Philip Ridley on His Demons
Date posted: 28.05.2010
Back in the 90s Philip Ridley made dark gothic chiller The Passion of Darkly Noon. Off the back of only one UK print, the director accrued a cult following and a legion of fans who have been waiting since with baited breath for the release of his next film. Heartless tells the story of Jamie (Jim Sturgess), a troubled young man with a birthmark on his face, which has left him feeling isolated and fearful, hiding from the world outside. Clémence Poésy, Noel Clarke, Joseph Mawle, Eddie Marsan, Luke Treadaway and Timothy Spall lead a talented ensemble cast.
Ridley; author, playwright, poet, songwriter and all round visionary, trained as an artist at St Martin's School of Art and wrote the award winning screenplay for The Krays in 1990. As an East Ender, Ridley was fascinated by local urban mythology surrounding the legendary twins. "I remember seeing them down Bethnal Green Road - they lived a few streets away from me. Literally like a 4 minute walk. It was the myth of the story that interested me much more than the truth. The truth of their story, doing it chronologically is actually quite messy. The myth, these twins being born into this post-war British environment has a kind of elegance to it on a mythical level touches a nerve I think."
While a student, Ridley was working at Fugitive Pictures doing the odd storyboard and learning about the business. It was the mid to late 80s, the era of the pop video boom and he had heard Gary and Martin Kemp wanted to get back into acting hopeful that the story of The Krays was the perfect vehicle for them. "I was about to publish my first novel at the time called Crocodilia and I said to them listen I think I would like to have a bash at doing the screenplay. Don't pay me. I'll do a fresh draft and if you think there's something there that's working in the way that you want to do it, that's great, because I've got a very particular idea of how I think the Krays should be done; as this kind of dark satanic urban myth, this dark fairytale of these twins. And that's what happened. I did this first draft of the screenplay for The Krays and I showed it the producers and I showed the script to Gary and Martin Kemp and they all said: absolutely."
At exactly the same time as The Krays started shooting with Peter Medak at the helm, Ridley got his directorial debut off the ground and set off for Alberta to shoot The Reflecting Skin, the first of two critically acclaimed masterpieces set in rural America. "It's strange because in many ways I think my first two films are the most English because they are my fevered imaginings of what I think America is like - they're hardly documentary realism. I read a lot of American literature when I was a child growing up and saw a lot of American films so what I did, particularly in The Reflecting Skin, is that I created a fabulous child-eyed view of what I imagined America to be like - it's a kind of mythical once upon a time never-world, where guys look like Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, and everything is set in a Wheatfield and it all looks very American gothic."
Returning to the East End for inspiration, Ridley was keen to direct his first feature in London. "I've been taking photographs of the East End for years. I got my first digital camera actually quite late, about 5 or 6 years ago, and for ages I was one of the old brigade, the old luddites. I didn't want to go digital - I wanted film in my hands. In fact the line I used to use about digital I gave to Jamie in the film, where he says - digital is just a quick sketch but real film is Caravaggio - I used to get as precious about it as that. Then of course, like most people, I got my digital camera and was completely converted. The one thing that digital cameras can do really fantastically is black photography, particularly urban photography, so I've been going out over the last few years taking a sequence of photographs of East London at night and thinking these would really make a great template for a film, this is a really good landscape in which to put a film. I think in a way that kindled the idea of shooting in East London."
Revered in part for the distinct 'look' of his films, Ridley's transition from artist to film-maker was a natural progression. "I'd been into film all my life from the age of 12 onwards, I made friends with someone who had a Super 8 camera and we were making little films then; hammer horror vampire films I guess set in tower blocks in East London! So I've always been fascinated by films and it's always been part of the work. It's always been there."
The influence of his drawing is evident in his film-making. His films exude a magical quality and the East End is otherworldly in Heartless. Ridley worked hard at shooting specific streets at times when the sodium light was at its richest and carefully planned where best to place the camera. It was a long process which created a very specific look. "I think consciously what I know I guess, is that I do primarily see these films through images really, which should be the most obvious thing to do. But of course that's not sometimes the case. I don't really see film as a kind of literary medium. I see it as a medium by which you tell stories through the use of images and pictures, so I tend to write screenplays from image to image. Hopefully I've got quite an instinctive and distinctive color palette... the images that I painted and drew going back to when I was a child pretty much still have the same kind of flavor as the images that I create in film now. I was very sick as a child and what I did was I looked out the window and I drew things I saw - the chimneys, tops of houses, back yards - and I gave them a fabulous magical twist."
Citing The Long Good Friday among his favourite London-shot films, Ridley's East End is a dark and menacing, fabulous and magical place, with heightened shadows and darkened corners. Ridley's East End portrayed in The Krays is iconic and his latest release will take its place in the pantheon. "My favourite way to look at London is in the old films, you know when you see films from the 50s, old black and white films; there's a great film called It Always Rains on Sunday with Googie Withers which is all shot literally around the area where I live, Brick Lane and all that, and it's wonderful! It's almost like a science fiction film! It's like The Matrix! And I love those old films where you see a car driving down the street and it's a street you half remember and you think: my God, is that Shaftesbury Avenue? And one shop still remains where it used to be. Little glimpses. Ghosts. It's very haunting. Ghosts of places, what they used to be... And there's this one thing that is still the same and everything has changed all around it. I was just desperate to shoot some of these streets and this, how I see it, this magical Gothicism that East London has."
Heartless, which premiered at Frightfest, is one of the first British features to benefit from near-simultaneous multi-platform release; is out in cinemas now and available to buy.