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by Sarah Blythe
If I mention the name James Mullinger, you will be forgiven for checking which section of the website you are in. No, you are not reading this in our Comedy section…James Mullinger has now spread his wings even further, and alongside his stand-up, he is the presenter of a new film review show Movie Kingdom, on Sky. I caught up with James to talk about movies, stand-up comedy and balancing the two!
SARAH: So we are here to talk about your new show Movie Kingdom, but I thought we might start with a bit of an overview of your history, and what has led you to where you are?
JAMES: No problem. I was born in Maidenhead, grew up in Maidenhead and at 18 went to University to study English Literature and Women’s Studies, which is what my first tour was about. I then worked in WhSmiths in Maidenhead for a few years before coming to London to work for GQ magazine, who I still do lots of work for. So I worked for GQ for 5 years before taking up stand-up comedy, and I took up stand up basically because it was just a dream of mine. I always wanted to do it. I was never a very popular child at school so I spent most of my evenings just watching comedy videos. Even at school I would just find a quiet corner to listen to stand up tapes on my Walkman. So it was always a dream and I’d been at GQ for 5 years and realised I hadn’t followed my dream so I then pursued stand up. I spent a horrible, horrible 3 years travelling round the country not being paid. I don’t think anyone realises how difficult bad gigs can be and how it can be just soul destroying, but equally you know when you drive for 3 or 4 hours to perform, and die, and travel back and you’re not being paid, it’s a horrible existence and the more you do it the more fun it gets and obviously now I’m always being paid, unless it’s a charity gig, so that takes the sting off it! I’ve been doing stand up for 6 years now. Three solo tours, and still just do clubs all the time, still do work for GQ, and do Movie Kingdom which started a couple of months ago as well. And try to be a dad in between.
SARAH: Nice and busy then! If you’re looking at your comedy, your journalism and your role as presenter in Movie Kingdom, is there one you particularly enjoy? Is it comedy because that feels more a part of you?
JAMES: Stand up I love, and if I had to pick one, that would be the thing. It is my biggest passion, but to be honest I feel massively lucky being able to do all three. I think if you asked Lee Evans “what do you like most? Is it the writing, is it the stand up, the acting?”…he would probably pick stand up. That’s the thing that defines who you are.
SARAH: To do stand-up it’s got to be a bit of a passion anyway, like you said, because it is such a hard slog.
JAMES: No-one does it and goes “oh this looks easy” then jumps into it and then suddenly makes it. Which is why it’s my favourite art form because there’s no bad stand up. There is stand up that we might not like, but there’s no-one that can’t do the job. There’s loads of really shit but successful CEOs, bad but successful actors like Keanu Reeves, but in stand-up there’s no-one who can’t make an audience laugh.
SARAH: Do you think that’s true?
JAMES: Yeah, yeah because it’s the most immediate of art forms. I don’t like certain comics selling out the O2 arena, but at the same time 20000 people are paying to watch them, and they’re making them laugh every 5 seconds. You can’t tell me anyone who sells out the O2, who doesn’t make the audience laugh every minute. Going further down the circuit, obviously there are people doing stand-up who aren’t good at it, but there’s no-one who is making a good living off it that isn’t good. When I was researching my old school days show I was reading all my school diaries and I found a diary entry from my mid-teens saying “should I pursue journalism or should I pursue stand up”, and to me now the fact that when I was 10 my dream was to host a movie show, and now the fact that I’m able to do all three is just a dream come true.
SARAH: Now I’ve seen quite a few extracts from Movie Kingdom, and I think for me it feels more familiar than other similar shows, less formal.
JAMES: The thing we have been trying to do with Movie Kingdom, and the thing we have been trying to sell to get the exclusives we need is the fact that unlike other shows on TV it’s not hosted bya TV presenter who has been hired because they can read an autocue. And I’m not casting aspersions at Claudia Winkleman or Edith Bowman, they are both very good at what they do. But they were hired because they’re known faces who can read an autocue. I don’t have an autocue, my director won’t let me, he makes me write the stuff and learn it so that when I deliver it it’s real. When I sit in the cinema and shout about the new Tin Tin film, it’s me being passionate, because I’m not reading what someone else has written. I’ve been to see the film, I’ve written what my thoughts are and I deliver it 100% genuinely because it is by movie fans, for movie fans.
SARAH: Who, if anybody would you most like to have on the show?
JAMES: Well the ones that we’ve got coming up that I’m really genuinely excited about are Daniel Craig for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible 4. I’m excited about them because they’re both massive stars. Tom I’m particularly excited about because he’s known for having fun. I interviewed Antonio Banderas last week and that was the best, one of the best interviews we’ve ever done. He was just so up for it. I took a picture of my cat Molly along, because he does the voice of Puss in Boots, so I said “this is my cat Molly. What voice would you give Molly?” And he just did the most hilarious things. That’s what the show is about; it’s just having fun with the stars. But personally the dream guest is Seth Rogen. ‘A list’ star, funny as hell. The way he improvises, the way he does his interviews, he’s brutally honest. And I just personally think he is really really funny, so it would be him. In terms of comedians, because we do the DVD collection, I have been trying to beg Michael McIntyre to do it, and I know him really well because obviously we used to gig together when he was still up and coming. I’ve also been speaking to David Walliams, and I’m hoping they’re both going to happen.
