Filming The Gold Machine

Brighton-based film-maker Grant Gee cut his teeth on making documentaries and videos featuring rock bands such as Joy Division and Radiohead. His latest film is the third in a trilogy about ‘the places books take us’. Long a fan of Iain Sinclair, he recently had the opportunity to follow the writer (and his daughter) on an epic and eye-opening journey into the Peruvian jungle.

Can you describe, in an elevator pitch kind of way, what your latest film is about?

A father and daughter’s fever-dream journey from St Leonards to a headwater of the Amazon in Peru in the footsteps of a colonial-era ancestor whose actions – finding land suitable for coffee plantations – unwittingly led to the devastation of an indigenous community. The father and daughter who retrace his journey ask questions about the role of art, religion, tourism and coffee in the way we exploit the world.

Phew! How did you get involved in the project? Were you already an admirer of Iain Sinclair’s work?

I’ve loved (not too strong a word) Iain’s writing since a friend gave me his first novel – White Chappel Scarlet Tracings – in 1990. In fact, the first project I ever conceived as a filmmaker, in 1991, came out of reading this book and I even got Iain to agree to write the narration for it, way back then. That project – about the last days of the old Spitalfields Market – was never commissioned, but finally with The Gold Machine I got to work with Iain. Only took 30 years!

Why do you think you were a good ‘fit’ with Iain?

His work has been so influential to my way of seeing the world. The best documentary work I’ve done – whether with writers or rock bands – has worked (on the occasions when it has worked) largely because I know and love the subject well enough to be able to shoot as if looking out from the inside. That and the fact that I work fast and am pretty discreet when filming. Given how important this subject was for Iain and his daughter, Farne (the trip to Peru which I filmed was really their trip), working fast and keeping out of the way was important.

What was Farne Sinclair’s role in the film?

Farne is Iain’s daughter and shares her father’s fascination with her great-grandfather Arthur Sinclair’s book In Tropical Lands, in which he recounts his expedition to Peru to search for lands suitable for coffee plantations. Farne’s fascination led her to carry out some deep original research to find out more about the background to and consequences of Arthur’s expedition. What, for example, was the shadowy ‘Peruvian Corporation of London’? Who commissioned Arthur? And, most importantly, what effect did the establishment of the coffee plantation have on the Ashaninka people who lived in the area which the plantation took over? Farne is also a Production Manager on high-end television documentaries and basically researched and planned the entire trip for us. She has made a marvellous podcast series out of her own experience of the trip.

Why did you incorporate a fictional element into the film?

The Gold Machine describes a real trip, undertaken by real people with real subjects speaking of real lives, real dreams and real sufferings. But it’s narrated by a fictional character: Andrew Norton, a 70-something writer of literary fiction who’s struggling to write a book about the trip to Peru. Norton’s a kind of alter-ego of Iain Sinclair and has popped up throughout Iain’s work. I chose to have Norton narrate rather than Iain for a couple of reasons: 1) Free of Iain’s public persona, Norton could ‘go places’ in his narration that the real Iain couldn’t. He can be more extreme, hopeless, stuck. Very useful for a film. 2) I first loved Iain’s work when he was mostly writing fiction and poetry (he’s since become much better known for his non-fiction experiments in ‘psychogeography’). I don’t think he’s written a big novel since Dining on Stones in 2004. That book has Andrew Norton as its protagonist and in it, he’s left, stuck in Marine Court in St Leonards. I thought that The God Machine was an opportunity to revisit Norton, 15 years later, and to get some more of Iain’s fiction out.

And how was he getting along?

He’s a writer who is unable to write. Like he says in the film, he’s ‘going nowhere’. His journey to Peru is entirely imaginary, but as Marine Court looks like a beached ocean liner, and I wanted to use images of water to move us around the film, it was the perfect location. We filmed Marine Court from the sea, looking back at the land, and it really did seem to be bobbing and floating away.

When did you decide on the narrative structure of the film?

My way of working on feature documentaries is to start with a known, basic framework, then shoot freely, then edit the film so that the basic structure is complexified by all sorts of jumps and digressions. The basic narrative structure of The Gold Machine is the structure of the trip to Peru: research, journey, experience, return. Within this basic structure the film flashes back and forth over time from the nineteenth century to the present and moves – via water in the English Channel, the River Thames and the Rio Perene – between England and Peru.

On the trip to and through, Peru, you were both preparing material for your own projects about the trip – you the film, Iain the book. Did this create a competitive edge to your relationship?

Not at all! Once we were on the trip, neither of us knew what the other was really up to. We (all three of us, Farne, Iain and me) travelled side by side and focused on whatever grabbed each of our attentions. It was fascinating to see how the book, the film and Farne’s podcasts turned out differently. We recorded many of the same scenes but what’s presented is completely different.

What did you think of your portrayal in Iain’s book, The Gold Machine? Did you recognise yourself?

I’m present in a few scenes in the book. Iain portrayed me as a kind of geeky spy, which I think is probably about right! I recognise some of the things that the geeky spy does, particularly the way he holds the camera in one of the photos that illustrate the book.

Tell us about the conditions of the trip? The food, the insects, the dangers… Was there a low point?

We were privileged, wealthy westerners. The conditions of the trip were fine for us and, for me personally, it was the filming experience of a lifetime. I just worked and worked and loved just working. The only problems were the altitude sickness on the train that took us to 15,000ft over the top of the Andes. I got off lightly, but for a lot of people on the train – particularly those who had enjoyed the bar-carriage – it got pretty… messy: oxygen tanks and mop-and-bucket time. We did get warned off walking any further along a little jungle route we were taking as it was the beginning of a coca smuggling trail and young men with stuffed backpacks were coming and going on quad bikes, so we went no further. Interestingly and spookily, this was at exactly the same point – the Ipoki Rapids – where Arthur Sinclair’s own journey ended in 1891.

And a high point?

The high point for me was filming on, in and under the Rio Perene. The river is a snaking continuity through the lives of the people involved and though the centuries of the story.

What did you learn about yourself from the experience?

I re-learned how much I enjoy the simple business of filming people and places that I’ve never seen before and then putting the images together to share with an audience. It’s a simple, beautiful, direct form of communication that, in the travails of freelance life in England, I tend to forget.

And what did you learn about the world?

I learned that capitalism is even more sneaky, snaky, and adaptable than I imagined. The destructive impulses to travel, acquire, extract and exploit are all there, albeit in fancy new forms – despite all our attempts to regulate them.

Interview by Alex Leith

The Gold Machine will be in selected cinemas from September 2.

The screening at Lewes Depot at 5.30pm on Friday September 2 will be followed by a Q&A with Grant conducted by ROSA editor Alex Leith. Grant will also be doing a Q&A after the screening at Kino-Teatr, St Leonards (with Iain Sinclair, 2pm, September 4) and Duke’s at Kommedia, Brighton (6.15pm September).