The POV Interview: Allan King

34 mins read

In a remarkable career that has just entered its fiftieth year, Allan King has won awards in Cannes, Leipzig, London, New York and Toronto. He has been called “a great artist” by legendary filmmaker Jean Renoir and had his work hailed by critics writing for the New York Times, Paris’ Le Monde, Toronto’s Globe and Mail and London’s The Observer. King has filmed over 100 works in genres as diverse as feature length drama, episodic TV, essays, shorts and broadcast journalism. Along the way, he’s worked on adaptations of stories by Mordecai Richler and Alice Munro, collaborated with dramatists Carol Bolt and David Fennario on television productions and directed the classic Canadian feature Who Has Seen the Wind? (1977). King would doubtlessly be recognized for those achievements if that was all he had done. But his major accomplishments have been in another form altogether. From his first film, Skidrow (1957) to his latest empZ4Life (2006), Allan King has established himself as one of the world’s masters in documentary.

King created two of the iconic independent films of the Sixties, a period noted for such experimenters in form as Godard, Warhol and Fellini. Warrendale (1967), a fierce, clear-eyed look at an institution for disturbed children and A Married Couple (1969), a stunning examination of a troubled relationship were major hits on the international art house circuit. Antonioni’s Blow Up and Buñuel’s Belle de Jour shared prizes in London and New York respectively with King’s Warrendale in 1967, an indication of the Vancouver-born filmmaker’s reputation as far back as 40 years ago. King took the form of cinéma vérité and refined it into character-based narratives, which he called “actuality dramas.” At their best, in Warrendale and A Married Couple, as well as the films of his remarkable autumnal comeback as a documentarian, Dying at Grace (2003) and empZ4Life (2006), King’s actuality dramas combine the excitement and concision of narrative features with the didactic and humanitarian concerns of non-fiction filmmakers.

POV concentrated this interview with Allan King on his docs, including the lesser-recognized Come on Children (1973), The Dragon’s Egg (1998), and Who’s In Charge? (1983). In person, Mr. King is a charming blend of compassion and fearlessness, perhaps the perfect combination for a documentary filmmaker.

AK: Allan King
POV: Marc Glassman, Editor of POV

POV: Allan, I’d like to begin by asking about your own roots. You started off in Vancouver in the 1950s and after your success, critics began to refer to your films and those by others shot there as being a “West Coast school of filmmaking.” Did it really exist?

AK: The term is correct. We were the transition between a world that lived in film and a world that lived in television. It was a crossover and a merger of the two and we affected each other and transformed documentaries and drama in a lot of ways, too. It was a time when the CBC was a royal trust network, before Diefenbaker and the Tories squished it and turned it into a second-class form. So indeed the West Coast school was distinctive and had its own way of going at things, which came about because we were the first people in television to actually make documentaries because the CBC had been forbidden to do that. It was an opening, and a change. I first heard the phrase, by the way, from Claude Jutra who was doing an interview with me when he was young and I was young.

POV: Of the early docs you made at that time for the CBC, which was the most important?

AK: Skidrow was much the strongest of those, and had the most impact on other people. Emotionally it took them on a trip they’d never been on before, although On The Bowery (by American director Lionel Rogosin) came out at the same time. But it was rather different. It didn’t have the personal feel. It looked at people as objects rather than allowing you to experience what it was like to be them.

POV: Your very first film and you had already established your voice! Narration sometimes takes you away from the subjects but there are moments when you are right there with the characters, which you seem to insist on.

AK: That was a part of it. Ben Maartman was the scriptwriter. All of those interviews were rehearsed carefully, and scripted.

POV: It immediately draws the notion of documentary into question.

AK: That argument has been going on since Flaherty and Grierson and those two schools of thought. Flaherty’s films were about telling stories with actual people: dramas about people who are living their own lives, but not being too much bound up by fact. Grierson was very much about social issues. I embraced both. We’ve divided the world into Flaherty and Grierson. I learned from John Grierson that that wasn’t the case. Of course, John was a supporter of Flaherty.

POV: When did you first meet Grierson?

AK: After Skidrow, the next film that made a mark was Rickshaw (1960) which was selected for the Leipzig Documentary Festival. I rode down on a bus with John from the Potsdam airport in what was then East Germany to Leipzig. John was the head of the jury. It was the first time I got to know him much and talk with him. At the time, Skidrow and City of Gold (1957, by NFBers Colin Low and Wolf Koenig) were John’s favorite Canadian films. Rickshaw got first prize at Leipzig. (King laughs)

POV: Another important film that you made during this period in the early ’60s was A Matter of Pride (1961). You came back to Canada to make it and the film is filled with questions on employment and self-worth. What prompted you to make it?

