Friday, October 31, 2008

Colin Cotterill's "Curse of the Pogo Stick"

Colin Cotterill is the author of The Coroner’s Lunch, Thirty-Three Teeth, Disco for the Departed, and Anarchy and Old Dogs, featuring seventy-three year old Dr. Siri Paiboun, national coroner of Laos. He and his wife live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he teaches at the university.

Here he considers several casting approaches for a film adaptation of Curse of the Pogo Stick, the latest novel in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series:
It’s my own silly fault. I know that now. How am I ever going to break into Hollywood without a western protagonist? My sin, you see, is that all my characters are Lao. There have been, so far in the series, only one direct and one peripheral role for honkies and one of those was a Soviet circus performer. How can I get my movie made without any A-list actors queued up to play the main role of Dr. Siri Paiboun?

We could use makeup I suppose. In fifteen movies, Charlie Chan was played by a Swede, Warner Oland, and nobody noticed he was a Norseman. (I hesitate to suggest there was any racism involved in the fact that audiences could so happily accept him as an émigré from mainland China.) When poor old Warner passed away, who took over the mantle of the most famous Chinese in the west? Sidney Toler, a Scot. When they were looking for an actor to play Kentaro Moto, in a popular series about a Japanese secret agent they needed to look no further than Peter Lorre, the world’s most famous Hungarian. And after Lorre had made a Japanese name for himself in eight feature films, when it came to a remake, The Return of Mr. Moto, even as late as 1965, who did they call? (Sidney Toler was busy), good old Henry Silva, a New York Sicilian. It looks like there just weren’t any real Asians around in them days.

So, assuming we go with the clothes pegs behind the ears method, who should I ring in? I figure if they could make Dustin Hoffman look a hundred in Little Big Man, surely they could make him Asian. But if we’re going American, I suppose we’d have to look at the box office hotties first and work our way down. Tom Cruise has the height requirements but Siri would be a franchise and Tommy doubles his fees for sequels. Bruce Willis couldn’t make a movie where he doesn’t take off his shirt. No, I think I’ll go with Will Smith. He’s on a rocket these days, and I saw what those special effects wallah’s did with the Wayan brothers in White Chicks. So, good, we have Will as Dr. Siri. From there it should be easy. Even when I was writing the first book I had Paris Hilton pegged for Nurse Dtui. All right, she’s on the light side but she’s a method actress and for the opportunity to win a role like this I’d bet she’d eat her little heart out. And the bonus is she already has that pinched, lemony oriental countenance. I’ll go with Will Ferrell as inspector Phosy just for the whimsical hell of it. We need a ‘serious actor’ to bring some legitimacy to this project, so, of the available Oscar winners, I’m going with Sir Anthony Hopkins whose Comrade Civilai would be the perfect foil for Smith’s Dr. Siri.

Of course there will be certain pressures from the studio. They might argue that with all these non-Asian actors in key roles, wouldn’t it be more economical in the long run to just relocate the story to Los Angeles? I’d make feeble arguments about sense of place and history, they’d offer me lots more money, and the next thing you know, the Mahosot morgue is a road-kill clearing center just outside Santa Monica. (I’ve already started this adaptation just in case.) Siri, now Sol Prospero, of African /Nicaraguan descent, trained in New York as a classical dancer now finds himself reluctantly running the road kill center. But the flattened animals talk to him and he sets out to find who ran them over…that sort of thing. Unless it became really popular I’d disclaim all responsibility for it and say Hollywood destroyed a perfectly good book.

That’s the path you’re inevitably led down if you start messing with your ethnicity. But I’m just as buggered if I try to tap into the tiny pool of Asian actors who have been let in through the tradesman’s entrance of Hollywood. I suppose another one of my faults is that I’ve created an Asian character who doesn’t perform martial arts. Really, what use is he? If I’d only had the foresight to give Siri a black belt in something, I know we’d be on the big screen already: Yun-Fat Chow as the wise, brooding, Kung Fu kicking, Dr. Siri Paiboun. Ken Watanabe as the swarthy, dark-browed, samurai sword swinging, Comrade Civilai. Gong Li as the lithe, pert-breasted, karate chopping, nurse Dtui. It really is the only way we’ll get on the screen in North America. I mean, who’s going to find a bunch of non-arse-kicking, wall-climbing, impossible-somersaulting, tree-flying Asians credible?

No, I admit, I’ve done it all wrong. It’s back to the drawing board for me. I mean, how difficult can it be to write about a black superhero alcoholic or a kung-fuing panda? Really, I’m just making all this getting rich and famous a lot more difficult for myself than it really is.
Visit Colin Cotterill's website and his Crimespace page, and learn more about Curse of the Pogo Stick at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue