Mark O’Connell is a writer, author, sci-fi lover, and most importantly a James Bond fan! As a comedy writer he has written for a range of actors, directors and performers, sketch shows, sitcom projects, stand-up acts, promos, online shorts and the legendary Ronnie Corbett. But, it was his two books, his love of sci-fi and his love of Bond that brought him to my attention and we had an amazing interview.
Mark’s debut book CATCHING BULLETS – MEMOIRS OF A BOND FAN is published by Splendid Books. It has a Foreword by Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, Doctor Who) and a Prelude by 007 producer Barbara Broccoli: “Catching Bullets is a wonderfully funny and touching memoir… Cubby would be proud”. The book is a memoir of growing up as an eccentric film fan in the 1980s watching and reflecting on the James Bond films.
As a big James Bond fan myself, I enjoyed experiencing the films again someone else’s viewpoint, laughing along at the references, enjoying some of the detail I wasn’t aware of and disagreeing on some opinions. But that’s the pleasure of reading a book written by a fellow fan, you feel like you’re reading along with them and at times almost having this discussion in person of a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred… of course).
His latest book is now published by The History Press (available September 2018 in the US). A part prequel to CATCHING BULLETS, WATCHING SKIES – STAR WARS, SPIELBERG AND US is about how George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, a shark, two motherships, some gremlins, ghostbusters and a man of steel jumped a whole generation to hyperspace (“I thought I was the only person obsessed with every single thing written in this book, but fortunately for the rest of us Mark O’Connell is too.” – Mark Millar, KINGSMAN, LOGAN, KICK ASS, SUPERMAN).
I really enjoyed Mark’s journey in this book, it made me very envious that I was born a few years too late. Although I really love all these films, and believe that 70s/80s cinema is home to some of the best movies ever produced, I am envious of not being able to grow up during those years. I’ve always had to look back on these films as a ‘cult thing’ and accept that the style was perhaps ‘retro’ rather than live through them and see them as they were meant to be seen, as cutting edge effects and storytelling. Mark’s writing about his growing up with these films has given me the insight I was missing, the ability to share this childhood experience through someone else’s eyes, and I’m ever so thankful for that!
It was such a pleasure to sit down and talk with Mark about the second golden age of Hollywood and our shared fandom of the legendary super spy, Bond… James Bond!
Robin: Hi Mark, before we get started talking 80s sci-fi, why don’t you introduce yourself to our readers?
Mark O’Connell: Hi, I am Mark O’Connell and I am a writer, author, pop culture commentator and Bond fan. I live in London with my husband and consider California and San Francisco a second home.
Your new book ‘Watching Skies: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us’, like your previous book ‘Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan’, is not an autobiography but neither is it a just a technical manual for the films. It is a book of how one person experienced those films. What gave you the idea of writing the book in this way?
Catching Bullets is about a life with and through 007 and began from a desire to rewrite and reappraise the Bond movies. But Bond has always been in my family since before I was born. When I realised incorporating the story of that (and where it took me as a very lucky ‘80s Bond fan) into the book was too vital, then it became a new genre of sorts. And that was my hook as a writer – creating a memoir through cinema. But whereas Bullets is a chronicle of being a fan, Watching Skies is all our memoirs. It has a shared narrative. This is for all those VHS-era sky kids lucky enough to have witnessed a seriously vital run of movies from the late ‘70s to the mid ‘80s and living in that plastic toy, video store, sticker album, lobby poster world of Spielberg, Lucas and Donner.
What was your background before writing these books?
I had some early success as a graduate screenwriter and saw works produced and broadcast. From that I found myself in the world of comedy writing working alongside and for some of my comedy heroes. But cinema and my movie life always informed that writing, so a book seemed like a logical move.
What inspired you to put pen to paper initially with Catching Bullets?
I’d been a Bond fan online forum member and contributed a few 007 film review pieces here and there. They always racked up sizeable hits, so I naively wondered if ‘if everyone paid a dollar for that review I would be laughing’. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. Yet, it set my mind to doing my own book. And whilst there was a rich slew of Bond books out there, some missed that personal nuance and were telling the biography of making the Bond films rather than the biography of watching them. I also felt the narrative of a queer ‘80s Bond fan kid was missing. When I finally yielded to bring in the dual narrative of my grandfather’s many great and warmly remembered years working for the Broccoli family, it suddenly felt like the unique angle it had to be. And now the continued successes of Catching Bullets and the professional doors it has opened have all been a great endorsement of that decision.
