Michael Coulson was co-director and co-founder with Nichola Bruce of Muscle Films, which for fourteen years was an innovative and exciting film and television company, producing uncompromising short films and experimental television, film and video, and art projects until the early 1990s.
Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson met as students at Hornsey College of Art (later to become Middlesex Polytechnic) in 1972. Working as a creative partnership, Nichola and Michael created the production company Muscle Films in London the 1970s.
We had managed to make a film each at college even though the film department was very much a strange attachment to the graphics course. I felt I had mistakenly signed up for a three-year prison sentence – not an arts degree.
I had left Bideford College, Devon, where I had enjoyed a sort of Pre- Raphaelite existence with my fellow students Liz Finch, Brian Clarke and Aubrey Fabin. It was a very small school with only 20 students in total. I applied to Hornsey because I thought it would be a hot-bed of creativity and revolution. I was to be proved wrong.
I had graduated from the foundation course at Hornsey College of Art, in the aftermath of a notorious student sit in. The school had been at the centre of student revolution and the Oz libel trials, but now it seemed neutered of all trouble makers. The annexe we worked in – a heap of Victorian buildings on the North Circular at Bowes roads - was a characterless building. The school’s saving grace was the energy of some of the oddball tutors who taught there: Roger Law (of Spitting Image fame) was scary and encouraging – we respected him - he had some kudos as an illustrator who had worked in such 60s magazines as Nova and the new Sunday supplements. He even had a couple of pages in the Illustrated Beatles Songbook. Martin Stringer, was an original mind - a renegrade graphic designer who quit working for large corporations because they wouldn’t let him wear sandals to work. Our film tutor Denis Higbee, was a painter and ex-producer from BBC television Arts programming.
At Hornsey we were taught film one day a week – the rest of the time was spent learning graphic design techniques. It was here that I learnt to use a 16mm camera, how to load it, to understand lighting, and to operate an animation rostrum. The technology has never interested me in itself, I just need it to work. Just show me where to press the button. I made my first solo film - a heap of incomplete ideas - using a combination of writings and animated moments using real objects and paper, that in the end I called “Excuses,” because I always had an excuse as to why I would abandon an idea and start another. I was constantly and painfully self critical. I almost paralysed myself by thinking, more than doing - and they weren’t particularly great thoughts, just the growing pains of finding out if I had anything to say creatively. It was a time when I kept hundreds of drawing books filled with the scatterings of ideas. I became obsessed by film. It was the only medium where all the disparate things I was doing - the making of objects the drawings and paintings , the writings, and the music - could converge.
Denis Higby, our film tutor, had worked on television arts programmes like BBC’s Monitor and seemed burnt out by the experience. He was a very special tutor and I owe a great deal of my education and my understanding of film to him. I felt the Film Room was like an oasis rich with possibilities, in an bland environment with everyone pretty much scooting along on the shiny surfaces of design communication. During my time at Foundation, I had formed the impression that Warhol and Lichtenstein and Oldenburg and the whole exciting American Pop Art movement - based on mass production, and popular culture was the way to go. When I arrived at Hornsey College of Art I had been expecting a place filled with the same energy. What I met with was quite a shock. The course seemed to be about how to make things look good - from cat food labels to corporate logo’s.
Music helped liberate us from the dullness of the college curriculum– Roxy Music, David Bowie, Ian Dury. I became a transformer, like Lou Reed and wore make up and dressed in a Leopard skin jacket and gold lame tights. I lived in a squat in Camden Town which allowed a bunch of us to draw on the wallsthe freedom to play music very loud. Our sybaritic life came to an end around about the time of a series of police raids – they were looking for IRA bombers and we seemed to fit the profile – we slept on the floor, had electrical apparatus scattered about (actually junk we’d collected to make sculpture and mend motorbikes).
I lived in a dinghy old hippy house in Turnpike lane with a group of Aussies. It was called Sun House and in the back yard I made a series of erotic domestic objects: an ironing board of a woman’s naked legs with a muff iron, a series of prototype penis irons and a cock ironing board. I lived on chips and bland hippy concoctions of brown rice and carrots. I hate carrots. I worked in the evenings at the Tasty Tatty, where my late night customers were the labourers of the building sites, men from Clare and Cork and Dublin, wearing muddy suits and breathing guinness over the counter. I became involved in setting up the social events at college where bands like the Vibrators played regularly at the college and Ian Drury appeared as Kilburn and the High Roads.
Later, as we were graduating, the early rumblings of Punk could be heard on the radio and, like the sixties, small Art School bands were forming. Adam and the Ants, the Slits, emerged at that time.
