Words Kirk Truman
Photography Erin Barry
“Without stories civilisation would wither and die. They are the basis of everything we do: fantasy, religion, education, projection and motivation. Stories recounted by your elders embellished by history and conjecture are endlessly fascinating.”
Films, like any art form, are made through patience, diligence, collaboration and creative thought. Every frame of a film that you have seen did not simply occur, they were brought to life by intensive decision making and a multitude of ideas both creatively and financially. Each character and set, crafted and enhanced beyond its norm, translates onto screen due to the myriad of technicians employed through its trajectory. A chief lighting technician or “Gaffer”, Julian White tells me of his past, his career in the film industry and his painting.
Born in Amersham, 1966, Julian has always been something of a wanderer. When he was 2 months old, his parents moved to Senegal, West Africa. 3 years later, they moved to Stockholm and then to Bombay at the age of 6. He attended Highgate boys’ school for one year before moving to a large Cambridgeshire comprehensive.
During this time, a friend of his Italian grandmother gave Julian a set of oil paints and took him for a day’s painting in the Italian countryside. He tells me of the result of this trip: “My mother has that painting hung in her kitchen. It wasn’t a masterpiece but it was something I enjoyed. The smell of the paint and oil was enough. Back home drawing and painting opened up another world.” Encouraged by his parents and art teachers, he soon made it his main goal in life to draw and sketch the local farmlands at weekends and painting every day, describing it as ‘the only thing in the world.’
After an arts foundation course at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, he concluded his BA at the Liverpool School of Art: “I loved my foundation course.” He says of his studies, “Unfortunately, my degree wasn’t quite the same. The last place I wanted to be was at college.” It was by happy chance that Julian met another student, Michael Hurst: “Mike was a local to Liverpool, he had a rich knowledge in the culture of Liverpool’s art scene and already dabbling in films and performance art.” I’m told of this burgeoning friendship. “Bumping into him in the canteen, we chatted briefly and we agreed to try and make some kind of art. We worked together for the next five years, constructing performance art pieces as well as making personal films for our degree; graduating in 1988.” At the time he had begun to do some lighting for the Bluecoat Performing Arts Centre, including world music acts, one night theatre and dance pieces such as Sun Ra, Ken Campbell, Ian McCullogh and Fugazi. Since he had no training or prior knowledge in this art form, each day became a day of learning.
The last year of college saw his life begin to take a turn for the worst; His eldest brother died of cancer, he lost his father to a fatal cardiac arrest, life’s grim realities were beginning to hit home. By the age of 24 he had become a home owner, a husband and a father. Having left the world of performing arts after the death of a collaborator and friend, Julian found that he needed to get some work. A colleague of his, who had started working at Mersey TV, suggested a job in the arts department, although he had some reservations about accepting: “I did it, but never really synched with it. I just needed the money. The problem became ‘why I was doing it…’ my motivation was a life that I never imagined or really wanted.”
The gap began to widen between what he wanted to do and what he had to do. In the frantic scurry to bail out his family, but without the any real life-skills at his disposal, Julian began to lose sight of who he was: “My first real act of growing up had begun. All of the pieces of the jigsaw I thought were destined to fit had changed shape. The picture was blurred and I couldn’t work out what was relevant anymore,” he says.
Seeing his mother losing a son followed with the birth of his own, Felix, the circle seemed to turn inwards on itself. In less than two years of college, it was almost impossible to recognise what his life had been and what he wanted to be. Removing himself from “the equation” in an attempt to come to terms with it all, Julian made the difficult decision to go to Seville. “The only way you can get true focus, perspective, is distance, objectivity,” Julian muses.
He left in a £200 car with all of his possessions and, after nearly a week of driving in a broken down, over-heating car, and sleeping in the boot, he made it. It was in Seville that Julian was to meet New Yorker, Christina Boehm, now his partner, he attributes his success in finding a balance solely to her: “We met almost within three weeks of arriving. Within a month we had moved in together. On paper it should never have been. We celebrated our 22 year anniversary in August, Cristina was the making of me. She’s my life and my soul mate,” he explains.
