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A Double Entry

Richard Marshall interviews Paul Tickell.

PT: Before I made Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry I did a feature called Hooligans. It was called Hooligans in some territories and got retitled as Crush Proof — ‘Crush’ as in crushing a person to death, and ‘Proof’ as in scientific proof. It was about a bunch of wild Dublin teenagers who go from bad to worse — you can’t keep a good hooligan down, they can’t be crushed like the title implies. That was made with a very similar group of people. It had the same producer as Malry, the same Director of Photography Reiner Van Brummelen, but it’s a very different film. Although it goes off into some fantasy stuff it’s much more rooted in gritty reality than Malry.

Aside from that, I’ve made loads of documentaries. I did one for Arena at the BBC called ‘Punk and the Pistols’ which has been doing the rounds recently as part of the ‘Never Mind the Jubilee’ package. We started to shoot that in the early ’90s. Because we wanted to make it quite comprehensive — it was inspired by Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming — because we wanted it to be comprehensive, getting the main set of characters was pretty difficult. So it was made off and on for four years and never actually finished until 1995. We started to shoot it in 1991. We’ve got McLaren, Lydon, Siouxsie Banshee, Jordan, Vivienne Westwood, Glen Matlock, Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls (before he died!) and Richard Hell. I think a lot of the other documentaries about punk are usually coming from one camp or the other. You know, so The Filth And The Fury is the Lydon camp. The Rock And Roll Swindle is McLaren’s little camp. Interestingly, the same director did both! Maybe he was paid to do that. But it’s a piece of whoring that I find particularly interesting!

Because there were these other documentaries around about punk, what we were trying to do when we made ‘Punk and the Pistols’ was look at the early days. No one had explored the very early days of punk so it’s about the origins of the species. Because when we made it, there was already Dead On Arrival by Lech Kowalski, very much about the decline and fall of punk, its last days. The Rock And Roll Swindle was very much about the hype — let’s call them the glory years, when punk was so much in the media. So what we wanted to do in Punk and the Pistols, although we wanted to cover the whole trajectory, was to examine the origin of the species.

We did the American side as well as the British because although Lydon says “Fuck that New York art-rock scene, they had nothing to do with it,” actually lots of the ingredients of punk were lying around in New York. What the Sex Pistols did was give it a whole new dimension that made it go round the world and to me a cocktail as powerful, as potent as that, no one person can invent it. That’s why the Swindle is such a sham documentary. It’s a very interesting piece of work. I think it says a lot more about McLaren than it does about punk and how it came about because all that shit about finding a band who can’t play on their instruments — Steve Jones is a fantastic rhythm rock’n'roll guitarist, a great wall of sound merchant. They could all play their instruments so that’s all bollocks that they couldn’t.

3:AM: Were you part of the punk scene in the seventies?

PT: I wasn’t part of the scene in terms of the main characters, but obviously punk had a galvanising effect on me like it did on literally millions of other people. I thought it was something that I knew already. I was waiting for it to happen and I really recognised it when it came above ground. Before that it was hidden like one of those elements in New York and what was going on with the Bromley Contingent — like the very early days of the Sex Pistols when they were probably called something else, it was kind of underground and lying fallow for a long time, well, a long time in rock’n'roll terms, in music terms, probably a couple of years. But to me once Lydon joined the band, I don’t mean he is punk because he’s not, it’s such a multifarious thing that comes together, but he was like the missing link. Once the missing link was there it just went whoosh!

3:AM: So what made you do film rather than getting a guitar?

PT: I once had a go at trying to be a drummer and that was pathetic. I was also involved in the music business. I managed The Pack with Kirk Brandon before they became Theatre of Hate and later Spear of Destiny. Although I was drawn to all that it wasn’t me in a lot of ways. I wasn’t involved in film making and television when I was twenty two. It wasn’t until I was thirty two that I started to actually make things, by being involved in making TV documentaries. Somehow I found my way to that by writing about music. After the failed entrepreneurial career with The Pack I then became a freelance journalist working for the NME, Time Out, The Face when it first started, and as a result of that I got a job in TV researching those kinds of areas.

