by Keira Knightley
I first came across Stuart's work in French's bookshop, where I picked up a copy of his book of drawings of actors which I loved. I then met Stuart backstage after a friend's play. He was wearing plus-fours and I thought it an extraordinary thing that someone had the balls...
It was after a party at which we formed a band with kids' instruments - (I the kazoo, he the plastic trombone) that we first discussed doing a project together. I loved the idea of doing something that was purely creative, weird and wonderful, and not a commercial venture.
Ideas were emailed and then developed at his studio over cupcakes and tea and under the skeleton of his dog, and a film piece was decided on: a collision of our worlds.
Stuart referenced various films for mood, films by Werner Herzog as well as Possession with Isabelle Adjani - particularly a scene in which she miscarries the devil's child in a subway station...
My direction on the day often consisted of 'a little more Adjani', and although we never quite went as far as the abortion of green goo, there's always the sequel.
The last time I saw Stuart he took me out to eat cabbage that had been rotted underground for some years.
ONLY ELEPHANTS HAVE FOUR KNEES (Part Two)
David Thewlis talks to Stuart Pearson Wright
DT I don’t know why it’s so funny. It’s supposed to be funny right?
SPW Well, and tragic and…
DT My reaction is comedic, because of the tragedy… It may be because I know you both that I find it funnier.…
SPW That cut on my cheek… I’d said to the make up lady “I would like a scratch here.” But because we were running so short on time, and shot it all in one day, I didn’t even have time to look at the scratch she had made. Because we’d shot it on super 16, I had to wait until it’d been processed before I saw the scratch, and it’s like someone’s sliced my face open with a machete. [they laugh]
DT I think it’s quite good. Often you can be too subtle on film with things like that. [both laugh]
SPW At the end of the Incredible Hulk, the original TV programme, after every episode Hulk reverts to his human self and they play that sad song “da da da dum. da da da du dum”, you remember that?
DT Yeah, vaguely.
SPW And every time he is walking along this road. You see him from the back, walking along alone, his clothes all shredded…
DT Yeah yeah yeah.
SPW He’s heading along that road and this tune kicks in. As a kid of four or five, I would cry my eyes out. It was as though through watching it I learnt an essential human truth: everything I needed to know about existentialism [both laugh] and the human condition. It really cut me up. I mean I was the kind of kid that used to collect leaves in the playground because I felt sorry for them. It really distressed me when I saw a leaf by itself. I’d put it in my pocket and take it home with me. My Mum would say to me “why are your pockets full of leaves?” and I’d say “well they just looked so lonely”. [both laugh loudly]
DT It rings a bell about something Gracie [David’s daughter] said recently. She’s now four and a half, and she’s begun to understand death. It’s very hard to keep kids away from it. You only have to watch Peter Pan. About two months ago it struck her that we would die. You don’t know what to say at first. You lie. You go “well yeah, but not for a long time” and then you find yourself inventing Heaven because…
SPW And God?
DT Yeah, because death is going to be really shit. One day I’m going to get old and sick and I could just pass out now quite honestly. [both laugh] she’s like “so do humans die?” You don’t know what to say. Its very strange.
SPW Maybe you should read her your novel. [The Late Hector Kipling]
SPW That’ll tell her everything she needs to know about death.
DT Exactly, yeah.
SPW It’s a great book by the way, I’ve just finished reading it.
DT You’re a big part of that book; you were a big inspiration for it.
SPW Well, I did the cover.
DT But you were telling me when you were at the Slade, about someone who dressed up as a dog and went round pissing on paintings. I remember you saying “obviously I had a problem with that”. [Stuart laughs] The first cell for my novel was that idea: a painter who’s pissed off with a conceptual artist. That was the genesis of the whole book.
SPW You were in my thoughts a lot while I was reading the book. I was entering your head, which was strange: reading a novel by someone you know.
DT Yeah, I think it’s also hard to see someone you know acting. My reaction to Maze was comedic because I know you well. I think its great. Your work is very autobiographical.
SPW I made another film called Knight's Tale. Did you see that?
SPW That was a self portrait.
DT That was you hacking through…
SPW It was me exasperated and dealing with the futility of my situation. That’s how it felt at the time. Perhaps it was more a portrait of a relationship [with an ex-girlfriend] or rather, how it felt to be me, in that relationship. Maze continues where Knight’s Tale left off, but this time with two characters, still portraying the same relationship. It literally was as though we were both lost in the same maze and couldn’t get to each other. There was always a bloody hedge in between, so to speak.
DT Why did you choose to set them in history? Why Elizabethan?
