Richard Billingham translates his ‘80s working class family photography to the big screen

Richard Billingham translates his ‘80s working class family photography to the big screen
Portrait of a West Midlands Council estate — Artist, photographer and Turner Prize nominee Richard Billingham grew up on a Birmingham council estate in the dark days of Thatcher’s 1980s. His own family’s everyday struggle and battles with alcoholism inspired his iconic project Ray’s a Laugh. Now he's planning to reinterpret his work as a feature film.

Artist and photographer Richard Billingham came to fame among a wave of young British artists in the 1990’s with his photography project Ray’s a Laugh. Inspired by his experiences growing up in a council flat in Thatcher-era Birmingham during the 1980s, Billingham’s photographs documented the fluctuating dynamics and struggles of his close-knit family. Twenty years after their publication, Billingham is expanding his work into a feature film, which is currently seeking donors via a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.

Billingham’s video work initially began as an art installation that screened at galleries worldwide, a short film inspired by the alcoholism of his father. Self-confined to his small, bare bedroom, Ray drinks the days away – listening to Dusty Springfield and watching birds fly past his window.

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Inspired by the installation’s warm reception, Billingham then decided to expand the piece into the 40-minute film as it exists today. Titled Ray, the short further explores Ray’s character while introducing two others: his carer Sid, and estranged wife Liz (played by a surprisingly engaging Deirdre Kelly, aka Benefits Street‘s White Dee).

Now a sort of ‘pilot’ for the proposed feature film, to be titled Ray & Liz, Ray is a compelling kitchen sink drama, with the small-scale stakes of a Raymond Carver story, and shot with the quiet voyeurism of vintage Terence Davies – Distant Voices, Still Lives could be its generational ancestor. Cinematographer Daniel Landin, fresh off the Jonathan Glazer masterpiece Under the Skin, also helps make the most banal of locations look extraordinarily beautiful, with one of the most sumptuous colour palettes you’re likely to see in a low-budget art film.

For producer Jacqui Davies, expanding the work into a feature film would not only try and fill an intellectual gap in a market dominated by very commercial work, but also helped open up an entirely new form of storytelling for Billingham. “Installations and art have a reputation for being very steely and cold,” she said during a post-screening Q&A at London’s Arts Club, “while film offers the opportunity of emotion and feeling.”

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Billingham himself refers to his filmmaking process as a “reproduction of memory,” one enhanced by the film’s shooting location: the exact same block of flats as the one he grew up in. Despite initial concerns of just how cast, crew and equipment could all fit into a cramped council flat bedroom, Davies rented out a nearly identical flat for filming, one located on the same floor that Billingham spent his childhood.

Designed as the first part of a triptych of interconnected stories, the proposed feature film is currently seeking donors to cover much-needed development work including casting, production design and location scouting.

Photo: Richard Billingham, from Ray's a Laugh

Photo: Richard Billingham, from Ray’s a Laugh

More information, a list of donor rewards, and a proposal trailer can be found at the Ray & Liz Kickstarter.

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