Believe it or not, compared to now, nobody in television had covered a lot of that stuff. TV now does all this youth orientated stuff, it’s onto that stuff as soon as somebody thinks about it, but in those days TV people never really dealt with that area very much, it was a very miniscule part of television. It was quite exciting when I started off. The idea was: why can’t we make documentaries and get people on television before they’ve barely been written about? Obviously that was what I had done as a journalist. For example with a series called South Of Watford which I did for LWT, we did the Pogues or Pogue Mahone (‘Kiss My Arse’) as they were called then. They didn’t even have a record deal. Why couldn’t TV do it before the press? It took me a long time and bit by bit before I started making films as opposed to TV documentaries. From being a researcher of documentaries I became an associate producer and then producer and director. As a result of being a director of documentaries I got to do a little bit of television drama.

I made a long short film called Zinky Boys Go Underground. It was a film about a fucked-up group of Afghan war veterans who after the war are unemployed in St Petersburg so they’re part of a black market gang, existing on the margins, and it’s almost like a Vietnam veterans film except that it’s St Petersburg in the early nineties after the Afghan War. It did very well at film festivals, it was partly financed by the BBC and partly financed by the BFI. It went round the world in terms of festivals, and also won a Bafta for best short film. It was a short film but ran at half an hour. Zinky Boys certainly got me noticed by Kees Kasander, the producer of Malry and Crush Proof. Kees has worked with Peter Greenaway, with Raoul Ruiz, the Portuguese director, he’s just produced Larry Clark’s last film, Ken Park. Kees was prompted into watching Zinky Boys and he rang me and it was “Would you like to read a feature script?” And that was Crush Proof/Hooligans. All this process, with some people it can be very instant. You know, you make one thing, you get a Bafta, two minutes later you’re making a feature film. It took me a long time!

3:AM: Malry looks and sounds great. Not at all gritty. Slick almost. Is that deliberate?

PT: Yes, because so many people are doing the hand-held grungy stuff. Fantastic when it happens, but it’s become like a baroque mannerism. Every fucker does it! I found that so tired. And also, because it’s a film about a little man, in a way, who does big things, we wanted to make him look big. We wanted to take him seriously so he wasn’t just some snotty little bank clerk born and bred at the bottom of the Hammersmith flyover. It would have been easy to patronise him or turn him into an anthropological specimen. A lot of the way docu hand-held stuff is made, it goes down that path. I felt with Crush Proof I’d already done my take on that — someone once described Crush Proof as Dogme with music! Although we shot it in 97, so it wasn’t as though we’d seen many Dogme films before.

3:AM: You got there first.

PT: Well, I wouldn’t say first. It’s the creative unconscious parallel.

3:AM: The audience had to take the Malry character seriously.

PT: Yes. One of the great English vices is knowingness and cleverness and nudge nudge nudge. Nothing is straight. You can’t present anything, it’s as if people are neurotic in the British film industry and British cultural life about having to be funny and about having to have a knowing position. It’s as if they are not interested in the subject, they’re more interested in what you’re going to think of them and their cool attitude. You get a similar attitude in the bourgeois sensibility of ‘proper’ literary fiction. We wanted to make something that the audience could make judgements about for themselves. So by thinking big about Malry it was like throwing the ball in the audience’s court for them to work out.

3:AM: Almost a European Surrealist approach.

PT: Kind Hearts and Coronets is a British influence, but one of my great favourites and influences as a director is Bunuel, particularly The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de La Cruz which is about a guy who wants to be a serial killer. He’s sexually excited by the thought of women burning like Joan of Arc, but Bunuel presents Archibaldo De La Cruz straight. He doesn’t force you with oo, nudge nudge nudge, look at that weirdo fucker. Rather he presents you with: this is Archibaldo’s normality, this is how the character thinks, that’s what excites him. And he just presents it. I like that kind of objectivity because it makes for something multi-faceted, more complex. It takes the audience seriously. That’s why I like Bunuel. And also I don’t know what Bunuel’s politics are, they can’t be reduced to some obvious message, but his impulse is radical and on the side of the oppressed, for want of a better description. I like the way he wants to make mischief around him. He’s an anarchist, but it’s not just an attitude. There’s something very very pointed about his films and very provocative. That was always over my shoulder when we were making Malry. Not to copy Bunuel but to follow him in that thing about presenting weirdness or danger or strange desires or people who do things that are out of the ordinary — to present them almost as a kind of fact. Not deadpan, but they’re just there. They’re real.

