INTERVIEW WITH JASON WOOD: 100 ROAD MOVIES

Radio On

Format: Book

Date published: May 2007

Published by: BFI

Author Jason Wood

Mention the words ‘road movie’ and most people will think of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding down the highway to the tune of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’. Easy Rider may remain the daddy of road movies but there is more to the genre than this, as Jason Wood’s book on the subject amply demonstrates. With detailed entries on films that explore many variations on the template, 100 Road Movies is a thoroughly enjoyable read in which classics such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde sit next to more unexpected entries such as The Wizard of Oz and The Searchers as well as modern updates like The Motorcycle Diaries. We met up with Jason Wood, a man whose knowledge of cinema is as phenomenal as his enthusiasm and rapid-fire delivery, to talk about his book.

Virginie Sélavy: In your introduction you say that you think the book should provoke debate and discussion and it certainly has done that for me.

Jason Wood: Yeah, I’ve already had lots of people asking ‘why isn’t that in there?’ but I like that, I think a book should do that. A hundred films seems a lot to begin with but when you start scaling back, it’s not. There are ones now that I wish I’d put in there, for example I don’t have a children’s road movie. I guess The Wizard of Oz just about counts, but not really. There are lots of arguments over what should have been in there.

VS: It makes you think about what a road movie actually is, and how you define it, which is good. What made you think of writing about road movies?

JW: I got a bit of a reputation as somebody who wrote only about American independent film. The first book I did was on Steven Soderbergh. Then I did a book on Hal Hartley and another book for the BFI in the same series, 100 American Independent Films. So I didn’t want to just write about one subject. And I’ve always been interested in the way that road movies have used music, the way that sequences are often cut to particular records or songs. I’m as interested and inspired by music as I am by film. When I first started driving, I had an old car and a tape machine and one of the things I loved to do was to make tapes and just drive and listen to music.One of the things that I really like about this road movies book is actually the part of it that I didn’t write, which is the preface by one of my favourite filmmakers, Chris Petit, who made Radio On. He says something in that preface that I immediately related to, which is the intersection between the road movie and music. The other thing I like about road movies is the fact that that they teach you something about yourself. I think the whole idea of the road movie is a journey towards some sort of selfhood and self-knowledge. I think the back of the book says that road movies are a metaphor for life. You might set out in life having the intention of travelling in one direction but fate and circumstance find you moving in another direction. I like the fact that road movies don’t stick to the itinerary, they often go off road, they take different courses. I find that quite liberating because I think that life is like that.

VS: How difficult was it to select the films?

JW: It was really tough and I knew what was going to happen because I’d done this 100 American Independent Films. For that book I got two filmmakers I like very much, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who made Suture and The Deep End, to write the preface for it. And their whole preface was kind of having a go at me in mock tones for leaving out their favourite film, a film called Billy Jack. So I knew from doing that that no matter what one hundred films you select, there’s always going to be one or two that people are going to take you to task for for not including. So for the road movies book I actually cheated. In the introduction I list ten other films that I wish I could have included just to try and cover myself. What I tried to do was to select films that are important to road movies in the historical sense, films that are important in terms of key directors and films that might not necessarily have been considered previously as being road movies. I would regard a road movie as something that doesn’t necessarily have to involve a road or even a car, but as something that involves a journey. So I tried to select films that were a new way of thinking about road movies, The Wizard of Oz for instance, and The Searchers, which is a Western. The key goal for me was as broad a selection as possible. To begin with I tried to do a film for every single country but I was selecting films that maybe weren’t the best examples just because they came from a particular country and the selection was suffering because of that. So in the end I just decided to pick the hundred films that were most representative, films that meant something to me, also films that people would expect to see there, such as Thelma and Louise, which is an important film, but not one that I particularly like very much. But even doing it that way I realised that a hundred films isn’t nearly enough.

VS: When I came across the entry on The Wizard of Oz I thought, ‘What? The Wizard of Oz is a road movie?’ I have to say that for me road movies have to definitely definitely involve a car. If they don’t, how do you define a road movie?

JW: I think they certainly can include cars, and motorbikes, and so on, but my definition of a road movie would be the idea of a journey. They have to involve travel, they can’t be stationary, but the idea of them having to involve a car would for me rule out quite a lot of good road movies. The Searchers is obviously set in a period before cars were invented and I think it is a very good example because it clearly involves some kind of personal quest. It’s about the idea that the character played by John Wayne finds out something about himself that he didn’t necessarily know. So I think that to have not included that film would have been a shame. One of the sub-genres that has originated from road movies, and there are several, is the idea of the walking movie as in Beat Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro or Paris, Texas. I think that road movies don’t even have to necessarily involve a road. I mentioned right at the end of the book a film called London to Brighton, which is a train journey towards selfhood and away from a crime scene. Of course the fetishisation of the vehicles is an important factor of road movies. This book caught the attention of people who wouldn’t normally be interested in film books, a lot of car magazines, and Top Gear… I can’t believe that Jeremy Clarkson would be interested in this… So ideally the road movie would involve a car but for me the essence of the road movie is a journey, which invariably turns into some sort of personal quest.

VS: Why did you not include Paris, Texas, a work that sounds quite important to you or films such as They Live By Night, Wild At Heart and The Wild One, which you mention in your list of ten, instead of films such as Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, which I think are rather mediocre films and which you don’t seem to like very much yourself?

JW: The only other self-imposed rule that I had was that I tried to limit the amount of films per director. So Wim Wenders for example, who is perhaps the filmmaker most commonly associated with the road movie – he even named his production company ‘Road Movies’ – made films in Germany that explored the same terrain as Paris, Texas – films such as Alice in the City, Kings of the Road and The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick. I could have had five or six films by Wenders but I wanted to limit it to just two or three, so that’s why Paris, Texas wasn’t included. I absolutely agree with you with regard to Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, I think they’re both very mediocre films. But they emerged at quite an interesting time in filmmaking, a time when filmmakers were trying to look at the influence of the media and how events were covered, specifically the almost obsessive interest in killers and murder sprees. So Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers had to be included almost as an update of films such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde for the way they take on some of the ideas explored in those films. The other film that I’m not a big fan of but that I had to include was Thelma and Louise. It’s one of the few road movies which is written by a woman and has a female protagonist. I actually think that the film is completely compromised by its ending but it’s an interesting one to have in there because it has a certain amount of cachet with feminist writers. And I probably bowed to a little bit of pressure to include it because people would expect to see it there. If people are interested in Thelma and Louise they should certainly see a film called Messidor by Alain Tanner, which is included in the book. It is a very similar film but it takes the feminist perspective of Thelma and Louise that much further. It was made something like twenty years before but it’s a much more audacious film. With regard to some the other films that you mentioned, instead of They Live By Night I actually included the update, Thieves Like Us, by Robert Altman, which is a virtual remake – it’s based on the same book. They Live By Night is one of my favourite films but I realised that I already had a number of films that were covering the film noir angle. That’s one of the other ones that I regret not having. If I could go back, I probably would have included it.

VS: What about The Wild One? It seems to me that it should definitely have been in there.

JW: The Wild One is interesting. It’s one of the ten films that I say I wish I had included in the introduction. I watched all the films again and I thought that The Wild One had dated very much, which is not to detract from the film; it’s still an important film. But instead of The Wild One, I decided to include a British film called The Leather Boys because it takes many aspects of The Wild One, the idea of the teenage tearaways, the idea of counter-culture, the idea of using motor vehicles as a way to break free from the constricting norms of society, but it also had a whole homoerotic aspect between the two male leads. The other thing is that The Leather Boys perhaps isn’t a film that people would expect to see in there. One of the things I wanted to do was to get people to go away and see films that they maybe hadn’t seen. I’m sure everybody reading the book will know of or will have seen The Wild One but maybe they won’t know The Leather Boys. In the entry I wrote about The Leather Boys I make lots of references to The Wild One by way of saying, you’re probably expecting to be reading about The Wild One, but you’re not, you’re reading The Leather Boys, and this is why… I wish I could have had both.

