Oi Polloi

Interview: Jason Wood - cinema mastermind

Published: Thu Nov 30 2017

Going to the cinema is one of life’s true treats, but unless you want to fork out a small fortune to see the latest superhero re-boot, most modern-day multiplexs are hardly pushing the boundaries.

Luckily, there is an alternative. HOME is a cinema (and a theatre, café and art gallery) in the centre of Manchester that shows the sorts of films you might actually want to watch — from overlooked classics to experimental gems you’ve never heard of.

Jason Wood is the artistic director of film there, which basically means that he's the man in charge of working out what films they're going to show.

Seeing as I have absolutely zero knowledge of the inner-workings of cinemas, I thought he might be an interesting person to talk to.

I met him on a Friday morning to talk about films, independence and other related subjects…

Starting things off, what got you into films? And what led you to working here?

I’ve always been obsessed with cinema. My brother was a bit of a cinephile, and I remember him showing me Taxi Driver when I was seven or eight years old. I was way too young to be watching it. He would show me these films and I just became obsessed with the  language of cinema and the way you can see these different cultures and different societies in a film.

I was growing up in the 1970s and the 1980s in an era when, first of all, television was very vibrant. You could watch foreign language films on television – not at three in the morning, but at seven or eight at night. Through programmes like Moviedrome and Moving Pictures, I remember discovering Buñuel, Tarkovsky and the great filmmakers.

And from there, I was in one of the first years to do film-studies A Level. From there I went on to do film as a degree, combined with philosophy, which has given me a very miserable outlook on life unfortunately. Through learning film and studying it, I ended up making documentary films, with a colleague who I have sadly since lost contact with called Eileen Anipare.

We made documentaries about film-makers. The first film was about the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. We got slightly lucky as after we made the film he died very prematurely.

That doesn’t sound that lucky.

Well, it wasn’t particularly lucky for him. But our interview was one of the last he gave, and as a result the film that we made got invited to film festivals and was bought and played in different countries.

Through that we made enough money to make a second film – this time on the American independent film-maker Hal Hartley – which actually played at the Cornerhouse. And from that, we made a third film on an Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan, and again, that film was invited to film festivals and was actually released in America. Every now and again, I get a check from the Directors Guild of America – but not for a lot of money. It wouldn’t even buy me a pair of socks.

And from that, I was given the opportunity to go and work in film distribution. I’ve worked in pretty much every aspect of the film industry – always in the independent sector. I worked for an independent film distributor, helping to release films like Gummo by Harmony Korine and Seven by David Fincher.

And from there, I went on to work for Picturehouse Cinemas for ten years, and then went on to become Director of Programming at Curzon Cinemas. And from there I went on to become the Artistic Director of Film at HOME.

And whilst I was doing all that, I was also writing. I’d do film reviews for magazines, I’d do interviews in the Guardian, and I also started to write film books. All this makes me sound like a colossal, arrogant arsehole.

Haha don’t worry about it, I did ask about what you did, it’s not like you just came out and said this stuff. What are your books about?

I think I’ve written eleven books now. I wrote a book on Nick Broomfield, I’ve written a book on road movies, I’ve written a book on Mexican cinema. I try and write a book every two years. I’ve had a really blessed career. I feel really lucky to have been able to do all these things.  

What would you put that down too? I imagine there’s loads of people who’d like to work in films, but maybe when it came down to it, wouldn’t actually want to put the work in.

It’s hard work. You have to be really persistent. When I was making those documentaries, I’d graduated from university and I was applying to every single film based job I could think of. For two years, I never even got an interview — I worked in a furniture shop, and I was also doing a gardening job at weekends. I would have done anything to get in film.

People have described it as small man syndrome — I’m a small man. And I think that’s always given me a persistence and I can be very dogged and determined. I was determined to do it. I never gave up.

How did you fund that first film? Was that an idea you lot had?

It was mainly Eileen Anipare’s idea. We were both studying at North London Polytechnic, but I was a year ahead and I’d left. I was working at a furniture shop on Tottenham Court Road and hating it, and Eileen got a grant and we were able to use equipment from the university. This was in 1990, so we were shooting on low-grade VHS cameras.

Funnily enough, we showed the Kieslowski film here at HOME recently as it was the anniversary of a big Kieslowski project called the Dekalog. And it looked pretty terrible. It was obviously the work of people without much training and practice — but what we did have was a knowledge of the director’s work, and a desire to share that knowledge.

One of the things with my role now is this idea of wanting share knowledge. I’m incredibly enthusiastic about film, and I try to transfer that enthusiasm to what we program here, so that other people can also come and share an enthusiasm and love of film.

But yeah, making that film was hard work. I actually ended up getting frostbite when we were shooting that. It was so cold. We didn’t have visas, we didn’t have insurance, and it was tough. But I look back on that period and it was great to make these films and meet these directors.

What’s a normal day like for you? Is there a normal day?

There isn’t really a set template to my day. And I love that. The only day where there is a set element is a Monday, because we’ll come in and look at how films have performed on the weekend, and then decide which films are going to get which shows for the following week.

What we try and do here, and this is an important point, is make sure that every film gets a second week. Because sometimes films take time to breathe, and sometimes it takes time for audiences to discover them. We’re not looking to open a film and then take it off as quickly as possible – which is the situation you’ll find at more commercially led cinemas.

Any other day, there’s really no set pattern. There’ll be meetings, a lot of screenings – myself and the film team watch a lot of films – and do a lot of work with universities. I’m probably the stupidest person in history to hold a professorship.

Do you ever worry that the films you put on here just becomes your taste? If I had a cinema it’d probably just show Ace Ventura 2 all the time.

