How not to make a fillum
VOX HUMANA: How not to make a fillum.
Address to Huston Film School 15th Oct. 09
I could have called this: ˜How to make a Home Movie by accident™
A home movie exists mainly for those who appear in it. The participants are usually the only, and captive, audience. When they view the footage they supply the story, the context, the framework through which the images are given meaning. Thats why such films are fascinating to the participants. Home movies are true, but of little interest to outsiders - except archivists and anthropologists.
Although they possess little art, may even be the antithesis of art, the truth value of the home movie increases with age like an old photo, as Susan Sontag used say. Something that also applies to a minority of what are called feature films.
But the fictional feature film is not true, is entirely contrived. Like a novel, the context must be invented and established, strangers introduced, their personalities delineated, baggage attributed to them in a few subtle strokes and finally the story told in as interesting a way as possible and that depends on fashion. Few fiction films qualify as art but every fiction film is at least artful.
It is a challenge to combine these two forms: to integrate the unvarnished truth of a home movie with the polished illusion of a feature film. When it works it is very, very good; when it doesn't, it is embarrassing.
Which brings me to VOX HUMANA. This emerges as a home movie. It wasn't intended to be but thats how it turned out: No sex, no effing and blinding, no violence and no professional actors. No boxes ticked, no bells rung.
The film has two themes: the main one is the chaste passion of baroque choral music; the other is the fate of a homeless man in an affluent society.
Both themes are factual. I sang with the choir in question and we rehearsed every Wednesday beside a homeless mens shelter. So my analysing it is a bit like DIY brain surgery or what Eliot describes as the surgeon plying the wounded steel.
My first objective was to put choral music on the silver screen, to share its enjoyment with a general audience. The story of homelessness was subservient to this objective. It was the reversal of the natural order: the story was an afterthought. Filmically, this is risky.
From the start the film is arguing with itself. The connotations of baroque music are so staid, respectable, bourgeois, religious that to foreground it in this day and age is foolhardy. And homelessness is such a downer that you are literally on a loser from the start.
How to combine these two themes - whose only relationship is that they are of minority interest - and seduce an audience at the same time? Because, realistically, escapism is the main reason a general audience enjoys the illusion of film - the audience demands flights of fancy, not dull reality and certainly not intellectual depth.
To sum up the deliberate mistakes (risks taken?):
One: Heavenly choruses are usually a background to blockbusters, I decided to foreground them.
Two: Although a Loser can be a classic subject for film, ideally he/she must, dead or alive, come out smelling of roses and at least be played by a sexy actor. I decided my loser would be insignificant, must die uselessly, without pity or point.
Its no surprise that VOX HUMANA disappoints some, but maybe it fails defiantly. To spell it out again:
It is an accidental home movie: the proof is that the participants, the choir, think it is marvellous and some others are very moved by it. The non-committed (quite apart from people with Van Gogh's ear for music) cannot identify with it. They judge it not to be a fillum at all at all. It is an unrealised film. The parrot is dead.
Which raises the question: What exactly is a film? But it is as useful to ask that question as to ask the other unanswerable one: What is art? And who cares, anyway? To cut to the chase, I'll ignore both questions.
Let me introduce a What if? dimension. If I had made the male lead a macho type with not just a drink problem but a habit of beating his wife would he have been more credible? Instead he is merely a weak and shifty nobody, a minor character.
If I had made his separated spouse a battered wife, instead of at times a shrew and at others a musical vamp, might she have been a popular heroine, a victim of male chauvinism? If I had used the choir exclusively as mood music would the audience have relaxed into the predictable? Such questions are academic. Maybe you can answer them.
Lelia Doolan once rebuked me for being incapable of presenting something straight. She was right. For me the ticked boxes are too easy. They are like knitting. If its easy to do, why do it?
But there are no excuses. A film either works or does not work.
Here is the chronology of how it emerged as not a film but - as a producer friend of mine succinctly put it to me last year - Sketches for a Film.
I heard the choir for the first time four years ago and it brought me back to my musical youth. I joined the choir. There I fell in love with the music again, but also with a soprano voice. This voice was attached to a middle-aged mother of three who reminded me of Isabelle Huppert. It was like pursuing the voice of the cuckoo. I resolved to try to communicate the love of choral music as well as this impossible love story to the screen.
The Film Board agreed to give me development money. Pete Ray, Andy Smyth and Seamus Deasy filmed some of the rehearsals over a twelve month period. I even shot some of them myself, crudely. I was even deranged enough to write to Isabelle Huppert's agent to see would she be interested. My alltime greatest screen actress didn't even reply.
