When the Dog Bites
WHEN THE DOG BITES – (1988)
This was my first proper film, shot on super 16 and made for Channel 4. It was the late nineteen eighties, a period of sweeping deindustrialisation and the fanatical destruction of trade unions. The places that suffered most are still struggling, now called 'left behind' with stunning condescension.
I was interested in Consett, a town perched on a hill in Northumberland. There was a massive empty space by the town where the steelworks that had employed most of the town had once been. It had been razed to the ground by the Thatcher Conservative government in an act of malicious revenge. The town was still there but there was absolutely nothing for people to do.
I wanted to make something different – I was bored by dreary videos of nice people sitting on sofas complaining about unemployment. That sounds awful and it is but I had a feeling that something else was happening in the cracks. I was also desperate to prove myself as a filmmaker and break out of the newsreel type things I had been making. I didn’t know anything.
I decided to shoot the film in 16mm using both black and white and colour film. I demanded a grip and tracks every day (even though I didn’t actually know exactly what a grip did). I wanted to achieve a kind of dreamy feel. I found an escapologist – at one point I wanted a private detective and a hypnotherapist – decided to conduct interviews in the local swimming pool with the camera half under water in an aquarium. I also asked a young writer, Candy Guard, to write some short fiction scenes to be played by a former steel worker who kept coming up with unrealistic schemes to make money and a teenage girl with no illusions. The film was about a place in transition. I was grasping at something but I couldn’t articulate what it was.
My producer Belinda got so fed up with me refusing to tell her what I was doing that on our way back from somewhere she locked me into her car and told me she wouldn’t let me out until I explained what the film was about. I must have said something to appease her but the truth was that I had no idea. I was chasing a feeling. In the back of my mind was an image of kaleidoscope. I heard a jazz version of My Favourite Things in a club in Madrid and I knew I should call it When The Dog Bites (when the bee stings, when I'm feeling bad...) It seemed to me that a community that had the rug swept from under its feet had to invent ways of feeling better.
I had this idea about starting the film with something like the opening shot from The Touch of Evil by Orson Wells – a wonderful, structured tracking shot across the border into Mexico ending with a bomb. Of course we had very little money to achieve this and what actually happened was completely out of control. Every young person from every village miles around poured into town because word about Channel 4 filming had spread like wildfire despite the lack of mobile phones or social media. Hundreds of drunk young people were puking, charging around shouting and pulling out the plugs of our big lights (which is why the cat woman – I don’t know why I dressed someone in a cat costume – so the whole camera crew cast a strong shadow as they cross the road. Some people thought this was a clever Brechtian device).
It was February and absolutely freezing. I had organised some fireworks to start the sequence but they were set a couple of miles away behind a big Tescos where there was no walkie-talkie reception. We couldn’t afford a crane, so we hired a cheap cherry picker the council used for cleaning street lights and it wobbled its way inelegantly to the pavement with the Steadicam operator standing precariously on the platform. Our Steadicam operator had just come off the set for one of the Alien films and was not impressed by our ramshackle set up. He was even less impressed when he learnt that he was sharing a room in a Bed and Breakfast with his focus puller. He groaned, sank to the kerb and put his head in his hands. “A room of my own… It’s the minimum!” Belinda and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. 'What a wanker'. In retrospect my sympathy is completely with him.
Eventually we had a system to set off the fireworks, the Steadicam Operator agreed to stand on the cherry picker, sound was running, the clapper board clapped and everyone looked at me to say 'action'. I was so terrified I knew I was going to vomit. I felt the sick rising up and I knew if I opened my mouth it was going to fly out. There was a excruciating silence while everyone looked at me. 'What??!' I couldn't speak. 'Come on!' Eventually I managed to swallow the sick and squeak action. Yuk.
Steadicam man stepped off the platform and set off gamely up the road jostled by all the drunken youths, entered the bar on his route and staggered around trying to find actors. The problem was that it was below freezing outside and very hot inside the crowded bar so his lens steamed up and he couldn’t see anything. I shouted at him because he was going around in circles but he was blind. He raised his head and shouted back at me. It was funny even at the time but he was not amused.
That was my first real shoot.
I really went for it with this film and it did well. I won an award and was nominated for a few others but the film got a hostile local reception. I was excited before the first screening at the Tyneside cinema. We had councillors from Consett in the audience and lots of local people including those who were in the film. People laughed at the escapologist – I thought he was a metaphor for people being trapped but he was very unhappy about being a metaphor and I felt guilty. When the lights came up, as I walked to the front of the Tyne Cinema auditiorium I heard a woman yell 'Shoot her!' And someone else shouted 'Bang!' I arrived at the front and a woman stood up, her face all red and twisted. She spat out. 'Why don’t you climb back into the gutter where you belong?'
It took me some years to figure out that I had been so busy being clever that I didn’t think about using people to illustrate what I wanted them to represent. I don’t think that was fair and I don’t do it any more but I still have a soft spot for this film. I was bold and I tried to do something special.
The question at the heart of this film, what happens to the people we throw away, those who are surplus to requirements has preoccupied me for thirty years. And it is even more relevant now that machines can do most things better than we can.
In 2016 I returned to Consett and found it unrecognisable. There was a massive shopping mall where the steel works had been. That’s what ultimately replaced it.