Tuesday, 5 April 2011

MAXIMILIAN DAY: THE CONTINUING ADVENTURES OF AN INVETERATE FILM-MAKER






Some six years ago now, I was granted an interview with self-financing auteur Maximilian Day to discuss his latest project, a contemporary reworking of William Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Into the bargain was thrown the bizarre announcement that Day was about to commence work on could have reasonably described as his most bewilderingly ambitious project to date: a film to be made 'entirely under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms', ominously entitled The Psychedelic Experiment.  It sounded like some wilful act of celluloid defiance, but any sense of foreboding was to prove premature.  Ostensibly, The Psychedelic Experiment never came to fruition, with Day instead turning his attention to what one might consider more rounded works of cinema.
     First up was 2007’s The Exam, a gentle, thought-provoking tale of a 16 year old boy struggling to come to terms with his place within the grander scheme of things.  The film won him yet further accolades, whilst demonstrating a more visceral approach to film making with its pared back dialogue and colourful use of imagery.
     Wild Oats followed in 2010, building upon the strong sense of mis-en-scene Day began to develop in The Exam, creating an almost baroque fantasy within which the protagonist once again wrestles with issues of identity and purpose.  It is films like these that I imagine Day would prefer to be judged upon, yet behind him lies a strong body of work, often born out of adversity, each project typically taking upwards of two years to complete, but all perfectly satisfying in their own curious way.

We meet at a charming café in Richmond, Surrey, overlooking the River Thames.  The sun is shining and the chattering classes are chattering, oblivious to the struggling artisan in their midst – and his mood appears conducive to discussion.
     Last time we spoke I gratuitously referred to one of Day’s earliest works, 1995’s The Man Who Made Monsters, a flick that comes across like most flicks made by teenagers come across, albeit a little more bizarre than most, less fixated on gauche scenes of violence and containing moments of genuine cinematic flare.  TMWMM found Day merging B movie sensibilities with sub-Nietzschian polemic, the influences of Jean-Luc Godard and Ed Wood very much to the fore.  I do not think he would begrudge me for suggesting that it was, essentially, a learning curve of a movie.
     It was also made during a period of great personal turmoil.  Alongside TMWMM, Day had spent much of his gap-year filming Universe:  ‘an attempt to formalise and systematise - like Dante - a classical structure for a post Einsteinian (sic) cosmos.’  Then, after developing an almost neurotic fear of death, he describes himself as throwing 'an existential tantrum', before leaving Brighton in 1994 to study Film and TV somewhere in West London, only to leave again after less than three months, disillusioned with that he was being taught there.
    The whole experience would provide the inspiration for his next film – Wild Oats, in its nascent form – a project that was to push him to breaking point.  The story of his life thus far, the production fell apart when, after investing a huge amount of time gathering funds, casting characters and producing a script, the film stock he was using proved useless – or was, perhaps, used uselessly?

‘I tried to shoot it on 16mm. I raised enough money to buy film stock and hire cameras, and it was an unmitigated, apocalyptic disaster.  None of the film came out,’ he recalls.

     Maximilian Day subsequently decamped back to London but quickly fell into a deep depression from which it took well over a year to extricate himself .  He had been alive for little more than 22 years.

It was to be almost four more years before Day started work on his next project.  After two of them spent recuperating in Brighton, he returned to London – this time heading south of the river – where he eventually started work on Si Vive Solo Due Volte, which translates from Italian into the rather familiar sounding You Only Live Twice.  According to Day, he awoke one morning to the sound of Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of the original Bond theme bouncing around inside his head, the remnant of a dream that he promptly committed to paper.  It was this spontaneous act of script-writing that was to form the basis for his next film.

‘Si Vive was shot in February 2000, just as I was really beginning to appreciate the joys of living in London. I was intrigued by the psycho-geography of the place.  Hanging out in the Sand Bar, drinking Mai Tais and listening to Andy Williams seemed to be the scene, and Si Vive sort of came out of that.  I was living in a basement in Clapham, enjoying a promiscuous and itinerant kind of lifestyle.
     I had access to really good actors from the Central School via my friend Jamie Martin, who also features.  Owen McDonnell – who's now a big name in Irish TV – plays the mysterious Swede.  We shot it all over a few days on a relatively tight and professional TV style shooting schedule.  Simon Faulkner shot it and co-produced.
     I remember dragging the lead, Keir Charles, all over London and making him work very long days, and he just bitched the entire time.  We had to come back months later to shoot some pick-ups with Keir for the ending, so it wasn't completely without my usual troubles.  In fact, the film wasn't actually edited until 2005 and wasn’t screened until 2007, 2008.’

