Posted on:Saturday 8th March, 2014
The purpose of making this short film was to tell the story of the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine and in particular to explain the importance of their connection with the house at No 8 Royal College Street in Camden, where they lived for a few creative and turbulent months in 1873. For me it was therefore important that the house itself should be a character in the film. It appears in the opening shot, and is the scene of most of the action. One of the things that I am most pleased with is the way in which we convincingly blended the exterior shots of the house (filmed at the real No 8) and the interior scenes (filmed at Blacks Club in Soho) to create a vivid space for the poets to inhabit.
Shot on a tiny budget of under £4K, we had to find clever ways of making House of Knives the film we wanted. We had a good starting point in the shape of a script written for us by David Harsent, a distinguished poet and TV script writer, and the librettist to Harrison Birtwistle. I asked him to develop a narrative based around the final days which the poets spent at No 8, when their furious rows and sadomasochistic sexual relationship was approaching breaking point. It was my suggestion that the action be revealed to us through a third party. We know that the poets gave French language lessons during their time in London, and it seemed a good idea for this third party to be a bemused language student, accidentally witnessing one of the great bust-ups of French literary history.
In David’s capable hands this idea was developed further, and used to solve one of the main problems we faced in the film, how to shoot a historical drama on a budget that would not stretch to horses and carriages and CGI street scenes of 19th century King’s Cross. The language student was transformed into a female producer, played by Lucy Tregear, a troubled modern figure who is apparently conjuring the real poets and their situation out of her (perhaps rather too fertile) imagination. This conceit allowed us to mix the period scenes, with the poets in costume, with the modern context of No 8 and the Camden street scene, in a rather shameless way. The poets inhabit their own historic period, but the producer can step back into the past she is imagining. On two occasions she even adopts the persona of the language student, paying Rimbaud for her tuition. On another occasion she is splashed by blood from one of their frequent knife fights. As well as allowing us to observe the story at close hand, the producer character also allowed the film to execute these jumps in time period.
In fact we made a virtue of this necessity. Inside No 8 we are in the 19th Century, and the exterior noises we hear are all of horses and carriages, steam trains and chiming clocks. For the exterior shots the noises are dominated by the traffic noise of modern London. We therefore made effective use of sound in reinforcing the time shifts and the sense of disorientation we were aiming to create. I hope that the film does credit to the poetic idea that the events of the past are somehow lurking just below the surface of the present. It should come as no surprise that Iain Sinclair, Aidan Andrew Dun and other celebrated psycho-geographers are actively supporting the No 8 project. Seen in one light the film is a re-telling for new audiences of the scandalous real life drama of the poets. In another it is all about the producer, someone who clearly gets far too close to her subject. We never get to know whether she is a film or radio producer, journalist or academic researcher – it doesn’t really matter. But there is definitely something intrusive and exploitative about the way she takes photographs of Rimbaud at the end of the story. By then it is clear that she is only interested in what she can get out of the poets’ story for herself, and the tragic figure of the poet is reduced in the final scene to something approximating a waxwork figure, whose story is presented only for the titillation of others.
One of the most difficult scenes to pull off was the famous moment when Rimbaud shouted abuse at Verlaine out of the window of No 8 as he returned from Camden market holding a raw fish. The real Verlaine said these words were so insulting that he could not repeat them, and they were the immediate cause of the end of their relationship. The script also remained silent on what these words should be, so we asked Jack Johns, the actor playing Rimbaud, to improvise. He did so with much enthusiasm, turning the air blue with his expletives. However, in the edit, the tide of abuse ran the risk of drawing attention away from the really important thing about the exchange, the effect that it had on Verlaine, who was at the receiving end. We solved the problem by both editing down the abuse and bringing up the modern traffic noise to almost drown out the words. I hope that the effect now is to make the audience identify more with Verlaine as the blood rushes to his ears in fury and mortification.
We also had to include a number of what would normally be regarded as special effects, without the budget to really do so. This included the staging of two separate knife fights, complete with blood and wounds being inflicted, and the celebrated moment when Verlaine hits Rimbaud in the face with the fish. In these challenges we were lucky to be able to work with a professional fight choreographer. But we also needed to use sound and the careful editing to make these scenes work, and to ensure that they fitted comfortably within the narrative. I was particularly pleased with the moment when blood was flicked on to the hand of the producer. This was achieved by a close up of a knife, dripping in blood, being flicked. Although perhaps a superfluous movement in a knife fight, this very short shot had the merit both of heightening the drama and sense of danger represented by the inadequately wrapped weapon, and explaining how blood had travelled from the knife on to the hand of the producer. I think that the shot ends up looking both exciting and believable. Even more difficult was the blow from the fish. The sense of history being re-enacted became palpable when – on the very first take - the fish slipped out of the hands of Sam Swainsbury (playing Verlaine) and hit Rimbaud in the face, cutting the actor’s lip. This rather too realistic shot was the one that we used in the final edit, although additional sound was used to better convey the painful slap of fish on bare skin.
Perhaps the most complicated scene was the one which we came to know as the ‘libation scene’, since it revolves around Verlaine mixing absinthe at a sort of makeshift altar in the middle of the room. What I wanted was a single scene in which Rimbaud circled around his fellow poet, stealing a drink from him, then expostulating on the nature of art, and finally insulting Verlaine and provoking him to throw a drink in his face. To achieve this dramatic sense of movement we needed to take multiple shots from different angles, and to engineer a series of complex changes. I was very pleased when the final sequence came out looking like a seamless whole, following a clear trajectory, and leading to a satisfying dramatic conclusion. For me, this scene, above all, represented the challenges and the satisfactions of film making.
House of Knives has ended up being an unusual and interesting short film which packs a lot of information into a short space of time whilst maintaining a sense of danger, weirdness and disorientation. The film looks beautiful and its production values are far better than one might expect from such a low budget project. This is in large part due to the fabulous contributions of the young professional film-makers involved, in particular the cinematographer, the sound editor, the editor, the score composer, and the colour grader, who made the most of the richly textured shots of faces and interiors. I hope that the film will stimulate new interest in the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine and will attract enthusiastic support to the plan to create an Anglo-French ‘poetry house’ at No 8 Royal College Street, a short distance away from the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, which is set to become ‘a little piece of France in Camden’.
Graham Henderson, Director, London 2013