Richard Billingham on Ray & Liz: ‘I lived through the Thatcher era, and it was horrible if you were poor’

Turner prize-nominated artist Richard Billingham talks about Ray & Liz, his autobiographical new film about family life in the Midlands in the 1980s.

Paul O’Callaghan
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Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray & Liz, the intensely autobiographical debut feature by Turner prize-nominated artist Richard Billingham, offers an extraordinarily vivid snapshot of working-class life in the Midlands under Thatcher. Composed of three intimate, interconnected vignettes, the film sees the writer-director contemplate his family’s slide towards poverty over the course of the 1980s, his parents’ deteriorating relationship and his father’s subsequent withdrawal from society.

The project is to some degree an extension of Billingham’s 1996 photo series Ray’s a Laugh, which featured unflinching, and often unflattering, portraits of his gaunt, alcoholic father Ray, his heavily-tattooed, chain-smoking mother Liz, and their ornately decorated but squalid living environment. But whereas the photos were interpreted by some as provocative poverty porn, the film gradually elicits compassion for characters that, at first glance, seem fundamentally unsympathetic. Billingham’s background as a photographer is evident in his acutely observational shooting style, but his screenplay’s elegant triptych structure and tersely poetic dialogue demonstrate an artistry that goes far beyond visual flair.

We spoke to Billingham about the real-world experiences and eclectic artistic influences that shaped this vital new addition to the canon of British working-class cinema.

On the film’s autobiographical origins

It wasn’t like I sat down and thought “I want to make a feature film”; it evolved slowly. I made a short film in 2015 about my father. It charts two or three days of his existence in what was once his marital bedroom. After my mother left him he decided to stay in the bedroom and drink and not go outside. He didn’t eat anything for about 18 months. He didn’t have a telly, he didn’t listen to the radio, he just looked out the window and drank.

I then started to write another short about my uncle Lawrence. When I was growing up he was known as the village fool, though that’s an old-fashioned way of putting it. But he was quite childlike. I then realised that if I could write something to connect these two episodes, I’d have something close to a feature film.

On corroborating his childhood memories

The only other person I talked to was my brother Jason, who’s also a character in the film. There were times when I wasn’t around, so I asked him quite detailed questions to fill in the gaps and get inside his head. Obviously I’d taken a lot of pictures of my parents when they were older, but we also had a family album, so there were a few photos taken inside the house I grew up in. And when I was about 10 I bought a tape recorder, and I used to record friends and family on audio. Sometimes I told them what to say, but other times they didn’t know they were being recorded. So I had those to work with and to play to the actors.

People ask if it was emotionally tough, but it wasn’t at all! I think if there was anything I needed to process, I’d already done that putting together Ray’s a Laugh in the 90s.

Behind the scenes: Ray & Liz (2018)

Behind the scenes: Ray & Liz (2018)

On growing up as a passive TV viewer

TV was a big form of escapism for my family. We used to joke about it being a kind of life-support machine. But I didn’t have any control over what we watched. I’d pay attention if it was something I liked. I loved black-and-white comedies – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy. And it felt like we were always watching films about the war from the 50s and 60s. My parents knew all the British actors; they’d always be trying to figure out where they’d seen them before. I also remember watching stuff like Champion the Wonder Horse and Black Beauty – a lot of crap!

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray & Liz (2018)

On the films that helped shape Ray & Liz

One thing that really sticks out in my mind is the Robert Bresson film A Man Escaped (1956), which I saw when I was about eight. I haven’t seen it since, but I remember being very engaged by it and feeling really tense and also surprised at my reaction, because it was an old black-and-white film. It’s mainly about this guy in a cell trying to escape. And you really feel like you’re there with him, suffering.

I like Shane Meadows, and the whole kitchen-sink school of filmmaking, but none of those films directly influenced Ray & Liz. The only exception might be the Terence Davies trilogy. I watched it when I was about 25 – someone sent it to me after they saw Ray’s a Laugh because they thought there were similarities. That really made on impression on me.

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray & Liz (2018)

On harnessing old technology to take a trip back in time

We used a 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s much more like a photography ratio, and was quite close to the shape of the windows in the flat, so I could frame those nicely. With 4:3, you can frame things like objects and heads in a way you can’t do panoramically. But also, everything was 4:3 when I was growing up. It was only if you went to the cinema that you’d see panoramic images. And I thought that in order to make the time shifts authentic, I should use the technology of that period.

For similar reasons, we shot on 16mm. Analogue is very good for capturing the textures of the traditional materials you see in the film, like wood, wool, paper and cardboard. I was thinking about this because I’m currently using a digital camera to make portraits of homeless people, and it’s much better for capturing the modern synthetic materials they tend to wear. 

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray & Liz (2018)

On working with cinematographer Daniel Landin

Finding the film’s visual style was a collaborative process with Daniel, whose work on Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) I liked. We agreed that the lighting should look as natural as possible, that objects and heads should look sculptural, and that there should be a real clarity to the positive and negative space, but without making it look too composed. We found that we had similar ideas about picture making and shot composition, so I felt I could trust him.

On the influence of the natural world

From the age of 10, nature sort of took over my life. I was very interested in engaging with the natural world. I never had any money for the bus, so I’d just walk for miles to get into the countryside and draw it or record things in a book. Jason has that interest as well, and I think it’s really important for kids, generally.

I was struck by Under the Skin partly because it I think the makers wanted humans to look like they were in a nature documentary. I’m primarily a landscape photographer, and I often think to myself that we’re just a load of apes walking around with clothes on! If you’re observing people, I feel that you have to approach them like the animals they are. Everyone’s got an inner life, but it’s hard to get to that, unless you take a really close look at their behaviour.

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray & Liz (2018)

On the influence of other artists

I’m very interested in the ‘constructed narrative’ photographers of the late 70s, who staged scenes and then photographed them with a large format camera – especially the Canadian artist Jeff Wall; he’s probably the best at it. These tableaux images with a very high degree of verisimilitude, they informed my approach to picture construction. I’m also interested in the work of painters, although I don’t paint myself. A lot of ideas you see in other media, you find that they’ve been done in paintings first.

On the film’s connection with current British politics

I think the story and setting do resonate with what’s going on today. If you go outside London, it feels like Thatcherism all over again. I was photographing homeless people yesterday – five years ago you didn’t see as many people living on the streets as you do now. And some of them clearly need medical help, but people just walk on by. This has largely evolved from the austerity programme. I lived through the Thatcher era, and it was horrible if you were poor, and that’s the case again today. But that’s not what motivated me to make the film in the first place, and the timing of the release is incidental.

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