Throughout her storied career, Tilda Swinton has worked with dozens of directors of various backgrounds and abilities, but none has mattered more in shaping her work than Derek Jarman. Swinton’s first film role was in Jarman’s Caravaggio; over the next seven years they made several more films together, including The Last of England, Wittgenstein and Blue. The following are highlights from a much longer interview with Swinton on Jarman, conducted by Andy Kimpton-Nye. The full interview can be read on the website 400 Blows.
Andy Kimpton-Nye: WHEN AND WHERE DID YOU FIRST MEET DEREK JARMAN?
Tilda Swinton: I met him in such an orthodox and dull way. He was casting his film Caravaggio in 1985 and I went along to meet him.But we had various friends in common who’d been saying for a while that we should meet each other. And I remember meeting him in Phoenix House and he had a camera like this (points to mini DV camera), smaller than this a super 8 camera I think or was it a video? Itmight have been a video camera and he sort of opened the door and he had a camera and….that’s how it was.
WHAT WAS A DEREK JARMAN SET LIKE?
Well first of all there were many different ways of making a Derek Jarman film.Firstly we made, certainly when I was working with him, we made 2 different kinds, there was Derek Jarman red label and Derek Jarman light, or whatever… However, depending on who you are you would decide that one was one and the other was the other.There was Derek Jarman working with 35 mm which means one thing… I mean if your 35 mm films cost a lot to make because of film stock and because of light and because of the fact that your crew has to be unionised and time is of the essence you have to be much more organised. You generally have to have a script, not always but generally you do, and you generally need money up front which means you need financiers and you need some kind of approval and you need a schedule and that’s one way of working.To all intents and purposes that’s a much more orthodox way of working and Derek could work that way and we did work that way.We made Caravaggio that way. He made The Tempest that way and he made The War Requiem that way, even though there wasn’t actually a script for that as such, and Edward II and Wittgenstein, etc.
But then there were these other more experimental films like The Last of England, which was really the first, although he had already made Angelic Conversation by then, which were shot using super 8.And the freedom super 8 gave him and all of us was so phenomenal because it meant not only a sort of conceptual freedom, an artistic freedom but it also meant a practical freedom. For example, upfront, we didn’t need to raise any money, we didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to make the Last of England or The Garden. We just went out and shot because it cost nothing to shoot an endless home movie with a super 8 camera. And then at the end of a year of collating material just as anybody else collates home movie material, we would look at the material and we would say, oh there’s that and there’s that and there’s that and it was like collating an anthology of poetry really. And then we’d say we could put that there and that there if we shot a scene that went like this… And then we had a little structured shoot for about four or five days as we did with The Last of England and again with The Garden, which became the sort of tent poles for the rest of the material.But those were two completely different ways of working.
WATCH THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION ON FANDOR
UNLIKE MOST OF DEREK’S FILMS, CARAVAGGIO TOOK A LONG TIME TO FUND AND MAKE , DID IT AFFECT THE MOOD ON SET?
Well, I came on board right at the very end, but I was aware, as we all were, that Derek had been working on it for years.I’ve worked on a few films now that have been a film makers sort of lifelong task and there’s always the same feeling on set on those films which is sort of abandoned because the film maker is so thrilled most importantly to be working with company at last because those great lifelong tasks are usually so lonely for whatever, 5 years, or 11 years. I think it was 11 years with Caravaggio, that Derek was working on it. It was at least a decade.And it’s lonely that decade, so it’s so wonderful for a film-maker to actually have the group, being able to offload certain responsibilities and everybody else investing energy, so there ‘s a wonderful atmosphere. And I do remember that, it was my first film, and it was my first experience of that … coming together and I do remember that very well and I remember it was…. there were a lot of people working on that film for whom it was their first film, our first film and that was such a wonderful atmosphere. Sandy Powell, I think it was her first film, it was Gabriel Beristain’s first film as DOP, it was Simon Turner’s first film, Spencer Lee – all sorts of people, and yeah, it was quite a hit.
WATCH CARAVAGGIO ON FANDOR
IT APPEARS THAT DEREK WAS ALWAYS THE CENTRE OF ATTENTION WHEN THERE WAS A GROUP, AND HE LOVED TO TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING. WHY DID HE NEED TO HOLD COURT LIKE THIS?
Why did he need to…? He liked it, he liked it, he just loved a lot of attention, you know, he was… As I’ve said before many times Derek needed no muse but himself. He was his own best advertisement, he had an extraordinary charisma. He was a drama queen and he was so delightful with it unlike some. He was so infectiously delightful. I always think of that Huckleberry Finn story when I think of Derek, you know that thing about Huckleberry needing to get a fence painted and he just sits down and does one post and makes it look like such good fun that everyone comes and joins in and does it all in 5 minutes.That’s Derek, that’s how he got it done. He just looked like he was having such a good time that it just caught on.
