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Children's book author Eoin Colfer

He's the creator of the Artemis Fowl series, featuring a 12-year-old millionaire criminal mastermind. Two of the three books in the series have been on The New York Times best seller list. The books are a combination of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale and thriller. They are Artemis Fowl, Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident and Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code.

19:31

Other segments from the episode on May 15, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 15, 2003: Interview with Eoin Colfer; Interview with Hamish McColl and Sean Foley; Review of the film "The Matrix reloaded."

Transcript

DATE May 15, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Eoin Colfer discusses his "Artemis Fowl" series of
children's books
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

My guest is the author of a series of internationally best-selling fantasy
novels for children about a young boy and magic. No, I'm not talking about
Harry Potter. It's the other one, "Artemis Fowl," by the Irish writer Eoin
Colfer. Artemis Fowl is a 12-year-old millionaire, a genius and a criminal
mastermind. He discovers a hidden fairy kingdom, a gritty urban underground
more akin to "Blade Runner" than the wee people of Irish lore. Fowl
infiltrates their world looking for gold.

One critic likens the stories to Tom Clancy with pixie dust. Miramax Studios
is currently developing a film of the first book. The third book in the
series is just out: "Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code."

Eoin Colfer is the author of a number of other children's books. Until
recently he was also a schoolteacher in Ireland. I asked him to read from the
beginning of his new book. In this scene, our hero, Artemis, is in a
restaurant waiting for his business contact. Even though Artemis looks like a
boy, he acts very much like a sarcastic 30-year-old. When the waitress asks
if he wants chicken nuggets and chips, he has a very sharp answer for her.

Mr. EOIN COLFER (Author, Artemis Fowl Series): (Reading) `A waitress
wandered over, smiling a dazzling smile. "Hello there, young man. Would you
like to see the children's menu?" A vein pulsed in Artemis' temple. "No,
Mademoiselle. I would not like to see the children's menu. I have no doubt
that the children's menu itself tastes better than the meals on it. I would
like to order a la carte, or don't you serve fish to minors?"

`The waitress' smile shrunk by a couple of molars. Artemis' vocabulary had
that effect on most people. Butler rolled his eyes, and Artemis wondered
who would want to kill him. Most of the waiters and tailors in Europe, for a
start. "Yes, s--s--sir," stammered the unfortunate waitress.
"Whatev--whatever you like." "What I would like is a medley of shark and
swordfish, pan seared, on a bed of julienne vegetables and new potatoes."
"And--and to drink?" "Spring water, Irish if you have it, and no ice, please,
as your ice is no doubt made from tap water, which rather defeats the purpose
of spring water."

`The waitress scurried to the kitchen, relieved to escape from the pale youth
at table six. She'd seen a vampire movie once. The undead creature had the
very same hypnotic stare. Maybe the kid spoke like a grownup because he was
actually 500 years old.'

BOGAEV: Now that's Eoin Colfer reading from his new book. It's called
"Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code," and it's third in his Artemis Fowl series.

Eoin Colfer, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. COLFER: Well, thank you very much. It's nice to be here.

BOGAEV: Thank for the reading, too. You started writing about fairies, and
fairies do play a big part in these books.

Mr. COLFER: No, they do. I suppose it's the Irish culture. I mean, we have
a very strong history of storytelling, and a lot of those stories involve the
arcane and magic and fairies. And the legend goes that when Irish people,
humans, first arrived in Ireland on the island they had to fight a great
battle against the fairy folk the day down, and they drove them underground,
and that's where they still live. And everything bad is attributed to them,
and all good luck is also attributed to them. So, I mean, it was quite
natural for me to write about fairies. There are hundreds of Irish fairy
books.

BOGAEV: The thing I like about the fairy kingdom in your books is that they
seem to answer some questions that you might have about fairies if you're a
kid hearing these stories for the first time. For instance, why do they live
underground, how can they live underground and how they manage living
underground. Were these some of the things you thought about when you were
hearing the legends as a child?

Mr. COLFER: It was. And as we all know, children are the most inquisitive
creatures on the planet, and every second word is `why, why, why.' And my own
son, who's five now--he's entered that phase, and you can't just tell him
anything. You have to explain and its history back to, you know, the Jurassic
days. He wants every detail and he's not satisfied until he has it.

And when I was reading these fairy stories, even as a six-, seven-year-old, I
said, `That couldn't happen. I mean, why are they there? How can they
survive, you know? What are they eating? Mud?' You know, so I decided to
make this plausible for kids because once you satisfy those questions and
answer those questions kids will accept it and say `OK,' and they know it's
not true but they'll pretend to believe it for that 20 minutes they're
reading. So that's what I wanted to do, set it up so well that kids could
suspend their disbelief for a while.

BOGAEV: The other thing I love about these fairies, the fairy kingdom, is
that they have a very highly advanced technology, and it really turns that
whole idea of the wee little people...

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: ...with their quaint little ways...

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: ...on its head.

Mr. COLFER: Well, that was the only way I reckon kids would believe that
fairies could have stayed hidden for so long. I mean, if we were so clever,
why haven't we found them? Because they're smarter, and that's the only way
they would stay hidden. But once you get that idea and you begin to draw
parallels between the human and fairy world, basically you just take our world
and you add a hundred years, and you see what could be possible, and all the
gadgets and the gimmicks. And they could happen, you know, it could work.

