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A must-read conversation with the film-maker behind the critically acclaimed Vivienne Westwood documentary that the designer herself denounced

2019-01-22 12:29
Vivienne Westwood

The critically acclaimed documentary, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is coming to South African TV this Sunday, 27 January at 20:30 on SundanceTV, (DStv 108). Fiona Walsh caught up with the talented filmmaker behind it, Lorna Tucker in this inspiring conversation. 

London - Lorna Tucker pulled herself out of teenage homelessness and heroin addiction to spend her 20s jumping on buses with bands like The Cult, Unkle and Queens of The Stone age, creating tour videos and music promos. 

After moving into longer format storytelling on documentaries and experimental projects for the likes of Alexander McQueen and Nike, she spent three years shooting her first feature documentary, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist.

Telling the remarkable story of the iconic fashion designer and environmental activist Vivienne Westwood from her days as a self-taught punk designer in 70s London, to accepting a title from the Queen, its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival gained extra column inches when Westwood denounced the film in a strategically-timed statement. It went on to be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and has since screened to acclaim worldwide. 

Westwood was your first feature-length documentary, although you had worked a lot with bands and other designers, such as Alexander McQueen, producing shorter content. What’s remarkable in the film is how uncensored Vivienne Westwood is.

Vivienne is so in your face and vocal! And her vulnerability comes across in the film as well. It’s so funny that the film landed at a time just as #MeToo was kicking off. Even when I was starting out four years ago with Westwood people were saying ‘Oh, but it’s a film about an older woman, do we really want to watch a film with an older woman in it?’ and I think that’s what’s amazing with the #MeToo movement - finally people are celebrating the kind of woman Vivienne is. 

I wanted to make a film on Vivienne not because I admired her as a fashion designer – although I do, who doesn’t love her dresses? - what inspired me is that, as a single mum, trying to carve a career for myself was really difficult. I had 12 years of rejections, almost being marched out of rooms because my ideas were too ‘out there’ or not commercial enough. It wasn’t easy, but when I met Vivienne on a shoot we got on instantly. 

At that time I was doing research for a film I made that’s coming out this year, Amá, about the sterilisation of Native American women, and she had worked with Native American women a lot so we were instantly chatting, chatting, chatting and I would tell her about my ideas and we got on really well. And what was amazing was just how fierce she was - she was listening, and she was pulling me up on myself. 

I was very unconfident, I used to stutter a lot, I used to mumble, and she would say ‘Talk up! Stop stuttering, I can’t hear what you’re saying, that’s the wrong word.’ I started to see this incredible force of nature. 

She would talk to me about being a single mum, because she was a single mum when her and Malcolm [McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols] split up and she would talk to me about her designs, or that nobody would fund her and I just found myself feeling like a kid, just listening to her and going ‘Uh huh, uh huh, I need to hear this right now.’ People were telling me I’ll never be a film-maker because I don’t come from money and here was this woman who had marched through all of it to become top of her game and own this international business. I just remember feeling so inspired. 

So maybe three times a year we’d have a cup of tea and I’d update her about A and my research in America. These conversations not only inspired me, but gave me the confidence to keep going against all the realities.

Vivian Westwood

(ICON: Vivienne Westwood in her Paris showroom. Photo: AMC Networks/Sundance TV)

When did you decide to make her the sole focus of your first feature?

We worked together about four or five years ago on Dazed magazine – they asked me to do an online takeover of the magazine and asked who I’d like to do it with and I said ‘Vivienne, she’s inspiring, she’s amazing, I’d love to work with her!’ And at the end of that I just thought if she could inspire me to keep going can you imagine how global her story could be, the outreach it could have in hopefully inspiring a new generation of people to think a bit more, to be a bit more ethically kind? But also to keep going, even in the face of laughter almost.

Also, what I loved was how imperfect she was because, from my experience of working with bands, you tour the world with them and people literally hold them up as gods, they think these people are famous, they were born a genius, they will always be a genius and you’ll never be like them unless you’re born a genius. I really wanted to tell the world that, actually, some of these people that I’ve worked with are some of the most un-genius people I’ve ever met. But what they do have is this amazing, defiant will to succeed. Sometimes it takes a long time - like in the case of Vivienne 15, 20, 30 years - so I really wanted to take Vivienne’s words and energy out of that golden cage and show that she’s a vulnerable human being, but also a bad-ass woman that’s going to have her say. 

I’m not a fangirl making a fan film. I fell in love with her as a person. As this sexy, defiant older woman. And then I started to learn about her and looking back on her designs I thought – these are genius. What was also amazing about making this film was watching her fall in love again with her job and her own company. When I first met her she said, ‘Oh I don’t really design any more I’m just doing my activism’ and by the end of filming her she was saying ‘No, I’m an activist and I’m a fashion designer.’ She had really fallen back in love with it and got that determination to succeed.

It was just my pure desire to make an entertaining film that got beneath the surface of her name, her brand and to show her in a light that could hopefully inspire. 

Was it hard for her to agree to hand over control of the film to you?

