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Ken Russell Interview
Ken Russell, photo by Iain Fisher


An interview with Ken Russell by Iain Fisher
London, October 2000


Part one: Lions Mouth

Iain: What was the most satisfying thing about The Lionsīs Mouth

Ken: I suppose it was that I had total control over it, because I haven’t really had that since my amateur days when I made Amelia and the Angel. One didn’t have to ask anyone anything, you know very often in feature films they give you a head roll in making the film then they take it away from you and cut it to ribbons afterwards so you canīt win.

Diana Laurie in Lions Mouth Whereas in this I had to be my own critic and really look at everything- is that right, is it good? I learned...I did it as an exercise to see if I could make a feature length movie on my very limited resources. With Lionīs Mouth I have done this and I have learned a lot and I know now I can. For Fall of Usher I had a producer cost it on a cheap cheap cheap budget with everyone doing favours and it came to Ģ200,000 which I simply donīt have. I thought I must be able to make it for less. So now I have pretty well cast it. I have converted my garage and stable into a little studio and I am going to shoot it out of the cottage at Gorsewood as I call it. Itīs my answer to Hollywood. We are surrounded by Gorse, so this is Gorsewood. Itīs nearly cast and I will start shooting early in 2001.

Who’s going to be in it?

The Mediaeval Babes are going to be in it, the group who are also in Lion’s Mouth...

Mediaeval Baebes
(photo from Mediaeval Babes site)

...and the lead will be a man called James Johnson, who has a group called Gallon Drunk and he’s a bit of a cult figure himself in the underground rock movement. He’s very special, he’s a bit like Bjork, in the sense that the instrumentation is not what you’d expect, the delivery of the material isn’t what you’d expect. He doesn’t scream and shout, itīs almost whispered, and itīs intimidating and itīs very hypnotic. He looks great, I’ve seen him in pop promos and in things like that.

James Johnson
(photo by H Howard from unofficial Gallon Drunk page)

He’s the lead and then Tulip Junkie, who is also in Lions Mouth, will be the female lead playing Nurse ABC Smith, a character out of Poe. She’s nurse to my mad doctor. I’m playing Dr Calahari and I am rewriting the script which I have been rewriting on and off for at least ten years so itīs in ten minute segments. I hope to sell it as a series on the Internet, to give away the first one and get them begging for more. That’s my theory.

And having edited and done everything more or less on Lions Mouth I know the limitations. I learned a lot about the sound, the sound leaves a lot to be desired on my first effort, but it was a learning process and that's what I wanted it to be, to see if I could crack it. We managed playback and anything is possible. You need backup. You need help, commitment. Not sort of commercial commitment, you need people to give their services whether they are actors or scene makers or whatever they are, artisans, costume designers, scene makers, painters. I have plenty of volunteers for that.

How does the use of the Camcorder affect your creativity?

Well, my very first film I lit, how many years ago, forty years ago. I have always been interested in lighting and worked hand in glove with the director of photography. In Lions Mouth I lit everything myself except if there was available light, and it didn’t need additional illumination, Iīd just go for it. But there were times when I was inside and it did need lighting and I just lit it. Of course with a video camera with a screen you can see what you are doing. I don’t know, it seems simpler and I think... the exposures... tape is less critical... in a way easier to light and I lit in an almost primitive style. I mean it wasn’t flat lighting, it was lighting in effect. I lit some scenes with candles and anglepoise lamp and it is amazing what you can get away with on videotape. There was a scene in a church and I know if I had been shooting on film I would have to have lit it, but on tape I was experimenting. I had a go and I thought Iīll just try it and I boosted the exposure on the camera and it came out in beautiful quality and detail that wasn’t visible to the naked eye. It was incredible. So I learned that little story.

But I love the immediacy, I would put it in a tripod if I had time, I was in a churchyard and I would rest my elbow on a tombstone and there were places in Lions Mouth where I did a funfair where there was nowhere to steady a camera. It has a Steadicam attachment and it was almost as steady as a rock. It was quite amazing really.

If you were given $10,000,000 to do a film would you do it with your Camcorder or would you go back to traditional ways?

If I was given $10,000,000 I would do it on film but I don’t think anyone’s going to give me $10,000,000.

Would you then do Fall of the Louse of Usher?

