RIP Ken Russell

With the sad news of Ken Russell's death at 84, Stephen Applebaum takes a look back at what the great man had to say in Cannes, in 2001, about the British film industry, his career, his (then) latest film project The Fall of the Louse of Usher, and censorship. As you might expect from the director of The Devils, Women in Love, Mahler and Crimes of Passion, Russell didn't hold back.

Would a film like The Devils be hard to make now?
"It would be impossible. No one would finance such a film, I would imagine."

But hasn't the British film industry improved?

"Well I'm not so mad on the British film industry. It seems to just produce one or two gems and then tons of mediocrity. I mean I saw [a film] the other day of people painting electric pylons."

That would be Among Giants.

"Is that what it was called? I thought it was called Men Painting Pylons. And obviously it was so bad that they were desperate. Do you know what they did? They did long shots of them painting these pylons and over it they put a male voice chorus singing Negro spiritual as though these guys from Newcastle would be singing: "Nobody has known the trouble I've seen". You know? All this crap. And it was like watching paint dry. That was financed very much by the British film industry, but there was no excuse for it no matter what it was. Maybe the establishment just wants new faces, new attitudes and films about social groups. I'm interested in wider subjects, wider horizons and not obvious things. New ways at looking at things. Just pointing out new excitements if you like. So this film [The Fall of the Louse of Usher] will be a new way at looking at Edgar Allan Poe. And I hope that in an amusing and enlightening way it will have brought a lot of his poetry to people who've never heard it before. That's my old belief coming back of teaching the masses art while giving them a good time [laughs]."

Has it become harder for you to make films?

"Well I'd have loved to have been a conductor because most of the conductors I know have never played a work correctly, but I can't read music and that's the only snag stopping me from doing that. I got tired of waiting for the phone to ring and I thought, 'Well, do it yourself and at least do something that satisfies you. If it satisfies me, it's going to satisfy people who I might well know.'"
And with video it's easier to do yourself?
"It is, yeah. And, you know, I've always had a say in the lighting as I've always lit my own home movies and I find lighting is very exciting. All you do is put a light up, switch it on, and if it looks great, shoot it. If it doesn't, move the lamp. That is lighting."

Did you write a script for Peter Pan?

"It wasn't Peter Pan, it was about J. M. Barry. It was called Neverlands and I hope it could still happen. Regent Entertainment, in Los Angeles, I did it for them. They were trying to raise the money. Of course there's no killing in it, no bloodshed, and it's a wonderful storyline. Hopefully they'll raise the money."

Do you identify with Barry?

"Well in a sense he never grew up and I think what I think I've done is I've retained - I've tried to retain - that first careless or fearless rapture that you have in the young. You know, of remembering when I'd seen Robin Hood and I came back to my garden, my tree which I could climb up and do all sorts, imagine all sorts of things - a fantastic castle or a galleon - and continue and make the second version of what I'd seen and continue it on. So I hope I've never lost that sort of enthusiasm and imagination."

Has that attitude stopped you from brooding when your career perhaps isn't going as well as you planned? 

"Well you obviously get a bit depressed at times, but then something comes along and, well, you have to drag yourself up by your boot straps and get on and do something, or do something else, or retire, or walk the dog. I bought myself a video camera."

And turned your garage into a film studio.

"It's a garage and stables combined, they are my studios. I've used it for many sets and also I've got this very big conservatory which I also use. It is a daylight studio. Depending how I dress it, or undress it, or use it or shoot out of the windows or don't shoot out of the windows, you know?

It must be liberating when you don't have to answer to anyone else?

"Well it does give you total creative freedom. You know that it's just your responsibility and it satisfies you. And you're not going to be criticised for changing your script a bit. It's great."

Where are you on the funding for The Fall of the Louse of Usher?

"I have funding. I've enough funding to finish the film."

I read something about you spending £20,000 of your own money on a project. Is that the previous project or this one? 

"I don't know where that quote came from, it's very difficult to actually tot up the finance. You see on this, everyone's doing it at this moment for a share of the profits. The very first one I was doing, the 26-minute one on the Rector of Stiffkey, I think that must have cost me £5000. It looks great. It's not compromised on in any way. In fact it looks a lot more glamorous than, you know, the English so-called feature films."
What's wrong with them?

"I'm just not interested in any of the British ones.  I don't think enough credit's given to American films these days, I think they're very imaginative. I thought The Thirteenth Floor was a wonderful film. I saw it on Sky and I loved it. I've seen it several times and it's really quite a deep film. We all loved Matrix and we all want to see Matrix 2; and there is this film Very Bad Things, which I love."

How do you feel about censorship?
"I've been pretty well treated by English, thanks, as I have no complaints except one thing: they did keep altering a sequence in The Devils until there was no sense in it. That was a true event anyway, where the priest has his leg in one of these boots - called the Boots of Metal - where they drive wedges down the middle and they squeeze until they break your bones. I showed a few shots of that but it was no skin off his [the censor's] face. He said, 'No you can't - cut it, cut it, cut it!' And I kept cutting it so it was less and less, and in the end he said, 'Cut it' and I said 'It's half a second long!' He said, 'Oh, leave it!' It's so quick now that no one understands what's happening. And then of course, Warners [sighs] - they hated the film and they cut all the pubic hair out and there was little left [laughs]. Quick fade in, fade out! These days you could have just anything [laughs]."

Would you like to work more in America because you did "Crimes of passion" there?
"Yeah, I don't mind where I work. I mean the work's the thing. I find it very easy to work in America - they really love films. Even their electricians - their dad was an electrician back in the 20s. And the police help. You need a scene in a main street, they stop the traffic. Here if they even see you with a camera you're pretty well run in and put in prison for obstructing the traffic, and that's before you put the tripod up. I always remember [in America] we had this motorcycle cop and there were a couple of people who got a bit…you know. He just took this gun out and they were quiet as mice. No one spoke while we were shooting [laughs]."

