As one of our Saturday night films we asked Jon Sanders to tell us about his film, Back to the Garden. We think you’ll find the tale of how the film came about and the tale it tells quite interesting. It’s showing on 28 September at 19:00, The Higgins Bedford. Tickets are just £5.
Back To The Garden is the third of a trilogy of improvised films all shot in Kent. Fourteen years ago I directed my first feature film Painted Angels (co-written with Anna Mottram) starring Kelly McGillis and Brenda Fricker. Our next film came about out of the frustration my partner, Anna Mottram, and I were experiencing trying to get our second feature film project off the ground.
It became increasingly clear, given the restrictions on British “arthouse” production, that one had to find new ways of making films that can explore cinematic language and form without the endless round of compromise, disappointment and self-censorship. Encouraged by a loyal group of friends we decided to try and break the cycle . Our first venture into this territory was LOW TIDE, a full length improvised drama, about the last three days of a woman’s life.
The film received a very favourable critical response and was shown as a special event at the Curzon Soho. Encouraged by this, we have since made two more films, Late September (opened at ICA ,limited release around the country then on DVD through Verve pictures) and now Back to the Garden, both with a larger cast and more complex structure, and believe we have come up with a new model of production and cinematic form. We have used real time, long, fluid takes, natural light and completely improvised dialogue. This way of filmmaking has to be seen in the context of artistic freedom. Many of the actors we work with experienced the extraordinary flowering of alternative theatre in the 70s, enabled by Arts Council funding of new work; the liberation for us now of working like this, with no outside interference or aesthetic constraints, means that everyone’s creativity can be released and we can continue to make films, even in these locked-down times.
To work like this, of course, one has to be well prepared. The actors and key crew members are all very experienced and have the confidence to venture into uncertain territory. The structure is well thought out beforehand but within that the actors, in character, determine the emotional and dramatic content of each scene as it happens. For a long time before we shoot, I write extensively notebooks and I date them very precisely; often I write the same stuff time and time again but from different angles every time…. you see a film, you read a book, you have a conversation, and you slowly get together some form of idea. Then I go through those notebooks and put it all on cards; each one has the ideas for a scene and the conceptual ideas and then I show Anna and she pulls it all together in quite a massive way.
One thing about working this way is you have to think about what is possible in a way that you don’t on a large budget film where if you want a house there you build a house there, if you want five horses you simply pay for them to turn up. But we can’t do any of that, so we have to organise our film around what we have. So for instance I have a cousin in Kent with a boat who is a brilliant sailor and I knew that from the word go, so the sea and the river have been strong elements in the last two films. Some form of theatrical performance is also a strong element in all my films and we work around everyone’s skills be it poetry, puppeteering, piano playing, singing or juggling.
What really hit me very hard is that I wanted to start to make films where reverie and dream are involved. I realised I didn’t know how to do it because I was self-censoring myself because I thought actually there is no way they would ever give you the money to make a weird film like that with non-linear time. But Back to the Garden does have dreams in it and I thought – that’s what’s going on in my head. If we want to make a film, as long as we can afford to do it we can do it whatever – without permission, we can do whatever we want, nobody can say yes or no.
Jon Sanders is the director of Back to the Garden, showing at Bedford Film Festival, Saturday 28 September 2013