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A conversation with Ken Russell
To coincide with the UK DVD release of Lisztomania, Slarek and Camus spoke all too briefly to its maverick director about his memories of the film, the lack of DVD releases of his work, about cult favourite Altered States, and about his most recent project, Boudica Bites Back. Slarek provides the introduction.

It was a rare opportunity we just couldn't pass up, to talk to the man who had directed so many films that helped shape our youth and early adulthood, films that even now sit high on our favourite movies list. In a manner that is all too typical of me, actually meeting up in London proved an adventure in itself, when Camus and I must have almost bumped into each other about four times in the process of hunting each other out at the chosen meeting place. Finally I called my friend to discover that we were both standing outside the same building but at different doors. At the hotel at which the interview had been arranged we found ourselves waiting just a few feet from where Stephen Fry was having lunch, then when I went to phone our PR contact, as advised, discovered that I'd programmed my own number into the slot marked with her name. I'm not good with mobile phones. Our moment arrived and we had just 25 minutes, which frankly flew by and allowed us only to touch on a small number of things we were hoping to ask, hence the rather scattershot nature of the questioning, which has been edited down for easy reading and tidiness. Given that the interview was arranged to mark the DVD release of Lisztomania, we kicked off with a few questions about that.



DVD Outsider: Could we just start off with a few things about Lisztomania?

Ken Russell: Oh yeah, sure.

DVDO: You wrote and directed it, so it's very much your project. Could you tell us how it got started?

KR: Well I was friends with the producer, David Puttnam, who was quite impressed with Tommy, and I was impressed with Roger Daltrey, having worked with him on Tommy. I though he could do a one of my classic movies, but a popular version, you know that might appeal to a wider audience. Which is why I used Roger and why it was done in a sort of populist style. As it was I think it was...over the heads of most...


KR: ...the people I aimed it for. I thought it would be good to do a popular version of a great composer. And Liszt seemed a good choice because he was popular. And he was, in a sense, the first pop composer.

DVDO: I read about this. I was researching Liszt and from what I gather, women really did mob him and grab articles of clothing.

KR: (laughing) Yeah I know. No, he was very popular with the ladies. And so that was my starting off point.

DVDO: Did you have control over the casting?

KR: Yes I did. And I wanted Roger particularly because not only does he look like Liszt, with his long locks... well that was my point, since he does look like Liszt and can play the piano, you know, and he's seen playing the piano...

DVDO: We were talking about that earlier... it's so rare to see the lead actually doing the work...

KR: Yeah, he was a good pianist. And I thought it would be fun to put words to the music, which is what we did, and the Wagner thing was an added bonus...


DVDO: I was wondering, did you have it in for Wagner?

KR: (surprised) No. No, I like Wagner.

DVDO: It's just he doesn't come off terribly well in the film...

KR: Oh well, you know, he didn't like the Jews very much, which I thought would be good to bring out, tie him up to Hitler, you know. I mean, they were both anti-Semites...

DVDO: By the end of the film you've got something like three or four genres welded together.

KR: Yeah, that's right.

DVDO: You've got Frankenstein and Dracula's an extraordinary collage of imagery.

KR: Yes. Yeah, it sort of scared me a bit.


DVDO: Times have changed, and one of the things that's surprising when you look at it now is the use of kids. I mean, do you think they'd let you do that now?

KR: (dismissive) Nah... I used to be a photographer before. I had quite a career for four years in the late fifties. And as soon as I got into films I stopped, I didn't take another still. But I did something then you couldn't do now. In Portobello Road I had a kids' wedding, where they dressed up, they sat down and had a feast, there was a bride and a groom, where they dressed up in semi-realistic clobber. And I just got these kids in Portobello Road, got them together and told them what to do, dressed up... You couldn't do that nowadays, you'd be arrested.

DVDO: I've got two small questions about the film. Was that you as the orchestra conductor?

KR: (pause for thought) Probably.

DVDO: It's just you're behind dark glasses and a wig. I just thought it was, but wasn't sure.

KR: I did a film on Richard Strauss where I was the conductor. So it's quite feasible.

DVDO: The other one was... was that Oliver Reed doing a cameo?

