Oscar Oldershaw Two Doubles
Family Trip 2014,
Autumn Valley 2015
Sulphur Spring 2018, Joe Campbell & Oscar Oldershaw
Oscar Oldershaw to see the incomprehensible complexity of one’s inside mirrored in the endless unknown space – a starry sky. We get to know them both in between detecting and a simple gaze, we pin meanings to objects and events and watch those slip away and dissolve; others resurface and surprise.
‘Cosmos’ is the title of a novel by Witold Gombrowicz. It is a battlefield, where meaning(s) serve as ammunition, where human reality is built out of layers of games and streams of gaze and incomprehention, a bubbling lava of emotion underneath. This novel is the inspiration for the gallery and sets its goal:
look towards the unknown.
Oscar Oldershaw and Dominika Kieruzel in conversation
Oscar and I first met Chelsea College of Art and Design when our tutor, Gill Addison persuaded me that Oscar is the person I need for my new project. Gill also tasked us with research into each other's practice with an aim to present it to the group. Digging in I discovered a type of work and approach I have not seen in Fine Art world before: collaborative short films, projects based on fun and fantasy, that yet carried a seed of fascination and warmth towards the unglamorous everyday life. Putting together this show I can hear echos of that paired presentation 11 years ago, and I can see how Oscar's work developed and I am fascinated to find where it might go in the future.
Family - it's one of the first things that come to mind when i think of your work. You make films with your friends and family - 'Family Trip' is an example of it. I am curious about the culture of filmmaking in your home, what influence does your family have on your films?
That's a hard question. On the most basic level I work with my family because they're willing to do it and up for contributing ideas and energy. I've done it since I was a kid, there's no feeling that I've got to hold back or be polite because we know each other so well. And it's kinda fun, making home movies, like kids make home movies. Doing it as an adult is more fun in a way because you can do better things. It's just a fun activity to do with family I guess... There is an interesting element to it, when there's a bunch of these family films, it builds up a kind of interesting portrait, there is a body of work that develops with the same characters appearing again and again. But when I'm making the films, I'm not thinking about that. I'm just thinking about making the films, and then, 'who's around?', it's my family, so I make films with them.
Your background is in Fine Art. But your films are rooted in film culture...
I walk a line between the two, I try to. Often I find that video art... I can't engage with it. I generalize here. What I like about 'normal' films is that they're built for entertainment, so they're designed to bring you along with them and keep you interested and you can engage with them without knowing a whole lot beforehand. They're quite cleverly designed in that respect. I like to think of narrative as a kind of vehicle that you can use to show, reveal people. You can have a storyline or some dancing, something that's fun to watch, that will give a reason for you to see somebody big on the screen and have a good look at them. Often I see it as a vehicle.
Do you think about the audience when you make your films?
What I like to do, when I'm doing better work is to not think about the audience, but on the first round, just making. Doing it without even stopping myself to think about it. And then, once that's done and the first edit is done, then I can start to think about how the audience might view it. This is when you can allow the critic in, so you can watch it in a critical way yourself, or you can sit with an audience and you can watch it together. And you can feel in the room when something is boring or something is not quite right. But I think the first part has to be you. There's an inspiration and you have to try to catch that inspiration before it gets censored in any way, by you or someone you might tell about it prematurely. I was reading a book of essays by Philip Pullman about how he works. He talked about how when he gets an inspiration there's this urge to not tell anybody about it until he's really captured it. As soon as you tell someone, just a look on their face might make you think differently about it. As soon as you let someone else into that you've diluted the inspiration.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Quite often it will be a photo or a painting that has an atmosphere in it. I really like the atmospheres in the worlds of films. The feeling that you get from a picture... I want to expand that world out and explore that world, make it come to life. Or two different images and how those two things come together. Like a collage. That's something I really like.
You used to like John Stezaker, right?
