Find out what we’ve been up to, where we’ve been and what we’re thinking.
In my father’s workshop, on his farm in Lincolnshire, tools were hung on the wall. Around each spanner, wrench or hammer the outline of the tool was painted, a bit like the chalk outline drawn around dead bodies by forensic scientists at a murder scene. Each tool had a “home” and should be returned to its rightful place. If there was only an outline on a Friday afternoon, where was the tool? To say that my father was fastidious about his tools would be an understatement. His Deutz-Fahr combine harvester was showroom clean, even after five seasons. Combine harvesters are notoriously complicated machines. Veritable symphonies of moving parts that rattle loose become dust-clogged or simply wear out. The thing is, when the weather is good and you want to get your wheat and barley in, your combine harvester has to work. My father understood engineering and the inner workings of machines. He once said to me that cows were like human beings – they responded to kindness. I think he felt the same way about the farm machinery.
At the Royal College of Art film school in the late seventies, our equipment was looked after by a congenial German called Karl Mattika. Rumour had it that Karl once commanded a Panzer tank on the Russian front in World War Two, but this may have been a rumour propagated by himself.
Somehow Karl managed to instil into us airy-fairy art students, broad-left-thinkers and feminists how to enjoy the sound of an Angenieux lens clicking into the mount of an Éclair ACL sixteen-millimetre camera body, or the satisfying clonk of a film magazine cover of an Arriflex S. The Arri S, Karl told us, was ergonomically designed to allow Luftwaffe pilots, “flying over your beautiful home counties”, to operate the camera with one hand while keeping the other on the joystick. Karl would say after the satisfying click, “you can hear ze lens is happy in ze mount”. Occasionally one was witness to Karl’s withering look (never anger) as he heard tell of a Nagra tape recorder being thrown from the back of a van in the hope that some hapless film student might catch it. They hadn’t, or had dropped it, and the beautifully engineered Swiss machine shattered on the cobbles.
What Karl was trying to teach us was that respect for your tools and knowing how to use them would pay dividends. They would work when you wanted them to, they were as important as your script, the performers – they were your lifeline to a finished film. Without your tools working properly, it was all a non-starter.
I still can’t put a lens on a camera without thinking of Karl and his, “Is ze lens happy?” Or my father when attaching any kind of screw to a thread, “If it don’t fit, don’t force it”. In this new world of self-shooting and do-it-yourself production we, the filmmakers, are closer to the equipment, the means of production than ever before. We have to understand the engineering and respect the artistry and precision of its manufacture. Be careful with the gear, keep it “happy” and it won’t let you down.
Wendy and I had a trip to Venice recently as we were invited to a concert by some wonderful singers and pianists who were part of the Georg Solti Accademia.
We arrived a day early so that we could go and see Damien Hirst’s monumental exhibition, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana. Wendy and I are both ex art students – of course you are never an “ex” art student – what’s happening in the visual world is a perennial obsession. And, even if you are not making “art” per se – the world of art is a continuing reference point or at the very least a curious place to revisit. So given the opportunity we go and see it (Art) whenever we can.
You can be unsure about the work of Damien – it would be foolish to be otherwise – because part of his shtick is to kid us, to dupe us, to lead us up his particular garden path into his own obsessions with death, life, his own myths. And so it is with, “The Wreck”. On a monumental and incredibly detailed scale he has created a mythical world which he describes here as a museum exhibit. The residue of an ancient society, its religions, coinage, weaponry and beliefs are painstakingly and, it has to be said, beautifully constructed. A narrative in video shows us the discovery of this hoard. Scuba divers uncovering barnacle-encased statues further enhance Hirst’s self-made “reality”. It’s all a lie, but one that sucks you into its universe like a Ray Harryhausen film.
Occasionally Damien’s guard drops deliberately, to let some twentieth century light in. Some of the mythological beings encased in barnacles look like Mickey Mouse or Goofy and one is Damien himself, half-covered in coral and described as “the collector”. Hirst has had lots of bad press but this show is truly impressive, partly because of the scale of intent but it also makes us think about our own society, our icons, our beliefs and for God’s sake… our politics… and how it might be viewed when we are discovered, encrusted in barnacles (or nuclear dust) after many millennia.
