Incorporating elements from an unrealised film script written in 1964, Sam Ashby’s hybrid short The Colour of His Hair, artfully merges documentary and drama to convey the effects that the 1967 partial decriminalisation of homosexuality had on British gay men. I spoke to Sam about making the jump from publishing to filmmaking and the important role archive material had, not just on the content, but also on the structure of his impressionistic meditation on queer life and the struggle for gay rights.
Although The Colour of His Hair is your debut short, you’ve been immersed in the world of film for several years, specifically through the publication of Little Joe and your design work as Sam Ashby Studio. Could you tell us a little more about those projects and how they led you to take up the challenge of directing?
I remember at school making a trailer for a horror film that didn’t exist, casting my friends as the killer in a boilersuit and the victim who gets chased around the land near my home in rural Hampshire. I even designed a poster for this non-existent movie, so I guess it’s been a case of wish fulfilment since I grew up. Back in 2004, after working some running jobs in various production companies, I somehow talked my way into an internship at All City, a small London-based design agency specialising in film posters. Within four years I was head designer, so it was a very steep learning curve.
I went freelance around 2008, around the time when I first had the idea for a queer film zine which eventually became Little Joe. I was publishing that fairly regularly from 2010 until 2015, and developing a lot of screenings and events around it. Working on Little Joe taught me how to take on a big project which involved many different contributors and collaborators, so I can really see how that experience might have translated to film, but I don’t think anything could really have prepared me for working on a set with actors and a crew, there was just nothing to compare it to.
I don’t think anything could really have prepared me for working on a set with actors and a crew, there was just nothing to compare it to.
Designing film posters, particularly the UK ‘quads’ which are landscape format, has definitely given me a sense of frame and composition, but again, the reality is very different. In a way it all seems to come together quite nicely – the film poster design, and interest in queer history – but I don’t necessarily see making film as the culmination of this other work, but rather as a new medium somehow.
How did you first become aware of Elizabeth Montagu’s un-produced 1964 script and what galvanised you to finally put it into production? Was it always conceived as part of the Queering Love, Queering Hormones collaborative project?
I was researching an entirely different subject for the Queering Love, Queering Hormones project when I found Elizabeth’s script. Until that point I had been much more focussed on the intersection of homosexuality and science, and the methods used to ‘cure’ homosexuality. I was trying to track down the images and films used as visual stimuli in those experiments. I made contact with a journalist called John-Pierre Joyce after reading an article of his about aversion therapy, and he generously agreed to share his research with me, but unfortunately he hadn’t found any of the visual stimuli either. At the same time I also tracked down a doctor who had pioneered aversion therapy back in the 1960s, but for various reasons he was unwilling to take part in my film, so that project kind of reached a dead end.
It was then that I read a brief mention of a treatment for a film in John-Pierre’s notes. He mentioned that it was commissioned by the Homosexual Law Reform Society and was never made, but didn’t remember much more about it, so I went to visit the Hall-Carpenter archives to take a look for myself and discovered that the ‘treatment’ was a fully-formed 26-page script. It was such a unique text with real historical weight that it felt absolutely necessary to do something with it. The archive recommended I contact the Montagu estate and Elizabeth’s nephew, Ralph Montagu – the current Lord Montagu of Beaulieu – was generous enough to let me adapt it. He had no idea that the script even existed.
As the credits state, the film is ‘based on’ that script rather than a direct realisation of it, what guided your decision of what remains from that original script vs the new elements needed to augment it?
It was quite clear early on that it would be impossible to adapt the script in full with my limited budget, and it never really felt like something I wanted to do, simply because there was a reason the film was not made, and to make it as intended wouldn’t speak to a contemporary audience. It was intended to educate people on the plight of the homosexual back in the 1960s and was written in a way that audiences would probably find hilarious and patronising today. I wanted to use it to tell a broader story.
I was trying to question why certain narratives are deemed acceptable and worthy of re-staging and others are simply never told.
The discovery of the script within the archive also raised some interesting questions that I wanted to explore and so I eventually decided to adapt the central blackmail scene – which remains very faithful to Elizabeth’s script – and combine it with documentary and archive footage. Elizabeth tells a more dramatic tale in a way, but interestingly it was written as a ‘documentary’, despite being entirely scripted. At the time, John and Peter represented the only acceptable face of homosexuality: young, white, male, upper-middle class, attractive, successful, victims. By not resolving their story I was trying to question why certain narratives are deemed acceptable and worthy of re-staging and others are simply never told.
How important was the inclusion of materials from and cooperation of the Lesbian and Gay News Media Archive to the project? What was your focus when navigating their rich archive of materials?
It was incredibly important. During the course of my research, I discovered that the LAGNA collection had originally been a part of the Hall-Carpenter archive at the LSE Library where I found the script. But when that archive was donated to the library, LSE wouldn’t take the news clippings because they don’t deem them archive material, because they’re reproductions of publications. So here was this incredible collection of over 200,000 cuttings collected by LGBT folk from the non-gay press on all manner of LGBT subjects dating as far back as the late-nineteenth Century, which was suddenly homeless. It moved around a bit before eventually finding a permanent home at the Bishopsgate Institute. LSE also deposited the oral history collection of the Hall-Carpenter archive at the British Library. So that original archive is now split up over three sites, which to me is such a shame. My film brings elements of the three archives together, which felt really important to do.
