Amber Collective interview
An interview with Ellin Hare and Murray Martin of Amber collective, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Ellin Hare : Purely coincidental
Murray Martin : I would defend Billy Elliot publicly in that at least it’s a film about working-class life and that’s the way it should be, because the majority of people who go to films are working-class people and they should at least have films about their lives. Most people I spoke to in Easington thought Billy Elliot was great and really liked it – but there’s a downside. The reason you think it’s good is you’re manipulated, your emotions are manipulated in a way which film can do, and that’s a piece of good craft.
Ellin Hare : Initially, when it first came out people thought, ‘Oh, great, this is a film about us – it’s about a kid who’s successful and that reflects well on our community because this kid did so well.’ But then when people actually thought about what it was actually saying about the community, what the message was underneath that feel good factor, it’s saying ‘Get out of here as fast as you possibly can.’
Retrospectively people felt let down by that, within Easington and within those communities, and that using the Miners’ Strike as a backdrop to what was really a kind of fairytale comedy was actually quite offensive, in a way.
Murray Martin : There’s two things I didn’t like about – the character of the father was unrelentingly negative, and yet bound up in feelgood imagery. At the age of eleven he sends his son away – in a sense not to see him again, at least not until he’s 25 or 26 dancing as a camp ballet dancer. One would have to talk to Lee Hall about that, who wrote it – maybe it’s Lee Hall’s story, he came from that background, he went to Cambridge, I don’t know. We’ve got a 10-year-old son and the idea of sending him to public school seems to me to be horrendous and that’s the message, in a way.
Ellin Hare : I’m sure that our film on the surface will be seen by people as a much more dour and maybe grim or depressing, but if you actually look and see what it’s saying about the people, I think it’s much more celebratory of the people and the culture. It’s saying, “Here’s something that’s valuable, something that’s being swept away and disregarded.”
Neil Young : The film was initiated in 1992, when you heard that there was another film coming out set in that area with a broadly similar story, in some respects, were you disheartened, or did you consciously try to blank it out, or did you see Billy Elliot while you were making it?
Murray Martin : The people who funded Billy Elliot funded our film, and they were script advisors on our film and they were involved in the debate. They never once told us the character was called Elliot in Billy Elliot – in fact, it was called Dancer until the very last minute, so it probably didn’t raise itself as an issue.
Neil Young : Did you consider changing the character name in your film?
Murray Martin : It was too late, we’d already shot the film. The name was more significant in our film than theirs. It’s pure chance, in a way.
Ellin Hare : The two films are very different in style – they come into the village with busloads of catering and crew.
Murray Martin : They’ve got a 3.5m or 4m budget and we’ve got 500,000 – that’s a big difference.
Neil Young : Would that cover the whole video recording process, and the rest?
Murray Martin : Everything.
Ellin Hare : And distribution.
Neil Young : I came across a comment, and you rarely read a bad word about Amber so when you find one, it leaps out with force. This quote is from a website, a long essay about riots in Britain, and the eighties: ‘Amber films in Newcastle tried to break into the major cinema circuits with their sub-Meyerhold film Dream On : the film has bombed, leaving Amber with massive debts.’
both : Lie, absolute lie.
Ellin Hare : That film probably was the most commercially successful in terms of cinemas – it ran for seven weeks at the Odeon in Newcastle.
Murray Martin : It outgrossed JFK here. Somebody else said it took 270 or something. It opened at the West End, in Leicester Square, and Newcastle simultaneously, went to Middlesbrough. I think we got to more cinemas with that film than we’d ever got before.
Ellin Hare : It still didn’t make a huge amount of money.
Murray Martin : They never do, that’s not the point. Our films can’t bomb – the most expensive film we’ve ever made was Like Father which was 500,000. Dream On was 250,000 – which is television money.
Ellin Hare : All the money is upfront anyway, it’s a combination of television and grant money. They would bomb if you’d put a huge amount of money into the preparation of them, but then we’ve never had that kind of money.
Murray Martin : That’s the other thing about distribution – Like Father has had a very good critical response. I don’t think it’s our best film, or the most commercial film – In Fading Light had more commercial potential. What we have learned is that critical success, if it’s not married with commercial promotion, doesn’t work. You mentioned Purely Belter – that had a huge commercial push, it was everywhere: posters, etc. And if you don’t have the money for that – we don’t even have the money for a trailer for Like Father.
Murray Martin : That 500,000 covers all aspects of production, and helps sustain other elements of Amber’s work. In real terms half of that would be spent on the film, in a conventional way.
Neil Young : I read that you got funding from the National Lottery for Like Father.
Ellin Hare : Via the Arts Council.
Neil Young : Was there never any queasiness about taking money from the lottery?
Murray Martin : Not at all.
Ellin Hare : Why should there be?
Neil Young : I didn’t know if the group doesn’t agree with the lottery’s existence – some critics would say it’s a tax on the poor, and we shouldn’t rely on things like lottery to fund important things.
Murray Martin : I’m not against public funding – I think the state should fund culture, yes. The anomaly about film is that it’s the one area of arts funding where you have to pay the money back. If you get money for theatre or painting or whatever, then it’s a grant. But from the lottery they have a percentage return on the money they invest in you – it’s seen as a commercial arrangement. If it’s a commercial success, you have to pay all the money back.