I still like him a lot. He's such a pure artist in what he does. There's absolutely no messing around. There is one image and another image. He never reproduces these images, he always uses the originals. So if something doesn't fit, he's not gonna scan it in and photoshop it. There is one image and another image. Usually just one cut - and two things come together. I love that simplicity.
You often used found footage in your earlier work, in Family Trip there is the gong...
I love that if you search for gong on YouTube, there's hundreds of videos of people who have one of these huge gongs that contain this sublime power and an ancient sound. They're playing it in their living room and they've got bad lighting and boring clothes and they'll talk in a monotone voice and then they'll hit it and it's just the most unbelievably sublime thing ever. I love those things. I included those gong people in a couple of my films - Heavenly Mane and Family Trip. We also used a gong sound from another youtuber in Sulphur Spring - it was the main drive for the soundtrack. We got a really good composer called Alex Rudd to compose sound for that film. He built it around the gong sound from a youtube video. I like to layer those things in.
That's another mythical/mystical element in your films.
It's where the sublime meets the mundane. I love that.
When you saw Family Trip and Gloves together, what was your impression of the change in your filmmaking? There's 6 or 7 years between them.
When I look at all the test material from Family Trip, it's more experimental than the film itself. Although Family Trip was fun, a lot of people came together, including James Laycock from Chelsea. We kind of made that film as we went. It was going to be different. In the week that me and James spent building all the sets in the living room at home we discussed it and talked about it and completely changed the script and I wrote it just before we filmed it. It was quite stressful because we were going to film in 3 days but we didn't have a script, but we got there in the end. 'The Gloves' was part of a lockdown project. The concept was to do something sketchy and quick that nobody would get stressed out about. Sometimes with films, you need so many people, everyone needs to be interested and available at the right time and it takes a lot of effort and there's a lot of stages. So sometimes you just don't make them because life gets in the way. I wanted a reason to do something that was quite quick and fun, so I came up with this idea that we would get this playwright called David Gale to write us scripts which we could film in one day. My idea with the whole project was for me to be a kind of a showrunner, a person whose overall vision is for the show, but they don't necessarily direct every episode or write every episode. I thought it would be fun. So - I ask David to write those scripts, he sends the scripts over, and then the whole family, because I'm living back at home during lockdown, we'll all read the script together and then decide who wanted to do what role. So we made it like a miniature production company. My sister Vita, who was the main character, was also the producer and the first AD My mum, who was also one of the ladies at the top of the stairs, she was the director. I was the cinematographer and the editor. Kristine was the costume designer and my sister Daisy was the make-up artist. So we all had these roles, we shot it in one day and we had to edit it in one day. It was free to be really silly, and if someone had a really crazy idea we all just said - 'let's do that, why not'. I liked that we could be truly experimental with it, because there was not that much weight to the film. And we could then move to the next one. For me it was very important that there was more than one of these films being made because then you couldn't get precious about one of them. 'The Gloves' is an important film for another reason. With my mum directing it, she herself was an avant-garde performer in the 70ties and 80ties, her and my dad were part of Lumiere and Son theatre company and the main writer for them was David Gale. So for my mum it was a lot of fun to re-discover her experimental roots. The two of us had so much fun shooting that and editing it together.
How do you approach your creativity, how much pressure you put on yourself? What do you allow your films to look like, how experimental you allow them to be?
Ten years ago when we were at Chelsea, I was probably much crazier. Then in the interval, I became a professional... the more I became aware of the correct way to make films, the more I got scared to make them my own way. But now I think I'm getting to a point where I'm coming full circle and realising that it's good to do it your own way no matter what. The knowledge is good, but the knowledge can stop you, because you know how much you don't have, or you know where you're going wrong. Whereas at college I just was - doing it. Also at college I wasn't tied to a medium, I wasn't just making films, I was making art. And a lot of the times I did make films, but if it didn't feel like it needed to be a film, then it would be something different, a performance - like The Magic Carpet. Being in London, the film world really wants you to be one thing. If you say that you're a director and cinematographer, people are not gonna take you seriously as either, which is a horrible pressure. But since coming away from London throughout lockdown, I'd been able to get that pressure out of my head, not being close to it. I just realised, f*** all that s***, I'm not interested in it. I just want to go back to being an artist, who knows how to make film and to use it to my advantage. That always was my goal, but through it being my job and through the pressure of London and the particular scene, that you get with the film world in London, I lost who I was as an artist. I'm excited to get back to that. Things like the Gloves is part of that. This whole series is part of that, being silly and free and making fun films again.
