Interview with Keith Sargent, writer, director and producer of ‘Today I Wrote Nothing’

Brighton Rocks International Film Festival is proud to be showcasing ‘Today I Wrote Nothing’ by Keith Sargent, aptly named after the work of the absurdist avant-garde Russian poet, Danill Kharms. By employing his incredible aptitudes in animation, music composition amongst so much more, Sargent has weaved together a beautiful 3-minute experiential film proving that the conception of anything creative can arise out of nowhere. Filmmaker, graphic designer and educator Keith Sargent Sargent was gracious enough to take the time to explain some of the finer components of the film and give us a real glimpse into the mind behind the madness.

‘Today I wrote nothing’ is a mere taste of things to come from Sargent, who has wholeheartedly embraced the backbone of Kharms’ writing and his ability to pause, stop, give up, not be arsed and be playful. The longer piece ‘Fly on Shit’ is awaited with eager anticipation.

You can do things and you can let things happen and make mistakes, which is similar to filmmaking. You have to throw absolutely everything at it so you have a timeline full of shit!

Can you start by telling me a little bit about your film?

It was really something done quickly as part of a larger project which I have been working on for about a year which has 10 different micro-fictions by Daniil Kharms. I was trying to get money to make the extended version and I thought I’ll try Kickstarter. For the campaign I needed to put together a short version or a promo so I used all the stuff I’ve been working on to create ‘Today I Wrote Nothing’. I did it in about two days and ended up really liking it, so I started putting it into film festivals and within a month I had won 4 awards over different festivals. 

What was the overall inspiration behind the film?

I was making a documentary a few years ago in China about steelmaking and that got me into talking to people who were part of that cultural revolution and the big changes through Mao. From 1916 to 1920s and the 1930s, I found you’ve got this really strange time where so many things were going on and there were all these sort of clashes and changes and of course, everything’s 100 years later now.

It is a weird connection but it brought me to Daniil Kharms’ stories. They are absolutely beautiful because they can go nowhere and they can go somewhere or they are just left open ended. Quite a lot of his writing ends with, and that’s what it is. So unpicking that makes me go over the writing and it becomes very easy to put his stories into another context, because they are so open-ended and they have a beautiful translation to them. 

What about Kharm’s writing spoke to you?

He died when he was a mere 36 or 37 and spent 10 years in an asylum in a botched effort to avoid the gulags. He had lots of bizarre affectations such as changing his name, wanting to look like Sherlock with a deerstalker hat and pipe, and he would imitate people walking down the street as well as embracing the absurdity of the situation at the time. He was known for writing children’s books, but apart from that not a lot of his writing was published and it is still hard to find. He would have ideas and 10 pages of notes about that idea. The structure of his writing is very sparse and sometimes ill-conceived, but I love the way it was written. The idea that something doesn’t have to follow convention or complete with a bang – you get it or you don’t get it. I love the mystery and you don’t really know what he is driving at or why and there is no sense of an ending. You can do things and you can let things happen and make mistakes, which is similar to filmmaking. You have to throw absolutely everything at it so you have a timeline full of shit!

So how do you then take these writings and then put them into a film? 

They start off with a flavour. I have a lot of footage taken during lockdown. I live in a dockyard and take my dog for a walk in what we refer to as the wasteland, which is a place that nobody else really goes to with a Tarkovsky feel to it; polluted with scorched earth. There’s lots of wildlife all amongst abandoned ships, boats and rusting hulks – it has a very “end of the world” feel to it. I started by filming myself in that situation in winter with the dog, and I became this sort of Russian sailor (which allowed for the long grey coat) and then I started to take apart his stories and tried to imagine who the characters would be and the linear structure of one character walking through places. If you haven’t got access to loads of money, actors and performers then you have to make them up, which is why so much is animated. It becomes an easier route, but also filled with problems as it’s quite time-consuming – but at least you’ve got control over the actor.

Can you go into more detail on the style of animation in the film?

I went to St. Petersburg a few years ago and took photos, but they weren’t really good enough to use so I had to try and evoke the feeling of the city – the regency, the buildings and the Eastern European feel. The only way I could really recreate that was through the 3D software, but it all started with the photographs. I wanted it to be black and white because because I felt it was a great way of unifying all the disparate footage and other elements together. From a practical sense, I could also play with the light and dark and control what is being shown. To use a specific example, the man in a tree with a brain is from Kharm’s writing – he looks up into a tree and sees a man waving, then takes his glasses off to clean them, and without them he can’t see the man. When he puts them back on, however, he sees the guy in the tree shaking a fist at him. I was able to embrace the madness of creating this character.

The voiceover is a perfect choice for the piece. How did you come to work with the accomplished Michael Byrne?

I initially used my own voice but didn’t like the sound of it. As well as being a well-known and great actor, Michael happens to be my neighbour so fortunately for me, we agreed the payment would be made with wine. He isn’t very good at reading out loud as he normally learns his lines, but we found a quiet spot in the basement of his house and started work. I kept on asking him to go through the piece and he was tripping over the Russian names and eventually he started to get quite pissed off with me and the sound worked so well. He started reading faster and faster and you could sense the tension and the annoyance so I pushed him, tried some distraction techniques and started feeding him some lines and it came out wonderfully. He has a beautiful voice and was perfect for this and since my festival run, he is only asking for a small percentage of the glut!

Alongside the direction and everything else, you composed all of the music. How did you put the soundtrack together?

I started by listening to lots of red army music, male choirs, a lot of music from Dr Zhivago on top of some Russian Slavic music, and then it was a case of putting it all together. There are 10 different parts to the full-length film, so there is a lot more but I think ‘Today I Wrote Nothing’ is the most laid-back. It was a lot of fun trying to make it all fit – folk music, Russian armies marching down the street and some sort of religious laments. It all goes back to Tesla – he was able to visualise the entire scope of his inventions, how the machine would work, how the electricity would flow, but the biggest challenge for him was actually putting pen to paper, so he missed out on a lot of patents. Whilst having these visions he would hear music with influences from Turkey, the Middle East while taking in so many more flavours of that time. I tried to do the same with the Russian music and get myself into a transient state to feel it.

What are your hopes for the film? 

For it to be seen, for folks to want to see the longer version, and to introduce the world to Daniil Kharms.

‘Today I Wrote Nothing’ screens at 7.15pm at Fabrica on Saturday the 23rd of July as part of BRIFF’s 15th screening programme. 

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