Friday, October 26, 2012

The Gospel of Dave McKean or talking about The Gospel of Us

 Michael Sheen and Dave McKean during rehearsals of The Gospel of Us

Dave McKean is a man of many talents. He’s probably best known as an artist with pencil, ink, paint, and whatever materials he chooses to incorporate into his canvases and pages, but his talents stretch in all directions since he’s also written books, worked on Broadway and directed films. It’s his film work that has made him the object of several posts here at Unseen Films. Way back in April of 2010 Ken reviewed the out-of-print collection of his short films Keanoshow and his not-out-of-print feature film Mirrormask. Yesterday I reviewed his most recent feature film The Gospel of Us.

The Gospel of Us was shot with the intention of being a film record of a massive three day secular version of the Passion play put together by actor Michael Sheen in his Welsh hometown of Port Talbot. It was a play that was THREE DAYS LONG and stretched all through the city and surrounding area. The idea was to celebrate the town and its lost heritage in a manner that isn’t really done any more.

The film that resulted from the show is not so much the show as performed but something else entirely. It’s a reimagining of the play into a story that resembles the source material but is really something truly unique. What McKean has done by adding some linking bits, music, and manipulating the visuals, is to create one of the most special films of the year. It’s a film that blindsides you on the first go through and then grows richer with each subsequent viewing. If you want a greater understanding of what a monumental achievement this is, listen to his commentary track on the UK DVD where he goes through the filming in great detail)

When I saw The Gospel of Us last week I was completely floored by what I was seeing. Here was a film that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was so overwhelmed by the film that I immediately watched it a second time, this time with the commentary track. Even more impressed by the film I started to make calls to see if there was any way I could contact McKean and ask him about his marvelous picture. Thanks to the directions of the aforementioned Ken I was lucky enough to contact Mr. McKean and he graciously agreed to answer some questions concerning his film.

I should mention at the outset almost all of the questions I asked were related to film in general, and most specifically to The Gospel of Us. I intentionally kept the questions focused on his current movie and related subjects simply because to do otherwise would result in an interview that ran many times longer than the present one.

I would like to thank Dave McKean, not only for his time, but also for providing all of the stills that accompany both this interview as well as the review of The Gospel of Us which appeared yesterday.

This interview was conducted via email.
God looks over his creation

Dave McKean (DM): Glad you liked the film, it's proved to be a Marmite film, with lovers and haters and not much in the middle, and I'm rather glad it's proved so divisive.

Unseen Films (UF): This may sound like a dumb question but do you like the film and are you happy with it?

DM: A simple question but a complex answer. I'm very happy that I did it, that I was part of something so extraordinary, and in many ways life, and community, changing.  I learned a huge amount about film making and about myself while cutting it. I made some great friends, and all in all, though the edit went on for a long time, it was almost pure pleasure for the whole year.

There are passages in the film, especially the beginning, and from the trials onward that I'm completely happy with.

Inevitably in such a strange and chaotic project, there are elements that got away from me, but really, that was always going to be the nature of the beast. At a time when I'm becoming less and less interested in mainstream films, because they are so similar, so streamlined and smoothed out, so templated and safe, I'm glad this one has its rough edges intact.

UF: Since much of the film was outside your control, if you did it again what would you change or do differently?

DM: One the most important things about it is that it is a complete one off. It couldn't happen again really, and I'm not sure I would want to do anything exactly this way again. But the idea of performing a film over a set period of time and capturing it on the fly is interesting.

I would need more say over what happens in front of the camera and more control over how it was shot. But I'd certainly be interested in exploring this area, somewhere between performance, documentary and fiction, again.

UF: Is Michael Sheen and the rest of the people involved with the play happy with the film?

DM: I think everyone has their own feelings about every manifestation of this event. I think everyone had an incredibly strong emotional reaction to the play itself, in large part because of the huge amount of support and commitment from the locals and the audience. Despite the play's bumpy bits, everyone just remembered the electricity in the air, there was a real sense of communal power at work. Michael has told me and others that he is very happy with the film, but there was also a BBC documentary, a novelisation by Owen Sheers, and an anniversary exhibition by the people of Port Talbot in the town, so the piece has a life of its own. I'm sure all the people involved in the play and film have their own feelings pro and con about the film, it is after all, my own very personal take on what happened, it is my 'gospel'.

