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The London Night

Andrew Stevens interviews film director Ron Peck.

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3:AM: You studied at the London Film School — did the location have any bearing on the films you would go on to make?

RP: In 1972, when I went to the London Film School, there really was almost nowhere else in the country where you could study filmmaking. I was very attracted to its practical emphasis, based in understanding how to use cameras, sound equipment, how to deal with the labs for film processing, etc. It was a very good school and I was very happy there.

I was born in Merton, South London, so knew parts of the city already, especially the orbit around where I grew up and the West End, from an early age. University took me to Wales, then Brighton, then I was back in London, exploring West London, where I lived for a while (it was possible then to rent very cheap flats and rooms in the Bayswater-Notting Hill area). The great thing about the London Film School being in Covent Garden was that it was so central, travelling there every day kept you in the buzz of the city and it was a magnet for film professionals to drop into so there was this constant flow of people in and out. The fruit and veg market was still fully functioning then so you were also learning in a very visibly working part of the city.

The moving of the market out of Covent Garden and the building of the Barbican Centre, plus the closures of the docks, all of these things happening soon after made me very aware of the city as a place of dynamic change and in the original conception of Nighthawks these all played a much bigger part. I think that being young, being a student, at the same time having to work to pay the school fees and to live, plus discovering the ‘alternative city’ of the gayworld – all these enlarged my sense of the big city that London was, the variations in it, the to-ing and fro-ing of a very mobile population.

I met Derek Jarman in a gay nightclub in Earls Court and, learning we were both trying to make films, we struck up a friendship of solidarity, shared contacts, encouraged each other in the struggle to achieve a more independent kind of filmmaking.

When I first started to try and raise the money to make Nighthawks that too introduced me to many people, both in the industry, and, following several articles I managed to get published about trying to realize the film, from all imaginable walks of life.

Ideally, that’s what a city is, a place of mobility and circulation, and London was generally a much cheaper place to live then, which made it all easier.

3:AM: But can’t that sort of craft be taught anywhere?

RP: The strength of the LFS was that it had professional equipment, beaten up though a lot of it was, and almost all of its teachers were professionals, teaching a little between professional jobs, or else recently retired from a lifetime of working in the industry. It was a great experience to learn from these people and there was a concentration of skills there. Probably today you’ll find that in a number of places. It wasn’t so much a place of theory but of hands-on practice and films were made by teams, small crews, switching roles from exercise to exercise, so everyone did camerawork, sound-recording, lighting, production management, directing, etc.

3:AM: Aside from the school and its location, what films influenced you at that time?

RP: I was mostly drawn to the work of overseas filmmakers, especially European: Fellini, Antonioni, Godard and many many others. There were a lot of cinemas in the centre of London showing new foreign language films, even in Oxford Street. I think the main experience at this time (early and mid-seventies) was of having my horizons endlessly widened. There was also the beginnings of a re-evaluation of American cinema – Lang, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher, Minnelli, etc – and this too stirred up one’s ideas of what cinema could be. British film, by and large, seemed inward-looking, parochial, aesthetically unadventurous. The large number of independent filmmakers was an indication of an attempt to find another way to make films, stimulated by the sheer variety of world cinema, which a big city like London could haul in from the ends of the earth and show.

There were many films and filmmakers that had a big effect on me at that time (and still inspire me): Nick Ray and Antonioni very particularly. Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point took my breath away. 2001 A Space Odyssey felt like a major event, as if a new landmark had been built, as did a totally different film from Belgium, Jeanne Dielman, by Chantal Akerman. It was also the first time I saw Warhol, Morrissey and Cassavetes’ films. Cassavetes showed Husbands at the London Film School and, again, I had never seen anything like it. Morrissey and Warhol’s Trash, unimaginable today, dominated Piccadilly Circus, with huge hoardings and images, and what a shock to the system that film was! It was, time and again, the sense of people saying to you, ‘Just look at what cinema can be’. It was a very exciting time for that, very concentrated (there were few TV stations, no video-recorders and no Internet) and the film experience was very much shared with enthusiastic crowds in cinemas of all shapes and sizes. Anything seemed possible then.

