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‘The Flaneur’ Director Lyall Stephens on mortality and memory in film

Lyall Stephens is a writer and filmmaker from Leeds. In 2015, he graduated from Ravensbourne University, winning an Ertegun Scholarship in the process. His visual dissertation, Where I End and You Begin, was screened at the NOW Gallery cinema in Greenwich and published by Corrupted Files. In 2019, he made his first independent short film, The Flaneur, which featured Mark Rylance and Keith Chanter, and he is currently writing his first feature film. He spoke to Indy Film Library’s Keith Withall on his inspirations, introspections, and upcoming work.

What is the important motivation for you in making moving images?

My motivation is usually to try and create something meditative, or at least something that facilitates the possibility of introspection for the viewer. I always experience such reverence for things that take me to that place of reflection, be it film, music, literature or poetry.

Your approach suggests a general artistic view. Can you explain what are the specifics of moving images that attract you?

Film for me, is an experience I can’t really define or compare to anything else, other than life itself, which is not nearly as auspicious or well edited.

I think it was [Francis Ford] Coppola who said something like, in only a hundred years of cinema, the number of masterpieces is so amazing, he could only conclude that the human race was waiting for cinema. The alchemy of film is what attracts me, the fusion of art forms, the visual poetry.

Your first short film, made on your film course, was a Cine-Roman running seven minutes titled Where I End & You Begin. This is a very poetic film and with a number of ambiguities. Can I start by asking why you picked the Cine-Roman format?

The short answer is my camera broke – so it was a pragmatic decision! I was studying in London, but we shot in Filey North Yorkshire, so I was using my own equipment, which at the time was just a basic DSLR. When I was at the beach test shooting, salt air somehow got inside the camera and corroded it… I ended up borrowing a friend’s even older Nikon for the actual shoot. The moving images were shot with an iphone, which I sort of regret now, but cine-roman is such a beautiful format, I would love to make another at some point. I actually bought a Pentax Spotmatic on Ebay recently, the camera Marker used for La Jetee, so it would be fun to shoot 35mm with that.

[Note, ‘cine-roman’ is the name for a category of film following on from Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962) in which single shots are repeated frame by frame to give the impression of succeeding photographs with no onscreen movement].

Where I end & you begin is more like a poem than a narrative film. We have two central characters, a father and his apparent son; what do you think the viewer takes from the relationship. The main source of information for viewers is the letter read as a voice-over: it includes what seem to be quotations regarding fathers and son: what do you want viewers to take from this?

I was reading a lot of Robert Bly at the time, so the themes of masculinity, conflict and father/son relationships were inspired by foraging around in all that. Where I End & You Begin was a university project, so I didn’t really have any thoughts of how it would be received at the time, I was just exploring areas of interest through the gift of ignorance, as I was studying music at the time! Looking back, it was very embryonic storytelling, more like a visual poem. The initial script didn’t include voiceover, but when the switch to cine-roman happened, it felt integral to have it. It’s such a big part of the cine-roman aesthetic.

[Note, Robert Bly is a USA poet especially interested in masculinity].

Apart from the letter the main prop is an old-fashioned record player which gives us music by Gorecki; it fits the visuals but do you find a particular resonance in his music?

The Gramophone was my own, there was no budget for props! The music in that section is Symphony No. 3 ii. Lento e Largo by Henryk Gorecki. I listen to that kind of music a lot when I write, Gorecki, Phillip Glass, David Lang, Arvo Part, Jonny Greenwood etc, so music is a part of the process from very early on, whether it ends up in the film or not. Also, when you’re trying to make a period piece with no money, music is a great tool. 

The setting is important, on the Yorkshire coast, and the visuals are reinforced by the natural sound on the track. Can you say a little more about this?

Yorkshire is where I’m from, so that is me inserting myself into the narrative a little. I’ve always been fascinated by Yorkshire on film, it’s such a cinematic landscape. Not long after we’d shot in Filey, Paul Thomas Anderson was shooting Phantom Thread just up the road in Staithes, so clearly Hollywood’s elite thinks so too!

The sound design in La Jetee really stood out to me, particularly the ambient sounds of the airport. It’s incredible how visceral a still image can become with just the addition of sound. That was our sonic reference point, when we were recording natural sound.

Your new film is very different from the earlier title. And the title, The Flaneur is intriguing. Can you say a little about this?

