Our Under the Spotlight series aims to cast a light on industry peers we love, envy and respect so that more people can understand the work that goes into The Work.
Jason Wood is Creative Director of Film & Culture at HOME in Manchester, one of the UK’s leading centres for international contemporary art, theatre, and film. His time there has seen HOME programme and curate the best in contemporary cinema and multi-artform exhibitions, including the first major UK exhibition of David Lynch’s paintings, drawings, and sculpture, and the UK-wide expansion of London Film Festival.
In addition to his work at HOME, Jason is Professor of Film at the Manchester School of Art and the author of many published works on cinema, including The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema and New British Cinema with Ian Haydn Smith. In February 2022, he started a new role at the British Film Institute as Executive Director of Public Programme and Audiences.
I sat down with Jason to discuss his new role at the BFI, the importance of kindness, and his love of legendary cult band The The.
What do you expect the main challenges will be when you step into your new role at the BFI, and what are the main opportunities for overcoming those challenges?
The BFI’s philosophy is that more people should have greater access to film culture and with that comes lots of opportunities. They’ve tried to remove any sense of elitism and they really want to prove that everybody deserves access to film culture. And then the notion of film culture itself is changing. It isn’t just films and movies anymore – it’s moving image. We’re interrogating the film canon and looking at which filmmakers have been celebrated and which haven’t, and why. It almost feels like we’re going through a reset, which is exciting.
We’ve also seen a synergy between digital and physical cinema. More people now are streaming, and that gives people with less access to cinemas the chance to engage with film culture. I genuinely think there are a lot more opportunities than challenges. One of the only challenges is time.
That’s very refreshing to hear after all the doom and gloom about cinema’s future over the last year and half.
I’m really optimistic about the future of cinema. I was surprised by the constant rhetoric about cinema being obliterated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given how long cinema has been going and the threats it has survived in that time, I was surprised certain sections of the media were prepared to write it off so quickly. With the pandemic, people have responded to culture in a very positive way. They’ve realised that culture isn’t just something that you buy, watch, read, or listen to; it’s something that brings society together and enables us to understand each other better. And because of that, the notion that cinema is going to wither and die has proven to be very, very incorrect.
In the press release announcing your and Arike Oke’s appointments, you said you wanted to ‘acknowledge film’s rich history while also plotting a course towards its future’, which was also very positive to hear. Sometimes there’s this perception that if you’re invested in the past then you’re not invested in the future, but the past and the future aren’t in competition with each other.
I agree. It goes back to what I said about interrogating the film canon. If you look at any ‘best films of all-time’ lists, the films will mostly be western and a fair percentage of the directors will be white males. We have to look at why more films by women and why more films by directors of colour have not appeared in the pantheon. It’s not that those directors haven’t been making films, it’s that they haven’t been given the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Their films have been harder to see and have suffered from less visibility. Let’s learn from that and ensure that in the future there is a greater diversity of people making films, that film is more democratic. If you look at the films the BFI is supporting through schemes like New Voices, we have new filmmakers from all different backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and I think that is possibly where cinema is heading in the future.
I also think we have to look at how new technology, like virtual reality (VR) and immersive technology, is reshaping film culture. We have to look beyond film as a 90-minute narrative feature. We have to embrace artists’ films, short-form pieces, mid-form pieces. We have to not be afraid of films with subtitles or films that run for three hours or more. The future of film has to be more egalitarian.
Speaking of VR, you’ve worked before with filmmaker Asif Kapadia, whose new virtual reality film Laika recently played at the London Film Festival (LFF). Have you seen Laika and what’s your take on VR?
VR is brilliant. It has been in the ascendancy for a while now, but it was one of those artforms that was so pioneering, people found it difficult to get their heads around. And Asif’s film is brilliant too. It’s inventive but it’s also very entertaining. We shouldn’t be afraid to be stimulated, provoked, and taken out of our comfort zones with cinema, but we shouldn’t be afraid of entertainment either.
