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The Vacuum Issue 1 spacer Issue 1
Going West
John T Davis speaks to John Mathews
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J.M. You didn't set out to make a career in film but simply had these ideas for images which you wanted to put sound to, which ended up as finished film works.
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J.T. That was one of the things that drew me to using moving images, the fact that you could work with sound. The story was, my uncle died and one of the things he left me was his 8mm camera and that's the one I made my first film 'Transfer' with. It was about cross-dressing and people's sexuality; coupled with things you were into at the time, which was drug taking. This room that we're in used to be my studio and still is in a way, there was a cutting room and editing bench right down one wall, with a big screen at the far end. There was also a section cordoned off and used as a projection booth and right down the bottom was a sound dubber with a little four track and mixing desk. 'Shell Shock Rock' was done in this room, by the time I got to make that, it was relatively sophisticated down here. Prior to that I had made loads and loads of little things, trying to learn how to do things, like holding something in sync. You would have a little L.E.D reader, which was hooked up to the pulse on the tape recorder, which flashed behind the perforations of the film going into the machine. The air raid shelter which is behind the house here was where I used to put people, God love them, to do voice-overs. People don't believe how technically difficult it was, and that was only in the mid 1970s.
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Going West
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J.M. So how did you acquire equipment at the time, with such limited resources?
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J.T. It was assembled from various sources, I would think nothing of jumping in my car and driving up to an old boy in Derry, guy called Terry Mc Donald, to glean information from. I see myself I suppose in the likes of you or other people coming to me for information, I had such an incredible thirst for it. Just to finish talking about sound, it was a great achievement even to get sound, videotape wasn't really there, it was around obviously but not in the form it is today. Whenever I was learning how to work a camera, I didn't think of it as being a director, producer or cameraman. I was a filmmaker who came out of Art College as a painter. So I was left in the position that if you want to do it, you have to do it yourself. So I had to learn every aspect as much as I could, in order to get through it and make it. I had a partner at the time Alwin Jones who is still around and we both were very similar in the level we were at and joined forces in 1977.
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J.M. With all the advancements in digital technology today, would you work in video or would you have particular preference to shooting film?
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J.T. I'm a filmmaker, I shoot video and have done loads of things for other people on video, you have to earn a living. I've never embarked on any project of my own on video tape because no matter how sophisticated it gets, it's never going to catch up with film. I could never have made 'Hobo' with video equipment, it just wouln't have stood up to it, all that banging, crashing, heat, cold and dirt. The thing about film equipment is it's precision machinery and optics, everything clicks like a rifle going together. Also film is different because you're burning pound notes every second. You think about what you're doing much more precisely. Even the art of taking a picture on film like lighting it for example, video lighting is so unsuitable, it can't be anything else but unsuitable but lighting for film is such a hit, it's drama on 35mm, everything is there, which is pretty scary too.
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J.M. Would you see a strong difference or similarity in the way you would approach things visually as a filmmaker and as a painter?
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J.T. I know I have a different eye than a lot of people, which is why I get hired, people recognise the difference in what I do. It's very difficult to pinpoint exactly what that is but I know what's important to me in a photograph or film. The way it should be approached and how to get the best out of it, a landscape for example, how to instantaneously frame a picture without having to really think about it. I think a lot of that has to do with studying painting, the golden rectangle and all that, or is it the golden triangle? A lot of crap you see on T.V is obviously shot by people who don't know how to frame a picture. Going to Art College gave me an attitude as much as anything else, different people drawing on various aspects of life. I was drawn to images that were important in your formative years, hence all the work I did in America.
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J.M. Dealing with the various subjects that you depict in your film, what is your initial attraction to record and document these various stories and is there a strand running through them?
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J.T. It's not always evident at the time why you do something or what makes you do it. Looking back, it appears I have chosen subjects that have been pretty important to me, in my development. The other thing is people say I've terrible great patience to make these model aeroplanes that I make. Yes I do have patience but its the vision at the end of the day that keeps you going and it's exactly the same with film, you have to be prepared to have a thing plastic in your mind, so it can take on its own life and form. It has to be couched in a subject that I'm interested in and if you look at all my films, it's music. 'Route 66', which was about America, the two fundamentalist films about Northern Ireland, 'Dust On the Bible' and 'Power in the Blood'. Then there was a film about song writing in Nashville, then 'Hobo', a documentary about Atlantic Records and then 'Uncle Jack'.
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J.M. You seem to create a whole world based around a certain individual and explore that to its fullest.
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J.T. People say I steal other people's lives to explore my own but who doesn't. My greatest influence looking back was D.A. Pennebaker, who is the father of contemporary American documentary film making. The documentaries you see on television now are not documentaries but journalistic wallpaper with that terrible enforced drama of 'Twin Peaks' style music and that grave voice of the presenter. There's the journalistic approach to documentary as well which you see all the time, the pictures are only an excuse for the voice. Half the things could be on radio and half the things on T.V should be on radio. 'Don't Look Back' was D.A Pennebaker's film about Bob Dylan. I've probably told this story too many times but I did see Pennebaker making part of that film in Belfast when Bob Dylan was playing here. It was all before I got into film or even went to Art College but I said to myself, 'fuck I'd like to do that, this is as good as rock and roll'. I didn't know who Pennebaker was at the time. When I went to New York I went to see him and we became friends and I ended up doing a bit of work for him.
