Last night, I fell asleep on the sofa watching a film. It was that kind of unexpected slumber where you hadn’t even felt tired and suddenly you wake up, disoriented and cold and have to take a few moments to piece together where you are and what must have happened. This is not a rare occurrence for me. I doggedly try to watch a film a night, even if, as yesterday, I’d had a long and stressful day. However, in those brief bleary seconds of reanimation, I realised something else was happening. I somehow had woken up into an anxiety attack. It’s been about a decade since I last had one and for a couple of periods in my teens and twenties they were relatively frequent. I found myself shaking uncontrollably, intensely aware of my breathing, feeling that if I didn’t consciously operate my lungs, they would forget to do it by themselves, and looking at my flat like a stranger in familiar surroundings. Pretty much textbook to the attacks I used to go through. So, I took some long deep breaths, reminded myself that this was manageable and slowly calmed myself down. When the panic had subsided, I drank a glass of water and traced back the routes to the cause.
I remembered that I had spent half the day angry. When I had dinner with my girlfriend that evening, one of the first things I’d told her was how angry I was with my producer Hank. She let me vent and listened patiently and wanted to know if it was serious, if we were going to be ok. I told her it would be ok but that I thought it was important to be angry. That my anger was righteous and that his response – being upset that I was angry with him – was unfair. That sometimes someone has a right to be angry and the person they’re angry with should just accept that rather than turn it around and into a forum for mutual recrimination. I felt really angry.
Sipping a second glass of water, I re-read the angry email that I had sent to Hank. It didn’t read like anything I would ever have written. Even when we argue – which is often and gentle – we always seem to do so in a reasonable and eloquent way. In an email of five short sentences, I had included five lazy swearwords and two lazy insults and the opening and closing sentences were ugly and mean. The email had shocked and upset him. It had been in response to the way he had handled a public situation with the film. I felt he had represented us badly. I hated the way I felt it had made us look. I was angry.
The morning before the email, I had listened to a podcast called Cinemaddicts, which had reviewed our film, Elstree 1976. The podcast is hosted by two men, film fans, possibly more than fans, I don’t know. Film enthusiasts. One of them passionately railed against the film. He felt it was boring. He was frustrated that the film looked at the lives of the interviewees rather than focusing on their anecdotes about the time they spent in small roles on the set of Star Wars. He kept saying how he didn’t care about their stories. He wasn’t interested in them. It was boring. His co-host offered a partial defence, he had felt empathy with the interviewees and had been engaged with their stories but felt the film, on the whole, was mediocre as it was just talking heads-based. As the guy who disliked the film spoke, I had become furious. I was shouting at my bluetooth speaker as I washed dishes in the kitchen ‘You pathetic. fucking. blowhard. cunt. you. don’t know. anything. about. cinema. you. are. a. fucking. pathetic. manchild. idiot. cunt. you don’t even. fucking. understand. this fucking. film. just. go. away. watch. fucking. star wars. again. again. for. the billionth. fucking. time. and keep on pretending. that. it. is. a. brilliant. film. and not just. your. fucking. security. blanket. because you’re in your. forties. and. can’t. deal. with. adult. fucking. life. so you surround yourself with the shit. from. your. fucking. childhood. and. hide. away. from. anything. real. you. fucking. cunt’
Looking back now, that was unreasonably angry. Both of them had touched different raw nerves which have developed in me over the past few weeks since the film was released in the U.S. The first is the issue of ‘talking heads’. The biggest surprise I’ve had in the reactions to my film is how prevalent it has been in reviews to read the words ‘mainly talking head’ or ‘just talking head’ positioned in a negative skew. I had consciously made the film as a talking head documentary. I grew up on, and adore talking head documentaries. To this day, the single biggest influence on my work as a documentary filmmaker is the BBC TV series Face to Face from the 1960s in which interviewer John Freeman creates an environment in which his subjects talk thoughtfully, emotionally and intelligently about their lives. His interview with Tony Hancock remains my favourite piece of filmed media of all time. The camera remains in tight close up – from midway up the forehead to just – just – under the chin. Which means as Hancock tells his stories, his face tells other stories. We see the tiny expressions, the tics, the hesitancies and pauses. We see him react to his own words. A second story is playing out on that screen. A more important story which is to be decoded by the viewer. I feel the same about Michael Apted’s UP series of documentaries which, every seven years since the sixties has checked in on a series of interviewees, seeing how their lives have changed. In 35 up, we find Neil in a state of mental disrepair. He is eloquent about his situation, but it is the lingering close-up, the unfettered access to his hollow, dark, deeply pained eyes which tell us the truth. I’m deeply in love with the use of tight close-up during interviews. Perhaps too much. This guy did not understand the beauty of talking heads or the rigorous craft involved with editing them. And I was angry.
I grew up watching documentaries on TV but the form has changed in the past couple of decades. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock – both incredibly talented filmmakers – have ushered in an age of mainstream documentary cinema. Kinetic, fast-paced, colourful, using broad comedy to illustrate their points and make them more palatable. But I worry about the increasingly short gulf between making something palatable for someone and spoon-feeding them. And when I think about the metaphoric imagery of spoon feeding an infant, I find myself again contemplating the complaints of the other host of Cinemaddicts. He was bored by the film. It wasn’t what he wanted. Wasn’t what he was expecting. I’ve now read scores of reviews of the film, they seem to split off into those written by film critics (both amateur and professional) and people who could be referred to as ‘fanboys’ – I’m sure there is a politer term, perhaps blockbuster enthusiasts? The people who love Star Wars and love Marvel films and have probably quite a narrow focus culturally. They had been excited by my film. Although we were careful to temper expectations and market the film responsibly as a documentary about the effect having been in Star Wars had had upon our interviewees’ quite ordinary lives, a large part of our audience were clamouring for a straightforward documentary constructed from unheard anecdotes and insight on the making of Star Wars. Much of the negative response to the film has been rooted firmly – explicitly – in this. I had hoped that people might respond to the film as I do to whatever film I watch – if I realise it doesn’t reflect what I had thought or hoped it was going to be, I re-adjust my thinking to assess it for the film it actually is. But I was feeling that the metaphorical toddlers, so used to being spoon-fed, were spitting the actually-quite-nutritious-and-lovingly-made food right back at me as it wasn’t what they wanted. Here, in this podcast, this adult male was using grown-up language and bombast to ‘review’ my work. He sounded credible and fun. Had I not made the film he was discussing, what he was saying might have well swayed me to not bother with watching it – he was passionately against it. But I had my truth. He was immature. He was not intelligent. He was wrong about my film. And I was angry.