3:AM: When you met Derek Jarman and you both produced your first films around the same time, was there a conscious realisation then of making ‘queer cinema’, or was that a tag you both resisted, in spite of how the work is assessed now?

RP: The tag ‘queer cinema’ didn’t exist at the time of making Nighthawks and Derek’s making Sebastiane; it was ‘gay cinema’ then. The recurring question was/is ‘Are you a filmmaker or a gay filmmaker?’ I think Derek and I responded very differently. For him, ‘gay cinema’ and then ‘queer cinema’ was something he embraced, a huge outlet for causes that became increasingly important to him after he became ill and his own writings strongly go into that. His became a very heroic personal struggle. For me, gay/queer cinema, black cinema, women’s cinema, British cinema… they were just too circumscribing and took you into arenas of what was/wasn’t progressive, right/wrong, ‘correct’/’incorrect’. Fassbinder, for example, was seen then as beyond the pale for having made Fox & His Friends. I was a critic of it myself then but would now swallow my words as I think that film and his work as a whole is extraordinarily precise and sharp. I now see him as an extremely important filmmaker, one of the most important Europe produced, but at the time of Fox’s release here the debate within gay cinema was whether it was ‘good for us/bad for us’, i.e. useful propaganda. It got the thumbs down as being ‘negative’ (as Nighthawks did from some). In other words the gay cinema focus was far too narrow. Terrible films got the thumbs up because they said the ‘right’ thing. Well cinema is a great deal more than that but at the time I fell into that trap myself to some extent. Now I think Fox was a deadly accurate portrayal of a milieu, an astonishing film. Answering your original question, I see myself simply as a filmmaker and who I am pulls in many backgrounds and probably contradictory impulses.

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3:AM: You were also involved in Gay Left at that time, while Jarman’s ‘anti-establishment’ political sensibilities seemed comparatively less of an organisational or affiliated nature. Was there any divergence between you both, personally and in approaches to film-making?

RP: I don’t remember ever discussing Gay Left with Derek. I don’t think he would have been very interested and most likely would have seen it as part of the problem. Derek, if anything, was a romantic anarchist, neither allied to Left nor Right. He distrusted (arguably quite rightly) all politics. At the same time he certainly did believe in the personal as political, which was a fundamental tenet of Gay Left.

My own brief participation in Gay Left was partly because I wanted to learn something. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse was a very important thinker for me and I kind of came into exploring gay politics very much from his analysis and structural breakdowns as to how societies functioned. The whole point, for me, was that Marcuse looked at societies as a whole. I don’t think he ever specifically addressed gay issues, but he did address sexual politics and what he wrote was very powerful, very heady and energizing stuff, that had enormous relevance to gay politics.

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3:AM: The Gay Left back issues document the struggles you had with financing Nighthawks, something you’ve mentioned more recently with film-making and the commissioning process. So wasn’t making independent work always difficult, as opposed to just recently?

RP: Yes, it was, but it was only after New Labour came in that it was to do with box ticking and being ‘correct’. For many people of my generation New Labour was the Great Betrayal, certainly on the cultural level. There was that extraordinary opportunity when New Labour was elected, after the confrontations and hostilities of the Thatcher years, when so many people were ready to embrace a very different politics, including the idea of really liberating and opening up the arts dramatically, but New Labour quickly rebranded arts as “cultural industries”, assessed them in terms of outputs and strict profitability. Film, so far as the state was involved, under New Labour, went backwards 20 years. It was a great missed opportunity.

At the time of making Nighthawks, without painting too rosy a picture (the BFI Production Board of that time also had its political agenda), the culture was more anarchic and you simply had to get together enough like-minded individuals or people willing to take a chance on an adventure, rather like paying for adventurers and ships to explore the world beyond our shores. There’s nothing like that spirit now. I hope it’s recoverable, if only from the very widespread disillusionment with the alternative.

3:AM: In Nighthawks it seemed that every club scene involved the same sub-Moroder track being played. Was the lack of a more varied soundtrack part of the financing issue?

