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© 2017 The Strand Magazine

In Conversation with Hannah Woodhead, Chronicler of Culture

August 28, 2019

Hannah Woodhead is a lover of magazines and movies from way back, a Little White Lies (LWL) reader since the age of fifteen, and having previously worked as a student journalist for her university paper, understood from early on that film journalism is something “you get as much out of as you put into it”. Joining the staff team at LWL in her early twenties, Hannah is now the Associate Editor there, and is bringing her passion into everything she does, whether that be writing about superhero films in all their glory, the pursuit of normalisation for talking about mental health, or finding the perfect New York-style pizza in London. 

 

Image: Hannah Woodhead (Ella Kemp, http://howmanystars.co.uk)

 

What motivates you to review films? How would you personally describe your approach? 

 

What motivates me now is different to what motivated me at the start, where I just wanted to review all the big movie releases, which was mixed with having that prestige of "here is my take on the new Spiderman movie", for example. Whereas now I’m really interested in films that I think are going to challenge me as a viewer but also as a writer, as in, "how am I going to write about this experimental film which isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen before? How do I write about world cinema from places that I’ve never heard of? How will I interview this filmmaker who has just made their first film in rural Brazil about issues that are just completely alien to me?" Anything that makes me feel some sort of passion, and finding a detail that gets you thinking, that pulls you in—that’s your key for writing about it. But even if there isn’t something you can find, that’s interesting in itself, because how do you get to the point of a film being completely devoid of anything good or of meaning to you?

 

We live in an age of ephemeral takes, where you’ll publish something and two days later it will be somewhat irrelevant because the news cycle just moves on so fast. Being thoughtful, and taking your time, is so underrated, and it is an industry where you never feel like you have time or that you can move at your own speed.

 

As your undergraduate dissertation topic was about Madness in Twentieth Century Fiction and Film, what were the films you used to illustrate your arguments?

 

Well, I had always been interested in art which portrayed mental health in intelligent ways—not just the blanket "oh it's okay to talk about mental health". I chose films that were all book adaptations: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, We Need To Talk About Kevin and American Psycho. It was fascinating to explore the works in their different forms, and how they conversed with each other.

 

Could you break down the process of creating and developing a new issue of Little White Lies

 

Of course, I can try! David [Jenkins] is the print editor, and we have a conversation about three or four months ahead of the issue about what we think we could do for the next issue. We look at the upcoming release schedule and what we might be interested in, and then we work out how we can build an issue out of it. The Souvenir issue, for instance, is a film I saw at Sundance in January, and we started discussing the issue potential in March, got in touch with Curzon Artificial Eye who distribute it, and start talking about our ideas, access for interviews, etc. So when we decide on a film to use for the cover, we contact their distributor and basically say “hi, we want to make a magazine about your film, how do you feel about that?” Sometimes film distributors will get in touch with us, asking if we have any plans for the next issue, but we don’t accept money for that sort of thing—you can’t buy our cover, which is not the way a lot of film magazines work. The next step is to have a conversation about features. David organises commissioning, sends out pitch ideas for regular contributors to the print magazine (or experts on the subject matter we're focusing on), then a discussion occurs between David and Laurène [Boglio] (Artistic Director) about ideas which she will the commission the artists for. Amidst all this, it takes a couple of months to get all that in and all the reviews for the back section. Finally, we create a PDF, we all proof-read it, print it out, 'get the red pen out', you know—and then it goes to press, and turns up about a fortnight later! And then we have to market it and try to sell it.

 

What’s your experience of film festivals? 

 

The bigger festivals are like being in a pressure cooker. It’s amazing, but it’s exhausting! You’re surrounded by other film journalists, all you’re doing is talking about films, everyone is neurotic and clambering for commissions, so I’m lucky because I’ve got a staff job, but everyone else is stressed about pitching. Film festivals are like the best and worst thing in the world—so much hyperbole comes out of them, where people are like “this is an amazing film, this is all we’re ever going to talk about again!” and six months later, people look back in hindsight and admit that it wasn’t that good. There’s also a feeling, you know, a smugness, like “I am at Cannes” or “I am at Venice”, and as such, 'I am the cultural forecaster for the next year', and you get an impulse of giving good reviews because you are so overwhelmed with gratitude for being there that you go into this weird state of 'everything’s great, everything’s amazing', and then thinking 'oh shit, better give one film one star, quick'. So you know, they’re not the best place to go for good film criticism (laughter). I love festivals and I think I work well at festivals, but I don’t think that everything I write up at festivals is solid gold. 