UF: I know you came in late into the game with the show but did you have any say in how the show was staged? In the commentary you mention that you were allowed to film so long as you didn't interfere, but at any point, other than say the night on the mountain, where they made accommodations for what you were doing? (and was there anytime where unrelated to to filming you came up with something they used in the show?)

DM: I had absolutely no say on what happened in the play. I did make sure certain props (guns, the door on the beach etc.) were going to work on camera as well as in the context of the play, but that's about all. I sketched out a way that the play could be reshaped as a film, and I was pretty sure that scenes would have to be folded into each other to save time, and that I wanted to add a couple of short moments away from the crowds to have more of a cinematic sense of my key characters, Michael's Teacher, the young girl who threads through the whole story and represents his daughter, and the roofer, his father, who also represents God. So I made arrangements during the rehearsals to shoot some of these little scenes, and then during the show, to meet up with Michael at the end of each day to capture a few more moments. Michael was very happy to do these unscripted and unrehearsed and responding just to how he was feeling at the time.

UF: Related, you're listed as providing additional material, is this simply the bookended material and stuff shot in studio or as pick-ups, or did you have further input?

DM: No, this would be just the scenes where Michael, the girl and the father are alone, the Stranger's story on the beach that was animated, and the Stranger's narrated story that threads together the disparate scenes of day two before we get the last supper. I had to write some connective tissue as I was trying to edit down fourteen solid hours of drama to two hours of film.

UF: Has anyone other than you and any one involved in the editing watched all 14 hours of material that you recorded? Other than the deleted scenes on the DVD did any of it end up anywhere, say in the BBC documentary?

DM: No I don't think so. Even the guys who took care of data wrangling during the shoot and setting up the edit documents didn't watch it all. My producer worked out a trade off deal with the BBC, so we had access to their footage as well, and they had access to our sound (they had none of their own). Also, I was able to help the BBC crew occasionally as I'd seen all the rehearsals and they hadn't. So the documentaries and the film share a few shots. For the film I treated and coloured the images heavily, and also did a fair amount of digital painting, touching out details that I thought detracted from the action, or muddied the shot.

UF: Was there ever a walk through of the entire production in one go in rehearsal, even to say time it all out?

DM: No. All the scenes were tech rehearsed on location, but these were stop/start affairs where many problems were ironed out as they came up. I got a strong sense of where the action would take place from these run throughs, so I could brief my team, but the audience of between 500 and 20,000 (depending on the scene) were a force of nature not covered by the rehearsals. The crucifixion couldn't be rehearsed at all. Bits of the action - going up and down on the cross - could be rehearsed in a studio, but the whole finale was really done on a wing and a prayer. There were actually huge tech failures on the night, the water screen computers crashed, the lights failed on part of the set, and the sound wouldn't work, so my sound recordist was drafted in as a strange pink shirted, cowboy hatted 13th disciple to hold a long mic towards Michael so that at least some of the dialogue could be heard through the PA and recorded for the film.

UF: Did anyone involved in the play have any input as to how you put the film together? Did the producers require you to turn in anything with the film, give you any requirements, or could you turn the story into anything you wanted? (I know you said that they were surprised by the bird creature)

DM: No-one involved in the play insisted on input on the film, but they were all keen to see cuts, and were very helpful in giving me honest feedback on how they were reading the film at its various stages. I was very much left alone to shape it in the way I wanted. My producer Eryl Phillips proved to be a great resource for ideas of where to cut and how to attack certain scenes. It takes a while to develop a relationship with someone that involves that degree of trust, where you're working on something that is all consuming and incredibly personal. You have to have a sounding board, another pair of eyes who you respect, understand and trust, and Eryl did a great job fulfilling this role. The producers at Soda Pictures and Welsh Film Agency also helped enormously, always happy to make suggestions and talk through ideas, but never turning those suggestions into demands. Michael also was very clear sighted about certain aspects of the development of the film, as he knew the material so well.

In the end, I think the moments that are very much 'mine' were surprising to Michael and the whole crew, but that was always the idea, for it to be my interpretation of 'the truth'.