Ellin Hare : After costs.
Murray Martin : And that constraint is never placed on any other area. There were two funds available for cinema in Britain – one was the large fund that was earmarked for a number of films, none of which were that commercially successful, then there was a small experimental fund for films up to 500,000 of which Like Father was given a grant from. That’s now been subsumed by the new Film Council, which is funded by the Lottery. The question you raise is ‘Should state money go to film?’ and I think it should.
Neil Young : No, my question was about the form in which the state money is raised, via lottery – is that acceptable?
Murray Martin : I’ve no problem with gambling. I’ve never felt that was a problem.
Neil Young : Home Office minister Kim Howells has just said he wants films ‘To tackle political issues in the widest sense – when are we going to have the first film about the foot and mouth crisis?’ Presumably this is a challenge to Amber.
Ellin Hare : We’ve just done a photography exhibition on foot-and-mouth.
Neil Young : In terms of making films with political content, this would seem to be exactly what the government now wants.
Murray Martin : The broad announcement seems to be that they want to compete with Hollywood, and anybody who says that means one thing: get every penny you’ve got for films in Britain and spend it on one movie.
Ellin Hare : I haven’t heard any mention of any kind of cultural agenda within the Film Council.
Neil Young : What they want sounds very much like what Amber is doing, because they’ve said they want films to be made in the regions, and which may be political. Are you encouraged by the government’s attitude to film?
Murray Martin : No – the lad who reviewed Like Father for Time Out said he couldn’t see the Film Council beating a path to Amber’s door. He knows that the Film Council is really about competing on an English-language basis with Hollywood. You can’t do that. The great successes of British cinema about working class life have all been cheap movies: This Sporting Life and that kind of tradition, Kes, which of course did nothing in America but was very successful over here.
Murray Martin : Howells is interesting – we filmed him pre-Miners’ Strike, when he was one of the great Welsh radicals, in Durham, oddly enough, with Arthur Scargill. Subsequently I would interpret that he’s swung to the right. What does worry me is that you see Kim Howells is responsible for ‘Film and Tourism.’ It tells you where film rates – it’s not rated as a serious cultural debate in Britain, and that’s the great tragedy of film. This is the one film that does actually not see film as art – there’s no other country, you could go anywhere in the world, that wouldn’t have a serious debate about film, only Britain.
Neil Young : Possibly America.
Ellin Hare : In America, it would be seen as commerce, not art.
Murray Martin : But they do see actors as serious artists, and they pay them money because of that, but it’s mainly commerce. Chaplin once asked Eisenstein why he’d come to America, and he said “I’ve come to learn about films.” Chaplin said, “We don’t make films, we make money.” And that was in the thirties. But do not underestimate the propaganda machine – film has been a more powerful propaganda machine for America, in a political sense, than the Russian propaganda films were for Russia. There’s no doubt about that – if you’re talking about political films, you can’t find a more dangerous political film than Forrest Gump, which justifies every American atrocity and rewrites history.
The distortion in Britain is that we’re always being told you’ve got to break the American market – that means they’ve set the agenda, and you must become like the Americans. So what happens is either that they take the talent to Hollywood, which is the common route, or you try and make films that which are going to be accepted over there. For instance, Bill Forsyth did Gregory’s Girl, he’s then taken up by David Puttnam, and they make Local Hero – which says the Americans are environmentalists. It’s patent crap.
Ellin Hare : In retrospect it’s galling, just because of the attention that Billy Elliot got – it had American distribution, and therefore they had the money to promote it.
Neil Young : Ultimately would it be beneficial, because there will be people who will say ‘We know this area from Billy Elliot, this seems to us a better film’?
Ellin Hare : In one sense, ‘Geordie’ is kind of fashionable, it’s good if it gives a profile to the north east and to the accents and people become familiar with that.
Murray Martin : If you compare Billy Elliot as a film with Purely Belter, I thought Billy Elliot was immeasurably better. I thought Purely Belter was offensive about the north east. I couldn’t believe that film, and again it felt that it had to end on a feelgood that was imposed – it was totally negative, it’s irresponsible. But we didn’t worry about Billy Elliot, in fact if you look at The Scar, you’ll see that they looked at that film before they made Billy Elliot.
Neil Young : How do you respond to criticisms that Like Father is too melodramatic?
Ellin Hare : It’s a matter of taste – people who are staunch Amber fans, who like the low-key, documentary, realist approach are offended by the ending because it doesn’t seem to fit, but for us that was deliberate. What we were trying to do – and I can remember saying this from early on in the process – was, “Wouldn’t it be interested to make a film where you start off and you think you’re just watching these characters in their ordinary lives, and not much is happening, and there aren’t even very many links between them, because the generations are so separate, and then gradually as the film progresses the links become closer and what you realise is that these three lives are very essentially connected, and that the dramatic consequences of those links grow, and you’re sort of pulled into that, and it does actually become highly dramatic at the end.”
It’s interesting that people object to it, it’s almost as if, when you’re making low-key films about working-class people somehow they shouldn’t have grand drama. Whereas of course ordinary people do have extraordinary things happen to them.
