Saxon Logan is a director whose work in film and documentary is well praised. With the recent release of his most famous film, Sleepwalker, on the BFI Flipside label, I tracked the director down to ask him about his past, his friendships with some of the most important people in British film and his own superbly idiosyncratic work.
A full review and analysis of the BFI Flipside release of Sleepwalker can be found here.
When did you first realise you wanted to make films? Was it a gradual process of realisation or was there a particular moment that solidified your desire to make films?
Since I can honestly remember back to my childhood I had a fascination with movies and the film world. My Mother was a movie fan and my earliest influence. She knew everything there was to know about the Movie Stars’ lives and devoured Hollywood Gossip Magazines. She would take me to the cinema regularly. She had pretty undiscriminating taste in movies but excellent judgement when it came to those Stars that could act. She just loved to lose herself in each of these movies. I was pretty young at the time, say five or six, and like her fell under the spell of movies. As a kid I truly thought a film was “composed” by the actors and my first thought was to become a movie actor. Then one day I picked up a Movie Magazine and there were some “behind the scenes” photographs taken during the filming of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I noticed this stern looking man wearing a skewed baseball cap and black eye patch pointing from behind a camera. The caption read John Ford, Director. It dawned on me someone was guiding the way the film was made. It appealed to me greatly that you could “invent” a movie.
I made a make shift movie camera from a wooden Orange Box and used the cardboard roll from lavatory paper as a lens. I began to play at “directing”. I involved my school friends and would direct them as they played Cowboy and War games; games that became more and more inventive and complex. My cast grew. Kids I barely knew would pitch up to be in my “play, play” movies. I began shooting using my family 8mm cine camera. I loved seeing the developed film – particularly tracking shots taken from the back of my father’s car. I would see any movie showing at our local cinemas but it was Zulu rather than Lawrence of Arabia that caught my attention. This epic film about courage, endurance, cowardice and heroic acceptance was made with such impressive economy. The John Barry soundtrack is marvellous and stirring. It remains a favourite. Then I saw Antonioni’s Blow Up. I was enchanted by the film’s panache, the filmmaking and the fact it engaged the audience, allowing them to interpret the movie with out seeming to prescribe the way to see it.
Then came If…. This film of all films from my early days had the greatest impact of all. If… for me – and for many of my contemporaries was our Rebel Without a Cause. It again was made with such economy of expression and yet had a beauty, boldness, truth and elegance. I wrote the name of the filmmaker on the ticket stub: Lindsay Anderson. Instinctively, perhaps mystically I retained the stub, never wanting to forget the Director’s name. By now I knew I would be a filmmaker or nothing at all.
In the video interview on the latest release of Sleepwalker, you mention writing to a lot of filmmakers before getting a reply from Lindsay Anderson. What sort of things were you sending off to them, whom were you sending them off to and what sort of responses (general or specific) did you get back?
I arrived in the UK from Rhodesia when I was barely 18; I rejected conscription into the Rhodesian Army (I believed the freedom fighters had a more righteous cause) and therefore faced prison. My Mother could not endure the thought of me being sent to prison and arranged for me to be spirited out of the country. I arrived in England, a real green foot, and a naïf but with one aim in mind: to make films. I got odd job work to sustain myself and in all my free time would read up on films, go to movies and write off to various leading figures in the UK Film Business. My letters affirmed my determination to make films no matter what but initially an opportunity to learn was all I sought. My letters expressed a single-minded determination and were perhaps too full of passion. This probably didn’t appeal to the English recipients. I recall writing to Bryan Forbes who headed up a major initiative to revive British Cinema. I got a standard copied letter of rejection in response suggesting I accept the reality of the British Film Industry’s situation and settle for another career. It was pp’d and signed by a secretary. Richard Attenborough sent me a negative response getting my name wrong throughout the brief note of rejection. John Schlesinger said try America. I then read an interview with Lindsay Anderson in a back issue of Sight and Sound. I was so impressed and encouraged by his succinct affirmative way of expressing himself and his stirring boldness. I wrote to him, never thinking he would respond. Instead I received, almost by return, a postcard written in a distinctive hand and in red Pentel: “You sound interesting tell me more about yourself.” I did; how my mission was “to turn cinemas in to cathedrals of art”, etc., later he told me how much this had made him laugh but he felt instinctively that I had the right type of ambition: idealistic ambition. He sent me money for a train fare so that we could meet.