I don't like when I go to a movie and there's ridiculous gadgets, you know,
that couldn't possible work. Then that kind of turns me off the movie. If I
believe that it is possible--if you go to a movie like "Blade Runner" and you
say, `OK, well, the world could be like this in a couple of hundred years.
Everything here--there's nothing ridiculous, except for the human role.' But
ignoring the humanoid robots, there's nothing ridiculous. But if you go to a
movie and they've got kind of shrink rays, you know, that, you know, shrink
people down, you're just going `Aw, forget it. This is just ridiculous.' So
I like to really research the gadgets and make them all kind of believable.

BOGAEV: Now you describe the books as a "Die Hard" with fairies.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: That must be a quote that's come back to haunt you.

Mr. COLFER: In a way I was very un-media savvy, which I still am, but I was
extremely green at that time. It was about, I suppose, three years ago, and
it was the very first or second interview I had done. And he said, `Could you
describe it in a movie, like what movie is it like?' And so I said it was a
bit like "Die Hard" with fairies, but more for the attitude. I really like
the attitude of that movie because it didn't take itself seriously, and it was
funny as well as being very exciting. And the villain was way over the top,
and it was all completely ridiculous, but done in such a way that you utterly
believed it for the hour and a half you were watching it. So that's what I
liked about it. And obviously the plot is not very similar, but it was just
the attitude.

BOGAEV: Well, there is a good bit of violence in your books.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: There are guns and there are explosives.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And Artemis Fowl has a bodyguard who does do a lot of damage. But
it's all kind of along the lines of pow and socko...

Mr. COLFER: Yeah. Yeah.

BOGAEV: ...and karate kicks to the ...(unintelligible).

Mr. COLFER: I call it A-Team violence. You know, you remember "The A-Team."
You know, 200 bullets get fired but no one gets hit, and, you know, a car
crashes off a cliff but they make sure to show you everyone climbing out. And
I'm kind of like that. I give a lot of detail about stuff, but no one really
gets hurt and nobody dies. And it's because you do have to be a bit
responsible. In the second book I do kill four lizards. I will put my hand
up and say, `Yes, I did kill those lizards,' but they had it coming, you know.
And they were named after my brothers, and they definitely had it coming, so I
think I can be forgiven for that.

BOGAEV: Well, I was going to ask you if you did have a rule about it...

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: ...because it seems as if after 10 minutes everyone always gets up.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah. Yeah. I know it's a bit hokey, but hopefully the tension
and--you know, I don't do it too often. For example, in the first book I
think there's like three fights or something, so it's not as if someone gets
shot every minute. And I try to build the tension in such a way that maybe,
you know, it could happen. It could be someone could die. And, I mean, once
you think someone is dead, and so I think I gave you the thrill of killing
someone off but then I cheat and bring him back. But in the third book, you
know--in the book I'm working on now, there will be a few fatalities, but I
still don't want to kill any humans. I'm very fond of our species. I don't
want to kill any of us.

But, I mean, I think if you're handling very serious issues you have to
respect them. If you're going to write about death, you have to respect it,
you know, and you have to give it its due because there are going to be kids
reading this who have lost family, and you don't want to casually kill
someone's father. And, you know, it could really hurt that kid.

BOGAEV: So I have to ask you, had you read the "Harry Potter" books before
you started writing your own?

Mr. COLFER: I hadn't. Obviously I knew about the "Harry Potter" books. I
mean, unless you're living, you know, under a rock, down a cave somewhere with
earplugs you would have heard of those, but I hadn't read them. And my book
had just come out and I was in London for some interviews and there was a big
banner headline on some newspaper `Is This the Next Harry Potter?' And I
said, `Oh, my God. My book is the same as Harry Potter's. What have I done?'
So I went and bought "Harry Potter" in the bookstore in the train station, and
sitting on the train I read it and I was very much relieved to find out that
it wasn't the next "Harry Potter."

And then all the journalists read it and the next headline was `Is This the
Anti-Harry Potter?' So I just can't win, you know. If I'm not Harry Potter,
well, then I'm the opposite of Harry Potter. Somehow Harry Potter's getting
into the equation. But, you know, I can't really complain because I think
people have picked up my book on the strength of that, and a lot of those
people have stayed with me and bought the next books. So, you know, next time
I see J.K. Rowling I'll buy her a pint of Guinness or something. Or maybe she
can buy me one. She probably has...

BOGAEV: There you go.

Mr. COLFER: ...more money.

BOGAEV: What kind of fan mail do you get from kids?

Mr. COLFER: I get fan mail from everybody: boys, girls, grown-ups,
teen-agers. And often I get fan mail in code because there's a code running
along the bottom of one of the books, and...

BOGAEV: A fairy code.

Mr. COLFER: A fairy code called Gnomish. And if you decode that, there's
a little story in there, a little prophecy. It's just another dimension to
the book. And so people often write to me in code, pages and pages. It must
take them hours. So I'm...

BOGAEV: Do you decode it?

Mr. COLFER: Oh, yes, I decode every single word. But I'm praying as I open
the envelope, you know, `Please, God, English.' But generally I do try to
decode it. It's taken them so long to do it. I mean, they're actually--each
little one is a work of art, you know, and these kids, they're fantastic. But
I loved that kind of thing when I was young. I was in the spy club, and you
decode stuff every week, and I always loved that. But that's taken off.
There are whole Web sites dedicated to this code, and people communicate in
code and, you know, very smart kids. And I try to answer it all, but
sometimes it's three months before I get it from the publishers and then
another two months before I can get around to it. So...

