Dancing at the Crossroads

By Sue Clayton

Sue Clayton is a director of both documentary and fiction films. She is about to direct a feature film financed by several European sources. The following is her tale of a director in pursuit of a production.

To sum up my precise activities since Heart Songs, and that balmy screening in February 1992 when I drunkenly thanked ‘the industry’ and staggered happily down the abandoned offices of Wardour Street: • I have one film, The Disappearance of Finbar Brennan, in official pre-production. I am attached to three others in development, which hopefully means  that at least one or two will get made. • I have periodically earned less money than a 16-year-old office junior; and all my earnings have gone back into work. • I took three months out to get Heart Songs distributed in cinemas, got it into 50 cinemas, and liaised with various people and groups to try and get short films as a whole back into distribution. • I have been nominated for a BAFTA. (Like Neil Jordan at the Oscars, I was in the toilet when it happened (unfortunately, unlike Neil Jordan, I didn’t win). • I have been sent along with five other European directors on the most extraordinary trip to New York and Hollywood as New Young Talent. • I have run up more debts than a lone person with no rich family or helpful husband should ever have to. I’ve had people trying to repossess my belongings on the same day that I’ve met commissioning and funding people and had to look professional, relaxed, and inspirational. • I have berated myself for leaving the more obviously political work I was doing before, where I was more connected to the world, to other people and their ideas. I could be more useful, I could be economically more self-sufficient, and less of a drain on my friends. • I have come to love my film-making friends with an intensity that I never did before, because they have kept me alive and believed, not just in me personally, but in the importance of taking risks and trying to follow what somehow remains a chimera – the present world, told back to us as cinema fiction. 

I had a favourite childhood book about a scarecrow who celebrated different birthdays for different parts of his cobbled-together body. This is a handy concept sartorially (shoes six, hairdo eight) but also now a near-essential way of describing one’s own self. After 17 years of being an independent film-maker (I date this from early Independent Film-makers’ Association days), rather more as a socialist and feminist, a decade or so of C4-induced company entrepreneurship and now 18 months of New Young Feature Talent status, I empathise deeply with the scarecrow’s confused affection for all his parts, his recitations of their conflicting histories and his nervousness when his wooden backbone (whatever that represents), which by rights should be inanimate, starts to sprout and tickle him, and stir him into fits of uneasy activity...

Better to be this Worzel with his itchings and ticklings, than a non-contradictory creature (... his inamorata, a shop-model, all one piece, melts away entirely in the sun into a pool of waxy tears).

But apart from indulging in multiple forms of nostalgia, how else to live with the important and contradictory legacies that we carry over time?

I have been wanting to write this piece since the first Screen Forum meeting three years ago, where I recognised the way our conflicting parts were threatening to destroy us. People in collectives, especially those working in specific communities, felt disloyal for wanting to do their ‘own’ work. People organised as free-lancers or in small companies could see how their financial self-exploitation to make ‘their own’ films was being held up as a model for casualising the whole production sector and undercutting rates and benefits.

The ‘third circuit’ of the 70s and early 80s – with its networks for distribution, exhibition and critical debate, with its challenging new forms and ideas, its refusal to accept easy categories of fact and fiction – was a phenomenon that I have always found impossible to describe to people who were not part of it. (And those of us who were part of it have remained connected in some way 10 and 15 years later.) There was a whole spectrum of energy and activity that spurred people on to break new ground and invent new forms and meanings. I remember seeing early Godard films, Chris Marker, Alexander Kluge, Jean Rouch’s films, and experiencing a kind of electric shock that the world could be represented in these new ways, and that the challenge was there for us to do the same. I remember all of us in the IFA being volunteer staff at the pioneering Other Cinema and seeing Joris Ivens’ spectacular films on China, and a film I go on remembering called I’ll Just Ask My Daddyji, by Nick Gifford. I remember debates around The Nightcleaners, Godard’s Slow Motion, Film Work Group’s Justine... I remember whole weeks at Edinburgh talking about the superlative work of the Soviet avant-garde, and seeing women’s films from around the world. We were committing to a lifetime of work that was absorbing, exploratory, radical, challenging and pleasurable – which stretched hands out to the worlds of radical and avant-garde art, to Latin American cinema and resistance, sexuality, ‘Rock Against Racism’, film language and the disruption of traditional ways of viewing and analysing film...

By the late 80s we were a less cohesive and more defensive group. History had literally changed us, and the famous ‘third circuit’ seemed most often before us as an ideal that we had been unable to sustain. We had by then achieved union status (after a long struggle) and entered the TV free-lance world – which gave us more purchase on the industry and a few years of economic self-sufficiency. But as the ITV channels started cost-cutting for the 1991 franchise bids, and programming across the board, even at Channel 4, be­came more packaged and slotted, we were weighing up the gains and losses. Yes, TV brought us to a wider audience, but it had made us all into units competing for the decreasing number of good programme slots, with the runners-up destined for ambulance-chasing vérité or arts-show gobbets.

