Julia Cave interviews Randall Wright, director of the acclaimed documentary Hockney, about what it takes to capture the life of such a vibrant artist.
“Every day until I was tall enough, I asked my mother to lift me up so I could see out of the kitchen window. When I told David Hockney this some years ago, his eyes sparkled. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘because every day the view looks different.’”
Randall Wright who has just made the film has known Hockney for more than fifteen years. “Looking is Hockney’s great pleasure but translating what he sees, the ever-changing three-dimensiona l world, on to the surface of a picture is his great passion.”
In the 1960s, journalists asked him about being ‘working class’ or ‘queer’. ‘I’m not working class me, I’m first class,’ was his answer. Hockney considers life to be a gift and he wants to see the world himself, and represent it his way, and if there is any explicit message in his work, it is to encourage us to look at the world for ourselves.”
Randall had wanted to go to Art school but his father did not approve so he studied History of Art at University College London; telling his father he was reading “History” to appease him. He joined the BBC Television Music and Arts Department in 1985 as a film editor and shortly afterwards became a director.
It was there that I first met him when I was myself producing and directing films. Randall discovered Sister Wendy, the amazingly knowledgeable and eccentric Nun, and made a series of very popular films about art with her.
He has directed over twenty major documentaries including Jack the Lad, a comic film about the years leading to Jack Rosenthal’s first screenplay which was nominated for a BAFTA and The Secret Centre about John Le Carre’s career as a spy, and many films on Sub-Saharan African subjects. His recent films include Lucian Freud: A Painted Life which won an RTS award for best arts documentary and earned Grierson and BAFTA Robert Flaherty nominations.
Randall met Hockney when he was making a film in Hollywood called Secret Knowledge, exploring Hockney’s theory that painters used cameras hundreds of years before the invention of chemical photography, and says he would have wanted to make a film about him even if he hadn’t been a famous artist.
Hockney rarely, if ever, talks about his deeper feelings in public, so how does Randall reveal the more reflective, mysterious person he was getting to know? “A few years ago I was taken to David’s personal archive in Los Angeles where I noticed a shelf with a large number of videos made by David and various assistants, alongside dozens of photo albums. David agreed to let me see them, and I saw how rich they were, full of wonderful unselfconscious moments, evidence of the fiercely independent spirit that lay behind the artistic achievements.”
“Hockney is, as he says himself a ‘one off’: totally engaging, funny, deeply rebellious, and extremely practical. He is sociable while being strangely alone in the world. He is an unusual kind of optimist, one who is very far from being naive. He reads and thinks very deeply on several subjects. When he finds a project he exudes supreme confidence, but at the same time retains a modest child-like innocence. He challenges us to live in the present, to look around us and to see the world for ourselves.”
As a boy Randall fell in love with the cinema. The “pictures” as he calls them. Before the invention of television the silver screen was the only window into another world. “I was brought up in Bradford and Hollywood” he says, discovering as a small child the link that has pulled both ways all his life.
When Randall was making his film A Painted Life with Lucian Freud, he often met David Hockney in Freud’s studio, a mere fifteen minute walk for Hockney from his own place in Notting Hill. Freud regarded him highly and Hockney considered Freud to be a great artist. Randall thinks that Hockney felt “pulled along” by Freud, and that it is likely that David gave him such access and trust because of the Freud connection.
He interviewed Hockney in his home and studio in Los Angeles over several days for a couple of hours at a time. The artist is now profoundly deaf and sadly can no longer enjoy music. He is a great lover of opera and has designed and painted many stage sets. Hockney has seen many of his friends die of AIDS over the years but it seems he is still an optimist. “We may not really look at things today, we may not be fully alive but if we stay optimistic the possibility of insight still exists”.
Over many years David Hockney has been known for responding to new technological possibilities and has famously used iPad drawings, polaroid photography, faxed images and photocopying in his art.
Randall tries whenever possible to work with the same team. Paul Binns, who he met at the BBC is the film editor and went to school, like Hockney, in Bradford. Patrick Duval is the director of photography and John Harle composed the music, which is a crucial component of the film. The team will meet up several months before shooting starts to discuss what they want to achieve and to ensure that they are all of like mind. Money is very limited for documentaries so detailed forward planning is essential.
Randall says, “I have tried to capture the spirit of David. I hope the film has portrayed some of his rare and precious energy. Certainly some of Hockney’s attitude rubs off on those close to him. I have used very little movement on the images, no-one is telling you where to look. My hope is that you will just bring yourself to the pictures.”