The phrase “jack of all trades, master of none,” clearly doesn’t apply to Dave McKean. Despite the fact that he has worked in photography, illustration, comics, graphic design, music and film, the renowned artist, who first rose to prominence with his groundbreaking covers for Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series, has managed to maintain his own unique, consistent vision throughout all of these different medium with rarely a drop in quality.
The latest hat McKean has donned is that of film director, for perhaps one of his most intriguing and challenging projects yet. “The Gospel of Us,” now touring movie theaters in and around the United Kingdom (there is no U.S. release date set at this time), captures a unique theatrical experience that took place over 72 hours in the town of Port Talbot. There, actor Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon”) and writer Owen Sheers performed a modern-day retelling of the Passion play — the story of the last few days of Jesus Christ — using the town as a backdrop and incorporating local volunteers in the production in addition to professional actors. As McKean notes, his job was to capture this unique moment in time, as it happened.
CBR News spoke with McKean about “The Gospel of Us,” the unique challenges the film presented and how he’s developed as a movie director.
CBR News: “The Gospel of Us ” is certainly unique. How did you get involved with this film project?
Dave McKean: I was talking to Michael [Sheen] about working on a book together — part autobiography, part actor’s diary, part graphic novel dealing with the three big roles in his life at the time, Poe (in a film he’s writing), Hamlet (who he played at the Young Vic this year) and Christ, or a Christ-like figure in this Passion play in Port Talbot. So I went with him to Oberammergau in Germany to talk over the book, and watch the Passion play as research material. His co-director Bill Mitchell was there, as was the writer Owen Shears. They talked about the plans for the play throughout the three days we were there, and it sounded extraordinary. Even though the BBC were there doing a behind the scenes documentary, I couldn’t understand why no-one was going to be there to shoot it as a film. Bill said, “Well, you do it.” So I did.
Then the full implications of this casual commitment started to emerge. I’m glad I didn’t have too long to think about it, or I would have backed out. We had to raise a budget quickly, so I put all our eggs in one basket with a pitch to Film Agency for Wales. They backed the project, so we were off.
Were you involved at all with the stage production?Â
No, the stage production was happening whether I was there shooting it or not. So the point, as far as I was concerned, was to deal with whatever they decided to do. My job was much more as an illustrator than a film director. I had to deal with the play as a set text, and find ways of expressing the emotions in the story through film. I had no say or input over the performances or script, a very unusual position to be in, but I like those kinds of challenges. I think strange and interesting hybrids come out of these sorts of situations.
What was it specifically about Sheen’s show that appealed to you so much that you wanted to become involved?Â
He’s a very charismatic performer, and his idea for the piece — a secular, contemporary version of the story — sounded very strong. I loved the fact that it would take place all over town and involve thousands of people, and that the story was really about the town — as he said, a town dreaming its own story.Â
One complaint a lot of film adaptations of plays get is that they seem too stage-y and stilted — that the intimacy of the live theatrical event doesn’t transfer to cinema. Was that a concern of yours going into making this film and if so, how did you attempt to avoid that problem?Â
Yes, so I planned and shot a few smaller, more intimate scenes with some of the actors in the days before the play, and in the evenings after the main scenes had finished with Michael. I also planned several treatments and ways of re-ordering the material to try and make sure the film didn’t just have one visual note — small actors and a big crowd. In the end, I realized the film would never escape its theatrical origins, so my task as an editor was to balance the theatrical, the cinematic and documentary forces in the film. I guess anyone’s response to the film is based on how well, or badly, they feel I succeeded in that balance, or, I suppose, whether they feel that is a worthwhile or interesting thing to do. For me, it is interesting and creates an unusual and powerful mix. The responses grabbed from audience members are very real; the overwhelming presence of iPhones and mobiles is something I don’t any of us expected, or would have written into a film script. At the end of the day, anyone expecting a regular, usual film would probably be disappointed. If you roll with it, and look at its quirkiness as a positive, and realize that this is my personal gospel, my version, of what happened over the Easter weekend of 2011 — and my personal view of belief and the nature of storytelling, and the way news becomes myth — well, then you may get something curious and unusual out of it.