Asif really captured and explored the possibilities of VR but he did so in a way that was accessible. He’s an incredibly impressive human being. He works in VR, in documentary, in fiction. He’s working on a new choreography piece called Creature. He seems to be able to turn his hand to all forms of filmmaking. But beyond that, he’s an exceptional role model and very giving with his time. He uses his knowledge and achievements to inspire and to help others have careers in film.
Even though directors like Asif Kapadia, Ava DuVernay, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Tsai Ming-liang have all ventured into VR in the last few years, there may still be a perception that it belongs to ‘the art world’ rather than to cinema. Making VR more accessible and entertaining perhaps deconstructs that idea.
Yes, and Laika does that. It doesn’t just appeal to people who are interested in art films. I can imagine young people watching Laika; in some ways, it’s like a piece of animation. At HOME we hosted the Manchester Animation Festival, which is beginning to look at the potential of VR. Then there is Manchester’s School of Digital Arts (SODA), which has been set up to teach film in a broader sense, as moving image, including teaching VR and new digital technologies. The opening of SODA is an important moment not just for Manchester but for education and the film industry in general. I think we’re going to have a whole new generation of people doing really interesting things with the medium, particularly as it becomes less expensive to work with and to exhibit.
Over the last five years, thanks to the efforts of people like yourself and venues like HOME and Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, we’ve seen an improved relationship between the north and south in terms of film distribution, programming, and accessibility – the UK-wide expansion of LFF, for example, which also perhaps signals a shift away from a film industry that has historically been London-centric. That shift has been a long time coming really.
Over the last few years we’ve seen a sort of devolution in the arts, but the regions have always produced brilliant work. You mentioned Tyneside Cinema: Tyneside programmed the first lesbian and gay film festival [now the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival]. But it comes back to the media. I don’t think the film industry or London itself thinks that London is the epicenter of film culture; I think the media believes that. Quite often they perpetuate this idea that things only happen in London. I’m really pleased we’ve begun to move away from that narrative.
When I came to HOME, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a venue to be respected in the north-west, but a venue to be respected nationally and internationally. When HOME did the David Lynch season, we had lots of journalists ringing up saying they’d review it when it came down to London and we told them it’s not coming to London, it’s happening in Manchester. That was quite a game-changing moment. In January 2022, HOME is collaborating with Manchester Art Gallery to exhibit the works of Derek Jarmon. That’s not happening in London, that’s happening in Manchester. The media must begin to pay more attention to what’s happening outside of London. There’s a whole world beyond the M25.
Your new role at the BFI is based in London. When you take up that role, how do you hope to reach northern audiences, rural audiences, audiences outside of London?
We need to continue to show those people that they are equally deserving of access to culture as anybody else, and that means having a dialogue with them, listening to them, and removing barriers that prevent access. Rising ticket prices, for example, are a barrier for young audiences. We need to work with organisations to make film culture more affordable: introduce better pricing schemes, attractive membership schemes, film offers. We need a communication system that speaks to their peer groups. We need those audiences to be a part of the dialogue. We have to show them that cinema, like any artform, is a journey, and sometimes you have to take a step into the unknown to go on that journey.
In the December issue of Sight and Sound magazine, Reggie Yates wrote about some of the barriers he’s faced as a filmmaker and how important it was for him to have sponsorship and mentorship in order to get his debut feature, Pirates, off the ground. When you hear about that kind of support, it gives you hope and makes it feel as if there is a ladder you can climb.
We’re definitely working towards that idea of a ladder. We’re trying to remove barriers for people in the industry no matter how they want to get into it or what they want to do. There are people in the industry who do want to help because they recognise the need for a diverse industry that is open to new voices and people from a multiplicity of backgrounds. The BFI does that through mentorship and support, educational schemes, and funding schemes.
