Filmmaker Focus: Matt Hulse
This month's edition of Filmmaker Focus finds AAFF alumni Matt Hulse on a filmmaking journey quite unlike any other with his new project Dummy Jim.
Film Maker Clears Throat
Hello. I’d like to talk about a feature film called ‘Dummy Jim’ that has been evolving, in fits and starts, over the past 8 years. Some call this ‘development hell’ and yes, at times it’s been devilish. The project has recently been totally re-energized with the completion of a related web site, dummyjim.com, and things are moving forwards in great, unexpected and even magical ways.
I won’t be talking so much about the content of the project – you can explore that at your leisure at dummyjim.com – but I will sketch out for you a little of the journey that I’ve been on with this project since 2001.
Film Maker Paints a Backdrop
The project was inspired by a little-known journal called 'I Cycled Into the Arctic Circle' published in 1957, written by a profoundly deaf man called James Duthie. James came from a fishing village in the north east of Scotland and was fondly known by the tight-knit community as ‘Dummy Jim’. During a three-month round-trip in 1951 Duthie cycled solo to the Arctic Circle in Norway, and then pedaled back home – a total of more than 3,000 miles – with a budget of just £12. Sadly James was killed in a road accident in 1965.
In 2000 my mum sent me a copy of the book which she'd found tucked away in a second-hand bookshop on a small Scottish island. The slim volume detailing his eccentric trip is written in plain, somewhat pedantic, unintentionally surreal language. I’m a big fan of Scots wordsmiths Ivor Cutler and William McGonagall (check him out - officially the World's Worst Poet). Duthie's literary style and peculiar world-view reminded me of them.
Growing up, a favorite novel of mine was Carson McCuller's 'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter', whose central character, Singer, is a deaf-mute. Singer's alienation struck a chord with me back then, perhaps drawing me more recently towards another deaf character. Like Singer, there’s a sense of loneliness around Dummy Jim, but the mood is bittersweet and absurd rather than tragic. Jacques Tati's films, featuring the gauche M.Hulot, have also been a great inspiration all along (in particular the use of sound).
Film Maker Stumbles Naively Towards Feature Film
Short film is an art form in itself. I've never accepted the idea that short films are primarily stepping stones or ‘calling cards’ en route to a feature. I trained in visual art and when I started making films it was as an extension of my work in photography, music and performance – it was not an urge to ‘tell stories’, but rather to explore relationships between the moving image, sound, music and the live event of projected film.
However, Duthie’s quirky book seemed to offer a chance to feel my way into longer-form filmmaking – but it wasn’t the story that drew me in. In fact what’s written in the book isn’t really a story at all, in the classic sense – there’s no narrative arc, there are no obvious moments of crisis, the voyage doesn’t seem to change him. It’s just a fragmented meander, like life itself.
It was in Duthie’s deafness that I saw an opportunity, really. I wanted to investigate at greater depth my passion for visually led filmmaking and experimentation with sound. I saw sign language as the primary language for dialogue, and I was excited about the visual potential of sign language on screen. I was also curious as to what effect a ‘deaf perspective’ would have on sound design and composition. These things still engage me.
Film Maker Joins The Game
In 2001 I got an award that allowed me to explore the potential of the book as a film. I retraced Duthie’s journey, shot a bunch of Super 8 films on the way, tracked down his surviving relatives and with them drank a lot of cups of tea. This was a very fruitful period; the film began to emerge clearly in my mind’s eye. This was going to be a gentle, eccentric, magical, unpredictable cycling road movie, combining elements of fact and fiction, possibly with animated elements, landscape stills, a sign language chorus and heaven knows what else? A feast of ‘unknown quantities’ would inevitably emerge from joyful, free, open-ended and genuine film making, just as it had always done.
In the UK, in order to access levels of finance beyond the ‘no budget’ level one must have a screenplay – so I set about the task of adapting the journal. A friend came onboard at this point as producer, and was thankfully able to secure a little financial support to help me do this. I’d never before written a screenplay, despite having made films for over a decade. It was a real challenge. There were many, many times when I held my head in genuine despair, raging ‘Why the hell do I have to write this in order to make a film?’
I ignored my gut instinct to flush the multiple drafts down the toilet. I kept sight of what seemed at that time to be the bigger picture – a half-decent budget at the end of the slog. Eventually I completed a screenplay that I was really quite excited about. It seemed well crafted, eccentric, undeniably original and a true and elegant articulation of Duthie’s book. I had leaped through the hoop and I was ready to get back to the real business of filmmaking.
Film Maker Goes to the Market
The producer and I took the project to one of the world’s great film festival production markets, Cinemart at Rotterdam. We spent four full days pitching the project at half-hour intervals to potential co-producers, sales agents and distributors. There was a lot of interest – a buzz even. These were optimistic times and I don’t regret the experience (although it’s simply surreal to repeat the same information over and over again - that way madness lies).