AK: I’ve always been interested in politics and social issues since I was a little kid. I was a debater from the age of 10 on. I led my first strike when I was 17 and led another walkout in a logging camp when I was 19 or 20. I’ve always been involved in, and concerned, about social issues. The central theme for me is: how do you make life better, personally and socially?

POV: Given that class analysis was a no-no in the ’60s, did you find that most people who were radical in that period were like those in your film, Running Away Backwards (1964)? Those bohemian Canadians in Ibiza were running to pursue something, but there was nothing for them to analyse. They were trying to rebel, but they couldn’t centre their rebellion.

AK: It’s also because the author, Bob Goldston, had a great sense of parody. He found the community pretty funny. A lot of them were very serious; a lot of them were considerable artists, like the painter Graham Coughtry. There’s always a body of artists who, wishing to seek a better understanding of the world, go to do that. The other huge attraction was that it was so cheap. You could afford to do it, to take a year to write.

POV: Do you feel in retrospect that going to live in Ibiza and London for the first half of the ’60s was your way to find yourself?

AK: It was enormously important to me. The experience in Ibiza was major. I didn’t know what it was like to be a Canadian until I was in Ibiza, with a lot of different people. The economy there allowed me to do the films I wanted to do and to see the world. I had really seen everything I needed to see, in a sense, in Vancouver. Mind you, someone like Alice Munro, a very great artist, is content with western Ontario and has forged a major body
of work.

For me, going to England was also enormously valuable. We were able to go from there and see an enormous part of the world and learned a great deal. A time came, though, when I realized I had been making films all over the world and gained a great deal of knowledge and experience from that but that I didn’t understand the English at all. Furthermore, I wanted to resolve personal issues. I felt I could that best by going back to Toronto.

POV: That must have worked out well, since Patrick Watson was insisting that you make a film about educating youth in Toronto, instead of London, where you had first proposed to make it. What was your reaction to Warrendale, when you first looked at the institution?

AK: Of course I was captivated by the place. I was enormously impressed by John Brown, who is one of the most important people I’ve ever met. The main thing is that he always asked questions, he always explored. He was never caught up in dogma. He was certainly influenced by Freud, but John was always looking at what was going on at the moment. ‘What is happening here? How can we help? What can we do with these kids?’ Those were some the questions he was asking. But his main question was, ‘How do you deal with kids who are angry?’ His whole philosophy in dealing with these young people was innovative, brilliant and insightful. So that was what attracted me.

POV: Warrendale as a film is interesting in so many different ways: the film itself mirrors the treatment. It’s caring, emotional, yet very confrontational. You need a warning even now. 30 years later, it’s still hard to look at.

AK: It’s dealing with outrage. John had difficulty with the film, himself. One of the things that people don’t quite recognize is that it wasn’t usual to have a death in the house. So the film is essentially around death and loss and the powerlessness that the children feel. Powerlessness is impotence, which moves to panic and then to rage. The kids are angry because they’re powerless. Dealing with the death of Dorothy, stirs up a lot of things the children feel, especially around loss.

POV: You made a decision in that film. The death occurred early on in your shoot, but you structure Warrendale in such a way that it happens as a conclusion. Why?

AK: That’s the essence of drama, isn’t it? If you have the explosion at the beginning, why stay for the rest of the film? There’s no exposition in the film, as one doesn’t want to have exposition if one can avoid it, but knowing the children’s lives, you could never understand the end of the film if I hadn’t established who the children were. We had to identify with the children and learn about the children who were most important in it.

POV: How important was it to have William Brayne there as the cameraman?

AK: Essential. Bill was brilliant. He had a wonderful ability to maintain an objective perspective. He could keep a distance. At the same time, he was totally accepting of what was happening in front of him, which is the essence of what we do. Furthermore, he was a brilliant editor. He started as an editor and was one of the best editors I’ve ever seen. A fundamental collaborator.

The editor, Peter Moseley, was equally important, and the sound person, Russel Heise, was very valuable as well. The group makes the director. My job is holding the concept.

POV: You switched the group radically for A Married Couple, which people think of as the other Allan King masterpiece of the ’60s. Why did you change your crew?

