Category : Fiction
Peter Davison played the fifth incarnation of Doctor Who! But he also delivers numerous charming performances in A Very Peculiar Practice, All Creatures Great and Small, At Home with the Braithwaites and The Last Detective.
(Many thanks to Roger Bilheimer for his great help in making this improbable conversation happen and to Yashoda Sampath for consulting on extremely pedantic Who matters in preparation for this talk.)
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stumbling around his motel room for a celery stick.
Guest: Peter Davison
Subjects Discussed: Whether Davison is a PBS manifestation or a corporeal entity, why Davison tends to avoid psychotic roles, the BBC’s austere costume policy, Davison’s cricket skills, the thespic advantages of keeping your hands in your pockets or behind your back, working with Roger Daltrey, film vs. TV continuity, Davison’s secret aspirations as a pop singer, “Doctor in Distress,” working with the same writer and director for A Very Peculiar Practice, single directors vs. many directors on television, Peter Grimwade’s mysterious ousting as director on Doctor Who, the regrettable deficiencies of “Time Flight,” the inside story on “No, not the mind probe,” when directors don’t even notice line delivery, the live theater approach to doing television, working with Peter Moffatt and Graeme Harper, how Who directors are chosen and how this affects acting and production, why Davison left Who, the slim advance notice that Davison got in relation to stories, the importance of humor in Doctor Who, conflicts with John Nathan-Turner, the problems with having an American companion, Davison’s creative input on Who, the difficulties of playing the Doctor, problems with Season 20, being confronted with the blank slate of virtue, John Nathan-Turner’s middling efforts to make companions more interesting, mew Who vs. old Who, theories that Rose as the most important character in the new series, Mark Strickson’s frustrations, holding up wobbly sets and flimsy production values, acting when the wrong set was lit, whether any virtues and production techniques have been lost from old Who, the disconnect between what’s inside your head as an actor and what’s on camera, Davison having to change appearance after Doctor Who, the burdens of Who, Tom Baker, choosing variegated roles, and Davison ensuring that he’s not defined by notoriety.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You know, I always wondered if you were a manifestation on PBS. But now I actually know that you’re corporeal. You’re here.
Davison: (laughs) I have the same feeling myself sometimes.
Correspondent: Oh you do? How do you distinguish between that? I mean, when you go and perform a role, are you in a fugue state? Do you know who you are when you’re playing it? Do you summon some abstruse emotional energy?
Davison: No. What happens with me is a form of — it sometimes has to be very quick — osmosis. You start off with a blank page and, as you get familiar with the script, the character is joined to you. Like barnacles or something.
Correspondent: I see Tristan off your shoulder right now.
Davison: Exactly. And you do start, depending on the parts you play — you bring them home with you sometimes. If you are playing a bit of a psychotic character, it can mean trouble at home.
Correspondent: But you haven’t really been playing much in the way of psychotic characters.
Davison: No. I think that’s a good thing. (laughs)
Correspondent: I mean, you’re too nice a guy? Have you had a great desire to chew the scenery like that?
Davison: You know, every so often. I have made a career of playing fairly nice guys. And I’m very happy doing that. But every so often.
Correspondent: Very nice doing that.
Davison: Thank you very much. But every so often, you just kind of get a feeling. You just want to be play a nasty character. And fortunately, usually when those feelings come about, one comes along that you like and you’ll accept it. I played a bit of a bad guy recently in an episode of Lewis, which is a British detective series.
Correspondent: Oh really? How evil were you for this?
Davison: I was pretty nasty, actually. I was very much a…
Correspondent: You pushed ladies downstairs? Widmark style?
Davison: I kill people.
Correspondent: You kill people?
Davison: And make them disappear. But in a nice and charming smiley way.
Correspondent: So I’m going to have to ask you about one of the reasons why you’re here. Doctor Who. And I”m going to try and do it through a few unusual angles. There’s one thing I have noticed. I know that when Tom Baker left, he took his boots with him. And during the early run of Doctor Who, you’re wearing what I guess is your own sneakers. Is that true? Is that safe to say? Does the BBC actually allow you your own? Did they actually make shoes for you? Or did you have to come in with your own footwear?
Davison: Oh no, no, no. You have proper costume fittings and people sit down for long periods of time and discuss what you’re going to wear. And I think they were pretty much off-the-peg shoes. But the BBC did pay for them.
Correspondent: Oh, okay.
Davison: And the rest of the outfit.
Correspondent: So you can wear them home.
Davison: Well, no. They wouldn’t trust you to bring it back in the morning.
Correspondent: Oh really? Well, what input did you have into the design of the Doctor’s costume? How was it like for you? I mean, how strict were they? I know you’ve said in other interviews that there were some bizarre union restrictions in which lights went out at 10 or something.
Davison: Oh, the whole thing in those days was a very complex procedure. I mean, I had input into my outfit. But it was very much not in specifics. The producer said, “We’re looking for something that’s more youthful and slightly more energetic and sportier.”
Correspondent: Cricket says youthful.
Davison: And I thought cricket fitted the bill exactly. So I suggested the idea of a cricket outfit. If I’m honest with you, I would have chosen a more off-the-peg look. It was a bit too designer for me. Because the idea with the TARDIS is a room somewhere in the depths of the TARDIS in which is a whole range of clothes. And when the Doctor regenerates, he simply goes into the room and he goes, “Ah, there’s this bit here. I’ll try this on here.” And he comes out with a kind of thrown together outfit. With my outfit, it just seemed like it probably wasn’t sitting around on a peg, which is what I didn’t like about it. On the other hand, I thought it had a very good style to it. I was very happy with it in the end.
Correspondent: You showed off your cricket skills in “Black Orchid.” What were your cricketing skills before that? Or was that pure acting?
Davison: No, no. It wasn’t. I’m not bad at cricket.
Davison: Compared to most actors, who are pretty rubbish.
Correspondent: You’re not going to name names.
Davison: I could actually, but I won’t. But in one of the scenes there, you can clearly see me actually bowl somebody out. Which I was very fortunate that they were able to get it into the shot. So I wasn’t bad. I was very happy to do that.
Correspondent: While we’re talking about physicality, I have to ask. So I watched a good deal of the Doctor Who run yet again — after many, many years — that you did. And the one thing I noticed is that you kept your hands in your pocket or behind your back quite a bit.
Correspondent: And I’m wondering if you were just a spastic guy or a guy who gesticulates. If this was an effort to try to prevent yourself from doing that on camera.
Correspondent: Because sometimes you have your hands in your pocket and they’re clenched in there like you know your hands are going to go free. So what of this?
Davison: Well, I don’t know where it first came out. I think probably it just came out of — I played a role before Doctor Who in All Creatures Great and Small.
