This interview took place at the US premiere of BackBeat in Park City, Utah during the 1994 Sundance Film
MM: Stephen, give us, if you will, the pitch for BackBeat in your words.
SD: I’ve always seen it as a triangle
basically, of two loves. A love which is a friendship, which is
very unusual to see in films today as it involves two men in their
honesty and respect for one another. It’s also this amazing love
story between Stuart and Astrid, who were way ahead of their time
as far as style and their spirits. They were very talented.
Overall, it’s not a Beatles film. It’s not about
The Beatles wearing suits and taking over the world, it’s not A
Hard Day’s Night at all. It shows these people in their youth
and their experimentation, and their struggle to love one another.
And the different paths that they each take, and their separation.
Also the torment that Stuart felt throughout his life.
MM: It’s a multi-layered relationship
your character develops with the character of John Lennon. As an
actor, since your character is less well-known than the others,
did you find yourself free to do whatever you wanted to do when
developing that relationship?
SD: When you make a film like this and
show it to the fans they’re always going to find something to pick
apart in it. But this movie was not intended to impersonate these
people. It’s a story that nobody knows about because it was early
on, back when John was very confused and Stuart was a big influence
in his life, as John was in Stuart’s life. I think the most important
thing in this film, and what everybody did, and why it’s such a
great movie, is finding a center. Finding the artistry of what these
people are about, and that emotion. Once you have that center, that
makes it a great movie. I think it was actually maybe beneficial
to not have Stuart be well-known, I mean that’s what my passion
was; to tell the story because I wanted to know who Stuart was,
and this could do it. This could bring back his art.
MM: Speaking of his art, his paintings
are such a strong visualization of his passion in this film. During
the scenes where you are actually painting, particularly painting
the red paintings, what kind of preparation did you do?
|Me and my mates (left to right):
George Harrison (Chris O’Neill), Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff)
and John Lennon (Ian Hart).
SD: I don’t follow a method in my work,
each role calls for something different. For this film, I definitely
geared to produce an accent and to produce a performance and that
would have been very easy for me to do. But this film calls for
something much deeper. One of the most important things I’m able
to find is foundation. And that torment of a painter’s and the way
he sees the world. I think being on stage with the band was almost
like a painting to him … so I had to work with filmmakers and
teachers who were very familiar with the artists that Stuart identified
with, and really learn to look at something. Maybe the simplest
shape; go around the table and draw it, maybe look at the way the
light hits it; hours spent looking at one object. I never knew how
much concentration went into it. My legs would fall asleep … that
is what I needed to do. I found I developed this eye to the world
the way Stuart saw it, because that was his passion, the way music
was John’s. And building that foundation, I didn’t want to be am
actor just holding a brush on a canvas, because then there is nothing
there, and Stuart is much deeper than that. That is what he was
about, that is what led to his death. His torment.
I don’t think getting kicked in the head in a fight
led to his death, I think it was much deeper than that. And that’s
the most important thing. So when you ‘see those scenes, I was experiencing
rather than just producing. I think when an actor can do that, when
he has a part to do that, like Stuart, it takes the audience to
another level beyond entertainment. It takes them to actually experience
it with me up on the screen … I don’t see any of myself. It’s
a much deeper emotional sensation definitely coming through.
MM: You talk about the issue of trust
concerning everyone involved in the making of BackBeat ;
the real Astrid’s trust in you; the trust in director lain Softly
to get the film done. Are you concerned, considering that trust,
that this film will be promoted as a Beatles movie and because of
that take away from the impact of the story?
SD: …Whatever it takes to get people
into the theater , they’ll walk out know- ing that it isn’t a Beatles
film. It scores a much deeper sensation.
|Best friends: Lennon (Hart) and Sutcliffe
MM: What about the trust on the set?
SD: As far as the filming, I had to fight
every day. Fight for Astrid, for the story … I was going to fight
to the end, fight Channel 4 and all the people who were putting
money into the film. They wanted to see John Lennon and Stuart;
one book said John kicked Stuart in the head and that led to his
death, not the fight on the street. I wanted to play the scene the
way it is in the film, which is one of my favorite scenes, which
is about love between these two people. So you can have that aggression,
have that struggle and love. To me I had never seen that honesty.
