'It’s not giving up' McQueen documentary director Ian Bonhôte on his filmmaking career so far

Ian Bonhôte is the co-director of much-anticipate, Tribeca Film Festival and Hot Docs nominated documentary McQueen which focuses on the rags-to-riches tale of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Here Ian tells Mandy News how he got started, how the McQueen project came together and what filmmakers can do to succeed.

5th June 2018
/ By James Collins

McQueen film MCQUEEN

Ian, tell us about yourself. Where you’re from and how you got started in the industry?
My name is Ian Bonhôte. I’m originally born and bred in Switzerland, to a French mother, and I’ve been in the UK for 20 years this year. I got involved in the film industry when I was very young. I think, back in the day I would have been diagnosed with ADHD so I was a very overactive kid. My mum thought that actually I was a bit of a show off, which I probably still am slightly.

She put me on a theatre course and I completely fell in love. I was around six or seven years old and I got the bug, so I acted in a lot of plays in Geneva and started to shoot commercials and a few small TV series and films. Obviously it was in Switzerland, so the TV stuff was small, but I got a few French films.

At around 15-16, I got the the electronic music bug because electronic music in Switzerland was quite big in the early 90s. My girlfriend at the time’s brother-in-law was a graphic designer and video artist and we started thinking about projecting images in clubs. We started to do club visuals, so I was doing acting, schooling and club visuals, actually in a lot of gay clubs around Switzerland. I joined a crew which was a mix of hip-hop, jazz and electro called Galactic Song Lab and they had a residency at the Blue Note in London. We’re talking about ‘96,’97, just before the Blue Note closed. It was once a month, on a Saturday and the money was not great but they would pay for my flight to go. I would just show up with my projector. I about 17-18, and I would go to London.

I met some other crews here, in London, back in the day. There was Icon, the Light Surgeons, Your Mom, the guys from Orbital. All those guys were doing visuals. I joined one of the crews. I moved to New York first, tried to study filmmaking and then moved to London to pursue it. I joined one of the crews, Icon, with Ollie Windsor and we’re still very good friends, and played the Blue Note. For four years, we did Scratch in Scala and I studied on the side. I was very tired in the morning because we had sometimes two or three residencies during the week. I learnt storytelling at school, but I was always driven by the visual side, from clubs and music, and London was the place I wanted to be because that’s where everything was colliding; image, music, fashion and everything. I was 20.

From seeing the club visuals, people suddenly said “Oh, could you do some projections or visuals?” We went on tour, did all the festivals – Glastonbury, Reading, V – and we did it constantly, every summer. I can’t even go to festivals any more. It’s not like a music act – we had to carry our shit, set it up, pack it up at the end of the night and go home. It was really a labour of love.

Brands then started to invest, so we’d sometimes get a budget to create some special visuals for a brand. And then suddenly bands started saying “Oh, I’ve got £500 for a music video” or “I’ve got a grand,” and then, suddenly, within six months we’d shot three, four videos and then we got signed somewhere, and the rest is history.

Then we got signed to Partisan, and at Partisan I met a young PA, a guy called Thomas Benski. We then formed a sort of trio with another director. I was still doing visuals, but we were trying to do more music videos, and then we joined another company called Independent. There we got given two grants from the BFI and Film Council to produce two short films. We set up a company called Pulse Films to do those two shorts and Pulse Films grew into a 100-150 people company, with offices in Paris, Berlin, London, LA, New York.

Two years ago now, we sold Pulse Films to Vice Media. I left Pulse two and a half years ago when we sold to Vice. Pulse is still doing extremely well. They basically produce Vice content and loads of other scripted content. Then, I set up another company called Misfits in October ‘16.

The first release on Misfits, was that your feature film Alleycats?
We didn’t do Alleycats on Misfits but with the same producer, and owner of the other company, Andee Ryder. Basically, what we did was say that if we did Alleycats together and we still talked, we would set up a company together. We moved the Alleycats right and all the rights of stuff we were thinking onto Misfits.

So, it wasn’t a Misfits production, but now it’s a Misfits film. Misfits owns Alleycats.

***** Check out our EXCLUSIVE interview with Alleycats actor Josh Whitehouse *****

Who would you say were your influences coming up, if you had any particular influences that helped you get into film?
I’m kind of a cross-platform person, so yes, in cinemas there are people that inspire me. In England, Alan Clarke, who was a very successful documentary film-maker in the ‘60s-‘70s and then started to do really punk, hard-hitting dramas – like Made in Britain and Scum – really inspired a lot of the social realism within British filmmaking. He’s an influence. There’s loads of other directors like Fassbinder, an amazing German director, as well.