Correspondent: Yes. That’s right. Tristran.
Davison: Unfortunately, Tristran, I think, is described as forever having his hands in his pockets. So that became such a kind of…
Correspondent: The Davison crutch?
Davison: Yes! A Davison crutch. Absolutely. But I think it just carried on a bit. And probably it shouldn’t have done. On the other hand, I have to say — you know, I did a series about three or four years ago with Roger Daltrey. You know, of The Who.
Correspondent: Oh yeah.
Davison: He played a part. And we were having this scene together in the pub. And we’d do a shot on him where he was doing his lines talking to me. And then we’d do another shot from another angle. And the continuity person would keep coming up to him, going, “Uh, Roger, you raised your hand in the air on this shot. And you put your hand on the drink in this shot. And you put your hand in your pocket on that shot.” And he got into such a terrible state. And nothing was ever said to me. And he said to me, “How come you’re so good at this?” And I said, “Because I never do anything with my hands.” (laughs) By the way, it’s a great advantage to put your hands in your pockets. Because no one comes up to you and says, “Ah! You did this with this hand here.” I think I probably overdid it.
Correspondent: Well, how rigid were the script supervisors, or continuity, during the BBC days in the ’80s and the ’90s? Were they really as anal as they are now? Or what?
Davison: You know, in my experience — and I’ve had a relatively tiny experience in film — but in television, they’re absolutely spot on. You rarely — you do get mistakes. But I’ve seen more mistakes in movies — in editing and things where people’s positions and hands and props and which hand they held their things up in — than I have done in television. They’re pretty good in television. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that the actors in television are doing a lot of things. They’re fairly disciplined, I think, TV actors. And maybe film actors somehow are, shall we say, maybe less disciplined. Maybe more inspirational. Maybe more original in some areas. But less disciplined. And I certainly notice more mistakes watching the average film than I did in watching TV.
Correspondent: So I have to ask. We talked cricket beforehand. I had heard some sort of rumor that you were pursuing a career as a pop singer roughly around the time of All Creatures Great and Small and even while you were playing Doctor Who!
Davison: How? Where did you hear that? (laughs)
Correspondent: I have my sources. And I was hoping to go ahead and, before they continue on the Internet, to actually get the hard journalistic truth. Did you have pop singer aspirations?
Davison: I did. Well, I’ve always written songs.
Correspondent: Oh you do?
Correspondent: There are loads of tapes hidden in your basement?
Davison: Loads of tapes. And I still have a little mini-studio in my house.
Davison: Yeah. And I still do stuff. But I think I’ve rather given up the idea of becoming a pop idol.
Correspondent: But do you still record?
Davison: Actually, I do still record stuff. And there was a time — I suppose it was about that time — where I thought, “You know, I’d be really good to just get a band together,” and not use my name. I didn’t want to try and sell it as Peter Davison doing it. So I’d just get a band and just get some songs together and just see what happens with them. If one wasn’t pushing it from a point of view. Because I think it’s a kiss of death. Actors saying they’re in a band. So I just wanted to do it from an entirely different angle.
Correspondent: Or in the case of Doctor Who, “Doctor in Distress.” It was disastrous.
Davison: Absolutely. But it came to grief, for a bizarre reason, that musicians have a completely different lifestyle to actors. It seems like they would be very close, but we would do things like we would call a rehearsal session. Seven o’clock in the evening. So I’d be there at seven o’clock. This was just rehearsal. Seven o’clock in the evening. And then at about 11 PM, the bass player would turn up. Then at about 1:00 in the morning, the lead guitarist would turn up. And at about half past two, we’d actually get enough people there to actually start rehearsing. By which time, it wasn’t long before dawn was breaking. And I was exhausted! ‘Cause I’m not used to it. Musicians just have this idea, you know. “Aw yeah, let’s just do a little bit of jamming for a couple of hours and then let’s get down to it.” So I realized really — although I loved doing it, I didn’t have the mentality of a musician, of a band member. I was a bit too conformist even for that. I thought actors were fairly unconformist.
Correspondent: Well, A Very Peculiar Practice, I know, that you had basically one writer and one director through a good chunk of the run. Do you prefer that kind of constancy as an actor? As a performer? That this is actually better for you? Do you get nervous if there’s a constant shuffle of directors?
Davison: It depends on what it is. I’ve done a couple of series where the same director has directed all the episodes. I did a series called A Very Peculiar Practice. One director. All Creatures Great and Small, The Last Detective — you’re right. We had different directors coming in actually for most of the episodes. But you still have the same crew coming on every week. You have a certain amount of consistency. It’s just — it’s horses for horses. Series television, I think, is quite good to get varied directors in. Because it just gives it a different spark. A different style to the episode. Whereas if you’re doing a serial, I think it’s important to have, at the most, two directors. Ideally one director. ‘Cause they know exactly what they’re doing.
Correspondent: Speaking of directors, I’m hoping you might be able to provide some light on this rumor involving Peter Grimwade. Director of “Earthshock” and “Kinda.” The story goes — at least promulgated by Eric Saward — that he actually snubbed John Nathan-Turner, didn’t invite him to a party. And then Peter Grimwade eventually was just doing writing for the show. Do you have any insight as to why he stopped directing? Because he was really good.
Davison: Um, he — I think Peter was very talented. He wasn’t — I didn’t think he was that great a director really. As far as the actors were concerned. He probably had good ideas.
Correspondent: Aha. More of a visual director.
Davison: I probably undervalued him, to be honest with you. I didn’t have any say on whether he did any more or not. But he didn’t inspire you with great confidence about what he was doing.
Davison: As a director. Although I think he was a very talented writer.
Correspondent: Even “Time Flight”?
Davison: Well, “Time Flight.” “Time Flight” was unfortunate, you see. Because “Time Flight,” I think, could have been done very well. But we had no money. The sets were probably the most dreadful sets that Doctor Who had ever had to put up with. And we literally shot England before humans…
Correspondent: Pleistocene. Exactly.
Davison: In Studio 8 of the BBC. With a little model of Concorde sitting on the back of the…and it was just…
Correspondent: And the color separation overlay as the airplane leaves. It was amazingly…
Davison: Catastrophically bad. You felt very frustrated by the fact that there was just no money. The monsters were lumps of polystyrene moving around the set. But I think the actual script itself wasn’t bad. But the realization of it was hugely disappointing.
Correspondent: So it seems to me to make a good Who story, you really need to have good direction and good acting in order to sell the illusion. What do you do when you’ve got a guy like Paul Jerricho delivering “No, not the mind probe!” in absolutely horrendous delivery in “The Five Doctors.” “No, not the mind probe!” Which is a very famous…
Davison: Yes, I know.