Very rarely. And yes, if it wasn’t for the whole cast, there was
no way I could do this on my own. Sheryl had to go as deep as me,
which she did. And finding, and being emotionally attached to, Ian
Hart. We immediately connected. We didn’t have time to make that
chemistry you see on screen, and yet it happened naturally.
That’s what I mean, this film wanted to be told so
badly. Instinctually, and the way things occurred, it all happened
so naturally no matter how many fights we had. The fighting was
for everybody, for the right reasons. Fighting for those moments
are what makes the film as powerful as it is. Some of the most powerful
moments in the movie are the ones I fought until the end for. There
was a point I was in my trailer saying I’m not coming on if I can’t
do it this way, because I know you’ll use it this way. Certain lines
regarding John Lennon’s death which I just wouldn’t say. You know,
very weird things, because everyone’s a critic when you make a story
like this. The overall passion that everybody involved in this cast
had is what made the movie fun to do. The different cultures; that’s
where I grow as an actor, when I work with someone like Ian Hart.
We all loved Astrid, and we all fought for her story.
It was one of the most difficult shoots I’ve ever done because I
was experiencing these things rather than performing them. I wasn’t
just falling to my knees dying. There was something else going on
there in those scenes, that to this day bring tears to my eyes.
I immediately connected to him (Stuart). He is a huge part of me
now. And so is she (Astrid). I was so happy when Astrid wrote me
a letter after she saw the film. That’s why I made the movie. That’s
what it’s all about.
MM: So it seems that there is a sense
of justice to the struggle? To the struggle of the story, the struggle
of the movie, the struggle in getting it made?
SD: Oh, yeah. I had no idea what this
movie would become. It’s become so much bigger than I ever imagined.
I thought I was making this small, independent British film. Because
the way I read material, I identify with the small independent films.
It isn’t about money to me. I’m only 20 years old; I’m not in any
rush. It’s really about the body of work to me.
And yet, I think now we could have a very big ,rnovie
on our hands. And it’s really exciting that people could know who
these people were, because if it had been a disaster I know that
would have hurt Astrid so much and I was not going to let that happen.
It had nothing to do with me, Stephen; I just was not going to let
that happen. And the honesty you see in the film was exactly what
Astrid wanted. It tells the truth, and I think that’s why people
are loving it.
The way we went about it was the way we had to go
about it. Finding a center, and having people casting and people
working on this film who had passion about it. That honesty shows.
MM: You are 20, but you have a really
solid background of work behind you. I think after BackBeat you’re going to have some really incredible choices as to your next
project, perhaps your next five projects. Would you prefer independent?
Is there anything about independent cinema that you would generally
find yourself leaning towards?
SD: Well, I did a movie that came out
called Judgement Night which was the last film I
had released, which was a huge production … and it’s important
to do big films so you can do movies like this. But I am not proud
of that movie at all because it’s a concept movie. There’s a concept;
and that’s what that movie was made to do. So in a way, the actors
become stick figures walking through something. I won’t do that
again. If I do a big film, it’s got to mean something. I think
there are studio films that allow characters to say something interesting;
there are certainly amazing filmmakers out there that are making
big movies, and I’d love to work with them. At the same time though,
I’m also very much attached, I think, to these young rebellious
filmmakers who are trying to break through to something else and
who might have the freedom to do that if they do these films small.
Because in the studio there’s this whole formula. I’m not interested
in formula. I’m interested in the diversity of roles.
I’m very much interested in directing, too. I have
a lot that I want to bring out in people that I know I can. Since
I’ve been doing this so long … I think I can help people because
I have a knowledge of everything on the film. I’m very aware of
the technical side. It comes naturally to me, the camera and all
the stufly which says to me I can make my own films. I want to direct
some videos this year. I think videos are a great place to start;
they’re an opportunity to do some great, visually kind of experimental
I did this documentary on my last film, a 35 mm black
and white; I shot it myself. And it came out great. I had 20 minutes
each day to do it, since I was in every scene of the movie. And
I was working with real film cameras, which I wasn’t used to. But
people responded to the bit, so it’s an added strength to pursue
more. I’ll be doing an interview with you in … say, give it three
more years and I’ll be directing my first movie. Hopefully, in the
next couple of months, if I don’t do a film right away, I’ll make
a short film and maybe get it into Sundance next year.
MM: Ian, you play John Lennon in
the film. I think the movie is really about the relationship between
three people. For me the most satisfying of those relationships
is between John and Stuart; it has honesty and emotional depth,
and is oddly satisfying to watch.
