By Tash Mosheim
Ali Plumb is a journalist, broadcaster and one of the UK’s most listened to movie critics. He interviews the most exciting talent in Hollywood, sitting down with James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino this past year alone. Yet Plumb “genuinely didn’t think that it was possible” to be “a film critic, an entertainment journalist or an interviewer of any kind”. He thought, “it wasn’t a conceivable dream. It was the kind of thing that I tried to push away from my mind”.
Though Plumb believed his role as a film journalist “never felt real until it actually started happening,” he has always had a keen interest in writing and presenting. Studying English Literature at Warwick University, Plumb fondly recalls working with the RAW 1251AM team at the radio station. “There was such a good atmosphere at the top of the Student’s Union. You got this freedom to put together your own shows, even if they were going live at about 2 in the morning, or 11 at night… You got a couple of hours to play pretty much any music that you liked, and just have a laugh with your friends.”
Along with this, Plumb, “maybe not that surprisingly”, worked at the university’s student paper, The Boar. This, Plumb concedes, “isn’t, let’s be honest, the best name for a newspaper that there’s ever been. To anyone who hasn’t seen it written down, you just think, well why would I pick that up.” Even so, Plumb “really enjoyed putting effort into [the paper]. We poured a lot of love and time into every page. I’d say that we maybe worked too hard on it”.
Plumb recognises how valuable his degree has been in helping him critique and analyse films. “I think it makes you more comfortable using language that is required to do certain films justice and certain pieces of art justice. Using the correct language confidently… allows you to speak to the producers and the directors who are making the art, whether their art is a Transformers movie, or it’s Booksmart or Birdman.”
Now that Plumb is BBC Radio 1s in-house film critic, he regularly speaks to the biggest movie stars in the world. Is this his favourite part of the job? “Obviously meeting the famous people that you have admired for a long time is a buzz and a thrill.” Though he also enjoys the editing process: “I love constructing the narrative in the edit room and making the clips that we’ve got to use… It’s like a puzzle. It helps everything come to life. My aim is to make our shows fun, informative and ideally educational.”
How involved is Plumb in making the edits and choosing who he interviews? “When I first got started, I would say I wasn’t as involved.” Yet he has become more so “the more I’ve done it, the more confident I’ve got, and the better my relationships have become with my editors and my producers”. Granted, “sometimes I just want to be there because it’s fun. And sometimes I don’t like the way the interview has gone and I don’t want to be looking at my face.”
Regardless of how many times Plumb has completed an interview, he still faces “a lot of stress that comes with the job”. He quickly clarifies: “I’m not saying what I do, in any way, is actually hard work by any means, but there is a certain amount of ‘Oh my word, I’m going to really make a mistake here and I’m going to properly embarrass myself.’” Nevertheless, Plumb does “get through that nervousness, that feeling that you might have before a job interview”.
To give Plumb the confidence that the interview will go well, he will do a lot of prep and research beforehand. This will involve “watching all the movies” that will be talked about, aswell as reading “articles and interviews.” Plumb confesses that he becomes “mildly obsessed” with the actor he is about to interview, “I did Jamie Fox recently, and all my YouTube suggestions are Jamie Fox interviews”.
Plumb advises “to find questions that haven’t been asked before. Or if you do ask them again, you ask in an interesting way.” He discloses “it does take me a long while, particularly if it is someone who has all the answers.” This is because “it is a duty that you have to all the people excited to see the interview. You need to be on your game, ready, treating them with the respect they deserve.”
Has Plumb had any awkward encounters on screen? “Absolutely”. How does he deal with it? “You role with it. You ask the next question. Sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it’s theirs.” Yet this is why there’s editing. “This isn’t gotcha stuff. I’m not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. Awkward moments happen all the time. People might just be jetlagged, hung-over or tired. You might have brought up something that doesn’t make them happy… You’re not going to be perfect, neither are they. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
Has Plumb found a difference between the English and American celebrities he has interviewed? “Yes. In terms of sense of humour and getting a lot of what us Brits like”, including “sarcasm”, “dry wit” and “a kind of knowing humour… American celebrities and actors aren’t quite as on board with that as quickly… there’s also the references, you forget how British Britain is. If I say something is a marmite topic, for example, everyone knows what that means, it’s divisive. But you forget the Atlantic is a big ocean and we are not all the same, though we do speak, in theory, the same language.”