3:AM: It’s also a rare thing, a film with ideas in it.

PT: I hope it’s full of ideas. Again, what I like about Bunuel, you can have ideas and also be entertaining. Brecht is quoted in the BS Johnson novel on which Malry is based, and that’s what I love about Brecht. He has ideas but he can still be entertaining. So many British people have a block about Brecht. They say he can’t possibly be funny and witty because he’s politicised and was a Communist or was a fellow traveller of the Communist Party and all that stuff. Art and wit is meant to be so transcendental, it isn’t to do with any sort of politics. Someone who has a politics can’t possibly be witty and artistic and artful. That’s what they say. And people like Brecht and Bunuel just blow that completely away.

3:AM: The film is serious and funny. It’s like Beckett as well.

PT: Yes. I think that the film has a mixture of comedy and something that might be serious or painful. I think if you present a character, no matter how reptilian and horrible he may be, and Malry is like that in many ways, he’s also got his own emotional life and somehow you’re not allowed to show that nasty people might have other dimensions. Because we shouldn’t just be judged on the worst things we’ve ever done. That’s not to excuse lots of these horrible things that are done but just to reduce them to some idea of evil just isn’t good enough. Evil isn’t some abstraction, it’s part — the uncomfortable part — of being human. I think a director like Bunuel or a writer like Brecht can deal with that in a way that to me lots of British cultural products, you know, the books, the films, don’t. They just don’t grapple with those things.

3:AM: The soundtrack was important.

PT: To me the music should have a life of its own. It fits in with the film. Music and film, it can be in counterpoint, it can be against the action, it can be with it, and I think there are all sorts of moments in the music when different things are happening. To me the way to get that is to already have the music. That forces you into different editing choices. So you’re not cutting and thinking we need a piece of music. The music’s already there. Like a character in its own right dictating how you might cut the film and orchestrate things. That’s why we went down that path. Also, if in the film, if Malry had been musical, the music would have been his musical diary. It’s like his ledger in another way. He doesn’t sing or anything but it’s somehow part of him but one that also floats away with a life of its own. Sometimes, and it’s difficult to describe, but sometimes it’s just not a part of him at all, it’s doing the equivalent of a camera that tracks back or that tracks in. Music has its perspective and framing as well. It’s not just like a sound in the background. Although that’s how it gets used in a lot of films. That’s why they’re so dull. There’s a CD released of the soundtrack on Virgin, called Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by Luke Haines.

One reason the film now has this guerrilla distribution is that Luke and Virgin thought, what the fuck is the problem with this film. We can’t wait on when it’s coming out, so they just put the CD out. Journalists reviewed it as a CD and said “where the hell’s the film?” We want to see it. So some screenings were arranged. Journalists loved it and then they reviewed it. That helped to get the ball rolling. But that’s like, fifteen months ago. If you ask me about the British film industry, it’s definitely a mess. So much money has been wasted on TV drama writ large. They’re patently not film-makers. They’re TV dramas. There’s nothing wrong with TV but I don’t go to the cinema to go and see a bit of fucking television blown up with a bigger budget which is what most British films are like.

A lot of television drama is very literalistic, stodgy, naturalistic. That’s what British films are. There’s no dream. There’s no transcendence. They’re mired in utter fucking stodge. It’s like fucking TV. Cars reversing. Buses drawing up. People opening fucking doors. It’s so dull. It’s so prosaic. It’s almost avant-garde in its naturalism. These are the kinds of projects that have got the money. I don’t want to go and see a fucking door opening and closing and some character coming through telling you something obvious that you know already because the film-makers are so dull and witless! These people are not cinema. And that’s the tragedy of so many British films. I’m sorry but these people should not be allowed near a fucking film or a cinema. That’s why it’s failed so miserably. It’s a failure of the imagination. You can talk about how Americans do it and how the fucking Chinese do it. But all of that is guff. Because it’s a failure of the imagination. You start from there. And whatever mode of production you adopt, or style or how scripts are written or whatever that process is, that will follow. But we’ve got to get that imaginative dimension right first but there’s just no imagination.

