Those with a love of all things gothic should do themselves a favour and seek out the photography of Simon Marsden. His monochrome stills of eroding castles are mini time machines. They take one away from modernity, transporting them into the past as they conjure up a plethora of images that would fit into classic literature like Dracula, In a Glass Darkly and The Monk.
Simon Marsden: A Life in Pictures, directed by horror maestro Jason Figgis, is the perfect entry point for those who want to school up on Marsden’s work. It’s not a flashy film, but it knows to just let the power of the photographer’s starkly lit photos speak for themselves. Meanwhile, Marsden’s iconic sounding narration, some sweet stories from Figgis about his time with his subject (they shot the 2003 doc The Twilight Hour together) and a handful of haunting tales from the houses Simon photographed make for a loving tribute to a great talent who has shuffled off this mortal coil. Below is my interview with Jason Figgis for the project.
Congratulations on the documentary. Was working on it a nice change of pace after the bleak horror of Don’t You Recognise Me? and Torment?
Thank you. Yes, it was a very welcome breath of fresh air after the previous two features. I think revenge dramas and I are now parting company. I want to create films that I want to watch myself and which leave me with a good feeling after the viewing experience. I’m tired of the damning with faint praise that comes from quotes such as ‘that was incredibly intense and I never want to see it again’ or in one particular instance where a woman stood up during one of my screenings in Manchester, exclaiming loudly “I am sorry but I can’t fucking handle this” – before rushing from the auditorium. I have been making a serious re-evaluation of my output.
This is your second film which focuses on the work of Simon Marsden. What is it about his photography you find particularly interesting?
I have always been fascinated by Simon’s work – since I came across the first of his books in Easons on O’Connell Street. I couldn’t afford them at the time and so just sat in the aisle and soaked up every word and image. His photographs are incredibly evocative and soulful and I never tire in the experience of looking through those weighty coffee table books. They transport you to another time, but a time that doesn’t really exist. These images are an artist’s impression of a completely romanticised gothic landscape.
In a previous film, The Twilight Hour, you visited haunted Irish castles with the photographer. How would you describe Simon as a person?
Simon was the opposite to how he appeared and sounded. He was a great presence; 6’3” and blessed with one of the most beautiful of voices. You could listen to him for hours and I often did. Where he differed from his imposing presence was in that he was incredibly humorous. One would bellow with laughter at his dark humour.
Simon died in 2012 yet the movie features so much narration from him in this iconic deep and full voice. Where did the narration come from? Was it excerpts from The Twilight Hour?
Yes. These were selected pieces of recordings of Simon as used in The Twilight Hour but utilised here to give tone and thrust to his own personal biography.
The film feels like a tribute to Simon but also briefly like one to another of your collaborators John Hurt. What was it like working with a legend of film like that?
John Hurt was fabulous. I was intimidated initially because I have admired every role that he has instantly made his own. He agreed to work on the film after we sent him one of Simon’s books. His agent was no help at all. They shooed us away uttering that “Mr. Hurt is much too busy”. We found out where he lived and gifted him a book (with a card included) and a brief outline of what we hoped he might bring to the film. He wasted no time in agreeing and cycled in to meet us at Windmill Lane. I huddled with him in a corner of the recording booth and paraphrased the work for him – I got the distinct impression that it needed no paraphrasing and he was indeed just giving me the opportunity to “direct” him. He nailed each take – first time.
He did a wonderful thing later in the day; a film student was working on his 1st year short – a Sci-Fi drama that required a narrator. John overheard me talking to the boy and he asked if he “would do”. The boy’s jaw slackened as the excitement welled up in him. John Hurt spent an hour with the young man – laying down a perfect narration for his 5 minute short. I received a huge hug from him afterwards – not that it was needed; John Hurt was very much his own wonderful man.
A talking head in your documentary compares Simon’s photos to gothic literature and people like M.R James. Would you be a big fan of that literary genre?
I am a huge fan of James’ work and was in fact on location in Suffolk while acting as DoP on a film about James’ belief in the paranormal – when I interviewed the writer and presenter, Chris Halton. James, EF Benson, Le Fanu, Stoker and many more were masters of this sometimes maligned literary form.
You work in horror quite a bit. I was curious watching the documentary if you ever thought the Irish castles you visited with Simon would make great settings for a ghostly chiller. They seem in vogue now with The Lodgers recently and Lenny Abrahamson’s upcoming The Little Stranger.
Oh yes. Many of the locations we filmed and photographed in would be perfectly suited to the horror genre.
You tend to work fast. With this documentary that is three films in a year and a half, right? Can you explain how you manage to produce this much output so quickly?
Usually I have several projects in development with like-minded people and it is our combined enthusiasm that seems to allow for the fast production. I just love to be constantly busy and trying to explore new themes – or sometimes similar themes, but in different ways.
What’s next? You’ve often premiered films at the Underground Cinema Film Festival and Horrorthon. Have you got movies in mind for these events?
I have several projects in various stages of development which include five high-profile documentaries and four feature films; Charlie Manners (a gangster thriller set in the Isle of Man – in association with the Isle of Man film commission), The Violent Men (which ironically has no violence and is set in Lincoln in the UK), Night Photography (a vampire love story) and Winifred Meeks (a haunted house picture). The latter two are in association with Screen Suffolk and so will shoot in East Anglia with an excellent new producer in the shape of prolific journalist John West.
Did the concept of Winifred Meeks emerge from working on Simon Marsden: A Life in Pictures. I’ve heard M.R. James is a direct influence on that.
While working on the Marsden film I was commissioned as DoP on the MR James documentary. This fueled the idea for my haunted house picture. I wrote the treatment quickly and sent it to The War Zone and Rise of the Footsoldier actress, Lara Belmont who immediately signed up to star in the film. Suffolk producer John West has already located the house, through Screen Suffolk. We are excited about hopefully entering principal photography in late autumn of this year.
Where can people see Simon Marsden: A Life in Pictures?
This new film will be premiered in the UK this summer. Nikon are sponsoring our London premiere. It will be out on the film festival circuit before being available later in the year on DVD and VOD.