“Never believe you’ve played your last hand.”
Dominic Allan is the director of the astonishingly good documentary Calvet (the website is here) and I had the pleasure of meeting him for an interview on a rainy day in Edinburgh that was supposedly the first offficial day of summer. A polite, intelligent and very friendly guy, Dominic sat and spoke about his latest movie release and managed to tolerate my ridiculously effusive praise while we had coffee and covered so much ground that paring things down to what you see here proved to be quite a task (ironic considering how I had questioned Dominic about how hard he himself found the selection of material while documenting the remarkable story of artist Jean Marc Calvet). I hope others enjoy this interview and seek out the film, reviewed here.
Flickfeast: I decided to come along to the interview today a little bit blind to ask about your background. Did you begin in documentaries or have a background in features or TV work?
Dominic Allan: Well, I originally started in post-production before working in feature films and commercials. I was an assistant director so I looked after the cast, etc. Then when I started directing, I did some music videos and I touched on serial drama, but didn’t want to do that format. Then I fell into documentaries. Things began with a competition for Carlton TV, I pitched an idea. In fact my first documentary was about some street musicians in Paris but the one that won this competition was about a radio station in a young offender’s institution. Things went from there and I made a lot for TV over the years, then suddenly I was only doing stuff abroad, I travelled a great deal, made a lot of travel documentaries too. Then onto bigger stuff, I made a film that was a 2000km journey along an oil pipeline under construction from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, another about the Israeli Special Forces and a big film about Mandela for the BBC, which was an amazing experience. But with this film, it was my first big step as an independent, a move away from being a jobbing director for hire. I wanted to step away from TV in that sense and do my own thing.
FF: What came first regarding Calvet? Meeting the artist or seeing the art or hearing about a possible story?
DA: It was kind of the convergence of all of that. I was travelling with some friends from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, we were heading to Granada, and I remember hearing them talk about this guy who had a cafe/restaurant there. They said he was painting a lot, and that he used to be a mercenary or he robbed a bank or something. I didn’t pay too much attention. Then we arrived there and the first thing I saw was a painting that was screaming out of the wall at me, something quite Basquiat, very bright, lots of colours, but also very tortured. I saw it and stopped dead in my tracks, thinking “who the hell painted that?”. It was really like brutal communication. Then I met Jean Marc. He took me next door to the tiny studio he had then and started pulling out loads of paintings and telling me about what was in them. He was quite a character. And he was very paranoid back then. Not any more, but back then, in 2004, he had a 24-hour armed guard who was always there beside this church that was perched up there, over looking the property. At 11 at night he had a curfew, the door was locked and bolted. Then he had a ritual of setting 50 traps from the front door across the hall all the way to the bedroom door – spoons balancing on glass, broken glass, all sorts of elaborate pyramids and things you’d trip over – anything that could be set off to wake him up. He used to sleep with his finger on the trigger of a loaded gun. I left it there but the name Calvet was still haunting me two years later, so I gave him a call, went to see him again and stayed for ten days. We talked and talked, he painted for half the day then we’d talk into the night, I grilled him. And I left with my mouth open, I’d never heard a story like it. There are about seven stories in one, and he was a man full human contradiction. He was both very strong, a big bear of a man but also very vulnerable – and full of self-hate, very wounded. He’d found some peace but there was something big left in him. I’d found a film I really wanted to make, I saw someone who needed forgiveness yes, but really someone who needed to forgive himself and he hadn’t found the key yet. I remember too he said “all I ever wanted was a family and the person I turned myself into never needed one, never wanted one” and I found that very interesting. He’d already suffered so much, so he created this persona who was a monster, who’d never needed to suffer. The unconscious logic being that he thought life would be painless that way.
FF: The other major thing that is so endearing about Jean Marc is how he accepts responsibility for his actions and tells his tale but NEVER makes excuses.
DA: Completely, you so feel for the man because of that. The film also came along at a time when he needed to talk. It became an extension of his paintings, a therapy, a purging. I was a bit like his therapist in a sense. In any case I’m fascinated by the psychology of it, what makes us who we think we are and so on. It’s funny, one of my favourite programmes is “Desert Island Discs” because of I love to hear about other people lives, it fascinates me. Jean Marc was a psychological maze in some ways, he really interested me. Also I really warmed to him, we got on really well and there was a trust there and it came along at a time when he needed to talk, to tell it all. And it was all so refreshingly honest, shockingly so. There was no room for anything but the truth, we had a deal on that. Though you have to understand that he needed to get everything out. And to him, it was almost more than his life was worth to lie or hide. He had shed that persona he’d become and the integrity of this new man, the real him, couldn’t hide or lie, otherwise who would he be?
