The term “critic” is subjective. Some film reviewers wear it like a badge of honour while others prefer to distance themselves from the connotations it inevitably draws — of snooty high faluting elitists, perhaps, or bespectacled grey haired academic types.
Richard Wilkins, Nine Network entertainment editor and TODAY Show film reviewer, belongs to the latter camp. There is nothing pretentious about the veteran TV presenter, who has worked for Nine for a quarter of a century and built a reputation as Australia’s go-to guy for red carpet reportage.
“I’ve always loved movies. I’ve always had an opinion and I like putting my thoughts down on paper. But I don’t think of myself as necessarily a film critic — more a bloke who goes to see a lot of movies and is happy to pass on his opinion,” Wilkins tells Cinetology from his office in Sydney.
Wilkins has attended more premieres and interviewed more celebrities than he can count, but still relishes the opportunity to mingle with the glitterati.
“Obviously I get to interview them (celebrities) when they are promoting movies and stuff like that. But to see them all together, all the year’s crop dressed up to the nines and full of expectations, is pretty wild. Everybody is happy on the red carpet. The disappointment and disillusion sets in after the awards are given out.”
Well liked inside the Nine stable, Wilkis is also envied, it seems by fellow broadcaster Karl Stefanovic. Last August, at the launch of Wilkins’ book Black Ties, Red Carpets, Stefanovic, after partaking in a long boozy lunch with Nine CEO David Gyngell, made the following remark:
“I know three things about Richard Wilkins – great bloke, big hair, massive cock.”
“Karl is an intoxicating mix of world’s best broadcaster and naughty school boy,” Wilkins says. “Add alcohol, and he’s prone to extreme exaggeration.”
Wilkins is the ninth participant in Meet the Critics, which profiles the viewing habits of Australia’s leading film reviewers. For the complete list of other interviewees so far, visit the Meet the Critics landing page.
What’s it like, preparing to grace the red carpet and interview celebrities? Is it like a kind of star-studded meat market? Would you say it was stressful, or fun, or…
I’m always pretty apprehensive about it because you go home and get your tail kicked if Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban stroll right past you without stopping. It’s like a giant tidal wave. A tsunami of glitterati that walk down the red carpet. You need to somehow attract their attention and get them to come over and it’s not always easy. There’s a lot of adrenaline going, a lot of pressure, and everybody’s got their expectations about who they are going to interview. We’ve all come from different parts of the world, representing different territories, and everybody’s got the same people on their hit lists. Everybody wants to get George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp and blah blah blah. It’s a jungle. What can I say?
Having been on TV for so long — and this is something I touched on when I spoke to Margaret Pomeranz — you have become a sort of celebrity yourself. I imagine wherever you go people recognise you. Is this something that ever bothers you?
I don’t really think about it that much. I got my first taste of that when I started doing the MTV program back in the late 80s and early 90s and I figured then that anybody who recognised you as you walk through a supermarket is probably someone who sits up late watching music clips and probably likes them. People would come up and say things like “hhheeeeyyyy, play more ACDC” and stuff like that. A little bit of that comes with the territory. I had quite a funny experience the other day when I was in the supermarket. When I first started at Channel Nine, David Leckie talked me into doing this summer fill in for Sale of the Century, which was the staple program at 7pm. We did I think 100 episodes of this bloody show called Key Notes which was a musical guessing tune game. It was pretty rinkydink. Anyway I did it against my better judgement. They replayed the thing ad neuseum at 3am in the morning for years and years and out of all the things I’ve done this little kid came up to me and said “are you the guy from Key Notes?” You just want to take him behind the fruit counter and slap him. That was sort of funny. Most people are pretty cool.
Can you describe the process of how you go about constructing film reviews, for example how much time you spend on each review and what the broadcasting process is like?
I don’t read any reviews before I write mine. I’ll read the production notes. My reviews I think are pretty broad brush stroke kind of stuff. I try to cover the main releases each week and I’ve probably got about three and a half or four minutes to do that in. I’ll have a look at what vision we have to play with, because there is no point in talking about a certain scene if we don’t have vision of it. Normally we have trailers and sometimes an EPK and some scene clips and things. We normally won’t put interviews with the filmmakers or the stars on the actual movie review day. We choose to reviews films on Thursdays which is the day most of them are released, and TODAY is the name of the show, so it seemed like a no-brainier.
How did you become a film critic and when did you know that you wanted to be one?
I don’t really think of myself as being a film critic. I’ve never ever described myself as being a film critic. I’m the entertainment editor for the Nine Network. I do daily reports for the TODAY Show and my job has sort of evolved into this. I’ve always loved movies. I’ve always had an opinion and I like putting my thoughts down on paper. But I don’t think of myself as necessarily a film critic — more a bloke who goes to see a lot of movies and is happy to pass on his opinion. I think a lot of people — and I’m talking about our viewers now — become familiar with you. They might come to broadly agree with your taste or come to violently disagree with it, but at least they become familiar. It’s horses for courses and we are all entitled to our opinions. You have to be pretty brave and fearless and call things as you see it. You’re not going to get anywhere, I don’t think, as a film critic, reviewer, observer or whatever you want to call yourself if you just say everything is kind of good and give everything three stars. You have to staple your colours to the mast at every opportunity.
