Interview with Jennet Thomas. 03 / 09 / 10.
Interviewee: Jennet Thomas (JT)
Interviewer: Amy McDonough (AM)
AM: Interview with Jennet Thomas. Hello Jennet.
JT: Hello Amy.
AM: I have a number of questions to ask you concerning your work. I will start with the first one: As mentioned in Francis McKee’s essay that accompanied your work All Suffering SOON TO END! Your piece can be viewed as one of several recent works that curator and critic Tom Morton has described as ‘making Britain strange to itself again’. What is the significance of this process for you and your work?
JT: Well, I like that phrase ‘making strange’. It does sound very likethe Uncanny but maybe in a more social way. What it reminds me of … One of the reasons you might travel is in order to find things strange and marvelous, unexpected. I think one of the things certain artists do and I like to strive for is to find that feeling of things being remarkable or strange without traveling: seeing the peculiarity of what you actually live with. There was a group of poets called the Martian School of Poets that did that in poetry. I think that’s one way of explaining what he (McKee) means by that, or what I mean by that. However, because he says ‘of making Britain strange to itself again’ I suppose it’s got a particular kind of cultural meaning. Rather than just an everyday experience of things it is seeing things: peculiarly British things we perhaps ignore or feel are normal and seeing them in their particularity.I suppose that piece in particular is based in a very real, suburban, middle – class context. There are lots and lots of details that are framed within a kind of unrealistic world but it’s still actually someone’s house. I think it’s quite clear it’s not a set, that it’s actually someone’s house and that makes you look at those details differently. For example there are various pictures (it’s my parents’ house and so I was seeing items that had cropped up in the frame). For example there was a Turner on the wall, a little print of a Turner that my dad’s had for as long as I can remember. When I was framing his face against this print I really, really looked at it and I realised what a kind of peculiar image it is. To me it was just that ordinary kind of old Turner print. So just in very straightforward ways the process of doing this rendered strange details that I’m over familiar with in the house I grew up in. I think that’s probably worked for viewers as well because a few people have pointed out to me little details around the house because these elements have stayed exactly the same since the nineteen seventies. There are things like a copper portrait (a sort of craft thing) of a knight on horseback with a Hessian frame, that is so seventies. I’m just so over familiar with it but a bunch of other people watching it went: ‘God, we’ve got one of those exactly like that in our house!’ I actually then once saw it for the odd, peculiar aesthetic object it was. I think it’s easier in a way for me to talk about those details than it is to talk about the bigger frame. Are there bits that you felt in a wider sense were rendered strange?
AM: Many of the references that are outside of your family or what you have grown up with and the memories and references from that. References, some of which might be in some ways associated with Britain: the Bowie track for instance, but also the idea that the Purple preacher was a Marvel character but then was combined with the dialogue from the Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet. So the things that might seem or look more familiar appear to be fragmented and made into new hybrids that are very strange. Again, more like a particular understanding of the everyday: certain elements that you are familiar with, become new and stranger things within the imagination. I suppose in a Freudian sense if you were to read it in that way, it seems a bit like the freeing of the imagination. So which is more real? Which version or representation of the everyday is more real because they are all illusions of representation. The way you see them is just a particular rule in a way or a convention. The familiarity of living with these things and seeing them in that way is one set of rules but why is the set of rules that you present, that is perhaps more erratic or transformative, any less real than the things we live with and the fixity of meaning in terms of the way we see them.
JT: Yeah, yeah.
AM: The references that might be associated with Britain could be seen as collective memories associated with Britain in a way, but then they are made strange.
AM: Outside of the family there are collective references that are made strange, I suppose. Through a process of collage as well and techniques such as juxtaposition there is an interruption of the familiar way that one might remember these things.
JT: Yeah. It’s quite difficult, in a way, for me to get a distance on what was ‘made strange’ for people with that work because there wasn’t a kind of tick list I had of a certain, particular set of aims to render strange. There is another question that relates to that a little bit which talks about the uncanny. So it might be good to put those two together.
