Making Dummy Jim: an artist’s journey to self-determination

11203608_10153923676859465_3644178654622771780_oIn the first of a series of guest blogs on artistic leadership, artist filmmaker Matt Hulse reflects on the long and bumpy road that led to eventual production of his full-length feature, Dummy Jim. Matt’s account includes reference to his involvement in the Artist as Leader research in 2008 and its influence on his thinking. Matt’s longstanding connection with On The Edge research and his articulate reflection on the creative process make for a fascinating insight into an individual artist’s relationship with policy, personal determination, and the possible meanings of ‘leadership’.

Now living and working in Beijing, Matt was also a participant in the Edinburgh seminar for our Cultural leadership and the place of the Artist project in May 2016. He described the story of Dummy Jim during that event and we are grateful that he agreed to write this up as an article for us here. This series will feature more contributions from project partners and seminar participants over the next few weeks.

#1 Setting The Scene

My feature film DUMMY JIM (2013) was inspired by the little-known journal ‘I Cycled Into the Arctic Circle’ (1957), written by a profoundly deaf man called James Duthie from Cairnbulg, a fishing village in the north east of Scotland.

During a three-month round-trip in 1951 Duthie cycled solo to the North Cape in Norway, and then pedalled back home, allegedly with a budget of just £12. All this despite the fact that his original intention was to reach Morocco. Sadly James was killed in a road accident in 1965.

In 2000 my mum sent me a copy of the book which she’d found tucked away in a second-hand bookshop on Iona. The slim volume detailing his eccentric trip is written in plain, somewhat pedantic and unintentionally comical language.

I’m a big fan of Scots wordsmiths Ivor Cutler and William McGonagall. Duthie’s literary style and peculiar world-view reminded me of them and I was moved to adapt the book for the silver screen.

#2 Filmmaker Stumbles Naively Towards Feature Film

When I started making films it was as an extension of my work in photography, music and performance – it was not an urge to ‘tell stories’, but rather to explore relationships between the moving image, sound, music and the live event of projected film.

Duthie’s quirky book seemed to offer a chance to feel my way into longer-form filmmaking – but it wasn’t so much the story that drew me in. In fact what’s written in the book isn’t really a story at all, in the classic sense – there’s no narrative arc, there are no obvious moments of crisis, the voyage doesn’t appear to change him. It’s a fragmented meander, like life itself – and set out as a kind of itinerary.

#3 Filmmaker Joins The Game

In 2001 I got an award that allowed me to explore the potential of the book as a film. I retraced Duthie’s journey, shot a bunch of Super 8 films on the way, tracked down his surviving relatives and with them drank a lot of cups of tea. This was a very fruitful period; the film began to emerge clearly in my mind’s eye. This was going to be a gentle, eccentric, magical, unpredictable cycling road movie, combining elements of fact and fiction, possibly with animation, landscape studies, a sign language chorus and heaven knows what else? A feast of ‘unknown quantities’ would inevitably emerge from joyful, free, open-ended and genuine film making – just as it had always done.

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Audience awaiting the screening of Dummy Jim at Lonach Hall, Strathdon, 15th July  2014

At that time in the UK, in order to access levels of finance beyond the ‘no budget’ level one needed a screenplay – so I set about the task of adapting the journal. A friend came on board at this point as a producer, and was thankfully able to secure financial support to help me do this.

I’d never before written a screenplay, despite having made films for over a decade. It was a real challenge. There were many, many times when I held my head in genuine despair, raging: Why the hell do I have to write this in order to make a film?

Ignoring my gut instinct to flush the multiple drafts down the toilet, I kept sight of what seemed at that time to be ‘the bigger picture’ – a half-decent budget at the end of the slog. Eventually I completed a screenplay that I was excited about. It seemed well crafted, eccentric, undeniably original and a true and elegant articulation of Duthie’s book. I had leaped through the hoop and I was ready to get back to the filmmaking.

#4 Filmmaker Goes to the Market

The producer and I took the project to one of the world’s great film festival production markets, Cinemart at Rotterdam. We spent four full days pitching the project at half-hour intervals to potential co-producers, sales agents and distributors. There was a lot of interest. Ultimately, however, no one came onboard, despite the buzz. Frustratingly, it seems the screenplay itself actually drove co-producers away.

We also sent the screenplay off to the national financing body that had supported the adaptation and therefore had ‘first look’. Months later we received in return a single page lesson in the importance of story arc from a reader, pointing out that the screenplay was ‘more an itinerary than a story and that Duthie learns nothing.’

This made me furious. Had they not noticed the subtle story thread in which a man starts out as a standard tea drinker, but then on discovering coffee in Sweden, soon becomes an enthusiastic imbiber, even an addict? This change indicates significant shifts in a man of humble North East Scots origin.

#5 Filmmaker On A Rant10411814_10153396609394465_1155039742717575003_n

Cinema has the power to communicate at a level beyond words and yet sadly, for the most part, our silver screens are filled with talking heads – filmed theatre, really. The dominant currency for exchange of ideas (and power) in this word-based film industry is the screenplay. For many filmmakers, though, a screenplay is counter-intuitive to the process of film making – it drives a wedge between imagination and the ‘hands-on’ making.

#6 Filmmaker Weeps (Again)

By this time almost three years had passed in pursuit of this particular strategy and I was beginning to view the screenplay as a major hindrance to and serious diversion from actually getting the film made. I’ve never been comfortable sitting around talking about doing this or that – I’d rather just do it. Instinct was telling me (yet again) to flush the screenplay down the toilet, but in the end an external event actually pulled the chain.

The fact that we’d been unable to secure co-production finance at Cinemart led to the withdrawal of support from our sole financial supporter, whose agreed contribution of 25% of our then budget was conditional upon match funding.