VS: One of the things that you’ve touched on earlier is how some filmmakers construct almost all of their films as road movies of some kind. You’ve mentioned Wim Wenders; I would probably pick Jim Jarmusch as the ultimate example of that. So it must have been difficult to deal with filmmakers like that in a book like yours because so many of their films are very interesting, diverse examples of the road movie.

JW: Yes, it was kind of that three films per director rule. There’s a quote from Truffaut where he says, ‘I’ve always just remade the same film several times’. I think Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, not to say that they’re just remaking the same film, but they’ve obviously struck upon something that they feel very comfortable doing. And Jim Jarmusch is another director, who you could arguably say, has made only road movies. Dead Man is one of those interesting films, which again isn’t in there but I wish it was, because it’s a Western but it’s obviously a road movie. Both Jarmusch and Wenders – and in real life they are very close – are interested in the way that the road movie opens up the possibility to look at these kind of insular characters. Their characters are all ridden by ennui, melancholia and self-doubt and the road movie is a perfect template to explore that. I don’t think Wenders and Jarmusch are unique as directors associated with a particular genre. John Ford for example is very much associated with Westerns and he certainly didn’t only make Westerns. And you could say the same thing about directors that are associated with the horror genre. With regard to Wenders and Jarmusch this idea of a journey is something that obviously fits the characters that they like to explore. I think it also fits the way in which they like to work. When Wim Wenders made Kings of the Road, which is one of my favourite road movies, he very famously didn’t have a script. He had a very rough outline of the kind of film that he wanted to make. He went out with a very minimal crew and he would visit a location and the night before he was due to shoot he would write a few pages of dialogue. Then they would improvise as they went along. I think Jarmusch works in a similar way. He obviously has a script, a template of what he wants to do. But the idea of being out on the road gives him a certain amount of freedom. As they work with bigger stars it probably becomes more difficult for them to do that. If you look at Jarmusch’s last film, Broken Flowers, it’s obviously a road movie and does involve a journey but it’s more structured and less esoteric in its approach than Stranger than Paradise or Dead Man were.

VS: Stranger Than Paradise – that was a massive turning point in the history of the road movie and of American cinema, right?

JW: Stranger Than Paradise is such an important film for numerous reasons. There’s a book called Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, which is a history of American independent cinema from the 1980s. And the writer of the book, John Pierson, pinpoints Stranger Than Paradise as a defining moment in American independent filmmaking in that it radically altered the way that American independent films were not only made but also marketed. Stranger Than Paradise came out of the tradition of films such as John Cassavetes’ and the European filmmakers of the sixties and seventies. Jarmusch always cites Wenders as well as Ozu as an influence and Stranger Than Paradise is shot in monochrome black and white with extremely long takes and a very static camera. It has at its centre a relationship between two men and a woman, which is also linked to the key American road movies of the early seventies – themselves influenced by European filmmakers, specifically Antonioni – like Vanishing Point or Two-Lane Blacktop in that it looks at the breakdown in communication between the sexes. So Stranger Than Paradise almost encapsulates the history of American and European cinema from about the 1950s. But it does it in a very un-self-conscious way and when the film was made, it really didn’t feel like there’d been anything like it at that time. If I remember correctly the tagline for Stranger Than Paradise when it was released was ‘a new kind of American movie’. And it really did feel like that, although if you analyse it carefully it wasn’t especially that new. But it redefined the boundaries. It said films don’t have to go ABC, they can go ACB; they can do things in a different way, they don’t have to have big stars in, they don’t have to have this pay-off ending, they can leave questions unanswered. And it had great music. It was a film that felt… I hate to use the word cool… but people often compare Stranger Than Paradise to jazz and it felt like rules were being broken and all bets were off. There are other films that came out in the wake of Stranger Than Paradise that were equally influential. I talked about this book by John Pierson and it analyses the huge impetus that it gave to the career of people like John Sayles, but also Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, all these American independent directors that did things in their own way and on their own terms. And the fact that the characters in Stranger Than Paradise were on the margins of society also gave rise to movements such as the New Queer Cinema. The Living End by Gregg Araki is a film that isn’t a road movie but that I felt was very important because it takes characters on the margins of society, which road movies have always done, and it goes one step further: they’re outsiders not only because of their sexuality but also because they’re HIV positive. And they really don’t give a damn, they’re going to take what they want from life, they’re going to refuse to let society dictate to them how they’re going to live their lives, and it feels very liberating. Without Stranger Than Paradise you probably wouldn’t have had films such as The Living End.

VS: For you what is the defining road movie, the one that established the genre? I’m afraid it has to be one that includes a car… How about Easy Rider?

JW: But that’s got bikes in it.

VS: Yeah, bikes work too.

JW: Easy Rider is often called the godfather of the road movie and I think it’s certainly a key film. When we were talking about Stranger Than Paradise we talked about films that were influenced by European filmmakers from the sixties and Easy Rider is certainly one of those films. I think the film that gave birth to the whole idea of the road movie has to be John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. It deals with the American Depression and with having to go on the road for economic reasons. The Grapes of Wrath is important because it makes clear the links between technology and the development of road movies. Road movies began to come about very early on with the films of D.W. Griffith when it became clear that you could mount a camera onto a car. The Grapes of Wrath took that idea and ran with it. It established some of the iconic visual references of the road movie, the shots through windscreens, the use of wing mirrors, the idea of a car travelling on a highway and the shots of the people on the highway. Then you have the film noirs of the 40s and 50s such as They Live By Night, where you also have those iconic visuals, the looks in the wing mirrors, the tension, the kind of enclosed claustrophobia of the car. But those film noirs also took this idea of an America that was very unsure of itself, and unsure of where it was going; a kind of America that was suffering a hangover from WWII and didn’t know what its future direction was going to be; an America that started to view the open road not as something to go out on and celebrate but as something to be fearful of, with the idea that you didn’t really know where the road was going to take you. Instead of the road offering this kind of escape and adventure it began to be seen as something that was fraught with danger. So in the 40s and 50s this whole idea of paranoia crept in and it was the European filmmakers, Bergman with Wild Strawberries and Fellini with La Strada, who developed this idea that the road wasn’t going to bring happiness but misery and introspection. Because of films like that you had the birthing of films such as Easy Rider. Easy Rider is also important in terms of the way it uses music. I mentioned at the start that one of the reasons I like Chris Petit’s Radio On and Wenders’ films is this idea of music in motion, or sound and vision, to use a Bowie quote. And Easy Rider certainly did that; it cut entire sequences to pop records. It still has one of the biggest selling soundtracks in motion pictures history. But it’s also important in that at the end of the film – I won’t spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it – this idea of an America where possibilities are open is shown to be false. The tagline for the poster was something like ‘free men that went in search of America and couldn’t find it anywhere’. Easy Rider is very much a film about an America that has lost touch with itself. It harks back to the film noirs of the 40s and 50s but replaces WWII with Vietnam. It shows characters from all walks of life, you have a lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, a pot-head played by Dennis Hopper, and everybody is lost and everybody is looking for something. But the road doesn’t bring any easy answers, what it brings is frustration and ultimately death. I like the bleakness of road movies. There’s another quote I really like from a Hal Hartley movie called Simple Men, which I described in the book as a road movie with a flat tyre. One of the characters, who wants to leave this small town that he’s marooned in, says to someone: ‘I want adventure, I want romance’. And the other character says: ‘There’s no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.’ I think that’s very much what the road movie is about.