AM: Yes, number 3… I sense an atmosphere of the uncanny often exists within your work and the sense of a world that is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. What does the idea of the uncanny mean more specifically to you and your artistic practice?
JT: The idea of the uncanny, my notion of it, is this thing about the return of the repressed in a way that it inhabits an everyday form but it twists that form so that what was a familiar thing feels wrong. I don’t think I’m so interested in dealing with ideas of personal, psychological repression. However something that I think I’ve always been interested in is an awareness of death within the everyday. An awareness of the fleeting nature of life is to me a more general notion of a sort of repressed meaning in things. Things that feel very safe and permanent and lives that feel very safe and permanent are not. I suppose one of the motives, one of my personal ideas about why there is an urgency to make things feel strange is to make one aware of the extraordinary nature of the fluke of being alive, of consciousness and that to be a conscious creature at all is actually a very privileged and unlikely situation to be in. I suppose that’s easier for me to talk about than the idea of the uncanny, but I think the two are probably very much interconnected. I think I’m also interested in what actually constitutes a feeling of meaningfulness. That ties closely in, I suppose, with the idea of aesthetics. I’m interested in how some things seem to carry a lot of meaning but you’re not really sure why they carry meaning. I think in lots of ways I search for those little buttons, of things that feel like they are carriers of meaning but it’s not really clear why they are carriers of meaning or why they should be so loaded with meaning. They’re really hard to unpick, they’re not obvious. So I don’t search for things that have an uncanny power but I’m drawn to things that seem to have a loaded quality to them. Then it’s a case of me hoping they carry that loaded quality for other people too. This usually comes from scenarios or images popping into my head which I just really, really want to film and which for some reason have a sort of power to me. Those components are often what actually build up my ideas and my narratives. They are these specific scenes or images that I think: Oh I’d really like to have this strange sort of karaoke scene in the garage, amongst the grubby walls and the spiders: after the clean house, to have this whole scene happening with my very nice clean, elderly parents in the scuzzy garage. That is because it’s a sort of site of danger and the idea of disco lights illuminating all of these bits if rubbish that they’ve kind of not got very tidy and sorted out. So I suppose something like that for me feels like it carries a sort of locus of meaning but I don’t know what it’s representing particularly. Or I wouldn’t want to have one theory of what it’s representing. In fact there is actually quite a concrete reason for that image on one level: when I was a young teenager we used to have discos in the garage. There was this whole little fad: garage parties. This meant literally you get your dad to get the car out of the garage and you bring in some disco lights and you have a sort of little party in your garage. So I have all these memories of these really fumbling teenage parties in the garage with bottles of cider.
AM: How did you get from that and from the site of that to the new narrative which included your own parents but in a different type of narrative?
JT: Well you see I suppose I only realised that was why I was drawn to the garage scene after I’d thought about it. I just I knew I wanted this scene to happen in the garage and there had to be lights in there, strange lights and there to be a dangerous moment. I wanted that to feel the most dangerous place and that seemed appropriate because there’s always something I’ve associated with places where cars are stored as being quite potentially dangerous spaces. It may be that whole things about the multi – storey car park in crime murder thrillers, or people committing suicide in their cars by putting exhaust fumes inside.
AM: But it’s also just an everyday garage at the same time.
JT: Yeah … I don’t have an overt strategy. I’m just drawn to make certain images and then, only at a later date, I work out why I’m drawn to them. I don’t spend a lot of time atomizing and analysing, interrogating my reasons for choosing those images because it’s not really profitable to me. Those impulses definitely come before any rationalization of them. To summise: I’m interested in a feeling of meaningfulness when it appears abstracted from a comprehensible reason for that feeling.
AM: A meaningfulness for you that might carry through for the significance of an image but without abstracting it from its context?
JT: Yeah … Just sort of skewing its context really. It just needs quite gentle twists and skews but seems to carry a kind of meaning … I write a lot of drafts for my work. I rewrite a lot and I’m constantly crossing out and getting rid of the ideas that seem too decodable. So if things are too decodable, if it’s too obvious to me why they are working, I get rid of them.
