Scott Barley is an artist and filmmaker from Newport, South Wales. This interview took place over email, after his first feature film Sleep Has Her House played at Sheffield Doc/Fest and before it screens at London's Deptford Cinema.
Can you describe your early experiences with filmmaking, and the development you’ve taken through to the feature, if you see it that way? What have you learned so far about your process and your relationship to the work?
I made my first film back in December 2012. The process was very instinctual. It was a very foggy early evening. I went for a drive through the countryside, a few miles away from where I lived at the time, with a very simple Canon point-and-shoot camera. It was the fog that made me want to go out with my camera in the first place – with the intention to just take some photographs.
As I came to the end of a long country road, I noticed in the field opposite, a small gathering of horses, half-present through the fog, standing very still, bound together in their silence, and yet each one alone. I filmed them quite unconsciously for over an hour or so before I realised that they had barely moved. Perhaps they hadn't moved at all. It made me feel like I was stood inside a painting. Time had stopped. There was something quite strange, beautiful, and sad about it.
The air started to change. Gloaming to night, the light grew darker and the air, colder. I filmed the trees, the light changing, and still, the horses remained still, bound to the earth beneath them as much as the trees themselves. Eventually it was too dark to film anymore, and so I got back into my car. I suddenly realised how cold I was. I'd been outside, filming the horses for two hours on a cold December evening without much thought or sense of time or the cold at all.
Three hours later, with very basic editing on my computer, I had my first short film. It felt like I had escaped time for the whole thing. It felt as if the film was made from something within me, but not quite me, and yet whatever it was, it seemed to know what to do. There was no conceit, no aim. It was just a case of responding to what was in-front of me.
Looking back, everything I have made in the six years since is a continuation of that evening. How that night presented itself, how it seemed to have a strange hold on everything. How I felt like I was inside a painting, how linear time seemed to have deserted us, that it had been sculpted into something else, and I was just a witness to life, landscape, and light's silence, unaware, almost unknowingly, innately trying to capture the essence of it.
My background is fine art, particularly painting. I was very influenced by artists like Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, and Anselm Kiefer; how they “sculpt” with the paint and other materials, applying textures in such thick applications that the work gains a sculptural relief. I think now, working with digital video, and using iPhone footage in many layers, I am trying to figure out a method that brings back a sense of texture and tactility that I loved from painting in a sculptural way, where I was painting with my hands with large amounts of oils, ash, spider’s silk, stone, tree bark etc., the pleasure of the messiness of making, and then finally reaching a point where the disorder became an order in itself, to try to encourage a process and manifest those things which digital lacks – due to its flatness, and facsimiled qualities. Each of my films are a failure in that sense, but that is what drives me to keep going.
Is there somewhere specific you begin when you make a film? A thought or process that begins an inquiry which results in a film?
It depends on the film, but mostly, no. I try to encourage a process that is as organic as possible. I film in a way that is like recording a visual diary. Most of the time, I have no idea, or agenda to make a film, at least in the beginning. I simply document. I shoot what attracts me, random things, animals, variances in light, the water, the night sky, the sunset; simply what draws me in on different days, different nights, in different places. Once I have built up a body of footage, I start to see connections. These pieces of footage could be taken months or even years apart – and miles apart from each other too. I then invisibly stitch the different shots together into one larger shot or sequence. But these connections between different pieces of footage all happen organically. I never force these connections. Once these connections are established, a narrative - through images - begins to germinate. I try to convey feelings, those that I am feeling inside, especially ones that I cannot rationalise, or understand, and I try to translate that into cinema, through these images and sounds, because I believe cinema can do that better than any medium, and still allow plenty of room for the spectator to dream, and project themselves into the world of the film. I find a lot of my films come back to my interest in the connections between the phenomenological and the cosmological. I think they are one and the same.
From what I’ve seen so far, your films have had a fairly consistent aesthetic since the start of your career? Or at least recurring visual motifs or points of interest (trees, horses, darkness, reflections). Was this intentional? Do you fear comfort / conservatism?
I think it is a natural, organic thing. Those are the things I am interested in, and in a way, I am making the same film over again. You build a house, brick by brick, and then once the house is built, it is done. Then you bulldoze that house, and build it again from those pieces, but the bricks are cemented in a different order, the windows and doorways are in different places, and the rooms lead to different rooms. Sometimes new rooms open up that weren’t there before. It’s taking an inner chaos, a vibration of feelings, and re-arranging them into something else, something hopefully quite beautiful, and with enough room for people to dream, and to project themselves into the space, and feel like it is their house, their film, their individual experience too, rather holding them prisoner.
I suppose I do fear comfort. I find it really important to render myself in a vulnerable position when making, in different ways. Some of it is not very apparent, but I think a vulnerability in the filmmaker, and in the process can aid in bringing about a sincerity and authenticity to the film.
