(Interview in progress…)

Who were your influences?

Influences are largely unconscious: I recently revisited “The Seventh Seal”, a film I discovered along with other Bergman classics when I was about 15. I had seen it several times back then, and on watching it again, I realized that I remembered each cut in the opening sequence with incredible clarity: not just the cuts but the framing of the shots, the dialectic between them and the syntax and pacing of whole sequences. I realized that I had absorbed the a great deal of Bergman’s film language and that it had worked through my own film work in a subliminal way.

Film and sound have always had a magical effect on me: when I was a child, my parents converted a ruin in a Provencal village, and the farmer across the road sold his barn to a local entrepreneur who ran a cinema there on Saturday nights. I was too young to go to the films, but in the heat of the summer nights, with our windows and the cinema door wide open, I could hear the soundtracks of the films – the dialogue, the music, the changes of mood, the moments of surprise and the climaxes. I could not see anything, except in my very vivid imagination, as the films played out virtually and I listened in a state between waking and sleep. Who knows, but those soundtracks may have contributed to the fact I attach a great deal of importance to what is heard in a film as well as what is seen, and hate music that is inappropriate, over-the-top or just plain redundant.

When I came of age and could go to the cinema on my own, it was Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut, Polanski, Kurosawa, Pasolini,Wajda who spoke most strongly to me – as well as classics, Dreyer, Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, and many great American film noir directors
It is hard to say just what influenced me most – but there was “Don’t Look Back”, the first vérité film I came across, and later a series of BBC documentaries by Roger Graef, “The Space Between Words”, shot by the great cameraman Charles Stewart, magnificent exercises in observation, which opened up a whole style work to me – one which I followed and adapted to suit my own ends.

I am very aware that my films are a product of their time – so not just films, but the culture as a whole (fine art, music, literature and theatre), has obviously played a part in shaping the way I have worked and the subjects and themes that have turned me on.

What are you after in portraits?

It’s always incredibly hard to make a relatively short (50 to 90 minutes long) portrait. Not least if the artist is Ravi Shankar, with an active career spanning 70 years. It’s a question of finding a story that makes sense: something that goes to the essence without having to fill in all the detail. A number of things help: there is always a time and budgetary constraint that forces ( in a creative way) things to become more rapidly clear. I have also found that the people I choose to make films about have pretty good ideas about the story they want to tell, and this is always an interesting one. I have never been interested in sensationalist ‘revelations’ about people – or showing them in a negative light. It is possible (though sometimes difficult) to be critical without being unkind or unfair. I also think that people reveal themselves on screen even if they play a role – which we all do so much of the time anyway. And I would rather the audience made up their own mind about people: it’s not up to the film maker to pass judgement.

How do you choose subjects?

It varies: some of the best films I have made have arisen from suggestions made by others – for instance, “Something Rich and Strange: The Life and Music of Iannis Xenakis” or “Les hôpitaux meurent aussi” (“A Hospital Rememenbers”), or “Mario Lanza”, sometimes subjects that don’t immediately grab me. In other cases, I follow intuitions, see something in the paper, come across a book, go to an exhibition that moves me. Ideas have arisen out of collaborations – notably with James Hillman, Robert Farris Thompson or Gérald Arnaud. I have rarely made a film about a subject I was not passionate about – or became passionate about. In retrospect, although my films are not obviously personal –so many of them are about other people – I am aware that I choose things that resonate with my own life history and themes that are particularly important to me. So, looking back, there is an element of personal search in what I do, but it is not specifically focused, implicitly rather than explicitly in what I do.

Why don’t you edit yourself?

Some people can’t understand why I hand over my material to an editor and do not do everything myself. There would be, nowadays, a financial reason for not paying someone £1350 a week but, at least right now, there’s no way I would give up working with an editor. Firstly, I am not enough of a patient perfectionist – and editing requires that kind of relentless almost obsessive attention that as well as inspiration. Secondly, an editor brings an outside view to material with which a director (not least when he or she has also shot the material) is very close to. The editor’s distance is a perfect foil for the director’s sometimes over-focused passion. And editing is a very special skill: some of the best editors I have worked with learned their craft cutting natural history films (a Bristol speciality), and they have a way with making sense of mute images so that they tell a story without needing words. I am in no doubt about the editors’ contribution to my films – Andrew Findlay, Dave McCormick , Jo Ann Kaplan, Rick Holbrook stand out: sometimes in the way they help shape the film as a whole, but more often than not when they create sequences of utter magic.
Collaboration is at the heart of the editing stage of film making, and my role is to make sure that editor is on the same underlying wavelength and can join me in the unfolding of each film into its appropriate form. Things happen in the cutting-room, or the edit suite as it’s called now – and although the work there is often painful and hard, there are moments of sheer bliss, when inspiration strikes and things start to gel.

(to be continued)

Filmography