AM: ‘Why they are working’, in what way?
JT: Why they are having an effect or why they are meaningful. If I can say: Oh, well it’s obvious that that means that, people will get that too’ there is too obvious a reading. I hone down the narrative to incidents that have a meaning of which the roots feel very ambiguous as to how it got to be meaningful. It really hovers between things and it’s not very easy to explain, it’s the way it functions. So there are lots of levels of ambiguity going on and there’s an opaqueness as to how things function in the way they do: in a poetic way. That is what I really, really look for. How that relates to the uncanny I’m not quite clear but there is definitely a relation there. I’m trying to think of a concrete example …
AM: How about the garage scene: what are the meaningful elements there do you think? I know they all are … It’s difficult to explain…
JT: Well, the preacher’s song had to be right. I didn’t want it to be too funny. I wanted it to hit a point where you really didn’t expect him to break into a sort of folk song rendition. I had to choose the song very carefully as well. I didn’t want it to be too you know, sort of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ or something that was too banal. I actually like that lyric to that song and I find it quite interesting. I didn’t want it to be too satirically obvious and I wanted the preacher to be seen as quite a vulnerable person as well as being quite a threatening person. So it’s making the mix right so it’s not just a very straight satire of this ridiculous person singing this ridiculous song. I try to get it so that it’s a bit more nuanced and a bit more poised. For some people that will work and for some people that won’t. I think that’s what I’m looking for. However sometimes things are very obvious like when she hits him over the head with a spade. It’s using the spade as a sort of obvious metaphor for when you say: ‘laying it on with a shovel’. So there are bits that are very dumb and very aggressively overstated, hopefully next to bits that are more subtle, so for the audience it’s like you’re on a kind of a rollercoaster. There is a kind of schizophrenia to the nature of the storytelling in that it flips around. Another holy grail is a sort of unpredictability, really; really trying to make what happens next something that you wouldn’t totally expect. Even though sometimes what happens next is totally what you would expect. We are talking about process now but I think it relates a bit to the uncanny because that happens in plot development as well: trying to make things feel inevitable at the same time as unexpected which is really something I strive to do.
AM: the poet, artist and journalist Charles Madge adapted an observation of the physicist Michael Faraday concerning the ‘image’ into a model for the poetic ‘image’. In the model the image was more than the sum of its parts and there was a kind of tension of different elements. I don’t know if you know Humphrey Jennings and the Mass Observation movement?
JT: Oh yeah …
AM: Within the films that Jennings made, that model of the image was really important to him. It was about a kind of making strange again of the everyday through Surrealist techniques. For him what was important was the ambiguity of bringing things together in a moment, things that wouldn’t make sense alone.
JT: Yeah, yeah …
AM: That makes sense for an image but in terms of narrative it’s slightly different. However he did use narrative in his films to hold things together so that it was familiar in a way. It sort of made sense but then there were unexpected moments which were in a way related to the importance of the ‘image’ with the tension of these things held together. Perhaps this is an example of the poetic as opposed to just the uncanny.
JT: Yeah. Well that relates a bit to one of the other questions in which you talk about storytelling a little bit …
AM: Yes. My question was: How does your desire to tell stories and the viewer’s desire for reason and inherent meaning, correspond with your exploration of ‘unlikely or unexpected methods of sense making’?
