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Richard Billingham’s new film Ray & Liz

Ella Smith as Liz on the set of Ray & Liz © Rob Baker Ashton

Richard Billingham shot to fame in 1996 with the photobook Ray's a Laugh, an unflinching depiction of his parents' chaotic home lives. Now he's back with a film inspired by his childhood, which has already won two awards

Multiple jigsaws, almost completed, are laid out in the living room. On the sideboard, porcelain creatures jostle for space with family photos – a marriage scene, a smiling elderly couple, kids in the park. Dolls are piled high on a chair in the corner, arranged in a chaotic arc. White masks, like those from the Venice Carnival, are positioned across one wall. The wallpaper is a scene from a seaside town – spinning Ferris wheels, winding rollercoasters, fairground murals – yet the paper itself is pockmarked with holes and stains.

Richard Billingham, who grew up in this environment, describes the room as “carnivalesque”. When he lived here, in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, he did so with his mother Liz and, after she moved out, his father Ray. This jam of decorative stuff was all Liz. She had winding, flowering roots and flowers tattooed across her arms. She wore floral dresses and she smoked until the ashtrays overflowed.

When Billingham was 10 years old, Ray was laid off from a job as a machinist. The family sold their home for two grand – a cash-in- hand job to a local conman – and moved here, to what was quaintly referred to as public housing. Ray, who until this point only drank in the pub, began his life as a committed alcoholic and a full-time hermit. In the early 1990s, when Billingham was a teenager, Liz moved out, leaving him in the care of Ray – or vice versa.

Billingham’s younger brother Jason was less studious, more wayward than the quiet, introverted future artist. At the age of 11, he was taken into care. Then, two years later, after Billingham had left home, Ray and Liz reconciled and she moved back in. By this time, Liz had gained pets. “About 10 cats,” by Billingham’s reckoning. “Hamsters, reptiles, a python, two or three dogs.”

However, the room described here isn’t a relic of that time. It’s a set, a stage. From this remarkably impoverished environment, one of the defining photographers of his generation emerged. And now that artist has returned to his childhood, to the roots of his strange and remarkable life, to make Ray & Liz, a feature film of such a “lived experience”. In the room next door, Billingham is staring into a monitor, directing the action. One room along, the celebrated director of photography, Daniel Landin, known for his work on Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, is framing a teenage actor playing teenage Richard, and a pubescent boy playing Jason, in the lens of a large digital camera.

The scene filming today seems humdrum, but actually marked a great turning point in the young boys’ lives. Young Richard lies in bed, studying a book of graphic pictures. The younger brother is playing with a handful of small plastic insects. A knock comes at the front door and, knowing their father is drunk in bed, the pair argue about who should open it. An older man in a tired, old suit is let into the house, yet Richard carries on reading his book. Eventually the man, a social worker, steps into the bedroom and informs the boy, with a stoic bluntness, that, while Jason would be taken to live elsewhere, Richard was old enough to remain at home and stick it out.

I ask Billingham about the scene, and the memory of that moment in his lived experience, when we meet later in the year in Kentish Town, north London. He’s hard at work editing the film and seems distracted. Despite making a film about his childhood, after basing his career on the photographs he took of his childhood, Billingham does not in any way give the impression he wants to talk about his childhood.

“Was it miserable growing up?” he says in answer to an entirely different question. “I get asked that a lot.” He pauses and looks away. “I’ve just been reading a book called The Girl With No Name, about a girl who grew up with monkeys in Colombia. She seems to have fond memories of that.”

Billingham’s distinct way of communicating is not something he reserves for journalists. Justin Salinger, the actor tasked with playing the part of Ray, Billingham’s father, says: “When I first met Richard, I found him very economical with his words, and with the way he communicated what he wanted. He didn’t talk about a character, or about thoughts, or about motivations, but very directly, abruptly even, in simple terms. He didn’t mess about. He’d say, ‘My father would do this, my father wouldn’t say that, my father would say it like this’.”

The role of Liz will be in-part played by the star of Channel 4 documentary series Benefits Street, White Dee, aka Deirdre Kelly (“As soon as I met her, I just thought she looked and sounded exactly like Liz,” says Billingham) with Ella Smith also playing his mother at a different era in her life. Smith has her own take on Billingham’s methods. “Once I got to meet Richard, I threw millions of questions at him,” she says on the phone from Los Angeles after the shoot has wrapped. “I remember using the word ‘compassion’ really early on.

“I asked all about where the compassion was for each other, and he sort of giggled, and I realised that was my middle-class London bubble talking. Talking about compassion is a very normal thing for us. But, if you grow up in a tower block, or if you lose a job and have nothing in the fridge for two years, then compassion is the last thing you’re thinking about. I think they were more interested in survival.”