 

We also do what we would call dispatch pieces after the festivals, where we get to talk more about the atmosphere, something we saw that was really good, the actual place of the festival, and looking at why a festival matters, why we should be travelling around the world to go and see these films. They are good for giving you a sense of where the industry is at in terms of diversity and what films are going to be contenders for the next year. But it is a massive scrum of very privileged people.

 

In regards to privilege and lack of accessibility to film, I guess you could say that streaming has helped a lot with that.

 

Streaming has been great for turning people onto a whole world of film that they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. But then there is also the fear of the disappearance of physical media, and the idea that streaming services can take things away so quickly really doesn’t sit right with me—Duncan Jones was saying the other day on twitter how his film Mute, being a Netflix film, cannot be released on DvD as Netflix retains all the rights. And I imagine it's going to be exactly the same with The Irishman (Scorsese’s new picture). It's crazy to me, to think I won’t be able to buy a DvD of a Martin Scorsese film!

 

Speaking of the film industry, do you find the film industry's system of scoring films to be sometimes reductive and perhaps a bit old-fashioned?

 

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t rate films, purely because your mind can change about something so quickly and so frequently, and if we are talking about an ideal world, ideally you’d have to read the review to find out! But film studios are the ones looking for those ratings as well as the public. I find it very difficult to give things scores and I don’t like doing it. Thankfully, LWL’s tri-part system gets more to the actual experience of how you view a film (Anticipation, Enjoyment, and In Retrospect).

 

Do you distinguish the art from the artist? And could you delve a bit deeper into your comment about the risk for “poor taste” in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Roman Polanski?

 

There is no need for people like Polanski and Allen to still be making films, as they have shown zero remorse for their actions. It blows my mind that people are still showing an interest in Polanski’s new work, with Venice premiering his new film for example. As for his past body of work, I think it’s such a knotty, difficult thing to get into, and of course everyone has their own personal moral code that they stick to, and if that means you don’t want to watch Rosemary’s Baby ever again, that’s valid. Personally, I feel you can look at great art, appreciate it, but also appreciate the context it was made in, and potentially accept that some pretty horrific people can make and create great things that resonate with you and matter to you. No one should feel like they have to apologise for liking something, it’s more about reconciling the facts and the art with yourself. Social media platforms often serve as echo chambers, where opposing opinions are responded to with hostility, which really doesn’t help anything.

 

And as opposed to problematic artists, who are your filmmaking heroes? 

 

Meeting your heroes can be a let down. I have yet to meet my heroes, but the people I admire that I have met, by-and-large have been great. My all time filmmaking heroes, and I’m going to sound like a white film-bro now, would include Martin Scorsese, who is coming to London for The Irishman Premiere, and I would absolutely love to interview him. Before I worked here, my approach to film criticism was quite light, but now, there are opportunities that come up in this job that are incredible. I saw him give a masterclass last year, and it was just incredible, he is such a fount of enthusiasm and knowledge, and is simply so passionate. I think he is one of the greatest champions of cinema; not just his own films, but cinema as an art form. He has put so much money into the restoration and preservation of world cinema. And as much as there are people who say he makes films for “white film bros”, that critique leaves me a bit cold. For goodness sake, he makes films about God and spirituality! And about how people are ruining everything! I think he’s a genius.

 

Lynne Ramsay is another one, after seeing We Need to Talk About Kevin at the Hyde Park Picturehouse in Leeds during my first year at university, and I think that up until that point, I had never been so uncomfortable in a cinema (in a good way), but I had never been so confronted. She is someone who has gotten a very raw deal in the industry, I find, and I really hold her up as someone who is doing her own thing, and taking chances and making these amazing films. They’re not for everyone, but I don’t think great art necessarily has to be. The provocations in her films are the things that make you feel uncomfortable and exposed.

 

What do you feel cultural journalism is doing? To you, what is it communicating to the world?

