Director Ross Sutherland talks about his festival hit Stand By For Tape Backup

Out of snippets of films, TV shows and adverts that he found on an old video tape shared by himself and his late grandfather, Sutherland creates a poetic, moving and very funny film about, as he puts it ‘memory, death and reruns’. We catch up with him at the UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Where did the original idea come from? Was there an actual video tape?

Yes. It feels so improbable that I would able to pull such personal memories out of material that has been chosen at random, but yes, the video tape was real. I was really trying to hit on the most visually symbolic sections of the tape, but they also tend to be the most well known. I focused on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air bit as I thought: of all the footage in the world, that ranks quite high in terms of stuff that we know shot for shot. There are lots of famous scenes we know from films, but I don’t know how many times we have actually seen those scenes and how often we have seen parodies of them, like we have seen versions of them on The Simpsons, but we don’t know them shot for shot. But you could give a video camera to someone on the street and say ‘go make me the opening credits to French Prince’ and they would have a shot at it. So, that I found interesting. To know that sequence of symbols, so subconsciously, subliminally, means that you can riff on that. You can build on it and use it like a poetic form. And it’s also got the rap which helps chain it together.

My background is poetry and I love form and I find setting yourself these puzzles a very satisfying way to work. You make it so hard to write that you write from your subconscious. I mean I don’t think I would have told such a personal story if I hadn’t been backed into a corner. It’s like ‘well you have to write something that goes over the top of French Prince’. So creating that piece, that was the proof of concept. It was like does it work from the audience’s perspective – can they listen to a voice and watch the footage simultaneously? And can the footage become wallpaper? Can you stop paying attention to it and start to think in its rhythm?

That’s a technical answer but it was a technical exploration to begin with. But working in this way also enables thoughts that I wouldn’t normally have the courage to say to sort of fall into place. I always create art in periods of illness and stress as it’s a release, but it’s not that I thought ‘can I write something about my granddad and grief?’ but ‘can I squeeze myself through this tiny hole and create something that out of these limitations?’ I then went back to the video tape and started to scavenge more bits from it. So the film began as small bits of experiments that I performed in front of audiences, and then, about two years ago, I began to bring those bits together to move through the tape in a way that told a story.

Your granddad’s death and your grief is there in that first section that you created – the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air segment, so although you say you were not consciously trying to write about those subjects, did you know from the beginning that this film would be a way of talking about them?

No, not really. That’s it, it’s a surprise, I don’t know if it’s Billy Collins who said this but ‘a poem tries to escape its own subject matter’. You begin and you are describing a boat and then by the end you are talking about your father. You didn’t know you were going to end there, you allow your thought to drift and to take its true form that you are kind of unaware of. It was his tape and it was in the back of my mind, but no, I didn’t know that’s where I was going. That’s why I love this form of writing as it has to be unplanned. If you try to plan it you are going to be thrown off. Its the ‘life as mechanical ball’ thing. If you hold on to the ball too hard, you are going to inadvertently resist it and be thrown, but if you can stay loose and follow the direction it wants to take you in, you will stay on and find out a little about yourself. Once the Fresh Prince was finished, it was clear it was going to be about my granddad, but I didn’t know that I was going to go on later to talk about my illness and my mental health as well, but it sort of plops out really. But that’s it – if I had known I was going to do that I wouldn’t have made that film as I would not have felt confident talking about myself in that way. It’s a matter of happy accidents.

I admire that confidence to experiment and see where it takes you, but at what point do you start to think more about the structure? 

When it was working as a theatre show, I worked with a director called Rob Watt, who was great, and we spent a lot of time going through all the material, pulling together the various parts of it, and that’s when we started to pull out some of the bigger ideas such as the connection between the way in which video tapes and memory work. We took all this raw dump of my subconscious and tried to mould it into something presentable. That was a slow process and it was contributed to a lot by audiences too. There was a neurobiologist who happened to be in the audience one day who wrote me this lovely email about spontaneous confabulation, and how the process that I had used was very similar to the way that an amnesiac over-writes previous memories with new versions, and so that entered into the story. The reason why it is shaped and basically makes sense is nothing to do with me. It’s do to with me bouncing it off other people and them telling me what it means.

The voice-over sounds very intimate and often like its quite off the cuff, but it’s probably been thought out quite precisely. Can you talk about that balance?

In the bits that are synchronized, I have a visual cue that I have to hit about every second, but because it’s so rigid in some places, I really wanted it to feel really loose in others. That’s the advantage of something I know so well, I’m conscious in the back of my head where I need to be in the script at every second. But knowing that so well, hopefully means that I don’t sound panicked. I think we traditionally associate voice-over with a certain amount of critical distance and it’s meant to be unobtrusive. Sometimes it is meant to sound like your own inner monologue. But this is a very flawed voice-over.

We also wanted to create a narrative arc for it. It’s important that at the start of the film it looks like I’m in control of the tape, and by the end I like to flirt with the idea that I’m losing control, and the idea that if the video tape is a faith based system – it’s my coping mechanism – then there will inevitably come a time when it will stop working and you have to realize the limitations of this personal mythology that you have created, so getting that into the voice over was important. And it was just me and Charlie [Charlie Lyne, the producer] sitting in his bedroom with a mic. You can hear us clattering about in the background changing stuff over and I like that. Getting the sound of the room into it was kind of nice, and I think adds to the home made sort of, I hesitate to use the word ‘charm’, but the home made feel of it.

