Richard Bailey Illambra Interview

Happy to share with you our conversation with Richard Bailey, the American director of two short films ‘”Alien on the Roof” and “The Legacy of an Outsider” available for streaming HERE in our catalogue. Richard talked about his childhood cinematic experiences, the inspiration behind his films, his poetry and filmmaking.

ILLAMBRA: Could you tell us a bit about your beginnings as a filmmaker?

RB: I grew up on a small farm in central east Texas. I didn’t have many movie-going experiences as a child, but I had cinematic experiences all the time. Seeing wind move across a field of grass like a wave. My blurred ghost in the old distressed glass of my parent’s dresser. Nighttime clouds looming inscrutably over our farmhouse. Images like that.

We had a VHS player, and some kids at school would share tape rentals with me. I watched some pretty serious stuff in VHS format. Movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Brazil.”

My bus ride to school was an hour-and-a half. I’d think about the forests in “Apocalypse Now” as the bus passed beneath archways of trees. I’d see oddly-repaired farm equipment, old haybalers and dirtmovers grafted with stray parts, and think about the weird mechanical hybrids in “Brazil.” 

Those bus rides were fruitful. I was thinking cinematically in 90 minute blocks, twice a day. I still try to keep to it, while on walks or during slow periods at work, practicing that cinematic way of wondering. 

ILLAMBRA: What kind of films do you enjoy?

RB: I’m drawn to hybridity. “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is an impressive combination of forms. It stands in the registers as a “game changer.” And I think the same is true for “The New World.” Both films are strange in their construction, but very beautiful and haunting.

As for newer films, I very much admire the careers of Andrea Arnold, Josephine Decker, Carlos Reygadas, and Alma Har’el. They make bold narrative connections and transportive films.  

ILLAMBRA: You are also a writer. What was first: writing or film? In which way one emerged from the other and what dimension does writing offer in comparison to the film?

RB: I started off making 16mm color short films, but the cost of processing became too much for me to afford. I fell into debt at a young age and felt a failure. Eventually I found a new outlet in poetry. My poems appeared in journals, and I regularly attended readings. This was good because I felt like I was participating in the culture. Plus I got to spend time with other poets. Poetry is inexpensive to make and at the same time affords you quality conversations with serious people. I’m grateful for those advantages.

I was a willing convert during the digital filmmaking revolution that happened in the U.S. around 2012. Opportunities became reasonable. I’ve taken advantage of these opportunities to make two feature films and several shorts. 
All my films are carefully scripted. My collaborators can immediately catch on to the surreal logic of the film by reading the script. I’m pretty sure the reason I get to work with gifted people has more to do with the scripts than anything else. I don’t suggest these scripts have literary merit. I just mean I take them very seriously.

The script is a potential collaborator’s first impression of me. If the script shows clear concise thinking with poetic intent, then this allows other artists to feel more comfortable about joining the project. From the script, they’re able to imagine what they can add to the project and how the whole thing will come together. 

still from shooting ”Alien on the roof” in Texas

ILLAMBRA: How does your environment influence your work (in particular Texas and the flair of the American South)?

RB: I’m inspired by the way sunlight falls on the northeastern part of Texas, where I live and work. It’s a distinct quality of light. I often film outdoors with very little grip equipment. Nor do my cameras have the dynamic range that upscale cinema cameras do. So the time of day is important, and for that matter the time of year.

But even with equipment limitations, the sunlight here makes an excellent correlative for the emotions of the characters, whether it shunts and slants between the trees or recedes on the horizon, dimming people and the land. 

ILLAMBRA: You have two films in Illambra, “Alien on the roof” and “Legacy of an outsider”, both very intriguing and enigmatic. Could you reveal a bit more about these two projects, their background and their subjects?

RB: I’m grateful to have these two films on Illambra. “Alien on the Roof” is inspired by folk sermons that I heard at a revival when I was a kid. The authority invested in a folk sermon isn’t from books, it’s imaginative, elemental. It has to do with images shaped by words and chants. It travels to ancient folds in the mind. Everyday objects shine like eternal ones. 

Time and place aren’t specified in “Alien,” but it’s suggested that times are strange, the population has gotten smaller, and the future looks spooky. We have a cowboy delivering a folk sermon, but instead of announcing that the king of grace looks down on us from heaven, he says “Something sits above us in a place of all conceivable opposites.” That’s a very different proposition. Grace has been replaced by a vagary, something alien. The trickle down of that is surreal occasions, unruly conditions. 