Following up, full of hope, we sent the screenplay off to several potential co-producers who had expressed more than just a passing interest. Ultimately no one came onboard however, despite the original enthusiasm. Frustratingly, it seems the screenplay itself actually drove the co-producers away.
We also sent the screenplay off to the national financing body who had supported the adaptation and therefore had ‘first look’. Three months later we received in return a single page lesson in the importance of story arc from a reader. Thank you, anonymous expert, for your insightful and original advice.
(Why should a film’s future rely so heavily upon a written document and the opinion of a reader who may well have no real experience of filmmaking?)
Film Maker Rants
Cinema has the power to communicate at a level far beyond words and yet sadly, for the most part, our silver screens are filled with talking heads. So many films seem to do little more than serve the demands of drama and the celebrity-making machine. The dominant currency for exchange of ideas (and power) in this word-based film industry is the screenplay. For many filmmakers though a screenplay is counter-intuitive to the process of film making - it drives a wedge between imagination and the ‘hands on’ making.
Film Maker Weeps
By this time almost three years had passed in pursuit of this particular development strategy and I was beginning to view the screenplay as a major hindrance to and serious diversion from actually getting the film made. I’ve never been comfortable sitting around talking about doing this or that – I’d rather just do it. Instinct was telling me (yet again) to flush the screenplay down the toilet, but in the end an external event actual pulled of the chain.
The fact that we’d been unable to secure co-production finance at Cinemart led to the withdrawal of support from our sole financial supporter, Scottish Screen, whose agreed contribution of 25% of our then budget was conditional upon match funding. (This is not an unusual chain of events).
The news was a real blow – I was reduced to tears. I was not ashamed of crying - which was born mostly out of pure frustration - but I was not proud that I had let myself drift into a situation where the policy decision of a government agency had the power to make me weep.
Writing a screenplay in order to articulate my vision for the film seems to have been a bit like trying to sell a house using only technical drawings and written descriptions, rather than letting the potential buyer have a good look round.
Film Maker Gets Inspiration
In early 2008 I attended an event in London called ‘Power to the Pixel: Digital Distribution and Film Innovation Forum’. Speakers included Arin Crumley and Susan Buice who created the feature film ‘Four Eyed Monsters’. Their project broke new ground in a number of ways, from the process of its making through to its distribution (check it out).
What struck me was their infectious, zealous ‘DIY’ spirit and total dedication to getting the film made. They had taken charge of the means and methods of production, maximizing the power of the web and social networking, making their own film in their own way with the direct support of their audience - to hell with the gatekeepers and funders and distributors.
Hearing them talk reminded me that I knew perfectly well how to make my own film and that I certainly did not need approval for my screenplay before doing so. In fact I realized I did not need a screenplay at all – the film would be written in the act of making it – and that, of course, is filmmaking – as any film maker knows.
Film Maker Builds A Platform
The previous summer we’d been successful in securing money – somewhat ironically perhaps - from a different pot of Scottish Screen money, towards the cost of a dedicated web site for the Dummy Jim project. (The fund is called ‘alt-W’, is administered by New Media Scotland, and supports a lot of really interesting work.)
Originally and primarily intended as a web portal to help bring deaf and hearing filmmakers together, I now saw that the Dummy Jim site could offer a fully navigable version of his world, his journey and his story. The site could work as a kind of screenplay, but the hugely important difference would be that the information would be articulated primarily through images, sounds and user engagement. Letting the potential buyer have a good look around.
This web site is up and running, getting some positive attention, and I’m hugely proud of it. It’s a lively unpacking of both the screenplay and the original journal, and you can piece together your own relationship with Duthie as you pedal alongside him. You can explore locations he passed through, meet people he met, read postcards he wrote and extracts from his journal, watch short film Super 8mm film clips, find bizarre recipes, enjoy animations, music, sound – all with real-time sign language interpretation.
Film Maker Appeals for Support
AAFF’s own ‘Endangered Species Campaign’ had a significant influence upon my thinking when I was developing the Dummy Jim web site. When AAFF sent out that appeal for cash donations I responded immediately, keen to demonstrate support for independent film practice. This in turn led me to think that the Dummy Jim web site might work well as a fund raising portal. I felt sure that folk would enjoy contributing directly to the project, participating in its making, engaging with the production process and receiving in return exclusive, eccentric Dummy Jim merchandise. You can check out those who have contributed to date by accessing the ‘Kindly Folk’ tab on the site.
If you would like to get involved, then please go to dummyjim.com and see what’s up. Your support is incredibly valuable. The cash goes directly into the making of our film, with a percentage going to the National Deaf Children’s Society to help them with drama workshops for deaf kids in the UK.
At the very least, please set a little time aside to visit dummyjim.com - I feel sure you’ll enjoy the ride. Thanks for reading.
James Duthie’s Journal