Dave McKean On The Power Of Story, Mythologizing Jesus And Retelling The Passion

I recently got to sit and speak with Dave McKean for a good long chat, about his past and future work, both in print and on screen, and particularly about his current film, The Gospel of Us.

McKean’s film was filmed over the Easter weekend in 2011, capturing and reframing a live, three-day theatrical event that located the story of the Passion Play in modern Port Talbot. Michael Sheen took the lead role of The Teacher, an analog of Jesus Christ, and over three days, acted out the gospel of his trial, suffering and death.

For McKean, this film is not a simple case of following the play with a video camera on his shoulder, nor of simply tossing out a tale from the Bible. His ambitions lie in exploring belief, and the power of story – and not just this one.

Here is some of what he told me about how this film came together in the way that he wanted it.

The Port Talbot Passion happened whether I was there or not. I’m credited as being a director but I didn’t direct anything [of the play]. Whatever happened between Michael and Bill Mitchell, his co-director, and Owen, his co-writer, happened whether I was there or not. I just fetched up in Port Talbot with nine other camera men.

Ten cameras in all. We had a day briefing where we went round to all of the locations and told them, as far as I knew, what would happen, when it would happen, and from which direction the actors would come in. We tried to work out which shots we would have tried to get if we had been shooting “a proper film.” I told them, roughly, what kind of shots I like, and what shots I imagined working well.

I knew it would have a guerrilla style, documentary style, because it would have to, with people all around fighting for room. For this, I like stuff in the foreground and finding the subject in the background, dirty shots, and asymmetry. Changing focus or zooms during the shots were down to them. We took on people who were not just camera operators but fully fledged DPs. They didn’t have crews and were completely autonomous units – a man and a camera.

My tacit agreement with Michael and the theatre company was that we would be discreet, blend in with the crowd. That was the only way they would allow it to happen. We just shot stuff like it was a live event. Like a real thing. The actual direction, if any took place, was in the selection and shaping of that material.

My film is my witness of what happened and even though I’ve added animation and effects and various treatments, essentially, that’s what I saw. As that story was telling, that’s what was going on in my mind.

I’m an illustrator really, and so that was the relationship here too. Michael and the theatre piece were like the writer creating the text, and then I, as the illustrator, shaped it and emphasised certain things, and tried to communicate the ideas in the best way for an audience.

I worked out what the ideas were, for me. And it’s very much a personal thing. Owen has written a novel, and that’s his gospel. The locals who were at the premiere had made this beautiful big exhibition and that’s their gospel. It is a parallel of how story works.

And if the film is about anything it’s about how story works. There probably was a man called Christ – there’s scant evidence for it but let’s just say there was. Let’s say that he was a traveling preacher, one of many. Let’s say he was a very charismatic man and he said some very sensible and wonderful things. And let’s say that he upset locals, and powers in the local religious groups, and that the Romans crucified him – they crucified thousands of people, it was common practice. And out of these little pieces of historical evidence, these powerful and extraordinary stories developed.

The weird thing is, even now, in our age of 24 hour news and CCTV, there were people in Port Talbot that swore that The Stereophonics played at the social club [during the weekend of The Passion]. They didn’t. Already it’s been fictionalised, even in an era when everything is recorded. So imagine what it was like 2000 years ago when nothing was recorded and it was all word of mouth.

What we’re dealing with is a mythologised version of a kernel of truth, and that’s what I wanted to try and suggest with the film – what we’re watching is a mythologized version of a little piece of truth. I’m not a religious person but I think the power of the story, and it’s a great story, is its ability to be reinterpreted, and to still mean something today.

The Gospel of Us is currently touring the UK, with Dave McKean appearing, as he said, at some screenings, for a Q&A. Keep an eye on the New Cinema Quarterly page to see if it will be coming your way.

Lots more from McKean later.