SARAH: All the clips I have seen I have enjoyed because you can relax whilst watching it. That’s what you want from that kind of show, but I notice you focus on mainstream film. Would you ever consider reviewing more art-house film?
JAMES: Yes definitely. We have been picking mainstream over art-house, but that’s for no particular reason, other than we are a new show and we do need viewers.
SARAH: It’s a safer way to establish yourselves?
JAMES: Exactly. But yes, we do want to broaden it and cover more art-house and less mainstream films. We just hope that our audience are movie fans who like comedy.
SARAH: How did it come about? That’s the one thing we haven’t spoken about!
JAMES: We conceived the show two years ago, we shot a pilot, went round all the channels. King of Shaves came on board about six months ago and kindly raised the offer to finance the whole thing. They did it because they do PR things that they love, and they love the show.
SARAH: Wow, so for the whole team it is a labour of love! So is it the presenting you really enjoy or is it the theme?
JAMES: It’s the theme, it’s the movie theme. I didn’t do stand-up because I wanted to be a TV presenter; it’s not what I do. I like performing my own stuff. I don’t want to be Dermot O’Leary, just going up and reading lines. I obviously want to do more TV but in a stand-up or comedy environment. I wanted to do Movie Kingdom because of my love of film and my love of comedy.
You can watch Movie Kingdom on Sky DMAX (Sky 144 and Virgin 172), Saturday evenings at 6pm.
by Ash Bhardwaj
Upon meeting Russ Malkin, you are immediately aware of why he is such a successful producer of television documentaries: he asks you questions and really listens to the answers; he asks how you come to be here, what led you here and where you are going; you can see him building the narrative in his mind and constructing a story; he absorbs the information and understands how it fits together.
Many will know Russ from A Long Way Down, A Long Way Round and By Any Means Necessary. As he prepares to release his new book, 101 Amazing Adventures of the World, I caught up with him at his workshop/office in West London.
He surrounds himself with objects, information and trinkets that inspire him and make him who he is in the field of adventure documentaries – his offices are filled with maps and memorabilia of his travels, witty jokes adorn toilet walls and the large workshop is filled with bikes and tool kits last seen on the screens of BBC television.
Whilst television is what Russ is most famous for now, he could have taken a different path in life. “I used to race motorbikes,” he explains, “I was 17, racing at Brands Hatch, on the Grand Prix circuit.
That weekend, someone had been killed at one of the race meetings. I was going along at 120mph and asked myself, “What am I doing this for? I could kill myself.”
“So instead I took up 4-wheeled kart racing and photography. I was quite successful and went onto TV to talk about it. That opened up opportunities and it snowballed from there.”
Russ’s first taste of adventure came on a trip around the coastal roads of Britain in a London Cab bought with a friend. After serendipity (and a kindly truck driver) saved them from being stuck in John O’Groats, he returned from a “bit of stupidity, having an absolute laugh, with some crazy photos,” and ended up making his first documented adventure, The Orient Express Challenge.
Russ has never waited for people to open the door for him. If he wants to do something he finds a way to do it.
He strongly believes in learning by experience. “My attitude has always been to learn on the job and just do it straight away. If you’ve got enough confidence you’ll figure it out. I picked up a stills camera and said, this is my job from day one.”
He started out making feature films, but found the process of “spending five years trying to get something off the ground very frustrating. And at the end it’s a fairy tale, it’s not even real.”
To get his film itch out of the way, he made the fastest feature film in history, taking only 13 days to go from title to screening. Along the way, he developed the process of immediate, on-line, video editing – something which is an industry standard now.
It was serendipity that led him to television production, when he was sent out to do a motoring show as a presenter/producer and this learning-on-the-job experience gave him his education in television. It gave him a chance to see every aspect of the television production process, making it possible for him to oversee entire projects. “The more I understand, the less the wool is going to be pulled over my eyes. And things can be made quicker, on a smaller budget. I continue to experiment on how a production can be more cost-effective, but high quality.”
The Long Way series were a ground-breaker in the way travel programmes are made. Early on in the production, Russ realised that the organisation and planning stage made television as compelling as the trip itself. “We didn’t want to fix something and pretend it had gone right for the sake of the film. And we didn’t want to have something go wrong, miss filming it, and then have Charlie or Ewan explain what had happened once the cameras were on. It was much more compelling to film it as it actually happened. That meant to we had the cameras rolling the entire time.” This led to a real honesty in the programme from the very beginning.
Russ supports the continuing growth of user-interaction, and this is exemplified in the Big Earth website, which encourages the uploading of users’ videos and the sharing of stories.
He believes that, “new technology will make a big difference, from a programme-making point of view. It did with Long Way Down when we had people follow us and blog about the journey for the BBC website and our website.”
