Chasing the Image

By Graham Johnston

milton-marc-karlin-1.jpgImages from Marc’s video sketches for Milton, shot by Jonathan Collinson

The first thing I remember about Marc was his asking: “Would it be all right to have a cigarette?” We were in a specialised dark room, working on a miniature lighting rig, trying out different lighting set-ups on models for The Outrage. The building’s fire alarm system meant Marc had to go outside for a ciggy and the meeting had a false urgency. I quickly learned, though, that all meetings with Marc were charged with urgency.   The original designer for The Outrage, Julian Crouch, had dropped out following the film’s changed shooting schedule. I should have been on trial, but instead Marc presented the idea of the film to me as if it was on trial. Luckily, I know a bit about Cy Twombly, the painter central to The Outrage, and was immediately taken with Marc’s ideas. I must have said the right things, because we seemed to hit it off straight away.

What struck me about Marc’s process was how personal and poetic it was. He seemed to be involved in a kind of quest, which was at the same time a laying bare of himself; something which required the deployment of his intellectual strengths as well as an exposure of his own personal vulnerability.

I loved the fact that Marc was motivated to make The Outrage because, initially, he’d hated Twombly’s juvenilesque scratches and scribblings. It was through the process of trying to expose these works in their negative light that Marc unlocked their idiosyncratic power and beauty. The content of the film flipped over to admiration, and yet he never lost sight of or denied his original misgivings. Perhaps this honesty of approach, so upfront, made me always think of Marc as an artist first, and a polemicist and agitator second.

I don’t think Marc had had much opportunity to use set design as an element in his films prior to The Outrage – he constantly made apologies for himself – but his approach was refreshing from the off. Rather than simply discussing what he wanted in front of the camera, Marc would usually lead off talking about the script and its meaning, how much it worked, how many of the ideas came across. He’d always want to know which bits were unclear, or too complicated, and would be thrilled if you could articulate the effectiveness of other pieces. This would lead on, in a rambling sort of way, to industry gossip, issues of the day, politics and family life. And of course football (of which I know relatively little, especially the English League). Usually, we’d remember design close to the time one of us had to finish, and then we’d hurriedly try to set up what we’d need to do to make progress for the next meeting.

milton-marc-karlin-2.jpgImages from Marc’s video sketches for Milton, shot by Jonathan Collinson

My normal approach is to use some combination of drawings or paintings as concept studies, pictorial research in the form of thematically arranged photocopies (in a rough presentation format), and models in various states of finish.

It was very gratifying showing work to Marc; he always appreciated the effort but more so the ideas the work would inspire in him. I’m always trying to find structures and cohesion and simplicity in design, and Marc seemed to use such visualisations as a way of testing the solidity of his own ideas. Usually, though, it would be up to me to go back to the drawing board.

The unspoken assumption, for all Marc encouraged criticism and input to the script of his work, was that it was definitely Marc’s film. Everything had to be filtered through the perception and limitations of his own point of view. I have no problem with this as a guiding principle in collective activities such as film. With Marc, it was simply very clear that the objective of the film was to nail down a shared sense of Truth, and that this could only be done if it were looked at from a single point of view, in the same way that a perspective drawing is only possible if it has a single eyeline. That said, he never seemed to lose sight of the belief that he had to earn, and keep on earning, the respect of his collaborators.

milton-marc-karlin-3.jpgImage from Marc’s video sketches for Milton, shot by Jonathan Collinson

Another key tool for me in pinning down what was going on in the script was to turn it into a storyboard. This was because Marc’s scripts read like transcriptions of the finished films, with editing decisions such as juxtapositions or parallel scenes being written out in full. Although I can’t be sure how useful these storyboards were to Marc, they became a useful way of establishing the relative screen-time complicated design scenes might be likely to get.

It wasn’t always easy working with Marc. Sometimes he wouldn’t know exactly what he wanted – and his dismissal of what he didn’t want or like could be frustrating, especially if his own thoughts were in transit, as they often were, and his briefings unresolved or contradictory. Reference material played a big part in resolving this, and we’d sometimes go through books or cut-out articles, often ones that Marc had brought in himself, looking for inspiration. He seemed at times to be chasing a subliminal image in his mind – the optical equivalent of words on the tip of your tongue – and a photograph or doodle would suddenly nail it down.

The process was a bit scatter-gun at times. More than once I was bounced into making up an on-the-spot budget. Other times we’d ignore the work I’d done because Marc was wrestling with some other unsolved problem which very often had nothing to do with design. Or he’d allow his anger from something else to invade.

For Milton, Marc was approaching design – and the whole development process – in a different way. He had been feeding me tit-bits on Milton since 1997, and when a script turned up in 1998 his plan was to shoot tests and build up design needs and opportunities through practice, so the final step-up to the full production would be as seamless as possible. Time was such a big factor in all of this. Marc would always prioritise giving something the time it needed to gestate – or at least as much time as it was possible to afford; something it is not possible to do normally. Crucially, for me, Marc was prepared to invest some money in this early development work. Design ideas went in before Marc shot tests and edited them – those edited tests then influenced the next level of design, which I was working on when Marc died.

Paradoxically, for all his openness, Marc possibly held too many of his ideas inside his own head. But you knew that when you turned up with the right sketch or reference photograph, then it was absolutely right. Marc also kept his cards close to his chest; sometimes a casual chat would turn out to be about fixing a design budget for a pitch, or to provide sketches for an important meeting with a commissioning editor or executive producer.

The second last time I saw Marc he was narrowing down the dates for the Milton shoot. Marc’s coffees had been replaced with tea months before, a health kick I suspected. His excitement about Milton, which he was determined to push through, was infectious and inspiring. When we’d finished the meeting he asked me if I noticed anything different about him; he was crestfallen when I couldn’t. He’d just given up smoking, and was hugely pleased with himself – I hadn’t noticed.

Too late now. I never did see a film through from start to finish with Marc. I wish I’d noticed that smoking thing earlier.

Graham Johnston has been designing for theatre and film for the last fourteen years, working mainly with Michael Boyd and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow