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Ken Russell Diana Laurie interview

Diana Laurie

 

An interview with Diana Laurie by Iain Fisher
October 2000, Italian Restaurant London

Part one: The audition

 

Iain: How did you get involved in Lion’s Mouth?

Diana: Well I have known Ken’s daughter [Victoria] for quite a few years and for a long long time she was saying, I must get you to meet my dad.

I was acting at that stage then I stopped. It sort of started again and at the end of last year I decided I was going to act again and go for it, and then Vicky mentioned again meeting her dad and I immediately said "Yes please". What can you say? I really did want to meet him. And then out of the blue, April-May, Vicky phoned me up and said "Listen, Dad is doing a film, I really think you would be great for it. It’s a low budget, short film", and she told me about it being based on this true story of Howard Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey, and she said, "Do you want to audition!"

Ken Russell and Diana Laurie

So I went to meet Ken at his office The Reef [a café in Waterloo Station, London] and we just had a chat really. He read bits of the script, in fact I think he went through the whole script actually. I though it was great and really fun, and that was it and at the end of the meeting just said "Do you want to do it?" which was lovely. It was just what you want really, he just sort of offered it straight away which was so nice, so I was really delighted and that was how I got involved really.

I later found that lots of actors I know had auditioned for him at The Reef. At that point he was going to represent the main character that the film is based on, but then he decided to do it through my eyes as the journalist, and make it a very mysterious search into who this man is, and will we ever really see him.

A lot of people came to audition for priests and tarts, people who had seen his ad in The Stage, which I hadn’t actually seen, so I was lucky to know Vicky!

How did you first get to know Vicky?

Twiggy I had actually met Ken and Vicky years and years ago when I went on a family holiday to the Lake District and was absolutely amazed by the celebrities that were there. Ken was there just after The Boyfriend, so was Twiggy and Melvyn Bragg. Melvyn Bragg

So Ken and his family had made a huge impression on me when I first set eyes on them. I think that was in the early seventies, about 1972 maybe. I just have this memory of meeting him. He was very flamboyant, I think he was wearing a full-length fur coat when I first saw him, and I think he had a white Rolls or Bentley. Some fantastic car.

Sounds very Ken Russell

Yes it was. And of course this enormous entourage, and kids, five kids at that point and Vicky was great fun, and I did get to know the kids a little bit. I remembered them but I don’t know if Vicky remembered me too much from then.

And that all appealed to me madly and I thought, yes I want to be in movies. I related to those people, and their eccentricity, and I loved the fact they were very flamboyant and mad and did their own thing and that really interested me. So it was a nice thing for me that years later when I decided to start acting again I got to do a film with Ken again.

You obviously knew Ken’s films before Lion’s Mouth. What did you think of them?

Well I loved The Boyfriend very much. I was about eight or something, I just loved it, it was something that was very representative for me and my life.

Was it the images or…

Yes, I think it was. What I loved was the musical element, the kitsch-ness of it even then. I recognised the kitsch even then as a child and understood it and related to it and kind of understood the humour, I got it, but its quite interesting because that little film was quite important to a lot of people that I knew and years later I talked to friends and they remember it was quite a big film for them. It was very romantic, in a kind of kitsch way.

[food arrives and the waiter offers black pepper]

Ken´s got a good impersonation of Italian waiters with black pepper. Its quite appropriate that we have just had that, he does an impersonation with a lot of frantic arming but you don´t actually get any pepper.

The Boyfriend was very romantic and did for me what a lot of early musicals did for my mother and her generation in terms of fantasy and I was very into fantasy and romance. And though I love realism, there is something about escapism that just does it for me.

It’s a good film but for me its not the best, its good but flawed.

Yes, I think that might be true of more of his films. I think he also feels that about them. He´s pretty self effacing and modest. I think he´s very objective about his own work. He can be quite dispassionate in a way, and really judge it. Sometimes I think he puts his own work down too much.

He reminds me of my grandfather. My grandfather was an East End boy made good and he left school when he was ten, and went to work for his dad. And he went through a lot, and founded his own business and looked after his family. But towards the end of his life he didn´t think he had achieved that much, although clearly he had achieved loads. I think Ken has that at times, something in the personality.

