Written by Karl French
Published in GRANTA magazine #86


John Huston (1906-1987)

Before his directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon (1941), the film that confirmed Humphrey Bogart as a tough-guy star; Huston had been making a good living as a screenwriter; notably for Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941) and Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York (1941); later he would script Orson Welles’s post-war thriller The Stranger (1946). The collaboration with Bogart was the most important in Huston’s long career, and together they would turn out The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951), and the underrated oddity Beat the Devil (1953).
    Although the 1960s began well with The Misfits (1961), the pessimism of the film was appropriate, with its three stars (Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift) all close to death and its director set for a dismal run throughout the decade. His career was reborn with Fat City (1972), and remained on a reasonably even keel (the notable low point, in 1981, of Escape to Victory notwithstanding) for the rest of his life.
    But things could have been very different. After a serious illness as a ten year old, he was all but bedridden for several years. He emerged with a determination to live an intellectually and physically full life. At fifteen he was introduced to the sport of boxing for which he shared a passion with his father, the actor Walter Huston, who would later co-star in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Soon afterwards Huston developed an equally strong passion for painting. ‘Nothing,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘has played a more important role in my life.’
    He was fascinated by the Cubists, and by the American school of Synchronism. He enrolled in the Smith School of Art in Los Angeles but was soon disillusioned with the aridity of the teaching and what he saw as the pointless discipline of the life classes there. Within months he had dropped out of art school and fallen in with a group of like-minded artists in the Art Students League. He continued to paint throughout his life. Huston had studios in each of his homes, notably St Clerans in Galway, Ireland, a house that also contained much of his art collection, ranging from Paul Klee paintings to his impressive hoard of Pre-Columbian art.

'The Spirit of St.Clerans' (1960s)

Extracts from John Huston's sketchbook, 1956, the year he was making 'Moby Dick' (pen on paper)

Extracts from John Huston's sketchbook, 1956, the year he was making 'Moby Dick' (pencil on paper)

Extracts from John Huston's sketchbook, 1956, the year he was making 'Moby Dick' (pencil and coloured pencil on paper)

Martin Scorsese (b. 1942)

Scorsese’s twin passions as a child and adolescent were the cinema and the Church and for many years he planned to enter the priesthood. But the movies won out and he studied film at New York University, where by the time he graduated he had made a number of short films. Through the 1960s he worked as an editor and also directed his first feature film, Who’s That Knocking on My Door? (1968), a labour of love starring Harvey Keitel, who would become, along with Robert De Niro, one of Scorsese’s favourite actors.
    He got his big break, as did Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovitch, under Roger Corman, who assigned him to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972). The film was a modest success, but a key moment came when Scorsese screened it for his idol, John Cassavetes, who praised the style but pleaded with Scorsese to go for more personal material. Heeding that advice, Scorsese dusted off an old idea of his based around the characters who had populated his own neighbourhood of Little Italy, in downtown Manhattan, in his youth. Mean Streets, released in 1973, co-starring De Niro and Keitel, made Scorsese’s reputation and established his trademark themes—men, often violent men in crisis, with religion generally in the background or foreground—and a signature directorial style, involving flashy, imaginative visual flourishes, long or otherwise complex takes, and pervasive pop music on the soundtrack.
    While occasionally working on more mainstream material, Scorsese turned out a succession of great films, including Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), and Goodfellas (1990), all of which bear his personal touch. Many have been script collaborations—Scorsese and Nick Pileggi co-wrote Goodfellas and Casino (1995)—or written wholly by others, most notably Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver.
    Throughout his career Scorsese has carefully storyboarded his own films. With their urgent, primitive stylelessness, these 'storyboards may stretch the definition of art; indeed they may look uncomfortably like extracts from (Taxi Driver’s) Travis Bickle’s illustrated notebooks. But they show Scorsese’s innate understanding of the medium and his talent for framing shots and building sequences—in the examples featured here, sequences that have been etched forever into the minds of a generation of film-goers.

Storyboards for one of the fight sequences in 'Raging Bull' (1980)

Some of Scorsese's storyboards for 'Taxi Driver' (1976)



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.

Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers arresting suspects, Los Angeles, 1990s

Pen sketch of a friend, Steven, dying from Aids at the Middlesex Hospital, London (1992)

Figgis's mother at his father's funeral (1976)

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.

A watercolour from 1942, after the Japanese master, Ogata Korin (1658-1716)

Ray's wash-sketches for his first film 'Pather Panchali' (1955)

Ray's woodcut illustration for a 1944 edition of 'Pather Panchali' by Bibhuti Bhusan Bandhopadhyay, the novel on which the film was based

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.


'Gaming Board', 1968 (oil on wood)

'Icarus Falling into Water', 1997 (mixed media on card)

'The Frames', 1981 (mixed media on card)



