Focus on the many positives that it brings

It would be easy to focus on the difficulties involved in making feature films but issues of finance, lack of time, finding the right path creatively, non-payment of monies owed to you, maintaining key relationships, these are nothing new to artists through the ages.  If you want to understand Mozart or Beethoven then you need to understand how they coped with all five of those factors. Indeed it’s true of every artist we have featured in our 23 EXHIBITION ON SCREEN films that we have made so far. But the key, the absolute key, is to keep making art and to focus on the many positives that it brings.  The past few months have been extremely busy and challenging for us in all sorts of ways but what I carry with me, what I choose to focus on, is the many extraordinary moments I’ve had in galleries, on shoots, in the edit suite and at screenings.  So here are five recent moments that come to mind:


06 Phil Grabsky at the Fitzwilliam Museum © David Bickerstaff.jpg

1 – I have been thrilled by the artworks that making EASTER IN ART has led to me to look at, some for the very first time.  I’ll be honest: religious art of this type is not where I would normally gravitate to but, my word, if you do stop to look at the art that has been made to reflect those final few days of Christ’s life it is utterly staggering. Our teams have been filming all over the world – it is surely the most painted moment in history – and the film will be absolutely full of masterpieces by the greatest of artists and some of the lesser known.  So many stand out already but if I was put on the spot to mention one that I had really never even noticed before it would be Dali’s Crucifixion at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Phil's images + videos 673.JPG

2 – It was a thrill to have YOUNG PICASSO play at both the Málaga and Barcelona film festivals.   I must have done about 20 interviews for TV, radio and press – some even in Spanish (thank you Channel 4 for paying for me to learn Spanish 30 years ago).  The standard of questions was very high – they had all done their research and of course watched the film. I was worried that they would be critical of a non-Spaniard making a film about Picasso – but not at all. In fact, they all were delighted with our decision to make a film about him and, moreover, focus on his early years. I am quite careful with how many festivals I enter as they are very time consuming and can eat into your local audience rather than build it up. On the other hand, I do love attending festivals and seeing other films and meeting some film-makers.  As ever, there simply isn’t enough time to do everything.  The main thing was that in both cities – so closely associated with Picasso – the film was received really well – not one word of criticism from anyone.  Sadly there was a hastily organised general election on the first day the film was released to Spanish cinemas which hurt us badly.  But the distributors intend to repeat the film soon.


03 Sunflowers and 5 screen installation © David Bickerstaff.jpg

3 – We have recently finished a special commission for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  There are 5 paintings on display around the world of Van Gogh’s sunflowers in vases.  These are in Amsterdam itself, then Philadelphia, Tokyo, Munich and London. They rarely travel and are never seen together.  Until now.  We filmed each of them and created an installation of 5 vertical screens showing the paintings alongside one another.  This has just gone on display at a fascinating new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum focussed on the recent conservation of their sunflowers in a vase painting.  We are now in the process of making a film about these paintings and indeed the sunflowers and its history through art for Season 8 of EXHIBITION ON SCREEN.  We have already filmed some wonderful interviews and new scientific discoveries.  Watch the film if you want to see how the paintings looked when they were first painted. You’ll be amazed.



4 – Russia is quite frankly a pain to get to. It’s the most complicated visa process (and not cheap) but once you’ve arrived in a city like St. Petersburg, you can put that behind you and begin to enjoy the experience. St. Petersburg is fascinating, somewhat wild and stimulating all at the same time.  This is the third time I’ve been and the first time I’ve seen it in the sun (albeit with a chill from nearby Finland at all times).  I was filming in the majestic Hermitage – perhaps the biggest art museum in the world –  that is really quite extraordinary and, as you’d imagine, full of treasures.  We know the gallery well and it is always a pleasure to work with them.  This time I was there primarily to film their two Leonardo paintings The Madonna Litta and The Benois Madonna.  There is fierce competition to be this museum’s most popular artwork but the Hermitage’s director told me that it remains the Madonna Litta.  The attribution to Leonardo is not undisputed but it is certainly a remarkably beautiful painting.   We were filming on the day the gallery was shut to the public and thus had all the time we needed to film them which meant I also really got to look very closely.  A few special tour groups passed by and what struck me was that no-one looked longer than it took to take a snap on their phones.  Crazeee.


5 – Australia and New Zealand have always been firm supporters in our films and I have made a point of visiting cinemas there every year or two. It has become harder of the last few years as we have more competition in the arts area and indeed in the area of Event Cinema more generally but we receive so many emails and Facebook/Instagram comments from both these countries that motivate us to keep delivering new films to ever more cinemas.  What I particularly love about both countries – apart from the wonderful landscapes and much more besides – is not just how enthusiastic in person our audiences are but how knowledgeable they are too – the question and answer sessions are always really interesting.  It is a long way to go but I can’t wait to return.

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Thanks for reading!

From New York to West Palm Beach and many stops in between…

OK, America, it has to be said that you still don’t know what good coffee is (in hotels at least) nor bacon nor apples (import them from Britain please!) and a barely audible ‘uh-huh’ is not how to respond when someone says ‘thank you’ but there are so many things I love about this wonderful country that I always enjoy my trips here. Luckily some of those things are in the worlds I inhabit on my visits – namely art museums, cinemas and, when I get the time, running.  Many countries have great galleries but no country has so many in so many cities…I have just visited a few in New York, Washington, Richmond & West Palm Beach.  But that hardly scratches the surface: think LA, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver, Toledo, MoMA, Met, LACMA, the Getty and so many more.  Yes, it’s largely down to historic economic power that these collections have come to be but that’s no different to anywhere else and no worse than through historic military power which helped create so many of the European collections.

So, a few days in the USA – and visiting as many galleries as I can. Plus a few screenings of both an encore film I, CLAUDE MONET as well as a new release CÉZANNE – PORTRAITS OF A LIFE. Plus a bit of research for a film we have in production which is yet to be announced (stay tuned)! Plus various other meetings…  A busy few days indeed.  What made it great fun though was the daily visit to a different cinema to introduce a film and then take questions afterwards.  I have been visiting American independent cinemas for 15 years and they just get better and better but above all it’s the audiences I like. They are always so enthusiastic, interested and gracious. There are many Americas – just as with any country – and one has to distinguish between the rather two-dimensional America that might be presented on the nightly news from the multi-faceted one you’ll meet for yourself.  It’s a huge country and, like English churches, there are way too many cinemas for one person to ever visit in one lifetime, but the response EXHIBITION ON SCREEN has had this week has been fantastic across the board and will keep me coming back. You can’t help but be encouraged by such an enthusiastic response.

The third aspect I really enjoy in the USA, on a personal level, is a simple one: running. On this visit I have run along the Hudson in NY, the C&O canal and Potomac in DC, the James in Richmond, the Atlantic Ocean in West Palm Beach – it’s a great way to explore. But watch out for the police guarding President Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach – I am not sure what they thought a sweaty runner could do but they didn’t want to take the risk of finding out, that’s for sure. Despite that, and although ten days is a long time to be out of the office, I look forward to coming back soon!

Vancouver International Film Festival

The last time I checked there were over a thousand film festivals a year – so that’s three a day.  No doubt that figure is increasing all the time.  So how and why does a filmmaker attend a festival? In my time, I have been to plenty all around the world – all are distinctive for one reason or another, and some are certainly more useful than others as far as distributing one’s new film is concerned.  One thing they do share is that they are a great place to see great films that you almost certainly will never otherwise have seen.

I know how hard it is to raise the funds to make decent films so I am always taken aback by how many good films do get made.  So, comment no.1 would be if your city has a festival, go every day and see as many films as possible.

As someone who adores documentaries I love going to festivals just to watch films. However, I simply don’t have time so I have to choose really carefully.  So, some will go to a festival to try and pick up distribution.  Festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Cannes are full of new work looking for a home with someone who will bring them to the world. As we distribute our own films, that’s not relevant to me.  Plus I’m personally no fan of those hugely busy events where everyone is just a little bit too concerned about how they look and who’s there to notice.

Another reason to enter a festival to present your film for the first time to a paying audience and see what they think.  That is certainly one of the reasons I love Vancouver – the crowds are enthusiastic, informed and (it’s that Canadian thing!) very nice!  Reason no.3 is to pick up early reviews.  This is actually pretty important – you need reviews for the poster, the social media campaign and so on.  The one great thing about films is that they get far more reviews than anything you’ll do for TV or digital. Reason no.4 might be to pick up an award.  We’ve won plenty and I’ve no idea whether it has made much difference but it’s still nice.  Our new Hockney film picked up an Audience Award in its first screening and that was a great boost to us all.

Reason no.5 is festivals can be great fun. Again, Vancouver is my absolute favourite festival partly for that reason – they do everything right and look after us film-makers really well.  So, for example, instead of one big dinner for all the filmmakers that can be uncomfortable if you don’t know anyone and no-one has the sense to make introductions, Vancouver does small intimate lunches of 6-8 filmmakers each day. Much better and much more valuable.  Reason no.6: it can take you to some great cities – I still regret turning down festivals in Tehran, Kathmandu, Tallinn, Skopje, Busan, Kiev, Doha, and plenty more.  On the other hand, I’ve been to plenty of others and had a great time.

But I’ll come back to the reason that I think we all need to remember: there is no better place to see a film than in a cinema.  Most of the films I have seen this week in Vancouver have been excellent and, if I had seen them at all, it would almost certainly have been on my laptop. Please, I encourage you to buy my DVDs and download my films BUT the best place to see any film is in the cinema. Yesterday, I watched my own film David Hockney at the RA on a huge gorgeous screen at the VanCity Cinema in Vancouver – the quality of the sound and picture was out of this world.

That was a tough project for various reasons but yesterday all that was forgotten and it brought a tear to my eye.

Art Makes Us indeed.