request | Filmmaker Magazine
Having lived himself in many realms of the British art scene – from punk to high fashion, from experimental film to music videos – John Maybury, in Love is the Devil, was well suited to tackle the cultivated contradictions of painter Francis Bacon. Director/producer Tom Kalin speaks to Maybury about bio-pics, royalties and the queens of ‘60s Soho.

Derek Jacobi as Francis Bacon

As arguably the greatest British artist of the twentieth century, Francis Bacon reimagined the art of figure painting. Unfortunately, few representations of Bacon himself have successfully revealed the impetus for his work’s uniquely disquieting mix of aesthetic beauty and existential cruelty. Very loosely based on Daniel Farson’s corrosive biography The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, John Maybury’s biopic, Love is the Devil, uses Bacon’s S/M relationship with George Dyer – a relationship that ended with Bacon’s continual success and Dyer’s suicide – to explore the complex synergy that existed between his life and his art.

Having worked as Derek Jarman’s costume and set designer, shot experimental punk films in the ’70s, and densely layered gay and AIDS activist videos in the ’80s, Maybury has consistently pushed the borders of film and video. While clearly his most narrative and conventional work, Love still demonstrates Maybury’s desire to re-vision cinematic forms, creating "atmosphere, not historical detail," in the often clichéd biopic genre. From America, Tom Kalin represents his counterpoint. Indeed both Kalin’s and Maybury’s films share a remarkable series of contextual and aethetic similarities: subjective historicism; gay represenation; stylized and experimental forms; an art world background; and a love for the work of Derek Jarman.

Kalin: Anytime you have to make a fact-based movie, you have to tell a story and organize the material, but making a film about an artist is doubly horrifying. You not only have to represent the events of their life but also their artistic practice.

Maybury: I wanted to show in this film the energy that Bacon used in his paintings. I said to Derek Jacobi that it didn't matter what he did, but he had to do it with complete confidence. I think that's one of the failings of films about painters. You get this disembodied hand, and you're meant to think that it's Picasso.

Kalin: The tension between the static frame and the jittery close-ups of Bacon painting is really effective.

Maybury: In that static stillness is this mad burst of energy – you get the very cavalier, energetic attitude he had towards working without having to see Jacobi pretend to paint like Bacon.

Director John Maybury
Kalin: I constantly forgot that I was looking at an actor because of the authority of Jacobi’s performance. But he didn't do anything specifically to transform himself other than [alter] his body language.

Maybury: If you want to see Bacon painting there are dozens of documentaries of him. I think that's always the most inauthentic thing in any kind of film about artists – watching them work.

Kalin: I notice that you credit Daniel Farson’s Bacon biography in the credits, but the script isn’t really based on Farson’s book, is it?

John Maybury: We bought it just to secure the rights for the project.

Kalin: When we shot I Shot Andy Warhol we had to get permission from the Andy Warhol Foundation to show his paintings on screen. It was ironic because Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, so the negotiations were delicate. But we got permission in the end. In the very first scene of Love is the Devil there are what appear to be Bacon paintings. Did you secure permission to use them?

Maybury: We came up against resistance from the art establishment in this country. We were applying for some of our budget from the arts council and David Sylvester, this international art critic, and the Marlborough Gallery, which was holding the estate of Francis Bacon at the time, and the head of the arts council, who was a friend of Bacon’s, all basically said, "This film is not going to be made." It was extraordinary to have those people ganging up against something which at the time was such a small thing. The estate refused to allow any of his paintings to be shown in the film and threatened lawsuits if I [depicted them]. When I sent them my script they claimed to own all of my writing, saying that it was Bacon’s, which was kind of flattering but absurd. So, we supplied the art department with polaroids of [Bacon’s] images and they made paintings that were just backgrounds from Bacon. In that first scene we used a reference photo from a show he had in Venice. Throughout the film there are just backgrounds that you might see reflected in a mirror or something. I was convinced to make the film look like a Bacon. It’s not a film about painting anyway and was never meant to be. That doesn’t interest me.

Kalin: Bacon is still a very scary figure to some people with regards to what he stood for and who he was.

Maybury: Absolutely. To a lot of people he was a great British artist, and they know he had this dangerous, or in English terms, "saucy" side. And they can handle that. But a small canvas sells for over a million pounds, and they want to maintain a slightly sanitized version of him because it’s more convenient for them as business people.

Kalin: How has this battle with the estate affected the reception of the film?

Maybury: It has certainly affected the reception of the film in certain quarters. One journalist took major offense to the film, and he took a whole page in the London Evening News to slag the film off. But me think the lady doth protest too much.

Kalin: I didn’t know how outrageous Bacon’s behavior was before the film.

Maybury: He was extraordinary. My film is relatively tame! That is what is so absurd about people being up in arms and horrified – they all know what really went on. I had to tone it down or I would have ended up with Salo, and no one would have screened the fucking thing!

Kalin: What I thought was strongest in the movie was the relationship between George and Francis on all its different levels. One was a sexual, sadomasochistic relationship that played itself out in different ways. You gave George this subjectivity about the subject matter of the paintings – they became his nightmare. I thought that was a strong choice.

Maybury: For me that’s the saddest aspect of the film. In the end even George’s dreams were infected by Bacon; they don’t belong to him anymore. That’s the ultimate tragedy in the story: nothing belongs to him anymore. He’s entirely soaked in Bacon, as it were.

Kalin: The suicide scene refers so strongly to Bacon’s famous painting where George is shitting and puking.

