Interview with Ben Gibson
This interview was recorded by Michael Mazière to provide background to the paper INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT FOR ARTISTS' FILM AND VIDEO IN ENGLAND 1966 - 2003 for the British Artists' Film and Video Study Collection. It has been tidied-up but not edited. It may not be quoted without the interviewee's permission. To seek this contact email@example.com
MM: So basically, if you could just outline your first involvement or how you got involved with the production board and what the relationship was at that time or how the relationship might have developed
BG: Well I mean, my particular history is I was a theatre director who left university ..doing that.. but I was also one of the editorial workers with Don Ranvaud on Framework magazine at Warwick university in the late 70's, and that was my initial involvement in a way with independent film stuff. But I went on working in the theatre and briefly was working at Stratford East, and then I was one of the founders of LIFT - the London International Festival Theatre - which just had its tenth festival. And then when I came to London, one of the jobs I was doing, trying to earn a living after I'd finished my first degree, was working for at the Paris Pullman for Charles and Kitty Cooper. And I was there, I was programming fourteen titles a week - mid day and late night repertory at the Paris Pullman.
MM: Around what year was that?
BG: That was 1980. And, I mean the Paris Pullman's not there anymore
MM: I knew it. I knew it well.
BG: Yeah it was one of the last. It was basically Geoff Andrew at the Electric and Peter Broughton at the Everyman and me at the Paris Pullman, and we would just kind of be in competition to have interesting kind of paranoid 50's American science fiction seasons, and Douglas Sirk and Hitchcock and all the things that were floating around in the film culture at the time, that were largely coming out of Edinburgh [Film Festival], and I had just been to Edinburgh once and so on. So I was just hanging around at the margins of that, and doing a bit of writing - I started writing for the Monthly Film Bulletin as well as for Framework. And then I was eventually persuaded by Don to go and do a masters degree in film at East Anglia, which is about British film culture, and marginality and exceptionalism. And how everybody from Powell to Humphrey Jennings to Jarman and all kinds of other people since, [are] identified with a kind of aetheticist Catholic idea about cinema, or an over-conceptualisation of the cinematic image - and then are made to feel like foreigners in their own country. So much so that they have to either leave, or if they don't leave they're only celebrated by foreigners. And it's sort of about English exceptionalism on a grand scale. The subject of the thesis is Powell and Pressburger in the 40's and how they were received.
BG: So that's rather too much detail, but coming back from that, I was working in America as a butler and paying for myself while I was writing that MA. I came back and started working for the Other Cinema and I was there for eight years working with Tony Kirkhope, eventually a partner in the business and doing a lot of the acquisitions and all the promotions and publicity And I was setting up the Metro Cinema and changing the name of the company and setting up the Metro in 86.
BG: Then I decided at a certain point that I wanted to start producing. I mean, we'd done one film, I mean oddly enough the first thing I ever got involved with producing was a Channel Four film directed by Jean-Luc Goddard called Soft and Hard, which Tony and I produced. And then he said, "Well why don't you set up a production company as an off shoot of the business." And I said, "No I think I'm going to re-train as a producer." Tony and I didn't speak to each other for eighteen months, because at that time independent distribution was couples, really; there was Charlie and Kitty [Cooper] and there was Pam and Andi [Engel], and so on. And there was Ben and Tony, and so I'd sort of walked out on eight years of work building up this company in the cinema. And so I became a kind of trainee of Colin MacCabe in a way because he brought me in to do independent videos. The idea was at the time that somebody had produced a report, an American woman called Jackie Kane...
MM: ...produced a report for the BFI?
BG: She produced a report for Colin MacCabe about what he should do about work on tape. At the time that, I had already been working in 79 Wardour Street with IFA and LVA people next door, and all that kind of thing was going on. So I had some cursory knowledge of what was happening in independent tape-work and that the Bracknell Festival and all those kinds of things, although it wasn't really my 'cup of tea'. And I suppose we'd had something to do with independent filmmakers, as distributors, because the only things we could easily pick up from the UK, at that period, were things from the BFI production board, so there were things like Doll's Eye, Jan Worth's film, and then there were kind of independent documentaries, stuff that [Nick] Broomfield was doing and there was sort of short films like Arthur Ellis' films - you know joke films about Alan Parker as a great filmmaker - and Who Killed Colin Roach? which was Isaac Julien's graduation film from Goldsmiths. So those filmmakers were around the Other Cinema a bit, and they'd come in and borrow copies of films and then they'd tell us about their short films and we'd keep them in some kind of holding library. We tried to do something about screening some of them at the Metro. So by the time I got to the BFI production board, I was hired as this person who was supposed to be an amateur producer looking for video stuff , and I gravitated really towards a notion that there was work going on on tape which was an extension of work in the British avant-gardes, because .. those were my roots. And that meant David Larcher, George Snow George Barber. There were a group of people there who you can identify with that thing. And in a way George Barber was a very 'video person' because it was all about Scratch and that was a very post-modern conception. And then there were the Duvet brothers and the people who were around them. So we did some work like that, and after about ten months of that, it transpired that Channel Four were trying to create something called The Short and Curlies. And at this time it was David Rose and Karin Bambrough, all working for Jeremy Isaacs, and they'd come up with this idea that they wanted to make 11-minute shorts 'cause this fitted some slot that they'd had before Film on Four. It was this cosy idea that you'd have a short before the main feature on Film on Four. And they'd got a deal with British Screen, which at that time was Simon Relph, and they decided that each film should cost, I can't remember, but it was a hell of a lot of money at the time, at the time it was like £50,000 or £60,000 a piece.
BG: So they were like 'officer training' in the sense that you had to make them in 35mm, you needed to have a [crew]. No one would accept you were going to make a short with less than thirty people in the crew, even in a dialogue scene with two people in it, because this was your training to see if you could really make 'a film'. It's part of that 'British thing'; it's like if you're going to make a feature film, it's like going to church. So, Colin was wondering how he was going to react to this and initially he said, "OK well the BFI will come in too and we'll make one or two." And I think, I mean, initially there were ones that spread out of that year. There was Degrees of Blindness by Cerith Wyn Evans which strictly speaking, was the BFI's contribution although it was a fifty-minute film, and had nothing to do with
MM: Took a long time to make.
BG: Yeah and a wonderful film, but had nothing to do with Short and Curlies whatsoever. So it soon became apparent that Colin's sort of engagement with short films didn't quite make very much sense, and I said to him 'cause I'd written another report about the place of video in which I'd attacked the idea that there were a lot of people in Bracknell who all said that 'cause they were clients of Sony and Panasonic (as opposed to sort of Panavision and Kodak), that they somehow were a separate culture. Because I just couldn't see it. ..
And I thought it eroded their work, in a lot of ways, to be going on in that way. so I'd written this paper, which was quite critical of the idea that we needed to engage with artists' video as though it was a separate movement, uh, rather than an off shoot of the avant-gardes. And I'd probably spent quite a lot of time talking to David Curtis at the time about what he was doing because subsequently, basically half the people who were supposedly new filmmakers coming from BFI production were people I'd simply stole from David.
BG: You know, they had to come from somewhere.
MM: But this paper was saying that it was, or it wasn't a different culture?
BG: I was saying that it wasn't a different culture at all, and that actually we needed to engage with short film wherever it came from in any gauge and any format.
BG: And at that point then I invented this thing, which was called New Directors. We told the BFI that what we should do was sometimes we might do things on tape if we felt like it, but that we really should be working on 16mm, and either producing combined 16mm show prints, which in those days you could still screen in festivals, or doing 35mm blow ups. But we should have very, very strict pricing. I think £22,000 each was the first price, which was less than half the price of what was going on at Channel Four. Essentially, the trouble with the BFI was that it had this history - that there was a moment when Peter Greenaway, in the normal way, applied to make his next film after the various films he'd made and it was The Draughtsman's Contract. And at the point when he completed that film, it was necessary for Peter Sainsbury and other people there to recognise that now suddenly they were in the feature business, and they had to understand the markets; they had to be doing sales and promotion , and so on. And I think that was all very good for the BFI production board in terms of profile and in terms of the idea of low budget cinema being this separate entrepreneurial and cultural space that was coming all over the world at that time. But one of the problems was that it then meant that everybody came to the BFI production board with a feature that they wished to make.
MM: So there was a whole moment when even the avant-garde filmmakers were coming to get features produced like William Raban, Malcolm Le Grice
MM: which a lot of them failed
MM: to work in a feature-length way but feature-length became the currency.
BG: And also it began everyone started talking about learning 'slopes' and so on, and it all became about this analogy of skiing which was related to how once you got on the 'black slope', there was some money available, but everything else was really just primary school. Which was very difficult for certain, I mean Britain does have filmmakers, you know, like [Anna Thew?] as we mentioned earlier who's not a long form filmmaker effectively, but it doesn't mean her films don't go on getting more interesting. And those people got very much left high and dry by that. So the point was, that I said to Colin MacCabe, "Look, if the next person who is going to be Terence Davis or Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter or whoever, will they be bathed in ethereal light so that you'll immediately know, so you know, that they are going to make a great feature film and then you can give them money to make a feature without ever seeing any of their filmmaking work, or hardly any of it within the context that we're working in?" So this was the pitch for New Directors was that our obligation was actually to discover, out of six or seven films, one or two new people every year.
MM:.. who would graduate to a feature eventually.
BG: Who might graduate to a feature, but at least would be given the freedom um and the resources, to see whether they were people with a very distinctive voice as British filmmakers.
BG: in whatever form, I mean we were much broader in the beginning in the sense that, you know, we did films by, in the first year of it, we made films by Patrick Keiller. I'd just seen The End, which was kind of almost self-made project with a bit of money from the Arts Council. Uh and then we did the film with him called Clouds, which was the beginning of that relationship and subsequently we did London and Robinson in Space.
BG: So and we did a David Larcher film Granny's Is - which was quite an eccentric beginning in a sense, but there was also Bernard Rudden, Gurinda Chada, Martin Jones, (who just won a big prize in Berlin last year). The film makers persist from those early years. But they were a very broad range of people, in terms of their ambitions. And there were very few overriding principles. But the main thing was that they would come in We got incredibly more applications than we could deal with, to begin with it was only twenty-five or thirty times as many films as we could make; but by the time that Kate Ogborn had taken it over, and I had become head of production and was supervising her work, she was getting 1300 scripts to make six. And it was quite clear that in the UK, without the kind proper structure within the broadcasters or bits of money knocking 'round at the edge' of the main film business to make short films, there was a terrible shortage of opportunities. And a terrible shortage of opportunities that were affordable. So what we did was we matched these people up with a producer, and then supervised that producer. So first I and then Kate Ogborn were very hands on in the fact that we were supervising producers. The production would be based in an office within the Rathbone Street space from pre-production to delivery. We'd cut in the cutting rooms downstairs. Andy Powell would be the post- production supervisor and the kind of technical consultant throughout. So it was a bit, it was a bit more like the BFI production board of the past, its Waterloo [days]; the sort of the legendary days of Bruce Beresford and so on. 'Cause we'd gone back to a space where we were actually providing resources for producers to be kind of within the studio, but with their own credit. So I suppose my slightly vainglorious model from British film history would be the Rank independents - so you know, one unit was like the Archers, another one was like [?] but each had their own space. And a lot of interesting producers developed out of that as well. We did, I think, six films a year. Half were funded by Channel Four and there was a subvention system where Channel Four put in fifty percent of the money but they didn't have any kind of veto. In other words they weren't commissioning. I mean all that business came later when they said, "Well we've got a bigger vote than anybody else." All that happened really was that Rod Stoneman, and there was somebody else before and there was Stuart Cosgrove afterwards, but the person from Channel Four who sat on the board had one of the votes on the board, of which there were twenty people. And if they unwittingly co-financed a film that they didn't like, then they simply didn't screen it.
MM: Yeah they had to option to screen it or not it was up to them.