I soon realised that the choir on its own would attract only a minority of music lovers so I wrote a little story for those who need fairytales. Not Hans Christian Andersen, but the Grimm Brothers kind. I made a five minute pilot with an actor, and an actress who actually looked like Audrey Hepburn. I was already reaching. TheFilm Board didn't like it or the actor I got to play the homeless man. Then out of the blue another man approached me and said: I'm your godson. I hadn't met him in forty years. His name was Luke Cauldwell and he could play tunes using just his fingernails and his teeth. He also rode a motorbike. And, although acting was in his genes, he had never acted before.
I took a few shots of him, and the Board sort of accepted him. So I tailored the story to Luke's personality, intending a documentary style because the choir was real and I also wanted a gritty feel for the homeless story. The Film Board offered me 100,000 Euros. I had meanwhile applied to the BCI and they offered me 60,000, on the condition I get a broadcaster. RTE turned me down just as they had turned down all my proposals of the previous nineteen years. I approached that last refuge of losers, TG4, and offered the film to them for nothing. They promptly accepted.
I started crewing, with the bean counting talents of Christy King. He soon discovered that mention of any Film Board money raised industrial expectations in potential employees: the first asst. director would need three more assistant directors to direct traffic. I had carefully worked out a shooting schedule to suit the limited availability of amateurs; the putative asst. dir. redrafted the schedule in logical chunks that would be efficient and economic for a well-paid fulltime and professional crew. Not so convenient for the cast. In fact impossible. But it was an efficient industrial approach. Similarly, the make up artist would be titled Art Director and would need a room for costumes. I had to tell her there was only one change of costume - a strip of elastoplast. After Christy agreed a fee for the sparks, the technician mentioned that the money did not actually include the lights, nor the large van to hold them, nor the driver. It didn't count that I was using available light to shoot documentary fashion. I recognised these expectations to be customary industrial demands.
Realising that the Irish Film Board is properly dedicated to creating jobs, not oddball films, I began to suffocate. When Christy King said I'd be bankrupt if I went down the indicated path on such a budget I grasped this straw.
Thus, on the occasion of the one and only conference call with the Film Board, I informed them I was not going ahead with the film and thank you for the money but no thank you.
I rang everyone and told them the project was cancelled. I ruined Seamus Deasy's holidays and disappointed my favourite editor Martin Duffy. We had all been looking forward to working together again.
Meanwhile Billy Keady volunteered to borrow a camera from Telegael and at least record the Christmas Concert which I had promised the choir and which was to have been the climax of the film. Pete and Andy volunteered to man miniDV cameras to cover it.
Then Telegael stepped in, said there was nothing happening in January and, on the strength of the BCI money which I had not yet refused, offered me their two-man crew plus equipment van, plus all post-production facilities for below the normal rate.
In other words there was no shortage of goodwill. The only problem was me.
So, for eight days in January 2007, on each of which it lashed rain, the two-man crew Billy Keady & Ray de Brún, the single actor Luke, Manuela Corbari (she became production assistant, casting director and editor) and myself trudged the streets of Galway and shot the little story and caught some of the choir in their spare time. Two students alternately took time off from their studies to carry the few props. I was fit to drop at the end of it. There were several more days of pickups. Manuela spent eight weeks editing the material. As the dramatic device of a photograph seemed obscure, I wrote a voice over for the little girl, in Irish, another loser.
In a marketing fairytale (or a fiction film) this home movie should now become a cult classic, a Blair Witch project, be adopted by a major distributor. But, as Billy Wilder said, nobody goes to a film because it comes in under budget (unless it has a huge marketing budget).
The reality is as follows:
The film was premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh a year ago last July (2007), to the acclamation of the 70-strong choir who naturally voted it best film, thereby enabling it to share the audience award with ˜Kisses".
It was then invited to Macedonia where the only audience for most of the films was the film makers present. Almost every film got a prize, including Vox Humana.
The Cork and Belfast Festivals also showed it but it sank without trace. Peter Flynn of the Boston Irish Film Festival used it as an occasion to give me the˜Director's Choice" award. But I realised this was for my body of work rather than the film itself. The following week John Boorman got a similar award from the same Festival.
With the help of the Access project I toured the film round the country. I thought it was warmly received - but every crow thinks its baby is beautiful. The Galway Film Society regretted it had not the technical facilities to show it during their winter season. TG4 showed it at Christmas. I recently wrote three times to the Irish Film Institute reminding them of their statutory duty to encourage Irish film making, and asking would they show VOX HUMANA. They have not yet replied.
Of all the films I've made in the last forty years, VOX HUMANA is my favourite, mainly because of the music which still moves me. This means that I'm eccentric and quite out of touch with the modern world and especially the world of film.
So this is a home movie, made for love, not money, as, actually are most of my films. It's also a swan song and, even though I've said it many times before, this is definitely the last film I'll direct. No more energy.
But I still can watch it without embarrassment and usually with tears. They can't take that away from me.
I thank you for your attention.
Fáilte go Conamara
The newly restored Atlantean films
are now available on two DVDs in pristine 16:9 format.