UF: Was anyone unhappy that the film was not a straight forward record of the play? Was the idea of a straight forward record of the production ever considered? (Looking at the production I don't think it would have been possible)

DM: I'm sure some people were, although the BBC did a 2-part documentary covering the making of, and then the performance of the play, so that was covered really. Personally, I was disappointed with the documentary's coverage of the action, I thought it was very poor, and the narration was irritating. Where the docs really scored were in their interviews with the people of the town, as they were helping to realise their parts of the play in community groups and clubs, and during the performance as the event happened around them.

UF: Was one of the documentaries that is on the DVD one of the BBC ones you mentioned?

DM: Yes, Eryl, my producer, cut one of the hour long documentaries down to 20 minutes. Personally I think he did a great job, tightening it up and deleting most of the narration.

UF: I know you and the film crew could follow the entire production because you were part of it and knew where everything was happening, but do you know if anyone, outside of the production, managed to see the whole thing?

DM: I'm positive that many people saw the whole piece, but part of the idea of doing a Passion play, such a well known story, was so that people could just see parts of it, but still know where they were in the arc of the story.

Of course the private moments on the mountaintop and in the prison cell, no-one saw, so a common comment after the premiere was that the story was a lot clearer as a narrative in the film.

UF: Do you think that comments that the narrative was clearer in the film was the result of the play being so massive that it was too difficult, or complicated to take in, or do you think that in paring the story down for the film you chose to highlight certain things and highlighted the important things? (I know that several large scale stage productions in London and here in the US, such as Tantalus, were said to work better when pared down and were refocused)

DM: Well, I don't think many people saw all the scenes (only 300 saw the baptism at the beginning). Also, there were a lot of stories within stories, especially on Saturday, as most of that day was taken up with Michael finding his disciples and exploring the town and it's history. There were a lot of flash mob details from youth and theatre group in the town, and a lot of bands playing live music. So it created an environment and an atmosphere in the town, especially with the paramilitary presence everywhere, but it was all a little hard to string along in a narrative. But since everyone knows the main beats of the Passion story, I don't think that mattered.

UF: Did you have any legal problems for shooting people or anything you shot or recorded or was it just assumed that if you are there you will get filmed?

DM: No, we put up notices in all the locations saying that we would be shooting during the show, and that anyone attending tacitly understands that they may be seen in picture. We took photos of all these notices to make sure we had proof that people were told. Standard practise.

UF: Had you not known Michael Sheen and fallen into the project, would you have ever tried to do anything like this on your own? Would you have ever tried to stage something as massive as this play on your own?

DM: I don't think I would. It took someone as charismatic and enthusiastic as Michael to make the whole thing happen, and to convince me that I should offer to help by shooting it as a film, not as a documentary.

UF: With all the talk of a documentary approach to recording the show, I was wondering if you think that the show would have translated to a straight forward way of presenting it on film?

DM: No, I don't. If I'd had cranes and track and all the usual kit, I don't think the film would have really worked at all. The scenes are too theatrical, so the hybrid form it ended up being, I think, is the best way to deal with the material.

UF: I know the show is supposed to be about community, but was there any sort of religious or spiritual act in producing and performing the show and the role for Michael Sheen? Did he see it as his own act of penance or worship much as the towns and villages who put on the original passion or miracle plays did?

DM: You'd have to ask Michael about this, but it was my impression that this was not his motive for doing it.

Port Talbot is his home town, and when he was a child there were Passion plays performed, so that was a seed.

He really did NOT want to be perceived as the famous film star coming back to the town to do them a favour, or tell them what to do, and was very concerned that his 'Jesus' did NOT preach at them. So he toyed with the idea of just directing the play and having someone else play the part. In the end he decided he could play it if he was coming back to the town both in character and as himself, just to listen to the town, to hear their stories, to remember the town's history, to allow people to talk about their memories and their current situations. This was the act of healing that was required, not making the blind see or the lame walk, but simply listening to people who are all too often ignored. This was the great theme, and it has proved to be hugely empowering for the people of Port Talbot.

Michael and I are both atheists, and we may have slightly different views on the world, I'm not sure. But we both felt that what people really need that the church used to supply, and that many relate to in terms of 'spirit', is a sense of community, or shared experience.

