WILD ABOUT HARRY
FROM CRIPPLED MOVIE MEMORABILIA COLLECTOR TO ‘THE MOST POWERFUL INDEPENDENT VOICE IN MOVIE CRITICISM’ AROUND. LEIGH SINGER DISCOVERS HOW HARRY KNOWLES CAUGHT HOLLYWOOD IN HIS WWWEB.
Just over six years ago, Harry Knowles was laid up in bed, temporarily paralysed from the waist down, weighing around five hundred pounds and literally going nowhere. It’s fair to say he was at a low point.
Just over one year ago, Knowles was on the set of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand’. He wrote daily on-set reports that were read by up to a quarter of a million people on the website he created, Ain’t It Cool News. Director Peter Jackson even let him do the clapperboard on a shot.
Tonight, just after our interview, Harry is being shuttled off into the depths of London, where he’s due to get an ultra-secret sneak preview of the new Star Wars film. ‘George doesn’t know and he’s going to have one hell of a Monday morning,’ he chuckles.
It’s a story that even Hollywood might feel stretches credibility: a self-confessed movie geek, in his own words ‘roughly the size of a small European import’ with ‘hair like an Irish setter’ and clad in Hawaiian shirts ‘the gaudier the better’ - who made it on to the Power Player List armed with nothing more than a PC and time to kill. Hollywood’s initial distrust of the Internet saw the Web as something you didn’t want to get stuck in, rather than as a further opportunity to spin-doctor. Knowles took full advantage, deftly navigating cyberspace, infiltrating the system and forging a community of outsiders who could access inside knowledge. Now he has the status granted few film reporters, a regular readership ‘larger than the L.A Times’, is equally feted and feared by the studios and befriended by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, John Carpenter and Peter Jackson. As the man says, ain’t it cool?
Reelscene: When you thought of starting this, what did you really think it could be?
Harry Knowles: I thought that everybody in the world has 10,000 people who thought like them and I felt that if I could write what I thought, I would find 10,000 fans. If I found 10,000 fans I could self-publish small books, sell 4,000 copies and make a living.
RS: But AICN is specifically tied to the Internet. Would you have considered doing it on radio or television or even as a newsletter?
HK: When I set it up, I knew the most powerful thing about the Internet was the thing that nobody was making use of, that it’s a two-way street. CNN, all these news organisations online, they’re all using it wrong. They see it as one-way delivery system, like a newspaper or magazine. The power of the Internet is that you have as many reporters as you have readers. All of a sudden you can beat CNN if you just know how to earn the readership’s trust.
Ain’t It Cool News is a fascinating beast. A free-to-access site that Knowles maintains he has never paid a cent for, it deliberately keeps advertising to a minimum whilst it relentlessly plugs the movies that its creator loves from first script draft to last minute reshoots and beyond. You’re as likely to find an inspired journalistic scoop on secret casting decisions as you are to find a trite Talkback slanging match between ‘Darth Maul’ and ‘Gandalf the Grey’ virtually bitchslapping each other on whether George Lucas kicks J.R.R. Tolkien’s butt. As Harry himself writes in his new book, ‘my web site is confused, imperfect, messy, sometimes fawning, and, hopefully, indispensable just like me.’ But this blurring of boundaries part-journal, part-fanzine, part-newsletter and part-rumour mill is what has led to criticism of the site’s integrity.
RS: Shouldn’t there be a distinction between fan and journalist?
HK: I think most journalists have it wrong. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to love that which you’re reporting on, I think it’s wrong to not love what you do. It’s a pervasive cynicism that has swept through journalism, the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality. Does anybody criticise the validity of Jane Goodall’s reports on apes because she went to study with them? It’s all about getting closer to the story. The danger is that many journalists become addicted to the intimacy of their sources.
RS: But isn’t that the criticism people make of you? For example, with your coverage of Lord of the Rings, you even wrote that you couldn’t write the review as an objective reviewer.
HK: I took a lot of criticism from people saying ‘you’ve been bought off!’ and I’m like, what are you talking about, I paid $7000 out of my own pocket to go down to New Zealand to be able to get this close to this thing. I’d say it’s the best story the site’s ever had.
There’s all these people who have never dared cross the line, commenting on what it’s like to cross the line. I don’t think ignorance is a qualification to write a better piece. You know, sitting on set with Ian McKellen, chatting to him at lunch when he’s getting chocolate sauce in his beard, to me I can better comment on the degree of acting that Ian McKellen did in that movie than anyone who’s never met him.
RS: So how do you deal with industry attempts to try and influence your coverage?
HK: When the studio gets angry about something and says ‘We’re not going to give you access to this’, they still want me to cover it, they just don’t want to help me cover it. Well, what if I just decide that that movie doesn’t exist anymore? The worst thing that can ever happen to the President of the United States is that nobody reprints what he says. The press is stronger than anything else in the world because the worst thing you can do is be silent. That’s what scares them.
Now, where it would be wrong is if I were to tell them ‘give me access to this or else’ because that’s where you’re moving into blackmail. What you have to do is demonstrate over time that the more access you grant, the more access there’s going to be on the site. But I’m going to pick and choose what those movies are.
