg Cabot:
People always ask me that, but they don’t know I still clean the cat box and do all that kind of stuff. My husband won’t do that part of it. I guess in a way I’m living in a kind of dream. It’s true we all know, unfortunately as people know reading the Princess Diaries, being a princess isn’t always fantastic. So in a way though, yes I am, since it’s something that I dreamed of when I was a kid – that I could be a writer and now I am actually doing it. Then yeah, I do feel like a princess a little bit.

Diana Wan:
Who exacty are your readers?

Meg Cabot:
Now we are bringing in younger readers and I have books for older readers as well. It’s funny because “The Princess Diaries” started about ten years ago, or maybe eight years ago. The readers who started out when they ewere ten or eleven are now going off to college, so it’s really funny to see these mature young ladies and they grew up with the books, so it makes me feel quite old. It’s a little sad actually.

Diana Wan:
I’ve read that “The Princess Diaries” series is taking a break after ten books.

Meg Cabot
It actually is 16 books, because there are little half books in between. So technically it is 16 books. Actually I realised I didn’t have enough stories for 16 full-length novels. So it actually did work out. Although there are 10 full-length novels and there are some half books, and there are some little guides on how to be a princesses.

I realised I actually have more. There is more. There is more! So I’m taking a break for now, but I may have to go back and do some more because I love these characters and I do think it will be fun to do “The Princess Diaries, The College Years”. So we may not be done with Princess Mia but we are certainly done with her for a while because we both need a vacation for a little while.