I don’t know if I would do it in ten episodes. The idea is to launch it on the Internet and then I could convert it into a 90 minute feature film after that so...but itīs ideal for what I want to do with it and $10,000,000 is a reasonable amount. But if I was given $10,000,000 there would be strings attached to it. The other day I spoke to someone who had heard I could make the film for very little. They said they thought we could get money in from Germany, but the sponsors have got recording stars they would like to push. That’s the whole joy of being in the Underground, working with a very low budget you have exactly what you want and you do exactly what you want. There is nobody to tell you what to do and no-one to sort of crucify your efforts at the end if you manage to get through it.

Savage Messiah was your own money.

Yes, Savage Messiah was my own money.

Did you have total control?

Yes, I had total control. MGM didn’t ask for it to be changed in any way.

It wasn’t a commercial success.

No it was a disaster. It ran for five days on its opening in the West End. I still think it was probably one of my best films. Iit is certainly the best script, by Christopher Logue who is a brilliant poet.

Was he actually a poet then, because you knew him as an actor?

I knew him as a poet. I knew him socially and I knew he was a poet, and I thought it would be amusing for him to write the script, because he’s got a very resonant wonderful voice and has poetry readings and so he has to dramatise the poems. I often use my friends in films.

The film is very faithful to the book, and the line I like most is straight out of the book...

What was the line?

In the war letters, I have succeeded in making the enemy angry. And the end of the film shows the works of Gaudier just like the book. Is Savage Messiah your most autobiographical film?

In a way he... I read that book when I was a struggling artist like he was and I... he knew and he had faith in himself and I had faith in myself and it was just a question of keeping going. And in the end you think you are going to and so it really did inspire me.


Well, he went through a lot of aggravation. People just ignored him or thought he was an idiot you know, and he was poor and he was unknown and I don’t know, I was in a similar position.

And you obviously like his work.

Oh wonderful yes, I adore it, still do. I quite like that movement altogether, the Vorticists, Wyndham Lewis although he didn’t like it, he didn’t like it, he wasn’t keen on Gaudier.

Derek Jarman did the scenery, he also did superb scenery for The Devils...

Yeah he did.

...what can you remember of Derek Jarman?

A lot of things in my life are by accident or chance. A friend of my wifeīs was a dress designer, and she said one day "oh I just came back from Paris and I met someone interesting on the train, I think you should meet him" I said "Who’s that" and she said "His name is Derek Jarman. And he, he actually got up and gave me his seat and we got talking and the train was packed, he had a folder of his work and I had a folder of my work and we showed it to each other and he is innovative and has got lots of ideas, and you are looking for a designer for The Devils arenīt you", and I said "Yes I am" and she said "You could do worse than look at him".

Derek Jarman So I sought him out and he was living in a vast room as big as this, in a deserted storage place. And in the middle of it he had erected a small greenhouse which he could heat, because he couldnīt heat this vast room, which was freezing, it was the middle of winter. So there he was in this glasshouse and I went in and said hello. He had an exhibition he was getting ready for called Cardinals Capes. I canīt remember them all, but there was one made of dollar bills and there was a transparent one of a junky found below his river, his warehouse, thatīs where he lived in a warehouse, and stuff like that. We talked a bit and I thought this has to be the guy, heīs an iconoclast, he knows about religion, he has feelings and his mind is wide open. It was not cluttered with any preconceived thing. He had never done a film before, he had designed a ballet I think, or two, or maybe an opera. But he was very but I could see he was a real talent.

And we were also helped by Huxley saying in his book that the exorcism of Sister Jeanne was the equivalent of a rape in a public lavatory and that image burnt to mind. So we had all the tiles like a public lavatory. And also I remember Metropolis with those curved archways and I thought, letīs go for that, so I and he did all the exterior things. You know it had a new look, we wanted it to be... because medieval cities always were moss covered with crumbling stone but they couldnīt have been like that once. They must have been bright shining bricks and thatīs how the people of Loudon thought of their city anyway, as a shining monument to their individuality, so it all fell into place.

There is the magnificent scene with Oliver Reed making the speech and the camera moves up slowly behind the crowd to tower over them.

I’ve only used a frame about twice in my life, thatīs the beginning of the film and the end, and I don’t think I’ve ever used them elsewhere. One of my rules in the underground is never use a frame. But I couldnīt afford one anyway. But I would almost say never use tracking shots. I don’t know if Fritz Lang ever used tracking shots, there may be one in Metropolis. Well they can be very effective, but you don’t need them. What I am saying is they are clutter, they can be exciting but you really don’t need them. To me itīs the content of the frame that matters, the dynamic of it and also the accompanying sounds.

