His documentaries are thoughtful vignettes, a narrative of colour portraits that get to heart of telling a story.
Over a cup of tea I spoke to cinematographer and filmmaker Leo Leigh about video nasties, photography, and vivid dreams of burning hotels (his) and flying on a bike with Rick Wakeman (mine).
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
Leo: I’m making a film about an 81-year-old ping-pong veteran called Marty Reisman, who was an American Champion and British Champion, but he was never a world champion. He lives in New York and still hustles for money. He’s challenging a 17-year old, it’s the life and times but where he’s at now. He’s got an amazing collection of old suits he had made in Saville Row. He used to have money …Well, he used to have a lot more money than he does now. He’s an interesting character.
Jennifer: I can imagine.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE FILM ‘LOONY IN THE WOODS’
Leo: We made it in about 2006 and I co-wrote it with a friend of mine Leo Bill, who’s also in it. I directed and Dean Puckett the documentary filmmaker; he produced it, it’s an homage to all the video nasty films that were released in the 70s and 80s. I’ve got quite a large collection of old VHS horror films and because I’ve spent so much time watching them on VHS, that was the quality I wanted no matter how bad it was. I wanted the film with that look, so we shot the film and then downgraded it three or four times onto VHS.
Jennifer: A bit like Harmony Korine’s ‘Trash Humpers’
Leo: Yeah but before that
Jennifer: Yeah, you were there
Leo: I’ll have you know. Thank you very much and goodnight (laughs)
Jennifer: He stole it
Leo: Well making a film with that look has probably been done before and will be done again.
It’s kind of like a comedy horror and we are planning on releasing it online.
Jennifer: I saw some clips. Have you seen Sleepaway Camp?
Jennifer: That’s a 1980s one. Bruce Springsteen’s sister Pamela Springsteen is the serial killer in the second one. You mentioned that you had a large collection of Video Nasties it reminds me of the Comedian and Filmmaker Richard Sandling, who won an award for a stand-up routine based on his VHS collection.
Leo: Yeah, they’re great you can actually get a book called Video Nasties which has all the original covers scanned in, but the artwork, the tone of the film,music and that VHS look, all add to the kind of weirdness of the experience of watching it. The hiss of the VHS with used bits of how crappy it can look is part of the film, and it’s not just whacked onto VHS and then; however, it came out, we’ve actually picked specific moments that would be more downgraded than others in order for it to serve a purpose.
Jennifer: The colour is very saturated with blocks of colour.
Leo: We shot it then edited some of it, and converted it into NTSC and boosted the colours on a VT operating deck which a friend of mine was working. Some bits of the film are more downgraded than others depending on how it looked. It wasn’t just on a computer.
Jennifer: I like the way a lot of thought has gone into it
Leo: It’s not a case of just whacking it together.
Jennifer: Do you think you’ll make more feature films?
Leo: I have done a few feature-length documentaries but in terms of fiction and working with actors that’s all I want to do really..
Jennifer: It’s not all though is it
Leo: No, but I like making documentaries, but you fall into a documentary easier because it’s there it exists and it’s out there it’s more accessible.
Jennifer: Is it because they’re more marketable?
Leo: It’s not that it’s more marketable. I couldn’t really care about that…
Jennifer: Probably, the wrong word to use
Leo: It’s more to do with the fact that it exists out there and all you have to do is go with the camera to the place, and you can do it on a low budget with a small crew.
Jennifer: Can you do it on the hoof without any permits?
Leo: I don’t think i’ve ever really got a permit for anything I have ever done only within reason unless you film someone’s house you get a release. In America, it’s harder to film.
WHAT RESPONSE DO YOU GET WITH YOUR FILMS?
Leo: Well Swansea Love Story is probably the most interesting because of the subject matter it being about Heroin use in Swansea. When the film was released,and if you go onto Youtube, for example, and look at the comments it’s people that are very against the film and people that are for the film. In Swansea, itself there was a drug bust by the police which was a result of us making the film, and a lot of blame was put on us because of that.
