Richard Billingham first came to prominence back in the 90s, when he was included in 1997’s widely-received and controversial Sensation exhibition, a who’s who showcase of the Young British Artists (YBAs). In his acclaimed 1996 photography book, Ray’s A Laugh, Billingham depicted the Cradley Heath council estate environs of his alcoholic, ex-machinist father Ray and jigsaw-obsessed mother Liz, breaking through the patina of working-class, housing estate stereotypes to create living, humane confessional portraits of his own family life as it existed in the grim beating heart of Thatcher’s Britain.
Now, twenty years since these photographs first launched Billingham’s career (he won the illustrious Deutsche Börse Prize in 1997 and was shortlisted for the 2001 Turner Prize), his parents – the unlikely muses of Billingham’s first ever project – long since passed, Billingham is making the transition from photography to the moving image, directing his first feature-length film, Ray & Liz, via the aid of a Kickstarter campaign.
The filming is already under way, with one-third of the film currently completed. Collaborating with the BFI and French fashion house agnès b, and with Daniel Landin (Under the Skin) brought in for cinematographer duties, Ray & Liz looks set to be an evocative and moving piece of modern British cinema.
I caught up with Billingham to discuss the project and what it’s like making the transition from photography to film.
Alun Evans: You originally started out studying painting at art school before you made the move into photography. Has this next move into filmmaking being a continuation of this process?
Yeah, pretty much. I first started painting my father Ray drinking, looking in the mirror, looking out the window, alone in his room. Then I started to photograph him as research for the paintings, to try and make the paintings better and more detailed, because it’s hard to get somebody to sit still for longer than ten minutes unless you pay them (laughs). Even though the film’s using these photographs for authenticity, to rebuild the sets and recreate the scenes, the photographs were originally from the paintings, so it is a sort of lineage. It’s linked by subject matter: the theme if you like.
And why this decision to now move into film? Do you think the medium offers something which photography can’t fully convey?
Well yes: you’ve got sound and movement and it’s a much more emotional medium, arguably. I imagine the viewer being immersed or melted into the image. The photograph is arguably not as immersive.
Can you tell me a bit about the film? How different is it to Ray’s A Laugh?
It’s really based on photographs I made a little bit before Ray’s A Laugh; these photographs I made of my father while doing a foundation course at Bournville College of Art in 1990. These were the first photographs I ever took and were mostly black-and-white because it was cheaper to work in black-and-white back then, and I could develop the film in the darkroom at College. The photographs were quite tentative and experimental.
The film goes back to this period when I did my foundation course and I was living with Ray in the tower block. There was just me and him in the flat and I’d go out to college in the day and then I’d work at night at the Kwiksave supermarket. But there’d be periods where I’d be with him in the flat and I would see him… he stayed in the room all of the time except when he wanted to go to the toilet; he never came out otherwise. He didn’t have a TV, he listened to the radio a lot and drank. He would drink to get to sleep and then wake up, have a drink until he got to sleep again. So the film is based on this period.
It’s autobiographical and it’s dramatised only in the sense that – it charts two to three or four days of Ray’s existence in this room, it basically examines a static situation: a man in a room. There are two other characters: there’s my mother Liz and a neighbour called Sid. Sid would visit each day. He was a neighbour and an alcoholic that would come down and give Ray strong homebrew, so that Ray didn’t have to go out and buy it. If you like, Sid was an ‘enabler’.
Have you thought about who you’d like to see the film?
Well, part of the reason for this Kickstarter campaign is to develop an audience, to get people to know about the film and to be aware of it.
And how did the idea for this campaign come about?
I think it was my producer [Jacqui Davies], she was talking with the BFI and this idea came up. I’m not sure to be honest. I think it came from this conversation between the producer and the BFI.
Who have been your influences for this project?
I can’t think of any influences to be honest. There’s not any film or moving image that I can think of that I wanted the film to look like. The film sorta found its own ‘look’ from the photographs and from my memories of the time.
I was relatively young, I was 19 when I took these black-and-white photographs and, like I said, they were experimental and tentative and they weren’t really resolved, they didn’t fully tell a story. But I hope that the film does.
So the film’s kind of a piecing together of the narrative of these photos?
Yes, and making it whole. I’ve had the idea for like twenty years but I’ve not done anything about it until now. It’s been sort of latent, lying there.
Going back to the Kickstarter campaign – I was interested in this, because I find it odd when an established artist needs to go through these channels to get a project made.
You could say that, but [then] I’m really only established in the photographs I’ve made. It’s not as if I’m established in film (laughs). It feels like starting again in a way.
Is that a scary feeling?
No, it’s stimulating; it’s learning something new. I’m learning as I go along, because it’s not as if I went to film school or anything. I’ve had no formal training and I’m coming at it completely fresh, if you like. One figures it out as you try to do it. Shooting on film, there’s a different sort of approach: you set everything up and then you have to try and get it in that one take. I believe you work harder and you don’t rely on the editing as much. It’s more determined, a more considered and more determined way of working. I still use film in photography; I’ve never used a digital camera except y’know, an iPhone or whatever. So you could say [the film’s] an extension of that process: you’re trying to nail it that first time.
Shooting on digital feels a bit like a product. You don’t have that element of surprise. If you photograph with analogue film, you can’t see the image straightaway, so you have to rely on instinct a bit more. And then during that week it’s being processed and then you get it back from the lab and you’re sort of thinking about it all week, so there’s a different relationship to it. Using film forces a different kind of tension onto the subject, [whereas] with digital you can see what the image is straight away on the back of your camera, so that risk and surprise is removed. It’s sort of risk-free in a way; there’s no room for accident or for chance.
The Kickstarter campaignfor Ray & Liz runs until the 19th March. You can check out details of the campaign here:
Follow Alun Evans on Twitter @quietlyitgoes