In a serious cinephile, THEO PANAYIDES meets a director of only two films in 20 years who has a love for off-centre material
How to describe Richard Kwietniowski? Well, he’s left-handed. He likes dogs. He likes watching films – to put it mildly – and likes to sit in the front row, “so I’m completely surrounded”. He’s shaven-headed and jutting-chinned. He’s not very tall, and may be a little self-conscious about it. At one point he insists, in his charming self-deprecating way, that he’s no good at networking – the socialising and glad-handing that’s part and parcel of a career in the film industry – “I don’t really understand it, it sounds very American”.
So he doesn’t work the room at parties?
“No, I’m too short to do that!” he replies, laughing merrily.
“Too short?” I repeat, wondering if perhaps he said ‘Too shy’.
“Too small, nobody notices me! And nobody wants to introduce me, because they don’t know how to say my name!”
The name is actually Polish (his dad fled Poland at the start of WWII, finding refuge in West London) – and the name, for all his humorous modesty, is actually quite well-known to anyone who’s been following movies over the past two decades. You could say he has a 100 per cent record as a film director: two feature films – Love and Death on Long Island (1997) and Owning Mahowny (2003) – both with great actors (John Hurt and Philip Seymour Hoffman, respectively) who are no longer with us, both compelling, critically-acclaimed tales of dangerous obsession. Of course, you could also say that two films in 20 years – and nothing else, except for some shorts and TV documentaries – makes for an odd, rather stunted career. Does he ever regret the way it’s panned out?
“No, not really. I think I’ve been very lucky, because I’ve done so many things in relation to cinema.” He takes a sip of espresso, sitting on a sun-flooded balcony in the Mediterranean Hotel in Limassol. “But occasionally I have moments of bitterness, in that I really thought things would get easier after Love and Death – which did soooo well around the world”.
Specifically, adds Richard, he’d have liked to have made “more weird stuff” after the success of his first film. Or, as he puts it: “I want to make the sort of things I wish to see. Rather than making a copy of lots of other things, and just saying ‘Look, I have a career’, and a nice home or something”. What he perhaps should’ve done, he admits, was become a director for hire, accepting any offer that came along just to keep his name in contention – but that seemed pointless, or at least it wasn’t his style. Another factor may be at play here: anyone so transparently drawn to stories of obsession and addiction – men taking risks and living on the edge – is bound to have a little of that risk-taking gene in his own makeup.
Love and Death just about qualifies as ‘weird stuff’ (though its tone is quite genteel), being the tale of a bookish, middle-aged British intellectual – Hurt as the splendidly-named ‘Giles De’Ath’ – who becomes madly, unaccountably besotted with a callow young American teen idol, travelling from London to Long Island to track down his object of desire. The film is a riff on Death in Venice, an echo which certainly wasn’t lost on Richard. (His conversation is dotted with film references; at one point he recalls a detail from Love and Death – a hand briefly squeezing a shoulder – and chuckles “I stole that from Brief Encounter”; he’s a most serious cinephile.) The film is ambiguously gay – Richard himself is openly, albeit “not exclusively” gay – and it’s also very funny, many of Giles’ grumpy digs at modern life being the writer-director’s own inventions (the original novel, by Gilbert Adair, has no dialogue). The biggest laugh comes perhaps when Giles lights up in the back of a London cab, much to the driver’s disapproval. “It says ‘No Smoking’,” admonishes the driver, pointing to a sign on the back of the partition. “No,” replies Giles with perfect equanimity, “it says ‘Thank You For Not Smoking’. And, as I am smoking, I don’t expect to be thanked.”
It’s a joke, but it’s also more than that – a dig at the passive-aggressive hypocrisy Richard associates with “the English”, implicitly viewing himself as slightly different even though he was born and grew up there. “I’m constantly saying to English people: ‘What do you really mean? I don’t understand what you really mean!’” he exclaims with a flourish of mock-exasperation, acting out a typical conversation with an English person who’d like to say ‘no’ but is too polite/repressed to do so (“‘So you’re saying you prefer not to do this?’ ‘Well, I wouldn’t put it that way…’”). Richard himself, by his own account, values honesty, and especially passion: “You have to play things quite carefully in the UK, in that they get afraid of passion. If you appear too driven, that will just scare them”.
His preference for what he calls “off-centre” material is one reason why he hasn’t been more prolific – but his own personality (which he describes as “volatile” and “quite spontaneous”) may also have played a part. “Even someone as great as John Hurt was not universally liked in the industry, because he was a wild man when he was younger,” notes Richard. “And they didn’t like that, they prefer somebody more placid – like Jim Broadbent, for example”. That statement is immediately qualified (“though I love Jim Broadbent as well”), but surely a play-it-safe, career-minded person wouldn’t have risked naming names so unabashedly in the first place, especially in the cosy world of British cinema. It’s no surprise that he and Hurt remained close for the rest of the actor’s life, or that Hurt did some of his best work (and gave his own favourite among his performances) in Richard’s company.
That ‘Thank you for not smoking’ gag also raises another point – because nowadays, of course, you’re not allowed to smoke in London (or anywhere), and everyone just shuts up and accepts it. Watching Love and Death again recently, I was struck by the various small ways in which it’s dated, from video cassettes to fax machines (at one point, Ronnie – that’s the teen idol – looks baffled when Giles says he reminds him of Wallace’s painting ‘The Death of Chatterton’, and I momentarily wondered why he doesn’t just show him on his phone). The brutal truth is that Love and Death on Long Island is now 20 years old – and Richard Kwietniowski, who was desperate to direct a feature by the time he was 40 (and only just made it), turned 60 in March. Was that traumatic?
