Ray Of Light: An Interview With Richard Billingham

In 1996, Richard Billingham shot to fame with his photobook Ray's A Laugh. Now he returns to the same material with his first feature film, Ray & Liz

Richard Billingham’s Birmingham-set drama, Ray & Liz, looks back at the life of his family living on the breadline in Thatcher’s Britain.

Originally a photographer, most famous for his portrait series of his alcoholic father titled Ray’s A Laugh, his first feature film brings those characters from his past into motion and narrativises the stills that became synonymous with working class Britain.

The Quietus spoke to Billingham about his transition into moving image, cinematic influences, and haunted paintings.

How has the transition from photography to feature films been?

Well, I guess the difference between documentary photography and narrative feature is that with documentary it depends on what’s in front of you, you have to use the camera to extrapolate the world. But with narrative film you have to create that world first and then film it. I really like the work of these constructed narrative photographers, those include Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman – they spent a long time making a set and putting actors or models in it, and then they made one photograph from it, and there you can’t necessarily see it’s a staged photograph. It looks like a documentary photograph. I’m fascinated by that sort of photography even though I haven’t done any myself and looking at that photography sort of gave me confidence to move onto narrative feature.

You were drawing from your personal experiences. How was the writing process?

I see writing as a visual art form. All good creative writers are visual artists, because they have to plant pictures in the reader’s head, that’s what keeps them engaged. Once I thought about it in that way, the writing process was much easier and I started by writing down things that I remembered, like what a room would look like, and then sort of cut and paste them into a linear sequence and then adding dialogue later. It was different stages, it didn’t happen all at once.

How was it working with the actors and seeing them bring these familiar characters to life?

Is it enjoyable bringing people that you know back to life? I think it’s quite a dark art. I’m always quite amazed that you’ll audition with somebody and they become somebody else for a minute or two, and then they break character and go back to themselves and you think, “Do you realise what you’ve just done?” because they’re so good. I think it’s extraordinary, the idea that an actor can be somebody else for a minute. I’m not quite sure how they do it. I realised with these actors I couldn’t give them enough information, and we had rehearsals so when they came onto set they weren’t coming in cold, and we could just do it, we didn’t have many shooting days so we could only afford to do about two takes of each.

You’re drawing from your own experiences, but were there any other materials that inspired you?

You know The Terence Davies Trilogy, the first film that he made? I saw that about 20 years ago. I just think it was fascinating, it felt like I was watching his own memories unfold. And the other film that I found inspirational was a film I saw when I was a kid called A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson. It was a black and white film and it was mostly shot in one room in a prison cell, and it was about this guy trying to escape this prison cell. I remember thinking how tense it was and yet the camera rarely leaves this room. And I noticed that it’s very rare that you see the whole room at once; he sort of pieces the room together in your head, like a jigsaw.

Photography works like that as well. When I did those Ray’s A Laugh photographs, I realised that if I photograph the whole room on a wide angle lens, you’re showing people everything, whereas if you focus on details then the viewer pieces together what that room looks like. It’s much more engaging – the viewer has to work to fill in the gaps, so I think it can be more engaging that way. and I could see that that’s what Bresson did in that film.

Did that also inspire the decision to film in a square aspect ratio?

Yes. I knew I wasn’t going to shoot panoramic, but I did do some panoramic images in the rooms and they looked terrible. With panoramic, it’s very hard to focus on an object and give it symbolic resonance, or some sort of metaphorical symbolic importance. Whereas if you’ve got a square aspect ratio, you can put objects in the middle of the frame and give them importance. When I was growing up, it seemed like all technology was 4:3 ratio, all the TVs were that, and if you shot on Super8 that was 4:3 ratio. You only saw panoramic if you went to the cinema.

The set design feels very carefully considered – there’s a great shot of Liz doing a jigsaw on the surface of a painting of a boy who looks a lot like Jason, the youngest child in the family.

It’s called The Crying Boy. In the ‘60s and ‘70s you had a lot of those reproductions of kitsch paintings on market stalls, and they were very common in the homes of working class families. The Crying Boy was very popular and it occurred to me that there could be a symmetry between the Crying Boy’s face and Jason in the shed [in one scene, Jason sleeps rough in a neighbour’s garden].

There was a story that The Crying Boy reproductions were evil in some way because lots of working class families that had that picture on their wall, their houses would burn down. But it was because working class people used to smoke a lot and they used to leave the chip pan on, and they had a higher percentage of domestic fires than other more well off people that would never buy that sort of painting. I’ll always remember that. And then there’s a painting up in the house above the fire of the woman on a tree in a rainforest somewhere. That sort of imagery was very popular when I was growing up.

So what was the process in sourcing those images?

There were some objects we couldn’t get because we just couldn’t find them, but you can get something that’s very close to it or in the spirit of it. I got a lot of things off eBay, and then when we got some budget together and we could afford a set designer, they just get these things by going to prop houses. But sometimes these things weren’t so good from prop houses and they’d dig around in charity shops or online.

What’s next for you? Are you going to make more feature films?

I want to write more material for features, but I don’t imagine them being autobiographical, I imagine them being more external. Maybe similar themes, but more external. It depends what can get funded first, I always say!

Ray & Liz , directed by Richard Billingham, is in UK cinemas from 8 March

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