Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Vancouver at the Vancouver International Film Festival

The last time I checked there were over a thousand film festivals a year – so that’s three a day.  No doubt that figure is increasing all the time.  So how and why does a filmmaker attend a festival? In my time, I have been to plenty all around the world – all are distinctive for one reason or another, and some are certainly more useful than others as far as distributing one’s new film is concerned.  One thing they do share is that they are a great place to see great films that you almost certainly will never otherwise have seen.

I know how hard it is to raise the funds to make decent films so I am always taken aback by how many good films do get made.  So, comment no.1 would be if your city has a festival, go every day and see as many films as possible.

As someone who adores documentaries I love going to festivals just to watch films. However, I simply don’t have time so I have to choose really carefully.  So, some will go to a festival to try and pick up distribution.  Festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Cannes are full of new work looking for a home with someone who will bring them to the world. As we distribute our own films, that’s not relevant to me.  Plus I’m personally no fan of those hugely busy events where everyone is just a little bit too concerned about how they look and who’s there to notice.

Another reason to enter a festival to present your film for the first time to a paying audience and see what they think.  That is certainly one of the reasons I love Vancouver - the crowds are enthusiastic, informed and (it’s that Canadian thing!) very nice!  Reason no.3 is to pick up early reviews.  This is actually pretty important – you need reviews for the poster, the social media campaign and so on.  The one great thing about films is that they get far more reviews than anything you’ll do for TV or digital. Reason no.4 might be to pick up an award.  We’ve won plenty and I’ve no idea whether it has made much difference but it’s still nice.  Our new Hockney film picked up an Audience Award in its first screening and that was a great boost to us all.

Reason no.5 is festivals can be great fun. Again, Vancouver is my absolute favourite festival partly for that reason – they do everything right and look after us film-makers really well.  So, for example, instead of one big dinner for all the filmmakers that can be uncomfortable if you don’t know anyone and no-one has the sense to make introductions, Vancouver does small intimate lunches of 6-8 filmmakers each day. Much better and much more valuable.  Reason no.6: it can take you to some great cities – I still regret turning down festivals in Tehran, Kathmandu, Tallinn, Skopje, Busan, Kiev, Doha, and plenty more.  On the other hand, I’ve been to plenty of others and had a great time.

But I’ll come back to the reason that I think we all need to remember: there is no better place to see a film than in a cinema.  Most of the films I have seen this week in Vancouver have been excellent and, if I had seen them at all, it would almost certainly have been on my laptop. Please, I encourage you to buy my DVDs and download my films BUT the best place to see any film is in the cinema. Yesterday, I watched my own film David Hockney at the RA on a huge gorgeous screen at the VanCity Cinema in Vancouver – the quality of the sound and picture was out of this world.

That was a tough project for various reasons but yesterday all that was forgotten and it brought a tear to my eye.
Art Makes Us indeed.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017


‘You are invited to Buckingham Palace’…  Now that is a phrase to seize anyone’s attention. I am a naturally curious soul and had always wanted to take a peek inside the palace. I have never done the tour that one can do in the summer months and so I have never seen the Picture Gallery – with its wonderful collection.  The reason for my new invitation was to discuss the production of CANALETTO AND THE ART OF VENICE - AT THE QUEEN’S GALLERY, BUCKINGHAM PALACE.  Now, if you haven’t been to see an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery then you have been missing out.  The Royal Collection has around a million objects under its care so they can put on the most wonderful exhibitions from their own stores.  The Collection itself contains works from a dozen or so royal locations throughout Britain and is a wonderful national resource.  

When we heard about the possible Canaletto exhibition we knew right away it would make a great film. Who wouldn’t be excited to film in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle? But even more than that, I hope any art lover would share with me the thrill of being able to take a really close look at the wonders of 18th century Venice.  Canaletto is the best-known artist of that period but far from the only one worthy of our attention. As ever, I am fascinated to know ‘why then and why there?’   If there is one European city that really can be called unique then it is Venice. What an extraordinary city – and a city that over the centuries of its unconquered empire produced some of history’s great artists.  

