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A Jaunt: Director Andrew Kötting Talks Gallivant 20 Years On
Adam Scovell , September 8th, 2017 09:02

With his first film, Gallivant, 20 years old this month, director Andrew Kotting talks to Adam Scovell about changing technolgies, his on-screen relationship with his daughter and 'leaping into the unknown'

Gallivant was the first feature film by ramshackle wanderer, Andrew Kötting. It premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival 20 years ago this September and arguably changed the landscape of British documentary cinema after it. For Kötting, it began a string of feature work that followed eccentric journeys into landscapes, history and people that still continues and produces interesting work today. Alongside Kötting's recent output, from Swandown (2012) to By Our Selves (2015), Gallivant started a popular trend of experimental landscape films that has become the hallmark of the post-Derek Jarman BFI feature film. Its influence can be seen in a variety of British films, from Ben Rivers' Two Years At Sea (2011) and Pat Collins' Silence (2012), to Gideon Koppel's sleep furiously (2008) and Grant Gee's Patience (After Sebald) (2012) amongst many others. Looking back on twenty years between its premier and its anniversary, I spoke to Andrew to assess the changes in cinematic landscape.

Gallivant started off as a short film before being turned into a feature.  How did the ideas for the short first come about?

I was commissioned through The Arts Council to make a short film for Carlton TV as part of their Artists’ Video programme called Jaunt. It had to be exactly four and a half minutes long and specifically about "London" so I proposed to make a piece of work that took the River Thames as its subject. I lived on the Pepys Estate at the time and the river flowed right past our front door. I was also training in the Downtown Boxing Gym and one of my friends there, Billy Old, used to work on the pleasure boats from Greenwich to Westminster. So I had this idea that I would investigate the river from Southend-on-Sea to the Houses of Parliament and filming only with a super-8 camera, which I took with me everywhere.

I produced a soundtrack that consisted of a collage of field recordings from the river along with a bogus commentary, which included cut-ups and voiceovers from my cassette and vinyl collection as well as my own voice and those of friends, including Billy who provided a comic, if somewhat demented, narration. One of the ironic things that struck me recently was that as well researching Samuel Pepys’ Diaries I had also bought a copy of Iain Sinclair’s Downriver, a book that I struggled to get on with…

Gallivant was your first feature so how was the jump from short work to longer work?

I had been making performance works when I was at the Slade, which involved the landscape and characters that set about their business in an improvisational and pseudo mythical way. There always seemed to be a skewed logic to what they were doing and I would present them as part of installations that might include costumes and props from the films; dresses made of mud, hessian suits, wooden shacks and felt boots. They were usually about an hour long so the jump into longer work had already happened. I remember presenting a black and white super-8 film at the London Film-maker’s Co-op as part of a Sin Now-Pray Later programme that was called Anvil-Head-The-Hun and inspired by the Jesus Christ myth. It ran for 80 minutes and came on four 20 minute spools, it really tried people’s patience but prepared me for the longer format of moving image.

Jaunt had been quite well received and I managed to re-present the proposal as a trip around the whole coast of the UK instead of just up the River Thames to the Arts Council. They were very supportive but felt that a feature length film shot only on super-8 without sound sync might be quite difficult to get off the ground. Ben Gibson got wind of the project at the BFI and asked me to explain it to the board, I presented a new version that included sound sync and also my Grandmother Gladys and my daughter Eden as two central characters that we might follow on the journey. I had named the project Gallivant and was still very keen to allow serendipity or chance-encounter to drive the film, we’d get into a camper van and set off and see what happened. I think the numerous trips that I had made up and down the River Thames on boat, bike, car and foot and the rich and varied footage that we’d shot when I made Jaunt really helped me with the confidence to attempt such an enormous undertaking as the whole coastline of the UK.

Having a producer like Ben Woolford, a cinematographer like Nick Gordon-Smith, a super-eightist and force of nature like Gary Parker and a laid-back sound recordist such as Douglas Templeton also made things a lot easier.

With so many of your films being about journeys, whether it be on a swan-pedalo with Iain Sinclair up the Thames from Hastings in Swandown to following in the footsteps of John Clare in By Our Selves, what is it about the journey structure, in Gallivant or otherwise, that draws you to it again and again?

It’s the idea of leaping into the unknown, having a plan but allowing for the ‘angels-of-happenstance’ to work their magic. Documenting the various encounters en route as well as the landscape and sounds that one stumbles upon, sometimes informed by local newspapers, village notice-boards, conversations in pubs or word-of-mouth recommendations and then weaving them into a coherent whole once I get into the edit suite, this is what I find exhilarating, and of course working with someone like Iain who is already fairly-full-to-overflowing with ideas and anecdotes. The collaging of material and how that might inform which bit goes where and how the next piece might or might not ‘belong’ is always fascinating. Stewart Lee comments at the end of Swandown that (I) just see what happens and then reverse engineer the meaning after I've collated the events which I think is an honest appraisal of my methodology… 

So much of Gallivant feels improvised, especially in who you meet and talk to.  How many of the interviews and how much choice of what was filmed (if any) was planned? Any particular happy accidents on the journey?

