Interview with Ron Peck
Ron Peck is a legend in this history of queer cinema. Michael Langan talked to him at Queer Lisboa 18, which featured a retrospective of his work, about his diverse body of work.
(Click images to enlarge)
Ron Peck has been making films for 40 years. After moving to London he attended the UK’s first film school where he developed his early interest in American independent films and European cinema and the avant-garde, wanting to experiment with cinematic form and narrative technique. Distinctly uninspired by British film and television, wedded as it was then to a social realism that he felt restricted film making, he strove to find his own cinematic voice and style. Nighthawks, from 1978, told the story of a teacher who trawls London’s gay bars and clubs at night. The film was hailed as a landmark gay movie and caused controversy in the British press when it was shown on Channel 4, giving rise to the usual tabloid hysteria.
He has also made a number of documentaries and worked with the documentary essay form in Edward Hopper (1980) and Strip Jack Naked (1991), an experimental, autobiographical film which tells his story about growing up in the ’70s and the ’80s London, as well as the making of Nighthawks. With the feature films Empire State (1987) and Real Money (1995), he explored the criminal world of East London in the context of Britain’s rapidly changing economy, while Fighters (1991) documents the lives and milieu of the East End boxing scene.
Following these films he was involved in setting up a digital production studio in East London, where he has lived since 1974, and there helped the production of some 300 films. With Cross-Channel (2009), he returned to his own filmmaking, using simple new technology. The projects he is currently working on, set in Russia and Ukraine, Switzerland, and once again between England and France, continue his interest in exploring a world beyond the borders of his own country. Unashamedly independent, his films have often been seen as challenging in subject matter, attitude and style and he is particularly known for his work with young non-professionals, his improvisatory method and his uncompromising vision. I spoke to Ron Peck at this year’s Queer Lisboa, which included as part of its programme a substantial retrospective of his work.
Is this your first complete retrospective?
It’s complete in terms of full-length films, which is six in total, and it’s the first time they’ve all played together. Probably the films I’ve done have reached different audiences. There are the films I’ve made around East London, particularly the two on boxing, while Cross Channel is more of an art movie, for want of a better term, because it’s playing with narrative in a more sophisticated way. Nighthawks, Strip Jack Naked and Empire State have generally reached a gay audience, so I’ll be interested to see how the films that have not been presented as gay films, will be read here in a queer film festival.
How do you feel about this idea of a career ‘overview’?
Well it’s quite odd because it has you reflecting on yourself. I’ve just submitted a new script for possible finance and we’ll see if it happens, and I have two other projects on the go, so it’s a point at which to take stock of work so far, but I certainly hope to get more done.
Empire State, 1987
I immediately think of a gay man making a film about boxers and there being an inherent homoeroticism in that, and, to a lesser extent, the way that East End working class culture has been homo-eroticised in the past. Was that in your mind when you were making the movies, or is it just there?
Oddly enough, it wasn’t when I initially started making the movies, because my introduction to boxing came by chance. Empire State was a film that was about a lot of characters, and made at a time when many changes were happening in Britain, after Thatcher, and the original idea was to have a footballer. Then I saw a play – and I don’t go to theatre very much – because I was incredibly taken by this image of a boxer’s face on the poster. I was electrified by the use of real boxers on stage and arranged to meet the main one who had just retired from fighting. He introduced me to boxing and I’d never been to a match before. I’m sure there was a homoerotic element to it but it wasn’t consciously at the forefront of my mind. I think, for me, the image of the fighter, with his fists up, was an image of defiance and standing up for oneself that was very individualistic.
Is that image of individual defiance in the fighter linked to class for you?
Well, my own background was very suburban – my father was working class, my mother more middle class. I went to university – the first in my family to do so – in Swansea, which was then a steel town and it widened my horizons considerably. Then I ended up by chance in East London because I went to the only film school that existed then, in Covent Garden, and four of us decided to form an association together to try to get work. We initially rented a couple of rooms under King’s Cross Station before one of us found an empty shop in Bethnal Green, and once I was there, I never left. I’ve been in East London since 1974 and at that time it felt like a different city. The gay places I went to there were very different from the ones in the centre – in Earl’s Court, which was the gay area then – so I was very aware of being in a different world and being very drawn to it. After Empire State I became much more interested in boxing and went to see boxing, and was introduced to people. It was then I realised what an incredible culture it was – it was the sport of East London and was really its own world.
And when you were meeting these people and you were starting to make films about the boxing world, did they know about your other work and about your being gay?
The people I met initially certainly did and, interestingly, it wasn’t an issue at all. Some had seen Empire State, some had seen Nighthawks and we used to watch films together – I remember they particularly liked Paul Morrissey’s Trash, Fellini, and even Antonioni’s Passenger. I found them very open to trying things and what they got out of me was a curiosity for what there was outside of mainstream cinema.
Taking you right back, I’ve heard you say that, when you were a child, cinema was a real escape for you. So what are your first really vivid memories of films?
I can tell you precisely. My very first memory of the cinema with my family was of the last sequence of The Vikings, with Kirk Douglas – the funeral scene. That made quite an impression on me aged 7, and another film that had a huge impact on me at age 11 was Solomon and Sheba, with Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida. Looking at it again, asking myself what it was about that film, I realised it was this incredible sexual tension – and it was very well done – about whether Solomon should give in to his temptation. Lollobrigida was at her most beautiful and I couldn’t get it out of my head for ages. Up until 14 it was the epics – Ben Hur, Spartacus, all that kind of thing – they really took me out of the suburban world I was living in. At the same time, I was beginning to see, and recognise, certain filmmakers from television, and there was a very good film journal called Movie, which focused on American directors like Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang and Sam Fuller, and I really responded to those. Their American genre films seemed to be very intelligently put together and I remember seeing Juliette of the Spirits at 16, the first Fellini film I saw, which knocked me sideways and Blow Up, also. So I also began to explore European cinema.
Strip Jack Naked, 1991
And was this unusual at the time, to be so interested in these kind of films?
I often think of my experience – growing up in south London, going to college, teaching in a language school for a while, then, after I made Nighthawks having more opportunities to travel – that the world kept opening up for me, my horizons broadening. I found myself, like a lot of people, getting very impatient with British film, because of what was happening in Italy, France, Fassbender in Germany, and on the American independent scene – Morrissey, Cassavetes – there just wasn’t the equivalent of that. British cinema seemed to be much more regulated and connected to theatre and I wasn’t excited by it. Quite a bit later I saw Michael Powell’s films, and they were a revelation to me. You often forget Hitchcock was British and I also went back to look at his earlier work, which was as interesting as his later American films.
Being in my mid-forties, Channel 4 was incredibly important to me when I was a teenager – the red triangle was a badge telling you to watch something. What Channel 4 was doing when it started, the boundaries it was breaking, the films it was showing and making, all of it was very important. Did it feel as important for you as a filmmaker?
Yes, definitely. The BBC was so stolid – still seems so to me – but Channel 4 was so lively, so relevant. They had a slot called the Independent Film and Video Slot, which part-financed Empire State, which totally funded Fighters and developed a couple of other films that we weren’t able to make. But that was the place to go – it was also less mainstream than Film 4 and it was international. There were so few places that financed this kind of filmmaking that even people like Jean-Luc Godard were applying, so the competition was incredible. Then it was axed at more or less the same time that the BFI’s funding arm went and the Arts Council film department went, which was also quite innovative and supported filmmakers like myself. I made a film on Edward Hopper, funded by the Arts Council, as a result of Nighthawks, but all those places have gone. No one has got a handle yet on what the new BFI is interested in. Within television I don’t think there’s anywhere really, apart from a couple of documentary slots, that’s interested in exploring the medium, in innovating.
All the filmmakers who excited me were in one way or another pushing the medium, including someone like Kubrick, who today is seen as quite mainstream but 2001 was so unconventional in how it told its story and I’m not sure you could get a film like that made these days. There must have been more surplus finance around for gambling with projects, and there was also strong state subsidy. Nighthawks was only possible because German television provided the last bit of funding.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how queer cinema might be changing in response to shifts in social attitudes. When you were making Nighthawks, there was a personal and political manifesto involved in that film, which was very much about changing entrenched social attitudes. As we’ve seen a lot of changes, mainstream cinema is assimilating more gay characters and gay storylines into its films. People like yourself, Waters, Jarman et al, were concerned with breaking boundaries in terms of content and form – but all that energy seems to have dissipated.
There seems to be less interest in form, less knowledge of what other people have done with cinematic form. I don’t know what gay audiences today make of some of Jarman’s films, or of an Antonioni film. Is it too difficult, too taxing? I’d read somewhere that there was a showing of the reissue of 2001 in New York recently and the audience started chanting ‘Fast forward.’ I think it’s partly education. I would hope a festival like this one has such a mix to it – so many different films coming from different directions, different cultures, and with a historical sense – that people will try things and welcome being challenged, which is a big part of the pleasure of watching films for me. I want to be engaged by complexity of experience, the truthfulness of things, rather than escapism these days. I’ve been exploring the Greek filmmaker [Theodoros] Angelopoulos, who died a few years ago. His films are an incredible challenge to watch, and I think you’d struggle to find a full audience for them.
How would you describe what it is you have been trying to do with your films?
I suppose I try to find ways of finding a structure to express things that I see and feel, and that other people see and feel. I’m trying to understand different worlds and not just my own world – like the world of boxing, which is certainly not my world – and to explore the medium. I’m really interested in doing different things with narrative. cost. I can’t even really tell you how films begin. I’m learning all the time.