The first three lives are the hardest

John A. Riley

John A. Riley holds a Ph.D. from the University of London. He has written about film for a wide variety of publications and is currently working on a project about Georgian cinema.

C. S. Leigh

In C. S. Leigh’s long and varied career he has worked in fashion, served as an editor at Artforum, curated exhibitions, written more than a dozen books, contributed to countless magazines and journals (including Atlántica), created performances, and directed films. Since deciding to focus his attention on filmmaking he has produced an uncompromising body of work that encompasses both feature films and experimental works. He has collaborated with John Cale, Cat Power, Thurston Moore, Jeff Koons, Suede, and Marianne Faithfull, among others. He lives in London.

John A. Riley (JAR): You’ve been working on the Aural Camera series recently, where each film is a kind of visual representation of an existing film’s soundtrack. How did you select the films for this project, and moreover, what specifically fascinates you about film sound? Even the most ardent cinephiles and film scholars tend to see sound as a mere supplement to the image, but I’ve always suspected that filmmakers know much more about sound than they usually let on.

C. S. Leigh (CSL): I’m not sure most filmmakers know that much about sound, though their editors certainly do. I first became fascinated by film sound when working with editor Catherine Quesemand. We were editing on Steenbecks back then and cutting film on a table. Sometimes the sound would go a little off in that situation. Catherine would show me an edit and I would say “I hate that section” and she would say that it was just a matter of sound and not image. In almost every instance she was right. So I became aware of how a film image is really as much about sound as it is about picture. I became more and more fascinated by film sound and the mix is now one of my favourite parts of the cinematic process.

For the Aural Camera films, which I think of as a kind of cinematic X-ray, I set out to work on one film from each decade beginning with the 1960s when I was born. It’s important that I find the result aesthetically pleasing as well as conceptually interesting. Together with my DP Joachim Høge we experimented first with finding the best examples based on aesthetics, in other words how the sound waves move, and then we searched for the right programme and colour schematic to best suit the film. We experimented with a whole range of films from Psycho to Alphaville to a range of avant-garde films, and ultimately I liked Au Hasard Balthazar best, which is interesting because of Robert Bresson’s theories on film sound. I am setting out to use films that look great and offer a serious way to think about film sound. They’re not all going to be “serious” films. I am considering a Frank Tashlin film at the moment.

Christian Leigh, The Silent Baroque, Edición Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburgo 1989.
Christian Leigh, The Silent Baroque, Edición ThaddaeusRopac, Salzburgo 1989.

JAR: How do you go about finding the right visual form for the Aural Camera films?

CSL: I start by looking at the image, not thinking about colour. We begin looking for the right software to give us a sound-wave image that suits the film and then we shoot it, and afterwards we do a grading to find the precise colour we like. We use a camera to shoot the film in one take. It’s still very much a film, which is important to me.

JAR: You chose Au Hasard Balthazar as your first Aural Camera film. What do you think is special about Bresson’s take on film sound?

CSL: Of course there are those seminal texts in which Bresson discusses his theory of film sound, which along with The Grain of the Voice by Roland Barthes I have consulted often in my life and quite a lot while working on this new series. What I think makes the sound in a Bresson film so unique is that it’s minimal and yet incredibly rich. On the one hand it is simple and on the other hand it’s complex.

JAR: I used to carry a copy of Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer everywhere I went. Do you also have fond memories of this book and do you have a favourite aphorism from it?

CSL: “Nothing artful, always agile” is certainly something to strive for. I think that’s the right quote. I spoke to people who worked with Bresson and he had a lot of demands including how props had to be sourced and insisting on the call sheets being sent out by post every day. It’s no wonder he didn’t make a film for the last fifteen years of his life. Everything was very specific. I admire that. I think that specificity comes through in the films.

JAR: The similarity I see between your feature films and Bresson is the concentration and lack of distractions. There’s a kind of purity to both. Is that what you’ve taken from his films?

CSL: Yes, though I won’t pretend to think I have come anywhere near his mastery yet. What I find interesting in Bresson is his focus on hardline simplicity and yet he chose his actors from fashion magazines. He was not immune to beauty and even glamour on occasion. I would like to find a way to get farther away from fashion and glamour in my work, though it is really part of who I am.