Invariably it was improvised although serendipity played its part. There was always somebody that we might meet in a pub or somebody that somebody else knew that might be interested in talking to us, whether it be local policemen, fishermen, tinkers or whoever was to hand or somebody that Gladys would suddenly start talking to, as with the German tourists at Beachy Head. When she and Eden weren’t with us we were freer to film the landscape and generally I’d get the chance to ‘perform’ in public, we would make things up around ideas that I had had during the week. Things that were thematically connected to ideas of "Britishness" in the 90s and the AA book of coastal Britain was also invaluable. It helped inform us about where we might stop next and what was coming up. And then we had a very old-school mobile phone with us which was the size of a fax machine and used to sit on the dashboard of the campervan and might even have been made of bakelight from what I misremember, so occasionally I'd phone up a local tourist information office in an attempt to seek out potential subjects or phone London to see whether Janni Perton, our production manager, might have found anything of interest that might be coming up.

One of the many happy accidents was when I broke my ankle falling off the side of the camper van, which then led to the hospital visit and also the lollipop lady who we drove past and then interviewed. She connected brilliantly with this idea of Gladys thinking that it was the perfect job. Gladys had confided in us one evening that she had always wanted to be one and this had informed the choice of familiars or figurines for the dashboard of the camper van. One drunken evening she had decided that I was a monk (hermetically sealed inside my head whilst trying to make sense of the project), Eden was the Virgin Mary (because of her innocence and purity) and she herself was a lollipop lady, helping children across the road in order to get to the other side… “The river’s not wide” is what she used to say, “and we’re all getting to the other side”.

Eden especially has appeared in almost all of your work and your filmography equally feels like a home movie of her growing up.  Do you see Gallivant as that sort of personal documentation and does watching it twenty years later give you the same feeling as, say, looking at photographs of her when younger?

Indeed the film still resonates in the same way that old family photographs might.  Gallivant might ostensibly be seen as a glorified home movie, resplendent in asides, non-sequiturs and self-indulgence. The only thing that holds the structure of the film together is the fidelity that I showed to the chronology of our journey; we started and ended at Bexhill-on-Sea and geographically all the places that we visit are presented in the correct order. Without that, Cliff West (the editor) and myself would have been very lost, but it is Gladys and Eden that are the film's heartbeat and it is Eden that has changed the way in which I make work.

We have collaborated on numerous projects since Gallivant, there seems to be the work I made before Eden and the work I made thereafter and it is the latter that feels the strongest and most significant. It is her unfathomability that continues to beguile and infuriate me and, along with my wife Leila as her principle carers, there is never a moment when she is not in our lives. So it has become much easier to weave her into my practice rather than exclude her. I have been fortunate that she has an ability to draw and paint and that she also has a sense of humour and skewed love-of-life that enables her to tolerate me.

Over the last few years we have been working with the animator Glenn Whiting who has brought to life her drawings and collages. We were commissioned by Channel 4’s Random Acts strand to make a short film, It’s All In The Mind, and this became a launch pad for various other collaborations along with the music of Jem Finer. Eden’s work has really moved into a new and magical lo-fi digital realm, (I would say this because I am so proud of it), but her last film Forgotten The Queen toured the UK with my feature-film Edith Walks (2017) and probably to better acclaim than mine…

Looking back between Edith Walks and Gallivant, how do you think your film work has evolved and changed in between? I'm thinking particularly in regards to the crossover between digital and analogue as your feature filmmaking seems to have come about on the cusp of the digital revolution and the smaller cameras that came with it.

For the me the biggest change is the potential to present work across all formats, the ‘spillage’ that each project produces used to be a lot harder to corral into specific forms because of the limitations of technology and the budget. The installations that I made when I was at the Slade were quite crude in comparison to what is possible nowadays. I was restricted by how I could present the various elements of the work; this was before 16mm loopers, video projectors, surround sound in galleries and then all the digital platforms for image recording through to cheaper means of producing bookworks, CDs and vinyl.

Today I have become a lot more self-sufficient and, by working outside of both the industry of Cinema and the business of The Gallery, I can navigate a thin membrane that allows me aspects of both. Teaching has also enabled me to keep an ear to the ground and involved with a lively debate when it comes to new and old technologies. I’ve recently remade my graduation film Klipperty Klöpp from 33 years ago in collaboration with the performance dancer Yumino Seki and presented it as a 2K split screen projection alongside the original Super-8 black and white, which would have been unthinkable all those eversomanymoons ago… 

The new edit of Klipperty Klöpp is screened at Aesthetica Short Film Festival in November.

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