IH: There is this convention in American
films, the buddy movie, but it’s a very superficial relationship
they always have.They tell you these guys are really close fiends,
but they never tell you why or how, or what that closeness means.
I suppose in this film, Stuart and John’s relationship is very up
and down; you can see it from the very first time you see them up
on screen, they are close. Throughout the film, they get closer
and closer. It’s very satisfying to see what you don’t see a lot:
two men in love with each other. In mainstream cinema it’s scorned
at because it might be seen as having homosexual overtones. We don’t
have a problem with that in this film.
MM: In the relationship between your
character and Astrid, who is played by Sheryl Lee, there is a very
moving moment where she asks you what you will remember of her when
you are famous. You reply you’ll remember her as the woman you wanted
to fall in love with, but that Stuart got first. What sort of working
relationship did you have with Sheryl Lee in this role?
IH: I first met Sheryl two weeks before
we started filming the movie. And she’s very charming and great
and an attractive lady, so it’s almost easier to convince yourself
that you’re going to fall in love with somebody like that.
But everybody in the cast, particularly the three
of us, Sheryl, Stephen, and myself; were very close. And I think
the idea of the characters, this love triangle: John loves Stu ,
Stu love Astrid, and Astrid loves John … I think, from people
I’ve talked to, there was a strong love of Astrid which at that
point John hadn’t yet come to terms with. The scene you’re talking
about in the lighthouse, it’s one of my favorite scenes. It was
an interesting scene to do. We shot the scene six weeks apart, and
I was kind of worried that it wouldn’t work … but I’m pleased
it works so well.
MM: BackBeat is considered an independent
film. Are you predisposed to making independent films?
IH: I guess in England we don’t make
any other kind of film, other than independent. We don’t have a
history of it really. We did, I suppose, in the forties and fifties
with the studio systems still in operation. I think modern cinema
is perceived by the general public as an American medium, although
it’s history is elsewhere. It’s probably in Russia or someplace.
|Star-crossed lovers: Stuart (Stephen
Dorff) and Astrid (Sheryl Lee).
MM: How do you feel about that?
IH:How do I feel about American domination
of global culture? In England we have a vaguely similar language
and as a result we have a lot of American TV and movies. In fact
I think people in England would rather go see American movies, they’d
rather go see Terminator 2 than Remains of the Day.
In fact I don’t think we like our own films very much. I don’t know
why, because American films—mainstream American films
anyway—have an obligation to make a lot of money. And
to do that, they just reach back to the last film they made that
made a lot of money. Where a film is generated by just an idea,
by somebody’s love of a subject or love of a story, you have far
more chance getting that idea transferred to the screen. Consider
this movie ( BackBeat ); five million dollars is a big budget
for England . And there were pressures from the people who funded
the film to do certain things. But luckily we managed to stay off
most of them.
MM: We’re talking about a five million
dollar film shot on a seven week schedule, which is remarkable by
American standards, really by any standards, given the quality of
the film. Since the worldwide preference for American films like Terminator 2 seems to be escalating, how do you keep your
own integrity and honesty as an actor in the projects you pick,
knowing that there are these 50 million dollar films out there with
their huge potential returns?
IH: Unfortunately, I don’t have that
problem. No one has offered me a fifty million dollar movie. I mean,
I’ve done things in the past I wish I hadn’t done. But at the end
of the day, one has to earn a living. I’ve done British TV that
is appalling, but I had to do it because I’ve got bills. I’ve got
MM: Your remarkable performance in BackBeat is bound to offer you new opportunities. Where
would you like to see the opportunities I’m assuming you’ll get,
take you? Would you like to go to other countries? Would you come
to America , or to other countries?
IH: I’d like to come to America because
you have the largest film industry outside of India and as I don’t
speak any of the Indian languages… I live in England and hopefully
will stay there. If I could live anywhere in America I’d live in
MM: If you could control what the
audience comes away with from seeing BackBeat , and your role in
particular, what would you want it to be?
IH: I don’t know. Express your love? It’s a
corny thing to say, but I don’t know. I think to a degree my character
didn’t really express how he felt so well. I think he did it in
other ways, and he did it later on in life. Seeing him in this movie,
he’s yet to come to terms with a way to express himself. So, I don’t
know. If you love someone, tell them? MM