John T Davis in conversation with Nicky Fennell

"Certain things stay with you, we all have them from our childhood and later but there are certain images that stay with you that I think are very important and mean something at the end of the day; whenever you reach a point when you want to try and make sense of it."
"I’ve designed a plane again after thirty years which was kind of inspired by just a thought; an image; and I think films are the same. You take that little image and try and make it into something physical and gradually develop it. You've got to make it; think it through; design it and eventually fly it."
"Now I’m forty-seven; I’ve achieved an awful lot of the things, in film terms, that I kind of had a glimmer of achieving in 1974, so for me its kind of time to start looking back over it all....."
The words ‘obsessive’ and ‘compulsive’ crop up a lot in conversation with John T Davis. They’re not words one tends to associate with Irish film-makers in general.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the last sixteen years, John T is the Irish film-maker you don’t read about in Terry Keanes column in the Sunday Indo; the guy who came out with "Shellshock Rock" when picking coffee beans in Nicaragua was trendier than making films. From the initial punk trilogy, "Shellshock Rock".,"Protex Hurrah" and "Self-Conscious Over You", onto the experimental "Route 66",through the self-exploratory inter-cultural connections of "Dust On The Bible" and "Power in the Blood", the quasi-self-therapeutic "Heart On The Line" and the success of "Hobo" and "Hip To The Tip" John T. has been plugging away, constantly reminding the Irish film community, generally to their discomfort, that there is a connection between film-making and real, heart-felt, emotive life.
His latest project is his most difficult to date; "The Uncle Jack" tells the story of his uncle, John McBride Neill, a cinema architect who designed fifteen to sixteen cinemas around Northern Ireland in the 1930’s/40’s and who, on his death in 1974, left an 8mm camera which drifted into John T’s hands.
" My life changed radically when he died; he left a house which I’m living in at the moment - he was a crafty old bugger though, he wouldn’t give me the house when he died; he put it in trust until I’d arrived at the grand old age of thirty-five !! But nevertheless, I look back on that camera, you know, and he gave me a kind of key to the rest of the world, a key to how to express myself, and he didn’t even know it."
John T had no formal film training, though he had come through an art college background and had an early interest in stills photography. He’d left art college and bummed around for a year, then studied to be an art teacher, decided against it, and was messing about with graphic design when his uncle died and he got his hands on ‘that camera’.

"I can look back and I can see reasons why certain films happened, but its almost; it’s the thing behind the films; it’s like, film-making for me has been.....; it’s given me a way to go out and see the world and to enjoy it in some ways......and to deal with it. It really has given me a lot of stuff back. I’ve blossomed!!"
"This film’s not just about Jack and his cinemas, its about me and what I’ve done in relation to what has been laid on me as a child and as a teenager; what I’ve done with that seed that has been passed on to me, and the camera is the kind of symbol of that seed, genetically. The very centre of this new film, I think, is that its about passing something on to the next generation."
"Through attempting to make "Jack" one of the most direct routes back to those days, when Jack was alive, was through the model airplanes - a kind of spiritual and emotional link for me, and a physical one because thirty years ago I used to make and fly them with Jack and with other people and I still had some of the airplanes left. They were up in the attic gathering dust, as everything gathers dust in my house - its just coming down with dust, emotional and spiritual dust and all the rest of it, and the planes were no different. There’s other things up there as well, but the planes just connected directly with me. And so this time last year when I got some of the development money to do this film I started to restore these little radio controlled bi-planes. And through doing that, like, it was fantastic, just to go back down into the balsa wood and see, like, there was my planes and his planes and they were still there; some bits, like Jack’s plane, I just had a fuselage and I had to rebuild the wings and the tail-plane and everything and you could see his name printed on inside it and the old telephone number on the bottom of the fuselage with a reward !! And its been a very emotional kind of trip in for me; in many ways, airplanes were only one aspect of it."
"Some films have got starts and ends to them, they’re kind of linear and all the rest of it; others are all over the place and you’ve got to find a path through it and I know "The Uncle Jack" is going to be the worst of all to try and find a way through. Mainly because the cameras turned in on me, and its hard to deal with. It’s all so close and its all so important to me, and its all so entwined with everything, all the other work that I’ve done and all the other experiences that I’ve had in my life, whether to do with film-making or not. I’ve got my own archive, not of my work, but a record of my family growing up, my kids in incubators and that, a progression of them growing up, camera tests I filmed at home that now look so weird and abstract but that relate to my states of mind at the time. I’ve done several interviews, I prefer to call them therapy sessions, and videotaped them as a way of getting into another level away from the standard interview set-up. There’s hours and hours and hours of it so its a very self-exploratory deal, confronting myself and my obsessions. I know I’m obsessive about things; I can’t do anything unless I’m obsessive; I don’t see the reason behind it! I don’t get anything out of it! And for a number of years I’ve been totally obsessive about films and using films to explore hopes and fears and desires inside myself. I believe in obsessiveness; that the only way to succeed in anything is to be obsessive about it. Designing cinemas, designing model airplanes and making films, whatever, it all involves the same process.There’s no difference in the creative act."


"The Uncle Jack" would appear to be a pretty daunting task. Certainly it is unusual in that a lot of the elements that will go to make up the film already exist in various formats, Super 8, 16mm, video, stills etc. Therefore the editing process is already begun, though in retrograde, to decide what remains to be shot. Couple that with the psychotherapeautic nature of the material and one wonders why John T would wish to put himself through all this.
"I know after twenty years what works and what doesn’t, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Each of my films takes up a year or a year and a half of my life, so when I finally decide on an idea that is going to give me a canvass to work on and allow me to express whatever I want to express, I’ve got to know I’ll still be interested a year and a half down the line. So I’ve got to do something that’ll stretch me a little bit more."

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