It sounds like you were scrambling a bit as you were filming the production. How much time did you have from when you decided to film the play to the first day of filming? What sort of challenges beyond funding did having such a short window of time create?Â
Our budget came through in December, I think, then Lucy Davies from Theatre Wales interviewed a few potential producers and settled on Eryl Phillips who has a been a great creative force on the project. He got the crew together while I worked on a plan of action. I had to finish a long book project with Richard Dawkins, so I couldn’t get out to the rehearsals until the tech started about ten days before the actual performance. But at that point it was all looking plausible. The real problems came during the performance, when thousands of audience members and photographers showed up and I had to rethink the whole feel of the film and the way in which we should capture the footage. My agreement with the Michael was that we would be discreet, no bit cameras, or cranes, or anything that would come between the performance and the audience. We had to blend into the crowd. We ended up having to be a little more assertive than I would have liked, only because the crowd were constantly jostling for position, naturally.
Do you consider yourself a religious person? Did filming this show allow you on some level to address your own spiritual interests/needs or lack thereof?Â
No, I’m an atheist, but I’m fascinated by belief, the history and development of religion and creation stories from around the world. I’m fascinated by story, and especially the way stories based on fact become distorted and mythologized over time. I saw this as a way of exploring those ideas. I imagine that the what we see in the town is really a mythologized version of what actually happened, in the same way that the stories as finally edited together in the Bible are mythologized versions of what actually happened a couple of hundred years before. So the film is very much my own take — my gospel — of the event. Others will have their own gospels.
I never really know what spiritual interests are. In a collective sense, then yes, it was extraordinary to be part of something that cast its spell over a whole town, and to see how powerful the collective feelings of a crowd can be. On a personal level, I certainly changed a little by the whole experience, but that’s much more to do with my battle in the edit to sculpt the final film, and to get into the emotional journey of the character, and in recognizing how much I’ve got out of being involved in something that has touched so many people’s lives. The play really changed the town, and I hope I have captured a little of that power in the film. It’s never going to be a substitute for actually having been there on the weekend, but film has its own power.
It sounds like the kind of production where improvisation isn’t just hoped for but a necessity. From a directorial standpoint, did you find that to be true? Did you find yourself having to make choices on the fly in reaction to what the actors and crowd were doing?Â
Yes, but we always knew it would be a case of guerilla filmmaking, grabbing stuff on the fly, finding shots where we could. And I hoped that documentary style energy would carry through to the film.
It was in the edit that the problems really arose. By then it was too late to correct any script, dramatic, acting problems. We had to just go with it and try and make the best of it all. Sometimes the shot footage was wonderful and a pleasure to cut. But some scenes were very tough. The problems on the day were minimized, but never went away completely. But that’s the nature of the beast.
Tell me a bit about the film’s post-production. Once you had everything filmed, did you have to ask the actors to reshoot anything? Was it a difficult film to edit?Â
We reshot a couple of the actors for a couple of their scenes, for different reasons.
For two of the scenes, I wanted to remove the audience from the picture, so I reshot a handful of close-ups to allow the edit to work. It also allowed the actors to tone down their performance a bit. The arrival scene was very difficult theatrically, and didn’t work on film at all. It involved a long conversation between a woman strapped with explosives and Michael slowly approaching her from several hundred yards away. Because there were thousands of people there, the actors had to shout everything, and I wanted the scene to become almost a telepathic whispered conversation, so we reshot the actress and got Michael to redo his lines in ADR. I stripped all the sound out of the scene except for this new dialogue and Michael’s footsteps in the sand. It’s still an odd scene, but it works much better than it did. There was one performance I missed in close up during one of the scene, so we got that actor back in. There was actually very little to reshoot, and practically, I could only do a few things in close up and there was no way to recall 10,000 extras for the crowd scenes.