RP: There are two answers. Certainly economy was one. Three days before shooting the original composer basically had a breakdown because he couldn’t produce the dance tracks necessary for the first weeks of the shoot, which were all nightclub scenes. We were rescued by David Graham Ellis who half-killed himself coming up with all that music in 72 hours.

At the same time we did want to repeat three or four dance pieces in the film because, club to club, what you heard again and again were the current hit tracks. The repetition was part of the experience of disco and club culture and, I guess, still would be. So there was a definite point to the repetition. It was quite carefully worked out. The current favourite at the time was Donna Summer but buying in tracks was prohibitively expensive. It was never an option. I retrospect I’m glad we have what we have because it somehow is both club music and a commentary on club music at the same time. It’s less dated I think than Donna Summer would have been. David was extremely talented and hard-working and we were very lucky indeed to have him come on board.

3:AM: Nighthawks’ reputation now rests on its sympathetic portrayal of the lead character and his ceaseless search for intimacy and attachment. What else were you trying to depict in the film?

RP: A certain truth about things as I saw it, as many other people expressed it to me in interviews and letters. The title of the film was of course not incidental. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting is one of a panorama of paintings depicting urban city life through the 30s to the 60s. I found much correspondence between Hopper’s paintings and what I saw, or, more importantly, what I, and others, felt, in our own experience of the city. I remember that the two-shot, two people together in the same frame, took on particular importance for me. The rhythm of the film is all about progressing from single shots to two-shots, which was the desire of the character to connect, to a greater sense than he was usually allowed to. Played out against the night simply stripped everything down to essentials, like film noir. I tried to do something similar in Fighters where it was the combat that took place against the night, but combat close to affection because so much respect was involved. Again, I’m talking about a more innocent period in boxing. Commercialisation has now invaded everything.

3:AM: How do you think Nighthawks was received and why it has such an enduring status?

RP: If it has endured it’s partly because it was not narrowly part of ‘queer cinema’. Anyone open to it can find correspondences, whoever they are. A big part of the audience where the film found favour was women, who identified less with the woman in the film than with the main gay character. That was very interesting. I think the film’s aesthetics, which were arrived at instinctively rather than theoretically, also made the film different at the time and still makes it seem different now, i.e. the long sequence takes rather than the usual back-and-forth cutting. This alienated some people at the time and probably still does today. It certainly does not look like a BBC or typical Film 4 drama, I think. But those decisions – what to shoot, how to shoot – were all made from feeling everything out from inside the project over a period of time. I was particularly moved by a recent screening of the film in a Moscow cinema, its first screening in Russia, where the audience was thoroughly engaged and found identification quite broadly across characters, and this was a very mixed audience indeed. It would be interesting to see how it went down with a UK TV audience now but no TV channel has shown it here since around 1981. It doesn’t press the right buttons for UK TV, either politically or aesthetically, but that’s what for me has made the film endure.

3:AM: You persuaded the National Film Theatre, albeit reluctantly and with little fanfare, to stage the first ever gay film season, quite mainstream now but it drew the ire of the Mary Whitehouse brigade at the time, despite the various offerings in Soho and Piccadilly back then.

RP: Actually other people organized the NFT season. I just wrote a piece about it, with Paul Hallam. Whatever terms I used back in 1976-78, the point I was trying to make is that homosexuality in any shape or form was hardly given any expression in film or TV and what little there was usually cruel and ridiculous. Vito Russo wrote a whole book about that, The Celluloid Closet. So I just felt hundreds of ‘gay films’ needed to be made simply to begin to arrive at some kind of maturity. Every single film was overburdened by audience expectation. No one film could get it right as it were, hence the attack on Fassbinder for not ‘celebrating’ homosexuality. Most people I spoke to simply wanted a film where a gay couple walked off happily into the sunset. They wanted to believe in Heaven. One of our own backers wanted that and was not at all happy with the film we produced. Every gay person had their own idea of what they wanted.

3:AM: What else do you remember of Gay Left and what it was trying to achieve or articulate?

