Monday, 15 January 2018

Cézanne - Portraits of a Life

It’s a pattern that repeats itself – every time I finish a film I think ‘now that really is the greatest artist that ever lived!’.   I know, deep down, it’s a ridiculous thought to have as how can one really compare Leonardo to Vermeer or Rembrandt to Hopper?  But, just before Christmas as we signed off on our film about Cézanne, there was that feeling again.  Judge for yourselves in the weeks ahead when the film reaches a cinema near you (hopefully) but, for me personally, as the months of film-making progressed, I grew and grew in admiration of the man and his art.   Towards the end of his life he wrote the following words:

 ‘My age and my health will never allow me to realise the artistic dream I have pursued all my life. But I shall always be grateful to the audience of intelligent art lovers who have sensed what I was trying to do to renew my art, in spite of my halting attempts…In my opinion, one does not replace the past, one only adds a new link. With painter’s temperament and an artistic ideal, that is to say a conception of nature, there should be sufficient means of expression to be intelligible to the general public and to occupy a suitable rank in the history of art’.

I think it is fair to say Cézanne now occupies that ‘suitable rank’. Maybe one can’t claim him as the greatest but certainly among the greats.  For me, this film started a couple of years ago when I heard that London’s National Portrait Gallery was planning an exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits – something actually no-one had ever done (bar one similar exhibition by his dealer shortly after Cézanne’s death).   I went to see the gallery and they told me that this was to be a three-gallery co-operation with the Museé d’Orsay in Paris and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  The next step was to talk to the curators – what was the plan for the show, what was the thesis?  Then we had to decide what is the story of our film? 

EOS Cézanne - Phil Grabsky at Portraits de Cézanne exhibition ® EXHIBITION ON SCREEN (David Bickerstaff)

The decision having been made to make the film I set about the research in earnest. Here I declare a healthy dose of good fortune.  The author Alex Danchev had only recently written both a new biography and a new translation of many of Cézanne’s letters.  Those of you who have read my earlier blogs will know I always try to start a new biographical film in what I consider the obvious place - the artist’s correspondence. That’s exactly what I did here – and, as ever, the man that emerges differs from the preconceptions that we have built up previously.  In the course of making films about other artists of this period I think I had accumulated superficial ideas concerning Cézanne and his ill-tempered nature, his poor personal presentation, his reclusiveness in Provence.  Even though I had made a short film about him back in the 90s I admit to still having had those attitudes towards Cézanne.  Until I read the letters, until I read the new biography, until I spoke to the curators and until I saw the plans and pictures for the exhibition.   Then I realised there was, of course, so much more to this man.

Aix, 3 August 1906I get up early and it’s only really between five and eight that I can lead my own life. By the time the heat becomes stupefying, and saps the brain so much that I can’t even think of painting.
I caught bronchitis, I’ve abandoned homeopathy for old-fashioned mixed syrups.It’s a shame that I can’t give many demonstrations of my ideas and sensations, long live the Goncourts, Pissarro, and all those who have a propensity for colour, which represents light and air.
I know that with the terrible heat you and maman will be tired; so its good thing that you were both able to get back to Paris in time to find yourselves in a less burning atmosphere.I must remind you not to forget the slippers, the ones I have are just about giving up on me.

Having looked much deeper into who was Paul Cézanne and then having looked closely at the forthcoming exhibition and accompanying catalogue, the next stage was to decide how best to make a film for the cinema.  I knew instinctively that mood was going to be vital so one of my first calls was to composer Asa Bennett to discuss a score that would give me the dramatic and emotional bed that the film would need.  Doing this early helps as, with luck, one gets early drafts to listen to when on location researching and shooting.  I decided we needed to do a little bit of shooting in Paris – especially if we could secure interviews with Orsay’s curator Xavier Rey (who has now moved on to Marseille) and the museum’s director Laurence des Cars (who is extremely busy of course). We got both and, my word, they were great.  The key filming of the exhibition was to be London – and the National Portrait Gallery were fantastic to work with.   We had three long days and nights there and the privilege of filming paintings like these never wanes.  In a way, though, the key shoot was in and around Aix-en-Provence.   David Bickerstaff flew down to help me with the filming and we spent a good few days capturing what we felt we needed of the town, Cézanne’s homes and studios as well as the surrounding countryside.  If you know anything about Cézanne you’ll know that his heart and soul lay in the forests and hills around his hometown.  That is where he and his good friend Emile Zola spent their childhood – and it is where he was always happiest.  It entailed a few pre-dawn starts and after-dusk finishes for the filming but we captured some gorgeous material – to be honest, it’s not hard. A particular thrill though was filming a dawn time-lapse while standing on the dam that Emile Zola’s father had built.