When we’d almost finished the script we went to see old Joe, one of the pigeon men who was one of the main influences on the character of Arthur – he was the last man on the allotments at Easington that were going to be demolished, and we asked him how we should we end it, and he suggested taking the council officer hostage, he wished he could have done that.
Murray Martin : The other ‘melodramatic’ point, in a sense, is the boy discovering the family secret, and the fact that he had a brother who died. We showed the script to this bloke Joe – and he was very quiet. It turned out this was his story as well. He’d been on a motorbike, and he’d been responsible for the death of his own son, and he’d never talked about it. People say, ‘This is melodramatic,’ but it’s not.
Murray Martin : Some of our early films were criticised for being ‘romantic’ – we made High Row about drift miners up at Alston which set the pattern of how we work. We felt the best way to do it was to find out the mine cost to run for a week and rent the men and the mine, which is what we did, and then get them to reproduce their lives.
We wrote a script and we said things like, this is frightening and dangerous. The men read the script and said, look, if we felt that we wouldn’t be miners – we could be farmers, we’re living in this idyllic landscape. They said, ‘We have this view of ourselves as challenging the earth (our terms, not theirs, but that’s the way they saw it) and we set ourselves a task, and the satisfaction is actually in achieving that task.’
Their vision of themselves was a romantic one, by outsiders’ standards, and the question you have to ask yourself is whether it’s your job to represent people’s view of themselves, of how they see the world and want to be represented, or do you retain the right to see it you see fit, which is only your view, after all. We’ve always felt that you have to take into account people’s vision of themselves, it has to somehow be represented within there even if it’s challenged, or attacked
Neil Young : On your website, you prominently feature a quotation from R G Collingwood:
The artist must prophesy, not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but in the
sense that he tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own
hearts. His business is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter
is not, as the individualist theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As
spokesman of his community, the secrets he has to utter are theirs.
Murray Martin : That’s not to say the artist shouldn’t be critical – he’s saying that self-realisation, self-knowledge is crucial, but the artist can help in that process by the way he or she reflects or comments on what they’ve seen. People are only interested in themselves, they’re not interested in the artist’s vision of themselves.
95% of contemporary art is about the artist and the artist’s signature – it generates itself from one vision of art, which is art as imagination, art as originality. But when you try and be original, the only way you can define originality is ‘difference.’ If you and I are both wearing flared trousers, and that’s the fashion, and somebody comes in wearing 13″ drainpipes, for a second they’re original. When men first started wearing earrings that was a shocking moment, it was original – but that’s an area of fashion. I think art is actually very much about fashion now, and not about anything to do with a statement about society.
We constantly get into this battle about the representation of the working class in which people say, Oh, it’s gritty up north, it’s cloth caps and whippets. I was at a do this week with some working-class kids saying ‘Not another film about pigeons and whippets,’ and I said, how many people in this room have seen a whippet race, and I tell you there can’t be 2% of the north east have seen a whippet race in the last 30 years!
I often say Prince Charles can have a cloth cap, but the working classes can’t – the upper classes understand their traditions, and defend them. The power structure has Black Rod knocking on parliament’s door, to see the MPs through – all the MPs go and kneel at the Queen’s feet and say, We swear allegiance to you above even our party, and join the Privy Council – all those traditions are fine, but when the working class have a history, like mining, it is erased at a frightening rate, there’s no sign of mining in east Durham. After the war there were 400 collieries in the north east, there’s one now, and the only evidence you’ve got is half a pit wheel in the villages.
Ellin Hare : If you think about what that says about a community’s relationship to its ancestors – it’s like there’s no respect. What’s the future of a culture if it has that attitude to its old people, and the history and the stories that they have?
Murray Martin : The function of education is to design the clever people away from their background. My parents felt I was ‘better than’ them because I went to university – by definition, the ambition was to become at least middle-class. That was the idea of success, and even when I was a kid, in a staunch Labour family, you were expected to vote Tory once you were educated.
Ellin Hare : They wouldn’t want you to, but they would in some way expect you to – if you got the right job as a result of going to university you would then effectively change your class and your allegiances.
mm The idea that you educate a working-class for the working-class to go and work back in that class is virtually unknown.
Neil Young : You’ve said you wanted to reach the widest audience with this Like Father. Have you ever considered doing a more strictly genre film, such as a horror or science fiction film, or something that might be more of a ‘crowdpleaser,’ a genre film but with a subtext of. whatever?
Ellin Hare : We have been talking about doing a musical.
Murray Martin : We thought about it and we rejected it. You have to understand about where the films come from. Your question implies that the reason you make films is to be a successful film-maker. That’s not why I’ve ever made films. We want to make some sort of document about people’s lives, and an accurate document. Obviously we would love them to be on at the cinemas, but it’s almost secondary.
Neil Young : What about a director like Paul Verhoeven – Starship Troopers is superficially a cartoonish film about science-fiction, but it’s actually a vehicle for political analysis. I’m not saying, ‘Why not do a film about bugs in outer space,’ but have you ever considered doing a film where it works as a thriller or whatever, but beneath.?
