Q+A with Manx-Canadian Filmmaker Rupert Clague

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Rupert Clague is a Manx-Canadian filmmaker and writer. He was born in Thunder Bay, Canada, raised on the Isle of Man, and is now based in London. As a Director Producer, Rupert tells us that he feels very lucky to have found a career that allows him to spend time with so many different kinds of people all over the world.

In recent years Rupert has made a film with Werner Herzog in the Amazon jungle; gone in search of homemade rocket gambling in Cambodia for Travels With My Father worked his way into secretive Amish communities; been on ride alongs with homicide detectives in Arizona; infiltrated the crumbling sanctum of Sunderland AFC for Sunderland Til I Die; train hopped across America; been down a waterslide with Jeff Goldblum for The World According to Jeff Goldblum; and made bold commercials for big brands.

We caught up with Rupert about a recent project he has been working on in response to the global pandemic and universal realities of lockdown.

I take my energy from talking to people and listening to their stories, always striving to make emotional connections wherever I go. I’m driven by a desire to creatively realise ideas, to explore what it means to be more alive, and to do whatever it takes to produce the best anecdote.

Q. What is the ‘Tell Me’ project about and what inspired you and other filmmakers to create it?

The pandemic gave rise to a time in which people felt so much but had so few outlets to express it. All over the world, people found themselves isolated, overwhelmed, lonely, or afraid; forced into close quarters with partners, kids, strangers, or on their own. In an effort to collect these thoughts and feelings, some international film friends and I banded together to find a creative response to the crisis. 

Our filmmaking collective met for the first time two years ago in a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon, having been invited by Director Werner Herzog to attend his filmmaking workshop. On a Zoom call catch up, we decided to set up a series of voicemail boxes around the world. For two months, we encouraged people to call and leave messages with anything they were feeling during the pandemic. Our intention was to bring these messages together as a documentary film, a portrait of humanity in isolation, entitled Tell Me. 

One by one, we began to set up numbers, country by country. This was not without its practical challenges and moreover, once the lines were established, we quickly realised that in some countries, people aren’t accustomed to declaring their feelings to anyone, let alone a stranger. We began to think of ways to get our platform out there and to encourage people to call. Each one of us acted as our own press unit, whether it was putting up posters, reaching out to journalists, doing radio interviews, or bombarding people with Instagram stories… we adhered to our mentor Werner Herzog’s maxim: “guerilla tactics are best”.

Q. You are working with 24 other filmmakers on this project from 15 countries, what are some of the challenges and benefits posed by a collaboration of this scale?

Tell Me acknowledges that the world is a shared public space, and a physical manifestation of how important it is to find commonality in a time of such global discord. It brings together voices from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Kosovo, Peru, Turkey, the UK, and the US. Through our film, disparate voices come together as one, irrespective of borders, time, or political interest.

Each respective filmmaker was deputised with poring over the recordings to select the most provoking clips. We then had to think about how to give them visual life - each one of us directing an accompanying poetic piece of around seven minutes.  

Once we’d figured out the sweet spot in our respective time zones, each week we held discussions about visual references, what we were watching, listening to, and reading. What sort of voicemails we were getting and how we were getting raw word out. This approach allowed us to combine each of our own individualities as filmmakers. We were all simultaneously figuring out how to best show the shadow isolation had cast on our own country, not as reportage but as cinema.

Q. The project seeks to document the universal experience of isolation during the pandemic through recorded audio voice messages from around the world. Why have you chosen this medium to reflect these experiences?

Each voicemail box stood as a lifeline for those who needed it - an urgent, emergency space for people to reveal whatever they want - as well as a gesture of solidarity, uniting people all over the world together over the phone.

We hope this opportunity gave some freedom to share what people were feeling at a time unlike any we have ever experienced. The voicemail space provides an opportunity for you to speak your mind as if sharing a secret with a total stranger, a taxi driver, a bartender in a foreign city—someone you may never see again. We wanted the Tell Me voicemail boxes to provide a respite—a space (after the beep) for proclamations, laments, sweet nothings, odes, stories, poems, songs, screams, sighs, or anything else people might want to get off their chest in these strange times. It is a space for anything people want to be free from or just something that needs to be heard.

I became quietly obsessed by the aesthetic of voicemails themselves: how nourishing it is to hear another voice speaking so clearly and distinctly to you and you alone, but also the fact that these voice are somehow warped or texturised by the phone. They’re rough and raw, conjured on the spot.  No one is ever really ready for the space after the beep, and we’re often surprised by what we do say.

Q. What role do you think film has to play in uncertain times?

We wanted to create something that could take us out of our creative lockdown and provide a shared experience for others. Film is of course a means of telling stories that transcend international boundaries and proffer commonality across all manner of divides. When the screen lights up - be it the cinema, your TV, laptop, or even your phone - we’re invited to inhabit an emotional landscape, and no matter what the film, leave feeling different from how we came in.

Though we may have lost sight of ourselves and those beside us in the darkness of COVID-19, the cinema remains an indisputably social institution and we need to hold onto that. Over the course of a screening, we may share laughs with strangers, or feel moments of tension amongst us. The philosopher Ian Jarvie suggests cinemas "create an invisible community grouping: those who have experience and share exposure to the same content. […] Most communications of any kind, even face to face, involve transmitter and receiver: source, medium, and audience.”

Films and voice messages alike help us to organise our world—each is a moment to think about our lives and how we relate to those around us. This space is a meeting place for ideas, and these collective narratives are an essential component of our cultural identity, to feeling as though we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Q. What kind of conversations has the project prompted so far?

We wanted to show the multitude of human experiences as we go through the same situation, and that many parallel realities that simultaneously exist side-by-side in each country, each city, each home, each room. The more we listened to these messages, the more we became enamoured by their peculiar power.

The messages we received are a rich tapestry of experience and demonstrate how every single person has been impacted differently. We had messages from people who hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks; from parents driven mad trying to homeschool their children; from medical personnel on the frontline; people unable to attend funerals of loved ones; people who had discovered positive or revelatory things out about themselves; people searching for meaning; from those who were afraid, in love, excited or at peace; the inspired, the encouraged, hopeful, exasperated, cranky, disgusted, and apathetic alike. 

Q. What is next for you?

At long last, the world is beginning to open up again, and the pause button is beginning to slip back into play. I’m back to working on a few commercial projects (a shameless plug, do reach out if you’d like to do something together: rupertclaguefilm@gmail.com) and looking for the next adventure. As I write this, I’m heading up to Glasgow to co-direct a short film I penned with a friend during lockdown, Pawsea: or the Existential Ruminations of a Melancholic French Bull Dog. It is as weird as it sounds.

More than anything, I’m looking forward to visiting the Isle of Man to see my family when the borders reopen.

Q. How can we watch the film once it is complete? 

We’re now in the midst of post-production and will soon have a release date. Check out a short teaser trailer here: https://vimeo.com/414934566/87b162860b

Stay tuned via tellmefilm.com 

or follow me on Instagram for updates: https://www.instagram.com/areyoupert/

A sponsored body of
The Department of Education, Sport and Culture
Rheynn Ynsee, Spoyrt as Cultoor
Isle of Man Government
Reiltys Ellan Vannin
Isle of man Government