Richard Billingham is a Turner Prize-shortlisted English artist whose debut narrative feature, RAY & LIZ (2018), explores his family history, culminating an overall project that has included photography books, documentary video, and short films. The film had its North American premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where we talked to Richard about Ray & Liz across different media and what he’s working on next. The film plays Saturday, September 8th and again on September 15th.
The Seventh Art: Ray and Liz, as characters, have recurred throughout your work across different media-
Richard Billingham: I’m not going to make anything else based on this.
I was going to ask, because it seems like a culmination of the project.
I think it’s enough biography for now [laughs].
You say that this is the end of Ray and Liz, but what lead you to make the narrative film after all the other media you had explored them in?
I didn’t sit down and think I wanted to make a [feature] film. I wrote a short film about my father in 2014 or ’15. My producer got a budget together and I wrote something that charted two to three days of my dad’s existence in this room, which used to be my little bedroom. During this time my mother had left and he stayed in this room on his own, drinking, falling asleep, waking up, drinking, falling asleep – no TV, radio on sometimes, and there was the view out the window. How do you make drama out of that, how do you make that interesting? [Laughs]
I read that you referenced A Man Escaped (1956), was that something you thought about at the time or did it occur to you after?
Yeah, I saw that film as a kid. When I was 19-20, I lived with my father in this tower block for about 12-18 months before I went to university. I’d go to school and come back and he’d often be lying on the bed, drunk. Maybe seeing that Bresson film made me look at him in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
It’s interesting to see a comparison to a prisoner because obviously it’s a tight, confined space, but you could think of it in the opposite direction where he’s monk-like, a monastic existence – the choice to lead this ascetic life with only your thoughts. How much of it is voluntary?
It was his choice to do that, there’s nobody locking him in, he could have gone out to the pub. He could have gone to get Chinese takeaway and didn’t. I don’t know, I don’t understand men [laughs]. I think I understand female characters more, I don’t know why he would do that.
I saw you mention that the existence is almost like a philosopher, being left with one’s thoughts. Do you consider what those thoughts might be? Is that why you pursue the flashbacks in Ray & Liz, as moments he’s considering?
There’s that motif of a figure in a room. One idea was: How do you film someone when they’re not aware of being watched? Maybe it’s a way to try and understand why he did that. I don’t know to be honest [laughs].
I read that you described Fishtank (1998) as having images that came alive when you were just looking and observing.
With this film, you would have to plan a little more, maybe not the specific shots, but the scenario.
You have to create everything from scratch, don’t you? You have to create a new reality. It’s funny, one of my fears was that I would recreate all this and shoot a scene and it wouldn’t look like anything, but it does for some reason. When I’m shooting and you have cameras everywhere, you can just pick out a frame and somehow it works [laughs].
Is that because of the set? It seems like a lot of effort went into creating that first, it has a strong tactile quality.
Yeah. I guess I thought that if it’s recreated and it looks real, then the camera’s shots would be an extrapolation or a function of the set. The camera would find its own place within it.
How did you and [Director of Photography] Daniel Landin decide on the shots – were you choosing it on the day?
He’ll say something, I’ll say something, and then you sort of come to the best idea. When you’re shooting, at night we’d do the shotlist for the next day or sometimes we left it to the morning when we were on set. We were sensitive to the space and the spatial relationship between objects and furniture in each room – as sensitive as possible to that.
Were you sensitive to how you had shot these types of spaces before in photography, Fishtank, the shorts? Were there any shots you wanted to return to?
Yeah, where Liz is doing the jigsaw. When I took the photograph years ago, it was that format, so we had to pan down. It’s taking that motif, but it involves a panning shot now.
Are you looking for opportunities to move the camera when you shift from photography to filmmaking?
If it was static shots it would look crude, maybe. I did some panning shots, some dolly shots like the bit where the kid is walking through the graveyard. I wanted the tombstones to shift with the tower blocks.
In the structure of the film, it seems that there is more movement and bigger space when the film concludes. What was your process in structuring the episodes within the film?
I made the pilot film and it’s almost like it wrote it in three episodes, but then edited it together. As I was filming it, I had the idea that it would all be intercut and have time transitions. I did things like… you know when Liz is hitting Lol with a shoe? You’ve got the that little kid looking out of a box painting,”The Crying Boy”. I made sure you see that later on when Liz is doing the jigsaw. You see a lot of the same objects throughout. I wish I had more time, you always want more shooting days, I would have shot landscapes. I would have shot outdoors more.
There is a “pillow shot” quality, like Ozu used, in between the dialogue scenes only by showing a close-up of an object, rather than an exterior. There’s an intense closeness that rhythmically separates the dialogue.
When you’re a kid and you’re growing up, you might look at a fly for ages or you stare into the bars of an electric fire. When you think back to your childhood, you remember things like that, don’t you? You look at things close-up, maybe it has to do with that.
How did you decide upon the colour scheme? Your photographs have a distinct look, perhaps due to the format to a certain extent, but so does Fishtank. This seems halfway between the two aesthetics.
You have to be careful, don’t you? If you make the colours too vibrant, it looks like it’s from the ’90s, if it’s too brown it looks like it’s a style from the ’70s. I thought about it like “I don’t want it like that, I don’t want it like that, I don’t want it like that,” so it ends up like what it is [laughs].
How much has to do with the lighting, which is interesting. It’s very natural for most of the film.
Yeah, Daniel works with this gaffer called Howard [Davidson] and for a film of this budget, we had more lights than usual. He was very specific about lighting, he wants everything done in-camera. I knew that we’d thank him for it later, so we let him take his time. He and Harold , they know what they’re doing, you know? I don’t really understand light, to be honest. If you tell me to light something, I might find it difficult. It’s a skill.
