At some point in the early 1980’s I got the idea of doing a documentary about a group of islands that don’t exist. What a terrific idea, I thought, a story of a place. Not just the story of a few people, but whole peoples, different cultures, different ways of life. They would be called The Rutland Isles and they would be a parody of a travel documentary with weird animals. We would visit strange places and use real documentary footage. I wrote quite a lot of material and then did outlines of a visit to six of these different islands – Poluçion, Paranoia, Amnesia, Contracepçion, Revoluçion, and Liberaçion. Nobody was interested. Not agents, not friends, not people in the media, not even relatives. Not even my dog. It was weird. The reaction was nada. Zero. Zip.
Fairly early on my main character became clear to me. I always heard his voice as that gentle insistent civilized informative voice of David Attenborough whose immensely popular and entertaining series on Life on Earth and its various inhabitants were just beginning on BBC TV.
I had just finished writing and directing The Frog Prince for cable and I would often sit around and play guitar with Ricky Fataar and Van Dyke Parks and Charlie Dore. I began writing songs for The Rutland Isles. I find this a great way forward in any project. About 1983 we went into a studio in Santa Monica and made some very nice tracks with this bunch of friends. I had spent a lot of time on the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Trinidad and the music we made then was heavily influenced by those great times. It still remains joyful and relaxed and this recorded music has always kept my love of these Rutland islands going. Imaginary music from imaginary places.
One day I was sitting around in the South of France when my phone rang. It was Hollywood calling. Don Simpson, a famous movie producer, and partner of Jerry Bruckheimer, had somehow got wind of my script, read it and loved it. He went on and on about it. He talked about Jonathan Swift how it was the greatest piece of satire etc etc – on and on for an hour. Non stop. How could I be anything but bowled over? At last, everything I had always wanted to hear about my project. I got off the phone totally blown away.
So, of course, this being Hollywood calling I had to fly immediately to New York to meet this man. Next thing I am in a smart hotel on Fifth Avenue ringing on the Suite door. A thin anxious looking man answers. This is Jerry. He looks kind of worried “Don’s not up yet” he explains and we have some coffee and bullshit until, from the wreckage of a nearby bedroom, Don finally emerges in a bath towel with wet hair looking kinda the worse for wear. But soon it’s all business as Don gets down to notes. He loves it, but of course things are going to have to be changed. To start with this is now a movie so we are going to need some characters. And a plot. I remembered an opening I wrote for The Meaning of Life, a long piece of prose about a plane crash in the open sea, where the hero ends up on the First Class Life raft. So that’s gonna be the movie. It’s now about a small group of people, a rock star, a TV journalist, a Bishop, a bimbo, and an angry politician, who arrive on the beach of a strange island.
A few years and several drafts later we are getting nowhere. It’s becoming clear to me that trying to shovel plot into what was essentially a documentary just isn’t flying. It’s now called And Now This. In the intervening drafts it has been called Hot Property as well as The Rutland Isles. It’s now about a guy who joins a US TV station and whose TV van washes ashore after a violent storm sinks their ferry, with an obnoxious TV presenter called Maisy whom he hates. They begin to broadcast from these islands which no one can seem to find or identify. Something very weird is happening and at the end, after having been kidnapped, they escape by boat just in time as – get this – the islands take off. That’s an image I always loved, a whole island group lifting off and sailing away into space. Water dripping off as they lift away. They were aliens you see….
But that’s the problem. The Rutland Isles to me are real islands, inhabited by real people. They are a parody of the real world, a way of laughing at the ways we look at ourselves and our cultures. It doesn’t work to have plot and character shoveled in. Don moved on to his own private tragedy and I picked up a new producer and good friend in David Giler who took the project to several studios while we played that form of touch football known as development. Various studios seemed interested but no one committed, and it eventually sank back into that sand bank that is the graveyard of good ideas….
OK. Flash forward. It’s 2002. I have just finished making my second mocumentary on the Rutles called Can’t Buy Me Lunch. I have had a very good time on it, playing the narrator, twenty five years older and still spouting on about the damn Rutles. This time he looks back at their influence on contemporaries such as Tom Hanks, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, David Bowie, Salman Rushdie, Mike Nichols, Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Gary Shandling. I have found the original out-takes in a warehouse in New Jersey and we have cleverly sunk up some of Neil Innes’ new old Rutle tracks. We have even sold it to Warner Brothers. So, what am I going to do next?
I like working for myself. I am the most agreeable of employers. Although an exacting boss I seldom disagree with myself and am very generous about time off to be with my family. So I get out the old Rutland Isles project. I play the music. Perfect. I still like it. And now cable is bristling with documentaries narrated by British men in shorts. You can hardly turn on TV without some Brit yapping away from an exotic location you have never heard of about some creature you didn’t know existed. Australians are torturing alligators and the language all over the screen. Nature is now big show business. Travel has its own channel. At last, I think, now everyone will get it. Right? Wrong. Still no one is interested.
But I don’t give up. Why don’t I just make this as an audio project? I can afford to fund that. My friend and partner John Du Prez comes out to California to work with me on a Broadway musical and once again falls in love with the California winter. He decides to stay. Great. So we set to work in Larry Mah’s tiny garage studio in Sylmar. There is barely room for John and his keyboards and computers let alone room for me to plug in a guitar. I have to stand in a closet to do the voices. But it’s fun. And it is executive free. And nobody says no.
I have written a bunch of new stuff and pulled out my favorite bits from a big box filled with old scripts and John and I write a whole raft of new silly songs and we set to in a big binge of recording in our tiny Valley garage studio. My main narrator is now Nigel Spasm, an irritating award-seeking journalist. After months of editing and re-recording and re-editing (shape is everything) the CD becomes two episodes from his award-seeking series. (There are over 498, 000 of these Rutland Isles: enough to keep Nigel on television for the next 25,000 years. ) The rest of the year is taken up with editing and mixing and finally we even make a 28 page calendar of pictures and postcards from the Rutland Isles, a full color spoof that you shouldn’t miss as it’s great value and only available on line.
So there it is finally: the CD mocumentary of Nigel Spasm’s visit to The Rutland Isles. Out on March 4th on BMG. I do hope you’ll enjoy it. It has been a labor of love and something I always knew I would make one day. I hope you’ll enjoy the CD, the web site, the Calendar and who knows perhaps one day the TV show…..