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Dreams Of A Life Director Carol Morley writes from SXSW: part three

22 Mar, 2012 Posted in: Directors, Festivals, Guest blog

This comes to you from near Manchester. Not Manchester, England, but Manchester, Massachusetts where I have come after Austin to visit relatives. At SXSW, in addition to watching lots of films, I became slightly obsessed with what we British call toilets, lavs, the ladies, the gents, but Americans like to call bathrooms or restrooms. Here, toilets flush themselves, the soap dispensers are automatic and paper unrolls in reaction to movement. I started to feel superfluous as a human being and slightly contagious. The first time I came to the USA I read a section of a guide book on Greyhound buses and how they were equipped with restrooms, which I thought were rooms where travellers could take turns laying down – some kind of pilgrim elegance.


Perhaps the Greyhound is a good way to begin to try to tell you about the strange sense of emotion I experienced on South Congress (a strip of road with lots of groovy shops and cafés.). All around street music was at full convergence and I had developed an ear infection and was in a bubble. I was browsing the packed shelves and secret corners of a second hand/ junk/ antique shop. Nothing in the shop was familiar; it was all Americana and as far away from the stuff of my past as anything can be.  But in the midst of it all I began to think of my mum, Dilys, who died towards the end of making Dreams of a Life.


I was unsure as to why this particular place brought on such powerful and strong thoughts of her, but connected it to the fact that Dilys, who had never been to the USA (though she did have an American granddad who ran away to Wales), would have loved rooting through all this eccentric ephemera. But then I began to think about how my mum actually wanted to own very little and that on her 60th birthday she announced that what she had always wanted to be was a bag lady. But perhaps these thoughts of my mum were caused mostly by looking through boxes of discarded sepia photographic portraits of people – faces looking towards the lens with wistfulness and hopefulness, futures ahead of them – long since dead.


I realised that in so many ways Austin and SXSW had surrounded me with death – so many shops had Day Of The Dead objects for sale: skulls and effigies of people in coffins. I’d also seen Kevin Macdonald’s fascinating film Marley, and wept for the untimely early death of Bob; I’d seen The Imposter, shadowed by the disappearance and possible death of Nicholas Barclay; and I’d watched Sean Baker’s Starlet, with death not far away in many ways. Also, I’d been reading Larry McMurtry’s book, In A Narrow Grave, Essays on Texas and in this he quotes Teddy Blue: “Cowboys loved to sing about people dying; I don’t know why. I guess it was because they were so full of life themselves…” Somehow, in the midst of SXSW, which is so full of life, of people revelling in the heady moments, and as far away from home as I’ve been in a long time, I was finding it easier than ever to think about my mum no longer being alive.


But the Greyhound bus does really have a part to play in all this. In the second hand shop I found an official Greyhound metal box, with an old ticket to ride inside from 1965 – way before my long ago travels, but it was a must have – and now the box will always remind me of this trip to SXSW and my bus travels through North America when I was twenty-one years old. I will look at it and remember when a young mother and her children got on the bus and urged the driver to hurry over the state line as her husband, in fast pursuit in a car, was not allowed to leave the area. The bus driver picked up speed, and we passengers all watched through the back window as the woman’s husband remarkably did stop at the border and was left behind. She had made her escape.


I paid for my Greyhound box and went and sat on a sidewalk and, shutting out the world around me, leant on the box and wrote postcards home until a woman’s hand clutched my upper arm tightly. Thinking my bag was going to be robbed I held it close. She crouched down, looked at me intensely and said: “You are such an awesome person writing postcards to people when all this stuff is going on around you – when there is just so, so, much to do.” This made me feel guilty for not doing more. There were films and music events and here I was sitting on a kerb writing postcards and then she said, “You are so kind. Would you be my Facebook friend? You’d be an amazing Facebook friend.” So, in the hope of being alone again, I instantly agreed and she gave me her card and happily strode away, making more Facebook friends as she went.


Across the road I saw two cowboys on horseback. I have no idea if they were real cowboys or dressed for the part, but it felt like a demonstration of a disappeared world- now we are in a digital age where writing postcards is quaint. But, as I watched the cowboys and my new Facebook friend make her way along the street, I thought SXSW has in so many ways been all about one major thing – telling stories. Such an old fashioned thing – but an enduring one. Whether it’s the singer-songwriter on the pavement or Bruce Springsteen (not that I saw him or anything, but he was at SXSW) singing his songs, or communally experiencing a film in a darkened room, we were all watching and listening to stories unfold. And there’s nothing more primal and necessary than that.