JT: We were talking a bit earlier about the sort of ‘dirty narrative’. Narrative and the whole seduction and pleasure of letting yourself be swept away by storytelling and by the illusion of narrative and entertainment is seen, in certain circles, to be incompatible with a kind of criticality. There is the idea that you always need a kind of alienation from pleasure in artworks in order to let your brain work, which I very much disagree with. I think storytelling is a really powerful tool. I see it as a kind of series of hooks and moments of consensual pleasure between the audience and the maker. These then give you so much more muscle and more power to then be able to introduce contrasting elements that are difficult, confusing, opaque, ambiguous. You need to have persuaded people down a story trail in order for those other elements to have an affect, for them to felt as well as just experienced intellectually. In a way this is quite like your question about juxtaposing and collage. I think I try to use storytelling and that kind of comfort when you feel you are being drawn into a pattern. In All Suffering Soon To End! there is that sort of mythic thing that Francis writes about: the stranger calling at the door of the innocents, trying to persuade them of something and you know that there’s a danger. That is a very archaic storytelling structure: the knock at the door, the strange seductive man who is speaking to the vulnerable people, do they let him in, do they not let him in, what is he going to do to them? You ultimately know he’s some kind of thief or some kind of con man. That hook (this is a bit of personal information) … As we are between so many religious groups in Peckham we get a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking at our door a lot. That pamphlet was physically given to me by someone physically knocking at my door, doing that whole routine. We also get quite a lot of con people coming round. We had one guy who pretended to be a neighbour. He was a neighbour but he was very psychologically troubled and he ended up actually breaking into our house and attacking us. We had him arrested and we had an exclusion order. He presented himself, knocking on the door as a friendly neighbour down the street saying: ‘do you know there’s been some burglaries in the area, I’ve just heard about them … my next door neighbour was burgled, shall I tell you about them, you got the kettle on?’ Then he kept coming back, but he was actually a very disturbed person.Then there is a lot of ‘knocking on door’ with very, very sweet people, with their children who very much believe that they need to save your soul with these strange, innocent, naïve, childlike pamphlets. There’s also people calling for sponsorship, charities and you never know if it’s true or if it’s a scam. So actually, that kind of mythic thing is very, very everyday where I live. It’s almost like I didn’t think of that being a mythic thing. That to me was a very ordinary thing.
AM: We were talking about juxtaposition and different techniques: montage, the creation of hybrids. What about surprising techniques: I suppose I am talking about Brechtian devices in a way. However, as you mentioned it’s not just about criticality being divorced from entertainment and in fact it’s not as simple as that. I was wondering how these things work in terms of what Francis McKee describes as ‘unravelling carefully woven myths of reason’?
JT: Well there are one or two points at which I think it sort of worked for me in that piece of work and that is when I use sound in a particular way. One of the bits when that happens is when the preacher leads them outside, when they first go out into the garden he begins doing these kind of exercises. He does ‘that’ (Jennet makes a gesture like an exercise movement: arms that begin horizontally on her chest, knuckles touching then move apart, with elbows moving out to the side). When he does ‘that’ it sets off a rhythm, basically which is a kind of club beat. That to me is something that has a sort of sense to it because he then builds up into a very rhythmic passage. I find sound an incredibly powerful and useful way for getting at some of this unravelling of sense making. Also, trying to hit that thing where something is kind of funny and not funny at the same time. Or you’re not quite sure whether it’s supposed to be funny or if it’s stupid. Just using a kind of stupidity, something that really resists any particularly sensible decoding; something that’s kind of dumb. I quite enjoy that sort of feeling. The whole business about sense making, that’s a whole huge area: how to start talking about sense making? … It’s just massive isn’t it? If it feels like there’s a kind of sense to it as well as it being completely and utterly nonsensical, that is also very useful to me. You can sort of do that with sound and rhythm: if things seem to have a rhythmical logic – that supplies some element of sense. Actually there may be no sense to them on any level other than in terms of rhythmical sense. One part of your brain is going: ‘Yes – this is in time, therefore it’s making sense’ and the other part is going: ‘No – this is a completely and utterly stupid juxtaposition’. Getting that right is quite important. Clapping is important as well. I love using clapping because there is always a purpose to clapping. You don’t just clap randomly: you clap because you are demonstrating publicly appreciation or because you are part of a group that’s keeping a rhythm that’s all working together. A clap is a very meaningful thing so I quite like using claps or gestures sort of slightly inappropriately. For example: when the preacher makes the movements over their heads they are not quite healing gestures and at the same time they are almost like Tai Chi gestures or something. They combine two sorts of different codes of what a movement is supposed to be. So I think that in some ways I quite like using sound and movement as a way of doing this sort of juxtaposition / collage, as well as just visual juxtaposition. I actually think it’s a bit harder for people to decode what’s going on when you use sound and movement. Somehow our eyes are very well trained to spot the kind of tricks of perception and collage in a visual way.