     Watching Si Vive Solo Due Volte now, after having viewed both The Exam and Wild Oats, it is tempting to see the film as part of an emerging trilogy.  All three contain scenes of drug taking, casual sex and sporadic violence, and all three involve a central character who seems somehow at odds with the world.  However, if this were true then Si Vive Solo Due Volte would represent the final third, given the age and location of the central character – who bears more than slight resemblance towards Day himself, incidentally.

‘There do seem to be these recurring motifs: searching for something, casual sexual encounters that have some apocalyptic significance, and ditto with the mysterious drug experiences.  I can't really add anything to that, other than perhaps throughout these films I've been trying to perfect or develop these ideas.’

     In truth, Si Vive Solo Due Volte is far more deranged than either of its suggested companion pieces, with more than a touch of David Lynch about the finale.  Furthermore, at just under 20 minutes, it is less than half the running time of either work.  Still, Day very much considers the film part of his repertoire and remembers it fondly.

‘I think it fits in with the general flow of my output but it’s something of an oddity, I guess.  It’s a ‘dream’ film and I'd like to experiment more with that way of working.  It reminds me of a specific time, too.  I like the references to St. Johns Wood and I liked shooting at Speaker's Corner.  I'd like to shoot in London again some time.’

     Day subsequently took a hiatus from filming, heading to South East Asia to satiate his sense of adventure.  He then worked on a number of high-profile films, plotting his next move during his down-time, no doubt.  He talks about this period of life with great enthusiasm, his experiences igniting an ambition for making bigger, bolder cinema.  Richard III, no less, was his next project, and, once complete, it took the 2005 Portobello Film Festival by storm, winning Day the award for Best Director.  As long in the making as anything Day had attempted prior, it finally brought him the recognition he undoubtedly deserved.

‘2005 was really my breakthrough year,’ says Day. ‘Once Richard III was premiered in January the offers just flooded in.  The Cannes adventure took place in May of that same year, with myself and film-maker Dan Hartley taking Jamie Martin to Cannes to shoot the short film Serial Filmmakers, which won us first prize (in the Cannes 24-hour Film Challenge).  I went to Cannes every year after that, up until a few years ago.’

     Whilst putting together Richard III, Day was gathering the footage that would eventually make up the bulk of All Tomorrow’s Parties, a strange self-obsessed monster of a movie almost following through on his threat to put together something entirely under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms – i.e. The Psychedelic Experiment.  Sensing an element of controversy, I tentatively ask him to expand.

‘The drugs were actually specified as hallucinogenic drugs – psychedelic mushrooms – although that wasn’t necessarily meant to be taken that seriously.  A piece of work was produced that approximated something along the lines of that experiment.  This was 2004, I think.  Pretty much like the Stones tour movie Cocksucker Blues, it has very rarely been screened and usually only in my presence.
     There were a few parties that went on in my house over that summer, during many of which the participants were under the influence of the psychedelic mushrooms that were, due to a loophole in the law, easily purchasable at the open market in Brighton at the time.  You could buy them on a Friday and take them on the Saturday, and they were very effective.  Every now and again we would get the camera out and shoot stuff, and this was then edited into a film, which was really an experiment in editing, an exercise of sorts – a joke, even.  So, if anything, the psychedelic experiment did sort of get performed in that movie – All Tomorrow’s Parties.  It’s only about 15 minutes long...’

     Intrigued, I pursue the matter further.  Would it be fair to say that, rather than being his most ambitious project to date, it was more of a detour: an experiment that he felt he needed to get out of the way before moving on to The Exam?

‘At that time Richard III hadn’t even been finished.  In the end it took about two and half years to make Richard III.  It came out in January 2005 – we screened that in Brighton – and then it went on to win awards in London Film festivals, received great acclaim, and that sort of triggered my renaissance as a film maker, which led on to The Exam.  But I’m still proud of All Tomorrow’s Parties.  I think that was as close as I got to realising the Psychedelic Experiment.’

     Touched by his honesty, I drop the subject.  The reality is that, entertaining as the film is, it is in no way a true reflection of the man’s ambition.  It is like his Zelig, a strange one-off of a film, possibly reflecting a degree of megalomania, very much in the same vein as the Cocksucker Blues Day alludes to.  Except he’s not a member of the Rolling Stones, let alone a famous movie director, even if you do believe he really could be.

For the sake of completeness, I draw his attention to what was supposed to be his next project.  Entitled Just Let Me Know, it was to be the tale of four students who move in with an Indian family only to inadvertently tear the institution apart.  Principle filming was almost complete when the project was seemingly abandoned early in 2006.  What happened there?

