Oscar Oldershaw  Two Doubles

Family Trip 2014, dir. Oscar Oldershaw

The Gloves 2020, dir. Oscar Oldershaw and Tamsin Heatley

Autumn Valley 2015, dir. Oscar Oldershaw

Sulphur Spring 2018, dir. Joe Campbell & Oscar Oldershaw

Oscar Oldershaw is an artist and a film maker based in the UK. He studied Fine Art and Film at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London and The San Francisco Art Institute. His work has screened at the BFI London Film Festival, Slamdance, Raindance and the ICA amongst other venues. As well as making his own work he has also worked as a cinematographer for artists such as Monster Chetwynd and Paul Kindersley and on documentary projects for the Tate galleries. 

Oscar Oldershaw and Dominika Kieruzel in conversation

Oscar and I first met at Chelsea College of Art and Design when our tutor, Gill Addison persuaded me that Oscar was the person I needed for my new project. Gill also tasked us with research into each other's practice with an aim to present it to the group. I found Oscar and his friends making collaborative short films, projects based on fun and fantasy, marked with fascination and warmth towards the unglamorous everyday life. Now, plunging into Oscar's practice again, I find myself surprised, and in a very good way, with the new direction of his work.

Family - it's one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of your work. You make films with your friends and family - 'Family Trip' is an example of that. 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 for a long time, there's no feeling that I've got to hold back or be polite because we know each other so well. It's fun, making home movies, like kids make home movies... Doing it as an adult is even more fun because you can do a better job of it! There also is an interesting element to it when there's a number of these family films, it builds up a kind of a 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.

Your background is in Fine Art. But your work is rooted in film culture... 
I try to walk a line between the two. 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. I like to think of narrative as a kind of vehicle that you can use to show or reveal people. 

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, there's absolutely no messing around. He always works with the originals, so if something doesn't fit, he's not going to scan it in and Photoshop it. There is one image and another image. At his best there is just one cut - and the 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 sound. I love those things. I have included gong people in a couple of my films - 'Heavenly Mane' and 'Family Trip'. At first I was just using them for the audio but then I thought it would be nice if they actually appear visually as a sort of cameo. 

We also used a gong sound from another YouTuber, Visudha de los Santos, 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 interesting, it makes me think of the supernatural elements in your films; mythical or mystical threads that pierce everyday life.
It's where the sublime meets the mundane. I love that.

When you saw 'Family Trip' and 'The Gloves' together, what was your impression of the change in your filmmaking? There's 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 the artist James Laycock also 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 the story became more clear. So I completely changed the script and I rewrote it just before we filmed. 

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 make 3 very short films, something sketchy and quick that nobody would get stressed about. Sometimes to make films, you need so many people, everyone needs to be interested and available at the right time. It takes a lot of effort and there's a lot of stages to the process. 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. I asked a 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 showrunner, a person whose overall vision is for the show, but I wouldn't necessarily direct every episode or write every episode. I thought it would be fun. So - I asked David to write those scripts, he sent the scripts over, and then the whole family (because I'm living back at home during lockdown) sat down and read the script together and then we decided who wanted to do what role. We made a miniature production company: my sister Vita, who was the main character, was also the producer and the first AD, my mum, Tamsin Heatley, was the director, as well as being one of the sisters at the top of the stairs. I was the cinematographer and the editor. My partner Kristen was the costume designer and my sister Daisy was the make-up artist. We shot it in one day and we had one day to edit. 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 crucial 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 - my mum directed it. She and my dad were part of Lumiere and Son, an avant-garde theatre company in the 70's and 80's 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 and editing it together.

How do you approach your creativity? How much pressure do you put on yourself? What do you allow your films to look like, how experimental do 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 you have 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 know or have. 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 time I did make films, but if a project didn't feel like it needed to be a film, then it would be something different for example a performance - like ‘The Magic Carpet’. 

Being in London it feels like the film world really wants you to be one thing. If you say that you're a director and cinematographer, people are not going to take you seriously as either, which is a horrible pressure. But since coming away from London throughout lockdown, I’ve been able to get that pressure out of my head. 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 was always my goal, but through it being my job I started to lose who I was as an artist. I'm excited to get back to that with projects like ‘The Gloves’ 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 a certain level of 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 back at my earlier work going right back to Chelsea for this exhibition.