KR: Yeah.

DVDO: It was! I did a double take watching that... and he was gone again.

KR: Yeah... (laughs)

DVDO: One of the things that's always struck me about your films is that you always seem to get actors to give some of their best performances. There are a couple of things in Lisztomania that reminded me of that. Veronica Quilligan as Cosima – from the moment she comes into the room she commands the screen.

KR: I know...she's brilliant.

DVDO: Where do you find such actors?

KR: I don't know! She went and I never saw her again. She always amazed me, I was really scared of her!

DVDO: Also, one of the things that struck me this time was how good Roger Daltrey is in this, in the small moments, when he's just doing quiet stuff. He's real.

KR: Yeah. That was one of the reasons I did the film. I thought he could really act. And also a challenge. And he went for it, he was bloody good.

DVDO: One of the things with your films generally is that you must have had a close working relationship with the actors, but also I would imagine with the director of photography...

KR: (agreeing) Oh yeah...

DVDO: ...because the look of your films is unique.

KR: Especially in that Lisztomania... it amazes me...

DVDO: Ideally would you prefer to work with the same cinematographers and production designers or do you prefer to vary them?

KR: Well there are about three I rate highly, and I've always tried to work with them.

DVDO: Who would they be?

KR: They would be Billy Williams, David Watkin...

DVDO: You worked with Peter Sushitsky on Lisztomania...

KR: Oh yeah. No, he's excellent.

DVDO: A thing that a friend who's a very big fan of Lisztomania picked out about the film, and I agree with him, is that idea of turning the piano into a coffin and placing it on the train line – it's one of the most vividly surreal images in modern cinema. When I went back to the film – it's several years since I've seen it – I remember that sequence frame for frame. How did that come about? Was it just an idea?

KR: (nodding) Oh yes.

DVDO: Because it's a lovely, very strong image.

KR: Yes. And [the train] takes so long to come...

DVDO: Exactly.

KR: And you think it's never going to arrive.

DVDO: One of the thing – and you've probably heard this a thousand times – I asked people what they wanted me to ask and one of the things that kept coming up is why are so many of your films still unavailable on DVD? I mean, the big one is obviously The Devils. Because now we've had the Mark Kermode programme and we got to see the deleted scenes...

KR: (agreeing) Yeah, yeah. Warners have a thing about it.

DVDO: Really? Because I've got the tape!

KR: Yeah, a lot of people have... No, but they're, they're scared of it.

DVDO: Tommy did come out as a special edition DVD, and that's lovely. Did you have to be bullied to do the commentary, or did you...?

KR: Someone told me the other day that I didn't want to do it. I don't know why I didn't but I just didn't. And they said you were talked into it but you'd said you would only do one hour, and I thought you'd forgotten that because you were so into it and it was so interesting. And I suddenly said "Well, that's it, the hour's up and I'm off!" (laughs).


DVDO: Altered States is a film that just seemed to touch a nerve in both of us. There was so much going on in it. Obviously it wasn't that simple, but for us it seemed like a move from Britain to America to do that and Crimes of Passion. How did you get Altered States?

KR: Ah well, that's an interesting story. I was going to do a film with a group, an English pop group and it all fell apart. I think it was Dracula or something. Anyway it all fell apart and it didn't work. And I was [about to fly] back to England and I was in America at the time and my agent said "Stop off at New York, there may be a job for you." And I said OK, so I stopped off and I met Paddy Cheyevsky, and the film was Altered States. And I liked it, and he said "Is there anything you don't like?" and I said "Lot's of things." And I hadn't realised that he's so famous that for anyone to criticise anything... it had never happened. Anyway, despite all that he offered me the film. And the reason it hadn't worked before was that some of the things he wanted were impossible to do, one being an object that was travelling through space and it was black, blacker than the blackest black. And so Arthur Penn, who was going to do it before me, could never think how to do a black object travelling across a black object at a million miles an hour. He puzzled over it a year, and turned it down. Well I just looked at it and I threw it out, because it's not possible to do. And instead I had a goat with six eyes.


KR: And that took the place of the black object. And after the first day's filming I had a row with Paddy because after saying he wouldn't interfere, he said to the actors "You're playing it too drunk." It was an Italian restaurant and everyone was drinking plenty of wine. So I said, "You know it's suppose to be a going-away party and they're drunk." So he talked to the actors and he said "You're playing this too drunk." I found out – this is the first day's shooting – I said "You said you wouldn't, you know." And we had a row, and I said "Go back to New York, because you're making a fuss here." And he said, "No, it's my film. I'm just keeping an eye... see, you know, you're doing it right." I said, "What do you mean ‘doing it right'?" He said, "One thing you don't do, you don't do things in one take, [you're supposed to do] one long shot and one over the shoulder, [but] you do it in one long tracking shot, I can't cut into that." So naturally I'm upset. I said "Well go back to New York, if you don't like it." So I had this row with him, and he said "OK, I'll go back to New York, but you're not to change one word. One word." So I said, "No problem. It's a good script." Then we went to Mexico and I shot a dialogue scene between the two protagonists who were walking along. And it was supposed to be sunny, and it was raining, and the dialogue was, "Well, it's so hot...I don't know if I can stand the heat." Well it wasn't, it was pissing with rain. So I had "It's pissing with rain, we have to hurry, we can't walk in this shower." He said, "You've changed it!" I said "Paddy, it was pissing with rain. You want them to say it's a lovely sunny day when it's all..." He said "You've changed it. You've got to go back and shoot it all again." So Warners were getting a bit tired of him by then, you know... So we said we'd shoot it on another set at Warners. And we didn't even do that in the end. Anyway, so that was working with Paddy. Quite a trial.

DVDO: It's still an astonishing final result. I saw it in London and I came out and I was shaking.

KR: [The studio] said, "Oh you've got to change it..." So there was a big argument, and they had a showing... it was in San Diego in a mall at a matinee, with kids. And so they said "It didn't get a good audience reaction, because all the kids were shouting. So they said "Cut out all the hallucinations and just keep the dialogue." And one of the producers saw what was happening and said "This isn't working." So he managed to get Warner Brothers to show it at Westwood. That's a student..."

DVDO: Right. More sympathetic audience.

KR: Yeah. And it changed totally. They all walked out for the dialogue, had one person on the door and they'd say, "First hallucination's running!" and they'd see it and they'd go "Wow!" and then they'd all walk out...


DVDO: So where is Ken Russell today?

KR: I made a film with the help of a group [at] Swansea University, and they said "If you can make a film in five days we'll finance it." We have just kids. We do have one professional cameraman. So if you think you can do that without screwing up... So I did one. I already had a story I was ready to do, and it's called Boudica Bites Back and it's on Queen Boudica or Boadicea, who in 61AD... her husband died, the Romans lashed her because they said she owed money. She said, you know, "We worked for that." And they said "Well, we want it back." So she didn't give it back, and they lashed her, and then they raped her daughters in front of her. So she got the tribe to rise up, and she did three attacks on Roman towns, including London, and destroyed them. Then there was one final battle when the legions came back from putting down the Welsh and she disappeared.

DVDO: Made in five days...

KR: Four, actually. So we did that against green screen with a Roman legion, made up to look like Romans. And also peasants. Scenes of wonderful woods, mountains, and chariot race...they're on a chariot. My wife on a chariot, she play Boudica. And we stole the chariot race from Ben Hur, made a chariot, put her on it, and had her attacking the Romans. So, that's the latest...

DVDO: And it's still fun?

KR: Oh yeah.

DVDO: Well our time is up, unfortunately. Thank you.

Our sincere thanks to Jennie Lever at Capricorn PR for arranging the above interview.

Ken Russell feature filmography

French Dressing (1964)
Billion Dollar Brain (1967)
Women in Love (1969)
The Music Lovers (1970)
The Devils (1971)
The Boy Friend (1971)
Savage Messiah (1972)
Mahler (1974)
Tommy (1975)
Lisztomania (1975)
Valentino (1977)
Altered States (1980)
Crimes of Passion (1984)
Gothic (1986)
Salome's Last Dance (1988)
The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
The Rainbow (1989)
Whore (1991)

The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002)

article posted
5 May 2009