BOGAEV: And do you answer in code?

Mr. COLFER: No. I do a little bit of code, 'cause I have the font. Now you
can download the font so you can just type in English and code comes out. I
should, actually; that'd teach them.

BOGAEV: How did you write the code in the first place? I mean, was that fun?

Mr. COLFER: I didn't come up with the symbols. In the book, the story says
that the code is based on hieroglyphics, or rather, hieroglyphics is based on
the code, so that's where the Egyptians got their language from, fairies,
which is not true, obviously, but it's nice for the purpose, fits into my
story. So they got this hieroglyphics expert in London, and he devised a
font--because it's just a font, really; it's not a language--based very
loosely on hieroglyphics, but also adding in things like computer chips to
show that it's a very modern society. So he ran it across--there's a code for
every book now, and if you want to learn more about the codes and keep up with
the latest in code developments, then you can go to my Web site, which is at
just eoincolfer.com.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Eoin Colfer. He is the author of the international
best-selling series "Artemis Fowl." It's about a 12-year-old criminal
mastermind. Colfer's third book in the series is just out. It's called
"Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code." We're going to take a short break, and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: (Technical difficulties) installment in his "Artemis Fowl" series.
It's about a boy genius who masterminds international crime and discovers a
technologically advanced fairy kingdom. His new book, the third in the
series, is "Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code."

Now "Artemis Fowl," the first book, is being made into a movie.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Are you involved in that?

Mr. COLFER: No, I'm not, because I absolutely don't have time--oh, and I
wasn't asked. But besides that, I probably wouldn't have time. Apparently
it's all set to go and they have the script done, and they're now wrangling
about the budget, so to see who they can afford to cast.

BOGAEV: So how will the casting work? And I would imagine you--you know,
you're Irish.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: You'd like to have an Irish actor to play...

Mr. COLFER: I would love to have an Irish actor. There was a casting agent
in Ireland looking for Artemis, going around to the schools. But that was,
like, two years ago, and now whoever they found is too old, so they're going
to have to do it again. And I think there are a few child actors that they're
looking at that would be kind of well-known. But I think they'll have to see
how they do with the Irish accent. I think there's nothing worse than--I
don't know how that goes in America, but when an Irish person turns on "Far
and Away," they go, `Oh, my God.'

BOGAEV: That must be so painful.

Mr. COLFER: Except for, you have to say it, Nicole Kidman, who had a
brilliant Irish accent. But in Tom, in fairness to him, you could hear the
"Mission: Impossible" theme playing behind his head as he--giving it the
Irish. But if you're listening, Tom, sorry. But--or Dick Van Dyke doing a
London accent, that's another one of our favorites. But these days I think
they're much more conscious of that and, you know, they get actors who really
go all out. Liam Neeson does a very good Irish accent but, you know,
sometimes...

BOGAEV: I wonder why.

Mr. COLFER: Colin Farrell does a good Irish accent. Yeah, but--so hopefully
they'll get someone who can either act or is Irish.

BOGAEV: Never both.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah, well--or both, yeah, that'd be good.

BOGAEV: Just one more question about the movie.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: The fairies.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah?

BOGAEV: Now I would think that you might have some concerns about it, about
what Hollywood could get most wrong about fairies.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: For instance, buckled shoes and knickers.

Mr. COLFER: Yes. Yeah, I'm a bit worried about that, you know. `Put up
your hands, begorra,' you know. That could be a bit--or `I'll shake this
pointy hat at you.' That is worrying.

BOGAEV: Right.

Mr. COLFER: But I think what sold them on this was the whole high-tech fairy
thing, and they were very intrigued by that. And I've seen some of the
drawings that they did, and they really look--you know, these guys look cool;
you know, they don't look hokey at all. So I...

BOGAEV: So it's kind of "The Matrix" with fairies.

Mr. COLFER: Yeah, it could be, you know. Kind of "The Matrix" with fairies,
but with good dialogue. That's what I'm hoping. So--not that "The Matrix"
hasn't got good dialogue; it does. I actually like "The Matrix." But, yeah,
so, you know, good snappy dialogue between the fairies and not the usual, `Oh,
begorra, there's your--here's a wish for you now. Would you not like a bit
of gold? Ho, ho, ho.' You know, none of that. Actual dialogue.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Eoin Colfer. He's the author of the "Artemis Fowl"
series of children's books. They're about a 12-year-old criminal mastermind
known as Artemis Fowl. His third book in the series is just out; it's called
"Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code."

As a kid, did you read series of books like this? I'm thinking of Narnia.

Mr. COLFER: Oh, yeah, I read all--I loved the Narnia books, and I loved "The
Lord of the Rings" books. And there were several other fantasy series I
loved, Raymond E. Feist's "Magician" series and Stephen Donaldson and Lord
Thomas Covenent's series. There was just--there's loads of them. And I went
through a real phase with four or five friends of mine in our teens, and we
read every fantasy book on the market. And I just loved them. And they were
kind of like a reliable thing. You knew what you were going to get in these,
and everybody--I think when you're a kid, you want to be accepted in some
area, whether it's sports or drama or academia. But for me, it was this
fantasy thing and music, heavy metal music and fantasy, which kind of go
together. So it was AC/DC and "Lord of the Rings," strangely enough. And
they were the ones that--and I was in the club, and that was it. All I had to
do was get a denim jacket, and you're in, you know. So you don't have to be
funny; you just have to--`Hey, dude.' That's it, no wit required.