AK: I used to take turns using Bill and Richard Leiterman. So it was Richard’s turn. He also had special attributes. He was emotionally powerful, had strong feelings and tremendous drive. It was impossible to stop Richard. He didn’t shoot quite as well for editing, but he had other virtues that made up for that. We also switched our sound to Chris Wangler, who had worked with us in England.

POV: You and Richard had known Billy and Antoinette Edwards in Ibiza. Did that help or hurt the project?

AK: It was probably a difficulty that we knew them. For the film we wanted to make, it was important to have a distance. You need to have separation. If you are friends, that has to be set aside.

POV: Antoinette and Billy are complicated and charismatic. It seems as if they are playing to the camera, at times. They obviously were aware of what you were doing.

AK: They had to be. That’s why they made the film. In my process of doing therapy and making films, I learned about projection and interjection, the role of putting things into people and letting them put stuff into you. People’s attitudes to Antoinette and Billy were astounding; I was dumbfounded. Very few people understood or gave them credit for the fact that they wanted to explore the difficulties in their marriage in the hope that they could save it. Of course they enjoyed making the film. But they weren’t showing off. Some people always like making jokes and being entertaining and engaging.

POV: They had a sense of drama and lots of charisma.

AK: They were bright, funny, emotional people. That’s why we were friends. I lived with them when I first came back to Canada.

POV: Was it a deliberate choice never to be around, knowing they were your friends?

AK: I did stay in the house for the first few days. I could sense that they were wondering ‘is this what Allan wants?’ It was like having the judge on set. I ain’t the judge. I’m not trying to judge anything. We’re trying to be of service to them. They have something they want to express. The children in Warrendale wanted to express what it was to be a disturbed child. What was so awful about them is that they had to be kept in places that they thought sometimes were like jails. What was so awful about them that they couldn’t be seen?

And the people in Who’s In Charge? wanted to express their feelings about how awful it was to be unemployed. Our job was to be of service to that expression. If in the end, they don’t do anything, are bullshitting and not digging into their real feelings, then they’re not doing their job and we’re not doing our job. You have to have a way to make that happen.

POV: How do you see your role, and that of your associates in making these documentaries, which you called ‘actuality dramas’?

AK: It was our task in Warrendale to help the children express their feelings and, if possible, have insight into where the feelings had developed. And the same thing with Billy and Antoinette. We wanted to explore the nature of conflict in marriage. They wanted to explore the nature of conflict in marriage, particularly in their marriage. We were there to serve their purposes, and our own, because we shared a task. They were as committed to the film as we were, because we were both focused in every case on the task.

Now with Who’s in Charge?, some of the people thought they were being abused; however, the majority never left. One or two people did leave the film and were driven to the airport with perfect courtesy. There was no issue whatsoever.

If somebody had wanted to step out of Dying at Grace, I would have been a monster if I had tried to force them to stay. You have to be of service to the subjects in the film, and they to us. It’s a shared task. I can’t explore without cooperation.

POV: Your next documentary feature after A Married Couple was Come on Children. It’s an interesting look at group dynamics. Here, as in Who’s in Charge?, a situation is created so that you can explore what happens. How did Come On Children come about?

AK: I wanted to understand what was going on with this Flower Generation right in the middle of Yorkville. For me, it’s the most interesting generation in all the 70 years I’ve now lived. I wanted to explore these kids—sex and drugs and all of the rest of it. I talked to my research assistant and to kids, and they all said, ‘Why is there no place for us in this society? There’s no place to hang out—we get thrown out of coffee shops, we can’t get involved in school, everywhere we go, we get hassled. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get out in the country and talk to people and hang out?’ That’s what they wanted to do, and that’s what we wanted to explore. The film is as good a demonstration as one might wish of the heart of the matter of adolescence. It caused problems for adults, particularly parents—they couldn’t stand it, couldn’t see it. They hated it.

POV: Seth Feldman, the York University professor who curated your TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) retrospective in 2002, has suggested that Come On Children is a capstone to the Flower Generation and that your film captured the zeitgeist. What do you think?

AK: I don’t think adolescence has changed. The dynamics among kids in groups were the same when I made empZ4Life last year. People get hung up on the costumes, but kids still do the same things. To get caught up with the changes in dress fashions is to miss the point entirely. Seth’s interpretation reflects more of the interpreter than it does of the film, or of reality.

The only difficulty I had making the film was that the first screening was at the Flaherty seminar. That screening caused an enormous disturbance and fuss and people were outraged at it. Then, we had a screening in Toronto where it was, again, an older audience who walked out as if I’d let out a huge fart.