He drove me completely mad, I drove him completely mad. We are both Cancerian so we are both probably control freaks and moody, very very moody. I find him a very interesting person, with all his issues and moodiness and difficulty, which I think he admits to.

I get the impression he is shy and the flamboyance is a cover up.

Yes, he is very shy and very insecure. I think he is very demanding of himself and other people, then is perhaps sorry that he is like that, so I think he has got that conflict which I think had to do with upbringing an expectations of yourself, disappointment. All sorts of things combine to make him.

His entire childhood is mysterious. You’ve read A British Picture...

Yes, I loved it, its so funny isn’t it?

...there are about 10-15 anecdotes about his life as a kid, and that’s it. I don’t think his father is mentioned.

He mentions his dad but it kind of implies that he didn’t think very much of his him, particularly at the end of his life and the end of his mother’s life. He was very disappointed with his [father’s] behaviour to his mum I think.

He’s a sentimental guy. Ken is pretty well loved, he really is.

About the film itself, Lion’s Mouth. You liked the old title, Leomania, and I fear I am the person who got the title changed.

I know. Why didn’t you like the title?

I don’t like Lisztomania, I really don’t like it, so the new title reminded me of it. Plus the title was already in use for a documentary about Leonardo diCaprio.

 

Part two: Filming

 

You go the job, what happened then?

Got the job, then got the script.

How big was it?

Prostitutes Padre About 20 pages. I wasn’t sure what I felt about the script initially. I thought it was very camp and certainly lending itself to comedy, and I didn’t see how it was going to be treated seriously. Having read the book, I was concerned that there was a lot of pathos in the book and I was concerned that we were not going to do this guy justice.

I don’t think we really did in the end, but I don’t think he would have really minded desperately.

What book was it?

Its called The Prostitutes Padre. So I wasn’t sure about the script initially. It was going to be his first draft and I was pleased with that, as it would be fleshed out, but it ended up being the working script, the script we used.

Ken’s quite contradictory because on the one hand he talks about scripts being really important and you need a good script. But I think he is more interested in the visual element, so I think he could take anything and tart it up a bit and go for a run with it. And I realised that he was going to go his own way. I disagreed with a lot of stuff, but I thought who am I? And I was right!

What sort of things did you disagree with?

I was concerned about contrast in acting styles because he wanted me to be very camp and gung-ho and theatrical, which I think was very good but I didn’t think at times it worked. I felt the acting styles were too contrasting. I was the only professional that he used, whatever that means, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t good actors, it just means in this particular case that people acted very differently and perhaps had more nerves, so I think at times I overcompensated to pull something out. And I thought at times it makes me look like I am massively overacting.

But he is pretty happy about it, and having seen more of the film I am more positive.

Who were the other actors?

Friends of his. I think you have been in contact with Emma and…

...Marie

I was concerned about certain aspects. It was so much his own project. There are many people from film school and elsewhere who would have loved to work with Ken, and they will be disappointed to hear that he did it on his own, but he didn’t want that, fair enough its his decision. He didn’t want the hassle and the organisational hassle, and the catering and so on.

So you got an initial script, which became working script. What was the next step?

The next step was that we wrote to each other a few times and he was very pleased that I was going ahead. And we started talking dates, and he talked to the girls Emma and Marie about doing some more writing and changing some of it. He thought some of their ideas were amazing, very very clever.

Diana Laurie and Nipper So we had meetings then arranged for me to go down there and discuss the script and ideas. By this time I had looked at some costumes from the BBC and took some pictures. I showed him the pictures and he said he hated them, absolutely hated them. He wanted me to look more like I look in real life, which was great for me as it helped me to develop the character. She was quite eccentric and she would have found clothes in a thrift shop, she was fashion conscious but with her own style. That was great because I like interpreting. So what you see are my own clothes and he was delighted and really happy with that.

Then I went down there.

You talked about discussions on the script.