Correspodnent: How do you as an actor deal with this?
Davison: (laughs) Well, I think you have to use your instinct and not be led astray by the director. Sometimes, I’m always very, very wary of “Give me a bit more! Give me a bit more!”
Davison: You think, “Oh no! I’m sure that’s not right! I’m sure it’s not right.” But I’ve learned now that you have to make a decision as to whether you’re going to trust the director or not. Who are you going to trust? Do you trust yourself more than the director? And it’s a difficult thing to do.
Correspondent: Did anybody even say anything when he delivered the line that way? I mean, it’s so remarkably bad.
Davison: You know, a lot of directors, I’ve discovered, barely even notice.
Davison: Visual directors. I’ve worked with a lot of directors where I’ve said entirely the wrong line, entirely the wrong line. Stumbled over it and then I hear the click going, “Okay, let’s move on! Great! Let’s move on!” You’re going, “No, hang on a bit. I said the wrong line!” And they’ll go, “Oh, did you?” They don’t notice.
Davison: There are some directors that listen. And I love those directors that listen. Because they’re what you might call actors’ directors. Who are really concerned with what you’re giving as an actor. And you trust them. So if they say, “That’s fine. Let’s move on,” you go, “Okay, that’s fine.” Other directors you know are just looking at the picture. They barely notice. Until they sit down. But you know. They will sit down in the cart and go, “He said it like that? And we let him get away with it?” You don’t know. I mean, when you’re on the floor and you hear someone say, “No, not the mind probe,” you don’t quite know how it’s coming over. Upstairs they should have known how it came over. They should have said, “Let’s go again.” But I think there’s panic. There’s rush. There’s not enough time to get the thing done. They think it will be fine. And it’s very often not.
Ross McElwee is most recently the director of Photographic Memory.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stepping away from the memories.
Guest: Ross McElwee
Subjects Discussed: Walker Percy’s “certification,” Heidegger’s Alltäglichkeit, whether social media and YouTube can capture the essential quality of “everydayness,” patterns and layers of meaning discovered through the act of filming one’s life for decades, whether or not people have the patience to sit through a two and a half hour movie these days, how McElwee’s cinematic voice has altered with Photographic Memory, the use of Ken Burns-like music for a photographic montage, why McElwee decided to look backwards instead of tackling the present, problems in passing on the McElwee legacy, Adrian McElweee plugged into technology at the expense of conversation, patriarchal dissing, the imprecision of father-son parallels, the godfathers of the cinéma vérité movement, recreating the moon shot from Sherman’s March, the pernicious influence of the YouTube confessional, Time Indefinite as the obverse of Photographic Memory, filming a tumor for 72 seconds, why Marilyn Levine was not included in Photographic Memory, whether removing a family member from a film offers the truth about a dynamic, divorce, preserving privacy while remaining transparent, meeting Josh Kornbluth in Six O’Clock News, McElwee making “fiction films,” the middle ground between fiction and truth, Tolstoy’s maxim about novels not revealing everything, Andy Warhol’s Empire, why Charleen Swansea hasn’t appeared in McElwee’s recent films, a rare McElwee complaint about irrelevance, compartmentalizing the home environment and France, an adamant yet insignificant moment about a dish which caused Our Correspondent to question its significance, the future of documentary filmmaking and reality TV, Catfish, whether the marvel of the everyday will be informed by seducing the audience over questions of truth, the hidden rat at the motel in Bright Leaves, marveling over quotidian details, Steve Im in Six O’Clock News, conversation vs. dramatic evening news elements, when it’s easier to have conversations with strangers, the virtues of sitting still in one place, apocalyptic elements in McElwee’s films, being informed by lingering anxieties about the end, the harmful effects of smoking, confronting your own mortality, how Adrian’s presentation has transformed in McElwee’s films, fishing, the world divide between those who have kids and those who don’t, periods in life when kids are delightful, whether most people remember the last names of all their lovers and roommates, McElwee’s early attempts to write fiction, being inspired by limitations, how libertine digital shooting has impacted documentaries, and the dangers of not being selective enough when making am ovie.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I’m sorry I didn’t wear my Opus shirt. I couldn’t find one. I don’t think they even make them anymore. I was expecting you to come in and film me or something.
McElwee: Well, that can be arranged. I’ve got a little camera right here. (picking up iPhone)
Correspondent: Oh, I see. Well, I’ve got mine right here. (picking up Galaxy) So I know you wrote an essay on Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, which is very interesting. Because I’ve seen your films and they really make me think of what Percy said about “certification” in The Moviegoer, which of course is taken from Martin Heidegger’s notion of Alltäglichkeit, “everydayness” in Being and Time. This idea where we go about our lives, we’re always sort of reflecting on what the meaning of this is. And he said that it was essential. So I’m wondering. How can the video medium, which you have actually gravitated to for the first time with this film, and social media in our present landscape take into account this notion of everydayness? I mean, this film almost seems to be an argument for and against it. So what of this?
McElwee: That’s a question? That’s an essay! (laughs)
Correspondent: Well, we do essay questions and answers here. It’s sort of similar to your films, I think. (laughs)
McElwee: It is. It actually perfectly complements my whole way of making films. Because it’s a very complex thing that you’re asking of me. And to me, filming the everyday, filming little moments from everyday life, is totally essential to understanding what life as a whole is about. I think it’s somehow not recording of any specific moment of life that leads to a richer understanding or a deeper presentation of the meaning of that particular life. But it’s the accretion of all of these things and the overlapping, the patterns, the resonances of daily moments filmed that resonate with things you’ve already seen before. And I find as I get older, as I film my friends and my family, that I see patterns and layers of meaning that would not have been there if I had just filmed them one time. So I think it’s partially that curiosity about the moment of being in the present. And that’s very, very important to my filmmaking. And yet now there’s also a kind of layering that seems to be happening de facto, which is because I’ve been filming for a long time. I’m led to putting together combinations of shots and scenes and moments that span decades. And I have the luxury of doing that now. Because I’m getting older. One of the few benefits of getting older.
Correspondent: The films have gotten shorter, however. Interestingly.
McElwee: Yeah, that’s partially because people don’t have the patience to sit through two and a half hour films anymore.
Correspondent: I do.
McElwee: Well, you’re not the typical viewer.
Correspondent: Well, the interesting thing, aside from the fact that this is shot on video, is that there are a number of surprises about this film, aesthetically speaking, where it just does not seem like a Ross McElwee film. We have, of course, the photos with the music. And I was like, “Am I watching a Ken Burns movie or am I watching a McElwee movie?”
Correspondent: Or even the fact that you gravitate more towards the past instead of the present.
Correspondent: You know, if you are altering your voice to fit the needs of what is required today, is it truly a genuine McElwee movie?
