Bestselling author Linwood Barclay brings our Read a Great Movie month to a close as he tells us about his favourite stories on both the big and small screen, and how the shows of yesterday and today feed the imaginations of the writers of today and tomorrow.
Some of the best movies and television shows in history are being made right now.
Let’s talk TV. There’s Justified, Broadchurch, The Fall, Homeland and Southland. Has there ever been a more daring, groundbreaking, and brilliantly written show than Breaking Bad?
And yet, the feeling of excitement I get when I watch these programmes, the anticipation of waiting for each new episode, does not begin to compare to the thrill I felt as a ten-year-old boy, growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, when The Man from U.N.C.L.E. came on each week.
If it wasn’t U.N.C.L.E., it was Mission: Impossible. Or Mannix. As the 1960s came to an end and the 1970s began, it was Columbo.
I didn’t just love these shows. I wanted to be connected to them. I had to be more than a viewer. I had to be a participant. I could not wait a week for the next adventure starring Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (the spies from U.N.C.L.E., for those of you too young to remember), so I had to create one of my own.
And I began to write.
I didn’t want to write them out in longhand. That’d take for ever. So I asked my father to teach me to type on our old Royal manual. It was a two-minute lesson: your fingers rest here, this finger hits this key, this one hits this key, and so on. Go to it.
I churned out nearly a dozen U.N.C.L.E. tales, each one thirty or forty or more typed pages, the kind of stuff today we call fan fiction. When I became exhausted with that series, I turned to others. Lots of Columbo, even a novella based on a short-lived sci-fi series called The Invaders.
Not that the movies weren’t inspiring, too. There were just never as many of them, and when we later lived out in the country, the closest theatre was half an hour’s drive away. But as I grew into my teens, I did discover films that thrilled and inspired me the same way those TV shows had when I was younger. The Conversation, the two Godfathers, Sleuth.
But there are three standouts: Dirty Harry, The French Connection and Bullitt.
It wasn’t just the spectacular car chases, although they were pretty awesome. These movies were visceral. I felt them in my gut. The acting and writing were understated but powerful.
Dirty Harry didn’t even need a car chase. There was that astonishing shot as the camera pulled up and out of the football stadium where Harry had his foot firmly planted on a psychotic killer’s wounded leg. And who could forget the iconic image of Harry standing on the railway bridge, waiting for that hijacked school bus to pass below.
Those movies thrilled me. They stayed me with me. They made me think: I want to write something that gives readers the same thrill those movies gave me.
These entertainments steered me toward a career, although it did take a while. So when I see Breaking Bad, I’m blown away, no doubt about it. It’s light years better than the shows that obsessed me as a kid. But Walter White’s exploits don’t make me dream about becoming something I’m not.
That dream, I’m pleased to report, was finally realised. And I can thank, in large part, the creators of Solo and Illya and the IMF team and Columbo and all the others who took up residence in my imagination.
Linwood Barclay is married with two children and lives near Toronto. He is the author of three acclaimed Zack Walker mysteries, a former columnist for the Toronto Star, and is the author of the Richard & Judy 2008 Summer Read winner and number one besteller, No Time for Goodbye. His latest book A Tap on the Window is out in hardback and ebook now.