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John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 4 (1988)

Evocative descriptions of making 'The Man from Aran' from the field hand

Main image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 4 (1988)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. John Taylor was interviewed by Stephen Peet on 17 March 1988.

1. Preparation

SP: Now on the previous tape you were beginning to say about the preparations for shooting Man of Aran, and the entire family and you and all the children and equipment were all arriving there.

JT: Right.

SP: Was that shot in the same way like Flaherty, filming instinctively, sequence by sequence or was it scripted to a certain extent?

JT: No, I shouldn't have thought that he ever scripted anything, really. No, he'd got the idea from reading Singe, Riders To the Sea, and there's a two volume description of the Aran Islands by Singe when he lived there called Aran Islands.

Although he couldn't use a screwdriver or anything like that he was a very practical man and as I've said before very innovative. He was always ahead technically on things in some ways, especially on photography. He developed Nanook of the North in the Arctic. The printer he used, we didn't have electricity and the window was blocked up and they had a hole in the woodwork that blocked the window, which let the light in to be the printer light. And he was very good at getting the other people and trusting other people to do the work. He trusted me to develop this damn thing, which was fair risk really for someone who is 17 to develop it. It wasn't a costly feature but there was a certain amount of money as involved. In some ways he was not unlike Grierson, he was very good with young people, in encouraging them. And having confidence in them.

SP: You must have been very nervous because if you did a days shooting and then you went to do the processing, was that in the same evening as you shot?

JT: Not usually. I'll tell you we started off, we had a 2 kilowat generator which is nothing, one electric fire really. And the drying drums had been made at Gaumont. They were large wooden drums about 6 feet long, by I suppose about 5 feet in diameter. He converted this fish shed which was just an ordinary rough stone shed and lined it with wood and painted to keep the dust down.

SP?. You did all that after you got there.

JT: After we got there, yes. We moved into the house. There were one or two quite good carpenters on the island, no-one knew anything about electricity at all except me and I didn't know very much about it! [Laughter] I wired the house and things like that and did the wiring, all that kind of thing you learned at the GPO or EMB. No-one knew how to start the generator and by luck I read the instruction manual and found out. There was no one on the island who knew anything about engines or anything like that. We'd been trying to get the thing going for about two days and nothing would happen, and one evening I read the instruction manual carefully [Laughter] and from then on I was a genius on anything mechanical as far as Flaherty was concerned.

2. Laboratory

JT: We had terrible trouble with the laboratory, we couldn't get it to work. We started off with a thing called corex bands which were celluloid bands, the kind of band they used to used for developing leica rolls, with indentations. There was 200ft of celluloid with bulges on it which kept the film in between the two as you wound it and the only snag with that was that this band had corex patent about every meter along it, punched through it and it printed it onto the negative. So the first 200 feet we developed had corex painted over every meter. We threw those away and then we started on the old-fashioned, um, we had tanks made, I suppose about I foot wide and 4 foot long and 5 foot deep, and there's a wooden rack, something like an old wooden clothes horse, just one bar each side and you wound the film on it, 200 feet, and then pushed it into the tank. And we got flutter and waver and uneven development on that.

SP: Had anybody suggested that you have a dry run with the equipment before you left for Aran?

JT: You couldn't have done it any way because it would have meant setting up, the point was that he'd done it on Moana, and on Nanook, and he couldn't understand why, we did endless tests, really, endless. One of the things about him was that he his persistence. He would go on and on and on from morning till night you know. We did hundreds and hundreds of tests of different ways of developing.

SP: This was really before the proper shooting began?

JT: No, he was shooting at the same time and I was left at home to do the tests. But every night Mrs Flaherty, who was a good stills photographer, every night we would have about 3 leica rolls which I'd develop before we had supper. We had an enlarger in the dark room and he and I would go down and we would make 100 prints, every night of the bl**dy week this went on and we'd never stop. You never stopped Saturdays or Sundays, we must have worked something like 6 months without any break at all.

SP: What were the 100 prints for?

JT: Stills of what he was shooting, so he knew what he was shooting. I'll explain it a bit more. There was a trade war on between the Irish Republic and Britain at the time and Britain had put an embargo on anything coming from Ireland so we couldn't send the rushes back to London. Because there was a duty of something like a shilling a foot on film going from Ireland into England, so we kept it all there. And he had a lot of trouble doing the casting. They got the boys easy enough, the man, I don't think they got the man for 3 or 4 months. If you're doing things in that way it does take time to build a laboratory, it must have taken a month or two months to do the building work there. He was a very uncertain worker, he seemed to have no confidence in what he was doing at all.