Ken Russell I had read the book and I had written down lots of questions, so I asked him about what sort of feel the film was going to have, and what sort of world we were inhabiting in the film. The idea that I came away with was quite camp, he doesn´t like po-faced period pieces. He feels they don’t represent the period very well, people try to be too clever and too exact they miss the atmosphere of the time, I strongly agree with this.

We had some hilarious moments because he used his home for location shots. One time we were about to use his little office and we were doing a shot, and behind us were rows and rows of CDs, and the film was meant to be set in the 1930s, and I said to Ken what about the CDs and he said [Diana impersonates Ken] "Love the CDs, love them". I thought fine.

Actors get precious because they feel so vulnerable about what they are going to be seen in. Sometimes you can be cut into anything, you can be in a completely different film from what you thought you were doing. There is an element of where am I going, what is really happening her. On the other hand it is very nice to be working with somebody with his reputation, so you think you have got to toe the line.

And with the CDs I didn’t know where we were going, so I brought it up again. He went bright red: he is always red but he went redder, and he said his famous line to me [impersonates Ken] he said "Diana if they are noticing the CDs then you have failed as an actress" Really shut me up.

Its almost an Oscar Wilde line.

Yes, he’s full of those. There was one evening,it was very intense. We were by ourselves doing a lot of filming and I found it really quite difficult, and there was no assistant director to talk to about problems. Ken would lose his temper if he didn’t like something and you would be swinging between admiring him for managing so much of this on his own, to you are really horrible I can’t work with you. I have to do a comic scene and you have just shouted at me 300 times and I am still supposed to make this look funny and I´m sort of with trembling lip and about to burst into tears [laughs].

So there was all that going on. One particular day I was feeling got at, and it was having an adverse effect on my work, and I felt this is not fun at all. So I was thinking the whole day, how can I handle this situation? I wanted to talk about it, thinking of all the approaches I could have.

Diana Laurie Finally we were going to shoot the scene in the evening, and he was very tired. He had been filming the whole day and I knew he was really tired, and he said "Shall we do the candlelit scene". And I said "We can do it, but are you sure you are not too tired". And he said "Well, I am but we have got to get it done". I said OK. Diana Laurie

So we set it all up and started to do it, and a few seconds into it he was getting really cross: "No I said do this, I said I don’t want you to do it like that", that’s how he can react.

By this time it was quite late and I let it go once, but he did it again. I just suddenly turned round, it was just pure instinct, it was so funny. I felt like the girl in The Exorcist, my head spinning round. I shot round and said "Ken do not shout at me" and he started to argue "but…but…" and I said again "Ken, do not shout at me" and he said "but I am tired" and I said "I know you are tired but do not…" and every time he tried to talk I said "Ken, DO NOT SHOUT AT ME".

The story has gone round London, so many people know this story, friends come up to me and say "Kennnn....., do not shout at me!!!!!". That was my way of getting a grip of the situation. At the end of the day you almost don’t care who you work for. There’s a point where you think I can’t work like this, I can’t be bullied. Its not helping me. Its meant to be fun, everyone wants this to be a good film, we are all in it to make it work.

Was he doing it deliberately to create an atmosphere or emotion for the film?

I don’t think so.

I think we had a healthy disrespect for each other. We were both aware of all the personality things. Any way the next day- he denies this incidentally- but the next day I said "Would you say I am very difficult to work with" turning it round which I though was quite good. He said "Not at all, not at all. Darling I am the most easily irritated person that I know". I related to that because I can get easily irritated. When I repeated it a while later to him, he said "I never said that". Ken Russell

Is that just his film persona?

No. He is a mix, he’s such a mix of generous and stingy, relaxed and control freak, warm and then at times quite suspicious or untrusting of you, and comfortable and uncomfortable with himself.

The other classic line after we had shouted at each other, he said "OK I´m sooooorrry, I´m sooooorrry" it was so like a child it was really funny. And I said "love hate relationship" and he looked at me and said "Sweetie, its all love on my part". I didn´t say its all hate on mine!!! (laughs).