So, yeah. But also, I mean, there's a genuine love of literature there
underneath, I think, for all these kids, and as there was for me. You can't
survive on needing to be part of the group forever. I mean, you can pretend
you like a certain band and then not listen to them. But you've got to read
the books; you can't really fake it, you know. You can't say `I read "Lord
of the Rings"' and if you haven't, because you'll be very quickly found out.
So you have to love the books. But it does give you that feeling of
belonging.

Nowadays it's much more common. You see, in those days, there weren't as many
readers as there are now, and if there were, they didn't say anything, because
it wasn't cool, you know. You didn't sit at the sidelines of the football
game discussing Lemony Snicket, you know. It just didn't happen. But now
kids are swapping books in the open. What's going on? You know, their
parents are bringing them to book readings and signings. But 20 years ago,
that didn't really happen. So it's a brave new world out there, you know.

BOGAEV: Now is music still a part of your experience, then, writing?

Mr. COLFER: Oh, yes, I always play music when I'm writing, and very varied
tastes. I love everything from AC/DC to Metallica.

BOGAEV: Well, that covers a lot.

Mr. COLFER: No, I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. No, I like everything.
And I mean, some of the modern stuff is great. I love Sheryl Crow; I think
she's brilliant. And Coldplay are an excellent band, and Semisonic and all
these wonderful bands. I do admit that I'm leaning towards guitar bands, but
as I get older, I'm mellowing slightly. I haven't gone to see a heavy metal
concert since Whitesnake back in, I don't know, '90-something. So once they
started getting perms, I got out of heavy metal.

BOGAEV: That's where you draw the line?

Mr. COLFER: The frizzy perms, the loose shags, no thank you. So if they have
their own hair, I don't care, but no perms, please.

BOGAEV: Well, Eoin Colfer, it was really fun talking to you today.

Mr. COLFER: It's my pleasure, Barbara.

BOGAEV: Eoin Colfer's new "Artemis Fowl" novel is called "The Eternity Code."

Noel Redding, the bass player for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was found dead
at his home in Ireland earlier this week. He was 57 years old. Redding
played with Hendrix for three years in the late '60s. He also led his own
bands, including Fat Mattress and The Noel Redding Band. Here's something
from "Axis: Bold as Love," the second Experience album, recorded in 1967.
I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) Well, I'm standing here, freezing, inside your
golden garden. I got my ladder leaned up against your wall. Tonight's the
night we planned to run away together. Come on, Dolly Mae, there's no time to
stall. But now you're telling me...

Mr. HENDRIX and Backup Singers: (In unison) I think we better wait till
tomorrow.

Mr. HENDRIX: Hey, yeah, hey.

Backup Singers: I think we better wait till tomorrow.

Mr. HENDRIX: Girl, what you talking about?

Backup Singers: I think we better wait till tomorrow.

Mr. HENDRIX: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Got to make sure that it's right, so until
tomorrow, good night. Oh, what a drag. Oh, Dolly Mae, how can you hang me up
this way? Oh, on the phone you said you wanted to run off with me today. Now
I'm standing here like some turned-down serenading fool, hearing strange words
stutter from the mixed-up mind of you. And you keep tellin' me that...

Mr. HENDRIX and Backup Singers: (In unison) I think we better wait till
tomorrow.

Mr. HENDRIX: What you talking about?

Backup Singers: I think we better wait till tomorrow.

Mr. HENDRIX: No, can't wait that long.

Backup Singers: I think we better wait till tomorrow.

Mr. HENDRIX: Oh, no. Got to make sure it's right, until tomorrow, good
night, oh. Let's see if I can talk to this girl a little bit here. Ow!
Dolly Mae, girl, you must be insane, so unsure of yourself leaning from your
unsure windowpane. Do I see a silhouette of somebody pointing something from
a tree? Click, bang, what a hang, your daddy just shot poor me. And now I
hear you say, as I fade away...

(Announcements)

BOGAEV: Coming up, the neo-vaudevillian duo of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl.
They're known as The Right Size, and their Tony-nominated Broadway production
is called "The Play What I Wrote." And another Neo; film critic David
Edelstein reviews "The Matrix: Reloaded."

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, who are the comedy duo
The Right Size, discuss their careers
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

It's silly, it's goofy, it's even stupid in a brilliant sort of way, and it's
just been awarded for a Tony, the Broadway play "The Play What I Wrote."
It stars the British comedy duo The Right Size, made up of my guests, Sean
Foley and Hamish McColl. They sing, they dance, they fall down, they do
heart-stoppingly bad jokes, classic slapstick and musical skits, all without a
trace of irony. Oh, yes, and then there's the plot. Foley and McColl play a
comedy team in crisis. Hamish believes he's a serious playwright and wants to
leave the double act. Sean, the rubber-legged funny man, wants to keep the
act going. With the help of his sidekick, Arthur, Sean humors Hamish into
believing they will, indeed, stage his awful play, set during the French
Revolution.

This provides the opportunity for the show's hook. Each evening, a mystery
guest celebrity takes a role in the Bastille scene of the play within a play.
Guests have included Nathan Lane, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline and Roger Moore.
"The Play What I Wrote" is inspired by a legendary British double act, Eric
Morecombe and Ernie Wise, who hosted TV variety shows in the '60s and '70s,
watched by everyone from bus drivers to the Windsors. Just to emphasize how
hard it is to nail down the style of this show, it's been nominated for a Tony
in the category of best special theatrical event.

