Diary of a Film

“This novel is a love letter to cinema, and a desire to inhabit the inner lives of the great auteurs. I’m thinking of Visconti, Rossellini, Ozu, Cocteau, Wenders, Varda, Cassavetes, Melville, Rohmer, Almodóvar and Fassbinder – all strong storytellers with an equally powerful visual language. Coming from a filmmaking background at Goldsmiths, the book is partially born also from a long-held desire to make a film, but in the only way I know how to do it competently – through writing. The opening, narrated by a director about to premiere his latest film at an Italian festival, explores both the egotism and perennial uncertainty involved in making work, and the importance that chance plays in its creation (as with life).”
– Niven Govinden

Illustration Leanne Shapton

I flew to the Italian city of B. to attend the film festival in late March. Our entry into the competition, a liberal adaptation of William Maxwell’s novel The Folded Leaf, had been officially confirmed, and I was expected to participate in three days of interviews and panels to promote the release, with a jury screening on the second evening. My co-producer Gabrijela had arrived at the start of the week to prepare; also the cast, who were busy hawking other projects, about which I was both curious and jealous. It’s hard to think of actors, good actors, as anything other than your own once you’ve worked with them. I knew they would be expecting me to see their films while I was there, wanting their betrayals to be blessed, and I anticipated that it would hurt as much as watching them with other lovers; a feeling especially pronounced when the new film was still warm on my lips. Eight months had passed since the production had wrapped and I missed their company, particularly the two leads, Lorien and Tom, who had a youthful ease that blended seamlessly into our production family. Nothing of the film could be changed at this point and I had made my peace with it, absorbing the heightened pressure of meeting strict deadlines in order to screen in this competition. There were other festivals through the spring and summer, but this was the one that mattered to me, having previously brought me luck and with it a sense of calm. But for all my confidence I arrived in the city feeling apprehensive. The trip had the air of both a working holiday and a funeral. There was excitement for the next stage in the film’s journey, one in which I envisioned only good things, but also a finality, for with it my participation would cease. It was for Gabi, the actors and their publicists to take the baton and run for the glory they dreamed of. I could return to my home town of S., regroup, and retreat into my ideas. My first impulse on arriving at the airport was to have the car take me directly to the hotel, so keen was I to see Lorien and Tom again, to hear their voices and to feel their breath. I wanted to suffer their tender, respectful mockery, typical of young Americans who had been brought up well, but I was also aware that this would be the last time that I would play their loving God, and I wished to delay that. They had not yet seen the completed film so therefore a realm existed where they could not be disappointed in me. It wasn’t the first time that I explicitly sought the love of my actors. There’s an almost supernatural aura of openness, risk-taking and safety present in the shooting of some films that does not exist in others. As always we had been pressured by a tight shooting sched- ule and insufficient money, but The Folded Leaf was nourished by magic. It informed the breaking-light-of-dawn shooting and held its power over us until the end of the day. Drunk on its potency, it interrupted my sleep for much of the principal photography, so keen was I not to lose this holy atmosphere, fearing the mist would clear on waking. I am not a superstitious man – there is no room for the Ouija in filmmaking – but we were all touched by the same feeling, and simply wished this gift to stay. It was something I hoped was honoured in the final cut, and by which Lorien’s and Tom’s faith in me would be justified, as mine already was with them. I asked the driver to take me to the harbour where the fishermen were delivering their catch, with the strict instruction to collect me at the same spot in half an hour. My late grandparents lived in a fishing village, so there was something resolutely familiar in watching the boats come in. Fishermen from the one trawler docked carried a procession of buckets to a line of trestle tables holding large polystyrene boxes loaded with ice. I was taken back to childhood and the surprise of seeing what was there, watching now as the buckets were swiftly upturned, a shower of fish clattering in their new ice boxes. Then, as now, there was something depressing about being unable to compete with nature, and how much of its infinitesimal wonder could outsmart the camera. My film was set in the Italian countryside, and though the gardens were lit by angels, the fruit trees fulsome and glowing, they did not contain the life that tumbled before me. I thought of parental disappointment when a child follows a lesser path, only the state of the film was entirely down to my hands; I was no bystander, but responsible for all of it. The woman on the other side of the table was shouting at me for blocking the view of others who were waiting to buy. I was awake then to the laughter of the grounded fishermen as they sluiced the blood and guts from the cobbles with buckets of fresh seawater, and the attack cry of the gulls that hovered above. Get a move on, came one man’s voice. What’s he doing? asked another. Make your decision somewhere