BG: And if you go through the list you find a lot of those people uh, like Richard Kwietnowski who I think made a film in the first or the second year, or Chris Newby Jayne Parker, they are artists emerging out of the 'materials only' kind of artist filmmaking tradition in the UK. And there was quite an interesting dialogue going on all the time between David and myself because I suppose that there was a way in which he'd often deal with people who were interested in playing with the tension of what you might call.. narrativity . I mean I think it's a great divide in British ways of imagining innovation in film - they would be playing with narrativity - and narrativity was an atmosphere - as though something might happen. But on the other hand it was all done in the tone that if anything happened that was going to be 'a girl and a gun', then somehow it would be very uncertain kind of storytelling, because after all, for them, films are rather silly, and in narrative films all these big things happen which you couldn't quite recover from afterwards. You couldn't quite deal with the wake of them. And those of them who actually wanted to go further into that kind of experiment where you were saying to the audience well the thing is that the audience is investing in the characters that you've created, and you've no way of stopping them from investing in those characters.. and therefore the way in which you commit yourself to the narrative at a certain level, even if it's very little narrative, (it could be two people sitting in a room, you could be a student of Chantal Akerman), nevertheless if they've made that investment in character, it's quite possible that what you need to do is to see it not as an experiment in filmmaking in which story is one of the elements, but the story you've told in a particular way. And I suppose that was the moment when you move from the [Arts Council] artist film and video fund into BFI 'New Directors'... [It was also] very director oriented. I suppose it's very much about writer/directors and their sensibilities, in the sense that what I was saying was when we looked at the show reels, nobody was allowed to read a script unless they'd looked at the show reel. That was an absolute rule. So it wasn't a literary based exercise in the way that it is
MM: But there was a lot of attention on the script development.
BG: There was a lot of attention to the development to the script after you'd decided - having looked at the show reel - that this was a filmmaker you wanted to work with.
Most of them had show reels, and some of them had photographic collections or some kind of work that was distinctively theirs. And then what we said was, "We want films where we know from.. the experience that you had to make this film. And it's not a short film which was made by somebody who needs to make a short film." And that those two experiences are distinct, one from the other, and they're the things that make the absolute difference in terms of first selecting them and then what you focus on and in terms of what you're trying to do in development. What that did, a couple of years down the line, was feed the feature slate - that turned into three or four years of BFI production in which there was quite an obvious sense of who would make the next movie. There was period where there was Patrick Keiller, Andrew Kotting, Jasmin Dizdar, Carine Adler who'd made a New Directors' short; a group of people emerging who were slightly oddball, distinctive, v
MM: John Maybury
BG: John Maybury as well. John had actually made most of his stuff very cheap; he was very good at applying for strange schemes and doing things for everybody at the same time. I mean he never made a 'New Directors' film. Although he came with James McKay to me with Man to Man and they said, "Well look, we've got a bit of money. Tilda Swinton came to the meeting, Tilda wants to do it as well. We don't know how to do this, but we're sure there's a way to fund it." And I took them to George Faber 'cause I had just started dealing with the BBC and I thought, "Well George Faber will be interested in this." And then he said, "Fine, the BBC will pre-buy it."
MM: And that will fund the rest.
BG: And that will fund the
whole thing and then we started shooting a few weeks later and then
on the first day of the shoot, James told me that they hadn't actually
contacted Manfred Karge at all and they didn't have any film rights
for the play that he'd written. And that he was thinking about ringing
him. And then meanwhile, while we're having this meeting with the production
managers from the BBC, the actual, the actual film was shooting in the
Theed Street studios in Waterloo. So the following morning, James and
I had to fly to Vienna in order to get on our knees and beg Manfred
to give very cheap rights for a film that was already shooting! Which
in fact, he hardly did. He just said, "Well you'll give me a fortune
every time you go to a new territory." So the film was always crippled
MM: The 'New Directors' scheme what was the bracket that it kind of covered, in terms of the years?
BG: Oh it goes from about 1989 to 2000. 2000 was the last, the last lot that were delivered as far as I know.
MM: And a one point there was quite a lot of overlap in terms of the, some of the arts, one of the Arts Council schemes Experimenta. Which ended up having similar sized budgets but being directed specifically to television.
MM: Was that, was there some sort of blurring there or was it just ?
BG: I don't think there was. I would spend time talking to John Wyver and you know, we knew Neil Seeling and the people from Alive from Off Centre and was sort of interested in some of that work I suppose we were a bit old fashioned and Polish in our insistence that the narrative was about itself and it wasn't about combinations of different sensations, which, could be argued about in the coffee bar afterwards. So there was this idea of an integral piece of storytelling. Everything wasn't so post-modern, you know.
MM: I suppose one of the [cases] that interests me is David Larcher because he managed to work as an artist for everyone, yet his work remains, very much the same, in the sense that he pursues the same sort of, thread which I would have thought would have been very difficult to script.
BG: Oh well there wasn't really I mean Granny's Is was a document about him and his grandma.
BG: I think the thing with Larcher is really the it's like somebody who's proposing to organise a game and he says, "Well the game that we're going to have is in this particular area." And that's really all you get as the rules of that particular game. And in some ways they're quite strict because he's saying, "Well, look if I do this for the camera and then I re-loop it through this on the flame machine, this is what happens. But I'm only applying it to this tiny thing and then I'm putting this echo on it and I want to do it a hundred times. I'm not trying to make it, [and] put a trumpet behind it and sell the product. I'm just looking to see how the thing works."
BG: So there's some purity about the rules of the experiment which means that you can say, "OK well this is exactly where this film is going." I mean in the end though, with the David Larcher film, I remember sitting for the final cut in Soho 601 and David getting very upset where they had to cut bits out of it to try and make it about an hour. Cause we'd made a kind of agreement that it was going to be about an hour.
MM: Yeah there's two versions.
BG: In the end of course it was quite funny 'cause he said to me, "Yeah, I think that bit's right, no, I can't look, but you press the button, there, you press the button."
BG: And he'd close cover his eyes and sort have a [fit?] and say, "Alright hit the button now, now! OK alright, you've got your own idea about the film, that's fine." And we'd do this and I was quite pleased with that version, and of course David, being very sneaky and good at politics as well, he knew that that the perfect way to get the next money, in order to sort out the problems he felt with it was to go and see Rod Stoneman and say, "You know that bastard Ben Gibson, he thinks he's David O. Selznik and he's re-cut my movie and I'm David Larcher. What do ya think of that?"