We left Hornsey College of Art (which was to become the depressingly named Middlesex Polytechnic) and Mike and I helped each other out making our films.
In the mid to late 70s and through the early eighties Michael Coulson and Nichola Bruce were part of the new wave of artists in London producing short films and anarchic collage-based graphics that expressed a love of energy and a contempt for technique. Breath of Air was the first film they made as a partnership.
Notes on the making of Breath of Air:
We left college and began work for a building company in South London – as painters and decorators. It was a totally male world. The other builders showed no respect for our skills and told us “if you can piss you can paint.” The work included Alms houses factories, restaurants, mostly in the South East. As I was the smallest I was always sent up the top of the scaffolding to do the chimney pots. At the end of every day we were exhausted. We wanted to make films but we had no way of accessing that world. I remember visiting the union, and I was pro-union, and they just gave me a hard time. So we worked on our own - as independents - and saved our painting and decorating money to make films.
We were living in South London, in Forest Hill, in the comparative luxury of my parents’ house. They had left London to live in Dublin so we looked after the place, rented out the spare rooms, until my parents were sure they were going to sell up. We turned the ground floor into a studio, built a darkroom and animation rostrum, and I bought my first super eight camera.
Breath of air was a sort of potted history of the world seen from an environmental standpoint. The storyline went from caveman, to the industrial revolution, to credit card economy, to a world destroyed by pollution. We created all the artwork and painstakingly animated it. It nearly drove us crazy. We were lent a 16mm Bolex camera and a tripod by our old tutor from Hornsey College of Art, Denis Higbee and the use of his painting studio in Chelsea. You had to be a nutter to spend hours and hours moving bits of paper a fraction at a time. I got blisters from just clicking the cable release hundreds of times. We would do some of the shooting at weekends on the floor of his studio flat in Chelsea. As he got to trust us more he would let us take the camera to South London. His support at this time was vital. (Denis was having an increasingly difficult time with depression, and his moods could be confusing. Sadly we were to hear a few years later that he had killed himself.)
We completed the film and entered it for the UNESCO BBC Young Filmmakers Award and won first prize. The film was shown on tv on Christmas day.
Boolean Procedure was the second film Michael and Nichola made together with a grant from the Greater London Arts Association, then run by Maureen McCue.
Notes on the time of making of Boolean Proceedure
We made the film in 16mm again with a borrowed Bolex camera.
The film was based on my father Frank Coulson’s experience of being made redundant from an engineering firm in the 1970s. Frank had worked for many years planning and production engineer for an American firm which manufactured food mixing machines. Their way of forcing people to quit was particularly humiliating – involving a process whereby they would take away their parking space, then their desk, finally their office until the employee couldn’t stand the pressure anymore. It was time when the computer was beginning to have an influence on people’s lives. Everywhere in the UK people were being made redundant because of this new technology. So this became the central theme of the film. One of the tenants in our house with was studying computer science at the Elephant and Castle. We explained our film project to him and he got us access to the computing department at his school. The computers were huge then and closeted in a special glass room. It all looked like something from a Science Fiction movies - banks of machines were fed with data from punched cards whilst other machines recorded data on to spools of magnetic tape. By working with the computing department we found the title of our film, Boolean Procedure, which is actually computer program, based on a mathematical formula written by the Irish mathematician George Boole. The formula allows you to determine whether a computer program is true or false. We felt this program was an interesting parallel for our character’s life. - a man who thought he’d done all the right things in terms of fitting into society, getting married, acquiring a nice home, working nine to five, only to find it had all gone wrong and that he was being junked, thrown on the scrap heap.He’d hit a false ending, a dead end and was unable to see another way forward.
I think we must have experimented with everything we knew how to. There was a scene in the film which was about us all becoming consumers, watchers. It took place in a big factory for processing brains. We wanted it be futuristic and so we created sci fi backdrops filled with red-eyed zombies - the anonymous bureaucrats.
Another scene, using cut up magazine characters, was about people being seen as meat, We always had lots of muscle magazines around as I’d become a fan of the exaggerated human form, so we used those. (curiously enough it features the body of Arnold Schwarzeneger. It was before he had made any major movies but was already a body building icon).
The dancing flesh scene and wires through flesh, were done on the kitchen table. It took us so long to animate that blue bottles were throwing themselves at the window trying to get in, because the meat had gone off under the hot lights. It stunk so much we had to wear masks.
