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Projections 2
Projections 2

John Boorman

John Boorman was born in London in 1933. After working as a film reviewer for magazines and radio, he joined the BBC in 1955 as an assistant editor, and later directed a number of documentaries. His first feature was ‘Catch Us If You Can’ in 1965. His latest film, Country of My Skull, opens in 2003. He is a five-time Academy Award-nominee, and was twice awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for Leo the Last (1970) and The General (1998). He is the author of Money Into Light: The Emerald Forest - A Diary, as well as the being the co-founder and editor of Faber & Faber's long-running series Projections: Film-makers on Film-making. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Walter Donohue (eds)

Faber and Faber Limited, 1993

Subjects

Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

American Independent

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Freewheelin': Gus Van Sant Converses with Derek Jarman

DOI: 10.5040/9780571344376.ch-005
Page Range: 89–99
Figure 22. Gus Van Sant
Figure 23. Derek Jarman

Introduction Gus Van Sant

I first met Derek Jarman in bed. He was lounging with Andreas looking as if they had had a satisfying evening amid smoking incense and large multicoloured dildos. Andreas was my host at the Berlin Film Festival of 1986. Manfred Salzgeber, my festival programmer, could not pay my way from Portland, Oregon, to Berlin, but had promised to put us up in an hotel or with someone who worked at the Festival – in my case it was Andreas, I had come home late that night (and in Berlin Tate at night' usually meant about six in the morning) and I stood in the doorway in my winter coat talking about some of the films at the Festival. I remember talking about Wim Wender's Paris, Texas, which Derek didn't like much, but which was one of my favourite films.

It was the first film festival that I had ever attended as a film-maker and for me it was a great new experience. I had seen Derek around the Festival, because he was relatively high profile, and his name carried a lot of weight with the independent film-makers. Derek was an old festival pro by that time, and the way that he worked the press and used the event not only to show his work, but to have fun, was impressive. The Festival for me was a major drain on my energy because all of a sudden I was thrown into the role of salesman, and although this was my father's occupation, I had inherited few of the right techniques. So, with little attention on my film, I made posters and tried to get as many interviews as I could – about two or three. On the other hand, Derek was fighting off the press and didn't have to work so hard at promotion because Caravaggio was a British Film Institute film and he had many people promoting it for him. Derek Jarman was a symbol of the future, of what my life as a film-maker would someday resemble. He was breaking new ground as an openly gay film director, and his politics and lifestyle were exciting new things to behold.

I stayed at the Festival all ten days, and by the end my head was spinning from the accumulated baggage, from days of trying to get people to buy my film and getting nowhere, fast. Or was it slow . . .

When I get to a film festival now, it is more fun, because it is no longer my job to sell the film. For you young film-makers out there who attend film festivals and feel like the only way to get further in your career is to get the film sold - good luck. I was there once and it is hard. But, there is also a romance as a young straggling film-maker that no longer exists when you get more experienced and jaded. And then you finally find out that what matters is the film, and not the sale; that you can have fun at a festival, but ultimately you shouldn't take it too hard if your film is not well-received or noticed, or whether or not you make that sale that will put your film in the profit region.

The evidence of Derek's presence was everywhere. For one thing, he came with an entourage. This was also the first time that I had ever seen a real film entourage – sort of like an Andy Warhol entourage. There were five or six good-looking guys who wore long overcoats, and were having a good time in Berlin – at Derek's invitation, I suppose. Derek was very generous in that sense. He wanted the young people to have a good time, while he did his chores with the press and otherwise stayed relatively out of eyeshot, working on his projects in his hotel room.

After that one evening at Andreas' house, Derek and I took a taxi to the Festival at about eleven in the morning. As we rode, Derek talked about the decaying British school system and British politics. And at the end of the ride, he refused to take money from me for the cab ride, saying: 'But I don't need it, Gus.' I assumed that the British Film Institute was just laying so much money on Derek, that he really didn't need it. But more likely, he just knew where I was coming from as a young independent. He was very generous that way. He was a good guy. He was a gay guy. And everyone really liked him and looked up to him.

And now I am talking to him about his new movie. I am in Portland, Oregon and Derek is in Los Angeles, opening his new film, Edward IL By this time I have made two other films besides Mala Noche. And also by this time I have seen many Derek Jarman films, and have been influenced by them particularly by his Last of England, which reminded me so much of the underground films that I grew up watching in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, or the Anthology Film Archives or at my art school, the Rhode Island School of Design.