RP: The collective was a very friendly and very intelligent group of people. The journal came out of a sense of necessity to influence rigid thinking on the Left. It aimed at widening the thinking, giving a sense of history, connecting to wider issues of sexual politics. I really participated for a very short time. I was working for another collective, The Other Cinema, at the time and I had also, with others, started up a film group, within which I was trying to get Nighthawks made. My plate was rather too full. I did re-read some articles from Gay Left a couple of years ago and they still seemed to me very worthwhile. It wasn’t as rigorous as I’d remembered but it was still stimulating, intelligent and searching and that can’t be said of much of the gay press, which I find mostly very reactionary. Do we still need a gay press or a gay cinema? I’m not so sure. I always did feel the viewpoints have to be larger, as Fassbinder’s was. It’s time to move on, surely.

3:AM: To what extent do you think Nighthawks cleared the way for others? I am thinking here of Beautiful Thing, which has a cult reputation to some extent but a mainstream audience in terms of its probing of toleration within communities and acceptance.

RP: I think it must have helped change things, open things up. It was very well covered in the press at the time (and again recently when the DVD came out) and there was considerable debate around it. It contributed to making homosexuality something, on one level, very ordinary, even ‘normal’ (it was its ‘normalising homosexuality’ that got it banned in Greece in fact).

Beautiful Thing I did see at the time but don’t remember very well. I do recall the importance of its setting, on the estate, and the winning attractiveness of the two boys at the centre of the story. I think by the time that film came out I wasn’t particularly seeking out every film with a gay subject or film with gay characters; I just wanted to see interesting films from anywhere about anything.

I think what did happen after Nighthawks was that an increasing number of filmmakers made films with gay characters or gay subject-matter which again had the effect of normalizing a gay presence in the cinema and on TV. The more issue-based films left me rather cold, as films, but something like My Own Private Idaho, for example, worked on many complex levels and had a different kind of overall ambition. I think what I noticed, and found much more interesting than purely ‘gay films’ or any kind of ‘queer cinema’ was a greater ambiguity in the sexuality of characters in many films or an ease within the characters with sexual issues, but this only came about I’m sure because, earlier, there were gay films that opened up the territory and very often took the initial flak. When I made Empire State, for example, I don’t remember anyone backing the film even raising the question of the sexual ambiguities in any of the characters at all. It had ceased to be an issue.

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3:AM: Strip Jack Naked was billed as Nighthawks 2 but to what extent was it really a sequel?

RP: Not a sequel but a supplement. I wanted to put Nighthawks into some kind of context, both personally and in a much wider way politically and socially.

I was working with very little money and started with 30 minutes or so of outtakes that I felt worth showing. One thing led to another and I ended up doing something I’d no intention of doing originally, which was to make a partial autobiography. I was very much encouraged in this by my collaborators and by the BFI, which was backing it. The lack of finance also necessitated a certain inventiveness and I enjoyed experimenting with the sound and image with my main collaborator, Adrian James Carbutt, who scored it. The whole experience of working more flexibly loosened me up I think.

3:AM: The film also meditates on the US crackdown on broader acceptance of homosexuality within culture in the 1980s, for instance the scenes about San Francisco local government. What did you make of Milk more recently and were you involved in the arguments around Section 28 here?

RP: To include the American political scene just seemed logical, both as part of the autobiography (the completed film enabled me to go the States, to festivals and so on and widened my personal experience) and because the US was such a motor of energy and radical dissent at the time and one of the main sources of inspiration to organizations in the UK.

I haven’t seen Milk but did meet Harvey Milk once and took some photos of him and filmmaker Robert Epstein, who later (long before Gus Van Sant) made his own very effective film on him.

I wasn’t especially involved in the battle against Section 28 but used whatever public appearances I got to try to help defuse the whole climate around it. I hoped the films themselves showed where I stood. I best express myself there, I think. The scene where the teacher is interrogated by the kids at the end of Nighthawks was endlessly extracted, shown in talks, etc. and always made a strong impression on audiences, generated debate.

3:AM: By the time of Empire State in 1987 it almost seems as if you’d entered the mainstream.

