Consuming obsession is the leitmotif of Masterpiece

Jonathan Brooks-Jones watches the premiere of Welsh director Andrew C. Tanner’s second film

Masterpiece, Barry-based director Andrew C. Tanner’s second film, co-written with Rhys Hills, depicts the story of a writer struggling to keep it together as he writes his first novel. His first film, Psychosomatic, was nominated for awards at film festivals in Swansea, Thailand and Los Angeles.

In Masterpiece Martin, played by Scottish actor Mark Paul Wake, is an English graduate who now works as a hotel porter. One night he awakens suddenly with a brilliant idea for a novel. He gets to work immediately and becomes increasingly obsessive, neglecting his personal welfare and relationships with others, especially with girlfriend Kate (played by Sarah-Louise Tyler). The film opens with the quote ‘Creation is pain, when we create we must also destroy’, followed by a flash-forward to some point near the end of the film, of Kate breaking up with the haggard Martin. The viewer is aware right from the start that it will not be an easy ride.

Making Masterpiece

Tanner is himself an example of a committed creative talent. A part-time shelf-stacker at Waitrose, he took just a month off to make this film, and has been editing it in his spare time for over a year since. After receiving no interest from local businesses, he decided to take out a bank loan of £2,500. This was stretched to cover on-set meals for cast and crew, modest fees for the two leads, rent of film locations, make-up, and travel expenses.

Tanner’s has succeeded in attracting a team of committed cast and crew, most of them working pro-bono, either out of love for the film or faith in his abilities. Not least Neil Jones (Executive Producer), with Burn Hand Film Productions, who also assisted in maintaining low production costs by sourcing filming equipment on a low-percentage commission.

We are then guided through the events leading up to that moment, through ten or eleven chapters. While it may seem like an obvious motif, the film’s ‘chapters’ signify more than just the fact that it is about a novel. They reflect both Martin’s progress in writing, and the increasing depths of his descent into hallucinatory turmoil.

While it is clear that Tanner has absorbed a range of cinematic influences, for instance a number of cut-away hallucinated visions are reminiscent of Japanese horror, the most strongly felt is that of Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan). The story is reminiscent of Pi, in which a paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature. However, in Masterpiece, Martin’s relationships are as central to the film as his inner quest to write his novel.

And it is not just his relationship with his girlfriend that is impacted by his obsessive writing. Though Martin has graduated, he still attends the University reading group led by Rod Jonas, played brilliantly by Boyd Clack (Satellite City, Belonging, Baker Boys), also working out of love for the script. It is clear that Rod has achieved critical acclaim in the past, and is therefore a reliable source of wisdom for Martin. While it doesn’t get as much screen-time as other aspects of the film, his role as mentor is a key feature of the plot. Ultimately it is this relationship that saves Martin’s sanity from disappearing completely, thus providing a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

One of the most effective scenes in the film is when Martin visits Rod at his home, with the feeling that all is lost. But Rod tells him, “Novels are not written, they are rewritten. All writers become obsessed with words. We need to trust ourselves more. Trust our instincts.”

Both cinematography and sound play active roles in conveying Martin’s condition, and both are clearly an integral part of Tanner’s approach to film making. We hear a range of distorted rumbling sounds, sharpening the discomfort of watching Martin’s life spiral out of control and giving an impression of his confused thoughts. Aside from these ambient effects, the music used in the film also heightens the increasing tension and unease.

The score makes no small use of Satie’s subtly discordant Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies. These are played, sometimes with barely contained force, by pianist Andrew Jones. While these pieces dominate much of the score, two additional songs were supplied by Cardiff-based singer-songwriter, Meilir. One of these contributions is especially well placed, giving an early clue to the fate of Martin and Kate’s relationship in a scene illustrating the happier side to their life together. It is a love scene which, while filmed in hazy afternoon sunshine, is accompanied by Old Road 101, a conflicted song which at first does not sound out of place, yet contains the hook-line I’m walking down this road, to break your heart and see you die.

Masterpiece is not a perfect film. Some scenes drag slightly, and more scenes depicting the happier side of Martin and Kate’s relationship would have been useful in creating more empathy with her character, which seems to change suddenly from being supportive to nagging.  That said, there is a lot  that is impressive. There are subtle indications of where Martin’s path could lead. Will he end up more like Rod, or the highly literate alcoholic he meets in a pub? And many of the effects are well crafted. It is clear that as much attention to detail has been spent on post-production as on script-writing and casting.

The film also contains a powerful message about obsessive creativity. Towards the end of the film, Martin locks himself away to try and complete the novel. This, at first, seems only to exacerbate his situation. However, it turns out to be his wisest, though his most agonising, decision. This reminds me of a line from MacNiece’s poem, Thalassa: “Let your poison be your cure”. Once you start down the path of going too far, sometimes you must continue in order to emerge on the other side. If Martin had turned back, his novel would remain unfinished, and he would have nothing to show for the turmoil and destruction of his social and emotional life. As Rod puts it, “Don’t hold back, but beware: it can consume you, if you let it.”

Masterpiece premiered at Chapter Arts Centre last week, and Tanner has since been sending copies to a range of international Film Festivals and distribution companies. He must now play the waiting game. Watch this space.

To watch the official trailer, click here.

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for ClickonWales

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