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A New Electronica Album Avoids the Genre's Coldness

Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the Chemical Brothers' newest CD "Dig Your Own Hole."


Other segments from the episode on May 2, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 2, 1997: Interview with Douglas McGrath; Review of the Chemical Brothers' album "Dig Your Own Hole"; Obituary for Mike Royko; Review Ward Just's novel "Echo House."


Date: MAY 02, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 050201np.217
Head: Douglas McGrath
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane filling in for Terry Gross.

Even though Jane Austen wrote her novels more than 150 years ago, contemporary film makers are discovering the cinematic possibilities in her fiction. We've seen adaptations of "Sense and Sensibility," "Persuasion," an off-beat modern take on "Emma" called "Clueless," and earlier this spring, A&E presented a British version of Emma.

Douglas McGrath weighed in last year with his adaptation of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role. It just came out on video. Emma is a well-to-do 21-year-old who has made it her life's work to play matchmaker to the residents of her small English town. She successfully got her nanny married off and determines to do the same thing for a good friend.


ACTRESS GWYNETH PALTROW/EMMA: She was as selfless a friend as I have ever had, and I hope to say someday I have done half as much for someone as Mrs. Westin (ph) did for me.

UNNAMED ACTOR: You must be happy that she settled so well.

PALTROW: Indeed! One matter of joy -- and this is that I made the match myself. People said Mr. Westin would never marry again, and what a triumph.

ACTOR: Triumph! You made a lucky guess.

PALTROW: Have you never known the triumph of a lucky guess? Had I not promoted Mr. Westin's visit and given encouragement where encouragement was needed, we might not have had a wedding today.

ACTOR: Then please, my dear, encourage no one else. Marriage is so disrupting to one's social circle.

PALTROW: Only one more Papa. When Mr. Elton (ph) joined their hands today, he looked very much as if he would like the same kind office performed for him.

MOSS-COANE: Problem is, Emma is a lousy matchmaker. Douglas McGrath made his directorial debut with Emma. He also wrote the screenplay. A few years back, McGrath collaborated with Woody Allen on the screenplay for "Bullets Over Broadway." He's also a contributing editor to the New Republic. I asked him why he wanted to make his first movie based on Emma.

DOUGLAS MCGRATH, WRITER, FILM MAKER: When I first read it, it reminded me of those great comedies that Hollywood used to make in the '30s and '40s, most particularly it reminds me of "The Philadelphia Story." And it has that kind of -- I mean, there are many similarities in a way.

You know, both Emma and The Philadelphia Story have extremely attractive heroines who are witty and well-spoken, who are -- surround themselves or live in a world full of other witty, well-spoken people -- most of whom are making a complete mess of their lives.

And it takes the two heroines -- it takes falling in love for them to -- to become better, more compassionate people. And it's so rare that you can go to the movies these days and see a literate comedy, and I really wanted to write -- to try to write a literate comedy. And Emma has all those ingredients.

MOSS-COANE: What was it like for you, then, to take this novel which you obviously connected to and try to turn it into a screenplay, 'cause obviously you have to make some pretty hard choices about what you're going to keep, what you're going to discard.

MCGRATH: Mm-hmm. That's true. That's the hardest part, in a way, is allowing yourself to leave something out, because the book is so exquisitely written you don't really want to take anything out. But, you know, you'd have a nine-hour movie if you didn't take some things out.

So, what I did was I made an outline. At the top of every page of the book, I would write very briefly what happened on that page. And by the end of the book, I took everything that I had written and made it into an outline, which ran to be about 40 or 50 pages.

And then what you do is you just look for places where there might be repetition, and where you could stand to compress some things. And eventually, you get it, you know, boiled down -- for want of a more felicitous phrase -- into the essence of the novel.

And luckily, the way she tells the story works quite naturally for the movies. It's all spoken out loud between the characters, so you don't have to find a way to get the story across that isn't already there.

MOSS-COANE: And the dialogue that we hear in the movie -- is that really lifted right from the novel?

MCGRATH: It's my policy to lift as much pre-written dialogue as possible.


