In the first of a two-part series, documentary-maker Paul Duane reflects on films left unmade.
The writer Frederic Raphael observed that unmade film scripts don’t age like fine wine, they rot like fruit. The fate of unmade documentaries is as bad or possibly worse, with two possible outcomes.
Either your subject will live and change, rendering your ideas and approach obsolete, or they will die and escape the reach of your lens forever.
People say I have had a fairly high success rate because I got three feature-length documentaries released in the three years 2011-2013 but all I can think of is the many years before that and the many films that didn’t get made. I admit that my propensity is towards pessimism at the best of times, but a documentary started and left unfinished can weigh heavily on your mind, especially if the central figure in it has since died.
Two of my unfilmed, unquiet dead have anniversaries this week, which suggested to me that I needed to write this two-part piece (which was inspired by George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books, though I am not for a minute suggesting it belongs in the same category as that mischevious masterpiece).
The first: Sebastian Horsley, born August 8, 1962.
The notion of making a film about Sebastian occurred to me very soon after I met him in 2002. He hadn’t at that point adopted his later trademark stovepipe top hat, but was nonetheless one of the most extraordinary-looking creatures imaginable. It wasn’t just his highly original tailoring or his vertigo-inducing platform boots. It was that, even when he was at his most charming (which was most of the time) his expression suggested deep inward suffering. While he inhabited his body with a certain louche sang-froid, he appeared enormously uncomfortable with life. I had soaked up the dictum that the only landscape worth filming is that of the human face, and in Sebastian I saw Monument Valley, a beautiful, desolate arena inhabited by an ascetic conviction that the world and everything in it is meaningless shadowplay on a cave wall.
At any rate, once introduced at her birthday party in the now-gone Colony Rooms by a mutual friend, Melpomeni Kermanidou, we soon started to meet regularly for conversation. Sebastian was at that time deeply involved in writing his autobiography, and the conviction and seriousness he brought to this work was out of character, or at least out of the character he liked to portray – the libidinous, debauched Whoresley , whose conversation rarely excluded handing out his address to interesting and attractive girls (or maybe boys) along with a baldly stated “Fancy a fuck?”
There are many, possibly too many, videos of Sebastian available on YouTube. Most show the glittering persona, this carefully crafted, appallingly appealing exterior. He was good at portraying this character, a tailor’s dummy with a heart of sin, pure grade-A Chinese rocks coursing through his system and a borrowed quip on his lips (even now, years later, I am occasionally shocked to discover the obscure sources from which he stole; one of my favourite Horsley lines, “The hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn’t elevate me to the depths of depravity”, seemingly came from a 1940s Ben Hecht screenplay). But it was, in the end, just a character. The man behind the character was vastly more interesting.
In the YouTube appearances, only rarely does the real man show through, as in one interview when he confesses, re his crucifixion in the Philippines, “When the cross collapsed and I was thrown to the ground, there was a general feeling that perhaps God had struck me down. But I thought it just meant I was too fat.” It’s a good line, funny because it resonates with Sebastian’s greatest saving grace, his self-deflating sense of himself as ridiculous, always falling short somehow.
I hadn’t made any real documentaries back then but I already knew that one of the things I most wanted to do was to use the camera as an X-ray machine, watching and waiting for the moments when the true self is visible, then assembling those moments so that the end result is a portrait of a subject, not as they might want to be seen, but as they really are. And Sebastian was an ideal subject.
We spoke, prevaricated, negotiated for years and became good friends in the process. I realise now I should have been filming all this time, but he was often surrounded by hangers-on and wannabes, and I really didn’t want to join their ranks and try his (considerable but finite) patience by following him with a cheap camera and no lights for some handheld, grimy nonsense doomed to end up on YouTube.
“Failure is such a bad look,” he told me, sadly, the umpteenth time some clueless commissioning editor in the BBC or Channel 4 turned down our carefully honed pitches. Some of them were even quite good. There was the one where we would follow in the footsteps of the Sex Pistols’ final tour across the Bible Belt, ending up at the evocatively named Winterland in San Francisco where they finally imploded. Aside from being a fan of John Lydon, he was the closest thing I’d met to a one-man Pistols, and the perfect person with whom to undertake such a journey. His banning for life from the USA for ‘moral turpitude’, however, placed him where even Sid Vicious never managed to go.
Then there was the proposal I wrote called ‘Sebastian Horsley Is Dead’. I remember how his voice sounded when he called me after he’d first read the treatment, the title spelled out in hot pink on the cover page. I hadn’t thought it was possible to shock him but I think that did the trick. “Why did you call it that?” he asked. “I believe in giving the public what they want,” I replied. The opening scene, where his body was paraded through Soho in a glass-covered coffin while beautiful women wept and fought each other for a final glimpse of him, cheered him up, however. I can’t recall if I told him I’d borrowed it from Ken Russell’s Valentino. I think, given his own magpie tendencies, he’d have been OK with that.
How odd it was, not long afterwards, when this scene came more or less true. He’d finished his memoir and it was every bit as good as I’d always believed it could be, but paying work continued to elude him and he leased his story, wardrobe & likeness to a theatre producer. Seeing himself impersonated on stage seemed to unlock the inner trapdoor of self-loathing. Even watching himself on camera had always disturbed him – “That chattering ventriloquist’s dummy, is THAT what I look like?” His saving grace, it turned out, was also his fatal flaw. He OD’d on heroin on the 17thJune 2010, and soon after I finally made a short film called Sebastian Horsley Is Dead, much though I now wished I had never conjured up that phrase. Perhaps language is a form of black magic. I wish I’d called it Sebastian Horsley is Alive and Well and Making a Good Living Doing What He Loves Best – Upsetting Cunts and Befriending the Bereft.
A few people have asked me whether I’d be interested in doing a posthumous Horsley documentary but it seems pointless. The man is gone, leaving behind a strange legend, a great book, some often fine art and a riveting video of his crucifixion in the Philippines. I’m sure someday there will be a biopic which will almost certainly miss the point and glorify the parts of his story that are the least interesting. I hope I’m not around to see it, as I don’t need another reminder of my failure to construct a film around one of the most profoundly interesting, complex and magnetic people I’m ever likely to meet.
Part 2 in this series will appear on Friday 15th August.