Vincent Ward
The Eloquence of Isolation


At the age of twenty-seven, and on the basis of two fifty-minute films, Vincent Ward has become the most prodigious and original film-maker working in New Zealand. With his forthcoming and long-awaited first full length 35mm feature, Vigil which will be screened at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, he seems about to consolidate the international acclaim he has already achieved.

His first film, A State of Siege, based on the novel by Janet Frame, and with Geoff Murphy as assistant director, was made when he was twenty-one and still at Art School. In its detailed exploration of textures and its brooding definition of objects against a background of darkness, it conveyed a distinctively European, metaphysical tone, with its rigorously crafted camera-work prowling about Frame's disintegrating heroine in a way which, in its concentration on extremities, recalls both Beckett and Bresson. 'Ward evokes more horror with his play of light and shadow in this low budget movie than Stanley Kubrick was able to create in the whole of The Shining', claimed the San Francisco Chronicle, somewhat exaggeratedly, but indicating the subtle, suggestive and highly subjective power with which Ward was able to evoke a chilling situation without resorting to special effects.

Vincent Ward 1981 
(photograph by Marti Friedlander)

For his next film, In Spring One Plants Alone, Ward spent eighteen months with an eighty-two-year-old Maori woman and her retarded, totally dependent son in a rural outback, documenting the rituals of their daily life on the outer edge of human experience with a pictorial abstraction which recalls the films of Werner Herzog. The film won a Silver Hugo at the 1980 Chicago Film Festival, and a Grand Prix at the 1982 Cinéma du Reel, and Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times described Ward as 'the most original talent of New Zealand's first wave'.

Ward's new feature, Vigil, continues his exploration of isolation and human experience at its most reduced, primeval level. In a remote farming valley near New Plymouth, an old man, Birdie (Bill Kerr), settles with his grand-daughter Toss (Fiona Kay) after the death of Toss's father. Tensions between the two are exacerbated by the arrival of Ethan (Frank Whitten), an intruder who helps Birdie build a bizarre machine to drain the valley, and begins an affair with Toss's mother Elizabeth (Penelope Stewart), which leads to a conflict between the young girl and the outsider. 'I'm more interested in people on the perimeter, the circumference, than people in the middle', Ward has said, 'people with some sort of vision, some view of the world that is not so necessarily an objective view.' The following interview was conducted in Wellington shortly after Ward had finished editing the film.

TONY MITCHELL: How did you first get involved in film-making?
VINCENT WARD: I had an idea which I thought would translate better on to film than into sculpture or painting, which at that time I was studying at the Ilam School of Fine Arts, Christchurch. It was through the use of their equipment that I was able to make A State of Siege and later In Spring One Plants Alone. I wanted In Spring to be very immediate, without any artificiality or stageyness, capturing something that was happening now, like the cinéma vérité films that started in the nineteen sixties. This required a relationship with my subjects where there was no awareness of the camera on their part, and a highly selective style which in fact is totally uncharacteristic of cinéma vérité, with its wide-angle lenses and hand-held camera-work which tries to pick things up as they happen. In Spring I set up frames into which I hoped the old lady would walk. I was only able to make it work because I'd lived with them fur such a long time and could sometimes predict their actions. But it was a tenuous way of doing things. It meant that you'd have to try and capture the same sort of behaviour many times and then in the editing-room match it together. The particular qualities of the old lady I wanted were spiritual, and I didn't want the camera-work to intrude - I wanted it very still, but without losing the immediacy - to support the interior quality I was after. It wasn't overly manipulative in any way: I couldn't tell the old lady to wear a particular scarf just so it would match in the editing room. But this way of working (setting up frames which you hope people will walk into) is the quickest way to send yourself crazy. I tried to make the landscape reflect the subject's state of mind - for example, I kept going back into the moving van to get shots out the window in the particular light I wanted, and when I finally did, my cameraman wasn't there, and I had to drive with a CP 16 on my lap filming with one hand while the other was on the steering wheel. The type of images I want are very subtle, not at all the immediately impressive sort of image, and these are much harder to get than more obvious things.