What is it about ‘70s sci-fi that makes the genre so iconic for you?
Science fiction was far from being a new genre when Lucas and Spielberg changed its fortunes forever more through Star Wars, Close Encounters and E.T. Sci-fi is as old as cinema itself. But the wind got under the wings of this oft-maligned genre in the ‘70s. The likes of Lucas and Spielberg used science fiction as a tool, not a main feature. So, 1977’s A New Hope is almost a Dickensian western set in space – where the story and characters are supported by revolutionary and landmark visual effects, not the other way around. There is also a dignity and humanity to what Lucas and Spielberg did. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is not about flying saucers and alien visitations. It is about the strength and scope of the human spirit to look beyond itself in a post-Nixon America.
You describe the early rumblings of your sexuality being highlighted by these films, which character do you think was the first one who truly set off your gay instincts?
Christopher Reeve, Clark Kent and Superman. And it was a holy trinity that a nun at school inadvertently set in motion faster than a speeding bullet when she remarked how Superman: The Movie was on TV that Christmas and we should remember to watch it. And I did. Many times. But there were other cinematic tinder slowly lighting those instincts… the sight of an injured Luke Skywalker in a medical water tank in only his Speedos in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the buff gardener Hart Bochner in Supergirl (1984), a topless Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and definitely the older Brody brother in Jaws 2 (1978).
There have been recent attempts both on TV and in film with productions like Stranger Things and Super 8 to recapture the 80s sci-fi genre, do you think they’ve been successful?
Oh yes. Stranger Things works well enough without its ‘80s references. It almost doesn’t need them and knows that any show about the mid- ‘80s has to be as much about the ‘70s that led into it. When it comes to tone, dressing and design, there are as many Nixon-era hangovers in the first season of Stranger Things as there is ‘1984’. Curiously, for me, the science fiction of the show is not wholly of its period though. Naturally, the visual effects have to be totally now. But the modern-day rendering of those creatures and worlds sometimes breaks the analogue remembrances we had as real ‘80s kids.
Your book runs through all the main 80s sci-fi films including Star Wars, ET, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future and Superman, but you only make passing reference to the Star Trek films. Are you not a Trekkie?
I’m a movie Trekkie, absolutely! That inadvertent and brilliant ‘Genesis Project‘ trilogy is up there for me with Star Wars and Superman. It was very hard to not include The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. Especially as James Horner’s scores for Khan and Spock were often on loop when I was writing Watching Skies. But that is what sequels and future books are for! And regardless of the genre and pop-cultural strides made by the ‘60s TV Star Trek, it was Star Wars and Close Encounters that gave commercial momentum to what finally became 1979’s Motion Picture, not the other way round.
When do you think the ‘80s sci-fi heyday ended?
The book and I suggest that the wave of sci-fi that Star Wars and Spielberg nurtured and typified began to naturally dissipate in the mid- ‘80s. The concepts of mainstream science fiction shifted from the outer-wordly wonder of Star Wars, Close Encounters and E.T. to the earth-based realities of more realistically pitched, Earth-based stories. Suddenly, we have the NASA and militaristic leanings of Spacecamp, Short Circuit, D.A.R.Y.L, and The Flight of the Navigator. Even The Goonies (1985) is about money and property deals rather just than the wonder of some kids finding a pirate map. ‘80s sci-fi then goes with the growing age of those previous Star Wars kids – hence the darker, older fantasy of Predator, Weird Science, Aliens, The Terminator, Robocop, The Running Man and The Fly.
What do you think about current day sci-fi?
One could suggest the science and fiction of sci-fi is having a rather rich renaissance of late. Partly fuelled by non-theatrical outlets like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the physicality of space travel is popular again. Look at Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Annihilation, Star Trek: Discovery and Lost in Space. And the rich scope for storytelling that sci-fi allows is being mined very well all over again. Just look at Black Mirror, Doctor Who, Westworld, Mad Max: Fury Road, Dark, Sense8, and Spielberg’s own Ready Player One. And the Marvel Studios output works best when it remembers its sci-fi roots (namely, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man movies).
