Wednesday, 3 June 2020

[Interview] - Searching for Action Heroes with Oliver Harper

To describe Oliver Harper as a YouTube star would be both accurate yet somewhat disingenuous. Yes he is a successful YouTube personality - his programme 'Oliver Harper's Retrospectives and Reviews' has up to 165,000 subscribers and since it's founding in 2011 features over 530 videos that have amassed between around 42 million views. However Oliver is not the star in his videos, whether it's a review or a nostalgic retrospective of a cinema classic it is the film that is the star. Each episode is packed with factual insights made up of production trivia, news reports interwoven with his own thoughts on the film, and are produced to the sort of high quality equal to the best television productions of the BBC. Oliver can best described as a film journalist providing the sort of middle ground insightful reviews delivered with the eloquence and dry humour of the late and legendary film reviewer Barry Norman. 


The success of Oliver's videos caught the attention of producer Robin Block and for Oliver this opened the door to pen and produce his first documentary the explosively epic 'In Search of the Last Action Heroes'. The film was a huge success, a nostalgic journey into the world of 80s action cinema featuring interviews with some of the biggest names in action film both in front and behind the camera. We caught up with Oliver to talk about his highly successful programme and the incredible journey of putting together his first feature film.


Well, am I originally from Cambridge, I studied media productions, I was at a younger age certainly in my teenage years, mainly interested in video games but you need to be very good at maths to be a programmer. My interest shifted towards movie production and in Cambridge they had three six form colleges for which you needed a certain amount of grades to get into them and I found one, a regional college which had the best sort of media production facilities. I learned the old tricks of the day, of using super VHS recording, their cameras at the time, and we got to use ‘Final Cut Pro’ [video editing software] when it first came out and using digital filming. That was a lot of fun and it was kind of the basics of production, you could take some of that skill set and use it somewhere else but that technology we were using has become so redundant now so I had no use for it. As I mentioned I was into video games, I was working part time at a video game store and didn't end up going to university. I was getting paid quite well at the time, the basic rate for retail was always quite low but ‘Game’ paid quite high. I didn’t go to university as that bug for more education had gone. 

Suddenly, a new cinema opened in Cambridge - we had A Warner Village there for so many years and that basically took over. We had another cinema before which I always went to as a kid, it was where I saw my first movie at the cinema, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’, the Steve Barron film. That was an MGM cinema, a glorious kind of art-deco design, then the Warner Village opened up and destroyed its business because it was a nine screen cinema. And so then the Cineworld multiplex  opened up and they were looking for staff, and  I thought why not I would love to be a projectionist.  At that point, my interest in movies was coming back. I'd gotten into LaserDisc at the time because DVD was coming out but it was  still expensive technology in 1998, but with LaserDisc everyone who was dropping onto the new format were getting rid of their players, discs were cheap at a bargain price. So I got hold of  a LaserDisc player and amassed quite a large number of films in a short space of time for like £5 a  movie. I could get ‘Superman I-IV’  on widescreen on LaserDisc - you could only get ‘Superman The Movie’ on widescreen on tape in the UK. So this was the first time I got to see these movies in widescreen. All of a sudden the bug kicked back and I started to love movies again and wanted the best presentation. I eventually got a DVD player and so forth but having the opportunity to be a projectionist was kind of like my dream come true I suppose because I got to work with 35 millimetre film. Cineworld never invested in larger format celluloid like 65 or 70 millimetre projectors but nevertheless I was there during some interesting times, during the Cambridge Film Festival that would share some of their movies with us because  we had more screens. So I was involved with that, and all of the big releases. I was there of course during the transition to digital. Then I was made redundant because Cineworld no longer needed a projectionist since they had this ‘Skynet’ system I called it, which everyone would upload the movies onto or download them and transfer them to all the projectors. 

Oliver in 2009 working as a projectionist 
So working as a projectionist really fueled your passion for film didn't it that's the sense I'm getting certainly.

Yeah, definitely!  I'd watch all the trailers over and over again, sort of picking out how they were edited and so forth but there was a weird point in my time that I wanted to get into tele cine-work which was basically transferring film to digital because I'd been obsessed with the latest DVD and the transfers, and getting the best sort of presentation out of them and you'd always read about ‘Oh this film doesn't translate very well, they buggered up the colours and the sound.’ I had always been intrigued by that. In fact I’d spoken to a gentleman who was part of that whole scene during the 80s and 90s, and.  I wanted to learn more about that and he did point me in the direction of a short weekend course but they were charging £3,000 to enrol. You can't learn that quickly so that idea fizzled out and then once I was made redundant, I had this time on my hands and I was paid quite well. So as you know, I had a decent amount to live on and was trying to decide what to do next. At that point I was watching a lot of YouTube and there were mostly people, reviewing movies in a very angry way.

