Nowadays, one can’t open a film festival line-up without seeing the words “documentary/narrative hybrid.” Though the documentary community is touchy about the nomenclature — (is it docu-ficton? docu-drama? Aren’t all documentaries narrative in some way?) — there’s no disputing that films that challenge the conventions of traditional documentary storytelling are lately in vogue. Robert Greene has built a career on provocative genre agnostic films such as “Bisbee ’17” and “Kate Plays Christine;” Errol Morris’ “Wormwood” pushed the form to new artistic heights; even Martin Scorsese recently toyed with audiences with the tongue-in-cheek Bob Dylan tribute “Rolling Thunder Revue.”
Blending fact and fiction is old hat for Jack Hazan, the filmmaker behind “A Bigger Splash,” a beguiling meditation on love and art forged from the real life of English painter David Hockney. Borrowing its title from one of Hockney’s most famous paintings, the film follows Hockney as he struggles to finish “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures),” which sold for $90 million dollars at auction last year, becoming the highest sale ever of a painting by a living artist. The stunning work features the painter Peter Schlesinger, Hockney’s partner and lover of five years. At the time of the film, the two had recently parted ways, which contributed to Hockney’s difficulty finishing.
“A Bigger Splash” premiered at Cannes in 1974 to “rapturous” reviews from European press. The reception at the New York Film Festival later that year, however, was far less positive. Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby called the film “fragmented, often self-conscious,” and “unforgivably solemn.” All of the interviews Hazan had scheduled in New York suddenly canceled.
Naturally, he was devastated. “I didn’t know what to think. I thought, ‘Is this rubbish? Have I produced rubbish?’ It was very difficult. It would be different now. But it took 45 years to get here,” he said in a recent phone interview. The film is now considered a masterpiece not only of queer cinema but an early and artful example of work that challenged the conventions of documentary filmmaking. Even The New York Times has come around.
Hazan spoke to IndieWire about the initial reception to “A Bigger Splash,” the inspiration behind his genre-bending style, and working with the volatile and opinionated Hockney. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Can you describe the initial reaction to the film?
It had a rapturous reception by the European press, particularly the French and the English press. It completely astonished us. When we took it to New York, the New York Film Festival, that was something completely different! They didn’t know what to make of it. It’s genre-bending, it’s neither documentary nor feature, it’s a combination of both.
They’d just shown Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” and at the end there was booing. I couldn’t believe it. I thought — ‘they booed Luis Buñuel? That doesn’t bode well.’ And then they showed ‘A Bigger Splash.’ I was told that [fashion photographer] Richard Avedon had stood up on his chair and started clapping wildly. But there was a lot of negative reaction, and someone shouted, “More meat!” I had no idea what was going on. But it wasn’t very pleasant. I mean, they just didn’t like it. It was very upsetting for me.
Why do you think the reaction was so vehement?
It was too soon. America is much more fixed in their ideas than Europeans. Europeans were readily accepting of this kind of funny genre. But I don’t think that’s the case in America. Films are classified into genre. And if they’re not, if the content doesn’t conform to a genre, then they’re confused. The genre and the homosexuality. It was off-putting for them.
Did you run into any censorship issues?
Yes. At that time, the gay thing just was not really accepted as it is today. Most people were against the gay life. Yes, we had trouble getting it past the censor even in France. The culture minister had to be brought in, and he said ‘this isn’t pornography, you can’t ban this.’ And so, it got a first showing commercially in Paris in three cinemas. Extraordinarily. And then in the UK we had to wait a year until 1975 and again, there was a censorship board here in the UK. They banned the film. They said this can’t be shown.
How did Hockney react to the film?
He found it shocking. I warned him! He didn’t really know I was in there, he had no idea what I was doing, I was shooting out of sequence, there’s no storyline there. I warned him, ‘please don’t go in there completely naïve.’ And he was totally wiped out. Nobody saw him for three weeks, he disappeared. [Later], I was told if I accepted 20,000 pounds I could hand over the negative, because he wanted to destroy it. Obviously, I didn’t do that.
What made him finally come around?
He got his friends to go and have a look at it, and he very much depended on them for their opinion. So [fashion designer] Ossie Clark went to see it, and he turned to me at the end, he said: ‘Jack, this film is truer than the truth.’ Wow. Rosie Goldfarb, she was a painter, she had a viewing. And she said to me at the end: ‘Jack, this is the greatest film on an artist that’s ever been made.’ So they told him, and things were better then. David obviously had to accept that it was a good film. Of course it’s intrusive, I can’t deny that.
How was it getting access to Hockney?
That’s something else! Oh my god. Every time, I used to have to negotiate that. It wasn’t easy. Every single time, it hung in the balance as to whether I met him there or not. I mean it really is a massively anxiety-making enterprise. Sometimes he’d say yes, sometimes he’d say no. I think most of the time he said no! Only a mad man would entertain this kind of thing. You’d have to be very self-effacing, and very, very patient. And possibly I was.
“A Bigger Splash” opened June 21 at Metrograph.