By the end, it’s quite different with the focus on the artificial light of the electric heater. There’s a naturalism before, then it becomes quite formal.
I wanted that weird psychological space. That time when I lived with my father, sometimes I would go into his room and I remember he’d just have the [electric] fire on with no light. I remember it just being red and glowing. When we came to shoot that scene, I put the fire on and turned the light out and it was nothing [laughs]. It’s funny how you remember things. So they lit it to the way I remembered it. Your memory is underpinned by your experience or what you feel at the time. I stuck rigidly to trying to reconstruct memory, even though I knew it couldn’t look like that. If I remembered something like that, I did it like that.
Do you keep objects from that time or did you recreate only from memory?
I haven’t really kept anything, but I’ve got the photographs. They could help me remember items of furniture. In the film, it’s a ten year old that plays me and I’m taping audio. Obviously I really did that and I’ve got about twenty of those tapes left. I dug them out of the loft and those audio tapes really helped to get back into that time.
Was there a real instance of the erasing of the tape that happens in the film?
It’s funny with my mother, if there was something she didn’t like that was taped, she would scrub it with her hands literally. You could just chuck it in the bin, but she would get each bit of tape out as though she was physically erasing it. I think sometimes she would scrub it and then try to use it again, but in the film the tape is all in a big pile, isn’t it? I thought if it was in a big pile, it looks better for the film.
The spectator’s position is interesting because, like with the audio tapes, it’s an act of bearing witness to things. With the structure of the film and its flashbacks, we know it’s not Ray bearing witness, so you wonder whose perspective the film is coming from.
I mean, I’m not there as a character either. I’ve gone on the way Liz or Ray or Lol or Will would have re-told the story in the family history [laughs]. I’ve took this bit or that bit, he said that and she said that, and condensed it. I guess the P.O.V. is mine, even though I didn’t witness it.
There’s an animal motif throughout the film: the dogs, the zoo, the rabbit.
Those pets existed when I was growing up. Maybe there’s a symmetry or metaphor for my family in a room. I do remember when I was a kid, I would be playing with Lego and the TV would be on, and I’d listen to chatter. It sort of felt that time was passing by outside, but inside it was still – like time stood still. I’ve done a lot of work in zoos and it’s almost like time stands still within a pen. The animal is taken away from daily rhythms of life. It’s those ideas.
The film likewise plays with time. Did you always have the prologue and epilogue in mind, starting in more of the present and then moving back?
Ray in that room is the bedrock and then we can go in and out of that. I imagined that as the backbone and I guess it feels in the film as if he’s remembering. But I’m the one that made it, so ultimately the P.O.V. is mine. It’s hard for me to see it objectively, as an outsider.
Obviously you’re depicting events from your life, but do you consider how the representation of it relates to British traditions of kitchen sink realism or say the films of Terence Davies?
I guess when you make something, you try to make it as different as possible and as particular as you can. I wasn’t thinking of these genres or styles. I thought if I could stick true to what I remember, I’m not going to fall into cliche or generalizations and it will feel particular.
When you’re writing something like this, how do you know when it’s concluded? You’re drawing on so many experiences and events. Also, as a part of the larger body of work relating to these experiences.
I’ve got other ideas I want to explore that excite me more. There’s only so much time to do these things. It’s also whatever gets funded first. I’m working on other treatments right now.
Do you start more with images or ideas?
Images, even when I write a script, I write down what things look like and build on that – the dialogue comes last. All creative writers are visual artists if they’re good. You have to create an image in the reader’s head. As far as I know, that’s how you engage the viewer.
You started as a painter, right? Is that something you return to?
No, because painting requires skill [laughs]. You can’t just paint, can you?
Painting crops up in the film. The one painting, was that one you had growing up?
Yes, except the painting that I really remember and really wanted, I just couldn’t find it anywhere. When I was a kid, it was really common. I looked for two or three years on eBay and I’ve done Google searches, but never found it. Yet it was really common, it was in people’s living rooms and sheds. [What you see] was the closest I could get to it. It was a woman sort of looking down, half-naked, and it would have been great; when Lol’s on the floor, it’s like the woman would have been looking at him disapprovingly [laughs]. The painting we have, the woman’s looking out, she’s not looking down. Also, I knew that that painting [we used] was in a prop house and all the rights were paid, so it was easy to use.
How was the casting process for this?
That was really hard. The characters have to physically look like the people, because photographs exist. You type something into Google and the images come up, so it would look a bit odd if they didn’t look like the real characters. When we were casting, if an actor did something and it felt like Ray, Liz, Lol or Jason had come to life in the room…
Was that an intense feeling when you saw that?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s a dark art, isn’t it? They do an audition, they say, “How was that?” “Do you realize what you just did?” It’s freaky… Not freaky, it’s amazing, remarkable. The actors had the audio tapes and Fishtank to go on. I gave them lots of character backstory, I talked to them for ages and ages, trying to think of everything I could about Pam’s childhood, Lol’s childhood, so they could get into the characters. They’re not stand-ins, I don’t quite understand it, it’s a dark art. I asked some of them last night if when they’re acting, they have a picture of what they look like and they don’t at all. They’re just doing what you tell them, as if it’s a job.
I read that you’ve been collecting 8mm, is that something you’re moving into? Found footage?
I have lots of different projects at the same time, but yeah, I like 8mm’s connection to human memory and also the way that it can render an image. It picks out the shapes, it’s very economical in a way. You know if you a quick sketch, you can see what it is, you don’t need all that detail – it’s a bit like that, a sketch.
Are there any artists you follow that work predominantly in 8mm that inspire you or was it just coming across the footage?
I found a Derek Jarman film inspiring, Journey to Avebury (1971). I haven’t seen any more, but that one was enough, I’m still thinking about it.