Susan Brand talks with Paul Watson
Paul Watson has been making documentary films for over 40 years. Susan Brand interviewed him about his film Rain in My Heart, where editing style is used to help express the desperate stories of three alcoholics.
PW: “I shoot my own films these days because it’s so liberating. Let the professional camerapeople go and work on drama, all those F-stops look beautiful, but never, never get rid of your editor. They are your closest friend, your ally, a person to argue with. You climb a mountain to get a top shot of a location and you think ‘It’s slightly cloudy today, but it’ll do’. But when you get to the edit, it’s not in the sequence! And I say ‘Where’s that top shot, it took me ages to get that’ and the editor says ‘It doesn’t work.’ That’s what a director needs. Editors are there to be bloody trouble, in the nicest possible sense; but they have to believe in you.”
SB: How did the fragmented editing style of Rain come about?
PW: “The development of this ‘triple layering’ as I call it, started in other films I’ve made. Malcolm and Barbara has moments. I know how to cut in a conventional way, but I like to break the rules. I do passionately believe that if you film something right, there is an energy in the shot that is not of your making, it is of your collecting. That’s what holds the sequence together, regardless of the cutting style. It’s not the easiest approach to cut like this. When I was learning about triple layering, we would work all day and at the end of the day I would say ‘Shall we have a look at it?’ and it was a pile of shit. At that point, a good editor will say ‘I know what you want now, why don’t you bugger off for an hour and I’ll fiddle around with it. You go and make dinner.’ And the magic is, when I come back, it’s what I wanted. But you need editors who’ve got the patience and the faith, the belief that what you are trying to express is better expressed in this seemingly oddball garble. Triple layering hasn’t been used enough because we have the most timid filmmakers in this country; too many directors are too timid. There are no cutaways at all in Rain, for example, no meaningful shot of the mantelpiece or the bill behind the clock, unless it was integral to the story.”
SB: You have no conventional linear narrative, no scenes with establishers, no voice-of-God narration telling us what’s going on, so what is the glue that holds your film together?
PW: “What holds it together? The intensity of Vanda’s passions! She is fantastic. The honesty! Yes, I cut things out, yes, I put words over her and added them from somewhere else, but it all enabled her to better tell that story. There are these moments when Vanda is talking about her lover intercut with Vanda talking about something else and it’s like all these different women talking, like a group of women in the pub. One is drinking, one is laughing, one is talking, one is angry, one is crying, but in my film, it’s all the same person. These shots shouldn’t be cut together, but it works. I’ve started to call it cubist. Cubism was about showing different facets of the same thing, that’s what I’m doing. I’m showing three moods of one face in a very short time, a few seconds. Once my editor, Dave King, understood what I was getting at, he could fight and labour to find exactly the right frame and rhythm.”
SB: How did you choose this cutting style for the film?
PW: “You, as the editor, are more likely to tell me what the style is than I am to tell you. I started my career as a painter. Film is an organic thing, like painting is an organic thing. You start off here and you scratch down something and you rub it out and you paint over it and you get this evolution of imagery. You can only do that when you get time. Every film has its own identity hidden in it. It’s like presenting Michelangelo with a lump of rock, it’s in there somewhere and he picks it out. And that’s what I do with film, I listen to what it is trying to say to me. My worry is that next year this film is going to give rise to some horribly edited films; but that doesn’t mean other film-makers shouldn’t try it.”
SB: How did a T.V. audience react to this fragmented style?
PW: “I believe that the audience is much more aware of film than most people working in television give them credit for. The audience watch far more television than we programme makers do. They determine fashion change. I think they enjoy variety. No member of the viewing public has complained about the editing style of Rain. There were occasions early in my career when people said ‘This film jumps about a bit’. But we all go through transitions, I mature, I grow up, I get better at something, they get to understand the language. There are moments in the film when I show people the future and then go back and lead them into how we get there. No one says ‘Oh fuck! Nigel’s dead! Why are we now watching scenes from when he was alive?’ A story must have a beginning, a middle and an end, but as M. Godard famously told us, not necessarily in that order.”
SB: When I am editing, executives and commissioners enforce a conventional storytelling mode, by and large. We are told the audience won’t understand it otherwise
PW: “The trouble with the children who run television in this country is that they don’t spend their time making films. They spend their time secondguessing the audience. It’s a complete waste of time. You can’t put yourself in the position of all the audience. You can’t even put yourself in the place of one little old man in Blackburn. You’ve got to give the film-maker the absolute powers, the things that are needed to drag out of their soul, their heart and their mind, an amazing story about however little a subject. You must not patronise your audience. I think if you start saying to yourself ‘Will they like this, will they like that?’ it just won’t work. You cannot make films by committee. It’s not being big-headed, it’s not arrogance on the part of the film-maker. So when television executives say ‘We know all about non-linear, yeah, very clever. It’s great in theatres in Hampstead or at the ICA’, I say, ‘Fuck ‘em!’ It’s not an exclusive style for the intelligentsia of this country, for the middle classes who’ve had a slightly different sort of education. It’s for everyone. You cannot make art second-guessing anyone. No composer says ‘Who will want this piece of music? What issues does it serve?’ The only purpose it serves is mine. You have to stick to your guns. The more we compromise with these buggers, the worse it will be. And we’ll end up with a T.V. of mediocrity because most people who want to work in T.V. management are mediacrats.
SB: What would you advise an editor and director team faced with the bosses saying the audience won’t understand it? “You have to say say ‘Do you understand it? Does it say something about Vanda, which it wouldn’t say if it were cut in a conventional way?’ If they say ‘Yes’ you can say ‘What makes you so different from the rest of the world?’
SB: How did the BBC had reacted to the film and the style of it?
PW: “I had trouble with the title! The BBC hated it: Rain In My Heart? Didn’t understand it, didn’t know what it meant. At my fine cut screening they were upset about the style. They said ‘That’s not how you do the subject.’ They did say this from a good basis of knowledge of meaningful films, only they were 20 years out of date! We’ve all moved on. They thought I had mucked up what looked at rough cut stage like a very good film. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, as I had respect for the BBC person I was working with. Everything inside me said ‘You’re wrong!’
SB: How did you persuade them to accept your approach?
PW: “It happened by osmosis. They now believe it’s a really good film because they got more comfortable by listening to other people’s response, the audience’s response.”
SB: Is editing a pain or a pleasure to you?
PW: “There is only one element of filmmaking that I like passionately and that’s cutting. Editing is simply wonderful. It is the craft we must use bravely, to invigorate our documentary making. I’ve often wondered whether I would like to be a film editor with other people’s rushes and there is a certain interest in condensing and compiling. But no, I realised it is cutting the material I shot that really interests me and somewhere in the back of my brain I know where it all goes.”