BG: At which point of course, you know it was easy for Rod Stoneman to say, "Oh God, what a complete criminal. He's the Harvey Weinstein of Rathbone Street. Here, have some money, you can make your own cut." So
MM: I was using that example because one of the things that interests me is, how if you look at all the different forms of funding that artists have received, some, some artists' work gets diverted and confused by funding whereas some artists' work just persists throughout. You know, irrespective of that.
BG: Well I'm not sure, you see there's this who idea in Britain that funding 'does things' of a particular kind but I'm not sure.
MM:. We were talking about David Larcher and then I brought up the point that interests me, which was the relationship between artists' work and funding and whether funding actually has an affect on the work or, you know, the kind of tension between the two because there's been so many different funding schemes.
BG: See it's an interesting thing between artist film and, and the BFI because in a way you were saying people continue their work. I mean they don't make much of a distinction. It's like either Dave Curtis found them a bit of money and they had to go to some committee, or they didn't go to committee and they got some from Ben Gibson. At the time it didn't make much [difference?] to them. The relationship of the film was quite different. The relationship of the producer to the film and the fact that you had to have a producer and the idea of having a budget, where things had to be budgeted out, including what the director was going to earn.
MM: And I think the idea of developing the script
BG: Yeah. And the idea of script development. And the idea that there would be a point when somebody said, "OK now it's ready, you can make it." There was an official 'development phase'. All of those were different and they changed the way people's working methods, to some degree. But I'm not really sure that funding does do any more than enable a work to 'happen'. And I think in Britain there's this obsession with uh, you know, the idea that there are filmmakers who need to be funded because they don't have an audience. I'd never work with a filmmaker who didn't want to have an audience. But it's a sort of orthodoxy that people always talk about. It's the thing that Alan Parker and some reactionary figures in the industry rely upon is the idea that there are filmmakers that don't wish to have an audience. What they mean is, that they want to draw a line in the middle of this process. I mean what I say to students here, which is what I believe, which is that everybody who's a successful filmmaker makes films for their friends. It just happens, that if you compare, for instance, like Steven Spielberg's friends are a bit like everyone else in America in terms of their fundamental tastes. And he knows that. Which is why the people that produce his films understand that they can make very expensive Steven Spielberg films, because a lot of friends of his friends will show up to see it. If you then go to David Larcher or Michael Almereyda and say, "Well what are his friends like?" Well they're a very limited group of people, with very specific tastes and their network is smaller, therefore the films have to be smaller. So it's all an issue of pricing. And you can go all the way down to David Larcher if you wish. but that means that there's a unity amongst all the people who are practicing filmmaking from David Larcher then to Steven Spielberg, making films for their friends.
BG: And that's too challenging for middlebrow people to deal with because they want to create a generalised sense of an 'audience'. Thus all the producers in Britain want to say that they're the only ones who understand the audience, or their director wouldn't get out of bed in the morning or they wouldn't buy themselves an alarm clock and they couldn't actually deal with an audience if it wasn't for the fact that they've got some business person working with them, who's this producer figure, who represents the audience's interests and otherwise it would just be, they'd just be uh, sort of, you know, painting things that can't be shown. And I think all of that stuff is incredibly damaging. But part of it is the implication that to have a funded level, particularly in cultural filmmaking, somehow, 'saps' the will to deliver audiences. And I think it's just a part of [ ] intolerance of the ideology that's trying to destroy the idea that there could be a cultural intelligentsia in the UK, when that's been going on for fifty years - it's just the part that's applied to film. So, I don't think we changed anybody. I mean we certainly created some expectations in the sense that there are people who come along and say, "OK now I'm going to make a feature-length film, what's that going to be like?" And then you have to try and match it to their work. For instance in the case of Patrick Keiller I wanted him to do a feature-length film. He wasn't at all sure that he was capable of doing that. He wrote a long document, which was really a research document about quotations from 18th C. French and English philosophers and literary figures who he thought, applied to his kind of project. The script that he wrote wasn't really the script for London but it was a part of it, and it had elements in it. And then he did exactly what he'd always done, which is to go out and shot footage mute and then cut it mute, to its own 'visual rhythm' in his own house, (in fact not in his own house, in that case 'cause it was on 35mm). And then he'd say, "OK now where am I going to cut and paste a script, which is sort of vaguely related to the previous script, which will fit with these things?" So his practice as a filmmaker stayed absolutely the same.
MM: Well within exactly and that film was successful, within its terms.
BG: It was very successful, actually, London, because, you know, I mean it was a big critical success
BG: But also if you think about how much it cost it was basically Patrick driving around in a beaten-up old Volvo for a year. And so if you paid Patrick's salary for a year and bought a little bit of 35 mm stock, and processing and Larry Sider [editor] for four months, you had a film.
MM: But in that, in that sense there's a process of nurturing
MM: in terms of like making say you know, Patrick going from The End to making London. I mean that was enabled by a process. So funding does have a kind of, has an enabling point in that example
BG: Yeah. What they always wanted to replace it with, and they now have, is a system where the filmmakers have to have a contractual relationship to an individual who's interested in the kind of repertoire as business and as cultural business and therefore, they would never come in there until they've got... so I mean, the Film Council's mode of interpreting that, is that they don't want filmmaking going on in the building because that would make everything too complicated. But they pay more - because they have to pay much more money for the films and they'll find somebody else to write the budget, which means it's always twenty percent higher and then it'll go in orthodox ways. Which is one of the reasons that, you know, films are very expensive in Britain, because there's always somebody who's being a consultant who tells you an orthodox way of achieving a solution, usually people achieve the solution by hiring another person. One of the things we were doing at the BFI was running these events to show that there was low budget filmmaking happening in the rest of the world 'cause it was so rare in Britain. We had that seminar series "How low can you go?" with Roger Corman, James Shamus, Christine Vachon, Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, as the course leaders. And lots of these filmmakers we were talking about were in these groups, and it had quite a big impact. The one place where I think you can say that funding makes a difference in a bad way, which it did over those years in the early 90's in Britain, was this whole 'Get Serious' campaign. Really around 'Film on Four', and around saying, "Alright, well we don't want to make films for 700,000 pounds we want to make them for 1.3 for first features." And that was really all about the executive's idea that they wanted to be in a more serious mode, in terms of the possibility of exporting films into America. So what they do is throw money at filmmakers, which meant that they couldn't come to creative solutions for their problems. I mean, what Derek Jarman once said to me was, "Every time you give somebody more than £200,000 to make a movie, you might be betraying a talent, because that could be a good filmmaker." In other words, if you're a bad filmmaker, you probably need all that money because actually the cinematographer and the producer and various other people are going to save your 'bacon' every morning.
