Interview: NOTES ON BLINDNESS Directors Discuss Their Tribute To Blind Theologian John Hull
James Spinney and Peter Middleton's Notes on Blindness isn't just an incredible homage to blind theologian John Hull (who sadly died in 2015), the documentary is also a very profound demonstration of the incredible work he did in making a bridge between sighted and blind culture possible. Having faced potential blindness for much of his life, the UK-based, Australian university tutor was driven to feverishly turning major cultural texts into audio versions when he finally lost his sight. He also began fastidiously documenting his very personal journey in coming to terms with blindness through years' worth of audio tapes.
His remarkable reflections on this experience were then transcribed into the book Touching the Rock, and fans of that book should not be disappointed by this film's incredibly well-executed take on its invaluable insights. The pre-existing pool of people touched by John's work also no doubt partly explains why both the British Film Institute and Creative England opted to fund this film; but in truth that decision was also probably about much more than that.
Between them, these two English directors have created a new vision of what accessible cinema should be, and how it should be artistically executed - and it was this idea that those institutions were probably rallying behind. Having already shown at Sundance and IFFR too, filmmakers, distributors and cinema-goers would all do well to take note of the future vision of film this movie is suggesting, because it could diversify the theatrical experience in a way which seems hard not to be considered fresh and exciting.
ScreenAnarchy: It seems like you've been working with John and his family for many years, were you very affected by his recent death?
James Spinney: We met John and Marilyn about five years ago. And over time our collaboration became a friendship.
So news of John's death came as a blow. And reconfigured the project in a number of ways. Up until this point it had really been a conversation - whenever we encountered an issue or felt we had to go deeper into something, we could just go and visit John and Marilyn and find the answers we needed. And they were so generous in excavating painful memories of this very difficult time.
Peter Middleton: Yeah, they often referred to this process of going back into their memories as re-opening an old wound. It was a very distant period of their lives in terms of John’s relationship with sight loss. Even by the end of the diaries in 1986, John had come to find peace with blindness.
So we’re incredibly grateful for how deep they went in revisiting these experiences. We hope the film will be a fitting tribute.
Has the family seen the film yet?
James: We watched the film with Marilyn a week before the film premiered. She was kind enough to join us at Sundance – and be a part in the discussions after the screenings. We can’t speak for Marilyn about her responses to the film which are of course extremely complex. We’re extremely grateful to her for her continuing of support of the project during a difficult time. We looking forward to watching the film with the rest of the family soon.
Have they seen the previous short films you've made about John's experiences?
James: They have and they've all been incredibly supportive over the years - as was John himself before he passed away. I think it's always been peculiar for the entire family, because of the way the story has been visualized – with actors re-embodying their voices.
Pete: Yeah, the lip-syncing technique has been done to such an extreme that Marilyn's experience of seeing her voice embodied by an actress is probably one she doesn't share with many other people – and must be very strange.
How difficult was the lip-synching to achieve?
James: Well, technically speaking we would take care to make sure each recorded line had audio pips before it started, to give the lead actor Dan this kind of preparatory run up. But Dan just really threw himself into it.
I mean, I think the longest speech which we asked him to do was the one at the end, which was about a minute and a half long, and he actually did in one take. Well, it did take him a few takes to get it right, but the cut you see was produced all in one go. I think we did then ultimately put a cut in that scene, but we didn't have to because Dan did it so well in that one take.
Peter: It was surprising actually, because the actors just really got into it. It was a pretty tight shoot of about forty days spread out over a couple of months, and we really have no complaints about the crew and cast. Plus, it kind of all became weirdly normalised: this kind of queuing different bits of audio. It did create a different atmosphere on set, I suppose, than if we would have recorded sound.
How difficult was it to cast the right kind of actors who could handle this unusual set up?
James: Yeah, I think a lot of this really depended on the casting and auditioning process, because the worst possible result would have been if the film had left you with an overwhelming awareness of the sense it was being lip-synced. In the end, Dan was actually one of the only people who we thought could really pull it off.
There's a real kind of musicality to John's speech which was very difficult to get right, so Dan had to constantly have this real combination of technical drive and hard work to learn the right rhythms and cadences. At the same time, I also think this role called for a certain lightness of touch, which Dan did really well.
This has also been your first feature project. How difficult has it been to make this step between shorts and features?
James: It's hard to say, because we've been working on this project in such various forms. In many ways, we've had a pretty good run up to this feature, really. At first we made a three-minute short which just focused on one particular entry from John's diary, then from there we made a twelve-minute short film with the New York Times.
Given the nature of the project, though, we've also been editing the audio for the feature way ahead of the shoot, meaning that there's always been this kind of pre-visualisation aspect to it. I think all these elements meant that by the time we started shooting, we already knew our material inside out, you know? Nevertheless, it has been a big step. Particularly the nature of shooting for a long time without too much of a pause.
Peter: It was tricky, wasn't it? But as James says, I think we have just been building up to it for such a long time that by the time we went into production or principal photography we felt kind of ready for it. It's strange, though, because I was talking last night with our focus puller, a wonderful chap named Mark Gee, about how directors are often the ones who are the least experienced on set. So I think there's always a certain challenge present when you're directing any film.
How difficult was it to match footage to the audio excerpts you'd chosen?
