Andy Kimpton-Nye: CAN YOU REMEMBER HOW YOU CAME TO BE CAST IN COMRADES?
Phil Davis: Oh the usual way you know…the casting director got in touch with the agent. I don’t think Bill knew any actors; he certainly didn’t give the impression. And I went for a meeting with him in this funny little flat in Archer Street. It was very spartan with formica tables. I understand that that was his flat, that was where he lived. And he didn’t say very much, the casting director did most of the talking, I think we did a bit of reading, but he just sat back and watched very carefully, very watchful. And rather excited, he was laughing a lot and he was very excited about making this film. And then of course, it didn’t happen that year and it was postponed until the following year.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO COMRADES AND THE PART OF YOUNG STANFIELD?
Oh it was the script. It was quite unlike any film script I had ever read. There was no sense of narrative, of pushing the story on but there was this series of, described in great detail, these images of…. a droplet of rain running down the window, someone’s face smiling and it was kind of difficult to understand exactly what sort of film it would make. It was difficult to interpret but there was obviously something very special about it. And you know the depiction of the rural light in Dorset at that time, it just had something kind of genuine about it. And you know there were interesting quirks as well, the character that crops up, that Alex Norton plays… the thirteen different types he plays with all the different gismos with the camera and the shadows…. And so it was fascinating and I didn’t know anything about him, I hadn’t heard about the short films and the following year when it was going to go to Australia and Simon had a screening of them and I went to see them and there it was. I mean there was what you hoped this film would be because there were these extraordinary images, they just sort of burnt you, your eye. And there was something sort of genuine, this wasn’t fake, this was real and it came from a real feeling. It was difficult to marry that up with the man himself, he was quite unlike any other film director I’ve ever come across.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, WHY WAS HE UNLIKE ANY OTHER FILM DIRECTOR…?
He seemed very naïve, something childlike about him, he wasn’t comfortable around actors and even technical people I don’t think. He was ploughing his own furrow and he needed people who would support him. That’s not to say he didn’t know what he was doing because he knew every frame of that film and he was stubborn, absolutely stubborn and he wouldn’t compromise at all and he directed it with a very sure hand but in his own way. He wasn’t the sort of director to give you notes about motivation or anything. You’d ask him a question and he’d just describe what the film would be. You know, there’s a figure walking through the landscape and then there’s a thing sliding through the grass as they cut the hay and then there’s a wide shot. And you started to see the sequence in the way that he saw it…. and he didn’t really answer your question of how to play it but he gave you an inkling.
SO HE WAS CARRYING AROUND THE WHOLE FILM IN HIS HEAD….?
Well I’m sceptical about that when people say he’s got the whole film in his head… and I go ‘oh yea’. I just know by experience, you never quite know what you’ve got until you cut it together and all that. But it seemed that he was, yea. He seemed pretty close to it. And the script was so detailed and there was something very special about it.
AND HOW DID HE PREPARE YOU AS AN ACTOR…?
In no way at all. I mean it was the usual thing, you don’t get much rehearsals for film and we all schlepped down to Dorset, put our rural gear on and got on with it. And every shot was set up very, very carefully. It was a good shoot you know, the early part, in Dorset. He seemed to be directing with a very sure hand and he seemed to know exactly what he wanted. In my opinion, that first hour of the film is the strongest part of Comrades, I think he gets a little lost when he got to Australia and the landscapes all baffled him a bit.
YOUNG STANFIELD TURNS OUT TO BE A BIT OF A JOKER, A BIT CARING, WAS THAT HOW YOUR CHARACTER WAS DISCUSSED WITH BILL?
We didn’t really discuss character things, he wasn’t that type of man, he wouldn’t say, you’re the one who does this and does that. I don’t remember… I mean it was 20 years ago I might have forgotten but I don’t remember any conversations like that. But there it was, Stansfield picks a potato out of the fire because he’s hungry and he can’t wait and it burns his hands and everybody laughs. But we did that work ourselves to create a kind of family feeling and of course he was one of the youngest, I was actually in my 30s when I played it but he was…. a kid. You saw him dancing through the woods with his pal, you know chasing after girls and all that. And also to some extent, we weren’t discouraged from impovising, we could make stuff up and all that. Bill liked it but one of the odd things, he never seemed to say ‘cut’. You’d finish a scene and everyone would stand and it would go on for seconds and seconds and a lot of those things he used as like still tableaux. I think he cast us as much as anything for the way we looked and the faces and a certain sort of quality in the eye as much as anything else, as much as any skills we had. And so you had to sort of offer yourself up to him and just go along with it.