VS: There’s obviously a strong link between road movies and America, and most of the films we’ve talked about are American films. In the book you include films from other countries. How do you feel they compare with American films? Do you feel that the road movie remains essentially an American genre?

JW: People have described the road movie as being America’s greatest gift to contemporary culture and I think there’s a strong argument with that. The motor car was properly developed within America and the road movie is very much linked with the development of not only car technology but also the building of roads, and America was certainly at the forefront of that too. But the important thing about the book was to show that it’s not unique to America. I already mentioned Wild Strawberries and La Strada, two very important European road movies. In recent years we’ve seen a huge boom in road movies from Latin America with Y tu mamá también, Bombí³n el perro and The Motorcycle Diaries. A lot of the filmmakers working in Europe and further afield saw all those American films and said OK, this is a really interesting way of looking at not only the geography of our countries but also at how we view ourselves. Wild Strawberries did for Sweden what a lot of these road movies were doing for America. It was a way of showing to the Swedish people how their lives were changing and how their aspirations perhaps weren’t being met. But what’s interesting is that a lot of these filmmakers not only used the road movie template as a means to analyse their own social and political situations but they also began to use it as a dialogue with American culture and American imperialism. The best example of that is Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road. The whole film is about the dominance of American culture. The dialogue between the two lead characters is all about pop songs and the film travels through villages where rural cinemas are no longer able to operate because of the dominance of American movies. The film concludes in a kind of abandoned border patrol hut between East and West Germany with one of the characters saying to the other one: ‘The Yanks have even colonised our subconscious’. These filmmakers took the road movie template, held it as a mirror and turned it back on America. In turn American movies such as Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point began to be influenced by that. They took the melancholia and introspection of these European films and they injected it into their own films. If you look at a film like Familia Rodante, the Pablo Trapero film, it is a very clear influence on Little Miss Sunshine. So I don’t think that films from America have just influenced the rest of the world. I think it’s now a situation where the rest of the world is equally influential on road movies from America. I think of it as a cultural exchange.

VS: To end this interview I’d like to ask you what is probably a very difficult question: what is your favourite road movie?

JW: Can I pick two?

VS: All right then.

JW: For very personal reasons I’m a very big fan of a film called Candy Mountain. It’s directed by Robert Frank and it’s written by Rudy Wurlitzer. It opened at the ICA several years ago and I went to see it every single night for about a week. I became obsessed with it because it looks at the interaction between movies and music. The cast is made up of people like Tom Waits, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Joe Strummer, Arto Lindsay. It’s a real who’s who of musicians. The other reason I became obsessed with it is that it’s written by my favourite screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, who also wrote Two-Lane Blacktop, which is another film that would be in there if I could pick three. I became so obsessed with Candy Mountain that I named my youngest son Rudy after Rudy Wurlitzer. And one of the greatest things for me to come out of this book was that I recently had an email from Rudy Wurlitzer saying that he’d seen the book and he liked it and I emailed back saying, ‘it’s a real honour for me because I like your work so much that I named my son after you’… I love the fact that the hero of Candy Mountain, played by Kevin J. O’Connor, who’s almost like a character from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, goes on this journey and at the end of it he’s left disillusioned but still standing. It says that the road can bend you and it can break you but it can never completely destroy you, and I like that. The other film that I would pick is Radio On by Chris Petit. It’s widely considered to be the first British road movie. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s certainly the best. It’s hugely influenced by Wim Wenders; it was executively produced by Wenders, it uses Martin Schäfer, one of Wenders’ cinematographers, and it casts one of Wim Wenders’ leading ladies, Lisa Kreuzer. It’s a film that looks at Britain at a very particular time, a Britain in economic decline, a Britain that was thirsting for social and cultural change, but was really unsure of its identity and its future. It catches Britain right before the imminent upheavals of Thatcherism. It’s also a film that is about introspection, about the idea of not really knowing who you are or where you want to go in life. And it has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. It’s very audacious and it certainly broke boundaries; if anything it was ahead of its time. When Radio On was released I think it was met with a certain amount of confusion because people hadn’t seen anything like it. Thirty years later it’s held as a classic.

Vertigo: Doomed Love

Vertigo
Vertigo

Format: Cinema

Date: 5 – 31 August 2016

Part of Soundtrack Season

Venue: HOME, Manchester

Tickets are now on sale via the HOME website
or the Box Office on
+44 (0)161 200 1500

Musician and filmmaker Barry Adamson on Bernard Herrmann’s dizzying score for Hitchcock.

Vertigo is without doubt, Hitchcock’s masterpiece. A masterpiece because Hitchcock lets us into his (and our own) universal truth. He shows us his longing. A longing that can never be satiated. A longing that merely leaves us up in the air, frozen in time and space forever.

He dismisses conventional story telling structure. (Conventional film structure is three acts. You put a person up a tree. You throw rocks at them. You watch them try to make it down. Most first acts are over with pretty quickly so we can get on with the business of throwing rocks. Hitchcock putting Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie up a tree is to have him fish Kim Novak’s Madeleine, the woman he’s been following at a distance, out of San Francisco Bay, take her home, strip her naked and put her in his bed… after 46 minutes.) He then masterly creates his trademark suspense. In the last few acts, the audience knows something the protagonist doesn’t, after a remarkable disclosure of the film’s plot. Up until that point, there’s so much tension, intrigue and seduction manoeuvring. We’re watching a man watching a woman who’s keeping an eye on herself while observing another woman…

Bernard Herrmann said that whereas he wrote character music for Orson Welles, Hitchcock wanted place and situation and to feel the tension building. The music throughout the opening titles tells the whole story. The film is set in San Francisco. Herrmann builds a geographical, dreamlike and suspenseful motive around ‘contrary motion’. One motif plays six notes up and down the scale as the other motif (same notes) comes down and up the scale and this alludes to the idea of physical vertigo as well as a kind of teetering on the edge, both emotionally and mentally.

He then adds the ‘doomed love’ theme in four notes, ending the phrase with a dissonant death chord. It would seem to be the end, and of course later in the piece it really is BUT… he then arranges for ‘trilling’ violins to animate and rise from a pit of desire, into omnipotence. They begin skipping carelessly as if to mock the idea of death as finite. This is short-lived, however, as again doom now plays out before the final death knell rings.

This happens over swirling graphics and close-ups of a woman’s mouth and eyes. What’s this film about again? A fear of heights? No. Fear of falling… in love.

The other part of the score is the brilliant Carlotta Valdes theme, which Herrmann uses as a link to the past and then turns it into a hallucination, another kind of vertigo for Kim Novak. Scottie’s toxic seduction is played out over a stealing of Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde. Herrmann uses the ‘love/death’ theme, which he rewrites and extends as mere metaphor, gluing together the idea of Madeleine’s obsession with the past and Scottie’s idea that the dead can be brought back and made alive again…

The Soundtrack season at HOME Manchester has been co-curated by Barry Adamson and HOME’s Artistic Director of Film Jason Wood.

Barry Adamson

Suture: Interview with Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Suture 1
Suture

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 4 July 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Directors: David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Writers: David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Cast: Dennis Haysbert, Mel Harris, Sab Shimono

USA 1993

95 mins

Black and white and enigmatic, Suture was one of the most singular debuts of American independent cinema at the time. Jason Wood talks to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel about identity, improbable gestures and ‘Ring of Fire’.

