“Gene Kelly dancing, projected in light, is as purely great as cinema can be.” The Useless interviews #2: Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin

From the News of the World to The Telegraph to stepping into Mark Kermode's massive shoes...

Robbie Collin: In his car, presumably on the way to the drive-in cinema…

I used to work in the same office as Robbie Collin, at The Daily Telegraph, but while I was also a contracted writer -- as he is -- I was confined to the dark climes of the Comment Desk. He dwelled and continues to dwell in the Elysian plenty of the Arts Desk. Previously of The News of the World, Robbie is one of two film critics at The Daily Telegraph and a frequent stand-in for the good Dr Mark Kermode on 5 Live’s Kermode & Mayo.

Robbie had sight of this interview before publication but did not get copy approval. I appreciate him taking the time to talk to me. 

What’s the purpose of the critic? Or rather what are you trying to achieve?

My thinking on this and it’s possibly not shared by all other critics… What I always try to do is write in a way that someone will read the start and be intrigued to read on, regardless of whether they’re interested in the film at hand. I want to write an enjoyable read in its own right. In the olden days of print hegemony, and now in the social media age, you’re a small part of anyone’s diet. You don’t need to be everything to everyone — be a fun or enlightening five minutes in the middle of their day. 

Obviously, the dream function of the critic is to introduce someone to a great work of art that they wouldn’t have found without your guidance. Criticism doesn’t need to be a work of art in its own right. That said, I think that obviously it should be worth reading and shouldn’t be something someone can read from another writer. 

What’s the limit? How many words before someone shifts from critic to an indulgent fan or a snarking complainer? 

99% of people writing 8,000 words about a film should be writing 2,000 words and are in need of an editor. But still, we should want to bring along as many people as possible into the industry. 

I think we as critics should want to ensure as many readers as possible stick with us for the entire piece, rather than creating some macho opus only one in 100 will make it to the end of.

I feel very, very at the end of an era. I had zero connections or family working in the media. I got in off my own steam. 

I did shifts as a student on The Scotsman’s Edinburgh supplement, it was a big fat arts supplement every single day, it was a logistical wonder. I was the guy back in the office with a spreadsheet, but if there was something that no one wanted to review or a phoner that needed to be done. They were the first bits of paid work I did. 

A lot of the industry now is about building up a personal brand as a freelance. 

Sitting in the office and just being thrown stuff was instructive to me. I wasn’t the guy who should’ve interviewed Mel & Sue, but I did. It was a chance to learn on the job. 

I was fortunate to go from that kind of work placement to a graduate scheme to a national newspaper. 

There are so many, I will inevitably forget loads of people. The time that it struck me that criticism was a job -- there’s a journalist called Hannah McGill — who was also the creative director of the Edinburgh Film Festival for a while — she wrote for the Scotsman. To read someone responding to the previous night’s telly, seemed amazing.

Hannah McGill was the first critic I read. She is a superb film critic. She’s done an incredible series for Sight & Sound. When you read a Hannah McGill piece, you are getting something specifically from her. 

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When I worked at Q, star ratings were a source of great debate in the office. Where do you stand on stars? 

It made me engage more richly with Kid A when Q gave it three stars. 

I wouldn’t get rid of stars. It’s a useful administrative sorting metric. It’s the least agonised element of any review. I apply them at the end. Once I’ve written 500 or 1,000 words, I read the review and work out what it sounds like. Does it sound like a 3-star or a 4-star?

Music criticism vs film criticism vs games criticism vs restaurant criticism, they are really different styles. 

When I moved to The Telegraph, I had to do a huge mental calibration, to gauge how to write for a new audience, moving as I was from The News of the World. 

What did you do to get yourself there? 

I wish I could turn out a sentence as good as one of Anthony Lane’s. I messed with one of his sentences and saw what it would take to make it work or not work. It was like fiddling with a bike. You work out how a sentence flows or trips over itself. It took me, I would say, two to two-and-half years writing on a daily basis. 

Arts is its own thing at The Telegraph. 

What’s it like sitting in Kermode’s chair? 

I’d been listening to him since the Radio One days, I’d known and admired Mark’s film criticism forever. After Barry Norman, he’s the name brand critic in the UK. Jonathan Ross was a totally formative influence for me but he wasn’t first and foremost a critic. 

It was daunting to be the sub for Kermode. The actual community of listeners of that show are the most welcoming, astute, and friendly bunch. That format cannot be ported over to anything else, it is what it is. Mark is a great critic, but the combination of him and Simon makes it work so well. The second or third time I did it, I was swiping through the gate and the Underground attendant said, “Hello to Jason Isaacs!''. That’s the strength of that show. 

It’s the dream for any critic. They know what you stand for and what you do and don’t like. They read your work in that light. Mark is someone who has built it up over decades, you know vividly what appeals and doesn’t to Mark Kermode. It’s very tricky for critics starting out. There’s a duty to get things right. 1917 was a good example. A massively accomplished film, but a film that left me cold. I was at a point in my career where I felt comfortable saying I wasn’t into this. 

What about Marvel films; don’t some critics simply dismiss them out of hand? 

You have to meet films on the terms they want to be met on. You lose preferences of what genres of films you like if you do the job seriously. You have pet causes -- directors and actors you love or turn you off -- but genre preferences go. It’s the high-wire act of meeting films on their own terms but bringing your own personal preferences to bear. 

When I sit down to review a Marvel film, I do want to take into account that someone might never have heard of them. You don’t want to treat everyone as an obsessive fan. Marvel doesn’t operate like any other franchise. It’s a weird network of characters. It’s an odd one. I’m fortunate to be at a stage in my career where I’m excited by the Marvel project. Certainly from Iron Man to End Game, I was conceptually onboard. 

