The village recedes.
Jamie spits at this place that has caused him so much pain.
The village disappears.
The wagons drift away all sound and sway towards the horizon.
The extract above is from the final scene of Bill Douglas’ ‘My Childhood’ (1972). The filmed version of this scene was the first of Douglas’ work I was ever exposed to at about thirteen years old when I caught it on television on a dull afternoon. It was gripping but I wasn’t sure why, it was really just a young boy looking upset on a pile of coal. In hindsight what I think struck me was how it captured the frustration of childhood; simultaneously whimsical and brutal. What strikes me now looking at the script is how closely the words match my memory of the scene. Since then I’ve seen all of Douglas’ available work and it has informed my own filmmaking practice more than any other. The reason I value his work so highly is its individuality; it is poetic, technically complex and artistically singular.
Douglas’ best-known work is his ‘Trilogy’; three films that run from 40 minutes to an hour-long and tell the story of Douglas’ own life from childhood to young-manhood. The films are shot in black and white, focus on working-class life, are low budget and on the surface seem like any number of kitchen-sink dramas. But these films are true poems. When I say poems I don’t mean they are the sorts of films often labeled as “poetic”; films often unrelated to real-life or entirely inscrutable narratives. The difference is that Douglas’ work has a legitimate poetic structure. His images are simple but precise and his arrangement of these images, though sometimes puzzling, is on reflection often dense with ideas. The most important poetic device Douglas relied upon were what he referred to as “echoes”; the repetition of certain images, lines of dialogue or sounds in different parts of the narrative. My favourite example of this is in the ‘Trilogy’, in one scene we see the main character (Jamie) listening to his teacher talk about the cosmos, we cut suddenly to an animation of stars rushing towards us. In itself this scene is simply about a child’s imagination. Later on we see Jamie again in the classroom, this time he’s wet himself, we cut away to miners (a very likely future for Jamie), their headlamps in pitch-black float towards us, mimicking the stars rushing past us. It’s an almost Zen thought; the same image contains both freedom and drudgery. To describe these sequences does them no justice (perhaps even harms them) but since Douglas is often labeled as an emotional or instinctual director I think it’s important to highlight the thought and graft that when into his work. Douglas understood that every image contains an idea as well as an emotion, two things that many filmmakers cannot reconcile.
Douglas’ scripts also deal, better than any others I’ve read, with the problem of representing the feeling of watching a film. Modern screenplay formats come from a period when the film industry was becoming more and more restrictive and controlling of the artist. Silent films often had no script; Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s “script” for his epic, mega-budget version of ‘Robin Hood’ (1922) was a few scribbles on a sheet of paper. When screenplays were introduced they were a way to quantify the cost of a film and to hold the dialogue that would fill the new talking pictures. There have been many great screenwriters that worked within the confines of the script format but their triumph was of their words over the format, Douglas’ triumph was of his format over the words. The way Douglas arranges his text is what gives it pace and texture, as you can see in the example up top. Douglas’ scripts were written with purity and specificity in mind, he needed to capture what was in his head on the page, not an approximation that would be figured out later on the set. He was so particular about this that he was known to start scripts entirely from scratch if he hit a snag, even well into the process. Douglas’ scripts are often arrangements of single sentences each with their own line on the page giving the appearance of a shot list. Unlike a shot list the language is very descriptive, almost literary, it prizes the feeling of a shot over its contents, for example in the script for ‘My Ain Folk’ (1973).
Jamie burying the pearls in coal dust on the slag heap. Then he hurries away.
A world of black ash. And the pearls hidden forever.
What we see in the film is Jamie burying pearls in a mid-shot and then an extreme wide of him running away. The cut to extreme confuses the geography of the previous shot, we search for the spot Jamie runs from and we can’t figure it out. What is written in the script is what we feel when we see these shots put together, not simply what we see. It was this bold, deeply personal style that often left him without funding; if you can’t monetize a script how can you be sure it’s worth funding?
Rather than go with the flow Douglas chose a very tough route, he refused to be part of the industry, he never shot an advertisement and he never wrote a screenplay with funding in mind. Many today would call him naïve, and perhaps he was but Douglas was something that so few filmmakers can afford to be; an artist. He was a rare breed of filmmaker that saw the cinema purely as art and one that understood that art requires both great feeling and deep thought for it to have real value.
For more info about Rory Alexander Stewart please visit his website - www.rorystewartfilms.co.uk
INTERVIEW WITH ‘LIAR’ DIRECTOR MARTIN SMITH
C8: All your films so far have been written and directed by you, are you looking forward to bringing someone else’s writing to the screen?
MS: It’s a unique challenge. From time-to-time I’ve directed commercials, so it isn’t the first time I’ve directed another person’s writing in the broadest sense, but shorts are very different – passion projects – and the opportunity to make your most strongly authored work. I felt there was something in the script that I identified with and could make my own, and that’s something I’m very much looking forward to.
