Artist portrait

Filmmaker Will Sharpe on bringing to life Louis Wain, the eccentric artist who painted psychedelic cats
By Cal Brockel | Film+TV | 17 February 2022
Photographer Paul Phung
Stylist Keeley Dawson.

Knitwear, rollneck, trousers and shoes all by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello FW21

Will Sharpe is a writer and director best known (so far) for the perceptive comedy-drama series Flowers. The show, featuring Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt, tells the story of the Flowers family as they battle depression, mania and each other. It found the absurd and the relatable in the strange experience of being human. Now Sharpe has teamed up with Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company SunnyMarch for a feature film: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain – the story of Wain [played by Cumberbatch] and his inimitable and influential cat paintings that changed Britain’s relationship to our felines. It’s an energetic and inspired telling of the life of an artist overlooked by history and marginalised in his own time. It’s also about cats.

At the same time, Sharpe has also had critical acclaim for his HBO true-crime series Landscapers, boasting an incredible cast of British talent including David Thewlis, Karl Johnson and long-time collaborator Colman. It tells the true story of a mild-mannered British couple that spent fifteen years on the run, profiting from their role in a terrible crime.

This interview took place in November 2021 for The HERO Winter Annual 2021.

Cal Brockel: I’m excited to talk about The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. How did you first get involved?
Will Sharpe: I was sent the project by SunnyMarch and his [cat] pictures seemed weirdly familiar to me. I wasn’t really sure from where. I’d never really heard of him by name and I didn’t know anything about his life, but I felt an immediate connection with his work. I was particularly fascinated by how, on the surface of it, his pictures are just these charming silly tableaus of cats doing human things like playing snooker or gambling in a bar. I noticed that sometimes there’d be an inscription or some little detail that betrayed this underlying fragility or anxiety. There was something interesting about the presentation of such colourful, joyous pictures with something else going on underneath. He’s best known in the art world for his more psychedelic pictures, his so-called ‘Kaleidoscopic Cats’. I really wanted to understand him and in some way get under his skin. I just found him to be a very inspiring individual who led a genuinely quite remarkable life. We wanted this to be a very empathetic treatment of his story. I sometimes think that biopics can feel like a life has been used in service of a movie, and I really wanted this movie to work in service of his life. We wanted to present his life in a way that would hopefully bring an audience to him. To help him to be understood as best we could achieve.

“Louis Wain was somebody who was hungry to understand the world, or to crack it.”

CB: Next to other biopics it feels like it has a much more subjective view. As his mind changes, or his experience of the world changes, the film follows that and becomes less grounded and we experience time the way he does.
WS: Absolutely, yeah. I definitely wanted to try to imagine what it must have felt like to have his mind, and to try to understand where his pictures came from. It would be easy to look him up and think, “Here’s a guy who obsessively drew and painted cats – I guess he was a bit of a weird guy.’’ To have a little chuckle about it and move on. But I felt there was something really beautiful in the way that destiny was handed to him. He was a polymath who had loads of energy, but didn’t really know what he was, or what he wanted to be. He fell in love with a governess, Emily [Claire Foy], and that was a kind of forbidden love. They had to make sacrifices to be together. She fell ill and they adopted a kitten, which at the time was a really weird thing to do. That kitten was a great source of comfort to him and to Emily. I guess there’s an important line in the movie that Sir William Ingram [Toby Jones] has. Lois can’t understand why his cat pictures have brought Sir William joy, and so he replies, “They’re not just cats, are they?” I think that captures how he expresses so much in what are, on the surface of it, very innocent pictures.

CB: The other moment that stuck with me was a conversation between Emily and Louis. He tells her that she makes the world seem beautiful, and she replies that the world simply is beautiful. It felt as though the cats came to represent Louis’ attempts to find that beauty.
WS: Absolutely. I’m glad you got that from watching it. From talking with Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch about the characters’ relationship, we felt like they were both hovering on the outside of society. They never really felt like they were fully connected with the world. When they met each other, they started to feel they could take their armour off and be more open-hearted and appreciate what’s wonderful about the world around them. When Emily is taken away, the big challenge for Lois becomes ‘Can he do that without her there’? In the end that’s the biggest arc, his ability to find some kind of peace and some kind of connection with the world on his own terms.