“Ella and I were constantly baffled by the detached way with which Richard talks about his parents,” Salinger admits. “When Ella mentioned the word compassion one day, he said, ‘There was no compassion, there was no passion’. So there was no emotion, even sadness, even anger. That’s what their lives were, and they just got on with it.

“And Richard feels there’s no point feeling sad about it or sorry for them, or wallowing in the misery that must have been their lives. But I think he accepts that, and he doesn’t judge them, and I don’t think he’s angry with them, and I think it’s a brilliant way of approaching it.”

If Billingham lacks for words in real life, then his ability to communicate with mise-en-scène remains deeply compelling. In the scene I was witness to, there are maybe two sentences of dialogue, while the scenario unfolds for minutes on end. His directions are exacting. He tells the boy how to play with the reading glasses he holds in his hand, leaving the camera to focus on the detail as it pans across the room. He’s specific about the pauses and breaths between the delivery of the words. The book young Richard reads is picked up by the camera.

Later that afternoon, Salinger is shot playing Ray. He sits in a chair, looking out of the window, with a fag in his hand. There’s no dialogue. Nothing discernible happens. The camera simply rests on Salinger’s Ray as he lives his quiet, hermetic life. Yet again Billingham knows exactly what he wants from the actor. Each movement he must make is specific and non-negotiable.

“It was strange, and at first quite alien, and it could make the atmosphere tense,” Salinger says of being directed in such a way. “He would start sentences with things like, ‘Ray wouldn’t do that, he would sit like this’, or ‘One drag of the cigarette, hold it like this, flick it there, move to that side, look at the screen’. It was very detailed work, and the first take I remember feeling incredibly tense, and thinking a thousand things in my head even though there was no dialogue. The second time I thought, ‘I’ve got this, I can do this’.

“Eventually I was able to find freedom in all those very prescriptive directions. As the film progressed, I got more used to the language, to being able to work like that, and I found it very, very rewarding; an exciting way of working.”

Smith remembers walking around the local area where the film was to be shot. “I walked past the library and Richard just said, ‘I spent my whole childhood in that library’. That helped me understand his experience. He wasn’t in the house, he was out reading, teaching himself.” At some point, he bought a book for 37 pence about wildlife mammals. He read it again and again before trying his hand at sketching the animals from within its pages. Paper and pencils were one of the few things he could get his hands on.

Tony Way stars as the wayward Uncle Lol © Rob Baker Ashton

Billingham found in such drawings a way of dealing with the long hours alone in the house with his father. He would be an artist, he decided, and started to apply to art schools. He applied, in writing, to 16 of them and in the post came 16 rejection letters.

At 18, Billingham eventually received an acceptance letter, for an art foundation course at Bournville College of Art in Birmingham. He would stack shelves at a supermarket in the evening and catch the bus every morning, journeying across the Black Country and into the city. For the first time, he gained a focused tutorship in the arts, and turned his attention from drawing to painting. Ray, he decided, would be a convenient figure to paint.

“But it was difficult to get him to stay still for more than 15 or 20 minutes,” Billingham says. “He’d end up asking for a drink. I thought, ‘If I can take a photograph of Ray, I can use it as a basis for my painting.’”

Billingham kept his photographs of Ray and Liz hidden for a long time. After Bournville, he enrolled at the University of Sunderland, keeping his photographs in a plastic bag in his student room. The photographer Julian Germain came to the university to give a lecture, and Billingham was struck by how Germain would talk about photographs from a structural perspective. He built up the courage to show Germain the contents of the plastic bag.

“Julian would look at them and say, ‘That’s a fuckin’ great photo, that is,’” Billingham says today. “But he wanted to talk to me about the framing and light and composition, and I liked that.”

The pair stayed in touch after Billingham graduated. Over the course of a couple of years, as Billingham stacked shelves in Kwik Save, they hatched a plan to publish his first photography book. Ray’s a Laugh came out in 1996, published by Scalo. Copies were acquired by Charles Saatchi, who would go on to include Billingham’s photographs in his exhibition Sensation, the infamous 1997 showcasing of many of the so called Young British Artists of the time at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Billingham’s cheap prints of Ray and Liz were shown alongside early works by Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Sarah Lucas, Mat Collishaw and Tracey Emin. The exhibition was controversial. It showed Hirst’s tiger shark in a formaldehyde tank, Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With tent and Marcus Harvey’s huge portrait of the ‘Moors Murderer’ Myra Hindley, made up of prints of children’s hands. Yet Billingham’s photography sparked as much debate as anything else in the show.

The discussion came from the distinct timbre of the photography. Billingham’s work could be seen as classic vérité documentary, but they were also clearly private and personal photographs. They were confessional, relational, deeply connected to his own being, yet at a remove and distant – as if he were set apart from something that also consumed him.