C8: This won’t be the first short you’ve made focusing on Scottish kids probing the limits of their environment – is this a subject matter that keeps on giving for you?
MS: The characters in the stories I’ve explored to date have been at a point in their lives where they have decisions to make, and the acts they are going to undertake will inform those decisions. There’s a moral complexity to this and that is something I’m very much drawn to. Also characters who are black or white don’t interest me in the slightest – it’s the shades of grey that are within all of us that interest me the most. The advantage of looking at characters in these situations is that these scenarios present themselves on a regular basis and naturally are the main focus of their experience – it’s an intense period which informs the rest of your life, and full of drama, some of it large and externalised, some of it small and intimate.
C8: Tell us what you learnt with ‘Accidents‘ and ‘Tracks’ that will influence your approach to ‘Liar’?
MS: After your script, great casting and cinematography are really important. Once you have those then you are on your way. My work is constantly evolving and each project informs the next. Things I tried out in terms of working with non-actors, and the use of camera, all inform the next project. Next to actually shooting my films, casting is my favourite part of the process; that’s where I start to step into the world of the story and it becomes real. Characters who were on the page at first come to life through those castings and improvisations. I absolutely love this process, and spend a long, pretty intense time making sure it is right.
C8: The Scottish filmmaking scene continues to produce a lot of really exciting new talent, what do you put that down to?
MS: I can’t speak for other Scottish filmmakers, but I always liked to watch and listen – there’s always a lot of shit going on – funny, sad, violent, supportive. There are great stories here; there is a strong storytelling tradition. There are strong contrasts – all the cities are within a short drive of the most stunning dramatic countryside, brilliant colour. And people get fucked-up here and that always presents drama.
C8: ‘Tracks‘ bagged you a Scottish BAFTA – has that helped open some doors for you career-wise?
MS: Well it’s not why you make films, but it helps. It’s great to get industry recognition and that of your peers. I got my agent after making ‘Tracks’ and I got a feature into development after that. I think you’ve got to be careful and carry on with the work you want to make. It’s a little like an insurance policy, and people do give you a certain amount of respect, but I still think you have to work as hard as ever. One thing I love about filmmaking is that as soon as you have achieved something there is always another rung of the ladder up – always more to do, you’ve got to keep pushing.
C8: The UK can be a difficult place to get films made, are you feeling positive about the future of the industry?
MS: Man, it’s hard to get films made up here. I’m positive but guarded. You have to just push really, really hard. I’ve learned that from hard experience. I’ve never felt more determined to see my work made. At the end of the day I have made huge sacrifices to get to where I am and I’m not stopping before I’ve seen it through – I will not stop before I’ve made my feature films.
C8: Does working in both documentary and fiction help to keep you on your toes?
MS: Documentary is a really useful way of seeing the world and getting an insight into the lives of people. I get to step into the world of people that I would never normally meet and get to know them in a really deep way over a period of time. People talk to me about things they may never have said to their friends or family. To earn their trust there is a dialogue, I give a little of myself to get a little of them in return. Quite often I shoot my documentaries – I would never shoot my dramas – but the time I need to get to know the participants is important, it’s a very intimate relationship that develops, one of trust. A film can have a really powerful effect on a person and it is so easy to misrepresent them. I’d hate to do that. Obviously my drama work informs the documentary. Every time you place a camera you are making a moral judgement on that person, who you photograph them with, how you edit their conversation, all of these things are scripted in drama but in docs you are using a real person and their daily existence to serve your own story, so there is a huge responsibility there. One thing that is so different from docs to drama is the reshooting – in docs I can return to a character over anything up to a six month period – sometimes more – to get my story. In a short film that might be only four days – it is just so intense in comparison. But that’s something I’d like to change in the future, there are definitely documentary skills that will transfer to my drama work, that instinctive way of working and freedom are really useful. Of course to make that work you have to have a team who understand that sensibility, but so far I have been very lucky.
C8: What, for you, is the essence of a good collaboration?
MS: Trust, and using the best of your collaborator’s ideas. I’m lucky in that I get to work with great people. I’d be stupid not to listen to their ideas and how they see things.
C8: If there’s one piece of advice you wish you’d been given when you were starting out, what would it be?
MS: Take all advice with a pinch of salt. Take what works for you, chuck out what doesn’t – trust your instincts.
C8: Apart from the Collabort8e short ‘Liar‘, what’s next on the horizon for Martin Smith?
I like to mix things up – I’ve got a feature in development called ‘Shows’ and I’m shooting a documentary at the end of the year.
For more information about Martin please visit his website at www.martinsmithonline.co.uk
STILLS FROM LIAR, SHOT SEPTEMBER 2011
© Rory Stewart and Alkisti Terzi.
© Rory Stewart and Alkisti Terzi.
© Rory Stewart and Alkisti Terzi.
© Rory Stewart and Alkisti Terzi.