Wednesday 21 November 2018

Remembering José Ramón Larraz by Simon Birrell

A few years ago we published this lovely remembrance of the great Spanish director José Ramón Larraz by film-maker Simon Birrell on the first anniversary of his death. At one point we removed this piece thinking that all or part of it might be recycled for our (then) upcoming Blu-ray release of his classic film SYMPTOMS. This never happened, but this essay was never reinstated. Today we rectify that mistake. 

One year ago today, my old friend José Ramón Larraz died. I won’t say “passed away”, because he would never have said it. If there’s one thing he didn’t do, it was mince words – he told it like it is, come what may. Abrasive, hilarious - he was the living definition of irascible, and a tremendously talented and cultured man. His loss was too raw last year, but now I’d like to share a few memories.

I met him in Madrid, where he was hanging around a film school I was attending. He had a habit of attracting young, wide-eyed admirers who would throw themselves into his projects, typing scripts, visiting producers and sending emails for him (he refused to use computers). I was neither the first nor last of these admirers, but what began as a series of “work” meetings, became a ten year friendship.

Originally, we were going to write scripts together. That didn’t last beyond the first act of a script about a satanic cult – I made the mistake of criticizing one scene he’d written for having too much dialogue. He called me up late at night and proceeded to read out an entire scene from “The Spiral Staircase”. “Count the lines!” he roared. “Is that too much dialogue?” After that I settled more into the role of a translator-secretary, rendering his Spanish scripts as I best I could, surreptitiously snipping out the odd line.

As a film-maker he had an incredible eye for detail, a command of the practical side of his craft and the eye of an artist. His framing and economy came from his work as a comic book artist, which has recently resurfaced and is quite gorgeous. He told me that the pressure of producing a daily newspaper strip forced him to work out ways to economize the drawing needed in each frame. So in a jungle strip he might draw the front half of a lion and hide the rest out of the panel, perhaps saving himself an hour’s drawing.

In film, he used similar tricks. Watch the beginning of “Black Candles” – a scene apparently shot in Heathrow Airport was made as follows: a few shots of the customs area quietly (and illegally) filmed by him with a 16mm camera are intercut with a single shot of the two protagonists ostensibly waiting for their luggage. The way that latter shot is framed, with a few extras, conveys the impression that they’re in the airport, when in fact they could be anywhere. The overall effect is seamless. It’s not an “artistic” shot, but it’s a highly effective, economical and workmanlike one. José Ramón was a master of putting together a film like this with minimal resources, and without having the obviously low budget look of contemporaries like Franco or Naschy.

Apart from his artistic ability, a big part of this came from meticulously studying the masters, breaking down the way classic films had been put together and adding the techniques to his palette. He could describe from memory complete scenes from “Cat People” (one of his favourites) and explain shot by shot where the camera was placed, the actors positioned and precisely how they all moved. He would explain how the exotic setting of Port-au-Prince at the start of “I Walked With a Zombie” had been created with a single gangplank and a barrel.

As noted in “Immoral Tales”, he could generate a mysterious atmosphere from the simplest of situations. In the “Coming Of Sin”, there’s a scene where the threesome at the centre of the story are sitting by the fire, drunk. It’s years since I’ve seen the film, but there’s a shot of the lead actress playing with her hair that is quite unique. It’s just a gesture, but it sums up what’s going on beyond any of the dialogue. “I showed her how to play with her hair”, Larraz told me with satisfaction.

This love of detail contrasted oddly with the casualness with which he dismissed much of his work, and with some of the later, poorer films. The raunchy Spanish comedies are an acquired taste and “Edge of the Axe” or “Deadly Manor” are quite simply deadly. But he would try anything, from the award-winning TV epic on Goya, to some romantic comedies that were never made, probably to his benefit. The best stuff though, is the work rooted in his personal obsessions.

Despite professing that he had no interest in his career in cinema, he had a tremendous drive to try and launch new projects, right up to the end. I was one of many who labored to get “Vampyres II” off the ground. The script, co-authored with Tim Greaves in some incarnations, is a genre bending mélange of witchcraft and vampirism and has little to do with the original film. I took one version of the script to an aging film distributor in New York, who told me, “I love it! It gave me an erection,” and asked for a new version with more sex in it. José snorted on hearing this, “What do I care about Alex’s erection?”, but duly turned out a new version stuffed with depravity. There are numerous other unmade stories, including “Voodoo” and “The Onlookers”.