At LAGNA I focussed on stories that related directly to the script, so articles about blackmail, the Wolfenden report, and the law were key, while in the oral history collection at the British Library, I was seeking voices that were actively involved in the movement to change the law.
What led you to shoot on 16mm instead of digital?
A large part of the funding was actually tied up in film stock. Queering Love, Queering Hormones was a collaboration between the BFI, the Wellcome Trust, and no.w.here, a community film lab based in east London. They provided the stock and basically taught us how to use the cameras, and develop the stock ourselves. Rather than shoot the film myself, I wanted to work with a DoP, so asked my friend Jessica Sarah Rinland, who is an incredible artist working primarily with film. She is most comfortable with the Bolex, which we used for the archive shots, but we needed sync-sound so I also hired the Aaton camera for that. I decided to use a professional lab to develop and scan the film. I couldn’t risk doing it myself; working on film makes me very nervous!
Did you have any trepidation about opening the film with such a dense text introduction? Why did you feel it important to present the context of the original script in this manner?
Oh absolutely. I think opening texts can be quite frustrating, even short ones, so I was aware that having four paragraphs was pushing my luck a bit. Without it, the film still works but it is more cryptic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I did want the audience to understand more about the script though, to create a moment of intrigue before the film starts. The text also demands a certain engagement from the audience from the off and allows me to shift expectations slightly.
There’s an eerily haunting, drone like quality to Leslie Deere’s score, how did the two of you develop the correct tone for the film’s music?
I had initially asked my Editor Alexandros Pissourios to edit the film to a section of Marc Wilkinson’s score for Lindsay Anderson’s if… which accompanies the beautiful black and white scene of Richard Warrick’s character performing gymnastics on the bars. There is an amazing oscillating quality to it that really appealed to me and gave my film a sense of opening up, of revealing. I had been looking for a composer whose work captured that quality, and Alexandros suggested Leslie, who he knew and had worked with before.
Leslie generously sent us compositions from her incredible archive of field recordings and samples, and we started working out where they could fit within the film. The hypnotic droning sound is really all hers, and she composes in unusual ways, sometimes using her whole body as a performance where her movements are translated to sound through special cameras and software. What was incredible was the darkness that Leslie’s music added to an already quite dark story. There’s a sense of foreboding that underlines the early parts of the film, and ultimately she really captured that feeling of opening up.
As we’ve discussed, The Colour of His Hair employs a variety of materials and techniques in its presentation of this period of British homosexual history, how challenging was it to bring that all together coherently in the edit?
I wanted the film to interweave different temporalities, which really led from Elizabeth Montau’s script. She didn’t confine the story to a linear narrative and shifted between different temporalities and locations in order to build upon the central drama taking place between Peter and John at home. Rather than expanding the narrative and characters directly as she had written, I wanted to help the audience understand their story and the story of the script within a broader context of queer life under the law, the activism that helped change the law, and the queer culture that developed after it.
I see the film as an experiment in thinking through archives, and in some ways as a warning, too.
The archive was the place that the script came from, and so it became important to see what else I could find there to tell this story, so elements such as oral histories and archive film became integral. Getting that balance of elements right within the edit was a huge challenge, and it meant that we had to cut out a lot of material that we loved. But gradually through the process of editing, the film became a certain story, and we used elements that served it, and left out those that didn’t.
Clearly 1967 was a pivotal year in the UK’s gay rights movement but aside from highlighting the historical importance of the period, what significance do you hope it will hold for today’s audiences?
I see the film as an experiment in thinking through archives, and in some ways as a warning, too. I think that since the introduction of gay marriage in many western countries over the past decade, a lot of gay people started to feel that the fight had been won. But with the recent gay purge in Chechnya and the rise of Trump, it is becoming clear just how fragile this state of acceptance is. By marking this anniversary, we are saying that things have clearly improved a lot, but I want to highlight what is still to be done.
Has the success of this film whet your appetite for more directorial projects?
I would say the success of this film has definitely spurred me on! I recently finished a commission for the London Short Film Festival who invited me make a film to accompany a screening of William E Jones’ Tearoom. His film is essentially found surveillance footage filmed in 1962 by Ohio police who were cracking down on men cruising in a public restroom. It’s a fascinating and oppressive film. In my film Et in Arcadia Ego, I document many of London’s closed-down ‘cottages’ on Super8, presenting them as a series of contemporary ruins evoking a lost language. For that event I also published a booklet of ‘Cottage Notes’ from an archive of fragmentary notes used by men while cottaging. So, I’m happy to say the publishing is continuing too!
I’ve also just begun writing my first feature film script, which seems to be a more straightforward drama, albeit one with a lot of archival research behind it. I loved working with Josh O’Connor and Sean Hart, so the prospect of working with actors again is very exciting.