All of these scenes would have been fantastic as live action with actors but as we didn’t have the finance we did it the only way we could - experimenting with animating paper and objects and mixing the sequences with live action. We had been influenced by people like Terry Gilliam and the surrealists.
I was a big fan of Monty Python and also Luis Bunuel and the surrealists. Bunueal was always the star, the artist film maker to aim for.
Like our previous work, this film was a disparate collection of ideas and materials brought together to express our feelings about the time we were living in. This time we took a step in an excitingly different direction in that this was the first time we worked with an actor.
We worked with a actor called Michael Howley – who had done quite well from an Ovaline ad. He was our main character. We were filming in my Nan’s house while she and my Grandad were away on holiday. This meant we didn’t need to create a set up with props – the house was exactly as we wanted. There was always a loyal team of friends to help out by either being other characters in the film or by providing expertise in other areas - such as James Merrill with photography, or Jane Bruce with the sets. James Merrill came with us on our many visits to housing estates around the Medway area to photograph suburbia in our search for the prototype family unit. We took many photos of suburban houses for the film but couldn’t find a way using them without them being boring. I spent hours printing them, and hand tinting them, trying to find the sense we felt when walking around them. We made so much work that we didn’t use. An old college friend, Nigel Luby, helped us produce the sound for the film – which was shot mute. Nigel was sound engineer for the rock band, YES, and the bass guitarist, Chris Squires, kindly let us invade his studio in Virginia Water for a few days to record the voice over and various effects. He would come in and look at us with his head on one side, and then leave with a puzzled face. The voice over script consisted of poems with an abstract cut up rythmn, based on the idea of a list of instructions for life. So we had everyone come in and read out from tatty bits of paper.
We edited the film ourselves on a Steinbeck. Our method was essentially to create a lot of material and then find the film later in the edit, trying one sequence against another, to see how one scene might work next to another. The method was more like painting than cutting to a prescribed script. The original idea was always the anchor, but we felt it was important within the process of making the film that there was freedom to create, not just adhere to the plan. I think that is the great pleasure in making a film. That one is not just illustrating pages of words but making a series of images which the words can come to life through. We were exploring the edit process properly for the first time. We cut our own neg. (something we were told never to do), running the orange celluloid through our wearing white gloves, wary of dust. I always thought it was an interesting contrast that when we spent most of our creative time like Francis Bacon, surrounded by masses of stuff but when it came to using the film and editing technology, we had to get clean. Clean lens. Clean hands. My hands would always be stained with paint and inks . clear plastic animation cells. Everything we did was very hands –on, from the first scribbles, to the fear of loading a camera in the fumbling dark, to the cellotape joining of the final edit. To be able to slow sound and images, run them backwards and forwards, playing with time with the film actually running through your hands, smelling the glue and the acetate, when you first do it, is a great feeling. Which I hope I never forget.
Seeing the world one is creating and defining through light, (which only truly happens when you are running the camera) can inform the text. To look through a camera and see something come to life, a performance, a set, infuses you with an understanding of what you can do next, what you can go on to do. It is a subjective thing which is why it’s so important to work around people that trust your vision. Mike and I trusted each other’s way of doing things, and out of that trust the work expanded. I would see unexpected things looking through the camera, and my thoughts would have to catch up with the moment. As they did, the film that was being assembled in my head, and my ideas about the film would shift again. I think that is why we always called ourselves film makers, not directors.
The music for the film was composed by a musician called George Thorn in his South London bedroom.
We always made mistakes. Loads of glorious mistakes. One of the things that the punk period left me with was the feeling of, ‘don’t worry, if you fuck it up, make it into something else, enjoy the mistake see it for what it is , build on it’. Because it’s refreshingly different to not always have the glossy and complete. It’s the raw idea that counts. Get the idea across in whatever medium we would have to hand.
My Dad actually helped us with the film production by making an animation rostrum. I don’t know if he realised he was the subject of the film.
The work on suburbia was also an investigation into my family background. I was brought up in suburbia, even though I came from the Devon and I had created work about my family and where I lived whilst at Bideford Art School. This was the world I had come out of, and of course the whole idea for the film was based on my father’s experience of being made redundant and having a nervous breakdown.
I think Boolean Procedure was about trying to express our anger that people could be treated like this. That we were seeing a huge change with the imminent emergence of the computer age. Which in turn was sending us signals about the beginning of the consumer age, where our greatest danger seemed to be passivity to what was and is happening around us.
