Baker’s Dozen “Shy People Telling Small Stories, Quietly”: Jeanie Finlay’s Favourite Films

Article on The Quietus

Jeanie Finlay, director of Sound It Out and The Great Hip Hop Hoax picks her favourite films, and talks about the final days of fundraising on her next documentary, Orion

Photograph courtesy of Jo Irvine

Filmmaker Jeanie Finlay is feeling frantic. It’s the final few days of fundraising for her next documentary, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, and as her latest Indiegogo campaign (make a pledge here) inches towards its total, she is working on ensuring the rewards for her supporters are of the highest quality.

“We’ve got original Orion eight-tracks that survived the floods in Nashville to give away,” she says, speaking via Skype from Nottingham. “Loads of things got destroyed in the big floods, but these eight-tracks are like cockroaches, they never die. We’re framing them, because no one plays them these days, and offering them as perks.”

Finlay’s breakthrough film, Sound It Out, was one of the first films to be crowdfunded in the UK. The film captured the unique community that builds around record shops – in this case, Teesside’s last remaining independent vinyl emporium – with warmth, wit and sensitivity. It also built its own community, with the film’s supporters (of which I was one among many) rewarded with posters, badges, a brilliantly packaged DVD (dressed up as a 7” single), but more than that, a feeling of connection to the film and a sense of having helped shape, in some small way, the range of films being made.

“It is weird, I have given money to crowdfund about 30 things, including the Belle and Sebastian film, God Help The Girl,” she says. “And when they let me know what is going on, I feel really proud, I want them to succeed.

“When I showed The Great Hip Hop Hoax [Finlay’s documentary about two Dundee students masquerading as West Coast rappers] at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2013, I made these paper lie detectors. You know those fortune telling fish? I redrew them as lie detectors and gave them away at screenings all over the world. Loads of people came up to get them and said how they had funded Sound It Out and were here to see my new film. That is magic, it feels like they are coming on a journey with me.”

Finlay works out of the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, where all her films have had gala screenings. “I’ve been there since 1997. I used to work in the bar, I ran the kitchen for a year,” she says. “I have a really good audience in Nottingham. When Sound It Out was in the cinema, it took more money than all fiction films put together over one weekend. It was amazing. And because I am crowdfunding at the moment, they are showing the trailer for Orion before every film in April. And the guys in the Sound It Out record shop keep their eye out for Orion records for me.”

“I have done an awful lot of filming on not very much money,” she says. “I have shot 80 per cent of the film, nearly 90 hours of footage, and amassed thousands of photographs and lots of archive film. I have done it in a really indie way. I had the trailer when I was making Sound it Out, so it has been a long journey.

“I have been in the States four times, and managed to gather a lot of the story from people who were close to Orion. But films are never what you think they are going to be. You just have to listen – I don’t write questions any more, I want to listen to what is happening, react to what is happening in front of me. I care deeply about what I am doing. I’ve tried to care less but it is impossible. It is essential we get this fundraising in, I’m just trying not to think about the enormity of it.”

Head to the Orion Indiegogo page to help fund the film and click on her image below to begin scrolling through Jeanie’s choices

Although the funding is not yet all in place, Finlay has already put in the hours on Orion. She has been following the story of the mysterious masked country singer who found fame in 1979 as an Elvis Presley soundalike and lookabitalike for years.


Black Narcissus (1947, Powell and Pressburger)
If I could only choose one film, it would be this one. It is my desert island film. I don’t think it is the best film I have ever seen, but it has so much in it that I love, that is perfect, it is just brilliant. I feel very emotionally attached to this film. I have been with my husband for – shit, I always get this wrong – 17 years. I was working on the box office, he was a film student. Before we started going out, he said there was a film he wanted to take me to see, and it was Black Narcissus. And I felt like, wow, if he can show me this, he could show me the world! I fell in love with him because of this film. It has so much. Powell and Pressburger were this dynamic team of a Brit and a Hungarian working together in the rocky post-war years, and what I love about their films is that they create whole worlds. Jack Cardiff films them on a soundstage, and he created magic by grading large black and white photographs with chalk. He made the Himalayas come to life through photography and chalk. It is a kind of witchcraft that is really enticing about filmmaking. It is the moody, broody way it is shot that is amazing.

It is quite a dark film about sexual repression, madness and nuns, and a man with strong thighs straddling a mule and causing this maelstrom of emotions. There is so much about it that is amazing – just the way at the end, when Sister Ruth stands at the bells just looking deranged before chucking Sister Clodagh off the edge. There are other films they have made, like A Matter Of Life And Death that are visually more beautiful, but there is something incredibly raw and visceral and immediate about that film. As soon as I saw it, I felt it was the best film I had ever seen.


After Life (1998, Hirokazu Koreeda)
Hirokazu Koreeda is my favourite living filmmaker. He is brilliant. Oh my goodness. I write a top ten every year for Directors Notes, and I put two of his films in the top ten last year – I Wish and Like Father, Like Son. His films weave tiny small moments and they are so impactful because of it. He is a Japanese filmmaker; I’ve spent a lot of time over there, and there is something about his sensibility which I find really appealing.

After Life asks the very fundamental question: what is the one moment in your life that you want to remember? I think it is his first feature, and he was working previously as a documentary maker. He weaves documentary storytelling in amongst the actors telling the fictional story. It is basically a waiting room and people show up and have a week to decide which moment to save. People choose tiny moments, like a lady in her 80s remembers wearing a red dress and tap-dancing for her brother who died in the war. Or a man remembers flying a plane for the first time. And the team that works there reconstruct these memories and bring them to life. There is a discussion about the fluffy clouds – and it is really home-made and Heath Robinson, so they construct the clouds on this washing line next to the plane they have built. It is a film about dreams and memories and filmmaking, the small moments that tell the story of your life.

I am obsessed with the idea of shy people telling small stories, quietly. I did a TED Talk recently, and it was called ‘The Big Power Of Small Stories’. I would always rather listen to someone shy in a film, because they are telling you the story for the first time. I think they are the small moments, that point when you look back at something. There is a moment in The Great Hip Hop Hoax when the boys have been American for a while and their friend Oscar comes to see them. He tells a story about the laminate flooring, he looks down and the floor in the studio is different – and it is my favourite moment in the whole film because of the way he says: “laminate flooring”. We did a long interview with him, about two hours, and we came out and I said that bit had to be in. There was a point when my producer wanted to cut it out of the film. At my TED Talk I said, in an age of fatter weddings and streets paved with benefits and gigantic testicles, it is a really brave and difficult choice to make small stories. It is the most uncommercial thing you can do, but it is what drives me to make films.


American Movie (1999, Chris Smith)
This is an almost perfect documentary. It has great characters, it is sympathetically told, you want them to triumph – it is a small story but has great impact. I really feel for the guys. I could have said this film or In Bed With Chris Needham, but American Movie for me is a film I could watch over and over again. I love the struggle of the independent artist, living in the regions, trying to make his mark on the world – and that driven feeling. Anyone who has tried to make a creative project knows what that feels like. And it is so funny. But lovingly told. I like that. If it was done with an arched eyebrow, I couldn’t watch it. That is important to me, it has to be told with love. The thing I say is that I want people to recognise themselves on screen. I have filmed and interviewed people I didn’t like but I will always be fair.

I am really conscious that people are opening their hearts and lives – quite often I am persuading people to take part when they might not want to. A lot of people didn’t initially want to be in Sound It Out. And I’m really not that interested in people who really want to be in a film – there were some people who really wanted to be in our film, but as soon as they came into the shop, I would pretend the camera had broken. They were being attention whores, and I am just not interested. I have had people telling me I am too soft on my contributors – that I need to cut harder, be harder. But I have resisted it. I think you have to have a strong moral compass. I have been on the receiving end. I like Twitter, and try to engage, but I am never going to make a film everyone likes and some of the takedowns have been horribly vicious. It is not just “I don’t like your film, move on”. It is “you are a fucking cunt”. It can be really hard. So I need to be able to live with the films and the choices I make.


Racing Dreams (2009, Marshall Curry)
I just think Marshall Curry is a brilliant and smart filmmaker. I saw this in Missoula, Montana, this tiny town where David Lynch is from, at the Big Sky documentary film festival. I don’t normally like these contest films, but I remember crying my heart out in a faded red velvet seat in Montana. It had an impact on me, and I have since met Marshall Curry, and his approach to filmmaking is from the heart – he makes smart and clever choices, but it is always from the heart. It is a racing film, but it is really about teenagers falling in love. And who doesn’t want to see that?


