Pictured: Ed Perkins. Photo Credit: Tom Perkins.

Pictured: Ed Perkins. Photo Credit: Tom Perkins.

GALO: Were you influenced by other documentary techniques?

EP: I’ve always been obsessed with films that have slightly pushed the boundaries between documentary and film — and they’re no less true because of that. I think you have to look at the story and figure out what’s the best way to tell this story. I looked at Garnet’s story. The fact is, yes, it’s a story about going on a search for gold and it’s a geographical story. But actually, the more interesting story is what is happening in his head. So the challenge as a director was: how am I going to tell this story? What I didn’t want to do when it came to the really poignant moments in the film is put a camera six inches in front of his nose and ask him how he was feeling. In documentary, that’s often what we do, but I didn’t want to do that.

The films I love are the ones where they ask more questions than they answer — where the director respects the audience enough to allow them to come to their own conclusions. With Garnet, I wanted to stay in the moment and invite the ambiguity — embrace the ambiguity, and make audiences think. I thought it would be really interesting to try and make a documentary that told the story as much through sound design, music, and allegorical imagery as through traditional scenes of dialogue. So in the last half hour of the film, there’s very little dialogue.

GALO: There’s a lot of white space.

EP: Yes, and purposefully so. I thought it would be a really interesting experiment — can we try and take our audience on an emotional journey and make them think about where they’re going, without actually Garnet explicitly saying what that journey is. I think that is a really big challenge as a filmmaker.

GALO: I would say you have succeeded.

EP: That’s why we used these archetypal motifs: the tempest, and baptism, and ascension. They are used by infinitely better storytellers than I.

GF: In a way, the story inherently had those elements from the outset.

EP: I don’t think you knew it, Garnet. It wasn’t like you were secretly playing up to it. I don’t think you knew what was going on.

GALO: I would even say if you look at the structure of a magic tale, what you, Ed, have created — and is your story Garnet — is a magic fairy tale. You have someone on a quest; you have a series of tests; and you have magical helpers and opponents. The hero goes through those tests, and ultimately, you either succeed or you don’t. Your mum seems to be a magical helper by giving you the money you need to make your journey. But also, you’ve struggled with her. In a way, she’s also been an opponent in your life. You’ve felt tied to her. And you’ve taken care of her. Ed, you captured that structure. We know it. We understand it. And, yet, we watch it from a grown man’s perspective and that’s what tugs at the tale — our hero isn’t a young lad; he’s like all of us. Has your mum seen it?

GF: She hasn’t yet. She really wants to. Hopefully, she’ll see it soon.

EP: She plays a sort of oracle figure. When I was looking at my board and looking at the characters, I didn’t try to manipulate the story to try and fit into this structure. But I was interested to see how Garnet’s natural story would fit. I don’t think Garnet knew for a long time exactly what journey he was going on, but his mum knew. I think she knew from day one what this was all about. There haven’t been many films with a relationship between a grown man looking after a parent who is getting old and whose health is failing. And yet, it is something that almost all of us are going to have to deal with at some point in our lives. I think it’s very complex — emotionally.

GALO: There’s a scene where Garnet’s mum is looking at her hands, and she reflects, “I feel like I’m 40 in my mind, but then I look at my skin.” Your camera moves to some of her portraits of younger years on the wall. In a way, she’s also going through a similar journey, but she’s immobile. So while Garnet plans to go to the Highlands, she will remain in her daybed watching you. I think she’s also able to live through you and that sustains her. She smiles when you leave.

GF: Yes. I agree. One side effect of this filmmaking process is that it’s kept her alive for three to four more years. Given her level of excitement, she was quite thrilled with the idea of being filmed — I’m like Greta Garbo!


GF: She rose to the occasion and was fascinated. She and I would talk about it a lot…and she’d say, “Oh! Garnet’s going to New York!” to relatives on the phone. And they’d say, “What?” And she’d say, “Oh yeah, he’s going to New York to premiere his film!”

GALO: She was proud of you.

GF: Yes. She’s really thrilled. It’s been great. It’s brought a bit of interest into her life that may not be there otherwise.

GALO: At one point she says, “Gold isn’t just stuff you find in a crown or a box marked “X” on a map…you think a lot about your place in life. You gather up fragments of gold from those. Gold dust.” As a director, is that your message? That we need to take stock in life now? Or are we to take away our own ideas?

EF: I don’t want to be prescriptive. I’ve tried to tell a story in a way that I think is most truthful to Garnet’s story. But ultimately, it’s up to Garnet to figure out what he discovered. I wanted to maintain that ambiguity. I hope audiences leave, and, hopefully, the film stays with them for a little bit and somehow relates to their own lives. This is a film about an ordinary man, and that’s quite rare because there are a lot of documentaries about worthy causes. They’re important. I’m not brave enough to go off to Afghanistan and make a war movie. And I’m more interested in telling stories like Garnet’s. I’m indebted to him completely.

GF: The story tells itself. I keep getting back to this — it sounds a bit mystic, but I think the story was there. We didn’t know it, but the story was there before we even set out to make it.

GALO: Perhaps it’s been there for 20 years since you found the staff.

GF: Yes, perhaps it was. And it was mysteriously in the staff, waiting to be revealed. Both Ed and I were a part of it, but I can’t help but think that the story, in a sense, pre-existed the film and that there are, in a Jungian sense, such things as archetypes which have their own independent identity and float around. And sometimes, you can catch them like a butterfly in a net, if you’re lucky. But you can’t do it by trying. It can’t be a deliberate thing. If you try too hard, then you’ll never get it. You have to go with the flow. I think, for whatever reason, and I don’t particularly know why, this was a gift from the outset. Ed and I talked about these things. I did research into the myth of the Fisher King and various aspects of mysticism. Like Ed, I was quite intrigued by some of the connections that appeared to emerge. But it was never as if Ed, as the auteur, was trying to superimpose these ideas onto the film. It was more like, ‘ah, that does tie in.’ I suppose that awareness on some level did influence Ed’s choices.

EP: I think Garnet is, in a sense, a kind of mirror in which we can project our own hopes and dreams, and maybe fears. And the things that Garnet is brave enough to talk about — the way he is willing to be brave enough with himself about some very personal things like how has he made the most of his life — are things I think we all are asking ourselves. But few people are actually brave enough, as Garnet, to really go there and question themselves. And I hope Garnet’s bravery — his willingness to be so open and so emotive — allows the film to become greater than the sum of its parts. I hope it offers up bigger themes than just a journey to the Scottish Highlands. Hopefully, we touch upon some issues, which people can relate to in some way central to the human psyche. That would be the hope. I don’t know if we’ve succeeded or not.

GALO: I think you’ve struck a wonderful balance.

EP: Thank you! The one thing I was lucky enough to do was surround myself with people who are much more talented and more experienced than I am — our amazing producer Simon Chinn, our amazing score by J. Ralph, our amazing editor, and the whole team at Red Box Films and Passion Pictures. These people know how to make these films, and they rescued me at every stage from the many mistakes I made. But ultimately, I have really one man to thank and that’s Garnet. It’s been such a privilege to be allowed into someone’s life. It’s a huge responsibility, but also a huge privilege. I can’t thank him enough.

GALO: I thank you both!

Video courtesy of Tribeca Film.