I think the art world can feel like that too. As in, it wants you to be something but, it can be really unclear what - artistic craft has a vague value, who decides on what's in and what's out, what are the criteria? All this, it also takes time to leave it behind...
It takes either a total naivety or maturity to get past that. When you're in that middle phase, that's when you get sucked into it. It's been really fun to look at old stuff, Chelsea stuff. Looking at how much fun it was.
I love my projects from that time too and I'm also looking at them now thinking - how can I take on from then, with the knowledge and the whole ten years of life to inform it. Lets move to Autumn Valley. It is a kind of a documentary?
It's a semi-documentary. A lot of things are staged. I always thought it would be funny to make a film in Center Parcs. It's such a tacky place, I just thought it's not somewhere where people would make films because it's not very glamorous. I liked the idea of all those different families cooped up together in all those different chelles. Artificial funland in the woods. We were there for my uncle's 60th birthday and I liked the idea of attaching all this drama and music to my uncle's speech when he received the cake. I just thought it was cheeky and funny. I was making it intuitively as I went, seeing what felt right. I was interested in the textures that were around, I was looking at the MDF cabinets, carpets... leaves.
On the surface level it seemed to be about Christianity, but looking deeper, I think it's about family, I think it is about brothers - about your dad and your uncle. For me the two key scenes are the one where the brothers sing, your dad, Giles, accuses your uncle of deception, the other is one where your uncle passes your dad a chair... There is the strange bond and tension between the brothers, there is the mundane, the eating of a sandwich... there is the grandness of christian imagery and phylosophy, uncompromising... but there is love, coming through... that's why this film really stayed with me. The sense of love for your dad...
The main theme that comes out is about the brothers. There is this disjuncture in my family, where my dad and his two brothers all went to a christian camp as lads and they all three came back converted to christianity and my dad gave it up after 2 days and his brothers have stayed devout christians their entire lives. So there's always been a weird thing in the family... When we go to Center Parcs and we stay in two different challes, one family in each, we call them Heaven and Hell. They live in Heaven and we live in Hell... I guess there is another element - my dad had Parkinson's since I was about 17, his family has been traditionally quite slow to recognise it or acknowledge it, even though they're christian. I think the film was partly about that. There's a scene where my dad is crunched up on top of the counter and there's a football match and my uncle's eating a sandwich. I think that was some kind of comment on lack of engagement on their part. So it's kind of a comic film, but there are some underlying family issues. I've had fun making this film and then I forgot about it. We looked at it recently, Joe Campbell and I. It was in fact Joe who said that there was something in it and that he wanted to show it, we showed it at his screening and it went down quite well, and I thought, maybe there is something in that film.
You worked with Joe Campbell since you were teenagers?
Me and Joe worked together since school, since probably we've been 16. We don't always work together but a lot of the time we do. Joe is a great influence, when I'm crazy, impatient and rush, Joe says 'hold on, let's wait, look at it slowly' he's really steady. He also has a great sense of humor, we share that same cheeky sense of humor, an idea of just mucking something up. We were both big fans of Roger Ackling at Chelsea. I remember his chicky, twinkly eye approach to things that we really locked on to. We've made these posters once and I remember him saying that maybe we should just hang it on the wonk, for not a good reason, just hung it at an angle just to piss people off... Also the thing of having our own private jokes incorporated into art...
