As you’ll no doubt be aware from the slew of programmes commemorating, analysing and dramatising the tragic event, November 22nd 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy as he waved to the Dallas crowds from the backseat of an open-topped Lincoln Continental convertible. With the event and those 486 frames of amateur footage generating an unfathomable amount of media coverage through the years, how on Earth do you bring something new to the culturally defining event? For writer, director and actor Tim Plester – who’s no stranger to the pages of DN – it was a matter of using his full length stage play Zapruder Highway as a basis to create a spontaneous dream-poem inspired by The Beat Writers, The American Counter-Culture and the iconography surrounding the assassination.
The first time I saw the Zapruder film of JFK’s final road trip, taken on November 22nd 1963, it changed my life. There was no going back after that. More than who this person was (I say was); more than who it was that had pulled the trigger; I remember being profoundly gripped, by the fact that here was that most private of things – the moment of someone’s demise, immortalised by the lens of a layman’s camera. Twenty-six point six seconds of flickering home-movie footage, which tell us everything we’ll ever need to know about the fragility of human mortality and celebrity.
Zapruder’s single roll of silent Kodachrome 8mm, provided the starting point for the thinking behind my new film Et In Motorcadia Ego! – a deliberately poetic response to 50 years of Presidential assassination iconography, and one made in collaboration with production-design polymaths LAMB+SEA (aka Sam Campbell and Lee Tesche).
Primarily shot in a claustrophobic broom cupboard in South London, we were keen to avoid being trapped by the limited dynamics of a simple talking-head scenario. There are an awful lot of words spoken in Et In Motorcadia Ego!, and that in itself can create a whole set of potential problems for any filmmaker – particularly in an age of notoriously short attention-spans. Thus, our first trick was to try and find a practical way of opening up the vision and vistas of the film on a shoe-string budget. To help us achieve this goal, I called upon the trusted services of Shawn Dufraine; an LA-based cinematographer and friend of mine, who I first met on the film festival circuit almost 10 years ago. Getting Shawn and his Canon-5D onboard was our true masterstroke I believe. And thankfully, he agreed to spend two consecutive afternoons out amongst the biblical yucca palms of Joshua Tree National Park, remotely shooting all of the evocative landscape footage that you see in the finished film.
Sent to us via airmail on a memory-card, Shawn’s sand-swept panoramas also helped lend credibility to our attempts at creating the concept of a liminal dream-space within which the “action” of the film could exist. I remember being asked, before we started the edit, whether the audience were supposed to think that the man in the film was somehow out in the desert. I remember saying that it was perhaps more accurate to say that an audience were meant to think that the desert in the film was somehow inside of the man. If that makes any kind of sense? An inner terrain, in which no oar had recently been dipped. One perhaps also borrowed, to some degree, from Shelly’s famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, in an attempt, on my part, to draw some kind of parallel between JFK’s enduring legacy and the ancient Pharaohs of yesteryear.
Shooting in a number of different styles and on a number of different formats was always part of the plan for Et In Motorcadia Ego!. We wanted the finished film to feel contemporary, but with strong echoes of the 60s’ counter-culture and an underlying Zapruderesque super-8 aesthetic. So, alongside our main “master” shots (captured digitally with a hacked Lumix GH2), we also set about exposing several feet of Kodak Tri-X 200D black-and-white reversal film. Once this footage had been processed and digitized, Sam from LAMB+SEA took it all a step further by projecting it against a blank wall and then filming it in colour HD, whilst deliberately manipulating the frame-rate and allowing sections of the celluloid to scorch and burn-through. Thus, by the time we reached the editing stage, we felt sufficiently confident that we had a deep enough and diverse enough palette of material from which to conjure.
Taking the golden anniversary of JFK’s death as a very clear and present deadline, Et In Motorcadia Ego! took a total of six weeks to assemble. Six weeks from broom cupboard shoot to Vimeo upload. Embracing that restricted time-frame went against the grain somewhat, but what it did do was stop us from getting overly precious or sentimental about anything, and it also allowed us to more readily embrace a sincere and spontaneous “Beat Generation” impetus for the project as a whole.
Myself and the actor Kieran Bew (who portrays the unnamed harbinger of the film), didn’t do any actual rehearsals prior to the shoot, but we did spend a lot of valuable time talking through the script’s origins and influences, and about how his character needed to be approached as a kind composite totem figure; equal parts Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, sacrificial Secret-Service Agent and freewheeling poet Allen Ginsberg.
Along the way, for added flavour and inspiration, we watched a number of unconventional films from the 1950s (most notably work by Stan Brakhage, Jeff Keen and Anthony Balch), and during the edit we listened to the fragmentary music of, amongst others, James ‘The Caretaker’ Kirby, William Basiniski and a band called Cristal. At one point, we even contemplated constructing our very own dreamachine (a stroboscopic relaxation device invented by the British artist Brion Gysin), before thinking better of it. And in the final analysis, we were truly blessed with some crisp and immersive sound work by composer Adrian Corker and sound-designer Matt Stronge, which only served to add yet further layers to our already twisted torch song.
This then is Et In Motorcadia Ego! A fever-dream of sorts. A lucid ciné-poem. An audio-visual memento mori. Seven minutes long, with a dark bebop heart at its wet pulsating core. So buckle-up, and come join us out here on the crooked rumblestrip.