MCGRATH: Every so often, I'd have to -- I was forced to fall back on my own resources and write something of my own. But it was my policy to take as much as possible, and you would want to, anyway, apart from...


MCGRATH: ... my natural laziness, you would want to because she's -- not to trivialize it quite as much as it sounds like -- but she's one of the great dialogue writers of all time.

MOSS-COANE: Well, it is one of the more talky films I think I've seen in recent times, where it seems that almost every moment of the film people are talking about something.

MCGRATH: Well, that is true. But that's -- you know, that's what they had then. You know, no one was going to the cineplex -- the cineplex five -- and no one was getting a lovely show like this and no one -- I mean, though, that their opportunities for entertainment rested, apart from books, on discussion and conversation and the gossip that they had about the lives of the people in their town.

MOSS-COANE: There's something you said about your approaching this film which I found really interesting, which was you wanted to play this comedy like a tragedy. And certainly, when you look at the lives of these people, they spend a great amount of time worried about things as inane as a chipped tea cup.

But how does tragedy, at least the way you wanted to deal with this film, how does tragedy enhance the comedy?

MCGRATH: Well, you know, if you play the least little thing in their -- you know, nothing tragic happens in the film. But if they treat everything with the importance of tragedy -- if they treat a snub at a dance or an insult at a party as if it's the most important thing in the world, that makes it more amusing to us because you see how hilariously important the most trivial thing is to them.

And there's a scene in particular in which I always think of this. Harriet Smith, who is Emma's -- the young woman that Emma's taken under her wing -- Emma thinks to help, but as we see, took -- whose life she ruined.

Harriet has been in love with Mr. Elton, this vicar, who is not in love with her. And she has saved these little mementos that have the vaguest connection to Mr. Elton -- a little piece of bandage that he touched once and a pencil that he left in their house.

And she keeps them in a bag called "Harriet Smith's Most Precious Treasures," and she guards them and holds them with such delicacy and -- as if they are, you know, valuable jewels. And the fact that she so sincerely, so deeply has so much feeling for them -- if she treated them lightly, it wouldn't be funny to us.

MOSS-COANE: You attended a White House screening of Emma -- I believe, sat right next to the president.

MCGRATH: Mm-hmm.

MOSS-COANE: In doing so, is it possible to pay attention to what you've put on the screen, knowing the president of the United States is sitting right next to you?

MCGRATH: No, it's actually not possible. Luckily, I've seen the film more than two million times now, so I don't actually need to pay attention to it, and I was much more interested in watching him.

It's amazing how you can get your eye -- I never thought you could -- to actually change directions -- your left eye, which is on the presidential side, from where the right eye is looking.

You can keep the right eye on the screen and swing that left one around. You can't pay the least bit of attention. But I might say, no one else in the audience can either.

MOSS-COANE: They're all watching the president, too?

MCGRATH: They watch the president watch the movie. I think it would be unfair of anyone who was at that screening to say they watched the movie. They would just have to say they watched President Clinton watch the movie, because it was like, you know, he would -- there'd be a joke or something funny would happen in the movie and he would laugh.

And then a half second later, the rest of the audience would laugh. And if he didn't laugh, nobody laughed. But it had that weird sense of delay, like on a transatlantic phone call.

MOSS-COANE: Did he talk during the movie? -- one of my pet peeves in a movie theater.

MCGRATH: Yes, he did. And you can't ask him to be quiet. You can't just say "shhh! watch the movie," because he was -- luckily, he was talking about the movie. He actually asked question throughout the movie, which was nice.

My mother, who talks through -- continuously through every movie we've ever attended, was so -- felt so validated to hear that he had spoken during the movie, because she and I now have to sign a contract before we'll go to the movies with each other, which she's -- her behavior is quite limited.

But at least his questions were all about the movie. You know, he'd ask where we shot and who was playing certain parts, and whether Gwyneth had worked with an accent coach, and he was really very interested in the details of it.

MOSS-COANE: Douglas McGrath directed Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, which is now out on video. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

Douglas McGrath made his directorial debut with the film Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, which is now out on video.

Let's just talk a little bit about your childhood. You grew up in Texas.