POV: How would you contrast the response to empZ4Life now?

AK: It, too, causes real difficulty because people don’t want to look at the problems we’re facing now. Most people don’t have the foggiest idea about the effects of racism. Why does it always happen to people at the bottom of the economic pile? Why does it focus around adolescents, who then have a major choice to make, which often leads to crime? Why are our prisons filled with First Nations people, and blacks?

POV: After Come On Children had such a poor reception, you embraced TV drama, only really returning to documentary with Who’s In Charge? Here, you look at unemployment through psychology and the use of group dynamics fostered by the Tavistock institute. What caused you to embrace their style, which came off as confrontational to the unemployed Canadians featured in the film?

AK: The confrontation is only interpretation and comment. It’s always taken as an assault, particularly by people of the victim school, who thought that the unemployed people should use Who’s in Charge? as a political platform rather than one for exploring experience.

It was enormously controversial. It almost drove me to become a Conservative! (laughter)

POV: The form you used—people sitting in circles, asking questions, telling stories and acting out—is avant-garde, even now. What did you think would happen when Who’s in Charge? was aired on television?

AK: That it would change the world. I’ve always thought my films would change the world.

POV: After Who’s in Charge? was attacked in Parliament and the mainstream media, what did you do?

AK: I found that I could get work in episodic television. I never had trouble getting hired for formula stuff and, in a way, it was fun doing it. I had to keep working to pay for my kids.

I also discovered that being Chair of the Directors Guild, which I did during this period, was enormously valuable. I chaired an awful lot of meetings. I could never have done that had I not been to Tavistock.

POV: How important was the TIFF retrospective in getting you back to making documentaries?

AK: It (the TIFF retrospective) was very helpful in getting me reestablished. In a sense, it had already happened, because Rudy Buttignol (then head of network programming at TVO) had backed my first documentary in many years, The Dragon’s Egg, which has rarely been seen but remains topical because it is about the process in which people can achieve democracy.

POV: The film is about how Russians living in Estonia—the dragon’s egg of empire—find a new way to live with the local population after glasnost. Do you think community efforts like the one Olga Kamoshan spearheaded point the way to a new attitude in the Baltics?

AK: Well, you think you can be helpful by giving people Christianity or the Gospel according to Mohammed or any creed but the people may want something else entirely.

Despite all the triumph that Olga and her group had in building a home for children, the fact is that it was destroyed within two years. A lot happened after the epilogue in The Dragon’s Egg. It takes a long time to remove all the prejudices that exist between members of competing groups.

POV: Your next film, Dying at Grace, got a great reception from critics and the public. The film was on a very tough subject. What were some of the difficulties you encountered while making it?

AK: It was very difficult to find a place to film. Everybody wanted to watch over us to make sure we didn’t injure somebody. The level of paranoia, the fear of filmmakers that has developed since I began is huge and almost crippling.

We had the enormous problem of working with people who became less and less able to communicate as their conditions worsened. I had to give the business of building a relationship with the people we were filming to Peter Walker, my cameraman, and Jason Milligan, who did sound. They did such a fine job that when we made Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2004), I never did get to know the residents. None of them would know who I was. But I was working closely with Peter especially and we would talk all the time about what was going on. It’s not as if I was absent.

With Dying, there was also a structural problem that my editor Nick Hector and I had to put five separate stories together. At one point I thought it should be five short films. There was not very much of a relationship between the characters.

POV: How do you see your role as an artist and a director?

AK: Directors have enormous egos. They always think they’re more important than the scriptwriter, just as conductors always think they’re more important than the composer. In this case, the people are composing. If you tell actors what to do and how to do it, they will never own it. They will never push hard enough to find the kernel of the feeling or the moment, the beat. That is the heart of acting. It’s the same with camera people and everyone I’ve found. The more freedom you give people, the more they will give you. Mind you, they’re not giving it to me, personally; it’s always about the work itself. I can ask an awful lot for that.

POV: Directors have said to me that in a drama, the major task is to cast the right actors and have them figure it out.

AK: I choose the right cameraperson, the right editor and everybody else. Each one has different tasks and different ways of going about it, but the central task is one of exploration. We’re all involved in the same thing, but I’ve never been a writer and I never think of myself as an artist.

In the films, I’m exploring. It doesn’t help if I have a whole pile of preconceptions. I’ve been given the privilege of being paid to study and learn. It’s as if I’ve been on a scholarship since I got my first job at the CBC, getting paid to explore.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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