BG: But supposing you're going to be a Hal Hartley or you're going to be John Maybury or whoever, if somebody gives you a couple of hundred thousand pounds, you've going to think your way through it.
MM: And you're more 'hands on' with it. Yeah.
BG: Yeah. I mean it's an argument, there's an argument about - which is an argument which has been going on for years, and I've sort of been stuck on this argument with Colin MacCabe because when I came into the job one of the only projects that was actually live that I inherited as head of production from Colin, was [Isaac Julien's] Young Soul Rebels, but Colin sort of stayed on as the other executive producer. And he was keen to make it as soon as possible. I had real bad problems with the script because it was one of those scripts where because money was tight, people used to write their first five films all in one film. So, Isaac and others had sat down and they'd written the gay, historical, dance, soul music London, political murder thriller.
MM: All in one. Laughing
BG: It was all in one. There were seven movies he could've made there and he needed really to focus on one of them or two maybe. I mean, combination is OK. but so every scene was sort of carrying on in some completely different genre on the page, so the fact that it was as coherent as it was, was a miracle itself. and then Colin began to promote it sort of, almost before it was made, as I've discovered the European Spike Lee 'cause it was so kind of, politically sexy to have a, to have a black filmmaker who was doing something which, which was I suppose, was sort of colourful and cultural. And there were key, there were key things, political things to achieve with Isaac doing a feature, like you know, the most important scene, I suppose, in a way which dates it politically, is the moment when they walk into Whitechapel tube station, the two black DJ's and they see somebody selling some BCM ? some Trotsky-ite newspaper uh, and the guy says, "You want to buy a socialist paper?" and uh, one of the DJ's looks, just sort of looks them over on their way walking to the tube and he says, "Where did you get those trousers?" And it's a kind of moment that we all recognise, that there were these two parallel cultures operating in the 70's of people who had some self-respect in terms of how they were going to promote their ideas, and other people who were trying to do self-immolation in order to show that their ideas were more important than themselves. And those two cultures sort of (clap) for that second. And the whole script, in that way, did have a centre, but it never really was brought into anything. My problem was, we just kept raising more money in order to have more shots and then take over [Clissold?] park and I have a big riot and everything else. Which were fine in the sense it's got more production values than there was money - it was cheap. But, actually, you never got to that moment in a film when you say, "Well we've got to get five days off the schedule, and we've got to get rid of a couple of hundred thousand pounds. Which scenes really, really, really are important, and what else can we shove into them, and how can we get rid of this stuff?". And you start behaving as though you were in the cutting room while you're looking at the page - then you're really developing a film, then your mind is focused properly.
MM: So it was already developed by the time you came on?
BG: Yeah. I just wanted to go on developing it for another year and everyone was bored with that, so
MM: Right. But I mean if you take Isaac's career as an example and you see that was his one foray into feature films and then now he's showing, now he's up for the Turner Prize.
MM: I mean that kind of does bring us to today in terms of where work is, or where, what context are operating in now and where that
BG: But the funny thing about Isaac is, I mean, that he got something which at some level, in terms of certain performances, and so on, is a fairly disastrous first film, for certain kinds of people in craft terms, and in other ways it's really promising and interesting, but it indicates what kind of collaborations he needs to undertake, what directions he can go in, in order to make a better second film. But he's definitely a big big talent there. But you look at the parallel with that - that the people who come from literary rather than visual roots, like Stephen Poliakoff who I think is an interesting writer, in the meantime, he's making four or five feature films. But it's somebody without almost any special ideas as a filmmaker, but he has the right connection and that level and if you're fairly 'visually neutral', as British film culture was in the 90's then you end up with results like somebody like Isaac who is completely alienated from the resources to get the money for a second film and has to go into completely, a different direction. while other people whose films are so unremarkable that we can't remember them at all and it's really not worth thinking about as filmmaking, as craft, keep on getting jobs. I mean with the Film Council, you know, sometimes they say, "Well the thing is, there's a very limited amount of talent, in the end in the UK. So we just have to you know, make a decent film culture out of what we've got." And you say to them, "Well you know, you do have to be a little bit more proactive." And they say, "Well how do you mean, Ben?" And I say, "Well supposing you've got a film there where you, somebody comes in and sees you and you've got an interesting script that you think is somehow material that you want to, you want to go further with and you're not quite sure how it's right and whatever. And then somebody comes in who is quite a plausible type director who's done a bit of television and they've got a nice leather jacket and they're sort of nice at meetings and that sort of thing, but you're not quite sure whether they're any good. And you want to shake it up somehow. Have you considered that actually if you now picked up the telephone, someone can give you the home telephone numbers of Carine Adler who hasn't made a film for four years, of Richard Kwietniowski who's made two films in the last seven years, of John Maybury who hasn't made a film for the last four years " You know, I can, the list goes on and on, these are people who really need to make you know, they don't have to be Terence Davis -- they don't need to be neurotic and make a film every seven years and kind of make high budget art films. There are even people who are valuable in trade terms to the craft in Britain and yet because there's this little sense of ambition about the 'visual spectrum' in their work, they were so profoundly distrusted by the people who were in the mainstream, that everybody forgets that they were ever born and imagines that they're off somewhere. In fact what they're doing is you know, they're teaching for 25 pounds an hour in an art school somewhere and they're perfectly happy. while some misguided producer is waiting for them to be allowed to make a film that costs, their next film to cost 6 million pounds or whatever because somebody's ambitious to do something with them - which they're not 'bankable' for so it'll probably never happen. If you give them 12 weeks and they make a low budget picture, they'd bite your hand off. And it's that idea of actually what, how sustained that group of people I mean, this year in Cannes, we had a decent number of films and then everyone said, "OK well we've got Shane Meadows and Lynn Ramsey." Both people who have worked with the BFI. I mean Ramsey ..Shane had his first film, his very first film completed by the BFI. But that's a few years ago now, the BFI's been gone for a while.. And the absolutely new people have been allowed their head, been allowed to have a voice, are not so confident that that's happening. I would say that wouldn't I? I would be negative because I'm not in film funding now. But I think that there is a problem that if you want things which are quirky, things that are 'quirky' are anti-intellectual and, and consumable, in a way things that are 'eccentric' are acquired tastes and there are things that you have to actually engage with. So we've moved from the eccentric to the quirky. We've moved from the, from the challenging to the quotes "youthful". And all these things are to do with the fact with how something is consumed rather than how it's conceived. So they want just to be consumers. They want somebody to be pre-packaged for them - uh, as commissioning editors and I don't think that, that, that allows them to discover anything. It's impossible to discover talent in that way 'cause you're asking talent to discover itself. And ? tell you how it's packaged afterwards by a film distribution company. That is not really how you find any original work. And everyone in this country treats commissioning as though it's something that uh, is like shopping late at night. As though you're Lady Diana and you can go to Harvey Nichols any time because you're the one with the money and therefore they'll open the shop for you in the evening. It's actually not like that, you know, commissioning is, is quite different from that because you have to be tremendously proactive. The people at the Film Council don't go to the Sunday afternoon ICA cinema bedroom films retrospective. or persuade people that really are filmmakers. Lots of very good filmmakers are quite modest about their ambitions and not sure who to call. But they wouldn't be bothered with that because they'd say, "Well you can write me a letter if you think you're so talented." So that's the first mistake. and they're not, they're not really looking to be involved with the process of people discovering what they can do.
The other thing is, in British film commissioning, which I think, you know, makes it so different from what we're talking about - from what David and others were doing at the Arts Council and what I was doing at the BFI - is that they've got this idea, which is a kind of "wannabe", it's a Hollywood idea, that you can make low budget films where the main thing is the material. So, "Oh this is an interesting script, let's find the right people to do that." I mean even in the U.S. two successful producers like, you know, Jim Stark and James Seamus, nobody would make a film which costs less than 20 million dollars, on the basis that they start with the material and then they get a group of people together who don't know much about the material. Because they're saying, "Well that anything below 20 million dollars, you're making a film which has a market obligation to be, you know, integral and complex and surprising." So it's our market needs - we must have a very strong voice. In this country, what commissioning editors do, for years and years until they learn, is they say, "OK well I'll solve the people later though I like the stuff." That's exactly the wrong way round. You've gotta find a person, even if you don't like the stuff. And then say, "OK what stuff is it we can both tolerate?" Because all you're doing, really, in commissioning editing is finding people that you think you can work with.
BG: I mean, that's very much, that takes you all the way back to the Arts Council 'cause it was very much like, somebody would come in and there'd be a panel and you'd say, "Well OK what's Anna Thew's next film?" "Well we're not sure about that one but we know Anna is a real, filmmaker and she'll come back with the next thing." And it seems obvious to everybody that that would happen at the level of making feature films in the UK. With television money or with public money
MM: But it doesn't.
BG: It doesn't at all.
MM: No. But with the, with the changes at Channel 4 and the changes at the Film Council now, is there anywhere, you know, is there any space for that kind of commissioning to take place? I mean that's why
BG: Not really. I think independent film is kind of self-commissioned, in a way, now and you find your advice and your support where you can. And you have to work on cheap formats. I mean the thing that, the thing that it was, I mean it was an idealist hangover. I was finishing Peter Sainsbury's project in a moment when people wanted an audience that they could define a bit better. So therefore we weren't making "Brechtian" essays on why the actors were bad, but that show the text and all those kind of things some of the Peter Sainsbury-period films failed for any audience at feature length. But it was still the Peter Sainsbury project in the sense that, "Why don't we have something where those people who feel excluded from the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition of cinema can actually do something where they are doing local stories, but they're doing them in a way which is aesthetically engaged." And it was the conclusion of that project that was very cool blooded, in a way, and it was just very odd that we were left alone to do it. But we were below the parapet, it was a very small amount of money. As I've always said in all political speeches, we had 65 percent of the same, of money, available for the same uh, purpose in Iceland, uh which is about the same pop smaller population than Camden. So, we weren't really, you know, a big deal. What Keith Griffiths once said to me, the thing about the BFI production board is: The output went from being so insignificant in the marketplace that it could easily be ignored (and therefore it was easy to go on funding 'cause no one ever quite heard of it, and it was sort of an outlet that kept certain people out of other people's offices), to having quite a high profile, so it was very easy to cut.. There was just a moment where it was quite clear what that work was. And there were years when we had three films in selection in Cannes - you know, not to be trumpet-blowing, but you know, given that it was such a tiny fund, and we were only just able to make two or three films a year, the last three or four years of it were quite extraordinary in terms of output of people. but at that point it was cuttable.
MM: I mean the same had applied to, to, to the Arts Council Film and Video panel that was kind of underneath Rodney Wilson's arts documentary
MM: kind of hiding there and, and operating on, on a small budget but still finding quite, quite a lot of time
BG: Yeah. And Wilf Stevenson was always very keen to take it over and put, bring it in somehow into some relationship with the BFI but he never wanted it to have anything to do with me 'cause he was very much into sort of, divide and rule. And he hated the fact that David and I used to have lunch together and talk about Wilf's plans for world domination. But of course David had a relationship with the distribution department with the BFI, [Wilf] kind of wanted to make a 'David Department' in the BFI. In fact, this sort of, this "frontier battle" with the Arts Council about it, which was completely pointless.
MM: I mean, just to, to go right back to the beginning, I mean there's a doc there's an interesting document that I've picked up, which is an Attenborough document from 1973, which actually is about film funding and the relationship between the BFI and the Arts Council - where it does recommend that the Arts Council funds [artists'] film.
MM: especially film and video from, artists with a visual arts background. And, and that, that document sort of laid out quite a clear separation between people coming from visual arts, on one hand, and people coming from a more documentary tradition, for the product what the production board was funding.
