Composer-turned-director Gary Tarn is breaking new ground with his approach to film-making. He talks to Chris Evans about his first film, Black Sun, and the dangers of his next project.
'I had to film in Beirut through the tinted window of a bulletproof car. It was eerie, as all around me were deserted buildings and soldiers on every street corner. Two days later, the place was bombed.'
This was UK director Gary Tarn's recent experience when shooting The Prophet, based on Khalil Gibran's book of poetic essays written nearly 100 years ago and said to be an unfilmable masterpiece. 'Other directors have attempted the story - about a prophet who lives in a city by the sea, waiting for ships to arrive - but they pitched it as a robes-and-sandals piece,' Tarn explains. 'There was nothing moving on from what was scripted. I thought the film had to be something more contemporary and personal, inspired by the book.'
Tarn decided to use the narrative as a voiceover and is travelling to places including Beirut, Taiwan, Belgrade and Serbia compiling documentary footage to accompany the words.
He employed a similar technique for his debut film, Black Sun, which was co-produced by Passion Pictures and released last year. It received a Bafta nomination and was picked up by major buyers such as HBO in the US.
Tarn had been working as a composer but was eager to move into film- making. He thought the story of the painter Hugues de Montalembert, who was attacked and blinded in New York in 1978, would be the right project to start with. 'I tracked him down and pitched the idea of doing an experimental documentary, with him supplying the voiceover,' Tarn says.
Armed with a transcript of de Montalembert interviews about the attack and how he coped with blindness, Tarn bought a 1970s 16mm field camera, used by reporters in Vietnam, and shot everyday life in New York and India to accompany the story.
As director, producer and writer, Tarn felt this gave him the freedom to shoot what he wanted without any constraints, and also the chance to experiment with camera techniques. For example, to represent the dreamlike world de Montalembert lives in, Tarn used a $20 macro lens, filters, dirty super-8 and hired a helicopter for an hour for aerial shots.
'When you teach yourself and don't learn by the rules, you do things you are not meant to do,' he says. 'Most of the work was done afterwards in the editing room.'
Mexican film-maker Alfonso Cuaron gave some tips on the rough cut, and Tarn then spent a few months shooting a documentary on issues such as immigration to accompany the DVD release of Cuaron's Children Of Men.
Watching Cuaron at work on a big-budget film, where everything is planned out, was an eye opener for Tarn, who made his film on a shoestring budget. But he insists that 'with less money you can actually become more creative'.
That creativity will soon be turned on fictional projects, as Tarn is developing two narrative features set in the early 20th century.