The man in black is laughing

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The Independent Online
Walter Parkes had spent the morning with his family at the Tower of London. "I introduced my five-year-old to the concept of beheading," he said with a grin as we sat in a room of his suite in a quiet hotel in Knightsbridge. It was an unintentionally apt remark, because as one of Hollywood's leading movie executives, the 46-year-old Parkes knows more than most that getting the chop is all part of the game. But at the moment he's flying high. He and his wife, Laurie MacDonald, were recently appointed as heads of the motion pic- tures division of DreamWorks, the company set up by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. More to the point, they also produced Men In Black, which opened in this country on Friday and will undoubtedly be this summer's blockbuster.

It was in 1992 that Parkes and MacDonald, then producers linked to Columbia Pictures, came across an obscure comic called The Men In Black. They liked its mix of science fiction and detective genres and thought it had comedy potential. After a five-year saga of rewrites and wrangling, Men In Black opened in America at the beginning of July and in its first month it's already taken over $200m.

Unless you've been living under a stone for the past week, you're probably familiar with the film's basic premise, that the Earth is a common stopping off point for aliens from all corners of the Universe, and it's the job of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith to keep tabs on them while they're here. Men in Black is a kind of weird hybrid of Ghostbusters and The French Connection and I can honestly say that it's the most entertaining film I've seen in a very long time. The opening title sequence is a thing of perfection in itself and the scene in which the splendidly deadpan Jones interrogates a dog is a comedy classic.

Parkes says it wasn't until the film's opening weekend that he realised just how successful it was going to be. He's had his successes in the past, most notably Awakenings, which he wrote and produced, but nothing like this. And of course he's also had his turkeys, chief among them a film called Project X, which starred Matthew Broderick and a chimpanzee. "It just didn't work," he said. "In a major way."

He came to film production by a fairly circuitous route. After studying anthropology at Yale he worked as a session guitarist for a while in Los Angeles before doing a course in documentary film-making. He then studied acting for a couple of years before taking up screenwriting. His big break came when he co-wrote War Games, the computer-hacking drama.

London currently seems to be full of aspiring screenplay writers. Every other person I meet is writing a potential blockbuster, usually involving drugs, provincial accents and rave music. So I asked the great man if he had any tips.

"Screenplay writing is the most conventional genre there is, next to haiku basically," he said. "Just about all screenplays have to have 120 pages, they just about all work with scenes that are about three to four pages in length, and 90 per cent of the time they have a three-act structure. I think the trick is that 80 per cent of your time should be spent working out the story. Once the story is logical and strong, the writing of it becomes a much easier proposition. The common mistake you find is long scenes which are really just to introduce characters."

It was time for him to have his picture taken. He stood up and put on his jacket and it was only then that I realised that he was wearing a black suit. It was a nice touch. These Hollywood guys don't get where they are for nothing.

Shifting ground of true stories

"I have no idea what it's about," says Whitley Strieber of his latest book, The Secret School. Strieber is best known as the author of Communion, which described his apparent abduction by aliens. I have no idea what his latest book is about either, but I can tell you it harks back to his childhood and tells the story of how, as a nine-year-old in Texas, he would sneak out of his house in the middle of the night to attend secret meetings at which he travelled back into the past and forwards into the future, possibly with the help of alien beings. The question is: does he believe these things really happened?

"I'm very far beyond issues like whether I'm writing about factual reality any more," he says. "In the native American tradition there are people called storytellers and they will often begin a story with the phrase, 'This story is true, but I don't know whether it happened or not'. And this story is meant to be taken on that same level."

When I met Strieber a few years ago he told me that he lived in constant terror of the "visitors" who would appear in his bedroom at night, to the extent that he slept with a special contraption in his mouth to stop him grinding his teeth. But these days he's sleeping more soundly. "I've got to the point where it's become obvious even to me that they don't hurt," he says.

He hasn't seen Men In Black yet, although he says a lot of friends have told him it's very funny. I wondered if he had ever been approached by agents of the government. "Yes, in many ways," he said. In sinister ways? "I would say so, yes, at times." And could he elaborate? "No," he said. "I would prefer not to talk about it at all."

Mid-summer rumour machine

I was intrigued by a diary item in this week's Marketing Week. Apparently "rumour has it" that waiters at the star-studded Ivy restaurant in London's Covent Garden are each given a sector of the media to cover and then scour the trade press for information so that they can comment to guests on what is happening in their business. A worrying development. All I expect from a waiter is that he takes my order and then brings it to my table pronto. The last thing I want is busybodying. So I spoke to The Ivy's manager, Mitchell Everard, a man whose name appears to have been assembled back to front.

"It's really stupid," he said wearily. "What possible motive could there be for me to encourage the people that work for us to start trying to quiz our customers on how their affairs are going? I just think it's an example of somebody with nothing better to do than try to stir up trouble and make waves," he concluded, noting that the writer of the diary piece had remained anonymous.

Taking up the trusty sword of truth on Mr Everard's behalf (who knows, there could be a dinner in it for me), I rang Marketing Week and spoke to David Benady, who happily admitted to having written the offending article. (No more tables at The Ivy for you, matey.) He said he was standing by his story. "I had it from a source who goes there very often," he said. However, when pressed, he did say, "Well, it was a diary story. You're allowed a bit of leeway in a diary story." And I suppose it's also mid- summer and everyone's away, so it must be difficult filling an empty page every week. Or so I'd imagine. Obviously I've never had that problem.

Inside line at San Lorenzo's

Rumour has it that waiters at San Lorenzo, the exclusive Knightsbridge restaurant, are each being given a different tabloid to read so that they can comment to guests on what is happening in their lives. "So I hear you don't wear a bra, Miss Hurley," and "I expect it'll be a lager for you, Mr Gallagher," were just two comments overheard by my very reliable source this week.

Who would have thought it?

Salesman with a secret

The latest issue of Arena magazine contains a piece on the 20 richest men in Britain under the age of 35. Topping the list of wealthy whippersnappers is Charles Dunstone, 32, managing director of the Carphone Warehouse, whose personal wealth is estimated at "anywhere from pounds 50m upwards".

I have to express an interest here (and no dinner has been involved), because I actually bought a mobile phone a couple of months ago from one of his outlets and it was the first time in my life that a sales assistant persuaded me to buy something cheaper than what I'd intended. I told the assistant that he'd never reach his sales targets behaving like that and he replied that meeting targets wasn't a problem. The only thing that was likely to cost him his job, he said, was if customers weren't satisfied with the way they were treated.

"That's absolutely true," says Dunstone, who set up Carphone Warehouse in 1989 and is expecting turnover to top pounds 100m this year. "But if you approach it from that point of view, you won't have any trouble meeting your sales targets."

Asked what special talents he thinks he might possess, Dunstone says, "I think if anything I've got a sensitivity to how people like to buy things. Part of it is that I don't think I'm a very good salesman. If you're a good salesman, you're meant to be able to handle objections and things. I never could, so I always wanted to make sure there could never be an objection to why you'd buy from us."

He says he leads "a pretty normal lifestyle really". He isn't married and his only extravagance is a 46ft yacht, which he bought secondhand. "It's a reasonable-sized boat," he says. "But it's not completely over the top."

And you'll be glad to hear that I made him promise to stop doing those annoying ads on the radio about his "hands-free amnesty".