Back in London we go to see, “Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors” at Gagosian’s swish gallery in Mayfair. Here we rub shoulders with what appear to be the casually dressed minted. But in the dimly lit galleries are some extraordinary paintings, lithographs, etchings, ceramics and sculptures by the great man. I am always bowled over by Pablo’s ability to explore an idea into the ground and his sheer technical mastery, not just of the pencil and brush but how he can make his imagery connect with us. Like Damien’s, Picasso’s work also portrays his own mythical world, his relationships and the narratives within them. Others have talked about Picasso’s terrible behaviour towards women, but surely few artists have exposed themselves in such a raw and uncompromising way. In many of the works Picasso appears to be the bull or the minotaur engaged with women – the scenes are frightening, nightmare-like; the old boy doesn’t come out of it well, despite the beauty of the execution.
Again in the Gagosian show, we see that Picasso created ceramics and votive-like objects that supported his central myths. It was only while walking away to my bicycle in Berkeley Square that I thought of the Damien “Wreck” show and the similarities between the two artists and their intent.
We are close to releasing our very first feature length documentary about the brilliant painter John McLean. Made by Chris Morphet and Michael Proudfoot, “Which Way Up” will be screened in Soho for an invited audience on 31st May.
Michael Proudfoot and I started making this film in December 2014. It was something we had talked about for many years. So on the spur of the moment, we just began filming John, as he lives in The Barbican near Proudfoot HQ. At one stage of the first day’s filming John said “My attitude to my work is more like that of a farmer, taking his tractor round and round the field, getting it all done and then hoping the crop comes out well”.
All our work on this film has been for free. Michael and I firmly believe in John, and his still on going talent. So we felt we really had to make this film. Every bit of filming that we have done has felt enjoyable and most importantly positive, from the paintings themselves, which continually delight and surprise, to John himself and his unshakeable belief in what he does.
When we started, John’s medical diagnosis was Parkinsons, but this was then updated to Multiple Systems Atrophy. This has not been fun for John and his wife Jan. Yet John’s determination to continue and create more paintings has shone through heroically. However, our film has not really been to exploit this angle by going for the struggling painter in the face of adversity. We are much keener to show our love for what John does, plus the appreciation of colour that his playful paintings give us.
There are many colours and a variety of rough geometric shapes: crowns, crescents, triangles, whorls, suns, moons, etc. John magically explores the tension and relationships between these elements through his uncanny choice of colour.
With John’s paintings there is a constant change and development taking place, they never feel static. Having a few of John’s canvases in my home, I can vouch for their life enhancing presence. Every home should have a McLean on the wall as they somehow give a great sense of well being. I sometimes have an afternoon nap and wake to the sight of “Séance”, appearing in my vision on the wall opposite. It’s a continual sense of wonderment and trying to work out just how the overall balance and juxtapositions make the painting a successful whole.
We can never quite work out how something which starts as initially very un-promising ends up as such an unqualified success, through a process of John’s eye and a magical alchemy. We hope the film succeeds in shedding some light on this process. I have been particularly enthralled as a cameraman when seeing the paint and colours being applied to the canvas in close up, and observing how the paintings should be viewed and change when contemplated and observed at different distances.
Near the beginning John did say several times that only good could come out of us making the film. John and Jan have been gracious contributors and a joy to be around, even if Jan has tried to avoid being filmed where possible. She has been a fantastic support to John throughout and they are what can genuinely be called a lovely couple.
It’s all good.
When I first worked in Soho as an assistant film editor it was still possessor of its rakish charm. The cutting rooms that my editor, Keith Judge, had hired were in “Hammer House” – yes, that Hammer, famous old home of British horror classics. The editing room had a lot of old brown furniture; the equipment was rickety but functional in chipped Hammerite paint with Bakerlight knobs. Film editing was done standing up at a Picsync using a Movieola and a Steenbeck to view on. There was an old swivel chair like the ones newspapermen have in “B” movies; I fantasised that Hitchcock or Alexander Korda had sat on its worn, horsehair-sprouting leather upholstery. In the corridor, thirty-five millimetre film bins hung with the trims of soft core porn films and the whole place smelt of film, coffee, unswept carpets and long dispersed BO. The film we were working on was “Upgrading Fire Precautions” for the COI (Central Office of Information). One day Keith sent me off with some graphics to get rostrum camerawork done. He gave me an address in Meard St and with a wink, said, “Be careful”. It transpired that the rostrum camera studio was sandwiched between the upper and lower floors of a brothel; a rather nice looking West Indian girl asked me if I wanted any “business” as I rang the bell and a much older, peroxide blonde asked me the same as I left. In those days proper Italians ran the coffee bars, it was one of the few places you could get a decent coffee in London. Occasionally you would see people like Sir John Gielgud sashaying down Wardour St on his way to a voice over. It was summer and Keith and I used to go up onto the roof of Hammer House to eat our lunch, one day we saw three girls sunbathing topless on the roof below. In another cutting room (where Agent Provocateur is now) we were opposite a violin maker’s workshop and as I sunk up rushes I watched old chaps in white shirts and black waist-coats carving tops and gluing the instruments together. Any errand out on the street was to be amongst the bustle of the film industry – feature film editors rolled towers of film cans on hand carts to dubbing theatres, pasty-faced editors made their way to the Blue Posts or Sandwich Scene for lunch. Producers and directors trailed assistants who looked like supermodels.
