Guest Writer: James Mackay on “The Angelic Conversation”.
We’re a lot about Derek Jarman on the blog of late. It’s been for many of us in the theater a process of discovery and rediscovery, and if the conversations I’ve participated in and overheard are a good barometer, even for those who are more familiar with Jarman’s oeuvre it isn’t as much meeting an old friend as re-encountering a familiar stranger you’re not quite sure what to do with. James Mackay, who produced numerous films with Jarman, writes here about the production of The Angelic Conversation, the first feature they made together, detailing especially the development of Jarman’s signature use of lo-fi film mediums including Super 8 mm and video. Mr. Mackay has also sent some fantastic snapshots taken on location during the shooting of The Angelic Conversation. We’ll be screening that film this Saturday at 3pm. Enjoy.
The first I heard about Derek Jarman was at an exhibition of Expanded Cinema at the ICA in 1974. They were showing a three-screen version of In the Shadow of the Sun. I didn’t meet Derek until much later, however, at the London Filmmakers Co-op in the late 70s, when I invited him to show some of the many Super8mm films he’d made. That night Derek showed some twenty films, projecting them himself from two small Bolex projectors he’d brought with him, and accompanying the films with a selection of music from commercial audio cassettes – like a DJ really. He kept the audience enthralled for almost three hours.
During the prep for that show we’d discussed the merits and disadvantages of working in Super8mm, especially the problem of fragility, and when we met again it was mainly to talk about preservation of his S8mm films. At the time however Derek was also very excited about the two features he had in development – Caravaggio and Neutron – and every time we met he would read aloud from each revision. Using my contacts in Europe, I was able to raise funding to have a 16mm negative made from the Super8mm original of In the Shadow of the Sun. This was Derek’s first magnum opus and the result of four years of filming and many layered composites.
As we spent more time together I was slowly drawn into the production process, from script consultant to development producer on Caravaggio. However, as that film was proving difficult to get off the ground Derek continued to work on other projects with the more accessible medium of Super 8 mm. TG Psychic Rally in Heaven (1981) was our first film conceived to be shot on S8mm but then completed on a more distributable format, in that case, 16mm. This was followed by a series of films mixing S8mm and 16mm. Our first foray into large-scale production started during a session at the ICA, where we were preparing a selection of Derek’s early S8mm films for a run in the cinema by transferring them to video. We were doing this by projecting the S8 films onto a white wall and reshooting them with a video camera. Halfway through the second day we started to get a bit bored with this process and began to experiment with a large tarnished mirror and the projectionist, Steve Randall. Derek projected the image on to Steve and the mirror while filming the scene with the video camera. This was an exciting new departure, and the material we filmed that day was the first step in making The Angelic Conversation.
With Agfa selling off its colour stock cheap – £2.5 for a cartridge, including processing – it was decided that our new project should be something more ambitious than a short. The combination of low-cost stock and Derek’s preferred shooting speed of 6fps meant that a little stock went a long way. There were to be two central characters. Derek had met Paul Reynolds at the Bell in King’s X and somehow I found Phillip Williamson. The idea was to create a free-form love poem with these two young men at its center.
We filmed the sequences for the new work gradually over the course of a summer. As our resources were very limited – neither of us had any real income at that time – we could only afford to film one or two days at a time. Derek chose all the locations. I devised the smoke and flares. Ken Bolton or another friend would drive and as there was only room for four, with a driver, Derek, & myself there was space for only one of the principal actors on each location shoot! The only time the actors were filmed together was for the bed scene in Derek’s Charing X Road flat.
Other scenes, with extras, were filmed in the ICA cinematheque. A video-only sequence was filmed in Derek’s flat. After each shoot the film was sent off for processing. As soon as it came back we would borrow a U-matic recorder from the British Film Institute on the other side of Charing X Road and then video the films off the wall. It all sounds a bit amateurish but we were deadly serious.
Having completed filming in the late summer of 1984 we began to edit, using a simple two-deck VHS system. About this time, Derek was greatly annoyed that Channel 4 (the new TV station) were funding Peter Greenaway to make a series of shorts from Dante’s Divine Comedy, but had completely ignored Derek’s own petitioning them with the idea of making a series of shorts based on Shakespeare’s sonnets. It suddenly dawned on him that it would be an even better idea to combine the sonnets and The Angelic Conversation.
Around this time we’d done some tests on to 35mm to see how the images would hold when blown up, and the first couple of tests were ropey indeed. Then we met Fred Weinal from Colour Film Services lab and he put the material through the new machine that he’d built and that worked.
Manfred Salzgeber invited us to show the film at the Berlin Film Festival the following year.
Angelic Conversation is less of a home movie that became a feature and more a feature conceived and made using home-movie technology. S8mm gave us access to the tools of cinema despite the fact that we were both flat broke.
There was an air of anarchy to London in the early 80’s. Thatcher was running roughshod over our culture. We had sentimental drivel such as Chariots of Fire in our cinemas. The gay press was more reactionary than the right-wing newspapers. But the music was good.
While waiting for the money to come through to finish Angelic we made Imagining October (1984), a 27-minute meditation on state censorship and repression. (Imagining October recently ran for eight weeks as an installation at Tate Britain.) This was made in the same way as Angelic, but much faster—we only had six weeks to make it before it was to be shown at the 1984 London Film Festival—but we managed it and got the first print back from the lab on the morning of the screening. Sitting in the Lumier cinema on Saint Martin’s Land we were so apprehensive I could hear both our hearts beat. We were really pleased it worked, it was what we wanted, we’d seized the means of production. Cinema was ours.
There was a wind of change at BFI Production and less tolerance to experimentation. They wanted to do a film with Derek, but on their terms. It was still fun but coming from an art school background the kind of costume drama that Caravaggio was becoming didn’t really interest me. I wanted something more contemporary, more urgent, and so we made The Last of England – just Derek and me and our friends. We paid for the shoot ourselves out of money we’d raised making music videos for the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys. Only after we shot and edited the film did we look for money to make the 35m print and pay for the music. We made it under the auspices of someone else’s company. That turned into a slightly steep learning curve but fortunately I had a good lawyer! Anyway it’s still my favourite film!
After that experience I set up my own company, which produced The Garden and Blue. This enabled Derek and I to have complete control (and ownership!) over the films. Blue was surprisingly hard to finance, although the budget was quite small, around £90k. People had difficulty getting their heads around the idea: A blank screen. Some just laughed. But Derek was right and it worked splendidly.
Still, the most fun we had was in the early days when we made Angelic Conversation – just four people: Derek, me and the two cast members. And lots of other films and projects in the years between 1979 and 1986, when we were on the outside and not even remotely interested in being on the inside. Derek was a great man, generous, kind and a second father to me.
Born Inverness, Scotland in 1954, James Mackay studied film at North East London Polytechnic (now University of East London). After graduating he became Secretary of the London Film-Maker’s Co-op and then Cinema Programmer. In the late 1970’s Mackay produced a series of programs for the Edinburgh International Film Festival titled New British Avant-Garde films and programmed similar for the Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival later he would revisit curating as Film and Video curator of the B2 gallery 1981 – 83. He began producing in 1981 through Dark Pictures, the firm that he founded as a production and marketing company for new films and video, beginning with a series of shorts by Derek Jarman.You can read more about him here. Filmography here. All photos courtesy James Mackay. Photo of Mr. Mackay: Brook Dillon.