Daniel Craig as Bacon's Lover George Dyer.
Maybury: Absolutely. Originally I wanted to shoot that all through a door frame, as in [Bacon’s] triptych, but the estate would have sued me if they saw anything like that. Again, it forced us to be more inventive. The abstract bathroom space [we shot in] is much more effective, more alienating, cold, and kind of horrible than if [we had shot it] through the doorway of a French hotel room.

Kalin: What can the estate do to you about using triptych mirrors and other things that exist in the world?

Maybury: Well, just before we finished shooting the estate came back to us and said that they would like to make this the official film, but we would like 25% of your profit. And I thought, "Yeah, right."

Kalin: I thought that the scene that begins with the wide shot, the beautifully designed interior, with [Francis and George] standing headless and undressing –

Maybury: – Oh, yes, it is such a ritual kind of sex scene.

Kalin: I thought that it was an incredibly powerful scene – one of the strongest scenes, gay or straight, that I had ever seen about the eroticizing of detail. George’s weird behavior was so beautiful, so authoritative – shaking out and folding his trousers over the chair.

Maybury: That kind of strange precision.

Kalin: You really nailed something in terms of his behavior. It felt incredible and real and unsensational. Very lovely, very observed.

Maybury: That is exactly what I was trying to do. I did take a huge risk where Derek gets undressed and he has the fishnet stockings on. But, in fact, Bacon wore fishnet stockings for sex. I thought it would be too ridiculous to have them on for the entire scene so you just have that little glimpse.

Kalin: I think that the fishnet stocking incident is really interesting in that an anecdotal fact can be unfilmable. I thought it was really interesting in the Farson book that Bacon used to put paint on his face, his unshaved face. And that scene in the movie feels much more subjective or expressionist. It doesn’t feel as if it is in a literal time and space.

Maybury: Yes, but it’s a weird scene anyway, and Derek’s performance is particularly amazing when he flips out at the end of that scene.

Kalin: With this film, you’re moving towards something more conventional than your previous experimental work. But it’s still breathtakingly experimental compared to 90% of the films that are made now.

Maybury: This is the first of my proper feature films; it is the first for which I wrote a screenplay. I really wanted to try to make something that was cinematic. I have [made] enough experiments with video effects and video technology. I was trying to bring some of the language from the video work with me, but I was also trying to move what I do forward. It has to do with the way that I have been working now for 20 years. My experimental work has reached much more of an impasse. There comes a point where people are not prepared to watch that sort of stuff. This [film] is hard enough for them anyway.

Kalin: I feel quite the same. After a while it becomes hard to make odd-shaped, odd-length experimental work when maybe there is not even an audience that knows how to connect with it.

Maybury: I hope that I will continue to make weird little bits and pieces, because that is what you make when you don't have the money to make a feature film. At the same time if you are going to try and engage – well, you know this better than me – a mainstream audience, then you have to move towards them as much as you can. Just because that is the only language they are prepared to deal in.

Kalin: I think the trick is to make the form quite accessible, but to keep the guts in the movie. That’s what makes your movie so exciting to watch; it has its teeth in it. It has a formal restraint, but content-wise, it has not been pruned back.

Maybury: I am really pleased with it, although when I look at it now all I see are the things that I would like to change. But eventually they will become part of the film, and I will forget about them.

Kalin: What are you least satisfied with?

Maybury: In some parts, I think it may be too fragmented. That [fragmentation] is important if you are telling a more complex, less straightforward story. But the fragmented quality of the film leaves a few gaps.

Annabel Brooks as Henrietta Moraes
Kalin: You are also juggling a large span of time without being too detailed about where we are.

Maybury: At the end of the day in my mind, the film was really the George Dyer story, not the Francis Bacon story. So [the film] reflects how fragmented [George’s] existence is. There are really only bits and pieces, and so the audience does have to do a little work to patch it all together.

Kalin: The dialogue is extraordinarily funny in the Colony Room.

Maybury: That is just me giving myself away as a vile old queen.

Kalin: But that was one of the strongest strands of the film in terms of stylization – that absinthe-laden, drunken nightmare. When you first see the Colony Room, that hideous world slowly comes into focus, and you begin to see more and more clearly. It was like the Warhol crowd and Max’s Kansas City

Maybury: Why yes, it so similar in so many ways. This film could just as easily have been about Picasso and Dora Maar or Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. It’s about a milieu but also the weird relationship at the center of it.

Kalin: Max’s Kansas City was so cranked on speed, and the Colony Room was such a drunken space, and you capture that.

Maybury: Well yes it is very English – very sodden, nicotine-stained.

Kalin: I was completely amused [by those scenes]. I wanted to snuggle in and get drunk.

Maybury: Well next time you are over, I will take you there, since it is really not that different [today]. Shocking how similar it is – the only difference now is that it is Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin instead of Francis Bacon and whoever, but it is still the same space.

Kalin: I think I prefer Muriel Belcher to Damien Hirst; she has a sharper tongue.

Maybury: There are still lots of evil cunts in there, believe me.

Kalin: You don't hold back from showing the extraordinary cruelty in Francis and George’s relationship. Has the gay thought police had any comments on the film?

Maybury: Yes, in L.A. I got a lot of that from gay journalists – "Why can't we present positive images of gays?" I just don't buy into that anymore anyway. I do have to be historically true – these people are not "gay". They were homosexual in a time when it was illegal. It would be a complete lie to tell it otherwise. But I also believe that at the end of the day something extraordinarily positive comes up – the man created incredible masterpieces that hang in galleries. That is where the positive aspect is. And sometimes in order to create masterpieces, you have to be monstrous.


Filmmaker's curated calendar of the latest video on demand titles.
Free Men Sensation Restless City
See the VOD Calendar →
© 2020 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF