Karen Guthrie’s devastating and intriguing documentary The Closer We Get was shown as part of the Edinburgh Film Festival earlier this year. Telling the story of her families life after her mother’s stroke the film gives way to other family secrets. Before the film’s European Premiere Karen sat down to answer some of Vulture Hound’s questions.
What was your intention when you first decided to make The Closer We Get?
In terms of the film I started after my mum had come home after her stroke. The first film I was going to make was with my Mum about my Dad which was sort of put on the back burner. You see that in the film there’s a little scene about that. But in terms of The Closer We Get when we started shooting my mother felt, I think, like she was going to get a chance to be listened to. I think part of her motivation for being involved was that she knew that it was some attention on what had happened to her in her life and perhaps she hadn’t had that. And I think, to be fair, she had nothing to lose. I think she was looking down the barrel of the lens at the end of her life and she was very focused on day-to-day living and being motivated by knowing that we would do some more shooting every week so it’s something I really believe kept her going. It was such a big part of what we did together every week.
In terms of gathering the footage, which I was gathering pretty compulsively every time I was there and we shot for two years I felt compelled to do it. I felt like I was a teenager again writing a diary I thought “if I don’t write this diary, if I don’t record everything that’s going on we’re never going to get through it”. I felt very instinctively, it wasn’t very rational, we didn’t have any money for the film and no support behind it we didn’t have a distributor or anything like that I just felt that it was a need in me. I felt that it was changing me. I’ve got nothing to lose from getting through this experience this way. For me it was a way of surviving the trauma of it and I’ll be honest with you I felt that was a sort of, I didn’t know what shape the film would take when we first starting shooting the film. But I did recognise very early on that the material I was getting was really powerful and when I showed it to people like Nina, my co-producer and Alice my editor, I started to show it to them quite early on and they all agreed that they knew there was something incredible in here. When you take into account as well as whats going on in that front room in Largs you have this amazing family story which goes back twenty five years you have my narration and my inner emotional life which is exposed in the narration. You have these strands and for me as a filmmaker you have these challenge in the edit of how to balance those strands and of course I couldn’t conceive of that when I first started the project. I never made a film like this and I didn’t know how to cope with the material but for me I was guided by the fact that the material was so strong and that i felt so motivated to do it. It didn’t matter how exhausted I was at night I just thought that “I have to keep going, cause this is my lifeblood at the moment”. If I don’t do it I’m just going to collapse in a heap.
Midday way through the film there’s a development which almost changes the entire genre of the film into a thriller. Was that an intentional choice you made in the edit?
Yeah that’s how we wanted it to play out in the film. I took the decision to treat that story almost like a drama so I disassociated as much as I could myself from it and thought “how do I tell this story so that it’s compelling to other people and peoples jaws are dropping. Because that’s the experience I had when I was younger and I was telling people about my family. On the surface we were so normal and I would tell people the story and their jaws would just drop further and further. And they would say “how come you seem to be so normal about this?”. I would just say “when you grow up with the elephant in the room you don’t recognise it’s an elephant. My father was such a Victorian figure in a way. With such authority that one never questioned what was done or said. It was absolute authority and of course it meant that in many positive and negative ways he remained the centre of the family because of that power and with all these years perspective I’m beginning in the film to tell you why that ever happened. But of course when it was actually happening to us twenty five years ago there was a lot more anger and it there was lots of resentment. The last thing I want to do is make a film about anger and resentment. I wanted to make a film about actually how you over overcome those feelings.
You include a lot of older home movies in the film. How far back did the footage go?
Well I had been making this autobiographical video installation with Nina my co-producer in the mid-90s. It was called Homespun and that’s where that material comes from. Of course now I can see that I was actually trying to make ‘The Closer We Get’ twenty five years ago. But I couldn’t cope with the material in a way so I took these very formal videos that you see in the film. Things like – people sitting watching television – and of course what they reveal now, those little vignettes of family life, when my younger brother Campbell appeared in our life, those vignettes speak volumes now don’t they? I feel very excited that I had those.
But I was always the family odd one out with a sketchbook so in a funny way I think that’s how I was able to make the film. My family almost expected me to whip out a camera at any point and to always be the person that was doing something along those lines. So I had all this great footage from twenty five years ago and it was by no-means always going to be in the film cause I’ve got other archive that isn’t in the film. For example; my mother celebrated her seventieth birthday five days after her stroke and we had an enormous birthday party in the hospital. For a long time that footage was in the film and it’s very powerful footage. Of course editing is all about making heartbreaking decisions about what you take out. In the end the footage we really wanted to see of Anne in the past is from twenty five years ago really. You meet her immediately before her stroke but it’s a brief encounter and I think as a character post-stroke thats when you really connect with her character I think.
I realised what a privileged position I’m in. Because you see films about strokes and surviving illnesses or going through illnesses but how often do you see a film where we can meet the person before that?
When you started filming on The Closer We Get how were the family with the cameras being constantly around?
It was quite a domestic set up. We didn’t have a crew very often. It was usually just me. So it was quite modest and I could set it up without getting in peoples way very much. So it almost became part of the domestic environment you know? But there was a lot of carers equipment… and also a camera there. It just became, in a funny way, quite a normal thing to do. My brother Mark who’s in the film quite often, he’s obviously quite bristly every time I’ve got the camera on him. I think you get that feeling from him but theres’ also, what you get more importantly is this family living out this family car crash. That’s what’s difficult. The pain you encounter in his scenes with my mum for example and my father. What I wanted to tell was a story about parenting and a story about family life that you can see played out between adults and parents. But you can also see the little girl and the little boy in those interactions. I think with both the scenes with all the family interactions between my dad and all his children, you’re reminded of what kind of father he must have been like when we were small, which wasn’t documented when we were small. So when you see those interactions between adults now we always remember the child and what those inner tensions were in that realtionship.