Plumb’s favourite person to interview? “Catch me on one day and I’ll say Taron Edgerton. Catch me on another day and I might say Hugh Jackman, or it could be Sarah Paulsen… As a journalist, it’s always easier when they’re less frosty, more willing to have a good time and open up about their projects and their work. Some people enjoy that side of the job. People think that all an actor has to do is turn up on a sound stage and speak their lines. That’s true to an extent but they also have to promote the movie, go around the world, repeatedly say the same things. They have to be polite, friendly, shake hands, smile for the camera and basically be politicians of a kind. There’s an old phrase, I think Michelle Pfeiffer said it, which is, I act for free, but they pay me for the press.”
His memory of his interview with Christopher Nolan? “He spoke very well of his feelings toward Heath Ledger. I was really impressed by that and I really liked how refreshing he was about casting Harry Styles. He didn’t say, ‘this was a gimic and I was looking to sell tickets’. He came in, was there on the day, auditioned well and so Nolan was happy to have him on board… Also, as a side note, my interview was the same day, coincidentally, that I had my Stag Do… I told him that and he really found that funny. Christopher Nolan obviously has a reputation for being a bit chilly, and a little bit Christopher Nolan… he’s not known for his sense of humour or being full of jokes and one-liners, but he’s actually a funny guy in his own dry way. And he said, I want you to promise me that by the end of the day, you’ve got a traffic cone on your head and you’re hanging out from a lamp post… He was really tickled by the idea that this had happened.”
His interview with Jennifer Lawrence “was a fun one…she’s always full of energy. She’s there to have a good time and wants you to feel happy.” Plumb reveals “often a lot of my job is asking questions that allow the actor to tell the joke. You’re setting up the punch line, and letting them deliver it.”
Plumb “loves” and is “really proud” of working for the BBC. “It’s certainly meant a lot to my family to get a job here.” He admits that part of the reason he thought “being a film critic was so unachievable [was] because I’d never be able to match the beats of a Mark Kermode or a whoever, because they’re talking about everything. I’ll happily talk about Little Women, but I’ll find it really difficult to get to grips with an incredibly obscure rerelease of a 1961 Horror movie. Other journalists, other critics can do that better than I can.” Yet Plumb is “over the moon” that “the movies I like, predominantly are the broad, mainstream, Marvel, DC, Godzilla, Star Wars type movies, and that’s what a Radio 1 audience likes”.
Plumb observes that “there is certainly a confidence and a happiness in the Radio 1 and the BBC brand”. This means that filmmakers and actors “would never” ask for their questions beforehand. “They know that I’m not going to ask them about their personal life. We are representing, in a certain way, Britain… There’s a trust.”
Plumb has noted that very rarely does he reveal his personality. Why? “No one, I would say, needs me in the interview. If you’re clicking on an interview with Chris Pratt, you want to see Chris Pratt… He’s the celebrity, he’s the star, he’s the reason why you walk through the door. Now, if it were called the Ali Plumb show, and people were coming to see me every week, and that’s the reason why they went through the door, and if I were Graham Norton…” From Plumb’s perspective, he’s “the facilitator of these people having a good time and telling their stuff in an interesting, fun way… I don’t think anyone wants to see the likes of me trying to suck up or being sycophantic to a series of celebrities.”
Plumb’s highlight film he has reviewed over the years? “Most recently, we had Avengers EndGame, and that was a highlight in a bizarre way because it was the end of 21 movies and it was finally wrapping up this humongous saga. I realised that my review had to basically be two words: it’s bad, it’s fine, it’s great or it’s brilliant… I loved the movie, I had loads of good things to say about it, I found it so satisfying and epic, but no one actually wants to hear the knitty-gritty of why it’s good and why it’s bad.”
Does that mean Plumb does not agree with Martin Scorsese, that Marvel is “not cinema”? Plumb thinks “a lot of what he’s said has been taken out of context and a lot of journalism these days is based off a headline and not off the actual conversation. I think, having spoken to him myself, not to be that guy and name drop, Martin Scorsese is absolutely right. A lot of the points he’s making are around the idea that we go to cinemas in multiplexes, and sometimes… nine out of ten of the screens will be the same movie, because that’s financially more sensible for the cinema chain. It’s harder for The Farewell or Leave No Trace or what have you, to actually have the opportunity to be watched, whether it’s good or not, whether it’s in cinemas or not. So I would ask people who have only read the headline, to look deeper into what Martine Scorsese says.”