The tension between humor and sadness is also very finely balanced, and the two emotions are often close together in the film. Do you look for the one emotion in the other?

Yes, totally. I think it’s easier to deliver bad news with a smile, it’s just a better way to do it. This project teeters on the edge of falling into navel gazing and I think it’s about trying to balance it out with comedy. Incidentally this film was translated into Spanish and played very badly. I think it’s a very very careful balance getting the mood right, and that’s hard when translating it into another language, and then also having to simultaneously take in the images and read the subtitles. And I’m a lot less charming in Spanish and it didn’t work. People felt it was pretentious tosh.

There are some fairly long sections when there are either no visuals at all or there is a nearly completely blue screen, which is quite brave. Did you play around with how far you could go with that?

Yes, that’s a difficult balance too. The way that our brains work, the visual always take precedence over the oral. If there is a TV in a pub, we will look at it. Doesn’t matter who we are sitting with, we cant help but look at it. If you want us to know a thing, show us the thing, don’t tell us the thing. Kids learn that in primary school so it’s difficult to strike that balance. You know that as soon as you start putting images on the screen the volume of my voice starts to creep down. I don’t think you can completely focus on both sound and image so during the Fresh Prince or Crystal Maze sections, there will be bits that are lost. If there was a part of the story that was important, that needed to be heard, we shut off the visuals. But that’s one of the difficulties of setting this very strict rule. We did think about fast forwarding to a part on the tape where we could find something more visually interesting and then just pausing on that, but that was the challenge – it had to be on that tape. We couldn’t just cut to another thing or turn on the camera so I appear, so we thought ‘lets just stick to our guns’. When it freezes on Bill Murray’s face for seven minutes at the start, thats when I expect walk outs. We’ve not earned your trust by this moment in the film. It’s just been a black screen and a blue screen, about three seconds of Ghost Busters and then a seven minute pause. You would be within your right to walk out at that moment, I would say. That’s the moment when you know if it’s for you. It’s definitely a gamble.

Did some of the confidence for doing that come from your background as a poet?

Totally. I really love making stuff for radio. I have a podcast that I do; it’s the perfect format for my poetry. There’s that thing that Ira Glass says. I think it was on This American Life: ‘The telephone is the most intimate form of communication as you are literally whispering into someone’s ear’, and it’s the same here. It’s a very lovely way to create and I think some of that sneaks into the film – the idea of just having a voice.

Is there any part of you which is also attempting to challenge our idea of what a film is?

We haven’t approached it from that angle. I think we are just finding out as we go along how different this film is to other films. It’s only really from standing in a lobby of a film festival and looking at the other films that are here – and of course there’s a wide variety; this festival looks like it has a really great experimental arm that they have programmed – but to be showing a grainy 4×3 image on this beautiful, very expensive cinema screen, it’s moments like that when you go ‘yeah, this is very surreal’. So, we are still learning what the conventions are as we present the film.

I actually recently found out that we used a technique that has a name. Someone contacted me and said ‘clearly you are a fan of the Neo-Benshi movement’. Benshi is from Japanese silent cinema. A poet would stand on stage and they would not only translate the inter-titles and do the dialogue but they would also improvise poetry to accompany the action scenes. It is a tradition that probably goes back to Kabuki theatre. And now there is a movement started in California by a bunch of experimental poets – I saw Sharon Mesmer doing one – and they are called Neo-Benshi. They take old films and do live repurposed narrations over the top. It’s great. Now I can say ‘yeah, clearly i’m very influenced by the Californian Neo-Benshi movement’. But it sounds like there is more stuff out there that I can watch and be inspired by.

As you have mentioned, Stand By For Tape Backup existed as a stage show before it became a film. What was the process like of transforming the show into a film, and what were the challenges?

It was difficult. These are things I’m still grappling with too. The film is a much more intimate experience. In the theatre show I get to guide people in how to read the video. I physically move in the rhythm of the clips so I sort of act as an intermediary. In the film that’s all stripped away so you are left with this rawer product. And vocally it’s changed too as it has to be a much more intimate delivery for the film. It’s a lot smaller. Despite the fact that it’s playing in bigger rooms, it’s a smaller thing. It’s a strange balance. I wish I had a better answer for that question but I think I’m still working it out. I’m in a weird cross-over where I am engaged with both so I should be in the perfect place to tell the difference between the film and the theatre show but I can’t really. To be honest, the theatre show is becoming increasingly hard to do because of the emotional content of it. Putting myself back there night after night is very difficult as it’s about engaging with grief and depression, and that is exhausting. After doing it for twenty four days in a row in the Edinburgh Fringe, I was absolutely destroyed. So having it on film is important as a way of archiving it and letting me move on and do something else.

Move on to what?

I’ve a screenplay in development with the BFI, and its been optioned by Warp so I’m looking to make that.

Will it be in a similar style?

Its a sci-fi film so its completely different.

And what happens next for Stand By For Tape Backup?

Put it on VHS and stick it back in someone’s loft! I think that closes the loop. I like that idea a lot. We are going to do some more film festivals and, like previous parts of this journey, that is about meeting people and getting their feedback and getting a better understanding of what it is by talking to people about it. So I’m really looking forward to that. And then I think we will try to let it live out its afterlife on the internet and it can find its audience out there.

How do we find it, or find out where its screening?

By going to www.standbyfortapebackup.com

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