I think that any good curator needs to reflect the tastes of the audience. I work with a team of people, and we all have input into the program. The program is driven by the idea of independence – and that can mean independence in terms of production, or independence in terms of the thoughts and aspirations that the filmmaker wishes to represent.

I think we’re in a really interesting time in our history because of a number of political situations. We’re in a time when a lot of artists and filmmakers are making films which are explicitly political and explicitly critical of current regimes and dominant ideologies. We have to make sure that we always allow screen space for those films to come here and flourish – and they do.

Do you think that ‘independent cinema’ has sort of split into two things now? There’s the classic independent cinema – maybe something like Jem Cohen knocking around with a 16mm camera –  and then there’s the caricature of independent cinema - the ‘Hollywood indy film’ with good looking people in check shirts and a chintzy ukulele soundtrack.

Hollywood is about ownership and capitalism. And the way that capitalism works is on the basis of ownership. So when an independent film comes out and is a success, the way that Hollywood reacts to that is to go out and buy that film and buy that filmmaker.

But then if you look at some of the filmmakers who’ve made films that we’d probably categorise as independent, some of those are made with the benefaction of Hollywood studios. And then you’ve got someone like Paul Thomas Anderson, who I think is a genius. All of his films are funded by studios. There Will Be Blood was funded by the Walt Disney Corporation.

We have to be careful not to have a default setting of criticizing Hollywood, because Hollywood has also enabled and allowed some really interesting voices to get through. And you can apply that to any walk of life. If you have a non-league footballer who’s brilliant, at some point a professional team is going to come in and buy them. And that’s just the way capitalism works.

I suppose it’s like in the early 90s when all the major record labels realised ‘alternative rock’ was the new thing.

Yeah, and unfortunately what tends to happen is that as soon as those bands, filmmakers or footballers have stopped being successful, they’re quietly dropped as the record label, studio or football team go on to look for the next thing.

Do you think there’s almost a stereotype or pre-conception of the films that you lot show here? I know that your ticket prices are probably some of the cheapest for an inner-city cinema, but because you’re not showing all the blockbusters, do you think there’s still a misconception that this is slightly exclusive?

That’s a good question. The point about the price is important, as I have a strong belief that everyone deserves access to culture. If you want people to go on a voyage of discovery, then you have to make sure that they can afford it. I don’t believe that venues or culture should only be the province of the rich and the wealthy.

Also, I mentioned before about how we like films to challenge and provoke, but there’s nothing wrong with having a good time. We don’t want this to be an austere, exclusive, intimidating venue – that would be a failure. We have to make sure that everyone feels welcome here. So we will sometimes play films that could be argued are more from the mainstream end of the spectrum… things like Blade Runner 2049 or The Death of Stalin.

I think the really important thing that we try and do is this idea of a journey and discovery – so somebody might come in to watch The Death of Stalin, and while they’re here watching that, they might also notice that we’re also showing films that look at the history of Russia from a different perspective – and they might take a chance on seeing one of them.

It’s like sushi – if you only ate beef burgers every day of your life, that’d get pretty boring. But if you try something else, you’d have an experience – you might not like that experience, and you might not do it again, but if you’ve only paid nine pounds, you’re not going to feel too cheated.

Do you think people are more tuned into these more left-field films then maybe when you were growing up?

When I was growing up, if you wanted to learn about a film, you’d have to read about it in a film publication – but now there are many different ways you can learn about film, and culture in general.  And now you don’t necessarily have to come to the cinema to watch a film. There are various online channels – you can watch things on demand in your own home. And that’s led to an greater understanding and knowledge.

I think that we’re at an interesting point in our evolution in that the traditional gatekeepers have been eradicated. There’s a much more democratic approach to culture, because now people are able to choose how, what and when they access culture. And I think that’s really interesting.

What with all these new-fangled ways to watch films at home, why do you think people still go to the cinema?

I think it’s because people like that communal experience. There’s an experience of watching films with people that you can’t replicate at home – you just can’t. But I think it’s important that online exists too, because for people who maybe live somewhere where there isn’t a cinema – they should be able to access film too.

What cinema experiences stand out for you?

I was on holiday once in Greece, a long time ago, and they had an open air screening, which is something you can do in other countries as they have summers. It was in a courtyard next to a church – and they screened the original Blade Runner at night, and the experience was incredible -because a shooting star came over as we were watching it. I’d never seen anything like it.

A more recent experience was at the Il Cinema Ritrovato  festival in Bologna. It’s an archive festival that only screens old films – and they do open air screenings every night in the public square. And probably the greatest cinema experience I’ve ever had was this year at this festival in Bologna, when they screened a load of Buster Keaton short films, including The General.

It’s amazing because you’re sitting in this square, it’s ten o’clock at night, it’s still warm, there’s three thousand people there and you look around and there’s grandparents, parents and children, all sitting completely enraptured by a film made over 80 years ago.

Do you think you’d get the same reaction here? Are people as enraptured by film in England?

I think they are. One morning here we put on a load of Laurel and Hardy movies, and everyone loved it. Young children were laughing their heads off at Laurel and Hardy. I don’t think we’ve lost that feeling at all. But what we have lost is that courage of our convictions to give audiences this stuff. If you give it to them, they will discover it.

Definitely. Okay, I think a film is starting in here so we probably better wrap this up. Any wise words to end this with?

Wise words? I’d say don’t expect less – demand the best. Demand to have your voices heard and your views expressed. Stand up for what you believe in, and don’t give up on culture. And always be prepared to go on a voyage of discovery… you might like what you discover.