Could you describe your working relationship with Lindsay Anderson and what sort of influence and help he gave you?
Initially, Lindsay had no film work to offer me but as an Associate Director of The Royal Court Theatre, he suggested I might like to work at the Royal Court until he got his next film financed. I leapt at the chance and enjoyed the happiest period of working life there. I was 18 and working with great writers and directors and actors. I directed my first play Dr Galley with Henry Woolf at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival at the age of 19. It transferred to the Soho Poly Theatre in the West End.
My greatest fortune as a filmmaker is to have had Lindsay as my mentor. He suggested books to read, insisted I visit art galleries and would constantly challenge any sloppy thinking or expression on my part with rigorous criticism. I was earning very little at the Royal Court but he always made sure I was fed. He would often cook for me or he would take me out to lunch. He was formidable with an incisive intellect and our relationship was very much that of mentor pupil. He very much influenced me – probably he is the single greatest influence in the way I see things, think and approach my work.
I will never forget him announcing one afternoon that Warner Brothers were backing his next film O Lucky Man! He offered me a job as a Location Researcher on it. He asked me to read the screenplay and give my opinion. I read it and found it read like no other script. Frankly, I did not know what to make of it. When he asked what I thought of it I was quick enough to say “I found it unique”. He knew I was clueless but liked the way I dealt with the predicament. I graduated from Location Researcher (an invaluable experience) to the Art department making props. With pre-Production complete and filming imminent, it became apparent the Production couldn’t provide any further work for me beyond this point and I was served notice. Then on my last day, I heard Lindsay shouting at someone in the Studio’s courtyard – he was firing his assistant. He stormed into the Art Department and told me to be on the set the next day. He handed me his briefcase and screenplay and I worked through the entire shoot of 3 months alongside him. He allowed me to block certain scenes with actors; he loved the company of actors and I am glad I share this love. He once asked me what was the most important component to filming. I said Cinematography, and he said no! Performance. You can shoot on anything but its performance that invests the film with truth. He was a very hard task master and often acerbic.
Once he scolded me. I insisted I was doing my best. He retorted: “too bad your best is second rate!” Towards the end of filming, everyone was issued with letters of notice. I was very distressed not knowing what I would do next. Lindsay noticed my mood and said “I am the only one who can fire you – and I want you to come into the cutting rooms during the edit. Its important you learn to edit” I got to assemble lesser scenes as an exercise and he was impressed by my approach and sense of timing. I became somewhat self important and wanted to only concentrate on the editing process forgetting first and foremost I was Lindsay’s assistant; he asked me to get him a coffee and I said I was too busy with some other task. He fired me on the spot. A year to the day he wrote to me saying that it was about time we met again and we became firm friends. He was without doubt the greatest friend. He helped me financially, was never too busy to give me guidance and was unquestioningly generous. He was the best man at my wedding and always gave me pertinent notes when it came to my films. I am glad I spoke to him the week before he unexpectedly died; I will never forget his words to me: “Remember Saxon, nothing is inevitable and always tell the truth!”
Your first short, Stepping Out (1977), supported Roman Polanski’s The Tenant according to the BFI. Do you remember the process that allowed this to happen? What was your reaction at the time?
The Acquisitions Manager of the BFI was shown Stepping Out by the British Council Film Festivals Panel and loved it. He was an incredibly nice guy but I thought he would hate the film. Instead he considered it “a minor miracle of film making”. Luckily, for me he had good judgement and twinned the film with The Tenant’s screenings in the BFI’s Regional Cinemas. I loved The Tenant. Polanski is breathtakingly good in it. It proved a successful double bill and Stepping Out eventually showed a profit of £11 from its box office share.