‘Another very difficult history.  I mean, films start, they go into production and you do your best with them, but for various reasons they don’t always get finished.  There are always logistical problems to surmount: organising people and arranging things.  I’m not sure whether there was the impetus behind it to keep it going and to finish it.’

     Rumour has it that the cinematographer working on the project was monomaniacally obsessed with perfecting each single shot, using up time the crew could ill afford; that the scriptwriter-come-producer nearly had a nervous breakdown, exasperated with the having to constantly re-edit his script; that some of the actors would turn up on set drunk, or sometimes not all; and that Day himself was by now becoming more interested in filming what would end up as The Exam.

‘Perhaps.  Really, the problem… It wasn’t like there were problems with the script, but it became obvious we had to be less ambitious with what we were trying to achieve, simply because of the physical restraints and the logistics required to make it, in terms of organising the cast and so forth.  It’s a shame.  I would have loved to have finished it, we did put together a lot of good scenes and there was a lot of good work that went on.’

     I leave it at that.

Pumped up on caffeine, we venture forth to Richmond’s green in search of a public house in which to continue our discussion.  We are entering uncharted territory, now, and a change of scenery will do us both some good.  After the dramatic intensity of Richard III – or the frivolity of All Tomorrow’s Parties, depending on your point of view – The Exam saw Day in a more pensive mood.  His gentlest and least provocative film to date, easy on dialogue but high on imagery, it is, in simple terms, a coming-of-age story.

‘I’ll tell you this: after making Richard III, which was a very… not a painful project as such – actually, it was a painful, in terms of production.  It was a very difficult production and it took a long time to make; a lot of scenes were shot out of sequence.  It was really like a digital jigsaw puzzle, but it came together and was quite a success.  And it was a very dark film, very violent, very wordy, intense, Shakespearian and aggressive and dark – not just dark in terms of the material but dark in terms of the approach to it.  After that, I wanted to do something a lot lighter, a lot more cinematic, to be beautiful and a lot more restrained.’

     And restrained it most certainly is, with Matt Ingram delivering a sensitive performance a far cry from Jamie Martin’s grand effort as Richard III – or for that matter, Maximilian Day’s own turn as Hamlet, which won him an award at the Brighton Film Festival Awards in 2007.  Indeed, given his own abilities as an actor, coupled with the often autobiographical nature of his films, Day’s relationship with his actors is an intriguing one.  The original intent with Wild Oats, for example, was to have Jamie Martin play Alexander Knight – Maximilian Day by another name – whilst Maximilian Day would pop up as Jonny, a character loosely based on Jamie Martin himself.

‘There’s an old maxim that directing is 90% casting.  On set you can’t make people do things, or spend the time teaching them how to act – they need to have brought that along with them in the first instance.  Time is of the essence in film-making, and provided people have that instinct and you’ve chosen correctly…’  He trails off, before adding: ‘Directing is all about making choices.’

     So that you might concentrate on the creative aspects of film-making, I venture?

‘Exactly.  It’s all about time – time is everything in film making.  It’s like waging a war really.  There are tactics, timescales, limitations and you have to respect all of those things.  So if you surround yourself with a good group of people that you know you can rely on, or who aren’t going to cause trouble, then the jobs a lot easier.’


    Filming Wild Oats with Matt Ingram (left) and cinematographer Ben Cole (centre)

Which brings us onto Wild Oats, a film that has yet to receive the recognition or distribution that favoured both Richard III and The Exam.  Another slice of Maximilian life, I wonder what persuaded him to furrow his past for a second consecutive feature, especially given the traumatic experiences Wild Oats seems to mine.

‘I had a script that I’d written about 10 years ago but it took all that time before it became filmable. It’s only semi-autobiographical, I should add.  Once I’d had some success with Richard III and The Exam, I was on the look-out for scripts and this came up again.  With distance, I thought I could maybe reflect on it better as a man in my thirties back on myself as a 19 year old boy. Matt Ingram was keen to make another film, maybe with more dialogue, so I thought, “I’ll give you dialogue.” I dusted off Wild Oats, gave it a quick re-write and we went into production.’

     So Wild Oats is autobiographical, and it seems reasonable, then, to assume that The Exam is too – or elements of it, at least.  A pattern is emerging.  I wonder whether there has been some sort of agenda at work: a personal exorcism of his past, perhaps?  I ask him if he sees these two films as companion pieces, and he warms to the idea, offering that they are similarly concerned with rites-of-passage and that The Exam could almost be a ‘dummy run’ for Wild Oats.  The comparison is an obvious one; Wild Oats almost continues where The Exam left off.
     However, whereas Matt Ingram’s twitchy lead in The Exam appears hopelessly curious, Alexander Knight – the protagonist of Wild Oats – is far more demonstrative, grabbing his destiny by the horns.  Knight’s frustrations can almost be summed up in the single, touchingly desperate line, ‘I’m tired of being little boy lost.’
     Yet, to interpret these films as mere reflective narratives, in the vein of, say, Le Chateau de ma Mere/La Gloire de mon Pere, might be missing the point; naturalistic they are not.