There was a defensiveness in the Thatcher era – with so many rearguard political battles to fight, many of us sacrificed the medium for the political message, and would go jobbing for (often leftist) entrepreneurs, who would have a political ‘house-style’ as clearly laid down as a graphic or musical one.

By the late 80s we were losing our sense of shared purpose, commonality, and the gap could no longer be filled by the easy rhetoric of ‘independence’ (from what – capital?) or textbook collectivity (if there ever was such a thing...). As the recession eroded our various infrastructures and forced us more and more to be jobbing film-makers, so our confidence in the radical forms we had championed was also eroded. Along with our confidence in almost everything else. (If Screen Forum achieved nothing else, it saved many of us from intensive therapy...)

But those who suffered the biggest dose of angst at that first Screen Forum meeting, where we sat doggedly trying to sort our new roles for ourselves, were the ones who wanted to work in cinema, not TV, and make reasonably well-budgeted fiction films. The British industry was cash-starved and moribund, with a continuing exodus of High Achievers to Hollywood. A small number of art-house directors were surviving, their cult status sponsored more by German, Dutch and Japanese money than by home investors. But that was all. More than this, there were few strategies or aesthetics we could draw upon, apart from those of young Antipodean and European directors who existed in the warm climate of state subsidy and national distribution. Having said this, our drive to make fiction on a fairly large scale has not gone away, despite the risible financial odds against it.

We try to produce sounds and images that reflect and interpret the age, that question the dodgy immorality of our government and the cynical self-interest of its supporters. And yet, tired, harassed old lefties as we are, our job is also to be playful, to generate pleasure, to free the imagination, to be generous and not merely defensive, and show that more things are possible. More stories exist. More worlds exist.

The work of discovering these stories, and of telling them, seems to me more personally risky and more fragile than the work we did before; and this precisely at the moment when, as I have said, our support systems, our ability to earn a living, and our sense of belonging to things are at an all-time low. What follows is an account of my journey towards fiction. ‘Dancing at the crossroads’ signifies for me a desire to engage in this moment, while looking both ways down the road...

Getting personal

In 1976-79 Jonathan Curling and I, with a group of 100 or more people, made a fictional film called The Song of the Shirt. Among other things, it looked at the way the Victorian poor came to be defined by their material conditions, their physical circumstances, not by their beliefs, wants or aspirations.

Now (after 12 years away doing documentaries) I want to continue to eschew this kind of determinism, and to make films about the dreams and aspirations of ‘ordinary’ people; about the imaginary, not just the physical worlds they inhabit.

The first drama I directed alone was The Last Crop, in which a cleaner cleans rich peoples’ apartments and lets her poor neighbours use them when the owners are away. The point was not just that Anne and her friends appropriate wealth physically, but that they all enjoy the pleasures – of food, entertaining, privacy – that everyone ought to have. I wanted the film to be liberating, to have the exhilaration of escape, of charting new territory without the hollow platitudes of escapism. Not rags to riches, nor rags to rage. Maybe rags to ragtime.

I made The Last Crop in the relatively safe environment of TV. It was a four-way co-production with three Australian sources and Channel 4. None of the financiers needed to recoup their investment. I didn’t need, therefore, to worry about a famous-name cast or selling points in distributors’ terms. At a TV-length of 60 minutes, the film got a cinema release (with a Jane Campion short) and cinema reviews. One of the happiest days of my life was patrolling the ICA incognito and hearing the unsolicited enthusiasms from the audience as they left. I had created an intimate and quite feminine world, had invited people into that world and they liked it. They must in some way, therefore, like me – a narcissistic, childish and deluded but nonetheless irresistible thought.

Had I known that would mark me down for several years as Ms. Cute and Quirky, I might have tried for a more profound pitch. As it was, I was described by one magazine as ‘a loon who makes most people seem by comparison unutterably normal and their lives trouble-free’.

Having made The Last Crop I went back to a documentary odyssey on the future, called Japan Dreaming, for Central. Channel 4, on the evidence of The Last Crop, had me earmarked as a ‘Film on 4’ director and proposed I do one of the British Screen/Channel 4 short films. They sent me script ideas that had been put to them, faxes which slid under the doors of various space-age Japanese hotels. I had an odd feeling in Japan that my life was starting over again. I was in a country that claimed the next century was going to be clean, green, harmonious and ‘feminine’. I was taking steam baths in the snowy mountains with adorable Japanese girls. I was being sent scripts under my door by people who had ‘discovered’ me as New Young Talent. I was enjoying myself, goddammit, after many years of extreme overwork. The information-sifting, observing, analysing side of my brain wanted to retire to the steam baths forever and not get out. I was ready to dream. The landlady of our inn would untwirl her long obi (sash) which serves as the geisha equivalent of a rucksack and, after a couple of untwirlings, would produce with a flourish yet another missive from Channel 4 and I would feel, even for such an ostensibly small thing as a short film, a kind of rush at the thought of engaging with cinema, with the big screen.