I was put in mind of all this, as I always am, when I visit my barber in Soho. To protect the innocent I will refer to him as Carlo. Carlo is second generation Sicilian, he speaks with a London accent but when one of his countrymen comes into his shop, he reverts to rapid fire Italian. Whenever I am there, an ever-changing cast of characters pop in for a cut, a shave or just to say hello. There is an octogenarian chap who comes in to be ribbed about his much younger (50s) girlfriend and his discovery of Viagra. Another chap talks of his flat being raided by the police the previous night on a search for drugs and working girls, he is of course, innocent but has spent a night in the cells. Once Carlo was charged with looking after his teenage nephew but had allowed him to stray into the lap dancing bar up the road where he had been “lost” for some hours. I was in Carlo’s for a trim a couple of weeks ago just after Arsenal had been knocked out of the Champion’s League (Carlo is a huge Arsenal fan). A man in a dark overcoat slipped through the door and embarked on what can only be described as a Pinteresque monologue about the frailties of Wenger’s side, goading Carlo about his loyalty to such a flawed team, “How long do you think the Gooner Massif will put up with this existential management?” – his genius knows no bounds, keeping his best player on the bench like that?” All the time the man kept his eye on the street as if watching for a traffic warden. Eventually he left with a friendly sounding, “Anyway Carlo, I leave you to think on that”. As the man left another kind of customer arrived, a rather too smart man of about thirty wearing an expensive suit and tailored shirt, no tie. He didn’t look as if he needed a haircut. Rather than wait his turn like the rest of us in the guilty pleasure of reading the complimentary copies of The Sun, The Mirror and Corriere dello Sport (that Pink, Italian football paper) he strode up and down making calls on his mobile in three languages including Russian.
The barber’s shop is a family business originally started by Carlo’s uncles who were definitely part of the old Soho; they once held the contract to barber all the Savoy’s waiters. One imagines that they shaved and singed and trimmed all manner of jazz musicians, strip club low-lives and plain, old fashioned, London gangsters and maybe the local bobbies too. Only one of the original uncles remains, still giving great haircuts, an immaculately turned out silver fox of a man who must have had matinee idol looks in his youth.
Carlo is gregarious, he is a very good barber but part of the reason for going there is to hear his non-stop banter about wives, cars, football, sex, Soho, Sicily and porn (he once had a short fling with a porn star). His energy for chat, as good as any improvising stand-up comic, is extraordinary. I have never heard him repeat himself. Win or lose, his enthusiasm and cheerful acceptance of the ups and downs of Arsenal are a constant, which seems to have won him friends in high places. He occasionally talks of being invited to the director’s box at the Emirates. I don’t think he has Facebook page but if he did he would have a lot of friends.
In the back of the shop they have a 1958 Gaggia machine and if you are lucky you get offered a coffee. Carlo believes it makes the best tasting brew in London and is full of stories about the search for parts and finding engineers who can craft solutions to the machine’s survival.
Like the Espresso machine, Carlo’s barber shop is frozen in aspic. As Soho has been “cleaned up” and corporatized, the character of its streets changing from the nicely sleazy world of film and sex to the more serious and truly sleazy world of television and new media, Carlo’s has endured a sanctuary of old-style maleness – only the cost of a haircut has changed.
“Tonic, sir?” says Carlo.
“It doesn’t seem to be doing much good Carlo”, I reply.
“Yes, sir, but think how much less hair you would have without it”.
