The Little White Lies interview

by Steve Watson in May 2009
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Every month Stack sends out a magazine to its subscribers, and every month I speak to the magazine’s editor or publisher to get a bit of inside information on the whole process of putting that issue together. This month it’s the turn of Matt Bochenski, editor of Little White Lies, so we met in the pub and chatted magazines, movies and the vagaries of publishing potentially illegal literature.

Read the full transcript of our conversation after the jump.

One of the things you do in every issue is ask directors what they love about movies, so I thought I’d start out by turning it back on you – what do you love about films?
I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask me that literally for four years, and every time I’ve thought about someone asking me I’ve thought I don’t know what I’m going to say. I guess what I love about movies is in the experience. Some people really celebrate movies as this communal experience because you gather together, but actually I’ve always loved cinema as a personal, individual experience. Most of my favourite memories of cinema have been seeing movies – and it doesn’t really matter what the film was – when I go on a quiet afternoon, with only two or three other people in the cinema, and you get the feeling of being completely absorbed in something, to the exclusion of everything else.

You know, you spend you life, especially in London, tearing around surrounded by people, surrounded by worry, and all the jumble of shit that’s going on in your life, and you go into the cinema and suddenly all of that is shrunk down into this one point and you can focus and concentrate and immerse yourself, and it’s true what people say – you can escape to somewhere and see things you’ve never seen, and think new thoughts, and visit new places. It doesn’t really matter what the specific film is – it’s just that you get that feeling of isolated… absorption in this one place. Almost a feeling of being entirely on my own. That probably sounds a bit weird, but that’s what I’d go for.

One of the things that makes White Lies different is the fact that you take a film and base a whole issue around it. What first made you do that?
Pragmatism played a large role in it. I mean there are a number of reasons, but firstly it’s pragmatism, in that we started this magazine with next to no contacts in the film industry. We didn’t know how to make a film magazine, we didn’t know how to get to screenings, we didn’t know how anything works, but we wanted to put out a film magazine with, I think the first issue was 70 or 80 pages. So you have to fill 60-odd pages of film magazine with no material and no access, so we kind of turned that on its head and said, well okay the thing that defines Empire and Total Film, and Hotdog at the time, is access – all of those magazines would have access to the same people at the same time, so you get the same anecdotes, the same films – they were essentially the same magazine. So why was the UK film magazine completely moribund? It all boils down to access.

Now without access you have to figure out something else to write about, so we had this idea that let’s dig down into a single film and explore everything about it and use it as the inspiration for a whole magazine. We knew that we had to offer something different, so we thought let’s get into the music, or politics, or pop culture or art, or whatever it might be, because we can just do all that stuff ourselves – we don’t need a publicist to help us. If you think that our first issue was The Life Aquatic, we didn’t need a publicist to help us write a piece about the real Jacques Cousteau, or to commission an artist to do illustrations of deep sea fishes, or whatever the hell we did then.

So partly it was pragmatism, and partly it comes back to this ideology, or not ideology – that’s the wrong word – but the conviction that we had to do something different because Empire and the rest of them are the same magazine, and there was simply no point in trying to beat them at their own game because they’ve had a 20-year, 200,000 reader head start on us, so we had to go about it another way. And we all got our break – myself, Dan (Miller, LWL publisher), Rob (Longworth, art director) and Willo (Paul Willoughby, art director) – we all got our break on a magazine called Adrenalin, and Adrenalin was a surf, skate and snow mag and each issue was themed around space, or the environment, or whatever it might be, so it kind of went beyond its immediate mandate, and that made us all realise what a good idea that was.

So I guess I’m kind of giving you these answers in reverse order really. White Lies started out as a design project for Dan at university, and just after he’d finished that design project, and I’d been writing some stuff for it, we travelled to America, me and Dan, for about five weeks, and my overriding memory of that is everywhere we went, everything we saw in every city we went to, we found ourselves being reminded of a film we’d seen. It was the first time that I’d really been to America, and it’s so familiar from movies, especially New York, that movies for us almost became the glasses we wore, or the prism we saw things through. We saw everything through movies, and it almost got to the point where it was a bit weird, like nothing had meaning unless you’d seen it in a film. So it’s not like the Empire State Building is really impressive, it’s that the Empire State Building is completely amazing because you’ve seen it in King Kong, or whatever it is.

And that was when we really hit on this idea that we carried through into the magazine for a long time afterwards, that you carry films around with you everywhere you go. And because you take them everywhere, why only talk about the films? Why not then go and talk about all these other things and all the ways they influence you? So you might see a film and be inspired to travel to another country, or seek out an author, or download a certain track, and why not embrace all of that?