EOS Cézanne - Phil Grabsky filming Monique at Mont Saint-Victoire ® EXHIBITION ON SCREEN (David Bickerstaff)

All this footage we took back into the edit – and there the fun began.  How long do we hold on a painting? How many letters do we quote from? How much of the interviews do we use? And so on.  But Clive Mattock (the editor) and I quickly found our feet and something about this film just clicked from an early stage.  I’d been worried when I commenced the project that somehow there wouldn’t be enough meat on the bone – how foolish I was to think that even for a moment. It has been invigorating to have been Cézanne’s companion for the past year – and his art has revealed to me a previously unrealised depth and brilliance.  I think it’s one of the best EXHIBITION ON SCREEN’s we’ve done and, yes, right now he’s unquestionably one of the greatest artists I know.


Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Vancouver at the Vancouver International Film Festival

The last time I checked there were over a thousand film festivals a year – so that’s three a day.  No doubt that figure is increasing all the time.  So how and why does a filmmaker attend a festival? In my time, I have been to plenty all around the world – all are distinctive for one reason or another, and some are certainly more useful than others as far as distributing one’s new film is concerned.  One thing they do share is that they are a great place to see great films that you almost certainly will never otherwise have seen.

I know how hard it is to raise the funds to make decent films so I am always taken aback by how many good films do get made.  So, comment no.1 would be if your city has a festival, go every day and see as many films as possible.

As someone who adores documentaries I love going to festivals just to watch films. However, I simply don’t have time so I have to choose really carefully.  So, some will go to a festival to try and pick up distribution.  Festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Cannes are full of new work looking for a home with someone who will bring them to the world. As we distribute our own films, that’s not relevant to me.  Plus I’m personally no fan of those hugely busy events where everyone is just a little bit too concerned about how they look and who’s there to notice.

Another reason to enter a festival to present your film for the first time to a paying audience and see what they think.  That is certainly one of the reasons I love Vancouver - the crowds are enthusiastic, informed and (it’s that Canadian thing!) very nice!  Reason no.3 is to pick up early reviews.  This is actually pretty important – you need reviews for the poster, the social media campaign and so on.  The one great thing about films is that they get far more reviews than anything you’ll do for TV or digital. Reason no.4 might be to pick up an award.  We’ve won plenty and I’ve no idea whether it has made much difference but it’s still nice.  Our new Hockney film picked up an Audience Award in its first screening and that was a great boost to us all.

Reason no.5 is festivals can be great fun. Again, Vancouver is my absolute favourite festival partly for that reason – they do everything right and look after us film-makers really well.  So, for example, instead of one big dinner for all the filmmakers that can be uncomfortable if you don’t know anyone and no-one has the sense to make introductions, Vancouver does small intimate lunches of 6-8 filmmakers each day. Much better and much more valuable.  Reason no.6: it can take you to some great cities – I still regret turning down festivals in Tehran, Kathmandu, Tallinn, Skopje, Busan, Kiev, Doha, and plenty more.  On the other hand, I’ve been to plenty of others and had a great time.

But I’ll come back to the reason that I think we all need to remember: there is no better place to see a film than in a cinema.  Most of the films I have seen this week in Vancouver have been excellent and, if I had seen them at all, it would almost certainly have been on my laptop. Please, I encourage you to buy my DVDs and download my films BUT the best place to see any film is in the cinema. Yesterday, I watched my own film David Hockney at the RA on a huge gorgeous screen at the VanCity Cinema in Vancouver – the quality of the sound and picture was out of this world.

That was a tough project for various reasons but yesterday all that was forgotten and it brought a tear to my eye.
Art Makes Us indeed.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017


‘You are invited to Buckingham Palace’…  Now that is a phrase to seize anyone’s attention. I am a naturally curious soul and had always wanted to take a peek inside the palace. I have never done the tour that one can do in the summer months and so I have never seen the Picture Gallery – with its wonderful collection.  The reason for my new invitation was to discuss the production of CANALETTO AND THE ART OF VENICE - AT THE QUEEN’S GALLERY, BUCKINGHAM PALACE.  Now, if you haven’t been to see an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery then you have been missing out.  The Royal Collection has around a million objects under its care so they can put on the most wonderful exhibitions from their own stores.  The Collection itself contains works from a dozen or so royal locations throughout Britain and is a wonderful national resource.  

