Wednesday, August 04, 2010
CLASSIC INTERVIEW (1975) WITH KEN RUSSELL
Photo By Eric Roffman
This interview was conducted in 1975 after THE DEVILS and TOMMY and just before the release of MAHLER. The sections in blue are lightly edited verbatim comments by Ken Russell from the transcript of the interview. The rest, in italics, is commentary.
Note that all the films are in vivid color; some of the photographs are vintage monochrome from the original interview story.
(See the July 29, 2010 story in QPORIT on RUSSELLMANIA, for the films being shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)
Ken Russell’s films are not to be taken literally. As in other forms of art, such as painting or music, we should not look for an accurate description of events, but rather immerse ourselves in the effects and emotions the film produces in us. Russell’s films are more like a musical performance than a novel, or straight-forward story.
TOMMY for example, is a visual fantasy with an entirely musical soundtrack.
MAHLER opens with a spectacular fire and dream sequence, and in two striking encounters, the essential confrontations of Mahler’s life are compressed into momentary exchanges in the bluntest possible way.
Photo courtesy of the Kobal Collection
THE DEVILS is not a musical but, rather, a non-stop orgy in which political and sexual repression are inseparably enmeshed, and each becomes a metaphor for the other.
Two striking moments in MAHLER occur when the composer is travelling with his beautiful wife, Alma. Although financially he is at the pinnacle of his career, he is desperately struggling for peace and personal happiness. First, a young soldier enters his coach, propositions Alma, and then tells Mahler he might as well let his wife go, since he can’t live much longer anyway, as he has already written his nine symphonies.
This single quip exposes so much of Mahler’s thoughts at one time (his fear of death, his hatred of soldiers, his jealousy over Alma…) that it comes close to parody. One wonders how much Russell intended this remark to mean.
RUSSELL: I meant what people were always kidding… After this Beethoven thing, nobody likes writing a ninth symphony since (a) the ninth symphony of Beethoven is one of the greatest symphonies that’s ever been written and (b) they all knew he never wrote a tenth. Musicians are terribly superstitious, or were at the time, anyway. Bruckner was terrified he’d never write nine symphonies, and never finished his ninth. Schubert never finished nine. Mahler cheated by calling his ninth the “Song of the Earth,” and sort of got a bit of grace that way. The ninth was all about death and he never did finish the tenth. People were always kidding him saying, “You’ll never make nine,” and he, himself, kept putting it off as long as he could. I think Mahler now, wherever he is, must think it a bit of a joke that he was so frightened of the ninth symphony.
A second striking moment in the coach occurs when Mahler recaptures his wife’s love by explaining to her that she is the theme of the sixth symphony.
RUSSELL: Mahler has said that the sixth symphony was autobiographical. But it was a very long time, a number of years actually, before he told his wife that the theme was her. Maybe he was too embarrassed to tell her. I think that the longer you take to tell someone you love them, or that there has been a misunderstanding, or that you appreciate this in particular about them – the longer you leave off telling it the harder it gets, and I think that happened to him. But, at the end, he certainly told her and she kept mentioning it ever since. It seemed to be the one important fact of their relation.
Mahler’s wife was very striking. She had all the Viennese society… everybody who was anyone in the arts was crazy about her. She had a sort of serenity, and was also very volatile as well. But she was terribly beautiful, and that’s why Mahler was jealous of these other people who were always flocking around her. She kept off until he died. But then he did die and she did go off.
On Casting and Georgina Hale:
Mahler’s wife is played, in a memorable performance, by Georgina Hale, who earlier appeared in THE DEVILS and THE BOY FRIEND.
RUSSELL: In THE DEVILS, she was the one that put the finger on Grandier when he throws her over, the one who really starts the ball rolling. In THE BOY FRIEND she was a member of the chorus.
I first met her when we were casting for WOMEN IN LOVE and I thought she looked interesting. Then, we did another casting session for THE DEVILS. I find all casting sessions, oh, rather embarrassing. It’s such a strange sort of situation. It’s quite awkward to put them at ease and at the same time get a feeling of what they’re really like. It’s always an impossibility. She came into my office, sat down, and something seemed to exude from her which was very sensual and powerful. She seemed terribly self-assured and funny. I like working with people who have a sense of humor. They’ve got to have a sense of humor to be in my films.
Then I watched her over the years in other things. I took an interest in her as time went on. In television she got a wider and wider range of work. And when we were doing THE BOY FRIEND, she said. “Oh! I must be in that.” I said, “Can you dance?” And she said, “No. But I can learn.” So I said, “Well, if you can learn to dance in six weeks, and tap dance well, then you can be in it.” Great. So she went away and danced night and day for six weeks. When she came back, she could tap dance, do modern ballet and classical ballet. And I just love people like that. They’re nice little people.
I’d always wanted to give her a chance to act in something she could get her teeth into because, after all, in THE BOY FRIEND and THE DEVILS she came and went rather quickly. Also, I get on with her very well. She’s a friend. I like using my friends in my films.
I’ve watched Robert Powell, who plays Mahler, for years in television, and he played all sorts of things from science fiction to … but what he was best in was rather sensitive, artistic sorts of characters. And the fact that he looks like Mahler, especially in profile, was a great help.
On Biographies and Historical Pictures:
RUSSELL: When you’re doing a biography one of the problems… it’s fraught with problems, of course, but one of the problems is age. I hate using makeup because either they say, “Oh, he’s marvelously made up” or “He’s terribly made up.” If you show someone going from eighteen to eighty that usually happens. Powell seemed to strike a happy balance between relatively young times and relatively old times. He seemed to age naturally without bags of makeup.
