Mark Kermode is one of our best known film critics. Ahead of his appearance in Leeds with Simon Mayo this weekend, he talks to Chris Bond about the magic of cinema.
Most of you will probably have a particular film you fondly remember from your first outing to the cinema.
That moment when you’re sitting in your chair and the lights dim and the giant screen in front of you bursts into life taking you on a journey that you never quite forget.
For Mark Kermode it was a cinema in North London and the film was Krakatoa, East of Java. “That was the first film I remember going to see at the cinema. It just felt so big, there was exploding volcanoes and lots of action and it just blew me away,” he says.
“Everyone has a memory of a local cinema they used to go to as a kid. When I was growing up there were about six or seven cinemas within cycling distance of where I lived, which was wonderful because I got to see so many different films.”
Mark Kermode is one of our most recognisable film critics and has been dissecting movies for a living for the best part of 30 years, during which time he’s been unafraid to give a film both barrels if he felt it was merited.
In 2001 he teamed up with radio presenter Simon Mayo for Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, their weekly Radio 5 Live film review show, which has notched up an astonishing 50 million downloads.
One of the recurring jokes in the show is the puffed-up rivalry between Manchester University (where Kermode studied) and the University of Warwick (where Mayo went). Both have PhDs, hence the playful title of their book The Movie Doctors, which was published last year.
The book’s success spawned a stage show of the same name which heads to West Yorkshire Playhouse this weekend. The Movie Doctors is a blend of movie trivia, forthright opinion with a large dollop of humour as they take their scalpels to the best and worst movies. “It’s very light-hearted with a good a dose of audience participation. The audience ideas are nearly always better than ours.”
Kermode’s passion for films is obvious and he says it was there from an early age. “When I was a kid there were two things I wanted to be, either a pop star or a film critic... and being a pop star was never going to happen.”
He began his career in film journalism and broadcasting in the 1980s after studying English at Manchester University. He had stints working for magazines such as City Life, Time Out and the NME and moved on to national newspapers before switching to radio in the early 90s.
He has at times been an outspoken critic but doesn’t subscribe to the view that films aren’t as good as they used to be. “Barry Norman once said there were was the same percentage of good and bad films being made and I think it’s the same today. There are still brilliant films and terrible films being made.”
He points to Under the Shadow, a new horror film set in the 1980s. “It’s an Iranian film set in Tehran and made by a British-based director and it’s brilliant.”
He proceeds to roll off a list of films that have impressed him already this year including American Honey, The Girl With All The Gifts and I, Daniel Blake. “There are really good films out there but you have to seek out the independent cinemas rather than the multiplexes,” he says.
Kermode accepts the way we watch movies these days has changed. “When I was younger if I wanted to watch a David Cronenberg film I had to scour the pages of Time Out. Nowadays you can get everything online, or on demand, or on DVD.
“However, there are people who still really want to have a cinema experience, you just have to give them a reason to go to the cinema.
“I remember doing a live show from the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds and it’s a fantastic example of a great cinema doing really interesting things.”
When it comes to the kind of films he enjoys watching he likes an element of surprise. “The first time I watched Blue Velvet I was so overwhelmed I walked out of the cinema, it was just too strong. Then I went to see it a second time and I loved it.
“Generally speaking, though, I’m not a fan of predictable films where you have the superhero and the villain. It’s a bit like McDonalds – you know what you’re going to get. I’d much rather see something unexpected.”
So does this mean he’s not a fan of big studio blockbusters? “Not necessarily. My favourite film of all time is The Exorcist and that was based on a best-selling book and it was made by a major studio.”
During his career Kermode has interviewed many of cinema’s greatest film-makers and some of his own personal heroes, including William Friedkin, David Lynch and David Cronenberg.
But interviewing acclaimed film directors can be a hazardous occupation as he discovered when he spoke to Werner Herzog in 2006 in Los Angeles. The two men were talking outside on camera when someone took a potshot at the German director.
“I was completely freaked out, but if you watch it Herzog doesn’t flinch he just said, ‘we should probably leave’. It turned out it was someone with an air rifle but we didn’t know that at the time.”
When Kermode asked if he was all right the unflappable Herzog shrugged off the incident, saying: “It was not a significant bullet... I am not afraid.”
Despite Kermode’s passion for cinema he says he has no desire to get behind a camera himself. “People say, well can you do any better? And the answer is ‘no’. I’ve got no talent and even the worst film I’ve ever reviewed is better than what I could do. I write and talk about films which is entirely different from making them.”
For all the talk of CGI and digital technology he believes the essence of good film-making hasn’t really changed. “You can shoot a film entirely on a mobile phone. That doesn’t mean it will be any good but it doesn’t mean it won’t be. There are more films being made now and what that means is you have to make something really good if you want to stand out.
“In many ways it’s easier to make films now, the difficulty is getting your film distributed and getting heard. But I’m of the opinion that quality will win out in the end and people will go to see a good film.”
Despite having sat and watched far more films than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes, his passion for his subject remains undimmed.
“As a kid growing up in the seventies it was fairly miserable and grey and cinema allowed me to travel around the world, to visit new countries, fly in rocket ships and have adventures.
“David Lynch said it’s like living inside a dream and that’s what it is, it’s like a communal dream and when it’s good there’s nothing to touch it in my opinion.”
Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo – The Movie Doctors – are at West Yorkshire Playhouse on Sunday. For more details call 0113 213 7700, or go online at www.wyp.org.uk.