H O W & W H Y
written by Cristian Solimeno
I wanted to do everything wrong, absolutely every single part of the process. It was the only way I could think of to save myself, I had to do it wrong because trying to do it right was what had led me astray in the first place. I’d lost my grip, lost my mojo, lost the deep, true, compulsive drive to create that had been with me since my late teens. I’d written and directed two feature films by this point that had both been incredibly honest and interesting and well liked and had vanished without trace and I no longer knew what I wanted to say or how I wanted to say it.
The truth was I’d been drifting for a while and at a certain point the shore had finally vanished from view and that was when I started to panic and it dawned on me that I might never find my way back after all. I might just live the rest of my life like that. Lost and separated from my true self. I looked around and saw plenty of other people who seemed to live that way, some of them even seemed to be getting rewarded for it but they also looked as if they were paying a terrible price. Their fires had gone out in some way. Maybe we’re supposed to live that way. Maybe that’s the deal. You give up your soul and if you’re very very lucky then the world gives you back in return a place at the table, but the food is tasteless and you can never be full.
A big part of the problem for me I realised was my ambition itself, my desire to succeed. We’re told that we have to want it so bad, that we have to go after success with everything and that’s how you get there. Crack the code. Close your eyes and visualise it. Read the books and listen to the podcasts and wish hard enough and it can be yours. But the more I wanted it and the harder I wished. The more I had found I had lost my own voice. And I did want it bad. I do. I still do. I want the gatekeepers to let me in, of course I do. I want my films to be seen. I want to be liked. I want clever people who hold important jobs to think that I am clever too and that I’m the kind of asset they want on their team. I am back at secondary school in PE, standing there, trapped in my slow, soft body and cheap, no brand trainers as the two captains pick their teams and my veins slowly fill with humiliation like it’s a poison being pumped into me because once again, no one wants me on their side.
At a certain point I think you just have to accept that you won’t ever win them over by trying to be what you think they want you to be. At a certain point surely you have to just say fuck them. Fuck the gatekeepers and fuck the team captains and you just have to go back to what you truly deeply are at your very core. Not because it will lead to some great victory but because it is actually who you are. I do really believe in the value of that and I sometimes wonder if flying your own flag over your head is the victory that matters anyway. For me that meant letting go of trying to make something for the sake of success, letting go of trying to say the right things and letting go of masquerading as a round peg because I really wasn’t one of those and I never would be. I needed to stop all that shit stone dead and concentrate on finding my actual artistic voice again, and so I decided to make a film where I did as much wrong as I possibly could.
What was it going to be? I considered many things and thought about it from many angles. What was important to me to say? What did I want to see? What look did I want for it? Maybe I should shock the world with something. Maybe it should be so subtle and obscure that as to defy understanding. These thoughts bounced around like unstable atoms trapped in a reactor and bit by bit they started to collide and the energy slowly built up. I kept coming back to something that seemed kind of silly really. That bit at the end of Love Actually which is radically different from everything else in the film. It comes out of nowhere, right at the end… camcorder footage, low resolution. No gloss to it at all. Travellers coming out of the arrivals gate at an airport and being greeted by their loved ones. The love they have for each other affects everything about them and how they move and their facial expressions and everything and that is gorgeous but more than anything they are just so… alive. They’ve got that I’m a real person anima to them that almost never survives a translation to the clumsy tapestry of fiction. Occasionally the odd thread might make it through but no more than that.This was the material that I wanted to weave my film from.
So I wanted it to be full of life. And I wanted it to be full of love. But not romantic love. If this was somehow magically transformed into a studio picture then it would certainly have romantic love as it’s backbone and not too long previously I might have even thought about it myself but by now I was too far gone. No way was it going to be about that. Two of my favourite people in the world had died in the preceding few years and I’d seen up close how much damage it does to a community when people are ripped out of it. That was the love I was looking for. That everyday love. Your mates, your family, your ex’s even. The people who you matter to and whose lives would be changed forever if yours was ended prematurely. It all percolated until finally I knew what I wanted to make. A guy would be terribly worried about a mate of his, a mate that has stopped talking to everyone and who has maybe tried already to take his own life. This guy would be so worried about this mate and so desperate that he would actually make the guy a film, a documentary for 1. He would interview his mate’s family and their other friends and we the audience would see the man watch it. We would come to see a portrait of the guy told from all these different perspectives and come to understand what his predicament was and as for him… well he would go on a journey, a bit like James Stewart in “Its a Wonderful Life” It would be almost like seeing his own funeral. He’d be forced to look at what he means to the people he’s connected to and that would do something to him.