else, mate. I seemed to move further back into the crowd, but I knew that I would not leave without buying a fish, eventually taking what was left in the box, a grouper and a sickly looking grey mullet, and going back to find the car. The bag was of the thinnest white plastic, gossamer to the touch, which allowed the rough texture of the grouper’s scales to graze my palms as I walked. I could have held the bag by its flimsy handle, but instead, I held out the package horizontally before me, as if making an offering to anyone who would stop and acknowledge my presence. My film was offered on similar terms. By walking into the hotel and the suite reserved for my first meeting with Gabi and the cast, and then subsequently with journalists and potential distributors, I too was making an offering, as pure and sincere as the catch turning rigid in my hands until I suddenly felt embarrassed, dumping the package in the gutter before we drove away. I looked at my gesture rotting in the sun until it was out of sight, hoping the gulls would sense that it was there and quickly destroy the evidence. Talons tearing through plastic to reach flesh and bone; pecking and chewing until nothing remained. The hotel, a grand palazzo converted in the early sixties, always felt like home. It was a repository for both my successes and my failures; rooms where I had celebrated with abandon or cried bitter tears when the work was misunderstood. Once I stepped into the lobby and made myself known the process would begin, unstoppable in its certainty and form. I had no memory of why I wanted to make this film, what impulse had driven me to push this project above all other contenders, or what it was in Lorien’s and Tom’s previous work which had spoken to me of their potential as leads. I was unable to pinpoint the hour of shooting when I first saw magic and was compelled even more to push through, so sure of the story I was telling; fearful, of course, but determined. If anything, I wished to run from it. I knew of an espresso bar a short walk away, where I could drink coffee at an outdoor table, smoke a cigarette, and give myself some final space before the onslaught, and in walking I felt a purpose regained. It was tucked deep in the backstreets where the district changed into a working hue, an important factor in me wanting to go there, for to be away from the tourist throng was to be among the living. In finding the place I grew more certain of myself. I heard the strength in my voice as I caught the barista’s eye and ordered a double; assurance in my posture as I leaned forward slightly, my palms lying flat on the counter. The craving for a cigarette did not fade but I was aware of the corrosive effect it would have on my voice, which needed to hold up for hours of interviews. I took my cup and found a space in a broken line facing the road, where it was possible to inhale the smoke of those sun-chasing customers: two men in their seventies, and a woman closer to me in age, middle fifties, each in their own space, minding their business. The sanctity of the smoker and the beauty of neighbourhoods, of pals and familiarity; the satisfaction of being in your corner of the world. I fought to have my film edited in my home town of S. as I had done with previous films, but the new financial backers had insisted I worked in a larger city, vetoing the expense of shipping prints and other masters from labs and sound studios to the set-up I had spent years building. I lived for three months in a nondescript apartment block ten minutes’ walk from the edit suite, a mostly business district that turned to a ghost town in the evenings. Twelve weeks of regimen, forensic and all-consuming, away from my family for longer than I would’ve liked, in an artificial environment where the pleasure of gentle neighbourhood repetition was cast aside for something greater. This was working life, one which I was used to, only I had felt more withdrawn than before; a mixture of my lonely domestic arrangements and the luxurious sterility of my setting. Standing outside here eclipsed the blue of the edit suite; the silence that could be found through a city’s white noise, the simple pleasure of coffee, with dappled sunlight hitting your face. This was where prosperity lay, not in the artificial nature of what I had filmed and submitted to the festival jury. I had to stop thinking this way: I’d made something beautiful but was struggling to accept this simple truth. Not for the first time; I’d had difficulty throughout my life with this. Do you want a cigarette? the woman asked. I have one here if you need. Am I making it that obvious? I said. I’m trying to be good, but the smell always gets the better of me. Ah! You’re an ex-smoker! There’s a saying that there’s no one worse than one who’s reformed, she said. In which case, I am profoundly guilty, I said. The woman was of a similar height and held my gaze as she spoke. When she reached into her pocket before holding a crumpled cigarette carton before me, she laughed, but in a way that was gently conspiratorial rather than disparaging and judgemental. She looked capable of that, too, in the flash of her eyes as a trail of teenagers on scooters thundered past, but in our interaction she was a nicotine comrade-in-arms; it was an international code that I had relied on many times over the years to break the ice. I could’ve spent the day at this spot, alternating between a bar stool at the counter and catching what sun there was outside. I felt something toxic being drawn out of my system the longer I stayed there, my mood lifting, fears waning. The woman was good company, and we covered everything from the price of coffee to the