Written by Karl French
Published in GRANTA magazine #86


Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

As a child, Kurosawa dreamed of becoming an artist. He was encouraged in this by his primary school teacher and, to a degree, by his father, who insisted he complement his artistic education with a course in calligraphy. On leaving school at eighteen, one of his paintings was accepted for the Nika exhibition, a prestigious annual art festival, but he failed to take his formal training any further.
    In an interview towards the end of his life, Kurosawa was asked why he hadn’t become a painter. He replied: ‘Because I failed the exam.’ Again at his father’s insistence he had applied to a famous art school but had been rejected. After this he educated himself, visiting art galleries and studying individual painters. He persevered for a few more years, taking commissions from popular magazines. Then, at the age of twenty-five, having never contemplated a career in films, he answered an advertisement from Photo-Chemical Laboratories seeking trainee assistant directors. He was accepted and began an apprenticeship with the established director Kajiro Yamamoto. He directed his first film, Sansbiro Sugata, in 1943.
    Kurosawa was, like his friend Satyajit Ray, fundamentally a humanist film-maker, but he was also a great visual stylist. His films are marked by a painterly quality and he had an unmatched talent for staging fights and action set-pieces. His work is marked as much by Western as by Eastern influences, so it is fitting that his films should have been reappropriated by Hollywood and European directors: his samurai movies, including Seven Samurai (1954), provided the source material for Sergio Leone’s Dollars cycle and John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, among others.
    Shortly after the release of his first colour film, Dodes’Kaden (1970), Kurosawa attempted suicide. He recovered to make three further masterpieces, Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), which was helped financially by the intervention of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. It was in the long preproduction periods on these last films that he made detailed preparatory sketches in his trademark style—which owed a clear debt to Van Gogh and the Impressionists. His passion for Van Gogh was particularly evident in his penultimate film, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), in which the elderly director meets Vincent, played by Kurosawa-worshipper Martin Scorsese.

A sketch for 'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams' (1990), in which Martin Scorsese plays Vincent Van Gogh

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

First inspired by German Expressionist cinema, Hitchcock quickly developed his signature style of suspense film-making. His films returned again and again to the same psychological territory—fear of authority figures, overbearing mothers, false accusations (with innocent men drawn into desperate situations by malign fate)—and incorporated elaborately staged set-pieces and extended takes. They also included his own often cheeky cameo appearances.
    For all his willingness to discuss his technique and philosophy of the craft of movie direction at great length, like some populist Eisenstein, he professed (as would Woody Allen decades later) a distaste for the actual process of film-making. Allen attributed his own feelings to a discomfort in dealing with actors and continual disappointment in the results compared to the image he had of the film in his head. Hitchcock felt, or claimed to feel, that rendering the action on celluloid was almost redundant, since he had already created the films in the elaborate storyboarding sessions that preceded each production. Although he usually employed a professional storyboard artist, and when he contributed his own sketches they tended to be hastily prepared and very rough, Hitchcock was a gifted draughtsman and, as his preparatory sketches for The 39 Steps (1935) show, he could produce atmospheric work of high quality.
    He left school in his early teens and went to work for the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. He also took night classes in life drawing at the University of London and received a rudimentary education in the history of black-and-white illustration. When this came to the attention of his employers he was moved to the advertising department, where he churned out images over the next few years. In 1920 the American company Famous Players-Lasky opened a film studio in north London and Hitchcock went to work there, initially unpaid, supplying title cards for silent films. He was eventually made head of titles. He directed his first film, The Pleasure Garden, in 1925, and over the next fifty years an extraordinary run of suspense masterpieces followed, including The 39 Steps (1935), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960).

Janet Leigh in the shower sequence from 'Psycho' (1960)

Some of the few preparatory drawings for "The 39 Steps" (1935)

Some of the few preparatory drawings for "The 39 Steps" (1935)

Some of the few preparatory drawings for "The 39 Steps" (1935)

Some of the few preparatory drawings for "The 39 Steps" (1935)

Takeshi Kitano (b. 1947)

After what seems to have been a miserable childhood, in which he and his siblings were subject to their father’s violent outbursts (his father would later be the basis for the central character in his 1999 film, Kikujiro) Kitano dropped out of university and became apprenticed to a comedian. He joined up with Jiro, another young stand-up comic; they styled themselves ‘The Two Beats’ (hence Kitano’s stage name, Beat Takeshi, which he still uses as an actor) and became a cult success in Japan with their outrageous, often obscene stage act which in time they brought to television.
    In 1982, the director Nagisa Oshima cast Kitano against type as the brutal Hara in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. In Japan his fame as a comic affected him adversely, with audiences reputedly hooting with laughter at his every appearance on screen, despite the violence of his character. His next sideways move was equally dramatic, when he emerged as a gifted director on his first film, Violent Cop (1989).
It was an accident which led Kitano to take up painting. On the night of August 2,1994, after finishing his role in Johnny Mnemonic, he had a few drinks and went for a ride on his new motorbike. He crashed, fracturing his skull and cheekbone. He admitted later he wasn’t sure where he was going that night, or even whether or not it had been a suicide attempt. ‘I even thought my brain structure might have been changed and that it might make me more artistic,’ he said later. ‘It even convinced me to start painting.’
    He made a successful return to film-making with Kids Return (1996), but his masterpiece came in 1997 with Hana-Bi, in which he also plays the leading role as Nishi, a retired cop who alternates between acts of casual but extreme violence and tenderness in caring for his sick wife. Kitano had been planning this film before his accident, but his brush with death clearly informs its mood. Many of the paintings he made during his convalescence are woven seamlessly into the film, presented as the art work created by Nishi’s wheelchair-bound former partner Horibe. There is something perfect about these dreamy images in which flowers meld with animals, dovetailing with the film’s emblematic title, which consists of the Japanese word for fireworks broken down into its constituent parts: hana (flower), bi (fire).

Kitano painting which feature in his film "Hana-Bi" (1997)

Kitano painting which feature in his film "Hana-Bi" (1997)

A cartoon angel which appeared in Kitano's 1999 film "Kikujiro".

Kitano's failed attempt to copy Van Gogh's "Sunflowers", which he turned into a visual joke.

Another painting used in "Hana-Bi". The snow is made of thousands of copies of the Chinese pictogram for snow;the symbol at the centre means suicide.

Dibujos de verano

Estos son algunos de mis dibujos playeros de este verano. Realizados en libreta con grafito-acuarela, fotografiados y coloreados con Procreate en el iPhone.


Taking the Subway to Russia

Illustrations from Taking the Subway to Russia, a collection of my drawings and haikus by my wife Judy Cantor-Navas, created over the long New York winter during we waited to travel to Russia to adopt our son. 

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