Film Director Randall Wright: Working With David Hockney

by Cass Art

A nude man, at ease in the middle of a swimming pool; a line of trees, colourful and bright and large. A photo collage, bending the rules of what a picture can be, and a splash captured in a single painted moment. You've guessed the artist behind all of those, and an exciting new documentary film, following the life of the unparalleled artist David Hockney, is set to be released in UK cinemas this month.

Hockney, directed by Randall Wright, chronicles the artist's vast career, from his early start in Bradford to his move to sunny Hollywood. Through the hardships of the AIDS epidemic and his struggle with stereotypes such as 'queer', 'working class' and a 'figurative artist', Wright depicts a moving and unique view of the artist whose work has inspired so many people.

To celebrate the release of the highly-anticipated film, we spoke to Randall Wright himself, to find out what it was like working with one of the great artists of our time. 

David Hockney painting outside 

Hi Randall. You first met David Hockney when directing the Shock of the Old – did you know then and there that you wanted to make a film about him?

David is an extraordinary person. His enthusiasms are infectious; he’s mischievous and rebellious, like a naughty school boy actually. In that sense he’s a really loveable man. He’s not an easy guy, he can be tough and uncompromising, but he wants us to see the world for ourselves. He doesn’t want us to be tricked by films and photos and a televised version of life. So he was a character I wanted to capture – who wouldn’t want to make a film about him?

The first film I made about him, David Hockney: Secret Knowledge, focused on his idea of optical illusion, but this second film is about the man himself. He’s very playful and spontaneous, but it took a while for him to find a place as a gay man, and the majority of his friends died from AIDS. He’s made a choice that this life is about optimism, and a positive attitude.

Beverly Hills Housewife

And that joy and optimism is really reflected in his paintings, don’t you think?

Absolutely. We’re now in an era of irony and cynicism, and David is a very literal artist: what you see is what you get. He’s against the fake art where artists demonstrate wit but don’t give away what they really feel about something. In that way he’s unusual, because he paints what he finds beautiful and uplifting and fascinating – not many artists do that.

Lucian Freud, for example, who is one of my favourite painters, showed people as paint-made flesh. His sitters are fleshy animals, with genitals dangling in full view, and we can’t imagine them as angels. It’s authentic and it works because we lap up that truth. But then there’s another truth – the humans who can be inspired by a flower’s colour, and be creative rather than destructive. There’s a difference between sentiment and sentimentality, and if you’re afraid of expressing feelings, if your art isn’t transparent, then in a way you aren’t really an artist. I might get in some trouble for saying that.

Artists are such private people. How do you go about making a film about their lives, and filming in their studios?

It’s not a spontaneous thing. It’s after years and years of building up trust. David knows that I love him and I’m not going to make a film that reveals anything uncomfortable, but it’s a very intimate film; there’s nudity in it and it has people telling the truth about him, all in the spirit of deep affection.

It took years and years to make in that sense, though only about seven or eight months to film, so I was on a very tight schedule. I didn’t have one weekend off but I’m thrilled. It’s what energises me, making a film like this – there are a lot of people who know the subject and I had to get it right.

David Hockney portrait

Do you make your own art or have you always just been interested in the visual arts?

I do drawing. I often draw my films. I didn’t study at film school, I studied History and History of Art at UCL, and went straight into the BBC as a Trainee Editor. After four years at the BBC I’d been directing documentaries. My father was an actor, so our house was always filled with actors, so quite simply after a couple of years I was allergic to them! So documentary was very appealing to me. But now I’ve got over my attitude to actors I’d love to make a fiction film. But documentary is a really exciting medium, and it’s been given a new lease of life by the cinema.

Do you have a favourite artwork of Hockney’s?

David has created a masterpiece in practically every medium, whether that’s in etching, his wonderful portraits, in painting…A Bigger Splash, or Beverly Hill’s Housewife, his films… But some of his landscape painting and drawing is my favourite. I love his Three Trees Near Thixendale. They’re paintings of a very ordinary scene, it’s very unprepossessing, but the trees are just exquisite and I recognised three different personalities in them. The whole scene is imbued with a love of nature and loneliness, and there’s something extremely honest about it. And the accompanying charcoal drawings of these trees are some of the best in English landscape.

People are reluctant to praise David. He’s at ease with himself but he’s very independent, and he’s not really accepted in the circle of great Post Modern artists even though he’s one of them. He’s separated from it all. But in my opinion there’s no artist in the 20th century other than Picasso who has succeeded in so many mediums.

Trees Near Thixendale 

People perceive that Hockney sees the world with, as you put it, “holiday eyes.” Was this difficult to capture whilst also depicting the difficulties he has faced over the years?

Optimism is a decision. You can decide what you’re going to do with the experiences you have, and you can wallow in the obscenity of human behaviour, or you can believe that “life is a gift.” That was David’s mother’s phrase. We’re given opportunities within this life and you can see it with holiday eyes or not. David isn’t telling us to look at how successful, practical and wealthy a life he is living – he’s getting us to look at what is free in life. The way to get a grip on the world is to go out and see what the world is doing for us, to step out of the angst. That’s the moment you calm down and learn something. That’s the moment where it’s crucial to accept and act on it, to forget yourself and actually look. It’s a way of life. And it’s in a visual looking for David, but it can be a different investigation for anyone, being free and asking questions and having faith that you can do anything. And not in the sense that we can “all be rich.” David’s message is that you can decide to enrich your life. It’s all there for you. It’s that idea that lies behind the film.

And finally, can you tell us about the live broadcast after the initial screening?

I think it’s a first in broadcast history, to have a live screening with an artist directly from their studio into cinema. He’ll be unpredictable. It’ll be completely bonkers, totally free and fun. He takes no instruction from anyone, but then, that’s what’s so fun about him.

Images courtesy of Picturehouse Cinemas

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