Hollow Man I must say I think some American films are getting some really good soundtracks nowadays. The Hollow Man had very good music by ...he’s a guy who has done lots of Hollywood soundtracks. I canīt remember his name [Jerry Goldsmith. He also did music for The Russia House which Ken Russell acts in] but... They are usually slightly derivative but this film seems to have liberated him and it is really really good. Jerry Goldsmith
Matrix I also like the orchestral score of Matrix very much [Don Davis] , it is tremendous, tremendous, of course it is always lowered a bit in cinema when you mix it with effects and you don’t always get the full impact, but when you get the CD it is tremendous. Don Davis

Peter Maxwell Davies did the music for The Devils.

Yes, that is pretty scary stuff.

I actually have an LP of Peter Maxwell Davies of Eight Songs for a Mad King, which is "A Ken Russell Production".

Yes, when I had a bit of money I paid for recording some of the Eight Songs for a Mad King [click here to listen to it] and another piece called Vesalii Icones [click here to listen to it] which is for Cello and small orchestra which is a ballet he did, which was very good. Then I did... have you seen my Arnold Bax film, I played Arnold Bax in it, and at the same time as this I did the Maxwell Davies. I also recorded two Bax Symphonies, 1 and 2, which werenīt available.

It must have been quite nice then to have been a sort of sponsor of the arts.

Yeah, well I got stuff out of it so...

You were going to work with Peter Maxwell Davies after that?

I was going to, Taverner it was called, but other commitments clashed with it and I couldnīt manage it, there was another film.

Eight Songs for a Mad King could be a really good short film.

Yes, it could be, couldnīt it.


Part two: Themes

Sort of jumping a bit, chaste sexuality, that comes back a number of times, in Savage Messiah between Gaudier and his wife, Wordsworth in Clouds of Glory...

and his sister...

...you could argue Tchaikovsky and his wife is the same. Would you describe yourself as a liberal?

Er [pause]

Why does this topic interest you?

If I knew I probably wouldnīt do them. [pause] I did have a wonderful relationship with Marion, my sisterīs cousin, itīs in my biography, and she was killed by a landmine just after the war started, about 1940, she trod on a landmine and blew herself up, poor soul. She was an ideal, she was the ideal female. We were only 12 then, and I suppose there was something in that relationship, I suppose there was a bit... I could see it might have a bearing on what you are talking about.

The image comes back in Mindbender.


The guy steps on a landmine.

He does what?

He steps on a landmine.

Oh does he?

In the beginning, he is walking on a beach.

Oh thatīs right yes, yeah I forgot that.

Was that a reference?

It wasn’t conscious, but it must have been.

Salome: I actually saw it and hated it, it was awful, and years after I saw it again and it was so good, it was so magnificent. Why did you decide to do it?

I think it was the play, I think I said I could do it for a million dollars, a film about Salome, and my agent said to someone in Hollywood, he could make this, but he sold a different story. Lindsay Kemp did a Salome, you know Lindsay Kemp, and he did a Salome and I was talking of doing that, so they were expecting a drag queen to come lurching across but it wasn’t. They didn’t scream and shout, but I think that was largely why they gave me the money in the first place.

Salome stars Imogen Millais Scott. Your commentary on the DVD points out she is almost blind, how did she manage, it was an amazing performance, it was spectacularly good.

Imogen Millais Scott in Salome I know. I canīt believe she never worked since. I mean this is England, itīs ludicrous, but then I suppose she is a bit unpredictable and a bit intimidating in a way. What do you do for someone like that. Well you find something for her and let her do it.

I did contact her about four years ago. I was doing a commercial on frozen food, and they wanted an audition for all sorts of people and I thought of her. And she came and she looked amazing, she had a red tight fitting bodice and a very short black dress and those long legs and high heels, she was dazzling, she was amazing and I never saw her since. But I’m thinking maybe I should set her in Louse. She is so dynamic, isn’t she, and I tested other girls on Salome, I tested half a dozen, but they couldnīt speak or emote. That lovely speech she does with John the Baptist, that was a tour de force, that should have got an Oscar.

The long single shot.

Yeah, it lurks...

And her emotions change.

...yes, she is a star and itīs incredibly sad. Iīll find out where she lives.

You said you hated Salome when you first saw it.

It was the point when I decided I didn’t want to see your films again.

Really, how many had you seen?

Most. About two thirds of the cinema films before Salome. I suspect the reasons I didn’t like it were identical to the reasons I later liked it. The reason I got back into your films was Whore, somebody said see it, so I got it from the video. Whore was so good.

Did you like Whore then, a lot of people don’t like Whore?

The face-on talking, it was the first time you had done that, and there is a scene where Teresa Russell is lying on a bench

Oh yeah...

and her hair is falling down, but it is filmed sideways so it looks like her hair is horizontal, and in the background is water flowing. Itīs a real double take to see it. Ken Russell Whore Theresa Russell

...and she looks so great didnīt she.

I like that very much, sheīs a great character, though she was in a terrible movie, a terrible made-for-tv movie of a remake, can you believe it, of Strangers in a Train, can you believe it, she played the Robert Walker part [Once You Meet a Stranger].

I like Aria very much.

Linzi Drew in Aria I canīt remember very much of that. I have liked to have produced Turandot by Puccini and I’ve done Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. Don Boyd who Iīd known for a long time, the producer, came and said he’s making a sort of string of op-promos instead of pop-promos, and would I like to do one. I could do anything in the RCA catalogue, but it had to be from an opera. Well I thought it is just up my street, so he gave me the RCA catalogue which was terribly thin actually, and it had a few operas. I said that Iīd like to do this, he said someoneīs doing that one, someoneīs doing that one, and I realised I was the last person to be asked and the only opera left was Turandot. So Nessum Dorma has to be the one and I thought yeah, well in the last analysis thatīs what I would have finally chosen. The girl I used in it was later I think jailed on a pornography charge. A very nice person, I liked her a lot, I think she went to jail. I think I used her in something else...

One of the dancers in Salome.

...yeah, I found out one of the other dancers ran Londonīs underground S&M scene. I said I hope you donīt mind beating this man with a whip and she said "No, Iīll try", little did I realise she did nothing else for her whole life, and she certainly laid into John the Baptist with the whip. Yes, she was a nice girl as well. The other girl was a Norwegian. They were semi-professional actors and they are the people I like. Its fun, itīs amusing.

In Aria the Metropolis image comes back again, the girl was resurrected.

I suppose so, I hadnīt thought of that. Is there a scene in a surgery then?

Yes, after the accident she is revived by surgeons. I thought is was a direct homage to Metropolis, itīs interesting that you don’t remember this.

Well maybe it was, how many years ago, a lot has happened in between. Thereīs one film on Aria I don't like at all, by the Frenchman, wrestlers or bodybuilders or something.

Jean Luc Goddard.

Was it, Goddard, yes hmmm.

Goddard [I didn’t mention I admired Goddard a lot, and thought he and Ken have much in common, and even more in my bag I had a copy of "The films of Jean Luc Goddard" which I had just bought].


Part three: Early films

In French Dressing you used Alita Naughton. Alita Naughton

She was a friend of David Hurn. Iīd done a tv film called Watch the Birdie just before and she was his girlfriend and I thought she was a very attractive, lively... again she wasn’t run-of-the-mill English... Especially at that time there were very few English girls that had... She was a bit different. I suppose she wasn’t quite as good as I hoped sheīd be. I didn’t realise you had the film, you must be the only person in the world who has it. I ran the opening of it again and I thought this is rather good. I must stop being so apologetic about it. The beginning there is a lovely shot of acres of empty deck-chairs and this guy comes up and says thereīs someone up there and he cycles up and she just takes off in a wheel chair, I mean thatīs good

And then he goes back the other way to the other end of the pier.

I didn’t get that far today, what happens?

At the other end of the pier thereīs another guy and he has to go back, and you just keep the camera on and the credits start rolling.

Now I know I’ve got it, I wasnīt even sure I had it, Iīll play it.

I read somewhere that you thought the script was wrong, that the jokes didn’t work. I can actually see that, but I think if it had worked it wouldnīt have been as good, it would have been a minor comedy.

Yes. And I liked those balloon dummies.

Do you know what happened to Alita Naughton?

Good question.

She was in another film, Isadora.

Oh yes, of course she was, oh yes. She went back to America I suppose, I think Hurn took up with someone else. He was quite a ladies man, but I donīt know what happened to her. In America I suppose she would be just run of the mill but anyway I thought she was cute. And we were forced by Equity to test other English girls, and we did, each may have had something but it wasn’t obvious.

She also has the same chaste relationship.

