Looks like a release might be on the cardshttp://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents ... 1329560247
When Harvey Keitel strode the streets of Glasgow
Filmed in Glasgow with a first-rate cast in 1979, Death Watch languished in relative obscurity – until now. Director Bertrand Tavernier recalls the shoot with Richard Mowe
When French director Bertrand Tavernier was trying to find British backers for a futuristic film he wanted to make in Glasgow, he found a chorus of disapproval and dire warnings about the fate that would await him.
As he scouted locations for Death Watch in the winter of 1979, he was told by UK producers David Puttnam and Sandy Lieberson, among others, that he would be attacked and his equipment stolen.
"What they were describing sounded 10 times worse than the Bronx," says Tavernier, reclining with arms gesticulating in all directions in a capacious armchair in the Grand Hotel in Paris – an apt setting for any filmmaker, this being where the inventors of cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, premiered their early silent films in 1895 at the Cafe De La Paix.
Tavernier was forced to find his production partners outwith the UK. Undaunted, he came back to the city to start shooting in the summer of the following year. His entourage included Harvey Keitel (just turned 40 and reaching the peak of his powers), Romy Schneider (considered one of the most beautiful and intelligent talents of her generation), craggy-faced character actor Harry Dean Stanton, eminent Swedish thespian Max Von Sydow, Robbie Coltrane in his first movie appearance and a young Bill Nighy, along with locals Freddie Boardley, Paul Young, Ida Schuster and a host of extras culled from the gallus Glaswegian populace. A young filmmaker, Iain Smith, was taken on as location manager and helped persuade the then Glasgow District Council to support the shooting of the film.
"It was one of the easiest shoots I have ever done," pronounces Tavernier, now 70, almost breathing a sigh of relief after all these years. "People were so nice, so friendly and so hospitable. Maybe it was because we were French that we were invited in everywhere."
Death Watch, based on the novel The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by DG Compton, is set in a futuristic world where incurable disease has become an anomaly and the dying have become objects of morbid fascination. As part of a media-dominated, violence-obsessed society, the race is on to satisfy the demands of the viewing public. Death Watch is the ultimate reality TV show – where the audience can watch someone dying for real.
With hindsight Tavernier realises just how prescient the themes have become. "Yes, it was a film that was ahead of its time, but I didn't realise that when I made it. I made it because, first of all, I thought it was a great love story, and it was saying things which were frightening me. I was hoping they would not happen, but many of them have come to pass. When I saw it again recently I was surprised how accurate the film, and the statements made in it, are – about television, about the way voyeurism was introduced and has become so important in many TV shows. There are other things which are interesting – the teachers who are replaced by computers, books which are written by computer and not by real authors, the way the people who are poor are sent away from the cities, which is happening in many places."
Schneider's character, Katherine, has been told she is one of those rare people who will die young. Stanton, as a TV producer, attempts to sign her up for his groundbreaking show. She resists this intrusion of privacy until eventually she takes the money – and runs off, sleeping rough among the rejects of society. At this point she meets Roddie (Keitel), who appears to offer her respite. It just so happens that he has a TV camera implanted in his brain -
"In a way, Death Watch is very autobiographical," says Tavernier. "That does not mean I am like the character of Harvey Keitel, who is filming everything and becomes a human camera. I hope I will not be like that. At the same time, I am a filmmaker, and you have to be bit of a voyeur. Here I had to make a film that was not voyeuristic about somebody who is. It is an interesting moral exercise."
Tavernier takes pride and pleasure in the fact the film still holds up to contemporary scrutiny. "The photography by Pierre-William Glenn is stunning; the music by Antoine Duhamel is great, and I love the acting. Romy always said it was one of her favourite films. She wrote to me afterwards saying it was more than a film, it was a little bit of her soul. Harvey has always championed it. When he came to the Cannes Film Festival for The Piano, he said the only person who believed in him at that time was Bertrand, and Death Watch was his favourite film of that time along with Mean Streets."
It was suggested that the impact of the suicide of her first husband in 1979 informed Schneider's darker and more introspective performance in Death Watch. Only three years later, she suffered a fatal heart attack.
At the time of its original release, the film (otherwise known as La Mort En Direct) proved to be one of Tavernier's least successful titles at the box office. Incredibly it was never distributed in the UK, and the only available print was in poor condition and incomplete. It is fitting that a Glasgow-based company, Park Circus, has been in partly responsible for its restoration and resurrection.
Tavernier's relationship with Glasgow and the rest of Scotland has remained firm, and he is a regular visitor. One of the attractions is his admiration for British director Michael Powell (and his collaborator Emeric Pressburger), which has taken him in their footsteps to Mull, the location of the 1945 classic I Know Where I'm Going.
"I remember vividly the shock I had when I discovered Glasgow. I was much more moved by Glasgow than Edinburgh. It was a city which had a soul, and a past. Maybe it had problems then and it seemed rundown, but it had heart. When I saw the Necropolis, I thought I had to use it for a film set in the future. I thought it would be interesting to have a science-fiction film that used 18th- and 19th-century buildings, and that would not have any kind of fake special effects."
On a particular day of shooting Death Watch the director was introduced to the city's sectarian divide. He was in an area of houses crumbling around him, which he felt would convey the sense of a world coming apart, and wanted to avoid any touch of colour. "Everything was to be bluish or black in terms of costumes and props. Then I spotted an orange lorry outside a pub. I sent my assistant to ask for it to be moved. Unfortunately it was a Catholic pub and they objected to her using the word 'orange' in their presence. She knew nothing would happen – so she tried again, suggesting they move the red lorry instead. The answer was: 'Of course, we'll do it immediately.'"
Tavernier remembers the Orange parades which passed underneath his hotel window. Harry Dean Stanton seemed completely astonished and insisted on telephoning his friend Jack Nicholson. "I could hear Nicholson on the other end of the line, only half awake and trying to understand what was happening," Tavernier recalls. "Stanton made him listen the Protestant parade. What a wonderful moment." The director returned to religious strife in a historical context (the Protestant-Catholic wars in 16th-century France) for his recent and acclaimed production The Princess Of Monpensier.
Although he appreciates aspects of the "new" Glasgow, he regrets the fact the city centre could be replicated in Paris, Milan or Madrid – with the same shops and the same fast-food outlets. "I am conservative in the sense that change is not always good and the past is not always bad," he says.
Tavernier says he would love to make another film in Scotland because "the light is wonderful and even the rain is acceptable". Displaying a couthy sense of humour, he recalls a Frenchman on the crew expressing amazement when the rain clouds cleared for a day and, unusually, the sun came out. "He told me: 'This year summer was a Wednesday.'"
Le grand Bertrand's guffaws echo around the Grand. It's if it had only happened yesterday.
Death Watch (15) screens at Glasgow Film Theatre as part of the Glasgow Film Festival on February 26 at 3pm. Visit www.glasgowfilm.org/festival
. Park Circus will release the film in cinemas on DVD and BluRay later this year.