Toss (Fiona Kay) and her father justin (Gordon Shields) going the rounds of the farm

T.M.: Would it be fair to say you re working in almost total isolation in an already isolated environment?
V.W.: I think that's an apt way of putting it. All the characters in my films are in isolation. For each film there is a long search to find the right individuals to 'people' it. Inevitably there are New Zealand qualities in my films, but I don't consciously set out to make a New Zealand film. I don't find I easily identify with the style or tradition of other films made in New Zealand. A lot of films here come out of a realist tradition, a colloquial realism, tempered by American genre films - my interest lies elsewhere. I'm looking for pockets of the outside world which match my own interior vision. I like to pare things away. I'm told that I see in terms of small details which build up into a mosaic.
T.M.: Looking at your films I'm reminded of Herzog - Spring has strong affinities with the deaf-blind people in Land of Silence and Darkness, as well as the minimalism of Bresson, and the textural detail of Tarkovsky. Have any of these directors influenced you?
V.W.: I think my work is the sum of numerous influences which may vary over time. To mention any particular name minimizes the total input. I like Herzog, but I haven't seen Land of Silence and Darkness. I think Pickpocket was a wonderful film, but I haven't seen all Bresson's work. I tend to like particular films rather than a director's total output. I like some of Dreyer's films very much. I didn't like Tarkovsky's Solaris and I found his film Stalker pretentious and slow.
T.M.: The way your camera almost caresses objects reminds me of Stan Brakhage.
V.W.: I've heard of him, but I haven't seen any of his films.

Toss keeps vigil over the farm

T.M.: You clearly don't start writing your films with any particular location in mind. You travelled eighteen thousand miles before you found the location for Vigil.
V.W.: I had a definite picture of what I wanted when I was writing the script, and I also wanted a particular kind of buildings, which I couldn't find, and we ended up having to make them. I wanted a primitive feel to the environment, and I had to search for the images I had in mind, and piece them together.
T.M.: You've worked with the same director of photography (Alun Bollinger) on all your films.
V.W.: I enjoy working with Alun - I find he's a very creative camera-man, he not only has a good eye but is able to contribute to the way the picture will edit. Having worked with him for some time now, I find we've developed a sort of shorthand. He works incredibly hard to achieve what I want on screen. With Vigil we spent several weeks just sitting down, pencil in hand, drawing up the images.
T.M.: Again you've chosen a very isolated, remote setting.
V.W: The isolation is important in that the central character, the young girl, has a very specific and imaginative view of mind, away from the influences of television and radio. My interest is in people's individuality and the way they perceive things. In this film I wanted to limit and exaggerate those things.
T.M.: So you're more concerned with a subjective perspective than any political or social viewpoint?
V.W: My prime interest is in the way my characters perceive things, and what separates them out from other people, rather than the wider social fabric that holds people together.
T.M.: The old man in Vigil seems to be something of a visionary. He's involved in mechanical inventions, a bit like the old man in Tanner's Light Years Away.
V.W: He's not so much a visionary as a man of vision. I wasn't prepared to go that far with him. He's not the main line through the film either. The girl's relationship with the intruder is more important. The mechanical inventions aren't terribly clear in the film. They live in a swampy environment. The old man decides he can save the place, and if he can blow a hole in the top of the valley he thinks he can save it, like pulling the plug out of a bath. So he constructs a machine for this.

Toss in her father's balaclava

T.M.: You've said that as far as plot is concerned, you're interested in folk tales. Do you draw on Maori legend at all?
V.W: It's all very well to say Tane created the world, and another thing entirely to show an old lady who blesses her drinking water, gets up at 4 a.m. to pray for four hours, and blesses medicine and prays in the back of an old van. In Spring I did actually think of getting into another, more visionary side of things, like spiritual guardian animals, or makutu (spells). But finally I decided against it. The danger in myths is that they become over-inflated. The sort of folk tale I'm interested in comes out of people. It's an imaginative realm which is true to itself, and concerned with fantasy.
T.M.: Did you have difficulty in coming to terms with the demands of a full-length narrative feature?
V.W: I started off with clusters and constellations of images - there were two nightmares, for example - and the scripting was like detective work, deciphering these images and letting them build. It was like being in a mist or fog through which you can catch glimpses of things and try to grab hold of them and work out what they're about, rather than saying, 'This is my story - this person gets on a train at A with his goal to reach destination B with plot points that impede his passage along the way.' I was constantly trying to find out what the story was about. It was a process of clarification - which is not to say I didn't know what I wanted to say. You start with a number of experiences you've observed, and which fit into a view of the world which you want to put into the film, and there are a range of characters which are receptacles for those ideas. The script went into four drafts, and a friend of mine, Graeme Tetley, worked on the dialogue. The film didn't change drastically in shooting. We lost about ten scenes, and it became more crystalline and economical. This film has more of a story than my others, but it's not a plot film - it's very much a weave of the characters' individual stories. It's a strongly visual picture. The shoot took ten weeks, which was essential for a film that depends on its imagery.
T.M.: Is your concern for imagery also a concern for symbols?
V.W: I'm aware of the painting tradition's reliance on symbols, and of the problem of communicating visually without using heavy-handed symbols like Bergman does in his early films, and which I despise. I came across a quote from John Mortimer the other day, 'your symbolism is showing', which I think is very apt. It's an unresolvable dilemma. If you believe in visual narrative it's hard to get away from symbolism, and sometimes you fall into the old traps. I try to use symbols only when they're seen through my characters' eyes, rather than objectively, but sometimes they're ambiguous. I use a lot of images of hawks in Vigil. It's easy to be ambiguous because film lacks the definition and precision of verbal language. I use montage, for example, as little as possible as a conscious device - it's a very convoluted way of making films, and can lead to very heavy-handed symbolism, like you get in Eisenstein.

