Savage Messiah: An Interview With Ken Russell

Someone once said that you should always decline the chance to meet your heroes face to face, you’ll only be disappointed with what you find. I have always felt that such words of deterrence, whilst reductive, were well worth bearing in mind. Nevertheless, when I was offered the chance to meet a man whom I consider to be one of the most visionary filmmakers this country has produced in the last 40 years I was, despite the nerves, more than willing to take the chance.

Ken Russell has carved out a remarkable career in Film, and prior to that Television, that displays a vociferous interrogation of the visual and aural parameters of filmmaking. Constantly testing the boundaries of style, taste and onscreen complexity Russell’s work at it’s best aspires to all that is great in cinema, at it’s worst, amidst moments of unbridled visual bombast, it is never less than interesting. Always willing to pursue his personal interests on screen, Russell’s films are almost all self-evident labours of love. Crafted with a flair for the elaborate that manifests itself in every facet of his work, the cinema of Ken Russell speaks of a characteristic style that transcends genre and subject matter.

Equally at home with Horror (The Devils, Lair of the White Worm) family musicals (The Boyfriend, which I am reliably informed “works on so many levels”) character driven period pieces (Women in Love, Savage Messiah, The Rainbow) Science Fiction (Altered States) or a riveting generic blend, Russell has continued to confound expectation and invigorate even pedestrian material with an injection of wit and excess.

Constantly seeking, in his own words, a perfect “wedding of image and music”, Russell continues to work in his own home, despite a virtual absence of financial or logistical support from the UK filmmaking community. His personal projects feed a still-strong desire to keep creating. Despite his advancing years, Ken Russell’s appetite for the problem-solving challenge of filmmaking has in no way diminished.

Future Movies met Mr Russell for lunch, where we gained an insight into a career devoted to keeping people hooked to the screen by any means necessary. Along the way we discussed past projects, present pre-occupations and future ambitions.

Future Movies: So tell us about your latest project, a biography of the Nineteenth Century scientist Nicola Tesla?

Ken Russell: That’s now been postponed. It was all set to go and then the President of Serbia was shot, and the country’s been in turmoil ever since. They were due to put in a chunk of the financing. Hopefully it will be made one day but not at the moment. At the moment I have a feature film coming out after Christmas called Jonathan Tooley. It’s a strange name and will probably be changed, it’s based on a children’s bestseller in America. It’s a very charming fantasy, primarily a children’s film but with lots for adults as well.

I am also working on a project of my own called “The Revenge of the Elephant Man and Other Tails” (Ken assures me that T-A-I-L-S is the intending spelling). I have just started shooting it in my back garden on digital video and hopefully it will be released on DVD eventually.

FM: You mentioned the DVD format, how is it that most of your best-known feature films are not available on DVD in the UK?

KR: Search me! I guess they don’t appear to be commercial. Of course most of my stuff is available in America, just not here. Over there most of the shops have shelves devoted to my films alone but that’s not the case here.

FM: What attracts you to Biography in your films?

KR: Well it started when I joined the BBC Monitor programme, which was the first arts programme in the World. It was about artists and the various directors and producers on the programme were encouraged to make programmes about their particular hobbyhorses. Mine was music, so I started on the classical composers: Elgar, Delius, Bartok, Prokofiev and so on. I loved their music and that led me into discovering about their lives and throwing light on them as individuals.

FM: So you threw yourself into the work?

KR: Yeah, it was like a paid hobby. It started off as very simple twenty-minute documentaries which soon developed into drama documentaries that lasted over an hour, essentially mini feature films.

FM: Do you feel that as you moved into making features your approach to onscreen biographies changed?

KR: Not really. One had more money to spend and so one could afford to be more spectacular, such as in The Music Lovers (about Russian composer Tchaikovsky) that had a big budget. All of the work done for the Monitor programme was, in contrast, very low budget so you had to think about the subject in a different sort of way.

FM: When watching your films it becomes evident that they are trying to transcend reality.

KR: Reality is a dirty word for me, I know it isn’t for most people, but I am not interested. There’s too much of it about.

FM: Do you see film as some sort of transcendental experience?

KR: Music I do, but not films very often.

FM: Were you not trying to strive for that in your work at any time?