Our last screening was full, and people had to be turned away and according to the cinema staff that is unusual for a daytime screening on the last day of the festival. Mark, who saw the film in the UK, and who we had dinner with previously, brought a group of friends with him to watch, and the film played out – a London story- all the way to Austin. A universal story – with a nice review in the Austin Chronicle as proof!


As we left SXSW and hailed a cab to the airport from our hotel, a man asked if he could share our ride as he was also heading to catch a flight out of town – to Seattle. On the drive we got talking and it turned out, many years ago, he was Joyce’s friend’s husband’s friend.  He was two degrees of separation from Joyce. And so as I departed Texas, the sense came over me, that there really is probably less than six degrees of separation between us all and that it really, really is a small, small world.


Dreams Of A Life Director Carol Morley writes from SXSW: part two

16 Mar, 2012 Productions Posted in: Directors, Festivals, Guest blog

So Cairo the producer, Andy the distributor and I had dinner with Mark, who had seen Dreams of a Life in London with his daughter, apparently after hearing Robert Elms talk about the film on his radio show with Jason Solomons and me. He has indeed traced his old football team since watching the film, but they are yet to meet. There had been a long running rumour that one of them had died decades ago – but it turned out it was a complete myth and the man in question is still alive and still kicking. Andy now wants a Dreams of a Life reunion dinner with Mark every year during SXSW.

Cairo Cannon, Michael Hayden and Carol Morley

"Cairo Cannon, Michael Hayden (Programmer for London Film Festival) and me - we bumped into each other on the streets of Austin."

Afterwards we went to the Austin Chronicle Party. I didn’t stay long but spent enough time there to talk to two young women straight out of Ghost World, and a man who was making – or already had – a film about carbon.  Don’t know if it was the film pitch, jet lag, fatigue, or the large house vodka but I began to feel strange and I think I infected Cairo and Andy because we all decided to leave. As we were almost out of the door bumped into Erin, one of the SXSW official photographers. She’s been here seven years in a row and you know just by looking at her she has the complete lowdown on everything – she had come straight from a Jay-Z gig at some intimate venue. We first met Erin at a party for the documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing, about the American artist Wayne White and afterwards she took us to the film distribution company Magnolia’s party- I didn’t stay long there: had a packet of crisps, realised everyone was about twenty and my stamina wasn’t what it used to be and left.
Our second screening of Dreams of a Life was on Tuesday morning.  Just before Cairo and I went into the Alamo Ritz cinema to introduce the film, a lorry (okay, truck) tore down a sizeable part of a tree – as we are in Texas where everything is supersized, I can’t call it a branch; it just wouldn’t do it justice. The cinema queue wrangler outside said, “That’s gonna make the local news tonight – we are all tree huggers here in Austin.” The film and Q&A went down really well. The screening was full – they are truly a committed audience here at South By.

Producer Cairo Cannon outside the Ritz

Producer Cairo Cannon outside the Ritz

Met Katie Ellen for the first time, she is over here from the British Film Institute, who, along with the British Council Film Department, have helped finance our trip here. We both went to see The Imposter, which was a hit with the audience. Director Bart Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis were faced with similar questions that are asked about Dreams of a Life.  The first question fired at them was, “what do you think really happened?” They answered all questions elegantly and managed not to close down the fascinating areas that their film opens up.
On a shuttle bus efficiently going from one cinema to another, Jeff and Jen, who had seen Dreams Of A Life that morning, introduced themselves to Cairo and me. Jen is a lawyer representing people on Death Row and Jeff programmes films for the Loft Cinema in Tuscon – he said he would love to show Dreams. We all went for a drink and I made them count up how many films they had seen in the festival so far. They’d seen seventeen, which averaged at three and a half films a day. It’s hard not to feel a little anxious that I’m not completely doing wall-to-wall activity and watching films all of the time- but I try and calm myself thinking, “quality not quantity”.  They gave their movie recommendations, which included Paul Williams Still Alive, a documentary about the singer songwriter who the director assumed had died.  We went to see it today and it’s excellent. Especially the bit where the director, Stephen Kessler, says, “if this was a PBS documentary it would be like this…” and then launches into a perfect pastiche of what PBS would have made with Paul William’s life. Priceless.
SXSW began as a music festival, so I’m excited about checking out the music. My brother and niece, once in shock that I went to see Kate Nash, have sent me a list of up and coming music that I should try and catch. Blood Orange were on the list, which we tried to see today at the Windrush Showcase, but I got the time wrong so we saw another band instead, Kindness. It was only the fourth time they’d played together and I thought they were very good. I am planning to listen to some more music. Maybe Dan Deakin, perhaps you and the whole world know about him already. If not, Google him, I just did, he sounds great.
So here I am, writing this in my hotel room and burning vanilla incense. I don’t usually light incense, but last night I went into an alternative/spiritual/ transcendental shop. I only went in to kill some time before a film screening, but felt obligated to buy something. I’m glad I went in though. I met Sharon who was working there and she asked me why I was in town. She was so excited that I’d made a film, I got a rush of remembering what an arduous journey making a film is and what a relief it is to finally be on the other side – meeting audiences, sending it into the world. I was touched by Sharon’s fascination with the process of filmmaking and her pleasure that we’d made a film. I invited her to our third screening tomorrow. I hope she comes.