Jason Wood: What was the starting point for Suture? The synthesis of film noir and avant-garde cinema suggests that you are both keen cineastes, but the film also expresses an interest in issues relating to identity and wider philosophical concepts.

Scot McGehee/David Siegel: More than anything, Suture grew out of the films we were watching together at the time: some Japanese art films from the 60s, and also American paranoid thrillers, and every twin film we could get our hands on. We were thinking a lot about identity as a construct, and how film constructs identity; and certain narrative tropes started interesting us: hypnosis, twins, amnesia. Out of that stew, the basic plot sort of emerged fully formed.

Was it always your intention to have Clay and Vincent portrayed by actors who were black and white? Your tone here is often quite playful, but it also introduces an interesting take on racial politics that was considered quite potent for its time.

Clay and Vincent being portrayed by actors who were black and white was an idea we had while we were writing. It was an idea that we started out loving but not taking completely seriously. But it stayed in our heads. The humour of it, the ways in which it let the story be a little out of control. And the more we lived with it, and the more we worked on the script, the less we could imagine doing the film any other way. People tried to talk us out of it, of course.

The cinematography by Greg Gardiner is striking. How did you come to work with him and what instructions did you give him in terms of the look and tone you wanted to achieve? Was it always your intention to shoot in black and white?

We decided while writing that we were making a black and white film. More specifically, we decided we were making a black and white Scope film. At the time, we couldn’t think of one that had been made (in the United States, at least) since Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). All the Japanese films we had been watching were black and white Scope, and we loved the look of it, and loved the idea of using a very graphic wide-screen frame to shoot a fairly intimate drama.

Greg Gardiner was one of many people who interviewed for the job, but he talked to us from the beginning as though we were already working together. And though he hadn’t shot many films at that point, he’d had a very successful career as a gaffer. That experience was very appealing, because the light in the movie was something we hoped could really contribute to the emotional feel of the story. We spoke with Greg a lot about shooting the film in ‘white and black’, trying to capture a world of confidence and analysis rather than a more traditional ‘noir’ world of mystery and shadow.

One of the other aspects of Suture that most impresses is Kelly McGehee’s production design and the general use of locations and interiors. Can you say something about the buildings in which you shot (Vincent’s apartment is particularly striking) and what sense you wanted these locations and mise en scène to communicate?

We shot the film in Phoenix Arizona at a time when the city was very depressed financially, so the central downtown area was quite eerie and deserted, but it still had that crisp, clean, arid feeling of a desert city. The location we used for Vincent’s house was a vacant Savings and Loan office. We shot many of our interiors in vacant office spaces, which had a nice anonymous quality and were available at a very good price. We wanted the film to exist in a psychological space more than a realistic one, so the gestures could be big, graphic and improbable.

We had worked with Kelly on both of our short films, so we all kind of grew up together and our creative collaboration was already a number of years old when we began Suture. And she had been involved in the thinking for the film as we were writing, so a good deal of the design foundation had been laid long before we ever got to Phoenix.

The final face-off between Vincent and Clay is brilliantly realised. Was this a difficult sequence to execute?

Most of the sequence is fairly straight-forward shooting, with the exception of the last overhead shot in the bathroom. That’s an image that we’d written quite precisely into the screenplay. Despite our low budget, the bathroom was the one set we insisted on building, just to be able to realise that shot. To do it, we had to fix-mount the camera on scaffolding about 20 feet above the stage, rigging it quite precariously in a way that didn’t allow for any direct looking through the viewfinder. It wasn’t until the video tap was attached that we could actually see the shot: Vincent walking towards Clay, separated by the shower curtain, each with his gun drawn. We were both kind of flipped out by how intact the original written shot had remained, and how connected we both still felt to it. It became this very emotional moment for us, and is still one of our fondest production memories.

The song ‘Ring of Fire’ plays a prominent role. You use both the Johnny Cash and Tom Jones versions. What was the thinking behind this?

Johnny Cash is The Man in Black. Tom Jones is a Welsh soul singer. We loved both versions of the song, and liked the pun of the car-phone bomb transforming Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ into Tom Jones’s version, much as Clay was about to become Vincent. Chalk it up to the juvenile sense of humour of first-time filmmakers, but it all felt right. In the end, we probably paid more for the rights to the various versions than we actually earned making the movie. But it still seems worth it.

Steven Soderbergh came on board as an executive producer. What function did he perform and how beneficial did it prove to have his name attached to the project?

We had brought the film to a rough-cut state and were in the process of trying to raise money when we met Steven. We knew someone who knew someone who was close to him, and that person managed to convince him to come to a screening. The screening turned out to be a technical disaster: reels projected out of order, the wrong gate in the projector. Afterwards, Steven suggested we meet for coffee the next morning, and we were sure we would get a polite, collegial brush off. Instead, he told us he had spoken to his accountant about mortgaging his house to help us finish the film. The accountant had apparently talked him out of that scheme, but Steven adopted us anyway, and stuck with us for months as we continued cutting. We finally raised the finishing funds through a contact of his in France. He was an invaluable and tireless supporter, and a true friend.

Is the climate in which you made Suture very different to the one in which you currently find yourselves working? Looking back on the experience, what do you most recall about the making of the film and its critical and commercial reception?

The whole experience of making and releasing Suture was a series of firsts for us. Reviews, festivals, publicists. Though it didn’t perform well at the box office in the US, we had been to Telluride, Cannes and Sundance. It was all gratifying and fresh, and ultimately it opened doors to people within the industry who were interested in helping us make more movies. Looking back, we can see that we were lucky to have had that first experience within an independent film world that was considerably smaller than today (and friendlier, in a way). No independent film had made $100 million at the box office at that point (or anything even close), so the expectations were lower and the approach to independent filmmakers was, perhaps, less restrictive.

Neither of us had gone to film school or had any real training or apprenticeship in the film business. We had only made two short films when the production began, and so, often, we found ourselves learning how to do things only one step ahead of actually doing them. Sometimes less than a step. But the people we worked with during the making of the film, and the people who helped us get it out into the world, were for the most part incredibly open, generous and collaborative. Looking back on Suture, we find it hard not to remember how much fun we had.

Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film at HOME, Manchester, will introduce a screening of Suture at the ICA on 7 July 2016.

Interview by Jason Wood

Watch the Suture Arrow Video Story:

This review was first published in the aummer 09 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

The Films of Atom Egoyan

The Adjuster
The Adjuster

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: Summer 2013

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Atom Egoyan

For more information on all films by Atom Egoyan released on Blu-ray + DVD in the UK visit the Artifical Eye website

One of contemporary cinema’s most distinctive auteur figures, Atom Egoyan’s work blends detachment and compassion to explore identity and alienation, familial and personal dysfunction, mildly intimidating bureaucratic figures and the wider spectrum of sexuality and sexual peccadilloes.

Born to Armenian refugees in Cairo but relocated at an early age to Victoria, British Columbia, Egoyan initially grew up consciously rejecting his own ethnicity in favour of assimilation into his adopted culture. It was this experience that would later come to exert a profound influence over his work and thinking. Feted at international film festivals, Egoyan remained very much a voice of the underground until The Sweet Hereafter (1997), an adaptation of the novel by Russell Banks that earned him two Academy Award nominations. Wider recognition followed but the director continued to plough his own independent furrow, balancing higher profile assignments including Where the Truth Lies (2005), starring Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon, with uniquely personal works such as Ararat (2002), an explicit examination of his Armenian ancestry, and the controversial Adoration (2008).

Egoyan, who has more recently come to explore other disciplines, including opera and installation pieces, has also completed video diary-type exercises with the relatively little seen Citadel (2003), a thematic and aesthetic companion piece to the earlier Calendar (1993), in which the director charts his wife’s emotional return to Lebanon. As one would expect with Egoyan, in the film nothing is what it seems.

Citadel is the sole film to have escaped Artificial Eye’s extensive reissuing of Egoyan’s entire catalogue, which runs from his debut feature Next of Kin (1984) up to and including The Sweet Hereafter. Calendar and the brilliantly unsettling The Adjuster (1991), in which emotions and relationships are totted up by an insurance adjuster and ascribed their worth, enjoyed brief theatrical outings, but save for the most ardent Egoyan admirer many of these films have remained written about but rarely seen in the UK. As a collection of work, what is most readily apparent is how they all interrelate. A natural technical progression aside, the films form a kind of esoteric jigsaw puzzle, in which a whole picture only clearly forms once all of the pieces have been assembled and locked together. This sense of connectivity is further enhanced by the recurrence of a regular repertory group of actors including Arsinée Khanjian, Don McKellar, David Hemblen, Maury Chaykin and Elias Koteas. Moreover, Egoyan has also formed tight-knit technical collaborations with editor Susan Shipton, cinematographer Paul Sarossy and composer Mychael Danna, all of whom feature on the director’s most recent feature, The Devil’s Knot (2013).

As well as frequently dealing with estrangement and isolation, and characters who are to some degree straining to recapture something that has been lost (a perished child, a relationship, a sense of innocence), Egoyan’s work is also marked, both visually and thematically, by a consistent exploration of the manner in which personal experience is mediated and manipulated by digital or video technology. In Family Viewing (1987), a son discovers that his father is taping over old family videos with new footage of him fucking. ‘He likes to record,’ comments another Egoyan regular, Gabrielle Rose. ‘And erase,’ responds the emotionally vulnerable son. ‘Mostly he likes to erase’.

I’ve known Egoyan since I first interviewed him for a film I was making about him and have been fortunate enough to maintain contact with him. I have written, and attempted to write, about the director’s formative features many times and it has long been my ambition to make his early features available in the UK. Now that they are, I thought it would be more interesting to have Egoyan’s own perspective and so I asked him to give his own reflection on these early works and what they mean to him. Below is his response.

“I never went to film school. My first attempt at making a film, a short called Howard in Particular (1979), was made when a campus drama society rejected a short play I had written. I was studying International Relations at the time, with vague hopes of becoming a diplomat. The moment my play was rejected, I made the very diplomatic move of finding a practical alternative. I went across the hall to the film club and found some other students who helped transform this short play into a movie.

From the moment I started making this short, I became aware that the film camera – in this case a spring-wound Bolex – could transform itself into an absent character watching the drama. The eyes of the camera became the eyes of an unseen presence observing the people and events it was recording. While this now seems like a rather obvious phenomenon, it struck me at the time as a revelation. It was like discovering electricity, or that the world wasn’t flat. I felt that I had created an entirely new artistic language. Again, I hadn’t gone to film school. There was no one there to tell me that I wasn’t inventing the wheel.

When I now reflect on this time in my late teens and early 20s, I’m thankful for this cinephilic ignorance. Believing that I was the first person to explore this uncharted territory gave me the motivation to carry on. If I was the first person to think of the camera as a character, then I had a duty to go further, to make this character of the camera go deep into my own experiences as an immigrant negotiating a new culture, and finding the route towards assimilation.

In this way, my first feature Next of Kin came into being. The first part of the film finds the camera on tripods and tracks, coolly recording the domestic events of its protagonist Peter Foster. We see Peter at home, in an airport, and – most significantly – at a clinic for family therapy. His therapy sessions with his parents are being recorded, with the idea that individual members of the family can watch these tapes later to discern and analyse their behaviour. One day, Peter is accidently given the tape of another family, and his life is transformed as he watches the therapist work with this troubled immigrant family.

At one point, the therapist suggests that Peter pretend that he is this family’s missing son. As he begins this impersonation, the video camera recording this session magically lifts off of its tripod and becomes handheld. I wanted the effect of seeing that the actual spirit of the missing son was suddenly released, and from there on everything in the film would become handheld as Peter – inspired by the therapist – finds a way of insinuating himself into this immigrant family.

As Peter records his experiences in a diary, I became aware of another important element in my early fascination with film. My characters were living in a time when they had the ability to record their feelings and – with ever-greater facility – share these feelings and transmit them to others. This obsession with technology and media as a way of both enhancing and perhaps trivialising our engagement with others (and with ourselves) became the subject of my next feature, Family Viewing and was further explored in Speaking Parts (1989).

Both of these films were obsessed with a culture of recording. While 8mm home movies had been around for decades, the advent of videotape made it possible to film domestic events cheaply. As a filmmaker, I was fascinated by the way the characters in the films could be faced with the same issues I was exploring as a filmmaker: concepts around recording and projecting behaviour. While these early features all explored different themes (family and identity, romantic love, the transmission of culture), they stimulate a common feeling in the viewer. In each of these films, one remains very aware of the act of watching a film. While the behaviour of the characters is at times ‘naturalistic’, there is a sense that everyone in these films is somehow aware that they are being watched.

While this gives these early features a deliberate sense of self-consciousness, it also affords a mordant sense of pleasure in recognising our own role as observers. The ‘family viewing’ is that private moment when relatives can spend final moments with a deceased beloved in a funeral home. At the same time, ‘family viewing’ is a label that discerns a film can be watched by all. This unexpected alchemy between intimacy and display is at the core of these particular works.”

Atom Egoyan’s interview first appeared in Curzon Magazine. Jason Wood is the director of programming at Curzon Cinemas and is involved in film acquisition for sister company Artificial Eye.

Jason Wood

Berberian Sound Studio: The Sound of Horror

Berberian Sound Studio

Format: Cinema

Release date: 31 August 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Peter Strickland

Writer: Peter Strickland

Cast: Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Cosimo Fusco

UK 2012

95 mins

The follow-up to the acclaimed, Berlin prize-winning rape-revenge drama Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a remarkable achievement. The accomplishment is amplified considering that it is a second feature. Among the most audacious European works in recent memory, Strickland’s film draws on his love of experimental film scores, sound effects and analogue recording equipment to create an elliptical, nightmarish tale that pays tribute to the Italian giallo genre and the Gothic horror of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Dario Argento‘s Suspiria. Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Peter Tscherkassky are also acknowledged influences.

Set in a beautifully replicated 1976, the film hones in on Berberian Sound Studio, the cheapest, sleaziest post-production studios in Italy. Only the most sordid horror films have their sound processed and sharpened there. Gilderoy (Toby Jones, incredibly game in a discomfiting role), a naïve and introverted sound engineer from England, is hired to orchestrate the sound mix for the latest film by horror maestro Santini (Antonio Mancino). Thrown from the innocent world of local documentaries into a foreign environment fuelled by exploitation, Gilderoy soon finds himself caught up in a forbidding world of bitter actresses, capricious technicians and confounding bureaucracy. Obliged to work with the hot-headed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), whose tempestuous relationships with certain members of his female cast threaten to boil over at any time, Gilderoy begins to record the sound for ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, a hammy tale of witchcraft and unholy murder.

Only when he’s testing microphones or poring over tape spooling around his machines does this timid man from Surrey seem at ease. Surrounded by Mediterranean machismo and, for the first time in his life, beautiful women, Gilderoy, very much an Englishman abroad, devotes all his attention to his work. But the longer Gilderoy spends mixing screams and the bloodcurdling sounds of hacked vegetables, the more homesick he becomes for his garden shed studio in his hometown of Dorking. His mother’s letters alternate between banal gossip and an ominous hysteria, which gradually mirrors the black magic of Santini’s Vortex.

