Ken Russell is already there when I enter the restaurant. He’s hard to miss, with his big features and shock of thick white hair. At first he seems wary; Russell is an easy target for critics because he wears his heart on his sleeve. He knows I’m a film-maker, but wants me to tell him what I’ve done. I mention Candyman, Ivans XTC. He smiles pleasantly, and asks me to carry on. I tell him I shot Immortal Beloved, a Beethoven biopic with Gary Oldman. Russell fixes me with his steely blue eyes. “I’ve hated you for years,” he says. “I was going to make that movie. I had Anthony Hopkins: he even got into the costume. That was before the project fell apart.”
François Truffaut once said that if you love a man’s work, you love all of it. That’s how I feel about Ken Russell. Of the British directors active in the 1960s and 1970s who inspired me, Nic Roeg and Jim Henson were mentors in a very direct way (I worked for them), while Stanley Kubrick and Lindsay Anderson were remote, mythical figures. But Russell was my hero, the heir to Michael Powell’s peculiarly emotional Englishness and vivid visual rhapsodies. And, sadly, a controversial figure more loved abroad than here.
The first Ken Russell film I saw was his Mahler biopic. It begins with a long shot of a wooden hut built on the side of a lake; birds tweet, the sun shines, nothing happens - until, without reason or warning, the hut is consumed by a sudden explosion of fire in time to the chilling music of Mahler. I know of no other director who would conceive of beginning a picture like that, although Francis Ford Coppola later ripped it off, brilliantly, for the opening of Apocalypse Now. Mahler concerns itself with the normal stuff of biography: childhood, loves, religion, family tragedy, but is devoid of a conventional plot. What drives it is the music - bawdy, vulgar, violent, sweeping, cloying, stunning music set to pictures that switch from naturalistic drama to pastiche, fantasy and history.
Russell’s main concern is the struggle of the artist to create, the courage it requires to devote one’s life to art, and the tragedy that often results. He elevates the artist to heroic status, and denigrates traditional heroics as violence and oppression. The quintessential Russell sequence is in Savage Messiah: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the young sculptor, more drunken punk than working artist, lies to a Bond Street gallery owner at a dinner party about a brilliant neo-classical marble torso he has supposedly made. The gallery-owner agrees to come to Gaudier’s studio to view the non-existent piece. Gaudier then rushes from the party, heads to a cemetery, steals a hunk of marble off a tombstone, lugs it home and spends all night chiselling. When morning comes and the gallery owner fails to show, Gaudier drags the statue down to the gallery in a barrow and hurls it through the window. As his friends bail him out of jail, he complains: “I don’t want to get off - if I get off it means I didn’t do anything!” To me, as a teenager who wanted desperately to make movies, this felt like a credo I could get behind. I adopted Russell as my hero.
I knew about Russell’s aborted Beethoven movie. In his autobiography, A British Picture, a new edition of which is published this week, he describes a project called The Beethoven Secret, a film that would use the unknown recipient of a letter Beethoven wrote to his “immortal beloved” as a mechanism for telling his story. Russell also describes a colourful character called Denny, a man who built a shrine to Russell’s movies in the backyard of his LA home. Denny is in fact Leonard Pollack, a costume designer I worked with on Candyman. There was a copy of H C Robbins Landon’s biography of Beethoven in Pollack’s shrine, the copy Russell had used to research his planned version. I…#65279; read it, and became hooked on the idea of making a film about Beethoven.
So, although I didn’t have the courage to say so, I did steal Immortal Beloved from him. I even tried to hire Anthony Hopkins, and I did hire Peter Suschitzky (who shot Russell’s Lisztomania) to be my director of photography. But when I was shopping the idea around with studio executives, I constantly had to promise the movie would be nothing like one of Russell’s. Under the table my fingers were firmly crossed. The execs wanted the new Amadeus, little realising that that film owes something to Russell. A scene in his Song of Summer, where the blind and paralysed Delius dictates music to his young amanuensis, Eric Fenby, is exactly replicated in Amadeus, when Mozart, sick and dying, dictates his Requiem Mass to Salieri.
What I do say is: “Sorry if I pinched Immortal Beloved off you. Anyway, it got terrible reviews.” This makes Russell smile, and quote Lisztomania: “‘Time kills all critics’ - which leads me on to Alexander Walker.”
Walker, the London Evening Standard’s film critic, hated Russell’s films with a pathological fervour, a hatred that climaxed in a live TV showdown where Russell hit Walker over the head with a rolled-up Standard. Russell says: “I was foolish enough to write to the editor of the Standard and suggest that Walker was not reviewing my work fairly and could he have someone else review my films. The editor took offence, printed my letter, and announced that, even though Walker was on holiday, he was going to fly him back to review my latest film. He hated it, of course.” I remind Russell of Ingmar Bergman’s theory about critics: “One must remember that they have their public, too.” He laughs; he likes that.
Russell remains prolific. By his own definition an “unbankable” director, he has returned to his roots. Working with new technology, including a home camcorder, he has in the past few years made The Fall of the Louse of Usher, A Kitten for Hitler and Boudica. He is planning Bravetart Versus the Loch Ness Monster. There’s a bawdy 19th-century bohemian quality to these late works that is hard to resist, but of course none of them has received any conventional distribution. Russell and I both agree on this issue: it no longer matters. Ten minutes from now, everything will be on the internet.
He tells me about a planned biography of Russian composer Scriabin. “I want giant bells hanging from clouds. A couple making love on a giant bed. Of course, it’s too expensive to do. I did it as a radio play with Oliver Reed. I’d love to make it as a film.” I ask if he ever applied to the Film Council for a grant and Russell replies sadly: “I did, but they just treat me like some kind of joke.” It’s a shame they don’t recognise Russell’s importance. If the UK Film Council don’t want to fund his work, they should at least put him forward for a knighthood. If they don’t, I’ve a good mind to wheel a barrow of Ken Russell films to their offices and, like Gaudier, hurl the cans one by one through the plate glass windows. Cans that bear the names Women in Love, Elgar, Song of Summer, The Music Lovers, The Devils, Savage Messiah, Mahler, Lisztomania, Tommy, Altered States, Crimes of Passion, Salome’s Last Dance - the work of one of the greatest British directors of all time.
Guardian, September 2008