A couple of days before that, someone on Twitter had told people not to see my film. I had responded to him, essentially, that he hadn’t understood it, he had snapped back that he was entitled to his opinion. I was angry. I made the point that as he was a man in his forties who defined himself by the drawings he did of superheroes in Lego form, perhaps he wasn’t intellectually equipped to judge my work. It was ugly. I deleted it all. Angrily.
A few nights prior, as I was getting ready to go to sleep, I lay in bed reading a review of my film. I don’t even remember which one it was now, they have all formed into a slurry of general opinion – the great and the awful coalescing into a sludge-like declaration of general mediocrity. A good idea with great moments unambitiously realised and with an insulting paucity of clips or images from Star Wars. I think the thrust of that actual review, despite being generally positive, was that it really would have been more fun had there been more Star Wars anecdotes than the 20-something minute section I had seen fit to include. “Why don’t they just watch Star Wars?” I screamed into the darkness, “There’s loads of Star Wars in Star Wars!”
I didn’t slept well that night.
Sat alone, regaining my composure on the sofa, I realised the root of this anxiety and aggression and stress. I’m not used to being publicly judged and pontificated about. This is just the first time my work has ever really, significantly, been reviewed and I don’t like how it feels.
A few years ago, Kevin Smith cancelled a press screening of his film Red State. He reasoned that he was sick of reviewers getting to watch his movies for free, declaring grands opinions and having those opinions stopping people who might actually like the film from seeing it. I thought it was the desperate ramblings of a man who knew he hadn’t made a good film. It turned out it actually garnered pretty decent reviews.
I definitely see the need for reviews. Going to the cinema is expensive now. Sometimes we need a bit of contextualisation and guidance. As a lifelong enthusiast of cinema, I’ve always been happy to take the rough with the smooth. I don’t feel a couple of hours spent watching a film, however bad, is ever a waste of my time. I will always take something from every film I watch. I also don’t demand perfection – I just want the film to be interesting. To make me think and engage with it. An interesting film is more than enough for me. Even those who have been negative about my film have clearly been engaged with it enough to reflect on the ins and outs of what happens on screen at length, especially the bits which aren’t about Star Wars. I see the value in film criticism. I also believe in freedom of speech and appreciate the wonder of the internet, which provides everyone a level platform to exercise that upon.
I just seem to struggle with people talking about my work without being part of that conversation. I’m not at all saying they don’t have the right to or that they shouldn’t. I’m just saying that it’s hard, on a human level, it’s hard. I didn’t get paid millions of dollars to make this film (I didn’t get paid anything and, despite it getting a cinema release, am unlikely ever to) and it has not been marketed aggressively. It’s not Batman Vs Superman. It was not made cynically as an exercise to take money. It was just a project I wanted to undertake with my friend Hank. To explore the effect that rabid pop culture obsession takes on those who it focuses upon. It was four years of our lives. We were backed, incredibly generously by people through Kickstarter and they allowed us to make the film we wanted to. Quirky, intelligent, empathic, melancholic, sweet, bittersweet. It’s such a personal film that I think I never considered how overwhelming it might be to see it dissected in a public arena. Imagine if you cooked a meal or built a wall or planted a garden, something for yourself which gave you great pleasure and you were proud of and all of a sudden angry American men were suddenly all over Twitter proclaiming ‘READ MY REVIEW OF THIS GUY’S GARDEN! THERE AREN’T ENOUGH TULIPS IN IT!’ It’s strange. There has been a knot in my stomach for weeks and tattooed across it are the words ‘I didn’t even ask for your opinion!’ I know that’s not technically true, the film has distribution, people are paying to see it, they are absolutely entitled to not only have opinions on it but to state them as loudly as they please. I also have no right to bemoan this, at the risk of bragging, we got great reviews in the important places – the L.A. Times and Chicago Sun Times gave great reviews and it was the critic’s pick of the week in the New York Times, but it’s hard to focus on the intelligent, positive reviews. The ones that stick are the negative ones.
I realise now that, for me, there is a certain emotional pain in not being understood. In my intentions and work being misinterpreted or misunderstood and in not having the facility to turn a review into a conversation. Yet, I continue to make work for public consumption. Even this blog. I’ve never felt like I was searching for validation or plaudits. Compliments tend to make me uncomfortable and negative responses, as evidenced here, tend to make me think it’s a problem with the critic’s intellect rather than me.
I think like a lot of people, I write or make films as a way of connecting to my world. To fire up a flare into the cold night sky and see if anybody else out there feels the same way, to find out what they think about these issues, to provoke a conversation. I guess I’m going to have to get used to people talking more about the flare itself. Its trajectory. The muted aesthetic of its colour compared to other flares the respondent had previously seen. The fact that they had been hoping for a firework rather than a flare. And, of course, the disappointing lack of Star Wars content contained within it’s sodium glow.