How did you come up with the Gentleman Caller?
The Gentleman Caller was initially an idea for a film script. I knew that I wanted to develop a simple narrative and started to knock some ideas about with a filmmaker friend. The idea was basic, it came from disparate sources and loose strands of information that I believed could be tied together. The Gentleman character was initially based on an elderly man who would visit our neighbour – a glamorous elderly lady – late every night and leave the next morning. I began to refer to him as her ‘Gentleman Caller’. Around the same time, another friend brought to my attention an article in the local newspaper. It celebrated a woman’s retirement from the Co-op after 50 years of employment. In my imagination this woman could easily become the gentleman’s love interest – that’s how it began.
How did the project change from a film script to sequential illustration?
The script was always in the back of my mind and I wanted to find a simple and immediate way of bringing it to life. At that time I had been making a lot of line drawings of individual characters, independent of time and place. I needed a reason to explore and craft locations and scenarios and felt that the perfect solution would be to abandon The Gentleman Caller as a film and resurrect it as a set of narrative illustrations.
The final book seems quite different from the initial ideas that you’ve mentioned, how did it develop into what we see now?
I was aware that more work was necessary. It became apparent to me that the story could not simply be about furtive love in the autumnal years but should also include a rocky undercurrent of some sort. It took some time and a few re-writes but eventually certain anomalies were added to interrupt the harmony.
The book has a very dark, cinematic feel to it, was this intentional?
Throughout the development of The Gentleman Caller I had been imagining how it might look as a film, so that when it came to transferring the images to paper it was a bit like drawing out a storyboard. Of course I had written and conceived the idea first of all as a film anyway, which helped. I also find that I tend to naturally work in this way anyway. In my day job I commission illustrations for picture books and will always picture the story in my mind first as moving images, then later as snapshots or still scenes. I think it helped in this case that I chose a landscape format and ran the images across double page spreads. There is a definite CinemaScope feel created when you use this kind of format. So, yes, I’d say that the cinematic feel of the illustrations is certainly intentional. Ultimately cinema sits firmly among my major interests and has become an important influence throughout all of my work, whether paid or personal.
What do you feel were the specific cinematic influences on this particular project?
The films of Ulrich Seidl are a definite influence, in particular Import Export and Jesus, You Know. The cinematography common to both films is distinct in its use of uncomfortable symmetry and has influenced me in the framing and composition of certain spreads. The buffet spread in The Gentleman Caller represents a celebration. There is a great scene in Import Export where a party has been thrown for some elderly hospital patients. The hospital’s greenish-beige corridors are lined with brightly coloured luminescent paper ornaments and the patients are made to wear party hats, glasses and clown-like face paint. The juxtaposition of vegetative patients and ultra happy kid’s party decorations is fascinating to me. The scene is reminiscent of a similar situation that occurs in Harmony Korine’s Mr Lonely – wherein the elderly residents of a care home are encouraged to sing out the words ‘don’t die!’ and ‘we’re gonna live forever!’ by the hyper enthusiastic Michael Jackson impersonator played by Diego Luna. This feeling of forced celebration/jubilation in the midst of an atmosphere of pain and confusion is something that I really wanted to get across in The Gentleman Caller. It’s an atmosphere that I recall vividly from childhood, when I used to perform dance routines at parties for the elderly.
So how did the work wind up being set in what appears to be an abandoned landscape, suggestive of nuclear fallout or post nuclear-apocalypse?
Well I guess the framing isn’t the only thing borrowed from Seidl. I love the mise-en-scene within his films and his location choices are another big influence on me; bleak habitats that have been warn down by human movement, ravaged by harsh weather and overwhelmed by nature. The idea that human civilization could become overcome by nature was something that engaged me while I was drafting the idea and I found myself researching images of Chernobyl. One image in particular of some empty public swimming baths grabbed my attention; floor to ceiling windows have fallen out and trees have started to creep in – the image was a big influence for the swimming pool spread.
The characters remind me of the work of Marlene Dumas. Were you aware of her work before The Gentleman Caller?
I have to admit that before the project began I was actually unaware of her work. When the similarly was pointed out though I could see the likeness. Another reference pointed out to me that is certainly worth mentioning was found in the woman character. I wanted to show that she had modified herself to become bird-like. I gave her a bald cap covered in leaves and sewed a beak and talons on to her flesh. The idea was that she was attempting to become animal-like in order to survive in an environment overwhelmed by nature. However, a work colleague picked up on a different reading, noticing that she showed a striking similarity to those women in post WWII Europe whose heads were shaved in an act of humiliation and punishment for having had relationships with German soldiers during the occupation. It was a practice more common in France and it would seem that on some occasions the ritual could extend to tarring and feathering. I had never heard of this before but found it eerily affecting.
Would you say that you encourage these kinds of alternative readings of the story?
Yes, definitely. Of course I do have my own personal reading of the story but I am very keen for people to take what they want from this project. The case of my colleague is a perfect example of how The Gentleman Caller can be taken as a kind of aesthetic starting point for the reader. subjectivity is very important to my work and I am looking forward to discovering people’s perceptions of The Gentleman Caller.