How I Letterboxd: Will Slater

Talking mullets and other manes with the man behind the internet’s definitive ‘exploding helicopters in movies’ catalog.

Man cannot live on helicopter explosions alone. Even I need some occasional intellectual nourishment.” —⁠Will Slater

A London-based PR man by day, by night Will Slater has a thing (and a podcast, blog and Twitter account) for movies that feature exploding helicopters. According to his Letterboxd bio, it’s “the world’s only podcast and blog dedicated to celebrating the art of exploding helicopters in films… as well as shaming those directors who dishonor the helicopter explosion genre”. As Will tells Jack Moulton, he also loves film noir, Wakaliwood, masala movies and much more. Just don’t get him started on the one action movie cliché that never fails to disappoint.

Sylvester Stallone takes aim in Rambo III (1988).
Sylvester Stallone takes aim in Rambo III (1988).

First things first, have you ever had a ride in a helicopter?
Will Slater: What, do you think I’m mad? Of course I’ve never flown in a helicopter! If I’ve learned anything from watching hundreds of films where helicopters spectacularly explode, it’s that they are a singularly dangerous form of transport. You never know when Sylvester Stallone is going to pop up with an explosive-tipped arrow and blow you out of the sky.

I’m going to say the words ‘the definitive action hero/heroine’. Who pops into your head first? No runners-up. Go.
Snake Plissken, no question, for a number of good reasons. First, there’s the look: that eye-patch, the beaten-to-hell leather jacket and Kurt Russell’s lustrous mane of hair. Second, there’s the attitude: his contempt for authority, the drawled sarcasm and all-round bad-assery. And I also like that he doesn’t have any special abilities. Action heroes generally tend to be either musclebound slabs of beef—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stallone—or martial arts specialists—Jean-Claude van Damme, Jackie Chan—Plissken is just a pissed-off, angry dude who’s trying to stay alive. He’s very relatable. Plus, I’d argue he pretty much invented the whole anti-hero formula that rules our screens today.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).
Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).

When did you start your podcast and which film got you into looking deeper into the topic?
It was while watching the cheesily bad Cyborg Cop that I first had an epiphany about the weird and wonderful ways in which helicopters seemed to continually explode in movies. But the film that convinced me to start documenting the phenomenon was Stone Cold. If you’re not familiar with the film, it was an attempt to turn former gridiron star and mullet-king Brian Bosworth into the next big action star. It goes without saying that Stone Cold did not transform ‘The Boz’ into the next Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the film wasn’t a total failure as it features a helicopter explosion that is as brilliant as it is gloriously stupid.

And that was the prompt to start the Exploding Helicopter. I launched the website in 2009, and the podcast followed 2015. Since we started, our aim has been a simple one: to celebrate the strange and inventive ways that helicopters explode in films.

When did you join Letterboxd? What are your favorite features here?
I’ve been around since 2013. As for the features, the stats are very cool. When you dig into your viewing history, you can learn some very revealing things about yourself. For example, I generally like to think I have a commendably broad taste in film, and watch only the most important and influential works from every decade, genre and country. But then you look at the data and find you’ve watched Thunderball nine times in the last five years, so maybe you’re not as cool as you thought.

We noticed that your profile faves are low-key and explosion-free, given your theme of choice. Why these four and not Die Hard four times?
Man cannot live on helicopter explosions alone. Even I need some occasional intellectual nourishment, between watching whirlybird conflagrations. There’s a little bit of nostalgia tied up in The Ipcress File. I first saw it as a kid, and it made a big impression on me. It’s very stylishly directed, has a great John Barry score and a star-making turn from Michael Caine. I’m a big film noir fan and Sweet Smell Of Success is a beautifully sour tale of cynicism and manipulation. To borrow the words of Burt Lancaster in the film, it’s a “cookie full of arsenic”.

Jean-Pierre Melville is my favorite director and Le Samouraï was the first of his films that I saw. What Melville does so masterfully in this, and his other crime films, is distil the elements of film noir. Basically, he takes the genre’s iconography—the gun, the trenchcoat, the fedora—and familiar plot tropes—the betrayed assassin, the heist gone wrong, the criminal doing one last job—then elevates them above cliché into something almost mythic. And what do I really need to say about Taxi Driver, other than it’s a masterpiece?

Now you say you shame directors who dishonor the art of helicopter explosions? Which directors did you dirty?
Well, one of the biggest names in our hall of shame is Tony Scott. For a man who specialized in hyper-stylized, pyrotechnic-filled action movies, he flunked every helicopter explosion he filmed. In our eyes, one of the most egregious offences you can commit is failing to show the helicopter explosion. And in both Spy Game and Domino, old Tony cheats the viewer by having the chopper fly out of sight before it explodes. Now, I can accept such visual chicanery in a low-budget film, where they presumably don’t have the money to stage the scene, but what’s Tony’s excuse? If you look at his filmography, at one time or another he’s wrecked trains, planes and automobiles in spectacular fashion. But for some reason, he repeatedly couldn’t be bothered to give us a satisfying chopper conflagration. At a certain point, it starts to feel like a personal slight. Tony, what did I ever do to you?

In your immortal words, “a film is always improved by a helicopter explosion.” When has this been especially true?
When you see lists of worst-ever directors, Uwe Boll is a name that always seems to turn up. And, according to the internet, one of his worst-ever films is the video game adaptation, Far Cry. Now, I’m not going to try [to] convince you that the film is a neglected classic, but it does have a very imaginatively staged exploding helicopter scene. It’s too convoluted to explain here, but take my word that it wouldn’t be out of place in a Fast and Furious movie.

