PAINTINGS, DRAWINGS, PHOTOGRAPHS AND STORYBOARDS BY EIGHT FILM DIRECTORS
Written by Karl French
Published in GRANTA magazine #86
Mike Figgis (b. 1949)
Mike Figgis has been taking photographs for more than four decades, a passion made all the stronger by the possibilities of digital photography. As well as being an obsessive note-taker and filer of his notebooks, sketches and other art works, Figgis takes his camera everywhere he goes. The result, aside from serving as an alternative diary, is an exceptional body of work. He spent much of his early childhood in Kenya, returning to north-east England at the age of ten. The upper-class accent he had picked up in colonial Africa set him apart from his peers and he sought refuge in, among other things, photography. Around the same time he fell in love with music—jazz, blues, and rock and roll—and began to play trumpet and guitar. Rejected by the National Film School, in the 1970s Figgis joined the People Show, an avant-garde musical theatre group with which he stayed for more than a decade and where he was able to write, direct, act, compose and perform. Also during this time he played with a number of jazz bands. In 1980 he formed the Mike Figgis Group, and staged various theatrical shows relying heavily on music that he composed and film footage that he directed.
Figgis made his debut in 1988 with Stormy Monday, a stylish, Newcastle-set neo-noir which showed a sureness of touch both in the film’s visual style and his ability to handle a star cast. His first Hollywood film, Internal Affairs (1990), again proved his talent for handling actors, drawing from Richard Gere possibly his finest and certainly his most unsettling performance. The next three films suggested he was still struggling to fit his talent for erotically charged examinations of the human psyche into Hollywood-style moviemaking. Liebestraum (1991) was a low-key thriller, Mr Jones (1993) a disappointing reunion with Gere, The Browning Version (1994) a rather straightforward Rattigan adaptation. But for his next film Figgis stripped the budget to a minimum and shot on 16mm. The result was Leaving Las Vegas (1995), the masterpiece of his career so far, with fine performances from Nicolas Cage as the doomed hero and Elizabeth Shue as his hapless lover.
From then on, Figgis has become ever more experimental, with the dazzling split-screen experiment of Timecode (2000), and Hotel (2001) both exploiting the potential of digital video technology.
Satyajit Ray (1921-1992)
As his friend Kurosawa had done for Japanese cinema, so Satyajit Ray was responsible for establishing an international interest in Indian cinema in the 1950s. He achieved this with his serene, wise and assured debut Father Panchali (1955) which, alongside Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), became known as the Apu Trilogy—one of the greatest works in world cinema. Again like Kurosawa, in childhood Ray had seemed destined to become a professional artist. He received years of training and achieved some success as an illustrator.
He was born into a well-off Bengali family in Calcutta, and in 1940 he bowed to his family’s wishes and agreed to attend Shantiniketan, the university run by Rabindranath Tagore, who would inspire Ray throughout his career: he adapted several of Tagore’s stories for the cinema and produced a documentary to mark the centenary of Tagore’s birth.
At Shantiniketan, Ray was introduced to Eastern art—Japanese and Chinese as well as Indian. He enhanced his studies by travelling through the country, scrutinizing and sketching traditional Indian sculptures, statues and shrines. He also visited nearby villages to make sketches. This introduced Ray to the humble ways of life that he would explore in his first films.
After university, Ray returned to Calcutta in 1942 and joined a British-owned advertising company. During the next decade (which included a six-month stay in London where he furthered his cinematic education), Ray worked regularly as a freelance illustrator, designing book jackets and posters. He was also a film critic, which is how he came to meet his idol Jean Renoir. He had dreamed since childhood of breaking into movies, and it was while working on the designs for a new edition of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali that he became passionate about making it into a film, which he did, coming close to bankruptcy in the process. As his fame grew—and he continued to direct films up to the late 1980s—Ray would still draw illustrations, regularly providing the covers for the children’s magazine Sandesh that had been launched by his father.
Peter Greenaway (b. 1942)
Greenaway grew up in Wanstead, east London, and after Forest Hills, a minor public school in Essex, went to Walthamstow Art School, which he later described as ‘a breath of fresh air—the novelty value lasted for years, and there I tried to make some sense of an accidental discovery—Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). That film changed everything.’ The other seminal film in his development as a director was Alan Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and if Greenaway fits into any tradition it is that of the 1960s European auteurs, Bergman, Resnais, Godard, through whose work he gained his education in cinema.
This education continued through the 1960s, when he found work at the British Film Institute (BFI) and then at the Central Office of Information, where he picked up experience in film-editing. For years he made small, self-financed, experimental films, until the critical success of The Falls, in 1980, led to The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), the film that most obviously owes a debt to Resnais. With his template established, he continued to turn out playful, obscure, erudite, and always controversial films at the rate of roughly one every two years.
The central tension in his films is between the human capacity for, and attraction towards, chaos, ugliness and violence, and the ability or desire to impose order on the world through elaborate taxonomy or game-playing. His films are filled with arcane jokes and references and are often broken down into discrete segments—sometimes numbered, as with the dark and and ludic Drowning by Numbers (1988), or colour-coded, as in the case of his gross-out masterpiece, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). So while his films all contain sex, death, decay, violence, and characters who are either ciphers or loathsome and sometimes both, this is all set within a meticulously realized structure containing a sense of order and attention to detail that is equally crucial to his paintings, sketches and 3-D assemblages. The actor Tim Roth summed up Greenaway’s obsessiveness when he said, only half-jokingly, that during the making of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover the only significant direction he received was to move a couple of inches this way or that to restore the essential symmetry of the composition.