Peter Middleton’s (pictured left with co-director James Spinney) background in visual arts is clear throughout his latest work, Notes on Blindness, which is screening at Sydney Film Festival this year. The feature-length follow-up to his 2014 short Notes on Blindness: Rainfall, his most recent effort — as well as its interactive companion piece — offers a deeply intimate reflection on the late theologian John Hull, and his process of going blind and coming to terms with it. With the cast lip-syncing to the original recordings of Hull, Middleton’s piece is a unique and holistic work that mediates between documentary and more abstract visual moments, emerging with a stunning portrait of the complexities and insight that defined Hull’s recordings.
We caught up with Middleton at Sydney Film Festival to discuss the process of moving from a short film to a feature-length work on the same topic, the process of directing a lip-synced film, and the relationship the director formed with Hull during the film-making process.
How did you first come into contact with Hull, and when did you decide that you wanted to go from making the short to making a feature about him?
About five years ago we came across John’s book called Touching the Rock which was published in the early 1990’s. It reads very much like a diary — it is in effect a kind of transcript of these audio tapes that he kept after losing his sight in 1983. They’re incredibly far reaching in terms of their subject matter. They do tell not only kind of the practical challenges of losing sight — how to cross a street, how to communicate with strangers, how to maintain relationships with his wife and with his children — but also they detail the impact of sight loss on his dreams and his memories, and actually document over the course of three years a sort of neurological rewiring as he goes deeper into blindness. John [has an] increasingly strong position of loss and grief, coming to see blindness as this sort of dark gift. This is all kind of contained within these audiotapes that we came across.
The forward to the book mentioned that they were based in the States. We reached out to John and he gave us access to [the tapes], and we were kind of astounded really the first time that we listened to them. We knew that within this material there was a potential to develop a longer form of project. We also were aware that we didn’t, because it’s such an internal journey. It’s one that’s set inside his dreams and his memories, his impressions of life, we wanted a way of kind of preserving that kind of immediacy and authenticity that’s contained within the tapes. We started experimenting with different kind of approaches to this and felt that a kind of a conventional documentary approach, maybe something involving kind of talking head interviews or observational footage would strangely be more objective, and wouldn’t allow us to sort of access the interior world of blindness.
We started making a series of short films to experiment, and to try and help us get towards our approach. The first of all those was a short film called Rainfall, which was released in 2013 and that played here in Sydney in the film festival then. That was to get momentum to make a longer one, which played in New York Times in 2014, which got the momentum behind us to get the feature film into production.
I’m curious about how the tapes are incorporated throughout the film, and the process of working those in. Was there a process of finding certain actors to play, during the casting and editing stages?
In terms of the materials that that John gave us access to, he recorded about sixteen hours worth of audio diaries across three years after losing his sight. Alongside that, he’d recorded twice as [many] actuality recordings around the family home. On special occasions, which is Christmases or the children’s birthdays or christenings, he’d set up tape recorders and record these moments. We had this enormous wealth of original documentary material from the period on which to structure the film. As well as that, we were recording kind of interviews with John now over the course of the development. In fact, they started off as research interviews, just exploring and digging down deeper into various kind of aspects of John’s experience. Over time, we were particularly drawn to the reflective quality of these recordings, and in a sense tried to encourage John and Marilyn to speak to one another, and that what gives these recordings that kind of conversational/lyrical tone.
The two of them having this joint act of remembrance, reflecting on events from a distance of thirty years, forms a kind of contemporary narration throughout the film; a framework on which to dip into the original recordings that John had made in his diaries. The process in terms of how we shaped all that material… we were working with all this stuff over the course of a couple of years, and — as is often the way in documentary — new material was kind of coming to light all the time. On several occasions when we would go up to visit John and Marilyn, they’d produce an additional box of audio cassettes, some of which were coming out quite scarily close to the beginning of production. It was a process of excavating all this material and trying to find a clear narrative that ran throughout it, and shaping it into what became a screenplay.
By the time we came to shoot the film, we had a screenplay for the film, which had a corresponding audio soundtrack so we could share that with our collaborators, with our crew, with our cast. They could, in effect, listen to the audio, the dialogue and the narration that was in the script as they were reading. In terms of finding our actors, we were particularly drawn by a film called The Arbor, which was released I think in 2011, by Clio Barnard about the British playwright Andrea Dunbar. That uses a similar lip-syncing technique, slightly different to ours in that it’s more presentational; a bit more self-conscious. Nonetheless, we knew that within that production lay something that we could revoke beneficial for us. We contacted her casting director, a very well regarded casting director in the UK called Amy Hubbard, and she agreed to do it, and she’s the person who found our cast.