Cambridge Film Festival 1981
London Film Festival 1980
Cork Film Festival
If Mike Coulson’s shocking pink hair causes you to rub your eyes in disbelief that’s alright by him. It’s what he intended. Coulson , co director with Nichola Bruce of Boolean Procedure, which has been screened at the Cork Film Festival, admits he is “an unusual person, doing unusual things in an unusual way”.
Boolean Procedure is a computer term and the film is about change and crisis brought about by the introduction of microchip technology. It has been hailed as one of the most interesting films to have been seen at the festival using a bizarre mutation of animation and live action. It took Coulson and Bruce nearly three years to make the film and it is a measure of their commitment to the subject that they worked in a variety of jobs from building work to waitressing to raise the money week by week necessary to fund it. Yet the cost was no more than a modest £7,000. Boolean Procedure is a very personal document by the two young film makers both of whose families were affected by job losses caused by technological progress. Their film, in a very creative way, emphasises the necessity of personal reassessment in the light of more sophisticated technology in the micro-chip age.
Coulson and Bruce have made four films. Their last film Breath of Air won the UNESCO BBC Young Film Makers Award for its imaginative treatment of the serious subject of the environment. In November they begin work on a new film on future leisure patterns and Christmas will see the release of a five minute short on style called, appropriately, Clip.
ALMEIDA FESTIVAL 1982 Compilation of Works by International Independent Video Artists
A major piece of Muscle Films brings to the programme a work of an entirely different nature: Boolean Procedure (the title refers to a computer term) is a brilliant juxtaposition of terrifying images woven around the theme of redundancy and unemployment. The constant switching between nightmare animation and oppressive reality is handled with such dexterity that they merge into one creating a unique and unsettling vision of consumer society. Initially conceived over four years ago, it is – for reasons only too obvious – even more relevant today. Steve Garret
NOTES ON THE MAKING OF CLIP.
Clip was about Instantness.
What you can do? What can happen in five minutes? It was a few years after punk. We wanted to make something fast.
I was living in a bedsit in Kentish Town. We photographed the whole of Kentish Town Road and then recreated the street as a composite.We used the bedsit in Kentish town as the dark room. Washing the prints in the shower. We were working out of a studio above the Air and Space gallery in Grays Inn Road sharing with our friend the clothes designer Sue Clowes. We invited a whole bunch of people up one day to the studio and filmed them against a white wall. James Merrill photographed them. We shot and processed as we could afford it. Maureen McCue (Greater London Arts) gave us funding. We still had the old Steinbeck and cut the film ourselves, hand colouring in the frames with ink and paint and scratching into them to create more energy in each frame. The cutting copy became out negative. We even made our own titles with these stick on plastic letters - Letraset . You had to burnish them down on to clear acetate.
We were originally going to make a documentary about a group of young kids from North London who were just starting their own bands. The film was to be a glimpse into their lives – a clip. As we had no documentary experience - and had spent all the grant money filming them playing- we fell back on out graphic strengths and made a more atmospheric piece. Once we decided on the creative direction the process became more fun. We had brought the Rostrum from our place in South London so a lot of elements were shot on that using 16mm clockwork Bolex. I had just begun teaching part time at Middlesex Polytechnic and made friends with some of the students who helped with some of the animation. Some of my old friends from school in Devon helped us with music for the soundtrack. One of the rewards of making the film was seeing Scott Meek of Zenith laughing out loud at a screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
was based around everyone we knew in Kentish Town trying to make music and find themselves. Everything that could happen in five minutes. Dave Henderson who’d left South London around the same time as us, set up his own label in a basement next door in Rochester Terrace, Kentish Town called Dining out and was in a fever of creativity writing songs, making tapes cutting discs, playing in a band with people like Andy Ross. Dave was living with Sue Clowes who was designing loads of clothes when she wasn’t shaving her eyebrows off. A lot of the bands would rehearse at the back of Honkey Tonk Records in Kentish town Road. Clip was about the energy of the time, it was itended to have the immediacy of an ad, but not trying to sell anything, it was about what can you say in five minutes about our culture. The time we were in. It wasn’t a promo, just an experiment. You could make a phone call, have a dance, get your hair cut. Drop a bomb. The head being shaved was Steve Pyke, he was a singer in the band Grey, we just filmed cutting a question mark into his head. One of the other bands at the time The Mysterons, had the question mark as their sort of sign.