He is a very human, he is very sensitive. You feel that emotionally he has understanding of such a lot, and he really does care about people. But when he is working with you he is so obsessed about it being how he wants it to be.

In your discussions was he open to your ideas?

Yes he was. He was open to things but he was also closed. I think that is the only way to describe it. At times he seemed very open but he was closed.

Do you think he had the entire film in his head? That he knew exactly what he wanted?

Yes I think so. And he said that he works like that, he has already cut the film in his head. When he films there isn’t much that he doesn’t use.

Did you rehearse?

No not really, which was daunting, especially if other people in the scene looked panic stricken because they didn’t know what was happening. It is also a complement, because you feel "He thinks I know what I am doing". Sometimes we would have to go over things a couple of times to get the right intonation.

How many takes did he typically do?

Sometimes its done in the first couple of takes, sometimes about six. Sometimes more.

Are the takes just basically the same scenes with minor variances?

Yes, just the same scene.

Does he look at the results the same day?

Yes he does

Do you get to see them?

Yes I did. There were a number of continuity scenes I was worried about. He would shoot one part of a scene them come back for lunch, then decide to film the rest in his back garden.

How fast did filming go?

We went through it very quickly, sometimes we’d get a whole scene done, sometimes just a couple of shots

We worked on and off for a couple of months. I would be down for a few days then I would be off.

Were any scenes redone afterwards?

No but I wish some had been. After the filming we did dubbing and voiceover.

 

Part three: Ken and filming

 

Ken, Alex and I had a standing joke, for every shot we´d say fifty thousand that would have cost. Later I was at the Raindance film festival and saw a film in which a friend of mine was in, we were speaking to the director afterwards who was rather chuffed with his effort, and he "Yes not bad for fifty thousand!!!" Ken’s film cost about two thousand.

I went and shot a commercial in the middle of the film, and there were sixty people crewing a sixty-second commercial. I was having my nails done by one person, my hair by another, and another doing the costume and another the jewellery, and then I go back to Ken and I am getting in my costume and Ken shouts up "Could you strip the bed while you are up there Darlinnng" because I was leaving after that scene to go back to London!

If I had $10M I would give it to Ken.

Its very sweet that you would give him $10M. I think he should be getting some attention, I really do. He is not being given enough attention.

Lots of crappy directors who have done nothing good for years get $10M. Does Ken create the problems himself?

Yes, I think he shoots himself in the foot sometimes. I think its an ambivalence. I don’t know if I project myself onto him, but I can see the need for privacy and to be shy, and on the other hand acknowledgement, his need to express himself, wanting praise but then saying I want to do what I want to do.

I think he’s like that with human relationships as he is with his media relationships.

He seems to have incredibly devoted children.

Yes, there’s quite closeness there.

Is he intelligent?

Yes, very very intelligent.

Do you think he is still capable of doing a full scale film, physically.

He is very tired. I am amazed by his stamina. From what I heard he has always been difficult to work with, but he was very very stretched by the sheer physical work involved. I think if he had a crew it would have helped, yes I think he could do a full-scale film. The alchemy is still there.

I think that what would happen is what happens a lot with him. It reminds me of when as a child you do a hand-written letter you start off doing very nice writing then it gets messier and messier, and I think Ken can be a little like that. He gets tired and does not do a retake when he should have done. And I think that is almost part of his charm. He get cross then say lets go off for lunch. That’s probably what creates this sort of mood in his films, which is quite human.

I think he uses this characteristic, which is a sort of laziness I can’t be bothered and an improvisational attitude, and he turns it to his advantage.

 

Part four: Diana

 

Tell me about your background.

[a foreign family sits at the table beside ours]

My initial training was in fine art, I was a painter for quite a while, but during that time I felt slightly like a fish out of water though I loved painting, because I was a very theatrical person and very into communicating with people.

I found that at art school things were a bit too quiet for me, in terms of expression, it was all doing something on a canvas and I am kind of more physical verbal sort of person, so after art college and trying to sell my work for a while as a painter, and various other bits and pieces, I decide to train part time at various different colleges, and I did that for about three years. There was the City Lit in London, and a place called the Actors Institute and then the Actors Centre, and did tons and tons of classes and just fell completely in love with it.