McElwee: No. Well, I’m not altering the voice because of marketing. There’s no way that I’m doing that. But I think it really is a matter of becoming older. I know, for me, for having kids or at least a son who’s a different generation, I’m starting to wonder, “What is this tension that I feel with my son? And why does this seem so extreme?” And that led me to go back to my own past. And I think in doing so, I did fine. I wasn’t shooting film back then and I don’t have images, moving images, to call upon, to represent what was happening at that point in my life. But I do have still photographs. And so, yes, there’s still photographs in my film and it is the first time I’ve used them this extensively. You’re absolutely right about that. And it’s the first time I’ve used stretches of music the way that I have in this film. Music has been in all my films. It’s diegetic. It comes out of the filming itself and the filming environment.
Correspondent: But the music comes before the voice. Whereas in previous films, the voice has ushered in the music.
McElwee: Yes, that’s true. Although I do….yes, you’re right. You’re right. That’s a different way of using music. But I think I felt that these were raw materials that I had available, which represented what my life was like at that time. Therefore, I had to draw on them. And it did make a different kind of film. Of course, the other large difference was that I’m much older now. And so there’s much more to look back on. So that way does become more “historical.”
Correspondent: Much more to look back on? What about looking forward? I mean, literally. I was shocked watching this movie. Because I was expecting the cross-country quest of some kind. But, no, it really is going backwards towards events that are half a lifetime ago. I mean, why should they define who you are in the present? They certainly haven’t in other films that you’ve made.
McElwee: No. And I think it may be a one time departure. But I feel that I have now earned the right to make whatever film I wanted to make and that was the film I wanted to make. And I think it’s mainly because of what I say in the beginning of the film. It’s that I’m a little stymied by my relationship to my son. And I’m confused by the directions he’s going in. And those directions are somewhat representative of his entire generation. But I’m also smart enough to realize that my father had the same questions about me. I didn’t go to medical school. That’s so puzzling. “Why would you not want to do something that would guarantee you a comfortable and fulfilling life?” No, I wanted to become a filmmaker. What is that all about? He must have really wondered about those things.
Correspondent: But the difference between you and your father, and Adrian and you, is that we have this image you have throughout your films of your father showing how to suture up something and your brother going ahead and participating. You’ve used that repeatedly.
Correspondent: In this, it’s almost like you’re the hired cameraman for Adrian’s movies.
Correspondent: It’s not necessarily like the passing of a legacy that Adrian rejects, although Adrian also adopts the filmmaking guise. So is there really a parallel here?
McElwee: Not a precise parallel. But there’s some irony too in there. I become Adrian’s camerman at the end of the film and I think that’s meant to be somewhat humorous. People understand that. I’m doing documentaries and determined to do fiction. Not only that, but I become his cinematographer. So, yeah, it’s clearly a departure for me to go in some of the directions I’ve gone in too. But I think it’s very healthy. Why not try something you haven’t tried before? And I’ve done it. Whether I’ll do something similar again remains to be seen.
Correspondent: Going back to adjusting to recent developments of the last five or six years — smartphones, social media, and so forth — one of our first images of Adrian. He is plugged into his laptop, quite literally. He has the laptop in front of him. He has the headphones. He has this massive cafe drink with a bright blue straw. And you’re trying to say, “I need your full attention.” And he refuses this. And this to my mind — because I saw your film twice. The first time, I was horrified by this. The second time, I actually came to sympathize with Adrian a little bit more.
Correspondent: But I initially thought, “My God, he’s a spoiled brat. Here he is. The great Ross McElwee is being dissed by his own son!”
McElwee: But that’s his job as a son. Is to diss his dad.
Correspondent: Yeah, but diss in that sort of way? I mean, not have a meaningful conversation with you? Because it seems that you clearly establish, especially when you drag out all of your old notebooks and all of your old photos, there’s meticulous ideas that you set down in your youth and he’s frivolously typing away on his computer.
McElwee: Well, see, my father through I was frivolously scribbling away in my notebooks. It’s like so judgmental of fathers to be that way about their sons.
Correspondent: Or viewers to be that way about patriarchal relationships.
McElwee: Exactly. And the other thing that you can say is, “Well, yeah, he’s busy texting and listening to some conversation at the same time. He’s multitasking and he doesn’t even hear me when I ask the question or acknowledge that he’s heard me.” But what am I doing? I’ve got a digital camera on my shoulder. Who am I to criticize him for being wrapped up in his technology when I’m also wrapped up in my technology?
Correspondent: Well, you weren’t in the camera shot. But I’m pretty sure you weren’t holding a beverage. I’m pretty certain.
McElwee: That’s true.
Correspondent: He had more distractions than you going on.
McElwee: Or he’s just more ambidextrous than I am.
Correspondent: (laughs) Ambidextrous. But I mean, you say that it’s pretty much the same thing. But I would argue, given all the additional impediments from Adrian, that it’s not. That your quest into France was a quest for the usual frivolities of falling into weird relationships. I mean, you have the image of your son next to his girlfriend and there are two laptops there. I mean, that’s a fundamental difference that disrupts the parallel. So what of this? Is there? Can you actually adopt a parallel between your own life and Adrian’s?
McElwee: No, of course. It’s never precisely the same from generation to generation. We all know that. And I think the things that you point out visually were stunning to me when I actually saw them through the viewfinder. The two laptops opened at right angles to each other at a cafe table.
Correspondent: You didn’t notice when you were filming? It’s sort of like the rat in the motel [from Bright Leaves].
McElwee: Well, I did notice when I was filming. Because I thought, “Ah! This is the image I’m looking for.” I didn’t tell them to do that. But from the minute I saw this, I said, “I’m going to film this. Because it just seems so appropriate.” But I think it’s unfair to be too critical of Adrian and his generation for being so wrapped up in this technology. Because it’s available. And I was shooting 16mm film because it was suddenly available in a portable sense. You could put these cameras on your shoulder and go into the world for the first time. That was the whole cinéma vérité revolution. You know, my dad didn’t understand any of that. He thought it was crazy. In fact, at the very beginning, so did most funding agencies. Public television. Arts agencies. Nobody got it. That this was going to be something significant. That you could take technology into the world and interact with it on its own terms. As opposed to bringing people into the studio and interviewing them. Or recreating things the way Flaherty did. Directing it as if it were a fiction film. Using people from real life. And, in fact, it took a while for people to understand the possibilities of cinéma vérité. This was before I began making films. Those guys. [Richard] Lecock and [Albert and David] Maysles and [D.A.] Penebaker. They had to fight to get their kinds of filmmaking seen and shown and produced. So there’s always a learning curve for the rest of them.
