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From 'Hackers' to Highbrow

Iain Softley departs his pop-culture past to tackle a Henry James classic, 'The Wings of the Dove.'

November 02, 1997|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in England, is a regular contributor to Calendar

"I also knew the environment. I was familiar with Venice. I had its architecture, images and visual vocabulary in my mind. 'Wings' may be perceived as a bigger film, but to me it felt like a comfortable process."

This sounds confident and assured for a man widely assumed to be relatively new to movies. In fact, Softley has been making films of one kind or another for the last 15 years. He was born and grew up in western London, and became interested in music and painting. He took a year out of academic work at 18 and went to France where, he said, "I painted a lot, traveled around, and first saw cinema in a different way. I got my film education in little independent cinemas in Paris."

At Cambridge University he studied English, and directed and designed theater productions: "I realized quite soon I was overloading them with visual trickery and had a yearning for that dimension offered by film." While still at Cambridge, he made a couple of small films.

He spent a year as an assistant designer, then began work with a local documentary unit at Britain's Granada TV, a breeding ground for filmmakers. In later years he joined the BBC in Southampton, on Britain's south coast, and made 30 "auteur documentaries" for TV, usually short subjects about some aspect of pop culture, over a two-year period.

While still at the BBC, he started looking for a rites-of-passage story to make into a feature film, and came upon photographs of Stuart Sutcliffe taken around 1960 by Sutcliffe's girlfriend, German photographer Astrid Kircherr. They gave him the inspiration to start developing the film that would become "BackBeat." He probably wouldn't deny that "The Wings of the Dove" is, in a very different way, a rites-of-passage story too.

"I was adamant, and Hossein agreed: It was a film for young audiences," Softley said. "This is about people in their 20s, making decisions early in life. I didn't want to make a literary adaptation for a more genteel audience. 'BackBeat' was about a love triangle, a film which worked on an intimate level of human relationships. And in 'The Wings of the Dove,' that's exactly what's at the core."

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