UF: Is it possible to re-enact the Passion and remove any of the religious overtones? Could the show/film have worked if there was no cross?

DM: Possibly, I wouldn't say that any story couldn't be rethought thoroughly and still hold onto its power. But for Michael, I think the Christian iconography is bound into the story, and so it had to be there. But I think it is possible to see the story as mythologised STORY not as historical fact, and in fact, that's the only way I can make sense of it. I know that, if Jesus the man existed at all, and in all probability he did, he did not return from the dead because that's impossible. I know this in the same way I know that my pen will not fall up, and that there is no Santa Claus. Resurrection can be seen poetically as well as literally, and the fact that his story continues to inspire so many people is resurrection enough for me. And I'd go further and say that for the Jesus story to live, it must be rethought and reshaped and re-understood, rather than simply be ossified in stone as an unchanging fact, I think it becomes a dead thing at that point.

UF: What ever happened to Michael Sheen's book about his three important roles, is it still in the works?

DM: We may still get to it. I'd still be keen. Actually I'd be happy to do almost anything with Michael, you don't meet many people who are so focused on doing such extraordinary work, and that actually have the ability to deliver.

UF: Other than a passing reference in the commentary about you not being particularly religious or a believer, do you think your personal beliefs shaped how you put everything together?

DM: Yes. I could only relate to the story as a story. As myth. I had to see it all through the eyes, ultimately, of a child, overlaying the Christ story onto a real event in the town, blending them into a third thing, a myth. I even added a newspaper headline in the penultimate scene in the care home, that recontextualises everything we've just seen by suggesting what that actual event in the town probably was.

UF: While the play is supposed to be about Port Talbot, do you see the film as being about the Talbot or something greater?

DM: It's definitely about that town and those people. But like any strong story, I hope it has plenty to say to people anywhere. As we were making the film, the Arab Spring sparked into being, and the idea of a single person igniting revolution became magnificently prescient. Jesus, like the Teacher, like any revolutionary, is going to be a hugely divisive character as well as an inspiring one. That's a lot of potential energy to load into one person.

UF: Do you think that your film is more spiritual/mystical than the play?

DM:They had different energies. There was no way to capture what it felt like to be there over the weekend. The energy in the streets, in the community was extraordinary. People had very visceral reactions to events, and I think it caught everyone off guard, so they allowed themselves to really become part of it. When emotions ran high, there was a great deal of tension in the air, and it was a credit to Wildworks, and Bill Mitchell, that they knew how far they could take a mob of people down a very emotional path and still keep control of the situation.

The film had to try and create an equivalent for this energy by harnessing all the things that film has in its toolbox; sound, music especially, cutting, animation, titling, colour grading and whatever else. I think music more than anything touches us directly, it cuts straight to our emotions and bypasses logic and reason, so maybe in this combination of images and music you could say it had more of a mystical feeling than the play. It has more of a sense of being a dream - an idea that takes its cue from Michael's original intention for the piece, for it to be a town dreaming its own story.

UF: Several times during the commentary you mentioned how during the editing you had to find a way into a sequence. Did this uncertainty come from the project not originating with you? Would you have had an easier time putting things together if it had been your project from start to finish?

DM: Yes. I would never, and could never, have written the film in this way. I had to look at what I had in the rushes, acres of rushes, and decide for myself what was important, what feeling the scene should have, how it should be treated. I found music to be the key to unlocking all the scenes. I watched the pictures without the sound, and tried to imagine a music soundtrack that seemed to accompany and enhance the pictures. I found a temporary score that matched as close as possible to what I heard in my head, and cut the film accordingly. Of course it would have been easier had it been a traditional script with a running time of 2 hours, but then it would have been a completely different film. Some may have liked it a lot more, but I guarantee it would not have been as unique.

UF: Did you consider when you were editing it that the film was going to be seen to be something different by the various audiences? Anyone in the play would see it different than someone who saw the play and that would be different than some one like myself who came in blind. Did you simply edit the film to make the best film possible?

DM: I simply tried to get the most out of each scene. I did hope that the film would stand on its own two feet entirely, and that any viewer would never need to know that it started as a play. It became obvious that this was never going to happen, and so I added the board at the beginning telling viewers about the films origin, as this information seemed to be so much a part of the whole story.