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What I have done in the past is come up with a general landscape as to where you want to place the film, 'Hobo' is an example of what I'm talking about, so you can go out and shoot a film with some sense of what you want to get out of it. I didn't know what the story of 'Hobo' was going to be other than that we were going to travel on a long journey on a train and it would be going west. Then you would go and do a recce and that throws up other ideas, you start to get a glimmer of where the story might go or at least the nuts and bolts of it. Doing reccies for 'Hobo' was very much confidence building like learning how to jump trains. You have to let the story breath in an artistic, cerebral sense but you also have to pin certain things down because you have to film the image, in terms of 'I wanna stop here, there, film that etc.'. Then you come back and develop the idea a little, into three sections. One section, which sets the story up, puts in the background; you got to tell people Minneapolis is in the middle of America, crap stuff. You have got to do all these things and do them subtly, so that the information is passed on without people realising they are getting the information. You got to know Beargrease and Scot, you got to know a sense of where they were going and coming from, a little bit about the history of hobo's etc. Then there was a moment in the film were I felt there had to be an expanding of the spirituality of jumping a freight train, notions of freedom. To finish off the third section you had to get back to hard-nosed reality. So I set up something for that and it was a bit like a generational thing, where you had the young fella at the start of the film with Beargrease as his mentor. Then you had Beargrease on his own and then at the end you were to have Beargrease's mentor, who turned him out and showed him the ropes. The guy we lined up for that was too sick and had cancer and he died eventually and to cut a long story short we wound up with someone else by chance who was even better. It was Duffy who had been an advertising executive on Madison Avenue in New York and now collected tins by the railway tracks for money and that brought a real hard-nosed ending to it all. Then things developed within the story as you started making it; you start noticing things that become the narrative and not the background. The narrative that comes out of 'Hobo' was this thing about responsibility.
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J.M. I remember a sequence where Beargrease is in a call box in the middle of nowhere waiting to jump another freight train west. He is scolding his daughter for not turning up to school. This ironic notion of trying to retain this role of fatherly discipline when he is out there living his own freedoms through his life on the rails as a hobo. The contrast becomes quite comical but his concern is very genuine and moving as well.
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J.T. Yeah! All that sort of thing. I've been doing it for years; I've had to keep myself pumped up in order to make films. You got to keep the enthusiasm up there and out there, keep the adrenalin going, all the sexuality and everything going in your life in order to give you the energy to just do it. And all the time you have this place called home and children to be reared, it's a terrible dilemma, its life, dreams and desires. So what you realise is, there are certain things within this story that are becoming more and more important, you have to allow it to move and be flexible within itself. So that eventually through hours and hours of pouring over transcripts, you have to find out the important way this story is going. You can't go out and up the road and re-interview people in a lot of films. You're kind of reading what is inherently in the material and taking that out and making it into a coherent thread. At the end of that you have what this idea has metamorphosed into, it might be the same notion you started with but you can't let yourself be tied down.
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J.M. Because you work on a one to one basis often engaging quite closely with your subjects, do you find it difficult to detach yourself personally from the process and subject matter of the film?
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J.T. I always feel I become part of their culture, or tried to in some way, because you're drawn to them. Vernon Oxford which 'Power in the Blood' was based around, was the only way I could approach making a film about this country and its problems. Vernon had been very popular because everybody had been reared on Hank Williams and Vernon sounded like him. I love Hank Williams and I had known Vernon's music as a recording artist a long time before I met him or even thought about making a film about him. The thought of a missionary bringing Jesus Christ back to Northern Ireland seemed like an interesting and amusing way of making a film about your own country. What it did do was provide me with a canvas to be able to take Vernon round all these various places, some of which he had gone before and some he hadn't. It built up a mentality of what this place is like.
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J.M. I suppose it comes from using the eyes of an outsider to take a fresh look at something so familiar and personally close to you; using Vernon as a vehicle by which to see Northern Ireland from a totally new perspective, a whole fresh look at the ironies and farcical extremes.
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J.T. Yes it did create a vehicle and I got to know Vernon very well, he laid hands on me and all that kind of stuff and we used to pray before every day's shooting. At the time I felt like I needed some guidance and this is a man I felt I trusted because I knew his music. I didn't do that on purpose, I just got drawn into it. Like when I went over to Nashville to make 'Heart on the Line', about the songwriters who write the songs people identify within country music. I identify with country music very strongly and in a sense I wanted to find out who had written these songs and why they had written them. Also I was now leading my life by the mentality and stories within those songs and I could see myself in them, the lying, cheating and drinking. Really country and blues music are my routes.
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J.M. Of course, a lot of those songs are great stories in themselves.
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J.T. You would find yourself leading the lives within those songs, a number of circumstances click into position, nothing is fixed. Things in life come along which set a direction for you. I met Harlan Howard, the most prolific songwriter in Nashville of all time, who wrote songs like 'Pieces' for Patsy Kline. I met him by accident in Yesterday's Bar in Blooms Hotel in Dublin. I was there to talk to Nancy Griffith who had brought him over on tour. He was basically on holiday and we began talking at the bar and then there's an idea that comes out of that and a film. The film was really to see what those boys were like.
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J.M. What first attracted you to documentary film making in the first place as opposed to other formats within film such as drama or fiction?
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J.T. When I first started in film, documentary was the only thing you could do, and the way I got into it was based all around that whole notion of the one man band. I saw him with the camera on his shoulder, the sound recordist, it was free style and what he was doing with the camera was very inspiring to me because it had the beautiful fluid kind of painterly quality to it. It was an emulation of that till I developed my own style, whatever that is, certainly not like Pennebaker!
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