Even Twilight, I could see the merit. There is responsibility in a critic to suss out why something works. The great thing about Twilight is that it put Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson in the place where they can join any project they like.  

What’s it like meeting stars as a regular part of your work? 

Of all the people I have ever interviewed.. when you see big movie stars in real life, it’s rarely a daunting experience. First of all, I’m taller than all of them — I’m 6’6. But Kristen Stewart has that old-school Hollywood presence, I was properly awed by her. 

Where do you stand on the notion of ‘good’ bad films? Things that are so shit that they’re delightful?

Here’s a couple of examples: The original 50 Shades Film, directed by Sam Taylor Johnson, was a legitimately good film. It had the worst source material but turned it into a sleek erotic thriller, and managed to do interesting things. That’s a film where you have to make a case for it being worthwhile by, among many critics, Anthony Lane. 365 Days — the Polish Netflix rip off of 50 Shades — is legitimately terrible. You can write a fun piece describing why it’s terrible and people will watch it and recognise it’s terrible.

What do people who hear you on the radio say when they meet you in person? 

Everyone says, “Oh, I thought you’d be smaller.”  

Do you have to battle to keep PRs out of the room during interviews? 

All of the interviews I do for the Telegraph are just me and the subject in the room, without someone sitting in. I’m sure people listen in a lot, but if you’re doing it for some time — 10 years, I think — reps understand that you can be trusted not to push the SELF DESTRUCT button. This is the problem with junkets and group interviews. People will have 3 minutes and one question — will they ask a smart question or do something stupid? 

One of my first times at Cannes, I had a group interview with a filmmaker I loved… the thing in with The Telegraph, there aren’t slots for brief interviews. If you get 10 minutes as part of a group, there’s little you can do with it. It’s not a healthy environment to talk to people. When you do one-to-ones, you can tell when the shutters are coming down. Lots of the time, you want to know the same basics. 

I have never done an interview when someone stepped in. 

I’m not a confrontational person at all. I love reading car crash interviews but I’m temperamentally unable to carry one out. They’re funny but they lend themselves to celebrities who are famous for being famous and politicians. 

Tell me about the Joaquin Phoenix thing though. That’s become legendary. 

There was no other way to write the Phoenix thing. I would hope that his rep wouldn’t feel that they should avoid me in the future. I have had interviews where, when you write it up, you get an email from the rep saying they’re disappointed. A big part of the job for reps and PRs is that they are expected to have said something. 

Do you hate the term “the talent” to describe actors? I do. 

It’s not a word that I really encounter. You use it as a general term, but… I… it’s the theatre of the junket. It’s built up. You’re put in a room with no WiFi or bad WiFi and must sit and fret until you’re called into the throne room. I don’t know how you do it and not do that with so many outlets.

A junket interview can be perfectly fine, good even, they say something thought-provoking and it’s good. The bad thing is when those straightened conditions are brought to bear on something that should be a big glossy cover interview that needs a week’s access, but you’re expected to produce the same style of copy over lunch. 

American hacks get a lot more access than their UK counterparts… 

The massive pitfall of huge access is that you end up sounding like a luvvie. You’ve got to be human. There are huge pitfalls with great access.

Do you have an ‘official’ favourite film and a ‘real’ one? For me, it’s La Haine — which I do genuinely love — and Get Carter (the original). 

I have a top 10 films and that is my top 10 films. Number one is Singing In The Rain. It’s more than just a classic. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog likens Fred Astaire dancing Mr Bojangles to the shadows on the cave wall in times of prehistory. He is saying that this specific form of cinema taps back into the caveman brain. Gene Kelly dancing, projected in light, is as purely great as cinema can be. That is the essence of the art form. 

I love Herzog — whose book title I stole for this newsletter — because I think the act has become real. 

The huge part of what Herzog is about is exploring how fakery can be more true than true. He talks about albino crocodiles, it’s a pack of lies and yet its inclusion gets at something true. His new film Family Romance picks up on that again. It’s about a guy who rents out makeshift relatives. The idea is that this agency creates little bubbles of fiction in the real world, and it’s shot guerilla-style on the streets of Tokyo, you realise it’s contrived eventually -- what is he getting at. What effect are these relationships having? He’s exploring the same territory by staging scenes. 

Okay, a classic final question: What’s your real advice to people who want to be film critics? 

Don’t want to do what I do. Want to do something. I wanted to write a lot, I didn’t specifically want to be a film critic. I got into film criticism because the News of the World’s film critic was on maternity leave. I had loved film before then, but I was not fixated on it. I’m not salaried, I’m on contract. Don’t fixate on one part of journalism. It’s getting yourself into a position where you are satisfied and amused, even if the hours are killer. 

Consider writing for someone just to get regular paid work. The execution of doing journalism is not how they imagine it to be. There’s a lot of slogging and admin. I’m wary of how I use social media because I do not think people want to hear critics bitching. 

When you are a journalist, you introduce yourself with your name and when you previously spoke to them. I can’t think of anyone who remembered speaking to me before. I’m only the critic in the country who likes Michael Bay. I keep trying to interview and it’s never come off. He’s not beholden to talk to me. He doesn’t care about reviews. 

One of the great things about film is that The Telegraph has two critics — me and Tim Robey — if I don’t like it, someone else can review it, so I don’t ever have to be diplomatic about a film if we’re also doing an interview related to it because we can always split the reviewing and interviewing duties between us. Tim may then enjoy it or not. That’s a massive boon in terms of writing for a title that still takes arts criticism seriously. A lot of the time publicists will ask if you liked the film. Having that flexibility is massively useful. 

Thanks to Robbie for giving me his time, on a Friday night of all times! You can read his work in The Daily Telegraph and should follow him on Twitter too