We’re excited to be working on a project that highlights the role of women in sport. REF!, a play by acclaimed playwright Sarah-Jane Dickenson and produced by SPACE2 is inspired by the real-life story of Julia Lee, the first woman to referee men’s rugby league. Julia is working with us on the project and our film of the play will help open the new Museum of Rugby League opening in Bradford in 2020. It will also form the inspiration for a Smart Gallery inviting other women to share their stories of rugby league.
As filmmakers we’ve always been keen to explore new as well as retro technologies, particularly ones that free us to become more agile, collaborative and unobtrusive in our filming practices. So we’ve created work on Super-16 film, 8mm, DV tape, Digibeta, and 4k with cameras such as Bolex, Digibeta, DVcam, Arri, and Aaton. And recently, like filmmakers such as Sean Baker and Steven Soderberg, we’ve been experimenting with iPhones and were looking for a project to film.
When artist Claire Morris-Wright first spoke to us about her Arts Council project, which was to be focused on a hedge in rural Northamptonshire, we knew we’d found our subject. We were entranced by the boldness of her narrow focus – a single hedge, viewed by a single artist, through the four seasons. We loved that it was both detailed in its observations and vast in its themes. We decided to film in a similarly focused way, with a single day to stand for each season, and to film only on iPhone (a 6s) using the FiLMic Pro app and natural light.
Our first day of filming - for the Winter Hedge - occurred on one of the coldest days of the year. The camera froze – we couldn’t focus or change the exposure. Our finger tips froze (we’d had to cut the finger-ends off gloves to be able to swipe the iPhone’s on-screen controls). The mic in the iPhone started to glitch too as the iPhone battery melted away like the snow we were tramping through. Claire froze too but was recovering from the flu so also ran a temperature!
It was a steep learning curve, but at no point did we regret the filming choices we made. We were able to move fast, react nimbly, and get close to Claire, her work and the landscape.
View the films at www.clairemorriswright.com
TX Monday 18th September, 2017 | Channel 4, 12.05am
We had the pleasure of working with one of the UK’s most talented artists, Tom Dale, on his film, A Cage For Voices, commissioned by Channel 4 for their Random Acts series and produced by Christmas TV & Film.
Tom has created a truly beautiful, visually arresting film, shot entirely under water, in which the depths of the ocean are probed by a voice looking to understand the significance of a series of objects that fall through the water from the surface above. Both compelling and disorientating, the water is at once a place of dreamlike, cosmic wonder and dark menace. Narrated by Anne M Wagner.
Getting good reviews is always a pleasure but getting a good review two decades after the programme transmitted is sensational! And yet that’s what’s happened.
Today, Christmas Eve 2015, AFTER ELLEN ran a celebration of Camp Christmas, (click here) a Christmas special we created for Channel 4 for Christmas Eve in 1994. At that time the UK was a pretty unfriendly place for the LGBT community. Section 28 had become law, ignorance about HIV was rampant and homophobic attacks were common both on the streets and in the media.
We decided we wanted to strike back, but rather than make a polemical documentary we decided to attack with humour, snow and woolly jumpers.
Both my producing partner and I were fans of the Perry Como-type Christmas shows we’d grown up with as kids, the ones with people gathered round a fire (singing), neighbours dropping by (more singing), and a flurry of snow when the family finally turned up (much much more singing). So we decided to try and create one of those feelgood, warm hearted shows with one fresh twist – everybody on the show would be gay.
At that time there were almost more reindeers pulling Santa’s sleigh than out celebrities. But luckily our first choices to host the show – Andy Bell and Melissa Etheridge – were not only out but up for taking part. We saw Lea DeLaria whilst we were in LA filming a documentary and she made us laugh so much we flew her over to London. We went to Zurich to film with Martina Navratilova, New York to film Quentin Crisp and the NY Gay Men’s Chorus, and to San Francisco where we filmed Armistead Maupin in bed. In the studio in London Julian Clary voiced our reindeer, Lily Savage served drinks, Stephen Fry agreed to be Father Christmas, and Derek Jarman thought it was such a politically bold idea that he determined to take part, despite his very poor health. Polly Perkins, one of the UK’s popular soap stars not only came on the show, she brought her kids to share the sofa with Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer (who was then the highest ranking female in the US military).
We filmed in one of London’s largest tv studios in front of a rowdy crowd. We’d built a real log cabin (well three walls of it) and had blown a large portion of the budget on the best type of fake snow. Our mothers and grandmothers were in the audience. The green room was a zoo. At one point, just before we were going to start filming it all got so delirious that Caz Gorham (my creative partner) and I locked ourselves in a tiny photocopying cupboard, said we were having a producers meeting and had a mad dance just to get rid of some of the nervous energy.
The show got good ratings, earned an immediate cult following and provoked questions in the House of Commons about the degeneracy of the whole enterprise. Amongst other things we were criticised for having Derek Jarman in an entertainment show on primetime tv when his HIV sickness was so evident. For us, his being there was precisely the point of the show, because the Christmas we showed that Christmas Eve wasn’t a fantasy; for us it presented a reality that was in many ways being denied. All we did was add some songs and turn the volume and the brightness up.
These were the givens: a chance to work with some of the best young talent in the UK, in the form of The National Youth Theatre; a new play commissioned by the NYT that had yet to be written; and the opportunity to create a half-hour film for Sky Arts that had the NYT at its heart and the creation of the new play as our starting point.