 

That’s a good question! That’s still something I’m trying to figure out, actually. When I started out, I had a very clear vision of right and wrong, how the world should be, how the film industry should be, etc. But the older I get (and I’m not that old), the more I realise how many grey areas there are, and how disappointing life can be. Like with the Me Too movement, as great as it has been, what came out of that was that Rose McGowan and Asia Argento are two deeply problematic human beings—but then I guess no one is perfect. 

 

I suppose I want to say something that resonates, that speaks to why whatever I’m writing is relevant and matters. The thing I always look at when I’m writing is whether this is going to speak to the reader. A lot of it comes from realising what you’re most passionate about, and capitalising on that. 

 

It’s an industry that is very demoralising at times, it can make you very cynical, and you see a lot of bad stuff getting published and start to think that no one is interested in good journalism anymore. But, you have to grow this thick armour of 'what I’m doing matters', stick it on your mirror or in your wallet! Simran delivered a wonderful uplifting speech on the topic (read the transcript here: https://cinemarediscovered.wordpress.com/2019/08/02/philip-french-memorial-lecture-2019-simran-hans/). There is a sense or purpose to it all—if you want to be a film critic, you’ve got to engage with it as much as possible, and always keep reading. One of my friends, Soraya Roberts, writes a column every week, picks a topic for that week, and does a five thousand word essay on it. Last week for example was about “Veronica Mars and the Lone Woman” (read the article here: https://longreads.com/2019/07/26/free-solo/)This week was about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (OUATIH), so she’s really good at finding the topic that everyone is talking about, but then finding a way in that isn’t what you would think. Paying attention to the good journalism that you’re seeing and consuming is important, not to try to be like them, but to inspire you to approach your work differently or think about what’s missing in the cultural landscape.

 

Another journalist I really like is K. Austin Collins, who writes for Vanity Fair (read his review of OUATIH here: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/07/tarantino-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-revenge-fantasy-manson-family). He always has the most thoughtful commentary. There’s something so valuable in not being the first person to comment, because everyone is clambering to be the first one with an opinion. But it’s so rewarding when you feel proud of a piece of work that you’ve had the time to do your homework on and feel confident in your stance. It’s a very rare opportunity to have the time to do something like that, and hard to pitch, but that’s the gold standard—being able to add to the conversation instead of shouting at the same time as everyone else.

 

Contextualising the word culture as the arts, to you, what is Culture (with a capital C) for? 

 

Culture is everything that makes us feel alive, the soft bits between the monotony of the day to day, what connects us as humans. We’re so wrapped up in western culture, it can be hard to look beyond it, and this is why film is so special! It’s one of the few ways for me to understand and interact with stories that aren’t familiar to me and for me to get out of my own London-centric box, and realising that at the end of it, we’re all just trying to get through the day. 

 

On a lighter note, what are your favourite cinema spots in London? 

 

I absolutely adore the Prince Charles Cinema! I also go to the Hackney Picture House as it’s near me, and the Castle cinema too. but other ones I enjoy going to are the Rio Cinema in Dalston, and Genesis Cinema in Mile End, which are both doing some great things for their communities and for cinema accessibility.

 

And other places you love in London, to get work done or find good food?

 

There’s this brilliant Taiwanese chicken place called Good Friend Chicken (https://chinatown.co.uk/en/restaurant/good-friend/), and of course Bun House for Bao (https://bun.house). Monty’s Deli I love, which is sadly closing down… I must admit I’m a really big fan of really good Jewish food, and they do fantastic pastrami bagels. It’s hard to come by in London! I spend most of my year really upset I’m not in New York; I go for three days for a film festival and come back and get upset again. It’s now become the place I’ve gotta go to once a year, because, you know, gotta get my bagels in! Me and my good jewish food, me and my good pizza! Sodo Pizza (https://www.sodopizza.co.uk/clapton) is fantastic too. I’ve yet to find a really good New York style Pizza in London—with slightly plastic cheese, thin slice with a good crust, bit of a crunch but still a bit soft… This interview is going to end up in the food section isn’t it? (laughter) I’m a big fan of New York food. For good coffee, Allpress is great in London (https://allpressespresso.com), and Dark Arts coffee in Hackney too (https://www.darkartscoffee.co.uk).

 

 Image: TCO Offices, Little White Lies Magazine Display.

 

 

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor

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