‘Self Made’ is the debut feature-length film of the artist Gillian Wearing, the 1997 Turner Prize winner. The film adds another dimension to her body of work which displays the inner turmoils of everyday people.
Wearing became known for her work ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ for which she stopped civilians on the street and asked them to spontaneously write something down on a piece of paper and then photographed them. The series includes a young girl holding a paper “My grip on life is rather loose!” and a police man with “Help”.
“I am interested in collaboration, in people having a voice. There are so many different things to be said and learnt by listening to as many people as possible”, Wearing explains what makes her interested to allow people to ‘author’ themselves.
For ‘Self Made’ she recruited participants by placing an ad in the back section of ‘Time Out’: “Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian.” The copy of the ad is as intriguing as how the film came into being. The film not only documents the intense and personal experiences of seven civilians who participate in the workshops, led by the Method Acting teacher Sam Rumbelow, but also documents the creative process of a film where no one knew what the end product would be.
Rumbelow helps the participants to access their memories and personal experiences to prepare them for short ‘End Scenes’ that reveal dramatic truths about themselves. Rumbelow commented about the process of making ‘Self Made’: “It’s entirely ‘finding as we go along’ based upon some pre-determined themes and ideas we wanted to investigate in front of the camera.”
It seems an unconventional way to create a film, in a world where directors usually have to negotiate the final say and films are extensively tested by user groups before release in cinemas. Some of Marlon Brando’s finest work in ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Last Tango in Paris’, though, was improvised as the actor refused to memorize his lines, merely relying on cue cards.
‘Self Made’ has some sinister moments. Dave Austin, one of the participants, reveals in the film that he is planning his own suicide and Ash Akhtar wanted to investigate if he was able to commit a destructive act, which resulted in his ‘End Scene’ of him randomly kicking a stranger, who was pregnant, in the stomach. 
200% interviewed Gillian Wearing and Sam Rumbelow and spoke with them about their approach to making ‘Self Made’, the selection process of the participants, the emotions and reactions that were revealed by the participant in the workshops, and the thin line between Method Acting and psychotherapy.
200%: Was there an experience in your life that triggered the idea for your film?
Gillian Wearing: The concept for the film came from being asked to put forward an idea to the Film Council for an experimental film. I thought of taking that proposal and asking something similar by putting out my own proposal asking people whom they would like to play in a film.
200%: Can you tell me something about the selection process of the seven final participants in the film? For what were you looking in the process of auditions, interviews and workshops before you finally selected them?
Gillian Wearing: The selection process occurred over the four years of developing the film. I initially selected 12 people from over 2,000 applications. I chose applicants whom I felt really were committed to whom they wanted to perform and also had chosen interesting characters. In December 2008 we did a three day trial workshop that had been developed by Leo Butler (co-writer) and myself. It was at this time that Sam Rumbelow became involved. He looked at our scripted workshop ideas and developed them further by bringing in suggestions based on his techniques/teachings. From further workshops Sam and I chose four participants. Then, when part of the funding came through from Northern Film and Media, we auditioned for a further three people. In Newcastle the audition process was slightly different to those done in London, mainly because Sam was now involved and was able to see if people could relate to some very simple method exercises that he would offer up. Interestingly, the three people we selected were the ones I had earmarked as my favourite from their email replies.
200%: How did you meet Sam Rumbelow, and what made you decide to give him an ‘active’ part in the film?
Gillian Wearing: I asked Lisa James who had been assisting me with the early auditions, to look for Method acting coaches. I went to see the two whom she had chosen and felt that Sam would be perfect for the film. His class was incredibly dynamic and he also seemed very open to the idea and wanted to collaborate on the film. To me that is really important as I strongly believe in collaboration. Film is collaborative by the nature of its scale and technical needs, but this film was collaborative on many levels beyond that, with the input from the participants as to character ideas and stories, together with Leo, myself and a script editor Lila Rawlings.
The more input Sam put into the film, the more his role grew. I could not have conducted workshops myself and needed a professional; he went beyond his job description, though, and was a key collaborator throughout the entire film.
200%: The script material of ‘Self Made’ was written by you and Leo Butler, but the film is also very much about ‘finding a lot in the doing’, organic and dependent on the improvisation of the participants. In the final edit of the film, how much adhered to the original script and how much resulted from the improvisation?
Gillian Wearing: Script material relates to the End Scenes. These went through a few re-writes as the workshops progressed and also when the participants were given the scripts they were asked if they would like to change anything. The workshops were written by Sam and myself, and when I say ‘written’ they were outlines of ideas.
200%: Using the Method the participants delved into their own memories, impulses, anxieties, fears, fantasies and inner resources. Were you personally overwhelmed by the feelings that the participants expressed in the film and did you feel it was sometimes too intrusive to observe?
Gillian Wearing: Yes it was overwhelming at times, when someone is being emotional you can’t be detached. On top of that I am looking in at the workshops and not directly involved as this was Sam’s role, so I was just looking in empathizing from the outside. I trusted Sam, though, as I had already observed several of his Method classes that he runs in East London, and the participants feelings came out in a very safe and caring environment. We had also undertaken the test run in 2008 with Ash, James, Dave and Jerome [participants] who all worked on similar material to the final film, as well as experiencing method relaxation techniques. What was amazing about the participants was their willingness to engage in this process. No-one ever wanted to walk away from the film. In fact, by the end of three weeks, no-one wanted to go home either.
