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The story behind the making of Derek Jarman’s The Garden (1990)

Ahead of producer James Mackay’s talk at the Museum on 27 October (which we will also be livestreaming), Garden Museum Curator Emma House delves into the making of Derek Jarman’s experimental Super 8 masterpiece, ‘The Garden’: 

Producer James Mackay met Derek Jarman in 1979 whilst working at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op. In 1981, he established a production and distribution company, Dark Picture, concentrating on new film and video. In the late 1980s after working with Jarman on The Angelic Conversation (1985), he set about raising finances for a feature length film.

Derek Jarman in his garden at Dungeness, by Edina Van Der Wyck

Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage became the setting for his film The Garden (1990), an exploration of sexual repression, homophobia and religious iconography.

Filming on location at Dungeness was a challenge, working with a single 16mm camera, it was far from easy maneuvering the heavy equipment and cables across the shingle.  The film captures the beauty of Dungeness as waves lap against the shingle and the sky turns flame red against the backdrop of the power station.

Still from ‘The Garden’, courtesy of Basilisk Communications

Super 8 film had been Jarman’s original format for producing films. The small compact camera was easy to load and set him free of the restrictions of using a tripod. It allowed for the incorporation of hand-held, free flowing gestures that are possible only with cameras that are light and simple to use. The freedom of the three minute long films meant that the plants in his garden such as ‘poppies with a bee hovering over them’ provided jewel-like pieces of film that Jarman had continued to capture whilst working in his garden and exploring the ness.

These short pieces of film were incorporated into The Garden, giving it a much deeper sense of place. Biographical in its nature, Jarman is captured on Super 8 by friends, featuring repeatedly in the film watering his beloved garden potting up cuttings, preparing the ground for new plants and placing his talismanic rosaries of stones.

As James Mackay recalls, Jarman ‘created a social way of making films. On one level they’re very serious, and on another level they’re a lot of fun, both to watch and to make.’ The Garden therefore incorporates a team of Jarman’s friends and collaborators. He commissioned Simon Fisher Turner to produce the soundtrack that adds drama and brings together the collage of Super 8 and 16mm film.

On Tuesday 27 November, James Mackay will be joined in conversation by artist Peter Fillingham, Jarman’s friend and collaborator, a chance to hear two of Jarman’s collaborators relive the making of The Garden.

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