Keeping It Reel: HOME's artistic director of film, Jason Wood
Ahead of HOME's grand launch, we pick the brains of new artistic director of film Jason Wood, who reveals his ambitions for the cinema programme at the freshly minted arts venue
“I look like Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast crossed with Moby… Any bald man, basically… Mark Strong?” This is how Jason Wood, new artistic director of film at the soon-to-be-opened HOME, describes himself by email ahead of this interview so that The Skinny could spot him in the throng of Manchester’s Gorilla. It proves a handy self-portrait; amid the hipster quiffs and top knots, he stands out like Yul Brynner in a Magnificent Seven lineup.
Wood arrived in Manchester a few months ago to take up his post at the freshly minted multi-arts venue – which opens officially over the second bank holiday in May with a 'HOMEwarming Weekend' – after two decades of working in London in various aspects of the film industry. He’s made films (documentaries on Krzysztof Kieślowski, Hal Hartley, Atom Egoyan), written film books (on road movies, on filmmakers like Wim Wenders and Nick Broomfield, and on British, American and Mexican cinema), and worked as an exhibitor and a distributor. The possibilities offered by a new venue with big ambitions is what brought him north.
“With HOME, you get the sense that they want to play films that are going to challenge and stimulate,” he tells us. “And to do that you sometimes have to realise that not everything you’re going to play will be a huge financial success, and that doesn’t seem to be a barrier to them. As a curator, that’s really, really liberating.”
Within minutes of talking to Wood, who speaks in rapid south London parlance, it’s clear that the city itself was also a big draw. First off, there’s the fact that he’s a vinyl nut (“the record shops here are terrific,” he beams) but, more importantly, he sees a cultural community willing to take a gamble on adventurous programming. “Manchester feels exciting in a way that London just doesn’t anymore,” he says. “London has become very risk-averse in terms of its cinema, whereas Manchester seems to really want to take chances and be provocative. That’s very exciting as somebody who’s interested in a very wide sense of film culture.”
“Manchester feels exciting in a way that London just doesn’t anymore” – Jason Wood
Given that he’ll be sharing the space with two other art forms – theatre and visual arts – HOME also offers a particularly unique arena in which to investigate and explore a broad film culture. “One of the really interesting things as a film curator is that [films] do kind of talk to other films.” As a recent example, he cites Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which riffed on countless gumshoe pictures, most potently Robert Altman’s whimsical The Long Goodbye. At HOME, Wood hopes that the visual art, theatre and film programmes can work in similar dialogue. “We’re going to be constantly making reference to what each discipline is doing,” he says. “There will be a number of times across the year where this is much more overt [such as the multi-platform ¡Viva! festival planned for next year], and sometimes it might be so low-key you’re not even going to notice it, but there’s always going to be that element to what we do.” Examples of some of these more low-key dialogues are a programme of Weimar cinema (think Lang, Lubitsch, and Murnau) that will chime with the Weimer-influenced theatre production Golem, which 1927 will present at HOME in October, and screenings of Orson Welles’ The Trial and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (“a really underrated film,” says Wood) to coincide with Kafka’s Monkey in June.
While the programming potential at HOME is wide open, Wood is very clear on what he’s keen to avoid: namely, repetition. “What BFI Southbank does is great, but I think, as a curator, the idea of just representing films by Godard and Truffaut and Hitchcock and all the greats… the films are obviously terrific, but it’s been done.” Wood is more interested in shining a torch in areas of world cinema that are rarely explored. In terms of retrospectives, he wants to seek out those lesser-spotted filmmakers instead of screening the same old stalwarts whose films dominate the art-house circuit. And when it comes to contemporary cinema, he'll be looking further afield than what's on general release. “I want HOME to present works that ordinarily might not get seen within the UK. There are so many great films that don’t make it out of festivals full stop. They might come to the London Film Festival or they might come to Edinburgh, but they don’t really get shown outside of that festival format. One of the things I want to try and do is create a forum for films that slip between the cracks.”