SPW It comes back to the idea of heroes: taking an archetypal hero, such as a knight or a cowboy or an Elizabethan courtier… Using a steadycam at the beginning of Maze, was a way of referencing period dramas. There are certain expectations associated with the genre, that the viewer will have of the characters and of the style of the film. They’ll expect the film to be shot in a certain way: to be very beautiful, the camerawork to be elegant, and a degree of reverence afforded to the subject and the period.
DT A decorum about how the characters move?
SPW Yeah, exactly, characters from the Elizabethan period dramas are expected to perform in a particular way. The male has got to be heroic, if he’s wearing a cod piece he’s got to get his sword out, win the maiden and save the day.
SPW So I wanted to take all of those references and expectations and piss them up the wall: explode the myth of the hero. The male protagonist of Maze is far from Heroic. He is ineffective. His situation isn’t even particularly grave. It is more absurd than grave, and yet he fails to resolve it. His woman literally walks out of the picture. Failure is possible. Real people fail, sometimes… relationships fail.
DT And how important was investigating your relationship to acting because I know that you used to act didn’t you?
SPW I used to act in amateur dramatics as a youth, and I was in a play at the Edinburgh festival a few years ago.
DT When I last saw you, you were talking about giving up painting and pursuing acting.
SPW Was I?
DT Yeah and I said why? because your such a fuckin’ great painter and you said “well it’s a mugs game”.
SPW Did I? [laughs]
DT Yeah I was like “Stuart you can’t stop painting” you should do both.
SPW Well the funny thing about making Maze is that it made me realise that I didn’t want to be a feature film director.
SPW Because I realised I could make a small project like Maze and then be done with it and move on to a painting. Whereas, if I made a feature I’d be stuck in a project for five years or more. I wouldn’t have the patience for that frankly.
DT I directed one feature film, which I partly loved making, but otherwise had a terrible time. The executives are over your shoulder going “I think that’s all wrong”. No one's looking over your shoulder while you're painting going: “Stuart I think you need a bit of blue there”.
SPW No, I’d stab them in the eye with my brush if they did. Your vision becomes diluted when you’ve got other bastards and their opinions. That’s why I don’t think I’ve got the stamina or patience to be a feature director. Not that anyone’s offering me the opportunity to, it’s just not something I want to pursue.
DT I wouldn’t imagine you’re suited to it really. I would imagine that you are suited to acting though.
SPW I enjoy acting.
DT Well just from Maze, and indeed, from Knight’s Tale you’re… there’s something interesting about you.
SPW Well it’s a very similar process to painting a self-portrait. Even if it's just posing for a photograph for something: when I paint myself, sometimes it’s from a mirror and sometimes it’s from photographs. Either way you have to become the character, to an extent.
DT Who was the DP on Maze? [Director of Photography]
SPW Rob Hardy. He made one of the… you know the Red Riding trilogy?
DT Oh Fuck yeah!
SPW He shot one of those.
DT Jesus! Fantastic. Did you direct it?
SPW Yes. The only previous experience of directing I had though, was on Knight’s Tale: an ex-girlfriend and I went into the woods. I had a suit of armour. She had a camera and off we went. That was it. But suddenly this was me on a film set with fifteen professionals and Keira Knightley! [they laugh] All of a sudden I had to direct a crew and a Hollywood actress and perform as well. Obviously I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and hoped no one noticed. But I knew what I was trying to make. That was the thing. I realised I could get by, utilising the skills of the people who were there, who knew what they were doing. As long as I could communicate to them what I wanted to achieve, it would happen. And it did.
DT Well, that’s what film directing is.
SPW That’s what I realised.
DT But you can have one bad apple in the production team, [they laugh] and it can all go pear-shaped. My film was supposed to be genuinely Bunuelesque, and it came out looking like a comedic Coronation Street. All the surrealistic qualities that I wanted to put into the film just got red pencils through them, because of budget restrictions. I had a shot where this man in a small Lancashire town is burying his wife. I had in the script: “as the camera pulls back on a huge crane we see Cimitieres de Pere Lachaise in Paris, the biggest cemetery in the world: a huge city of the dead in a small Lancashire town [they laugh]. Then at the budget meeting: “now about this shot, we can’t really get the crew over to Paris for the day and hire a big cherry picker so that you can have that shot that may or may not be in the film.” And then the music, they’re like “no, that’s gonna cost half a million for a fucking Elton John track, that I didn’t want anyway. So erm yeah… I got asked the other day to direct something again and I was like “no, it’s a mug’s game.” With film acting you mainly rehearse on your own, so for all it’s being a very public form of expression, acting is still a private thing like painting and writing, but film directing is not. You can’t sit at home privately rehearsing how to direct a film.
SPW Compromising your vision in some way grates so much against any kind of idea of artistic integrity. I mean budget shmudget.
DT That’s why I wrote a book because when you write a book you can have Venus fuckin’ crashing into Pluto and that doesn’t cost you a penny. The only comparison I would make is imagine you do a painting, the executives come in and: “for a start take all the nob references out”, and they go in there with their brushes...
DT You’ve got some pictures in the National Portrait Gallery collection? JK Rowling…?
SPW …John Hurt and Adam Cooper, some drawings as well.
DT You turn commissions down now?
DT It sounds a bit like doing Basic Instinct 2… Sharon Stone hates me.
SPW Oh dear.
DT [both laugh] I could tell you why if you promise not to put it in.
DT So when we did Basic Instinct 2…
SPW Or B I 2 as its affectionately known…
[some time elapses]
DT…I’m sure I’m going to run into her again, she’s on the circuit.
SPW Yeah, well she’s not on the Hackney circuit.
DT But actors bump into each other…
SPW And artists do. I nearly knocked Gillian Wearing over on my bike the other day.
DT This takes us back to Tracey Emin. I rang her up to say that in my book I describe a fictitious private view. I said “Tracy is it alright that in my book I’ve mentioned you were at this thing?” thinking she’d go: “Yeah yeah come round to my studio and hang out” and instead Tracy took it very badly and was like: “you can’t write a fucking book about me, what you talking about?, no, you don’t even fuckin’ know me” and I’m going “no no no, its not a book about you its just a book about an artist.” In the film world it wouldn’t be surprising if I bumped into Robert DeNiro or Richard E Grant. In the artworld the guy I’m writing about would bump into Tracy Emin or the Chapmans, and she’s like: “you don’t fucking know me” I went: “I don’t even have to make this call Tracy, I’m only being courteous and she’s like: “oh, fuck off” and I’m like: “you fuck off, you’re not being in the fucking book then”.
SPW I saw her in the street near Spitalfields once. It was a long time ago and from a distance I just saw a brunette in a red dress who looked quite attractive. So I sort of steered my bike in her direction for a closer look and realised it was Tracy Emin. At this time I was single and frivolous and so I said to her “I was wondering if I could do a portrait of you…”
DT But you knew she was Tracy.
SPW Yeah, and you know what she said to me? she said: “I don’t wanna be anyone’s muse”
SPW You had some very good ideas in your book for conceptual art pieces. Why don’t you make and exhibit them?
DT I’d love to. The one idea I had in my book that I’d love to do is for a convicted murderer to be in the middle of the room untethered, with access to guns and knives. He’s just sat there and you go and look at him and he’s got weapons. That’s my favourite idea from the book.
SPW That would be interesting.
DT Well it’s risky. There’s another one where there are thousands of hot baked beans hanging from a net in the room and at some point in the exhibition they will drop the beans.
SPW …or you could be dispensing one bean at a time into the net, from a contraption above. Every five minutes it drops another bean and the net’s just going to get… [tension noise]
DT…the bean that broke the camels back.
SPW Yeah, there’s going to be one bean that goes [sound of exploding beans] and just kills everyone, well smothers everyone in beans. That would be beautiful.
DT That was called “you pay your money you takes your chances” and the murderer idea came later. Yeah, it has to be a pychotic, mentally retarded killer. You go and look at him because that’s the daring thing to do, but any minute he could fucking kill you.
SPW You’ve gotta do that.
DT Yeah but its finding the murderers, where you gonna find them?
SPW Well that bloke in Australia’s still alive: Chopper: “Does it hurt Keith?”
DT You’d have to get an unpredictable killer, a random shooter. That’s what my novel’s about.. I’ve always been fascinated by that crime. When I was writing the book serendipitously I found that quote by Brunghel… not by him… by B..
SPW ….Bob Monkhouse?
DT No, by B...
APW Bono? Bob Hope?
DT The famous surrealist…
DT Yeah, Breton. He said that the ultimate surrealist act is to walk into a crowded street with a loaded revolver and open fire at random. There were some people, Damian Hirst among them, who thought 9/11 was a great piece of installationist art. Which I’m sure he said to be shocking. But to be shocking is…
SPW The currency of the day is it not? But I feel very honoured to have been a seed in the making of your novel.
DT You were the first one, the dog pissing on the painting story was the sperm to the egg. Everything grew from that…. Whatever happened to the guy who dressed up as a dog and pissed on the paintings?
SPW I don’t know.
DT Was it Damien Hirst?
SPW No it was an Italian bloke I think.
DT You never heard of him?
SPW Maurizio something or other… on that note, I need to go for a piss …
DT What time is it? Oh shit!
For Part One of Only Elephants Have Four Knees visit the I Remember You project here.