FF: Many people have had those low points, though not having been through half of what Jean Marc has gone through, so did you realise this film would have so many points of reference or was it purely planned as the catharsis of Jean Marc? It was almost cathartic for myself watching the film, from my own experiences, did you know it would have THAT effect?
DA: Absolutely. For me, films should inspire people. That’s my aim for the films that I want to make. I think all of us, maybe we eventually realise that the reason we’re here is to contribute and to try and make a difference in some small way. A film doesn’t have to have an overpowering message but it should say something and inspire people. And the power of Calvet’s story comes from the message that his story carries. I make the film, structure it, but it’s his story. Hundreds of people have left the screenings and come up to us and shown how moved they were. The two public screenings we had here, lots of people left in tears. It’s wonderful seeing people moved in such a positive way. The story comes from a dark and brutal place but it has such a message of hope. A lot of people, if not all of us, get to a low point and I think this sort of film can lift you with that powerful message. That’s the biggest kick for me and Jean Marc, finding that the audience empathise in such a strong way.
FF: When did you choose to hang back from the events onscreen, especially around Jean Marc’s family situation? I found myself wanting more at times.
DA: Well, some choices were obvious. I made the film with all intention of it being like a movie and we cut it in that way. Albeit that it’s documentary, and in documentary there are certain parameters, in what you can do and can’t do and what you can influence. I go with my instinct and have the complete respect for people involved. We couldn’t affect Jean Marc’s story but we had to focus on what was important to the story. Your audience is as intelligent as you are, if not more! So I have to trust that the audience will agree with the choices I make if I just go with my gut feeling. Jean Marc’s story is an epic and there are lots of stories that don’t appear in the film, I didn’t shoot them as they’re not integral to the story. You also have to think of the market – most feature documentaries run at about the 80-85 minute mark. The structure of the film was all pinned around Jean Marc’s son and his abandonment, everything relates to that. The fact that you may have wanted more is perhaps testament to the fact that the right choices were made. Everything has to be relevant to the story being told.
FF: Did you have a wealth of material you struggled to cut out?
DA: Yeah, but when you get down to the nuts of it, then it gets easier. I think the more films you make, the easier it gets. It’s always tough, you’re “killing your babies” as we say in the edit suite. And it’s often a favourite scene or favourite piece that’s going to go. You just have to stay focused on the story, you realise that you have to put your director’s hat on to do best for the film. I realise now that my own emotional attachment sometimes becomes irrelevant and I just go by what works for the film. I worked with a very talented editor called Paul Carlin. We worked very well together and we generally know when we’re making the right decision, maybe not always! But hopefully you’ll come round to it in the end. As it is when you build any narrative film, you have to go through the same process and that involves leaving things out. And as you do that, it’s always to strengthen the film.
FF: The moment that stands out, from many great moments, is the pivotal moment in a creepy house that featured during Jean Marc’s lowest ebb. Full of paranoia and bad memories, when you filmed there could you palpably feel the ghosts in the room?
DA: Well, I didn’t but it was interesting to watch Jean Marc. We stayed focused on him. I wanted to see how he changed and how the house was affecting him. It was very interesting, we shot a lot on him in that house and picked up the other stuff later. When Jean Marc first went in he was trembling, very apprehensive, and then I could see him getting more and more agitated and wound up. That house, and that bedroom was the negative pole of all that happened there. We left him to do what he wanted to do, completely respected his space and emotions. He was in tears when he was leaving. That house had quite a hold on him, it was like a mother, a mean mother that said you’re not leaving here and you’re going to die in this house. It was like a magnet that had great power over him. He had both the desire to stay and run from it all at the same time. But it was very cathartic for him to go back there.
FF: From his past, and when he visited people he’d known, everyone was happy to see Jean Marc, for example at the police station. Did people know what he’d done in his past, what he’d gone through, or had he managed to lead completely separate lives by day and by night?
