Self Made: BEV meets Gillian Wearing
Birds Eye View: Perhaps you could begin by telling us about how you made Self Made – did it all start with a newspaper advert?
Gillian Wearing: I started Self Made back in 2006 with a small R&D grant. As I wanted the film to be shaped by the people I chose, my first task was to audition for participants. So in late 2006 I put out adverts via online sites and in newspapers, I got thousands of responses and short-listed around 100 people. The film was going to be process based so I filmed all the auditions asking people to give reasons as to why they chose their character, a storyline they could envisage, and aspects of themselves or their character they would like to explore.
I began to work with the playwrite Leo Butler in 2007, in order to write some scenarios that could include all the characters. After initially trying scenes where the characters met in one story, I settled on having individual stories followed instead, as there was too many strong characters to include in one scene. To help with the workshop element I decided to employ method teaching to evolve the participant’s characters. My basic knowledge of method was that you brought an aspect of yourself –an emotion/memory to your character to make it more believable. So that could bring the real to the imaginary. So every part of the film would oscillate between those two states, the mini films which I call “end scenes” (and with which I continued to work with Leo on) would have real emotions but in fictional circumstances, the workshops would include performances that would be laying the groundwork story wise for end scenes but also be giving you workshop footage of how the acting informed the person and how the person’s history informed the part. So lots of layers would be formed.
BEV: Sam Rumbelow is obviously central to the film’s set-up – could you tell us about him and his role in the film?
GW: Yes I would say he was pivotal to the film. I first met Sam in 2008 and thought he would be perfect for the method teacher. His classes were very dynamic and he seemed to psychologically be very intuitive with his students. He was also incredibly collaborative and helped shape my ideas for the workshops. I initially came up with some workshop improvisations and he would explain how he could work his teachings into this. He was also very good at estimating the participants needs both for their alter egos and themselves. We would then meet once or twice a week for several months and talk about workshops and participants. In the final film the workshops are a combination of ones either Sam or I created, with the ideas coming from us talking to the participants on the telephone or meeting them in person. I should also qualify this by saying that the workshops are not typical Method ones, except for two group relaxation/sprints classes, the rest are invented “bespoke” improvisations that utilise method teachings within their structure.
When it came to the filming a workshop schedule was written up from our discussions. We talked before every individual class and at the end of them. But when the camera was rolling I put all my trust in Sam, I did not interfere with how he built his relationships with the participants, how he taught the workshops and the content of what he said, I therefore became an onlooker at times. Each workshop took around an hour to an hour and a half, and I would never stop them or ask for a different take. I wanted the whole thing to feel like a real class as opposed to a film in progress. In the end the participants had built a stronger relationship with Sam than me and it was with this that I decided that for the mini films (end scenes) Sam should direct each individual whilst I took care of any other actors involved in the short films and the overall directing. For me this method of working is about conceiving of the concept and structure of the film, and allowing the influences from the people you bring in to help shape the film with you. So the film worked collaboratively on many levels both with Sam and myself but also the participants who gave us their ideas for characters and storylines and therefore contributed to the content of the film.
BEV: The relationship between the participants and the characters they portray is fascinating, especially in the sense that every character chosen – of whatever nature – is in some way a reflection of the participant him/herself. That must have opened up incredible possibilities of experimentation, playfulness, and even catharsis. To what extent do you see Self Made more broadly as a film about role playing and the characters we all assume in our daily lives (whether on purpose or not)?
GW: It is all of those things; from the beginning I wanted the film to have some relationship to the idea of masks. A lot of my work includes masks and how it can liberate you by being someone else temporarily, I saw the notion of choosing your own character would be like picking a mask, whether that be a fictional character or an extension of yourself, in fact we are many selves. I have being influenced by the writing of Erving Goffman who believed in the front stage and the backstage personality. The front stage, the performance we present to the world and the backstage being where we take our masks off. Method exercises seem to relax and break old habits of the self in order to be more in the moment without trying to impress, so an emotion becomes more authentic. And that’s when as an audience we can understand and empathise with other individuals.
BEV: What was your motivation for making a film in this way? Did you want to embark on a psychological (even theraputic?) journey with the participants, or purely a creative one?