“No, it didn’t really mean anything,” he ponders thoughtfully. He did get a little gift from the government, he adds with a gleeful chuckle, a senior-citizen bus pass allowing him to ride free of charge, “but it just seems, you know, one more than 59 – and whether you’re meant to stop doing useful stuff and get interested in growing roses or playing golf or something…” he shrugs eloquently, “I don’t know”. The reason for his sangfroid, I suspect, has a lot to do with his current circumstances – and he may well have sounded more pessimistic six years ago, when Regret Not Speaking came crashing down.
That was his big near-miss, the closest he’s come to a third movie. The cast included John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal and Anjelica Huston, a dream cast for a low-budget project; all three actors had committed, the film had been pre-sold in France, Guillermo del Toro (of Pan’s Labyrinth fame) had signed on as executive producer – but the project sank into “development hell”, that torpid purgatory where dispirited writers languish in cafés hunched over laptops, making endless changes to scripts or waiting to hear back from producers on changes they made earlier, then it collapsed altogether. “The British sort of said ‘It’s too intelligent, it’s too original, it’s too European’. Oh. OK!…” he relates ironically, then gives another merry laugh. “I took a knock from that,” admits Richard, growing serious. “Because it’s like, there is no logic to this. There is no justice.”
That, in a way, concluded the second act of his professional life. The first act took him till the age of 40: studying Literature as a bookish adolescent, defecting to film and devoting his life to it, then working in various capacities – running a cinema, placed in charge of a “grass-roots resource” called the Bristol Film Workshop, above all making “curious”, prize-winning, mostly gay-themed short films – while building up to his feature debut. The second act includes his two well-known titles, plus a handful of stillborn other projects – but now we’re in his third act, still writing scripts “in theory” but mostly working as a teacher and enabler. People worry that he’s stopped being productive, notes Richard, but in fact he’s helped about 60 films get made in the past few years, whether through film-student mentoring or workshops like the ones he’s doing here, on the sidelines of Cyprus Film Days – notably a delightful-sounding presentation called ‘An A to Z of Directing Actors’, offering “26 modest and occasionally eccentric suggestions” for getting the most out of your performers.
‘H is for Houseplant’, he tells me: don’t just water your houseplant (a.k.a. thespian) because it’s Sunday; “Look at your houseplants. Are they happy? If they’re happy, leave them alone!”. ‘T is for Taxi’: don’t tell an actor to ‘do it faster’, tell them to pretend there’s a taxi waiting outside with its meter running. This is good, witty stuff – and of course being a teacher isn’t all that different from being a director, both jobs defined by benign oversight and getting the best out of people. On a good shoot, he claims semi-playfully, “it’s a bit like you’re hosting a dinner party, inviting people who mainly don’t know each other. And, if the chemistry is right – the food is good, the wine is good – you can almost leave them to it and have an early night. But, just in case it’s not working, you have to be ready to step in”. Even on a really good day, however, when he barely had to intervene all day, “I’d go back to where I was staying and I’d be exhausted. Why am I exhausted? And I realise it’s because I’ve been looking and thinking, looking and thinking”. As with teaching, just being present takes a lot out of you.
I suspect film directing nurtured both sides of Richard Kwietniowski – and I think there are two sides, even more than for most people. On the one hand he’s studious, geeky, a film-watcher and film historian; on the other he’s dynamic, happiest when doing things, competitive and a bit of a risk-taker. On the one hand, he’s quite into yoga, with its gentle serenity – but in fact his real sport is tennis, and he proudly reports that “with a few precautions, I can still play tennis with people half my age”.
One might even suggest – is this too fanciful? – that both his films, hinging as they do on a strong male protagonist, were a bit like extended tennis games between Richard and Messrs. Hurt and Hoffman respectively, friendly (but in fact deadly-serious) joint ventures involving both camaraderie and competition. Directing, after all, is double-sided. On the one hand, Richard’s job was to help and encourage his actors. On the other, he tells a story of a time when he asked John Hurt for another take, and the actor protested that “the camera operator nodded and smiled and gave me a thumbs-up” at the end of the last one (the crew on Love and Death revered Hurt). “Shame he’s not also the director then, isn’t it?” replied Richard good-naturedly – and everyone laughed, but the meaning was clear. You may be John Hurt, amigo, but I’m the boss.
Some directors make a fetish out of hardware and technology (he sees it now with his film students, especially the boys). Richard was never like that. He didn’t even know how a camera works, and probably still isn’t sure: “Everything I know, I know from watching a few thousand films.” He got into this for love of the medium – and he still loves movies, that hasn’t changed and probably never will, “that’s the abiding obsession of my life, I think” (trust him, he knows from obsession). He’s not jaded, even after a career that may seem strange, or truncated, or just disappointing. “I mean, I never feel bored,” he claims matter-of-factly. “I never feel depressed.” He notes my disbelief, and smiles slyly: “Is that strange?”. How do you even describe this man?
RICHARD KWIETNIOWSKI’S 10 FAVOURITE FILMS
Written on the Wind (1956)
Madame De… (1953)
Brief Encounter (1945)
Blue Velvet (1986)
The Conversation (1974)
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-vixens (1979)