Your next short, Working Surface (1979) sees director Bill Douglas taking on the leading role. How did your working relationship with him come about? Did he ever assist or mentor directorially on either of the films you worked on together?
Lindsay Anderson had been very supportive of Bill during the making of his Trilogy. Few people could handle Bill’s intensity in a constructive way, but Lindsay could. Indeed few people know that Bill gave his films entirely different titles. Lindsay challenged him saying that the films were personal and biographical so why not call them My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home. Bill did. Bill worshipped Lindsay, trusted him. Bill’s films affected me greatly. They were sincerely felt, harsh and poetic. I met Bill at a drinks party. At the time I was struggling to find someone convincing to play the writer in Working Surface. Bill looked great. Very striking. And he could type. We just hit it off and I asked him if he would help me by playing the part of the writer. He asked to see the script, and if he liked it he would accept the role. Amazingly he agreed and gave a stand out performance. I was nervous the morning of the shoot. Bill had a hugely impressive reputation as a demanding and exacting filmmaker and I was anxious about working with him.
We sat on a wall drinking coffee together before filming and I recall saying defiantly to Bill that if I haven’t made my masterpiece by the time I am 30 I will quit filmmaking. Bill sternly retorted, “if that is your attitude then I shall quit working with you! Don’t you get it? Film is a life -time commitment and if you get to make your masterpiece at 70 be grateful.” Of course I did not mean what I said, but Bill’s admonishment awakened me and I determined to deepen my commitment. We got on very well and he sat in on my edit for the entire 36 hours I spent cutting my film. He helped me with the timing, and at one difficult point solved a badly timed pause in a performance by jump cutting the shot. It worked brilliantly. He knew it was a remarkable film before even I did.
Sleepwalker sees the return of two other actors from Working Surface. How did your working relationship with Joanna David and Heather Page come about?
I met Joanna David when she was in the BBC’s television serial: Rebecca. I was an assistant film editor on the serial and watching the rushes, I fell in love with her, and the way she looked and the way she acted. I wrote her a letter of admiration and she responded and we became very, very close. Heather and Joanna are great friends and I liked Heather’s wit and quick wittedness. They contrast each other and compliment each other in a way I find attractive. Joanna is a wonderful screen performer, in the same way Dirk Bogarde is – they both have the ability to think their performances and the camera loves this subtly of expression. Both Joanna and Heather are very generous at heart and they really set out to help me as a new filmmaker.
James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) and the films of Dario Argento have been cited as influences for Sleepwalker. In what way did they influence you and the film? Are there any other films or directors whose work contributed to either Sleepwalker or your other films?
The Old Dark House is an extra ordinarily strange and unnerving film. The performances are outré, almost purposefully odd. It is very atmospheric and weirdly sensual. I was fascinated by it. Dario Argento is a perverse stylist. The editing of his films suggests an almost amphetamine driven style. His use of colours and disconcerting mise en scene is extremely beguiling. I love Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill and of course Hitchcock, both influences. Marion is named after the Janet Leigh character in Psycho. These are bold filmmakers. In the end though the prevailing influence is Lindsay Anderson. Influence certainly, but not style nor vision. I am a proud protégé, and I owe Lindsay a huge debt of gratitude but I am emphatically my own films’ maker.
Though shot through the prism of an atmospheric horror, Sleepwalker also has strong political questioning in its narrative of Thatcher-lead Britain. Was this the main aim of Sleepwalker? Did its negative assessment of the yuppie life-style reflect your own opinions on it? Were there any other directors at the time who you felt were asking similar questions?