Wake In Fright (1971, Ted Kotcheff)
Oh my god, I fucking love this film. My husband [Steven Sheil] runs this horror film festival, Mayhem, and they have these film nights when they are choosing films for the festival, and I will usually watch one and then that is enough for me. There is a lot of horror I don’t like – you can’t reason with a zombie, and I’m not interested in that. But five years ago, they tracked down this film. Steven knew about it and managed to get hold of it. They were trying to release it for a while, and it is astounding. It plays like aChris Cooke storyline – good-looking man loses all his money and ends up completely fucked. I love that descent into crazy, how one small action can lead to all this. It looks phenomenal, they have kangaroo fighting, Donald Pleasence is a crazy man in it – but I mainly love the idea that one small moment after another can culminate in a clusterfuck of despair, it is just brilliant.


Rushmore (1998, Wes Anderson)
I love this film so much. I watched Grand Budapest Hotel a few weeks ago and I got a Wes Anderson book of all his design. I love his detail, I love his centre framing – which is something I like to do – but I came out of Grand Budapest Hotel and was kind of like, that was okay. But Rushmore I love and enjoy every frame of. It is clever and funny, it has Bill Murray in it. I read recently about the relationship between Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray’s characters in the film and why they get on. And it is because Jason Schwartzman’s character believes he has finally found an equal. I really like it; it is such a stylish and brilliant film, and the style helps tell the story. Schwartzman’s character is quite unlikeable in lots of ways, he is a bit of a fuckwit, but you feel for him anyway. It makes me feel awkward watching it. And the music is great, he weaves a world. I have just come back from Russia, and I basically stayed in the Grand Budapest Hotel – but I want him to make Rushmore again.


Grey Gardens (1975, Albert and David Maysles)
This was a tough choice between Grey Gardens and Wisconsin Death Trip, because James Marsh is such a muscular filmmaker. James Marsh has fingerprints all over the way people think of documentary filmmaking, that it can be in cinemas, it can be big, ambitious, and a thriller. But I would say Grey Gardens has had a bigger impact on me. Little Edie is one of the finest characters ever on film, the way she engages and flirts with the camera – you can see her creating her own portrait as you are watching the film. They are decadent and camp in a delicious way, and she is so stylish – I like that film very much. The film has a lot of space and breath in it. I like that decadent squallor. I met Albert Maysles a few years ago and got to put his glasses on. And then then Steven went to Indonesia to make a film, I would joke that me and my daughter were becoming like the Little Edie and her mum.


Burden Of Dreams (1982, Les Blank)
I’ve switched at the last minute, from Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, which I love, with all its crazy maverick nonsense – it is a psychedelic trip. Nicolas Cage is the best of actors and the worst of actors – sometimes his hair does the acting. I like watching him eat up the screen, even when he is being totally over the top. It is so bold. I would rather watch a bold film than something made mildly, which doesn’t always show in my filmmaking. But again, Burden Of Dreams is about one man’s struggle to be creative. There is not much to say about it.

Werner Herzog is just fantastic, I love his single-mindedness. He has become almost a parody, this slow, languid voice-over. But his filmmaking is so deft. He still asks the important questions. Grizzly Man is amazing. I don’t like voice-overs in films, but I like his voice-overs. Fitzcarraldo is a ridiculous film. But the making of it, for me, is much more crazy than the actual film. They tie themselves in knots. I love the image of trying to drag a boat over land. The idea that instead of sailing around it, they cut through the land is just insane and amazing.

I recognise it. Part of being a director is that you end up being completely demanding. I really push my producer: “I really need a helicopter shot of an oil rig – can I train to be on the helicopter?” You have to try. Everyone is striving. I love making films, it is rewarding, endlessly fascinated. I find it very nerve-wracking and get very emotional because I invest so much of my heart in these films, I feel so protective of them. It is really tough. With Sound It Out, that was one I pitched to a broadcaster who said it was too small and boring and would make a ten-minute film at best. The experience of going ahead and making it, and people backing me, I can’t tell you how life affirming that was. I introduced my tiny film at SXSW, it seemed ludicrous, but it was sold out and there were queues around the block. I sat down afterwards in floods of tears – good crying!


It’s A Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
It’s the favourite film of our new culture minister? Oh, for fuck’s sake. I know Capra is a bit obvious. But I think there is a massive pleasure in sitting in the dark crying with strangers. Whether that is Like Father, Like Son or Departures – which is amazing, a Japanese film about a cellist who became an embalmer, which could easily be in my list. There are very few films where people applaud at the end at a screening at Broadway, and this one they always do.