We were all sort of crossing over influences, writing and making music, and trying to make films and making our own clothes, creating our own world, Clip was a part of that time when everyone seemed to be involved in doing something but also feeling the impossibilty of everything. There was hostility to going round looking different. Even the Hippies had contempt for punk at first. Honkey Tonk records had been visited by special branch because of selling the Sex Pistol’s, God Save the Queen. There were street riots going off in Notting hill and Brixton all over the country. London was burning. Everywhere felt like it could pop. Like a bomb could drop. We set fire to the massive long collage of Kentish Town High Street that had taken ages to put together and filmed it burning. We weren’t even sure if the film was going to come out.
We finished the film and then not long after got robbed of all our equipment. I lost my painted pink stills camera. I didn’t get to have my own stills camera till 2005.
We created a book cover a few years later for Patrick Wright compositing the Kingsland road in the same way, we used Steve Pykes camera.
CLIP ICA Cinematheque 1984
Shown with the feature Liquid Sky
Edinburgh Film Festival 1983
CLIP is a five minute burst of pure invention from two young British film-makers, impossible to describe other than to say that its combinations of colour movement and sound are fresh and funny and point to a pair of original talents.
Ian Bell Scotsman 1983
Started some time ago, Clip originally focussed on some young hopefuls emerging from Kentish Town, but it’s since developed into a frantic five minute race to the apocalypse. Its debut at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival impressed enough of the right people to get it screened at numerous festivals around the world as well as the support slot to Liquid Sky.
Produced for a fraction of the cost of an Elton John epic, Clip flashes through scenes of everyday teendom. A scratchy trip through everyday life punctuated by vivid colours, manic music and a rather excessive trip to the barbers, is eventually thwarted as the whole thing goes up in smoke.
Dave Henderson, Sounds 1984
WINGS OF DEATH
Prize winner Clermont Ferrand France 1986
Anyone who saw Nightmare on Elm Street will shudder at the memory of the accompanying short , Wings of Death, or maybe they won’t. Anyway Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson’s anti- heroin fantasy starring Dexter Fletcher – who played Pacino’s boy in Revolution and more recently the young Carravaggio – left no one in doubt as to their talent if not their taste, and of the six young film makers, they are the only ones to have had their film publicly screened. Colin Booth, Sounds 1986
In the small Star Cinema on the Rue D'Antibes, Nichola Bruce is sitting at the edge of the aisle –“in case I want to leave.” Out in the foyer Michael Coulson is pushing a second stick of Hollywood chewing gum into his mouth, too nervous to even enter the auditorium. Four minutes too long to be officially entered in the shorts category of the Cannes Film Festival, their 19 minute film Wings of Death is receiving it’s first public screening.
It was only a week earlier that Bruce and Coulson decided to travel to Cannes for the premiere of the film they have written and directed together. They arrived on the Thursday evening toting a bundle of posters to flypost the town with that night. Instead they are immediately thrown into the carnivorous atmosphere of the first night party for the Coca Cola Kid in a beach – front restaurant.
They hand out postcards promoting Wings of Death A tragedy) – “tragic in that’s easier to get heroin than a job in Britain.” – to the producers, directors, stars and would-bes quaffing free liquor. Tourists and locals peer down at them from above. Hungover the following morning, they push through the Cannes veterans, accreditation cards slung around their necks like sol many dog tags, to fill up the forms for their own passes. This is Cannes on the cheap – they share four shots in a photo booth strip two apiece. Their "accommodation” is two sofas in the offices of Palace Pictures. All around them in the New Palace the talk is of deals and percentages, of films worth seeing and of those not worth mentioning. They pin posters in prime positions on the British Film Year stand.
Behind them American mass entertainment is pumped out non stop from a bank of video monitors. "Now that's how you should promote films," grins Coulson returning his gaze to the single British screen, set back almost out of sight from the thoroughfare. It is showing The Company Of Wolves, for which they drew the storyboards.
Out on the streets they tape up posters, beneath billboards for Clint Eastwood's new film, on telephone boxes, in shops and cafes. Only the Carlton Hotel where Jean Luc Godard and Menahem Golan write two million dollar contracts on a napkin turns them away.
Bruce and Coulson, who met at Middlesex Polytechnic in the 70s and formed Muscle Films in the aftermath of punk, are small beer in this world. Cannes could be their first step up. "The reason for bringing the film to Cannes was to sell it and get it seen which is the whole point, even if only on a toilet wall”.
The Wings Of Death premiere bodes well. The Star Cinema fills up with a respectable sized audience.
The American producer of Kiss Of the Spiderwoman, David Weisman, arrives with three Soviet film buyers. Then there's Steve Woolley and Paul Webster from Palace, Simon Relph, the producer of Wetherby.
