Ken Russell Bacon lice & gorillas
Bacon, Lice & Gorillas
Alex Russell talks about working on Louse of Usher and other matters
Louse and other works
Iain: Tell me about the Louse of Usher sessions. How were they organised?
Alex: I´ve lost count of how many filming sessions there were. Too many! A solid three months but spread over six! Ken either phoned or had actors/actresses booked into local Bed & Breakfast. Before the actors arrived Ken and I would sort out what props, costumes and sets were needed.
Typically a session began at 9.00 sharp, after Ken the master chef made us breakfast at 8.00 sharp. They went on from 6.00 to 7.00 early evening, with a break at 1.00 with wine and light lunch.
The number of takes per scene varied a lot: sometimes only three or four; sometimes up to 15 takes. Many of the takes had to be redone because of noise- tractors, lawn mowers, airplanes- or rain. But all takes were unique and different!
We did run through rehearsals for sound, framing, lighting and getting lines right, and then played back on the video.
Ken would rehearse the actors on voice emphasis and body movements, with Ken doing their lines to show what he wanted. Probably the major problem to be overcome with the acting was getting the voices loud enough and the lines correctly said! The actors had very little time to prepare themselves and rehearse.
The actors always received a script well in advance but sometimes scripts were modified as well just before filming.
Most of the cast have day-time jobs, so dad fits in with their hours.
Because it was VERY low budget (train tickets and meals plus film at five pounds a roll) Ken had to use a lot of imagination- I remember filming in a grave yard, using his car as a make shift coffin...with the raising car roof as raising coffin lid.
The script is based on Poe, how many versions of the script were there?
As well as The Fall of the House of Usher, it uses episodes from Murders In The Rue Morgue (the gorilla!), The Premature Burial, The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, Ligeia and Annabel Lee.
There was one version of the script, typewritten by Ken's secretary, which was sometimes modified. Just before filming, at breakfast, we'd go through the changes and read them out. I would also write out the lines on large A4 paper so the actors could read the lines if they needed to.
We follow a script but a script is just a point of departure as Ken often improvises and alters the script and action. Also certain props and locations suggest the action; like Francis Bacon, he likes an ordered image but wants it to come about by chance. Ken and I found the best images almost grew out of their own being; we were very surprised by some images that came about; the simple things seem the most powerful.
Could you say something about some of the actors?
Ken casts actors and actresses he can trust and who share an instinct with him; so Ken does not have to patronise or push for performance. He would obviously go over the script and basic concepts but give them space. With Oliver Reed it was down to what could be called Mood Acting and Ollie would say to Ken: "Which do you want: Moody 1, Moody 2 and Moody 3?" This was from solemn to steamy. Ken loved Reeds animal magnetism and risk taking.
On Louse James Johnson was the major player and was very easy and laid back to work with. Ken did not have to give him any acting directions as James knew instinctively how to act although he's had no acting training since he is a musician by trade [he is singer, writer, guitarist from the cult group Gallon Drunk].
James said the asylum scene shot in the garden with him singing (and with all the locals dressed up as inmate-nutters in pyjamas and party face masks) reminded him of The Wicker Man; a film James, Ken and I greatly admire.
Marie (Tulip Junkie) was wonderful as the American nurse and her make up and costume were very raunchy! James and Marie were very different in their acting which contrasted very well with Ken's own style of acting where sometimes his voice would vacillate between Scandinavian, Scottish and German accents.
I think Louse will one day be seen very much like The Wicker Man as a hybrid Cult Movie!
And you were of course the gorilla, as well as the actor in the white mask, that was very beautiful, the Japanese-No-theatre acting by head movement.
What scene did you like best?
The most stimulating and mentally and physically exhausting filming of Louse was the scene with the blow-up sex dolls being sexually abused and raped by the blow-up dinosaurs! As Ken set the shot up scanning the bed, I had to manipulate the dinosaur by its tail to get it to move up and down, in and out of the sex doll's numerous orifices! The dinosaur's tail became its prick! We both became very exhausted and drunk with the bizarreness of this reptilian erotica! It was very difficult to get the dinosaurs to lay properly over the sex dolls! We think this is a first! Blow-up dinosaurs having sexual intercourse with blow-up sex dolls! It was a kind of piss-take on Spielberg; who we both dislike intensely! We were both shattered and tired after filming this nightmare sex scene which took nearly three hours to master!
You and Ken worked on Lion's Mouth. What was the largest difference in filming Louse and filming Lion’s Mouth?
We learnt from small mistakes from Lion's Mouth which were all technical involving the use of a Camcorder; getting sound, lighting, framing right.
Lion's Mouth was more trial-by-error; Louse was more instinct-by-knowledge: we knew how to do it.
Could you say something about the editing and music on Louse.
Ken edited it in the back room from video onto master.
Was it pre-planned (so in Ken’s head) or did it also develop while editing?
Both: pre-planned and developed while editing. And in the few days before the premiere Ken did post-production which included adding some special effects (such as electricity flashes) as well as bringing it all together. Ken saw the final version once before it was premiered.
James Johnson did the music.
Certain scenes required certain sounds of music. James Johnson of Gallon Drunk wrote and sang the music which was wonderful. He was in control- Ken entrusts James's judgement on the music to use.
As well as Louse and Lion's Mouth, you have appeared in many Russell films- for example you were Madame von Meck's child in The Music Lovers as well as Women in Love, The Devils, Tommy, Savage Messiah, Isadora, Billion Dollar Brain, Valentino, Mahler and Lion's Mouth. What is your favourite Ken Russell film?
Not one favourite: Women in Love: Delius [Song of Summer], The Debussy Film, The Devils, Savage Messiah, Altered States.
