John Maybury Meets His Idol in "Love is the Devil"
by Aaron Krach
British director John Maybury has been making experimental films and
videos for over 20 years, yet his most famous work to date is a pop
video, Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compare 2U” with its long, elegant
takes of Sinead singing. That should change this week when Maybury’s
feature, “Love is The Devil” opens. The film covers 10 years in the life
of British bad-boy painter, Francis Bacon. “Love Is the Devil” isn’t a
biopic about the painter of horror and the sublime, but a microscopic
look at his relationship with a street thug named, George Dyer. Maybury
chose to focus on their stormy relationship, as a window into Bacon’s
world. Unable to use Bacon’s actual paintings, Maybury shot the entire
film as if it was a Bacon painting. Images slide off the screen. Entire
scenes are filmed through cocktail glasses. Ryuchi Sakamoto’s
minimalist, staccato soundtrack surfaces throughout Maybury’s plot.
Although “Love is The Devil” began as a low-budget BBC film, Maybury’s
success has gone far beyond its origins, with the film having been sold
in over 25 territories to date. Strand Releasing is distributing the
film in the United States, for what is rumored to be the most they have
ever paid for a film. indieWIRE sat down with Maybury during a recent
visit to New York.
indieWIRE: The title, “Love is The Devil: Study for a Portrait” is
complex and evocative. Where did it come from?
John Maybury: Actually it was a title I had planned for a completely
different project three years ago. I knew I didn’t want to call the
film, “Francis!” While I was writing the film, my decision early on was
that it was secretly going to be the George Dyer story. Obviously it’s
not, but it is about the love affair. I also liked it cause it sounded
like an old Marlene Dietrich line.
(The sub-title) was simply taken from Bacon. All of his paintings are
always called “study of something.” The film is like a painting, but
that has more to do with the structure of the film. It was deliberate to
have fragments. Each scene is like a brush stroke and by the end of the
film, you’ve got the complete composition. I know that sounds really
pretentious, but hey, I am pretentious.
iW: The opening sequence, which actually includes the beginning and the
end of the film, could stand alone as an incredible short film. Did the
two men actually meet while Dyer was trying to break into Bacon’s
Maybury: I tried to put the ending at the beginning. I didn’t want it to
be like a murder mystery or a suspense story. I wanted to take that
element away. One of the first things you see is him dying. I also liked
the idea of falling; like a fallen angel he drops into the space. It’s a
bit like Alice In Wonderland. In an earlier version of script, the first
bit of dialogue I nicked straight from Alice In Wonderland. But in the
end it just didn’t quite work.
There are conflicting stories. In one version, he did break into Bacon’s
studio. In fact during their relationship, he broke in several times.
But I’ve also heard that Dyer saw Bacon in a pub with his friend and
said, ‘Oh you look like you’re having fun. Can I buy you a drink.’
That’s not a very exciting beginning for a film.
iW: “Love is The Devil” is an overwhelmingly visual film. What did the
original script look like?
Maybury: It was all clearly described, how the scenes would be treated
and what the visual approach would be. It was more to help the cameraman
and my producers. When it came time to start working on the visual side
of things, they knew where I wanted to go. The budget was a little over
900,000 pounds [approx. 1.5 million dollars-ed.]. You’re not really
aware of that. If we had 3 million it wouldn’t have looked any
differently. Everyone would have been paid properly. The thing I’m
really proud of is that you’re never aware that it was that cheap to
iW: The relationship between Bacon and Dyer is dramatic, to say the
least. You show Bacon transferring his neurosis to his art, but Dyer is
left stewing, with nowhere to put his.
Maybury: He hasn’t got anywhere, so he totally gave up. In the sexual
arena, Bacon is the masochist and Dyer’s the sadist. Psychologically,
exactly the opposite is the case. As Dyer loses it more and more, Bacon
sort of encourages it.
iW: There have been a number of successful British films about gay
artists, Carravagio, Joe Orton, Carrington and now Francis Bacon. Do the
British like their gay artists once they’re dead?
Maybury: The thing about them is that they have amazing lives. It is
almost a cliche, but it’s only a cliche ’cause it’s a truism. These
people have all had extraordinary lives, Bacon in particular. This
[film] is only a little bit. The rest is even more amazing. Ten years
before George died, Bacon’s previous lover died on the eve of his
retrospective at the Tate Gallery.
iW: What has the British reaction been to your unorthodox portrayal of
Britain’s most famous 20th Century artist?
Maybury: Mostly fantastic. But there’s enough bad reviews to keep the
controversy going. You know it’s not for everyone really. But it’s like
number 4 in the box office, which is above “Armageddon” and “The Horse
Whisperer.” For me, it’s astonishing.
iW: What about the “gay press?” I can imagine the queer thought-police
not being very excited about the visceral nature of their relationship.
Maybury: In Los Angeles, I showed it at Outfest and the California gay
press were very, ‘Why this very negative image of gay people?’ Well,
number one, this is a true story. And two, I don’t buy into this
positive imaging of gays nonsense. It’s like I’ve lost so many friends
to AIDS in the last 10 years; what have I got to be happy about? And I’m
not a steroid muscle-mary or disco bunny. I have horrible depressions,
which aren’t about my sexuality. I’m thrilled to be a faggot. It’s the
best thing that ever happened to me. I actually find it offensive, that
kind of politically correct nonsense.
iW: What about the British gay community? Do they claim Francis Bacon as
“one of their own?”
Maybury: I don’t think they have, ’cause in a way he’s a bit too high
brow. They’re more into Kylie Minogue. It’s interesting with Hockney,
because he’s only really become acceptable to the gay community when his
work is sanitized and evened out. I think Bacon is too heavy for a lot
of queens’ taste.
iW: In the press kit you say that, “maybe we shouldn’t meet our idols.”
So we won’t be disappointed, did you ever meet Bacon?
Maybury: No, but I saw him once. I was terrified. I was 18 and at a
party. In a weird kind of way, I’ve met him now through the research.
I’ve been on this film for 4 years.
iW: Were you disappointed with who you found?
Maybury: I think I like him more now. Even though he’s kind of an evil,
old queen, I understand him.