Philip Ridley – Renaissance man

Cambridge Film Festival Q&A with director/writer/ painter

8th September, 2015

While the new film about the Kray twins, Legend, was selling out shows at the Cambridge Film Festival, the author of the screenplay for The Krays, Philip Ridley was also in town to attend a rare screening of his award-winning film The Reflecting Skin (1990). Afterwards, in conversation with critic Jason Wood, he discussed his work on both these films.

PhilipRidley2_copyright_Dave Riley
photo copyright Dave Riley

Ridley described how he came to be involved with The Krays when he was an art student at Saint Martin’s School of Art in the mid-1980s. Looking for part-time work, he got a job helping out at his local East London film company, which produced videos for Spandau Ballet. The Kemp brothers, Martin and Gary, who went on to star in the film, told him about their project and Ridley volunteered to ‘have a bash’ at the screenplay. His first draft, completed in two weeks, concentrated on Ronnie and Reggie’s childhood and family dynamics, rather than plodding and un-cinematic police procedural. The Kemp brothers loved it.

The Krays (1990) had a mythic element to it. Ridley describes the film as ‘a horror fairy tale’, and its concentration on the domestic anticipated the world of The Sopranos: this was a family who just happened to have violent criminals living in it.

With his large bald head and infectious sense of mischief, Ridley comes across as a slightly camp Buddha with a whiff of Francis Bacon. His Wikipedia entry undersells him as ‘an English artist working with various media’. In reality he is larger than life – a ‘polymath’ and a ‘visionary’, as Wood called him.

PhilipRidley4_copyright_Dave Riley
photo copyright Dave Riley

Since the late 1980s Philip Ridley’s body of work has been prodigious. He has written novels and plays for both adults and children, including the award-winning Krindlekrax (1991). In addition to The Krays (1990), he has also written and directed three feature films, including the much-feted The Reflecting Skin (1990). Ridley’s paintings have been exhibited throughout Europe and Japan. One of his charcoal drawings, ‘Corvus Cum’, which portrayed a man ejaculating a black bird, ruffled feathers at London’s ICA. Ridley has also been, variously, performance artist, actor, photographer and songwriter. He is the only person ever to receive both Evening Standard’s Most Promising Newcomer to British Film and Most Promising Playwright Awards.

The Reflecting Skin originated in collages that Ridley created as a student around the subject of mythical Americana – ca. 60 pieces of work set in the wheat-lands of the Mid West that featured a child. Within these images, Ridley found a narrative that became the screenplay for the film. He said that the final images in the film, filmed in Alberta, Canada, are very close to his original collages.

Jason Wood commented that ‘horror and family’ seemed to be at the heart of Ridley’s work. ‘How close those subjects can be’, replied Ridley, before elaborating: ‘I loved the language of horror films, particularly those from the 1970s and early 80s. Horror is a subversive genre, people exploring contentious ideas. The trauma of the Vietnam War was expressed in the body horror of films such as David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The world felt different afterwards’. He greatly admired the ‘fantastic trick’ Cronenberg pulled by showing the audience an exploding head within the first ten minutes, then never showing one again. Ridley’s gleeful homage to Scanners is an exploding frog at the start of The Reflecting Skin. ‘Suck on that, Crony!’ he laughs.

The Reflecting Skin Looks at the world through the bright eyes of Seth, an 8 year-old who is misinterpreting everything. The film is ‘a mash-up’ of realism and the imagination, with ‘jet-black humour’.‘Like a piece of music,’ says Ridley, ‘it is open to interpretation.

Questions about casting the film elicited glowing tributes from its director for actors Lindsay Duncan (‘she doesn’t bat an eyelid. She plays it like its Chekhov’) and relative unknown at the time, Viggo Mortensen (of Lord of the Rings fame), who exuded a potent mixture of ‘venomous and vulnerable’. ‘It was so obvious,’ says Ridley, ‘but no-one else had discovered him. I mean, look at him! If that walked in …’

At the audition for young Seth, Jeremy Cooper stood out. In contrast to the other seven year-old kids, who ‘thought they were Robert de Niro’, he acted like a real boy. ‘He was so curious. He stared at me so intently … he got the job on the spot.’ Where was he now? asked a member of the audience. ‘Last I heard he was a ski instructor,’ replied Ridley.

In response to a question about the film’s visual sensibility Ridley explained that the colour scheme and clothes were meticulously worked out: ‘80% of the film was filmed at the Magic Hour – when the sun is about to set’. The wheat ‘ wasn’t yellow enough, so I was out at six in the morning spray-painting wheat. The crew thought I was bonkers.’

The Q&A finished with a lament from Philip Ridley about the current state of the film industry, which, he said, was ‘tough on visionaries’. The Reflecting Skin would never have been made in today’s austere climate. In 1990, as a debut director, he was given approval for everything: ‘I had Director’s Cut from the outset.‘

PhilipRidley1_copyright_Dave Riley
photo copyright Dave Riley