GW: The idea for the film was about discovering how the choices the participants had made about their characters could bring us greater understanding of who they were, as they would be able to creatively play with their alter egos. I had never imagined that it would be as therapeutic and that happened organically without anyone expecting it, it obviously brought out an empathetic extension of Sam’s personality.
BEV: You’ve spoken previously about the creative potential of the Method acting workshops, and the excitement of “live”, unrehearsed responses to the situations that were presented to the participants. Did making the film present challenges in terms of finding ways to convey that in-the-moment atmosphere, or demonstrate the artifice of filmmaking? And if so how did you address that?
The challenge is when you film anyone, will they freeze or perform to what they feel is expected of them. My fears were always will this film deliver anything because it’s based on a lot of chance and a bit of paper with a schedule written down. But after the first day of filming my fears dissipated as I could see the workshops we had worked on really did have an effect as well as the participants’ willingness to engage wholeheartedly in the project and the amazing performances they gave. And as each day went by there were so many incredible moments that were captured we were left with a lot of good material that unfortunately could not make the cut.
BEV: The nature of film festivals and distribution means that Self Made has largely been categorized as a documentary; would you agree with that label?
GW: Ultimately there is no perfect category for it, and that can be said with a lot of my artwork that defies categories. What I have always done is create a structure for an idea that includes an element of reality, whether that is people wearing masks confessing, a mother lip-syncing the words of her sons and vice versa or me dancing without music in Peckham, none of these could be classified directly as documentary as they consciously employ performance. Self Made has large junks of fiction, performance as well as workshop.
BEV: There’s a growing amount of (hugely exciting) cross-arts and multi-disciplinary work of the highest level being produced at the moment, from theatre directors creating films (and vice versa) to visual artists making fashion videos. Why did you decide to make a film for the cinema screen rather than, say, a gallery installation? And do you think there’s something fundamentally different about the experience of filmmaking, for crew, participants and audiences alike?
GW: As soon as you pick up a camera I think you have at the back of your mind a feature film or TV programme, that’s what we are all brought up on. Much more than say art videos, my knowledge of that was inferior when I started out, and instead I always referenced the TV programmes and films of the 70’s/80’s as they were my inspiration as opposed to Duchamp and 60’s video art pioneers.
I will always be an artist and find it important exhibiting in Museums or galleries, in fact I see these spaces as the most radical places to show work as they are not as easily defined as a cinema space. I have been on the verge of making a film since 1995, I have made 2 into 1 a short for BBC 2 in 1997 and then went back to installation works.
I have had quite a bit of experience working with large crews, having had made an advert previously as well as some of my artworks needing crews. But when I say large it probably translates as small to the huge commercial films, I was able to make this work with a closed set for the workshops and a small crew for the mini scenes so it still felt like making an artwork. However viewing the work in a cinema with a paying audience was completely new for me, in a gallery space I would rarely stand in front of my work to read the reactions of the people viewing it. Watching Self Made with an audience was amazing, you could sense collective emotions and reactions and I could see how it must feel to be an actor on stage sensing how your work was going.
BEV: As you know, Birds Eye View is dedicated to celebrating the creative vision of women filmmakers, and responding to the fact that the vast majority of films are written and / or directed by men. To what extent do you think there’s a similar imbalance in the visual arts world? And why do you think it’s important for audiences to experience both the male and female creative vision?
GW: I feel I am part of the first generation of artists in this country where neither class or gender held us back. Goldsmiths Art School which I attended in the 80’s always led you to believe that you really have the power to do things, particularly collectively. It also had a radical political history behind it and had embraced feminism, performance art, film, installation art and didn’t have departments like sculpture or painting, art could be anything and students didn’t have to fit any criteria (at that time anyhow). If you are nurtured in an environment of relative freedom of choice, although one that includes debate, then I think it is hard for you to imagine that doors could be closed because of your gender. This institute changed the whole landscape of British art and as many female artists have been successful as men in my generation, many from Goldsmiths. The art world isn’t 50/50 yet but appears from what I read and see to be a lot healthier than the film world
BEV: And finally: what’s next?
GW: I have got a solo show next year at Whitechapel Art gallery and K20/21 Museum in Düsseldorf. It will have a retrospective element to it but I am also making a new film to show there. I am a little hooked on film festivals and I might consider showing the new film in a festival capacity as well.