Gary Tarn is a filmmaker and composer, born in London, England. A keen traveller, he became captivated by the music of Indonesia, Africa and India, and studied these, alongside the work of European orchestral composers. A passion for film led to a career as a media composer, and it was a natural progression to consider shooting and editing images of his own. In 2000, against all rational advice, he decided to try to make a film of his own, alone. Using a classic 1970's 16mm film camera he started to shoot his debut essay feature Black Sun, travelling in the USA, Iceland and India. Based on interviews with the blind author Hugues de Montalembert, the film was released in 2005, won a number of international awards, and was nominated for a film BAFTA.
You have worked for a number of years creating commercial soundtracks, did becoming a film-maker yourself represent a sort of mid life crisis, or, as you said was it a result of watching your soul die?
For a number of years I worked exclusively creating soundtracks for commercials, and occasionally short films. It’s a particular art in itself, crafting very short soundtracks that have to help tell a story, sometimes in as little as 10 seconds and rarely longer than a minute. I still write commercial soundtracks, in fact, but I think it was a combination of a particularly uninspiring series of ads at that time, and a desire to extend myself that lead to the decision to try to make a film myself. Initially I thought it might just be a short piece, but that project became Black Sun, my first feature-length film.
Rather than conventional documentaries, your works have been described as cinematic meditations. How would you define your own films? Also, you have stated in an interview that one of the problems with cinema is that anything that aims to be serious is viewed with suspicion. Do you consider ethics and morals (and I’m thinking of film-makers such as Rossellini) to have somehow deserted cinema screens in recent years?
Defining films, or indeed any form of creative endeavour, and putting it in a box is generally a futile exercise. Film festivals ask for a tick against Narrative Feature or Documentary, and then a whole host of genre descriptions – romantic comedy, western, sci-fi, horror, drama, experimental etc. I never know what to tick, and I think programmers have a similar problem with my films. Is ‘The Prophet’ a documentary? Well it doesn’t have any actors, and it was largely shot on the streets, but there’s no particular issue or argument. The spoken narrative is completely fictional, taken as it is from a poetic novel, yet a number of documentary festivals have been keen to show it. I like Grierson’s definition of documentary as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ and I guess my films could be said to fall within that definition. More importantly, I’d like people to take something away from the films, that might stay with them. I can’t put that ‘something’ into words (if I could, I guess I’d be a writer) and it probably has as much to do with what the viewer brings to the screening, as the other way around.
With regard to ethics and morals – I don’t know if they’ve deserted the cinema (there are still directors who care about such things) but I’d say they’re probably harder to find. Having said that, in travelling to smaller, less-commercial film festivals, one gets to meet extraordinary directors who really care about cinema in this respect, and who are often operating outside of the mainstream, for example Michael Glawogger (Working Man’s Death, Whores’ Glory) or Viktor Kossakovsky (¡Vivan las Antipodas!).
According to Werner Herzog one doesn’t need to go to film school to learn about film making, all one needs to do is take a walk from, say Madrid to Kiev. While not actually setting out on foot would you say that travelling with your camera, helped you to learn the craft?
I didn’t know that quote, but it seems like a reasonable proposition. But there are films, and there are films. I’m sure there’s lots one can usefully learn at film school, but I didn’t happen to go down that route.
What, if anything, has working in advertising taught you about film-making? Also, you’ve worked with the brothers Quay on a number of commercials. Did you ever get to meet them and are you a fan of their work?
Advertising taught me a huge amount. Deadlines are always tight, and you have to be very clear about your intentions, and then be able to deliver. So although I’ve taken my time making my own films, if I need to I can work very fast. And often one is working around a voice-over, so you get to understand how to work with different timbres, and how to leave room for the voice to work. With regard to the Quays – I was a huge fan and had seen quite a lot of their animation work in cinemas, so when I was asked to work with them I was delighted. We’ve met many times, and their studio is exactly as one would hope it might be – full of wonder.
Black Sun tells the story of Hugues de Montalembert, a French artist blinded in a random attack in New York. The film had a long gestation period. You first contacted de Montalembert in 1999 suggesting you wanted to do an “experimental documentary” eventually completing the film in 2005. To put your life story in the hands of a stranger, so to speak, requires a significant leap of faith. How did you gain his trust and how did you keep his trust alive over the years?