I'd like to talk about language, and I have to admit, I have all these notes
from the play about puns, but I can't read anything I wrote. I think I was
laughing too hard.

Mr. HAMISH McCOLL (The Right Size): Oh, dear.

BOGAEV: And also, the play moves along so quickly, I never finished anything.
The only line that survived is one that I believe Hamish says. It's in the
dreadful play within a play, his serious play, "A Tight Squeeze for the
Scarlet Pimple," which takes place, of course, during the French Revolution.
And, Hamish, you're draped in a French flag, and you're wearing a tiny Eiffel
Tower on your head, and you say--now if I say it, it's not going to be funny.

Mr. McCOLL: Don't ask me to say it. I don't get funny until 8 PM every
evening.

BOGAEV: You say, `I am France, and parts of me are revolting. I Camembert
it.'

Mr. McCOLL: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Now, that...

Mr. SEAN FOLEY (The Right Size): Disgust. Disgust with reference to the
French Revolution.

Mr. McCOLL: Well, it was actually first said by Marat when Charlotte
Corday wouldn't pass him the soap.

BOGAEV: I have no question about this. No, what process do you go through in
writing to come up with puns like that? Is that a line that you had to hone
or revise, or did you add the Camembert part later as you were goofing around?

Mr. McCOLL: That line came about--yes, that was actually one of the sections
that was slightly tweaked for the New York show. So Hamish with his flag and
his Eiffel Tower wasn't in the London show. But, yes, in answer to where did
we make that material, we made it up in the Manhattan Theater Club when we
were goofing around, trying to find what we needed. And believe me, there
were other gags suggested and probably tried, and those were the ones that
were the best. And they honed well, and they sit well with the audience, and
they are as absurd as they are. They are awful lines. And the permanent
excuse and deflating point for the audience is that you're allowed to do bad
jokes, because they are written by a man who thinks he is brilliant. Hamish,
the play writer, is the worst writer who has ever lived, and he has written
these absurdly bad lines. And, you know, that gives us certain license for
you to do them. If you really were doing them utterly straight up, an evening
of that, then I think you might have a harder time. But there is a sort of
perspective in the story, which is that this one character really is not
blessed with any writing skill at all.

BOGAEV: So you kind of come in through the back door there, and th...

Mr. FOLEY: Well, at the same time as you may be inclined to laugh at silly
and stupid jokes like that, you're also very much more inclined to laugh at a
person, a character who believes that what they're doing is wonderful and
great, and that they are the new Arthur Miller-lite, which Hamish does.
And therefore, you're laughing at the character as well as the joke, and
that's always a much stronger laugh, I think, to get. And, you know, that
brings us back the show, and all sorts of comedy is employed in, as you said,
the snaps. There's physical comedy. There's visual and verbal puns. There's
comedy with the set. But underneath it all is, in fact, a story going on
there. You're watching a story, which sustains, we think anyway, that amount
of--sort of frothy comedy is sustained by the fact that actually you are
watching in process a little conflict going on, a drama, a story of these two
guys, and will they patch it up and keep working together, or will, indeed,
Hamish leave to become this great writer as he thinks.

BOGAEV: Now there's also a good deal of the play is a reference to comedy.
And there's a scene where you, Sean, are trying to console Hamish about his
ability or his lack of ability to get laughs, and you talk about the delayed
laugh and the anticipatory laugh, and the most sophisticated laugh of all,
the inaudible laugh. Now those first two laughs--I don't now about the
inaudible one--but they do exist. I mean, doing what you do, you must have a
whole category, a slew of categories for different kinds of laughs. Is that
true?

Mr. McCOLL: Well, we do. I mean, but those are, again, taken to extremes.
The delayed laugh, Hamish's character says, you know, that he doesn't
understand how when he says something, nobody laughs, and then Sean says
something and everybody laughs. And it is described to him that that is the
delayed laugh, because what I say is so funny that people go into shock and
that they aren't able to laugh until actually after, sometimes, till Sean says
something. Indeed, you know, those are absurd ones, but we are, yeah,
precisely, I think I'd say, not so much in terms of the kind of laughs, but
how to get them. I mean, we have Ken Branagh, who directed this show, who we
hadn't known before, and when he came into rehearsals was amazed and never
ceased to tease us about the language which we use for how to best effect a
laugh in the audience. We were constantly talking abo...

BOGAEV: Like, for instance?

Mr. McCOLL: Well, we're constantly talking about things like holding it up,
which means that if you go at it--holding it up for us means that you're going
for the punch line, but you can't put the punch line too quickly, and so you
might put a phrase, like `By the way,' or...

Mr. FOLEY: `Well, anyway.'

Mr. McCOLL: ...`Well, anyway,' which would just hold it up, and then you
deliver the punch line, because the analysis would be that without that, the
punch line comes too quick, and you're not getting the best of the laugh. The
other one would be, like--we call it, like, studding it, which means that if
you're aiming at a punch line in three lines down, just how many times do we
share the preceding lines before we go for the punch line? And a line is a
stud. So Sean might say to me, `For this line, I need you to stud me there,'
which would mean that I...

Mr. FOLEY: You could just say something as simple as `What?' or...

Mr. McCOLL: Yeah.

Mr. FOLEY: ...you say, `When?' whatever it is. It's just each time he says
it, it's literally the science of when you are delivering the thing at which
you want everyone to laugh to get the most effect from your material.

