SIMON RELPH on BILL DOUGLAS

Interviewed recorded 18th Oct 2005

Andy Kimpton-Nye: HOW DID YOU COME TO BE PRODUCER ON BILL DOUGLAS’ COMRADES?

Simon Relph: I think I first heard about it from David Rose because he was working with Ishmail Merchant who was the original producer of Comrades and clearly Bill and Ishmail weren’t quite hitting it off. They’d been on a recce to Australia I think and it wasn’t working out terribly well and so David said to me would I be interested in doing it. I had this… curious thing that my father was head of the production board when Bill’s trilogy, certainly the first two films I think, were under his aegis. I remember going as a young man to visit my father and him being on the phone all weekend talking to Mamoun about Bill and how difficult he was being about this or that. So he wasn’t entirely unknown to me, I mean I’d actually seen one of the films I think. So I went along to meet Bill in a pub near Archer St, where his flat was in Archer St. I’d read the script which I thought was absolutely extraordinary, I mean, Bill’s scripts, which I’m sure you’ve read, are not like anybody else’s scripts and this was such a vision in a sense. And I was quite excited by the whole idea. I think I thought it was a little bit long even at that time and I suppose I thought as a producer that I might somehow influence him, but it became very clear actually in the end as soon as I started talking to him that that wasn’t actually what it was about really. So anyway I went back to David and said I would be very interested and Bill obviously liked me so… I think Ishmail kind of tactfully withdrew. And I started to work with Bill. And basically the money for the film was sort of there within reason and the problem was… part of the problem was that Ishmail who was a master of low budget films hadn’t been able to kind of balance what was available in terms of the money and what Bill’s ambitions were and that was my sort of first task was to try and bring those two things together. A lot of the time with Bill it was difficult to get him to say what he really thought you know, what he… he was always a terribly considerate man. He was always actually wishing to make you feel good in a sense, you know. So he would sometimes give you answers to questions where you wanted to know what he thought, but he’d give you the answer that he thought you wanted to hear. And that wasn’t actually in the end terribly helpful…

THAT’S INTERESTING THAT BILL WAS TRYING TO GIVE YOU WHAT YOU WANTED,I THOUGHT HE COULD BE QUITE DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH?

Oh yes he was. Once he got down to actually doing it he was incredibly difficult because he knew exactly what he wanted, but he somehow couldn’t always convey that to everybody and if he couldn’t get what he wanted, he’d just go into a kind of big sulk… basically and nothing would get through to him. But if say you were having a conversation about which cameraman or which this person or that…. he would almost be sort of having to try and feel that he should…. Well, he was a very sweet man, a sweet natured man actually, a very gentle man, but when it came down to it, when you’re actually there doing it, my God then he was completely ruthless, which is actually another feature of a great director… about getting what he wanted. Often it didn’t quite go the way he wanted. The vision was not… whatever was coming up was not quite how he had imagined it. So that always led to great difficulty. And sometimes he couldn’t tell you why… he couldn’t say it isn’t right because… and be specific. He knew it wasn’t right and he couldn’t convey why and sometimes that was, as a producer, was very, very difficult.

HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH THAT AS A PRODUCER?

I didn’t get round Bill Douglas. I saw my role very quickly as basically helping Bill to realise his own vision, that’s what I was there to do and to do it somehow within the cost. I didn’t manage that because in fact we went significantly over budget. The budget wasn’t huge, but we had quite a long shoot. Everything went fine in England actually, went really well but it was when we got to Australia that things got difficult. And there was all kinds of personal things which I didn’t entirely know about, to do with the fact that Bill knew his father was somewhere in Australia and he kept on wondering, didn’t say this to me, but actually was haunted by the idea that the father might suddenly turn up.

I HEARD TELL THAT THE CAST AND CREW WOULD FORGO THEIR WAGES BECAUSE OF OVER-RUN IN AUSTRALIA, WAS THAT THE CASE?