Correspondent: And I dig all those guys. But the one commonality throughout all that early cinéma vérité is that there is a concern for capturing the human as opposed to cutting reality up into a stylistic mélange that gets in the way of really grasping with life. I mean, you try to recreate that famous moon shot from Sherman’s March in this film, but we see that we have all these buildings and your monologue is there. But the moon is more insignificant on video and it’s populated by all these buildings and so forth.
Correspondent: Clearly you’re aware that this is either fading or this is in competition with the YouTube confessional/YouTube star movement. And so forth. I mean, where do you fit in? Is there a place for you, do you think?
McElwee: In this? Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not really trying to tailor my films for any particular generation or any particular venue. I didn’t know where this film was going to end up. It was commissioned by French television. But aside from that, I had no idea where it would end up. And even that was an obscure presentation and platform. It was a late night experimental television series. And I was very happy to accept their commission and make this film. But I didn’t know what kind of film it would be. And I didn’t feel like I could tailor it to suit any particular category or any particular audience. And so there’s a way in which perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot by not really thinking more about where these films are destined and is there a way I can make them more accessible to the younger generation who will then download it from their computers. I just…I can’t think like that. For whatever reason, I’m just driven to make a film because I want to make it on my own terms.
Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez are the creators, writers, and artists for Love and Rockets, the long-running and much acclaimed series celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revisiting a moment in 1969 which sealed his fate.
Authors: Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez
Subjects Discussed: Mario Hernandez, the way that Gilbert and Jaime collaborate, the six characters speaking in the same panel with six balloons, egging each other on, growing up in a household in which Gilbert passed down comics to Jaime, The Twilight Zone, Les Miserables, Gilbert’s lack of interest in prose, magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, creating an entire character based off a certain detail, finding new angles on heavily defined characters, why Maggie’s hairstyles and weight constantly change, how the Love and Rockets run is organized, allowing space in case one of the brothers decides to go long, seeking extreme character qualities, furry culture, turning exploitation on its own head, goofing around, dealing with serious topics (in stories such as “Browntown” and “Farewell, My Palomar”), the problems in elevating superheroes, emotional areas, why Jaime returned to superheroes after a long absence, Gilbert’s frustrations with The Dark Knight Rises, balancing work on L&R in the early days while having jobs, how economic forces have affected Love and Rockets, knowing that L&R wasn’t going to be a hit comic, maintaining a realistic view to make a living, Gilbert’s tendency to work on three comics at the same time, why the Hernandez brothers find women more interesting than men, fondness for butts and curves, the responsibility to imbue all comic book characters with humanity, Jaime being terrified of women in high school, creating a universe run by women, creating stories that are mostly visual (such as “Whoa Nellie” and “Hypnotwist”), the influence of words, L&R as a comic shop with endless back issues, Jack Kirby, why superheroes still have the upper hand in comics, wrestling, following through on a story, the joys of action poses, the influence of Peanuts in the children’s stories, drawing kids with big heads, visually representing a child’s imagination, the difficulty of sizing up the anatomy of a kid standing next up to a grownup, anatomical weak spots, when visual memory works better for art than research, being lazy when drawing hands, scaling children, optical theory, forced perspectives in cinema, eyeballing perspective, vanishing point and backgrounds, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, “An American in Palomar,” whether culture is exploited in telling a story, what the Hernandez brothers hear from academics and fans, when people co-opt L&R as the “pro-Latino comic,” Daniel Clowes, coming up with stories just by looking at a picture, the virtues of not reading all the comics in your collection, reader misinterpretations, valuing the reader’s takeaway, the inspiration that comes from willful blindness, shifting from panel to panel on autopilot, looking back at old material, positive mistakes, and keeping characters alive and material fresh after thirty years.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Let’s talk about extreme qualities in character. I think of Jaime’s Doyle Blackburn. I mean, here’s a guy who has to be as raucous and as violent just to match the wrestling and the punk rock and Maggie and Hopey. And then, of course, there’s Isabel the witch lady, where you physically change her size. Now, Gilbert, you’re more inclined to see someone like the IRS collector who dresses in a gorilla suit in “Girl Crazy” or even the forest people in “Scarlet by Starlight,” and, of course, the representation of them in the sequel to that story. So to what degree do you feel that this transgressive behavior, this extremity, needs to be predicated in reality? How important is it to stray from real behavior? And how important is it to keep it real? How do the two of you deal with things that are almost hyperreal in service of a story?
Gilbert Hernandez: Well, for me — even if I want to do a story about scientists from the future in the forest and those animal people living with them — for that kind of story, you balance how much is going to be a part of us there and then what it’s going to be like in the future. It’s a bit of a balance. And so I was dealing with scientists and these forest creatures. So for that story, I just felt like there should be a human connection in it. Like some real sympathy for the forest people. The forest people didn’t know what hit them and the scientists could care less about them. But there’s that superficial attraction one scientists has for one girl. And then I’m toying with the whole fetish aspect of that furry thing. The fans of that sort of thing are called furries. They have this fetish for sexy furry animals. I’m getting into trouble here. And so naturally I drew the forest girls as sexy as possible. So that would trip up the reader and feel really weird about being attracted to her. But at the same time, there’s that on the surface. There’s that going on. But it’s important to have the human element within those stories, that being the most important thing.
Correspondent: But you also twist that exploitative quality on its head when you have, of course, the massacre later on in that story. It seems to me that you almost want to play with the idea of exploitation while simultaneously give into various transgressive behavior and so forth.
Gilbert: Well, I just through a bit of ugly reality in the end that, yes, even though the humans are hanging out with the forest people and they treat them relatively well and everybody’s getting along on that end, there’s that drop inside a lot of people that the moment they get the opportunity to exploit people, they’ll do it. That’s more of a criticism of people than animal creatures. (laughs) Cat people.
Correspondent: Well, Jaime, how does this transgressive work for you? I mentioned some examples at the head of that last question. How much do your characters have to be steeped in reality? And when do you feel the need to stray from it?
Jaime Hernandez: When I’m bored with reality.
Correspondent and Gilbert: (laughs)
Jaime: And seriously when I just want to have fun and goof. Like that story about Izzy growing big. I just wanted to throw a big curveball just for the hell of it and see how it would fly with the reader. And I don’t know why. But when I’m doing that, I’m really not worried about ruining the reality of it. Maybe because it’s just something I grew up with in comics. That the real life and fantasy go together. Like I said, it’s all just having fun and just goofing. But I do have the responsibility of keeping the reader there. I mean, making it real for the reader.