KR: Well my films do rely on music and imagery. I soon realised that a certain image with the right music creates something “Other”. I discovered that when I used to show films during the war in my Dad’s garage. I had a 9.5 millimetre Ace projector. I showed a lot of Charlie Chaplin, Felix the Cat and Betty Boo but the only films available that weren’t shorts were German Expressionist films. So I was showing Siegfreid by Fritz Lang, and as he was slaying the fire breathing dragon sons of Siegfreid were dropping firebombs on us, and the irony never struck me. I also showed Metropolis and I had one classical record to accompany it and I found that when the march from “Things to Come” by Arthur Bliss happened to coincide with a scene from Metropolis it fitted just perfectly. On the other side of the record a much more romantic march by Edvard Greig fitted the epic hero of Siegfreid slaying the dragon. It made a huge difference on the audience too I could tell and so from that moment on I really appreciated the wedding of image and music.

FM: it’s interesting that you mention German Expressionism as a formative influence, it certainly emerges in your mature work

KR: Yeah, that and Jean Cocteau. His films (La Belle et La Bete, Orpheus) made a big impact on me. The third amateur movie I made Amelia and the Angel was heavily influenced by Cocteau. It was the one that got me into the BBC.

FM: You have begun to shoot films at home now; do you also edit them at home and do all the post-production there?

KR: Yes, I edit my so-called home movies on a machine called the Casablanca; it’s nothing to do with Humphrey Bogart. It’s a rather unique editing machine because it has Victorian picture frames around the images and it’s as though Thomas Edison invented this electronic editing machine, it works along very basic picture book terms. It is very simple to operate. I have edited a couple of movies on it so far. Alongside these home movies I am writing a series of books on composers. The first one is concerned with Brahms, it’s called “Brahms gets laid” and it’s a new look at someone who is usually associated with the 3 B’s: Beard, Belly and Beer but was a honky-tonk pianist in the red-light district of Hamburg until the age of twelve and he therefore probably knew a good deal about sex. Having made a film on Elgar for the BFI in 2002 (Elgar:Fantasy of a composer on a Bicycle) I have written one on Elgar called “Elgar: The Erotic Variations”, as opposed to the Enigma Variations and am now working on one about Delius.

FM: When you started making features were you surprised at the freedom you could enjoy, in contrast to the more restrictive nature of Television?

KR: With the first big feature film I made, Billion Dollar Brain, I could afford to have an army on an expanse of ice and have the army fall through the ice, well of course you couldn’t do that on TV. Feature filmmaking was far freer and pictorially the sky was the limit, but the budgetary limitations of TV didn’t bother me, it meant you were forced to use you imagination even more. When I did a TV film on Claude DeBussy I couldn’t afford to recreate turn of the century Paris so I thought of another way of doing it, which was equally imaginative and possibly added another dimension. I set it in Eastbourne, where he wrote one of his greatest pieces: La Mer> i combined this with a modern allegory of another of his pieces, a cantata about St Sebastian, as the centre of the drama. I soon realised that although we were an arts programme we came on at 9.30 on a Sunday evening and I had to keep the father of the house from getting up and changing the channel, so before he could get up I wanted to pin him to his seat. So my film about DeBussy opens with a girl in a t-shirt crucified being shot full of arrows by a bunch of other beautiful young girls in t-shirts.

FM: So I am guessing that Dad liked that?

KR: Yes, Dad sat back down and was too tired to get up to change the channel again so he watched the entire thing, that was my theory anyway and it to a large extent it worked.

FM: Very pragmatic.

KR: There was always a reason for the impacting opening and that would be explained later in the programme. Again, that was just the use of imagination with one idea following on from the other. Whereas if I had a lot of money at my disposal I would have probably shot it in Paris and would have not come up with that sequence. However, when I did start making feature films there was a lot more money to play around with. You have to remember that in the sixties England had the “Swinging” reputation in Hollywood and for almost any idea that you could come up with the sky was the limit. This was not just true for me but also for John Schlesinger or Karel Reisz or any number of filmmakers at that time. You only had to convince 2 or 3 people, nowadays you have to convince two or three hundred. Also it’s not just one company these days making the films it’s part of the budget from here, another part from there. You could have ten investors and they could all have a say about what you do with their money, so the limitations today are extraordinary.