In Autumn Valley and Sulphur Spring, your dad, Giles Oldershaw is a central character. I think he almost becomes a mythical character that travels through your films, like a soul in new incarnations. I have a sense that your films are not entirely made out of scratch but that they are deeply materially rooted in the life around you. People seem to be much more important than the script.
Sulphur Spring originally was supposed to be an entirely different film, I made it together with Joe Campbell and when we pitched it, it was supposed to be a group dance in a hot spa in Iceland. A strange, Busby Berkeley type of thing, but with old people. But - there was no way we would be able to take a big cast to Iceland for the money we had and it was impossible to communicate with old people in Iceland. It was not going to happen. So it evolved into an idea of a journey into a healing place. We started to do all those experiments in the garden and in the back field, behind the house, and trying out all different types of movement and we used Giles as a character every single time. But we said that there's no way that he's coming to Iceland, cause it's freezing cold, we're going up a mountain and he's got Parkinson's. Some days he just can't do anything. Some days he can run around, some days he cannot do anything. We considered it too big of a risk to take him to Iceland. We only had 2 days of filming. So I told him, we're gonna need a different actor, but you'll be the one for tests. But as the tests grew and he grew into the role, we ended up saying, right, we have to do it with him, even if we have to do it in a back garden of an airBnB with mountains in the background. So that became an adventure and a risk in the film. I think that helped make it a stronger film. Because it was not a safe bet. Maybe that element of risk makes the film feel more real. Because it was real. Because we had to go up a mountain with an old ill man. The film is true.
You got rid of the dance scene, but you still class it as a dance film?
Dance films are mostly made with young and sexy dancers, leaping around all over the place. It's a celebration of strength and youth in that sense. We wanted to make this a dance film which really is a film about movement. We wanted to make it a dance of struggle. Let's take old people and put them on a mountain, and let's have them wearing difficult, awkward hiking outfits, big coats etc. We really wanted to run up against all the traditions of dance films. It was about struggle and awkwardness. We loved things like them having a really hard time climbing up a side of something, or slipping over.
Like in the scene where someone tried to take the sedan chair up the slope?
Yes, that was actually real too, it blew away when we were filming. So it was all about trying to capture all those moments. And then things like, I guess this is just me and Joe having this cheeky sense of humor, but things like people going for a wee behind the rock. We wanted to choreograph this bit where they were all doing it together. There is a scene that didn't make it into the film where they were all sitting around making sandwiches and this idea of eating and munching, small unglamorous everyday movements that you wouldn't normally make into a dance, but we wanted to celebrate all those things. We had lots of ideas for the ending. But when we were rehearsing, I think I said to Giles 'when they're undressing you, just run away' and I didn't tell them that it was going to happen. So he suddenly ran off, and it was so funny and after this being funny we thought that this felt right and that became the ending. I actually preferred the version in the test because it was more genuine, because nobody knew he was going to run away.
Your early work had a lot of Kuchar brothers influence, does this influence carry through to now?
Kuchar brothers were great influence on me because they have legitimised that making fun films with your friends and family can be a serious thing to do. It doesn't have to be something that just kids do and then you've got to move on from it, You can keep doing it. Their ethos around filmmaking is that it should be fun and enjoyable. For them it's so much about the process of doing it, and then having those parties where they show what they've made, and pure joy, kid-like joy of movie making - that is the Kuchar thing, which is so different to heavy seriousness that you get when you get into big budget movie making. I think Mike Kuchar said 'I don't want anyone to ever give me any budget because I don't want to waste anyone's money' They just have this relaxed attitude. They'd meet someone they liked and they'd put them in a movie because they thought that it was cool to look at this person and get to know this person in a different way. There is something in turning somebody into a character on the screen... You can show them in a new way. When people go and see movies with movie stars in them, they don't say, I'm going to see this new film, it's about a guy who robs the bank etc, but you say I'm going to see the new Nicholas Cage film. So your first instinct is towards the star of the film. That goes to show that the big part of what people enjoy in movies is looking at people on the big screen. Just like a baby likes to look at a face. It's a fundamentally fascinating thing.