GUS VAN SAMT:

How are you?

DEREK JARMAN:

Good, good. Where are you?

GVS:

I'm up in Portland, Oregon. I came here to make Mala Noche and I ended up staying here. Do you know where Portland is?

DJ:

I've been through it–I came hitchhiking down the coast in 1964.

GVS:

Wow, those were good years up here. My next film is about a hitchhiker. Were you hitchhiking in the spirit of the sixties?

DJ:

Yes. It was a mixture of hitchhiking and Greyhound. I was very young at the time, and I was one of the few English kids that got here. I got to San Francisco, and as far as Big Sur, or someplace like that . . . and I went to the Hearst Castle. On the way back I picked up a lad on a motorcycle, and we went to a Joan Baez concert in Monterey. It was an anti-Goldwater concert and I ended up at this place called The Lab, on Cannery Row. Bob Dylan was there – he was well-known, but he wasn't well-known abroad. He came on at the end of the concert. It's quite strange to think about it now. But there you are – that's history.

GVS:

Did Edward II open last night?

DJ:

No, it didn't open, but we gave a screening at the lesbian and gay festival here – which was strangely middle-aged, Gus. I get the impression that the idea of a lesbian and gay festival has run its course, in an odd sort of way.

GVS:

Ten or fifteen years ago, there was more energy.

DJ:

I was quite surprised, there were very few young people there. They were all middle-aged, fairly well-heeled. They were a great audience, as it turned out It was packed out, so does one need younger people there? But I did miss them. And I missed them at the Berlin Festival this time. Maybe I'm just very old now, Gus. Fifty. You know what I mean? Somehow you come in like pop-stars; you have your time; and then suddenly you're not . . .

GVS:

What happened at the Park City festival? Was that young or old?

DJ:

Park City was much younger. Much more free-wheelingly glamorous – that's what I thought. Everyone else was complaining like crazy about Park City– Jim Jarmush and all those sort of people who come from New York. But for me it was really quite fun – it was like going into an episode of Twin Peaks, or something. There was a mad lady who came to collect us in her miniskirt in sub-zero temperatures and a fur coat. Without being a deserter to the cause, I think that at this moment it's much more fun to take over an ordinary film festival. I'm certain I met you at the Berlin Film Festival.

GVS:

Yeah, we met there.

DJ:

Everyone met in Berlin. It was a sort of lesbian and gay film festival without actually having the title. And I feel that that's the way of the future.

Anyway, how are you? Are you filming at the moment?

GVS:

Well, I'm working on some still photographs that I've taken over the yearsthey're basically casting photographs. I've created a darkroom and I've been working in there, as well as planning a film for September. Working in the darkroom is very calming. It's like knitting. It's like doing your art, but you don't have to draw or anything. You just shine light on paper, and that's how you make the image.

DJ:

It's always a relief to get back to painting. I'm not trying to set up any films at the moment I've got a space to exhibit my paintings, at the Manchester City Art Gallery in May. I've got half the show painted. I may have to sit in the art gallery to finish some of the work off – like an artist in residence. Pi paint them there – with the public watching!

GVS:

Good idea. So, I'll start asking questions. Are you satisfied with the ways of getting money in England to finance films?

DJ:

It's complicated. After I made Sebastian there was a real necessity for images. Even if they weren't the right images for a specific audience, they were still needed. I created my own world making 'gay films', or films that have that sort of subject matter. I've made a lot of films because there was the space to do so, but at the same time it was very difficult to achieve decent budgets. It's amazing that even now, whenever I make a film, it's with money that's left over from everyone else. Edward II was made for £800,000 – I suppose that's $1.2 million. And in the same year Isaac Julien, who's a great friend of mine, was making a first feature film for more like $2 million. Even though the cash is available to me, it's also kept at arm's length. I tried for a bit more money on Edward, which would have given me more time, but . . . there's always the big 'but'.

Also, quite a few film-makers of my generation came to Hollywood. It seemed to be natural for Stephen Frears, or whoever, to drift there. I realized very quickly in the early eighties that that wasn't an option for me. Still, I'm very happy that the few small films that I made were made. They seem to be quite coherent, they touch on a lot of different areas. So, I can't say that I'm unhappy or frustrated.

GVS:

Your films would have been very different if you had gone to Hollywood after Jubilee.