3. Managing the production

JT: I used to do everything on the thing really. I was production manager, accountant, laboratory man, assistant cameraman, nursemaid to his children, the lot. Once a month we used to get a registered letter from Gaumont or Gainsborough and I can't really remember how much was in it, because the value of money has changed so much. But I suppose it was £100 in white £5 notes. And Flaherty used to open the envelope, take two or three and give me the rest which I used to put it in my back pocket. Then at the end of the month, he and I, we were both completely illiterate, we used to sit down, he couldn't write and I could only just write and we used to do the expenses. Thomas McDonaugh £2/10, Pauls, which was the local shop £14, Dalys, which was the pub £12 and so on. We'd get it up to about £52 and we didn't know what we'd done with the rest. Then I used to write, I didn't even know how to spell it, I used to put M.I.S.C expenditure £49. [Laughter]

Gaumont used to accept these without any quibble, they must have thought it was the most peculiar production anyone had ever seen. But he had this business that if you were going to make a film, you went there and you got to know the place. The costs were minute, I was getting £2/10sh a week. Pat Mullen who became the kind of production manager who arranged everything and knew everybody and fixed up everything and told Flaherty what to do and what not to do I think he got £4 a week. The assistant in the lab was my future brother in law who was 14, who's name was PJ I think he was getting £l a week. So the costs were, I don't know what Flaherty was getting, I think he was getting £40 a week but I'm not certain about that. Then there were 2 girls in the kitchen which I suppose were maybe £1 a week and an odd job man who used to empty the lavatory and things like that so the cost was negligible. And this is how he believed in making films, you get to know the place, you get to know the people and so forth. In the end, we more or less gave up the laboratory.

SP: It's a way that's only used, I'm guessing here now, by anthropologists, ethnographic filmmakers now, to go and live in a place for months and months and months.

JT: He was almost an anthropologist, in a simple nineteenth century way. You have to remember he was 48 in 1932, so he was born during the Victorian era and lived during it.

SP: But then at the end, was it 6 months you were there?

JT: One year and 8 months.

SP: I beg your pardon. It was 6 months you were talking about in the preliminary period.

JT: This was the first 6 months, yes.

SP: Did you go away and come back?

JT: No.

SP: You were there the whole time?

JT: He went over to London and took the exposed film with him and saw it in London with Balcon and so on and everyone seemed quite happy. He brought back a 17" lens was unknown of in those days.

P: You say he saw it with Balcon was he supervising, was he the producer of it?

JT: Balcon was the producer and he was nagged into making the film by the film critic of the Sunday Express, a man called Cedric Belfrage. Belfrage saw Balcon and said you've got one of the great filmmakers of the world in London and all you're making is this crap about Jew Süss and so on. And Balcon fell for it.

4. Budget

SP: I suppose the cost was small in comparison to a big feature production.

JT: The original budget was £11,000. I think we went slightly over that on the shooting but only slightly. But then when they went back to the studio there were things like a pearl necklace for one of the young starlets bought by one of the Ostrer brothers which Flaherty blew his top on, for 500 quid, and said what the hell is this doing on my cost? But there were things like that added and the final cost I think was £26,000. Which sounds tiny money today but in those days it wasn't that small. Jew Suss I suppose most likely cost about £200,000, £150,000 or something. It was a tiny budget. Balcon, the strange thing about Balcon was if you talk to him, the one film he was proud of was Man of Aran. Out of the all the hundreds of film he produced, the one he would always say, of course when we made man of Aran, amazing. I suppose it was such small beer and Flaherty was such a personality. There's a long story about him getting this 17" lens. Balcon had a brother known as S.C. Balcon who was his right hand man for stopping anything happening, and he fled from Flaherty, who was pursuing him for getting this 17" lens which I don't suppose cost all that much. And Flaherty waited outside the lavatory for hours and hours until S.C finally had to come out, and he came back proudly with his, I think it must have been one of Flaherty's stories, with this 17" lens.