He has countless ideas for future programmes, he tells us, but there is one artist he’s desperate to showcase early on in his tenure: American hero of the avant garde, James Benning – “one of our great filmmakers,” he says. An observational documentarian obsessed with formal rigour and structure, Benning is little known outside of cinephile circles. In many other venues he'd be a hard sell. “I can think of very few other places in the UK that would allow a curator to do [a Benning season]. And that’s one of the great attractions about HOME: it really is a blank piece of paper.”
Another reason Benning doesn’t feature often on UK screens is technical: he’s committed to filming on celluloid and the vast majority of his work is only available on 35mm. “A lot of the new-build cinemas have got rid of 35mm because the projection spaces are so small,” he says. HOME’s five cinemas, however, have the capacity to screen from 35mm, and it's going to open up a lot of programming options. “We’re also going to be able to screen 16mm, and obviously there’ll be 4K digital projectors – we’ll be able to screen virtually anything.”
What’s most obvious during our conversation is Wood’s unyielding devotion to cinema. “Film has just always been the most important thing in my life really,” he says, “and I’m still incredibly enthusiastic about it. I’m still discovering new things.” He read film at university and proudly reveals he was among the first in the UK to study film at A Level, but it was his older brother who really got him hooked, introducing him to mavericks like Werner Herzog and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Then, as a teen, he would spend his Saturdays traipsing across London, taking in several repertory screenings at the various sticky-floored flea pits that flourished in the city in the 80s, venues like The Metro, which he later programmed for, and the legendary Scala. “You could go in in the morning and watch a film by Renoir, then catch an Altman double bill, then go and watch [the then banned] A Clockwork Orange at the Scala.”
Those salad days are gone, sadly, but with Wood’s ambitions for film at HOME, Manchester film fans look set for a similarly vibrant film education.
Three films that were Key to Wood's cinema education:
Los Olvidados, which is a film by Buñuel – one of my favourite filmmakers. Like a lot of the great filmmakers – Eisenstein, Welles – Buñuel became obsessed with Mexico. It was there he made Los Olvidados, a kind of Oedipal drama about people living in ghettos. I remember seeing it on Moviedrome, as was then presented by Alex Cox. Again, I grew up in an era where you could see foreign-language films, not only in cinemas, but on terrestrial television – that would never happen now. I don’t want to get very rose-tinted about it, but I remember staying up one night, just by accident, and watching Los Olvidados, a really hard hitting, uncompromising film about what it is to live in poverty. I just couldn’t believe that a filmmaker could document with such poetry but also with such honesty and integrity a world that was so brutal and so uncompromising, where people literally had nothing. From that moment I was kind of smitten.
I remember seeing Ken Loach’s Kes, which I still think is one of the greatest films about childhood, and realising that there were filmmakers who were making films about working-class life and films that weren’t simply escapism. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with escapism, but the films I’ve always admired were the ones that weren’t necessarily about escape, they were about shining a mirror on society and saying: life is quite difficult and unpleasant; life can be a burden. And I think Kes is one of the first films that I remember really doing that.
Performance was a bit like A Clockwork Orange in that it was one of those films that were difficult to see because Warner Brothers basically took it off the shelf. There was a certain pleasure in seeing a film that somehow felt illicit. I remember seeing it and almost feeling like I was in this inner sanctum of illicitness. In some way it was seen to be threatening to the dominant ideology, so it felt like I was doing something quite revolutionary – it made me feel excited to be alive. And I still think Performance is one of the greatest British films ever made, a film that every time I see it I discover something new in it. I think that’s the measure of a great film: you can think that you know it back-to-front and you can still discover something new. I remember seeing Performance so many times that I knew every line of dialogue – every single line. I used to quote line of it to my friends and they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. That’s what I hope for audiences, that they can watch films, old and new, and kind of reignite their passion for cinema.
HOME's film screenings begin 25 Apr
The HOMEwarming Weekend takes place 21-25 May – for full details of the lineup, head to homemcr.org