Carol being interviewed for TV at SXSW

Carol being interviewed for TV at SXSW

Dreams Of A Life Director Carol Morley writes from SXSW: part 1

13 Mar, 2012 Posted in: Directors, Festivals, Guest blog


Carol Morley at SXSW with Matt Harlock

Me doing a Q&A at SXSW with Matt Harlock

I have strange fingers. I really do. They never work on the fingerprinting machine that takes all your prints as you enter the USA.  I am looked at with a great deal of suspicion and my heart pounds. Just never make a joke about shaving the ends of your fingers as I once did. I was taken into a room. I thought I would never come out. Anyway now I’m here at SXSW in Austin Texas, with my producer Cairo Cannon, and our film Dreams Of A Life. If you haven’t heard about the film yet it is a quest to create a legacy for Joyce Vincent, who lay undiscovered for nearly three years after her death at thirty-eight years old.

One of Joyce’s old school friends contacted me today and said- “Joyce has taken you out to America. Bless her”. And so she has. I’m thinking a lot about Joyce while I’m here- I’m catching people in the crowds who resemble her, and I really wish Joyce was still around.

Four days have passed in a blur of lines (it’s a myth that people don’t queue in the States- they just call it “a line” instead) and figuring out the systems of badges and tickets.  The weather has gone from raining all the time and resembling my hometown Manchester, to what are now officially sunny days (with only some threats of thunderstorms).  There are so many screenings, so many events and talks my brain is reeling. My hands are sticky all the time from free food in bowls dotted about wherever I go.  I no longer have to wear my free give away rain-protecting poncho – which is a relief, but it did at least protect my clothes from the food splashes.

I am currently sitting on a hotel bed writing this waiting to do a press interview at 3pm with Film International.  I have done quite a bit of press since I’ve been here- which sometimes involves holding up some kind of product or standing in front of a backdrop that is advertising something or other.  It feels very American.  One of the interviews I did was with Vladimir Radovanov & Ondi Timoner for BYOD on The Lip TV.  Ondi made Dig, one of my favourite films, it’s about two bands-  The Brian Jonestone Massacre and the Dandy Warhols.  If you’ve never seen Dig- do!

Our first screening of Dreams of a Life was extra special. Joyce’s friend Judy came to see the film for the first time with her husband. It was a powerful experience knowing that as we premiered the film in the USA Judy would be there- a very real and tangible link to Joyce.

A great deal of time was spent on warning the audience not to speak or text during the film. But it seems that nobody here can go without food for ninety minutes as menus were provided, orders were placed, and a steady array of serving staff, bowed over to avoid blocking the film as it unfolded on the screen, arrived.  As it was a full house, an endless stream of dishes arrived, and it seemed to me (hyper sensitive filmmaker) almost everyone in the cinema had ordered something. In addition to the extensive menu there was a short menu with dishes named after featured SXSW films- including “Dollhouse Suicide” – which turned out to be “every drink on the fountain- twice” and “Epic Meal Time Candy Sushi” Don’t ask.  A member of the audience reassured me afterwards that it hadn’t been distracting at all- so I felt better.

The reception for the film was intelligent, caring, thoughtful and respectful. The Q&A afterwards was with filmmaker Matt Harlock  and he did a lovely job of leading the discussion and opening it up to the audience. Our second screening and Q&A is tomorrow.

Tonight Cairo, Andy the CEO of our UK distributor Dogwoof  and I are going to meet  someone who lives in Austin but happened to see Dreams Of A Life in London when he was visiting. He got in touch when he saw the film was playing in his hometown. He is driving us out to some restaurant by a lake for dinner. I imagine and hope he will expand on the story he told me about how Dreams of a Life caused him to trace and reunite with his old school football team. I promise to report back…