Philip Haas: Understanding the Situation

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Interview By Hannah Eaves

After finding success in the UK by documenting the lives and work of eccentric artists like Gilbert & George and currency vandal J.S.G. Boggs, director Philip Haas jumped the narrative fence with an adaptation of Paul Auster's Music of Chance, the first in what would become a long line of literary adaptations for the screen. With his next film, Angels and Insects, Haas broke through the arthouse market and received Cannes and Academy Award nominations. His latest film, The Situation, starring Connie Nielsen (Gladiator) as an American journalist caught in a Graham Greene-like situation, takes place in Iraq and marks his first collaboration with noted journalist Wendell Stevenson.

So, you are American, but when you first started out, you were making documentaries in the UK.

Yes, because I made a group of films for the Arts Council of Great Britain and then Angels and Insects was made in England.

Had you been working in film before that?

I was a theater person in university. Then I was living in England, working in the theater, when I met these artists Gilbert and George and knew them socially. We then made a film together. And then through Gilbert and George I met other artists, so suddenly I spent ten years making films with artists. I met David Hockney at their house and I made a film with David, and another artist, Boyd Webb, who is a friend of theirs; also, Richard Long, who was with the same gallery. I also made a film in Australia with Australian Aboriginal artists and that came out of the work I did with Western artists because it was financed in part by the Pompidou Centre, who were doing a show of indigenous artists. They knew about my work with people like Richard Long, who is a land artist, and said: Why don't you try doing something with indigenous artists?

So I did ten years of documentaries and then I made Music of Chance, which is a feature film. Then I had ten years of making literary adaptations and now I have made a political movie.

What are Gilbert and George like in person?

Pretty much what they're like! They drink more than it appears in their public presentations. They're very amusing. I've actually done two films with them. The second one, The Singing Sculpture, is really terrific because it's a short film about this sculpture they did called The Singing Sculpture that lasted eight hours. My film is 20 minutes, but you get the sense of it [laughs], without having to watch it for eight hours.

And some of your work was funded by the BBC? I seem to remember in one of your films you referring to your crew as being from the BBC.

That was Money Man. That was funded by the BBC. Yes, I like that line. He says, "What are you doing here?"

"We're a BBC film crew."

"Oh, come right on in."

Had you always been interested in going into narrative film?

I always thought in my own head that I was a narrative filmmaker, even though I was making documentaries, so when people said, "Was it difficult to transition?" I said, "Not really," because I was sort of still doing the same thing. People would ask me, "What's it like working with actors?" And I said, "Not as difficult as it is working with artists!"

Do you feel like you get better insight working with a novel as a starting point because you get all this background you can draw on as a foundation? Or does it not make any difference?

People always ask me - like with a novelist, say, Paul Auster with The Music of Chance - did he collaborate with you on the script? My response would be, his collaboration is writing the novel. So honestly, the advantage of working with an existing book or novel is that someone has done a lot of heavy lifting before I arrive. It's been conceived and designed as a literary work and there's dialogue. So some of it is editing, some of it is rearranging, some of it is reinventing. Clearly for something like The Situation, there isn't a novel yet written about the Iraq war. The underlying material, the equivalent of the novel, would have been Wendy Stevenson's own experience there. That's what she and I were mining: You've lived in Iraq, you've dealt with Iraqis, you have an Iraqi boyfriend, how do you make a film about that experience that actually is a movie and not just a series of vignettes?

Do you think that it helps for an actor to have a book that gives them more background on their characters?

I didn't like the actors walking around the set with the book, like Angels and Insects, with things underlined, like they were at school with their yellow magic markers. It generally struck me that they wanted to put more lines in.

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