By Emmanuel Legrand
In Part 2 of our tribute to Ken Russell, here is a Q&A session with the British filmmaker, transcribed from a filmed interview done in 2006 at his house in Southampton, a few weeks before he was due to receive a Lifetime achievement Award at the Festival ‘Le Cinema de la Musique’ in Besancon, France.
Q: How does it feel to get this Award?
K. Russell: I am very honoured to have this award, a lifetime achievement, but I have been conscious of the value of pictures and music since a very early age. In fact, I would say from 10 years of age when I had my own little hand-cranked projector and a hand-cranked gramophone and gave film shows in my dad’s garage in aid to the Spitfire fund to fight the Nazis. The trouble was, the only films I could get for my hand-cranked projector of any feature length were German expressionist films, such as Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’, which was rather ironic. While I was showing films in aid of the Spitfire fund, we were being bombed by the Nazis, the sons of Siegfried.
Q: When did you decide to go from projecting movies to making movies?
K. Russell: Well, I always wanted to get into the film industry. But it was terribly difficult just after the war and unless you knew someone personally, you stood no chance. So I took photography and learned from that cinematography too. And when I started to have some money that I earned from my photographs, I borrowed a 16mm camera and saved that for the film and the dubbing of the film. And lo and behold I made three amateur movies, which got me on the prestigious art show Monitor. Monitor was the first BBC art show and was probably the first art show in the world that was on every two weeks. It wasn’t a one-off and it went on for years. We were encouraged to follow our own enthusiasm. Some directors were keen on sculpture, painting or whatever. I was keen on music. So I was allowed to make documentaries on Prokofiev, on English composer named Gordon Jacob, Bartok, Elgar, Delius and Debussy, to name but a few.
When I made the switch from the small screen to the large screen, I was also able to convince the big companies that composers could be mass entertainment. When I went to United Artist, and said, ‘I’d love to do a film of Tchaikovsky, their faces fell. They said, ‘What’s the pitch?’ I said, ‘It’s about a homosexual who falls in love with a nymphomaniac…’ They gave me the money right away and I never looked back!
Q: ‘Music Lovers’ became your first success. But initially, it was not an easy sell, was it?
K. Russell: Before I ended up with United Artist, I first put it to Harry Saltzman, the producer of the Bond films, because he promised me that after making ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ for him, I could make an “art” film, as he called it. I proposed Tchaikovsky and he turned me down. He said, ‘I’ll investigate it for you; come back next week.’ When I came back the next week he said, ‘I’m afraid – and he was smiling when he said that – I’m afraid [Russian-born film score composer] Dimitri Tiomkin is already working on one for the Soviets, and he’s even written the music’. Yeah, that was true I’m afraid [The film was 1969’s Tchaikovsky directed by Igor Talankin]. And laugh you may because he orchestrated Tchaikovsky’s delectable ‘Serenade for Strings’ and it was a disaster all around.
But I really loved Tchaikovsky because he really turned me onto the real power of music. I was ill at one time and while recuperating I happened to hear by chance on the radio an amazing piece of music. When the announcer told us at the end of the extract what it was I jumped on my bicycle and rode to the nearest record shop and asked for Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor’. I listened to it and to other subsequent Tchaikovsky works and other Russian works – I went on from him to Rimsky-Korsakov, the moderns, Stravinsky, etc –, and I found that as I listened to these amazing scores, I saw pictures. And I couldn’t stop seeing them and I still can’t.
So that further turned me on to the possibility of pictures and music. And since Tchaikovsky was the one who turned me on to this amazing world, I think I owed him a favour, so I made a film on him. I think it is pretty accurate, as far as we know. I mean, I did say that he did commit suicide and it seems that this was indeed the case. God rest his soul.
Q: What attracted you to Mahler?
K. Russell: In the case of Gustav Mahler, I really wanted to make a TV film on him but he was too big for TV. So I waited until I was in a position to convince a producer to invest a small sum of money in a film on Mahler. I shot the film outside my home in the Lake District, which is England’s answer to Bavaria. And, again, his music is very autobiographical. So I just followed his music and followed his life even to the extent of using a musical device in the film, in rondo form, which is the statement of the film: variations, theme again, variations, variations. The theme in the movie is Mahler’s train journey going back home and the variation are flashbacks through his life. And since his music is, in some instances, very satirical, you’ll forgive me if I simply followed the master and did a few satirical sequences…
Q: Tommy is pretty different from anything you did before.
K. Russell: I am very much into classical music. The only pop music I really like are by the great masters: Cole Porter, Gershwin, etc. Rock music leaves me pretty chilly. But when I was asked by Pete Townshend if I was interested directing his rock opera ‘Tommy’ I gave it some considerable listening. And I thought this was music of quality. It was not the usual bang crash bang crash wall endlessly. And it was in fact an opera insofar it had a series of numbers and it did tell a story. And it was a moral story.
I think Pete was influenced by Buddhism but I also felt it was quite a Catholic story and, as a lapsed Catholic myself, I thought I had an inside into it that somehow embellished the story.
I was able to explain to Pete that certain areas in the film and the story were not explained properly so I convinced him to write three or four extra numbers to facilitate that. And I think the actual melodies are exceptional as far as rock music is concerned – I can whistle all the way through it and everyone can.
It was a very happy experience. People warned me against it, saying they’re all on drugs, they take their time. They do this they do the other. They won’t do this, they won’t do that.
But I found on the contrary that they were the best group of people I worked with and they were near Sainthood. It was pretty embarrassing… But we all had a great time making the film. And we brought it under budget and on time, which is not always the case with films. It can produce some difficult things when one is not prepared for it.
Tommy, I think, was a bit of a groundbreaking film, insofar as it is really about twenty video clips all put together, which I don’t think there were such things in 1975. And if they were, they were pretty basic, so maybe I’ve got a lot to answer for. Oh dear!