Chris Wade

by Jeff Penczak Rating: Release Date:

THE APPLE PICKER
Wisdom Twins Films (2017)
Directed by Chris Wade

Starring: Jack Napier, Shawn Dimery, Chris Wade, Andy Wade, Toyah Willcox, Nigel Planer

Imagine Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries remade by David Lynch and you’ll be in a better mindset to immerse yourself within the debut film from author, musician, and filmmaker Chris Wade, perhaps best known around these parts as the guiding light behind the prolific Dodson and Fogg project. We chatted with Chris to get a handle on what encouraged him to reach out beyond his comfort zone in the recording studio to tackle the silver screen.

What inspired you to make a movie and can you share some of your influences – are there specific directors whose work inspired your approach? I can almost feel like I’m watching Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries remade by David Lynch, particularly with that industrialised, mechanical hum running under so many scenes, as Lynch used throughout Eraserhead.

Well I have always been mad on films and have wanted to attempt one, at least once, for years. The time to actually get off my arse and do it came when I managed to pick up a nice camera, and got an editing program, and I just started experimenting. I like a lot of different directors for varied reasons, and I reckon some of them have influenced the film subconsciously. I love Ken Russell's films, particularly The Devils and even his later horrors like Lair of the White Worm. I also love the spirit of his very later films when he was making them in his garden with home video recorders. He was a hero of mine. I'm in the middle of doing a book on his work actually. Such an eccentric genius. There's a total lack of fear there in all his movies. I also love David Lynch, Blue Velvet is a favourite of mine, as is Eraserhead. And Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola. These are the ones I have always loved to watch and study. But there are so many I just love, but don't know if they've influenced me at all. Woody Allen is one of my favourite filmmakers. Funnily enough, Madonna, who I am not embarrassed to say is one of my favourite artists, made a short film a few years ago, a surreal black and white thing called SecretProjectRevolution, and I loved the slow mood and look of that too. So influences come from all over. 

There’s a surreal element to the film, both in its images and open, agnostic storyline, which leaves plot elements and outcomes to the individual viewer’s personal interpretation. Are you a fan of the work of Buñuel, Dali, Cocteau, and the Surrealists? Or, the ‘60s avant garde film scene in New York – films of Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, et.al.

I am a massive Dali fan and love the films he did with Buñuel. I just love the freedom of the surreal, you can try anything out and don't have to stick to a normal narrative, just keep it loose and free. Anything can happen when you're approaching the surreal, it's very liberating. A director called James Frawley, who I interviewed last year for my Dennis Hopper book - he made films with Orson Welles and Hopper, and has done  a lot of TV (Monkees, Ghost Whisperer) - he said it reminded him of the avant garde New York films of the 50s and 60s. I haven't seen any myself, so that was interesting that you both said that. I am definitely going to check those out. A lot of this is accidental really. I suppose certain people have similar creative outlooks, even if they do exist in different countries and eras.

There’s even a sense of dread and loneliness and isolation that lends a Kafkaesque element to the story?

Yeah, there are moments of dread and isolation in there. Some of it was quite creepy to edit actually, made my bowels go a bit funny. No, seriously, filming it was fun, but in the edit, things took on more of a serious tone. The old man is isolated. He could have 100 people round him but in his state, he might as well be alone, and might not even notice they are there.

The film seems to be composed of over a hundred brief clips edited together in a somewhat random sequence, a la the cut-up work of William Burroughs and Brion Gyson. The film therefore has the feeling of a connected series of set pieces. Did you have a hard time editing the film into its final sequence? It seems that some of the clips are independent enough to have been placed randomly, or at least different from the final running order and still worked within the film’s non-narrative, or at least non-chronological structure.

Yeah, a lot of it was shot out of sequence, whenever new ideas popped into my head and I felt something new coming up. But I kind of knew what I would start and end the film with, and certain bits in the middle had to be in their specific places, but the rest was like rearranging a deck of cards or putting a jigsaw together. It was so much fun. The edit took me a while, I'd say two months on and off. I would write, record, do my work through the day, and see my family of course, and often get up in the night to edit this film. It helped with the mood actually, all dark and quiet, with just the cats sat with me while my partner and daughter were asleep. Other times I'd do a bit of editing through the day. It was hard, but just too fun to feel like proper work, though I did get a bit obsessed with rearranging scenes in different orders. It was experimental and actually really exciting. At times I did stop and wonder what the hell I was actually doing though! Haha.

