Lost in Convention:
An Interview with Ken Russell

 By Rada Djurica     

Ken Russell was truly the big guest of the Belgrade International Film Festival, held in March 2003. I'm sure that everybody remembers Ken Russell's "Women in Love," based on the book by D.H. Lawrence and starring Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. "Women in Love" was a landmark for British cinema, giving Russell four Oscar nominations in 1975. His film about British composer Elgar (1962) became one of the most popular shows in British television history. Russell made 32 films for the BBC "Monitor" and "Omnibus" programs. Russell also gave birth to "Tommy" (1975).

And today, the International Film Festival in Belgrade, Serbia, honored Russell who, at 72, is still working. This is an exclusive interview from the FEST press conference.

What films would you choose to represent your life's work?

I would definitely choose "Mahler," "Women in Love" and "Savage Messiah." And I would say I hope that one day the festival will show "The Revenge of the White Worm," my first horror film. And also my SF film called "Altered States." And also "Tommy," one of my favorite films. All my films are my favorites, and one day I hope that you are going to see all my films. That includes some films that I've done for television, an art program called "Monitor," the first regular art program of all time, on the BBC for ten years, documentaries that are dramatizing international artists such as Richard Strauss; also my portraits of Isidora Duncan and Claude Debussy, Liszt, Gershwin. I hope that one day you'll have the chance to see it all.

You were an RAF pilot, ballet dancer, photo-reporter, actor, director. Do you think it's time to make a film about yourself, a film about the wild messiah of film?

Well, I already have made a film about myself, which I hope you will be able to see one day. It was made for television. It was based on my autobiography, called "A British Picture." And that came from the term "a British picture" that was used by my mother and her sister as a surrogate term when I was growing up. They used to say that they would never go and see "a British picture." Anyway, times have changed. And that was the irony of that, anyway.

It is difficult to make a film about yourself and for the film to not become pompous. So I've overcome that problem by casting, for the part of myself, my 4-and-a- half-year-old son Rex. So he went through my entire life, meeting all sorts of problems that I've met, while I was growing up, getting on with my life. The dialogue with my voice came from my 4-year-old son.

And it went very well; he took directions very well. Until he was interviewed by journalists about the film, where he was asked what was the essence of your filmmaking style, where he had to reply "satire." So he came to the camera, and when I said "action" he said: "Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wander how you are." And I said, "No. cut. That's not the answer; it is satire." So the camera rolled again, and I said "action," when he said: "Old mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her dog a bone and when she got there the cupboard was bare and so the poor dog had none." And I said, "Cut, you horrible little beast!"

Anyway, speak gently to your children, because then he cried and ran out. So we gave him some champagne, and then he felt much better, and when he came back I told him that "satire" is the answer. So when we said "action" the journalist asked: "So, Mr. Russell, what is your next film?" He just said: "Satire, satire satire."

Some actors can be really difficult. I hope that you are going to see this film, my son was excellent there. And when he went to age 64 in the film, I kept him playing my part.

Since that you have been working on films about great people, I would like to know what is that makes them great?

The reason why I did these biographies is because I was the member of this art program called "Monitor," and it was made up out of a group of people. Our job was to portray art and the manufacturing of art, the inspiration about art, to educate a TV audience that is quite unaware of these artists. There were six people on this program and we were all encouraged to make a program about our particular heroes whom we felt everyone should know about. We were preachers, really.

But when you are encouraged to make a program or write words or paint a picture on a subject that means a tremendous amount to you and when your heart is in it, and then you have a chance to bring out your enthusiasm, to bring your love and belief in the subject, to the audience, because that's the inspiration that you have yourself. When you come up with the idea to bring Tchaikovsky on the screen. Then you hear: "It is an awfully wonderful idea, but forget doing it, it was done before you." And it's difficult as long as you really believe, and I rarely made a film on the people I cared about. About the people that I lived with their music for years, and I knew that story backwards. And I think that I've absorbed the spirit, forgetting the fact that you get up at 9 in the morning to shave, but to think about the spirit behind the artist and find the fantastic free spirit. It's just the biggest thrill, the biggest challenge to say, "These are my heroes," and to be able to transmit that enthusiasm to millions of people who never even heard of the person that you're talking about, with inspiration.

Also, this is a little strange, I've felt that I've owed something to the artist. Something that I wanted to give him back some way.

When I was in the merchant navy for awhile in the war, I had a nervous break down, and I sat at home in a big armchair, lost, not wanting to do anything. And the radio was on all the time, never listened to it. Then, one day, something began to filter through the wall of my mind, and it made me think "something is happening." And the piece of music was getting to the end after four minutes, and I got up from my chair, and padded to the nearest restaurant shop and asked have they got a Tchaikovsky record. And when they said yes, that changed my life. And then I recovered through the world of imagination in the music. Not just Tchaikovsky, though; he was just a starting point. And I came to the fact that I've owed something to Tchaikovsky, and I had to make a film about it. And I owe it with enthusiasm. And he was a man who had the same feelings as I had when I heard his music. And after that, people would come up to me on the street to say that they have never heard of Tchaikovsky, thank you very much, shaking my hand. And that's my story.

I would just like to say one more thing about it. Even in those day, and we are talking about the '60s, it wasn't easy to get the money for a film about artists in a commercial company. United Artists quite liked "Women in Love," so they asked me to do another film for them but to be commercially successful. So they asked me what I'm going to do now, and I said that I would like to do a film on Tchaikovsky. And they looked very sad, because they knew that he was a classical composer. Than they said: "OK, so what's the story?" And I said: "It's about a nyphomaniac who falls in love with a homosexual." Then they said: "Hey, here's the money!" And that's show business.

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