It seems wrong to single out a highlight among so many in The Rolex Arts Weekend in Mexico City a couple of weeks ago, which included inspiring talks by Oscar winner, Alejandro G. Iñarritu and his protégé Tom Shoval and between visual artists, Olafur Eliasson and Sammy Baloji, extraordinary music by composers Kaija Saariaho and Vasco Mendonça, and lovely readings presented by the Literature pair Michael Ondaatje, Miroslav Penkov and the actress/ex mentor Kate Valk.
But one performance blew our collective Proudfoot minds. Interestingly it was a collaboration between the dancer / choreographer Myles Thatcher and his fellow Rolex Protégés; architect Gloria Cabral (Mentor was Peter Zumthor) and lighting designer, Sebastiàn Solorzano Rodriguez (Mentor was Jennifer Tipton). Myles actually presented five of his dance pieces – all of them were terrific. Anyone who thought they might not enjoy ballet would have been entertained and transported into their multi linear narratives by Myles’ wonderful choreography.
The piece that really rocked was Thatcher’s latest, Body of Your Dreams, (more…)
Apropos of nothing and probably of no interest to anyone except those interested in the history of recording (like me) the vocal microphone that we have been using at the recent recording sessions of my band is an AKG C12-A. Kenny Jones, our engineer/co-producer, sometimes has to come into the “live-room” to squirt some kind of WD40 like substance onto the contacts until it’s “warmed up”. The C12-A is “powered” up in the control room by quite a large box that has old style valves in it.
The more astute among you may have noticed that we’ve got a new website. The site has been designed by the talented Tom Williams and has provided us with a useful punctuation point in our company’s journey, giving us a moment to reflect upon who we think we are and what we offer our clients. It’s difficult to avoid the kind of formal ‘business speak’ that we try to discourage in our films when writing copy for the various pages of the site, but we’ve done our best to try to represent our personalities and reveal our passions. We’ve also decided to create a new space for our films to be shown. We’ve always tried to make films for clients that are intriguing for people, even if they’ve arrived on their screens ‘cold’. Someone who watches a film about the way architects have restored a Victorian pottery might also be interested in seeing how a musician constructs their songs, for example. Ultimately, we want people to be moved and informed by our films and we want people to see them. That’s why we’ve made The Frame, a place where you can browse our archive of films using tags that don’t discriminate between technical and creative pursuits, because we believe the people, processes and products involved are often no different.
Chris Morphet and I are making a film with the painter John McLean. McLean is what you might loosely refer to as an “abstract expressionist”. There is something bewilderingly beautiful about his work; shapes in just-right colours that could be half-moons, crowns, swirls, circles, float in voids of curious depth created by many layers of paint that almost reveal their story on close examination. If you own one (we’ve got one in the office) you learn something new about it every time you look at it. Maybe you are learning something about yourself too. McLean’s paintings have lovely, poetic names like, Velodrome, Chiara-Luna, Altiora and some of the titles of the works give away his Scottish childhood like, East Neuk, Claikie or Peasiehill.
We were filming in his studio a few weeks ago observing as he spent about fifteen minutes choosing a pot of acrylic colour and then mixing it with a pumice medium. John likes to use old house painting brushes that have seen better days. Just before setting a paint laden brush on a half finished canvas, he announced, “this could bugger it up”. He delicately formed the shape he thought he wanted on the canvas and after a longish pause said, “Fuck, I have buggered it…….but I think I know what I am going to do to save it”. On the first shoot he had said to us that sometimes he feels a bit like a farmer husbanding something that is already there.
The film we are making has no client, no broadcaster and no sponsor, we can do what we like when we like. Chris and I got quite excited by our day observing John in his studio. We seemed to be witnessing and recording something not often seen and rarely understood and that is; the process of making creative decisions and their consequences. McLean is making hundreds of tiny decisions every minute, he gets as much pleasure out of the wrong ones as he does out of the right ones. The creative process appears to be a kind of adventure for him and the outcomes can be equally infuriating, ecstatic or intriguing. The key thing is the “outcomes” are never known to John and he rarely plans a painting. If he knew what the painting was going to look like at the outset he wouldn’t bother to begin it. The tensions in all this are probably what we, as viewers, like looking at in a John McLean painting.
John is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and this has slowed him up somewhat. Doctors’ appointments, voice therapist appointments and travel difficulties have interrupted his love affair with painting but he is determined to carry on and with he help of his wonderful wife, Jan, he will. I hope he won’t mind me saying that the slowing of his pace has helped us see what goes on with his work in our film; a bit like watching the replay of a great goal on Match Of The Day we can see the curve of the ball and the swell of the net when he scores.