In the end I co-wrote and directed the short film Heart Songs, based on a story by Annie Proulx. The story was far more interior than The Last Crop and relied more on ‘cinematic’ qualities – landscape, music, mood.

The critics upgraded me on this one from ‘cute and quirky’ to possessing a ‘sly and haunting charm’. (Not bad for a scarecrow. I practised a sly and haunting expression for weeks with no success whatsoever.) I was sufficiently proud of Heart Songs to invite all sorts of people from ‘the industry’ to a screening, and amazingly they all came and liked it. I felt confident enough after that night to decide that I would commit all my time and energy from now on to developing feature projects – this was in the worst year ever for the British film industry, with only 12 films being produced, none of course by women, and none by people who worked out of their kitchen in Finsbury Park.

From such optimism began the most harrowing two years of my life. I had a little income from Japan Dreaming which soon went in phone, fax, meetings, option negotiations and so on. (The latter not being as glamorous as it sounds – involving chasing book rights through eight or nine publishers and agents, then getting a desultory secretary in LA who rings back at 2 a.m. and says ‘Dark? You’re sure it’s dark? It’s real sunny here.’)

I went back to signing on... not to worry. I would be New Age, have a mobile and a laptop on the Mull of Kintyre. Did all my friends and colleagues seem defeated too, or was I projecting? The whole film and TV market was ‘tightening’, and most people were barely surviving, let alone buying themselves time for development. I circled round the board game. Get a script. Get a producer. Get a good idea, then a writer. Get some funding. No, get the producer to get the funding but I’d get the script to get the producer to get the funding. But get through the option legalities to get the script, no, get a producer to get the option. No, relax, feel creative. Don’t do any of these things. Take a proper break. No, breaks cost money. I lose a great script because the writer, also poor, is obliged to sell it to financiers who want it unencumbered. I’m an encumbrance. No I’m not, I’m a director-in-training, as someone cautiously puts it.

I was offered three films but turned them down. This caused me to lose 50% of my friends, who responded less well to my endless pleas of poverty, but I realised that I could only make the kind of emotional investment required with a certain kind of material. At the outset, as with a personal relationship, I found it incredibly hard to know when a project was near enough to my interests and feelings that I could wholeheartedly engage with it. When I turned things down I usually accused myself of arrogance and pretentiousness.

Back to the kitchen. A certain lack of confidence set in. No rights, so no books. Channel 4 asked me to consider starting from my own background (Tyneside) which both excites and disturbs me. I’ll work there only if it’s right, not to indulge myself. I think about feeling lonely and displaced in my kitchen, and I think how most of the world is culturally or geographically displaced. How does this affect us all? What is truth? How can I pay the phone bill? Should I give up?

Gradually, through a plethora of stories, scripts solicited and otherwise, novels, treatments, whatever, I started to focus on four films that I wanted to make.

For one, I had an interview with a large company. I bared my soul in the meeting and knew I’d lost it. Then several months later I got a phone call. The project was with another company now. They loved my soul-baring antics, and I could start just as soon as they’ve, er, raised the money. Which I know they will eventually.

The second project was a novel set in Alaska about five women who become exotic dancers on the frontier. I found a producer with some cash to back it and genuine faith in me to do it. (Anybody who had faith in the cowering and petulant me of 1992 is going to get seriously rewarded if there is a God.)

The third project was Annie Proulx’s new novel The Shipping News. It has a salutary story attached. Those involved in Heart Songs managed to get me an airfare back to Canada to screen the cut film which the cast and crew had never seen. I urgently wanted to meet Annie Proulx, the author of Heart Songs. She had liked the film and wanted to show me her new book The Shipping News. I read it in the snow, in her clapboard house circled by bear tracks. We stayed up all night listening to Zydeco and Texas Two-steps, and talking non-stop. By morning I wanted to film the book.

The Shipping News came out and won every literary award in sight, including the Irish Book Award and the US National Book Award. Now I had no legal hold on the book and it was suddenly worth a lot more than I could ever raise. I was torn between exultation for the author, who has come through a long and tough life to write so well; rage that nobody had trusted me until the book was showered with honours; and fear that I’d now lose it. Happily the agents were still prepared to negotiate on the basis of the trust and goodwill that we’d built up. The kindness of strangers. A little respect goes a long way.

