You know how when ESPN will replay a recent game and dub it an instant classic? Well, instead of labeling Stand By For Tape Back Up (and because I'm too lazy to come up with something else), I thought it would only be appropriate to authorize such a serious title to my most recent muse. Ross Sutherland, I crown thee, an instant classic.
Yes, I liked it (and you) that much. Now, while I'm no poet, Ross is, and for those that aren't familiar with his work, he's a modern day Renaissance man working on everything from film to art to God knows what else. I was able catch up with the polymathic on his way to Liverpool for one of Stand By's last live performances.
Jessie Hobson: While you have created many different projects using various mediums, is there any particular project that you're most proud of?
Ross Sutherland: I don't know! Yes, perhaps Stand By For Tape Back Up. It feels like the culmination of lots of smaller experiments in writing and video.
JH: Is this the same piece that you'd use as an introduction to your vast body of work?
RS: I love Stand By, but it requires a certain amount of trust to enjoy. Most people see it after a personal recommendation, which is definitely the best way to see it i think. I remember watching it at HotDocs with producer Charlie Lyne. There’s a bit near the start where it freezes on Bill Murray's face for seven minutes. We were like, “Hmm. We might not have earned their trust yet.” However, no one walked out! That was the real test.
JH: Stand By was how I discovered you. Your podcast, Imaginary Advice was next. Where do you suggest I go from there?
RS: I’m proud of my last poetry collection, Emergency Window. I rarely get to read from it, so it always feels like a special occasion when it comes out.
I’m trying to use my podcast as a way to collect together all there different things I’ve worked on in the past. Over time, the podcast will become the main resource for all my different projects. I really love working in audio. It’s been such a fantastic discovery for me. Imaginary Advice doesn't have a mandate: sometimes I tell true stories, sometimes they’re pieces of fiction. The audience just works it out through the course of the episode. I love the freedom to work like that.
JH: Is pop-culture always a theme throughout your work or am I just getting lucky?
RS: Eh, not always but quite a lot! I like the idea of building on top of pre-existing stories. I’d like to argue that there’s more literary merit in fan-fiction than people give credit. So much of the canon of western poetry is based on referencing the bible and the classics, simply because those were the texts taught in school. It wasn't specialist knowledge, it was embedded into the culture. Nowadays those texts aren't taught in school, so a lot of those references feel a bit distant and opaque. If you want to build a new canon to reference, you have to find the stories that we already share. This is basically my excuse for writing a book of sonnets based on the characters of Street Fighter 2. Er, I’m basically saying that the beat-em-up videogame genre is the new Homer. Sorry everyone.
JH: Jumping back to Stand By, can you talk a bit about the creative process and how you decided to move forward with that particular idea?
RS: It started with an attempt to stimulate the part of the brain that responds to synchronicity; looking at those moments where we start to recognise patterns in our environment. I’d played around a bit with video and voiceover before, and I was curious whether you could have a video and a voiceover telling completely separate stories at the same time; stories that were only linked through a series of metaphors. To work, I knew that the video would have to be very simple (because visual stimulus drowns out auditory), so I went in search of a small piece of video that would already be well known to an audience. That way, it wouldn't draw too much focus. I settled on the opening credits of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and experimented with looping the footage over and over. Quickly the images became a kind of symbolic wallpaper: just a series of moving shapes that I could write in response to.The Fresh Prince became a poetic form: except rather than syllable count or rhyme scheme, I had to write to the rhythm of the clip, shot-for-shot.
When I came to write the accompanying spoken story, I found that the technique dragged lots of personal stories out of me. Suddenly I was talking about grief and anxiety and a whole bunch of other things. Sometimes when you make it really hard to write, it forces you to go deeper into your subconscious. I find it hard to articulate these kind of emotions usually, but the process really opening me up. I tried the experiment live a few times, playing Fresh Prince to audiences and telling my own stories over the top. It worked better than I anticipated! It turned out people could take in both elements simultaneously, and experience the piece in a kind of synchronous dream-state, making their own emotional connections between the familiar footage and the personal stories that accompanied it.
I began the project once over, this time using a single videotape that I had retrieved from my grandad’s house after he died. The tape was already incredibly familiar to me, having watched it so many times as a kid. I think it’s the 3 hours of moving image that I know best in the entire world. It felt like the right tape to use on this project.
JH: How long did it take to finalize something that you were happy with before sharing?
RS: I developed the material over about three years. I managed about a minute a day. It was agonisingly slow, but it kept moving forwards. I prefer working that way: put obstacles in your path so you write really slow, but once you’ve nailed a line, you can lock it down permanently and move onto the next.