AM: I think in Francis McKee’s essay it talks a lot about the suburbs and the repression of desires, he seems to be talking about the unconscious. Also how the suburbs are a place of entropy, or kind of fixed meaning and that the power of the preacher is the generative power of the imagination to rupture that world. In what ways do you view the suburbs? Is it as a place of very fixed meaning in terms of the everyday?
JT: That was very much his reading, it was interesting. It’s really nice when people are getting something different from what you yourself are getting from it. He talks about the Carnivalesque in that sort of quasi – political way which wasn’t something in my head but I like that reading, I think that’s fine. I think I’m getting a lot more interested in the suburbs now that I’ve had such a long time away from them. I used to find them so boring. The places you grew up in, you do find it … I mean I only ever lived in one house. My parents still live there and that’s the house I grew up in. You find it very difficult to see what is interesting about it … Sorry, I’m talking autobiographically now … You know I always wanted to go and live in London because London and the sort of older, grotty Victorian … the layers of history that you get there seemed to me to carry a lot more meaning. However now I think about that kind of suburb and the meanings of it seem very, very interesting to me because of this purposeful way in which things have been laid out to be nice in a contemporary way. So there are all these values that are kind of embedded. There is that thing about houses being a certain distance away from each other, the kinds of shrubs people plant, all the little details of what makes nice; and the way that ages as well. Those houses were built in the sixties so all those kinds of little layers of making right and making nice have shifted again and they’re slightly wrong. They don’t quite work any more – they are not the cutting edge. I find it quite interesting to be able to see those little shifts that I wasn’t able to see in those things before. That works on a very microscopic scale but I think it also has a universal quality to it as well because so many people have had that sort of history: particularly lots of artists. You are born in a small town and then you move to a big city. You look down on the small town but then at a certain point you feel differently about it. You have a sort of affection and you realise what it was. You find it quite poignant that there is a more sort of obvious way in which people are trying to lead a good life. You talk a little bit about how memory is socially constructed and dependent on individuals related by time and space. One thing that I found for example: using the little samples of David Bowie and David Byrne, I mean they are very much touchstones from my generation but they have also (especially Bowie) obviously travelled all the generations. However I found that I couldn’t really use them unless they were slightly manipulated and digested. For example: right at the beginning of Bowie’s Changes, that very well known piano intro … there is only like half a second where it’s used straight … I wanted to tweak it just enough so you could recognise it but it was digested in some way as well as it being put in another context.
JT: Because it’s edges had to be softened a little bit. It had to be translated in some way. I can’t really explain why. The David Byrne bit as well – I sort of reversed some bits of that and mixed them up with other things. I wanted it to be a quotation. However if a quotation is too strident then it can sort of distract in some way so it had to be smoothed a little bit.
AM: So the references can be shared in collective memory. How do you feel ideas and references that are shared by groups in terms of collective memory relate to what might be described as more idiosyncratic elements from your imagination and processes of experimentation?
JT: That’s a good question but it is a very detailed one to unpick that and answer it.
AM: I suppose I’m talking more about imagined experience, from your imagination and the structures of that and then how you combine that with the shared process of storytelling and processes that you know will be grasped.
