Based on the Emmy Award-winning short film of the same name, Notes on Blindness is the debut feature from Writer-Directors Peter Middleton & James Spinney, whose work explores new approaches in the documentary form.
Embedding original documentary elements within cinematic interpretations and textured sound design (from acclaimed Supervising Sound Editor Joakim Sundström), the filmmakers take the viewer on an illuminating and deeply personal journey deep into what John calls “a world beyond sight”.
This film meanders in the terrain vague between documentary and fiction. We hear the voices of Hull and his wife, but we see actors. It’s a kind of visual dubbing. That ambiguity meshes well with Hull’s reflections on the role of sight in memories and the forming of identity. That is intellectually interesting, but also offers a glimpse inside Hull’s mind. He starts out desperate, wrestling, but finally embraces his fate.
Catching up with the filmmakers after their Sundance premiere, we spoke with Peter and James at the 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam where ‘Notes on Blindness’ screened as part of the festival’s Voices program.
What was the most challenging aspect of adapting a short film into a feature-length film? How did your approach to its narrative evolve over the course of production?
From the moment we first heard John’s diaries, we knew that there was huge potential for developing a feature-length project from the material. We began adapting extracts from the diaries as short films as a means of developing our style and approach and to build support for the feature film.
The short films predominantly drew from three of John’s diary entries and so could only hint at the larger journey contained within the diaries as a whole. Although they begin as an account of loss and grief, over time they come to record a period of discovery, rebirth and renewal, as John begins to interpret blindness as a ‘dark, paradoxical gift’.
Whilst the audio narration for the short film is entirely constructed from John’s diaries, the feature also draws upon contemporary interviews we recorded with John and Marilyn, reflecting on the events from a distance of thirty years. As well as this, in the late stages of development John and Marilyn unearthed boxes of tapes containing tens of hours of home recordings from the period that the film is set. This meant that characters that we had previously only known through John’s narration were now addressing us directly – the voices of the children and John’s elderly parents came blaring out from the recorder. This led to the development of the lip-sync technique which we had experimented with in the short but which became essential to connecting the authentic documentary audio which forms the basis of the soundtrack with its dramatic incarnation on screen.
What was your original introduction to the film’s subject, John Hull?
We had met John and Marilyn Hull in December 2010, whilst researching an altogether different project. Among the first-person testimonies we had come across during our research was John’s book, “Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness”. The foreword to the publication mentions that the book was based upon a series of audio diaries John had kept during the early 1980s. We asked John whether the tapes were still in existence. A few months after this first meeting we received a parcel containing a dusty box of eight C90 cassettes – sixteen hours in total – that hadn’t been heard for almost quarter of a century.
In reading on the film, there was much thought that went into the Cinematography. When you were working on the original short film, how did you first see the cinematography of the film? How did this evolve? Did you take the same approach to the feature than to the short?
Through the short films and the development of the feature, we worked with our cinematographer Gerry Floyd to develop a number of creative restrictions that became guiding principles for the visual approach to Notes on Blindness.
Aside from John and Marilyn, we tried to use staging and composition to make faces – and especially those of his younger children – elusive in the frame, corresponding to John’s fading visual memory of his loved ones and his mourning the loss of eye contact in blindness. We also shot predominantly on longer lenses and avoided clean wide establishing shots that would give the audience a privileged viewpoint of the space.
These two principles have a disorienting effect – eyelines and special geography are so central to the traditional grammar of cinema that a distinctive style emerged when working against them.
Can you explain a little about the VR side of the film: Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness? At what point in the production process did the idea of a VR component come into play?
Early on in the development of the project, we began to think about how interactive components might compliment the film and provide a different entry point for audiences to access John’s story.
The VR piece draws upon passages in the diaries in which John considers his growing appreciation of ‘acoustic space’. Guided by narration from the original audio diaries, the experience uses binaural sound tethered to real-time 3D visualization to map environments built up through multi-layered patterns of sound.
The project premiered alongside the feature film at Sundance and will be released later in 2016 on Oculus, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear.
Why did you use actors to portray the characters in the film? What did this add to the overall viewing experience?
From early in the development process we felt that such personal and poetic material would be limited by conventional documentary treatment. We felt that the use of talking heads or archive footage detract from the subjective viewpoint that gives John’s account so much of its power. The diaries chart an interior journey: the impact of blindness upon John’s dreams, his memories and ultimately his sense of identity. We felt we needed to find a creative approach that would preserve the authenticity of John and Marilyn’s voices whilst allowing us to dramatise their experience on screen. The result was casting Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby to play John and Marilyn, lip-synching to the original documentary audio.
Finally, as creatives who exist within the visual medium, how has the experience of Notes on Blindness affected your own association with the sense of sight? Have you ever given thought to your own reactions, should you encounter a similar dilemma?
One of the things that is so remarkable about John’s diaries is that in striving to understand blindness his account becomes, in part, a deconstruction of visual experience. John noted that amongst many sighted readers, ‘Touching the Rock’ was interpreted as a book about sight. And certainly his account is as illuminating in reflecting upon the sighted experience that he initially mourns as the blind identity he eventually discovers.
No doubt if we were to face severe sight loss we would find support in John’s account and gain inspiration from his determination not to live in the nostalgia of a reality which was no longer accessible to him. John and Marilyn have spoken of their approach in this period as a determination to reinterpret loss as change. This is a powerful philosophy – especially when combined with a great sense of humour! We will always remember John’s great warmth – and his laughter.