The British artist/director discusses his remarkable feature debut, Two Years at Sea.
"Make me a star," were the words spoken by Jake Williams when the artist/director Ben Rivers asked if he could make a movie about his life, Two Years at Sea. Jake lives alone in the wilds of Scotland, subsisting largely off the surrounding land and eking out an existence by salvaging trucks and cars and scavenging from his immediate environs. Rivers had met Jake before, as he was the subject of his 2006 short, This is My Land, which LWLies found out more about when we sat down with Rivers recently to discuss what it means to be a filmmaker on the fringes.
LWLies: How did you first meet Jake?
Rivers: Well, I met him in 2005 and it was though a friend. I was specifically searching for someone who lived in the wilderness.
Did you know that people like that actually existed?
I had an idea that people like existed. They don’t advertise themselves and they’re not easy to track down, for obvious reasons. They need to find their space. With Jake it was a friend-of-a-friend. He said he was his closest neighbour, but he actually lived ten miles away. In another isolated spot. He suggested that I go and visit. I ended making a short film called This is My Land. Like Two Years At Sea, this was made with a couple of visits, initially in early summer and then in late winter to get the seasonal change. Luckily he liked This is My Land so I stayed in touch. I visited him since. He appears in another film called I Know Where I’m Going which is a kind of road movie around Britain. I applied to Film London with a very different project. I was going to find someone new.
Actually, I was going to find three people in different places and try to interconnect the stories. It kept niggling in the back of my head that I wasn’t finished with Jake. It also felt like it was a good idea because we already had this relationship. He’s completely at ease with the camera. I think he’s a really good actor. Going back and knowing him meant I felt at ease to direct him. It wasn’t just going to be observational, most things were going to be set up. Even if they were close to things he would ordinarily do. Because I was thinking as a longer work, I didn’t want it to be this sprawling mess. I knew that I wanted to have these long shots. They would be impossible to do without direction.
When you first made contact with Jake, how did you explain to him what you do and what you wanted to do?
For my first meeting I was very tentative. All the films I had made before This is My Land were totally constructed and with no element of documentary. I’d never filmed an actual person in their actual place. I went with my little Bolex camera and explained that I was interested in making films that would never be on TV. That was one of my selling points. I like to think I’m pretty friendly. I’m not turning up with a crew of people, it’s just me. Or for Two Years at Sea it was just me and the sound recordist. It's very intimate. It’s going to be hard for me to be manipulative. After I’d shot the first lot of film to make sure he was happy with it.
Did he know you were coming to visit him?
He did know as my friend had got in touch. Very quick phone call. I asked if I could come and visit and he said, 'Yep. See you soon. Bye'. He’s very quick on the phone. I wasn’t just filming. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. A lot of the time was spent talking to him, going for walks with him. I moved a lot of wood around. He’s got huge wood piles that keep him through the winter. I like to get involved and help out so there’s a bit of an exchange going on. They’re helping me with my work, and I can help them with theirs. Plus I turn up with loads of nice food and fancy whiskey.
You refer to Jake as an actor. Was he paid for his role in this film?
Sure, he was paid as an actor. The earlier film was definitely observational in that it was looking through the camera and observing him. He is re-enacting, rather than acting. They are all things he agreed that he do. There were some things that he wasn’t up for doing. The film starts off in a much more grounded place and moves off to other realms which are fictional or that play with reality. The funny thing was, when I pitched doing another film with him and making it a feature and saying to him that I would be bossing him about a bit more and re-do actions for more than one take, he said, 'Anything. Just make me a star.' Which struck me as quite amazing.
One of the interesting differences between This is My Land and this film is that with that, there is more of a direct interaction with the camera. Here, there’s a near total absence of dialogue?
It was gradual. I knew I didn’t want him talking to me from the start. I wanted to move as many associations with documentary as possible. I did think there could be other characters in the film, then there would be dialogue and conversation. But after the first visit and after watching the first bit of footage, I thought it would be a really nice challenge to make the film with no dialogue. Then it becomes about a different kind of relationship. A relationship with space and with objects you’ve accumulated, your cat. Mainly the landscape.
Two Years at Sea does feel like more of an experiential thing where you’re not experiencing his solitude with him.
He’s not and I’m not explaining things to you.
One of the things I liked was the use of photographs.
When I decided to not have other characters, which would’ve changed things completely and brought in more information. What I was interested in, especially with the photos, was giving clues as to his previous existence. Photographs are inherently melancholic because it’s nostalgia, it’s about the past and it’s what has been. And yeah, I don’t even know what all those photos are. Originally I was going to have them bunched up together, but then I decided to film them individually. I thought they worked well as chapter headings. They point to a past that is obviously Jake’s. There are women, there’s children, there’s Jake as a younger man, building his place. They’re all little stories. Audiences are frustrated by that. This film asks the audience to fill in lots of gaps. Someone else may not see it.
There is still an openness to it as well as you do see him scavenging through other places and finding other photographs.
I make the kind of films I like to watch. I get tired of being told everything in films.
Has anyone had a negative reaction to the film?
I went to Turkey and showed it there recently. Had a lot of positive responses, and a lot of people said they’d never seen anything like it. But there were a few people who said they found black and white harder to engage with. If it was in colour, it was be easier for them to immerse themselves in that world and that the black and white distanced them. I had to explain that that distance is interesting for me. You get immersed in a world that you don’t forget that it’s a construction. It’s cinema, it’s not a representation of life. Even then, they seemed to like it. There was one voice of discontent when we showed it at the London Film Festival as Jake came on stage and he realised the… This film is fiction. An exaggeration of someone’s life. Jake and I agreed on this.
But people could mistake it for a documentary.
If people believe every minute of it, then that’s totally fine. This guy felt like he’d been deceived. I think it’s kind of great that there are people out there who think that documentaries are pure fact.
Are you an avid watcher of documentaries?
I like Jean Rouch. He’s more about the acknowledgement of the apparatus of filmmaking and how that might affect the reality of the situation. With someone like Fred Wiseman, who’s trying to get as close to objectivity as possible, I just think you can’t do it. As soon as you set up at a camera and you chose to point it in a specific direction you’re already making editorial decisions. I think he’s really taken this to really amazing extremes because he spends a long time in these places and he shoots a lot
Have you seen Lisandro Alonso’s La Libertad?
Yeah, I saw that when it came out and I definitely feel closer to Lisandro. I saw Los Muertos recently, and his kind of position in between documentary and fiction is similar to what we have done here.