As affable and honest a guy as Knowles is, these kinds of exchanges do reveal a touch of the giddiness that the rarefied air of sudden power can bring on. In person, he’s very softly spoken, endlessly passionate, eternally quotable, though prone to drop in dodgy impressions of British accents and sexual metaphors (for the written equivalent, check out his recent Black Orchid-style ‘review’ of buddy Guillermo Del Toro’s Blade 2) with a mildly alarming frequency. For someone who openly admits that in his bed-ridden funk, the original impetus for AICN was that ‘I wanted someone to know who I was, in case I died’, to then be turning down invitations from Sylvester Stallone to visit his Driven movie set (‘I just didn’t get the racing car thing’), helping to cast movies (‘I’m the person who handed Elijah Wood his first copy of The Lord of the Rings and told him he should play Frodo’) or whisked off to parties at the Playboy Mansion (the story about the Shirley Temple look-alike belongs in an entirely different feature), you can see the seduction of becoming ‘the perfect centre of a universe of my own creation.’
Although Harry’s fame has spread the uberfan now with his own fans it’s more than can be said for many AICN sources. While he stands exposed (and cannily now exists as a brand in his own right), the various aliases used by contributors among them ‘Moriarty’, ‘Quint’ and ‘RoboGeek’ - provide easy anonymity that has again provoked suspicion as to who exactly is raving about, slating or teasing up the latest blockbuster.
RS: If you’ve got all these thousands of people contributing, how do you know for sure what information is real?
HK: When I get my 1200 e-mails coming in a day, they come in in different colours based on reliable information. There are a bunch of people who are ‘blue’ the True Bluers who’ve never let me down. I have the ability to assign about twenty different colours on e-mail and those have to be checked with some of those other colour-coded people. Sometimes it takes days to get stuff done. Like, somebody just dropped a hint to me from a Disney address that said simply ‘Tim Burton, Tron 2’, so I’ve been dropping everyone to see what they can find out about it.
RS: But ultimately it’s your reputation and responsibility on the line. Surely if someone really wanted to mess with you -
HK: And they try. So when you have a story that’s too tempting to not put up but it’s one of those where there’s two people who can tell the story and you can’t reach one of them, then…
RS: Are you a lot more cautious now, because, for example, of the whole Oscars thing two years ago? [AICN ran an apparently ‘official short list’ just before the nominations were announced that proved to be fake]
HK: The Oscars thing was the most important thing in the world because it wound up teaching and setting site policy towards information based on electronic placement online, realising that you can never exactly know whose computer you’re talking to, which is crucial. My thing is that the mistakes that journalists make in this world are every bit as important as their successes because the mistakes redefine how it’s done.
Lessons learned, business as usual then? Despite Harry’s emphatic clarification that AICN is not a straight news source, the ongoing possibility of his site being hijacked for other people’s agendas means that rigour and objectivity are prerequisites not necessarily the qualities that evangelical ‘geeks’ are renowned for. Having reclaimed the word from a synonym for ‘nerd’, Knowles valiantly defends fellow fanatics as ‘zealots of our own private religion’, with movies as the cross beneath which various denominations of geekdom converge, to cry for Harry, Hollywood and St. George Lucas. Make no mistake, this is a crusade.
RS: How can movies use the web to its full potential?
HK: There needs to be a new position, the web documentarian, that, as the movie is going on, reports on what’s happening, finds the real story. For example, when I visited The Mummy set, I managed to lose the publicist and wound up talking to this construction guy. Turns out he’s been working on films for forty years, helped Stanley Kubrick construct the Space Wheel in 2001 and had helped build the walls of the Death Star! There’s the story!
RS: If you had the chance would you show these sorts of clips on the site as well as the text reports?
HK: Clips are sometimes very necessary, but though people say a picture’s worth a thousand words, I feel a thousand words describes it better.
RS: You’re a writer, of course you’re going to say that!
HK: Of course I’m going to say that, but I do! Certainly a thousand well-placed words can kick a picture’s ass. A picture reveals the moment but not the soul of what was done. That’s the difference. You see a picture of some people, but you know, what was going on in their heads? That’s the significance.
RS: Which films do you think have used the web well?
HK: Pretty much the ones that everyone knows, like The Blair Witch Project. People love secrets. They love being coerced. When I was covering Blair Witch on the site, I played it as if it were found footage, long before Sundance.
I think A.I did a remarkable job of being more interesting a web program [unfeasibly complex game set up for the Spielberg / Kubrick film] than it was a movie. Whoever constructed it was a genius. What was brilliant was not only the game but the fact that seven to eight thousand people were pooling their sources of brainpower.
RS: Is that one of the most important things for you then about the web, that sense of community?
HK: Yeah, I think the web on its best day was exhibited on the A.I game: problem solving. I think if the F.B.I sat there and said ‘Bin Laden was afoot, this is all the information we have, this is what he looks like’ and you played it as a game on the Internet, you’d find him.
Knowles is smart enough to know that the only game in Hollywood involves high stakes and is played for keeps. Right now he’s slipped in through the net and taken a seat at their table, lord of his own web rings. Harry knows his Tolkien and his Star Wars enough to know the power of the Dark Side, but it remains to be seen how long you can be ‘inside’ and still see where the boundaries lie, especially when love can make you blind.
Plans to make his own movies are there, but still distant. ‘The site’s more important than me making movies,’ he argues. ‘Me making movies is a selfish act. The site serves more people than me.’ Right now, though, for a fellowship of many thousands of fanboys and girls, he’s a hobbit in a Hawaiian shirt bearing his small but powerful AICN ring against the forces of Mordor / Hollywood and movie mediocrity. Entirely selfless? Hardly. But still pretty damn cool.
‘Ain’t It Cool? Kicking Hollywood’s Butt’ is published by Boxtree, price £12.99. to access the web site, go to www.aintitcool.com
'© Raindance 2002. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'
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