The violence on the screen Gilderoy is exposed to, day in, day out, in which he himself is implicated, has a disturbing effect on his psyche. He finds himself corrupted; yet he’s the one carrying out the violence. As both time and realities shift, Gilderoy finds himself lost in an otherworldly spiral of sonic and personal mayhem, and has to confront his own demons in order to stay afloat in an environment ruled by exploitation both on and off screen.

Named after the yellow (giallo) covers of the trashy crime novels used for storylines, this period of cinema in 1960s and 70s Italy produced numerous thrillers and horror flicks that privileged style over script. As Berberian Sound Studio makes clear, key ingredients of a typical giallo tended to include girls, daggers, blood, witchcraft and chilling screams. At the time, directors such as Dario Argento (Profondo Rosso) and Lucio Fulci (The Black Cat, Zombie Flesh Eaters) commissioned composers including Ennio Morricone and prog outfit Goblin to score their slasher films. The title of Strickland’s fictional studio, Berberian, refers to Cathy Berberian, the versatile American soprano who was married to the Italian electronics pioneer Lucio Berio, a giant of 20th-century composition. Peter Strickland himself has dabbled in sound art and electronic production as part of the trio The Sonic Catering Band.

Sound, and Gilderoy’s umbilical connection to it, is the heart of the film. To that extent the creation of the sound studio was pivotal and the film was always likely to stand or fall on the authenticity of the hermetically sealed bunker and the equipment on which Gilderoy toils. Production designer Jennifer Kernke (who worked with Berberian producer Keith Griffiths on Institute Benjamenta) has worked wonders, constructing a sound studio as it might have appeared in 70s Italy by scouring the UK for original vintage analogue sound equipment. For Strickland, an aficionado of vintage sound recording apparatus, amassing all this out-of-date gear felt wonderfully anachronistic. ‘I had to question myself. I thought, are we riffing off what these films did back in the 70s or are we taking cues from the spirit of those films? It seemed rather perverse to celebrate analogue within the digital medium.’ But it is precisely the fetishistic nature of Gilderoy’s relationship with his beloved machines – perhaps the only objects he truly understands – that Strickland is celebrating. ‘I like the idea of filling the whole frame with these strange machines as we celebrate this period when these things looked so futuristic and alien,’ the director comments.

The film’s general arcane sensibility is also enforced by the tape boxes and papers the film lingers lovingly over, all of which are designed by Julian House. A record designer whose work recently graced CAN’s The Lost Tapes box-set, House also envisioned the fake title sequence, one of the most arresting and genuinely thrilling moments in the film.

Giallo movies frequently had exceptionally advanced accompanying soundtracks that meshed free jazz with the avant-garde and high art with sleazy exploitation. The score for Berberian is courtesy of James Cargill of Broadcast (whose sleeves House has also designed), who conjures an ethereal soundscape in which sound and music cut back and forth from the reality of the studio into the giallo Gilderoy works.

Santini’s ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ may be a schlocky giallo slasher, a classic horror, but Berberian Sound Studio has a more absorbing, hauntological bent. ‘Horror was the starting point but I would never call it a horror,’ says Strickland. ‘I guess the rule was to bounce off that genre – to immediately say, no blood, no murder – but still make it scary. What was exciting about that genre was it has its own history, rules and regulations that you can manipulate and mess around with. There’s something very gratifying in taking a template and turning it into something very personal.’ While avoiding didacticism, Berberian Sound Studio also explores the fascination with violence and the potentially corrupting nature of graphic imagery. Gilderoy’s exposure to the sequences he is forced to endure slowly erodes his levels of tolerance. In the end he is quite literally ingested by the images and psychologically broken.

Despite its willingness to engage with complex and prescient issues, there is also a deep vein of black humour, most clearly during the foley sequences in the auditorium when sound artists hack watermelons and stab cabbages to imitate the sound of heads being split or witches being bludgeoned in Santini’s movie (images that are seen to be projected but which the viewer, crucially, never sees). The disconnection between the effects Santini is trying to generate and what’s causing it is often knowingly comical. As the film is so much about sound and the creation of it, Strickland was careful to bring in characters involved with exhibitions of sound and figures involved with making music. Experimental artists Pal Toth, Josef Czeres and singer Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg all appear, another example of reality imaginatively blurring with fiction.

Film4 FrightFest presented a preview screening of Berberian Sound Studio on August 26.

Jason Wood

Once upon a Time in the World of Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Once upon a Time in Anatolia

Format: Cinema

Dates: 16 March 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: New Wave Films

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Writers: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Ercan Kesal

Original title: Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da

Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel

Turkey 2011

150 mins

Combining relatively modest working methods with a highly distinctive visual sensibility, the films of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan eloquently speak of the emotional impassivity that is an affliction of 21st-century living.

Initially a photographer, Ceylan’s first foray into the moving image was the short Cocoon (1995). Shot in striking black and white, with Ceylan also acting as producer, co-editor and cinematographer, the wordless film tentatively hints at the impossibility of companionship, one of the defining motifs of Ceylan’s work. A feature, Small Town, emerged two years later. Told from the perspective of two children, and in four entwined parts running parallel to the seasons, Small Town served notice of Ceylan’s gift for wry comedy and of his distinguished approach to framing characters and landscapes. Cementing Ceylan’s clarity of vision and his sensitivity to the delicate nuances of life, Clouds of May (1999) takes another crisply composed look at the vagaries of country living. An observation of people coming together, briefly interacting and then gently drifting apart again, the film is inscribed with a profound reverence for the lives of its characters.

Generally casting non-professional actors and family members, and continuing to call upon his increasing stature as a photographer, Ceylan brought these elements and his interest in estrangement to wonderful fruition with the autobiographical Distant (2002). The story of two remote relatives (Muzzafer &#214zdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak) awkwardly thrown together, the film renders modern Istanbul as a desolate, if intermittently picturesque, snow-cloaked metropolis, with the director drawing on Chekhov and Tarkovsky in his analysis of the alienating effects of urban life. The first film of the director’s to be selected for Cannes, Distant was awarded both the festival’s Grand Prix and the Best Actor prize, which was shared between &#214zdemir and Emin Toprak. The latter award was tinged with sadness as &#214zdemir, Ceylan’s cousin, was killed in a car crash shortly after the film was completed.

Ebru Ceylan has been a contributor to her husband’s films in a variety of guises, and Climates (2006) saw both spouses stepping in front of the camera’s penetrating gaze for an intense and unflinching look at the marriage of a successful Istanbul couple evidently on the brink of collapse. Wilfully blurring the distinction between on- and off-screen lives, Climates makes for frequently uncomfortable and emotionally devastating viewing, revealing Ceylan as a master storyteller who recognises and rigorously investigates the great potential for loneliness and self-destruction within us all. The first of the director’s films to be shot using high-definition digital video, the film captures with enhanced clarity and precision the stunning Turkish locations. The physical details of the protagonists are also beautifully rendered; witness the opening scene of Isa and Bahar frolicking, first playfully and then with the aim of causing provocation, on a golden sandy beach. Such moments lend Climates a pronounced and profound sense of intimacy.

Three Monkeys (2008) expands the unspoken dynamics of a dysfunctional family to society as a whole. Weaving a carefully calibrated maelstrom of violence, moral decay and ruined lives, this gripping psychological drama examines the fall-out from a hit-and-run traffic accident to present a darkly malevolent civilisation slowly suffocating through its own avarice and weakness. This is undoubtedly a dark and pessimistic work, though one still punctuated with flashes of characteristic black humour.