Jennifer: How do you feel about that?
Leo: Well, it’s bollocks because it took us to go and show that was the problem in Swansea. The idea that the police were oblivious to any drug-taking place is ridiculous. The only reason I feel that they did it was because we had shone some light on it, and they felt embarrassed and had to do something. In America when it went online there, there were some interesting comments some people didn’t quite understand why we didn’t help the people in the film.Why did we make the film, and didn’t just help them? The answer to that is I personally feel that the film is helping because it gives an insight into what drug-taking is like and therefore, educates people.
Jennifer: Without preaching.
Leo: Yeah, when I made the film with Andy Capper (VBS TV) we just filmed what happened, and we didn’t want to preach.
Jennifer: You’re like a silent observer in a way
Leo: There are filmmakers that would’ve observed more, but we did kind of get involved with them and their lives. I’m not going to judge anybody for taking drugs. A lot of people will look down on somebody that takes heroin but won’t know the circumstances that they were faced with when they first took heroin. If you’re living in a town with unemployment and you’ve got nothing to do and you’re a young kid and somebody just says: “Have you tried this?”, and as a bit of escapism you’re going to do it.
WITH CORNELIUS AND AMY (SWANSEA LOVE STORY) DO YOU THINK YOU’LL REVISIT THAT STORY OR HAS IT BEEN TOLD?
I think of that documentary ‘Streetwise’ and the relationship that developed between Tiny and the photographer Mary Ellen Mark.
Leo: You can always revisit stuff like that because with people like Amy And Cornelius, their lives are always changing quite drastically. I’m never going to say no, but I do feel that story has been told that’s not to say we would never do it. A lot of people ask me that question.
Jennifer: Because they’re interesting characters, but it’s heartbreaking, especially when you hear Amy saying certain things that come out as she becomes more drunk.
Leo: It was hard to stomach at the time as you can imagine. It’s not easy to hear that.
HOW MANY HOURS OF FOOTAGE DO YOU USUALLY SHOT FOR A TEN-MINUTE DOCUMENTARY?
Leo: It varies. I made a short film that’s about ten to fifteen minutes called ‘The Sonic Manipulator” With him, I shot twenty hours maybe more.
Jennifer: Where do you begin? Where do you start?
Leo: With Claude, I’d go visit him and he’s a man with loads of ideas so when you film somebody like that it never ends and he’s constantly got something to say. He’s got ideas about music, about his career and all these inventions, and if you feel like you’ve got to put it down into fifteen minutes and characters like that always repeat themselves so you end up just using a variation of other bits. I shot a bit of film about the Pope when he came to London, and that was five hours of footage and that’s like a ten-minute film. If you go to an event it’s obviously going to be less footage because it’s only a day but if you’re spending a lot of time with somebody it’s not actually about the amount it’s just about the variation of things that they’re up to in order to tell the story so the amount is kind of irrelevant in a way.
HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR FILMS?
Leo: Truthful. Honest. I’ll always feel there’s a sense of humour in my films. Take Swansea, for example, if you tell somebody about that film, they’ll assume there’s no humour in it, and I imagine there are filmmakers that would’ve filmed it, and got footage of funny stuff, but wouldn’t put it in because they felt it would be disrespectful but, that to me is ridiculous.
Jennifer: That’s silly because that’s life isn’t it.
Leo: There’s always comical moments in the most tragic scenarios. Yeah, so truthful is my short answer.
DO YOU COMPOSE MUSIC?
Leo: Yeah, I make music with some friends of mine. We did some music for some short films, and I’ve made music of my own for a few films in the series that we shot in Tokyo one about the homeless community, and one about robotics. I wouldn’t describe myself as a composer.
Jennifer: What sort of music is it?
Leo: Banging Techno.
Leo: No, not really. I wish I could make banging techno but I’m too scared of it. How would I describe it? Each track would serve the film really so I couldn’t put a name to it.