MCGRATH: I did -- in Midland, Texas.

MOSS-COANE: Did you show any early interest in acting -- in show biz as a kid?

MCGRATH: I did. I think anyone growing up in Midland would turn to their imagination at a fairly -- at a fairly young age. There's not a great deal -- especially if you don't really want to be involved in a dirt-related activity. There's not a great deal to do.

So I was always, you know, writing little plays and carrying on, I'm sure, in horrifying and embarrassing ways of my parents. But -- yeah, from -- right from the beginning.

MOSS-COANE: You attended Princeton University.


MOSS-COANE: Was that a big leap out of Texas?

MCGRATH: Well, I had gone to prep school before that, in Connecticut. I'd gone to Choate -- Rosemary (ph) Hall. And so that was more the big leap. That was actually quite a shock to my system, because everything was different.

Princeton seemed, by comparison, to my years at prep school, quite easy and friendly, 'cause I'd kind of gone through all the hard stuff of leaving home and changing sides of the country at prep school. So, Princeton was actually four -- I'm not kidding -- four uninterruptedly happy years. I thought it was completely delightful.

And also, you know, Midland is very -- let's just say -- not overpopulated with trees and greens. And Princeton is quite lush and beautiful, so I was just happy. You know, I would just be happy looking at it, apart from everything else. I just thought: this is so beautiful I can't believe it.

MOSS-COANE: Well, after you graduated from Princeton -- shortly after you graduated, you did get a job with Saturday Night Live, and this was the fateful season 1980 to 1981, considered perhaps the worst season in Saturday Night Live. What were you hired to do?

MCGRATH: To -- well, it seems, to help ruin the show. I was hired as a writer, which was the equivalent of helping to ruin the show. We -- it's funny 'cause I didn't have any plan for what I was going to do when I got out of college. And I knew I wanted to be an actor or a writer or something, but I didn't know how I was going to make a living at it.

And I was so paralyzed with fright about it that -- about how to go about making a living and paying for an apartment and taking care of myself -- that I -- it was so unnerving to me that I just decided not to do anything and hope somehow somebody gave me a job out of pity.

MOSS-COANE: And they did.

MCGRATH: And it worked. I don't know how this happened, but the day before graduation, my old friend from Midland, Liz Welch (ph) who now lived in New York, was working at the show, and she said they're hiring new writers. You should send in some material, 'cause I'd written some plays in college.

And so, I sent in some material and I got hired. And I thought: oh, this is -- this is fabulous, because at that point, Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner and Bill Murray and all those great people were on the show. So I thought: hey, this is great.

Little did I realize that, you know, the reason they were hiring people at my caliber is that every single writer on the show had quit. All the actors had quit. Everybody I --- you know, the guy who puts the water in the water cooler had quit. There were 125 empty desks in that office, and they needed people to fill it.

So I was the first writer hired, which I thought was a compliment, but then I later saw was an omen. And, oh, like 17 others were hired. New cast -- this is when Eddie Murphy started. And he was the best of the group.


MCGRATH: But then there was a drop off after that. And it was really, really a terrible year, because -- well, because of us, really. Because the writing was very, very bad that year.

MOSS-COANE: So where did you go after Saturday Night Live?

MCGRATH: To my room.


Back to my room, and I wrote some screenplays with -- actually, one screenplay with a very funny writer from the show named Terry Sweeney (ph), which we sold on the verge of our bankruptcy to Paramount, and which was never made, but was rewritten by -- I don't know if you rewrote it, but it seemed to have been rewritten by every other person in the country.

And then I wrote a screenplay on my own, and the exact same thing happened -- sold it to Disney and then they didn't make it. And then I just thought: I don't -- I don't want to do this, because it was too discouraging to work that way.

MOSS-COANE: What I read was that after realizing that a number of screenplays that never went anywhere, and I think one called "Born Yesterday," which was pretty much of a failure -- that you went back to fiction -- went back to reading, and...

MCGRATH: That's true.

MOSS-COANE: ... decided, perhaps, in order to learn this craft, I have to go back to the masters and figure out how to tell a good story?