Canaletto is certainly among them but sometimes can be a little misunderstood. Some might think he simply does accurate portrayals of Venice landscapes to be then sold to both locals and travellers.  Anyone thinking that would be wrong. He is, in fact, a master storyteller in light who plays with reality for his own purposes.  To see his works out of their frames in the labs at Windsor or hanging in pride of place in Buckingham Palace – and to then listen to the two wonderful curators Lucy Whitaker and Rosie Razzall talking with great knowledge and insight – is a privilege which our film will share with you.  Or if, like me, you also fancy a peek inside one of the world’s great palaces, yes we can offer you that too!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

More on Monet...

Hi everyone...it's been a hugely busy few weeks with three films all coming to fruition.  The one we have just released is I, CLAUDE MONET and I'm delighted it's been so warmly received.   Here's a very nice article from a magazine I'd highly recommend if you're interested in France and all things French:  FRANCE CULTURE.   

Friday, 27 January 2017

'My Head is Bursting' - Claude Monet as you've never seen him before

I am sure you all know the wonderful paintings by Claude Monet - especially perhaps the water lilies from Giverny.  It could be said that he is the world's favourite artist - certainly one of them.  And yet it almost never happened.   On the 29th June 1868 the young Claude Monet wrote the following letter:

I must have undoubtedly been born under an unlucky star. I've just been turned out, without a shirt on my back, from the inn where I was staying. I have found somewhere safe in the country for Camille and my poor little Jean to stay for a few days. As for myself, I leave this evening for Le Havre. My family refuse to help me any more.  I don't know where I'll sleep tomorrow. I was so upset yesterday that I was stupid enough to hurl myself into the water. Fortunately no harm was done.

Claude Monet 1899 Photo:Nadar

Was he rescued from the Seine by a passer-by? Did the shock of the cold water bring him to his senses?  We'll never know but on such moments the world turns. It is so easy to look back at an artist's life and think the path from youth to old age was somehow pre-destined; that such talent had to find its way, no matter what, to fame and fortune.  I think the opposite is true: such paths are strewn with obstacles: many turn back, or lose their way, or are struck down by misfortune and disappear.   I believe Monet lived with his knowledge all his life - he never considered himself (publicly at least) a great artist.  His letters (the basis of a recently finished film of mine - I, Claude Monet - soon to be released in the cinema) reveal a man forever troubled by the fragility of his own talent.  He never felt that he worked hard enough or saw clearly enough.  He was endlessly frustrated by what he thought of as his inability to capture nature correctly.

Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899, National Gallery of Art Washington

There are two dangers with Monet - one is that there are folk who are simply disinterested in art or the perceived chocolate box nature of the impressionists.  Or there are those who think they know everything there is to know about Monet.  Familiarity can, as they say, breed contempt.  Both camps are in the wrong.  I can argue all day why I think everyone is - certainly should be - interested in art.  It is such an integral part of our daily lives - the way a New Yorker might decorate their apartment, or a Pakistani truck driver might decorate their vehicle, or a Japanese Buddhist might build their temple...and so on and so on.  Nor is there anything confectionary about the impressionists - look closely, look again - look at our cinema screen and see the works in a way that has never in history been possible before.  And look afresh at the remarkable skill and creative imagination of these artists.

On a surface level there is so much pleasure to be had - look deeper and harder and you'll be even more rewarded.  As for those who feel they know all about Monet, I ask forbearance.  I often hear folk saying 'oh, we know all about...so & so".  Never is it true.  I thought I 'knew' Monet until I started reading his letters (around 3000 have survived) and, just as importantly, started really looking at his work again - in chronological order.  Throw in the historical, the economic, his peers, the personal, the technological...and what emerges is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of art.  His gaze may well have gradually withdrawn to his own garden, his own lily pond, the reflections on the water but the results tell a universal story as relevant today as the day he died in 1926.   After 85 minutes in the warm, comfortable confines of your local cinema, I think you'll have re-discovered the wonderful, inspirational Claude Oscar Monet.

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872, Musee Marmottan

Monday, 12 December 2016

Czech Republic

An exciting few days in the Czech Republic releasing CONCERTO – A BEETHOVEN JOURNEY.   Who doesn’t love Prague? What a wonderful city – especially if you visit a little after the tourist season.  It is only of those wonderful European cities of music – like Vienna and Paris – that hours can be spent just wandering around, popping into churches and concert halls, drinking coffee and eating the occasional cream-filled cake.   The first screening was for the music folk of Prague – not least the Prague Spring Festival and also the Rudolphinum concert hall.  The project had started here in 2012 so it was nice to bring the finished film to them to view.  My local distributors had done a good job of subtitling and posters, etc, not to forget the drinks and snacks afterwards.  The whole evening went very well – and everyone seemed to really enjoy and appreciate the film.  The next day we repeated the process with the local film and music press – and that too went well.  Leif Ove is one of those pianists that if you know him you love, and if you see him in the film for the first time you also love him immediately. The problem, as ever, is how to draw people into the cinema to see someone they have not heard of – which is why we stress the Beethoven angle.  But it’s tricky.  I have two subsequent public screenings to the east then north of the country and while everyone who came loved the film the attendances were poor. (50 people in a 200 seater cinema).  That’s why Hollywood spends millions on marketing…  Not an option for us.  However, what was really encouraging was how popular EXHIBITION ON SCREEN is with audiences and how they are really looking forward to next year’s films….

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Premiering The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch

So, what’s it like watching your film have its world premiere?   Autumn has certainly arrived – and sometimes for me it’s the close, dark misty days of a European city that really bring that home. The Netherlands is a wonderful country but I have certainly seen the sun there all too rarely I have to admit. It’s more often a collar-up, hat on, kind of place. This Thursday was no different. As I and my colleague and friend David Bickerstaff landed in Amsterdam, I swear we could have reached up and touched the grey clouds.  I was reminded of the week we spent filming in Den Bosch six months earlier when, again, the sun came out only once – remarkably when we were filming a wide shot of the city from across some fields.  It hadn’t mattered much as the success of the Hieronymus Bosch exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum had meant they were staying open to 1am every morning (!).  That meant we had to film the exhibition from 1.30am to 8.30am over subsequent nights.  It was the most glorious exhibition and rightfully deserved to be a huge success – 421,000 visitors which for a provincial gallery is astounding.  People drove from all over Europe. Some even flew from overseas – even Australia. Once again this proves our love of art. 
It is, in fact, almost exactly a year since we first heard about the exhibition and made an instant decision to make a film about it and Bosch. Now, November 3rd 2016, here David and I were in Bosch’s hometown to host the world premiere of our 13th and latest EXHIBITION ON SCREEN film.  I think what made this a particularly enjoyable film to make was that, really without exception, the museum was staffed by the loveliest, most helpful folk.  From the museum’s director to the security guards who looked after us through the nights of filming, they could not have been more co-operative and welcoming. So it was a delight to be with them all in the local ‘Old Biscuit Factory’ cinema.  After an introductory drink and welcome to all, we took our seats and waited for that magical movie moment – when the lights go down.  Who doesn’t have that sense of anticipation and excitement as, seated where one can’t be reached by the outside world, darkness falls and you know you’re going to be taken to another world.  I love cinema – and always have.  It’s part of the motivation for making these art films first and foremost for the cinema – it’s still far and away the best place to see any film.  And so, 100 or more or us sat together in the darkness and witnessed the opening credits…EXHIBITION ON SCREEN & SEVENTH ART PRODUCTIONS present…   And off we went.  My, how stunning the film looked!  I hadn’t seen it finished on the big screen and the quality was astounding.  It costs us a small fortune to send small hard drives to every cinema (almost 1500 worldwide now) but – with cinemas having upgraded their digital capabilities enormously in recent years – you, we, the audience can now watch at a quality level previously undreamt of.   After the film, even those who had lived with those Bosch paintings through the exhibition said they had seen details they had not noticed before.  There was a warm ovation for the film at the end followed by a bit of a bar crawl in Bosch’s home town…maybe drinking in the same bars he himself once drank in. On the other hand, judging by his pictures, maybe he’d have gone straight home to say his prayers. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016


Hello everyone. Apologies for these too-long gaps between blogs but it has been fantastically busy recently being in production of 4 films and in pre-production of 4 others.  We also distribute our own films and that means dealing with 50+ countries now, all of whom we love dearly but all of whom do have different needs and requirements. I’ve always said days should be 36 hours long! (Yes, I know that makes no sense…). Anyway, I am just back from an exhausting but wonderful shooting trip to the United States and I hope you’ll like to hear a little bit more about it. We are making a film about the American Impressionist period that essentially stretches from 1880-1920 and, in particular, its linkage to the development of the garden at the same time. It’s a film with challenges of course – I doubt if too many of our audience in Chile or Italy, Korea or South Africa know the names of Hassam, Wier, Robinson, Chase, etc, but I find that exciting; we’re bringing to you some superb and significant artists who played a key role in creating and developing an American school of art. Through them we will also get a real insight into two other conjoining narratives: the changing nature of American society at that time and the developing emancipation of women who were progressing from being merely the object of the male artist’s gaze to becoming significant artists in their own right.

Me and my super crew’s journey began in Boston, took in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. It is such a huge country and this is but a 500 stretch of coastline but as one interviewee put it ‘this is the country’s megopolis’. It is so rich in both urban and rural splendour. Many of the American impressionists lived in cities but sought the restorative powers of the country garden & landscape whenever they could, especially in the summer. Jumping on the new railroads made this easy and it’s no accident that so-called artist colonies sprung up all over – most notably at Cos Cob, Cornish, Old Lyme and on Appledore Island. Here groups of artists – largely men but certainly not exclusively so – came to paint in convivial surroundings. As you can imagine, gardens were an excellent resource offering up many manner of colour combinations – and ever-changing depictions of light.  In our film we will explore the growth of the garden in America – and clearly this dates back to the early settlers (but for sustenance and medicaments) – up to the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries when the garden became a place of respite and reflection. Some of these plants and flowers had arrived recently to the USA and artists could easily spend as much time painting a flower or flowers as they would a human portrait. There was a trade the other way too – I was fascinated to hear from one of my interviewees the story of the native American flower we call the sunflower.
That was an export to Europe…and think of Van Gogh and others who fell in love with that particular exotic import.  Monet’s example is just as strong – the story of the water lily is fascinating and too long for a blog but look it up. 

I am forever enthralled by how artists study their garden subjects – and, more than that, study the light that falls on flowers and plants. The light variations are endless and the great artists all share that passion to look, learn, capture. There were a good handful too of American artists who made a bee-line for Giverny (and Monet). Monet was no teacher but one or two made it through his personal defences – becoming a friend, quasi-student, even in one case a relative. His art was more open to all-comers.This radical new style of ‘impressionism’ was much taken upon by the visiting artists and it wasn’t long before they were taking it home with them. This, allied with the arrival in American collections, of the first impressionist works from France created this new artistic movement on the eastern shores of the United States.

As ever, everyone we met in these locations and galleries was so enthusiastic and generous that it made the shoot a real pleasure. It’s always a slog – up early, to bed late, and so on but if the film can capture the joy and expertise of this fascinating story then we’ll have done our job. We’re already editing and, frankly, a little awash with footage and stories but we’ll find a nice clear path through our own complex garden and hope you’ll enjoy our colourful offering as much as these artists enjoyed them.