200%: How thin is the line between being the job of a psychotherapist and a method acting teacher?
Sam Rumbelow: If I want to be an actor there is an interesting question [as to] why? Do I want to be an actor because I think that the world will validate me, love me, shower me with gifts and adulation? Or, do I want to be an actor because I’ve evolved a notion that I can bring a character alive and potentially make art? Either way my territory is feeling. When you ‘communicate’ with another person, 7% is text, what you say, the rest is organic. Tonality is 38% and body language is 55% – these operate from the unconscious. It’s like sport I can’t tell my body what to do in sport, I have to absorb it and my own unconscious does it. I inform my body of my intention and the rest of the body goes ok I’ll do it. Now we know in sport how someone can be very skilled but completely fall apart at the scene because there is some psychological issue affecting their performance. This is even more the case with acting. Acting is a place where Konstantin Stanislavski understood that, for the actor to reveal and unlock a potential art to the character, they have to be intimate. They have to do something that is not usual for most humans; they have to stand in front of 1,000 people on the stage, or in front of the camera crew, and unlock the most deepest, and at times darkest, intimate composits of the human experience. Now I don’t know how else you’re going to do that if you’re not going to have a dialogue about thought, impulse, emotion and the psyche. So that willingness to engage with that relationship, with oneself creatively, is central to an actor’s work. It’s therapeutic, but it’s not therapy. Let me explain that with an example.
Recently in my class, one of my students did an emotional memory exercise, which was the task of the day, and he touched on something. He really went somewhere, to where I had never seen him go before, where he felt vulnerable, lost. A fellow student came up to him and tried to be nice with him and said: “It’s going to be alright”. Afterwards he said to the student whom had tried to comfort him: “It’s not your job to be concerned about me. I wanted you to live with me creatively and you didn’t. You lived with me like a civilian and you wanted somehow to save my feelings and I didn’t want you to save my feelings, I wanted you to give me something from yourself so we could work creatively.” For me that’s the demarcation between therapy and what Lee Srasberg [influential Method Acting teacher] evolved as a creative process.
For some great artists, however, art is the means of their therapy. Van Gogh for instance was well know for his personal mental health issues. His work, like for many, was such a personal reflection of how he related to the world, both internal & external. For such artists it was therapy as they perhaps could have been even more deranged / depressed if they had not been able to express themselves through their art. It’s arguable that, if psycho analysis had been available, these great painters wouldn’t exist as they would have gone to see a therapist and basically spent more time on the couch than they did on painting.
Gillian Wearing: ‘Self Made’ was very cathartic for the participants with a sense of it being therapeutic. Lian Stewart, for example, was able to restore her relationship with her father. For Dave there is the scene with Sam where he says he has come further in three weeks than he has in 20 years. You can’t expect after three weeks of filming everyone’s life is going to be changed by 360 degrees.
It was one of the bonuses of the film that certain ways of looking at life did change positively for people; this was not premeditated or expected. Neither of these aspects did I imagine would occur when constructing the workshops with Sam. It’s his very intuitive sense with people, listening and understanding of their needs that gives this sense of him being a therapist, but of course he isn’t.
200%: Do you think that the film enabled the participants to discover their ‘true’ self?
Gillian Wearing: No just an aspect of themselves.
200%: In the beginning Sam says to the participants “you were chosen from hundreds of participants because you have genuinely unique and original stories to tell”. What was the reason that there was no End Scene of the participants Simon Manley and Jerome Prince in the final film?
Gillian Wearing: Unfortunately both Simon and Jerome have had their End Scenes and workshops cut. The first cut of the film was four hours and then two and a half hours, it soon became clear that Simon’s and Jerome’s story arcs did not have the same sense of journey as the others. It was a very hard decision to make, but I am hoping that their end scenes will be shown eventually, perhaps on the DVD extras.
200%: ‘Self Made’ was your first feature film, a film about which none of you knew what the end product would be. Was that scary or an exciting approach to making a film?
Gillian Wearing: Well it’s both, as you are never sure if the idea on which you have worked and planned will ever make sense; yet there is a budget in place and people who have faith in you. As soon as the filming started, though, all the prep work I had done with Sam, Leo and the participants started to make sense.
200%: Do you believe that art can provide useful tools for understanding the world?
Gillian Wearing: Absolutely, very important. Facts are facts but they don’t necessarily give you a sense of understanding all that subjectivity that makes up a huge part of whom we are, our dreams, our fears, a sense of why we are here. There was this wonderful quote I read that said “man doesn’t live in reality he lives in dreams”, we live in our thoughts, which tend to be creative, dreaming of things we don’t have, imagining scenarios that are unreal. Creating comes naturally to us, but so few people are able to be actively creative when they become adults.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers with a contribution of Marie Drysdale
Pictures: Dean Rodgers
‘Self Made’ UK Cinema Release Date: Friday 2nd September 2011
More conversation with Sam Rumbelow on his experiences of ‘Self Made’ and his work as a Method Acting teacher will feature in a forthcoming post.

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