Louis Malle in France. I think one of the first films that I saw was Au revoir les enfants, which is about the holocaust. It’s his own story and I think I was 10 or 11 and I remember coming out, crying so much. I thought “Oh my God, it’s incredible that something can move you so much”. I think that film is not about story, it’s not about visuals, it’s not about the music, it’s all about emotion. How you get to emotion, yes, you need stories, you need characters, you need music, you need the effect, you need the visual language, you need actors to embody the characters or embody a feeling, but it’s all about emotion. I think a director has to direct emotion.

But your question was influences. Music? Loads of people in music as well. Literally it’s cross-pollination. I think I’ve got a broad knowledge of everything.

Yes, I did start consuming cinema a lot but I know a lot of people that can take me hands down with movies, but maybe they don’t have my knowledge of fashion, or music. I think I’m a mix of everything.

How did you come to work on the McQueen project?
When we set up Misfits, we had just finished Alleycats and had a slate of films that we were developing. McQueen wasn’t on it but a co-producer friend of ours came out of a meeting where a distributor had mentioned that they were brainstorming British genius and British icons who have extraordinary stories and McQueen was mentioned. They called me up, because they knew that I had shot a lot of fashion videos and music videos and that I was a big fan of McQueen. Even when he was still alive I used to really like his menswear and there were a couple of his Holster shirts that I was collecting. I have loads of them. My wife interned at McQueen, years ago. McQueen HQ is off St John’s Street, I cycle past it every day, so McQueen is in everybody’s minds in the UK. If you’ve grown through the ‘90s onwards, creatively, he’s an influence.

When they mentioned it, there was no script, there was no access, no nothing, but they said “Would you like to do it? Would you be interested?” and I said “Yes!”

Then we had to do everything, so we got in touch with different people and I met Peter Ettedgui who is the writer of the film. He ended up being the co-director because the film was such a huge endeavour that we ended up doing it together. We knew each other and he had been a mentor of mine for other projects, but I think he heard that I was working on a project and he just said “Look, Ian, I’d love to help in any shape or form,” and I remember calling all of the producers, including Dee, and saying “Look, I think Peter could be a massive asset,” because I had never done a doc before.

They wanted to create amazing visuals for that doc too. They didn’t want it to be just like a common doc. We had to create our own imagery that – I don’t want to say that we could equal his visual genius – but that could at least fit right in with some of the shows we would use to tell the story.

I said “Peter would be amazing if he wrote the script,” and he wrote the script and the idea was really good. We obviously brainstormed and found a structure and Peter wrote it, and then we carried on working together throughout the last year, basically.

How did you go about making a choice of what direction to take with it? And what is the direction that you ended up taking?
Peter came up with the idea. It’s a quite famous line from Lee. He always said that if you want to know about him you have to just look at my work. And if you don’t want to know about me, look at my work. Everything is autobiographical. We took that as the base concept for the film.

We thought we would tell the story in six chapters and in the centre of each of the chapters there’d be one major fashion show, so obviously there are a lot of fashion shows. There are 18 womenswear fashion shows but we had to make a selection. A lot of people have got a firm opinion about McQueen, like “you should have chosen that show or that show,” but the shows we’ve chosen give us the opportunity to delve into his life or to think back into his life, to think about the world, his background, where he comes from. So that’s how we devised it. We ended up not having six chapters, but five, because one chapter was merged with another but it meant we actually we showed footage of more shows.

We’ve got Jack the Ripper, which is his graduation show, Highland Rape, which is the show he did in ‘95, the Search for the Golden Fleece, which is the first show he did when he took over Givenchy when he was 27 years old. Then, the following was It’s a Jungle Out There, which was his sort of reaction when he came back to London, like six weeks, two months later, when he had to do a show in London, where he was a lot more punk and raw. He did it in Broadway Market, because that was an amazing contrast between taking over a very old couture house in France with what it means, the history of the house, the quality of the creative people and Les Petites Mains, which is the craftspeople within the house, which is at the same time a lot more structured and rigid, and him lashing out, back in London, just ‘fuck it,’ and making something mixed up with pop culture, with everything. The city, his origins and roots.