Peter: I'd say a lot of the imagery we used was derived almost directly from John's accounts. A lot of the sort of visual metaphor is already in what he's written, it's an incredible testimony to his skill as a diarist. I mean, we first came across him via his book Touching the Rock, which is essentially a kind of transcript of his edited diaries; and there really is so much in there. The accounts are so rich and dramatic and vivid, so from a creative point of view there was so much for us to get our teeth into.
At the same time, though, a lot of the time his diaries are also reflective or meditative or poetic, and they're not overly concerned with the worldly dimensions of where they are set, or what he is doing. So that did leave us with a great deal of creative freedom to take up that and expand it. But I would say a lot of the images we use are all in his book, really. So developing from the audio track to visuals also felt like a very organic process.
How difficult was this project to structure because you did a really great job of structuring it to ensure it felt linear and kept on building?
James: Yeah, it's funny, because I'm talking to you from our spare room, which is where Pete and I did a lot of our storyboarding, and up on the wall there are all our notes. The entire wall is completely covered in Post-its, and pretty much each one refers to a diary entry, fragment or thought.
But structuring that was a real on-going process. There is a big narrative journey in the sense that John moves from grief and loss to reconfiguring his whole relationship with blindness, ultimately coming to conceive of blindness as a gift. The very nature of the diary form did mean that his transition didn't necessarily feel as direct and as charged as that, though. He does experience several moments of relapse too, so in a way you could describe it much better as more of a kind of pointillist journey, I think, rather than a neat flowing one.
So do you think you've managed to capture John's experience in your film's structure?
James: I don't know if we fully did. I think one of the things that is so remarkable about John's account is that although it does begin as a sort of tale of grief and loss, the actual reconfiguration of John's conscience experience is so drastic by the end of the diaries. The things that he was initially so aware of the loss of, became things that he felt had ceased to be of importance to him. I think that transition actually occurred to a greater degree than we could even actually properly emphasise in the film, I think.
Peter: Yeah, it's quite a profound sort of neurological observation that John ends up making in the end, and it's one that actually attracted a lot of attention. Oliver Sachs has written quite a lot about John in a publication three or four years ago, called The Mind's Eye. There's a whole chapter on it, and it's all very much on his kind of ultimate rejection of the visual world and reaching a stage where he can live wholly in blindness.
Are there things you would have now done differently to try to better relate his experience?
James: Well actually, one thing that has been quite rewarding about the way the project has developed is the way that some of John's material which didn't necessarily lend itself towards treatment in a feature has been able to find a home in our VR project which we also showed at Sundance. This was particularly effective at conveying the bits in the diary about the sensory awakenings which John was beginning to register.
There's also one concept which the film touches upon on in the rainfall scene, which John began to refer to as "acoustic space." This is a sort of sensation that multi-layered patterns of sound can bring depth and detail and contrast to somebody in a particular environment. So in the VR project we were able to create four chapters which examine this idea and put you into this kind of three-dimensional, binaural sound environments that you can kind of explore whilst being guided by John's narration. We've been quite excited, actually, by the fact that the feature film and the VR project both represent different entry points to John's account.
It does sound like you have been both very invested in trying to do justice to, explore and communicate aspects of the blind experience.
Peter: Absolutely, we were always very keen from the start that we would try to evoke something of the blind experience. Or rather I should say the subjective blind experience, or John's experience of blindness. We did work very closely with Gerry Floyd our cinematographer and our production designer Damien Creagh to try and develop a kind of visual style and aesthetic that would allow us to evoke something of the interiority of blindness.
That's what a lot of our aesthetic choices around our use of light and shadow and of the way we framed the characters corresponded to John's sort of receding visual memory of the world and what people's faces looked like. All those little types of aesthetic choices were carefully kind of planned out to try and suggest something of John's reduced world of blindness.
Do you think the film industry should consider ways to explore the blind experience much more often?
Peter: Absolutely! We're really keen to create new approaches to accessible cinema. For us, it's about establishing a template and proving that it can work and be inexpensive if you actually just build making a film accessible into the process of doing the sound mix in the first place. So we're hoping our film will act as a template.
We'll also be looking at the different kinds of delivery systems available. We're hoping to create an app that will allow you to select which stream you want, and then that would sync up with the picture. So we're fairly confident our film will deliver a more creative audio-descriptive experience, but it may still have lots of room for improvement.
The point will be proving the system can work and providing a template that others can take forward. Hopefully that will allow our film to leave something of a creative legacy; one that could be used in television and VOD too.
James: I do want to stress that we're not trying to dump on the traditional audio descriptions tracks that are on offer though. That is currently the primary accessibility model out there, so we certainly don't want to detract from that. We're just interested in ways that it could be expanded.
But do you find that countries such as France are often much better than other countries at creating accessible experiences for the blind and partially sighted?
Peter: That's true! And it's true in a number of the Scandinavian countries as well. In fact, one of our execs is a guy called Mark Edwards at Arte France, and he has been telling us some pretty interesting stuff that's going on with audio description in France.
He mentioned that there's these kinds of industrial disputes borne out of whether or not audio describers should be considered as creatives in the same way that screenwriters should also be. It's all rather interesting stuff going on over there. We strongly believe that recognising stuff like the creation of audio description tracks as more of a creative art and involving it more in the filmmaking process will make the experience much more rewarding and accessible for blind people, so it's something we're hoping to explore in time for the UK release in June.