My favourite image is William Hurt in Altered States as he crawls along the corridor hitting the floor with his fist as he shape-shifts into an alien. It reminds me of Bacon.
What do you remember of Savage Messiah?
On Savage Messiah, I remember when filming on the sea coast some oil or tar was on the lens of the 35ml camera; but was not discovered till the evenings rushes screening: so a whole days shooting was ruined! Also: the rain scene was done via the fire brigade pumping salt water straight from the sea! Also: the Gaudier Breshka charcoal and pastel drawings (well faked) for the film were later stolen and sold as originals down Bond Street and at Sotheby's!
How would you describe Ken Russell's work?
Intense, Instinctive, Imaginative.
Which director comes closest to Russell?
What films would you like Ken to do sometime?
On artists like Jawlensky, Nolde, Schiele.
On Louse you do the photography when Ken is in front of the camera. What was the most useful thing you learnt?
How to frame a shot without decapitating heads and arms and legs; Ken taught me how to frame a shot.
How much of Russell's day-to-day life is involved in films (including when not doing Louse)?
From dawn to dusk.
Does he read novels? Given the depth and intelligence of his Women in Love, it is interesting he had never read DH Lawrence before the film.
Yes: modern novels, Delia Smith cook books and classical record reviews.
Ken Russell quotes Fritz Lang etc as role models. Is there any recent film director he especially likes?
The directors of The Cell [Tarsem Singh], Very Bad Things [Peter Berg], Mimic [Guillermo del Toro] and Stigmata [Rupert Wainwright]- I saw these films with Ken and we both loved them! Ken saw Billy Elliot recently and found it very moving, and he enjoyed Godzilla, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor. Ken hates and despises Steven Spielberg, Pasolini and Greenaway.
Ken loves Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Fellini and sometimes Hitchcock; he loves Hitchcock's Strangers On A Trin...
Russell talked about Battleship Potemkin on the BBC2 documentary Art That Shook The World, and the influence of the film on Russell and Francis Bacon.
I asked Ken about the documentary. He said something like 'Crap...they cut out all my criticisms of Battleship Potemkin...they interviewed me for over an hour and I told them it was a crude propaganda film crudely shot and badly edited. So they asked me what I liked about the film and I said the image of sailors emerging out of their cocoon like hammocks and the Odessa Steps sequence with the screaming nurse. Why is Leni Riefenstahl accused of being a propaganda film maker but not Eisenstein?
The Art That Shook The World documentary was cunningly edited to make it appear as if I was a whole hearted admirer of Eisenstein's film when in fact I thought the film was badly made and did not like it; I dismissed Potemkin as being what it was - political propaganda.'
Francis Bacon and painting
You are an artist, and are influenced a lot by Francis Bacon. We have already mentioned him a few times, Did you ever meet Bacon?
I first met Bacon in the summer of 1981 coming out of Charlie Chester's Casino at around mid day in Soho and he had a wad of £50 notes in a clear plastic envelope and he was smiling and looked elevated. I instantly approached him and started by saying how much I was influenced by his art work. He invited me for lunch right away at an Italian restaurant off Soho. I remember showing a boxed set of Flagstad records I had just bought at Cheapo Cheapo Records in Soho. We spoke about music and painting; he admired Flagstad and Callas. The waiters circled Bacon like sharks for the kill as he was well known for tipping lavishly. We then went on to Patisserie Valerie in Compton Street for tea and sickly expensive chocolate gateaux! As we parted he gave me his phone number and later I rang him from Hampshir e and he invited me to visit his studio the following weekend.
At this time I was living in Ken's thatched cottage and painted in his garage
which has now been converted into Gorsewood Studios but traces of my paint splashes remain traced on the walls.
My images were deeply influenced by Bacon's. So I went to the 7 Reece Mews Studio and shouted up to his open
window and a beaming face appeared; he came down and took me up the steep staircase advising me to hold onto
the rope banister as if we were on board a sinking ship. He took me into the studio and I saw this headless
breasted torso creature thing with an orange background and remember nearly knocking it off its easel by
accident as it was so cramped. I felt very elevated by the image which had these breasts where the head
should be; I may have been one of the first to see it as it had just been finished and smelt and looked
sinister yet suave and sophisticated in a sick sort of way!
A few weeks later I knocked on his door at 7 Reece Mews but he did not answer;
maybe the novelty wore thin. I also phoned him again and he would answer without answering then hang up.
Did Ken Russell and Bacon ever meet?
No. A pity. I asked Ken which of Bacon's paintings he most admired. He said the Pope series "His Popes have a distilled silent grandeur of sanctimonious violence."
When I met Bacon in 1981 he expressed his desire to design opera sets at the time when Ken was producing operas. I mentioned this to Bacon and he seemed excited at the prospect of working with Ken. I asked Ken if he would have collaborated with Bacon- "I would have loved to have worked with him...I wish I had met him. I met his friend Daniel Farson who instigated the idea for me making the Lair of the White Worm."
Just like Ken you seem very productive, how long does a painting take you?
Regarding my painting: the best paintings take about three hours; speed is the essence to keep it alive and fresh; my charcoal drawings can take days to do. I paint a portrait one at a time.
You also made some films of your own...
I made two films at college between 1983 and 1986; one called East End of the Body set in an East End docklands derelict office (where Derek Jarman was filming The Last of England at the same location and our noises from filming interrupted his filming; he did not recognise!) This was an improvised film using the dockland scenario to suggest images and we showed it on two screen simultaneously to disrupt the focal point of the image....so the spectator is torn between two screens; it worked very well and was deeply disturbing in a visceral sort of way! The other film was called The Judy Garland Myth which was a mixture of archive footage and my own filming with me performing as a corpse-looking Judy Garland!
Alex Alien Russell
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