The Lost Explorer: Tim Walker's Flight of Fancy
The Telegraph, August 2010
By Marion Hume
My lemon-curd-and-honey vision just got darker,' Tim Walker, the fashion-photographer-turned-filmmaker says of his first short film, The Lost Explorer. You may know Walker as the creator of Vogue shoots featuring white rabbits, powder-pink Persian kittens or stately homes covered in balloons. Yet for his first film he was drawn to an unsettling story in the 1989 collection Blood and Water and Other Tales by Patrick McGrath, whom Walker calls 'the apocalyptic Roald Dahl'. The story begins with a child, Evelyn, played by 14-year-old Olympia Campbell, stumbling on a tent among brambles at the bottom of her garden. Inside, an explorer is dying of malaria and clutching a revolver.
The story the adventurer then whispers to Evelyn comes not from McGrath's book but from Walker's memory. 'Ages ago someone told me how, in Victorian times, there were canary clouds over the Atlantic,' he says, referring to the days when a taste for exotic birds meant that clippers sailed back from Africa loaded with cages. Halfway home, they would release the birds, which would soar over the sea, until, too tiny to reach land, they would drop back down to the ship and a life of captivity.
Walker was determined to capture this on film. 'It was the toughest scene,' he says. 'We could afford only 300 canaries, and at the end, the animal wrangler retrieved 287. He put down nuts and seeds and five more appeared, then another seven. By the time the last one came down, it was dusty brown from being up in the rafters.'
According to Robbie Ryan, the Irish cinematographer who worked on Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, whom Walker employed as director of photography, '300 canaries can look like three on film.' He jokes that he had to pay them double to fly round twice. 'Tim's a breath of fresh air, though,' he adds. 'He's so open and he was sponging it all up, because his day job is nothing compared to being on a film set.'
While a normal day for Walker might involve staging a shoot in an art deco mansion in India that hasn't been used since the days of the Raj, the challenges of film proved much greater. 'I've always been about building the story through the visuals, and I had to learn to sacrifice some visuals to tell the story.' As for his decision to hire someone else to hold the camera, he told me, 'that was weird, but I knew I needed to see the whole picture. Robbie's about realism, and when you mix that with the way I view the world, you get magical realism, and we both were so excited by that. My photography can be so sweet and it needed someone to push things the other way.'
Making the 20-minute film seemed like an epic in itself: 'I wanted to launch straight into a feature film, but friends said, "No, you'll get drowned," Walker, says. ‘I was thinking, “I can do big epic fashion shoots, what's the difference?" But they were so right, in every way.' The shoot lasted eight days with a cast of six and a crew of more than 40. The story is simple: disgusted yet fascinated by the Lost Explorer, played by a craggy, dirty-looking Richard Bremmer (Lord Voldemort inHarry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), Evelyn befriends him, keeping his existence, death and burial a secret from her parents. It is a fairy tale with a gently shocking end but it is filled with elements of Walker's imagination, from shadows of moths fluttering against the tent to close-ups of Evelyn dreamily playing among the sheets on the washing-line. And, of course, there is the ghost-ship scene with the canaries.
Shona Heath, who has created the sets for many of Walker's fashion fantasies, worked as his costume and production designer. This meant finding authentic pre-First World War tent canvas, and liberally applying coffee, honey and Marmite to age props. The key difference between working on the film and on a fashion set was, she says, 'a lot less Sellotape and glue. You can't improvise on film. There was one job I did with Tim where I made hats out of cakes, which he took on the plane to Ireland, and not one survived, so I made some paper clover hats instead. But being true to a story means you can't walk too far off the path, so suddenly a kind of discipline appeared while normally in Tim's photography the crazier the better.'
Walker was born in 1970 on the Devon-Dorset border, 'among hedgerows and cliff paths, in the world Cath Kidston has channelled into her empire'. His mother is the cookery writer Lorna Walker (Clever with Cream, The Complete Bread Book), who, together with his late father, Colin Walker, renovated old houses, and he and his older brother Rupert grew up baking, making camps and building dams and tunnels. (Rupert is currently the programme sponsor for Network Rail's multi million pound refurbishment of Reading station.)
Walker's early ambition was to make films, 'but at art school,' he says, 'everyone else was making funny, tight little shorts and I made this 20-minute film and everyone laughed when they weren't meant to.' He began his career as a photographer after coming third in a photography competition for the Independent. He then spent a year immersed in the Cecil Beaton archive during an internship at the Condé Nast library and completed a photography degree at Exeter University before spending another year assisting Richard Avedon in New York. His first fashion commission, for the Independent, was joyfully radical. In an era when every young snapper wanted to find another waif-like Kate Moss, he chose a silver-haired senior clad in Oxfam finds.
He shot his first story for British Vogue 15 years ago, at the age of 25, and has since become a regular fixture in the American and Italian editions, too. His fashion photographs have a sense of theatre and magic about them, and he gleefully goes against the grain of all those images of skinny girls looking glum. The pictures always have a sense of narrative.
Walker's fashion images, collected in the 2008 book Pictures, speak of a world of enchantment – 'watching the bee tapping against the window, the smell of mothballs in the wardrobe, going through it to Narnia,' as he puts it. He loves rambling country piles 'where you can trample on the roses, and inside there's ticking mattresses stacked up and up and up and the dusty badminton set by the door. In London we know where stuff is because we have so little space, but when I shoot in houses in Northumberland, in Suffolk, people say, "I haven't been in this room for five years…" '
Walker's own home is over several floors of an industrial building in Shoreditch, east London. Inside, the urban edge is softened with gingham and bunting. Every inch is adorned – on the bare brick walls posters of John and Yoko rub shoulders with advertisements for village fêtes, geraniums jostle on windowsills with pottery toadstools, and puppets hang from joists.
Walker began filming The Lost Explorer in February and has been editing it with Valerio Bonelli, who worked on Ricky Gervais's Cemetery Junction; he is also collecting a series of film stills for a new edition of the story. While the budget for a one-day advertising shoot can easily top £100,000, that's chump change for a film, despite the fact that everyone, even actors of the calibre of Toby Stephens and Dexter Fletcher, who have supporting roles, worked for free. 'But that was the amount I needed,' Walker says. 'I went round to people I've worked with for years and begged, "Can you help?" and Mulberry was brilliant.'
The quintessentially British brand will host a London Fashion Week screening of The Lost Explorer in September; it made its debut in Locarno, Switzerland, this week, and will be screened on the international film festival circuit. Gela Nash, one half of the Juicy Couture partnership (Walker shoots its advertising campaigns), also gets honourable mention for her support.
Walker's next plan is for the feature film he dreams of making. Currently in his sights is Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory. 'It has been in and out of being optioned. I don't know where it's at now. But that would be the dream project,' he says.