DJ:

No way could that have happened. I think Jubilee upset people too much. And there was Sebastian in the background. I could have moved to Hollywood, but I doubt whether I would have actually been working. It would have been something like what happened to Julien Temple. He seems to be making sporadic films that don't seem to catch fire, yet he is rather talented. You wonder whether he would have made more films – on lower budgets if he'd stayed at home. I don't think I did the wrong thing by not coming, especially if one feels that cinema is international. In a way it's irrelevant where a film is made.

GVS:

Your films have dominated the Museum circuit in AmericaMinneapolis, Columbus . . .

DJ:

Yes, Minneapolis in particular. That's where the films have actually had their life. They've crept into the student curriculum – which is a life. And now they go on through video. I never really feel shut out. That has never worried me.

What's fascinating is that whenever a regime is liberalizing, I seem to arrive with my films – like in Moscow last year with The Garden. I'm certain that was the first official performance of a gay movie in the Soviet Union. And the same thing occurred years ago in Spain when Franco died; it just happened to be the moment we made Sebastian. It could never have been shown before, and it came into Spain at this really good moment. So, the films have always been travelling around.

GVS:

I have a hard time seeing the worldthe gay world and the straight worldthrough political eyes. I'm always trying to just paint a portrait; I'm not necessarily trying to comment politically. Yet I'm one of the only gay film-makers that the political cause has, and I'm called upon to make statements that I'm unable to make. Do you find that?

DJ:

Yes. I'm endlessly called upon, and what I say is: look, a film is ninety minutes and you can't possibly put the whole of history and all the variations of sexuality into just ninety minutes. I suppose people expect this, that, or the other from an image-maker. I think you're very fortunate in working here because you can put your films into the present. It's very difficult to do that in Great Britain. If I were to make a film in the same area, you could be absolutely certain that American distributors would want to have it re-voiced. That's why there's a lack of films set in the present in Great Britain.

GVS:

Because of marketability?

DJ:

Yeah, marketability. My cross is to be stuck with history in a certain way. History – if it's Marlowe's Edward II – can be marketed; if I had written my own script about a situation like this, no way would it have been funded.

GVS:

The American audience wouldn't buy it?

DJ:

No. They've always wanted to re-voice British films. So there's that problem. I suppose I've become more political as the years have gone by. Although I was very aware of all the gay politics that was going on, it wasn't actually central to the way I was working. That changed, to a certain extent, with the pressures of HIV in the mid-eighties – suddenly things were pushed on to some sort of front line overnight. At that moment I decided to tell everyone what was happening to me. I have to say I made that decision for my own peace of mind, not for anyone else's. I thought I'd better have this out in public. I had no way of thinking through what was going to happen, since nothing like this had happened before. There were people in the same situation as me, but not publicly. So, I suddenly found myself on the front line.

GVS:

Did you know that the National Enquirer had you on the front page? The headline was: 'English film director has AIDS, with no regrets'.

DJ:

It's as if I was at the end of the march, and suddenly I've been pushed up to the front. The politicization of Edward came out of that, and, in a way, I would like to step back from it. It would be great to wake up and say, 'Actually, I had the virus, but it's gone' – and there I'd be back at the end of the march again. In the meantime, I have to say that all this demonstrating over the last year or two has been quite fun. There have been a lot of young friends, and it's been great marching along with someone like Jimmy Somerville, who is a delightful man. So, I've enjoyed that. And I really have to do my political homework, Gus. I've got people who I ring up, and I say, 'I'm going on television now; what's the information?' It's like having a sort of speech-writer.

GVS:

Like the President.

DJ:

Yeah, I'm like the President. I say: what sort of move should I make? And they brief me.

Being a political activist is a career in a sense. But for all of us outside making artworks of one sort or another, it's more complicated. That's what I like very much about your films – they drift. They drift in the way life drifts. I like the fact that you never quite know where you're going to end up. If you think about it, any one day in anyone's life is rather like that. Your films mirror life rather accurately – the way things slide in and out and around – much more than a more tightly structured drama. Particularly My Own Private Idaho. I really liked It very much. It was a breath of fresh air.

GVS:

Thanks. Getting back to Edward II, which is based on Christopher Marlowe's play, you have said that the play still aggravates people. Do you see Marlowe as an activist?

DJ:

Yes, I suppose that's applying a twentieth-century concept to another time, but there is no doubt that Marlowe was kicking against whatever the conventions were« He was an atheist – at a time when that was a capital offence! Although people weren't often hung for it, he could have been. And, in fact, he was murdered at the age of twenty-nine.