The edit was long and tricky. Some scenes fell together pretty well, the advantage of having no choice — one take of everything. So it was a little like directing camera angles on a live event. But of course there are always an infinite amount of choices, places to cut away, lines to cut, values to change. It seemed that the more I intervened in the scenes, the more interesting they became as film, so I cut, retimed, stripped out sound, cut to music alone, added simple 2-D effects, extreme graded — all sorts.Â
Can you give me an example of a scene where you added something post-production and the scene became “more interesting.”Â
Almost every scene in Gospel followed that model. The baptism scene at the beginning only started to work when I stripped out all the sound and found a beautiful simple piece of music that seemed to capture the inner feelings of Michael Sheen’s character. It also made the presence of the audience much more open to interpretation. I showed the scene in this rough cut form to Neil Gaiman and he immediately said; “he’s mad isn’t he? He’s on his own, and having a breakdown?” Well, that’s a great interpretation of the scene.
For some of the scenes I drained almost all the color out of the scene, but kept one prominent color; the blood on Michael’s face for the start of the procession, the purple in the banners of the militarized corporation as they put Michael on trial.
At the eleventh hour of the sound mix, I had a piece of rhythmic music over the scene where Michael is scourged, beaten up by the military police in a shopping centre. I was 80% sure it worked, my producer Eryl Phillips called me out on it, and we tried dropping to complete silence. The third shot into the sequence was a little boy in the crowd putting his hands over his ears, and that convinced me we were onto something. I’ve tweaked it a bit since, but the film is full of those creative jumps.
What are the plans for the film beyond its current tour in the UK? Will it come to the U.S. at some point? Or be made available on Netflix or other streaming service?Â
No idea. I think it is due out on DVD in the UK on July 9. I believe Welsh Film Agency is looking at sales agents for the rest of the world at the moment. We’ll see.
According to IMDB.com, this is your third time out as a feature film director. How do you feel about your abilities as a director at this point?
In some ways, still very uncertain. Shooting film is such a chaotic situation. It’s a long way from the close control I have over the other creative areas of my life. It’s very public — if you screw up on the set, it’s in front of a crew of professionals. I can’t throw a film away and start again; I have to just carry on cutting and recutting until it works to the best the material will allow. On the positive side, if you don’t fight the chaos, and roll with it, and try to make the most of the circumstances surrounding you in the best spirit of collaboration, then you can find wonderful things. I think film has given me the highest of highs creatively, but also definitely the lowest of lows. And the lows last, and the highs evaporate pretty quickly. So, I tend to feel that books make me happy and films make me miserable, but I want to keep trying to defeat the beast.Â
Is this something you’re more interested in pursuing at this point in your career or is does it ebb and flow depending on the project?
It ebbs and flows because I have no power to get films made. I can’t finance and single handedly distribute a film. So I have to wait for the opportunities to arrive from others. Whereas I can get on with a book and someone will publish it. And if no one else will, then I will. But since I think film makes pretty good use of my skills and interests — storytelling, image making, music, writing and photography — I feel I should keep trying to make my kind of films. I know I don’t have skin thick enough for Hollywood, or any real interest in a career in film, and pursuing mainstream movies. The creators I most admire, and feel some connection to, and the individuals whose signature is on every frame. They are often difficult and unsettling filmmakers, but they are the ones I find most rewarding and valuable.
What do you get out of directing that you don’t in making art or comics?Â
Music is big one. Collaboration with actors is another wonderful plus. A film is a very demanding, highly technical, monstrously complicated thing to try and create. In every second, a dozen things can go wrong, slight misjudgments of performance, camera angle, lighting — so many things. The cutting you can spend more time on, and the sound design and music you can play with, so they are the most enjoyable parts of the process. It’s a wonder that any film works completely all the way through, yet a small number do. That’s what you are chasing. I think any journalists who want to criticize other people’s attempts at making films should really have a go themselves, just to get a taste of how difficult it is to line up every planet.
Do you think you were able to take anything from the experience of making this film and apply it to a more standard, traditionally made film? What are you working on next?
Certainly. As with the other two features I’ve shot (although one of them, “Luna,” is still in post), and the five or so short films, I learned a huge amount with each. Some things get easier to deal with experience, but each film throws up a whole new bunch of problems to tackle. But that’s the fun of it, if also the source of frustration.