Birdie (Bill Kerr) has success with his new invention

T.M.: The scene in A State of Siege where the woman is painting at her easel by the coast reminded me of Bergman's Hour of the Wolf. Also what she says about the colour blue denoting distance seems almost a key to the film.
VW: I haven't seen the Hour of the Wolf. But what I like about that scene is its visual irony - the waves explode against the rocks with a ferocious and totally wild energy yet she's trying to capture the scene with refined little brushstrokes using a delicate watercolour brush. In painting you're always distanced from your subject-matter. The more beautiful the surface of the picture the more it operates like a window pane and separates you from the content. Coming from a painting tradition you know you can create 'beautiful' images, but in fact you have to be a part-time iconoclast so the characters will live and breathe. You have to break the lovely surface of things; smash your fist through the panel of glass and pull the people out from behind it. Particularly with documentary I often reject images because they look too beautiful - they look too much like a Caravaggio or a Vermeer, say. You often get this with European films - they draw very heavily on a painting tradition and because of this you find you are more interested in their beautiful surfaces. The characters don't live, and swear and sweat. American film has more immediacy, less poetry. It draws more from a tradition of newsreel and photo-journalism. In New Zealand we're neither in one tradition nor the other. You have to try and forge a different tradition which inevitably has elements of the two. It's a blank canvas. The rawness of the country, its lack of tradition or conversely its mish-mash of inherited, diluted traditions, are your material.
T.M.: In what way is Vigil different technically from your other films?
V.W: It's not as still or as silent. It moves faster - I'm trying to make something more accessible, although I don't feel under pressure to do this. In the other two films the rhythm of the characters was the rhythm of the film, whereas in this one there's more action, less of the ritual of Spring, less of the introversion of A State of Siege. I used a hell of a lot of long lenses in Vigil; I like the surface they give you, and the lack of perspective. It's like the scene in Spring of the woman chopping wood - the long lens completely changed the nature of her movements. Long lenses give a grace and a fluidity to actions. For me it equates more with a quality of an imaginative world, and I like the way you can isolate things with long lenses. I'm fascinated by the way the camera is inside a bracket of black, and enables you to be selective and piece together details to create something else.

Toss watches the arrival of the stranger

T.M.: The soundtrack is obviously a very important factor in your films - the minimal, natural sounds which Jack Body used in Spring were highly atmospheric, and I see that he's also doing the music for Vigil.
V.W.: The sound in Vigil won't be as minimal as Spring, where it was more a case of effects than music. I want a soundtrack that functions more like long lenses in selecting out details - at times in a broad, naturalistic way, and at others paring down and selecting sounds which are relevant to the way the characters are seen and see. I'd always wanted to see Chartres Cathedral, and when I went there and was staring up at the vaulting, I got completely lost in it and everything else seemed to disappear. All the voices merged into the background, and people drifted away from me, and I was locked into this head space ... Then I was suddenly brought back to reality by this American saying loudly, 'the windows here look like postage stamps'. Sounds operate in this way - they all merge into one great hollow sound and then you hear something very clearIv, for a moment something becomes very crystalline, and then it all disappears into a wall of sound. I think the sound concept of this film is very much related to the visual concept, developing things I've worked out in my last two films. A Canadian documentary maker who saw Spring told me, 'You can't go much further with that style, it's so complete'. This film feels like the completion of the other two - I feel my ideas are clearer and I've brought them to fruition.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 30 Autumn 1984