MCGRATH: Yeah. Well, it was -- the reading is the best thing -- it wasn't quite as conscious as that, but reading was the best thing -- reading great books was the best thing I could have ever done because you -- the quality of the writing in those books is so great at every level.

It's not just good narrative and it's not just good characters. It's also good dialogue. It's also poetic. It's -- it, you know, the classics are classics because they're really great at every level.

And I think one of the risks for screenwriters today -- or one of the mistakes young screenwriters make -- is that they study other movies, and that's why you feel when you go to a movie so often these days, it just feels like other movies. It feels derivative of things that aren't particularly meaningful to the writer.

And I found that in reading great books, you learn so many things that are helpful in a movie, like how to make a character distinctive and interesting. If you look at Emma, for instance, most movies that come out today might have -- you know, the lead might be attractive, the co-star might be attractive, possibly there's one supporting part. You might have three parts that are interesting.

But in Emma, Austen writes easily five great characters -- possibly six, seven, eight great characters. And that's such a great thing to learn as a writer, and you look at great literature, that's true in all the books -- not to mention the narrative strength that they bring.

MOSS-COANE: Douglas McGrath made his directorial debut with the film Emma now out on video. He's also a contributing editor to the New Republic.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest: Douglas McGrath
High: Director and writer of the film version of Jane Austen's "Emma," Douglas McGrath. Already known as a playwright, screenwriter and columnist, this is his debut as a director. "Emma" is generally regarded as Austen's most accomplished and wittiest novel--a matchmaker doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. McGrath is author of the New Republic column, "Flapjack File." Emma was released on video last month.
Spec: Books; Movie Industry; History; Jane Austen; Emma; Europe; Britain

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Douglas McGrath
Date: MAY 02, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 050202np.217
Head: Dig Your Own Hole
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:20

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: The new pop music buzz word right now is "electronica" (ph) which a good part of the American music industry is hoping will prove to be the next big thing.

Primarily instrumental music based on samples and tape loops, electronica is popular overseas. One of the most respected and highly-praised electronica groups is the Chemical Brothers from England. They've just released a new CD called "Dig Your Own Hole."

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR REVIEWER: The Chemical Brothers are one of the more anonymous acts around. They don't have a shaved, bald, angry male lead singer, or a platinum blond angry female singer like every other pop group seems to have these days.

In fact, the Chemical Brothers aren't into image at all. They barely show up in their own videos. They aren't even brothers. Tom Rowlands (ph) and Ed Simons (ph) are a couple of guys who met in a medieval history class at Manchester University. They found that they liked dance music and hip-hop a lot, that they weren't musicians, but they wanted to make music.

So they got some computers and did.


Among the many things the Chemical Brothers do to create their music is to feed instrumental riffs and vocal phrases from other records into a computer. They then take their bits and pieces and arrange them this way and that. It's the electronic way of cutting and pasting -- of making a collage the way visual artists have long done.

One cut on Dig Your Own Hole, "Electrobank" (ph), has 300 different samples. What distinguishes the Chemical Brothers from most of their electronica colleagues is that they underpin their collages with strong rhythms. Their stuff isn't music to trance out to. It's music to hone in on.

So far, their biggest hit is "Setting Sun," a variation on the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" that went to number one in England. The Brothers have a rare, flesh and blood, in the studio singer on this cut, Noel Gallagher (ph) of "Oasis" to supply a different sort of noise for them to play around with.

NOEL GALLAGHER, SINGER, SINGING: You're the devil in me
I brought in from the cold
You said your body was young
But mind was very old

You're coming on strong in unlikely ways
The visions we have are fading away
You're part of the life I've never had
I'll tell you now, it's just too bad
I'll tell you now, it's just too bad
I'll tell you now, it's just too bad
I'll tell you now, it's just too bad

TUCKER: The big problem with the vast majority of electronica is that it's cold, sterile stuff -- music almost entirely lacking in spiritedness and sensuality. That's one big reason why the Chemical Brothers' compositions are so welcome and heartening. These guys love funk music, not only for its attitude and its formal daring, but also for its sheer funkiness.

