Making it happen...
This is one of those situations. I am in Dublin with Michael Nyman, to enable him to direct the movie that Dermot and Lu have planned – the story of his Uncle Tom and the Easter Rising. We’re at the GPO waiting for Dermot and our assistant Tom to join us at lunchtime. We’re filling in the time shooting interiors and exteriors of the GPO. I make sure that I get shots of Michael using his video camera, in the hope that this will somehow convince the viewer of his authorship of the film. But I already know that this authorship is in doubt.
Problems. We have fewer than three days in which to shoot the film. How will Michael make it his own in such a short time, made even shorter because he has to leave early? How will he get his own take on something so well thought through by Dermot and Lucinda in advance, but with which he’s not yet that familiar? How will I, as a director but here as the cameraman, sound-recordist, and general enabler, be able to resist directing this myself? How will the movie be both what Dermot wants it to be and be a piece that engages Michael creatively?
Michael has made time in his hugely stressed schedule to be here with us in Dublin. We’re not paying him anything. He’s here because he wants to make the movie, and because he wants to support Dermot. He is here to direct but I know that this is not going to work out as envisaged. Yet the fact is that we wouldn’t be here had Michael not committed to make the movie. It was his involvement that persuaded Culture Online to commission the film in the first place. Problems. The clock is ticking. We need a result – fast. Dermot is fit for the trip but I have to bear his health and stamina in mind.
When faced with this sort of situation I tend to block out the contradictions and just go for it. Going for it, in this instance, means easing Michael into the role of on-screen guide and interviewer of Dermot, and directing the movie myself while not quite admitting to myself, or anyone else, that this is what is happening. Of course it’s quite obvious to everyone that this is what is happening and as I blitzkrieg ahead with what has to be done I am duplicitously aware of what is not being said. Meanwhile, as we film our way through the first day in the GPO, Michael has been quietly snapping away at the life all around him with his stills camera.
We get through 6 locations and 8 hours of tape in less than 3 days.
It’s the usual scramble. The most dramatic location is in the crypt of the Pro Cathedral, where the verger leads Dermot along dark passageways, as we look for the traces of the tunnels that led from the GPO, via Dermot’s family’s barber shop – the alleged rebel escape route. It’s hard not to confront one’s own mortality amongst the desiccated wreathes, faded photos, chipped crucifixes and open coffins that litter the place, and I wonder what Dermot feels down here, in this place of death. But my excitement about the macabre aptness of the place for our movie overrides any serious concerns that it might be upsetting for him.
I need not have worried. Dermot is intense and eloquent about his own cancer and the challenge of finding the relationship between 1916, Uncle Tom, and cancer resolves itself as the stories unite around themes of failure. I know that we are making a good movie here but when Michael has to leave I know deep down that we have not shot enough to justify his on-screen presence.
Later, editing, these fears are confirmed. Even with Michael’s added commentary it’s clear to me that this is not going to work. The film will be better without Michael in it, and with Dermot narrating his own story. Yet I am holding on to Michael’s offer that we use selections from his The Piano Sings CD on the soundtrack. I should say something, and soon.
Now here’s a thing…. Lucinda and I saw all this coming and took steps…
Michael has been quietly developing his interest in photography for some years now. His own photographs form the basis of his latest CD cover and he is planning exhibitions of his work. On another front, his concerts increasingly feature his live piano accompaniment to silent films – such as Jean Vigo’s ‘A Propos de Nice’ and Paul Strand’s ‘Manhatta’. What if we were to propose that he make a ‘film’ of the stills he took at the GPO while with us in Dublin, and write a score to accompany it? This would then be a companion piece to 1916, and allow Michael full creative sway without troublesome filmmakers like me getting in the way.
So Lucinda puts Michael together with Sacha Austin, a very talented animator, and together they edit GPO – an elegiac take on the GPO that November day that animates the stills that Michael took.
GPO, with its score for string quartet, marks the beginning of an exciting new direction for Michael Nyman, one that integrates his visual and musical sensibilities. But GPO, with the presence of Dermot surveying the transience of those around him that day in the post office against photographs of the fateful rising in 1916, and his own ancestors, is also a kind of Requiem for Dermot’s relationship with post offices. For, as he says in 1916 – the companion film – he was a senior manager in the Royal Mail in England before cancer forced his premature retirement, and post offices are special to him.
And the film 1916? I found fine-tuning the intertwined themes engaging but challenging. The slightest imbalance and the movie wouldn’t fly but crash in a tangle of contradictory themes. Well, I think it flies and flies well. And most important, remains true to what Dermot wanted. And Michael? Well you can still glimpse him from time in the film – the top of his head, or a snatch of his face. And of course you can hear his beautiful music on the soundtrack. But for something that is truly Nyman, look at the wonderful GPO.