But not only that, when I say Derek made films for the company, and this is something that I think is really important to understand, it wasn’t just for the company of the other film makers, us he worked with, but also with his audience.I think that’s really important and I include the audience for this programme and the audience for his work and his films and his writing and his painting and everything he ever did. His connection with the audience was so inspired and he worked out I think, whether consciously or unconsciously, at a certain point, coming out of the 70s I think, that his way to keep the party going was to make work for an audience.And anyone who ever sat in an audience with Derek, hearing him talk or introducing a film or even who saw him interviewed on television will testify to his real desire and ability to communicate with a group of people, so it’s not just the film he gives us, it’s… as I say, the chat afterwards, all of this he loved it. And I understand why, because incidentally, I love it in the same way, it’s really the point of the work.You make the film in order to get the audience at the film festival.That’s the way it’s always occurred to me and that was a thing I saw in Derek also.You make the work in order to make the company rather than the other way round. And I think that’s a really important thing to understand about him, which doesn’t devalue the work. The work is just as important of course, it’s a different thing but the relationship with the audience was pretty much paramount and you can see that, I think, in terms of the way in which his life eventually just before he died, after he became ill, he became a political activist more than anything else.And he was too ill at that stage to make films, but he went on making work, his work being the communication with… now I’m not even going to call it an audience any more, just his communication with people.And as a gay artist and a gay activist, he was always so concerned about… he always used to talk about what it was like, or what it would be like, because it wasn’t necessarily his experience, but he always used to think what it would be like to be 15 growing up on the Isle of Man knowing that you’re gay and if you could just read somewhere, or if you could just see in a film programme that there might be a film… or if you could just see on the television an openly gay artist talking, then you’d have company and then it would all work somehow and you’d probably come to London and look up Derek Jarman. That’s what I’m saying… that was really his work more than anything else I would say, but it’s hard to kind of catch hold of for people who are assessing a painting here or a film there.But that’s what his work was.
WAS HE DESTINED TO MAKE BLUE, NOT JUST BECAUSE OF HIS DESPERATELY POOR HEALTH, BUT BECAUSE IT’S THE PERFECT FILM TO END WITH – AS A CHALLENGE TO THE PANDEMONIUM OF THE IMAGE SOMETHING HE MENTIONS IN THE FILM?
I don’t like to think of it as a perfect end, because I don’t like to think of there being an end to his work… but maybe. I mean it’s possible that he would have made it if he hadn’t been ill. I think it’s possible that his great respect for Yves Kline might have made him make Blue anyway and it just wouldn’t have been about blindness. It just would have been about something else, so yeah, I think it’s perfectly possible that Blue would have existed if Derek had not lost his sight. It wasn’t primarily to do with that I don’t think. Yes and it is certainly…you know you can see the way in which The Last of England, which I have to confess, is still my favourite Derek Jarman film. Objectively it’s my favourite film, because of what it does to one. How it… churns one’s own projections.It begins that whole process in such an extraordinary way, and such a provocative way I think.So yeah you end up with a plain blue screen, but you start off with all those images in The Last of England, that sort of started very early on in his work, started off earlier of course, with Angelic Conversation and Imagining October.
WATCH BLUE ON FANDOR
HE TERMED HIS CINEMA THE CINEMA OF ‘LESS IS MORE’ WHICH WAS A CHALLENGE TO THE BUREAUCARCY OF THE FILM WORLD BUT ALSO HIS AESTHETIC SEEMS TO COME OUT OF IT. DO YOU THINK THAT’S TRUE?
Well I think a number of things. I think that’s fighting talk and I think fighting talk is great because you know what, what’s the alternative, you either do, or you don’t do, and he had… There was very little money for him to make films and he… Necessity is the mother of invention, he did it. I think in my experience there is never enough money to make a film and there’s always going to be too little.What people who make films for many, many millions of pounds don’t realise is that they could probably do as well or better with less, but what people with very, very little money, who moan about it, don’t realise is that they might have many millions to make their film with and they would still have too little to do what they want. I mean it’s just… money is time apart from anything else.
Again that was one of the liberating things about working with super 8, cos time was not an issue. Less is more. I don’t know, I mean the thing that I think about that is that is also an historical statement. It’s tricky to say that now, although you know, we’re in a very strange period now with funding for films certainly in this country. I never really believed that I’d be nostalgic for the 80s, but I have to say that there have been moments recently when I have been, because the thing about making films in the 80s was that there was a way of making films… Derek Jarman, Sally Potter, Peter Greenaway, Terence Davies, Ron Peck were able to make films in a particular way in this country with very little money, with very little scrutiny, with the freedom to go on and make a second, a third, or a fourth film in a way in which film makers don’t necessarily feel able to now because they have to make a profit immediately.So to say less is more now means something different. To say less is more then meant something particular and it meant freedom and it meant, also, that the benign patronage of the British Film Institute under Peter Sainsbury, who believed in being able to see an artist through 3 or 4 films, so a film maker would only ever get £200,000 to make a film. That’s what it means, it means making a purse out of a sow’s ear.
WHY DOES IT APPEAR TO BE THAT THERE ARE NO NEW, YOUNG DEREK JARMAN’S IN OUR CINEMAS TODAY?
There are film-makers in every cafe and behind every checkout in this country as there are in every country and in every university and in every bank there are film makers and artists. And the question is where is the culture to allow them work and to support them to do the work they need to do. And there was that place during the 80s and again we used to complain about it… it didn’t feel very wide, but it did exist in a way that it simply doesn’t now… There are people making cinema which is not the cinema that the market necessarily recognises as cinema, but there are film makers making films in this country in a constituency which is extraordinarily vibrant, but it’s not recognised by the market, it’s not recognised by…. You know another way of answering your question, where are the Derek Jarmans, where are the films now, is where are literally the Derek Jarman films in our cinemas? There is a whole generation of people watching this programme who will never have heard of Derek Jarman and just the kind of people who would love his films.And where are they. They have only recently started to be talked about being released on DVD… very, very rare on video and very seldom in cinemas and that’s a question for distribution networks. You know, where are independent distributors? How is it going to be possible for independent distributors to feel powerful enough to distribute this kind of work in the future and to educate the film audience?