JT: I think a very simple example of that is the little thing in the sink – that whole sort of display in the sink. It’s like your avocado nineteen seventies bathroom. Immediately that sort of avocado colour was so of it’s time. Thank God my parents have still got it! However then I suppose I spent quite a while working out how that little arrangement should look. You’ve got things that are very familiar in there like the little rubbery dolls. However those rubber dolls are quite strange: obviously they don’t come from a particular cartoon background, like characters. They are actually little dolls that work in miniature dolls houses that I stripped. They’re not supposed to be naked, you know: I took their clothes off. I got quite fascinated by the level of detail that is or isn’t gone into. So they have a peculiar quality of sort of inappropriateness, a sort of nakedness. It was sort of unfamiliar and hopefully familiar because something about vulnerability is always kind of familiar in a way. Then the logo: the sort of tree – cross – telegraph pole – test card motif. I spent quite a while trying to get it to hover between things. So it looks a bit like a telegraph pole or a tree. At the same time it’s a bit like a cross. At the same time it’s got a kind of sixties aesthetic to it. It was quite hard to get something that seemed to hover between things and I don’t know how well it worked. It’s not highly fashioned, it’s made out of cardboard tubes and painted with poster paint, as well as I could do it but it’s got a sort of quality of a home – made thing. So hopefully the audience has to think about the intentionality behind that and the fact that somebody made it rather than it being a manufactured thing. So you’ve got a sense of a community making something rather than an industry making something which I think is more what I’m interested in. I’m not so interested in critiquing vast capitalist structures. I’m more interested in thinking about how people perform themselves on a more micro level with communities and cults and ways of behaving that are more grassroots led.
AM: Thinking about that in terms of the ‘hand made’ that Francis McKee talks about in terms of the film All Suffering soon To End! how do you think that affects how the viewer experiences it, in particular the hand made quality and possibly the unpredictability of that?
JT: Well that is something that I feel I have always been quite interested in, particularly within the language of filmmaking because obviously filmmaking now is a very industrial process. Most films people watch have gone through this extraordinary kind of industrial coding and crafting. There are styles of doing things. They speak of a certain kind of production value and a certain kind of budget etc. Then there is obviously the other end: home movies. Then the whole traditions of artists’ film and personal cinema come somewhere in between that. I think I am very alert to what those kinds of codes mean so I very much resist having a professional cinematographer being thrust upon me. I like to make things that also sit between qualities of being ‘home –made’, amateur but crafted in a way that feels like someone is really trying to make the thing look right and look good. However it’s not using a certain language of commercial, hip cinematography that is actually not all that hard to achieve. That thing about the camera always moving, the restless camera shot that is so fashionable – that would be the last thing I’d want to do. I think that sort of philosophy concerning how things are made and the meaning of them being made in a particular way has to do with how people feel their relationship with the maker is, as a viewer. I want there to be a sense of a relationship in that this is not some industrial team that has crafted this. This is actually a bunch of people somewhere that have X or Y amount of resources and you could probably anticipate what resources they might have had to do that. I find that this really affects how you feel a piece of work and obviously artists use that a lot. For example there is the whole business of sculptors industrially fabricating a piece of work so that it looks absolutely slick so it makes you think about industrial processes. Then, on the other hand, there is someone who uses a D.I.Y aesthetic. There’s a lot of meaning going on with that method of making. I’m trying to get that right so there’s warmth and a connection there.
AM: Could the effect of that method of making also be something frightening or darker as well?
JT: Yes, well it could be. I can think of an example of this. I am and was for a long time part of a group called Exploding Cinema. An awful lot of films came through my hands and I saw an awful lot of work. There were a few works we saw that were horror films. There was a German film collective that made these horror films and they were really quite scary, quite terrifyingly scary. This was not because of the stuff that happened in them. It was because you felt there was this group of people that were almost fanatically into making these quite scary films and they would do quite scary things to each other. You could see there was this kind of autonomy with them. There was no sense of slick production values. You really felt that this was a group, or almost a cult, of people doing things. It felt very, very genuine and genuinely scary because you felt there were no controls on them and they were just going to do what they were going to do. It is that kind of thing where you feel there’s not a sort of filter of constraints coming from any institutional or quality … is also very interesting. I think there is something really terrifying about a home – made axe. It’s maybe more terrifying than something that comes from B & Q. If someone has gone to the length to make a home – made weapon you get the sense that there’s a different mind set behind that than somebody just buying something.
AM: How does this idea of the home – made link to references from television and the mixing of styles with those associated with low budget television?