One of the things that caught my attention about your content is how insightful they are, and informative. They're also entertaining, you come across very personable, but other people seem, as you say, so angry,  either attacking or heaping praise on certain films. Your delivery and writing reminds very much of Barry Norman and Mark Kermode with more information and assessment. Did you think that maybe there was something along those lines that was missing from all the YouTube reviewers out there?

That is a good question. I thought what was missing was the middle ground. I felt there was a certain lack of, on YouTube and in general - sort of educational twist to things. I love documentaries, and love ploughing through ones especially - when the ‘Alien’ quadrilogy box set came out you had all those meaty documentaries. The first one I went to was in fact ‘Alien 3’. I wanted to know about why this movie was such a disaster to make. It was those aspects that intrigued me and so my idea was to do something educational but provide my critique and be kind of fair in a way, to try and be balanced and it's far easier to make fun of a film and there’s certainly quite a big market for it. There's only so far you can sustain that and still entertain people. I did one video and it became relatively  popular. I shared it with fans of that film. Now when I look at them, those first videos I find them embarrassing to watch, I can't sit through it. It's because you're fully aware of how you spoke back then, how things were presented and so forth. But. I really enjoyed it and then it sort of progressed. It’s interesting you mentioned Barry Norman because I did a documentary about the locations of ‘Superman IV’.

I was going to ask you about that, it was ‘The man of steel and glass’ which I thought was a great piece and there was so much I didn’t realise about the film’s production and why much of American films, Cannon in particular were filmed here in the UK back then.  What made you decide to do that documentary?

It’s that sort of obsession and intrigue into how it was made that led into the ‘Superman IV’ documentary I did with my colleague, Tim Partridge and, as you mentioned earlier about Barry Norman, when we were filming the scenes where I am talking to camera in a cinema. It was very ‘Barry Norman-esque’. My friend who was filming it said ‘that was like Barry Norman, keep that in.’ I suppose it's a sort of subtle influence of delivery, on speaking it worked its way into my subconscious. So going on from Superman IV  I continued with it and it sort of stuck with me till today really and it wasn't till about four years ago that I realised I could do this for a living. 



Fantastic! So just sticking with the ‘Superman IV’ documentary Obviously you did a tremendous amount of research, you found out things that I thought were pretty hard to find. One of the things that struck me and I didn't think about until you pointed it out was that the ‘Superman’ movies as a whole - even with Brandon Roth, and then later Henry Cavill - has its roots in England. Did you know that going in or was that a realisation that suddenly hit you as you were filming?

Yeah, we knew that going in,  because I think one of the things I love about ‘Superman’ films is that they are very much inherently British despite it being American property and directed by Americans, then made by the British, and it's like ‘Star Wars’ as well. As you know, the original, even the new ones, were made by the British, and it goes with [James] Bond. It kind of made them quite special to me because there were ‘Superman’ films that were part of growing up, they're always on ITV or BBC,  mostly ITV I think. That was a part of my childhood and it further enforced that when you realise they were made by the British. The Brits will always be the people that made those movies which showed you the Brits could compete with Hollywood.

So when you came up with the format for your ‘Retrospectives and Reviews’ did you actually sit down and research what format you wanted this to take or did you think ‘I'll just switch the camera on and I'm going to speak and see how it goes?’ 

I suppose the format sort of figured itself out.  With the first video I thought I wanted to talk about when it came out, how much did it cost, how was it received. From there it went into details of the production, then the plot, and the effects and the music, and then my critique at the end. But at the early stage that was far more condensed down so I would cover things very briefly. I suppose it was watching Charles de Lauzirika's ‘Alien’ documentaries he did where at the end they have the reaction from all the actors who’ve talked about the film now and  what they thought of it. I loved that approach to itm so I thought, I would follow his structure where you've got the genesis of the project,  then the production stuff. It goes through those categories and then at the end you get a reaction by people that made it except then that reaction would be from me. So that was how it figured itself out, inspired by his work and how he structured those documentaries.



As a fellow reviewer I am curious when deciding on critiquing a film you feel you're duty bound to be direct or do you try and sugarcoat where possible to be respectful that it is someone’s hard work you are critiquing or do you just let your feelings known?