RP: I’ve certainly never been part of the mainstream. I think I’ll always be somewhere on the periphery, which is perhaps the best place to be. Nighthawks in and by itself didn’t make anything easier so far as filmmaking goes, though I don’t suppose Empire State would have been financed had I not made the earlier film plus the earlier documentaries.

Nighthawks was shown on TV only once, some thirty years ago, as I mentioned, and amidst great controversy. It’s still seen to be too different and doesn’t do what TV by and large wants films to do, which is to make simple human dramas around issues in a familiar way. The aesthetics of the film are now probably more controversial than the content and make many people feel uncomfortable because the film feels ‘different’, but that’s only because they’re not exposed to a wide swathe of world cinema on television and made familiar with the huge range of ways to come at a film.

3:AM: Empire State and the films that followed seem to be informed by an East London sensibility.

RP: The East End is the back end of the city, the place most people who came to London didn’t usually see… the place of factories, docks, workers and crime. I really didn’t know it myself until I moved here around 1974 and I felt I was in another city. There were a lot of empty buildings here then and it was cheaper to live here. The once-cheap flats and bedsits of West London were being refurbished as town houses and expensive rented accommodation and West London was making itself presentable as part of the face of the city. Soon there would be films like Notting Hill advertising its attractions.

East London on the other hand, as so much started closing down, lived on the mythologies of its very real gangsters. Vicarious pleasures were to be had here of a different kind to Notting Hill. Here you had boxing, roughhouse pubs and a very different kind of streetlife. East London had an edge.

I settled in very fast, felt very at home here, enjoyed exploring this whole side of the city, mixing with people whose families had been here for generations. I found people very direct, very rooted. At the same time the East End I came to in 1974 has changed considerably. The impact of vast developments like Docklands and now the Olympics, of immigration of all kinds on a massive scale, has meant a lot of people I knew in the East End then have moved further east, alienated by the change. It’s a much more mixed culture here now, less conspicuously different from other parts of the city, more atomized. The East London films I made were really about an earlier East End. It hasn’t altogether gone but I miss a certain concentrated vibrance that a culture so sure of itself has.

I was already living in East London when I made Nighthawks and I think the combination of becoming familiar with the earlier gayworld and then an older East London generated a real desire to favour ordinary people in my work and people who have it hard. The long takes I sometimes use and the interest in improvisation is to do with creating space for different kinds of characters than those cinema normally concentrates on and to encourage the often non-professional actors to invent their own characters, use their own language. So perhaps being in East London for more than thirty years now consolidated certain tendencies and priorities.

3:AM: Again, Empire State’s reputation now rests on its canny depiction of the Docklands mindset of that era (1987). To what extent was this planned or just luck at making an East London film as property developers gained a foothold? There’s some scenes that don’t really stand the test of time in terms of what you were projecting – armed vehicles doing slum clearance – whereas others, such as the prediction of urban riots among the ‘have-nots’, now seem eerily prescient.

RP: My collaborators and I knew every well what we were doing. The film came out of a sense of necessity to express the changes sweeping through Britain and knocking people aside with a real brutality. Something was unleashed, which we’re still living with, an unbridled individualism that the new technologies accentuated even further. So it was not to do with luck or timing but seeing something happening here that we felt it urgent to dramatise. Originally, it was to have been made much more like Nighthawks, with non-professional actors, but we couldn’t find anyone to back that concept, so we made it more of a violent melodrama, lurid and somewhat grotesque, and then we found backing.

Out of this concept of dramatizing things more extremely, we projected a little. Docklands was only half thought-out at this stage so we imagined what the full development might look like, its possible effects. Then as now there were riots on the streets at least in part connected to the desperation of a pushed-aside part of the population and the extreme contrasts of rich and poor. Imagining military vehicles being deployed to keep order in the streets didn’t seem very far-fetched and in the wake of this most recent violence there were calls for the army to be brought in and for the army to be present in Stratford throughout the 2012 Olympics, which could still quite easily happen I think.

