IN CONVERSATION: IAN BONHÔTE
Ian Bonhôte is an award winning director and producer. Most recently, he directed McQueen with Peter Ettedgui, a powerful documentary that explores the life of fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. It has just been nominated for two BAFTAs.
His career has also earned him credits spanning commercials for Gatorade, Puma, Nike and Pepsi, music videos and short films. He co-founded the Production Company Pulse Films with fellow producers Thomas Benski and Marisa Clifford and now runs Misfits Entertainment.
We spoke to him about his creative roots, his outlook on the current state of the film industry in London and how, in the midst of corporate, money making film distributors and illegal downloads, passion and emotion must still hold sway.
Ian Bonhôte has had a busy year. Having just arrived home (he has lived in London for the past 21 years) from a packed press tour promoting the critically lauded McQueen, he is quick to admit that the film has been shown ‘a lot of love’ since its release. “We have released it in ten territories now and it will roll out worldwide,” he tells us. “We can see that people need this film. They want to be fed this creativity.”
The trajectory Bonhôte’s career has taken began back in his native Switzerland – he was born and raised in Geneva. “I started as a child actor back home,” he explains. “When I was seven years old, I was a bit of a show off so my mother got me into acting. I was in a TV series and a feature film. I did manage to carry on studying and managed to complete a degree.”
Instead of going straight back into acting, Bonhôte immersed himself in the world of club visuals. In the mid-nineties, the electronic music scene was exploding and, along with friends he met on his art course, he began to experiment with images – projecting them on the walls of clubs in Geneva. “This was before you had clubs with 50,000 people dancing around a turntable. It was still very underground. It was always in small clubs or warehouses. There was also a big squatting culture in Switzerland so we would often go and project images in those places too.” In the pre-digital world, Bonhôte was using 16 mm projectors, Super 8 projectors and slide projectors. “It was like leaving an autograph,” he says.
Before moving to London, Bonhôte did a 6-month stint in New York studying film. He quickly realised, however, that London would provide a greater chance of success. “It was booming. I came in September ‘97 and there was no other place on the planet you would want to be as a creative person.” He is clearly frustrated, though, to reflect on how this culture has changed. “It’s sad to witness how there is a system where young creative people can’t afford to live here. Being young and starting with nothing can be an amazing thing, but now the debt that gets accumulated makes things so much harder. It feels like the passion and fire have gone.”
As we talk, he explains that the danger of this climate could result in people only being likely to succeed if they are from a certain class or have access to enough money. “We need the social classes to transcend it,” he says. With this in mind, Bonhôte has been proactive in trying to give chances to less well-known actors. His first feature film, Alleycats, is a testament to this way of working. The feeling resonates so strongly with him that he named his current production company Misfits Entertainment. “Despite the name being used constantly, we chose it because I am definitely more interested in the outsiders.”
Back in ’97, when Bonhôte first moved to London, he put on a monthly night at The Blue Note on Hoxton Square in Shoreditch. He credits the club as being a main factor in the regeneration of the area. This was done in collaboration with other Swiss artists and Bonhôte began to make links with like minded people. At around 20 years old, he was taken under the wing of other ‘club visual guys’ and began to work across the London club scene. “I would finish doing the visuals at 3 o’clock in the morning, pack up and be in bed by 4:30 then up for filmmaking lectures at 9 am. It was tough.”
During this time, Bonhôte met a range of talented artists who have gone on to become acclaimed film directors, editors, writers and producers. He quickly lists Duncan Jones whose credits include Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011) and Norwegian author Bobbie Peers as those he mixed with. “I was lucky to be surrounded by these people,” he says.
It didn’t take long for bands and musicians to ask him to make music videos for them. The experiences of projecting in clubs and experimenting with visuals in an aesthetic and technical way had given him a growing confidence to tell stories that are not driven by the same narrative as film. ‘I believe music is one of the strongest emotional narratives you can have. It moves people.”