UF: What were your original cuts for the film like? How long were the various cuts?

DM: They were just much longer. And also, the film used to begin very much in our world with local BBC reports of a missing man living on the mountain. This tone grated against the dreamy poetics of the baptism and the Stranger's stories in a very confusing way. Viewers of the early cuts would feel very uncomfortable through these mixed messages, often not able to articulate why they didn't think it worked. I eventually decided that I had to choose one direction over the other, and went with the poetry rather than the explanatory set up. The first cut was 3 hours. Second cut 2 and a half, and cuts 3-5 continued trimming until we got under 2 hours. I'm sure many interested parties still wish other bits were trimmed, but you can't please everyone, and ultimately I was very grateful for all the input which I considered very carefully BECAUSE I had been given this extraordinarily privileged position of having the final word on the cut. I felt a huge responsibility to use that privilege with discretion.

UF: You talk in the commentary about how you put certain pieces of music to the rough cut sequences and then had to change it. Which do you prefer, the music now in the film, or what you had originally used for your rough cuts? By any chance did you keep a version of the film for yourself with the music you prefer?

DM: Although my temporary score included some of my favourite pieces of music in the world - Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, Phillip Glass, Shostokovish, Mahler, Eleni Karaindrou - I'm now happier with the final score. I had an amazing four days with Ashley Slater recording and mixing the final music, with several fantastic musicians visiting my studio and playing beautiful, often improvised, parts. I was very worried about the music right up until the eleventh hour, but it all came together in the most extraordinary way.

UF: When you make a film do you go in with music in mind or do you wait to see how the film turns out? ( I would think with something like the Django Reinhardt music in The Week Before, you had that in mind all along)

DM: I usually have music in mind. I write scripts to music, and imagine scenes inspired purely by music. Ironically, the Django Reinhardt music that directly inspired the scenes in The Week Before cannot be cleared, so I'm now facing the unenviable task of writing and recording a whole new soundtrack for it. This one may defeat me

UF: Are there any plans for a US release? (I saw this on an import DVD)

DM: Yes, though no clear plans yet. It looks like we finally have a sales agent on board, so I hope a plan will emerge.

UF: Tann-y-groes is a lovely short film. Was this something that you just sort of put together from stuff you just shot at Port Talbot?

DM: I shot so much location material for the film in the weeks I was in Port Talbot, I was sad that so little of it got into the final film. There was so much demand on the film to be shorter, I had to lose one of my ambitions for the film which was to create a real portrait of the town. So I found a home for this material in this little DVD extra.

UF: Do you have any thoughts on how some of your fans are completely bewildered by what they see as an atypical project for you? I know the vast majority of your fans in the US have not seen the film and are making up their minds blind. Do you ever consider what your fans, or anyone for that matter thinks, or do you simply choose a project simply because it interests you?

DM: I realise artists and authors have different relationships with their fans, and make different judgements on what those expectations are. For myself, I only have one obligation to the folk who like and maybe follow my work, and that's to do the very best work I can on the thing I'm feeling most passionate about. In the last few years I've done a cookbook with Heston Blumenthal, a science and sceptical thinking book for young readers with Richard Dawkins, a wordless erotic graphic (very) novel, a couple of narrative exhibitions and this film. If you don't like any one of these, hang around, and you may like the next one. It would bore me rigid, and by extension I think it would eventually bore my audience, if I did basically the same thing every time.

My choices in film are very limited. I can't make a film happen in the same way that I can make a book happen. There are not too many opportunities that come along. I know I don't have the temperament or skin thick enough for mainstream film-making. So I'm happy to continue a life in books and galleries, and choose the odd film project for personal reasons - how much I can learn from it, how much of an experience out of my comfort zone it will be, how much I connect with the material.

UF: Would you do more films like this, things that don't seem to fit with in the fantastical nature of your art?

DM: Well, yes, but I do think that this film fits into my world very well. I'm not interested in fairies and goblins and superheroes. I am interested in real people in real lives and how their minds work. How we can understand each other through the distorting lens of our imaginative lives.

The Stranger rests

Come back tomorrow afternoon for a few final questions on things other than The Gospel of Us.

1 comment:

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