The reaction is positive. "People seem surprised by the intensity of the imagery," remarks Bruce afterwards. It is a film about obsession; Dexter Fletcher (now filming Revolution with Al Pacino) plays a heroin addict during his final hours in an hotel room. It is direction rather then the writing which is Bruce and Coulson’s strength. The film feels like a trailer for a feature in its use of the big screen.
"I had expected the place to be vile," admits Coulson the following day, "but it's actually pretty exciting." The two of them are beginning to feel slightly frazzled by the never ending activity around them. The festival is as unreal as a film set the enforced proximity to so many people, the late nights and early mornings.
"It was a risk showing the film so late," admits Bruce, "showing it in such a small cinema with no attendant glamour, no party, no big support just with flyposting and word of mouth. The fruits of it won't really be known for some time. At least it drew in a lot of interesting people."
There was one positive result: festivals in New York, Australia and Edinburgh have shown an interest. Wings Of Death may "transcended the idea of a short,”
according to one producer. Chris Burkham The Guardian 1985
Notes on the time of WINGS OF DEATH
It was towards the end of the time when Punk had raged through us all and changed the way we wanted to do things. Getting out of it and being driven forward by the theme of ‘Do it’, was beginning to have its casualties. People were moving on from just getting wrecked and taking speed. It wasn’t enough. Darker things were beginning to slide around on the horizon.
We had moved studio again and were half living and working in the east end of London in a Space studio at 48 Tabernacle Street.
I remember there was a poem that I wrote which became the basis from which the script grew. I had been writing lots of angry disillusioned fragmented pieces then, cut ups, broken sentences, unfinished, unfinished bursts of words, in parallel with making lots of paintings. The paintings were around 3 feet by 4 feet and Mike and I used whatever materials we had to hand. We surrounded ourselves by them, there would be three or four up in the studio at the same time and we would move from one to the other. The floor would be covered in picture books with their pages pirated, shredded magazines and newspapers , photographs, xeroxs everywhere. Anything that excited us. Sometimes we would annihilate each other’s marks, sometimes build on them. The whole time we worked together was this strange sense of “it doesn’t really matter”, we were able to be destructive and creative at the same time. We tore up the work, we savaged it, salvaged it, we sprayed, splattered, smeared, we threw our erratic moods, our anger and endless energy at our work. We kept ridiculous hours, we ate badly, we burned. A series of images evolved and began to form a dream-like story. Making drawings, paintings and collages were a vital part of the process of making a film - as much or more than writing a script. In fact the images were always our first language, and the script grew out of them later. I thought of these works as only part of the passage towards a film. I never thought of them as finished works, more a way of saying – “I want it too look like this,” and Mike saying “I want it to look like this” before we got to the filming process. The preliminary drawings and collages were about the merging of sometimes disparate ideas.
Film for me is something to be visually feasted on, to be seen as much as listened to. My engagement with film is to feel through my eyes.
The essence of the idea in the film Wings of Death was for me about… having nothing, having nowhere to go, not caring. What would it be like to get to the place where you didn’t care if you lived or died. What would it be like to kill yourself.
There were lots of personal references within the film. I had spent a restless childhood cutting up every doll I was given, I was very interested in the insides of everything. I spent days cutting up of dolls heads secretly with a kitchen bread knife, to see how their heads were joined by metal hooks and to stare into empty pink formless space of their inner minds - it was for me a thrill This influenced the doll scene on the stairs. Other influences were Vesalus - and his anatomical head peelings. The outspread hands, with their running veins. the death of Marat who had to lie all day in a bath because his inflamed body would drive him to distraction, Michelangelo’s David, the idea of a perfect beauty. So many of the Italian renaissance paintings, with their visions of beauty and Hell, William Blake, the Surrealists, Goya. All these influences somehow became the boy dying on the bed in the film, the boy considering pain by looking inside his own head. The boy caught between childhood innocence and adult confusion.
We shot most of Wings of Death in the East End we knew. We walked the streets with Paul Webster, looking for places. Taking photographs and filming on super eight, but in the end we came back to what was close. Colts corner. The strange blackened double steps , the row of railway arches, the piss tunnel with the church distant at the end. The streets of the East End, were desolate and neglected- scattered with scaffolding and heaps of sand, half empty skips. The air was filled with the smell of burnt timber from places being arsoned - there were a lot of businesses sliding into bankruptcy then either repaired badly or pulled down. There were no shops there any longer, no homes, no dogs or cats - only pigeons and rats, and at night everything up to head height was boarded up. The skips were like treasure troves. Its where we got all our chairs and tables and lights and anything we could appropriate to have another function, everyone I knew checked out skips before walking past. All these things influenced the making of the film. Our living world was made up of the bits and pieces of other peoples abandoned worlds, our lives were like a strange collage – not unlike our work.