One might even allude to hints of the found-footage films like Blair Witch Project or The Ring based on your early framing scene in which Chris Wade, the actor places a video tape into a machine? Is the whole film a film-within-a-film?

It could be if you wanted it to be. The video to me is more like the old man's mind, or something that embodies his cracked consciousness. I don't want to give too much away, because when you explain it, it sounds pretentious... which it probably is, I don't know. But the video is there at the end too. There is a mention of the old man "finding" the tape, but I kind of like people to read into that what they will. The video could be a literal video or a metaphor. I do like film-within-film formats. I am dying to see Orson Welles' Other Side of the Wind, his great lost film about the director Jake Hannaford which is coming out soon after thirty years or more of being on the shelf. I also love a film by Dennis Hopper called The Last Movie, which he made right after Easy Rider. That kind of destroys the movie myth and blurs the line between reality and film. I like films that challenge you in that way.

Was it important that the film didn’t have a “right” or “wrong” meaning, while still enabling you to escape criticism about not knowing yourself how to end the film?

Well I definitely feel like the film ends properly, and I knew all along how it would end. The very beginning and the very end were the first things I filmed. It was the stuff in between that needed filling in and discovering. In my view it comes to a conclusion. Some people say it took two viewings to realise what happens in the end. But I love the fact there is no right or wrong meaning. That might drive some people up the wall, but it also leaves it open so people can see their own conclusions.

Yet even your pre-credit sequence implies that the viewer will have to draw their own conclusions – you hold an apple in each hand, inviting the viewer to actually become “the apple picker”!

Exactly. I like that. You pick out what you see yourself. The two apples are also like having two choices in life, which way to go, good or bad, asleep or conscious. The old man seems to have been largely ignorant to what has happened around him, and as he is today it's kind of fitting that his mind has taken him elsewhere. My partner Linzi thinks he has dementia. It also ends it with the apples too, so it tells people that life doesn't necessarily have to be the way it was for the old man. You can pick a new apple. God, I feel like I'm going off my head talking about this thing!!!

Was shooting in black and white an economic or thematic decision?

I shot it all in colour on the video camera, but changed the tones to black and white and sharpened it up along the way, to make it look more dreamy and more raw. I love black and white myself, so I wanted it to look good. I know people might go, "Oh Jesus, a black and white arty surreal film!" But that's expected. It is a difficult film. Try editing the bastard for two months! Haha.

You use some of your music in the film’s soundtrack. Is this original to the film or are you using excerpts from previously released material? Will there be a formal soundtrack or do you feel the music wouldn’t work if divorced from the visuals?

Some of the music is older stuff, from the Dodson and Fogg albums, but some of it is new stuff just on keyboards. A lot of it is mood establishing so might not be good to just listen to on its own. Pretty soon though I am going to think about getting it into a soundtrack form, definitely.

Who is/are the Moonlight Banquet? Is that another side project of yours or just friends who contributed some music to the soundtrack?

Yeah, that was an album of instrumentals I did back in 2013. Some of it was so creepy that I just knew it would fit into the movie. The bit with the guy with the mask, that was from that album, and it fit the dark mood too well for me not to use it.

Did you spend a lot of time matching the visuals to your music or was it more of a feeling that a particular song would work with the images?

It was a mix really. Sometimes a bit of music just popped into my head that I knew would work, and other times I had to create some new synth music for certain bits. It was a lot of fun actually, and without the music I don't think it would be as effective as it is... if it is effective of course. Doing the music was kind of spontaneous and exciting too.

 Are you familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, “After Apple-Picking”, which is full of decision-making and dream sequences? If so, did that inspire anything in your film? Or, perhaps, did you get the idea for the title from the urban dictionary’s definition of an apple picker as “a balding male who attempts to act younger than his actual age”? The theme of “looking back” for a lost youth may support this reading?