GVS:

Do you know how?

DJ:

Very unpleasantly in a pub in Deptford. He was stabbed with a knife through the eye. I think it was politics. He was involved with the secret service. There is a whole tradition of gay men in espionage in England. People like Anthony Blunt. I suspect they were always of great value because they didn't have wives and kids to leave behind; they could be pushed into the underworld. So, Marlowe was somehow involved with all this. But we don't really know for sure.

Certainly when you look at Edward II as a text it's an advance on anything else – apart from the Greek plays. It's remarkable. Now I know that some people have said: Derek just turned it into an agitprop film. Actually, I didn't All I did was to state the fact that these two guys were not just buddies, they were also sleeping together. If that makes it an agitprop film, well it is; it should be.

The real-life Edward II met Gaveston when he was sixteen and Edward was fifteen. They lived together for about ten years before Isabella came on the scene for dynastic reasons. Edward and Gaveston did fall in love and even the chronicles of the time – though they were against Edward – admitted it; the monastic chronicles stated that Edward was 'inordinately fond of sodomy'. So, there's no doubt at all about the relationship.

The real Gaveston was not at all like the film Gaveston – or even Marlowe's Gaveston. He happened to be the best athlete Acre was; he was a good general. But he had a pretty vicious tongue. Because of the situation with Edward, he could poke fun at all those staid people, around him. He didn't spare them. Of course, he didn't endear himself to them. Edward was handsome and goodlooking. I'm certain that Steve Waddington looked exactly like Edward. I cast him to the historical descriptions of Edward, not Marlowe's descriptions.

GVS:

Are there paintings?

DJ:

There are no paintings, but there are verbal descriptions. He was an outdoor boy; he spent his time hedging and ditching and working in the fields. People thought this was extraordinary. He obviously liked working alongside his men. I can just see that – a sort of Walt Whitman complex. He had red hair. and was intelligent and bright and very good-looking. I think Steven looked like a solid young king. That's why I cast him. It would have been easy to put in someone with mannerisms, someone playing a 'gay' role. But I didn't want him to do that I just wanted him to look like a regular lad, really.

And that's exactly what you've been doing as well.

GVS:

I'm always playing with that. In My Own Private Idaho there was a great opportunity with Scott (the Keanu Reeves character)this rich kid hanging around the streets. It might have worked well, and would have probably been much more realistic, if it had been played effeminately. We were considering itand I regret we didn't try itbut in the end we played him straight.

DJ:

It does come up in your film, doesn't it? – Scott's Dad says, 'My son is very effeminate'.

GVS:

He does say that. But it's from the play (Shakespeare's Henry TV) and I think the character Scott's Dad is based on is referring to his son's youth, not his sexual orientation. It's that concept of the word 'effeminate'.

DJ:

It's interesting that the one criticism I received last night was from a young man in a dress. He was elegant, actually; I really liked him. He said: 'It would be great if there were characters in dresses; if all your men weren't as straight as they are.' So I said, 'Well, point taken. I'll remember that. If I make a film where it seems that should be the way it should go, I'll remember.'

It seems to me that among my generation there was a drive to make gay characters look straight or normal and not like Quentin Crisp; not effeminate or fey. Maybe that time is over and actually one should go back to that.

So, I said to this lad, 'There's space for other people to make these images'. That's what I say to people: if you disagree with the way I've imaged the world, then you must get down and do it yourself. Young kids keep on saying, 'How do you make films?' Well, you just go out and make them. Make a video tape.

GVS:

Yeah, it's so cheap now.

DJ:

You almost can't believe how cheap it is.

GVS:

For hours and hours of footage.

DJ:

Yes. If I could shut my eyes, I'd have a break from film now, for two or three years, and come up with something completely different. And make one of your films!

GVS:

Well, I was going to ask you about formats. When I saw your film, The Last of England, I was really blown away. It was just before I made Drugstore Cowboy and I thought: if I could only loosen the camera up and be as free as this film. What are your thoughts about the visual freedom of The Last of England as opposed to the constraints in a 35mm film like Edward II?

DJ:

There is a conflict, and it seems to me to be unbridgeable. You could only bridge it if you were in the Soviet Union, say, and you were Tarkovsky and they gave you a year to make a 35mm film. The pressures that we're under don't allow that kind of film-making in 35mm. It's always been a problem. My feeling was that with both The Garden and The Lost of England I had gotten to the point I couldn't have loosened up that method of working with the Super-8 camera any more. In a way, it was done . . . finished and done. So, when Edward came along I thought, I'm going to go for a really tight narrative, take a look over my shoulder at their faces and light them beautifully. It seemed to be the way to go.