I don't try to sugarcoat that much. I try to look at it from the point of view that people haven't gone out to make a bad movie. There's always good intentions there to entertain people. And I do as you pointed out, you do yourself is try and point out enough of the good things about it its merits. When it comes to critiquing a movie in a sort of negative way I do try to be fair with that and say ‘look this is honestly, why I think this scene doesn't work’ or the direction is bad music’s bad, as long as you get right in the voice-overs. My intention is not to be horrible about it but be honest. 

Let’s talk about ‘In Search of the Last Action Heroes’. Watched it six times and thoroughly enjoyed it each time. I think the appeal is it's a historical record of the evolution of action films, and it's a lovely nostalgic trip back to when action films were larger than life, to say that's a fair assessment?

Yes you perfectly summed it up very neatly for me. It certainly evolved itself in its early conception to sort of just being about action movies but it really tailored itself around being about the stars themselves and how they're perceived or seen as an evolution of these kinds of heroic characters. The 80s really sort of magnified that with these guys who are essentially like ‘Superman’ ,they were indestructible but also human. So it was that kind of celebration of that where a muscle bound hero, a guy who can’t speak particularly good English could become the most successful star in Hollywood, and be loved by everyone, though surely not the critics but certainly at the box office. The idea of, say for example ‘Rambo III’ being the most expensive maybe at the time, and getting an 18 rating. This would be madness and you wouldn’t have that today, you wouldn’t have ‘Escape plan 3’ that would cost $200 million and be rated 18, and come out in the cinema no way. 

So what inspired you to decide to make the documentary? Is it your idea or were you asked to get involved?

Producer Robin Block had been watching my channel for a number of years, and he really liked it, he would then show them to his friends who watched the videos and would then go watch the movie. I thought that was a lovely compliment and he became a patron of mine and reached out to me and said; “Look, I want to meet up with you in London some time to discuss where you want to go with your career”. Robin had come from the world of TV documentaries. He produced a documentary on Richard Pryor, and it's now part of the ‘Live and smoking’ DVD. He’s worked in the commercial industry and the corporate side of things. so he had this background and I didn't  - my background was being a projectionist and making videos on YouTube. But he wanted me to sort of make a documentary on anything I could think of. I didn't really have an idea at the time, I just thought it was a great idea and that we should try and crowdfund this. Robin loved the ‘Superman IV Man of Steel and Glass’ documentary, he thought it was like the sort of programmes the BBC would produce. I thought this was a wonderful compliment. Then it came to a point where we could actually try and get this going.I said to him ‘Look the most popular videos on my YouTube channel are action movies like ‘Terminator’, ‘Rambo’, ‘Predator, and so forth. There's an audience for these films and they’re still making sequels to them’. I said that they're still on 80s action movies, and he said ‘Great, let's do that.’ Then we went through a bunch of names and we settled on ‘In Search of the Last Action Heroes’, which is a bit of a mouthful at the end of the day, but it was just like ‘Last Action Hero’ with Arnold and it’s a bit of a spin on that. 


Michael Jai White helps with the search
So we got the ball rolling, did some crowdfunding and raised a decent amount of money to get this filmed. It then came to the attention of Timon Singh and he’d written ‘Born to Be Bad’ and he said ‘Look, I've got these contacts, can I get involved?’ and I was like ‘yes wonderful’ because we were still kind of thinking about how we are going to go about reaching out to these people. Robin also had this experience and he would just  translate that into finding the talent. Timon already had these contracts in place and that sort of got the ball rolling and Robin gave time and the opportunity to go out to the USA and film a lot of the interviews. because I was still juggling YouTube, and the documentary so I had to delegate some of the positions to the team. I don't have an ego on me, I'm not gonna say ‘I have to interview these people’, and it was more about. ‘here's a script I've written the three act structure,’ gave it to Timon, and we went from there. Anything UK based I would do the interviews with said persons, and then go through the footage and put it together with my colleague Michael Peristeris who was a fan of my work and had edited all sorts in the past. He did a great job of  copying my style of work and translating it into the documentary. I was really happy with the end results but it was a bit of a nightmare to sort of put together. We did screen tests and people loved it though some people were just like ‘oh you're missing this film’. We had some funny feedback, some people asking where’s ‘Buckaroo Banzai?  

The film went through a number of different cuts to get it down to a reasonable runtime but there's a number of movies which we kind of missed out on. It was fun but as all things never go, ultimately smoothly at first, it's always just an uphill struggle, how many clips you can use and understanding fair use and so forth. So, it was a bit of a minefield at first, a mad puzzle we've got to put together.

