By Carol Vine | January 2012
The acclaimed director tells Junsui Films all about his ambitious new film, Patience (After Sebald), an evocative exploration of WG Sebald’s near-legendary book, The Rings of Saturn…
Junsui Films: If we can start with your background and your journey into documentary filmmaking. How did it all begin?
Grant Gee: It’s a little messy, I’m afraid. I’m quite old and it’s taken me forever to find out what I can do, and what I actually want to do. To start with, I didn’t do film at college, I was in Soho [London] for a while, where I found a job as a runner in a production company and made a few music videos.
But to cut a long story short, in 1997 I became involved with the band Radiohead, an involvement that resulted in my making a documentary about them, Meeting People Is Easy (1998), which followed their world tour after the album OK Computer.
Essentially I mucked around with cameras. I knew little of my ambition or career path. I just knew I was interested in filming the world around me rather than commercial enterprise, so it’s taken a long time.
JF: Did you have any particular influences, anyone who has inspired your work?
Some of the work that has certainly been formative for me has included the films of Chris Marker, and Patrick Keiller’s Robinson In Space (1997). Also Robert Franks’ Cocksucker Blues (1972), where I was struck by how it was possible to make something so primitive – that is with a hand-held camera – and how something so expressive could come out of working with such primitive means.
JF: How did Patience (After Sebald) come about?
It was a commission. A long-term supporter of my work, Gareth Evans, along with Di Robson at Art Events, had succeeded in getting funding for a national arts project called The Re-Enchantment – made up of five difference pieces, using different artists and incorporating sculpture, live performance, film – to explore our relationship to place.
We got to talking, and discovered that we both had a ‘fandom’ of Sebald, and we took it from there, really. We thought about what might be the principle of the piece, and came up with the idea of Patience. It all seemed to click – the idea of using/filming this walk as a structural device, and especially with the number of people out there who we realised had retraced his footsteps, and who we might interview. And as with the book, we knew the film could be free to wander about all over the place. It all just clicked.
JF: Many of your previous documentaries have focused on music as the subject matter – how did your approach differ with Patience, especially given the meandering and “un-boxable” nature of the book? Was it in any way intimidating?
The music documentaries were commissions, although that’s not to say I didn’t put everything I had into them, I feel I did. Though I think it’s important to stress that I’ve also made films covering a lot of other subjects as well, a wide range of subjects, such as climbing (Western Lands) and contemporary dance (Torsion).
But intimidating, or difficult? Strangely, not at all. I think some of the films I’ve made in the past have been far more difficult to craft together. By contrast, Patience was easy. I had to be economical about the pictures that I took whilst on the walk, and returned with only about ninety minutes of footage. This pretty much made up the visual spine of the film – remember the actual film is only eighty minutes long. I had this footage in front of me and I saw how easily it could work. It almost sounds daft, but it was much less painful to organise the material than I thought. In fact I’d organised it in about three hours.
Then it was a case of bringing in passionate, eloquent people to talk about the book, and the landscape, and to take archive footage and look at how it related to the landscape of the walk. Things dovetailed uncannily well.
JF: The original subtitle of the book was “An English Pilgrimage”, which suggests “healing”. But there’s an apparent contradiction here as there are (echoed by Katie Mitchell in the film) “undertones of despair” throughout. How do you feel about this, do you feel it was a depressing journey?
One thing to remember, and something I knew early on, was that the narrator of The Rings of Saturn was not the same Sebald who was the author of the book – the man who was a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, and so on.
Sebald did the Suffolkwalk in July/August, and in The Rings of Saturn the place is almost always described as depopulated. But the reality is that at the height of summer the place would be absolutely teeming with people, holidaymakers and tourists. It would be incredibly busy, so the author, very consciously as a creative writer, depopulated the coast. In the middle part of his walk, he based himself at the Crown Hotel for a while, a lovely hotel, and from there made day trips out to visit friends (Michael Hamburger), visit places with literary connections (Boulge church).
People tend to remember and quote from the first page of the book, Sebald wrote that he set off on the walk “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me”, and he also described the “paralysing horror”. But remember also, that he wrote “I have never felt so carefree.” People tend to miss this. It’s clear that Sebald’s memory, and writing of this walk was a source material that he could do whatever he liked with. There’s a freedom to it, and that’s how I felt about the documentary.
JF: In spite of the fact Sebald never felt “at home” anywhere, what is very obvious in the book, and very obvious in the film, is this deep engagement with the landscape and the place.
Working on this project made me realise that people have a tendency to see Sebald as a landscape writer, and again, this is a projection. To go back to The Rings of Saturn, on his walk, he takes the essentials of the place and reinvents them. For instance, the “sub-humans” he describes in the town of Lowestoft is an almost gothic interpretation of an attractive seaside town.
The Rings of Saturn is an imaginary universe. There are real things in it, based on real form, but the overall arrangement/remixing is to create an imagined landscape. This gave me great relief. You walk around, where he went, and realise it’s not actually the book. The book is Sebald’s own consciousness, and I didn’t have to re-create the walk, which gave me great freedom in what I could do.
JF: Lastly, what next for Grant Gee? Any future plans you can tell us about?
To try and earn some money, I think, is always a good future plan…! Let’s see, there could be a possible documentary – about GI deserters in London in the 60′s. Or a drama feature based on a Julio Cortázar book which might go somewhere.
Importantly though, Katie Mitchell*, the theatre director, who loved the film, told me she’s doing a production of The Rings of Saturn as a stage play in Germany. She was interested in me shooting something for this, perhaps having some video on stage, and it’s doubly interesting because Sebald has a strange position in German art/culture. They shunted him aside, and who knows why this was, but one theory is it could be in the translation, and that maybe we gain something that isn’t there in the original. Katie Mitchell’s play is the biggest re-introduction of Sebald to Germany there’s been, which is excellent, it’s really exciting.
*Katie Mitchell OBE is one of Europe’s leading theatre directors. Her stage version of The Rings of Saturn premieres in Colognein May 2012.