When we heard about the possible Canaletto exhibition we knew right away it would make a great film. Who wouldn’t be excited to film in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle? But even more than that, I hope any art lover would share with me the thrill of being able to take a really close look at the wonders of 18th century Venice.  Canaletto is the best-known artist of that period but far from the only one worthy of our attention. As ever, I am fascinated to know ‘why then and why there?’   If there is one European city that really can be called unique then it is Venice. What an extraordinary city – and a city that over the centuries of its unconquered empire produced some of history’s great artists.  

Canaletto is certainly among them but sometimes can be a little misunderstood. Some might think he simply does accurate portrayals of Venice landscapes to be then sold to both locals and travellers.  Anyone thinking that would be wrong. He is, in fact, a master storyteller in light who plays with reality for his own purposes.  To see his works out of their frames in the labs at Windsor or hanging in pride of place in Buckingham Palace – and to then listen to the two wonderful curators Lucy Whitaker and Rosie Razzall talking with great knowledge and insight – is a privilege which our film will share with you.  Or if, like me, you also fancy a peek inside one of the world’s great palaces, yes we can offer you that too!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

More on Monet...

Hi's been a hugely busy few weeks with three films all coming to fruition.  The one we have just released is I, CLAUDE MONET and I'm delighted it's been so warmly received.   Here's a very nice article from a magazine I'd highly recommend if you're interested in France and all things French:  FRANCE CULTURE.   

Friday, 27 January 2017

'My Head is Bursting' - Claude Monet as you've never seen him before

I am sure you all know the wonderful paintings by Claude Monet - especially perhaps the water lilies from Giverny.  It could be said that he is the world's favourite artist - certainly one of them.  And yet it almost never happened.   On the 29th June 1868 the young Claude Monet wrote the following letter:

I must have undoubtedly been born under an unlucky star. I've just been turned out, without a shirt on my back, from the inn where I was staying. I have found somewhere safe in the country for Camille and my poor little Jean to stay for a few days. As for myself, I leave this evening for Le Havre. My family refuse to help me any more.  I don't know where I'll sleep tomorrow. I was so upset yesterday that I was stupid enough to hurl myself into the water. Fortunately no harm was done.

Claude Monet 1899 Photo:Nadar

Was he rescued from the Seine by a passer-by? Did the shock of the cold water bring him to his senses?  We'll never know but on such moments the world turns. It is so easy to look back at an artist's life and think the path from youth to old age was somehow pre-destined; that such talent had to find its way, no matter what, to fame and fortune.  I think the opposite is true: such paths are strewn with obstacles: many turn back, or lose their way, or are struck down by misfortune and disappear.   I believe Monet lived with his knowledge all his life - he never considered himself (publicly at least) a great artist.  His letters (the basis of a recently finished film of mine - I, Claude Monet - soon to be released in the cinema) reveal a man forever troubled by the fragility of his own talent.  He never felt that he worked hard enough or saw clearly enough.  He was endlessly frustrated by what he thought of as his inability to capture nature correctly.

Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899, National Gallery of Art Washington

There are two dangers with Monet - one is that there are folk who are simply disinterested in art or the perceived chocolate box nature of the impressionists.  Or there are those who think they know everything there is to know about Monet.  Familiarity can, as they say, breed contempt.  Both camps are in the wrong.  I can argue all day why I think everyone is - certainly should be - interested in art.  It is such an integral part of our daily lives - the way a New Yorker might decorate their apartment, or a Pakistani truck driver might decorate their vehicle, or a Japanese Buddhist might build their temple...and so on and so on.  Nor is there anything confectionary about the impressionists - look closely, look again - look at our cinema screen and see the works in a way that has never in history been possible before.  And look afresh at the remarkable skill and creative imagination of these artists.

On a surface level there is so much pleasure to be had - look deeper and harder and you'll be even more rewarded.  As for those who feel they know all about Monet, I ask forbearance.  I often hear folk saying 'oh, we know all & so".  Never is it true.  I thought I 'knew' Monet until I started reading his letters (around 3000 have survived) and, just as importantly, started really looking at his work again - in chronological order.  Throw in the historical, the economic, his peers, the personal, the technological...and what emerges is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of art.  His gaze may well have gradually withdrawn to his own garden, his own lily pond, the reflections on the water but the results tell a universal story as relevant today as the day he died in 1926.   After 85 minutes in the warm, comfortable confines of your local cinema, I think you'll have re-discovered the wonderful, inspirational Claude Oscar Monet.

