A Q&A With British Filmmaker Toby Amies

“I have no fucking idea what I’m doing!”

British filmmaker Toby Amies may allege so, but as if to mirror his unconventional approach to filmmaking, such quips are par for the course. On the contrary, whilst Amies’ films are unexpected in almost every way, there is order in the chaos. He invites the audience to peek through a window into the minds of those whose stories he seeks to tell. His own apparent lack of inhibition and the deferential treatment applied to his work accelerates the pace at which the relationship between filmmaker and subject might ordinarily develop. At once, we are sucked in and taken along for the ride. Amies’ acuity makes for an intimate, thrilling and unique film experience. Whether through the contemplative serenity of his Garden Films series celebrating the natural world, or the original and vividly presented stories told in his films for NOWNESS and TATE, Amies explores his creative processes fuelled by inspiration taken from nature; a curiosity of human relationships and most of all, by the theme of transformation.

Before adopting a directorial cap, Amies worked as a writer and presenter for the BBC, Radio 4, The Guardian, and MTV. He was also a widely-published portrait photographer. His feature-length documentary about Brighton eccentric and Salvador Dalì collaborator Drako Zarhazar, The Man Whose Mind Exploded, was released on Netflix USA following a run in UK Picturehouse cinemas.

FRONTRUNNER finds out more.

Photo credit: Michael Amies

Each of your films packs a punch in some way and explores the human experience. Is a deeper, multilayered relationship for the viewer at the forefront of your thinking during the development process?

Film in its essence is a collaborative medium. The magic of film is that we talk about it as being moving pictures. But they are still pictures in increments. The essence of a film as a consequence is that it exists in someone’s head – what’s going on in someone’s brain is the canvas. As the filmmaker, you give the audience the still images and it’s the audience’s job to turn those images into moving pictures. By that process you have already begun a creative collaboration between the filmmaker and the audience. And likewise with the subject, I just ask give the questions. It’s their job to respond to them in such a way that we get a better understanding of: how and why they do what they do, or why they are who they are. It’s great to have that sense you are collaborating with your subject and if they  feel comfortable with it ( and it’s my job to make them feel comfortable) I think it leads to better films. It doesn’t necessarily lead to a body of work that looks similar. By its nature, the work is reactive to the subject matter.

How has your approach to filmmaking changed with each project? What moves you to make a film or tell another person’s story? 

As a freelance, hustling filmmaker you are tempted to look at everything you do as a calling card. But it’s much more important to look at everything you do as needing to make sense for an audience. Increasingly, I understand the phrase, ‘all artist is process’. The boundaries between my life and my work are becoming even more fractured. Much of my process to do with intuition, not conscious will. I have a strong sense that I am living the life I have always wanted to live, but I’m not aware of getting to that point by way of a series of conscious decisions. It may be a function of privilege that I have got to that point. Or it may be a result of a series of “non compromises” and, more likely, at least it’s a combination of those two things. I don’t have a sense of having said “no” to work. There was just one job I felt very uncomfortable about, and that was pornography. 

After you’ve been doing something long, even if you don’t have a plan, you realise there’s some amount of intent behind it all which results in a body of work that might look like you have a plan. It might just be as simple as the work reflects your interests. I was brought up in an environment where I was surrounded by gardens and art and as a consequence those two things have always been of interest to me. Broadly speaking, I make films about the creative process. But also, the process of making those films is very much a creative process as well. I learn as I go along.

What are you up to at the moment?

I’ve been making a film about, and with, the band King Crimson for around two and a half years now. Robert Fripp (the lead of King Crimson) lives around the corner from here. I went for drinks with him and his wife, Toyah. They’re both great fans of The Man Whose Mind Exploded. I had a funny thing happen to me. Somebody contacted me on Instagram and said, “You don’t know me, but I’m part of a kind of art sex collective in Oakland, California and we operate under the idea of ‘Cosmic Fuck.” It’s a tattoo Drako (the subject of Toby’s documentary, The Man Whose Mind Exploded) had on his chest and the description of that tattoo is one of the lighter moments in the film. There are about seventeen people who have this tattoo. I thought this was the best thing ever because I had never considered that something like that would happen as the result of a film I had made and as the result of decisions somebody else had made, i.e. Drako getting this tattoo done in the first place. I was telling Robert and Toyah this, and how great it is to be part of a work of art that then goes to mean other things for other people. That to me is absolutely the best thing. Again, it’s a collaboration, but one with people you’ve never met!

In making a film, you want to lead somebody to a conclusion or, ideally, an experience. But you don’t own their experience. You’re playing games with the audience of a film, but you don’t want them to feel like they’re trapped in a vice or that it’s cynical or manipulative in the process. So if you make something and from that, something inconceivable comes out of it, it’s brilliant and a fantastic feeling. 