For he wasn’t just photographing his parents; it was as if Billingham was invisible, oblivious. Ray and Liz seemed entirely unconcerned by the act of being photographed, as if they were totally unaware of what their son was doing. Or they just didn’t care.

As his profile rose, with the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 1997 and a nomination for the Turner Prize in 2001, critics questioned where he was coming from, what his point was. Was this a tacit or explicit reaction to the government policies of the day? Was it proof that poverty is some sort of moral failing? Was this a politicised, liberal look at the working classes, or poverty porn?

Expect those questions to be rehashed again when Ray & Liz is released in a Britain preparing to leave the EU, and still coming to terms with the class gulfs that the referendum exposed. Yet Billingham’s answer will remain consistent – that he was just trying to make sense of where he was. He was using the camera as a way to mediate the space between himself and his hermetic, mostly silent father.

“Watching Richard on set, it was like he would create new images of his parents,” Salinger says. “He brought a camera onto the set, and you’d find him placing objects in the background and taking pictures. Usually the focus, almost more than the acting, was on the still images, on what was in the frame. That was a completely different way of working from what I’m used to. But it was fascinating to be around.”

Strikingly, Billingham recalls moments in his youth when his life felt like that of a constructed drama. “The film is my attempt to provide a backstory for the photographs,” he says. “When I was still living with Ray, I thought of the situation as a film. The film was already taking place in my head at that point.”

“The film is a reflective process, for Richard is now able to look at his childhood from a distance,” says the film’s producer, Jacqui Davies. “He’s not trying to contextualise it politically or socially, to say it was good or bad. It’s a way of showing how Richard experienced life at that time – so it’s very slow, all in one space.”

“He doesn’t function like any other director I’ve ever worked with,” says Smith. “But it’s very refreshing, because he’s fastidious about his truth. He’s honouring it in a way that feels right for him – because he lived it. When he creates something that feels authentic to him, you could see his face light up. I don’t know if it’s cathartic, but I’m sure it affected him.”

The film is a triptych, exploring three separate chapters of Billingham’s early life with Ray, Liz and Jason. The first chapter, dated around 1980, centres on the time Jason was put in the care of Uncle Lol for an afternoon. Lol gets blind drunk, and Jason goes missing. In the second chapter, we meet Jason as a misbehaving pubescent teen whose misdemeanours include tipping chilli powder into Ray’s mouth while he sleeps.

Richard Billingham (left) on the set of his directorial debut, alongside acclaimed director of photography, Daniel Landin © Rob Baker Ashton

Yet to focus on the plot would miss the true meaning of the film. Filmmakers often talk about personal projects, films made out of passion. Few have gone to the lengths that Billingham has to create something that meant so much – in a purely internal way.

“We would be shooting a scene, and Richard would suddenly focus on a corner of the room that wouldn’t necessarily even be in shot,” Smith says. “And he would stop and say, ‘That mark on the wall shouldn’t be there, it should be here.’ That goes to show the level he would fixate on such things. At first, if it wasn’t right he would obviously feel uncomfortable. He had to learn to deal with it, and to make compromises along the way, which he did with real charm.”

Billingham has a very different life now. After the shoot, he will return home to Swansea, where he lives with his long-term partner, three small children and unruly, boisterous dogs. He’s a visiting professor in art at the University of Gloucestershire and Middlesex University, and his new family is the subject of his more recent photography. One photograph shows a spacious, beautifully furnished living room framing a smiling toddler staring at a whippet. In another, two children play on a trampoline and slide in a waterlogged garden.

He has spent time focusing on the landscapes near his family home – they’re bucolic and pastoral, the work of someone who seems very happy to be where he is. They’re nice pictures, and they work in comparison to those of his childhood with Ray and Liz, but, taken on their own terms, they’re frictionless, uncomplicated photographs. It’s fair to say Billingham has never found another subject that touched a nerve like Ray and Liz.

The fact this film is being made serves as an acknowledgement of how much Billingham’s early years impacted on his later life. So is this therapy for him? “I don’t think he is dong it for catharsis, personally,” says Smith. “I can’t speak for him, but my instinct says he’s just doing this right now, and then he’ll do something else.

“He’s not someone who has deep angst in him, as far as I can tell. He’s not someone who has deep pain. The more you ask about his life, the more he giggles about it. If he does have any hurt about it, he’s not a haunted person, he’s a joyful person. And that’s what is really hard, because a lot of people get into this industry because they’re trying to have this catharsis. I’m sure most of us are, but he’s different.”

Ray & Liz premiered at Locarno Festival in August 2018, where it won the Special Mention Jury Prize. Billingham also recently received the £50,000 2018 IWC Filmmaker Bursary Award, presented in association with the BFI www.luxboxfilms.com/ray-and-liz/

This article was first published in the October issue of BJP www.thebjpshop.com