Paul worked carefully through everything with us. The casting, the team, how we could achieve it. I think at that time he was still at Palace Pictures. We shot the interiors in a location found by Sarah Swords in Notting Hill it was an amazing staircase. Peter Sainsbury had put Sarah on as the BFI ‘s production manager, “She had produced some programmes on Pottery” he confidently told us. It was through Sarah we were introduced to Derek Brown who came on as a runner, and who later worked with us as an Art Director on other projects. The previous summer we had been working in Ireland with John Borman who had just completed filming Emerald Forest with a camera assistant called Gail Tattersall. He recommended him as our lighting/cameram.
Gail had just come from filming in the Amazon Jungle and was now working in a derelict and freezing East End. He almost left the production after the first night - thrown into his own memories of being a teenage runaway and sleeping under the arches. He was a total education to work with. In fact the whole production was. We had gone from filming stuff in our own ad hoc way to having people around to do everything. We shot on 35mm for the first time.
It was a jumping off pit for a lot of creative people - Sandy Powell who now has over four Oscar nominations to her name, came as costume designer assisted by Cath PaterLancucki. The Art direction was taken on by my sister Jane Bruce with Lynne Whiteread assisting and Robin Thistlethwaite on construction. It was Paul Webster’s first film. He had asked if he could be part of our creative team as he needed a producer credit.
My sister Jane always seemed to know what was needed without being asked. Being trained as a painter She understood that we wanted the sets to be like our paintings and to not be real.
Mike and I shared the directing, taking over more intuitively from each other than any planned way of doing things. If we connected with a performer then we’d direct them. Dexter was good to have around and was up for most things . He cut himseldf in a scene whwre he smashed up his hotel room. He was however nervous about a scene we had designed where the room explodes into fire around him at the same time as his head bursts into flames. His mum and dad came on to the set that day to make sure this wasn’t going to be his last film. We had cast Kate Hardie to be his girlfriend not knowing they had some previous romantic history. Simone Reynold was casting agent and she casting pulled in the wonderful Paula Yates and Tony Haygarth. The scene where Tony Haygarth is ironing money came directly from an experience I’d had with my old landlord. Hidden Grin theatre company performed several of the more quirky dreamlike incidents ( again always references to things we had seen) and the Anna Sher Theatre provided us with some of their rising young talents for the group scenes.
The whole team seemed to consist of a mixture of the completely inexperienced and the totally professional. David Brown, who’s worked for David Putnam on Killing Fields, was the Production Manager who held the whole production together. He worked closely with Paul Webster guiding him through the production.
For our independent work we had always done everything - now we had a professional crew we had to delegate which was odd at first. We had pretty solid ideas about sound for the film. We had always created our own sound and music in the past, whenever we could. We felt it was important that every sound in the film was enhanced in an almost musical way. Because it was cheaper to film with a non sound camera the dialogue all had to be recorded separately form the filming and then post-synched. This gave the movie an unreal quality which we liked. And Fellini did it this way so it had to be alright. When we got to the post production stage we worked with John ?creating sound track at Vince Clark’s Blackwing Studios in south London. Paul Webster was with us the whole way and I remember us all getting totally hysterical with laughter trying to create the sound Fx of breaking fingers, farting etc. Most of the music was almost entirely electronic, either played by ourselves, or with other musicians like Maggie Cole the harpsichordist who came in to the studio and played a pastiche of the classic Summertime. We wanted a choral effect and fed in real voices, again our own and others which were treated electronically to make the chorus.
John Wilson who’s worked with Peter Greenaway on the Draughtsman Contract, edited the piece and I think it was at this point the film became more narrative. Peter Sainsbury put pressure on us to emphasise the boy’s heroin addiction. He felt there should be more understanding of why the main character Dexter Fletcher was in the middle of nowhere, with nothing, about to decide on the whether to live or die. He was the man with control of the funds so we went along with his suggestion and shot a title sequence with hypo needles pouring down like rain. This hadn’t seemed the main point to me at the time, I wanted it to be more oblique I think in the way that opium affected great poets. For me the addiction was just a symptom of a greater feeling of being disconnected. But there it was, full on statement about the consumption of addiction. It was probably a mistake.
The BFI was an extraordinary and sometimes wonderful and of course sometimes difficult place at that time. There were interesting film makers around, like Sally Potter, Derek Jarman Terence Davies.