Coat, shirt and trousers all by Dunhill FW21

CB: I also wanted to talk about the music which I think was really fantastic. It has elements of Victoriana and classical but also this electric sound. How did you come to that soundscape?
WS: The score’s a super important part of this film. I work with Arthur Sharpe, my brother, very closely on everything. Louis Wain was somebody who was hungry to understand the world, or to crack it. He wanted to work out what it ran on. Why did he sometimes feel so out of sorts and confused, and other times so wonderful? He was convinced that there was some kind of electricity in the air. Sometimes he talked about good electricity and bad electricity and how that somehow that held the key to understanding the universe. Arthur felt that it would be too easy to go down the synthesizer-led route, but he wanted to have some kind of electrical feeling in the music. He wanted to favour vintage electrical instruments like the theremin, and also sometimes instruments that aren’t electrical at all but feel electrical, like the musical saw. For me the score is always one of the biggest parts of the world-building process. It’s part of how you create this space in which to get lost for an hour-and-a-half.

CB: This is the first film you’ve made that’s based on a true story. How was that different from a story you’ve developed from scratch?
WS: That’s a really good question. I definitely felt a responsibility to do right by him and to try to understand all the nuances of his life. Of course, I’m always going to fall short of telling it how he would tell it. Maybe that’s why there is necessarily a kind of subjectivity to it. I have to own my own point of view as well. Sometimes you think, “Well, it would be easy to do it this way,” or “It would be convenient if I could solve it this way,” but I don’t think that’s respectful of him, or his life. I think that’s why I talk about this accumulative nature of my appreciation of him. I felt a more complete understanding of him as a human being the more I read about him and the more details I got. The elevator pitch for this film is, ‘he’s the guy who made cats cool’. Before Louis Wain, cats were vermin and he made them funny, charming and cute – that’s why we have YouTube videos of cute cats now. But I always found myself much more interested in him as a human being rather than a historical figure. I just really wanted to get him. There’s a decent amount of historical research on Louis Wain, much less about Emily. There was a certain amount I could extrapolate from whatever evidence was there. She was the kind of person who was happy to make societal sacrifices in the name of love, so that must have made her a certain kind of person.

CB: I was struck by how, while the performance of Louis Wain is idiosyncratic, you resist diagnosing him. You resist saying, “This is what it was and this is how it happened.”
WS: Totally. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic in his day but since then people have contested that theory. Some people think maybe it was a kind of Asperger, some people think maybe it was Bipolar, some people think maybe it was toxoplasmosis, from being around cats for so much of his life. I think we all felt like we needed to be really sensitive about that. He’s not around to talk to us. He’s not around to talk to medical experts. I didn’t want to retro-diagnose him. I just wanted us to look at stuff he’s said, stuff he’d written down and the pictures that he created and to present that to the audience. Simply as a way to help the audience understand him as a person, and not as a subject of mental illness.

CB: In Louis Wain you achieve the same delicate balance between the comic and tragic elements as you did with Flowers. What are your considerations when you are trying to balance those things, and still maintain reality?
WS: I don’t really know to be honest. It’s just an instinct thing really, feeling your way through it and being led by the characters. In Flowers for example, I felt that it was a bunch of characters trapped in a sitcom. Over time the characters all started to challenge their position within that sitcom – ‘What if this is how I actually feel about being this person?’ So I started to peel away the layers. In this film it’s a similar thing. The honest truth is that I find the world very funny, and I sometimes find it very sad. I find it difficult to present it any other way. There’s not a huge amount of science behind it.

“The honest truth is that I find the world very funny, and I sometimes find it very sad. I find it difficult to present it any other way. There’s not a huge amount of science behind it.”

CB: You’ve worked with a lot of the same actors on Louis Wain as you have in the past, but it’s the first time you’ve worked with Benedict Cumberbatch – how was that?
WS: It was unbelievably rewarding and always surprising. He was already attached to the project when I came to it, but as soon as we started talking about it we were absolutely on the same page. I know he feels the same love for Louis Wain as I do. I felt like we were on a shared mission and very quickly became friends and allies in this film. I had a really great time having a few days with just Benedict trying to unpack Lois and getting quite technical. ‘How does he walk? How does he talk?’ There are stories about Lois making up dances in the equivalent of Hackney warehouses, where artists would have these impromptu parties. He would improvise strange dances even though he wasn’t a good dancer. We spent two or three hours trying to work out what that was. It was an intense schedule and that detailed prep meant that, when we were on set, he was able to be very instinctive. We had done our homework so it felt much freer. He’s a producer on the movie and he was very supportive of me as a director. He wanted to understand what my vision for a certain scene was and to deliver that. I felt like it was a really lovely collaboration as well.

CB: And working with the cats was just as gratifying?
WS: They’re very independent minded- creatures. They definitely gave us some real magic. I didn’t want to use CGI because that would make it a different kind of film. I thought it might make it feel like a fantasy film, or a kid’s film. It needs to feel human. I guess I wanted the cats to feel like cats. I wanted them to behave in a cattish way rather than an overly cartoony way. Sometimes that meant we needed to be patient, or adapt, or just move on.

