Find out what we’ve been up to, where we’ve been and what we’re thinking.
There were a number of good reasons for Proudfoot Ltd to finance the making of “Which Way Up with John McLean” but one of them was the paucity of films available about artists and their process. Hardly surprising really that most painters wouldn’t really entertain the idea of a film crew cluttering up their workspace and asking them daft questions about why they are doing something, but McLean was different. He didn’t mind us being in his studio and happily answered questions on all manner of things from, “Why choose red?” to, “Are your paintings intrinsically Scottish”?
John McLean suffers from Parkinson’s disease and this has a part in the film, but John’s only stipulation when we started the venture was not to make a “sob story”. It would be quite difficult to make a maudlin film about John McLean because he’s a very funny guy. Even as the disease has got more disabling he retains a cheeky and mostly ribald sense of humour.
A test for me as to whether the film stands up is do I still enjoy watching it after many private shows in art colleges, galleries and institutions since the first showing in Soho almost a year ago? I surprise myself by saying, “Yes” – even though I was there all the time while we shot, with repeated viewings I keep finding little insights in the film about painting and about John McLean’s subconscious and intellectual thinking as he goes about making beautiful art works. The paintings are abstract, so you can’t say they represent a thing or a feeling, but looking at them provokes some other kind of inner emotion, a kind of kinship, an acknowledgment that the world is a complex but beautiful organism – and we are lucky enough to be in it. Basically, a John McLean painting can make you feel better about stuff.
It’s been great to sit with audiences and feel them being entertained and moved by it and many have written to us expressing their gratitude.
“Guess it’s all about feeling passionate about a subject – and that certainly comes across throughout the John film. The camerawork is superb – it’s all so jaunty and perky and so acutely and sometimes slyly observed”
“I congratulate you again so warmly on a brilliant film. Everyone there seemed to share this view.”
“Of course the film was especially moving for that particular roomful of people on Tuesday – I think it will be for wider audiences too – as well as tremendously informative and thought-provoking about the whole process of creating a painting”.
“More thanks for the special preview of your most excellent film. I had to keep laughing or I would have started crying.”
“It is a really wonderful film – luckily we laughed and laughed at the great comic on the screen, and reveled in the life force and the wonder of the work. But the difference between the John even of less than a year ago and the man sitting beside me was pretty tragic. Great you got this in the nick of time to celebrate now and to add to his legacy.”
“….just wanted to say that was absolutely brilliant.
I have come away with such a better under standing of John Mclean and what makes him tick as an artist. Also I loved the sound of paint on canvas”.
“What an inspiring piece of work, a funny, gentle, affectionate, moving portrait of one of the great minds of art. I feel sure it’ll be shown in cinemas and on television for years to come”.
“Thank you so much for the fantastic film last night”.
“Which Way Up with John McLean” is available to download from Vimeo On Demand. If you want to feel better today it will only cost you $10.00
In this office, we make many tiny decisions every time we set off to make a film. It is a necessary part of the process. As a filmmaker, you will be confronted with questions: Where shall we sit the interviewee? Are they relaxed? If not, why not? What is the weather doing? Should we change the schedule because it’s going to rain this afternoon? What order shall I ask the questions in? Is there one big question? Where in the interview shall I ask it? What is the beginning of the film going to be? What I thought was going to be an opening suddenly won’t work. Maybe the beginning is the end? Let’s get on with it and solve it later – better have options though.
This process of rapid-fire decision-making has been going on since the first meeting with the client. The process is the same for a low budget five-minute film, an Instagram clip or a ten-part feature documentary series. The process of interior suggestions (in our heads) and the self-rejection of those suggestions has been whirring away in all our waking moments, the ideas; altered, adjusted and sometimes shot down by the client or colleagues. By the time we get to the shoot we have a suite of options all standing politely in line in our subconscious, waiting to live or die as necessary, a bit like the sperms in that Woody Allen film. Some might say, “Why not write a script”? – get it approved by the client and proceed in an orderly manner, ticking off the shots and the points in the brief answered therein? The truth is most of documentary or factual work is totally unpredictable. The shoot day and the edit day stretch out before us, full of unknowns – a possible story of success and failure, of extreme highs and bowel-churning lows. Only our ability to make creative decisions can save us. We live and die by them. Okay, it’s not on the level of, “Shall we invade Iraq?” or “Let’s ask the country about leaving Europe?” but we are used to making decisions without committee. In the heat of the moment, there are no “stakeholders” – just a stark, flashing neon sign that says, STORY? What’s the STORY? How can I tell the story?
We have been making a feature length documentary about the abstract painter John McLean. The film is set mostly in his studio where we see him engaged in making decisions, tiny decisions to do with shape and distance and colour and size. There is constant success and failure in the story of him making a painting. Underneath the finished work are layers of decisions, corrected, obliterated, re-thought. In fact, living with a painting by John is to be aware of this journey he has taken. It should be said, McLean rarely agonises over these decisions. He delights in the cliff-hanger moment, the brush poised over the canvas, the moment of the mark… it might be exactly right and there again… absolutely wrong, or partly right and partly wrong and therefore in need of an adjustment solution, that in turn will bring forth more questions. Like all artists, John McLean knows that without risk there can be no art. The possibility of failure is ever present. Of course, if McLean knew it was going to “work” every time, there would be no point in doing it. His work is a continuous exploration; a research project with no solution or conclusion. The by-products of this happen to be… beautiful paintings.
In our processes we rarely court “failure”. We have become adept in having a store of material or strategies that give another spin or can provide another way of telling the story. Indeed sometimes the second or third version of a film is infinitely better than the first (sometime it is not). The process of re-exploring the material and thinking it through some more, even shooting additional scenes, finding new music, taking out the music and letting the sound effects come to the fore can change the experience for the viewer and help supply the messages the piece was designed for. There are no rules and there are no pat solutions.
With Instagram and Twitter and Facebook we are confronted with media “windows” for our work that didn’t exist a few years ago. This is actually quite exciting to people like us because the storytelling challenge, for all these new outlets, needs other kinds of solutions. We plan for these new windows and platforms and we believe that we are uniquely placed to advise. We are experts in the moving image and how pictures can tell a story, silent with captions or with sound.
Now, here is a challenge, and it is to do with trust. In the many films we have made since we started this venture in 2004, millions of little decisions have been made on the behalf of our clients. Honestly, only about 10% of those decisions are visible. It is in the apparently invisible that this company’s real skill lies. The challenge is… trust us and we can do something really great for you.
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.