Well that’s probably a question for Hugues, but I suppose I was sufficiently convincing at the time. I had played him some music incorporating speech that I had put together, and he liked that; I think that gave him sufficient faith that I had at least some musical ability. We did keep in touch during those years, but quite rarely, with the odd telephone conversation and e-mail, and he was always charming and very encouraging. I think his attitude was that the book was his work, and the film was mine, and so it was up to me, in a sense, to make it work. After we had recorded the interviews, however, I did feel quite a weight of responsibility to make something of value – I knew he had given me something very special in them, and I wanted to rise to the challenge.
In the notes to Black Sun you have also written about your working process, and how you came to film, working alone, setting as your goal to shoot, edit, score, produce and direct a film, just to see if it could be done. You effectively learnt each job as and when you needed to. What part of the process did you enjoy the most and which one would you have been happy to delegate to someone else?
I really don’t think I can separate out individual tasks : they are all part of a larger process to me. Having said that, I’m sure I could work with a DP or an editor, but I’d end up with somewhat different-looking kinds of films, which might well be appropriate for a particular project.
Black Sun has been executive produced by Alfonso Cuaron. How and at what stage of the project did he become involved?
I met Alfonso socially at about the time I was working on Black Sun; when I had a rough-cut I asked if he’d take a look and give me some feedback. He liked the film, and generously offered to go through it with me, which we did, and he offered a number of useful insights and suggestions. Sometimes, working alone, one can be so close to a project that an external ear and eye you trust is extremely useful.
Your second feature film is an adaptation of Gibran’s book The Prophet. As you state, “the book seems to have the words appropriate for the big moments in life; yet it says them quietly”. This is evident in the way you focus on small gestures. How did you get Thandie Newton to narrate the film and how did you go about editing the text?
I had met Thandie a few times, and I got a rough cut of the film to her. She liked it, and so a few months later we were able to record the narration. Gibran had a benefactor for much of his adult life, Mary Haskell, and after his death her letters to him were found (she had kept his to her) and later published, along with her journals in a book : ‘Beloved Prophet’. The book has quite a few references to Gibran bringing over chapters of The Counsels (as early drafts of The Prophet were called) and I imagined Haskell reading these drafts aloud for them both : Thandie found her own take on Mary Haskell’s voice. I edited the text from the original book quite harshly, but I knew I had to, or the film would have been over two hours long, which I felt would have been too much. So I tried to keep the essence of the book intact, and hoped that even if you knew the book quite well, it wouldn’t feel like too much was missing.
The visual style of the Prophet was set during your trip to Lebanon, when you started filming Beirut though the blackout windows of a cab. The graininess of the image contrasts somehow with the highly focused soundtrack. It’s as if you used two different apertures for image and music and yet they both share the same sense of intimacy. How did you adjust the right audio/visual “lens” to so many different contexts and places such as Belgrade, New Bedford and London?
There are actually quite a lot of different looks going on in the film, especially if you were to put stills side by side. I’m generally using the same camera, and stocks, (although I did start to shoot on a digital HD camera towards the end of my filming process) so that helped to keep things a little more homogeneous, but I guess a lot is in the actual framing and looseness of the shooting. And then I graded everything in Final Cut, using similar filters, so again that helped tie shots together.
You also mix different types of images and formats on the lo-fi end of the scale in a way that reminds of Derek Jarman, not in terms of content but of approach. Is this a deliberate choice or one born out of necessity?
A bit of both I would say. Sometimes I just didn’t have room for my 16mm kit, so I’d throw in my Braun Nizo Super-8 and a half dozen rolls of film, on the basis that if I needed a camera, at least I had that. I must say that the iPhone has slightly taken over that role – if I really need a camera, I always have one now, although I wouldn’t really compare the two.
The title tracks on your soundtracks, read like chapters from a book and yet the music is never illustrative. How do you go about scoring a film you are making and editing yourself?
I have an emotional sense of what I want to convey, so I’ll write a range of rough pieces, and then use them as a foundation. But the narration forms the backbone of the soundtrack, and I spend considerable time editing and gridding the vocal performance, treating it almost like a musical performance. The score then counterpoints around that narration, knitting the images and the words together. I give myself cues to work on, so in that sense it’s as if I’m writing for someone else, which of course I do in my commercial work, and if I’m scoring for other filmmakers.
Finally, what are you currently working on?
I’ve been developing a project with the writer Alain de Botton for a little while, so we’re at the stage of looking for a broadcaster for that, and I’m working on a film for children, but not like any children’s film I’ve ever seen before.
Black Sun is available in the UK on DVD through Second Run