CB: More generally I really like how you depict mental illness and mental health on screen, especially as someone who’s experienced these things myself. You capture the texture, or the feel of it. You’ve talked about how it’s not necessarily intellectual, but do you have a philosophy on how you bring that to screen?
WS: It’s led by feeling – like you say – because, like you, I feel like I’ve been there. I feel like I have a reasonably good sense of when it feels authentic and when it feels like a facsimile of a feeling. I guess in the case of this film, it was trying to understand where his kaleidoscopic cats came from. His family worked in fabric and textiles and he grew up around that. I thought it was interesting that he was surrounded by colours and patterns as a child. And then he fell in love with cats, with Emily. His kaleidoscopic cats are almost like a distillation of something right at the bottom of his psyche. It was really hard to work out how to render that visually and there were drafts that were coming in that felt just too digital. I wanted it to feel psychological and to have heart. In the end we got in touch with Steve Pavlovsky, an analogue visual artist in New York. He had made a few of the references that I was sending to the VFX artists and so one was like, “We should just get in touch with this guy.” He specialises in video feedback which is quite hard to control. It’s quite a random exercise but you sometimes get these really amazing, mesmeric patterns. So we would send him material from the film, and he would send me back hours and hours of footage. Some scenes we projected and then shot back onto 16mm film, I feel like it just gives it a kind of psychological texture. It feels like you’ve gone one step further into his mind, I suppose. One batch was clean processed and that was for the dreamier, romantic good electricity moments; and there was another batch that went to a guy called James Holcombe – one of the few people who still hand-processes film. He was scrunching the film up and putting acid in the bath and deliberately corrupting it so that it would come back really synaptic and distressed. That’s what we use to get you into the more anxious, bad electrical state of mind. It ended up being quite an involved visual process.

CB: It’s interesting you bring up the video art style. It made me think of Derek Jarman.
WS: Yeah – he’s on the mood board!

Jacket, balaclava, worn around neck, vest and trousers all by Givenchy FW21; glasses, Will’s own; socks from stylist’s archive; shoes by Manolo Blahnik FW21

CB: Do you think someone like Louis Wain has a better or worse chance of making a cultural impact today? Someone who is outside the mainstream art world?
WS: That’s an interesting question. I guess I feel like it gives him a perspective that he can’t avoid. He can’t disguise his own point of view. I think that’s part of what I loved about him. He just always seemed to be un-embarrassed-ly himself. But there’s another side of it which is the practical side of making a cultural impact, as you put it. To be able to manage that point of view. That was something Wain didn’t always have. Towards the end of his life, he was discovered in a pauper’s asylum, and that led to this outpouring of love from all the people who had interacted with his work. They wanted to show him some thanks for the way that he had affected their lives. That is a sort of beautiful emancipatory thing that happened to him. I think that’s probably why ultimately, even though he went through some stuff and lived through some difficult times, I thought it was an inspiring story about someone who led a very unusually heroic life. Someone who was heroic in a very particular way.

CB: You’ve also been working on a new HBO show, Landscapers. How did that come about?
WS: Landscapers was sent to me by Sister Pictures, who I worked with on Flowers. It’s a similar thing to Louis Wain where I didn’t really know much about the story going in, but I found myself thinking about it all the time. It’s kind of a compulsion of some kind, I guess. Ed Sinclair’s original script posed some exciting formal challenges as well – ideas about different ways of telling a story which I thought would be really exciting to try and work out with him. I seem to be drawn, in spite of myself, to characters who do sit at odds with the world. It was something about the oddity and the complexity of this romance between Susan and Christopher [played by Olivia Colman and David Thewlis]. I felt that it was strangely beautiful but also deeply macabre and twisted. I really wanted to get under the skin of that and try to work them out. It’s a similar thing where it’s based on a true story. I did feel a great responsibility to be respectful of them but also to be respectful of the victims of the crime. I’m in the last few weeks of post-production on that. It’s been a really exciting project to work on.

CB: When Flowers ended you talked about it containing “All the things you don’t understand, and reaching an accommodation with an inability to understand them.” When I read that I thought, “As a writer where do you go from there?” Do you pull this zen uncertainty forward with everything you go to?
WS: Every project becomes personal in the end I think, because you have to invest so much of yourself in a project to be able to tell it honestly or do it justice. Flowers was the most personal project I’ve made to date in that there were things within that series that I didn’t even realise heading into it that I needed to get off my chest. I can’t remember saying that by the way, but I think what I meant was that I really wanted to give a hopeful message, but I didn’t want to misrepresent the reality of it.

Interview originally published in The HERO Annual 2021. 


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