JT: That is a whole other thing about how naturally, when you start making things on a really low budget in that way, they are going to start looking like certain kinds of things. I realised that some of my works and their production values were not all that far from children’s TV of the seventies, quite cheap children’s TV from the seventies. I quite liked what was happening with that. It seemed to touch something and evoke something. So that in a way is what I decided to go with. I also remember there were some quite scary kid’s programmes in the seventies on the TV.
AM: Scary then or scary now?
JT: Scary then. However I think they probably are quite scary now because some of the filtering of children’s drama is probably very different from what it was. There’s something about that sort of aesthetic. People don’t really have to get that in order to get the thing. It’s just another layer that has come there, not in a very conscious way. It has emerged as another layer of meaning, forming something that feels appropriate.
Paul (Tarrago) always says that my works feel a bit like this thing called Rentaghost, do you remember Rentaghost?
AM: Do you watch Coronation Street?
JT: I didn’t really; I was more sort of an East Enders kind of …
AM: Coronation Street has the woman from Rentaghost in it as a character, she has been for years: the character of ‘Audrey’.
JT: Right. Yes, all the kind of worlds: psychological and cultural worlds that TV occupies – I like the way they get all mixed up and mingled. There is something quite funny and quite complex because that is the way we construct meaning a lot – it’s through television. I don’t know if it will always be like that but certainly my generation and your generation – these are our kind of folk tales really. We have got quite a big store of potential meanings from the way in which things look and feel. I realise how much British television actually used sound as a way of getting a horror effect that they didn’t have a budget for. I find that quite interesting and quite charming. I mean it’s actually very, very effective. I think it is something that the British media has been very, very good at probably dating back from the Radiophonic Workshop and Doctor Who. There’s some really good use of sound to evoke the unnatural, uncanny, alien or processes of insanity.
AM: Rather than visual effects?
JT: Yes. It always works much better if there is this inexplicable, electronic noise rather than a tin foil alien.
JT: I think those things kind of stick with you. Yesterday I was looking at this series from the seventies called Children of the Stones. It uses sound in a really extraordinary way, a really quite scary way with lots of singing and shrieking. It has quite a modernist kind of soundtrack to it, actually. So that would have been beaming into my head aged ten upwards. Was it repeated for you?
AM: I remember the name. I was recently watching Music Time, from the eighties. It was a strange thing. In this one episode they had sea shanties but with different musical instruments. The presenters seem odd now: the way they present the material seems different from the way presenters do now. Also there is the fact the programme is educational. It attempts to teach children music by adding a narrative and also simplifying things and demonstrating as well – different ways of teaching I suppose.
AM: Some of the songs also had minor keys to them. The programme was trying to teach music and music can create emotional and atmospheric affects. It was, I suppose trying to allow the imagination, not always successfully, a way of experiencing it. It is a mixture of different languages: educational, emotive and narrative – there was sometimes a story element as well.
JT: I’ll Google that.
AM: I have one more question: Why did you use members of your family in All Suffering Soon To End! and how do you feel this differs from the process of choosing to use other actors?
JT: That fits in quite well with what we were talking about already. This is probably about the third film I’ve used my dad in and that is my stepmum. They behave so differently for me because obviously we have a warm relationship. I think aspects of our relationship really do carry forward into the way in which they perform and the way in which they view the camera. Also their intentions: they don’t have any aspirations to be actors or performers they’re doing it for me. I never make them speak because they are not performers and they find it very difficult. So, in the few films that we have made, they have developed a kind of mime language. They kind of have a peculiar, slightly puppet – like quality to them. I really treasure that. I find that really interesting personally and that is a sort of model. I have worked quite a lot with … not even amateurs: people who are not even performers but who have kind of joined in with the whole game of making a film because it is a quite interesting, fun thing to do. They do behave very, very differently. That is another layer that makes it not like a normal film and makes it another kind of activity. Obviously there is this very permeable membrane between my works and my life. It’s very fluid. One of the methods that I have been using is very similar to the director … I don’t know if you know the director Kevin Brownlow. I have been looking at his films. He worked with a guy called Andrew Mollo. They made a couple of really extraordinary films that should be much better known about: It Happened Here and one called Winstanley that’s about the Diggers. He worked in a really extraordinary way: casting people not just because of what they looked like but also because of what they believed in. He was casting people for completely different reasons and working on films with a tiny budget, over a very long period of time. He was getting a really extraordinary level of a different kind of authenticity with their performances and with the project of the film. He also used perhaps just one professional actor within that mix.
