I met Greg Hall four years ago, after a screening of his short films at Portobello Film Festival’. We spoke about his début ‘The Plague’ made at the age of 22, and shot on a mini dv in three weeks on a budget of £3,500. We touched on the high ratio to low ratio of female producers to female directors, the singer Donovan and his filmmaking plans for the future.
His second feature ‘Kapital’ commissioned by ‘The Manchester International Festival’ is a dark, and uncompromising fable loosely based on four fairy tales. A collaboration between the acclaimed composer Steve Martland, who wrote the score without seeing the film, with the story edited to the music as a guide.
His third film – SSDD recently won best film (no budget feature) at the London International Independent Film Festival.
Interview with Greg Hall, Shortwave Cinema, London International Independent Film Festival – April 25th 2011.
YOU’VE SAID IN PAST INTERVIEWS THAT THE UK LACKS A REAL INDEPENDENT FILM SCENE, THERE’S NO SUPPORT, AND A TENDENCY FOR UK CINEMA TO CHURN OUT ANOTHER HODGE PODGE OF BRIT ROM COM. DOES THE FAULT LIE AT A MAINSTREAM BRITISH PUBLIC WHO PREFER CINEMA TO BE A PATCHWORK OF REALITY TV, SOAP OPERA AND SITCOM?
Greg Hall: I think the audience kind of plays into the hands of accessible mainstream/soap/rom-coms. Michael Moore the documentary filmmaker has always said: “If you give some intelligence to an audience, they will rise to it, they will go away and they will research it”, so I think a lot of the times the filmmakers in the industry think of the audience as this dumb mass. You can put ideas out there to an audience, not everyone may like it, some people might be challenged by it, but that’s a good thing. And people will go away and talk about it, debate about it and that’s as filmmakers what we should do, as artists, challenging an audience. I think a lot of it comes from advertising and demographics. This is the audience, they’re aged this to that…
Jennifer: They’re branded
Greg: It just lumps a load of people together.
Jennifer: Especially that age range from 18-35 years.
Greg: Exactly. It doesn’t really work. In generalisations it works and for people who want to make money for advertisers it does make sense, but fundamentally for someone like myself who makes cinema, I think my films will actually last longer than if I was just an advertiser thinking how do I make a quick buck because I’m making culture that I think will resonate with human beings (laughs). We are very intelligent people, and we shouldn’t be treated any differently?
WHAT CHANGES HAVE YOU SEEN IN UK CINEMA SINCE YOU MADE YOUR DEBUT FEATURE ‘THE PLAGUE’?
Greg: Someone about two months ago raised the point that the film ‘Annuvahood’ has just come out, and about the whole idea that the Urban genre has come of age, they pointed out that ‘The Plague’ was the almost like the first film, it was before ‘Bulletboy’ it was before ‘Kiddulthood,’ They were asking me about how did I think that genre had panned out. I think Urban is a bad kind of label.
Jennifer: Especially in terms of music
Greg: Sometimes it’s a euphemism, it means Black. I think things have changed a lot in the UK, but I still think it’s commercially minded so even though the urban drama may have seen a big explosion with funding it doesn’t fundamentally mean that interesting filmmakers that challenge the way we think will come through. I think all it means is there has been another avenue to make money. That’s the problem with the British film industry is that it’s so focused around just trying to copy the American example but in a bad way; because at least in America they have a very strong underground, whereas in the UK there is a real schism between support for the underground contrasted to that of the mainstream.
Jennifer: With the success of Shaun of The Dead, you now see Zombie films and other derivatives of that.
Greg: I think you get a pattern of that every five years. You will get one big British film, and then get five or six imitations. I don’t really pay too much attention to that personally. I take influence from cinema, books, music and the people who I’m around.
AS A UK FILMMAKER BASED IN LONDON ARE YOU LOOKING TO MAKE FILMS IN OTHER PARTS OF THE UK THAT ARE RARELY SEEN ON THE SCREEN?
Greg: I’m not against that, my second feature ‘Kapital’ was made in Manchester because it was funded through the Manchester International Festival. At the moment, I see myself making films in Britain, I’ve kept to London because that’s what I know, and that’s where I live. I see that very much as part of who I am. I wouldn’t turn down making a film across the country or anywhere on the planet. As a filmmaker the themes I’m looking at are very universal, and even when I’m making films about London as a city, it’s definitely a universal approach I’m taking to it. I just think I’m a no budget filmmaker (laughs) so I don’t get too many offers.
YOU’VE READ THE KORAN AND THE BIBLE. ARE YOU INFLUENCED MORE BY TEXT THAN BY WATCHING OTHER DIRECTOR’S FILMS?