Murray Martin : We have talked on many occasions about making a film which has commercial potential, but where we start from doesn’t allow us to do that, because if you take a film like Eden Valley, which is about harness racing, we were offered the potential of a large budget from Channel 4 – 750,000 was mentioned – or 50,000 to make it our way. The condition was that they put in the writer. We took the 50,000 with not a lot of hesitation, because we knew we wanted to make a film which accurately reflected the community we represented.
As soon as you go down the other route you’re into this thing about ‘How do you make a commercially successful film?’ That’s when they move in the big guns – you get the money, they come in. Nicholas Ray once asked Bunuel how he managed to retain his independence and do the films he wanted to do, and he said, “I only ask for $50,000.”
As soon as you go for the big budget they own you, and they will come in, because the commercial aspect becomes an imperative, in a way. That doesn’t quite answer your question, but the point is that the people we represent are more important than commercial success, and if you’re going to be in any sense representative and work alongside people, you inevitably take away a lot of the commerciality of it.
Ellin Hare : The other big issue about what’s commercially successful isn’t to do with whether something fits a genre or not, it’s to do with who’s in it, and the star system. We’ve been offered, and we’ve been encouraged to use, ‘big stars,’ in our films: they wanted us to use Juliet Stevenson for The Scar.
Murray Martin : It was just after Truly, Madly, Deeply, when she was at her zenith. We said, we’d rather use Charlie Hardwick.
Ellin Hare : Robson Green started his film career with us, in a video soap that was never broadcast. I don’t know whether Robson would work with us or not, but we wouldn’t work with him, because you couldn’t walk into a pub in Easington with Robson Green and expect to get naturalistic performances out of the people in there. They love him, but they wouldn’t be themselves. This is why, in Like Father, we’ve gone to the opposite extreme and we’ve used all non-actors in the leading roles, so we can actually get close to the reality of their lives.
Murray Martin : I mentioned Eden Valley – we run harness racing, so we’re known in that fraternity as harness racers and we help run the meetings, so when we go to places like Stanhope and Eggleston, which are big locations for the racing and the country shows with 10,000 people watching – we’re there with a camera, and we take Rosie Laidler who’s also from a harness racing family. Nobody bats an eyelid, nobody looks at the camera. If I go to a bookie and say, ‘Shout the odds on this particular horse,’ they do it, they don’t think about it. Hollywood, or a big-budget production, would have to set that up, the fact that there’s so much money riding on it means you couldn’t risk that way of working.
Ellin Hare : You’d have to reconstruct the whole thing.
Neil Young : Once the cameras are set up it becomes a different thing by being observed.
Murray Martin : That’s right.
Neil Young : Amber productions are made differently from the vast majority of films that people see. The script seems to develop over a period of years, rather than a writer sitting down and coming up with a script. Is there such a thing as a scriptwriter on an Amber film? At some point does somebody sit down and write it out?
Ellin Hare : There is a script, but it’s usually not just written one person. On this last film it was three – we’ve been growing, the one before it was two.
Murray Martin : I was one of the three – I wrote the pigeon scenes.
Ellin Hare : The scriptwriting process is quite a long way along the line. Often we’ve already shot stuff before we have the script. In Like Father, all the scenes in the clubs, and in the schools, the scenes with the mentally-handicapped people, they were all shot before we had any kind of script. We knew who the characters were, but we then wrote the script around the scenes. We spent months just with two or three people – camera, sound, and myself – just in those locations, and when we got something that we really liked, we would write a scene around that. So you have the scene in the club with Joe [Armstrong] singing, then we wrote a scene where he’s on the ‘phone to his wife in the dressing room.
Neil Young : Which explains how that scene has been arrived at?
Ellin Hare : That’s right.
Neil Young : There’s a very long process behind each of the films. To some extent is the finished film a secondary project, and the main thing is doing things like giving the old men the video cameras and having them document their lives?
Ellin Hare : That’s a difficult question – obviously the pleasure, and the reason you go on doing it, is because of the process, not the products. Every film is a voyage of discovery – that’s why you make the film. It’s not because you know the subject, it’s because you want to know about it, you want to understand something, and that’s why you set out on this. voyage. The making of the film is the way of understanding it, and hopefully at the end of the day the product hopefully then gives other people some insight and understanding into that way of life. The end product is important – at the end of each film we always have a bit of depression, because when it’s finished, when it goes out, that process if finished, that journey’s over. The product, and the reception of the product, never quite lives up to the expectation that you have when you set out.
Murray Martin : I would emphasise that the process is the crucial part.
Ellin Hare : But showing it is part of that process, isn’t it. The best bit of after having made it was taking it round the community –
Murray Martin : – working men’s clubs –
Ellin Hare : And also in other countries, when you actually get to talk to people – the dialogue that comes out of that, when you realise that these things do communicate across cultural boundaries, and across generations. That’s really gratifying.
Murray Martin : We’ve been very encouraged by audiences’ responses to Like Father, when we’ve entered into debates. Middle-aged audiences in particular are very interested in this subject of family relationships – it is a topic which resonance. It’s not going to be a blockbuster – it never could be a blockbuster. You could have made it more commercial, if you like, you could have written it in a more mainstream way, but then it wouldn’t have been able to be produced in the way we did it, for the reasons Ellie gave earlier.