How was your father overall with you making the film?
We’ve seen it together on our own. But he’s never seen it in a room with perfect strangers so tonight will be his first time to do that. So it’s really hard to know, I mean he’s nearly eighty and he’s still going strong but I still find him as unfathomable as before. He and I are a lot closer now, for sure, but equally I don’t know what portrait of himself he will see when he watches it on screen. Obviously he consented to the film and he certainly had something to say on camera but he felt compelled to do it. I mean he’s as stubborn as I am, if he hadn’t wanted to be filmed he would have refused. So part of him wanted to go on record. I think that’s very brave and I think that part of documentary filmmaking is a braveness and he was very brave as well as my mum.
You see him in 360o. You see parts of him that are really quite unpleasant and you realise what kind of father he must have been as a younger man. But you also see this tenderness, I saw this tenderness in him, caring for my mum which I had never seen and just… this is a man who had never fed a baby before. He was a traditional husband, he was never in. Then just over night he sat down and he started three meals a day, answering the phone, speaking to the doctor and nurses and he did it with the same autonomy as everything in his life. It was what it was going to be and no-one was going to ask why. Of course, that had a positive result and I think he’s aware of that. He definitely was a repentant man at that point in his life.
When you go to Africa. That was another scene I was amazed by. How did you go about setting that up with the “new” family?
My Dad’s amazing actually, this is all genuine of course, when he emailed me because once he’d gone I emailed him saying “I think I might come out with my camera”. Because at that point I was working everyday, I was filming like it was my last, I had no idea how long we could keep going on. So the sense of emergency was really intense through the whole period of the filming. So by that point I felt that he’s seventy eight, I don’t know if he’s every going to go out to Ethiopia again. I don’t know how long he’s going to be there. I genuinely didn’t know and I thought “I’m not going to miss this”. And I knew I had about four or five days where I could do it. So did genuinely write him an email saying “I might come out”. He genuinely wrote back “I don’t think you should” and I wrote back another email saying “and why is that?” and that’s when I discovered about the wedding. And then I said to him “I am definitely coming out now” (laughs) and he was kind of cornered into it. I made sure he had, best to my ability, explained to Campbell’s mother what was going on but I had no idea if that was actually happening. It was quite risky and I was very conscious of throwing a bomb into there life. I was very worried about doing that because I didn’t know how much she knew. I didn’t know anything about her picture of the scenario. I didn’t know how much she knew about the relationship between my parents. It really was a cast into the darkness. I don’t think, I wouldn’t pretend that Campbell’s mother is a strong character in the film but I think the whole situation of the encounter and they way we try to tough our way through it is really significiant. I think it’s a powerful part of the film. Yeah it was very high risk. I think when you see if in the film you’re like “whaaat?, I’m used to being in a small town in Scotland”.
It totally notches it up. We decided where it would go in the timeline of the film very specifically after about an hour. Usually after an hour you think you know the film and it’s just like an adrenaline shot in the arm for the audience. We worked incredibly hard on the structure. We really enjoyed the storytelling part. That sounds a wee bit strange when it’s a personal story and it’s a documentary film but we really we made agonising choices about how that would be revealed. Even the voice over. It sounds effortless but really every piece of voice over was scrutinised; “what are you hinting at? What are you actually revealing?” and never giving people too much, just giving them a crumb of the next bit your going to focus on. That’s what you want as an audience. You don’t want to be looking at a misery memoir, you know somebodies depressing life with an old person who’s dying, you know I don’t want to watch that film. Luckily while I was working on the film I got to the point with my team that I could look at it like that. I didn’t take the decisions personally. I took them as a thing in it’s own right with it’s own identity and it was our job to find that.
How long did the film take to make from beginning to end?
Oh, we started filming in 2011 and we finished very early 2013. So there was an eighteen month period. But there are scenes in the film that we shot twelve months ago. So the span of the contemporary footage is four years maybe more. Then you’ve got the archive which is twenty/twenty-five years old but in total the editing took six months. So it was about twenty four weeks of editing but it was spread out over two years. I finished a picture lock, as they say, in August 2014 believe it or not and after that its just been polishing and doing a lot of work with the audio because we worked with Malcolm Middleton on the score. Which is just a lovely thing working with that sort of thing and we spent a lot of time nuisancing the sound design, all the stuff you don’t really notice but is all there and is really gorgeous and we had a lot of time buffing it before we got it to the festival rota.
Once you’re finished with the publicity trail what will you think of working on next?
(laughs) I’ve got quite a lot of work to do on The Closer We Get because it’s a small cinema release later in the year, I will travel with it. I will be its spokesperson. I don’t have a big film project on the horizon. You know I would like somebody to come to me with a commission (laughs) or an idea for a film because this one was so exhausting. I fantasise about make rock-umentaries about people like Debbie Harry or Prince (laughs). What I’d really like is someone to come to me with a budget and say “Karen for some reason we think you might be the person to make that film”. The next project will happen but I’m not too worried about it.
The Closer We Get is in cinemas from 6 November 2015.