It’s an unusual technique. There’s a certain musicality to the lip syncing. The cast needs to ingest the rhythms and the cadence of John and Marilyn’s speech. We give them audio files in advance, so they listened to it and really spent time with it. Then when it came to onset, we didn’t record any sound. Instead we’d have a playback engineer who would sort of queue up each piece of audio with a countdown, and pips beforehand, and we shot it like that, really. It was quite an unusual way to make a film.
When did you start the production for it? I know that Hull passed away throughout the shooting, but at what stage did that happen?
We began principal photography in 1st July I think, 2015, and John passed away on the 28th.
Yeah, it was a quite a shock. It was quite unexpected, [because] John had never really been in great health for most of his life but was in good health the previous year. As well as blindness he also had breathing difficulties, lung problems, allergies and was an anaesthetic risk. He had this really bad fall and didn’t really recover from it, and very sadly passed away on July 28th.
Did that change at all the way in which you were approaching the film? It always feels like both a documentary and a [narrative] film.
Absolutely. We kind of embraced that; the hybrid quality of it. We did very much want to make something that looked both ways, but we didn’t change the film. Yeah, I think John’s passing had a very deep effect on us all. He’d been so instrumental to the project’s development. We felt increasingly that it was a collaboration with both John and Marilyn. We spent a lot of time with them, shaping the recording material and discussing our ideas around the project.
Increasingly in the latter years of his life, he began to talk about it quite possessively. He’d say, “How’s our film coming along?” His loss, yeah, it had a very profound impact on us all, and of course refocused the nature of the project. It suddenly took on a certain importance to do justice, really; to serve his memory and his wife’s.
I think a lot of the scenes do that very well, especially a lot of those dream sequences. I was very fascinated with how you took these audio recordings of his descriptions of these dreams and how you translated that to the part of the film that is more visual and metaphysical. How did you navigate that and create those scenes? Were there was specific conversations with Hull that you had in articulating those?
Much of the big cinematic imagery is very much drawn from the source material. You mentioned dreams there, because John had very vivid dreams after losing his sight. He referred to them as the last visual state of consciousness. In fact, he’d often say that dreams are like watching film for him, and he increasingly began to retreat into dreams in many ways, and looked to them as a sort of a source of visual refreshment. John dissected this in his diaries — it doesn’t quite make it into the film, but hopefully it’s there in the subtext. In a way, his mind was hungering for visual information, and his unconscious dreaming life was, in a way, his mind processing that.
The imagery that often appeared in his dreams — which is of water particularly, of waves sweeping away his children, of being dragged down to the depths of the ocean — this was all stuff that was in the source material. Of course his dreams often reflected his own anxieties in blindness, and particularly in relation to his family and young children, of being disconnected; of being alienated. When we began to approach the material, we knew that there was this incredibly rich archive there, and rich set of official references and metaphor and imagery which we could draw from. It leaped off the page, really.
There’s a scene where he’s calling “bye” with his son, back and forth, which is just the most beautiful scene where it’s slowly getting softer. Did you have an approach to picking out which things you wanted to cut out of the very extensive amount of material that you were working on?
Yeah, it was an ongoing process of just excavating this material and refining it and trying to boil it down, as is any kind of documentary editing process. It’s one of the reasons we maintain that the film is a documentary. That initial kind of editing process was one that is very familiar to us from the documentary world. That [scene] is a good example of it. Obviously that scene wasn’t recorded by John, although that is [a recording] of him shouting “bye” to his son. When we were, the process was quite a strange one. When we spent time with John and Marilyn, John was this incredible storyteller and an incredibly engaging personality and captivating presence, and when he was recalling stories and events, he would often quite naturally perform them out. He’d recount conversations, he’d recount both sides of the conversations — “I said, he said” — and he as a wonderful sort of performer. We were really taken by this and we’d actively encourage it. That led onto these well-performed scenes whereby we’d ask John to record both sides of the conversation, and then we just ediedt out the other side and asked an actor to perform those.
What you were kind of doing next with the film?
That’s quite a big question. The film has its Australian premiere on Saturday, we’re releasing in the UK on the 1st July, and alongside that we’re taking the film and the VR project on tour throughout the UK, and doing a series of kind of previews at 18 cinema sites. The first time that a film and a VR project are being presented alongside one another — that’s quite an exciting experiment for us. And then of course, beyond that, we’re releasing in the US in October [or] November, and we’re hoping we’ll be able to announce something for Australia.
All right. Well, thanks so much for the interview.