Soon after, he met producer Thomas Benski and they started Pulse Films in his living room in Shoreditch. The company has now gone on to make films across a range of genres. Recent successes include the films American Honey (2016) and The Witch (2015). They have also been responsible for some of the best modern music documentaries out there: 20,000 Days On Earth , Shut Up and Play the Hits and No Distance Left To Run.
He moved on when Vice Media bought the company in 2016, feeling that it was the right time for him to part ways. “The company is still managed by two extremely talented people [Benski and Clifford]. For all its quality, it was not the perfect fit for me.”
Bonhôte is clear that when he set up Misfits, it was to be a company led by directors and producers, not to service one. “[To do the opposite] is very short sighted,” he explains. “A lot of directors see themselves too much as artists. This is an industry that needs a huge amount of business acumen. There needs to be a balance between money and creativity. If you have a great project and no money, it won’t be made. If you have a lot of money and a shit project, it can still be made, sadly.” And, within Misfits, diversity is part of their DNA. “We don’t value diversity because the BFI told us to hire black, Asian or gay people. We do it because that is our society and our company should reflect it.”
Our conversation turns to the implications illegal downloading and streaming has had on independent companies like Misfits. “The blame needs to be taken by those that consume it,” he says. “Anyone who downloads something illegally is making it one hundred times harder for companies to go out there and make anything good. One film we made was pirated three days before it came out. It’s destroying this industry.” He says he has even spoken to parents at his children’s school about the growing problem.
Although it is clearly a worrying time, Bonhôte seems passionate about the fact that there are people that still need an intellectual creative input, and there is still a chance for the industry. “I think there is space to do this. We are still making a living out of it and it’s inspiring. I have two little boys and I would like them to stand for things that they believe in. Always think about your name. When all is done, your name is your only asset. What you leave behind is the memories of what stands behind your name.”
Bonhôte has spent many months discussing the intricacies of McQueen so I’m intrigued to know the answer to just one question: How has it changed him? “The basics of who you are don’t change but we had to analyse the place in which he lived and inhabited - the fashion world. The mental health issues that Lee was fighting with was certainly something we thought a lot about. You begin to make parallels with your own life: the commercial demands, the pressure of creativity, the praise or lack of praise. From the outside you think people like Lee have everything, then you realise they are just as fragile as you and I. The lesson is to not become lost in it.”
At 8 years old, Bonhôte saw holocaust drama Au Revoir Les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987) and remembers coming out of the cinema emotionally moved and attempting to understand what had just happened to him. “The fact that images, sound and music in a dark room with loads of strangers had made me feel this way is something that has never left me. I felt alive. It blew my mind.” Another film he cites as having a strong influence on him is Kids (Larry Clarke, 1995). “It was so raw and made me feel uncomfortable. It created such an emotion within me. Stories and characters are important but what’s most important is the emotion you convey. You don’t need the greatest budget to move people to tears or laughter. Money is an energy and sometimes too much of it can spoil something.”
In addition to this, he explains that during the making of McQueen, the core team was kept relatively small so that the clarity of the project remained. “A lot of the time it was just me, Cinzia [Baldessari, editor] and Peter in a room. When three people are emotionally connected, you often find the right answer to the problems you face. If you have twenty people in that room, the vision may get blurred.” At the same time, Bonhôte is clear that the process must be a collaboration, rejecting Auteur Theory and those that see the process as an individual crusade.
After talking to Bonhôte, it’s hard not to feel buoyant and positive about how there are still artists out there that are driven by passion and emotion. Perhaps, with the unstoppable march of corporate, money making movie platforms, there is still life left in independent art. And, with directors such as Bonhôte, we can be hopeful that the art itself is valued above all else. TS
This article is featured in Cultural Bulletin Issue A. You can order a copy here.
70s American Independent Cinema
The early work of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma
Alan Clarke / Federico Fellini
Au Revoir Les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987)
Kids (Larry Clarke, 1995)
Le Grand Bleu (Luc Besson, 1988)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders, 1999)
Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)