3:AM: Is that the audience’s fault as well?

PT: I’m not so sure. The audience are the consumer from that point of view. It’s like with British TV now and it’s reflected in British cinema, there are so many people working in British cinema from television. They’re always saying what the audience want and what they think the audience thinks and what a sixteen-year-old in Chesterfield who’s never going to go to university is going to think and they patronise those people. They’re so worried about the audience who they turn into a kind of huge slothful dullard. And I don’t think the mass of people in Britain are like that, or there’s certainly a big proportion of them who are not like that and who would be quite tickled by more racy, imaginative films. With a lot of the films, on a technical level, they’re so dull in their unfolding, in their storytelling, I think audiences would like something a little more spritely. In fact in the films we’ve got, characters walk around with signposts on their head, it’s so obvious.

3:AM: You’re not the kind of director the British film industry likes then.

PT: There’s not a penny of the British Film industry in Malry. In spite of the relative success of the film I can’t see me making a film with anyone in the British Film industry at the moment. I’d like to. If there’s someone out there who could be a kindred spirit. But most people I meet don’t even speak the same language. They say they want something different. You start to talk to them and their body glazes over, never mind their eyes! One problem I have with them is that they haven’t seen enough films. Don’t get me wrong, Scorsese is a great director but they’ve seen some Scorsese, some Tarantino and some Dogme and they think that’s what cinema is. They haven’t even got the wit to rip off what Scorsese might have been ripping off. Or Tarantino. They just do what’s there and what is obvious in terms of their reference points. So I find it very difficult to talk to these people.

3:AM: So what are you going to do next?

PT: I don’t know! Kee Kasnader wants to make another film with me which could be a version of a Robert Irwin novel Satan Wants Me. In fact, Luke Haines has already written a song which you heard tonight called ‘Satan Wants Me.’ That’s a novel set in ’67 and it’s kind of the dark side of the sixties. In some ways, cinematically, although it’s a novel, the reference point would be Performance and Polanski’s Repulsion. It’s the Swinging Sixties but what’s swinging around are quite nasty things. Simon Bent who wrote the Malry screenplay is working on it.

3:AM: You’ve been working with Billy Childish.

PT: I was asked to make a documentary about Billy although I wanted to make one anyway. It is a half hour documentary for Channel 4. Very low budget, quick turnaround. I think Billy is a great poet. A lot of his prose is very powerful. I like the music and the painting as well, but to me his poetry is very simple, and to write poetry with that simplicity it becomes much more than simplicity. I’m not putting it very well. Out of the detail of his simplicity comes something cosmic which is why I think he’s a great poet.

3:AM: Are you generally pessimistic about the state of culture — not just film — at the moment?

PT: I’m sure things always emerge. But I think the general culture is dominated by a particular bourgeois sensibility. It’s like the agenda on television and the broadsheets, it’s so thoroughly bourgeois and mediocre. There’s no ideas. There’s no challenge to the status quo. You rely on Mark Lawson writing about September the 11th! The guy’s got his place, he does Late Review and all that, but it’s such a particular view of the world. I think they think it’s very enlightened and so on, but when it comes to the crunch they’re not on the side of the people at the bottom that need the world to change. They’re not interested in social change unless it’s at a very superficial level.

To me the culture and the art that’s interesting is stuff that, even if it doesn’t have an overt political message, has a poke in that area. It’s about making you think about where we are and where we might go. And even when some of that work is miserable it’s utopian because at least it has an idea about the future and that means an idea of change. And I think so much stuff that comes out now isn’t interested in that idea. Maybe I’m some weird and washed-up post-Enlightenment madman but I still believe in an idea of the future, a utopia and change. Not in an airy-fairy way. It’s just that we are here, how can it be better? Why isn’t it better? This society works as it does at the expense of the many for the glory of the few. And I think that should change and I think I want to make entertainment out of that.

Read Paul Tickell on B.S. Johnson…


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
After abandoning his training for the Catholic priesthood, Paul Tickell (pictured with Luke Haines) worked in the music industry, television and documentary filmmaking. He won a BAFTA for his 1995 short film Zinky Boys Go Underground. His feature debut came with the acclaimed Crush Proof (1999).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 17th, 2002.