By the end of the summer they got the cast together, Maggie [Maggie Dirrane], Mike [Michael Dillane] the boy and Tiger [Coleman 'Tiger' King] who was the man. Then Flaherty brought up from London a man called Coullison who in charge of testing Kodak's stock, at Kodak, which was a very responsible job because every foot that went out, they had to be sure. There were many problems, there used to be you know in coating stock, all sorts of things could go wrong with it, and he really knew what he was talking about. He was a small young cockney, a very, very nice man indeed, he came out. In the meantime Flaherty had sent to America and had got things called Stineman racks, a monel metal rack. It's a spiral, a flat spiral, not a spiral going up into the air, of 200 feet of monel metal about half an inch deep, and you run the film onto it and it loads itself more or less.

SP: All your shooting was 200 foot lengths?

JT: Mm. A lot of the stock was short ends from Gaumont anyway, because on those 1,000 foot cameras, if they got 200 or 300 left they put on a new one. A lot of the stock I used to have to rewind into 200 foot rolls. Flaherty sent to America for these things which he'd used before. We had about 6 of them, Coullison arrived and took a look at it and said - the width of the Stineman racks came, monel metal tanks which were about 3" or 4" deep - those tanks are quite wrong you want a tank that's 3 ft deep. And they built 3 big tanks of wood and corked the seams, and we used to have to make up all the developer, there were various formulas, D76 was the one we used, I think. Whether any of this is true or not I haven't the faintest idea, but I vaguely remember, I haven't mentioned D76 for 50 years I suppose. He did all sorts of things. He wrapped the baths of the drying drums with gauze and he showed me how to run the negative onto the drums with a pad of chammy leather with which you took off all the surplus water. All sorts of little things like that.

SP: This was after quite a bit of shooting had already begun.

JT: This was about October

5. Shark hunt

JT: One of the reasons we stayed on for so long was because we were waiting for a storm. The first year he was there, the basking sharks came and went and it was only me and PJ. In PJ's loft there were some harpoons that were left over from when they were shark hunting, and PJ and I went out in a canoe, which was a daft thing to do because they turn over as easy as anything, trying to kill a shark with one of these enormous great irons. I couldn't even stick it in the shark let alone get it harpooned [Laughter]. Flaherty came down and said what are you doing? We said we were trying to harpoon a shark, and he said where did you get the harpoons from? PJ said they were in the loft at home, and Flaherty then said we're going to have a shark hunt in it, this is literally where it came from. We rushed off to Galway into the library, there were 2 or 3 books in the library about this business of shark hunting for oil on the West Coast of Ireland. It probably hadn't been done for 50-60 years but it wasn't all that far away and certainly the harpoons were there.

Flaherty then sent off to Scotland to a Captain Murray who was a whaling captain, who's a wonderful man. He was a captain of a sailing whaler from Dundee when he was 26, and he was now about 80, but he was supposed to be the finest ice pilot who ever sailed into Hudson's Bay and Flaherty knew him from there of course. Somewhere on the island we dug up two harpoon guns so it had been done fairly recently. Tiger who was the leading man in the film was also the blacksmith so he got the guns into working order and we hired a big sailing Brixham trawler, a sailing boat and the gun was mounted on the front. We sailed out to kill the sharks. By this time all the bl**dy sharks had gone [Laughter] so we had to wait another year for the sharks to come back. All sorts of things happened all the time.

Cedric Belfrage appeared. Cedric was the film critic of the Sunday Express. And in those days he had 2 full pages in the Sunday Express and he was very highly thought of. He was a very elegant young gent. His brother was Bruce Belfrage and so on, the actor. He appeared in a light plane, a two- seater, and they couldn't land on the island. We went in and collected them and we took them out shark hunting. We had a boat called a puquan which is the actual one they used in the film which the men rowed and then we had a fishing boat, a 40 foot fishing boat for the camera.