If I was forced to use a star in a film on a person I knew had lived, a star who did not resemble him at all, then it just, simply, wouldn’t be as good. I would try and make it, but I just know it wouldn’t. Oliver Reed looks like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and I used him in that. Max Adrian looked like Delius, so I used him for that. I find if I do that, I begin to think they are the person. I say, “Mahler, do this.” And “What do you think Mahler would do now, Mahler?” The more I can believe in the fact that an actor isn’t playing the thing, but the character is coming to life, obviously the better it is. Robert Daltry is playing Liszt in the next one. He looks more like Liszt than all the other people I’ve tried. And since Liszt was the first pop star, in a sense, and Roger is a pop star, again that helps me.
What motivates the biographies is, well, always the music. I’ve been listening to Mahler’s music for twenty years. I find that I want to communicate; I want to get across my ideas on it. That usually comes first. Then the art illustrates the man’s life and the life illustrates the man’s art. One rubs off on the other and you get a statement about the artist and his work.
For instance, Mahler’s questions about why we’re here, “What are we doing? What sort of world is it? Is it a joke?” Very basically, that is what most artists seem to be asking, and finding different answers for. The paths of exploration are always fascinating. That’s what I’m interested in doing, sort of following the paths of explorations of these eternal questions which don’t seem to have any answers at all, really, or have a million answers.
RUSSELL: TOMMY is almost a continuation of the same themes as MAHLER. In fact, it starts with Robert Powell, who plays Tommy’s father. And because he happens to be on a mountain top, and there’s only one way you can dress sensibly on a mountain top, he looks like Mahler in Bavaria a bit. But in addition to that sort of superficial look, it’s a story about someone searching for some sort of truth and always getting caught up with commercialism. The real truth may be a space trip in the mind, rather than a crucifix in a church.
I do listen to a lot of music and I get most of my images through music, but not really consciously. I look at a lot of paintings, and sometimes, while I’m editing a film or preparing a script, I’ll get a book of paintings of a certain period or a certain atmosphere and I’ll look through it just before I go to bed. Obviously, I don’t dream about them or anything, but they do sink into the unconscious. It must be a great jumble. Everything you see everyday is recorded in your mind. When I write the script, I don’t usually have to think what the image is going to be. Given the sequence, and what I’ve got to get across, the image presents itself like a computer thing coming up.
I wrote the script of TOMMY with Pete Townshend about a year and a half ago. He gave me a pile of scripts that people had come to him with over the years. It seemed a natural for a film. I read them all, and I read everything he’d said about it over the years and the philosophers he’d been interested in when he was writing it. I wrote a treatment of what I thought it was about, which I brooded over quite a bit. I showed it to him and he said, “Yes, it’s about that, but we could change this and this, because I think the emphasis isn’t quite right.” Then I simply went away, using his lyrics as a guide and wrote the script, literally in about two weeks, I suppose.
When we prerecorded the songs in the studio, at this time last year, we knew exactly what the implications of every scene were. When the actors came along to do the recordings, they’d already read the script, and they could see how it related to everything else, For instance, Ann-Margret, Tommy’s mother, goes right through the film. I said to her, “On this section, you’re bored by Tommy’s predicament (he’s deaf, dumb and blind). As the years go by, you get more and more blasé, so you do the song yawning. You will be watching television, and he’ll be staring in the mirror like he’s been staring for years.
On THE DEVILS:
in THE DEVILS
RUSSELL: When I made THE DEVILS, I was sick of historical films which were approached in a very clichéd way. I went to the Pinewood studios and I said, “We will need to build a tower.” And they said, "We’ve got molds for building you seventeenth century walls.” They took me to see these old molds and they were in the shape of crumbling walls. I said, “Well, yeah… but they wouldn’t have been crumbling when they were built.” That never seemed to have struck anybody. It came as a great revelation to them that they didn’t actually build crumbling stone. I said, “We need to make it feel as though it wasn’t an old crumbling city to them. To them, it was a modern city.
That’s why, I suppose, I like doing these biographical films. Although people say, “You just do films set in the past, they’re not in the past, really, to the people concerned. They felt they were modern. And the eternal questions, the eternal problems they had to put up with don’t seem to change as the centuries roll by. You still get religious persecution. You get the church working against the state, or the state against the individual, or the individual crushed by bureaucracy. THE DEVILS particularly appealed to me because it was the first well recorded witch hunt. And witch hunts come up all the time.
in THE DEVILS
I read Huxley’s book, and a key that I took from it was that the exorcism of Sister Jeanne was the equivalent of a rape in a public lavatory. It gave me the idea of doing it with a very sterile background of tiles and white bricks. That, and the idea that the city wasn’t an old crumbling city, came to set the style for the film.
That the religious repression was expressed in very sexual ways just happened to be a method used by the church at the time. The nuns were repressed, and the church found a weak link. In Loudun, at the time, they had exorcism every hour on the hour when they realized… they used that sort of explosive, perverse, repressive sort of thing to deviate the attention of the public from saving their city, and towards the destruction of Grandier. While that public masturbation was going on, they were getting on with the business of destroying the town.
People say, “Oh, Yes! It’s all voyeurism and the kick you get out of photographing this stuff. But it isn’t. I mean, you might as well say the same thing about a surgeon. He’s got a naked body on his table, and it could be an operation on the vagina. It’s just a slab of meat, it’s not a person. It’s a job you’re doing. And there are so many things to get right, like the lighting and the acting and the set dressing, before you come to do the operation. In my case, the film’s like that, like a surgical operation. They are planned, not for the effect they are going to have, but for how the story is going to work.
RUSSELL: I think it comes down to such a basic thing as style. You can walk into the Metropolitan museum and differentiate half a dozen impressionists. They have their own way of looking at things and you can'