Production: Anja Kirschner & David Panos
Steven Cairns gets to the bottom of 'The Last Days of Jack Sheppard', a film based on inferred prison encounters between the eponomous 18th century criminal and Daniel Defoe, ghostwriter of Sheppard’s ‘autobiography’
Where did ‘The Last Days of Jack Sheppard’, the film co-commissioned by CCA Glasgow, and Chisenhale London, begin?
The idea came several years ago while researching for ‘Polly II...’, 2006 (a distopian pirate adventure that collided 18th century London with sci-fi and soap opera elements). We came across Sheppard in Peter Linebaugh’s history of 18th century crime and punishment, The London Hanged, where he dedicates a chapter to him.
An outline film treatment for ‘The Last Days of Jack Sheppard’ existed since 2006, but at the time we were already working on another project and saw it as a potential feature treatment. After completing ‘Trail of the Spider’ (a Western shot in East London and Essex), we returned to the idea in 2008, but decided we would strip it down, focusing on the construction, representation and mediation of Jack Sheppard in popular culture.
The central themes as we developed them reflected our ongoing concerns—the origins and class basis of art and popular culture, the problems of representation when depicting political subjects and the relationship between history and narrative.
Why did you choose Jack Sheppard to explore these concerns?
We’ve always been interested in speculative history and an interplay between historical possibility and fiction, so this subject really allowed us to think through and put many of these issues into play. From the start we were interested in the textuality of the Jack Sheppard story, and became more interested in the way it was constructed and its authorship. We began to focus on Daniel Defoe, to whom authorship is frequently attributed to, though this is by no means certain.
We had also been doing concurrent research into the creation of art as a discourse in the 17th and 18th centuries and we started to link the two subjects. Defoe’s broad range of activity links historical writing to literature, artistic debates and to popular culture. He was also a serious player in politics and economics. His mediating role supplied many connections to broader themes that we were interested in. Often, in research-based work, links between disparate ideas emerge gradually and in a surprising way. You uncover connections and links all the time between quite diverse subject matter.
So, Defoe’s influence had a major impact on the underlying themes?
Through Defoe we began to uncover more about the debates about finance during Jack Sheppard’s time, discovering that his actions take place in the shadow of the South Sea Bubble of 1720, Britain’s first recorded financial crisis. Finance has obviously become a dominant issue today but it was intriguing to see how much of early 18th century culture is a commentary on the impact of financalisation—you discover that cannonical texts like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels are essentially parables about value and exchange, part of a culture that is quite consciously trying to make sense of the impact of capital on daily life, consciousness and perception. The abstractions of capital are also intimately bound up with the emergence of artistic and fictional discourse as we know it today. Sheppard’s status as both protean class hero, and a character of literary fiction born out of a speculative age, is manifested very materially. For example, we found that accounts of his exploits sat directly beside the stock price listings in newspapers of the time.
How did the co-commission with Chisehale, London/CCA, Glasgow begin?
We met Polly Staple in the summer of 2008, when she had just become the new director at Chisenhale Gallery. She was interested in the Sheppard idea and invited us to realise at the Chisenhale. She also contacted the CCA, who became co-commissioners.. Anja had just been at Cove Park where sketches for the set and script were developed, so we think Francis McKee, director of CCA, may have heard of the project through people at Cove as well. We had several phone conversations and met him in autumn 2008. Francis has a shared interest in 18th century history and culture and had written a PhD on Mandeville (whose political satire The Fable of the Bees also features in the film) so there was an immediate connection. Mandeville was a controversial figure in the debate about morality and trade in the 18th century, prefiguring later bourgeois writers like Adam Smith who were desperate to create a moral theory that could be reconciled with capitalist commerce.
How did your collaboration as artists function in the way the production was structured?
We discuss every aspect of a film, and we co-direct, though we tend to split tasks during production and post-production. Anja works more with the performers and script, while David focuses on production, editing and sound design; but we tend to collaborate at every stage. We usually work with a crew during the shoot but take on every element of post-production ourselves; for example all the sound in the film is post-synced so we spent a long time creating sound effects and dubbing and have always done our own digital effects.