Mr. McCOLL: So it might be highly efficient, for example, not to get the
audience laughing during a build, a rhythmical build, because then, when you
do release the laughter, you get a much bigger laugh at the end, whereas if
they've laughed sort of consistently and irregularly throughout the build,
your punch line laugh will never be as big.

BOGAEV: Could you...

Mr. McCOLL: As I'm saying this, I can just hear how obsessive this thing is.

Mr. FOLEY: I can hear people falling asleep.

Mr. McCOLL: Wake up, America.

Mr. FOLEY: Wake up, everyone.

Mr. McCOLL: Wake up, America, wake up.

Mr. FOLEY: It is interesting, but only to a very, very few people.

Mr. McCOLL: Actually, you see, Ronnie Corbett, who is a great English
comedian, said, `You talk about comedy at your peril, because the minute you
do, it starts to unravel in your hands.' And I think it's a mercurial thing.
It doesn't really make much sense to talk about it in any really empirical
sense. In intuitive, really.

BOGAEV: Well, moving on, every performance features a mystery guest who
agrees to perform in Hamish's overwritten and overacted play, and perform in
period costume. Were the mystery guests part of this old variety show format?

Mr. FOLEY: They were, abs...

BOGAEV: Is that how you came upon that?

Mr. FOLEY: Exactly right. Morecombe and Wise, in their television series,
they would have a mystery guest, you know every week. Because they were such
huge British TV stars then at that point, they would get people, like, truly
great actors, like, you know, Laurence Olivier would come on and be, I think
you say here, sort of lightly roasted, you know, teased to within an inch of
his life about how bad he was as an actor, and you know, `Why couldn't he
deliver these great lines better than what he was doing?' And, you know, they
even had our prime minister at the time, Harold Wilson, on one of their shows,
so they were that big.

But that is where the idea comes from that the guest star would--and as
happens in our show, the guest star shows up. Desperately, Sean has promised
Hamish that--you know, to try to keep the evening going, because he doesn't
want Hamish to leave. He said that he will do his play, and that, indeed,
there is a guest star turning up to do it, when he knows full well that there
isn't in his mind. But then miraculously, you know, Liam Neeson will turn up,
or Nathan Lane will turn up, or Glenn Close will turn up, or Jeff Goldblum
will turn up, all people who we've had in the show so far, amongst others.
John Lithgow has done it as well. And they will turn up to take their role
as the Count de Toblerone in Hamish's French Revolution masterpiece, "A Tight
Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple."

BOGAEV: Well, what are some of the roasting or teasing of prominent guest
stars that you're most proud of?

Mr. McCOLL: We adored teasing Sting when he did it. He had a line, which we
asked him to say, that he was delighted to be there, but would we please not
take the mickey out of any of his song lyrics, which we then peppered the
entire show with. Of course, it was constantly, `Stop! Stop the show.
There's a message for you Sting. It's in a bottle.' There was all, `Every
little thing you're doing is magic.'

Mr. FOLEY: `Don't stand so close to me, Sting.'

Mr. McCOLL: And that was just wonderful. But in general, everywhere--I mean,
Liam Neeson, Sean thinks for the entire length of the play is Leslie Nielsen,
you know. They're sort of absurdly light, but they're extremely efficient
ways of teasing people. And I think that it's got an enormous comic richness
to it.

BOGAEV: Now Kenneth Branagh, your director, he was also a mystery guest one
night. How did he do?

Mr. McCOLL: He did very well, except he did forget his very first line, which
is, when he comes on, he has to say--his first line is `I am Ken Branagh.'
And due to large amounts of nerves and a certain sense of surreal that he was
in the show that he had been directing, that was something that we were able
to tease him about for months. But he did very well. He's quite a good
actor actually.

BOGAEV: Who would have guessed.

Mr. FOLEY: Not too bad. Not too bad.

Mr. McCOLL: Not too bad.

Mr. FOLEY: People were quite pleased to see him on stage, yeah.

BOGAEV: Sean Foley and Hamish McColl are my guests. They're a comedy team
known as The Right Size. They're currently starring on Broadway in their new
play, "The Play What I Wrote." We're going to take a break now, Sean and
Hamish, and then we're going to talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back with Sean Foley and Hamish McColl. Together, they make up the
British comedy team The Right Size. They're performing on Broadway in a
vaudeville-type, full-length comedy called "The Play What I Wrote."

How did you two meet?

Mr. McCOLL: We met romantically enough in Paris in 1986, I think, or '7,
where we were both studying at a theater school run by a man called Philippe
Gaulier, and we were there for the long and rich period of one month before
we ran out of money, and we came back to England together. And during that
time of that in Paris, we had made each other laugh, and we had improvised
really well on stage together. And we thought, `Yeah, let's start doing
work.' So we started doing cabarets and hat fairs and summer fairs and
anything and, you know, just comic shtick, really. And then, after that, we
developed a fully fledged company. In 1988, we made our first show, "Que
Sera." And we've been touring the world with shows like that and very much
comedy theater shows for the last 15 years.

BOGAEV: You did tour all over the world. I think I read you were in Amman
for a performance.

Mr. FOLEY: Yes.

Mr. McCOLL: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Were there cultural differences in--I mean, was that a memorable
performance, your gig there?