Correspondent: But on the other hand, I look at a story like “Browntown,” which deals with sexual abuse and some very heavy topics, and I say to myself, well, I have to ask both of you — and also in “Farewell, My Palomar” — do you think that comics really need to grapple with this extreme heft in order to really matter as a medium? Are there any areas emotionally that you have not tapped and you really see Love and Rockets going further as? It has to be grounded in reality in some way, don’t you think?
Jaime: Right. Okay, so with a story like “Browntown,” there was no room for goofing. Because this is serious stuff. And I wanted to tell a real story that, tragic or otherwise, it was just really serious. And I didn’t want to almost make fun of it. Because it’s a serious issue. When I go there, I get really serious and there’s no room for goofing. In the case of Izzy growing into a giant, no one was getting hurt. So it was fun. Everyone got to go home and live their normal lives after that. But in “Browntown,” this was serious stuff. And I’m not going to mess with it.
Correspondent: So there’s an inevitable emotional filter you will have to apply, depending on the story. Depending on how people are going to get hurt or not.
Jaime: Yes. I only goof when it’s safe.
Correspondent: Well, what about you, Gilbert? Do you feel the same way? That a certain emotional tone requires a certain narrative filter to a story? That you have to be explicitly serious or explicitly ridiculous or fun in order to actually pursue a story? How does this work for you?
Gilbert: Sure. It’s the same thing. Like he said, he’s dealing with an aspect, an unfortunate aspect, of childhood that’s real for some people. All of a sudden, our brain goes into that mode. This is going to be told this way. I’m going to leave all the goofy stuff out and all the distractions out of it. Because this is how the story’s told. Even though, uncomfortably, this is still an entertaining story. You know, he wants to tell it as a story as you’re reading the story. It’s not a lesson being clobbered over your head. This is a story about characters, but it reflects on a problem that happens to children. So I approach it the same way. I have done serious things like attempted suicides in goofy stories. And I didn’t think that was right. I thought, “That’s something I don’t want to do anymore.” Because that was when I was learning. I was learning to tell stories. And in one of the first stories I did, I decided to have a guy attempt suicide. But it was in a science fiction story. And I got that uncomfortable feeling. Well, yeah, the reader looks at it like “Oh, it was a very shocking scene.” And I thought, “Well, it should have been about something. Not just gorillas from outer space or whatever.” That’s the problem I have with mainstream comics. Because they’re always trying to elevate the superhero by having drug problems and suicide attempts and stuff. And I just think that’s not where I’m at. That’s not where I want to read that. I mean, I suppose there are good stories about that in a Batman comic. But it makes me uncomfortable to read it that way. I kind of just miss the seriousness of it. Because it’s a guy in a bat suit in it.
Correspondent: Yeah. Are there any other stories that the two of you regret doing? That you would have done differently? Along these lines that you were just learning and you didn’t really understand the gravity of what that story was trying to say. Any other examples?
Jaime: Nothing really earth shattering. But there’s parts of “The Death of Speedy [Ortiz]” that I look back at, that I could have just put a little more into it. When I did it, it felt right. Years later, down the road, I look back at it and I go, “Well, maybe I could have explored this more on this part.” And then there’s a part of me that goes, “No.” But it’s been done. It’s been over. If I want to correct it, do it in a different story.
Correspondent: Is there any specific emotional terrain that the two of you have not tapped and perhaps would like to tap or would like to try? Or that is just purely verboten?
Gilbert: You know? I don’t know what that would be. It’s not there yet. We usually discover as we’re formulating a story. As we’re working on a story that’s going to build. That’s when it comes. It’s hard to think of that ahead of time. For us. Or for me at least.
Jaime: Yeah. Same here. Let’s say I’m doing a Maggie story. It’s going a certain way. And then I start to think about some serious issue. And I say, “Well, what if I turned it into this?” And I go, “Well, it’s not…it wouldn’t fit.” I would have to think about it harder. I would have to write around it. I couldn’t put the thing just…blam. All of a sudden in a story. Maggie’s having fun eating lunch and then something tragic happens. And all of a sudden, it’s wait a minute. Wait a minute. No, no. I would have to write around the tragedy instead of just throwing it in any old time.
Correspondent: Well, both of you have resisted superheroes and referring to the comic book industry for a long time until recently. Penny Century finally gets her wish to be a superhero in the early portion of the New Stories. And I’m wondering why you resisted the whole superhero, comic book, self-referential notion for so long and why you would inevitably succumb to that impulse to portray it in Love and Rockets.
Jaime: I just didn’t want to do superheroes anymore. Seriously, I just wanted to tell more real life stuff. I thought stuff I had seen in my life was much more interesting to me. And a lot of it was not being seen in comics. And I kind of took advantage of that. And I kind of outgrew the superhero thing by the time Love and Rockets came. So by the time I did the Ti-Girl story, I just wanted to have fun with my own superhero comic.
Correspondent: The allure just kind of came back for some reason.
Jaime: Yeah. It was just for fun. I said, “Hey, I’m going to do a superhero comic. And I’m going to follow through to the end and see how it turns out.” Just for fun. Like that’s what I want to do right now. Gilbert always talks about this. That Love and Rockets has always been a comic book. He could explain this better. But it’s a comic book and whatever we want to put in there, we put in. Whatever interests us. So it’s like, “Whoa! You did a really serious true life adventure. Now you’re doing superheroes! What the hell is that about?” Nothing. Other than I just wanted to a superhero story the next time.
Gilbert: And we don’t try and elevate the superhero thing in Love and Rockets. Superheroes are a fun affectation. They’re just about fun and doing nutty stuff. And if you have some characterization in there and some pathos, there’s nothing wrong with that. That makes a story, you know? But we never think — like in the new Dark Knight Rises movie, we don’t think, “Well, to elevate this, we must eliminate Batman.” He’s in it for fifteen minutes in a three hour movie. You know, I came to see a Batman movie! Where’s his car? Where’s the Batcycle? “No, no, no, this is better than that!” Well, why do I want to see something better than that? I wouldn’t go see this stupid cop movie if Batman wasn’t in it. I’m serious. This is how I feel. The stuff doesn’t need the elevation. It goes back to the movie Greystroke, with Tarzan. It was a flop. Because it wasn’t about frickin’ Tarzan. “Oh, here’s the serious Tarzan movie. Let’s get rid of Tarzan and what he does.” And this is this dumb elevation that they do in mainstream comics, where they’re trying to elevate superheroes because they just can’t let go of Batman.
Correspondent: Superheroes are inherently silly.