But it goes back to the point I made about culture being something that binds society and brings people together. The pandemic made us question whether we want to only look after ourselves and our own situations, or whether we want to think about other people and become a more caring community. I think we’ve seen people come together to try to improve things for other people and to try to be more caring and supportive. Kindness is something that really has to be valued. I think we’re beginning to see a return to that – I know that probably sounds a bit fanciful, but I think we’re starting to realise that people are important, and that more people are important, and that different kinds of people are important.
What is it about the films of Michael Almereyda you find so captivating, and how excited are you to have Nadja screening at HOME next month?
I’ve always been interested in American independent cinema and filmmakers who are able to make creative work on small budgets – people like Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Lizzie Borden, and Charles Burnett, and before them, John Cassavetes, who’s kind of the godfather of American independent cinema. When I was researching my dissertation, I came across Michael Almereyda, a filmmaker from the Lower East Side in New York. In 1992 he made this film called Another Girl Another Planet, which was named after a brilliant record by the post-punk band The Only Ones. Another Girl Another Planet was made on a PXL 2000 – a camera produced for children by Fisher-Price. Because he didn’t have the budget to get hold of a film camera, Michael Almereyda bought one of these Fisher-Price cameras and made Another Girl Another Planet with it – and it’s incredible! It’s black and white, grainy; it almost looks like how you’d imagine a dream to look.
His next film was Nadja in 1994, which I saw at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. I saw it on the first night and liked it so much that I went to see it five or six times. It’s a kind of riff on the Dracula myth and was also shot on the PXL 2000. It starred a lot of actors from the films of Hal Hartly: Elina Löwensohn, Martin Donovan, and Peter Fonda, who alongside John Cassavetes, arguably kickstarted the American independent cinema movement when he starred in Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper. I loved Nadja, and I just became obsessed with it.
It’s been very hard to see, so we’ve collaborated with the National Film and Television School (NFTS) to screen it. We tracked down a print thanks to the ICA and Geoffrey Badger at NFTS – it’s a 35mm print owned by David Lynch, who produced the film, and it’s the only print in Europe. We’re showing it at HOME on December 8. A lot of young people wouldn’t have had the chance to see what a 35mm film looks like. It’s a very different aesthetic to digital. With the screening, we’re hoping we’ll get not just people who saw Nadja when it was released in 1994 but young audiences who will discover it for the first time.
In your book 100 American Independent Films, you describe the relationship between major studios and independent filmmakers from the early 1970s onwards as a ‘parasitical and symbiotic marriage of convenience…[that] remains very much in evidence today’. You wrote that in 2004. Do you think that parasitical relationship still exists today?
I think it’s changed slightly. Netflix funds a lot of independent filmmakers now – people like the Safdie brothers and the Coens – so that relationship is probably a bit more harmonious than it once was. In the 1970s and 80s, when major studios funded independent films, quite often it came back to finance and whether that film would make money for the studio; they didn’t necessarily believe in the vision of the filmmaker or the aesthetics of the film. There would have been exceptions, of course, but on the whole it was an economic proposition. It’s a much healthier situation now. There are people with independent backgrounds running major studios, and they believe in filmmakers’ visions. They realise that if they produce or finance an independent filmmaker’s film, that filmmaker might go on to deliver a hugely successful film for the studio. You can see it now with studios courting filmmakers like Chloé Zhao, who went from making independent films like The Rider and Nomadland to Marvel’s Eternals.
What do you think about Marvel hiring independent filmmakers to helm their films – Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for Captain Marvel, for example, or Edgar Wright for Ant-Man before he left that project – but then discouraging them from using their unique visual styles and aesthetics, and pushing them to work within the confines of Marvel’s look and style.
This is just my personal suspicion, but I think it’s about attracting certain audiences. When Marvel releases, say, Ant-Man, they’re going to attract comic book fans. But if they have Edgar Wright directing then they also attract Edgar Wright fans and fans of independent cinema. I think the studios are quite smart. They make films that have a built-in audience but they realise that they can also attract different audiences if certain filmmakers are attached to their projects.
