IONA film – Interview with Scott Graham by Paul Risker
“I wasn’t that happy with my first film, and so I didn’t start to appreciate Shell until after I’d made IONA; until I’d made new and fresh mistakes and learned lessons on that.”
If the films of a single filmmaker share some form of an intimate relationship then for Scott Graham this is the connection between his debut and sophomore features. IONA conveys a continuing interest if Graham’s in interpersonal relationships, as one woman’s return or rather retreat to the island of her youth tears open old wounds within the community.
But IONA sees a closer intimacy between character and space that forms a contrast to Shell, and as Graham observes: “With my last film the landscape was a big part of it, but it was kind of in the background, and with this film I wanted the character of Iona to have more of a direct relationship with the island.” Standing alongside one another Shell and IONA offer a broader portrait of Graham the filmmaker and storyteller, offering an insight into how he is honing in on the ideas and thoughts that interest him.
In conversation with Flux, Graham looked back to the role writing played in his journey towards a career in filmmaking, the nature of the screenplay, the transformative nature of the filmmaking process as well as the uncontrollable nature of a film and the need for an attentive filmmaker.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I left school not really knowing what I wanted to do, and not being very good at anything other than I’d written a few short stories and entered a few writing competitions. You may laugh at this, but it was around the time I left school that Reservoir Dogs came out, and as different as my work is to Quentin Tarantino’s, it was the first time I was aware that a film was written. Although I had always watched a lot of films and I knew they had scriptwriters, up until then I didn’t really think about the writer’s voice, but I was very aware of his voice.
Reservoir Dogs was an independent film and so it led me up watch a lot of other independent films. I remember watching Hal Hartley’s stuff and then the French film La Haine. These were the first films I saw because where I grew up there was no way to see independent cinema. But once I understood that a film could be written and it was something I could sit in my room and do, whether it got made or not, I felt like I wanted to try. And Faber were publishing scripts at the time as well: Tarantino stuff, but also Paul Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver. I liked reading scripts and preferred reading them to reading novels because there was a directness to screenwriting that I really liked, and I didn’t have to wade through lots of flurried description. And I also liked being able to compare the script to the film that I’d seen. So I guess I wrote my way into it or I was attracted to filmmaking through first being able to write.
Theatre director and filmmaker David Farr observed to me recently: “I can almost imagine without exception that scripts are overwritten, and that’s my experience. But they may need to be overwritten in order to create the understanding amongst the people who are making it of what they are trying to do.” Following your previous answer, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the nature of the film screenplay.
I think well written films use the fewest number of words possible, and I’m aware that some scripts go into quite a lot of detail, but I try not to do that. I have two documents that I am writing: the one that is about the script in which I am constantly asking questions about whether I have communicated this or is it too ambiguous, and another one for shorts and such. I think as writers you are trying to communicate something, and the danger is that you can over-communicate through exposition or too much detail about a shot. This can get in the way of a reader actually being able to hear because the more words you have to wade through the harder it is to hear a film. So when I write a script I try to write something that at the end of it people will be able to feel as though they have already seen the film.
I don’t really know because I don’t read other people’s scripts. I am not negative about screenwriting, but Bruno Dumont who I am a big fan of thinks that screenwriting is a lower form of writing, and so he writes novellas for his films. But I disagree and I’ve always really enjoyed reading well written scripts. I think there is a kind of poetry to them, but it does take a bit of discipline to keep them succinct.
I have recently begun to appreciate anew the opening moments of a film where the camera captures those first images that begins the process of constructing the world of its characters. At this point a film is full of possibilities, the choices yet to be taken. There is something special about that point in the journey of a film and the opening images of IONA void of dialogue, the way in which the camera watches the characters gazing upon one another creates a particularly evocative feel.
Well that had a lot to do with why we recut the film. I don’t know if you know, but the version that you saw is quite different from the version that premiered at Edinburgh in June last year, and closed the festival. What happened was that we went on quite a long journey and the cut that’s being released was an experimental cut. It wasn’t how the script began. It was the first cut that we got to in the edit because I was having the same response to the material that we shot on the boat that you are describing. We felt quite strongly that this was the beginning of the film and we talked about the opening shots, and how we wanted to lead people into this film. But then as we got closer to Edinburgh, I think we slightly panicked because we hadn’t done a straight linear assembly version of the script. So we did that linear version and that was the cut that we showed at Edinburgh. I could have missed the experimental cut, and Edinburgh was then tricky because some people really liked the film and some people really hated it. But I knew that would happen anyway and then I had to not listen to anyone, but to just go away and think about how I wanted to begin the film. So in answer to your question it feels wonderful wonderful to hear what you are describing, because that’s what I wanted to give people at the beginning of the film. So I am glad that we went for the experimental, non-linear version.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. As a writer/director, the latter of which involves you in the editing process, is this a perspective you would share?