Jennifer: Is it guitars?
Leo: Some of it’s samples. I’ve used a ukulele, an Irish drum.
Jennifer: Are you quite an expert on the ukulele then?
Leo: No, not really but they’re very simple tunes they’re not complicated in any way, they drive the film along. It doesn’t get in the way of what you’re looking at.
TALKING ABOUT MUSIC. WHAT WAS IT LIKE SHOOTING ‘SOFT FOCUS’, THE MUSIC TALK SHOW WITH IAN SVENONIUS FROM ‘NATION OF ULYSSES’?
Leo: Well that was the first time I worked for VBS TV and it was great, really fun. I met Andy Capper there, and I met a few others that worked there. We shot Mark E Smith from The Fall which I watch regularly because it is literally one of the funniest interviews ever. When we got there, we were filming in this hotel in Manchester, we set up four cameras, and we lit this little area, and he turns up, he wasn’t really pissed, but he obviously had a couple, and as soon as he got there, he ordered a few Stellas and you can see him drinking them, and he was just totally on point and the way he was talking.
Jennifer: He’s very cerebral.
Leo: He’s a funny guy and he starts laying into Jack Black and starts taking the piss out of the School of Rock (mimics Mark E Smith) “that fat fooking cunt. Jack Fooking Black” and we were all just behind the camera pissing ourselves laughing.
Jennifer: Is Ian Svenonius quite deadpan?
Leo: What’s great about Ian is he gets slightly fazed by it, but he’s funny he’s not like a rabbit in the headlights he kind of battles through it. The other really good one you should watch is him and Billy Childish.
Jennifer: That should be interesting.
Leo: They end up having this amazing conversation about the War. I’m a massive fan of Billy Childish and it was basically just holding a shot and sitting there listening to them. There were also people like Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream. It was great to listen and be part of filming some of these legends.
Jennifer: When you film something like that, how do you go about it?
Leo: We chat about the angles and how we want it to look and you kind of get into a rhythm with anything. The first day you’re working it out. Any first day of any shoot is always slightly dodgy, and there’s a lot of times where somebody will go back and reshoot the first day. When you get into that rhythm by the third or fourth day and we were shooting this for a few weeks you end up just getting into auto mode; and you know the angles and the lighting and each thing is different, but once you find your feet, and you get into what you’re trying to achieve it just works itself out.
TALKING ABOUT LIGHTING. IN A PAST INTERVEW, YOU SAID: “YOU LEARNT MORE ABOUT LIGHTING IN HALF AN HOUR WATCHING THE CINEMATOGRAPHER DICK POPE SHOOT A SCENE THAN IN THREE YEARS OF FILM SCHOOL.
WHAT IMPRESSION DID THAT LEAVE ON YOU?
Leo: When he lights it’s like state of the art, really sophisticated stuff, but he manages to make it look really natural and real. You get a lot of cinematographers that do very extreme lighting and they’re the ones that stand out
Jennifer: Like Roger Deakins.
Leo: Yeah people like him, but obviously, he’s regarded as one of the greats, but Dick has this ability, especially when you’re referring to the work he does with my Dad it’s very realistic, but at the same time has a mood to it. I’ve seen him light a few things the particular thing you were talking about was Vera Drake. Just watching him tweak and light and over a few hours watching him build, shoot a scene and use his technique which obviously, he has built up over the years. It’s almost like the penny drops when you see somebody that good, you think oh, ok that makes sense, and then you take that, and you adapt it and use that. He’ll constantly come over and say: “check this out” and he’ll actually want to teach you whilst you’re there, and shows you how stuff works “look at this camera, look at this lens, look at this, look how this works”. It’s the best education.
Jennifer: And he’s very enthusiastic.
Leo: He’s like the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, he’s done a lot of documentary stuff and that’s how he started, and he did a lot of undercover stuff. If you look at his CV, you can see that he’s a true master at what he does.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF FILM SCHOOL?
Leo: It depends on the film school. The one I went to I thought it was pretty shit to be honest I’m not going to get into why I thought it was because it’s boring, but what’s good about education is apart from anything when you go somewhere like that you meet like-minded people, and you talk about film. You stick a load of young guys and girls in a room that are into film it’s going to be educational whether or not they actually pick up a camera or not. I had a good time there, a few of us formed a group called collective vision. If you were on a project, you could always call somebody in to do a bit of editing, a bit of sound, and you ended up just talking about film and watching film and that’s what it’s all about. We had some pretty funny raves when we were there. (laughing) That was good.
I LOVE THE RULE BRITANNIA SERIES ON VBS TV. IT DOCUMENTS PARTS OF THE BRITISH ISLES THAT ARE NEVER SEEN OTHER THAN IN A PATRONISING WAY. WHY DO YOU THINK IT HAS TAKEN SO LONG TO DO SOMETHING LIKE THIS?
Leo: Well, there are films that have been made that I would say, are up there if not far better than other films, we’ve made.
Jennifer: That’s years ago with filmmakers like Humphrey Jennings
Leo: Have you seen ‘Think of England’ by Martin Parr?
Jennifer: I’m in two minds about Martin Parr.
Leo: (looks at me questioningly) What’s that then?
Jennifer: Sometimes I look at his photos and feel that he looks down his nose or is quite judgmental about his subjects. That’s just my opinion.
Leo: Fair enough. Well, you’ll probably hate this then.
Jennifer: Oh I’ll watch it
Leo: (laughing) Why do you hate his guts so much? Look you’re going on record saying you hate his guts.
Leo: This interview is over. Nah, only joking.
Jennifer: No it’s just with some photographers when you see some of their shots there’s a certain image or feeling that comes across
Leo: Fair enough that’s interesting but I don’t know the answer to that question.
Jennifer: Well, I read that Spike Jonze said it would be a good idea if the stories in Vice magazine were made into films.
Leo: Yeah that’s one of the reasons why VBS exists. He’s very much involved in VBS, and he makes his own stuff. He made a thing called Spike Jonze spends Saturday with….. He did one with MIA.
WHAT ARE YOUR TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARIES?
Leo: There’s so many films. I tell you the ones, i’ve seen recently that I thought were brilliant. I saw a short film called ‘Lift’ and it’s so amazing it’s just one guy in a lift in a council block the whole time and it’s all the different characters coming in and out. A real character study.
Jennifer: It’s quite simple then.
Leo: It’s one of the best short documentaries i’ve seen in years. It was like a total breath of fresh air. I also saw a film called ‘All Day Strolling,
which is set in Georgia that’s a brilliant film and a really good documentary I saw at the London Film Festival recently is called ‘Last Days Here’ about a band called ‘Pentagram’ and it’s about the lead singer.
Jennifer: I have seen the pictures. He looks like Arthur Brown.
Leo: The mad world of Arthur Brown. He’s kind of like that and he smokes crack in his parent’s basement and thinks there’s lice living under his skin but in terms of what happens in the story it’s like a perfect documentary. It’s got the most amazing story arc, it just builds and you’ve got to watch that film (laughs)basically.
Jennifer: It sounds incredible.
Leo: There’s another film. You’ve probably seen it. It’s pretty famous. Paradise Lost.
Jennifer: Is that about the three friends? I’ve never seen it but I’ve always wanted to.
Leo: You can watch it on Youtube
Jennifer: They’re Metallica fans.
Leo: Yeah. Another filmmaker you should interview called Dean Puckett, he told me about that film, and I watched it the other day. It’s really good.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE PHOTOGRAPHERS? WHAT ELSE INSPIRES YOU TO MAKE FILM?
Leo: There’s so many but I guess one that I will always go back to is, and I’ve been looking at her photographs since I was a little kid is Diane Arbus because we had a book on our shelf in the living room, and I discovered this, and I literally became obsessed with these images, and I think it’s something to do with the characters,
they’re so unusual and the photographs but there’s something almost ordinary, it’s like they’re so comfortable with the situation. It really looks like they’re being themselves, I think that’s down to the fact that Diane Arbus had the ability to communicate to people in a way that brought something out in them. I went to this huge exhibition of hers at the V&A and I used to have this dream about a hotel that was burning and I had it like two or three times, it was really weird the hotel would be burning, and I would be inside the hotel on some stairs, and then we went into this exhibition and the first thing on this wall was a dream she’d written down it was literally the first wall in the whole of the exhibition, and it described this hotel that was on fire. I thought it was pretty weird.
Jennifer: Oh my god that was a bit odd.
Leo: It was a bit odd. So the next day I burnt down a hotel and I….(half smile/half serious)
Jennifer: Oh dear (laughs)
Leo: No. I just thought it was weird. It sounds a bit freaky. What do you think about that? You look a bit scared.
Jennifer: No. No. I just think you’re bloody mad (laughing)
Leo: Why…Why I’m I mad? It’s only a hotel burning. You tell me one weird dream you’ve had.
Jennifer: Oh well
Leo: You’ve got to put this in. If you don’t put this in i’ll be really upset
Jennifer: It’s not weird it was fantastic. You know Rick Wakeman
Jennifer: I was reading an interview with his ex-wife Nina Carter….Well, I read The Daily Mail but only for a good laugh.
He looks slightly aghast
Leo: Yeah a great laugh.
Jennifer: I read it online with the comments’ page. No…No I’m not a purist I read most of the papers from The Sun to The Telegraph just to get ….
Jennifer: Ha Ha. Anyway this interview. I read it then forgot about it, a couple of days later I had this dream. Rick Wakeman took me off to his castle, and we were on these bikes, we were going over London, but it was like that London in Stephen Spielberg’s ‘Hook’, the red telephone boxes, ridiculous doddery, old men, and we end up flying in the sky
Leo: Flying in the sky
Jennifer: My Mum was waving to me but when we got to his castle, it was like a semi-detached house inside. It was really disappointing, and that was it.
Jennifer: Ha but it was really good because up until then I loved the feeling of the dream.
Leo: pretty crazy eh.
Jennifer: I’m not a Rick Wakeman fan but I knew where it came in because I read the interview about her days living in a castle on the Isle of Man. Odd but it was good.
Leo: We’re both weirdos
Jennifer: Ha ha. Speak for yourself.
Leo: So..Anyway, her photographs to me are amazing. They just tap into the freaks and geeks and underbelly of New York and they’re beautiful to look at.
Jennifer: Did you see the film with Nicole Kidman? I never saw it.
Leo: I don’t really want to watch that.
THERE’S SO MANY FILM FORMATS OUT THERE SUCH AS SUPER 8, 16 MM, DIGITAL, ETC. WHAT ARE YOU INTERESTED IN?
Leo: All three. What one would I work on? I normally work on digital because it’s accessible but I’d love to shoot on 16 mm I’d love to shoot on 35 mm but I’m not a format snob or anything.
ONE LAST QUESTION. WHAT QUESTIONS ARE YOU NEVER ASKED ABOUT FILM?
Leo: The thing about that question is there’s probably an affinity amount of answers.
Jennifer: Give me a few.
Leo: (laughs) Oh ok. You got all day then have you? Er….I could just say anything.
Jennifer: You could say something really banal. Something about the catering or something
Leo: Oh I see you mean like that.
Jennifer: No, not like that. It could be anything.
Leo: I’m always asked about the catering. Catering is the best bit about filmmaking.
Jennifer: Ha Ha
Leo: Is there a good caterer? Oh I don’t know.
Jennifer: Ok Leo. We’ll leave it there.
Humphrey Jennings @http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/453623/