This is my suspicion too.
I think you can trace that thinking back to Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy. Del Toro made Hellboy after Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, these really personal Spanish-language films, and then with Hellboy, he took all the best things about mainstream comic book movies and added an independent sensibility to it.
But this also goes back to what we were saying about who gets to make the films and why certain filmmakers aren’t funded. It’s great to see Chloé Zhao given the freedom to make Eternals, or Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman, or Nia DaCosta with Candyman. To see them helming major studio projects is a sign of positive change, even though it could be, in part, the result of studios making smart economic decisions.
Why shouldn’t something be intelligent and accessible? That’s the kind of sweet spot of culture – when you’re able to be intelligent but also attract people to your art so that it’s not existing in a vacuum.Jason Wood
The book you’re currently working on isn’t about cinema at all. It’s an autobiographical project with Matt Johnson, frontman of legendary cult band The The. One thing I love about The The’s music is the use of juxtaposition. A song will have a playful, upbeat melody but a scathing political message; one moment, Matt’s lyrics will be blunt and direct, and the next they’ll be hauntingly poetic. What draws you to The The and their music?
I was a big fan of their first record, Burning Blue Soul [released in 1981]. It was originally issued as a Matt Johnson record and then reissued as a The The record. It’s very experimental and uses recorded sounds and the manipulation of tape recorders – what’s known as musique concrète. With Soul Mining, The The’s debut album, Matt took some of that experimentation and married it to slightly more accessible melodies and political lyrics. He started writing about the direction he saw Britain going under Thatcher’s conservative government, where working-class communities were completely abandoned and industries across the country were shut down. That record introduced Matt’s music to a larger audience.
Then in 1986, he went to the next level with Infected. That album showed me that an artist could be political but also have a huge audience. The lead single, ‘Heartland’, talked about how the UK under Thatcher was becoming ‘the 51st state of the USA’, a vassal state for US imperialism. It talked about ‘the Saturday morning cinema..crumbling to the ground’ and ‘the piss stinking shopping center in the new side of town’. It talked about working-class communities being abandoned, but it had a huge listenership and sold millions of copies. I’ve always admired that ability to be political and experimental, and at times really commercial.
My introduction to The The was the album Mind Bomb, and specifically the track ‘Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)’, which is about global politics, religion, extremeism, war, and yet it’s extremely catchy. It’s intelligent and accessible, and they shouldn’t be seen as two things that can’t coexist.
It goes back to what we were saying at the start: why shouldn’t something be intelligent and accessible? That’s the kind of sweet spot of culture – when you’re able to be intelligent but also attract people to your art so that it’s not existing in a vacuum. You can’t change the world and peoples’ ways of thinking about things if nobody sees or hears or listens to what you’re doing. But you can if you can bring audiences along.
How is the project with Matt coming along?
Very well. It came about after Matt came to HOME to do a Q&A and now we’re in the final stages of it. It’s been really good fun doing it. Matt is someone I really admire. Like Asif, he’s very giving with his time. It’s important to recognise when artists do important creative work, but it’s always incredibly gratifying when you meet these people and they turn out to be really decent human beings. I would say that of Matt and Asif: not only are they people who have produced work that will stand the test of time, they are very, very decent human beings that care about other people and have tried to use their work to make the world a better place.
Jason would like to say just how much he’s enjoyed working at HOME and how highly he thinks of HOME as an organisation, and how highly he thinks of Manchester and cities in the north. His book with Matt Johnson comes out next year, as does his book Pop Stars on Film, a history of musicians who have acted in films, written in collaboration with Kirsty Fairclough of SODA.
Follow Jason on Twitter @jwoodfilm.
Want to hear more about film culture and the future of cinema?
Read our Under the Spotlight interview with Roy Boulter of Hurricane Films!