There are, and editing is a lot like writing, but I’m still kind of learning to love the production side of filmmaking. Writing is painful and it is solitary, but I enjoy it. The writing process feels very creative to me, but the shooting and the editing is tricky, and I hope that I learn to find them to be just as creative. I think the thing to do is to listen to the material and to try to work out what the material is telling you. Writing can feel a lot like you are chipping away and revealing something that is already there and was meant to be, and that’s when you feel that you’ve written something good. So maybe when you are filming or editing it’s about saying: I’ve got to trust it a bit more. I think that is why I got into difficulty on the edit of IONA because I wasn’t doing that to begin with, or I did it instinctively, but then I back-pedalled away from it.
Is the process of learning to make films structured around honing one’s instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?
Yeah it is, and writing is very much like that. You go by instinct to communicate with dialogue, but I think the instinct part comes naturally. The tricky thing I find with trusting your instincts and trusting that first thought is the urge to question everything you are doing, which is quite crippling or I find it so. It can stop you from enjoying the process and I genuinely believe that you’ve got to enjoy what you are doing to keep on doing it. And as I continue to make films, then I hope to get better at trusting my instincts by not stopping to question them too much.
One of the themes of IONA is the way in which experience attaches itself to us and the difficulty to shed past experiences that define who we are. But IONA also explores the way in which the spatial is haunted by our past experiences as the two intertwine.
With my last film the landscape was a big part of it, but it was kind of in the background, and with this film I wanted the character of Iona to have more of a direct relationship with the island. I wanted her to almost to be fighting with it; warring with it at times, and at one point she hides from the evening sun in between the black rocks.
Although it is very much Iona’s story you spend time with each of the six characters; seven if you count the island. We are given access to their perspective, but also their private emotions. And you are right that it all comes from this shared experience that is like an old wound that is reopened for all of them when Iona comes back. And those themes were swirling around in the script and they were swirling around in the edit, and I am glad that you are picking up on them and that they are there. It’s not the sort of thing a filmmaker can have control over. You just have to let the film live and breathe with each person that sees it, and let them almost pluck from the film whatever they can. But I am really happy with the way those emotional scars that the characters are carrying are reflected, and the physical scars that Bull and Sarah have. When Bull and Sarah they have sex in the barn, Bull has a scar on his hand that he got from Iona, and Sarah has these strap marks on her legs that’s she’s got because her dad insists on carrying her around on his back. I certainly wish I’d been able to explore that a bit more, but I am glad that they are there. I want people to be thinking about their histories and their experiences throughout the film, because the space in the film exists for that reason.
C.G. Jung in his writing posited that morally we are better on our than we are together. You have spoken of making a film for an audience to interact with, and within story there is the need for characters to feed off one another that toys with that idea of individualism versus communal belonging. On some level IONA reflects on all of these different aspects.
I think as a dramatist I need provocation for characters, and it doesn’t have to come from other people; it can come from place. And this is something I have been trying to explore. But you need that, and then as a dramatist I think that you need people to provide that provocation, and I don’t think we are just meant to turn up and be happy. I sort of think that life is intended to be provocative in some ways, and so I often prefer to be on my own than with people, but I don’t think it is very good for me. I don’t know if it’s better for your soul or better for your journey.
Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How do you view the way in which IONA has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward from a directorial or storytelling point of view?
Yeah I definitely do. I don’t know if it will be the case with every film that I make, but apart from anything else it takes so long to make a film that you are inevitably going to be changed in some way by it. And just so much time has passed for each film from start to end – at least three years. But in this case I started writing IONA soon after finishing Shell, and I went into making IONA not really thinking much about it. If I was thinking about it then I was thinking about what I would to differently; what I wasn’t happy with. A number of people have asked me what it was like to make IONA after Shell was so well received? But that wasn’t my perception because I wasn’t that happy with my first film, and so I didn’t start to appreciate Shell until after I’d made IONA; until I’d made new and fresh mistakes and learned lessons on that. So I wonder if I’ll always be a stone throw behind where I’ll sort of be catching up with each one. I feel like I am in a good place with my writing now and I feel like I know a lot more than I did. I don’t think I really took time to learn from Shell; time to take stock of what I was happy with and what I wasn’t. I just went straight into making IONA and this experience has made me stop and reflect on both films. And as a result I think I am in a pretty good place with this new script.
IONA film is released theatrically in the UK on March 25th 2016. More info here
IONA film – Interview with Scott Graham by Paul Risker