I tried, Tim tried, Pete Tombs tried, Jonathan Sothcott tried; there was lots of interest, but no-one would actually sign a cheque. The last interest we had was to make it in 3D, which would have been something. As José Ramón got older he started lowering his expectations, but never stopped beavering away. He wrote scripts for others, even comedy sketches for TV. Finally, he started writing novels, which can be ordered in various language on Print-On-Demand sites. He approached novels in the same way as films, reverse engineering Henry Miller and trying to apply the same techniques to his own stories.

He had a reputation as a ladies man, and his colourful autobiography bears this out. A Spanish wife, a French wife (who was raised by Eleanor Roosevelt) was followed by Diana, the love of his life, and finally Vanesa Hidalgo, star of “Black Candles”. But there were many others, including a second, parallel family in Scandinavia and a string of models from his period as a fashion photographer.

He always insisted that he had behaved professionally towards his actresses, but there were differing opinions. Alfredo Landa claimed Larraz had spent much of the film they made together chasing the female cast, which José Ramón disputed furiously in his autobiography. I don’t know the truth, and I wouldn’t put money on it. The cover of his autobiography is a classic:

By the time I knew José Ramón, the glory days were long behind him. But I saw him in action just once, and it was awesome to behold. We were scouting the location for my short film “El Último Deseo”: a large apartment in the center of Madrid occupied by six girls in their early twenties. They were a motley assortment of nurses, makeup artists, accountants and students and we had to both plan the shots and sweet talk the girls into giving up their home for a week of chaotic filmmaking. We went from room to room meeting each one, and José Ramón methodically hit on every single one of them. He would tell one girl that she had a perfect face for photography (“Trust me, I’m a professional.”) and the next girl he would compliment on her political beliefs (“I’m a republican too!”). He was in his eighties and clearly wasn’t planning on doing anything, but I think it was just an old instinct kicking in. By the time we finished, there were six rather dazed young women who had given us permission to make their life hell, and some of them even joined the crew.

Finally, he was both a misanthrope and a born entertainer. He stayed at home, preferring his wife’s company and pottering about his projects, rejecting opportunities to go out and network with people who could have helped him. Yet once he was out of his shell, he was unstoppable.

We took him to a small film festival in Caceres where they gave him a lifetime achievement award. Celia Novos’ film crew hung around to shoot the event for the documentary “Vampyres and Other Symptoms”. That night he declared that he wanted to go partying with the youngsters and we took him round a series of dives. He didn’t sit down once in the evening, standing till 3am spouting blue jokes and a series of hilarious stream-of-consciousness monologues and invectives about the Spanish, politicians, the film business and himself. He totally dominated the festival, to the extent that the gentile Eugenio Martin, also attending, would run in terror when he saw José Ramón approach. Listen to the Vampyres DVD commentary track for a feeling of what he was like when switched on.

His last outing was at the Madrid Filmoteca, where they had somehow united a wizened Paul Naschy, Larraz, Jack Taylor, Antonio Mayans and Eugenio Martin for a round table. Once the organizers made the mistake of letting him speak, they couldn’t shut him up. The audience was in stitches as he ridiculed the genre and the universe in general. The best toe-curling moment was when he asked why anyone would want to see a film about Dracula, with some portly toupee’d idiot in a black cape and plastic fangs trying to play the gallant. This, sitting next to the mortified star of “Count Dracula’s Great Love”.

As it turned out, that was his last public hurrah, and Naschy’s too.

By the end, he was frail, walking slowly with a cane and starting to lose his memory. He was also broke, despite having lived in castles in Scotland and manor houses in Kent in better days. He finally married his devoted Vanesa Hidalgo and they lived in a one room apartment in Madrid. He constantly complained about Spain and talked of returning to live in his beloved England, but in his heart he didn’t want to leave Vanessa. The plans for filming got sketchier and sketchier, but none of us had the heart to stop helping him in his projects.

In one of history’s great understatements, Casanova starts his enormous autobiography, “Whatever I have done, for good or evil, I have done freely. I have lived.” José Ramón Larraz was a comic strip artist, a fashion photographer, a film-maker, a TV director and finally a novelist. He left a large body of creative work behind. And he lived. How many of us can say that?

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