Greg: Yeah I have read the Koran and the Bible but I’ve also read many other books, so I wouldn’t say I was influenced by religion per se, but definitely by books and reading, other art forms, whether it’s comic book art or installations. Politics is probably the main influence, whether it’s community organising or anti-fascist mobilisations, being out at demos protesting etc. I take a lot of influences from life, but I would say in the past two years I’ve made more of a concerted effort, watching more films, and to get to know more directors, and there are wonderful directors out there who are mainstream, and who really influence me.
Jennifer: Any particular directors?
Greg: Wes Anderson. I think the way he makes films is very much like a book, there’s a literature sense, clear chapter points, also British directors like Peter Watkins, who did fake documentaries such as ‘Punishment Park’ and ‘The War Game’, heavily influences me. But whenever people ask me to name directors I go blank….I’m like uh…..
Jennifer: There’s too many I suppose.
HOW WAS THE PLAGUE VIEWED IN OTHER COUNTRIES? WHAT REACTIONS DID YOU GET, ESPECIALLY AS IT WASN’T A HERITAGE TOURISM PERIOD DRAMA OR A PLUCKY BRITS IN CRISIS SCENARIO TYPE FILM? I’M, PARTICULARLY INTERESTED IN HOW AMERICAN AUDIENCES RESPONDED.
Greg: I only screened once in America in New York, and it went down really well, and there was actually a guy there who was a lecturer of film studies at New York University I think, and he loved it, and wanted to use it and show it alongside films like ‘Babylon’ a British film from the 80s. In Austria, it showed at a squatted venue with skater kids. Even in places like Sarajevo there is an audience, it’s bizarre we talk about globalization, and globalization of culture, there’s definitely a youth culture or an underground culture, and I think with a film like ‘The Plague’ they see it was made for no money, and people are generally attracted to it like that; and it was made from the streets, it’s anti-authoritarian and you are ticking a lot of boxes in people’s books no matter where they are from on the planet really, but it has mainly shown throughout Europe, and I remember showing it in Berlin and there was a French guy who couldn’t speak a word of English and he had to say this through a translator and he said; “I didn’t understand a word that they said, but that was just like where I live.”
Jennifer: It’s not just about dialogue but you can see how the characters react
Greg: Those universal themes with people struggling and striving, and that resonates with people.
Jennifer: That must have made you feel pretty good to hear that response.
IS THERE SOMETHING THAT YOU WANT TO DO WITH FILM THAT HASN’T BEEN DONE BEFORE?
Greg: Everything that I try to do with film I would hope hasn’t been done before, but it probably has, and that’s why I do it. I think I said earlier the reason I make films is because I’m dissatisfied with the representations within British cinema, so I would definitely hope that I’m challenging an audience’s views, and pushing the envelope of what is accepted within cinema, especially British cinema., cos I’m British that’s what I’m operating from. I wouldn’t say I have any great thesis or this is what I’m doing that’s so unique. A lot of the times I say that I steal from people, whether it’s from books, other films, that’s what culture is about, an amalgamation of different influences. So really it’s not so much as about doing something new, but I hope I’m pulling together elements that haven’t been pulled together before.
CAN YOU GIVE ME A LIST OF THE FIVE RULES OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION?
Greg: Wow…um..shameless self-promotion. I don’t know, people have accused me of shameless self-promotion, but I don’t think there are any rules. I mean times have changed since I first started making films, I think nowadays with things like YouTube, Twitter and all that, which I’m really behind……
Jennifer: What do you think of Vimeo?
Greg: Yeah Vimeo is a great video hosting site. There’s a whole new load of tools for people to use now, and I think they could probably tell me more about self-promoting because my company is ‘Broke but Making Films’ and most people are like “Why are you broke and you should have made money by now”, so I don’t know. I self promote to the point of wanting people to come and see my films, but that’s about it, I don’t self promote any further than that. Sorry I don’t think I can think of any rules.
WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN’T WORK IN FILM?
Greg: I’ve always said the best judge of my films is myself, and I took that thing from the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman who said: “Fuck the audience. I use myself to judge whether something works or not.” And I think personally that’s the reason I got motivated to make films, when I make films that’s how I judge it, if I like it and I think it’s good. Obviously there is still an element of you wanting other people to watch, and what they’re going to make of it ….
Jennifer: You have to be selfish don’t you.
Greg: Yeah, but I do think why are you doing it otherwise, and not just to please other people, but to please myself because I don’t feel that, that film or that style of cinema is out there, so therefore it’s about what I like so that is really what I think I try, and judge with what works. I’m always learning, and I’m always seeing different films, seeing different art forms, and learning, and taking things from that, but yeah definitely I would be the best judge of what works, and what doesn’t work, and I would say that to any filmmaker …..
Jennifer: I think that’s how most filmmakers work isn’t it
Greg: Yeah that’s the way they should work…
Jennifer: You make the film you want to make, but it’s a bonus if someone else likes it
Greg: Exactly. You know you’re not mental (laughs)
Jennifer: Yeah like a one man crusade.