In the same way that the ‘80s will be remembered for sci-fi, what do you think modern day cinema will be remembered for?
Superhero movies. We are in the age of angst-hued capes and falling digital masonry. But as Spielberg has coyly remarked – it is like the western. These films will not last forever. We are also on the cusp of a flood of end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic titles (Netflix is swamped with them and their collapsed building misery). It is a result of recent politics, nostalgic ignorance and the validation of unsuitable bigotry that facilitates the likes of A Quiet Earth, The Post, A Handmaid’s Tale, American Horror Story: Cult, Blackkklansman, Pose, and the upcoming Fahrenheit 11/9. The Last Jedi is as much a reaction to the 2016 US Presidential election as All The President’s Men was in 1976. Seriously.
Hopping back to your previous book, Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan, the first Bond you watched was Octopussy, can you explain to us your self-proclaimed love affair with its star Maud Adams please?
Octopussy was the first Bond movie I ever saw. The Bond HQ office passed on to me various posters, albums and bits from the film. I was always fascinated by her striking poise, posture, hair and grace – fuelled too by the striking Octopussy poster which flanked my bedroom walls for years. What I once thought was hetero-attraction, soon proved to just utter admiration for one of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s most striking models and actresses. When I was in the closet, I would use poor Maud as my beard or – as the book calls it – ‘Straight Shield’. The long running misplaced love for her become a great theme in Catching Bullets as I pushed open those closet doors (naturally covered in Octopussy movie posters). The fun notion of asking Maud if she would respond to those years of misplaced love became a very real afterword in the book which then led to a marvellous day trawling Hollywood, Beverly Hills and various lumber yards with Octopussy herself (she needed some DIY second opinions).
I was bowled over recently when I realised Maud gets respect and referenced in the crucial drag document, Paris is Burning (1990). She was also one of the few women cast in William Friedkin’s gay-landmark The Boys in The Band (1970). And she is a truly lovely, elegant person.
You mention that you have a strong connection to the world of James Bond through your grandfather, can you explain to the readers that connection?
My grandfather Jimmy started working for Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli before Cubby was even in that 007 world. Cubby needed a driver, my grandfather was in that Mayfair chauffeur enclave and the fates fell into a good place. Jimmy then continued with Cubby and the Bond family from the beginning of 007 in the early ‘60s through to the late ‘80s and beyond. It was a very extra special turn of events when Barbara Broccoli (Cubby’s daughter and very successful Bond co-producer since 1995) offered to pen some words for the book’s prelude.
Bond fans name ‘their Bond’ as the one they grew up with, in your case that was Roger Moore, in my case it’s Pierce Brosnan, but out of all the Bonds, which one would you wanted to have seen more of?
Roger Moore! As a 007 fan I could easily see more films starring any of the various Commander Bonds we have had so far. The two films Timothy Dalton starred in suggest such a wealth of further – and possibly amazing Bond movies we never saw. But fate, time and legalities had other plans.
What is it about Bond that has stood the test of time?
The quality of product. EON Productions and the Broccoli mantra is still about making Bond bespoke in a world where such things get overlooked or underestimated.
What other genres of movies do you enjoy?
I will gladly watch anything. I have a great fascination in queer cinema in all its guises, eras and storytelling. I adore a decent indie-minded movie from anywhere in the world. And Wes Anderson can do no wrong.
Will you be writing more books about your love affair with movies?
What’s next on the horizon for Mark O’Connell?
I am working on a new book that will possibly serve as the third part of this movie-house trilogy. It is not what readers of Catching Bullets or Watching Skies will expect, but hopefully something they will like.
Best Star Wars film? The Empire Strikes Back.
Best Star Wars villain? Emperor Palpatine.
What colour would your lightsaber be? I’d have a rainbow one!
Back to the Future one, two or three? Three.
Best Bond theme? A View to A Kill by Duran Duran.
Best Bond girl? Octopussy / Maud Adams, naturally.
Best Bond quip after killing someone? Any moment accompanied by a raised Roger eyebrow.
Find out more about Mark, his books and where to buy them on his website.