Throughout that journey, the website was fed with constant updates of where the crew were and what they were doing, although Russ initially came across resistance to the idea. “The head of online commissioning believed it could go two ways,” he explains, “Either the people who follow it online would know how the story ends and won’t watch the programme. Or it acts like a taster, a starter, to the main course of the programme.”
As it happened, over 3.5 million people followed the journey online. And the viewing figures for Long Way Round were far better than expected.
Russ’s faith in social media for television turned out to be very well founded and, 5 years later, the online tracking of a journey during production is standard fare in the broadcasting world.
Russ sees more potential with the immediate uploading of videos to the web. “You can capture a real event, as it happens. It’s much more compelling than someone doing a piece-to-camera 2 hours after it happened. That’s when the content becomes more important than the quality. It’s great for current information about an expedition. Then, 2 or 3 months later, you get the main course of the finished programme. It’s a question of funding, which I think will change.”
On that note, Russ believes that, “apart from people like the BBC, there has to be an opening up to ideas of partnership and sponsorship.
That isn’t selling out,” he insists, “Because without it, you wouldn’t get the funding to get anything made. Scott of the Antarctic had to get funding and sponsorship for his expedition.
I’m a realist and it’s about doing stuff. But you should stand by your principles and ethics: you shouldn’t pick the worst motorbike in the world for the most amount of money. You need to maintain your integrity.”
“Fate deals up ideas and connections that lead onto new expeditions, but I do take time to consider what I want to document. I am an ideas person and, fundamentally, what I do is take an idea and make things happen. I’m interested in the world and what it’s about. I’m always asking questions about culture and religion, looking to learn something about where I go.”
This year the team are planning the final adventure of the series: A Long Way Up will feature the team riding from the foot of South America, all the way up to the tip of North America.
But Russ also has more long-term projects underway: the Big Earth Project and Russ’s book, 101 Amazing Adventures of the World, are all about inspiring people to get outside their comfort zone and go on an adventure.
“I’m in the business of inspiration,” he says, “I’ve always felt myself to be an outsider. I find something I want to do, and I find a way to do it. I try to do it fairly quickly, which is why I wasn’t too keen on the feature film business. It’s not luck, but I’m persistent. And I want to encourage that in others.”
“Through experience, we change the way we travel,” he says, “People start with packaged tours, well within their comfort zones. Then they go on more challenging adventures, where they push themselves outside their comfort zone a bit, maybe backpacking with a guidebook. Eventually, we’ve explored the whole planet and we can start looking beyond this world: the trip to the enormous telescopes in Chile is an adventure in itself and once we are there we can begin to explore space.”
“Adventure is the word that really captures me. You may not know where you’ll be at the end of it. I may see a project as an awesome thing to do, but someone else may see it as terrifying. It’s about being outside your comfort zone. I firmly believe, by the way, that England is the best place to live in the world and London is the best capital city. But it’s good to go and see the outside world to enjoy it when you come home.”
But one of Russ’s favourite adventures in the book looks in a very different direction. “There’s adventures in the book from all over the world, all big outside adventures. But I took a trip to a yoga ashram in India and there took a really interesting journey inwards. Maybe once we’ve explored the world outside, that’s the most interesting journey you can take.”
Russ also believes strongly in mentoring and giving people experiences. “The concept is really, really important. This is something I think we should make a programme about. We teach kids maths, physics and science as a curriculum. You’re already putting them in a box: “discover what we already know and remember it.” If somebody takes time out earlier, you can discover what you’re really about. Let’s find out who youare.
It’s really important to say to kids, “Don’t be disheartened.” Somebody from the outside, a mentor, can help give you a broader picture.”
But that’s not the key legacy Russ wishes to leave: when asked directly, he immediately says, “I want to be a good dad, as simple as that.
Obviously, spending time abroad filming means he is away from home. As a father, Russ ensures that this is a positive thing in his relationship with his daughter. “I’ve always had my own business, which gives me the freedom to drop Em off at school and pick her up: that passion to be my own boss gives me the ability to see more of my child. The second thing is that I always come back mid-way through a trip. I want Emily to come first. If doing this career helps me to look after her, then it works.
And, of course, she always comes to the end of trip parties. It’s added variety to her life: she’s met lots of inspirational people and seen lots of places she otherwise wouldn’t have seen.”
After that I want to be able to say that I’ve enjoyed myself on this amazing planet. I really believe that, if we’ve been put down here for a reason, it’s to enjoy ourselves and help others enjoy themselves. There’s no message that says, “You need to be miserable, by the way.””
30 years later, Russ went on a track day with Ewan McGregor at Brands Hatch. He was on the very same bike that he rode all those years ago and went over that same spot, remembering how he had set out on the path that took him to where he is now.
For further adventures….
Russ’s book, 101 Amazing Adventures comes out on April 14th and his full of ideas from long weekends to expeditions, and how to do it. You can get the book from Amazon.
You can find out more about Russ and be inspired at The Big Earth Project:http://www.bigearth.co.uk/101amazingadventures.html
Keep an eye out for his final big motorcycle journey with Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor: A Long Way Up begins pre-production this year.
Russ Malkin is on Twitter: @RussMalkin