I stood back and looked at the sketched out premise. I had absolutely no idea if it would work at all. I had no idea how to make it. I had no idea how it could possibly end that wouldn’t feel cheap and unsatisfying and it was full of so many different ways to fuck it up. It was exposing and scary and I suspected that if I did finally manage to somehow do it then I would make a complete fool out of myself. Yes, I suppose you could say it was absolutely perfect for me right from the off.
I spent a lot of time working out how I wanted to do it. I thought about the famous series of prints made in Japan in the 1830’s by Hokusai, called 36 views of Mount Fuji. Different views in different seasons because you could never sum up something so amazing from one perspective. For a while, 36 views of a man was my working title.
Now that it’s done, it all seems obvious, the name, how we did it, everything. But it really wasn’t when I was standing at the other end. I can’t tell you how tricky it all was, nor how intimidating I found it to look ahead at the uncharted wilderness that would have to be crossed.
One of the first choices I made was who I wanted to play the guy the film is made for. There were a few people I knew that could have been good for it but I soon whittled it down to a list with a single name, an actor called Gary Grant. He’s not only a phenomenal and extremely committed actor but also very compassionate and has great insight in to the human condition, I felt almost guilty asking him to do it. The role is incredibly exposing and he has to carry the whole film on his shoulders with very very little help. It would be a glorious nightmare for him and so I felt a bit guilty but I did what directors do and I laid the challenge out for him in a way that I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist. It would turn out be another year and a half before we were able to shoot his stuff, because I didn’t want to shoot him until I’d made the film he would be watching and as it turned out that wasn’t going to be an easy thing to do.
The way I tackled it was thus, I approached a bunch of people that I thought would be interesting, I sat them down and interviewed them about someone they knew who had committed suicide or who they were worried about. If that wasn’t relevant to the interviewee then we’d talk about other things until we found someone to talk about that really connected them to the story. They’d change the pronouns in their stories to fit our protagonists gender and I asked them to omit names. Once I had a fair batch of these, I edited them down, pulling them apart and putting them together again until it started to really feel like they were all talking about the same person. From that point a picture started to emerge of who Gary’s character was.
The next phase was more interviews but these required greater improvisation and leaps of imagination from the contributors. Many of these stories were still true but as my protagonists story emerged it got more tricky to make the new interviews work. It was also challenging building the sense of a narrative arc into it all. Creating ebb and flow and tension. The contributors were amazingly kind and patient and some of them I had to revisit several times till I had what I needed.
By now the working title had become 50 reasons to live and I was thinking of expanding it so that there were interviews with scientists and doctors who would explain how miraculous life is and how incredible each human has to be just to be. I shot some stuff like that but it didn’t make it into the film. It just wasn’t personal enough. Here’s an example of one of the interviews I did use to give you an idea of how it worked. My friend Billy was one of the first people I’d asked because he was just so charismatic, funny and intelligent and I knew his interview would be great. We set up to shoot in his flat which felt a bit like we were actually inside his brain because it was full from floor to ceiling of everything he was interested in or tinkering with. A massive drum kit in the kitchen/living room, books and bicycles, kettlebells, motorcycle parts and old camera’s everywhere and it was a great setting. He surprised me with how nervous he seemed to be. I tried to get him talking about a particular person which he did and that stuff was cool but it moved on to talking about the thing itself. Suicide itself and he was really the only person out of all those I spoke to who was able to tackle it head on like that. What he said was insightful and funny and spot on but to be honest, it wasn’t exactly what I was after and I knew I’d probably be asking to come back and do another one at some point.
And that was that, that was how they went. They were each of them pretty painless in themselves. They were emotionally heavy because of what we spoke about but not exactly hard as such. Incidentally BIlly was also the person who sent me a message on another day about this brilliant new book he’d read and loved called Reasons to Stay Alive by a guy called Matt Haig. Well that was another working title down the tube. I was fearful that the book was maybe the same idea. Maybe I was just too late with it, but actually it was a different thing altogether so the project could continue. The third stage of interviews were with a select group of extremely talented actors. There were gaps in the narrative that I wanted to shape in certain ways to cement the structure of the film and I needed people who could give performances indistinguishable from the real interviews. After a lot of plotting and talking to people we got stuck in to these too and they were scary because they could so easily have gone wrong but every one of them was a great success and I even allowed myself to think for a while that everything might go brilliantly from here.