My first day working at Proudfoot I was immediately told that I would be working on the new Ford Mondeo Project, and that in a couple of hours I would be going with Michael and the director Jeremy to a meeting with the Ford clients. Needless to say I wasn’t expecting such an abrupt start to my internship, but I was happy to be given something exciting to do.
When we arrived at the meeting I honestly wondered what the hell I was doing there, and not just because I was the only one wearing jeans and trainers. The two hour long meeting was all about the technicalities of the project, punctuated with car jargon that went way over my head. Given the fact that two days earlier I was selling organic frozen yogurt in Paris, wearing a t-shirt with the face of a cow called Thérèse on it, the contrast felt slightly surreal.
Nevertheless I went along with it and nodded appropriately as the meeting unfolded, and by the end of it I had a vague idea of what was going on.
The next few days (weeks in fact) were very hectic, (more…)
In our Best Western hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria, they advertised a ‘Sky Bar’. Customers at the otherwise ‘average’ hostelry were urged to visit this penthouse drinking lounge that offered beautiful views across the city. On arrival at the Sky Bar, myself and my crew, Alex Fouracre and Stuart Wareing, found ourselves to be the only customers. The Sky Bar was a symphony of plush white leatherette and chrome, there were indeed panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows showing the glittering lights and possibly more salubrious parts of town than our own in the distance. In the middle of the room was what looked like a white piano converted into a cocktail bar, in fact it was an electric keyboard embedded into what looked like a Hollywood baby grand. A microphone and PA system awaited a Sinatra and a Grace Kelly who never came. We arrived on a Wednesday so maybe understandably the Sky Bar was quiet. We left on a Sunday; on the Saturday night before, we were again the only customers.
Taking a taxi into the city centre, our driver spoke proudly of his country in broken English, all the while gesturing to landmarks as he went – the socialist realist sculptures in the Borisova park, now a favourite with skateboarders, the Eagle bridge, the beautiful Russian church (sadly covered in scaffolding else we would have got a shot of it) and then the turning for the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the university, and the modern, slightly, kitsch statue of St Sofia. The writer, Miroslav Penkov, with whom we are making a film with his mentor Michael Ondaatje tells us that the city of Sofia is named after a tiny orthodox church and not Sofia herself – Sofia actually means ‘Holy Wisdom’. Miroslav knows the labyrinthine history of his country so thoroughly and tells it so engagingly that it makes me think that he should front a series for Bulgarian telly….or even UK telly for that matter. It was Bulgaria that invented Cyrillic script; the country has had at least two empires, survived Ottoman rule and several Balkan wars. Bulgaria became part of the German Axis in World War Two but declined to send its Jewish population to the concentration camps. They finally succumbed (if that is the right word) to Soviet communism in 1946 (apologies for the précis of a very complicated history). One landmark our driver didn’t point out was a billboard for Marks & Spencer, as sure a sign as any of the death of the Soviet era.
The next day we filmed in the Alexander Nevsky cathedral with Michael and Miro. Michael was fascinated by the characters depicted in numerous paintings and frescos, Miro giving him a running commentary on their contributions to Bulgaria’s huge, entwined religious and political history. Even the avuncular Bishop came out to greet us and thankfully asked for the lights to be put on so that we could bring the ASA down on the Canon C300. We filmed an interview with Miro at his parents’ apartment. Mr and Mrs Penkov are both doctors who started their careers in the soviet system; they treated us to a lovely tea of Baklava and other Bulgarian sweets.
On the last day of the shoot we visited the Rila Monastery, about an hour and half outside of Sofia, with its wonderful, complicated frescos showing Orthodox Christian scenes and depictions of hell that might well have made you think twice about sinning before the age of mass media. On the way back we stopped at a country cemetery, not just because I am fascinated by graveyards (see previous blogs) but to get some shots to go with a piece Miro read us from one of his brilliant short stories. The graves in Bulgaria are still post-communism secular, many have cans of beer and Rakia, offerings from friends and relatives missing their drinking companions.
As we left Sofia’s brand new, Tracey Island-like airport, I find myself thinking that apart from Marks & Spencer’s, how wonderfully different Bulgaria is from the UK and only three hours away.