The play was to explore the age of consent, set against a background of sexting and the sexualisation of young people. For us, the opportunity to explore the landscape of the play with the active participation of young performers who had ownership of that subject matter was creatively exciting.
Our commissioning editor at Sky Arts, Jo McClellan, encouraged us to be innovative in form and process. What a gift!
As creatives, your own life and interests always informs your work - even when that work is not autobiographical. In recent months we'd been exploring ways in which we could take the sort of subject matter that interested us as documentary filmmakers, and explore it in a different medium - in particular ones that involved live performance. We'd been inspired by a number of plays and performance pieces we'd seen, above all ones that used the tools of verbatim theatre, film, and the opportunities offered by site-specific performances. As we thought about this Sky Arts project we saw how discoveries from our explorations could point the way to a textured, multi-layered film that combined documentary with scripted material created in response to issues that arose from the early-days workshops for the play. Something that would feel light on its feet with a loose, improvisatory style, yet that would also deliver in terms of narrative.
So we began with three threads that would draw us through our film: documentary filming of the NYT in workshops as they explored the landscape of the play; interviews and audition selfies from the performers; and finally we would discover and cast a handful of the company as characters for whom we would create scripted material that would be written, performed and filmed on location in immediate response to matters arising from the workshops.
In short - we'd be making it up as we went along.
For our process to work, as filmmakers we had to be well prepared yet alert to where the story might lead us - core documentary skills. It also required the creative support of Sky Arts, the NYT, our amazing crew and production team, and - above all - the courage and generosity of the NYT's young performers to welcome us in to their process and lay their talent on the line.
You can see how it all came together in July on Sky Arts - we'll let you know the transmission date very soon.
We’ve always enjoyed the minutiae of how others work – which is in part, how we’ve come to make so many documentaries about creative people. It’s why we’re enjoying this book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. It’s also why we used to scour second-hand bookshops to get the early volumes of The Paris Review: Writers At Work series.
Maya Angelou liked to write in a plain space away from her pretty home. Vita Sackville-West’s writing desk at Sissinghurst faces the wall, which put her back to her beloved garden. Patricia Highsmith wrote hunched over an Olympus portable typewriter, a glass of booze within arm’s reach. Dorothy Parker claimed she used to keep a notebook but could never remember where she’d put it. Our friend Joseph Mitchell, the great New Yorker writer, used to cut his typed drafts to pieces and reorder them, holding the new version together with paper clips.
We like to work, one of us typing at the keyboard, the other sprawled on the floor or loitering about the room. Other times we write and draw feverishly in notebooks, ideally made by Meade in the USA or a French-style ring-bound one with squared paper. We also like to be barefooted as we work.
We're not going to be able to get to see Monty Python Live (Mostly) at the 02. But the reunion has made us think about our South Bank Show on Terry Gilliam. Amongst other things he talks about why the Pythons worked. At a time when we seem obsessed with beats, tweets and talking down to audiences, he has a refreshingly clear and artist-lead take on creativity.
Snuck off from the writing desk to see an exhibition and came across this quote from Picasso. Roughly translated it means 'Should one paint what is on the face, what is in the face, or what is hidden behind the face.'
We realised that this is the question we've wrestled with our entire creative lives, whether making documentaries, writing a fiction film, or, as we're doing now, devising a fiction based on a real life.
For us, Picasso's question not only describes the challenge we have to answer, it plots the stages of the working process. You're attracted to the surface image, but to make a subject come alive you have to go deeper, as Katherine Mansfield wrote ‘…to speak to the secret self we all have.’ It’s the difference between looking and seeing.
We had the incredible experience of filming with Stevie Wonder in his Wonderland studios. We filmed as he composed and talked to him about his life in music. And what a life. By the time he’d graduated from high school he’d recorded twelve albums, had eight top-ten singles and was not only writing but producing songs (please take note Michael Gove, you idiot!).
Amongst others, we also got to interview the extremely insightful Syreeta, as well as the charming and funny Berry Gordy, (he welcomed us to his home with croissants and coffee) and we got to film in the original, tiny, Motown studios in Detroit. There were photos on the wall of all their artists, including Stevie, a very young and happy Michael Jackson playing baseball and – incredibly – Irene Ryan, better known as the Granny on the TV series The Beverley Hillbillies. Much of our filming with Stevie took place in the early hours of the morning, which is when he likes to work. It’s one of the few times that jetlag has worked for us!
This film, made for South Bank Show, was one of the first we made when we set up our company and was nominated for the Rose D’Or de Montreux, one of TV’s most revered International Awards.Those of you lucky enough to see Stevie perform on Clapham Common on Sunday 29th June at the Calling Festival, will be witnessing one of the greatest musicians of our time. Enjoy.
When Andy asked us to direct the video for his new single - his first collaboration with the Grammy-nominated producer Dave Audé - we were thrilled. Caz, Andy and I started to sketch out ideas to do with our current shared passions - Cocteau, the birth of film, paint slashes, scribbles and dogs.
Weeks later we were on set in a London film studio watching a world we'd imagined come into being, including candelabra held up by living arms, a flamboyant cloak made out of tissue paper, and a bemused minature Schnauzer named Lily. Sadly, Lily the dog ended up on the cutting room floor, but Richard from the Erasure fan club now has the cloak (so check out the fan site if you'd like to own it! ) Meanwhile we all have the video, of which we're very proud.