I don’t fear conservatism, but I detest it. I want cinema to keep pushing forward. We are looking at things like 3D again and again, decades and decades later, after so many failures, and we are now looking at augmented and virtual reality. To me, that is not cinema. It is not necessarily something that is or must be bad, but it is something else, a different medium, just as analogue film and digital cinema are so different, and offer different processes, they too, are different mediums. I think we have not even come to close to understanding and manifesting the potential of what image in tandem with sound can create as an experience. I want to keep driving for that, and see how far we can go.
Can you talk about your use of digital as a format? How much of your work happens in the image, and how much in post?.
It really depends on the sequence. Some involve months of post-production. Others already have almost exactly what I wish within them, a simplicity that has a power beyond itself. I try to get to a place in the images where I feel lost, and remain lost, where the images I have shot and then manipulated no longer feel like mine, and are mysteries to me. Like the film has come alive, and is now several steps ahead of me. It sounds counter-productive to work heavily in post-production to get towards that feeling, rather than just leaving them as is, but that is sometimes the way I find I have to work to get to that point. But as I say, some shots already have that essence to me.
I read that some shots in Sleep Has Her Name are more than 60 layered images. It made me think of Takashi Makino, who makes what he calls ‘1000 layer’ cinema. Do you see images as something malleable rather than a fixed recording? Is ‘too much’ manipulation possible?
I think images are very malleable, particularly with the advent of digital cinema. There is infinite possibilities in that. I like what Takashi Makino is doing a lot, but for me, I need to lull people into a world that feels at one moment recognisable as the world we know, and then in the next, utterly unreal, and yet it is real. That’s why the slow-burn aspect of my films is so important; the films have to be a slow unravelling towards the hinterland of the real, and then, beyond, outside of it. To have a film that is fully abstract from beginning to end can be a wonderfully intense, sensorial thing, but I work hard to make an experience that leads us up to that point, through a tension, so we have space and time to consider what we know and what we don’t know about our world and the beyond. I want to render the known unknown to us again, like how a young child may see the world, where everything is so much more alive. I don’t want to make films where you feel you are watching a film. I want to make you feel like you are truly in that world, and we are walking through it together, and each night, we look up at the moon in the night sky, and each and every time, it is as if we are seeing the moon for the first time. The malleability of images can help enable that. I think it is important to be ethically conscious of the distance between the rushes you filmed on your camera, and what you present as the final film, but that distance is purely dictated by what you are trying to convey. Some films can have very little manipulation, but still come across as vulgarly insincere, whereas others can have endless manipulation, and still manifest something truly authentic, fragile, and human.
What sort of state do you think is beneficial to viewing these films? I like to be absorbed by things, and to surrender to them without the need for too much thought or analysis. Do you believe that films can serve as a place to disappear in front of, to enter your imagination, or rather a imaginative space fuelled by the images in front of you?
I think it is a symbiosis of the two. In a way, the two are inextricable. That’s where the power comes from. As I said before, the important thing is to leave enough room for the spectator to dream, to emblazon themselves within the world you are sharing with them, so that the world becomes as much theirs, as it is yours, because simply, it is.
Do you feel that there is a vulnerability in these films? How much of you is in them, and how much is purely the landscape?
Yes. Making Sleep Has Her House in particular was a very dark period in my life. I had to leave work for nearly a year due to depression, and working on the film was the only thing that kept me going. It gave me something to work through, and to see through.
I try to anthropomorphise the landscape. They are my characters, and they have stories to tell since the beginning, rendered in their textures. I see the body, the landscapes, and the sky, or the unknown beyond as shivered mirrors of one another. They are interconnected, in a mystic way, but also in a very lucid, scientific way. The landscapes hold scars of the past, like our bodies, of history, and stars are like scars of the past too, colossal explosions of celestial energy, that eventually created these landscapes before us, and our bodies. In a way, no dichotomy exists between the inside and the outside.
Science has proven we are literally made of stardust. We can look upon - in awe - of the night sky. Because of how far the light has to travel, to gaze at the stars is to stare back into time itself. It is a mirror of ourselves and the landscapes around us. We see them, these tiny specks of light, and yet it is like staring into a mirror of death, the death of us from before, and now we exist in another form, and we are able to bear witness to that; to stare at our own death in that mirror, while we remain in this form, alive, here, now. We die and live again, and live to see our previous death, our ancient death. The night sky, this mirror is an infinite black pool; a cathedral full of ghosts; the ghosts of stars... stars that in some cases no longer exist - the very stars that we are now made of. I find it incredible. The very stars that now form our landscape, both exterior landscapes (our world), and our own interior landscape (body) are in that mirror above us in another form. Perhaps we have no purpose in life except to one day return, after this death, to pass through that mirror, and reunify with the stars that birthed us. To become the Before, or the Whole (whatever you want to call it) – again.
I try to place a lot of my own feelings into my films, but it is conveyed through nature, because, we are nature. We often forget that.
Can you talk about the simultaneous attraction to, and fear of, nature that seems to be present in these works? Beauty and terror?
Beauty and terror, fear and ecstasy – they are one and the same. The two are so vicinal, and I think that is what the sublime is; to be in such a state of awe at the beauty and vastness of all of this, that you are rendered so small, meaningless, and afraid. The sublime is the death of the ego, and the beginning of accepting the universality of everything.