MM: It really separates those two areas. But then later on in the mid-seventies when Malcolm Le Grice was involved with the BFI, he was, he was really pushing for the production board to start funding feature films.
MM: And uh, to start funding artists to make feature films. And it wasn't always necessarily
BG: I think there was a tension there. I mean, I was never really involved with that whole thing about, "Let's have some artists make some films." I mean I think that the whole, the whole idea that it's got this kind of attractive and glamorous surface. That those people are they live in Los Angeles and they ? and therefore, "We'll have a go at it because we'll find something underneath the text which will, which will be more resonant." Ignores the fact that arts cinema is one of the most important and vibrant, productive late twentieth century culture. so what do you do with the influences on real filmmakers, which are fantastically resonant? And that's really the problem with those things like the Philip Dodd [Spellbound: Film and Art] thing that at the Hayward, when he gives some money to some artists to make a film as though it was a kind of "amateur hour" thing.
BG: When I went round the opening of the new Tate with Jayne Parker - she just happened to be one of the other people invited the day before the Queen opened it, or whatever, for the pre-opening of the Tate - and we were in the Sam Taylor Wood room where there was somebody jumping up and down.
MM: Yeah I know the one - Brontosaurus. Yeah.
BG: and uh, and I suddenly realise, I'm standing next to Jane Parker, and there's no cinema in here like in the Museum of Modern Art in which there was any film work playing inside this wonderful new 'palace of art'. You know, as much as I like it. And I'm looking at this thing which I find is supposed to be so ironic and so, so shambling and so, so, so, so under produced as, as a piece of film craft. and, and there's Jane Parker, whose wonderful work isn't represented there at all.
BG: and it doesn't exist?
MM: No, I know.
BG: She's only on the invitation list. This really, really significant person creating a consistent body of work in the British avant-garde.
MM: Well that's one of the things that's being re readdressed now. You know, in terms, I mean, through, partly through what we're doing with the, with the Study Centre. And, and partly through, for example, this massive event that just took place, Shoot, Shoot, Shoot, at the Tate, which was showing all the work from '66 to '76 which was actually packed out for, for weeks on end. You know.
MM: So there is a, there's, there's like this, this whole "catching up" to do, in between you know, by, by the public and, actually by the artists and the curator The most, the most culpable in the whole thing are the visual arts curators who actually don't know the history of independent and artist film post-sixties. And who think that the kind of the stuff that the YBA turned out was, you know was new.
MM: And actually you could just trace a lot of it back, you know. So, and, and part of what's happening now is that there's a kind of historical, yeah, I think, readdressing of, and making visible that work. But some of that work actually
BG: I was just talking to Paul Pawlikowski is a good example. I was talking to Paul who's about to make a film about Sylvia Plath starring Gwyneth Paltrow [Pawlikowski subsequently dropped the project, which was directed by Christine Jeffs]..
MM: Oh right.
BG: Which is a very good case of a very good filmmaker being picked up by the Americans before the British think of his next project. 'Cause he made Last Resort, which is really, arguably, the best British feature of the last couple of years. but then I talked to Paul about Sandra Lahire and he'd never heard of Sandra Lahire and he didn't know that Lady Lazarus and those other films based on Sylvia Plath had ever been made. So now I have to get those tapes to him, somehow, from home. So Paul Pawlikowski has them on his coffee table, but it's completely informal network for informing him the fact that there is a British avant-garde.
MM: Mmm. Yeah.
BG: And that those films are very significant and important. But that's good that that's happening.
MM: I think it's good. I mean, I think it's, it's, it's going to be made more visible. I think the Tate has a lot of work to do in terms of actually re-contextualising all that.
BG: But I think having a cinema downstairs, which is really for showing, again, you know, the Rodney Wilson story, films about artists rather than films which are part of 20th century art, is a problem. You can understand the politics of it, in the sense that the NFT is down the road - along the river.
MM: The thing is that they do show a lot of films
BG: Do they?
MM: Proper films.
BG: Oh right.
MM: Uh, which is, which is kind of strange, you know, because then they're not really I think they're feeling their way through as curators.
BG: But in reality, I mean, what they need is, you know, the American model where the Museum of Modern Art acknowledges that cinema is a huge part of the significant output of art in the 20th century that they've somehow got to really deal with.
BG: they've got the kind of BFI, in a way, 'cause the BFI has got, has always, always had this stupid idea that if they did things in a bright blue colour with a kind of large logo, that they could offer something for all the family which would then be a money spinner. And it was like the idea of creating MoMI, which was one quite good idea, and then they created MoMI as a lot of papier mache with no copies of trade magazines and no coffee bar for students to hang out in. And absolutely none of the things that make a museum into something which is vibrant and accessible for the people who are most fanatical about its contents. Because they thought, "Well this is really for families." So they wanted to be as middlebrow as they could possibly be because they thought the more middlebrow they were the more money they would earn. And it's exactly the same thing, that, that, you know, it is the whole thing that Parker and Putnam and the other people who didn't go to university in the 70's, who went straight into the advertising business - it's the regime that they tried to create in which everyone would feel intimidated about how they were wasting somebody else's money unless they acted in the most middlebrow way they could think of.
MM: But, I mean, at the moment though we've gone back to a situation where the funding for artist film is purely in the visual arts department and, and the film council is going for much larger, you know, sort of Hollywood genres.
BG: You've gotta go and see
MM: And that whole middle ground
BG: You've gotta go and see Paul Trijbits [Film Council] about this because he's got people who make short films. I mean, who do they make short films by? What are the criteria? I mean there must be reasons. He must know that there are people who are making boundary-breaking work for cinema. I mean it may be that your, your intervention with the tape recorder in Paul's office, who's the head of the New Cinema Fund at the Film Council would actually remind him of the fact that he should order in some tapes of work that's been funded by the visual arts department at the Arts Council.
MM: I mean, the reputation that that fund has got is that they're giving even smaller amounts of money to make very short DV films, and that they don't have any interest in, in that in that area. And I know that there is supposed to be a fund there, but it seems, it just looks like it's got, it's, it's been much more polarised now
MM: and that that whole middle ground between artist and cinema is, is, you know, is, is not there.