We had been working in and out of the BFI for some time, designing posters, and publicity ( anything in order to make our own work) through Mary Jane Walsh (including the Draughtsmans Contract posters and exhibition at the Talbot Rice in Edinburgh). Our own production Wings Of Death was not without its internal dramas. In hindsight, we had witnessed and been through, a very special time in relation to the BFI history, which was guided for the most part by Peter Sainsbury and the board who seemed to trust their intuition for Film makers. There were times when a great deal of frustration and anger would be vented on Peter Sainsbury by film makers caught in the machinations of creating interesting and historically defining work. Luckily the BFI had a back stairway which I believe he was on occasion able to leave the building by. With Wings of Death we found ourselves caught in a time of change, with Peter moving on to the other side of the world and Colin Mcabe taking over. We bumped into Derek Jarman in reception, on our way to see Colin Mcabe and Derek had just seen Dexter Fletchers performance in Wings Of Death at an internal screening. He was very excited and waving his arms about “I have found my Carravaggio.”
Wings Of Death hadn’t been seen anywhere else at that time.
It was 1980 and the first time I had met Colin McCabe, and we were shown into the room, to discuss our feature, A Film For Future Leisure. It is something we had been working on for a two years. It predicted the future as a world defined by consumerism and shaped by shopping mall architects, a world continually under surveillance with the futility of electronic games as the outlet for a gang of teenage no hopes who try to gain control over their controlled lives. We created hundreds of storyboard drawings and large scale collage works and a script which we took in with us. He wasn’t interested. He began by heavily criticising Wings of Death. Somewhere along the way the conversation rapidly deteriorated. He made it clear that he would in no way support our work. Colin had a very loud squeaky voice and he was actually being unnecessarily insulting. I remember thinking ‘oh no’ and seeing Mike lean across the table about to put his hand around Colin’s throat.
(I wasn’t to cross the threshold of the BFI till a few years later with a new project ‘I Could Read the Sky’ with Ben Gibson in charge)
Wings Of Death went onto many festivals winning awards.
We went to film festivals in Turin and Edinburgh. The Italians were very receptive to the film and we gave a press conference which seemed very grand. We went to Cannes, where it was shown out of competition and the Palace pictures crew looked after us, and it went to Edinburgh.
We were very broke having as always put everything back into our work.
Sometime later a series of Ads came out on British TV about the danger of heroin which had a similar style to Wings of Death with ensuing criticism about the glorification of drugs. Not long after everyone’s attention turned to Aids. Everything was changing.
Wings of Death was distributed as a short with the film Nightmare on Elm Street and Streetwise in the UK and in Ireland it supported the new colour version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
1st prize Cinema of the Fantastic in Sitges, Spain.
Bronze Dragon Crakow
Special prize Court de Metrage France It was twice screened on Channel Four television.
Short films in local cinemas usually mean :Telly Savalas does a voiceover about Bognor while you buy a cornetto, or financial harassement by Brit comedians on behalf of Sunshine Homes. So it’s a rare pleasure to briefly review a 20 minute film going out on this week with “Nightmare on Elm Street”. Wings of Death” is a mini feature made for £100,00 by the BFI and Palace Pictures earlier this year. Shot in the East End on lurid colour stock, it’s the surrealist tinged tale of a boy running away from heroin to a sleazy hotel-room where he’s haunted by his memories, a sinister little girl in a nurse’s outfit, and the horrors of withdrawal. Written and directed by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson Wings of Death tends to quote other movies a lot – the ghosts of Hitchcock, John Waters and especially David Lynch haunt the images and angles – but its stylish, provocative and strikingly dense with ideas without being reduced to a mere advertising-style trickery. Some people feel that it glamourises heroin, I think it does the opposite. But you can make up your own mind at your local cinema. Don’t miss the beginning of the programme this time. Saskia Baron.
Good imaginative shorts sent out to support features are rare these days, so if you’ve still to see ‘A nightmare on Elm Street’, do catch ‘Wings of Death’ which goes out on release with Craven’s shocker this week. Message – wise it’s an anti-heroin film, but don’t expect an earnest and predictably peachy docudrama. A visually impressive account of a teenage junkie’s fragmented hallucinations and nightmares , it bears more than a little resemblance to the surreal grotesqueries of Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’, and it is not without a wicked sense of humour. Polished, intelligent fun with a sound heart. It’s a suitably macabre compliment to the best horror thriller currently on show.
Geoff Andrew, Time Out.