3:AM: Your most recent (2010) film is Cross-Channel. Again, it seems informed by that East London sensibility, despite the ferry setting, but you also work in there some probing of national identity, disconnect from the continent and the UK’s military past.

RP: The film started with the ferry, the idea of what it represented, the pace it imposed, a certain attraction to it as an atmospheric location connected to the idea of escape. With my collaborators I developed the idea of the ferry as almost a character, empty in a rather spooky way. With the actors I developed a mystery about two brothers and increasingly felt the real weight of the film should be vested in them, in their rediscovery of their relationship at a time in life when they were drifting apart. It’s also another East London film but transports the East End characters completely to another place, another country, France.

As the project got underway, the additional level of a narrator seemed to add something, a ghostly figure never seen, with his own story, his own agenda, touched by a certain bitterness and arrogance. The film then for me worked best as an interplay between the story of the brothers and this narrator, who may in fact have invented the brothers completely for his own amusement. Or perhaps the brothers’ story has its own very concrete and distinct reality, is a parallel story. I wanted to play with this ambiguity.

The ferry’s passing out of the military base of Portsmouth encouraged a certain reflection on Britain, the sheer scale of the place, the sense of the past these military ships invoke, the militarism that seems part of the national character… At the same time the ferry leaves it all behind and enters another place, ultimately arrives in another country. I interviewed a lot of people on the ferries before making the film and many of the passengers were Brits who wanted to get out of the country, who felt Britain was no longer a place where they wanted to live. I was taken aback by how strongly some people expressed these views.

3:AM: You also use Mark Tibbs from your earlier film Real Money, which to some extent it seems to follow on from.

RP: We’d wanted to work together again ever since Fighters and Real Money, and the story of the brothers came out of an acting workshop that included Alan Milton. Both were very talented, had a real instinct for performing, a gift for improvising. I hope we’ll work together again on another idea soon.

3:AM: How was the film received and was finance an issue again? You’ve spoken more recently about your hopes for the internet to revive independent cinema.

RP: Where the film has been shown reception has been good. It went down particularly well at the Cambridge Film Festival and at cinema showings in France and in Moscow. But getting distribution for a film like this isn’t easy. It’s not obviously ‘about’ something but is more an experience of something, a journey, a passage through a moment in a relationship. In many ways it was an experiment, made relatively inexpensively, independently financed. It would be nice to get it on TV here but independent work generally doesn’t get much transmission time these days. There’s a whole rich vein of British work that just doesn’t get shown there. BFI DVD has done much to try to make sure this area of British cinema is kept available but it really needs to be shown on television and to spark a bit of a debate about making films in different ways today.

The Internet, it seems to me, might be, probably will be, in future, the main means of global film distribution. You still have to get your film known about, to arouse curiosity, but you can put a film up there. I’ve been quite amazed at the number of rare films I’ve been able to see on YouTube for example, that are unavailable on DVD and never shown on television or in the cinema. If this form of distribution can provide a sufficient revenue stream to be viable then its importance is major. But to get films known about in the first instance you still need press, festival screenings and cinema showings and a good cinema presentation is still perhaps the most enjoyable way to see a film and the way in which it can best reveal what it is.

3:AM: Rather than East London, you seem to be working more in Eastern Europe now.

RP: The main project I’m working on now is set mostly in Russia and Ukraine, both of which I’ve spent a fair bit of time in these last 3-4 years. We are in process of trying to set it up now. This one would be 35mm and with a budget more like that for Empire State. Casting is key to pulling it off and we’ve managed to attract some definite interest there. It’s a road film and a mystery, centering on an American’s surveillance of an Englishman. There is also a French dimension so it’s a pretty interconnected international story.

I ran some acting workshops in Moscow, with both professionals and non-professionals, and it was very much like working with the boxers in Mile End. There were a lot of parallels, which was perhaps why I felt very at home there. We’ve a mountain to climb but with luck we’ll shoot the film in summer 2012.

Several of Ron Peck’s films will be shown by Channel Four later this year.

All of the films are now all available on DVD from BFI, SecondRunDVD, Network and the CROSS-CHANNEL website.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is Film Editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 15th, 2011.