ken russell directing film

BOOK REVIEW – Ken Russell Directing Film

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English director Ken Russell’s book, Directing Film: From Pitch to Premiere,  is one of the least interesting insights on the topic that I have read. You will learn nothing. Although, perhaps that’s a little harsh. 

Ken Russell Directing Film
Ken Russell’s Directing Film

It’s a big disappointment that Russell – or his publishers – have slapped out this book (now fifteen years old) in such a state. It is the poor cousin of an anecdotal memoir.  Surely an artist of the experience and breadth as Russell can dig much deeper than he has here. I can only come to the conclusion that Russell had a  need to gripe and big-note himself (often in the same sentence) or he was badly in debt and required a financial boost in the form of a publisher’s advance.

Ken Russell (1927 – 2011) is the director behind some great films: Women in Love (1969), The Who’s Tommy (1975)and the science-fiction film Altered States (1980) in which brought to the screen the writing of Paddy Chayefsky. Many of those films are touched upon in the book but only loosely and with a need for titillation. This is not the book for readers, like me, searching for knowledge to apply to their own filmmaking. I have no doubt Russell had such a book in him but, presumably, he took it to his grave.

ken russell directing film
Ken Russell directs The Devils

Russell is true to his chapter headings: casting, pre-production, principal photography etc. and he recounts events from each. Take principal photography to which he dedicates a mere 10 pages to this aspect of film production (where the camera is actually rolled) and seven full pages of those are taken up by photographs – leaving only three pages of text. A life of shooting eighteen feature films summed up in three pages.

For true fans of Russell’s work there might be something here for the man does reveal himself, for better or worse, in his writing. He is a director known for the sexuality he depicts which is more than dealt with here. 

For the many of the crew, the main thrust of their job is to find a willing sexual partner for the duration of the shoot

Russell’s take on filmmaking seems rather dated – but accurate to the times, I’m sure. Many of the crew roles, and the way in which he presents them, are delineated into HE (DP, 1st Ad, Sound) and SHE (Continuity, Make Up etc.). The “continuity girl – sorry that should read continuity lady – was the female equivalent of the DP” –  gets more words than most crew members, culminating in the fact that she was “very discreet at night”.  After reading Russell’s book, I am excited by the current movement toward the repositioning  of women’s place at the creative helm of filmmaking – but I wonder what Russell would have made of it.

ken russell directing film
Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers

In the first few pages Russell inflated ego says of one of his films that flopped, “the fact that the film is a masterpiece is ample compensation” which turns the reader against him. But in the final few pages he refers to himself as an “unbankable has-been” and, by then, the reader has warmed to his hijinks, mischievous attitudes and anecdotes that give an insight into the boys club that was English filmmaking in the 20th Century.

In the end, Ken Russell’s Directing Film is light and fast to read, which is good because there’s nothing to sustain in it. Russell does not explain his creative outlook, his methods, his approach, nor has shared any practical knowledge. It is simply a run through of memories, loosely collated around the method of making films. There are many books out there that do the same only much better.

 

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