Spaceship film – Interview with director Alex Taylor by Paul Risker
The journey of the filmmaker is one of a series of transitions and while writer director Alex Taylor’s Spaceship film is a moment of transition from short to feature filmmaking, it possesses a particularly striking resonance on this theme. His feature debut is an extension of his 2012 short film of the same name, this step on his creative journey two moments or chapters intertwined.
More significantly Taylor’s attentiveness to authentically represent the language of youth offers a snapshot as to how our language and self-expression is part of our ongoing life journey comprised of transitions.
In conversation with Flux ahead of the UK theatrical release, the director Alex Taylor discussed his own unexpected transition of means of self-expression. He also discussed the organic and uncertainty of the filmmaking process, seeking to reject boundaries and the cathartic experience of the creative process.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Cinema kind of found me. I was a musician and I was doing music for other people’s films, but I was confined by how they were presenting their life experiences. Feeling constrained, one day I thought: I need to make my own film, and I phoned up the council and I asked: “Do you have a film fund?” They said they did and I wrote a short film script they funded, which we won awards with. So I didn’t know that cinema was going to be the way I was going to express myself. After a few years it was immediately more successful, and then having thought about it, I think it’s because narrative is to present life experiences as you feel and as you experience them. To me it is more of a feeling and so cinema is closer to life experience than music.
Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman told me: “Making a short film I felt you could hold it in your hand, whereas a feature film is like a runaway train.” How did your expectations compare to the realities of the experience, and how do you compare and contrast the short film format with feature films?
It is absolutely right, it is like a runaway train. I think you’ve got to embrace the fact that it’s running away and have faith that it’s running into interesting and fascinating landscapes, and to guide it into those landscapes. To me a short film is like a haiku poem, short sentences of poetry that are easily editable and rewritten, whereas a film you can’t turn it quickly. A feature film is a monster or a magical being that grows into something that you can’t foretell what it’s going to be – it becomes its own organic being. And I think some people try to restrain it and make it go in a certain direction, and that’s when you see a film that has forced plot points and formulas. For me having made the short film in quite a loose and free way, making the Spaceship film was a chance to lose myself in that landscape I wasn’t even sure of myself, and to enjoy that feeling. Hopefully that’s what the audience feels when they watch the film.
Filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon told me: “The medium and the mystery of the process is that I could wake up one day and not know where to put the camera. Not that I know where to put the camera now, but you walk in with a certain sense.” Could we not describe the filmmaking or creative process as a void of apprehension and uncertainty?
Yeah I’d agree with that. To me a film is like a world and you have to listen to it rather than tell it what it is. Listen to and nurture it, and when you get on set each day you’ve got to be open to, and not be afraid that you don’t know where it’s going. I think filmmakers need to learn to listen more rather than to bark orders – telling a film what to be, and telling the characters what to say and what to do. People’s souls have atmospheres and the way I film is that after you’ve done the casting, and you’ve found the right actors, I get this this collection of atmospheres and sound together that I put in a room. I then allow the photographer to walk in and amongst them, finding the glimpses of the world that will help me to tell the story. I am always looking for those glimpses to emerge because you never know when they are going to come. You have to trust your team and your cameraman, and we spent a lot of time, sometimes doing twenty minute takes to see how the world progresses, how the characters would act in certain situations, and seeing what unexpected things would come out of the cracks in the pavement as it were.
As the writer you are unable to fully understand the characters until the actors are on set, at which point you are able to enter a phase that more fully reveals the story and characters. Would you describe the script as a jumping off point?
Yeah, it’s exactly that. There’s only probably a third of the script left in the film. I’d often tell the actors to start with the script, but go beyond it. If the script is what we know, start with what you know and go beyond that. You don’t know what’s there until you’ve looked and I’m not going to stand there and say I’ve written the best script in the world, and that’s all there is to say. I tried to cast actors that had that same depth of character and soul that fitted into the film, were a part of and became the film world by listening to one another capture those moments. When the script is working keep the script, but if you’re finding better things behind the script then you’ve just got to let those things come through, and to make space. So I cut a lot of scenes, I wrote new scenes and we improvised new action sequences while we were filming, and it was a very fluid process.
A story about teenagers, your approach is complimentary. At that age we think we know it all, and only in hindsight do we realise how formative and blighted by uncertainty we were. While this approach was stimulating for Spaceship, will you continue to work in this way on your future films?