WERE THERE ANY PROBLEMS WITH BILL…? WHAT HAPPENED IF THINGS WEREN’T COMING TOGETHER….?
Well, then there’s trouble! And this happens all the time on every film and tv shoots. You’ve got this thing you want to get and you can’t get it for various reasons, whether it’s time or the weather has not been kind to you or an actor is not quite coming up with what you want. And then you just sort of struggle. And he was very stubborn, Bill, he didn’t give in. By and large he got what he wanted. I mean it did get difficult later when the time started running out and to be a film director it’s not just a matter of seeing your vision through, you’ve got six pages or whatever and you’ve got to shoot them in a day. And what you get is what you get and you can’t stay there any longer because the location is going to disappear and you can’t afford it for another week and there’s all those things to consider and all the people around Bill, the producer and so on, all trying to help him get what he wanted but it’s never perfect, it’s always a compromise.
WAS THERE ONE AREA OF THE PRODUCTION PROCESS HE WAS CLOSER TO THAN OTHERS?
Gale (Tattersall - DoP) he was very close to. Gale had shot the short films… and he trusted Gail although like old friends or a married couple, they fought tooth and nail some of the time but he did seem very tight with Gail and I think the visual element in the film was so important, much more important than the acting or the dialogue. So he seemed close to him, but for me he wasn’t a man you could get close to, he was rather elusive and a bit clumsy socially. I remember a long train journey in Australia coming back to Sydney and we were all stuck together in this carriage with a bar thank God. He was sitting there and he said, come on you’re actors you have got to entertain me. We just said, ‘Oh shut up Bill’. But then of course, we did. Someone got a guitar out…
THAT’S INTERESTING BECAUSE HE WAS AN ACTOR HIMSELF THE IN EARLY DAYS…
I didn’t know that.
HE WENT TO JOAN LITTLEWOOD’S SCHOOL AT THE THEATRE ROYAL STRATFORD….
That’s where I started. I worked with her in 1972, I got my first job. I was with her for 2 years. She’d been away and come back, the theatre had reopened.
HE WAS THERE 1959/60…
Joan used to pick up these weirdos, the company was full of strange people, even when I was there. There were people who were staggeringly brilliant and people who couldn’t act who you knew were going to go on a do other things but they were stuck in the play anyway. And Joan she welcomed them. I can’t imagine him as an actor, I can’t imagine it at all.
IN AUSTRALIA IT WAS RUMOURED THAT THE ACTORS AND CREW WERE PREPARED TO FORGO THEIR WAGES TO GET THE FILM FINISHED…. IS THAT TRUE?
Oh, I can’t remember… Possibly.
WAS THERE AN OVER-RUN ON THE SHOOT IN AUSTRALIA?
Well there was, I was stuck in Australia for weeks and weeks and I didn’t mind because I was in Australia. And I had one scene left to shoot and nobody quite knew where it was going to happen. And it was on the call sheet every day and never got shot. And then it was the Christmas break and so I was living on the per diems, on the expenses. I think we did agree to dock a couple of weeks’ wages but we weren’t getting paid much. He just got behind. I remember Simon striding up to him when we were in the jungle somewhere, in some valley, the Blue Mountains and said ‘how many shots on this sequence?’ And Bill said ‘sixteen!’ which was absurd and so I think their relationship started to get very difficult. I felt for Simon really. Well you know, there’s only so much money in the kitty and what do you do when it runs out.
I GET THE IMPRESSION THAT IF BILL HAD A VISION, HE WAS GOING TO DO HIS DAMNDEST TO TRY AND GET IT….
Yes he was and this was an unusual film, even for then because it was epic in scale but it was essentially an art house film. Most art films are made very cheaply…. this wasn’t hideously expensive but all the same it was a biggy and it was very, very difficult.
WHEN YOU FIRST SAW THE SCRIPT… DID YOU THINK: A TALE OF THE EARLIEST TRADE UNIONISTS LASTING 3 HOURS…. HOW ON EARTH IS THIS FILM GOING TO SELL?
Yes I did. And a lot of it was very slow, I mean fascinating but slow and the weakest part of the scripts were the narrative turns. I still watch it now and I get irritated when there’s that business with the black Legg, you know the character Legg, who grasses them up, and it’s not done so it’s easy to understand, and it would have been so easy to fix it. So it’s not a perfect film but he was a man of extraordinary talent, he was born to be a film maker.
….DID YOU KNOW MUCH OF BILL’S BACKGROUND?