DA: No, no one knew. We can all hide things very easily from people if we want to. I was told that in the South of France at that time it was well known that the municipal police did things any way they could as they had no clear remit until things were put in line. The night squad (that Jean Marc was in) was deemed necessary and Jean Marc was a man who affected change but also went completely overboard. He knew all about the street from his youth but he also became incredibly violent and went far too far. So the police eventually removed him. But everybody liked him, a lot, because he was so affable, so funny, he made everybody laugh.
FF: As part of that much-needed revisitation of past events and places Jean Marc returned to Miami for scenes detailing an episode in his life which left him in fear for his life. Was there trepidation or was it, again, just something that had to be done?
DA: Doing the Miami sequence was Jean Marc call and he wanted to do it. He knew he had to face it. He was fearful but probably due to his military training, you wouldn’t always notice but it’s there. Then when he’s done it, it’s gone. It got to the point where he didn’t want to hide and keep looking over his shoulder. In any case nowadays you can easily find him on the internet and so on. Also with emotions, when you’re shooting, you can’t fight against it, you have to embrace and use it. That’s why most of the Miami scenes occur from the inside of a car, with Jean Marc driving the showing us the old haunts, driving the route he took to the bank on the last day and so on, just telling us how it happened.
FF: The telling of the tale by Jean Marc has no histrionics and is all the more powerful for it.
DA: Yeah, he discusses these things in quite a matter of fact way, also because there were so many things that happened, one after the other – those key traumas, the events that caused him to change and led him to bury the true him deep within. As I said, he turned himself into a monster, and that manifestation was caused by those moments, those traumas. And yes, he just tells you what happened with honesty and clarity, you just get it all. These events that led him to just shut off, defined him for many years. But it’s beautiful to see him shed those things. As he says, we have the ability to change or at least shed what’s not us, and then it’s infinite.
FF: This question now seems too flippant but I have to ask how you chose what pieces of Calvet’s art to show in the film, with so much great stuff to choose from and how prolific the man is?
DA: It’s again a lot about trusting your instinct and there were clearly a selection of paintings that I felt were very strong and influential and had their place. There were also other paintings that had their place in terms of the evolution of his work. Clearly, one very good way of using the paintings is in how they relate to the stories of his past. A lot of them contain a combination of what happened and what he would have liked in his life instead, a mix of fact and fantasy. There was one painting I used quite a lot, “The Stranger”, which is a self-portrait and very relevant. Was it him or the other him? Or the real him like a ghost disappearing or reappearing? I’m delighted with the paintings that are in there, there’s a really good selection of his work up to that point.
FF: Certainly the documentary also makes you want to seek out more of his work, which is also a good thing.
DA: Yeah, and his stuff is even now quite different, it changes and develops fast. You can see evolution throughout the film and it’s part of his catharsis. Calvet had some very influential people in the art world trying to influence him and give him direction and he really doesn’t listen or care and I really respect him for that. He just does what he needs to do, what’s honest and what comes out. A lot of it isn’t premeditated and he gets into a zone and out it comes, it’s a gift. He’s found a tap to let stuff out and as long as he’s doing that, it’s just beautiful. It’s pure. It’s the same with any creative process, I hope it’s the way I made this film. I knew what I wanted, I obsessed over it and that’s the way it needed to be. The film has become a strange animal, it’s a documentary but it’s cut like a movie and people who want to pigeonhole it find that difficult to accept. I’ve noticed, certainly in TV, people want, or are forced to categorise it as an art film or a human interest film. What is that? One guy said, our audience like to know if it’s one or the other. Really?
FF: Exactly, it’s a documentary but it had twists. I was constantly surprised.
DA: I set out to make it as a movie because it was that kind of epic story. I chose the DP for that reason and we shot it on RED. I said to my editor, we’re cutting a movie, but maintaining the integrity of a documentary. But I wanted people sucked in. When I heard the story that’s what I saw, that’s what I heard. A movie. It’s confused a few people who like to put things in boxes but that’s okay. It’s a story about art and an artist, but it’s really a story about us.
I can’t thank Dominic enough, yet again, for such a great chat. After spending an hour in his company chatting about his own experiences and the life of Jean Marc Calvet, I admit that a little bit of me wanted to keep everything I’d been told to myself. But it’s all, pretty much, here. Now rush off to see Calvet as soon as you can, whenever it comes to be screened near you.