I have been fighting with my editor recently about feeling Christmassy [Finlay’s next film, Pantomime, is about “the longest running and lowest budget pantomime in Nottingham”] . I like feeling Christmassy, I believe in Christmas and I want some of that in my film, but he doesn’t. I just fell in love with Jimmy Stewart watching this film. It takes you on a whole journey and it makes you value one man’s life. It can be seen as trite and chocolate box-y, but there is so much that is incredibly dark. He is such a crotchety old shit before his transformation. I like films where you can feel completely different about the character by the end, you realise how far you have come with them. Another underdog, another outsider – it is a running theme.


Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962, Robert Aldrich)
Another classic. I am very close to my sister and I just think sisters can be incredibly cruel to each other. And also, this is a film about faded fame and glamour, and who has and who needs the spotlight. There is absolute cruelty to it. And Bette Davis shows no vanity, I can imagine her saying “make me uglier”. That would be my ultimate fancy dress costume – to go like that with my sister.



Wild At Heart (1990, David Lynch)
Missoula, Montana was the first place I went to in America. My first film got accepted at one festival and it was there. So it was like, I had travelled the world to go to somewhere as big as Sherwood, which is where I live. But I met people who I still work with, including Stewart Copeland, the cameraman I am working with on Orion. It is quite sentimental, I think he has made better films – Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet are better films – but Wild At Heart came out when I was 19 and at art college in Middlesbrough. It is a crazy film, I watched it at the Odeon in Middlesbrough, and again it is a film that took me to somewhere completely different. I had fallen in love, and it reminds me of that time. David Lynch and Wes Anderson, they are completely full of heart, really bold and they don’t look like anything else.


Pretty In Pink (1986, John Hughes)
This is the shy ones as well. It was really personal, this film. When I was growing up in Teesside, if you had ginger hair, it was pretty bad. But then Molly Ringwald arrived and it made it okay. I was no longer ginger, I was a redhead, and that was a good thing. I remember going to an arts summer school, and these lads from Middlesbrough kept shouting at me, “Alright, Molly”. And “molly” in Teesside means unfashionable – oh, you’re clothes are so “molly”. It is the female of “menk”. So I thought they were calling my unfashionable, but they were calling me Molly Ringwald. So for a whole group of lads in Middlesbrough, I will always be Molly. But there is so much about this film I really love. The record store scenes, the soundtrack, John Hughes has made more fun films – Ferris Bueller… is more fun – but Pretty In Pink is the one. It is full of cliches, she literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks. But that idea of America seemed so exotic to a teenager living in Teesside. She had a telephone in her bedroom! When I made my first film, Teenland, we did loads of cover versions for the soundtrack, and one of them was ‘Pretty In Pink’. I liked the more romantic Brat Pack films – Ferris Bueller…, Say Anything…, The Sure Thing, which I watched again recently, rather than Rumble Fish or River’s Edge.


The Agony And Ecstasy Of Phil Spector (2009, Vikram Jayanti)
This is an amazing music film. A lot of the films I make have music in, but I don’t call myself a music filmmaker. I ran a panel at Sheffield last year called ‘Just Don’t Call It A Music Doc’. It was something I was told by a senior commissioner at the BBC. I was told I would never win an award and would always be seen as a niche filmmaker. Music filmmakers are the horror films of the documentary world – you will always be shown at festivals, but you will never be in competition or never win an award. That is not so true now, because 20 Feet From Stardom and …Sugarman both won Oscars. They are breaking the mould a bit. Any film I make, even if it has music in, needs another reason to be made. There has to be another story. And this film is fucking fantastic. It is part of the Arena strand, and I think Arena is the great unsung hero of the BBC. It has been a great pleasure to get to know Anthony Wall [producer], who is a really clever and brilliant man. This film is fantastic, it is not a boring late night doc about his songs – it interweaves the songs he created, the choices he made and his murder trial. So you see the work he made and the impact he had, but also this really compelling narrative about his murder trial. You hear and see the video for ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’ intercut with his girlfriend miming the fact he used to put a gun in his mouth. It is amazing. It is slightly pretentious, but I will forgive it anything. It demonstrates the idea that in a music doc, the music is not enough, and old blokes in a well-lit room talking about how great music is? That is definitely not enough!

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