Gilbert: Yeah. Or fun. Or adventure characters. That’s okay with me. I’m okay with Star Wars being about nothing but action adventure. Indiana Jones. The new Avengers movie was a success because it was a matinee film about the Hulk being funny and all this goofy stuff going on. It was a lot of fun. But then they try to elevate the stuff. And that’s what keeps me away from mainstream comics. Well, here’s the new Batman comic. But we elevate it to the drug war or serious crime stories. And I go, “Okay, but where’s Batman? Where is he doing stuff?” Batman does stuff. He doesn’t want to constantly mope. He’s in costume to do stuff! So, anyway, that aside, having superheroes and doing all that stuff — Jaime’s just doing superheroes to be fun and it’s part of our comic world. I like to think of Love and Rockets as a comic store with a lot of back issues. That’s what Love and Rockets is.
Correspondent: How much does this idea of elevation plague Love and Rockets today? I mean, in recent years, comics have become this supercommodified, maintream, pro-geek, “geek is the mainstream now” type of situation. How has this affected Love and Rockets? And how has Love and Rockets over the years been affected by economics? In terms of commercial forces. Has this really been as much of a consideration? Have there been certain storylines and characters that audiences have rejected or had to make adjustments for? Anything like this?
Jaime: We really don’t think about that that much. I mean, we just do our comic and hope it won’t be bumped off the shelf. Serious. It’s that simple. I mean, we just want to do comics that we think are good and have our share of the comic store. It may be naive of me, but I really don’t think about what’s going on around me when I am doing my comic. It’s just me and my comic, and I’m just happy that I’m able to do the next issue without starving.
Correspondent: Yeah. Well, how long during the Love and Rockets run were you doing this with other jobs and so forth? And what did you do to make sure that you got your pages in for the next Love and Rockets issue over the years? When you were doing simultaneous employment? Or has it pretty much been full-time most of the way?
Jaime: Right. Well, there was a time when we were starting the comic that it wasn’t really going anywhere financially. So I had to get a job as a janitor on the side. But then when Love and Rockets kinda started taking off and I started going, “Hey! I can support myself with this!” — because I was young and all I needed was an apartment and maybe a car. And just taking care of myself. I had no responsibilities. So it was easy to live pretty cheap with Love and Rockets in the beginning. And I was able to quit that dumb janitor job.
Correspondent: Roughly around when were you able to quit the janitor job?
Jaime: Mid-’80s. Like about three years into Love and Rockets. And I realized, “Hey, I can afford my cheap apartment. Hey, maybe I can even buy a car!” And stuff like that. And as I got older, Love and Rockets started to sell more. And I started to get more responsibility. I got married. And I started to think like a grown-up. But luckily, Love and Rockets was helping me get there. We were both growing together. So, like I said, in the carefree days, when we didn’t have any money, I didn’t care. I was just young and carefree.
Correspondent: Has the influence of responsibility and money adjusted your freedom on Love and Rockets to a certain degree? Or have you both felt relatively free beside responsibility?
Jaime: No. Beside responsibility, I’ve always kept Love and Rockets in its own safe pocket.
Jaime: Yeah. Yeah. No matter which way my life was changing, whether I needed to buy a house or whatever, or raise a child or something like that, I always was able to keep Love and Rockets separate from that. I would be a dad and a husband, and then I would go away to my room and then I was the comic artist. So Love and Rockets, as far as art-wise, has always been left alone. I’ve always made sure that Love and Rockets was able to flourish artistically. Because nothing else could interrupt it.
Andrea Arnold is the co-writer and director of Wuthering Heights, which opens on October 5 in select theaters.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his creator is Heathcliff.
Guest: Andrea Arnold
Subjects Discussed: Characters defined by how they observe things, working with moths, Yorkshire insect wranglers, how to get animals to behave on camera, improvisational and Method-acting sheep, Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, audiences who believe that Arnold killed real sheep, film disclaimers about no animals harmed during the course of production, talking with farmers to get historical details right, how imagination informs more effectively than the facts, avoiding plastic walls for old sets, working with production designer Helen Scott, being upset when something isn’t real, the virtues of filming in a remote place, staying in a local village, getting used to a temporary life without phones, elevation as a geographical identifier as Arnold’s films, putting a camera in a place where a human can exist, Arnold’s dislike of the dolly and the Steadicam, why there weren’t as many wide shots in Wuthering Heights, Lindsay Anderson’s if…, cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s very sturdy hands, working without jibs and gimbals, the visual authenticity of natural human movement, Robbie Ryan running down four or five flights backwards with a camera, giving a very lovely grip named Sam something to do, reading Emily Bronte when very young, the decision to add the line “Fuck you, all you cunts” in Wuthering Heights, respect for Emily Bronte, working with non-actors, being too faithful to a literary classic, finding new takes on Heathcliff, why most literary adaptations play it safe, and literary reverence.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: So there’s one really intriguing quality about your films that I have observed. Your characters are often defined by how they observe things. Of course, the obvious explicit example is Red Room, because we have closed circuit cameras in there. But we do see that in Wuthering Heights quite a bit. Often through slats. Often through little cracks. And I’m wondering. Why are you so interested in this idea of defining characters by how they look at things? Is this a way to offer a vicarious experience to the viewer? Do you feel that looking at things or what people decide to see is of greater import or greater revelation than, say, how they perform and how they act?
Arnold: Well, I don’t know the answer to that question really. Because I think when I’m writing, I don’t really think that lucidly about what I’m writing and how I’m writing it. But now that you’ve just said that to me, I realize actually what you just said is true. But actually if you’d ask me to define how I do things, I would never have said that I’m doing that. But now that you’ve just told me, I realize you’re right. And I think that I write quite instinctively. And for some reason I seem to be doing that. I’m always picking. I’ve only ever done one film where I told it from two people’s point of views, where I switch from one person to another. Most of the films I’ve done so far have been telling it from one person’s point of view. And for some reason, that feels like the right thing to do for me. It’s like I feel able to get into one person’s head. I find it more difficult to get into lots of people’s heads. Though maybe, just because I’m telling the stories from that person’s point of view and I’m going along with them and thinking about how they’re thinking and I’m trying to get inside their head, I think that may be why looking at the world from their point of view, I’m trying to get inside their head and work out how they’re feeling. Does that make sense?
Correspondent: It makes sense. It makes me ask at what point do you decide, “Oh, the camera must see what they’re seeing.” It seems to me that this would be a fairly late process in the planning. Is that safe to say? I mean, when do you think about this? Do you think about this during the act of writing the script or anything?
Arnold: I think I do think about it when I’m writing. Because I’m thinking constantly about what they’re looking at and what they’re doing and what they’re feeling. And I think that a lot of what ends up in the film is things that I’ve put on the page. I mean, even in Wuthering Heights, people say to me, “Was that in the script?” And actually no. Although sometimes, with the moths, they were in the script. The moths are in the script. The beetles aren’t in the script, but the moths are.
Correspondent: What do you do to get an insect wrangler, by the way? (laughs) I was curious about that. How do you find the moth expert among the moors and all that?