The next day, I got an email from Robert saying, “Can you pop round to the house?’ So, I did. Robert said, “It’s the 50th anniversary of King Crimson next year. Lots of people keep asking us to make a film but we don’t want to make a normal rock and roll documentary, and we figure you’d probably do something different. So why don’t we call it ‘Cosmic FuKc’? (spelled with “K” and “C” for King Crimson) and he added the rest of the title, “Prog Rock Pond Scum Set to Bum You Out.” No one seems to be able to come up with a definitive number, but broadly speaking they think there’s been about nineteen members of the band and it keeps on changing. Robert is the only constant member. For pretty much the last two years, he’s kind of avoided being interviewed, so there’s been this weird cat-and-mouse thing. Everyone else has been perfectly happy to talk to me. It’s been the most extraordinary experience, because there is this combination of incredibly high-end musicianship. If you get asked to join King Crimson, it’s a way of somebody saying you’ve made it as a musician.  Simultaneously, there are extremely high expectations put on the musicians, symbolised by Robert’s dedication to discipline and practice (in the literal and creative sense of the word). And more than that, it’s my sense that if you enter that band, there’s a mirror put upon yourself, so the expectations [for] yourself are extremely high. 

To some extent, making a film about that band has been analogous to being in that band. I felt very much out of my depth a lot of the time making the film. At one point, King Crimson was called, ‘Discipline’. It’s an incredibly disciplined environment. Robert follows a way of thinking, being, and making that comes out of a tradition associated with the Indian mystic and philosopher, Gurdjieff. Through him, it’s a practice associated with a lot of meditation and a very specific approach to discipline. The fact that I woke up five minutes before our interview today would suggest I am not a disciplined individual. In part, I think, Robert partly picked me to make the film because he wanted to see what would happen if you had two oppositional ways of collaborating. But that has been a very odd process because the film is not finished. I thought it was. We had a festival cut, but then I was given an eight-hour interview by Robert. Which changes everything.

Did you suspect Robert agreed to an interview late in production just to see how you dealt with it?

One of the things I’ve learnt about this process is that if I try and work out what’s going on in Robert Fripp’s brain, I will drive myself crazy, so I don’t seek to pre-empt that. You just have to respond in ways that seem appropriate to the experience and the work. Perhaps he saw more insight would be offered if he participated more in the whole thing.

If you think of a film as being this finished artefact (whether it’s physical or digital), the primary thing is whether the process of making it is interesting, useful and enjoyable. Enjoyable is perhaps the least important part of that. Is it useful and interesting, and do I feel like there is opportunity for growth in that process? Why bother, otherwise! It’s a better film for all of this and my understanding has increased as a result of that extraordinary process. Certainly it is the hardest film I have made. A lot of the perceived difficulty that I have experienced, and the standards to which I am holding myself accountable are in here. I like to rise at the crack of 11am, generally, so if I rise at 12:15pm my mental breakfast is, I’m angry with myself for getting up an hour and fifteen minutes later than I had committed to and that process goes on… some of this is a result of you not living your life to your own standards.

A lot of people say if your standards are unreasonable, you change them. Robert practices four hours a day when he’s on tour. That’s an extraordinary thing to witness. This is the standard he sets himself. It’s also perfectly acceptable for people to choose not to practice four hours a day. However, if you are not a naturally skilled musician and you want to have a level of practice that makes you considered to be one of the world’s best guitarists, then you practice four until you get to the place you want to be I suppose.  There’s a balance there and a cost associated with it. It’s interesting to see that certainly Robert is happy to introduce that level of dedication. I think some people would consider it an amount of suffering which he brings into his life in order to achieve something approaching greatness.

Your documentary and fiction films are often about the transformation of some kind and expose what it means to be human. Are you looking to understand the human ‘flaws’ we all possess in some way? 

Whenever I start work on a film, I will do the research and think about my approach and then 99.9 times out of 100 I end up reacting to what’s going on in front of me. I would love to follow a specific ideology working, but I can’t do that. I’m not that organised but also I don’t think it leads to the more “in the moment” experience for the audience that I love and seek to translate in documentaries . When I was making The Man Whose Mind Exploded I did so many interviews about it, which are great because they make you think about what you are doing and understanding it and you get a bit of blessed self-awareness as a result.