Yes, massively! For two years she wouldn’t sign the agreement. Vivienne is the most incredible fashion designer, she’s an amazing force of nature, but her taste in film and the way she unrolls information is very different from mine. So, I knew if I worked with her the film would become a propaganda tool, it would be pushing her company, it would become almost like advertising. And also it would be very hardcore and in your face. 

I really didn’t want to make that kind of film. I wanted to make an honest film and I wanted to show her in all lights. I wanted to show how human she is. And let’s face it, if you had a film made about you, if I had a film made about me, I’d want to take out all the tantrums and the bad bits and make me look like a genius. 

So, it was very hard to fall in love with her, start making this film she agreed to do and then turn around to her and say ‘You’ve got no editorial control.’ It took time, but then after a while of filming her, and the studio trusting me and her company trusting me, I started to get her to understand that, in order to raise money or in order to tell a story, the only way I could do that was if I had her complete trust. And then she signed and we moved forward. 

I remember getting all these texts on the day she came to see the film for the first time saying ‘Good luck!’ And she was very vocal in her feedback. She said ‘It’s a great film, but I think it should be me telling the viewer what they should be doing, it needs to be more about my activism’ and that’s when I had to take a step back and say, ‘But the film’s not about you as an activist, you are an activist and what you’re doing today is more punk than what you were doing in the 70s and actually your activism started when you were born, when you were five, when you were 12.’ 

For me, the film is about embodying all these elements that she publicly says she is. And that’s where we creatively disagreed. She didn’t want it to be like that and she said ‘Unless you make changes, I’m not going to support the film.’ But I’m interested in telling human stories delicately, to make the viewer come to their own conclusion.

So what do I do? Do I edit it the way she wants and it becomes an advertisement for the brand and I don’t get to make this piece of art I’ve been working on for four years? Or do I say no and alienate myself from the fashion industry and from Vivienne, but make a piece of work that I’m really, really proud of? And that’s what I did. And the rest, as they say, is history! 

Vivian Westwood

(ACTIVIST: Vivienne Westwood at work in her studio. Photo: AMC Networks/Sundance TV)

So you showed it to her and she wanted changes; what happened next?

I made some changes to the film that didn’t affect the structure and there were a few things where she said, ‘Look, this isn’t true. What this person is saying right here is a lie. And it really upsets me that they’re saying this.’ So of course, those kinds of things I took out. And she came up with some great ideas as well about some things that I didn’t know about, that weren’t in the film, so she did bring a lot of value. 

But she also wanted everything taken out that showed her company in crisis, which for me was the most important thing, because that actually shows how she is an activist walking the walk. Can you imagine if you took all those bits out, showing her vulnerable, showing her trying to fix her company and just showed a film of her talking about the whole thing? You wouldn’t come away with a feeling of understanding. So that’s where we had to draw the line. So of course, I made changes where it was something that really emotionally affected her, but what I wasn’t going to do was risk the emotional truth of the film.

There’s a great contrast between Vivienne’s voice in the film and the archivist at the V&A Museum in London talking about some of the Westwood items in their collection, who’s very precise and academic. Was it a conscious choice to include her, almost as a foil?  

Absolutely! I found it quite ironic that these punk pieces that were first made by her slaving over her kitchen table through the night to sell in her little shop are now museum pieces. To see them being brought out with the delicate white gloves from the V&A archives was incredible, to see that her art has finally become accepted and collected as art pieces. That this very elitist industry, the very one that snubbed her for so long, now adores her so much they keep her collections in museums. 

Lorna Tucker

(DREAMER: Film-maker Lorna Tucker. Photo: AMC Networks/Sundance TV)

What did an opening at the Sundance Film Festival for your first feature mean for you, as a film-maker? 

It was pretty mind-blowing. For 12 years I’ve been trying to make films, to raise money for them and I had been so knocked back so many times.  Then finally, that year, I was in edit and we secured the money for Westwood with the help of DogWoof and Passion Pictures, so even just basic things like being paid to work on something that I was so passionate about was a massive moment for me.  But then I also had that artists fear. For years I’d been trying to convince people that I could do it, then all of a sudden people were like, “Ok, do it then” and that was pretty scary.  I had to battle with my confidence. 

But then to finish that year with that phone call from my producer John Batsek that Sundance had accepted it, I think I spun out a bit! For so long I had dreamt of finishing my film and getting to tour with it to meet other film makers, and the very reason Sundance was created is the same thing that drives me as a film-maker, so it was a bit of a dream scenario to show a film there.

I remember clearly I had just come back from an edit session and my daughter (who was a year old at the time) was sick so I was trying to cook the kids dinner, and they were losing their crap, and then my phone rang.  It took about a minute for it to sink in – and then I went a bit delirious!  Of course, my kids were like: ‘…and?! Cook me dinner woman!’  But it gave me that extra bit of energy to keep going and get it finished. I’ll never forget that experience, and the friendships that I made at the festival. 


Watch Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist on Sunday, 27 January at 20:30 on SundanceTV, (DStv 108).

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