The cowboy’s traveling companion is a young art student. She’s as fluent in theory as he is in cosmology. Neither of them lack for something to say or think about. But will that keep them safe? 
We like to think the self we create is always relevant, even enviable.  But in the event of severe climate change or some other profound shift, how much of the self — this monologue of private thought, education, and fantasy — will remain relevant? As someone who values education and culture, I’d like to know. 

“The Legacy of an Outsider” has a similar problem. What’s the effect on this little universe of self, our discrete swirl of experience and talent, when we fail to gain notice from other people?
I don’t intend these films as existential dramas. The problems I mentioned are expressed in surreal ways. Surrealism allows for playfulness and wit. It acknowledges the worst can happen, while also confirming that life is a marvel.  

still from the film ”Alien on the roof”

ILLAMBRA: In both films you have elements of the literature directly included in form of narrator’s voice. Could you tell us more about your cinematic language and the way it developed?

RB: The sentence is perhaps the chief mechanism of thought. When we want to convey the fullness of our thoughts, our intentions of self, we use sentences. Yes, people can express love nonverbally. But when we make plans to preserve the aptness of our love, make plans to protect our love, afford our love, for those things we rely on sentences.

The characters in these films speak in complete sentences. Often lots of sentences. These characters desire to speak the fullness of their thoughts to the audience, that they may be remembered. Or at least little streamers of their thinking might be remembered after the audience has moved on.

ILLAMBRA: You feature film “A ship of human skin” is a story of mysticism and violent crime. Can you tell us about your experience while filming, collaboration with actors and the production.

RB: Thank you for mentioning “A Ship of Human Skin.” It’s an ambitious film made under a very tight resource. I work with a great DP, Jay Flowers. Not just on “Ship” but also on “Alien” and “Legacy.” Jay and I were the two crew members on this whole feature film. On a few happy occasions we were joined by another camera person, Paul Bryan, and an aerial photographer named Brad Weatheread. But most days it was just Jay and me. We both ran cameras, recorded sound, and did all the rigging. 

I hope people will watch this trailer and see the list of actors in the description. It’s one thing to conceive an expressionistic plot. Another thing entirely to search and present the humanity in that plot, and that’s what the actors did.

A Ship of Human Skin Official Trailer – https://vimeo.com/405638984

Landscape is a major feature of our film, and I’m fortunate to know artists who are also farmers and ranchers.  Paul Bryan is a filmmaker and farmer. He let us use his land as a location. Andy Don Emmons is a visual artist and rancher. He allowed us to use his land and some of his sculptures. Charles Dunnahoe grew up on a farm near the one I grew up on. He suggested that I come film in Corsicana, where he now lives, because it has historic buildings and modern police equipment. Thanks to Charles, we have a rural police standoff in the film.

I realize I make it sound like we’re a bunch of farmers running around making movies, and I guess that’s true. 

“Ship” played at underground film festivals and was spotted by a producer’s rep. Now it’s available in wide release. Throughout the process of finding a distributor, I considered the art vs. content problem attached to streaming businesses. It’s a complex issue. But I’m happy with the way things turned out. “Ship” has been given far more opportunities to find an audience through distribution than I could have managed for it on my own. 

still from the film ”A Ship of Human Skin”

ILLAMBRA: Except for literature and cinema are there some other media that you could imagine conveying your ideas the way you want?

RB: I’d like to try a web series.

ILLAMBRA: Influences and inspirations for your films?

RB: I’m always interested to learn more about creative possibilities under tight budget constraints. Here are ten independent films (in no particular order) I’ve taken encouragement from recently: “Bombay Beach”; “Silent Light”; “Madeline’s Madeline”; “Overlord” (1975); “Kings of the Road”;  “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”; “Careful” (1992); “Persian Series”;  “Red Hook Summer”. 

As for the subject matter of my movies, their structures, the unusual distillations of plot information, the dialogue, all that is informed by poetry. Ten poets (in no particular order) who’s work encourages me: Brigit Pegeen Kelly; Charles Baudelaire; John Ashbery; Rita Dove; Robin Robertson; Tyehimba Jess; Tennessee Williams; Robert Penn Warren; Mary Ruefle; Richard Wilbur.

ILLAMBRA: Is there an upcoming project?

RB: Thank you for asking about the next project. It’s a feature film called “King Judith.” A rewrite was necessary halfway through production, owing to situations created by the pandemic. Nevertheless, we’re scheduled to finish shooting later this month (in small numbers and observing social distancing). For anyone who’d like to see, here’s a video made from some of the footage we’ve shot so far: https://vimeo.com/462185468

Thank you for the interview!

The films of Richard Bailey are available for streaming on Illambra – click HERE to watch.