You studied with George Kuchar for a term?
Yes, he has run this class since the seventies where he made movies and the students were the cast and crew. You learned by being his apprentices and you'd come up with a different movie every time. So we'd shoot and then he'd go away with the footage and edit and then he'd come up with some new lines of script and we'd make next bit of the film, and maybe the star might decide to drop out of the class so he'd write them out as if they died... these crazy films that got made. And he shot them all on a small video camera that he bought at Wolmart. It was an amazing way to learn. Maybe the lockdown trilogy, maybe I was trying to bring a little bit of that element to what I was doing. It was so good. So much better than sitting around in a boring crit talking about Donald Judd... The Kuchars were a really big influence on me and I think that the direct influence -the stylistic influence decreased over the years, but now their general ethos of how films can be made is something that I'm carrying with me.
Few years after your Kuchar class you discovered Apichatpong Weerasethakul - I remember Joe telling me about how fascinated you became with him. And - he did see Sulphur Spring and he loved it - his quote is on the poster. It must have been wonderful to have Apichapong say something like that about your film.
Yeah, it was pretty amazing. Probably one of the highlights of my work in life. He was the influence on this film.
In what way? What is it that you love about him, that you want to do too?
When I first saw a film by him, it was amazing. It was very slow and unflashy and meditative. At the same time it still contained those subtle pop cultural nods that kept me enticed. In 'Uncle Boonmee' he has these monkey god creatures and they're alien-like. The costumes look bad, like from an old Star Trek. I think that's intentional. When you listen to interviews with him, he talks about being really into old sci-fi. I like that kind of playfulness. But at the same time being sublime and slow and serious. I also love his way of working. He lives in rural Thailand and he says he works only 4 hours per day and plays with his dogs for the rest of the time. He also mixes up making big feature films with making a small film on a movie camera with local kids in the village, or making an installation film. He's had shows in the Tate as well. I like it that he can successfully stride through the art world and the film world. He's one of the few examples of people who have managed to cross that threshold that I like. Apichatpong's films feel like art but at the same time they work in a cinema. They're not movies, they haven't got the tropes of the movies, but they play with those tropes to some extent. He also works with local people, people from his village, and he works with the same people over and over again, so I guess that's a connection to what I do too.
A couple of days ago you told me a story about Werner Herzog and his film that featured a guy and his tender interaction with a fox. What did Herzog say about that?
It's something that Hollywood with its unionized crews could never hope to achieve. Something like that...
Right now, what is it that you are looking for in movie making?
I'm trying to do things that aren't just loud and flashy and noisy and quick, trying to do things that take time to look. I'll try to respond to it in the most current way possible, which sometimes is very hard, because it's so close and hard to communicate...
Recently... We had 2 kittens and they were very sweet, and when they were about 1 year old, one of them got killed. It was a very sweet kitten called Agent Dale Cooper. It was just the best cat ever. Everyone really loved him... Somebody knocked on the door and they said that they'd found him dead on the side of the road. It was funny cause, when I've had animals die in the past or people I guess, I've never had anything die like that. In my life I've always had people die when I 've had a bit of warning about it. I was just... sitting there and touching this dead stiff cat... it was obviously very emotional and we buried this cat the same day but ever since then I've got this really huge appreciation for anything that's alive. Whenever I touch the dog, just to feel the breathing and the way the skin feels and even down to, when I pick up the dog shit, feeling the warmth of the shit in my hand when I pick it up, I appreciate doing that now. Maybe it'll wear off after a while. But the difference between something that's alive and something that's dead was so stark, it was so starkly brought home to me that day... It made me curious about things like breath... I don't even know if I want to make a film of it or not, just slowly looking at things.