I bah humbugged Christmas that year and locked myself away through the whole period and while the world ate turkey and unwrapped things I ate a curry and unwrapped my film. As is always the case, one of the hardest things about it was cutting stuff that was really brilliant but that didn’t move things forward. Some of my favourite interviews wound up not making it in to the film at all and to those contributors I humbly and sincerely apologise and I thank you deeply for your generosity and patience with me and this strange process. Feature films are such weird things. They are intimidatingly massive, huge beasts that are almost impossible to control but they’re also tiny little spaces given all that must be packed in to them.
Well eventually, we had the film within a film, and finally… finally we could tackle shooting Gary’s character. He and I spoke extensively and he put a lot of work into building this man who was slowly slipping out of his own life. I explained his life history as it had emerged from the interviews but I held some stuff back too so that some things would surprise him. We looked at the minutiae of what made his character tick and I took all this stuff back to Bruce Melhuish, the film’s exceedingly clever cinematographer and together we tried to find ways to represent these things visually. An idea I’d been hanging on to for a long time but wasn’t entirely sure about till late in the day was having all of Gary’s stuff be in black and white and without synch sound. I wanted his world to be a version of how he would experience it. Colourless and grey and completely isolated, the outside world so far away that he just can’t hear it any more. It was really quite tricky to work out how to do it and how to do it right while other elements in the film remained in full sound and colour and it took some experimentation to get there, but we managed it in the end.
I’ll never forget that first take of Gary watching the film. After all that time and all that work it was finally happening. It was incredibly powerful for me as I watched him watching it. He was just amazing. There was no sense of it being a performance, of what he was doing being for the camera at all. It was just happening and it was like it was really happening. I felt like I was spying on this man, peering in to this incredibly private moment. We wound up spending three days shooting his reactions to the film and getting all those moments just right. By the end of it we were all exhausted. Bruce and I drove back from the final days shoot in silence and I know that Gary was laid up in bed for two days afterwards. Just completely drained.
I wanted to do everything wrong. I wanted to innovate with every part of how a film is made and in changing that process have the product that comes out of it be something quite different. Something that might have the power to cut through the formality and distance that films often have. Or rather that I often experience when I watch films. I wanted to do everything so wrong to make something that was so right, so direct and intimate, that it might have the power to shoot an arrow with a little lifeline attached right into the high castles and low fortifications that so many of us seem to make and then get trapped inside of. So I decided in the end to call it
I Made this For You
Through all of this of course I’d been thinking a lot about people who end their own lives. About how they get there, about what there actually looks like and about how they might get back from there. I’ve been exceedingly melancholy and introspective through much of my life but I’ve never tried to kill myself. There was a point, which went on for about 18 months where my inner world just hurt so much to be in that it seemed unbearable to face a future like that and the thought of ceasing to be was on my mind everyday. Every day I’d just say to myself, not today, not today, not today until eventually, I was past it. And I suppose I thought that gave me some insight, some qualification. But the thing is, I didn’t get all the way out to the edge of that edge, and when I look at it now I’m embarrassed by how arrogant I was to think I might know how other people feel without really digging in to them specifically. To think that looking out at that edge was the same as standing right on it.
The first screening of the film was just informal, a rough cut for friends, family and cast and crew and it was on my birthday, at the Lyric Hammersmith. Somewhere my friends and I had performed on stage in our youth theatre days and that still holds a lot of magic for me. The screen was full, the lights went down and the film breathed for the first time. It stood up and moved around and danced and had a life and spoke to all these people till the lights came back up again. Some people had been very moved. Some not so much, but there were lots of tears and kind words from lots of good people and we drank together and spoke about it and I took notes and knew there would be lots more work to do to get it just so. My birthday had fallen on a weeknight that year so lots of people involved with the film couldn’t make it. They will be watching it for the first time at the East End Festival on the 19th of April. Just 8 days off of being one year exactly since that first screening.
Billy couldn’t make it that night. He’d had to work, but he called me after and it was loud where I was and there were lots of people still around and I was a bit euphoric and I told him how it had played well and that he is brilliant in it which he is. Several people had already commented on it. By the way, I never did shoot any more of his interview. When I watched it back… it was all there. Everything I needed and more. I hadn’t seen it clearly at the time. I’d been looking out for something instead of just looking at what was being offered. So anyway, we cracked a few jokes and he wished me a happy birthday and I thanked him for being so awesome in the film and that was that.
7 days later Billy committed suicide. I hadn’t seen it coming. We’d spoken loads about how he felt but I hadn’t seen it coming. It took me a while to work out that the only plausible explanation was that I hadn’t been listening. I still don’t know exactly why he did it or why he picked that day. Its clear now that I really didn’t know where he was at. How he felt. What he thought. My instruments had given me false readings and I accepted them, probably because they suited me. I don’t suppose I wanted to see the state he was really in and I will have to live with that.