What it was is - my partner Linzi is really good with titles. She came up with The Apple Picker after I filmed my daughter holding those two apples (my daughter is in it a few times actually, I see her in the field at one point and chase her across the grass, but she turns into the ferret-faced bastard). Then it kind of stuck with me. The apples could represent youth, a fresh life, new opportunities, the world being your oyster and your life being ahead of you. It was the optimism I liked. It's yours for the taking... that kind of thing. I haven't heard of Robert Frost's poem, but it might be interesting to have a look now. In truth a lot of the best stuff to do with the film wasn't preconceived, it kind of came out organically and spontaneously. But there is definitely a looking back, that is the main theme here. He might regret it, realise he kind of existed in his won little world, blocking his loved ones out. That's the tragedy in the fact that when he's lost his mind, his life is no different, because he might as well have been asleep his whole life. The old man is looking back into his past but also into his fears and thoughts. He's not in the best state of mind though, so that explains the jarred order and the cut-up appearance of his memories. As the guy says at the end of Night of the Living Dead, "They're all messed up!"

I see that your film was selected for the Sydney World Film Festival. That is some honour for a debut film! How was your film selected and what does this mean to you as a first-time filmmaker?

I know! It's amazing to me. This basically started off a bit of fun, an experiment really. It just came into a shape as I went along and got more confident and into it. But I never thought it would be in festivals. I submitted it to two festivals as a kind of after thought, and didn't really think about it again. Then I got an email to say it was one of the four chosen films for selection at the Sydney one. I was so stunned, it was amazing. I always dreamt of making a film, so this was like some mad dream to me. It's nice that people take it serious. The organisers said that one of their panel loved the film so much they would let me enter their other festival for free, wavering the fee. So there are two more festivals I am waiting to hear back about. I am just so excited about what might be around the corner! It's out there for free if anyone is free for an hour and 11 minutes. Having it for free makes it more fun, so I don't have to think about distribution and all the boring stuff, and can just go on the next project.

Of course, some will complain that this is all a load of bollocks and it doesn’t make a lick of sense, denigrating it as pretentious and self-absorbed. Aside from everyone being entitled to their own opinion, and not giving away too much for those who haven’t seen it, could you put us at ease by confirming that there is an inner logic that will clarify things for the astute viewer. Perhaps a second viewing would reward those who feel cheated, or anyone looking for everything to be tied up in a neat package where all is explained?

Oh yeah there is a logic to it. I think I have made a film with a vague plot running through it, you just have to figure it out. I liked the idea of moods and atmospheres firstly, then linking these images together. He's looking into his own head, but no one can get through to him. Even his wife might as well just be stuffed in the corner, or talking through an old radio with a bad signal. The moon kind of symbolises release too, in the beginning he gazes at it and he does at the end too, only there's a difference at the finale... but I won't spoil the ending. Of course some people will think it's bollocks, and that's OK. To some people it will be, and that's expected. It is a challenge. I'm not gonna kid myself to thinking everyone will rave about it. You have got to have thick skin when you are putting your work out there. When I first started writing books I couldn't take criticism. I was in my early twenties, now I'm in my thirties and can handle negative feedback these days. I take it on board but it doesn't really mean much. But I wanted to make a piece of art, like a moving painting with humour and mystery to it. It's not everyone's cup of tea, they would spit it out if it were tea. But it's definitely mine. Not literally of course, that would just be weird. But in some ways, even though people diss self indulgence, making art is firstly about satisfying yourself. So even if I explain what it's about, a lot of people will undoubtedly think it's tosh. That's something I welcome anyway. If a filmmaker is purposely going to make something that everyone will like and understand, then he's just a salesman of product in some regards. That sounds wanky, but I mean you need to take a risk and challenge yourself too, I think; otherwise, what's the point?

I love films that are a bit baffling at first, but reveal themselves later. Look at Bob Dylan's Renaldo and Clara. Most people say it's a load of crap, but I love it. The same goes for Neil Young's films, especially Journey Through the Past. I love the free form experimentation of that. But yeah, not everyone likes that kind of thing. Don't get me wrong, I love straight forward films as well, but to make my own film, it had to be something that interested me and kept me on my toes. I was totally out of my comfort zone, though I do have a nice pillow on my office chair. 

The grainy film stock, shaky, hand-held camera, occasional loss of focus, slow motion and reverse filming are all brilliant touches, imbuing the film with an eerie, dreamlike mood in keeping with the thematic element of loss, self-reflection, and our hero’s question – was it all worth it...or, is that all there is to life? One could almost look at some of these scenes as “home movies” running through our hero’s mind as he looks back on his life?