‘Wild Oats is kind of the ultimate rites-of-passage story and also relates very heavily to the idea of film making in itself.  It’s about a young film-maker.  It’s very much about me and the idea of creating art, creating films and the attendant life struggles that go along with that.’

     And this is the crux: Day’s films may well be semi-autobiographical, but nostalgia alone is not the driving the force behind them.  Broken down into acts of sorts, the journey charted in Wild Oats occupies itself with more than mere the transformation from ‘teenagehood’ into adulthood.

‘(I’m trying to) give myself a kind of mythic structure akin to Orpheus and Underworld, or Jason and the Argonauts – a man on a mission.  It’s no accident that the central character’s called Alexander Knight, which I suppose also offers a counter-balance to my name – Max Day.  It’s a mirror image, a reflection, kind of: Through a Glass Darkly, Alice through the Looking Glass.  I’m playing with all those kind of things – Lewis Carroll, altered consciousness, dreamscapes, Jung, ancient archetypes, the connection between dreams and film-making in the way Fellini was influenced by his dreams and made films from them.’

     If Wild Oats is to be read as autobiography, it should also be considered that the biographical elements in question are of that of a young man struggling to fulfil his chosen destiny – to make cinema on one’s own terms.  Most aspiring film makers would think it enough to direct, but with Maximilian Day it is as if he strives for auteur-like status.  Aware that he writes, directs, and even acts, in his own films, I assume his participation extends to editing too?

‘I do, yes, although I’m looking for someone outside to help me.  I think it’s important to have as many angles on things as possible.  There’s a danger of getting too close to your material, especially if you’ve been responsible for shooting it.  There might be a shot that took a long time to do, that you became obsessed with and you’re very determined it make the cut, even if it serves little or no purpose.  An editor on the other hand will have no vested interest in that.’

     As for the script itself:

‘I write all the dialogue, although I’m always keen to make sure that the actors feel comfortable with what they’re saying.  I don’t allow a lot of changes but it’s very important to me that the actors make the dialogue their own.  I’m not totally precious about it, but at the same time I don’t like improvisation.

     There is an element of self-mythologizing at play here.  On one level, Wild Oats deals with a boy struggling to deal with genuine existential trauma.  On another, the film conveys something of what it might be like to want to make serious cinema at a young age when all those around you just see it as a bit of lark.  And Day sees fit to film this not as some chunk of kitchen sink realism, but as the grandest show in town.  The question is why?  Do the ‘Fellini-isms’ serve the film’s message – such as it might be – or are such stylistic flourishes merely what floats Day’s boat.  Or is the whole process more ‘organic’ than I give it credit for?

‘You have to be very careful about that.  I guess they call it sophistry, when the Greeks, for example, were more interested in how they sounded, rather than what they were actually saying.  This is where the concept of sophistry comes from – it’s a love of wisdom for its own sake.’

     He continues:

‘Film making is like politics; it’s all about the art of compromise.  You have to allow things to happen and not be too fixed on what you thought it should be.  Weirdly, it can often be quite liberating to be constrained in this way because you allow what’s happening to be part of and help form the film.  When I teach film I say “What does the audience know?” and ask that we imagine the audience know nothing.  You have to start from this.  This is why I refer to myths.  Myth derives from the Greek word ‘mythos’ which actually means truth – as in an eternal truth.  Jung would talk of these archetypes of experience that we’ve all had since the beginning of time – symbols – and these are the symbols that we tell stories with.’

     Almost expressionistic?

‘Colour is its own language.  Take The Exam: You’ve got a boy going into a green wood and the audience automatically assumes something – a right of passage – which is good because that is what I want to happen.  The character doesn’t have to say anything. ‘Green’ is supposed to suggest that a character is about to learn something, because it’s the colour of enlightenment.  It’s also the colour of jealously and movement.  Red represents danger or passion…’

     And yellow (The character of Chester in The Exam is aligned to the colour yellow)?

‘Madness, actually, but it can also be other things.  In The Exam it represents sacrifice, tied in with spring – April is the cruelest month, as Eliot says in the opening line of the Waste Land.  What does he mean?  He is saying that we are learning again that we have to be reborn and there’s a cruelty in that, in the fact that we constantly have to be reborn.  Renewal is painful, birth is painful… It’s glorious but at the same time painful.’