There was still a lot of work to do on the film and I tried to do it despite being utterly heartbroken. Mechanically I forced my self to make the cuts it needed. It was extremely hard going. Not least because It was fucking horrible to see my friend every day talking about this very subject and seeming fine and well on screen while I knew what I now knew. But I did it because it seemed important somehow and also it was something I could do. At the same time it seemed completely unimportant too, utterly futile.
Earlier I mentioned Bruce Melhuish, the Cinematographer and do-er of so much more on the film. My close collaborator and a tremendous force for good who makes all my work possible. Well about a month after we laid Billy to rest, completely out of the blue, Bruce was in a bad traffic accident and wound up with a terrible head injury. He seemed not too bad at first. Bashed up but okay. A couple of days later though it all changed, he was in a terrible way all of a sudden. Just fading before my eyes and the doctors realised they’d have to perform a big emergency operation on him that carried only a small chance of survival. Everyone else was frantically rushing to get to the hospital but there wasn’t time to wait so it was just me there with him as it all played out.
He was confused and groggy and unsure of what was happening. I told him confidently that he’d be okay and that these nice people were going to look after him. I said goodbye and watched him be wheeled away and stood quietly for a second in the now empty curtained off area. I wept big heavy tears and thought that I would never see him again.
Amazingly though. Bruce pulled through. It was an incredibly close run thing but he did it. When he was out of surgery and we could finally see him, he was just coming round and he looked like he’d been through hell and he opened his eyes and for a split second he was like a baby. His face lit up in the most innocent way when he saw his mum. His mental processes seemed to come back on line layer by layer and you could see it all in his rapidly shifting demeanour and his flickering expressions. Just as he seemed to settle Ben asked him how he felt, and Bruce replied “Fucking rough”. Yeah, He pulled through alright. It was an absolute miracle. And the even more amazing thing is, he’s made a full recovery. He’s back to work and running and all sorts just as if it had never happened
So the time has come now to let the film get out there and start to have it’s own life. Time for it to build its own relationships with people. I have to let it go but now I don’t want to. I feel incredibly conscious of how Billy’s family and friends might feel when the film starts to exist in the world. I’ve spoken to everyone I think. Or I’ve tried to at least. I’ve explained what the project is and talked about what he says in it. His mum has seen it. His sister too. They were brave to watch it and lovely about it. I guess one of the big reasons I wanted to write this is to let people know about it all. There must be people that I haven’t spoken to in depth about it all. To them I apologise and I don’t want you stumbling across things to do with this film and wondering what it is. I Also want the people who it matters to, to know that Billy is in the film and that he talks about suicide in a general way and some other things too and I’m not going to lie, if you love him then it will probably be a hard thing to see. I really hope this doesn’t bring anyone any extra pain and I really hope that the final film is something he would have been proud to be a part of. I truly do believe he would. It is unique and bold and direct and off centre and full of humanity, just like him.
I have come to realise that I have a habit of speaking when I should be listening. This film is an expression of that. It speaks and I hope that it can speak to lots of people in a positive way for them. But of course it cannot listen. To anyone that is on that edge, I urge you to take your turn to talk. If it can’t be someone you know then pick up the phone and call one of the organisations that exists specifically to help you. There are people out there right now that you have never met that already care enough about you to listen to you as you deserve to be listened to. They will do all that they can to help.
As I’m writing this in the UK you can talk to CALM from 5pm-midight every day of the year on 0800 58 58 58. Or the Samaritans free from any phone and their lines are open 24 hours every day of the year on 116 123
I no longer have the naive idea that I started out with, that I could make a film that might really help people. After everything that’s happened, I’m just not sure about that. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure about my own motives anymore either. Reading this back it’s clear that I actually made this film for me after all. It’s the film I wanted to make and discusses a subject I’m curious and passionate about in the way I wanted to do it. I don’t want to dress up in some bullshit cloak of selflessness. I am as lost and confused as anyone. I’m as selfish and flawed. All I can say is, with the help of a lot of people I’ve made a film. The truth is I’ve probably made it for my own reasons but I do really hope that some of you who watch it get something positive from it. It’s filled with love but it’s not cheesy. It has a lot of heart and it’s funny at times and I hope that if you go all the way with it you’ll find it uplifting in its way.
But look, I’m just like any film maker. I want it to do well and be liked and even after everything I’m still hopeful that the team captains will one day pick me and that those clever people who hold important jobs will think I’m clever too and that I’m the kind of asset they want on their team.