FM: Recently you have talked about censorship, particularly in relation to The Devils. Given the somewhat protracted tussle with the censor, especially in the Seventies, do you feel a sense of satisfaction that the restrictions in relation to film are finally being relaxed or do you not feel they are being relaxed enough?

KR: I’m not one to talk with any sort of authority on that. In relation to The Devils, recently some censored footage from the film was found and incorporated into a documentary, well there’s quite a reasonable chance that it will be reinstated into the movie and reissued. It’s not definite but they are having talks, which is very promising. It had to go before the censor before it was shown on channel 4 anyway so there is no problem with the material now appearing in a feature film. I was always fairly lucky with the censors. John Trevelyan (Head of the British Board of Film Classification in the late 60’s and early 70’s) was very good; he stuck his neck out to keep the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love. He argued that it wasn’t me who put the scene in it was the author D.H Lawrence, so it wasn’t for pure sensationalism; it was an integral part of the novel.

FM: Definitely. It was an integral point for the relationship between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates’ characters in the film. It’s where their friendship really takes off.

FM: Do you feel filmmakers should always indulge themselves?

KR: I don’t quite know what that means. Films are hard to make and I think the word indulge really leads one to believe that it’s an easy sort of business and it’s really extremely difficult. You’ll be standing out there in the rain thinking that it’s not an easy job being a film director. But the director is the director and if he feels for whatever reason, perhaps under great delusion, that he wants that scene and he can get away with it even though it might be questionable in terms of taste then he should be allowed to do it. It’s his movie. But if the committee steps in and says you can’t do that because we’re going to cut it out then it’s a waste of time.

FM: Do you feel you were always able to make the films you wanted to make in the way you wanted to make them?

KR: I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard, but as I said with The Devils a very important, climactic scene was cut out. I have had other little scenes cut out here and there but on the whole I’ve been pretty fortunate.

FM: How do you feel about being labelled as an Iconoclast?

KR: Wasn’t Jesus Christ an iconoclast? Oliver Reed used to call me Jesus, so I’m in good company!

FM: It’s funny, because when people use the term iconoclast they often mean something derogatory but I think it can sometimes be a positive thing.

KR: Well, I don’t believe in sacred cows.

FM: Do you feel you are still learning?

KR: Oh yes. All the time, and that’s the exciting thing. Filmmaking still requires you to be very inventive. I was shooting a scene in my garden last Sunday and I got my neighbour to turn off his chainsaw but I hadn’t asked him to stop his children playing football. The endless sound of the ball being kicked made it impossible for me to shoot the scene in the way that I had envisaged it. So suddenly I had to think of a new location, move all the equipment, reorganise the whole idea and start again. It’s tiring and it’s frustrating but you have to solve those problems, it’s easy to give up, but you have to press on. There’s always another way and you have to use your brain to think what that way is.

FM: Do you have any advice to pass on to young filmmakers?

KR: Just make films. Everyone can do it. Even if young filmmakers don’t have a camera of their own they will know someone who has one, every other person in the country has got one. For the price of a pint of beer you can buy a tape and shot a half hour movie, you can get your friends to help you and end up shooting it for next to nothing.
You do need drive and you must believe in your subject and have no illusions. It’s a trial and error thing, but once you’ve shot something, if it hasn’t worked wipe the tape and start over again, but keep at it. There is no excuse these days for someone who wants to make movies; you just need yourself, one tape and a borrowed camera. Good luck to everyone who has a go, you’ll be surprised at the results.

Ken Russell will be director-in-residence throughout the 11th Raindance Film Festival, which takes place between the 24th October and the 7th November 2003.

Thanks to Laura at Idea Generation for arranging our meeting with Ken Russell.

Selected Filmography:

Charged: The Life of Nikola Tesla (2003) (in production)
Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle (2002)
The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002)
Lion’s Mouth (2000)
Dogboys (1998)
Whore (1991)
The Rainbow (1989)
Lair of the White Worm, The (1988)
Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
Aria (1987)
Gothic (1986)
Crimes of Passion (1984)
Altered States (1980)
Valentino (1977)
Lisztomania (1975)
Tommy (1975)
Mahler (1974)
Savage Messiah (1972)
The Boy Friend (1971)
The Devils (1971)
The Music Lovers (1971)
Women in Love (1969)
Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

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