Upon their return to England, Julian and his now partner, Christina, spent some time in Brighton before making their way to London, or, more specifically, Fitzrovia. Julian tells of this return: “I’d spent the early months of 1991 sharing a small flat in Gosfield Street with a friend and really enjoyed it, so we decided to look in W1. It seemed such a fantasy but, having lived here now for over ten years, we couldn’t live anywhere else in London.” He expresses the inherent homeliness of the area, “Everything is at your fingertips, there’s all you need, including the community. Many of the shopkeepers, café owners and restaurateurs we know by name and feel a sense of belonging. Considering we live between the ‘river of cars’ that is Euston Road and the ‘river of people’ that is Oxford Street, it’s amazing that anything living or cultured could exist. This area of London, including Soho, Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Mayfair has always been deep in cultural, political and artistic endeavour. From Karl Marx to Jimi Hendrix it has had some of the most interesting feet in history walking its pavements.” I instantly recognise the feeling as he relays it to me.
Julian sees his painting as a way of creating something in isolation where film-making is something of a different beast altogether: “When I’m working on a film it is collaborative, which I like, but I’m part of it but not ‘it’. It isn’t solely mine, I share it. It imposes limitations on me which I accept. Others problems are my problems and vice versa.” He says of the difficulties encountered in collaborative project, “My art, however, has no such limitations, when I stop painting the painting stops. If the painting is bad it is my fault. I love them both. I guess when I leave as a physical body I feel a need to leave some unique impression to state I existed.”
Julian’s career in film has humble beginnings; it started with him working as an electrician until progressing to working as a gaffer. Over the past 15 years, his career has thrived and he has moved further into the film industry. Some of the earlier projects Julian worked on include the 2004 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel, ‘Enduring Love”]’, Hanif Kureshi’s 2006 film, ‘Venus’, a Vietnam war film by celebrated director, Werner Herzog, even ‘The American’ a 2009 thriller set in Italy that stars George Clooney, although it is the 2007 profile of the late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, ‘Control’ that he describes as his favourite film experience. Most recently, he’s almost finished with the long and demanding hours working on Brian Helgeland’s ‘Legend,’ with Tom Hardy as infamous gangsters, Ron and Reg Kray. Despite the impressive resume, such jobs still seem to surprise Julian as he tells me about his thoughts on being in the business: “I never expected to work in the film industry and am proud to have made 27 films. I wish my dad had been alive so I could have introduced him to Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine and John Hurt among others. My father was a big influence on my decision to keep on in the industry. I’m sure he would have been thrilled to meet his heroes” he says.
Julian’s father seems to have had a major influence in his career. In Bombay, he ran a cinema club which Julian would often visit and upon returning to England, his father took him to see Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane and other classics at the local Community Centre’s cinema club: “He seemed to be rather lapse on enforcing the films certification” Julian laughs.
Making films is never a solitary activity and, in his work, Julian meets hundreds of people in short spaces of time with whom he finds himself working alongside during the long inhospitable hours. As tedious as this may sometimes get, however, Julian likes to on the bright side of the situation: “With it come huge amounts of camaraderie, laughter, banter and emotional support. It can be an 18-23 hour day with few pauses. By standing in the snow, hail, rain, blazing sunshine and wind swept desolate landscapes, sometimes all night, you see how people are and can be. Pressure brings out people’s emotions; who are fighters and who are healers? Who can see their way through the complexities of the project? It can be the best and the worst place to be” he explains. Julian currently lives with his girlfriend, Cristina along New Cavendish Street. A neighbour and friend, we once lived only 2 doors down the corridor from one another in our apartments in Collingwood House, now we still meet from time to time for coffee, another part of the puzzle that makes up Fitzrovia.