BG: It's true. It's true. I mean, to me, that was the source, you see? I mean, I'm sure that if you went through New Directors people you'd find that at least 50 percent are people who've dealt with David before. ?
MM: Yeah. And also, more than 50 percent of them are either practicing in successfully in one form or another. You know .. in terms of you know, with, using the materials of film - either in a gallery context or in a
BG: I'm not really sure about this whole gallery thing. That's my problem. I mean, I,'m quite reactionary about it. I think I like some things in galleries and I think that there's often two forms of a work and I like it's like I like Chantal Akerman's Easter as an installation and I like it as a film. They're totally different things
MM: What people are now doing you know, I mean, I'm working like that, and people are doing two versions of their work they're doing a single screen version and a gallery version.
BG: Yeah. I think that's
MM: And they're driven also by economics.
BG: No, no, I think that's fine - things should be driven by economics when they have to be
BG: I'm not against that. But I think the whole idea of, of I mean, nowadays what the funding bodies are doing, I mean, for instance, uh, you know, in a different level, Paul [Trijbits] is saying to people mostly, "Well if you want to make a first real film, probably that's something you want to do on DV and later on you'll use film." which doesn't really account for people's real experience. I mean, most of the interesting DV films made in Europe in the last five years, are films where somebody has had a fascination with a photographic image. They've struggled, against all the odds, to get the resources to make a little bit of photographic film work. And then at a certain point having got some control over all of that, they thought, "Well wouldn't it be nice to have something which was very simple and controllable - where I could act more instinctively and more collaboratively with a small group of people?" Um and "shoot from the hip" as it were. So there's this 'camera-stylo' movement which is those people working going from film to DV.
BG: All of that
all of that craft history and, and good, good, good practice is completely
ignored by the Film Council saying, "Well from
a funding point of view we would like you to make first a DV film and
then a 35 mm film because that's the way we conceived of the funding
pattern. In complete ignorance of what the practice of the artist is.
MM: Purely for those reasons. Because you learn to write and then you find a tool that's actually much more plastic and flexible... to write with. So I think you're right, you're right about that point.
BG: But yeah. I mean the gallery thing is simply a question of whether you get a sufficient level of public assembly around an event, or whether there's too much context and not enough text.
Talking over one another. Indistinguishable.
BG: there are a lot of people who have significant contributions to make to the avant-garde who can't really operate in terms of impact in that context. And therefore, although it is the economic reality, and there are good, there are very good things going on in galleries, there's also I just resent, I mean
Talking over one another. Indistinguishable.
MM: I think, in terms of, when you, when you bring up the notion of context, it's also, for example, when you show you show your film on television at midnight, say: you know, Midnight Underground. And it comes on and it then it comes off and then, as a filmmaker, you think "Well what was that, exactly?" You know and then the ads come on and: and it's gone. And then you show it in the gallery, maybe the show's on for two months, and you know, uh, it's, it's actually a more rewarding experience for you as an artist. I mean,
BG: No that's right.
MM: You know, so I think what's lacking is, you know - an obvious comment - any form of distribution short film, outside of those two contexts?
BG: Yeah. I think the whole of the independent sector worldwide has changed its way of doing things now because I mean it's like, you know, if you don't go to Edinburgh or Rotterdam, I mean there's a great deal of work from Southeast Asia and from Latin America and so on, that you will never see, unless you go to that thing, which is like an international art show. You might go and find yourself a journalist ticket or something and go for five days in Rotterdam and just watch films from morning till night and you will have seen important films from that year, which probably won't crop up again in the same city as you, but the odds are that you will never be in the same place as them again - because they simply won't go into the distribution marketplace. And that's you know, another problem is that, you know, there's a commodification of specialist film to such a high level, that if it doesn't fit some agenda, that people are looking for in their repertoire it'll never quite So I come out of distribution library, where if Chantal Akerman or someone made another movie, we'd buy it. And sometimes, you know, there were films that lasted ten days and we would've borrowed the print and then got the money from [the BFI] the print from Ian Christie cash around the back of the BFI, and done, you know, a few leaflets. And perhaps it wasn't much of a distribution in some way, but at least the work sort of came out along with everything else. What's difficult now, is that the only person that does that through just bloody mindedness is Andy Engel. Occasionally he'll buy, you know, a Fred Kellerman movie or a ? or something and say, "Well I'm fucking showing this. I don't care what anyone says." Uh, and then a few people will go and it'll make an impact. You know, via Jonathan Romney's column or a few other places uh, and then it'll be forgotten because Andy Engel's lost so much money on it, he can't afford to do that again for another eight months. So the whole of the distribution market, sort of, stuff coming into the UK is crippled by that, and it's largely, I mean, the big economic fact is that you know, we have got on the one hand all those trendies,you know, who think of themselves as, as very much with their finger on the pulse of the culture, who are running Channel 4 and BBC2. On the other hand they are presiding over the most parochial broadcasters anywhere in Europe from the point of view of whether anything is let in - particularly from the side of film or innovation in film. So this work is just not screened there and because it's not screened there, there's no hedge on the investment for a distributor, which would allow them to open the films, because they know they can't sell them to television. So it's just not economical to go to the picture when it's in Cannes or Berlin. And so this generates, in the end, something where there are a lot of people in Britain who think that the most innovative thing they've seen in film is that montage sequence in some typical British movie about have a go milkman from Preston who wants to open a salsa club in his back room; shot in a very flat 35mm with a you know, a few comedians in it. And there's a funny bit in it and they'll tell you about that and think that's the innovative part because they've just never seen the stuff.
MM: That's even worse than I thought - that last bit. Both laugh.
BG: I don't necessarily get too heavily exposed to that now, which is nice for me 'cause I've been teaching over the last few years in various places in sort of bits of undergraduate courses. And I'm now, I have the privilege of working in an international school - so there's 85 percent foreign students. And you'll find that, the level of, you know, understanding, of Bresson and whoever the other key people are on that day, is a great deal higher.
BG: Although I have to say, they rather write off British cinema and I have to get Terrence Davis round here and other people in order to explain to them that there is such a thing as British cinema.