So logistically in terms of getting the rights that was tricky would you say

It was. Getting permission to use clips you had to go through a legal process with fair use lawyers to approve things and then you have to get insurance which is not cheap, put it that way. I'm sure there's a lot of documentaries out there that are with a similar nature that could be dealing with a specific movie or a bunch of movies, and they'd be stuck in limbo generally, because of that reason. 

The film very reminds me of the Canon documentary [‘Electric Boogaloo; The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films’], it has a similar format.  So in terms of writing the script for this or writing the structure. Where are you looking to tell a story in a similar fashion and follow the evolution, or did that come after the interviews had been locked down?

I'd already written a page of stuff I wanted to cover,  just took all that and formatted it into a three act structure because at the end of the day the 80s action genre or action movies in general, sorry, have been discussed in evolution in a magazine articles websites and so forth. I think there was a documentary on 80s action, as part of the ‘Remo Williams’ Blu Ray, there's a documentary on it which is quite interesting actually, it was about 50 minutes I think. It was more about the Reagan era of action movies. And so I wasn't touching really upon new territory, it was more about refreshing it and expanding upon it with my own kind of twist on things. If you’re going to discuss 80s action you cannot avoid the past, and that was the westerns, the spy movies, and the martial arts craze which was often the one that inspired many action stars and that’s generally Bruce Lee, you know he still inspired many. And so that couldn't be ignored it had to fit into the story and also because the VHS boom kicked off in the mid 80s that was an important part of the genre because Canon films very much relied on that. All these stars who were B stars that was their market. Cynthia Rothrock who was an incredibly talented martial artist people forget that she was massive so popular especially with the rental market. And it's it's unfortunate that she didn’t get the opportunity to make any sort of comeback with something like ‘The Expendables’ which was a sausage fest.


Action Queen Cynthia Rothrock
You have to bear in mind when you're interviewing people you can't force them to give the answers you want so you have to tailor it to what they've told you, and most of the time they’re being honest and they're older than me they were there at the time and they can provide you with the facts and how things work. Eric Roberts for example talked about straight to video movies where your careers were done in the early 80s but come later part of the 80s it wasn't seen as a bad thing. 



How long did it take to edit the film? I mean, you're used to editing because you do your retrospectives and your reviews, you trained as a projectionist but when it came to editing this it must have been a mammoth task. 

It was a time consuming process because we had started out with another editor who probably had the most boring task going through all the footage, and making notes on what were interesting points. He was a brilliant editor and he's gone on to do other projects. But I think there's a point where we thought he was probably a little bit too young to be tackling these movies and some things are kind of missed out, not on purpose that's the nature of what you're familiar with. Because I was juggling YouTube as well I thought “okay I've got to take the reins and tighten this up myself  and restructure. It didn't need to require a lot of restructuring but it was shifted from more the business side of the genre. I wanted it to be like the Canon documentary, the energy, the pace and the fun of it. And so that was my idea for it. So once we got my friend Michael on board we sort of reshaped it into what it was. I took it over March time of last year [2019], and I was editing, tweaking things to the very last minute in November. So that took a long time, it wasn't like every single day I was working on it more like every other day I was doing a bit more to it, shaping this cutting that, and a lot of going back and forth about what we needed the runtime to be We were trying to avoid any repetition of what people were saying because of course we were shooting with a single camera. I mean it would have been nice to have two cameras set up, but then you know you've got double the amount of footage, and change of lighting always changes with A to B, and not C. With a single cam you get a lot of people saying ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ all the time or forgetting their thoughts, you've got to cut that all out and cover up those edits, you've got to put in a clip but you can't use the clip if it's not fair use. So it does become a bit of a nightmare, but we did it, and once you see it all coming together, especially like when I was editing the early 90s stuff from like ‘Total Recall’  ‘Terminator 2’ for me it sort of flowed very smoothly but it ends with Ian Nathan going well Paul Verhoeven’s doing ‘Total Recall’, but then James Cameron’s is going to do one thing better with Arnold with ‘Terminator 2’ so when you see things kind of flow smoothly then you feel kind of quite rewarded at the end of the day because it's working.

When you look at people who are involved or who are in front of the camera, they're all about one degree away from I think the people you would like to have had there the most like Arnie, Sly Bruce Willis, Van Damme. Were you happy with the final lineup that you got to tell the story?. Do you think the icing on the cake would have been to have the really big stars on there?