The news was a real blow and, in terms of cash, we were back to square one – after six years of work. I was not ashamed of crying – which was born mostly out of pure frustration – but I was not proud that I had let myself drift into a situation where the policy decision of a government agency had the power to make me weep.

#7 Filmmaker Gets Inspired

In early 2008 I attended an event in London called ‘Power to the Pixel: Digital Distribution and Film Innovation Forum’. Speakers included two US filmmakers whose infectious, zealous ‘DIY’ spirit and total dedication to getting the film made inspired me. They had a “screw you, we’re going to get this made” attitude. They had taken charge of the means and methods of production, maximising the power of the web and social networking, making their own film in their own way with the direct support of their audience – to hell with the gatekeepers and funders and distributors.

Hearing them talk reminded me that I knew perfectly well how to make my own film and that I certainly did not need approval for my screenplay before doing so. In fact I realised I did not need a screenplay at all – the film would be written in the act of making it – and that, of course, is what filmmaking is.

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Melvyn Bryce, James Buchan and Graeme Noble, local men who played The Fishermen (May 29th 2011)

#8 Filmmaker Builds A Platform

The previous summer we’d been successful in securing money towards the cost of a dedicated web site for the Dummy Jim project. (The fund is called ‘alt-W’, is administered by New Media Scotland, and supports a lot of really interesting work.)

Originally and primarily intended as a web portal to help bring deaf and hearing filmmakers together, I now saw that the Dummy Jim site could offer a fully navigable version of his world, his journey and his story. The site could work as a kind of screenplay, but the hugely important difference would be that the information would be articulated primarily through images, sounds and user engagement.

#9 Artist As Leader

At around the same time, I was invited to participate in the Artist As Leader lab in Arbroath. The opportunity came at the point I had – for better or worse – asserted my instinct and artistic leadership over Dummy Jim, and had literally torn up the screenplay, and by association, the standard rulebook. I was however feeling more insecure than ever about how to proceed, and the lab gave me a rare and welcome opportunity to express my doubts and fears in a safe and respectful environment, with a range of people from across the arts who held broadly differing perspectives.

In this environment I felt enabled to assert and express my personal vision not only for the project, but also regarding my position in society as an artist – complete with the insecurities that naturally follow from that very assertion: “being an artist”. The key is that I was able to assert myself without fear of being adversely judged on the act of assertion: here, there was little danger that expressing my position might somehow impact negatively on my progress as a maker. In fact, the opportunity to air these thoughts and feelings helped diminish the attending fears.

During the lab, it felt ‘ok’ to be an artist. In the world at large, stating that one is an artist can be problematic. There’s no way of knowing how you will be judged, and how this might affect your opportunities and life in general. ‘Not giving a damn about what others think’ is of course the standard remedy – but I’m as human and fallible as the next person.

The most tangible impact of the lab upon the progress of Dummy Jim would prove to be my thorough reassessment of ’scale of production’. I had always felt uncomfortable with the idea that a film that might be filmed across 12 or more countries, involving a huge effort in terms of transport – including multiple flights – and naturally heaps of cash that could be spent more wisely (or not spent at all). This had always seemed to me excessively wasteful for a film about a solo rider on a bicycle.

During the lab I became very enthusiastic about the idea of pedal-powered film crews, solar-powered cameras and other means to limit carbon footprints. To downscale, to work

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The community of Invercairn gather for the final scene of Dummy Jim (29th May 2011)

in a sustainable way – a political motivation as much as an artistic urge.

I rang the producer during the lab, full of zeal.

It was at that point that we agreed to take a break from our professional relationship. The producer saw an increase of cost (time) and complication, and perhaps suspected a sort of ‘political sideshow’, and was (with reason) sceptical of my motivations. I saw it as an essential honing of process towards a more holistic position, and a way of bringing the making closer to the core spirit of the original action: a man on a bicycle.

#10 Outcome

In the end (some years later), the majority of the shoot took place over a ten day period within a 10km perimeter around James Duthie’s home village of Cairnbulg.

Pedal-powered transport never transpired – we charged camera batteries from the mains like anyone else – but in terms of scale, the film production became sustainable and realistic. Crew travelled to and from the shoot by train. Local drivers were employed rather than hiring new vehicles (where possible). Simple stuff really, but important choices. Quite different however from the originally-imagined scale: a full crew travelling across many countries.

We also worked closely with the local community, drawing upon their skills and experience. For an epic shot of Duthie crossing the Channel from Dover to Calais, we collaborated with RNLI Fraserburgh, taking their boat out for an hour or so. In return, on the ultimate day of the shoot in Invercairn’s community hall – shot during a school fund-raising coffee morning – RNLI set up stall, and we helped them raise funds towards their invaluable work.

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Artwork by a child from Inverallochy School (February 2015)

The local school adapted their curriculum to incorporate issues pertinent to the film. The children explored geography, foreign languages, sign language, map-making. Much of the work they produced features in the book ‘I Cycled Into The Arctic Circle: A Peregrination’ – a 304-page tome that features a facsimile of Duthie’s original journal plus my own reflections on the 13 year journey undertaken to complete this project.

The decision to work collaboratively with the community and to develop the film as a kind of collective – rather than asking a community to act out a script – is one that I take full responsibility for, and in that respect is perhaps a good example of an artist ’leading through practice’. The lab had given me courage during a key period to stand up and say ’no, I’m not going to make the film according to the rules that currently exist’ and helped me find the confidence to place conviction and instinct (once again) at the heart of my work.

Matt Hulse, Beijing, August 2016

 

Dummy Jim’s interactive website: http://dummyjim.com

Dummy Jim Official Trailer: https://vimeo.com/30690907

Dummy Jim’s Online Shop: http://dummyjim.bigcartel.com/

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