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872, Musee Marmottan

Monday, 12 December 2016

Czech Republic

An exciting few days in the Czech Republic releasing CONCERTO – A BEETHOVEN JOURNEY.   Who doesn’t love Prague? What a wonderful city – especially if you visit a little after the tourist season.  It is only of those wonderful European cities of music – like Vienna and Paris – that hours can be spent just wandering around, popping into churches and concert halls, drinking coffee and eating the occasional cream-filled cake.   The first screening was for the music folk of Prague – not least the Prague Spring Festival and also the Rudolphinum concert hall.  The project had started here in 2012 so it was nice to bring the finished film to them to view.  My local distributors had done a good job of subtitling and posters, etc, not to forget the drinks and snacks afterwards.  The whole evening went very well – and everyone seemed to really enjoy and appreciate the film.  The next day we repeated the process with the local film and music press – and that too went well.  Leif Ove is one of those pianists that if you know him you love, and if you see him in the film for the first time you also love him immediately. The problem, as ever, is how to draw people into the cinema to see someone they have not heard of – which is why we stress the Beethoven angle.  But it’s tricky.  I have two subsequent public screenings to the east then north of the country and while everyone who came loved the film the attendances were poor. (50 people in a 200 seater cinema).  That’s why Hollywood spends millions on marketing…  Not an option for us.  However, what was really encouraging was how popular EXHIBITION ON SCREEN is with audiences and how they are really looking forward to next year’s films….

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Premiering The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch

So, what’s it like watching your film have its world premiere?   Autumn has certainly arrived – and sometimes for me it’s the close, dark misty days of a European city that really bring that home. The Netherlands is a wonderful country but I have certainly seen the sun there all too rarely I have to admit. It’s more often a collar-up, hat on, kind of place. This Thursday was no different. As I and my colleague and friend David Bickerstaff landed in Amsterdam, I swear we could have reached up and touched the grey clouds.  I was reminded of the week we spent filming in Den Bosch six months earlier when, again, the sun came out only once – remarkably when we were filming a wide shot of the city from across some fields.  It hadn’t mattered much as the success of the Hieronymus Bosch exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum had meant they were staying open to 1am every morning (!).  That meant we had to film the exhibition from 1.30am to 8.30am over subsequent nights.  It was the most glorious exhibition and rightfully deserved to be a huge success – 421,000 visitors which for a provincial gallery is astounding.  People drove from all over Europe. Some even flew from overseas – even Australia. Once again this proves our love of art. 
It is, in fact, almost exactly a year since we first heard about the exhibition and made an instant decision to make a film about it and Bosch. Now, November 3rd 2016, here David and I were in Bosch’s hometown to host the world premiere of our 13th and latest EXHIBITION ON SCREEN film.  I think what made this a particularly enjoyable film to make was that, really without exception, the museum was staffed by the loveliest, most helpful folk.  From the museum’s director to the security guards who looked after us through the nights of filming, they could not have been more co-operative and welcoming. So it was a delight to be with them all in the local ‘Old Biscuit Factory’ cinema.  After an introductory drink and welcome to all, we took our seats and waited for that magical movie moment – when the lights go down.  Who doesn’t have that sense of anticipation and excitement as, seated where one can’t be reached by the outside world, darkness falls and you know you’re going to be taken to another world.  I love cinema – and always have.  It’s part of the motivation for making these art films first and foremost for the cinema – it’s still far and away the best place to see any film.  And so, 100 or more or us sat together in the darkness and witnessed the opening credits…EXHIBITION ON SCREEN & SEVENTH ART PRODUCTIONS present…   And off we went.  My, how stunning the film looked!  I hadn’t seen it finished on the big screen and the quality was astounding.  It costs us a small fortune to send small hard drives to every cinema (almost 1500 worldwide now) but – with cinemas having upgraded their digital capabilities enormously in recent years – you, we, the audience can now watch at a quality level previously undreamt of.   After the film, even those who had lived with those Bosch paintings through the exhibition said they had seen details they had not noticed before.  There was a warm ovation for the film at the end followed by a bit of a bar crawl in Bosch’s home town…maybe drinking in the same bars he himself once drank in. On the other hand, judging by his pictures, maybe he’d have gone straight home to say his prayers.