Yes, thatīs right.

You were given the option of doing Cliff Richardīs Summer Holiday. There is a girl dressed up as a boy, I always thought the relationship was the same as French Dressing.

Was it, I canīt remember. I nearly did Summer Holiday, I wish I had, my career would have changed. I would have made a good musical thereīs no doubt of that, and who knows what would have happened, because I don’t think he was a very good director, who did direct it?


He became terribly famous [Peter Yates]. He went on to make a fortune, he went on to make many many dance films, but I thought it was very mediocre, so I got out of it. I really didnīt want to do it, I couldnīt latch on to the people in it, Myers and Cass [Peter Myers and Ronald Cass, scriptwriters] they were nice enough people and later I worked with them on French Dressing and I just didn’t dig it, I didn’t have confidence in it.


Part four: Favourites


The first film of yours I saw was The Music Lovers...

Was that in England or…

In Edinburgh, I was at university. I saw it on a Wednesday and before it had moved on Friday I had seen it three more times, and each time I brought other people, some of whom hadnīt the faintest idea why they were there. I thought Glenda Jackson was terrific.

You know something happened in that film, I often wish I had done the film better, but something happened that was a god given gift and I just let it go. I just let it go and it would have been even more memorable.

She’s rocking about on the floor of the carriage, Richard Chamberlain is pulling back, everythingīs falling about, cutlery and pens, and a knife fell, and it landed here [between legs] and it was the most wonderful film symbol I had seen in my life and Richard just snatched it away. Itīs a bit rude I suppose. It was a sharp knife, the blade lying glittering there. It was the most wonderful thing and I didn’t film it.

On a newsgroup I put a message about Lions Mouth, and it turned into a discussion about The Music Lovers, a very long discussion before it degenerated into jokes about Virgin Trains.

The Music Lovers I like that. There was one thing, when I saw the film when it had finished, I was really cross, and it was totally my fault, you know Richard Chamberlain had sort of curly hair, a totally romantic image , and at the end of the film I saw him, and he had the straightest hair you ever saw and I thought thatīs what Tchaikovsky was like. He didnīt have all the curls, and that was the real, and I realise he had a very flamboyant hairdresser who said to Richard, we must do something with that hair, and he teased it up, and I never saw it till after the film. Richard Chamberlain

So what with the knife and the curly hair. And another incident, itīs in the book so you know about it, the girl I wanted to be his sister. I asked for her and her agent said she is in a play and she canīt do it. And so I got a girl who I found out later couldnīt speak any dialogue, I had chosen her from a play of the month on tv where she played a deaf mute so she didn’t play any dialogue in it. So when she came to speak, horror horror. And the ironical thing was that when I used the girl I originally wanted to play the sister for post synch, she said "Oh my god Iīd have loved to play that" and I said but I asked your agent and he said you were in a play, and she said "That was a crappy old play. I could have got out of that". So agents, beware of agents. And then I used her as Grandierīs wife in The Devils, she’s a very good actress. Anyway the other girl was OK you know.

What are your favourite own films?

Well I like Delius- Song of Summer, The Devils, The Music Lovers, I think those are my perennial favourites. Song of Summer, that was the most perfect thing I did, since I had the man there who was... and he... he was amazing, he used to go round universities and tell his story and he played [the music of] Delius and when he saw the film he came out in a rash. It so affected him and he, I think I said in the book, "You should come and watch the film", and the day he was to come, there was sobbing and it was him and I said "Whatīs the matter" and he said "I was back there". You canīt have higher commendation than that. The acting was good, they were characters.

The script was very good. In the film Fenby says there was no-one of his age in the area and he falls asleep. And in the next scene he is woken by the maid who is clearly his age, but she is a different class or whatever, and it reflects his mind that he never even considers her.

Yes, thatīs how it was. And the girl next door was very strange. I donīt know if you remember, but heīs doing his run and he bumps into this girl and itīs very mysterious.

You said you were not a great fan of the music.

When itīs played well, itīs so hard to play. The First Cuckoo in Spring is lovely but, it can sound very coarse and hard, and to me it should all sound like Ravel, and itīs not all like Ravel. It can sound really harsh but at itīs best, I really like the symphonic poem Song of Summer, Song before Sunrise, and I like Paris for Orchestra. It doesnīt remind me of Paris, that isnīt Paris, but that was the Paris of the 1900īs.

Iain Fisher (left) Ken Russell (right)


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