The winner of the Cannes 2011 Grand Prix, Once upon a Time in Anatolia, a title that nods towards Sergio Leone, stands as one of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s very finest achievements. Full of piercing insights and a finely tuned, somewhat macabre wit, this is an epic and rigorous tale of a night and day in a murder investigation.

In a short prologue, three men are drinking and talking. There follows a brutish brawl and hasty confession. A nocturnal convoy of cars is then shown travelling around the countryside as the confessor tries to remember where a body lays buried. After several false leads and a rest in a remote village, the corpse is finally discovered early the next morning. In the course of the long investigation, the hidden thoughts of the main protagonists are gradually themselves also exhumed.

Beautifully photographed in the Anatolian steppes by Gökhan Tiryaki, Once upon a Time in Anatolia is a meticulously constructed police procedural populated by bickering police and hard-bitten prosecutors. Based on an actual event experienced by Ercan Kesal, one of the three writers on the project alongside Ebru and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the film unhurriedly replicates the ebb and flow of human life, unfolding like a fascinating game of chess with clues and gestures ambiguously revealed. In one landmark sequence an apple falls from a tree, the camera tracking it as it bobs and ebbs gently down a stream. The director audaciously decides against showing the actual murder that triggers the search. Ceylan has commented: ‘If you want to find something, you have to get lost. I wanted viewers to lose their usual points of reference, before they slowly become accustomed to the light.’

Citing Chekhov (the film features a doctor, who from initially being a passive observer is gradually revealed as perhaps the key participant in the narrative) and Vermeer as inspirations and influences, Ceylan has crafted a bold and at times testing film whose primary interest would seem to be the concept of truth, and the manner by which we arrive at it.

Jason Wood

The Deep Blue Sea: Interview with Terence Davies

The Deep Blue Sea

Format: Cinema

Date: 25 November 2011

Venue: Nationwide

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Terence Davies

Writer: Terence Davies

Based on the play by Terence Rattigan

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale

USA/UK 2011

98 mins

A visually sumptuous adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play, which offered a sustained assault on English middle-class values, Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea consolidates the director’s triumphant return to filmmaking following his rapturously received tone poem Of Time and the City. Set in a post-war Britain suffering a crisis of identity and cultural and economic decline, the film continues the director’s interest in class, morality and the position of women in patriarchal society. Inspired by the melodramas much loved by the director, the film is powered by a tour de force performance from Rachel Weisz, and its sensory beauty is heightened by a characteristically adroit use of music.

Jason Wood talked to Terence Davies during the London Film Festival about British society in the 1950s, the value of restraint, true love and the nature of memory.

Jason Wood: How did you come to adapt Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and did you have any hesitation in accepting the challenge of bringing the play to the screen?

Terence Davies: I had never adapted a play but Sean O’Connor, one of the producers, asked me if I would like to adapt a Rattigan work. I looked at the whole Rattigan canon and told Sean that I might be able to do something with The Deep Blue Sea. I was a bit worried because the way Rattigan works is to put all the exposition in Act 1. I personally don’t like that but I, of course, respect that this is Rattigan’s style. I did a very tentative first draft and Adam Brody of the Rattigan Trust to my complete amazement suggested that I be more radical with it.

I had always maintained that it had to be shot from Hester’s point of view, so most of the exposition had to go because if she is not privy to a conversation then we can’t have it. Once everyone agreed on that I thought, ‘Yes. I think I can do it’. The fact that there was so much talk was a real worry at first, and of course that is one of the major differences between theatre and film. With theatre you have to explain everything. With film you can just show it.

There are numerous parallels with your work: the notion of outsiders, the position of women in a repressed society and 1950s Britain. Why do these subjects hold such a fascination for you?

I grew up in the 50s so I know what it was like, and what it felt like. When you are growing up, and I think this is true of all children, you absorb a lot, and that includes the social mores. In the 50s you did as you were told. Everybody in authority was believed and obeyed without question. My mother was a great survivor and a woman of great love and tenderness. She was strong, not hard. I loved my brothers but with three sisters and their girlfriends I simply grew up with women. I also grew up with the romantic films of the period, All That Heaven Allows, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Magnificent Obsession. They all had women as their central characters. Focusing on women characters always came very naturally to me.

What I certainly didn’t want to do with Hester was to make her seem either a victim or clinging in a possessive way. I knew that we had to show a woman who is in many ways extremely conventional doing something extraordinarily unconventional. Hester leaves her husband, and women didn’t do that in the 1950s, even if they had a bad marriage, like my mother’s. Hester finds sex at 40 and it overwhelms her. She makes a number of social faux pas that people may not know now. For example it was not the done thing to argue in public. Even working-class people didn’t argue in public.

The real revelation about reading the play umpteen times was that the subtext is love. Each person wants a kind of love from the other that simply cannot be given or reciprocated. At the end Hester experiences true love. True love is to say to someone that you adore more than life ‘If you are really better off without me then I let you go’.

Rattigan’s play deals with passion and sex but was of course very much restricted by what it could show because of the time in which it was written. We live in less morally restrictive times so I wondered how that affected your approach in this regard.

There is something very interesting about being sexually repressed. I am homosexual and that was illegal, but even heterosexual sex, you just never saw it. You might see a film such as Passport to Shame, where Odile Versois takes her blouse off, but that was about it. There is something about restraint, and not just sexual restraint, that we have lost in this country. Restraint can be extraordinarily moving. I did want to show Hester and Freddie in bed but I wanted it to be erotic rather than purely sexual. For me it was about the nature of flesh against cloth and I think that is far more sensual. I show the post-coital moments of soft greys and soft blues against Hester’s hands that are wearing red nail varnish. For me this is much more interesting than simply showing people thrusting away at each other. It is rather like violence. If you don’t show very much it is always far more shocking. People always seem to remember the scene where the mother in Distant Voices, Still Lives is beaten as being incredibly shocking but if you watch it again it actually isn’t. It is implied.

What aesthetic choices did you make to represent the period on screen? Sean O’Connor has described it as ‘an anti-period film’ and yet there is a very potent visual texture. The palette is largely autumnal but there are also astonishing splashes of colour. I know that Vermeer is a big influence.

Vermeer is possibly the greatest influence. I could look at his paintings forever and never get bored. I just love the idea of someone at a window, not necessarily doing anything.

When I was growing up you hardly saw any primary colours. After the war everything was faded. Well kept, but shabby. Colours were generally autumnal. Sometimes you might see a splash of red.

You play with linearity and memory. I think this is another key characteristic of your work.

It struck me as a very obvious approach. If we are going to see things from Hester’s point of view it makes sense to start with Hester’s attempted suicide as this seems the smartest way to reveal how she got there. Memory works in a cyclical way and by emotional association. It is not a linear narrative. Once you set up the idea that this is not linear, when you have informed your audience that we are going to be moving in and out of linear time, it is really relatively easy.

I am fascinated by time and by the nature of time. It is why I am so beholden to The Four Quartets. The nature of time, as well as our perception of it, is one of the central themes of The Four Quartets. I also love the use of time in Letter from an Unknown Woman, one of the greatest films about the subject of unrequited love. Despite the way Ophüls uses time you always know exactly where you are.

As with all of your work music plays an incredibly important role in the film. Can you discuss your use of Samuel Barber and the popular music of the time?

I have known the Barber Violin Concerto for a long time and I think it is one of the great violin concertos. I knew it was right for this film. The reason why I chose ‘You Belong to Me’ was because in the 50s there was a programme on the radio at 12 o’clock called Family Favourites. This was for all the British forces abroad sending their requests home, and equally people in Britain sending their requests to their loved ones in the armed forces overseas. We were the only Catholics in our street so we’d get up early for mass, come home, have something to eat and switch on the radio at 12 o’clock. It was a lovely warm summer morning on one particular day I’ll never forget. I went and sat out on the front step. There were doors and windows open and everybody was listening to the same programme and ‘You Belong to Me’ was playing. It struck me as perfect for this film.