What about the unsung heroes; the stunt artists, the pilots, the pyrotechnicians, the VFX wizards who have worked on numerous iconic action moments, all of whom deserve a shoutout?
Personally, I don’t understand why the Academy doesn’t have a stunts category. But if they did, I’d be lobbying hard for Spiro Razatos to get the first award. These days, he works as a stunt coordinator on the Fast and Furious and Marvel films, but I’d like to draw people’s attention to some of his early work. Back in the nineties, he did a lot of work with PM Entertainment films, an independent company that made low-budget action films for the home video market.

They might not have had much money, but they put every cent on the screen with glorious, raucously inventive set pieces that were often more spectacular than big-budget Hollywood offerings. And remember: this was in pre-CGI times, so every death-defying detail was absolutely ‘real’. Go back and watch films like The Sweeper or Rage, and you’ll can see why Super Spiro has now graduated to these more prestigious gigs.

Narrow this list down for us: which is the ultimate most spine-tingly epic “we got company” movie moment?
As you may have gathered, I do like an action movie cliché. When you encounter one in a film, it’s like meeting an old friend. And one of my favorites is when someone uses this classic line of dialog to signal that a car chase or a gun battle is about to start. I’ve heard people deliver the line in all sorts of ways–funny, scared, angrily and often just badly. But if you want spine-tingly, then you can’t beat Harrison Ford in Star Wars. He drops the line during the detention-block scene after failing to bluff an imperial officer. As soon as he says it, John Williams’ iconic score kicks in. It gives you the ‘feels’ every time.

And which action movie cliché can you simply not stand?
Stop it: my hackles are raising just thinking about it. For me, the trope that never fails to disappoint is the ‘reluctant’ hero being convinced to take up arms and join the fight. You know the scene. Invariably, the hero has hung up their spurs and is living a bucolic existence ‘off the grid’, when a gruff buddy shows up asking them to risk almost certain death by taking on ‘one last job’. Now, dialog is rarely an action film’s greatest strength, and these beefcake actors generally are not cast for their dramatic chops. Which means we get subjected to the same perfunctory and uninteresting scene over and over again: “I told you, I’m out the game”, “Goddamnit, we need you”, “OK, I’ll do it”. These scenes just never work and are never less than painful to watch.

Which up-and-coming action director are you most excited about?
In terms of up-and-coming action talent, I’d pick the director Stefano Sollima. I first noticed his work on a couple of TV series: the fantastic Italian crime dramas, Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah. The way he composed shots really stood out, and it was clear he had a very cinematic eye. He rather reminds me of Michael Mann. He’s now on Hollywood’s radar and got to direct Sicario: Day of the Soldado the other year. And he’s lined up to make a Tom Clancy adaptation with Michael B. Jordan. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

Have you witnessed the glory that is Wakaliwood—Ugandan DIY action filmmaking—three of which make Letterboxd’s official top ten films by black directors? Which international films do you feel out-match Hollywood?
I love the Wakaliwood films I’ve seen. It’s fascinating to watch action films from around the world and see their different styles and flavors. Recently, I’ve been trying to investigate Indian cinema and, in particular, what are known as ‘masala movies’. These mix action, comedy, drama, romance and dance numbers into one big, crazy, entertaining mess. They’re a unique experience. If you want to check one out, I’d suggest Dhoom 2. It’s bananas.

Can you believe there are only two female directors represented in your exploding helicopter list? Do you believe that’s due to systemic or thematic reasons?
You have to say it’s systemic. Men have dominated filmmaking for more than a century. Until women have the same opportunities to direct and make films as men, it’s impossible to know what their interest may or may not be in blowing up helicopters.

Note: Will has previously written about the search for “true gender equality in the world of exploding helicopters”.

To address the elephant in the room, how has Kobe Bryant’s unfortunate death earlier this year changed the way you look at these scenes?
Obviously, I appreciate that Kobe Bryant’s death was very shocking and a tragedy for his family and fans. But basketball really is not a thing on these grim shores, so it didn’t register with us unenlightened Brits other than [as] a sad headline about a US sports star.

What was your most anticipated movie event of 2020 before Covid-19 pushed every tentpole back?
That’s easy: No Time To Die. I’m a huge Bond fan and as soon as tickets were available, I booked myself in to see it on opening day at an IMAX. But if the Daniel Craig era is synonymous with anything, it’s lengthy delays between films.

Freerunner Sébastien Foucan in the opening scene from Casino Royale (2006).
Freerunner Sébastien Foucan in the opening scene from Casino Royale (2006).

What’s a fond memory you have in theaters related to the Bond franchise?
I remember going to see Casino Royale. I was excited, but also nervous to see it. The Brosnan era had ended with the risible Die Another Day: invisible cars, kitesurfing and, worst of all, John Cleese’s awful Q. Since that had come out, we’d had Mission: Impossible, Bourne and the Triple X films, so it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Bond might be finished. Then the first ten minutes of Casino Royale happened. And while that outstanding parkour-inspired chase was terrifically exciting, it also hit me like cinematic Valium. I suddenly realised I could sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that 007 was going to be just fine.

Are you planning on returning to theaters as soon as you can? When would you feel comfortable?
I’m taking a wait-and-see approach. I’d love to see films back on the big screen again, but I want to know more about how cinemas are going to maintain social distancing inside.

Finally, what three Letterboxd accounts should we all be following?
Why not give Todd Gaines, Jayson Kennedy or Fred Andersson a follow? If you’re interested in genre films that are a little off the beaten trail, they’ll likely all steer you towards some hidden gems.


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