What are your eating habits in the cinema? Are you addicted to popcorn, sneak in the occasional choc-top, or there strictly to watch the film?
I don’t really see the point of popcorn. Having said that, I took the kids to the cinema the other day and there was already boxes of popcorn on the seats when we got there. I guess we are lucky in the business; we get to go along to these previews and take the family. All of them get dreadfully spoiled and come to expect that sort of thing. Me and my son Christian had a rule that, you know, we weren’t going to get popcorn every time we go to the movies, because he comes with me a lot. So we will go and have lunch together, a sandwich, a bite to each before we go or something. Exhibitors actually make more money selling soft drinks and popcorn than they do tickets.
Do you take notes in the cinema?
I used to take notes but I haven’t recently. I don’t know why that is. Maybe my pen is broken, I’m not sure. I used to jot down not huge, copious amounts but just things from time to time if something sticks out. Sometimes you come up with a good line, or a tag line, or something you think you can weave into a review. I sometimes do that and sometimes don’t. I used to do it all the time. Now I probably do it about half the time.
Moving onto the subject of tear jerkers, do you ever cry during a movie?
Oh yeah, I’m a sucker for a choke-up. I’m a big old softie. I love a good chick flick, a rom-com. I used to cry in those Telecom ads when the family called home. I think I have pretty broad mainstream tastes. The last time I teared up in a movie, hmm, I don’t know. Filmmakers are pretty talented people, most of them. When they start pushing all those buttons and the orchestra swells and there are heart strings and the loved-up couple are reuniting in the railway station or something — if it’s done well that’ll get me, for sure.
Who are some of your favourite directors?
I’m a big fan of people like Phillip Noyce and Fred Schepisi. On the questions of favourites I don’t know where to start and where to finish. Stuff that Peter Jackson does in our little old New Zealand is pretty amazing. I love Christopher Nolan as a director. Scorcese, all those people. I loved Hugo; I thought that was brilliant.
What is one cinematic experience that you recall very fondly?
I’ve been lucky enough to go to a few premieres over the years. I went to one of the Bond premieres in London, once, and it was a Pierce Brosnan one. I can’t remember which. I must have got on the wrong list or something because I found myself with a ticket to actually go to the film as well as the red carpet. I of course went along and it was the first time I’d seen — and it’s semi common place now — actually seen what was happening outside, inside. The people inside sitting waiting for the film to start were treated to footage from three or four cameras outside of the guests arriving and all that sort of stuff. That was a bit of a buzz. This is going back a while — ten, twelve years ago — and seeing the royal party arrive. I think it was Prince Charles. Seeing them arrive for the premiere, shake hands, move inside the theatre, and everybody stood up. I thought that was pretty cool.
I got into this business because I love what I do. I love music, I love show biz, I love entertainment. I started playing the violin when I was a kid and singing in choirs. I love the smell of the grease paint, the roar of the crowd. When I am sitting down at the start of a film, or at the start of a concert, or it’s a night for a play at the theatre, I’m full of expectation and anticipation and excitement. I really want it to be good. I really want to have a great night. That’s sort of what I take with me to an event and I really appreciate and never take for granted the fact that I have somehow managed to land a gig that allows me to do those things in the line of duty.
On the occasions when you don’t have a great time, do you ever walk out on films or do you always feel an obligation to stay?
I live my life bang-bang-bang. Doing live television, I guess, does that to you. I get really frustrated and angry when people keep me waiting because I have my day pretty well planned. I know if one person holds me up for half an hour, it’s like a domino effect. It has me running late all day. So sometimes if they start a screening late and I have found out the running time on IMDB and I have allowed eight minutes for the credits and I know I have to be somewhere else straight after that, I will sometimes miss the last ten mintues of the film, which is not ideal — but then again I know I am not going to reveal what happens in the last ten minutes to the audience! So I figure that’s OK and I’ll pick it up on a flight somewhere. But that doesn’t happen very often.
With regards to philosophy re: sitting in the cinema, are you a back row sitter? A front row sitter? Why?
I like to sit around the mid areas if I can. I do have a habit that my son doesn’t like very much. I will take my shoes off all the time because I love wearing bare feet. I never wear shoes around the house and often slip my shoes off in the office and gad around in my socks. I sometimes throw a t-shirt in the back seat of my car; in fact I’ve got one in the office here. Sometimes you go to these screening rooms and they are really cold. Other times they’re quite warm, you know, depending on the air conditioning settings, so you need to dress accordingly. I love to slip my shoes off if they have those nice seats where you can get your feet through the gap in the seats in front of you. I will always pick a seat where you can do that.
What advice would you provide to a) aspiring filmmakers and b) aspiring film critics?
To aspiring filmmakers, just go for it. Be brave and make it entertaining. I go along to be entertained, informed, amused, thrilled and shocked, I guess. And to film critics, go and get another job. There are enough of us already!