I don’t remember that specifically, but everybody felt like that about the film and about Bill, the actors particularly were incredibly sort of in awe of him in many ways and respectful of him and loved what we were trying to do. I’m not quite sure how they did that, but I guess they just knew that, as we all did, that we were in the presence of a real master and when you are… then you make all kinds of exceptions. Because he was and could be extremely demanding. I remember on one occasion, we came back to England and we were starting to do some re-shoots and things. One thing was in Dorchester High Street, we’d done a really big scene in Dorchester High Street with, you know, carriages and sheep and goodness knows what – we’d stopped the whole town in fact. And now we needed to go back because as I remember it I think there was a sequence where Alex Norton who plays this character in Comrades who appears many times, was sort of watching from a basement and as he was to see the carriage pass by you get this peculiar optical effect, which was very difficult to do… because it is an effect you can see with the eye, but to do it with a camera that’s you know going through at 24 frames a second, was… and I’m not actually even sure that we achieved it. And there were various other little pick-ups and things that we were trying to do on that day and he was being incredibly difficult. And I remember I went around the corner to have a conversation and I actually ended up with my hands round his neck. (laughs). And I remember that Mamoun had told me a tale about Bill at one point in the middle of one of the (TRILOGY) films, I think it must have been My In Folk where Bill had taken a telephone and wound the cable around his neck… threatening to strangle. But then after hours, he’s the life and soul of the party in a sense and he liked a party, he liked going out with people.

SO HE COULD BE A DIFFICULT MAN, BUT NOT A VIOLENT MAN THEN…?

No never, no absolutely not. He was… I mean he really was a kind of master of cinema and he had an exceptional, extraordinary kind of wonderful, poetic vision. He told stories in pictures and that’s what he was all about. But he just… there was this kind of curious thing where if you came in and said, or somebody did, and said why don’t we do this, Bill wouldn’t come out immediately and say no that’s not what I want, I don’t want to do that. He’d sort of... he’d feel he’d have to be respectful in some way and kind of work his way back to what he really wanted to do and that was sometimes very frustrating. It would’ve been much better if he’s simply said, no.

WHAT DID YOU MAKE OF PRE-CINEMA STRAND RUNNING THROUGHOUT COMRADES?

I loved that and telling the story of… the whole idea of the character of Alex (Norton who plays something like 13 different characters in COMRADES)… and maybe you don’t know this, but after Comrades, Bill and I did start to work on another project, which was another pre-cinema story about Muybridge. So, it seemed to be a kind of running theme for him in his films. There was only a little bit of this in the early films, but you know the story of the lovely visit to the cinema, the jam jars and all that. And that collection of things that Bill (Bill and his lifelong friend Peter Jewell collected some 50,000 objects of film memorabilia which are now housed at the Bill Douglas Museum, Exeter University) with no resources at all, with nothing, with no money because they never had any money…

DID HE EVER TALK TO YOU ABOUT THAT COLLECTION OF FILM MEMORABILIA?

I only ever went to the flat once actually because it was a very, very tiny flat and it was made even tinier because he had all these book shelves, because he collected these incredible… the ultimate collection of books on cinema. I discovered later in fact that actually there were two layers in… which may account for why the rooms were so small… he had one lot of book shelves and when that was finished he built another lot of book shelves in front. There were 25,000 books. I mean you’ll have to ask Peter whether that was actually true but… it was absolutely miniscule the little room I sat in and all the stuff, all the pre-history stuff was all kept in their house in Barnstable which was I think was a family house of Peter’s. I never did see that but I knew about Bill’s kind of fascination and any kind of street market he was down there sort of picking things over and looking for stuff.

WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO COMRADES AS AN IDEA FOR A FILM?