For us, the process is about building relationships with people, and the way their lives are touched by the way we operate. We get a lot out of a relationship with somebody like Jackie Surtees, but he also gets a lot out of the process which he wouldn’t otherwise get. If you were simply writing a script, and reproducing it for maximum impact, and it was just an expression of your political view, then something else would come into play. You have to understand that the unevenness and roughness of our work is dictated by that process.
Neil Young : So the rough edges are what make it feel interesting, rather than it being smooth?
Murray Martin : Exactly. If you look at a film like The Scar, that grew out of doing a documentary about kids, because their funding was being threatened in East Durham, because nobody quite understood what was going on there.
Neil Young : Would you compare this approach to the work of Mike Leigh, or would you emphasise the differences?
Ellin Hare : There’s elements of that approach – we do work with improvisation as well.
Neil Young : Murray’s shaking his head.
Murray Martin : It’s very different – Leigh doesn’t shoot documentary material as well, what he’s doing it totally reconstructing and what he’s doing, which I think is a very interesting process, is improvising with the actors who by definition are actors, and they’re professionals –
Neil Young : – but they’ve been given a character to devise a back story, and it’s all focussed on the drama, whereas the Amber approach –
Murray Martin : – it comes out of the documentary –
Neil Young : – it’s more organic, a bit of drama, a bit of documentary, without a specific dramatic goal in mind.
Murray Martin : Loach is another person we’re sometimes compared with, which is flattering. The term which covers Loach is ‘documentary dramas’ and what they mean is, you take a drama and make it look ‘real.’ We’re more likely to take a documentary and convert it into a dramatic story – as opposed to ‘docudrama’ we’re doing the inverse: ‘drama-documentary.’
Neil Young : T Dan Smith would be the most overt, because there’s sections of documentary, sections of drama, and lots of grey areas where you’re not sure what you’re watching.
Ellin Hare : All the films are experiments, and each one has a slightly different way of making that interface between documentary and fiction, I think.
Murray Martin : To return to the writers thing, there have been films where you’ve clearly got a scriptwriter. If you look at a film like In Fading Light, Tom Hadaway was the scriptwriter.
Neil Young : Of all the films that’s been the one most praised for its story structure.
Murray Martin : And it’s also the one which had least commercial success – no film distribution whatsoever, even though it was voted one of the. most interesting films of the year. the Guardian said it was the best film about a boat. We had money to distribute it – couldn’t get a distributor anywhere near it.
Neil Young : When Tom Hadaway worked on In Fading Light, did he work as ‘the writer’ or did he become part of the Amber group for the period of the film?
Ellin Hare : He worked very much alongside the group, but he wasn’t a member of the collective and so he was credited as the writer.
Murray Martin : The first drama I made in ’82 was The Filleting Machine, from a script by Tom Hadaway – I’d known him from the Live Theatre, he was a mate of ours. It was a straight script, and a matter of putting his script onto the screen. When we did Seacoal, Tom was the writer. We did improvisations and he availed himself of that material.
Ellin Hare : With In Fading Light we sent the actors out on the boats and they came back with their stories from the boats. We said, Go out onto the North Sea for 10 days and come back, and they told Tom what had happened and he’d write it down.
Murray Martin : It was also his life – he ran a fish shop in North Shields, and he knew the fishing industry. He was ‘the writer,’ no question about it, but he found the process of working that way quite frustrating. Originally we thought the actors wouldn’t be able to hack it, so we had another boat set up with another actor on. We had two boats – the actors’ boat and the real boat, but the actors became so good that they could actually fish.
Ellin Hare : One of them was offered a job.
Murray Martin : Hoggy could have been employed at any time. But that’s the way it evolved, so we wrote more and more around that particular boat, so we knew what the storyline was. In crude terms, what happened was, we said it’s time we did a film about fishing, because we knew the fish quay, we’d worked there. We lived in North Shields. The boats went away, and what did they do? What was their life? And then we started talking with Tom about that idea. We very quickly came up with an idea about this woman, who was a real woman – a girl who’d tried to be a fisherwoman. Her real problem had been that the women had objected, because how could another woman be on the boat with ‘their’ men? So that was the starting point – we then contacted a skipper, Tony, and he gave us another story. Tom then came up with ideas based on things like the fact that a fisherman dies every seven days, you can go to sea, work two weeks and be in debt – you borrow money to go and catch fish, and what if you don’t catch any.
Neil Young : How would you compare In Fading Light with The Perfect Storm, which does emphasise the economic imperative of it all.
Ellin Hare : There’s a scene which is almost identical, when they come back from one of their trips.
I was actually pleasantly surprised. I thought it was going to be a travesty, then I watched it on video – the storm sequences are ridiculous, but what was good about it was the portrayal of the community, the on-shore stuff in the pub.
Neil Young : Are there any specific older films which have inspired Amber over the years?