I didn’t know anything,… and afterwards we went for a drink with the rest of the cast and everyone filled me in on my appalling ignorance of this man. I mean the name rang a bell… it was kind of… but I didn’t know anything about him. But then I started to understand the man a little more.
SO DID YOU KNOW THAT TRILOGY WAS THE LIFE STORY OF HIS EARLY YEARS IN SCOTLAND…..?
Yes selected episodes from his life.
IMAGINE THAT FOR AN UPBRINGING…?But there are moments of great joy aren’t there. You know when the kid runs out and the steam train comes.
THERE’S A LOT OF HOPE IN IT….
I agree. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel always in Bill’s films. But you know when I read Comrades I had no idea what sort of film it was going to turn out to be or whether it would be coherent. I didn’t understand what the recurring character was all about or how it would work or what it precisely meant but it was just interesting and made one curious to want to be a part of it.
DID BILL EVER DISCUSS THE POLITICS OF THE FILM?
No, not with me.
DID YOU SEE HIM AS POLITICAL FILM MAKER?
I don’t know that I did really. I don’t know I saw it as an overtly political film, not a call to arms or anything, it was just about injustice. An injustice that was so clear and manifest that something had to be done about it. Obviously it’s the thing that began the trade union movements so there’s a political aspect to it but… these men, these hard working men, especially George, that Robin Soanes played, this was an intelligent, cultured farm worker… something of an oxymoron I would have thought. But that’s the truth of it and it’s easy to see them as something like animals grunting away in the fields when you’re going past in your coach but they had lives that were every bit as vivid… they fell in love… And that’s what I thought the film was doing, was opening up the lives of these men.
IT SHOWS YOU LIVES YOU DON’T NORMALLY SEE…
It goes to places that films, movies don’t usually go to.
THERE WERE RUMOURS THAT BILL WASN’T COMFORTABLE DIRECTING THE STARS IN COMRADES, DID YOU NOTICE A PROBLEM WHEN BILL DEALT WITH BIG NAMES…?
He was less comfortable with them than he was with us. I think the wheeze was to have unknown actors as the main characters, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their families, and then get as many stars in as you could, you know we had Vanessa (Redgrave), Edward Fox and Robert Stephens. And he was less comfortable with them. But I didn’t see any major problems.
HE LIKED TO KNOW HIS LOCATIONS WELL, DID YOU FEEL HE WAS A BIT MORE OF A FISH OUT OF WATER FILMING IN AUSTRALIA?
Yes I did. I mean I think the thing about the land (in Dorset) was so important and there are sequences where you can look at it and it looks like it must have looked, I mean it’s not tarted up or anything. There were these men working the fields and you see them gathering up to eat their lunch and there’s something kind of genuine about it and I think he knew all that backwards. I think when he got to Australia, which is a very strange and huge place, it wasn’t quite so easy for him. And also, the story disperses. You have five or six different tales to tell and you’ve got to tell them quite quickly and get back to them all coming back to England. And I think he was less sure of his ground and I think he panicked ever so slightly. He got a bit hysterical once or twice.
THAT NEATLY TYING-UP OF NARRATIVES IN AUSTRALIA IS NOT A BILL DOUGLAS WAY OF TELLING STORIES….
I think also in Australia time was running out, money was running out. We were badly behind. He was under a lot of pressure to cut stuff or change stuff and I don’t think he quite knew what to do. He had to bring the film in and I don’t know how they resolved the financial problem. They obviously gathered another few shillings from somewhere to finish the film.
I heard tell of a private investor who bailed us out but I presume you’re talking to Simon. So he’ll fill you in with all that. And I think Simon is a great producer, an admirable man and I think with somebody else it might have been very difficult for Bill to finish the film at all. I think Simon did a great deal to protect him and soak up some of the flak. But then he was having to go to Bill and say look, we can’t take two days over this, we’ve got to do it in a day, so it was tricky. And Bill wasn’t, you know, he wasn’t a director like a lot of directors who make films, they’ve done a bit of telly, they’ve done a bit of this, they’ve done a bit of that… he had always just done his own thing. He was pure and it’s not easy. And we were talking about earlier… what would a film maker like Bill be doing now? Because everything is sped up. That film is three hours long, they wouldn’t release it three hours long. And you get through the amount of narrative he got through in 20 minutes, you know in an American film. So it would have been very difficult I think and I don’t know how he would have… whether he had the personality, the character to have survived all that.
THE SIGNS THESEDAYS ARE NOT MASSIVELY ENCOURAGING FOR A FILM-MAKER LIKE BILL ARE THEY……?