Yeah definitely, I am glad you picked up on that. A lot of it is intended to be snap shots from a mind, broken memories that look a bit fragmented because of his state. Like blurry home movies, smudged memories. And yeah, when I get to the old man's house (me playing the character I mean) and give him the tablets, there is a feeling of "is that it?" But at the same time something happens. What are the pills? Why is he suddenly inside the moon? There's a lot to think about if you have the patience for it. If you don't, feel free to throw tomatoes at the screen.

You also chose to use title cards instead of dialogue, particularly in the scene where the doctor and old man/patient “discuss” the doctor’s lunch habits. Were/are you a fan of silent films and was this a nod to their influence, particularly in using images to tell a story without dialogue?

Yeah I love silent films. I did the cue cards so it was like they didn't even need to talk, or want to. They just write the words down. They even sigh in boredom on the cards too. The day we did that scene, I put some pickled onions in a bag and went up to my father-in-law's house (he plays the old man by the way) and we did it in the woods outside his house. It was a mad idea. I got him to wrap the blanket round himself and then I reversed the film. It was bloody freezing that evening and nearly pitch black. I ate a pickled onion. It was lovely...

As for silent films, I seem to love them more and more as I get older. I love George Méliès’ films, just so unusual, and of course the old Dali silent films... and one of my favourites is Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau. I think they are more pure because they just rely on a strong visual. These days, it's all cool quotable dialogue, plot, special effects and arrogant posturing. But silent films just got on with it and told you a tale through imagination and images. I like establishing a mood and an atmosphere without having to rely on dialogue. One of my bits of the Apple Picker I was really pleased with is when I go past that weird old castle (that was at the far end of Wales on Holy Island) and I stand on the mountain side, and the grass is right in front of the camera, and there is a howling wind but nothing else. I love weird moments like that. It's quite pure doing silent scenes with no voices. Fucking creepy though. It was well weird up there, and those two guys you see in the distance were having a weird chat by he water and didn't know I was there with the camera. The old castle had been burnt down in the 80s by some kids, and it just was left there half destroyed. It looked so cool with the barb wire, but a bit like a concentration camp as well.

I really enjoyed the narrative sequences throughout. Were any of these stories extracts from your In A Strange Slumber album. Which also featured several Nigel Planer narratives.

Yes, one of them, the one with the gravedigger and the cartoon of Sag Hill, that is from the Strange Slumber album. The other two were done especially for the film. I asked Nigel if he fancied recording some VO for it and he said yes. He recorded it on his son's laptop, no fuss, and sent it back to me... then I made scenes to go with them. The bonfire night poem. I had the idea of the drifter reading it as a poem in that weird little book he finds in the grass, then something about it sends him off the rails and he puts his mask on. The diary of a nuisance; I used that for the bit when the writer (played by my real dad) gets angry at his rejection letter, so reacts by typing out what he feels is the best novel of all time, but really it's just this mad diary. I found that really funny in a daft way.

Had Nigel seen the film or was he content to provide the Intermission piece, which may or may not be related to the film that bookends it!

He'd not seen it, no. He was happy to help me out. The scenes hadn't been sorted at that point, so it was fun to work them into the film with his voice already recorded. And as a life long fan of Nigel Planer, it was also quite surreal and a bit unreal too. I've loved his work for so long that it's unreal he is in this. And he's such a nice fella too, so easy going and helpful to my weird needs with no questions asked. I'm lucky to have his brilliant voice in the film. I think I'd be pushing it if I asked him to do it again though. He might pelt me with Maltesers from afar...!

And how about Toyah. Was she doing essentially a cold reading of narrative text without the images to guide her?

Again, Toyah was kind enough to help me out. We did a track together last year which she wrote a verse for. I asked if she would read this monologue, in the voice of the old man's wife, and she did it at home I think and sent it across to me. She enjoyed doing it, she said, so that was cool. I had the scene in mind, but I didn't film all of it until after I had her recording. I got the radio footage filmed afterwards.

Had you filmed the scene before you wrote it and added her narration afterwards, or the other way round?

No but I had taken note of it, planned it out ready to do and told her about it. But she's a great actress so I didn't need to say much. She knows what's doing. I think she added a genuine sadness to it. Really great bit of acting I think.

Has this experience perhaps inspired you to create videos for your songs in the future

I've already made quite a few videos for Dodson and Fogg songs. It was doing them that made me want to make a film actually. If you go on You Tube and type in Dodson and Fogg, you'll see a few videos I've made over the last few years. Little collages of footage and bits and bobs. They're crap mind you....

You can watch The Apple Picker for free here.

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