Murray Martin : L’Atalante, Bicycle Thieves and the neo-realists. This Sporting Life. Milos Forman’s Fireman’s Ball – he’s done some great work in America. Some rubbish. But we can all be uneven, there’s nothing wrong with failure. I think his Czech films are better, there’s something more authentic and real about them. When he went to Hollywood there’s more a feeling of showbiz. Even Cuckoo’s Nest. I feel that the gloss which the money puts on a film doesn’t enhance it.The films that were being made in the thirties and forties – and they say it themselves – won’t get made today. Paul Schrader says you can’t make films like that now, they’ve gone. He said, I have access to all the top heads of studios but I can’t get films made which have content.
Ellin Hare : Maybe the film culture has moved so far away from that, that you haven’t got an audience for that kind of film – that is the depressing scenario. Distributors have said that to me, that the British cinemagoing public just does not want to see anything serious or political.
Neil Young : But what about a film like Three Kings, which manages to be political, anti-American, anti-war? If you’d looked at the trailer you’d think it was a gung-ho action film starring George Clooney. But when you watch it, you immediately realise that it’s M*A*S*H. So it can be done.
Ellin Hare : But not British films.
Neil Young : There’s no reason why British films can’t be like Three Kings or The Blair Witch Project.
Murray Martin : But there is, because it wouldn’t get distributed –
Ellin Hare : – it wouldn’t have George Clooney in it –
Murray Martin : The question is – can you make very subversive, political movies within the mainstream tradition? The answer is – yes you can, but you can’t make the sort of films we make within the mainstream tradition. That’s fact. And the people who try it don’t necessarily succeed – take a very obvious example: John Sayles. He makes a very interesting film in Lone Star, then he makes that dreadful film about a fishing community, Limbo, which ends up as a drug-dealing melodrama at the end, and it just doesn’t work.
Neil Young : Sayles would say he can work within and without Hollywood – he writes a Piranha, he directs a a Lianna.
Murray Martin : He wants to be in that big Hollywood industry. He’s not recording a particular culture, he’s making films, and I think there is that difference.
Neil Young : But would you look to Sayles as an encouraging sign that it’s possible to make a statement while also working roughly within the Hollywood system.
Ellin Hare : Certainly something like Lone Star, yes.
Murray Martin : We couldn’t do that, because we wouldn’t be accepted within the Hollywood system – look at people who’ve tried it… What happened to Franc Roddam? He did Quadrophenia, and went and sat for ten years in Hollywood developing projects. He’s done nothing, and he lost his talent along the way, as far as I can see. What happened to Antonia Bird, who did Priest? Where did she go? What happened to Stephen Frears in America – he did quite interesting films, but did he enhance his abilities or his career?
Ellin Hare : I’m more influenced by Eastern European films, like Marta Meszaros. At Karlovy Vary I saw La Ville est Tranquille by Robert Guedigian, a French director who makes films in Marseilles with non-actors. I’d heard about him in Creteil, and Nick Bradshaw had compared us to him in his review in Time Out, so I was really curious.
Neil Young : When you see these films being made in Eastern Europe, or Marseille, do you regard this as an encouraging development in the age of Pearl Harbor?
Ellin Hare : But they don’t get seen. You don’t see those films in this country – not in Newcastle, anyway. You might see them in London. We’re actually thinking of setting up a film club here again, because we’re so frustrated that you can’t see these kinds of films.
Murray Martin : We have a cinema here, of course.
Neil Young : Would you consider using that cinema for things like a Guedigian retrospective, for example?
Murray Martin : Yes, absolutely.
Neil Young : What about Bruno Dumont, who also uses non-professional actors and focuses on a particular community and its culture?
Murray Martin : We do use actors – there’s a myth about our actors. If you look at In Fading Light, they’re all professionals apart from the boat, in a way. They were cast as actors, and they’re reproducing lines.
Murray Martin : But as soon as someone acts in a film, they’re an actor. I think Jackie Surtees does a great job in Like Father – absolutely spot on. He’s learning lines, and he’s acting. They’re dialogue scenes.
Ellin Hare : Almost all the actors that we use again and again, like Brian Hogg and Anna Gascoigne, they’re all local people, they’re actors.
Ellin Hare : There’s a big buzz about Iranian films right now – I’ve only seen three or four, but I don’t think they’ve ever been shown at the Tyneside, apart from Blackboards.
Murray Martin : Saying that, they’re big flops in Iran.
Ellin Hare : I’ve just been to Karlovy Vary and very few films actually deal with any kind of commentary about the times we’re living in.
Neil Young : What is the reaction to your films at foreign festivals?
Ellin Hare : Depends on the culture. In France we get these really deep, intense intellectual debates. Whereas in somewhere like Karlovy Vary it’s more to do with the enthusiasm of the audience – the huge applause – but they don’t have so much to say, because they’re not used to that approach, so much. I don’t know whether that’s to do with being a Communist country and not being encouraged into those kind of debates.
Murray Martin : Dream On won the public prize at Creteil.
Ellin Hare : At the end of the showing there was a standing ovation – the whole audience got up and started singing ‘I Will Survive,’ which was the music at the end of the film. That was just amazing.
Murray Martin : Eden Valley won the Jury Prize, so the films have gone down very well. We won the Prix Europa a few times. In ’85 Seacoal won the biggest prize in Europe – when Loach won it a couple of years later it was big news. When we won it in got a little thing on the back of the Times, and nothing else. Its great claim to fame, I think, is that it got the Telegraph television critic the sack, because he said ‘I hope you watched Seacoal last night rather than the Queen’s birthday on the other side, because it was much more interesting,’ and he was sacked the next day. I suspect that was the reason
.Neil Young : Ideally would Amber become part of some kind of worldwide network where this kind of films can be exchanged and shown?
Ellin Hare : Well, you can only do so much.
Murray Martin : If you look at the cinema programme that we did, from the late 70s to mid 80s, it had quite a big influence on radical cinema. We showed the best of the world cinema, and also contemporary cinema – there were a lot of film-makers coming and talking. We were looking for people who could influence us. We wanted to see films which otherwise we wouldn’t have a chance of seeing.
Neil Young : This building is owned by Amber – you’re not tempted to cash in and turn it into the ‘Amber wine bar’?
Murray Martin : We bought it for 12,000 in the seventies.
Neil Young : What’s your view of the Quayside now? It’s like Stormy Monday has come partly true.
Ellin Hare : It’s a shame, in a way – a missed opportunity. I’d have liked the Quayside to become a kind of Left Bank, more cultural – cinemas, theatres, cafes.
Murray Martin : There was a moment where it might have happened. Live Theatre were part of the building here, then they moved along the Quayside to Broad Chare. We tried to get other film groups here, and we also had a discussion with Northern Arts to take over Phoenix House on the corner – we had an offer to buy that for 50,000. We tried to persuade Northern Arts that they should take it, and they went to Osborne Terrace in Jesmond instead, which was a mistake.
Neil Young : What about the building of the Baltic arts centre across the water? There is some aspect of cultural investment now.
Ellin Hare : But it’s high culture – it’s big, corporate. like all the buildings on this side of the river, they’ve gone for these huge office blocks.
Murray Martin : We fought a campaign to stop them knocking the Quayside down, and it was successful – we stopped them knocking down 70% of what they were going to knock down. We’d count that as successful. What those buildings become – that’s another political agenda, and in this case it was all about maximising revenue on a per-square-foot basis. So of course it became a drinking area, a bar area. I think in 15-20 years’ time this is going to be depressing, because the vision of the river, which you have, the approach from Gateshead, even if you come the Byker way, that’s going – if you look at what they’re building, which is a highrise block to the south. If you drive as regularly as we do from the Ouse Burn, there’s a restaurant there called the ‘Bella Vista,’ and they can’t see a thing. They did have a view but it’s gone. If you look at the architecture it’s like anywhere. dreadful.
Neil Young : But Amber will continue to be here, you own the building – isn’t it nice to be the fly in the ointment. or rather a pearl in the wasteland?
Ellin Hare : Opening up the cinema again might make a difference. The fact that the Quayside has come alive as a night place. It wasn’t when I first came here, the place was dead – that’s a positive thing.
Neil Young : Is there a similar collective group making films like Amber anywhere else in Britain?
Murray Martin : There used to be twenty! There were groups in Liverpool. Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield. There’s never been one in Manchester – why, I don’t know. It’s one of the mysteries for me that a city of that size has never produced a group, or even an individual, to document that culture. I can’t understand that.
Ellin Hare : They’ve got one of the best independent cinemas, the Cornerhouse.
Murray Martin : I constantly look at Manchester, and I think ‘Why’. I don’t understand it, I’ve never got to the bottom of it.
Neil Young : Could there be a point when Amber moved into other media, away from films?
Murray Martin : I always said I wouldn’t care if I never made another film again, and that’s been true for a long time. If you’re involved in some way recording and communicating and a debate about what sort of society, which is the basis of where we’re about, I don’t think you need to get bound up with this argument about media, is it film, is it photography, is it writing, is it talking. It doesn’t matter. In some ways I can’t understand why people give so much money for films, why they spend so much money on doing it – Hollywood does it because they make money back.
Ellin Hare : In the last 15 years, while I’ve been here, the budgets and the productions have got bigger. They’re still tiny compared with the rest of the energy, but it means you have less time and less energy for other things. We used to do a lot more, run cinema programmes, discussions, leaflets, books. But you can only do so much. The feature films do take a lot out of you.
Murray Martin : We’re only a small group.
Neil Young : The Scar grew out of this documentary, Like Father developed from The Scar. Is something going to be developed from Like Father which would be Amber’s next project, or do you plan to do something completely different.
Murray Martin : We don’t know.
Ellin Hare : They always interface, don’t they – there’s always an organic process from film to film.
Murray Martin : A film like T Dan Smith was very different from Byker, and yet they grew out of each other.
Ellin Hare : We’ve got money from Channel 4 to do research for a potential drama series, and it may be that we end up making a feature that comes out of that.
Murray Martin : We’re looking at several subjects: we’ve looked at foot-and-mouth, because we’ve just done a photography exhibition about that. Ellie’s looking at teenage mothers. I’ve been looking again at the subcultures based on road-racing in the area, and also buskers’ clubs, the alternative music culture. We actually are videoing for these at the moment, we’ll be at the Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday to film a fortune-teller. Some of these teenage mothers wanted to go this particular fortune-teller. But she happens to link in with the road racing as well.
Neil Young : You mentioned doing a documentary about kids in East Durham. There’s currently the story of kids trying to get a skateboard park in the Peterlee area, and their difficulties with the council, etc. That subject would seem to be an ideal thing for a handheld, black-and-white, digital video film which could be shot in three weeks. Does Amber’s long-drawn out production methods mean you can’t adapt to do a quick little film like that?
Murray Martin : We’d do them, but they probably wouldn’t end up in cinemas – you wouldn’t have the money to do that. We do shoot certain things quite quickly – we did a soap series of ten-minute films shot in two weeks an episode.
Ellin Hare : One of the attractions of this Channel 4 series is that it’s suitable for the digital cameras we’ve got now, and it could mean that we do go down that road and make more flexible and instant things, and respond quickly.
Neil Young : Would you do a cinema film using DV?
Ellin Hare : Possibly.
Murray Martin : We wouldn’t exclude it. But we never get involved with this technographic debate, I think it’s nonsense. When I was a student in the sixties, video was taking over from film. This is now nearly 40 years ago and it still hasn’t taken over, so you get involved with these momentary technological developments – now everybody thinks it’s small DV handheld cameras. There’s no doubt that computer technology is very dominant, and it’s interesting, but if you look at the investment of the film industry it’s still in film, not in video.
Neil Young : What about the dogme movement, which is all about using DV and doing things as quickly as possible.
Ellin Hare : In a sense we’ve been doing dogme films long before dogme anyway. Whether it’s film or DV doesn’t really make that much difference, it’s to do with the approach. We’ve always worked with small crews, almost like documentary crews, and we’ve always been able to respond quickly and flexibly and work in real situations, where a feature film crew never could.
Murray Martin : I wonder how they’ll sustain it, though. It will last for a while, as long as the idea sustains the energy. But the important thing for is the accuracy of what’s said, and the building of relationships which allows that accuracy. The shooting itself doesn’t have to be anything other than quick. In practice, the relationships where you build the trust allows you access and the understanding about what you’re saying.
It’s all about reconstruction, and that why the process for most feature films is totally bound up around the writer. That process is a proven failure – even in America, one in twenty movies is successful, and that’s despite this ‘great formula’ that we have these great script processes, but what that’s really about is control, and not taking risk. It’s about minimising the risk, and the belief in the industry is if you’ve got the great script you’ve then got the film – that is demonstrable folly.
Ellin Hare : I was interested by Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club: some of it is DV, and some of it is extremely carefully choreographed film. I like the idea that you’re free to use any medium, and move between documentary and drama – the strength of the talking head, for instance. Interviews can be so powerful, and you can never use that in a straightforward fictional feature film. Maybe there are ways that things can shift, and you can start all kinds of experiments in form, and technology, and content.
Murray Martin : We looked recently at some talking-head interviews we’d done as part of the research for the next film.
Ellin Hare : We interviewed Jackie Surtees – it’s really powerful, just watching him talking about his childhood.
Neil Young : You shot 20 hours of interviews for Like Father, and also there was the footage from the old men’s video cameras: could this be used for another project?
Ellin Hare : Yes – we also gave cameras out to these single fathers, and that was an interesting area that might end up in the next film.
Neil Young : You show the films to local audiences in the communities – is this a form of test screening, so you go and tweak it depending on their responses about whether it’s too slow, or whatever.
Murray Martin : We do a whole process involving that. We spend a lot of time trying to decide on pace, we have a long debate on length. What conventional cinema goes for is the formula – they’ve tested the market and what will sell, and they reproduce that. Cinemas are like supermarkets – on Friday night they look at the takings, if it’s a certain level it’s on the next week, if not, then it’s not, independent of whether critics like the film, or whether it’s a good film or a bad film. Nobody’s liked Pearl Harbor, but it’s taken enough money to keep it going.
Ellin Hare : We have these long debates, and we show rough cuts to people who’ve been involved. There’s often a tension between the narrative drive and the documentary presence of the locations and the people. But you wouldn’t have that problem in the normal process of film-making because you wouldn’t have that footage in the first place. It would have been cut out at the writing stage by the producer, so it would never have been shot. You’d never look at any of our films and say, that’s a superbly crafted piece of writing – if it was, the people wouldn’t have that room to breathe.
Neil Young : If people watch Like Father, and then find this is the latest of a long line of films from Amber, which one should they try next?
Ellin Hare : There are different strands – Dream On is very different from Seacoal. If you loved In Fading Light you would also love Eden Valley and Seacoal, because that’s one strand, and Murray directed all three.
Murray Martin : Ellie directed Dream On, The Scar, and Like Father. There are different people who make the films – within Amber there are different combinations. Depending on who combines to make the film, a different process takes place and a different product emerges. But they’re all experiments in interfacing drama and documentary. I tend to be motivated by the subject – I’m curious about the context. The seacoalers, with their strange life on the coast, or the racing fraternity who race around small grass fields in Durham – that’s what attracts me.
Click here for an article on Amber called A Failure of Vision
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