I spent a lot of time developing the material at theatre scratch nights and comedy/cabaret shows. It had to be developed live. It was the only way to work out how much audiences could absorb.
JH: Was the outline always the same or were there many drafts before settling on what we got on screen?
RS: Since I began, I’ve mostly focussed on the same parts of the VHS tape. Instinctively I knew which parts would yield interesting interpretations. But I played around with the order of the clips- rewinding the tape forward and back. And there were some interpretations that arrived very late in the process. The longer I spent with the tape, the more personal stories I discovered locked inside it. My theatre director Rob really helped bring together the final draft.
JH: Are there any notable shows, commercials, intros, etc. that didn't make the final cut?
RS: There was a bit of Tutti Frutti on there (the 1987 drama with Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson). I didn’t put it on the tape myself; it must have been someone else. I grew to love that series as I got older, and I wrote a whole section on it to include in Stand By. In the end, the footage turned out to be too visually interesting! People just watched the clip and couldn't concentrate on my narrative over the top.
JH: I'm sure you have another tape somewhere, will you be mixing VHS and story-telling ever again? If so, any hints as far as subject-matter next time around?
RS: I pitched something to the BBC recently, asking to be let into their video archive. I wanted to apply the same process as Stand By: try to discover some hidden messages in old episodes of Eastenders, etc. They haven't got back to me yet but I’m hopeful! I have no idea what the final piece would end up being about, but that’s sort of the joy of it. You just watch the same clip over and over until it becomes a kind of hypnotic rorschach blot.
JH: Your first play that you're not in, Party Trap, is debuting this summer, does it make you a bit anxious to sit this one out?
RS: It’s a much more collaborative process, and that takes getting used to. When you’re both the writer and performer, it’s easier to fix script problems live onstage. This time, I have to solve all those problems in advance. But I’m excited about Party Trap. There’s no way I could act in it. It’s an incredibly tricky script to perform and it really requires a professional cast. Plus there’s a song and I’m utterly tone deaf.
JH: This is another project involving Rob Watt, what's that collaborative process like?
RS: Rob’s great at seeing the bigger picture. I’m led by process which means I spend a long time developing a unique set of rules-to-write-by. I think that helps me make unusual decisions and it keeps things fresh, but I often have no perspective on how these things look from the outside. Rob knows how an audience will interface with the work, and can see the outline in a way that’s completely invisible to me.
JH: Are you a member of Wash Club? Just kidding, I saw that Wash Club was funded, congratulations!
RS: Hey thanks! I’m just finishing the last draft of the script now. It’s challenging to write a dramatic script based on something that actually happened in your life. I want to make sure that it feels as real as possible, and that means not over-dramatising anything. And yet this is a story about a group of people that spend one week pretending that they were in a film! So we have to find a way to comment on film grammar, without dining out on any cliche. A lot of traditional screenwriting advice seems to fall flat. Do I sound nervous? Sorry you’re catching me right in the middle of it. I’m so excited to have it finished. It’s a new challenge for me.
JH: Speaking of film, any news on the science fiction film with Warp Films and Thomas Thomas?
RS: I still really love that story! It’s been a labour of love over the last few years. We don't have a director attached yet. Sometimes when writing sci-fi, you feel like a snake-oil salesman, because rather than selling a particular story, you’re selling a fictional invention: “imagine if this machine existed! Imagine all the things we could do with it!” I know that sooner or later, science will catch up and that machine will actually exist. It wont be a sci-fi story forever.
JH: Anything else you'd like to plug? Anything else you're working on that you can mention?
RS: Next year I’m writing the libretto for a new opera on the life of giant Charles Byrne. Byrne’s body was stolen against his dying wishes. Scientists used his bone marrow to better understand the causes of gigantism. It saved lives, but his skeleton is still on display in the Royal College of Surgeons. It’s an incredibly sad story. I have no idea to write an opera but the musician I’m working with, Sarah Angliss, is absolutely incredible.
JH: Where can people stalk you online?
RS: My podcast is probably the best way to stay up to date with me: Imaginary Advice is on iTunes and Soundcloud and Stitcher and stuff. You can also listen at http://imaginaryadvice.tumblr.com/ and I’m also on Twitter at @rossgsutherland.
So, there you have it, Ross Sutherland. The man. The myth. The legend? I think that works. While we both mention his podcast a few times, I'd also suggest venturing to his website, www.rosssutherland.co.uk. You can check tour dates, dive a bit deeper into Ross' mind as well as pick up one of his poetry collections all in one place. Might as well go one step further and make it your homepage too, right?