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 at 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 chalets. An artificial fun land 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 his birthday 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 uncles. 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 philosophy, 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 boys and they all three came back converted to Christianity. 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 chalets, we call them Heaven and Hell. We live in Hell... I guess there is another element - my dad has had Parkinson's since I was about 17, his brothers have traditionally been quite slow to fully acknowledge it, 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 the lack of engagement. So it's kind of a comic film, but there are some underlying family issues. I forgot about this film until my friend Joe Campbell asked to show it at one of his screening events. It went down quite well with the audience and I thought, maybe there is something in that film.

You've worked with Joe Campbell since you were teenagers?
Joe and I have worked together since school when we were in art class together aged about 16. We don't always work together but a lot of the time we do. Joe is a great influence, when I'm 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 humour, we share that same cheeky sense of humour, enjoying the idea of just mucking something up. We were both big fans of Roger Ackling at Chelsea, he was our tutor and an amazing artist. I remember his cheeky, twinkly eyed 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 one on the wonk, for no good reason, just hang it at a slight angle...

 

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 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. Choreographed by Wendy Houstoun. Unfortunately Wendy had to drop out due to the death of her father. Then we realised that 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 older people there. It was not going to happen. So it evolved into an idea of a journey into a healing place. We started to do experiments in the garden and in the back field, behind the house, and trying out all different types of movement and we worked with Giles as a character every single time. Though, we said that there's no way that he's coming to Iceland, because it's freezing cold, we're going up a mountain and he's got Parkinson's. Some days he can run around, some days he cannot do anything. With only two days of filming we considered it too big of a risk to take him to Iceland. But as the ideas took shape 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 and it was really hard! The film is true in that sense. 

 

Your early work had a lot of Kuchar brothers' influence, does this influence carry through to now?
The Kuchar brothers were a great influence on me because they legitimised the idea that making fun films with friends and family can be a serious thing to do. It doesn't have to be something that kids do and then move on from it, you can keep doing it. Their ethos around filmmaking was that it should be first and foremost enjoyable. For them it was so much about the process of making it. Afterwards they had those parties where they'd show what they've made. Pure joy, kid-like joy of movie making - that is the Kuchar thing, which is so different to heavy seriousness that you get in the 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 had this relaxed attitude.
I also love their homegrown movie stars.
They would meet someone they found interesting and make them the star of the next movie. They really understood the idea that by 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, they say I'm going to see the new Nicholas Cage film. So the audience’s 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 Walmart. It was an amazing way to learn. So much better than sitting around in a boring crit talking about Donald Judd... Maybe with the lockdown trilogy I was trying to bring back an element of it. It was so good. 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. 

 

A few years after your Kuchar class you discovered Apichatpong Weerasethakul -  I remember Joe Campbell telling me about how fascinated you became with him. Weerasethakul did see Sulphur Spring and he loved it - his quote is on the poster. It must have been wonderful to have him talk about your film with such fascination.
Yeah, it was pretty amazing. Probably one of the highlights of my career so far. He was the influence on this film. 

In what way? What is it that you love about him, that you want to do too? 
The first film I saw by him was ‘Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives’. It was very slow, unflashy and meditative. At the same time it still contained subtle pop cultural nods that kept me enticed. The film has these monkey-god creatures that are somehow 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. His films feel like art but at the same time they work in a cinema. He's had show’s in Tate Modern as well as winning the Palme D’or at Cannes. I like it that he can successfully straddle the art and film worlds.
He also works with local 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?
I was talking about a scene in ‘Grizzly Man’ where the film's subject Timothy Treadwell is videoing a spontaneous interaction with a fox he has befriended. Herzog's comment is something like  “He captures such glorious improvised moments, the likes of which Hollywood directors with their large crews could never hope to dream of.”

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... 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 two kittens and they were very sweet, and when they were about 1 year old, one of them got killed. He was 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 strange because, when I've had animals die in the past or people I guess, it was never sudden. In my life I've always 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... I don't even know if I want to make a film of it or not, I just enjoy slowly looking at things. 

The interview was recorded in October 2020, edited by Dominika Kieruzel, Oscar Oldershaw and Vita Oldershaw.

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Sulphur Spring

family during a test shot in Oxford