Well, I mean I suppose my films have all been kind of political in a sense with a small ‘p’. I like pictures about people and relationships and that’s what I thought was so wonderful in Comrades. The simplicity with which Bill described the various different family relationships… and for me cinema has always been ultimately a mechanism for telling stories in pictures and doing it with as few words as possible and Bill seemed to be the person who was actually doing that. I guess, you know Bill was curious because he was very keen on commercial cinema, he went to the cinema, he enjoyed seeing mainstream movies, but didn’t actually in the end want to do that himself. I mean he wanted to do, he had a total strong vision of how he wanted to tell his stories and the rhythm of those films and the rhythm of Comrades and I think of all of them, is actually quite different to contemporary cinema which is all paced up. And yet somehow there is always something really interesting happening…. well obviously I watch Comrades still now, every couple of years I’m invited to go somewhere and show it. And it’s wonderful the way actually audiences who know nothing about the film or even about Bill respond to that film; how moved they are by it. But the film we were working on, Flying Horse (the film about Muybridge), was set in America and actually was more conventional… It was very clever because he was telling a story on two levels. There was a front story which was about a film-maker who was actually trying to find a lost son of Edward Muybridge and this story was told running parallel with the story of Muybridge himself. The story of Muybridge himself is actually kind of highly melodramatic in the sense that he married this young girl and was always going off himself as it were, on location taking photographs and things in Yosemite Park. Left his wife behind, introduced her to an English friend of his, who was a theatre critic, encouraged her to go to the theatre with this man. They then began having an affair because he was away so much and Muybridge came back and found out about this and took a gun and went and shot this guy. And then had this, I think Clarence Darrow to defend him, and somehow or other got off. Came back here and ended up in Weybridge I think. But the film, the script was full of that kind of drama… so it was rather a different thing for Bill who still had this whole fascination with Muybridge and his photographing running horses to try and decide whether their feet were off the ground.

WHAT WAS BILL LIKE WITH ACTORS?

Very good. They loved him, they loved him. He wasn’t… he was quite sort of quiet, but there always seemed to be a great sense, a feeling of satisfaction amongst the actors. It was a long haul, Comrades. We were shooting in England for 11-12 weeks and then we went off to Australia, then we ran into Christmas and we had to have Christmas in Australia and then go on afterwards by which time we were over budget. So I think probably the story in the book is true. The film financiers who were our guarantors were absolutely marvellous about it actually. There was never any suggestion ever that they were going to… they just wanted to find any way they could of helping Bill to finish the film. But Bill was somebody, I mean he really minded about he fact he’d gone over budget. That wasn’t his way, he was proud of being… I mean he never had any money himself, so he was always actually… it upset him that that had happened. I think actually, I’ve never had this conversation with him, but I think that the second half of the film is very different from the first half of the film. He never… I don’t think he really wanted it to be two halves. He wanted it to be continuous; he wanted it to be one film and to use this wonderful device for taking it… of showing us… the voyage… it’s a panorama effect. I was going to say it’s a panorama yes. And that takes you into another world. But there is a totally different feel to it.

THERE’S A STORY THAT HE ORIGINALLY WANTED TO SCREEN IT IN TWO FORMATS, WITH THE DORSET HALF IN 4:3 AND THE AUSTRALIA HALF IN 16:9, WITH CINEMA SCREENS EXTENDING INTO WIDE SCREEN HALF-WAY THROUGH THE FILM, IS THAT TRUE?

Yes absolutely, he did, he absolutely did.

WHAT DID PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THAT?

He wanted to have different sizes, but we couldn’t do it, they said we couldn’t do it, we were told we couldn’t do it.

IT WAS AN AMAZING REQUEST THOUGH…

Yes, yes, that’s what he would have liked to have done. Because he saw the Australian sequence as being a western. And actually there are moments in it when it is. I mean the sequence with Vanessa, I mean there’s some wonderful footage in that actually. But at the same time it has a kind of fairy tale kind of quality about it that… for me I think there are some wonderful images in it, but I think for me the first half of the film is you know kind of what you would expect in a sense from a mature film-maker who made The Trilogy… and I thought it was completely stunning. There is a certain sort of naivety, a primitive quality about the second half of the film, which to me was less exciting, less interesting.