gentrification of the city. We talked of the lack of street signs in the area and how that was both a curse and a blessing, keeping the tourists away, but also creating difficulty for those genuine guests of the vicinity. My mother is a very proud woman, she told me. When she came to visit my new apartment she walked in circles for over an hour rather than ask a stranger for help with directions. We lamented the spiralling graffiti though we appreciated the art of it, and the city’s failure to tackle the mountain of dog shit. I had a boyfriend in the eighties who was a graffiti artist, she said. He was one of those lost kids who wanted to disrupt. Disappear all night, and in the morning you’d hear of a new wall being covered in the city. He wasn’t one of the vandals you see now, those kids on bikes who tag their names or stupid slogans on the shutter of their local pharmacy or whatever. He was an artist without the knowledge or means to break into art. The streets were all he had. What happened to him? I asked. Some of the guys in New York and London who were doing that became superstars, no? He killed himself, she said. He was closer to his paintings than I thought. Preferred being in darkness. I’m sorry to hear that, I said. It was a long time ago, she replied. Another life. I can show you where a couple of the murals still exist, if you’re interested. She spoke with bravado to show that she had moved past her grief, but a shine in her eyes indicated how much the work still meant to her, and her incipient need to keep it remembered. I accepted immediately, from both curiosity and a sense that something greater would come from the invitation, whether in terms of the art or the ease of the woman’s company. My nervousness as a child had made a nervous adult. It had taken me until my mid-twenties to learn how to cast this aside; how my filmmaking would never flourish until I lost my shyness and was open to possibilities beyond the security of a film set. If a stranger asked you to see something new, you went without question, even if terrified. Finding the courage to talk to people who interested you, romantically and in other ways. You learn these things as you grow comfortable in your own skin, but for me it was a conscious process to leave the safety of my head, and I was unexpectedly reminded of this in the woman’s offer. The opportunity had not presented itself in a long while. Or another time if you’re not sure, she said. Just giving you a chance to escape in case you’ve changed your mind. I have no idea what your plans are for the day. You look as if you’re expected somewhere else. What gives you that impression? I asked. You’re the only one here wearing a suit, she said. That’s not to say that no one owns a suit here. We’re not savages. But yes, the cut of your suit, and the fact that you keep looking at your watch. A man who’s either missed an appointment or is planning to miss one. It’s all the same to me. I won’t take it personally. I’m inundated with offers. She was neither sour nor frosty as she spoke, just straightforward with a dry sense of humour which made me like her even more. It was something the younger actors had to learn, to not take themselves so seriously. In my production company there was no room for hesitants, and in that regard she felt like a kindred spirit. I could almost see her working there, even though I knew nothing about her. We dinosaurs need to stick together, she said. Show these hooligans that they’re not the only ones who know how to live. In leaving the bar, she offered her hand to reflect the business nature of our transaction. I’m Cosima. When I attempted to reply she cut me off with a smile and gentle wave of her wrist. I know who you are, she said. We have televisions in these parts, maestro. We visit the cinema. You’re not so bad, raising her eyebrow as she spoke. Not so bad. I laughed in a way I hadn’t for a while. We left the bar and walked along the narrowing street which squeezed traffic out completely, and through a residential square flanked by a domed church and a butcher’s shop. The heart of Italy in twenty metres, she said, stretching out her arms. Prayer and blood. And food, I said. Yes, that too, she replied. This is a country that is never far from its guts. Past the butcher was an alley that wound behind the back of the church and its small graveyard – bones piled upon bones – and from there down a row of steps that led to a longer road. We were moving away from the residential area, towards the domain of garages and workshops, abandoned factories and boarded-up office blocks. In time, this too would be cleared, adding to the myth of the city – a reflection of the modernity it wished to embody, as well as the romance of what was left behind. We live in a medieval picture book, she said. You of all people should appreciate that. It’s why I enjoy coming here, I said, but this is more than a museum. The city has a pulse, you can feel it; the tensions and contradictions inherent in living somewhere with so much history. It’s a zoo, she said. And we’re the animals. Everybody gaping as you go about your business. You’re having a row with your lover on the way to work and everyone takes pictures, because a pretty girl crying on a bridge is the European cliché. You go for an eye appointment but you can’t get into the doctor’s office because a tourist has vomited on the front step, the handle and, somehow, the doorbell. So much beauty, so little time. Again, the raised eyebrow, and my prolonged laugh. She was special, this woman.

Diary of a Film is published by Dialogue Books

This article is taken from issue 27. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here