Richard Billingham - Director of BAFTA-nominated feature film, RAY & LIZ - chats to our Editor ahead of the official UK cinema release date. 

Interview by Eibhlin Kissack

Richard Billingham rose to fame as a pioneer of squalid realism in the art world following an astonishing series of photographs that depicted his deprived, working class upbringing in Cradley Heath. Published in 1996 in the acclaimed book, 'Ray’s a Laugh', the photographs captured the sordid conditions in which Richard and his family lived. Named aptly after his parents, Billingham’s debut feature film, RAY & LIZ, acts as both an extension and conclusion of the photo series, exploring life in Birmingham in a tower block council flat in post-Thatcher society. With raw, candid honesty and a disconcerting intimacy, the film portrays the lives of Billingham's family in a triptych format, focusing particularly on his alcoholic father, animal-obsessed mother, and neglected younger brother.

RAY & LIZ is at once a film that relies on personal memories and physical photographs in the construction of its scenes. Having matched the wallpaper used on the sets to the wallpaper found in his original photographs, Billingham recreates the world of his childhood with a meticulous and conscientious approach - something he describes not as a personal, cathartic experience, but instead as an authentic picture of working class life in the Thatcher era devised from lived experience. 

I attended the screening of RAY & LIZ at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) in January. Congratulations on such an amazing film. 

Thank you, I was very pleased with how it went. It was actually Jason’s first time seeing the film – well, it was his first time seeing it in a ‘cinema setting’. 

When working on the film, did you corroborate your own memories with your younger brother Jason’s? 

I had to ask him a lot of questions to try and visualise his story. As a kid I didn’t witness everything. 

How did you initially come to the decision to make a feature film?

I guess the film is like a back-story to the photographs, and is set before I took any pictures. I have always had this idea to make a short film of my father in a room, and that it would charter two to three days of his existence. When I was 18/19, I went to Bournville College of Art; I focused on painting back then. At the same time I was living with my father, in a tower block in an estate in Old Hill. I’d often see him listening to the radio and drinking. There was no structure to his day. I mean, he could wake up at 2am, have a drink, get to sleep at 5am, wake up again at 1pm the next day. It’s not like he woke up and had his breakfast then went to town – it wasn’t that sort of structure. 

For years I tried writing [the short film] and I found it really difficult. I got a job at the University of Gloucestershire, and they gave me a laptop, and I learnt how to type. I found that when I started writing this short film down by typing I could do it. I found it much easier – I think it was because I could cut and paste. When you make a film you edit the scenes together - 

- So, it felt like a similar creative process?

Yes. I wrote this short film down and worked with my producer, Jacqui Davies, and we got the funding for it. We made the short 'Ray' in 2016. Whilst I was making that, I decided to write another short film, which was about my uncle Lawrence (who is in the feature). I thought, hang on - I’ve got these two films…I could make a feature length piece. So, I wrote another short story, and this was the story of Jason. Once I had made the short gallery piece [Ray], it served as a pilot in that it showed the potential of the project. It evolved. It’s not like I sat down one day and thought, ‘I want to make a feature film.’ It just evolved. 

RAY & LIZ is a triptych, split into three distinct time periods with an episodic quality. It opens with arguably the most poignant decade; the one in which Ray is shown as flat-bound and living alone in his room. How did you decide upon the structure of the film? 

When you’ve shot everything and all the film exists; it exists in rushes and takes. You painstakingly have to watch them all, and try to piece them together. You try to be sensitive to it. 

How can I put it? It finds its own structure. It finds itself if you’re sensitive to it. I find it hard to work the other way to think of a structure and make the footage in a straight line. 

Because there is limited dialogue, I found myself focusing more on mannerisms and movement. The separate time periods are connected by subtle references, such as Ray filling up his home brew glass right to the brim in the opening scene, and then in the flashback doing the same with Liz’s tea.

I come from a painting background and then moved to photography. When you make a photographic series, you have one image, and another, and another come after it, you have to really make objects and things work within each image. For instance, in the 'Ray’s a Laugh' book, the handles of knives were reoccurring throughout the images. There would be the same wallpaper reoccurring, or a similar texture, or I’d create links with cigarettes, the wallpaper, or the glass filled to the brim. I did focus on objects when I was shooting the film. I guess it’s a way of linking sequences together. Turning them into symbols almost. 

When creating the set, how much did you rely on the physical photographs you had, and how much were the sets based on memory? 

I tried to film it from memory as much as I could. The film is set where I took the photographs, so there were certain things in the pictures I could use as a reference. In the scene when Ray gets up off the bed and leaves the imprint in the bed sheets, I remember taking a photograph like that. Some of the photographs helped in terms of the setting of the scene, I’d use an idea from a photograph. Mostly, it’s from memory. 