IT FEELS MORE TIED DOWN TO PLOTTING AND RESOLVING NARRATIVES….?

Exactly, well, he’s trying to tell six stories and he does it actually really cleverly. I mean the way he links them, the way he… but it’s sort of kind of schematic and it’s not quite… it doesn’t feel…. and he’s trying something different and I think it’s good, but I don’t think it’s as good as the first bit and it’s not sort of typically Bill. Except for certain moments when they’re reunited by the tree and all that sort of thing. I mean there are certain wonderful moments there….

WHAT WAS THE OUTCOME OF THAT SCENE OF YOU WITH YOUR HANDS ROUND BILL’S NECK?

Well… that’s the wonderful thing. I could have these sort of rows with Bill but we stayed… I mean, I remember one of the great moments actually of our whole relationship was when the film was shown in the London Film Festival at the Empire, which was always Bill’s dream to play the film in a huge big cinema. And he wouldn’t dare go in the cinema, wouldn’t, so we sort of clambered around the edge and found our way up under the fire escape or something and then we crept in through a back door and sort of peered right from the back of the circle at the screen. And then… we had the most incredible reception for the film.

THERE WERE CHANGES AFTER THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL SCREENING, WEREN’T THERE…?

Bill and I, I think we probably introduced the beginning of the film and then he was sort of too scared to watch the film, to go and sit in a seat so he wanted to hang around the back and then somehow we found ourselves actually southside on fire escapes or something, looking, trying to get in at the back of the circle which we eventually did. Watched bits of it and then he ran away. And then when the film finished, there was an incredible, incredible reception… just huge cheers and everything. And I think we did some sort of Q&A and went in, but I thought ‘that’s great’ after all that work. Anyway, then we came out and Bill announced to me, like the next day he rings me up and says ‘it’s not right, it’s not my film, I want to change it’. And it wasn’t actually. What had happened was that Mick Audsley had cut the film and it was about 3 hours and 25 minutes long and I still have that version actually on UHV, those thick tapes that we used to use. And then David Rose and others started saying, trying to impose cuts and editing… David Rose went away and actually did a version of the film with an editor, a very good editor called Bill Diver, just to sort of demonstrate how he thought the film might be edited. Then Mick Audsley, who had been cutting the film, had a pre-commitment to do another film, so he had to leave. And we had hired an editor called Mike Ellis, also brilliant, clever, good editor, got on very well with Bill. And so the version we had at that London Film Festival was sort of a version that had had quite a lot of outside influence on it and there were clearly cuts and things in it that he just didn’t feel right about. So, gracefully, I have to say, because at this time we were out on a limb in terms of money, Film Four and I think Roger Wingate who was behind Curzon, allowed us to do another period of editing before the film was finally released. It wasn’t in the end, I think, any longer. The film version that we saw, that we showed at the Empire was about 2 hours 50. And I think the final version was 3 hours maybe, but we didn’t go back to the 3 hours 25 minutes. So the version that, the final version of the film is something that was not the one that was shown at the London Film Festival. And we had a great screening at the Curzon, West End for the TUC, which was actually quite a moving moment because this was the beginning of their whole movement.

HOW IMPORTANT WAS PETER JEWELL (BILL’S LIFELONG FRIEND)TO BILL DURING COMRADES?

Well, I mean, you know, Peter was always around. Not so much actually while we were shooting. I think Peter was always looking at the material. Clearly Bill completely trusted Peter’s… Peter’s sort of… he would want Peter to see everything and I’m not quite sure how it worked between them on the… I think Peter really was a sort of script editor, somebody who would say ‘I don’t think that’s quite right’ or ’ I don’t think this is quite right’. Because everything came out of Bill’s wonderful typewriter, which was a portable, very ancient typewriter, very distinctive. You recognised a Bill Douglas script by the type immediately. So my sense is that Peter had been constantly reading things and giving notes effectively to Bill and that they would be notes that he respected probably more than any. And I think sometimes Peter did do some writing on his own account around Bill’s… you could tell talking to Peter how completely respectful he is of Bill’s talent in a sense. So everything was only in a sense about trying to add to that. But he wasn’t around, he didn’t come to Australia for example.

WHY DID BILL END UP MAKING SO FEW FILMS?

I don’t know the answer to that. There’s a huge long gap isn’t there between the end of the Trilogy… first of all there’s a gap between the second and third…

WHERE HE WAS WAITING FOR STEPHEN ARCHIBALD (THE MAIN CHARACTER IN THE TRILOGY) TO GROW UP ALMOST….

Yes almost. But he’s so full of ideas, you can’t believe…. I can’t believe there aren’t lots of other scripts lying around somewhere. He had the whole kind of long flirtation with Confessions of a Justified Sinner that went on and I think pre-dated Comrades... There was definitely a script of Confessions… before Comrades.

WAS IT A PERSONALITY THING AS HE HAD A REPUTATION FOR BEING DIFFICULT…?

I should think so, yes. I mean it was a very difficult time around then (the 70s/80s). I left the film industry for a bit and went to the National Theatre because there was nothing happening through the middle of the 70s and it was the 80s that actually brought about the kind of potential, the possibility of a film-maker like Bill working on a feature as opposed to a very low cost BFI film. So we made the film in… I guess we started making the film in the early 80s. I must have started working with Bill in 83/84. It didn’t eventually come out until 1986/87, yes. It was what I did just before I went to run British Screen, immediately before… and it was shot in the autumn of 85, that’s right and we finished it sort of February 86. We came back and the editing was going through most of 86, we were in the London Film Festival the end of 86, then the whole re-edit came. So I think unfortunately for Bill, he hit a period where it was very hard for original film-makers like him to get anything done. So partly I suppose it was to do with timing. And as soon as, thank God, as soon as Channel 4 was there and David Rose and particularly Jeremy Isaacs, who was a Scot and a real fan of Bill’s, they were able to say ‘we’re going to make a film with Bill’. And he needed somebody to do that. Thank God they did. Well in truth, if they hadn’t, there might not have been any other films… just The Trilogy.

WHAT’S YOUR ABIDING MEMORY OF BILL DURING FILMING OF COMRADES?

I don’t really remember the strangulation moment… I was… Bill was great fun you know, he was lovely to be with and I think you know we got to a pretty good relationship and I felt I was able to give him what he needed to realise his dream. He was sometimes exasperating, but the material was clearly outstanding and extraordinary and that was apparent from the rushes. So one knew one was doing something really rather special. One of the best bits… when we came back to England and we had still got these little bits to do at the end… for one of them, we needed winter shots. We had deliberately planned to go to Australia because he wanted all the seasons in the film… and then to come back in the winter in the UK and do some winter shots. And then also some of these pick-ups like the one I was talking about in Dorchester High Street arose. And that was budgeted and planned. So one day Bill suddenly says, we were going back to Tyneham, which was where we built the village. Unfortunately, there had been a terrible storm and a lot of the houses had been damaged; they all had to be repaired and everything. But he said ‘I need snow for this’. And he’d told me famous stories about how he’d done snow in The Trilogy by getting flour, or salt or flour or something that he’d just gone out and bought and sprinkled and made it look like snow… and it did indeed look very good. But this film, we were talking about a huge landscape, so I said to Bill, ‘Bill we have to shoot it tomorrow, we can’t sit around and wait for it maybe to snow’. And amazingly it did, it did snow. It was extraordinary that we woke up in the morning and it was actually snowing so hard we couldn’t even get in to Tyneham to do the shots. So that shot of Legg going away with his two children in the snow… that was how Bill saw it and it just happened. I mean, it was incredible. Whether he was in touch with somebody up there (points to the heavens), I don’t know. It was, it was wonderful.

400Blows Productions, Oct 2005.


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