Which film was that on?

"Crimes of Passion. I've done both scales. Altered States was a big studio picture - very technically expertly fantastic. Crimes of Passion was very low budget and that wasn't the B group but the Z group, I'd say. And they're either guys and girls at the beginning of their careers. I mean the man on the sound just turned it on and just let it ride and have it on auto. Goes up and down. Distort! And I don't know just sitting there but the film turned out OK even with the Z group. Somehow the films get made there and they're OK. And they like making films there, like talking about it, whereas in England it's odd. . ."

Do you ever think about moving there?

"Oh no. I live in what I think is the best place in the world for me, so why would I move? In my little studios I am proving that it can be done, at least I hope to prove it, but the proof in the pudding is in the eating. The film isn't complete yet and shown, but people will make their own evaluation. For better or for worse, that'll be it."

You've made films about Mahler and Tchaikovsky. Are there any other composers that you'd like to film?

"Yes! I would like to do a short film on Brahms. It would be his entire life encapsulated in one minute."

That's a lot to fit in.

"I think that it can be done because Virginia Woolf did it in her books on the one page. She could not only describe five children and an English garden in the summer but also how they're going to grow up, their personalities, their relationships, how they're going to change - all in one page.  If she can do it with words, then we can do it with pictures. So I think that we are obviously in the total infancy of communication of a story."

And do you like setting yourself these kind of challenges?

"I can chat. I mean my short film of Brahms may never be made, I may never realise how to make it, but I'm sure it is possible."

What were the elements behind The Fall of the Louse of Usher?
"You see, it's not just one story. The Fall of the House of Usher is the prime story that is the nucleus, but interwoven with that are half a dozen other of the master's Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The Pit [and the Pendulum] - um, The Penis and the Pendulum, as I would call it - The Tell-Tale Heart, Buried Alive, The Murders in the Rouge Morgue, The Black Cat . . . That enough for you?

So this continues your interest in the gothic?
"Yes. I paint, when I was twelve I painted, I don't know why - they were terrible paintings and I discovered one the other day, I did about 3 or 4 and one was of The Tell-Tale Heart - unless I get it mixed up but it's about someone who is buried under the floorboards and so I painted that. I think the reason she is buried under the floorboards - it's a man in the story - is that she has this eye that drives the hero mad and he has to pluck it out and he does and he buries it. So I must have been into Poe. I wasn't reading much literature at the age of 12, so obviously it's been a life long interest."

What's the tone of your film?

"It is horror, but it's horror with a shuddering grin. It is a bit comic strip, but it's also slightly surrealistic and there's quite a bit of music in it. The hero of the house was a musician - he played the guitar - so I got a rock star from the underground. Most of the people are from the underground. And James Johnston has got this very good band - at least I like it - so he's the hero. There's a sort of seriousness, too, in the sense that we do actually pose poetry with, you know, respect. And there's quite a lot of it. There's The Wedding Bells, for instance, from The Bells, and that's been composed by the Mediaeval Baebes. And they are in it. They are in the sequence but it's very beautiful as they become bells and they toll and they have tones and it nearly brought tears to my eyes when I had them down to the cottage for a champagne and strawberry picnic, because they were in our film, a movie I did to see if it was possible to do what I'm hoping to do. So I did a dummy run with a film called "Lion's Mouth" which was about the Rector of Stiffkey."

Tell me more about that.

"The Rector of Stiffkey is a real life man. I like biographic films - he was a preacher - in the 20s and 30s. He'd preach at Stiffkey on Sunday mornings, catch the first train up to London, stay there for a week, staying with fallen women, and come back just to preach the next Sunday. But he saved a few for himself, apparently. So he was tried before a court in Westminster and found guilty, stripped of his living, stripped of everything, and spent the next three or four years on Blackpool prom preaching from a barrel for money for an appeal. He ended up though, in about 1937, by which time he was 53, in a freak show. He advertised, because he thought he would get some real money for this, that he would preach Daniel and the lions den in the lions cage."

Go on.

"Well after two performances, his co-star ate him. So I thought that was a good little yarn."

There have been reports that Tim Burton is also interested in making a film of The Fall of the House of Usher.

"Oh is he?"

Well he's commissioned a script
"Well I've had this script for 10 years and I tried to set it up and got very close at various times but it was all - you know, the thought of Poe and me, I think, just kind of scared people away. Can't think why [laughs]."

If it was something you had suggested back in the late 60s/early 70s, do you think people would have been less scared?
"Maybe, because I tried to sort of set it up in the last 10 years when things have changed. But maybe got it going several times. But it [the film] has changed tremendously over the last 10 years, for the better. I’m sure it's become more spare but more imaginative, and less heavy with dialogue, and less conventional."

What do you think of Roger Corman's version of The Fall of the House of Usher?

"In it's own way it's fine but it doesn't do justice to Poe, I think. It's not very imaginative and most of the artwork, the design, is dismal. But, you know, that's part of its charm. I wouldn't knock it. It's given a lot of people pleasure, you know what I mean? And I hope this will. But I also think it will make people think a bit. I have images where people will wonder what they're supposed to feel when they see them. For instance, I have dinosaurs screwing sex dolls."

OK . . .

"You see? You see your reaction? Why are you laughing at such a horrible image?"

Because it's funny.

"It's appalling."

That's just my sick mind, you know?
"Oh so you're my audience. You are the audience I'm after."

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011

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