THE UK FILM COUNCIL REJECTED FUNDING FOR ‘THE PLAGUE’. AT THE TIME YOU SAID THAT THEY WERE INTO THEIR DEMOGRAPHICS. DO YOU HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE DEMISE OF THE UK FILM COUNCIL?
Greg: There’s definitely issues within the industry of how they bring the new kind of filmmakers through, but then in the same breath at least with the film council they were established so that they could develop, and I know they were trying to reach out, and trying to change things, and I think by scrapping it totally, and moving it somewhere else was a bad move. It just felt like another Tory cut really, and that’s the reason behind it. I kind of like the idea that if it went back to the British Film Institute, but I’m not filled with confidence about where they move that money to, and I do think removing something like the film council, no matter how much I criticised it, at least it was there and then it’s not. I have to be careful as well, as we’re hoping to get a little bit of money from the film council for my new film, so maybe one day they will fund me before they go ,…..
Jennifer: Do you think the Tory Government see art as a luxury?
Greg: The Tories have always kind of seen it like that, but then fundamentally I’m an anarchist, as artists we show these universal themes, and we look at areas that other people don’t want to look at, we go into the grey area where government, and the media will want to paint issues as being very black and white. I think as artists we very much go through an individual kind of journey…..
Jennifer: You’ve got to show the grey haven’t you.
Greg: And we show the grey. We venture into the grey. We are the grey that’s where we exist as artists, we’re many things and we can’t be pigeonholed, and we as artists, we challenge that, and we should always challenge it, and therefore, personally as an anarchist, I don’t see why any government would want to support art. A lot of the times they do support art in the hope that it’s going to be …..
Jennifer: That they will get something out of it.
Greg: Exactly, I think all artists shouldn’t be aligned to any kind of political group, but fundamentally I think that’s what we need to do, we need to communicate, connect, and governments don’t really want the masses of people to do that, to think for ourselves or discuss these things. I think the truest art, true filmmakers, and cinema is a forum for us to think about things, it’s a philosophy at the end of the day, it’s modern day philosophy. I think any philosopher worth their salt will go to the point of questioning why there’s a government, and a divide between rich and poor, and a massive divide between the rich being a tiny élite, and the poor, basically, and the rest of us. I don’t get it really. It doesn’t make sense to me.
WHAT PROMPTED THE SAHARA LIBRE EXPERIENCE?
Greg: My producer Becky who’s also my sister, her company Olive Branch Theatre took herself and two other actors out there to the refugee camps to devise a theatre piece with young guys living on the camps and create a performance and perform that to the rest of the camp. They asked me if I wanted to go along, and I went out there with them, in sixteen days I shot about 52 hours of footage, I’m editing that at the moment and that’s just a documentary to give away, to put it online. I was documenting them creating this theatre piece which is devised from the young people’s experiences I didn’t want it to be – oh here’s a documentary and we’re following these people from Britain and their experience – I wanted it to be about the play that they create and then break that down and through that narrative show the history of the Sahara camps from the 70s when it used to be the Spanish Sahara, the war with Morocco and the current situation, they’re in at the moment. I just got tagged along, and I ended up having an amazing experience…….
Jennifer: It must have been quite an interesting experience
Greg: mind-blowing….mind blowing. Being in the Sahara desert in a refugee camp. I’m cutting that now, and hope to take it back out there and screen it as well,and hoping to do some film workshops with a film collective. There’s a lot going on….
Jennifer: That’s still going on then
Greg: Yeah. I think it will always be going on, as long as the refugee camps are there. I think once you’ve been, and you meet people and you make friends with those people you can’t turn your back on them. I think I’ll be back out there……
Jennifer: You can’t just take and then that’s it.
Greg: Yeah it’s not a case of me just going there, and bam, I’ve got my film and I’m gone. It’s an investment there, you know people, and I hope to get out there soon…
Jennifer: How did they respond to you?
Greg: They’re the most warmest, and friendliest people. We stayed with people in the camps..Yeah it was mind blowing. Glad to get back, and be able to use a proper toilet, that was the main thing and not have to use a hole, but apart from that it was amazing. They are relying on international law to help them out, and as an anarchist, I don’t really think international law is going to help them, and it’s really depressing, but human beings are human beings, they’re beautiful creatures, and families with children, and that’s the face of what I’ve seen within the refugee camps, and that’s why I’ll be going back because I know people, and have personal ties with people, and international politics aside I just hope there’s freedom for every single human being on this planet. We shouldn’t be born into slavery, and we basically do live within a monetary slavery at the moment.
Photo – Hannah Powell http://www.facebook.com/photo_search.php?oid=34055279235&view=all