Mr. McCOLL: Yes. In Amman, it was an extremely successful evening, but it
was, yeah, very different. I mean, but they're extremely cultured people, and
they very much enjoy laughing, so it was great. I mean, we've played in
places where--like in west Africa, when we played there, we played in Ghana
and places like that, and even when we played in Amman, actually, when we
played outside the main city, the biggest difference is that they don't have a
strong sense of the delineation between audience and performer. So you have a
lot of interaction, where people calling out to you or maybe even coming to
visit you on the stage. It's a much more moveable ...(unintelligible).

Mr. FOLEY: There's no history of theater in that sense of, `There's the stage
and we go in, and we pay the money, and we sit down and just--we take what
they give us on stage.' It was sort of like, we were all in this big room
together, you know. `Why don't we just all do what everyone else does,' you
know.

Mr. McCOLL: Yeah.

Mr. FOLEY: And so the things--we were doing a show called "Flight to
Finland," which was all set on a boat. And every time we'd sort of try and
portray or imagine or suggest that there were seagulls overhead, people would
really react like there were seagulls overhead, or they'd really react like...

Mr. McCOLL: And create their own seagulls, you know. Or Sean would wave out
as a ship left an imaginary port, and everybody would stand up and wave back
at him.

BOGAEV: So it was a real collaboration.

Mr. McCOLL: Because it's just sort of...

Mr. FOLEY: How we ever got through the show, I don't know.

Mr. McCOLL: But, I mean, it was just a completely different show, but they
had a great time, you know, and it's--I think one of the sort of things that
we learned while doing that was that, you know, you just have to keep very
loose and easy on your material and not get uptight about it, because they're
undoubtlessly having a great, great time, but just they're not having the time
that you would expect them to have or not in the way that you would expect
them to be having it.

BOGAEV: Now did you actually research old routines from vaudeville halls or
look up old vaudeville players?

Mr. FOLEY: Well, we'd come at sort of, you know, getting a hold of that
material and reinventing it, as it were, from lots of sources, just simply
some, you know, old films you might see, also, indeed, classic films, you
know. Buster Keaton is a hero of both of ours, you know, as are Laurel and
Hardy and some of the great silent comedians. Their work is still current and
still wonderful. Then you have people over here, like you had Burt Lahr, and
we had over in Britain, you know, our music hall stars, Max Wall and his sort
of array of funny walks comes to mind, which, you know, then in the generation
after that was Monty Python and their ministry of silly walks, which was, you
know, essentially, that old tradition of what was called eccentric dancing put
in the new form and a new sketch and represented as lots of types of comedy
are.

BOGAEV: Now tell me if this is too personal, but are either one of you
married or in a serious relationship, and I ask that to...

Mr. FOLEY: Oh, God, Barbara.

Mr. McCOLL: It's too personal.

Mr. FOLEY: Don't ask us that.

Mr. McCOLL: It's too personal.

Mr. FOLEY: I mean, that is outrageous.

Mr. McCOLL: I'm sorry. I can't believe it.

Mr. FOLEY: Unbelievable.

Mr. McCOLL: She seemed like such a nice lady, didn't she?

Mr. FOLEY: And then, bang, like that, grubbing around, trying to get the
dirt. I'm married, yes, two kids.

Mr. McCOLL: I'm married, yes, one kid.

BOGAEV: Well, very good. So I thought that would be such a problem with a
double act, that it was a classic once you get married and other people enter
into the mix. Were there any bumps along the road?

Mr. McCOLL: Well, people often say that a double act is like a marriage,
don't they, Sean?

Mr. FOLEY: Only it's absolutely absurd, isn't it, darling?

Mr. McCOLL: I mean, the thing is, we work together. But, I mean, many people
who--Ben and Jerry make ice cream together. I mean, and I don't know whether
they're married, but they presumably have other lives. There's a sort of
conception with double acts that you're sort of are, in some way, married or
impossibly close. I mean, you know, we work together. We tour together. But
we go home, and we have other lives. We don't socialize together anymore,
because--though we used to do that a lot in the old days, and we have our
families to go home to, you know, where it's not that much different than a
normal business. You know, we are business partners, and then we have our
families.

Mr. FOLEY: You make it sound so romantic.

BOGAEV: I'm weeping. Well, Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, I want to thank you
very much for allowing me to put you...

Mr. McCOLL: Enter our dark world.

BOGAEV: ...through this dissection of our comedy.

Mr. FOLEY: Yeah. Thank you very much, Barbara, although I'm still smarting
about that personal question you asked.

Mr. McCOLL: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Sean Foley and Hamish McColl star in the Broadway show, "The Play
What I Wrote." It's been nominated for a Tony.

Coming up, "The Matrix Reloaded." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Science-fiction thriller "The Matrix Reloaded"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

The science fiction thriller "The Matrix" was not only one of the biggest hits
of 1999, it won a huge cult following for its fusion of existential
philosophy, great martial arts and ground-breaking special effects. The
Wachowski brothers, who wrote and directed the film, took four years to make
the second part of their "Matrix" trilogy, "The Matrix Reloaded." And now
there are lines around the block at your neighborhood multiplexes. Film
critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

OK. Don't shoot the messenger. For one thing, I can't make bullets freeze in
midair like Keanu Reeves as everybody's favorite computer geek turned
messianic superhero, Neo, aka, `the one.' For another, I'm on the side of Joe
Moviegoer. I wanted "The Matrix Reloaded" to be just as religious an
experience as the original. Let's say a word about that original before the
really bad news.

