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Culture

David Hockney's romantic breakdown

by viceuk
17 November 2009, 9:08am

Jack Hazan gave David Hockney a breakdown by making a film called A Bigger Splash about him. Simple as that. David didn't know the cameras were rolling when he showered naked, cuddled Jack into the night, missing his German lover while thinking of tanned, lithe bodies slipping like serpents in the swimming pools of his paintings. He didn't know. Or at least that's what he said in the aftermath, pleading ignorance when presented with Jack's film, a cinematic exploration of Hockney's formative years.

The concept of celebrity reality didn't even exist back when Hazan made his film. Also, the concept of homosexuality barely existed yet. And here it was, a movie that spliced the two: Hockney's obsession with a muscular model, his self-doubt, his self-absorption, his nudity. For two weeks, after watching A Bigger Splash, Hockney locked himself in a room and mourned and scathed the day he ever met Jack Hazan, who had a dream to make an independent film about someone in the art world under the impression it would make him some money.

Fast forward three-and-a-half decades, and Hazan's award-winning, homo-erotic love story has a real legacy. Not only did it play with fact and fiction, mixing documentary and fictionalised drama in an avant garde manner, it also represents a benchmark in gay cinema. Plus, if you take Jack's word for it, it also created the notion of Dogme cinema.

Vice: A Bigger Splash is an odd film.
Jack Hazan: It is unique, but to us it was very normal. At least, it became very normal. Remember, it was filmed over three and a half years. A lot of thought went into it. A friend of mine had a screening at the National Film Institute last year and he said, "Did you intend to make a difficult film?" and I didn't know how to answer, because it didn't seem to me like a difficult film. Difficult to make, yes, but difficult to understand? I didn't know what to say. Then I realised that times have changed. When that film was made it was more accessible than it is now. We were living in the 60s and 70s, the times were far more open and experimental.

Did you have a clear conception of what the film would be prior to filming or over time did the film itself guide your hand?
There was a point where we had to make a story out of it. But when I got hold of David Hockney and said, "I want to make a film," I didn't say, "I want to make a film about so and so" David is, or was, very approachable. He was fairly big at the time, but not as big as he is now. He became much larger after, thanks to the movie. He is a very enigmatic person. He would listen to anybody, which used to frustrate a lot of people – pretentious people, important people. They couldn't understand why he'd devote the same amount of time to lesser mortals than themselves. I talked to him and said, "Come and see some of my short films," and he immediately realised what I wanted. He said, "I'm not going to act, Jack." Maybe three or four months later I managed to get into his studio and I started shooting him at work on my own. He is totally focused on what he does and he does what he does alone. Once he stops talking to you, he paints. Nothing will ever disturb him. You could bang him on the head with a bottle and he would carry on painting. He is highly focused. So he had no idea what I was doing a lot of the time. No interest even. His life was a love story and so the film became a love story.

He comes across in the film as being very open to the documentary process.
He's not precious about his privacy. He's very democratic and if he likes you he'll treat you as he treats himself. We never discussed the film. At first I had no idea where I was going. Then one day while I was there busying myself lighting a shot, this boy came in. He turned out to be Peter Schlesinger, his lover who he'd just lost and whom he had enticed over under the guise of wanting to paint him. He only wanted to paint him because he wanted to be near him. He wanted to try and draw him back into his web. So Peter came in, and as I was filming I could feel the tension between them. David wanted Peter to stay and you could tell that Peter wanted to leave as soon as possible. He appeared very petulant. Sparks were flying around the room, it was most extraordinary.

Was it then that that you made the decision to make the love story the central plot?
I went back and I talked to my partner, David Mingay, who was the director of photography on the project. He said, "There's your story," and I thought, God, do I have to? It would be a huge invasion of somebody's private life.

So David wasn't aware of the direction that you were taking the project?
Absolutely not. If I'd have said, "I'm going to film the break-up of your relationship," he'd have said no. The thing was that he never agreed to take part in the film exactly. The process just developed. I would have to negotiate my way into his house in Notting Hill every time I went to film there. But he liked me like he might like a friendly plumber. I remember him relating the experience to somebody by starting, "Oh here's bloody Jack again come to do a bit of filming," and then laughing. I was submitted to ridicule by him and his friends, but I had something more that I wanted from them, so I tolerated that.

Did he in anyway benefit from your presence?
Superficially at times. For example, when he had the exhibition in New York while we were filming, and he had not completed his portrait of Peter standing on the edge of the pool looking down at the swimmer. He'd ripped up the canvas and had only two weeks to repaint what had originally taken him six months. I left him my equipment and I said, "David, I'm going to leave you a light with a filter so you can work day and night and it will be like daylight." Without that it wouldn't have been completed in time.