What instigated the desire to make a film at feature length? What dictates a films length for you?
I think it all depends on what you are trying to convey, and how much time the tension needs to build and be explored before the release of it. I always go with my feeling, rather than thinking too much.
Can you talk about your relationship to the internet? You seem to welcome online viewing, condition dependent, but I saw that you’ve put out DCPs recently, which suggests a move to the cinema is preferable? I greatly prefer the cinema, but also wouldn't have discovered your work without vimeo, perhaps.
I make my films for the cinema, nowadays more so than ever. Nothing can beat the darkness of a large theatre, with a big screen, and big sound. That is what cinema is. But to me, it is also about accessibility. I hate the elitist attitudes of many artists and distributors over their work. I think the internet offers the ability to truly bring down those walls of elitist attitudes, and give people the ability to access work much more easily, and widely. I would like people to see my films in the cinema, but I know that is not always possible. My love for the cinema space is not dogmatic. I would never wish to prevent others from seeing my work if they wished to see it, even if there were experiencing it in a lesser way.
Making DCPs of my short films available for free on my website to download is another part of that democratisation and accessibility. It’s about giving the power back to communities, rather than the multiplex and a few, very powerful distributors. Anybody can download the DCP, and take it to their local cinema, and hopefully arrange a way to get it screened, free of charge, and as much as they wish. It’s also about getting cinemas to show short films as well as longer form works, so there is more of a variety. It’s an experiment, and it’s too early to tell whether it will be fruitful, but I think it is certainly something worth trying.
How has your upbringing in Wales affected your relationship to the landscape. The (few) Welsh people I’ve met have a very specific relationship with the outdoors, almost a need for it, a nourishment from it. Is this the case for you, or is it more complicated?
I really don’t know where it comes from. I don’t think in a nationalist sense, or relate that back to my interests, and background, my history. Nobody has control over where they are born. Maybe the landscape of Wales, and also Scotland (I have family there) has percolated into the way I feel compelled to work, but I really do not know. All I know is that when I’m outside, surrendering to the elements, thats when I feel alive, and when I feel in unison with everything around me.
I heard that this film was included in the Doc/Fest programme as (Nathaniel) Dorsky counterprogramming? How do you feel about this? I guess the idea is light / darkness, where one is just an absence or abundance of the other? Can you talk about the role of darkness in your films? It made me think of (Mark) Rothko’s paintings where he fears the black swallowing the red, but also sort of loves the black too.
I think there is a lot of darkness in Dorsky’s films, and there is light in my work too. Darkness does not have a power without light, and vice versa. It is in the absence of one, that we feel the weight of the other, but they are inextricable.
Darkness has always been a prerequisite to truly enter the world on the screen, and its importance in granting experiential resonance cannot be overstated. In the auditorium, the lights go down. We wait in a darkened room for a world of light to open up to us, and while our body may remain in our seat, the incorporeal essence in all of us wades toward the flickering light, haunting it, as it haunts us. Our souls invest, they search in curiosity and hunger in the images and sounds. Cinema is a symbiosis of haunts. We enter it as it enters us. To enter a film’s world is a very spectral thing. To truly submit to the cinema experience is like letting the waves of the ocean crash over you and not be afraid of drowning. To be in that darkness and let the film envelop and pervade us is the very definition of surrender. To give oneself up to the other.
The importance of darkness and the underexposed image also come from my desire to bring a tactility to vision – to go beyond figuration, beyond the object, and to feel the liminality between light and darkness itself as its own subject, to feel the weight of what is known and what is unknown. Cinema’s strength can also be its weakness. With so much of cinema’s power coming from its unique distinction in the arts as a bastardisation of two arts—image and sound—creating vivid audio-visual scenarios, often there isn’t enough room for the spectator to dream, to imagine, to question. Darkness, obfuscation—both visual and metaphorical—can assist in creating an environment where one’s imagination can coexist and harmonise with the film’s body, and create an utterly unique, polysemic experience for each individual, fulfilling that symbiosis.
Darkness is a texture, a veil, mystical, an immaterial hinterland. It is the backwoods from which everything enters and leaves. We have all at one time or another felt like we have at least for a moment seen something passing through beyond that veil, where we have stared into deep darkness—true darkness—and felt our optical nerve pushed to its limits, seeing strange lights emanating, dancing, from seemingly nothing, beyond the boundary of our vision, never quite sure if it is our eye or something else that is part of us, within us, yet unknown to us, permitting us a witness to it. Darkness allows the mind’s eye to open, for our imagination to wander. It recalibrates and nurtures our relationship with our body, our senses, and the landscape beyond us. I want to create a world that makes the known feel unknown again, allowing that fragile, profoundly intense pulse of childlike curiosity that beats inside us to take hold once more. Darkness allows us to surrender ourselves to that mystery, that wonder, and to swim in it, and reclaim our profound and even paroxysmal relationship with ourselves and what lies beyond ourselves; to fearlessly drown it is infinite pool.