Figure 24. My Own Private Idaho: River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves
Figure 25. Edward II Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan

Because of the pressures of funding, my films remained – except for the Super-8 ones – in the studio, almost ghettoized in their own visualization. It would be great to take the camera out. I would give anything to do that, to be able to get out of this sort of art ghetto that's been imposed on me, to get out with a 35mm camera, and freewheel! The wonderful thing about the Super-8 camera was that it was just hanging around ready to be used, and there are those non-narrative moments in Idaho – with the salmon coming up, and things like that – where It really works.

At the time of The Last of England, I suppose I was just telling everyone I was fed up with narrative – you know: this is much more intelligent. But then, suddenly, narrative comes back and you have to grapple with it.

GVS:

It's a format question.

DJ:

It is, really. So, I don't think it's either/or. It would be great if we could combine them both. To a certain extent that's what you've done. The great thing about film is that it carries on. I like the fact that these influences are happening. In the sixties, the influences on me were American underground cinema. No one went to see the Hollywood product If you were an art student in the sixties, you were interested in seeing Stan Brakhage, or Michael Snow, Warhol, Bailey, Anger. All of that gang. My films came out of that – not out of whatever might have been happening in mainstream cinema, I didn't go to it and I didn't have a television until about seven years ago. Leaving home in 1960 was throwing the television away. My parting shot was: what are we going' to do, watch television? So I missed everything: the space launching, the assassinations. It was great, because it made space for other things. There are too many images crashing around. In the end one has to be selective. You can't see everything.

And out of that came The Last of England. In my mind I haven't entirely jettisoned the Super-8 camera, although I think I'll probably work in video and transfer it. Making The Garden seemed to take two years and there was never any money. There were huge pressures. We would do a Super-8 shoot now and again – quite formally – and it would take months to get just a bit of money for that, to get everyone there, and the day would arrive and it would be raining. That's why in The Garden I used all the film lights; Acre was no other way that it was going to work.

So I found it a relief to do something as easy as Edward. It really was easy once we decided on who the characters were and we built the set. They came in in the morning, we set up our various camera moves, they went into make–up. and that was it – it wasn't a problem. In a sense it makes the film-making less interesting. There were no surprises. Not like when you're working with very low budgets. The day you say you want to have sunlight is the day you have the biggest thunderstorm in the last twenty years. You've just got to accept it. That's the thing I discovered: you just have to use whatever is there. You can write something, or have an idea – but, actually, when you come to the day it's completely different. So you have to seize the opportunity and go for it. I think that's the interesting thing about this sort of film-making – you jettison your blueprint on the spur of the moment. And if you are sufficiently in control of it you can do anything: you've got a tragedy but you make it into comedy, or the comedy goes the other way.

GVS:

One of the great things about being in control of a situation is letting go of control.

DJ:

And it's very frightening. I didn't let go in Edward II, of course. That was the opposite.

GVS:

Thanksgiving Prayer, a short film I made with William Burroughs, which is playing in front of Edward II, is very influenced by your way of making a film.

DJ:

I thought Thanksgiving Prayer, was wonderful, and William's voice is one of the great voices of all time. Every time I hear him speak, I hang on every word.

GVS:

You did some things with him in '83?

DJ:

I filmed him. I made about twenty rolls of silent Super-8 film most of which, unfortunately, was just him talking, and I gave the film away. One reel I kept – a three-minute reel – and I made a little film out of it.

GVS:

Was that the Pirate Tape?

DJ:

Yes, that became the Pirate Tape. Did you ever meet Anthony Balch?

GVS:

I know the films he and Burroughs made together.

DJ:

Anthony was a great friend of mine. He died years ago. He was my introduction to Bill and Naked Lunch. Going back to when I was hitchhiking, back in 1964, all that sort of work was banned in England, and the real focus of my hitchhiking down the coast was to get to San Francisco to the City Lights bookshop to buy things like Naked Lunch. There was Ginsberg's poetry, and Michael McClure's, and all this stuff. And I came back with a thoroughly loaded rucksack on my back.

GVS:

Wow . . . Thanks for the interview, Derek.

DJ:

Thank you so much . . . and keep going.