Somehow, I was always getting into trouble for something or another and I think poor old Flaherty really must have suffered considerably having me as his assistant, but never mind. We had big thermos flasks, great big ones and someone left them at home. I suppose I left them at home on the quay or something. We were out all day in these two boats with nothing to drink at all, plenty of food but nothing to drink. In the evening we went across which was about 10 miles away to the mainland. There was Belfrage and his pilot and Flaherty, a man called Rowe who was a writer and about 6 or 7 Aran islanders and me. And there was a tiny pub in this place, you wouldn't really recognise it as a pub, it was just one room with a barrel of porter and so on. We went in there and they really started drinking, they cleaned out the porter to begin with, then they drank all the whiskey and gin, there wasn't a lot of it. Then Flaherty said someone go up the road and get a jar of potcheen, one or two of them went up the road and came back with a big stone jar of potcheen, a ferocious drink. The drinking went on and on and on. There was a place there called the Hotel of the Isles, a place where about 3 in the morning we all went in to have breakfast. The West of Ireland was like this in anyway, it was quite accepted. Everyone was paralytic by this time. We went out of the harbour at full speed and it was a very dangerous harbour with rocks all over the place.

Cedric Belfrage was standing up in the seat, in the middle of the Atlantic this is, if he'd gone over the side no-one would have known, saying Beaverbrook, f**k him, and then he's singing life's just a bowl of cherries. The man called Rowe had passed out by this time. The Aran islanders said this is very dangerous, anyone passing out from potcheen, we must make him sick, so one put his finger down his finger down his throat at which point Rowe bit him. They said this is no good, just drag him over the side, so they just put him over the side and held him by his legs [Laughter]. Absolute craziness, 5 miles each way from land with 14 paralytics.

6. Processing techniques

JT: It was incredibly primitive, you can't believe how primitive it was. You loaded the film onto these Stineman racks and you bolted two together, one above the other, developed it, washed it, fixed it and then washed it in a cascade. We had 3 wooden tanks as cascade. But then there was a round white enamel tray about 4" deep which was full of fresh water. You tested it first with permanganate of potash If it was clear of, if it had been washed clean of all the acid and fixing stuff, you took a test on the water, and the permanganate of potash came out purple. If there was any acid left in it, it came out brown and you had to go on washing it. Once you'd washed it, you picked up this rack and turned it upside down into the tank and shook the film out into the water, 200 feet of film. Then we had a carpenter's brace and bit with a nail and a wooden centre out of a 200 foot roll, and you'd clip the end of the film to it and you wound up 200 feet on a carpenters brace and bit in the water.

SP: It did get scratched or damaged?

JT: No

SP: Incredible.

JT: And then PJ would hold it on a nail, and I'd clip it on the drum, and with a large pad of chammy leather turned the drum and took off all the surface water which would leave stains on it. In the drying room we had a 2 burner valor perfection oil stove to supply the heat for the drying, in the other room we had a 4 burner valor perfection oil stove, with an open wick. It seemed incredible primitive but it worked absolutely without any problems at all. If you were doubtful about developing anything, you would take a test off the end of a roll to see what it was like.

We had a little printer which took 200 feet of positive, 200 feet negative on spools above, and it had a gate with red glass on this side of it because it was positive stock and not sensitive to red light. And on the right there was a diaphragm control and you just sat and watched it and changed the thing to what you thought it was. It worked perfectly. But by this time, John Goldman had arrived from Gaumont. He was sent up as an assistant cameraman and Flaherty immediately made him the editor, I don't think he'd ever edited anything in his life before [Laughter].

SP: Was the idea to do a rough cut on the island to know whether any extra shots were needed?

JT: Not a rough cut. He cut the picture completely. And they'd sit there for hours and bl**dy hours running it through, running it through, running it through. He had this persistence, of going on and on until everyone was going mad.

SP: But the negative was left intact obviously

JT: The negative, yes. We had a pigsty which was a clean pigsty which was built as a pigsty and the negative was kept in there in transit cases.

SP: But that all remained on the island in case you wanted to have to use it.

JT: All the way through.

SP: did you have to print some of it up again?

JT: Well couldn't take it back to England you see.

SP: I just wondered with all this editing and re-editing going on whether you had to print up 200 foot lengths sometimes to replace...

JT: Oh yes, sometimes. There was a certain amount of reprinting. But once the problem was solved, the laboratory was no problem at all.

7. End of the shoot

JT: We were there a year and 8 months, we finally packed up in August 1933. I can remember packing all the negative up into transit cases. You know this is of the things about Flaherty and Grierson to some certain extent, they really put complete confidence in people. I was 18 at the time, the negative, it was a quite valuable thing and it was quite natural that I should take it to Dublin. Today I don't know if I would trust an 18 year old with a year and a half's work, but he seemed to. I left the negative in Dublin because the trade war was still going on and they sent negative cutters to select the stuff they wanted.