JAR: I saw a clip of Bresson being interviewed where he praised an early 1980s James Bond film. Do you think he was being ludic, or straight up?

CSL: I think he was probably being straight up. Alain Resnais once told me his favourite films all star male crooners, and Jacques Rivette is known for spending his afternoons at the multiplexes in Les Halles. I believe most filmmakers love all kinds of films. At Cannes, Godard has admitted to enjoying Steven Spielberg films even as he makes fun of them and rips their intentions to shreds.

JAR: Do you watch new releases, commercial cinema etc?

CSL: I do seek out new releases. I love commercial films. What I don’t particularly like are big franchise movies. I tend to avoid them. But I watch about two new films a week at the cinema and a lot of them are mainstream films. The film that gave me the most pleasure recently was Eden by Mia Hanson-Løve: not a mainstream film but not experimental either.

Christian Leigh, Psycho, Kunsthall, Nueva York, 1992.
Christian Leigh, Psycho, Kunsthall, Nueva York, 1992.

JAR: Going back to the idea of sound and cinema: Another of your inspirations is the music of the Velvet Underground, about whom you once planned to make a film. Do you think there is something cinematic about their music?

CSL: Actually the film John Cale and I were going to make was about the Warhol Factory. I don’t think of the Velvet Underground as being particularly cinematic music-wise, only in presentation. They had a kind of gift for creating a spectacle which one might say was cinematic or you could just as easily call it Warholian. The music is great and holds up remarkably. When John Cale and I created the Process performance in Berlin that work was certainly cinematic. He is a visionary artist in every sense.

JAR: You were a curator for several years before moving into the world of film. Would you like to talk about how you became interested in this kind of work, and the things you achieved during your work as a curator?

CSL: I had no ambition to be a curator. In 1986 I was offered the position of curating the American pavilion at a painting biennial in South America. It was over drinks and I accepted without giving it much thought. It took off from there and I was offered many more opportunities to curate exhibitions for the next seven years. I believe I introduced a certain kind of personal authorship into curating that was not there before. Considering that I am often asked about my exhibitions I have to surmise they continue to resonate.

JAR: What excited you about curating?

CSL: I was basically only interested in trying to find a way to bend curating to my will, meaning to make it into a vehicle for what I wanted to do and say. I was not particularly excited by the form I found it in when I started curating. I did not enjoy most of the work of curating. I liked conceptualising the exhibition, coming up with the theme and title and making a list of artists to include. I loved installing the exhibition. It was incredibly creative.

JAR: Why did you stop? Did you reach the limit of what you felt you could achieve, or was it for some other reason?

CSL: That’s a question that has several answers. Basically the assumption is I stopped curating because of the financial disaster of my exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1993. I couldn’t pay the bills. That is true, though to some extent I had been preparing to stop curating for at least a year before Venice. I had come to find curating a contemptible activity. It was becoming more corporate and I didn’t want to be a part of that. Artists and gallerists who credited me with their success in public began stabbing me in the back behind the scenes because it was more convenient for them to do that. I had disgust for the whole operation and the fact that the art world could not find a way to help me solve the problems of Venice made me want to remove myself and that’s what I did. In 1994 I walked away and I never looked back.

I was talking to Thomas Krens about curating an exhibition at the Guggenheim and other galleries and museums. I was offered the directorship of a small museum in Trento. The fact is I was totally finished with curating, and more to the point with the art world.

JAR: It’s hard to think of other filmmakers (at least in terms of those who’ve made “feature films”) who have curated as well as directed. Are there skills that are transferable from curating to directing? Do you see continuity between these two different parts of your life? Your use of Hitchcock films as titles of exhibitions would suggest so.

CSL: There is of course Peter Greenaway who has been curating exhibitions for over twenty years. I think as a filmmaker he is a largely a spent force so I gather curating is more interesting to him at this point. There was an interesting exhibition curated by Claire Denis in Paris about five years ago on something to do with colonialism, though I can’t remember the specifics. I think there is a crossover between curating and filmmaking though not an obvious one. I have often said that I make films in a curatorial way. By that I mean I put together a series of elements which all together tell a story which is not the same as the film narrative so to speak. I don’t necessarily choose the actor who can play the particular role best. I’m more interested in what the actor brings to the whole piece. On set there is nothing curatorial about it. It’s only in the planning that there is crossover.

