AB: I think that’ s something that we do a lot now, our need to pay homage in our work to who our heroes are, like even with Elizabeth Peyton’ s work, or whoever, there’ s this referential point. We feel the need to say this is who I am based on these other people, this is who I like, this is what I’ m about.
TJW: Right. I have all these crazy tangents of interest that always inspire me, but don’ t seem to have on the surface any sort of connective tissue or whatever and this just gives me a way to kind of connect these things and lets me give form to all these crazy, not necessarily related tangents that completely preoccupy me. It gives me an excuse to wallow in this stuff.
AB: Let’ s talk about the Walker Art Center project.
TJW: It’ s called Stephen Tennant Homage. I found the prettiest typeface for it. It will be pink on pink (laughs). Stephen is a perfect example of one of these people who I adore, and to continue to talk about these things in a broader way, Stephen’ s life and his pursuits are generally characterized as being sort of foolish, or ephemeral, pointless or just nonexistent, like he just wasted his life; whereas I think there can be a reading of his life in which he becomes a kind of hero, you know, and kind of a champion of the ephemeral. Of course, he could afford to be, but he’ s an extreme example of an alternative path. In a world which fetishizes work above all other occupations—even the word occupation resonates with the sense of work or career in our kind of contemporary understanding of it and I think that Stephen was a good example of someone who certainly had an occupation, but it wasn’ t necessarily a professional occupation. He was a master conversationalist and an incredible letter writer and he could spend a day in the National Gallery sketching the tassel on an Assyrian bull so that he could have it reproduced for a curtain in his home. Phillip Hoare, who wrote the wonderful biography of Stephen, called the book Serious Pleasures. Stephen said that’ s what you should aspire to, the story of your life should be the pursuit of serious pleasure. I think that his is, if not a model to aspire to exclusively, it should certainly be part of the mix.
AB: When did he die?
TJW: He died in the ’80s, mid-’80s.
AB: And how old was he?
TJW: He was in his late eighties. He was a bright young thing in the ’20s. That’ s when he first became well known to the British public, and probably his most public period was in the ’20s. In the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, every time the world would cycle back through a ’20s nostalgic moment, he would come up at least as a footnote because he was definitely considered one of the bright young things, that kind of cliché. But Stephen certainly stayed a bright young thing (laughs)—maybe got brighter as he aged.
AB: Are you doing the same process for this film?
TJW: It’ s the same process, except that in the past I’ ve done more animation, like single frame animation, and with this film there’ s more that’ s shot directly. It will go through all the same kind of transferring processes so that it will have a similar kind of texture and look. I wanted something different, I mean there isn’ t one film making process that I am absolutely wedded to, I’ d like to try to expand that. For example, in this film, the central scene that I’ m kind of working around, which I finally got to, was a screen test, because in learning about Stephen and everything, there are images that accompany his story that I found super unforgettable and engaging, engrossing. There’ s a period of Stephen’ s life from age twenty-four to twenty-eight, that I thought was really fascinating, where he, for vague reasons, I mean instability and lost love—it’ s only conjecture really—he essentially took to his bed for four years, which I always sort of admire (laughs). There’ s a gorgeous photo of Stephen taken by Cecil Beaton in ’30s. It’ s a very simple photo really, generally called stephen ill in bed, ’30s. It shows Stephen, I think in a sanitarium—the beginning of a life that was often reclusive. This photo is just so beautiful and it’ s just Stephen in bed, and it’ s difficult to describe, but it’ s just very haunting, and I think he’ s about, well he’ s in his mid-twenties when it was taken. I discovered that Stella Tennant, the English model, is, (I think you would call it), his great niece, her father is Stephen’ s nephew, and in a way their appeal is similar, they are both very androgynous looking, and there is a family resemblance, they’ re both hauntingly beautiful, and it was my great dream to get Stella to agree to appear in this role, in a way, and so we set the shot up of Stephen in bed (the Cecil Beaton photograph) as closely to the original as possible, but using Stella in Stephen’ s place. So, it’ s partially a screen test, and it is partially an interview, and it’ s kind of a Stephen séance in a weird way, I felt, or like a Stephen ceremony or something. Hopefully, some of that will come across on the film. Since Stephen’ s life is so non-linear, it’ s not like a straight A&E Presents Biography, it’ s much more abstract than that. It’ s just bits, descriptions of Stephen’ s home, for example, that I’ ve tried to recreate. That’ s another thing with all my films, I really am interested in the kind of film you can make by yourself, from my house, given the resources I have (the limited resources I have), what can I do with this material, and so that becomes part of the process. For example, I was able to, by friends of friends of friends, get a hold of Stella, or if I want to go to China I have to go get twenty books and cut and paste and collage until I come up with what I think it might be—the ” sky ” in the tomb becomes the ceiling ” sky ” of Grand Central Station.
AB: Are there other people in the film, because that is something new for you?
TJW: Just one. Yes, this is something new. The film also revisits parts of Stephen’ s unfinished novel.
AB: What is that?
TJW: It’ s called Lascar, and Stephen referred to it as the story of the ” steamy maritime boulevards of Marseilles. ” It’ s this very elaborate long yarn about these sailors and obscure types. He spent literally forty years writing this story, so it’ s bits of this story that he was preoccupied with, it’ s bits of descriptive stuff of Stephen that I was fascinated with, and it all revolves around this kind of interview/screen test/whatever with Stella, and so it’ s all of those things.
AB: It seems like more of this film is actually your creation, it seems like so many images were appropriated in your last work from other things.
TJW: Yes, I had to. It was really hard, harder in a way too, because I wanted people to really understand that last story, and I was going for, I think it reads really as a fake documentary. Whereas with this one, I want it to be a bit more of a fuzzy portrait, because a real strict documentary style seems absolutely at odds with Stephen as a character anyway. I try to make these things, or I’ d like them to be, worthy of their subjects as well.