Flaherty, by this time, the end of the first year two other people had appeared on the scene, Flaherty's brother David who became the production manager, he was an experienced production manager, managed to knock some order into the production. And John Goldman, who during the war he had to change his name to Monck because the Jewish thing if they was captured, he was at the Crown film Unit during the war, but then he was John Goldman and he was the editor. I finished then and went back to the GPO Film Unit and then went on to Shepherds Bush to finish the cutting and to put the sound on.

SP: When you say you were put in charge or left to transport the negative to Dublin, there must have been crates and crates of it at the end of a year and a half shooting.

JT: There was quite a lot but not as much as people say. In actual fact I think he undershot the stuff of the real life of the island. There were a lot of quite nice things that we could have shot and a certain amount he did shoot. But in the end the film finally was just 2 shark hunting sequences and 2 storm sequences, whereas all the rest of the stuff, it was a very exceptional place Aran in those days, it was a hangover society from the 19th century, people lived very, very simply indeed.

SP: The camera was a Newman Sinclair but not a hand cranked one.

JT: No, it was a 200 foot, we had two, one which broke and I mended.

SP: They were both the same were they?

JT: Yes both the same. There were 12 magazines and he used very largely 6" and 1" lenses, he very seldom used shorter focuses than that, even when shooting sequence like the boy on the cliff fishing, which is quite a nice sequence. I think that was all shot with a 6" or something like that. He was very good at looking at something. For example, I think it was the first Christmas eve we had a big sea and we went out with 2 cameras and shot an awful lot of footage because it was the first chance of shooting big sea stuff. We came back and I developed it, he saw it and it was all shot with the horizon in the picture, with waves bursting up in the air and so on. He then formulated the theory if you want seas to look big don't show the horizon. And if you see that, the storm sequence, I mean, if he did nothing else out there the storm sequence is really quite exceptional, which he and Mrs Flaherty shot.

8. Shooting the storms

JT: Some of the days I was there and some of the days I was using the second camera. There's a shot in that where a very big wave comes over them Maggie and Mike and the crew of the boat when they're on the beach carrying the fishing net up, and a wave absolutely buries them. We nearly lost them actually, very nearly, it was touch and go. There were two cameras on that, you can see it in the film. They cut from one camera to another. But on the day of the big sea when they shot the boats, I'd got everything ready and the two cameras and loaded everything up and so I'm standing there. We travelled by Danton car to the place where we went to shoot that stuff and was waiting there and Flaherty and Mrs Flaherty came out. Flaherty said you better get on with the developing today, I said are you sure, I mean today's the day we've waited a year or more for this. And he said no you get on with the developing.

What it actually was I realised afterwards, years afterwards, at the time they weren't all that old, they were only 48. He was 48 and his wife was a bit younger and this was their big day together and they wanted to do it together. At the time I thought pff this is crazy having waited a year, but I realised that this was something that meant a lot to them.

They shot this superb boat stuff which was terribly dangerous, it really was dangerous, there were 2 or 3 shots in it that ... They still run it in Aran every Sunday night during the summer in the village hall for the tourists, but the locals every time these two shot comes on, the locals, you can hear an intake of breath as the canoe swings around a rock and pulls off it. And there's another one when they're coming up to an island and one of the men pulls a boat around and you can hear the audience sigh each time because they know what it means. I think they paid them £25 each, which was a hell of a lot of money in those days. You could say 20 times at least, so that would be five hundred quid equivalent today. I mean it would be much more than a family income for the year out there but the danger was quite something.

But anyway, if you notice that there's no horizon in it at all and the seas look enormous. When David Lean was making Ryan's Daughter, they had a copy of Man of Aran there and everyone who worked on the film, Paddy Carey worked on Ryan's Daughter. David Lean said to him have you seen Man of Aran? He said yes, he said well go up to the projection room and look at the storm sequence, because that's the sequence we've got to do better than. I don't think they did really. And this was just Mr and Mrs Flaherty. You know it was rough shooting and there were waves breaking over them, there was big gales blowing. But she was quite an amazing woman, and very much a partner of his.

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Man of Aran (1934)
Taylor, John (1914-1992)