JAR: After you finished your curating career, you ended up at Zentropa where you made the film Far From China. This was the era (or the recent aftermath) of Dogme 95. How did you come to work with Zentropa?

CSL: In 1994, after deciding to stop curating, I moved to Paris. It was a wonderful place to land for a cinephile like myself. I had made a friend at Cahiers du Cinéma, so I had a good introduction to the cinema community in Paris. Within a month I was able to make my first work, a short animation titled Mr Hurricane Goes To The Guggenheim. “Mr Hurricane” was my nickname when I was curating because of how quick I was when making studio visits. In the animation I speed down the rotunda of the museum and eat all of the art in my path. It was funny though it was not enough. I wanted to make a feature film with actors.

That year I went to Cannes where I met André Téchiné and Patrice Chéreau among others. They were very encouraging and inspiring. I knew what I wanted to do. Shortly thereafter I starting meeting with producers in Paris. There was a lot of interest though I was not able to make a film in French at that point. It delayed me. To make a long story short I met a pair of novice Dutch producers who offered to produce my first feature, Sentimental Education, based on Gustave Flaubert’s novel and set in the contemporary world of modelling with the focus on a male model having a crisis of faith. The cast was pretty amazing including Arsinée Khanjian, Guillaume Canet, Julie Gayet, Thom Hoffman, Isabelle Carré, and Sylvie Testud. The producers did everything they could to give me what I wanted. Ultimately we fell out and they tried to edit the film without me. I couldn’t let that happen and consequently the film has never been released.

That was very demoralising so I set out to find a strong producer who was used to making difficult films. In Cannes in 1998 I met Peter Aalbæk Jensen who runs Zentropa with Lars von Trier. Peter was generous with me. He invited me to make a film at Zentropa. It was a strange time. I had never experienced homophobia before, and at Zentropa I did. It probably didn’t help things that I used to say Zentropa has 100 employees: Lars von Trier and 99 people to laugh at his jokes. Peter gave me the use of the studios and all the equipment I needed for free. I started Far From China in Denmark and ultimately I left and completed the film in Paris and London. The film had its premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in 2001 in London.

Recently a curator from Centre Pompidou asked for a print. It was a baptism by fire up there. Let’s just say I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid and it didn’t go down very well. I still feel a lot of warmth for Peter. I like the film a lot. I think Marianne Faithfull, Steven Mackintosh and Antoine Chappey give outstanding performances and the score by Suede is great.

Christian Leigh, I Am The Enunciator, Thread Waxing Space, Nueva York, 1993.
Christian Leigh, I Am The Enunciator, Thread Waxing Space, Nueva York, 1993.

JAR: Since Far From China is quite hard to see, would you be able to describe something of what the film is about?

CSL: In 1965, Norman Morrison, a Quaker, set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. He took his infant daughter with him that day, though no harm came to her. Far From China is a fictional film about the life that daughter might have lived. Much of the film is told in split frames, sometimes as many as sixteen. One of the reasons the film is hard to see is that the producers never collected the print after the first screening. I have met people who have bought black market DVDs in Asia and I get requests for the film often.

JAR: A friend told me that she’d seen a truncated version of American Widow on Dutch TV. Was it shown in this form and did you approve this cut of it? How do you feel about your work being shown on television?

CSL: I’ve heard rumblings about this, which I didn’t know whether to take seriously. I would never have approved such a thing — not that I was asked in the first place. I want my work to be screened in cinemas. For television I prepare alternate versions. I agreed, for a serious cinema website, to post parts of the film online as a way to meet requests from the cinephile community. That’s where they must have taken it from. I find what the Dutch channel did shows a lack of respect for the artistic process. People say it’s a compliment. What people forget is that I have been producing work of one kind or another since I was sixteen years old and I always get serious coverage for that work. The first clothes I ever designed in 1981 were in shops on Madison Avenue and in Bloomingdale’s windows before I was eighteen years old. The first review I ever got was by John Duka in the New York Times who called my work perfection. My work always receives attention. What the Dutch channel did shows a complete lack of respect for artistic intention. Luckily other channels like Arte and Channel Four are filmmaker-friendly.