I decided that I was definitely going to do it, and developed a children’s show to get my equity card, and got my card. Then I freaked out, and saw what it was like; it was far too insecure at that stage in my life to actually go ahead with it. I tried it for a while and got so down when I didn’t get parts.

[the girl from the table beside ours has extremely loud hiccups, which won’t go away]

And we have got alien hiccups infiltrating. Alien hiccups infiltrating. That’s a nice title isn’t it?

I kind of freaked out, thought I can’t do this. Dealing with the stuff one does, childhood stuff, trying to come to terms with all sorts of things and not really thinking I should act, for various reasons to do with various tragedies in my family. So I put it away for a very long time, this compulsion to do it, and developed a jewellery business by accident really. Just put my passion into making these mad creations and I just started to make money from that.

Is that one of your jewels?

Yes that’s one [displays ring].

I just went for that because it was safer I suppose, and after about seven years it has given me security and routine. But I was missing acting so much so I re-joined the Actors Centre. I suppose it’s a really big cliché but I really did think I have found my thing. I related to a lot of actors, even though we are at times pains in the neck, and we are very darling this and darling that and very exuberant. At the end of last year I walked out of the Actors Centre one day and I thought, From this moment on I´m an actress. I had only really myself as my responsibility, and I had to go for it. And as soon as I did, things started to happen, so we will see what will come from this.

Films or theatre?

I love theatre but what I don’t like about theatre are the nerves, which can absolutely screw you up badly, and that side of it I do not like. But I do like the atmosphere with an audience, and what you can create. But I also love film. I’ve always found going to theatre more an endurance test, apart from fringe. I am fascinated by improvised theatre or theatre which focuses on the acting rather than the set.

Have you seen Theatre de Complicité?

Yes, they are my absolute favourite theatre company.

Theatre de Complicite I saw them years ago with Street of Crocodiles and really loved it. Then I saw it again when they revived it recently, and it was just as good, but some of the best scenes from the first weren’t in the second, they had just created equally good new scenes.

They just create a world that is so emotive.

Ken might be able to film them. I think a conventional filmmaker couldn’t

I think we may have talked about them. We would sit over a bottle of wine at night and talk about people but not remember who they were. We’d talk about films but not remember the names or the director or actor. We’d say Oh yoouu knooow, the one who looks like so and so... with the grey hair... who was in...? Yooou knooow!!!

I am also into comedy, I loved the early days of Comic Strip, I used to go and see them at the comedy store.

I loved the GLC film.

It wonderful, what was it called again?

GLC: the Carnage Continues.

Pete Richardson Marvellous. Do you remember the scene with oranges, very wonderful, Streep-esques, method acting? I love Pete Richardson.

So that’s my background, so I am hoping I can use this film to show people. There is certainly interest. I went through a phase of being really careerist, but that’s the way I want to do it, I want to do some really good things but perhaps (hate this word) be a bit more "organic" about how it all develops, and this includes the work itself.

What about you, how did you get into Ken´s films?

I saw The Music Lovers when I was at university in Edinburgh. It was on a Wednesday and by the Friday when it moved in I had seen it four times. And each time I brought other people, and none of them liked it. So I loved his films from then on.

Then he lost it for me. I saw Salomé, which I though was rubbish and decided he was finished. Then years later someone said I should watch Whore, which I did and I loved it, so I came back to Ken Russell.

Then I saw Salomé again, and it was so good, it is now one of my favourite films.

Its so funny the way that happens. I think what happens is that certain directors and certain artists, you can look at a painting and find it gaudy and vulgar, then suddenly you look at it and realise it is dazzlingly beautify. Its funny the way it emerges, the soul of the person comes through.

 

Diana Laurie with Iain Fisher

Any final thoughts on Lion´s Mouth?

My feelings about the film have changed quite a lot. It certainly has got a certain charm. I haven’t seen the whole thing yet, but I did get a good vibe about it, and I thought the CDs did look rather good.

 

 

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