Film still
The Man Whose Head Exploded (2012)
Dir. Toby Amies
Photo credit: Toby Amies/Dogwoof

Before making that film, I was working as a photographer. I wasn’t aesthetically sophisticated, but I was aware there were a lot of other photographers out there who would impose their aesthetic on the subject. I came to the conclusion that when you are taking a picture of someone, you are either taking a picture of that person having their picture taken and that way you are getting a record of more of the photographer’s point of view than the subject’s, or, you’re taking a picture of the relationship between the photographer and the subject. That way, I think the person looking at the picture has some sense to a degree of what it is to know the person who is having their picture taken. The Man Whose Mind Exploded is just that. It’s a record of my relationship with Drako. And Cosmic FuKc is, to some degree, a record of my relationships with people in King Crimson, but also hopefully a record of the experience of King Crimson. Hopefully the audience has a sense of that. For me, it’s more interesting than a traditional biography of the band, which you can find on Wikipedia. The film is more an amalgam of what it is to be in the band and what it is to experience, the ban live but as artists involved in a extremely demanding, high-stakes creative process.

Films featuring artists such as Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and writer/director/actress Alice Lowe put the subjects in scenarios specific to their backgrounds and practices – you interviewed Nicolas Winding Refn about his creative process whilst conducting a sight test. Is this technique something you enjoy?

Practically, if you can give someone something to do, they don’t feel as though they are being interrogated. If you have done enough research people appreciate that but also if you have done it in such a way that you are asking them to jump through hoops, those are hoops they are interested in jumping through. A large part of my practice comes from when I was working for MTV as the news anchor because of my strong journalistic background (laughs) and at the time, working for MTV was as close to being a rock star as you could get without actually being in a band. Sex, drugs, and Rock n’ Roll wasn’t in the contract, but it was implicit. Work and life was synonymous.

Film still
Nicolas Winding Refn for NOWNESS (2016)
Dir. Toby Amies
Photo credit: Henry Lockyer

Because it was the pre internet age, quite often I would be in a taxi with a hangover reading a faxed bio about the artist I was going to interview. I would focus the available time resources on getting that one question from the tiny bit of information based on something in the bio and ideally, something that wasn’t immediately apparent. You’d go in with one good question and if it was good enough, you could listen to the answer…so the next question had to follow on. If good, it would give you an answer with enough attention to come up with another good question afterwards. It made the process of interviewing incredibly high pressure and intense but above all, although the reasons I was doing it were naughty because I was poorly prepared and hungover it meant the person I was interviewing felt they were listened to. And that is absolutely the most important thing. It’s why the reactive nature of my work is important because it gives the subjects of my films’ agency and that what they say and do affects the nature of the film. 

So much of what we see in your films is how we see the interplay between yourself and your subjects. All of which is organic in the way it happens and makes the films richer.

Sometimes I think it’s not always appropriate to have the director’s voice in there. But one of the advantages of the technique, which I am using to some degree in this new film, is that if you get the balance right, you become the vessel through which the audience experiences that reality. And if the reality is an unusual one, as the King Crimson one is very unusual and Drako’s (The Man Whose Mind Exploded) is very unusual, it makes a real difference. That’s what’s powerful about The Man Whose Mind Exploded. It intimately documents whether it is appropriate to be that close to someone if you are involved in a creative process with them and, particularly if they are vulnerable. I was made to think about those boundaries and the degree to which the audience of the film becomes implicit in what they’re seeing documented on film.

I’m not seeking to break taboos or cross boundaries for the sake of it but I think it’s a very interesting dynamic especially when you make the audience aware of the reasoning for doing it. But I do want, as much as I possibly can, to put the audience watching the film in the moment that they are seeing. For me, that is the thing that I think documentaries can do brilliantly. Obviously you can have the shot of the person explaining the complicated thing or the thing that you didn’t know before, but what I get off on is the  seeing and hearing thing you couldn’t possibly conceive of. They may not be expositional but they are moments in time that continue to live on the screen, and that’s something that this new film is exploring. Robert (Fripp, King Crimson) has this idea of the subjectivity of duration: how does our relative experience of time play with the measurable nature of time? There’s a strong theme of mortality in the film, and there’s this theory that you can kind of cheat death by staying in the moment. An alternative title for the King Crimson film might have been, Time Lords, because that’s kind of what they are. They deal in these tiny increments of time and because of their mastery of that, they do manage to create these subjectively durational moments.

 

Can we expect to see any fiction from you? 

I don’t want to say too much about my next project, but it makes sense for me to make a Kung Fu film. The advantage of a genre film is exploring within set parameters. The audience has a strong sense of what the expectations of the film are, and this allows you to satisfy them so it fits within the context of those. Crucially, you can then bend and play with those expectations. The key thing is not a question of not being too ambitious, but knowing where to focus your ambition. One of the things I really like about Kung Fu films is the coiled spring of the (frequently) revenge type plot. You give your character the methodology of how to exact revenge and then tell them they can’t do anything with that whilst heaping more and more indignities upon them until they explode and exact the revenge we’ve all been waiting for. And of course this is very satisfying for everybody.

Click here to watch the complete documentary, The Man Whose Mind Exploded, directed by Toby Amies and produced by Dogwoof.

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