But to base the whole magazine around a single film puts a huge responsibility on that film doesn’t it? How do you go about choosing cover films? And how did you decide to go with Star Trek for the current issue, because it’s the first time you’ve focused on a blockbuster isn’t it?
Star Trek is very untypical in a way. In general we spend about two months working on an issue of the magazine and we have 120-something pages to fill, so it has to be fun for us to work on and it has to be inspiring in the way I was just saying. It doesn’t have to be a great film, although we want every film we watch to be great – I could go and see Amelie 2 and I’ll want it to be great, but it won’t be – so actually picking a great film weirdly isn’t the trick.

Che is a really good example. We picked Che months before we saw it because we knew it was perfect – there’s lots of interesting stuff about Che Guevarra, lots of angles into it, etc. Now I saw Che and hated it – I thought it was a rubbish film, and actually I decided not to write the lead review in the end because Crocker (Jonathan Crocker, associate editor) had seen it and liked it and I didn’t want to start things off on a really bum note. But we have done – I look back and Life Aquatic was the first one we did we slagged it off. We slagged off Life Aquatic, we slagged off Land of the Dead, we were pretty cool on Sin City – it was Jarhead, a year into the magazine that we picked a film we really liked. But all those films were good because they inspired us to go out and really be interested in all the things around the film.

So that’s generally how we pick films. In terms of Star Trek specifically, one thing is that we’ve never done a science fiction issue in 23 issues. I’ve never really pushed for sci-fi, and I’m a big sci-fi fan, well, I’m a sci-fi fan to a degree, so I wanted to do a sci-fi issue because I thought that would be fun and interesting and there’s loads of material that we can get into. And admittedly with Star Trek as well we kind of wanted to send a message, because when we say we’re an independent film magazine I think too many people think the ‘independent’ goes with the ‘film’, so we’re a magazine about independent films, rather than an independent magazine about films. So we kind of wanted to send a message to people as well and say that we’re not just this little mag that kind of tools around the B-list of films, that only deals with a certain kind of stars and a certain type of movies. We’re not (and pretentious is a word I hate) but we’re not pretentious, and we’re obviously not anti-blockbuster – we’re a film magazine and we’re interested in anything and everything.

Also, one of the reasons we hadn’t done a blockbuster before is that we just couldn’t do one because they only really screen the movies four weeks in advance, but we went to see Paramount, and nobody was more surprised than me when they said ‘actually, we think we’ll have a Paramount screening in time, we can get you access to JJ Abrams, we’re happy for you to go ahead and do your thing with him’, so we just thought, ‘yeah, why not?’ We kind of wanted to ruffle a few feathers, or not that, but see whether people care – let’s see if we put a Star Trek issue out, will people turn around and say ‘oh my God, what are you doing putting out a Star Trek issue?’ or do they say ‘yeah, we get that – we get what you’re doing with it’. So Star Trek was chosen for some very specific reasons.

Often things turn out differently to how we first intend them – we’ve done quite a few issues when we’ve intended to put one film on the cover but it’s dropped out, or it’s moved, and it gets to the point where you have to make a choice. So yeah, we’ve had some issues where the film on the cover wouldn’t and maybe shouldn’t have been the cover film.

You’re getting to the point now where White Lies is more than just the magazine – you’ve got the JJ Abrams online TV thing going out at the moment and I know you’ve got a load of other stuff in the pipeline – can you talk a bit about that?

The idea really is that as an independent film magazine you really can’t survive by just being a magazine. Independent magazines are dying every single day – mainstream magazines are dying every day at the moment – so the business model for an independent magazine just doesn’t work right now. So unfortunately what you have to do is recognise the fact that you’ve got a brand here. We have never, ever approached White Lies as a brand – we never used to think about it like that, but we kind of have to be smart and recognise that it does kind of become one, and in recognising that we have this brand, we’ve asked ourselves where else does White Lies make sense?

One thing we’ve realised is that we’d love to put together a White Lies TV show, because just like four or five years ago we thought all film magazines were shit and we wanted to make a good one, we now think all film TV shows are shit. Actually we don’t just think that – it’s fact. They are all shit. And there’s no fucking reason why they’re all that shit, no reason at all, other than that people are lazy and they have shit ideas. So we’ve said, ‘well, we can do it. We have good ideas and we’re not that lazy, so fuck it, let’s try and make a TV show’, so we hooked up with a producer and a production agency who were happy to work with us for free.

The great thing about White Lies is that we have this creative community of people that has built up around us – we know filmmakers, photographers, entrepreneurs, all these people who are doing good things, so we can say to aspiring filmmakers, ‘do you want to come onboard with us?’ and you kind of pull all this together into making a short TV programme. So what we did is we went to Paramount and said, ‘we want to interview JJ Abrams, we don’t want any of your junket bullshit, we don’t want any of your two camera, poster in the background crap,’ because that’s part of the reason why the existing TV stuff is so shit, because they control everything. So we said we wanted to do it with our own setup and lights and handheld cameras, and the idea is that would be the first section of a much longer 25-minute programme that basically puts White Lies on TV, or at least for now on the web. That’s part of a big plan that’s ongoing and isn’t completed yet.