We try to ensure that a film has its own look by taking a long time building up a crew. There were three particularly significant collaborators on the Jack Sheppard project. Humphrey Jaeger, our production designer, who has many years of experience designing theatre and feature productions, helped us realise our original concept of a theatrical set that also figures as a systemic element in the film (and as installation). In the set there is a common structure that makes up gallows, prison cell, workshop and bourgeois home—all figured as part of the same system. We also wanted the set to strike a balance between the visual pleasure and camp flamboyance of costume dramas and something more deconstructed and fragile that takes its cues from 18th century modes of representation. Rufus Graham, who had trained in 18th century gesture helped to devise and instruct other performers in the appropriate movements.
We specifically looked for actors trained in 18th century manners and commedia dell arte, or with a background in another physical discipline, because we wanted to be able to choreograph them, avoiding ‘naturalistic’ or psychologised performances and therefore highlighting the distance between contemporary and 18th century subjectivity without trying to reconstruct an ‘authentic’ simulation of the latter.
Peter Ross, a Jack Sheppard specialist with a large collection of drawings, prints and text relating to his life and proliferation in popular culture, helped us research the film and provided an empirical perspective on the history of the period, which created a productive tension with the more theoretical approaches we’d come across, and with our own speculations.
How do these influences on production relate to the techniques you explore in the film?
We wanted the film to collide with a number of techniques—pastiching a classic costume drama film look (hire house props, sumptuous costuming) with elements from theatre to give the whole thing an overt sense of constructedness and suspension. We went for quite classic camera movements but Bresson’s focus on gesture and Buñuel’s dream-like dolly movements were also an inspiration. The dubbing was an idea that came from Italian cinema—the sense of dislocation that post-syncing gives you was something we wanted to borrow. We spent a long time discussing accent in relation to de-naturalising the historical representation; giving the viewer the feeling that they weren’t necessarily hearing the original voices seemed a good solution.
You seem really interested in the aspect of gesture in character portrayal. How does this relate to the telling of the narrative and did you want to develop narratives that worked on different levels?
The interest in gesture was part of the process of defamiliarisation, creating a filmic ambience that didn’t simply feel like contemporary subjects dressed up in costumes, but wasn’t ‘authentic’ either. It was also linked to a notion of instrumentality and utility, hence the consistent close-ups of hands, writing, using tools, exchanging commodities and trading currency.
Gesture is present in two ways. We knew Jack Sheppard had a stutter and was said to speak with ‘the motion of striking’. So we speculated that the social convulsions of the early 18th century would have produced chaotic physical manifestations in the emerging proletariat (something similar happened during the early 20th century in response to the new velocities of mass industrial society). We then recognised this could be contrasted to the highly choreographed gestural language of the elite and were fortunate enough to find Rufus Graham to help
us incorporate this.
Jack’s movements are chaotic and fractured, whereas another character, John Applebee, uses his body to communicate in a coded set of gestures which would have been as much part of social discourse as language in the 18th century: the use of the left and right hand and of where you stood in relation to others, was all meaningful.
We’re interested in this comparison. The relative ‘freedom’ of Jack’s movements is individual, spontaneous, improvisatory, but somehow also isolated. Applebee’s gestural language, which feels to contemporary eyes stiff and depersonalising, was part of a coherent social identity and shared language and an expression of education and class power. Bourgeois culture has clearly lost its gestures. Maybe today we are all like Jack.
Do you see the work functioning in the same way at CCA as it did at Chisenhale?
There is a similar arrangement of set elements and the projection screen adapted to the spaces of the CCA. But the exhibition at CCA also has an additional element—a display of historic material from Peter Ross’ collection—extending the dialogue between facts and fictions and the re-presentation of history posed by the film into the education space at the CCA.
When showing ‘The Last Days of Jack Sheppard’ at Chisenhale the film was contextualised to an extent by the fact that it was screening in London. Are these contexts transferable?
We never really felt that the film depended on London as a physical context, and felt it would transfer equally well to Glasgow where the archive will provide additional context. When we show it in the Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, we want to focus on a particular object from Peter Ross’ collection—a copy of the original Jack Sheppard narrative translated into German and printed in 1725 (the year after the original was published). Even in its own time, Sheppard’s story had an international context.
Steven Cairns is co-editor of MAP
The Last Days of Jack Sheppard, CCA, Glasgow, 8 August–26 September and Badischer Kunstverein 25 September–22 November