A Quiet Maverick: Interview with “sleep furiously” director Gideon Koppel

British filmmaker Gideon Koppel sounds almost apologetic when he describes his work as “quite maverick” – but he shouldn’t. After all, his debut feature, sleep furiously – a haunting, elegiac documentary portrait of Trefeurig, the Welsh farming community where he grew up – has earned the enthusiastic patronage of esoteric directors such as Alex Cox (who called it “infinitely beautiful) and Mike Figgis (who signed on as its executive producer). His path into filmmaking isn’t what you’d call conventional either.

Gideon Koppel (photo: Dave Swindells)

From the age of 18 he trained for three years as a sound engineer in London and worked with Queen on the Flash Gordon soundtrack.  The experience led him to study film after being invited to the London School of Printing to talk to the students about using sound in film. After doing a post-graduate degree at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London, he spent twenty years working as a “gun for hire” in British television and adverts, making, among other things, documentaries about the fashion world (he was the last person to film Gianni Versace). He also collaborated on an art installation with production designer Dante Ferretti and Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons for the Florence Biennale.

Koppel is currently working on another installation; a fragmented film project comprised of 30 shorts for the poet Paul Celan, and a script for a feature film about lead miners in 18th century Wales. Of that project, he says it has a McCabe and Mrs Miller vibe (“It’s like a Western outpost full of itinerant workers”), though he also says he’s had some discussions with Richard D. James, the electro musician better known as Aphex Twin (and whose music features in sleep furiously) about turning it into an opera.

Keyframe: From the sound of your upcoming work, it’s clear that you have a unique approach to your projects; that’s something that comes through very clearly in sleep furiously. Its style is very unobtrusive, but at the same time there are very specific flourishes that help it evoke certain moods and themes revolving around ways of life that are disappearing and ideas about childhood. How did that style evolve?

Gideon Koppel: My approach to making films evolved very much from watching films and becoming absorbed in the work of other filmmakers and artists. There are a lot of references to paintings and literature. One of the key influences was the [Austrian writer] Peter Handke. My producer encouraged me to meet him and we talked about what stories could be. He really enabled me to give up the notion that a story had to have this big dramatic arc; it could be a gesture or a moment that you blow up, with the camera acting like a microscope. He also gave me the confidence to make the film as I saw it and not the film that I was expected to make. There are enormous pressures on artists to make the work that they’re expected to make.


Keyframe: What did you feel you were expected to make?

Koppel: I guess there was a level of expectation that sleep furiously would be a kind of Être et Avior [To Be and To Have, the hit documentary of French village schoolchildren directed by Nicholas Philibert] set in Wales.

Keyframe: That was certainly a film a lot of UK critics – myself included – referenced when writing about sleep furiously. I understand it can be frustrating to be grouped together with other directors, but over the last few years, there have been films like sleep furiously, Être et Avior and, more recently, movies such as Lisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass and Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach that seem to be attempting to document vanishing or marginal ways of life in much more lyrical and poetic ways. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be?

Koppel: I’m not sure if there’s something new in that or whether it’s to do with the way documentaries are now funded. Until recently mainstream television funded a lot of documentary work and television demanded a certain kind of narrative that was dominated by a journalistic idiom rather than a visual or aesthetic one. Television isn’t providing that finance any more, so perhaps there are new kinds of freedoms. In terms of documentaries, there does seem to be a sense that the form is returning to notions of cinema, rather than a kind of journalistic form.

Keyframe: There are points in sleep furiously when it could have become a more conventional, journalistic story about, say, a community’s fight to save the village hall, but instead such details are woven into the overall fabric of the film. Were you consciously trying to avoid making that kind of film then?

Koppel: I wasn’t trying to avoid it. The film is always described as a documentary, and as such, people are locked into trying to determine what it’s about. But for me there are two layers to sleep furiously. There’s the manifest film, which is the documentary that people write about: the film that can be equated with something like Être et Avior. But I’m more interest in the latent film, and the latent film is sort of a journey from nature to culture, or a journey depicting a form of growing up or evolving.

Koppel's mother Pip walks the Welsh countryside

Keyframe: There’s an interesting scene where your mum, Pip, visits your father’s grave. In past interviews you’ve talked about the fact that, as German Jews, they had to flee the Nazis and all the horror connected with that. Their story is not something you delve into directly in sleep furiously, yet it seems to be very present. How do you feel it informs the film?

Koppel: It informs it in that it’s something that I wrestle with. I don’t know whether it was conscious on my parents’ part, but they kept their children away from their own history. I didn’t really have a sense of my parents’ history or a sense of being Jewish. I didn’t have that sense because I was never exposed to it in a political way, and it kind of haunted me all my life. I suppose when wrestling with these things, I get embarrassed because they open up all kinds of clichés. I don’t want to look at these things in a polemical way. I’m much more interested in how things filter through in a lyrical way.

Keyframe: It seems as if you didn’t want to know where sleep furiously would take you when you started. What was the initial concept?

Koppel: It probably goes back several decades. I knew I wanted to make a film that incorporated the fragments of memory of my childhood – and not just the memory of the dramatic moments, but also the sensibility of childhood. I suppose one thing that was important to me from the outset was developing a narrative that had to do with associative links, rather than logical links, from one event to another. I was also really interested in the juxtaposition of the intimacy of human gesture and the epic scale of human landscape.

Keyframe: You’ve said sound is very important to you: how did the collaboration with Aphex Twin come about?

Koppel: We didn’t really collaborate. I had a very particular sense of how I wanted to work with music in film. Each piece of music is the voice of a different character or an environment so I knew that each piece of music had to be made by one person in the way that the camera is singularly my eye. I kind of threw music at the film and it became very apparent that Richard James’s music worked. All the different voices were present in his music. Richard also comes from Wales, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that somehow there was a recognizable relationship between Aphex Twin music and the film. I sent Richard a rough cut of the film with his music cut into it. He said very flattering things about the film. He didn’t like the way I edited the music and was very clear about that, but he was really generous and very supportive and let me keep the soundtrack.

Alistair Harkness is the film critic for The Scotsman newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter.


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