It’s a good question because I’m already in development on my next film with the BFI. It’s going to be a bigger budget and with that comes responsibility. The people putting the money in want to know what they’re going to get and if it’s going to work a certain way. So you need to provide some sort of backbone to show people what they are going to get for their money. I’m going to have to be clearer on what the film is going to look like and stick closer to the script because on the first film you’re learning. I was learning how to write a script and how to direct a feature, and before you’ve made a feature film it’s very difficult to know how to do it because the only time you get to learn is by doing it. The second time round I hope to express myself clearer from an earlier stage.
When I interviewed Sophie Lellouche for her debut feature film Paris-Manhattan, she remarked, “First movies are very different, they are dreams. They are what you expect cinema to be.” It is an apt analogy for your debut feature, as you are looking to the language spoken by teenagers rather than to your own idea of language.
Spaceship might well end up being the closest to my voice. I didn’t come from film school and when I started making films I didn’t have all these formulas and techniques. I just had what I wanted to see and I think that’s probably the purest way to make a film, that is until you’ve become experienced and you have technique, but you are also able to stand back from it. I think there’s a dodgy middle area where you start to become aware of technique and then you clumsily try to splice it in with your own voice. Spaceship was very loose and fluid and they gave me a lot of freedom on it. On the second film my main challenge is going to be remaining poised while developing my technique. Every film to me is a dream or a vision, and I’m not into social realist films. The power of cinema is to go wherever you want to go and you don’t have to stay on the ground. It’s why flying fits into a lot of my films – it’s a great chance to do something that is beyond what we see with our eyes. Also coming from a music background I see the succession of experiences weaving together like music. I don’t necessarily call it dreamlike, it’s more a subjective representation of events that are happening in a linear way. If you think about it, our minds are not ordered like that. We live within time, we live our lives with the clock ticking, but we remember the moments that stand out to us emotionally. Time has no rhythm – sometimes it moves slowly and sometimes it moves fast. So it makes sense to me that we explore that in films rather than to pretend that time is this linear and dependable thing.
You have said: “This is a movie for everyone – because we all have a teenager inside us. I wanted to put outsiders on the inside.” At the heart of the Spaceship film us the touching idea that we can all learn from one another and grow through our interactions.
I always felt like an outsider, but the power of cinema is we can put the outsider on the inside. Whereas a lot of films would take an outsider and focus on the conflict of their struggle against the mainstream, I think cinema is this opportunity to say: There are no insiders, the outsiders are the world. So there are no normal people in the film because to me these are normal people, and there is no representation of, what is the other. They are all part of the same group of individual humans that belong to the human race. I’ve always felt that, but I just didn’t understand how people treated each other like different tribes. I didn’t understand why if you dressed in a different way, played sport or you didn’t like football, your haircut or your sexuality is different, you were segregated from others. This is what my early teens felt like at school and so when I got the chance to make a film, I strongly felt like rejecting those boundaries, and in my world everyone belongs no matter who you or what you are.
Picking up on your point about rejecting these boundaries, would you describe your Spaceship film as a cathartic experience?
Yeah, I think it is definitely cathartic for me, and especially the ending. I did archeology at university and so I relate to this concept of looking for and trying to find things. Part of the reason I had one of the archaeologists finding something at the end, although we don’t see what it is, and then just running off into the woods is because I just think that’s what we are all after – to have that thing which you love and makes you happy. I think it’s really finding ourself and if we could all just do that, we’d be ecstatically running off into the woodland. But the reality is a lot of people never do that or there are barriers and obstacles to stop us doing that in real life. I suppose I was resolving feelings of when I was growing up and felt like I couldn’t have a place to just be myself without being judged. Everyone in the Spaceship film goes through a journey of discovery and comes to realise something at the end, like Lucy and the guy who dances on the tank who realises he’s going to be a famous shoe designer. It doesn’t matter whether he is or not, it is that feeling of when you’re young and you just go: This is what I’m going to do with my life. I can see it happening. It’s that feeling of hope and vision for your life and I hope there’s enough opportunity for characters to have a life after the film. I like to treat the characters as if they are real people, to give them the respect and the space to speak and to live like real people, to have a life after and to look beyond the film. They are not just playing a function to tell the story or to create a tension, or as a minor character to give us information. That’s why I gave the squaddies a scene where we actually listen to them. It has nothing to do with the main storyline, but it has everything to do with the main theme of the search to find your place in the world. Hopefully the audience has a sense of cathartic truth by living through one or more of these roles. Some people might not connect with certain characters, but some will connect with some of the characters.
Director Alex Taylor’s Spaceship film is released theatrically in the UK Friday May 19 2017 by Trinity Film.
Go to www.imdb.com/title/tt3059304 for more on the Spaceship movie 2017 & Spaceship Alex Taylor.
Spaceship film – Interview with director Alex Taylor by Paul Risker