AM: What do you think that mix does?
JT: It does lots of things. It’s this thing about a different relationship between the viewer and the filmmaker. Often if you put one professional actor in there like I have done with John, the preacher it kind of raises the excitement level of everybody on the set. This is because they are using themselves like a very well trained musical instrument. It then often makes people that are performing, who aren’t performers, get quite excited and sort of raise their game in a way. All sorts of things happen to do with what the relationship of the cast is to the crew and the project that are visible on camera and do have a real effect. It makes the whole project more real for me and more interesting on so many more levels. They are not just components that are functioning for you in a very straightforward way. I write parts for people. I wrote the part of the preacher as it were, for John. I knew the way my parents would behave and perform physically and the kind of mood they would give off. The scenarios that I developed were based around what I knew they would be like. It was inspired directly by their kinds of movements and gestures and their way of being and the way that I knew that they would be with the camera. It is the same really for the children as well. I have worked quite a lot with children and film. I try to anticipate and work with the kinds of things that happen naturally with children and cameras and group work. That is also one of the ways I devise scenarios. I work with the conditions that I know are going to happen, I know are going to come up. They actually influence the development of the idea.
JT: I have two sorts of film making practice: one which is quite improvisatory which are usually shorter works. The other is very, very planned really: these are the longer pieces of work, particularly this one, which is very planned and very carefully storyboarded and precisely scripted. However there are parts of it that, if they don’t work, we work with them and we do them another way. Most of the time I have a very clear idea of what I want to happen. At the same time I also know the conditions incredibly well of what is going to work and what is suggested by that combination of people and location and things.
AM: John, the actor who played the role of the preacher in All Suffering Soon to End … had you known him for a while, had you worked with him before?
JT: Well actually I have known John since I was born.
JT: Our parents gave birth to our older siblings together. He was at infant school and he lived on that estate. I lost contact with him when I went to secondary school. I only really met him again when we were both on the Anti Iraq War march: one of the one million people in Hyde Park. We bumped into each other, literally. I then learned that he was a professional actor. That was in 2003 / 2004. Then I started writing parts for him and saw some of the work that he had done. So that project (All Suffering Soon To End!) was quite interesting as well because he used to spend a lot of time around my house and he knows my parents quite well. It had lots of personal play and meanings in it as well that do not need to be at all accessible to the viewer but they are part of my motivation for making things.
AM: However, for the viewer it changes things if we suspect that they are real people and they are your parents and the idea that there is an actor there as well. It is an interesting and a strange kind of mixing of things.
JT: Well, he is an actor there but he is an actor there who has been around that house since he was literally one year old. He has probably rung that door bell many a time and was always quite a sort of aggressive and loud (laughs), kind of energy – fueled child with a mouth on him that my dad would know very well. He is a professional actor but there are these other layers as well.
AM: Do these things exist, these personal connections, with the other performers you work with?
JT: I am developing a big project at the moment which is going to be based in my old school. I am thinking about the casting for that. I want to cast an ex – student of mine for the lead (she doesn’t know this yet so I won’t say anything). There is something really remarkable about this person and I often think about her, I run into her every now and again. She kind of embodies this character. So the life – work thing is very, very interwoven. It doesn’t really matter if people do or don’t know that, it just helps me develop a project in a certain kind of way and it helps me develop ideas. I am sure that embodies itself in the final work, in the atmosphere of it, in some way. I am quite happy for people to know these things. I think it helps add another layer of meaning to the whole thing.
AM: Jennet Thomas, Thank you.