No. And Comrades didn’t make a lot of money, it wasn’t a huge success. I mean some people adored the film, thought it was fantastic. I remember when it came out, it was the lead in all the papers… there was the picture, and everybody was giving it very good reviews.
IT WON FILM OF THE YEAR IN 1987 IN THE INDEPENDENT’S CRITICS, POLL….
I don’t think anyone much went to see it.
WHY DO YOU THINK HE MADE SO FEW FILMS?
Well again, the thing we’ve been talking about. He wasn’t a genre man, he wasn’t going to say oh they’re all looking for horror films these days. He wasn’t going to play the business. He was just writing his scripts in the way he wanted to write them, giving a pretty clear indication of how he wanted to film them and then offering them up. It’s a really harsh world out there even then, 20 years ago. There were lots of people coming through with films and some of them looked like they might be successful so that’s very difficult to compete with. Bill needed someone to… someone rich to champion him. And people like that are not there anymore.
DO YOU THINK THE FACT HE MADE SO FEW FILMS IS A REFLECTION OF BRITISH FILM INDUSTRY IN THE 80s?
British film industry in the 80s hardly existed did it. There was all that fuss with Goldcrest in about 1983 or 4 and then when that went bust… the bottom fell out, it happens all the time. Hardly any films being made this year. There were one or two very successful British films last year and you wonder why. I don’t know the answer to that problem, I don’t know why, British films you put them in the cinema and people don’t seem to want to go and see them. They want to see Mel Gibson or Vin Diesel or something on a Saturday night. It’s a whole different cultural thing, if they want that, they go to the theatre maybe, I don’t know. But it’s a real problem. I have sort of stopped playing the game, I’ve just gone back to being an actor because I got so fed up with it (directing). You spend a load of time developing scripts that don’t happen and then you get offered something that really you don’t like and shouldn’t get made. But Bill you know was never a director for hire, never a hand for hire. He just did his own thing and I guess he was lucky really to make Comrades.
IT’S ALMOST AS IF BILL PUT HIS ALL IN THAT FILM KNOWING HE’D NEVER MAKE ANOTHER FILM…
Well I kind of felt the same really. There were… people say the first play that someone writes, you try and write every play you’ve ever thought of and there’s something in that with Comrades. All the different elements he was trying to draw together… but all the same, I wish they’d re-release it, I wish they’d show it again because it’s a marvellous film.
I BELIEVE THERE ARE ONLY TWOSCREENING PRINTS IN EXISTENCE…
Prints aren’t that expensive are they? They could run another off easily. I mean I’m sure someone would stump up for that. I would make a contribution for that.
WE DON’T HAVE LIKES OF BILL DOUGLAS IN BRITISH CINEMA TODAY, DO YOU THINK WE NEED THE LIKES OF HIM?
Yes I do. I mean there’s always this abrasion between art and commerce in the movies because they cost so much to make. And maybe someone like Bill would have been able to embrace the new stuff, might have been able to shoot on high definition video and get a more fluid style, which would have been less expensive. I think with all that (new technology) there may be a kind of democratisation of the industry. In the way now a kid can make a record in his bedroom with the gear that he’s got, that’s, in terms of quality, just as good as anything they were making in the 70s in a 24 track recording studio. Maybe the new Bill Douglas’s as they come up and emerge will be playing with all that stuff and doing something quite challenging.
WHAT’S YOUR ABIDING MEMORY OF BILL ON SET OF COMRADES?
I’ve got two really – a good one and a bad one. Sometimes in Dorset, it was glorious, an Indian summer with this golden light and we were sitting in these rolling hills chewing grass and waiting to be used and Bill was like a happy child. Do you know what I mean, gambolling through the grass looking at this shot and that shot and his face was alive with joy and he was doing what he wanted, what he was meant to do. And then I can picture him in Australia… trundling through the desert, looking this way and that way, trying to work out which way he was going to shoot this damnably difficult scene with two people passing in an empty landscape like two roads. I thought, how is he going to do that, where’s he going to put the camera and all that. And getting more and more upset and close to tears sometimes, he was a very emotional man. He couldn’t hide it you know, however he was feeling. It beamed out of him, if he was upset or angry, it just showed in every fibre of his being… And he was enormously likeable, very strange as you would expect I suppose, with an upbringing like that and a bit awkward but he had a very individual and genuine vision of the kind of films he wanted to make and I think with unlimited resources in a perfect world and we know we ain’t in one, that he would have made great and important films if he had got to make half a dozen.
400Blows Productions, July 2005.