There are so many definitions and interpretations of ‘the flâneur‘ it can get a bit overwhelming, but the concept has always interested me – especially in cinema. I definitely see variations of the flaneur in films like Before Sunrise, Lost in Translation and The Great Beauty for instance. Obviously with a short film you don’t have that scope, but my aim was still to try and explore the internal conflict of a flaneur experiencing a crisis of faith. In an existential way. The title was there quite early on, I find it much easier to write when I have the title!

I guess The Flaneur is quite different from the last film, certainly in terms of script, much more deliberate and less improvised. The shooting draft was long (around 40 pages) and mostly linear. We ended up editing it quite brutally in post and cutting big chunks.

Your comments on editing the film are interesting. Can you give us a sense of what you did to the script and filmed footage?

We shot the script as written, which was pretty much a 50/50 split between two timelines, past and present. The flashback sections changed quite a lot during the edit. We collapsed most of them down, the ferry sequence for instance became more of a montage, instead of the full scenes we initially envisaged. There were a few reasons for this, but the main one was to preserve a more poetic overall tone. It felt better to keep to more ephemeral flashbacks where possible – fragmented time, closer to how memories actually feel. That also helped keep a quicker pace, I often feel shorts are too long, so I was quite conscious of trying to avoid doing that. 

You mentioned Marcel Proust when I asked you earlier about the role of memory in this title. I have only read the first book of his cycle but what struck me was that he describes settings in great detail but characters less so. I do get a sense that settings and landscape matter greatly in your work. Can you talk a bit about those in The Flaneur?

With Proust the catalyst to reliving events from the past is sensory stimuli, which is not present in The Flaneur, but the role of memory is similar. There is a line in a short story by Lucia Berlin, that was at the heart of The Flaneur and could have served as a subtitle: “What love might there have been that I didn’t feel?”

Setting is definitely something I think about very early on, first from an aesthetic perspective, finding a landscape that is visually interesting, then in its relationship to character. As a writer, and viewer, plot interests me less than character, so I naturally gravitate towards character studies, but setting can be equally important. I can’t imagine The King of Marvin Gardens taking place anywhere but the Atlantic City boardwalk for instance, or La Grande Bellezza displaced from Rome. In early drafts of The Flaneur everything took place on a boat, but obviously we didn’t have the resources for that version. We did manage to shoot some exteriors on a ferry though, and I think they are my favourite shots of the film.

The ferry shots involve water and water is important in your earlier film as well. It offers a rich and complex motif in films. I wondered if it had particular meanings or resonances for you?

It does, I’m most at peace when I’m on or around the sea. I’m not entirely sure where that comes from as I grew up pretty landlocked, but my grandfather was in the navy and my father was born overseas, so maybe it’s inherited somehow. I fell in love with it on film the first time I saw Pierre le Fou, and again more recently in The Master and Moonlight. From a practical perspective, it’s the best free production design you can get, so I try to harness that where possible. There is a deep connection between film and water though you’re right, not to get all metaphysical about it, but the eye is 98% water, so maybe there is something circular going on. Which makes me think of Solaris, another great water film.

Both these titles deal with age, memory and an older protagonist. You are still a young film-maker. I am interested in what attracts you to subjects that address people looking back on their youth or earlier years?

I think I became aware of mortality at quite a young age, so I’ve always been interested in memory, loss and introspection.

I guess from a filmmaking perspective I’m young, but I came to it late in many ways, after doing music for over a decade – so I don’t really feel it. I think writing is one of the few vocations where it isn’t really advantageous to be young though, and I quite like that. I’m attracted to the subject of memory because it is unreliable and ambiguous, and it has this symbiotic relationship with film in a mutualistic way. To me it’s cinema in one of its most poetic forms, La Jetee and Solaris again, Vertigo, Ikiru… Fellini. I think when you consume a lot of film, an unfortunate side effect can be, you get to a point where a lot becomes predictable, so I try to take a more “freewheelin’” and non-linear approach to narrative, as I know it’s something I really respond to as a viewer.

You mention your ambition to make a feature film. Do you have ideas about what this might be? And have you any thoughts about how you could find the resources for this?

Yes, I’m working on a couple of feature scripts at the moment. A character study set in the music world, loosely inspired by Cléo from 5 to 7 and early Bob Rafelson films. People talking in rooms basically. Set present day, very cheap to make – I wanted to write something we could shoot for as little as possible with complete autonomy. The other script is a sort of Victorian era neo-noir, so that is something completely different and much more speculative and research heavy, but it’s fun to switch between the two.

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