"The Matrix" was, above all, a kind of ontological mystery. How could
Carrie-Anne Moss, in that slinky black vinyl cat suit, suspend herself in
midair, karate kick some guard, then scamper horizontally along the wall? Who
were those dudes in the sunglasses and identical suits? Why did Neo's life
feel so unreal? The answers first bent your mind, and then they blew it.
They were all in a giant computer simulation devised by machines to drain the
energy from humans in a state of suspended animation.

OK, it sounds dumb, but the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, exploited
everything smart and trendy and postmodern science fiction and wedded it to
everything smart and trendy in postmodern philosophy. They even gave a cameo
to a book by Jean Baudrillard. Then they mixed in up-to-the-minute digital
effects and Hong Kong martial arts so that each action scene was like an
ontological metaphysical leap forward. Plus, the movie kicked butt.

So here's the word on the sequel. It stinks. It's an ugly, overblown,
repetitive movie that builds to a punch line that should have come an hour
earlier. Then it ends when it should be getting going, with a teaser for part
three, "The Matrix Revolutions," coming in November to 8,000 theaters near
you. Almost from the start, this one feels different. It's full of sequences
that should be the coolest things ever, but they feel more like video games
that can reset themselves when they're done. One ballyhooed sequence is
entirely digital. It shows Neo fighting more than a hundred incarnations of
his old nemesis, Agent Smith. He sends one somersaulting into the far
distance, does a back flip onto a wall, and sends another few in the direction
of the camera, which is dive-bombing and swirling and whooshing around at
speeds that would tear an ordinary camera apart. It looks real, but it
doesn't have the impact of the real.

Maybe that's because the minimal plot of this thing is essentially a video
game. Neo goes back into the Matrix to find someone called The Keymaker, who
can take him to the source, the inner core of the simulated universe. Each
new level presents more kung fu adversaries and more fearsome obstacles, and
if you're a champ, you get to the source. Now Neo is a champ. He can even
fly. The other characters joke that he's like Superman, but he's more like
Superpriest. His long coat has been replaced by a black cassock with a
high cleric's collar. He's a bulletproof monk. The Matrix is basically his
playpen. He can look the way he wants, move the way he wants. He might even
be able to bring back the dead. But his powers don't seem to turn him on.
Neo was a dull, earnest kind of messiah, and Carrie-Anne Moss's Trinity has
lost that mysterioso S&M vibe and become rather mushy and maternal. It
doesn't help that the pair gets stuck for a while in the underground city of
Zion, which is like a rusting shopping mall in hell. It's where all the
unplugged humans go to plan their guerrilla uprisings against the machines.
And here's an intriguing surprise, most of them are African-American, Asian
or mixtures of sundry other races.

And here's a depressing surprise. Listen to Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus
and Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe, all good actors, sound like the cast of "Star
Trek: Deep Space 9" on a really bad day.

(Soundbite from "The Matrix Reloaded")

Ms. JADA PINKETT SMITH (As Niobi): The machines are digging and going from
the surface straight down to Zion.

Unidentified Actor #1: Mother.

Unidentified Actor #2: They'll avoid the entire perimeter defense.

Unidentified Actor #3: How fast are they moving?

Ms. SMITH: Control estimates their descent at 100 meters an hour.

Unidentified Actor #2: How deep are they?

Ms. SMITH: Almost 2,000 meters.

Unidentified Actor #2: I read the scans from the Osirus.

Unidentified Actor #4: They can't be accurate.

Ms. SMITH: They may be.

Unidentified Actor #3: What?

Unidentified Actor #4: It's not possible.

Ms. SMITH: That would mean there are a quarter million sentinels up there.

Unidentified Actor #3: That's right.

Unidentified Actor #5: That can't be.

Unidentified Actor #1: Why not?

Unidentified Actor #5: A sentinel for every man, woman and child in Zion.

Mr. LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Morpheus) That sounds exactly like the thinking
of a machine to me.

Ms. SMITH: Morpheus, glad you could join us.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Niobi. My apologies to all. As you are undoubtedly aware,
it has become increasingly difficult to locate a secure broadcast position.

Unidentified Actor #3: Skujis(ph) got all the best spots.

Unidentified Actor #6: Main lines are crawling with them.

Unidentified Actor #7: And if Niobi's right, in 72 hours, there's going to
be a quarter million more.

Ms. FISHBURNE: What are we going to do about it?

Ms. SMITH: We're going to do what Commander Lock ordered us to do. We'll
evacuate broadcast level and return to Zion.

Mr. FISHBURNE: And does the commander have a plan for stopping 250,000
sentinels?

Ms. SMITH: A strategy is still being formulated.

EDELSTEIN: Dull staging, tinnier dialogue, bad acting, plus a slow-motion
Biblical orgy intercut with Neo and Trinity making love. You can almost see
Cecil B. DeMille getting off in his grave.

What went wrong? I think the Wachowskis have been pickling in their own
self-importance for too long. When the made the original, they'd come off
a terrific low-budget lesbian film noir called "Bound," and they gave "The
Matrix" a no-nonsense B movie thrust. Here, almost every sequence goes on
for too long, especially the climax, which is designed to look like the end
of "2001" and seem just as cosmic. It does explode the Biblical mumbo jumbo
that has preceded it, forcing us to rethink the meaning of the prophecies
that have guided Neo's actions. But the knowledge isn't liberating this
time, because the movie, itself, is so deadly.

In the first "Matrix," Neo broke through the artificial into the real. In
"The Matrix Reloaded," he breaks through into a really pretentious
blockbuster, with no transcendence in sight.

BOGAEV: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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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