Oh definitely it would have been wonderful to have had someone like Jean Claude, Stallone, or Arnold, it wouldn't bother me If I didn't have all three of them if I just had one of them, it would have been a nice sort of icing on the cake. We were so close to getting Jean Claude but it was a lot of back and forth with his agent, and then you have to get a contract prepared, and then right at the last minute he said. I was a bit gutted you know and very early on we had Richard Donner involved. I was over the moon because ‘Superman The Movie’ is one of my favourite films. Of course I wouldn't grill him or get someone to grill him on ‘Superman’ it'd be very much ‘Lethal Weapon’ focused, and when you discuss the ‘Lethal Weapons’  you’re talking about the buddy cop movies and not about Donner himself and his direction, and did he see himself as his action director now. When it came to do an interview he was unwell at one point and then it was suddenly ‘oh he's not going to do it.’ I just kind of heartbroken really but you know this sort of thing happens I suppose but David Weiner had got Paul Verhoeven and Shane Black and to agree to do it and that was a ‘Yes’ moment because Paul's great and wonderful he did ‘Robocop’ and ‘Total Recall’, very funny guy very eccentric as well, and Shane Black is this the Godfather all these action movies he helped reshape the genre in the late 80s. Shane was full of information and knew his history very much like Sam Firstenberg as well. I'm very happy with what we got, there's always going to be moments of  if I can go back or if I had another month on it, I would have fine tuned things a little bit more perhaps, or maybe put some little bit more touches, cover another movie perhaps. With hindsight now you can always feel as though you could do more but you have to let things go. I don't think I'd change anything about it, I'd probably just make it a little bit longer because there’s films  like ‘The Quest’ I left out. Matthias Hues had so many wonderful stories but I just couldn't use all of them. And you have to choose between the movie you're covering, was it really that popular because I try and cover all the big hitters, but there are other movies there that were kind B grade films but if you spend too much time covering the B grade stuff not the A stuff, you kind of dedicate too much time to a field that isn't really that well known in the grand scheme of things. 


From left to right Timon Singh, Oliver Harper, Robin Block at the premier of
 In Search of the Last Action Heroes
Now David Weiner whom we’ve mentioned before helped out and served as one of the producers and he went on to produce and direct ‘In Search of Darkness’ a documentary on 80s horror,  and is currently working on ‘In Search of Tomorrow’ which will  focus on Sci-Fi. Do you see your film as part of an ongoing trilogy,  a series of ‘Search of’ if you like stories exploring the kinds of films that we all grew up watching Do you think it fits in nicely as one long sort of saga?

I think in terms of dealing with the nostalgia and revisiting these old movies the documentaries  all kind of follow that cause, that core idea of tapping into our past and revisiting the films we loved, but also discovering some ones along the way, and also encouraging us to go back to those films. When I was editing the actual documentary, my girlfriend would come in and watch a bit go, “oh my god, we have to watch that film,” because she saw a little bit of a clip. I think that's great, I think that's also encouraging for film studios to know that these documentaries help people go back to those films, buy them and watch them again. I'm not sure if you've seen ‘In Search of Darkness’ but they are structurally different in terms of their approach, it’s over four hours long. It’s a listicle approach to things and they go through each year as well. But there's mine which has added a sort of story there that kind of feeds its way through. They’re more about a celebration of those films, mine's also a celebration as well but there is structurally a different goal so I don't know if you if you watched all three of them in a row (whenever the third one actually comes out) if you see they all fit together I hope they do. It’s a different director, different editor, different vision, but the core concept, I would say is the same.

Under your belt you have a successful documentary, series of programmes of insightful film retrospectives and reviews, what's next for you?

Well, I'm currently in the process of planning a documentary about the arcade game ‘Street Fighter II’, which is a celebration of the video game. It starts from 1991 to its kind of many updates, its conversion to the Super Nintendo, Sega Mega Drive, Commodore Amiga, all the merchandise that came out and of finishing off with the movie that came out, and the final update of ‘Street Fighter II’ in the arcades which had the long winded title of ‘Super Street Fighter II Turbo’. It’s that sort of golden period of the arcades. Instead of going to the arcade to play to compete with other players, the tournament aspect became your bedroom or the lounge where your friends would come over and play it. So it's a celebration of that's sort of 91 to 95, stepping back into the past and discussing everything about it and all the merchandise magazines and so forth so hopefully that's going to come together okay. I'm going to start crowdfunding that hopefully in the summer. And because next year it's the 30th anniversary we need to get the ball rolling so it’s out in time for next year.

Oliver Harper's Retrospectives & Reviews
Available on YouTube

'In Search of the Last Action Heroes' is available on VOD to rent or buy. Watch it on Amazon Prime and Google Play

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