You included Hockney's coterie in the process and yet you never give them any sense of an introduction as characters in the drama.
That's because I wanted them to come across merely as people. Really, the film is nothing more than a series of relationships. The film was about a series of relationships that were created in the 60s, and takes place in the 70s when the relationships are dying out. There's David and Peter, Mo McDermott and his partner, there's Celia Birtwell and Ozzie Clark, but you're not judging them on their infamy, you're judging them on physical interactions, and guessing the roles.

You've said that there was no point when Hockney exactly agreed to feature in the film. Did the secondary characters consent?
Early on I got Mo McDermott's co-operation. He was David's assistant and he found the whole thing a hoot. Ozzie Clark was a difficult character. Sometimes he'd be very hostile, sometimes very charming. You never could tell. Very mercurial. Sometimes there was some cooperation, other times not. I remember once saying to David, "I'm going to New York with you," and he rolled his eyes backwards but he agreed. We did a bit of shooting. I got what I wanted then he said, "I'm off to Florida for a week without you," which shocked me and left me stranded. But then he came back and we managed to do a bit more. Every time he dealt me a blow and gave me a setback he would feel guilty and allow me a little more licence.

Ozzie Clark refers in his diary to the filming being "long and arduous" and that David was depressed by both the film and your insensitivity.
That was all at the conclusion of the film. Not during. During the filming David didn't care. He wasn't distant at all. I didn't put him out in any way. He may have given me three minutes in a day and then I'd wait and try and get back the next day. If that wasn't suitable, the following day. He may have felt just by letting me
be there he was putting himself out, but at one point I think he thought I was his greatest fan.

Were you?
No, I admired his work but I wasn't a fan. I chose him as a subject when I saw his show of double portraits in Rotterdam and looked at all these glamorous art people that were there and thought I could make a successful film about their world. I wanted to make something that wasn't a documentary or art film. There's no commentary, it's a feature film.

What made several artists get together and attempt to ban it upon its release?
When David finally saw the movie he went into a clinical depression for two weeks. Nobody saw him. The next thing I heard was that he was trying to get me to buy the negatives for £20,000. They wanted to destroy what I had put everything into for three-and-a-half years for twenty grand. It was an insult. Luckily, I had a very good lawyer and he defended me all the way through.

Was his dissatisfaction down to the combination of factual and fictional scenes?
It was never going to be a documentary. There was always an intention for it to be a fictional feature film based on the scene that surrounded David. Some of it was invented, but the scenes that were invented mirrored what actually happened. It staggered some people. Before David saw it I warned him, then he saw it and came out completely depressed. No one saw him for two weeks. Then he sent Betty, this gothic-looking friend of his from Paris, to see it because he had been so unsure about it and at the end of the screening she stood up and said, "This is the greatest film on art I've ever seen." She went back and told him and he began to come round. I showed it to Ozzie and he said, "This is truer than the truth."

It is strange that there has been nothing since that has replicated that template of mixing fact and fiction.
I thought after it was released that it would kill off any other form of art documentary. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to make an art film or documentary after this. I paid the price in blood to make that film but they carried on making them in the traditional way.

It's difficult to tell which scenes are fact and which are fiction, had that hybridity always been the intention?
Yes, our intention was to make the boundaries blurred between fantasy and fiction. You have to work to find out whether a scene is real or a representation. To make it more fictional or play on the fictional element, we'd have to use actors and we didn't have actors. These were all real people. You can't go any further than that.

The film is often classified as gay cinema but other than the interspersed sex scenes it doesn't formally fit into that box.
At that time there were no real gay relationships being portrayed in cinema. There was Sunday Bloody Sunday, where gayness is portrayed a little, but in this film our characters are gay and behave normally, as a heterosexual couple would act. That was novel then. At that point people didn't know how gay people behaved towards each other or even what a gay relationship was. Treating a gay relationship normally had never been done before.

By classifying it as gay cinema do you feel that it detracts from the film's other qualities?
Probably, as by classifying it as such it becomes a different entity. It's not a gay film. It would be the exact same film no matter who the characters were. You must remember though the atmosphere was like at the time. Young boys used to turn up at David's doorstep and thank him for the movie. They were relieved because they thought "My god, we're normal after all". The film normalised gay relationships.

WORDS: HYNAM KENDAL
PORTRAIT BY MICHAEL OTERO