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on choosing to shoot on 16mm film – the 4:3 aspect ratio isn’t one we see very often. What were the challenges and benefits of working with 16mm? 

I did consider using video, but if you want to recreate something from the past, I think it’s important to use the medium of the time. It makes you feel like you’re going back in time, more. The aspect ratio of 4:3 was the one used on all of the TVs when I was growing up. [Laughs] Fairly recently, we’ve been introduced to panoramic, but I think even laptops started off with a 4:3 aspect ratio. I remember that kind of ratio a lot, and the windows that you look out of have got a 4:3 ratio in the tower block! [Laughs] 

A sense of confinement pervades the film, and is also enhanced by the 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s almost like the characters are trapped, physically and metaphorically in their space and circumstances. 

Yes, the aspect ratio does give you a sense of confinement. The dimensions of rooms are very similar to that aspect ratio. I chose it for those reasons. When I have a memory of anything from those days, it’s in 4:3 aspect ratio. [Laughs]

Do you remember 8mm? Super 8 films, before video? Well, all of that was 4:3 aspect ratio. When you see home movies made in the 70s, there’s a nostalgic feel to them, and an association with human memory. 

You worked with Daniel Landin - an acclaimed Director of Photography, as well as Producer Jacqui Davies for the film. How did these collaborations come about, and what did Daniel and Jacqui brought to the film, for you?

I met Jacqui at a dinner, when I came up with the idea for the short film I mentioned before of my father. I think I met her and told her about it, and she seemed quite supportive. Around the same time, I started at the University and wrote down the story. Jacqui helped a lot with the editing. You know I talked about finding the structure? Well, she helped a lot with that. I don’t remember any music from my childhood. The TV was always on, but my parents didn’t ever have the radio on. So, when it came to selecting the music for the film, I wasn’t very good, and Jacqui also helped with that. 

And Daniel - I think what was good there, was that we shared a good sense of composition. When I take a photograph, it’s about a relation to space; I’m not really looking at the subject matter. Daniel seems to do the same thing. 

So you shared a similar way of working?

Yes. He was very good at lighting, and I don’t really understand lighting. You need to spend half an hour setting up lighting to make sure objects look three-dimensional, for example. 

There are some shots in the film, particularly in the early scenes with Ray in his bedroom, which are lit beautifully from light streaming through the windows. The electric fire in the evening scenes creates a red glow within the room – were these difficult shots to capture? 

Well, when I lived with Ray I remember going into his bedroom sometimes and he’d have the fire on, and the light would be off, and you’d get this red glow. When I came to recreate that, I put the fire on, turned the light off, and there was nothing! [Laughs] The way I had remembered it, I think, was in a very romantic way. So, the team lit the room to match my memory. But, it made me think about how differently you remember things from how they must objectively be. 

Things were very difficult to light, but they dealt with that. I don’t know what they did, but they did it somehow. [Laughs]

[Laughs] The point you made about distorted memories is interesting; especially as in your chats with Jason he often agreed with your portrayal of events. 

Yes, he would always say, ‘That’s how I remembered it.’ Even though I wasn’t there some of the time. 

Which is incredible, to have created something that accurately matches Jason’s memories, especially as you often weren’t present in those moments. There seems to be a sense of detachment with regards to you as the director and the subject matter – the character of you as a young boy isn’t present very much in the film. When recreating the experiences of your family and Jason, was there a conscious decision to remain as objective as possible? 

I didn’t put myself in the film much physically, because I filmed it, so it’s filtered through me anyway…it’s partially my memories. It’s like I was there anyway. Sometimes when I’ve seen people do a series of photographic work and they make self-portraits and capture themselves in the mirror with the camera, it always looks a bit self-indulgent to me. 

I didn’t want it to come over in any way self-indulgent. I didn’t put myself in too much; I don’t really have many speaking parts. 

Was shooting in the spaces you grew up in a cathartic process for you?

I’m not sure if it was cathartic. I made Ray’s a Laugh, but I’m not sure if it was cathartic or not. I like watching it with an audience. I do feel something when I watch it with an audience. If I watch it on my own, it’s not the same. What I wanted to do, mainly, was to try to show what that world was like. 

You see films that capture the Thatcher era and working class life. But, I wanted to do it without those tropes, and show that world as authentically as possible from lived experience. 

Catch Ray & Liz in UK cinemas from March 8th 2019. 

A Primitive Film production in association with Rapid Eye Movies. Financed by the BFI and Ffilm Cymru Wales with National Lottery funding, in association with Severn Screen. 

Image credit: Rob Baker Ashton

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