When we last spoke you had returned to filmmaking with Of Time and the City. Do you now feel more able to make films on a regular basis? There hasn’t been the long hiatus you previously endured.

I am genuinely quite surprised at the response that has been given to me. Before Of Time and the City I didn’t work for eight years and I thought, ‘That’s it. It’s over now’. I never thought I would get a second chance. To be asked to close the London Film Festival with The Deep Blue Sea was such an honour. I kept thinking somebody was going to come up and say, ‘We’re very sorry. We’ve made a mistake. It’s the OTHER Terence Davies’.

Interview by Jason Wood

The Arbor: Interview with Clio Barnard

The Arbor

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 14 March 2011

Distributor: Verve Pictures

Director: Clio Barnard

Cast: Kate Rutter, Christine Bottomley, George Costigan, Manjinder Virk

UK 2010

94 mins

A fascinating fusion of narrative and documentary cinema from artist filmmaker Clio Barnard, The Arbor tells the powerful true story of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (The Arbor, Rita, Sue and Bob Too) and her daughter Lorraine. Dunbar wrote honestly and unflinchingly about her upbringing on the notorious Buttershaw Estate in Bradford and was described as ‘a genius straight from the slums’. When she died tragically at the age of 29 in 1990, Lorraine was just 10 years old.

The Arbor catches up with Lorraine in the present day, now also aged 29, ostracised from Buttershaw and in prison, serving a sentence for manslaughter for the death of her son. Through compelling interviews (with the actors seamlessly lip-syncing the words of the real-life subjects) we learn that Lorraine sees her mother as a destructive force throughout her childhood; an alcoholic who let her suffer abuse and whom Lorraine blames for all that is wrong in her life. Also featuring first-hand accounts from other members of the Dunbar family, this essential work presents a contrasting and not always flattering view of Dunbar. Distinctive, compassionate and compelling, Barnard is very clearly an important new voice in British cinema.

Jason Wood talks to Clio Barnard about her representation of socially deprived characters, her use of fiction and documentary and the challenges her filming method posed for the actors.

Jason Wood: Your work has constantly demonstrated a concern with the relationship between fictional film language and documentary. How did you wish to engage with the subject of previous representations of the Buttershaw Estate on stage and screen and what was it about the techniques of verbatim theatre that struck you as being appropriate for The Arbor?

Clio Barnard: Andrea’s fiction was based on what she observed around her. She reminded the audience they were watching a play by her use of direct address when The Girl in The Arbor introduces each scene. I see the use of actors lip-synching as performing the same function, reminding the audience they are watching the retelling of a true story.

My work is concerned with the relationship between fiction film language and documentary. I often dislocate sound and image by constructing fictional images around verbatim audio. In this sense, my working methods have some similarity to the methods of verbatim theatre. Verbatim theatre by its very nature (being performed in a theatre by actors) acknowledges that it is constructed. Housing estates and the people who live there are usually represented on film in the tradition of Social Realism, a working method that aims to deny construct, aiming for naturalistic performances, an invisible crew and camera, adopting the aesthetic of Direct Cinema (a documentary movement) as shorthand for authenticity. I wanted to confront expectations about how a particular group of people are represented by subverting the form.

I used the technique in which actors lip-synch to the voices of interviewees to draw attention to the fact that documentary narratives are as constructed as fictional ones. I want the audience to think about the fact that the film has been shaped and edited by the filmmakers. Through these formal techniques I hoped the film would achieve a fine balance – so that, perhaps paradoxically, the distancing techniques might create closeness, allowing a push-pull, so an audience might be aware of the shaping of the story but simultaneously able to engage emotionally. Above all, my hope is that the film will provoke compassionate thought and reflection.

You recorded audio interviews with Lorraine Dunbar and other members of the Dunbar family over a two-year period to create an audio screenplay. To what extent did you allow this audio screenplay to form the basis of the film and was it during this process that you decided to make Lorraine one of the central voices of the film, thus opening up the project into a consideration of inter-generational neglect as well as a dissection of Andrea’s legacy?

The audio screenplay is the basis of the film and it was always the intention to do it this way round. I knew Lorraine was important because of her words at the end of A State Affair, which linked back to Andrea’s play Rita Sue and Bob Too. At the point the film was commissioned I knew I wanted to speak to Lorraine because of these words but I didn’t know what had happened to her in the 10 years since. Neither did I know how autobiographical Andrea’s play The Arbor was until I met Andrea’s sister Pamela. Realising the character of Yousaf in Andrea’s play The Arbor was Lorraine’s father was key. Andrea’s play, combined with the interviews with her family, means that the film can look across three generations of a family and three decades of a particular place. I hope that this allows some understanding of the destructive effects of poverty, racism and addiction to emerge.

The film has been praised – by Gideon Koppel no less – for depicting not only a physical landscape but also the internal landscapes of its characters – a difficult task to achieve. Was this something that you hoped to accomplish when you conceived the project?

I loved Sleep Furiously so it is great to have the film praised by Gideon Koppel. I hadn’t thought of it this way at all and like this way of looking at it.

The lip-synching technique you employ, in which your actors have to, not only learn words, but also master pauses and speech rhythms, must have been very challenging. What casting process did you employ and how did you help the selected actors to cope with the rigors of the production?

I worked with a brilliant casting director called Amy Hubbard, who brought in lots of actors who were up for the challenge. We asked the actors to try out the technique during the casting process. I have huge respect for the actors. It was very, very demanding of them. Manjinder Virk described it as being like learning a piece of music and being like circular breathing. It meant that they had to be very present – never thinking ahead or they would trip up. The actors were incredible, I think, and I’m indebted to them, not only for their remarkable technical skill, but for their ability to give true performances.

The approach that you take to the material and your concern with the boundaries between fact and fiction make for an incredibly immersive experience for the spectator. Did you wish to encourage an interpretative approach from the audience to what is on screen?

I wasn’t totally certain what the effect of the lip-synch would be so it has been fascinating to learn about that from people who have seen it. People say that paradoxically the distancing technique draws them closer. I think it may be because all the people on screen look you in the eye. Perhaps you actively listen.

I understand that The Arbor was not originally intended for cinema release. How did the extremely positive critical reaction and the numerous prizes it has steadily accrued contribute to the film being allowed to find a wider audience than you perhaps originally intended?

It was commissioned by Artangel as a feature-length film for TV. The UK Film Council became involved during development and that was when it became intended for cinema release. Tracy O’Riordan, who is a brilliant producer, made certain that UK distributors saw the film as soon as it was finished. We were lucky that Verve picked up the film. They have been great at getting the film out there. They work alongside Rabbit PR, lovely, committed publicity people who made sure the critics saw the film. The response has been amazing and unexpected. I don’t think you ever know how people are going to respond. I’m grateful to all the critics who were very open to and excited about the challenges of the film and to audiences for going to see the film and for their feedback.

Alongside recent works by Steve McQueen, Andrew Kötting, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy and Gillian Wearing, The Arbor shows the continuing strength of the ‘artist film’ in British cinema. Does this feel like it is an incredibly fertile period in which to be working?

Yes – I’m a great admirer of all these filmmakers. It is great that there is this strong strand of recent risk-taking British film, wonderful that these films are getting made and fantastic that they have found an audience. It’s exciting to think that The Arbor is part of that and for it to be associated with these films.

Interview by Jason Wood

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews