British Vogue, September 2010
By Charlotte Sinclair
The plot of fashion photographer Tim Walker’s first short film comes as little surprise to those familiar with his dreamy, nostalgic pictures. The Lost Explorer is based on a Patrick McGrath short story in which a young girl, Evelyn, finds a Victorian explorer in a tent at the bottom of her garden, fevered with malaria and muttering about pygmies. It combines innocence with the macabre, the exotic with Fifties suburbia – familiar tropes from Walker’s photographs. “It’s the Cottingley fairy thing, something at the bottom of the garden that shouldn’t be there,” says Walker. His film captures the sadness of suburbia, the boredom and stultification. “It’s about a child with a vivid imagination and that moment when she moves towards adulthood. The Lost Explorer takes her into adulthood. He’s a figment of her imagination, but, for Evelyn and the viewer he’s real.”
It’s a melancholy, beautiful and strange film – just like one of Walker’s photographs. His pictures locate fashion in a place that’s stuffed with the iconography of childhood and the surreal, where models become dolls, float on water, or on clouds, all in captivating locations – whether that’s a granny’s garden or a palace in Rajasthan. In this respect, The Lost Explorer is an extension of his photographs, with its close-up shots of Evelyn’s milky skin reflected in a hand mirror, and the dust-moted winter sunlight. The hand of Shona Heath, the set designer and Walker’s right-hand woman, can be seen in everything from Evelyn’s costumes to the explorer’s tent, filled with fluttering moths.
“I was almost apologetic in saying I was a fashion photographer, but the film industry is fascinated by fashion,” says Walker. “There’s no snobbery. Fashion photography works in fantasy and escapism, which is what film deals in too.” So when it rained for two days before the eight-day shoot began, “turning the garden into a quagmire”, Walker was better prepared than most novices – this is a man who’s hiked through the jungle of New Guinea for a Vogue picture, after all. A greater challenge was a dream sequence in which 300 canaries flit around a huge glass armada. “If I was photographing that set, I would spend three days working in that room, and you’d get two pictures that capture the beauty of it,” says Walker. “We had to do this scene in a matter of hours.”
“With photography, you’re always freezing a moment rather than liberating it,” Walker explains of his move to film. “There have been so many times when I’ve been taking a picture and I see something beautiful happen, like wind blowing through the set, and I thought, ‘If only we were filming that.’” He’s under no illusions at the cynicism his move to film may provoke. “There are so many fashion photographers who have gone into film as if it’s their God-given right: ‘I am a photographer therefore I am a film-maker.’ You might as well say ‘I am a photographer, therefore I am an architect.’ The disciplines are so different.”
Walker began to write his own script, The Book Trap, about a boy who gets caught in a book, but it was too long for a first effort. Remembering McGrath’s story, he went to New York to meet the author. “I poured my heart out and explained why The Lost Explorer was so important to me. We left on good terms, and I sent him my book of photographs. A few days later he emailed me saying that, after seeing my pictures, he understood why I wanted to make the film.” A friend of Walker’s, writer and broadcaster Kit Hesketh-Harvey, adapted the script.
Fashion turned fairy godmother when it came to stumping up cash for the project. Mulberry, looking to support cultural projects, funded a chunk of the film, as did Juicy Couture founder Gela Nash-Taylor.
Walker took advice from Tim Burton – “character is king” – and Anthony Dod Mantle, the cinematographer for Lars von Trier. “Anthony told me that there are three important rules in film: that the story comes first, then the acting, and, lastly, the visuals.” Concentrating on the acting and performances was an unnerving prospect. “Everything is mute in photography,” says Walker. “It was awkward in the beginning, especially working with actors who are as experienced as Toby Stephens and Julia Davis.” The film also features cameos from Dexter Fletcher and Jessica Hynes. It’s impressive casting – and they performed for nothing. Most difficult was the casting of the two central characters: Evelyn and the explorer. With both, luck and instinct played their parts. Walker’s home is located in a cobblestone cul-de-sac in East London. There are old warehouses, a car yard, and a few rickety houses, and in one – from his kitchen window – Walker spied his explorer. “He was very tall, and skinny and wizened and strange-looking. I thought, ‘That’s him.’ Then I saw a picture of him in the Evening Standard and realized that he was an actor, called Richard Bremmer.”
When considering Evelyn, a plucky 12-year-old, Walker thought immediately of Olympia Campbell, architect Sophie Hicks’s daughter, whom he had photographed and remembered for the arresting way she stared into the camera. Still, to make sure, Walker saw 40 or so girls, “ranging from complete beginners to supersonic Nanny McPhee kids,” before trusting his first instinct and casting Hicks.
Film has been an exhausting, addictive experiment, one that Walker hopes to continue with a full-length feature. “I love photography. If film becomes a medium through which I can express myself more clearly, then I’ll do it. But it’s not a choice. It allowed me to see my taste in a different way. Though,” he smiles, “having finished the film, all I want to do is go and take photographs for a few months.”