JAR: Do you see continuity between your feature films like Process and See You at Régis Debray and your experimental/abstract work like I Was Jack Goldstein and the Aural Camera films? Cinephiles and scholars like to compartmentalise, but do you?

CSL: I see the films as completely interrelated, though these days the audiences seem very differentiated. I compartmentalise everything in my life. Friends never meet other friends, lovers never meet family and so on. I think of everything in my life as being programmatic. I read books in batches and in a certain order. For example, novels about Egypt or books on silent-film stars. My own films I see as being part of a continuum. Watching an Aural Camera film after watching Process makes sense to me and seems like a continuous act or action.

JAR: Speaking of things that are compartmentalised, do you read academic film theory? It often seems to exist in its own rarefied space. Would someone like Gilles Deleuze interest you?

CSL: Yes I read a lot of academic film theory and I have consistently for thirty years now. I have read most possibly all of Deleuze’s writings on film. But my main focus has long been on Raymond Bellour whose work is always fascinating. His close readings of individual films are unbelievably powerful. When I was younger I read all of the feminist and structuralist critics including Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen, Stephen Heath, and others. I have a particular soft spot for Stanley Cavell who is one of the most entertaining writers on cinema, though I wouldn’t call his writing academic.

Today we have great critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Jonathan Romney though I don’t find big idea-pieces written by them. I’m not sure if I don’t know where to look or if they don’t write them. The best mainstream film critic I know of is Francine Prose, who writes for the New York Review of Books. She is erudite and says what she thinks with a lot of style.

JAR: You were on a shoot recently. What is the project you are currently working on, and how is it progressing?

CSL: It was a double shoot. To start with, I was shooting a sort of prequel to my film I Was Jack Goldstein. When we were researching that film Peter Doig told us a story about Jack visiting Goldsmiths when he was a student there dressed like a movie pimp. I like the lightness of it matched with the lunacy and I did something almost screwball with it. The main shoot was for a long-term documentary I am working on about the Rothschild family. Both films are moving ahead at what feels like the right pace.

JAR: How did you become involved with the Rothschild documentary? What interests you about this family, and what are you trying to convey in the film?

CSL: The Rothschild documentary is a commission. I am going to tell twelve stories of numbers of the Rothschild family. The title is The Success Reflex. My take is that if you come from a family where success is assumed for all members with the help of financial security the result is pretty much guaranteed. It is a long-term endeavour with no pressure of a completion date.

JAR: A Hollywood director once quipped that making a film is the unpleasant task at the end of a series of successful negotiations. I imagine the opposite is true for you? What are your thoughts and feelings about the shooting process; its good and bad points?

CSL: I think Orson Welles said something like making a film is a series of compromises. I’m with Mr Hollywood on this one. The physical act of shooting a film is very unpleasant. The director is a hostage of the crew for the length of the shoot, most of whom could be working at Walmart for all they care. This is even true in France, which offers the best shooting conditions for a director in my experience. The best part is that occasionally magic happens. You fight your way past the bureaucracy of the set and all of the gossip and small talk and something brilliant emerges in spite of the situation. The other great part is that eventually the shoot ends, and the film lives on forever. The difficulty of the shoot is what keeps me from making more films. It’s why I take more time between feature films nowadays.

JAR: It seems common for you to be working on more than one project at a time. What else do you have in the pipeline after your current shoots have wrapped?

CSL: Because of the way I work, and the long road to financing my films, I have to work on several films at the same time. For about a year I have been shooting a feature called Motherboard about grief and the Internet. It’s a small claustrophobic film that I will keep working on. I am preparing a larger feature film with a bigger budget and well-known actors that has to shoot in one go, meaning 45 shooting days in a row. The film is on the scale of Process or a bit bigger actually. We are working on that film full-time now.

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