Ahead of the TV premiere of The Man Whose Mind Exploded, Film4.com editor Michael Leader speaks with director Toby Amies about his fascinating documentary about the friendship he forged with the colourful but fragile Brighton-based eccentric Drako Zarhazar…
How did you first meet Drako?
When I first saw Drako he cycled past me – heavily made up, with facial piercings and tattoos, in a cape! A case of WHAT? WHO? WHY? As I’m sure the rest of the country is wearily aware, Brighton is an aggregator for wannabe eccentrics and needy show-offs, but Drako was the real thing, an original, unmatched and Kemptown’s King of the Queens. My first thought was “I have to know what the story is there”. As Drako put it “My career was on stage and now the world is my stage”. Fairly soon after I saw of him, a friend of mine David Bramwell was given some money by the Arts Council to make a film for his band to perform the soundtrack to and asked me to direct it. He took me to meet Drako as he was to be the star of the film, the Ballad of Oddfellow, which can be seen online still. When I met Drako he was most charming and wonderfully strange, and when I caught glimpses of his flat over his shoulder I was determined to know more.
At what point did you think about making a film about him? And what was it in particular that you were interested in – his eccentric personality, the specifics of his life with brain damage, or something else?
The filmmaking process was sort of organic, we started with the silent film and then I took some photographic portraits of Drako which led to pitching a documentary about his extraordinary biography to Radio 4. That became a programme for their It’s My Story strand which was nominated for the Prix Europa and produced by Sarah Jane Hall. When it came out several people approached me to talk about the possibility of turning it into a film, I think it’s because the radio documentary created such a vivid picture in people’s minds. Maybe people wanted to see just how many hundreds of cut-out and collaged willies Drako had in one small space… and now the Film4 audience has a chance to count the cocks! We are pretty sure it is a record-breaking number and had some interesting conversations with the BBFC, apparently the angle at which the member presents itself is crucial. When I started really getting into the nitty-gritty of the filmmaking process I had both Ross McElwee’s brilliant Sherman’s March and Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage as I wanted to make a movie that was acutely personal but also one that was a voyage of discovery, an exploration of what’s inside the mind.
One of my favourite show business maxims says that filmmaking is all in the casting, and even though at the time I’d never made a feature film before, it was clear that in Drako I had a superstar to work with. Initially the attraction had to do with his exotic, fascinating biography that included work with Salvador Dali, Gerard Malanga from Warhol’s Factory, and Derek Jarman, but that was rather dry onscreen and attention tended, as it does, to be drawn onto the celebrities. Drako had to be the star and my guide as to how to make the film. Once I’d done some filming, I took the trailer to various commissioners and rapidly realised that for the film to be made under the TV umbrella it would have to have been formulaic and possibly exploitative. Even though I was disappointed by the experience, I came out even more determined to make something that came out of a more gentle and sensitive process.
As you became closer to Drako, and started caring for him more directly, did your sense of the film you were making change at all?
Very soon my relationship with Drako was more than professional, it was a friendship, and I began to feel a responsibility to him that was greater then any need to place him in some preconceived narrative. I once heard someone being berated at a film festival by an old master: “You’ve broken the first rule of documentary making and fallen in love with your subject!” and I remember thinking “Fuuuck! that’s EXACTLY what I’ve done”, let’s see if it works… But also that is what the film is about for me, love and the pain of loving someone who doesn’t seem to care for themselves as much as you care for them and not being able to walk away and having to adapt your perception of the universe to accommodate theirs and being changed (hopefully for the better), as a consequence.
My beautiful sister Catherine, to whom the film is dedicated, was dying from Diabetes as I was making it, and there was a shared dynamic between many of the conversations I had with her and those I had with Drako. The film explores the morality of giving people agency to make their own decisions about their welfare and destiny whilst examining the repercussions of doing so.
There is a point in The Man Whose Mind Exploded where the image quality becomes especially bad, and that to me identifies the point where the making of the film becomes less important than the very human friendship it records. The sweet spot, where life and art fuse in some very shaky camerawork. I suppose it seeks to document something invisible, the difficult bond between two people, carer and the cared-for and what that relationship means.
There came a point where I had to accept Drako’s philosophy and trust: absolutely and unconditionally that there was going to be a way of divining some kind of narrative meaning and story out of what was happening because what was happening took precedence, a lot of the filming was reactive as I was just trying to keep up!
Throughout the film, it’s clear that Drako doesn’t immediately remember you across your many visits. As he puts it, ‘you’re new every time’. What challenges did that present?
More than anything else it was just difficult to maintain a relationship with someone who’d forgotten about you. Even though I knew roughly how his mind worked it was hard not to be hurt that I was new to him every time, and it was extremely frustrating that the lengthy conversations we had about his care would go nowhere. I adored Drako but he was extremely stubborn. That all said when I started making the film I watched a superb documentary about Clive Wearing, who had a similar type of amnesia to Drako. Because of the repeated nature of his experience, Clive Wearing had a very short memory span of under 30 seconds, the documentary concentrates more on the experience of his wife Deborah who is an extraordinary human being and has gone on to write a memoir Forever Today on the subject. With her patient, forgiving and selfless example in the face of enormous difficulties in mind, I felt lucky the Drako I knew could communicate with me as much as he did over time. With regard to how it affected the film, it gave me the challenge and opportunity of having to present how it was entering Drako’s never-ending now. There was something hypnotic about visiting that place, and the artwork he created in it seemed to be designed both to remind everyone including himself who Drako was, but also it had a mesmerising effect, a sense that time stopped when the door shut.
What’s the story behind the nickname ‘Toby Jug’?
It’s just another example of the mnemonics Drako would use to try and make something stay in his brain. Toby jugs are squat pottery vessels used to caricature people. There was sometimes a sense from that that Drako’s memory loss was not as consistent as you might expect, or even that he might have been regaining it a little. But he lived in a giant aide memoire, designed to do what his mind couldn’t, that’s the origin of the film’s title, as an invitation into his home was an invitation into his mind.
The Man Whose Mind Exploded premieres on Film4 on Thursday 16th July at 12.30am.