The Brothers aren't sober-sided technocrats. They don't seem the least bit interested in using their electronica to summon up futuristic landscapes. They're in it for the pleasure of the here and now.

MOSS-COANE: Ken Tucker is a critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the Chemical Brothers' latest CD "Dig Your Own Hole."

I'm Marty Moss-Coane and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
High: Rock Critic Ken Tucker reviews the Chemical Brothers' newest CD "Dig Your Own Hole."
Spec: Music Industry; Chemical Brothers; Dig Your Own Hole

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Dig Your Own Hole
Date: MAY 02, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 050204np.217
Head: Echo House
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:50

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: Ward Just has been called the "Washington novelist's Washington novelist." In "Echo House," his 12th novel, Just enters the shadow world of invisible power brokers -- people he calls "fixers without portfolios" who run Washington.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: The summer before my senior year in high school, I took a creative writing workshop at the New School in New York. I remember sitting around with my fellow students, reading aloud our ornately symbolic stories about suicide and young love.

The instructor, a published short-story writer, ominously told us on the first day of class that she supported herself by writing game show questions for "Jeopardy." Her understandably gloomy world-view was reflected in the johnny-one-note reading list of great fiction she assigned us: James Joyce's "The Dead," Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," and Sherwood Anderson's "Death in the Woods."

Ever since, the memory of that class has frightened me away from teaching any creative writing courses myself. But if I were foolhardy enough to do so, I'd assign my students the first 60 or so pages of Ward Just's new novel "Echo House" as an exemplar of well-crafted storytelling.

Echo House is a saga about the lives of three generations of men in the powerful Bell (ph) family of Washington, DC. The novel opens on a convention night early in this century. Senator Adolph Bell has been promised the Democratic vice presidential nomination, and his family and cronies are gathered in the family mansion, named Echo House, to await the fateful phone call.

But when the phone rings, it conveys a message of betrayal. In a heartbeat, Adolph changes from political patriarch to pariah. His mortified young son, Axel, resolves never to lust after the second best, like his father, but to aim for the presidency.

Flash forward to World War II. Axel and a buddy are working for the OSS in France. On their way to join Patton's army, they detour their jeep through a remote valley where they find a Brigadoon-like village seemingly untouched by the war.

The two Americans are welcomed by the locals and feted that night in a nearby chateau. The catch is that we readers already know from the novel's prologue that Axel will be horribly wounded in the war. So as Axel sips cognac, we wait in wracking suspense for the poison to take effect, for the knife to be plunged in his back, for the instrument of destruction destined to ruin Axel's presidential hopes to make its appearance.

In a virtuoso demonstration of controlled author sadism, Just lets his readers cry "uncle" for about 30 pages before he delivers the dreaded blow.

Just takes his tale about the Bell family through the Cold War, the Camelot years, when Axel's son Alec begins working as a lawyer, and the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations. An old pro at capturing the inside-the-beltway scene, Just depicts a Washington populated by power brokers and an un-elected elite that includes Axel and Alec Bell, who are active members of the intelligence community -- a pair of father-son bureaucratic spooks.

But the lives of bureaucrats, even those affiliated with the CIA, do not inherently make interesting reading. After those breathtaking first few chapters, Echo House dwindles into a much weaker chronicle of secretive, high-level paper shufflers with lousy marriages.

Everyone here -- the Bells, their wives and mistresses -- are so dead-pan and enigmatic they always seem to be talking in code, even when they're cooking dinner. In a set-piece on the opening page of the novel, Just describes the layout of the Bell's Echo House. It unfortunately could serve as a plot diagram for his novel.

Just explains: "The name of the house derived from the repetition of rooms on the first floor -- each room perfectly square, but diminishing in size."

Chapter by chapter, Echo House, the novel, also shrinks until it and my interest reached a vanishing point.

MOSS-COANE: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Ward Just's new novel Echo House.

For Terry Gross, I'm Marty Moss-Coane.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan, Washington, DC; Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
High: Book Critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the latest novel by Ward Just called "Echo House."
Spec: Books; People; Ward Just; Echo House

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Echo House
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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