The fourth project was a very weird Irish novel – Tristram Shandy meets The Singing Detective meets John B. Keane. But its central idea was what had been bugging me personally – the nature of the expectations that are put on to someone, and how they respond to this pressure. When much is required of them, do they stay or do they go? It is the comic story of someone who is driven to jump off the flyover that dominates his housing estate, but doesn’t die, and lives a happy life in the end tangoing in Arctic Finland.

The Disappearance of Finbar Brennan (its current working title) is the one that Channel 4 decided to support, though having said that it is a pan-European film that also requires extensive finance to be raised elsewhere.

It is a tricky task writing this article, to both defend and praise the history from which I and others come, to see the continuities; and on the other hand to show my persistent personal desire to test these continuities, throw away the gains I’ve been making, constantly re-invent myself somewhere else. (The re-inventing, though it feels like losing one’s skin, is hopefully part of our future history anyway.). Finbar as a film reflects both sides of the coin. It has connections back to a body of work the independent sector has done on nationhood, colonialism, history and identity, memory and loss.

On the other side of the equation, I can trace my attraction to the idea of a person vanishing himself, recreating himself anew – back to the snowy quiet days in Japan when I took the (for me) unprecedented step of not speaking much, of wishing the talking to stop, for myself and the world to be passive and silent for a while, a need to breathe deeply and begin again.

Come dancing

The economic climate here is clearly hostile (a typical British financier gets 3,000 scripts a year and makes eight) but as I’m sure will be clear from this piece, it is not always external battles one is fighting. We do not have, as a part of our national culture, the big, warm and vibrant passion and affection for cinema that one feels in France or Italy. Opportunities and financing here are less than in countries like Australia and Ireland which have a fraction of our population. There are a lot of films deserving to be made that are not being made.

What this means for us, internally, is that the pressure on those of us who do get the chance is very great. Financiers cheerfully talk about breaking the rules and producing one-offs, while forgetting that in this country there is no chance of feature apprenticeship, no chance to learn and make mistakes, to fully understand the rules before deciding to break them.

But herein lies the great strength of ‘our’ sector. We have been working in our own way, in our own kinds of cinema, for very many years, and have kept alive a wit, humanity and understanding that I think we seriously underrate in ourselves. This history we carry will translate into feature films in altogether surprising ways – that will both scare and threaten our individual self-image, but ultimately lead us, not into ‘issue films’ or sell-out commercial films or some other easy category, but into a whole new territory of the imagination, where we will rediscover, as I have in a very small way, the flags and signposts from before (as in Urga where the hero gazes into an abandoned TV set on the mountain­side and sees images that are both startlingly new to him and achingly familiar). We should all be able to use the moment, see what crossroads we are at, and dance even, without thinking this is the only possible road or crossroads we might ever be on – knowing that we are old enough now to have a real tradition in our heads, but young enough, as it were, to dance. And here am I at this juncture, with four tentative projects in my arms and a ton of expectations on my head – dancing on the good days at least…

There are the stirrings of a more international fiction community, who can negotiate the personal and the social, who can be more emotionally free without being ‘tortured artists’, who have a politics but don’t allow themselves to be branded and classified negatively by it. That’s what we can be part of, if we want to be.

A Finsbury Park odyssey

In 1993 when I was sent (with five other European directors) to New York and Hollywood as New Young Talent, I tried desperately to look as young as the other New Talent, a couple of whom could have been my kids if I’d thought to be sexually active at an earlier age. I met agents, producers (‘We think you’re a real gifted young lady, Miss Clayton’), managers, attorneys (‘Do you have an attorney, Miss Clayton?’ ‘Shit no, I forgot!!!’) and studios (‘I got 10 minutes. Pitch me.’). I realised that in comparison with the US and Europe, British cinema is dead in the water unless major investment can take place. I made vital contacts on that trip and snapped out of my English self-effacing misery. The last morning we had breakfast on Sunset, drove in open-topped Chevys to the airport, toasted our own futures on the flight back and said tearful farewells at Heathrow. First Film, in a final act of generosity, put me in a cab home. Still with my drawl and shades, I re­membered the dole office as we sped through Finsbury Park. ‘Hold it right here, man,’ I said to the cab driver. ‘I have a little business to attend to.’ Inside, England descended on me like a soaking wet grey woollen blanket. I shuffled up the queue, feeling deranged. ‘Name?’ ‘Sue Clayton.’ ‘Done any work this week?’ ‘Well…only a meeting with Warners, script coming from Zoetrope, ICM said…’ my voice trails. ‘Been looking, have you?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes, actually I have been looking.’ ‘Where?’ ‘H O L L Y W O O D’. ‘No need to be sarcastic, I only asked,’ the girl says. My conf­idence plummets. The meetings and the Chevy and the eggs sunny-side up on Sunset were ob­viously a rank delusion… if it wasn’t for the shock of the £55 cab fare when I finally stepped outside…