Plumb explains that Scorsese is “talking about the changing nature of how cinema and movies are being consumed, and what they are trying to achieve. Are the Marvel movies trying to speak to your soul?” Or, are they trying to “offer escapism and to tell fun stories? Whilst giving you characters that you care about and special effects spectaculars?”
Plumb, on any given week, watches 3 films “a minimum”, though it “can be up to 5 or 6.” Does he think it’s fair that critics have the power to make or break a film, as seen with Cats? “No one critic anymore has the ability to destroy a film… If they turn on mass, then possibly. But it’s a hive mind… If everyone is turning against a film, then normally there’s a reason…they didn’t respond to it.”
How much should we rely on trailers before we go see a movie? Plumb “actually tend[s] to not watch any trailers at all”. He advises to “find a couple of critics, whether they are Youtubers or Radio people or written or just your friends who you trust the opinion of, and let them encourage you to see certain films and be intrigued. Don’t necessarily feel obliged to watch the trailer… people are getting more and more scared in the trailer houses of not showing literally every single expensive shot they took in the movie, and that can often give away a lot, or far too much… The joy of going to the movie isn’t to see all the footage, it’s actually going to the cinema, being in a room with a group of people who are all getting together to go and enjoy an experience. Sometimes trailers can take a bit of that away.”
Does Plumb think we should place as much value in awards as Hollywood does? “Use everything as a guideline…. No one has the exact same opinions as anyone else. My best advice is bear in mind who gets the awards and ideally they are people you happen to enjoy most… They’re just a bit of fun. Would it have been nice if Jennifer Lopez had got an Oscar nomination, would it have been nice if she won? Yes. But we move on. I think a lot of work has to be done to make the movies themselves cast better, and we really need producers and filmmakers to be more courageous with who they cast. Yet with so much competition, I can only see streaming services, producers and directors being more cautious and going with the more bankable stars… we’ve got to make that effort and there has to be some sort of change.”
Plumb comments that the Baftas, which saw an all-white acting nominations line up and no women being nominated for best director for the seventh year in a row, is “just not good enough. There’s an element of, how can this still happen? Everyone needs to get together to reflect society better.”
Where does Plumb see film going in the next 10 years? “There will be fewer films and I think we will see more on streaming as their only release. Certain genres are going to more or less disappear from the big screen. I think Rom Coms, Comedy and Romance generally, wont be seen on a big screen as much because Netflix, Amazon Prime and all the rest, are eating that up and are devaluing what we view as worth seeing in the cinema.”
He further explains, “if you went to see Four Weddings and a Funeral now, you’d say, why go and see that in the cinema, I’d rather wait. It doesn’t feel as important to go see it. There’s no bubble of anxiety, pressure or excitement to go.” However, Plumb believes “Horrors are going to stick around for a really long time, that kind of cinema conspiracy, where we’re all in it together”.
Unsurprisingly, Plumb will “always” prefer to watch a film in cinema. Whilst “sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time and money, and sometimes it’s hard to get friends to watch it with you,” Plumb would like to suggest “that we all give a chance to go see a movie by yourself… You’d be surprised how pleasant and fun it is… I think there’s no shame in going by yourself”.
Why is Plumb such a fan of blooper reels? They are “the quickest, easiest way of understanding what it’s actually like on set. You’re seeing people at their most real, their most raw. And suddenly, not only are they doing something funny… but the artifice of the movie is taken away”. He likes to see the human side of the “actors that we put on pedestals and give awards to”.
The most memorable piece of advice Plumb’s had? Whilst working at Empire magazine, Plumb could not find “a good way of writing” a piece, so he was told to “just get something done.” Plumb advises to simply “push something out of your head, through your fingers and onto a piece of paper, and then work on that. Having something on the page that isn’t very good is better than having nothing on the page and you tearing your hair out, saying it can’t be done”.
He goes on to say, “don’t be afraid to ask people for their opinions. Take their responses and comments well. Be grateful, be kind, appreciate where you are and what you do, and remember, in terms of my job anyway, none of it really matters. But do appreciate what it means to people.”
Plumb’s favourite film? “My go to answer for that is the Big Lebowski. Though not necessarily day by day my favourite film, it’s always a movie I’m up for watching.
The advice Plumb would give his younger self? “Don’t worry. Enjoy the moment… Don’t let yourself think that it’s impossible because you are preventing yourself, you are being the barrier to your own successful happiness… So I would tell myself, give it a shot, as you never know.”
Image: Ali Plumb