Beyond that we are programming the film tent for End of the Road festival in September, and we’re putting on a three-day-long Film Festival of our own in 2010, and again that’s because nobody else is really doing it. When you think of film festivals you think of Cannes, which is a multi-venue set up that is essentially a market – London isn’t, but most big film festivals are really industry marketplaces. So we wanted to put on a proper festival that’s along the lines of a music festival but with film, so a real fan-led celebration of movies, and that’s one of our big ideas.

And also we do parties and events, and it’s all about getting the name out there. You can’t just sit around publishing a magazine every two months – you need to get out there and be everywhere and be in people’s lives, and also while you’re doing that what you have to be careful about is that when you’re doing these things they have to be good. The TV show has to be good, because the minute you do something that isn’t as good as the magazine you’ve made, the minute you kind of reveal yourselves to be a bunch of chancers who are just making it up as you go along, then you’re fucked because that’s your credibility gone. And I think too many independent magazines have got great ideas and really ambitious plans, but they carry them out in a really shoddy way that then reflects badly on their main product, so you have to tread carefully.

Okay, so now to the most obvious of the questions – which is your favourite feature from the issue, and is there anything in there that given another week or so you’d have done differently?
Ha! Erm, everything. I tell you what, there was one feature that was a nightmare to put together, and which is now a series of interviews with various different science fiction people about… You see I’m finding it hard to describe, which isn’t a good start. It originally was supposed to be an interview with five top scientists, like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, those people, to speak to them about the connection between the science and the fiction in science fiction, and the relationship between the two in reality, like to see whether it’s the tail wagging the dog or whatever. But we just couldn’t get anyone to speak to us – everyone was busy or working or away, so then we said, ‘okay, new idea, we’ll interview a sci-fi author and a sci-fi scriptwriter to do a compare and contrast for who’s the real sci-fi champion’, but then Iain M Banks couldn’t do it, Alastair Reynolds was busy, and this was going on over weeks and weeks and weeks, and eventually it ended up like the week before deadline going, ‘right, fucking find people connected with the world of science and/or fiction and/or film, ask them some fucking questions and write about it’. That was a classic disaster. Some issues everything goes wrong. Some issues everything goes right though.

What did I really like? I really liked the book extracts, because they’re just really dirty. Well they’re not that dirty, but there is reference to a 15-year-old girl being tied up and sodomised…

That’s kind of dirty
Yeah, well we weren’t sure if it was legal or not, then I figured, ‘fuck it, it was published once so it must be legal’, but then I thought, ‘well it’s been published independently, so maybe that’s why it wasn’t published, because it’s illegal’. But I’ve got, well, not a soft spot for sodomising young girls, I just hope some people were shocked by it.

The last thing I want to talk to you about is the structure of the magazine – it’s had much the same structure since I first started reading it, with the features, the reviews and the back section…
Although it has changed in the last couple of issues. We changed the DVD section to make it more like listings, so a lot of the DVD content now goes on the website. We started printing the back section on a different paper stock and changed the illustration for it.

And in the reviews section you seem to have a lot more interviews these days. Is that because you’re getting more access to people or was it a conscious decision?
With the structure of White Lies we make a lot of problems for ourselves. In a normal magazine there’s a place to put things like interviews – if we ran a magazine like Empire and we got an interview with Charlie Kauffman or Ken Loach, what we’d do is throw four pages at them, or maybe two pages, and we’d put them in the feature section and it’d all have a lot more space to breathe, but because we don’t do that, the question is where do we put these interviews? And it is true that we’re getting more of them. Well, we probably reached critical mass a while ago, about a year or two ago, but so we’ve gone through several iterations of what we do with these interviews.

We thought about creating an interviews chapter, but we don’t really have the space to do that. It would probably still only be about eight pages long and that’s no more than we’ve already got. We used to put them in the back section as big profiles, but because of the way the back section is designed, if you put 1000 words in there people just don’t want to read it, literally because the font is so small, and we were finding we had this brilliant stuff in the back section that nobody was reading, which is why we redesigned. But then we put them in the reviews section alongside the review of their film, and originally we did it as a 500-word Q&A but we did some research and we found that people wanted them to be longer, and they didn’t want them to be Q&As, they wanted them to be written out, so that led to the current thing where each interview now gets 1000 words on a single page opposite a review, and that whole spread is blacked out so that when you’re flipping through you know when you’ve hit an interview.

But we do still have to be careful to get the balance right, because I hate saying no to interviews, but sometimes you just have to. In the Star Trek issue we actually dropped two at last minute, but we’ve still got something like eight interviews, which is 16 pages including the reviews, which is a huge amount. So it is difficult.

That’s a nice problem to have though, too much stuff to go in your mag?
It is, and I’d love to up-page and make White Lies bigger. We could fill 50 more pages in White Lies so easily, but it’s just a money thing at the moment.

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