Featured Filmmaker: Damien LaySeptember 24th, 2013 | Posted by in Best of IndieFlix | IndieFlix filmmaker | Interview
The film Semi Colin, about the British artist Colin Murray, is a not-to-be-missed documentary. Beautiful and challenging, Semi Colin explores what art truly is and how it functions in modern society. IndieFlix’s newest featured filmmaker is its exploratory director, cinematographer, and editor, Damien Lay. Here we’ve interviewed him.IndieFlix: Colin Murray’s art is controversial and enthralling. How did you first learn about him?
Damien Lay: I first became aware of Colin’s art when his son, who lives in Australia, had his father for a visit. I was very fortunate to meet him in a bar that night. I began talking with Colin over a beer about his art and instantly connected with him. He was reluctant to discuss his work at first, but very quickly we engaged in a very short yet in depth conversation on the subject of “what is art”? I do recall the conversation being interrupted by Colin’s son exclaiming, “My father draws PORN!” The conversation ended abruptly and it was at that point I turned to Colin and told him I was going to make a film about him and his work. That was a Friday; we began shooting the following Monday.
IF: Was it difficult to convince Mr. Murray to allow you to document his life so closely?
DL: Colin is genuinely reserved. However, for the first time in Colin’s life, I think, he had met with someone who respected him and his art and did not just regard his work simply as porn. In that short moment that we had spoken, I knew instantly that there was much [more] to Colin than met the eye, and I knew I had in Colin an incredible subject to explore. Colin was reluctant, but with a little coaxing and an “I will not take ‘no’ for an answer” attitude, I dragged him over to my studios and we began to film the interview. I gave Colin a few beers to settle his nerves and was happy for him to be in his in own world, smoking and drinking, in his dressing gown, in an arm chair and after the first few questions, Colin opened up, and everything that he had been wanting to express his entire life poured from his heart and soul.
IF: The pacing of Semi Colin is slow and deliberate, an aspect that some viewers enjoy, whereas others may feel challenged by it. We spend time with the subject, watching him sleep, seeing him linger on a particular sketch for significant lengths. How did you choose this approach?
DL: Not only did I want to create a film that challenged the question of “what is art?” I wanted to create a film that challenged the traditional storytelling techniques that exist within the documentary genre by removing the surface level story and entirely and purely focusing in on the subject. During this process I realized that through Colin I was also examining the conflicts within myself, which is why the film has been described as looking through a window into a mirror. I think for anyone watching the film, you really do start to examine yourself internally which allows you to identify with Colin’s inner turmoil.
I lived with Colin throughout the entire shoot—I was in his habitat and I was documenting his life. This is Colin’s life day in and day out, that’s it! It is hard I think for most people to appreciate that people do live this way, so consumed by their passion that their life completely removed from our own and I wanted to show it. This is Colin, nothing more, nothing less.
When I arrived in the UK to shoot the film, the first thing that hit me was the sheer volume of work he had created. I decided to focus on every brush stroke, every scratch of the pencil and the intensity that overcomes Colin. I think when you appreciate the amount of effort that is displayed in the creation of one work and then you are exposed to the volume of work, it is at that point you truly appreciate who Colin is and understand everything that you have learned from him.
IF: Seeing the surprising information at the end of the film—that Mr. Murray had made his art in secrecy for decades—we’re so curious about him. Now that the film is out, is he more comfortable sharing his incredible art with the world?
Colin has published three graphic novels under his own name over the past few years, and was contemplating quitting working on his fourth at the time I met him. My interest in Colin and certainly the film encouraged him to keep going, and I hope is. When I refer to Colin’s art in the film, I am not referring to his novels, but more so his individual pieces.
I have not spoken with Colin since the completion of the film, and I am not sure if he has watched it. However, I do find great comfort in knowing that it is most likely he is sitting in his studio, doing what he does, lost his own world. I certainly did everything to encourage Colin to break free of his shackles. I guess when you have been doing something as long as Colin has, and doing it the way Colin does, putting yourself on a stage can be frightening thing. I guess inevitably we get set in our ways and that’s where we find happiness.
IF: In shooting the film, how did you showcase the visual art? It seemed almost candle-lit at times, flickering on and off the screen. Was an animation stand used, or did you employ special lighting techniques?
DL: All of the visual art was actually shot inverted, which I felt created a sense that the art was above you! A subtle point I wanted to express came from the da Vinci quote at the beginning of the film: “Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignore innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.” Having decided to montage much of Colin’s work to classical music, I decided to inject life into the images through the use of moving light. This was done to not only draw the eye to particular imagery, but to also create a sense of movement in time with the music.
It is certainly not a new technique, but one that I felt would work well visually. The entire film was shot with available light, apart from the interview. Working with available light is one of my big focuses at the moment and provides significant challenges when working on data cameras as opposed to film cameras. However, it is those challenges that put me in the space in which I like to work.
IF: What inspires you, in terms of film or otherwise?
DL: I regard myself as a very traditional filmmaker. So I am inspired by the constraints that traditional filmmaking techniques can impose on me and the films I am trying to create. I never turn to technology to solve a problem within the story or film, I fundamentally only use technology for enhancing the film, never for its creation and it is the challenges that you face by the restrictions you impose on yourself and the film you are creating, and then finding solutions to those restrictions without damaging the film in the process is truly what I enjoy about the work that I do. I still view filmmaking as an art form and I am inspired by all forms of art. When you can bring so many mediums of art into filmmaking it is hard not to be inspired.
IF: What’s next for you? Any more documentaries or other film projects in the works?
DL: I am currently in production on my first feature film The Uberkanone, which is a psychological action thriller set in WW1, or ‘the Great War,’ as it was referred to then. I am absolutely scared to death. I have always enjoyed a significant amount of creative freedom on with all of my films which is extraordinary to experience as a filmmaker, however Semi Colin was the first film where I had entire creative control, The Uberkanone is the second. I never like to do anything the same way twice; reinventing the wheel for my current film has been very challenging and we are creating elements for the film that have never been attempted or achieved before so it is scary, challenging and exciting.
Hopefully it won’t be the end of my career, because as they say in this business, you are only as good as your last job!