Article/ Express yourself

  • The Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing talks to Helen de Witt about her feature-film debut ‘Self Made’

In 2007 the UK Film Council invited a number of British artists to submit proposals to make a feature-length film. One of them was Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing. The result is her first feature Self Made, an emotional and sometimes disturbing expedition into the psyche of seven people as they encounter their deepest, darkest selves through Method acting. Individuals from different walks of life are seen working through improvisations and rehearsals in workshops, watched over by an acting tutor, each developing a short film based on their own experiences. By exploring their fictional selves they create scenarios – or “end scenes” – in which those character aspects are brought to life.

Wearing – who has previously directed short films and video pieces including Confess All on Video. Don’t Worry. You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (1994), 10-16 (1997), 2 into 1 (1997) and Family History (2006) – says she was comfortable with the idea of a longer film: “Once you work in moving image it’s very hard not to think that you want to engage with the cinema… I did feel like an artist making my film, though the film is for a cinema not an art gallery. A gallery is a blank space and you have to create an environment, whereas with a cinema you go into an already created environment. I prefer to do shorter things in a gallery – they still have an arc, but people know how long they are and can walk in and walk out.

“I’m quite happy not to classify (Self Made),” she continues. “It is a hybrid. You can’t call it a straightforward documentary or fiction film. You move between those forms.”

To find participants for the film, she put adverts on audition websites, in newspapers and in Time Out – and received thousands of replies. The adverts read: “Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian.” “The idea started with the title Self Made,” she recalls. “I was asked to make a film, so I thought it would be quite interesting if I asked other people to make a film too. I was putting out a proposal too – doing a similar process to the Film Council.”

After lengthy auditions, 12 people were whittled down to seven, and once final funding from Northern Film and Media was in place, the procedure began. “At that point I hadn’t thought about it comprising individual films,” she says. “I’d come up with a scenario to have everyone in one scene and I’d worked with (scriptwriter) Leo Butler to come up with one story. But I’d chosen people with very strong characters, and found that putting lots of strong characters together in one story doesn’t really work.”

Wearing says she was attracted to Method acting because “it is about emotional truth and allowing yourself and your body to be truthful, so you can ultimately be truthful with your character”. To this end she started to research the Method technique, enrolling in classes, through which she found acting teacher Sam Rumbelow. Once he was on board they worked in close collaboration, with Wearing writing fictional end scenes after Rumbelow’s workshops had developed the participants’ fictional selves.

“When Leo and I wrote some workshop sequences for a trial run of Self Made, they turned out very fictional,” she explains, “and Sam would come along and say that you’ve got to relate them to the person – you need to look to people’s needs as well as to the (fictional) characters in the process. Some of the workshops were written very well, but they wouldn’t work in reality. So Sam came on board to write some of the workshops up for the final film.”

There are stark stylistic contrasts between the filming of the workshops and the end scenes, as the latter create a specific environment for each participant’s character. As
a result, each end scene has its own distinctive style and setting. For Lian, one of the participants, who has issues with her negligent father, Wearing created a version of the scene from King Lear in which Lear seeks a declaration of love from his three daughters. (Lian, of course, plays Cordelia.) Lesley, who has always had a yearning for old-world values, has a black-and-white rural-set film in 1940s style. Asheq, whose alter ego is one of the most disturbing, has a violent scenario filmed in the style of Alan Clarke.

The scenes exemplify the Method process, as Wearing explains. “Method acting asks the person to draw on their past experiences to bring their character to life. You’re slipping between these two states of real and fiction.” One powerful aspect of the process was seeing how affected the participants were. For some, like Lian, it helped them deal with long-standing issues; for Asheq, it led to a change in direction and he’s now training to be an actor. It was also a very intense experience for Wearing herself. “I couldn’t remain detached – it was very emotional,” she recalls. “Every night I was so exhausted from empathising from the outside, looking in.”

One thing she hopes the film does is to invite the audience to think about themselves as a character. “If you were given the opportunity to think of a character, what would that be?” she says. “Every choice we ever make in life says something about us. When you’re working with people who aren’t famous, how an audience is able to be involved with that person is interesting. What I was amazed about when I was watching it being screened is how strongly you are affected by it… It takes people on this journey with them.”

Wearing’s work has sometimes been compared with reality television, but her investigations into people’s real and desired lives started long before that genre hit big on the small screen. “My very early influence was 7 Up,” she says. “I’ve always loved documentaries rather than drama. They showed you the big gulf between reality and fiction. Fiction was pretty stagy in those days. I’d been working ten years before Big Brother. The first series of Big Brother was pretty amazing as it did something like 7 Up did: show you the world we live in and how we really do interact with each other… What reality television has definitely given the world is that it’s changed drama forever. It’s made us get closer to how reality is framed and performed, and how people really interact with each other. I’ve also noticed that acting has improved since reality television – actually since the advent of the camcorder.”

Self Made provided an opportunity for a number of individuals to put themselves into a film, not in an idealised way, but in order to find, capture and control parts of themselves they found hard to relate to. As a result, watching Self Made is a raw and sometimes painful process – but all the more truthful for it. Wearing’s film shows us that acting is not always about artifice, but instead can provide greater honesty.

“Creativity is a great way to express things that you don’t want to literally express,” she says. “There is more to life than going through the motions of living. Everyone has that grassroots yearning to express the bigger reason why we are here, and creativity is one way that everyone can do that.”

With thanks to Sight & Sound

Self Made screens from Friday 2 September