I had a great deal of freedom to make whatever film I wanted. I love Britain and care about it deeply. That is why I chose to make Sleepwalker. I naively thought it would be a “wake up” film that would be entertaining, too. It is not entirely rooted in Thatcher’s time nor does it knock the aspirations of the young and thrusting. Instead, it knocks rapacious and unthinking greed, spineless idealism, and meek acquiescence. I feel it is still relevant now. For all its surface appearance Britain is dilapidated. There is a cold aggressiveness to the culture. Politically the current parties are like high street banks: in the same business only differentiated by the colour of their debit and credit cards. I think “Albion” is incrementally decaying while the rich concentrate on getting richer, the middle class acquiesce and the poor can just go to hell. Bill Douglas got the script in one. He came up to me and said: “Marion is Britannia gone mad, is she not?”
Your later work has focussed more towards documentaries such as films about Dirk Bogarde and African poaching. Is documentary where all of your interests now are or are there more fictional films to come?
I have been lucky in that I have never had to compromise. I have always made the films I want to make. I have never been a hired gun or made a film as a career move or with reluctance. With a family to support I could still make feature length Documentaries and remain true to myself. My documentaries are not TV programmes, they are films. One young Graduate at Sheffield University wrote a thesis on my film Black Rhino: The Last Stand.
He saw it as Conradian and that the threatened Black Rhino symbolised the whites of Southern Africa. I also see it as a kind of homage to Melville’s Moby Dick. I am proud I have made documentaries that brought about change. Place of Skulls brought about a world -wide Ivory ban. It still is not enough to save the Elephant, but it heightened awareness. I loathe current wild life programmes on National Geographic and Discovery. There is so little human involvement in the narratives and the anthropomorphic scripting is ridiculous. Disney was doing that kind of stuff in the 1950s. Nowadays, serious environmental concerns are addressed in three minute specials on 24 hour news channels.
I can emphatically say I am planning more narrative films for Cinema to come. I have completed two screenplays: At The Gates of Thunder – about Dr Livingstone’s failed Zambezi Expedition and this is in an advanced stage of development. “Freedom” – a picaresque and satirical movie set now and about the adventures of a British Army Deserter is a movie I dearly want to realise. I am also working on a draft scenario for a thriller entitled Fiddlers’ Green. I would love to make a movie from James M Cain’s novel Serenade.
You’re famous for being a “vocational” director meaning that you only involve yourself in projects that you’re interested in. Would you advise this creative stance for young filmmakers today? Is there any advice you’d give for new British filmmakers?
I resist being prescriptive. So much is down to luck, which in the end is really only good timing. Making a film is an accomplishment in itself – that is true and respect worthy – but it isn’t enough. There are far too many mini films being made in Britain. You only need read the review columns in Sight and Sound. Nothing stands out and they all seem so interchangeable. Then you get the earnest type of “human condition” films the British Film Establishment love financing – all so laudable yet they feel pallid, bloodless. Worst are those British movies with British Actors acting with no cinematic substance.
Make great films that are good, and true. Be ambitious. Have a voice. Have an attitude. I welcome the development of digital cameras and technology and in theory it is all well and good being available to anybody; but there is just one thing to note, you must have talent, taste and aesthetic judgement. I would also say this: it is not enough to kind of want to make films, instead you have to have the attitude: I must make films. This distinguishes the sincere artist. I think vocational film makers are fortunate in one respect: they are prepared to endure, and suffer what there is to suffer because they also know there is so much to enjoy when you get the opportunity to realise the film you want to make. It is important that while you are waiting for an opportunity to make a film, (even if you haven’t made one ) have the attitude that you are still a filmmaker!
Keep writing, making notes of ideas, go to art galleries, study paintings, listen to music (film is a close cousin to music) and read, mostly poetry. All this contributes and enriches you. When the opportunity comes, make your film as if it is the last film you will get to make. Apply your whole life force to it. Praise your collaborators; creatively conspire with your actors. Above all don’t be timid, be bold. Learn to edit properly. This is a craft gradually being lost. You find that the technically adept with new editing technology have no sense of timing and pacing. Of course it is wonderful to be acclaimed a master of cinema, of film, but until that happens you must be a master of patience.