Arnold: Those moths, actually, were proper Yorkshire moths.
Correspondent: Oh they were?
Arnold: They were proper. The moths may be quite actually. Because we got moths from a man who dealt in Yorkshire moths. A Yorkshire moth expert, I guess.
Correspondent: A specialist. (laughs) There are moth specialists. I did not know.
Arnold: Yeah, there are.
Correspondent: How do you get a moth to behave on camera? I mean, you know they say the thing about children and animals.
Arnold: Moths don’t take directions. No, they don’t. You have to let them be themselves. But he gave us these moths which were in little capsules. And when we let them out, some of them died and it actually made me cry.
Arnold: I guess they do die. I mean, moths don’t last very longer than butterflies, do they?
Correspondent: Don’t we all, right?
Arnold: (laughs) Yes.
Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting that you would feel such sympathy for the moths when this film also depicts a lot of sheep and a lot of rabbits — simulated, I would suspect. I don’t think this was a Buñuel Land Without Bread situation on your part. But I mean, there is quite a lot of animal violence. And I’m wondering what you also did to get that looking as real as it did and why you felt compelled to include this as a representative rough element of this great frontier of the 19th century.
Arnold: Well, I guess it was dealing with animals and having animals on the farm living and dying would be part of life. And it’s part of our life now. Only it’s a hidden part of our lives. In fact, it’s a far worse thing now in life. Because it’s all behind doors and we all pretend it doesn’t happen. And animals are factory farmed in far worse ways. They’re not roaming free and then getting slaughtered at the end of their lives. They’re living in sheds and having pretty closed out lives. So it happens all the time now and then. And I just wanted to represent that accurately. I mean, we have managed to obviously do a good job. Because I get people saying — I think at Sundance, someone said to me — somebody came after and said, “Oh, I feel so sorry for that sheep, you know.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “You killed the sheep.” And I said, “No, we didn’t kill the sheep.”
Correspondent: And he’s no doubt saying this after having a lamb chop dinner, right? (laughs)
Arnold: Well, exactly. But of course we didn’t kill the sheep. And in actual fact, I was so worried about that sheep when we did that scene. I was more worried about that sheep than anyone. I mean, we had a vet there and we had a farmer there who owned the sheep. But that sheep, I have to tell you, was the most amazing sheep.
Correspondent: Oh yeah? What made it amazing?
Arnold: He was so amazing, that sheep. Because he was so calm. He wasn’t frightened. And he did this thing. In the film, you’ll see he’s trembling. It looks like you’ve done something really bad to him. He just started doing that. It was like he knew that he needed to look. I really don’t know.
Correspondent: Really? Unrehearsed?
Correspondent: Improvisational sheep! Wow!
Arnold: And it trotted off. And I kept saying to the farmer, “Are you sure the sheep’s alright?” He said, “The sheep’s fine.” And actually he went off, trotted back to the herd no problem. That sheep was amazing.
Correspondent: No ague or anything?
Arnold: No what?
Correspondent: No ague or anything?
Arnold: No what?
Correspondent: No tremors or anything like that? No dizziness?
Arnold: Nope. No, no, no. It seemed completely fine.
Correspondent: Wow. There are Method acting sheep.
Arnold: Honestly, that sheep. We couldn’t have picked a better sheep. Even when we were carrying it, it was just so calm. It didn’t seem frightened. It seemed completely fine. But of course we didn’t harm the sheep. In fact, I was very very concerned about the sheep and made sure he was completely fine. But, no, we didn’t harm anything. I mean, we make it look bad. But of course no. And I’m a vegetarian and animal complete.
Correspondent: Well, we talked about moths dying. Is there anything equivalent to the SPCA* in the British Isles that you’d have to get the endorsement from?
Arnold: Oh yeah.
Correspondent: I didn’t see any endorsement on the film or anything like that.
Arnold: Well, we had animal handlers there all the time.
Correspondent: Okay. You don’t need to have the designated stamp on the credits like we do here.
Arnold: We have the thing. “No animals were harmed.” I mean, that’s what you have to have. And you have to have people who are there who endorse that and who sign something to say that. So we had all that. We had everything that you’re supposed to have.
Correspondent: So you wanted to include these animals dying on film — simulated, of course — in the name of historical accuracy. I’m wondering what research you did to know how people lived during that time. I know that there were depilatory restrictions in place. I’m curious. What did you do to know that this is actually true? Or was this largely instinctive? Was this largely trusting your gut? Was this largely saying, “Okay, well, if we don’t have television, radios, and smartphones, and we’re just living on a farm, we’re just going to live like this”?
Arnold: Well, partly imagining what it would be like to live on the farm. Partly I spoke to farmers. I talked with some of the farmers up in Yorkshire about how things would have been. And they had a lot of people up in that area who had been up there for generations, and had actually a lot of information. So I went down to a place where people dealt with animals and spoke to a lot of farmers down there. I talked to people. So I did partly talk to people. Part imagination, partly what they were telling me. For example, the way they put their foot on the sheep and stuff like that. That was all told to me, the way they did that. You know, I researched all those things. About how they would handle the sheep and stuff like that. How they would carry it.
Correspondent: Do you feel that imagining what a situation is like is going to carry more truth on cinema than, say, sticking with the hard facts or the hard details? Or going by the letter of what the Yorkshire farmers tell you?
Arnold: I mean, I think I’m somebody who, if I hear something and I believe it to be the truth and they’ve told me something truthful, I will try to hold on to that as best I can. And I incorporate that into what I’m doing. So if they’ve told me something and I’ve heard it a couple of times from the right kind of people, then I think I would do my utmost to make sure that I represent that as accurately as they’ve told me. I think I’m somebody who does actually care about those things. I mean, when I’m talking about using my imagination, I’m talking about using my imagination more to do with the emotion or to do with the way that people are interacting with each other. I’m not looking to deal with practical facts. If I hear something, it’s done a certain way. Also I have a designer I work with and she’s very like that too. And even the house which we restored. Because it was quite run down.
Correspondent: Oh, interesting.
Arnold: We restored it using all the traditional methods. And so all the people that worked on the house used old skills in order to restore it. We didn’t put plastic up that looks like thatchery. We put proper thatch up. We restored the walls to the paths they would have used. We used the right kind of wood.
Correspondent: The stone wall on the outside. Was that touched up? Or built by the cast perhaps?
Arnold: Those stone walls were mostly there. The dry stone walls, that’s all over Yorkshire. So all the people working on the house before we started filming there, they were all using old skills which they all really, really enjoyed.
* — Our Correspondent mistakenly referred to the SPCA when he clearly meant the American Humane Association, which has been adding disclaimers about animals to movies since 1940.