Then the other show we chose was No. 13, which is a show right in the middle of his career at Givenchy, which was in London and where he was really at peace. That’s where Shalom Harlow, the model, is being sprayed with rubber, which is a very famous, iconic show. Then we chose another one called Voss, where there’s a massive box in the middle that explodes. There was another model called Michelle Olley where moths come out. It’s almost like a mental asylum theme, and then there’s La Dame Bleue, which he made as an homage – with Philip Treacy – to Isabella Blow. Also Plato’s Atlantis. That’s all of the main shows.

We found a structure like this, and we always place Lee’s work at the centre. We never wanted to give a sense of journalistic story. There’s a lot of stuff that’s been written in books, in articles about Lee, about his personal life, his love life, drugs or whatever, but we never wanted to make it about that. We didn’t whitewash his life, but we wanted it to be an homage.

I just saw an article today which said that it’s a really humorous tribute to a genius. The article is very good but now we’ve shown it to six or seven full audiences, people laugh, for half of the film they laugh and a lot of people I’ve met say “It was so infectious, it was so funny, it was so cheeky!” If you don’t laugh when you make a film about McQueen, you have not understood McQueen. That was really nice, to see people laughing about some of the madness, and the cheekiness.

He was a controversial figure, he was a working class boy, not fitting the world of fashion, not knowing and understanding completely what the world of fashion would be, but breaking it, just by pure, sheer genius, ideas, visual mastery, craftsmanship. He was a craftsman, he learned his skill on Saville Row as an apprentice and he just put down the catwalk and mixed it up with mad ideas inspired by everything, from the ‘80s club scene, the gay scene, fetishism, S&M or whatever.

The thing to realise about McQueen is that you judge genius in fashion by how many silhouettes of women they invent, and Yves Saint Laurent invented silhouette, Coco Chanel invented the mini skirt, Lee probably is the one that invented the most silhouettes. I calculate between three or five silhouettes. If you want to be rigid then it’s just three. If you want to be a bit more loose you could easily see five or six, between the bird shape, the low cut, the sticking-out shoulder, the corsets, all of those are things that, before Lee, women were not wearing.

After Lee, people are wearing it, and imitating.

You have a script and you know what direction you’re taking, but what is the process of actually doing this? You have to get a hold of footage and permissions and then interview people? What was your process of shooting?
A mix of both. We didn’t have all the access sorted at the beginning. We had been in touch with some people and we were starting to get archive footage but we had, at most, only a year to make the film.

There were a lot of constraints; budget constraints, time constraints, potential other projects being talked about that we had to keep in mind. We did everything at the same time. We started contacting everyone and a lot of people said no. It took a long time to convince people, even after meeting them two or three times. They still said no. Then we had to get personal archives from them, if they wanted to share them.

We also found some amazing photographers that followed Lee. The three main photographers that made books about him came on board; Ann Ray, Robert Fairer and Gary Wallis. They covered different periods and different sides to Lee. When we had access to this amazing imagery, we backed it up with amazing interviews done by Paris Mode, Fashion TV and Jeannie Baker in Canada, loads of very successful fashion journalists, and then suddenly some people gave us some amazing tapes that nobody had heard of.

We started to pull out of those tapes Lee’s voice and understand more about him. We wanted to share some of the things Lee was saying to punctuate the film. It’s basically a mix of filmmaking, detective work, journalism and sheer will when you make a documentary.

We always had the script to fall back on, and we went away from the script, but it’s still very much there, the way that Peter had originally written it. We just stuck to it and went back to it all the time but one contributor would lead to another one and one archive would lead to another, etc. etc.

What was the biggest challenge that you faced on this? Getting the interviews?
I think for us everything was a challenge because we didn’t make the film with the brand attached. We went to see the brand but they declined to take part because, after Savage Beauty and all the shows about McQueen, they wanted to focus the brand on the new creative director, Sarah Burton, who is obviously extremely talented. She’s leading one of the main haute couture houses in Britain and she had worked with Lee since ‘98 for 12 years. We couldn’t interview her.

It was obviously a setback, but we didn’t want to let that affect us. That weakness, we turned into an advantage, where we could talk about more or less whatever we thought was relevant for Lee, without any editorial control.

With such a huge amount of material, was it a problem to lose certain footage or interviews?
We never went crazy, but I think we had two hours and 30 minutes as a first cut. It’s now an hour and 46 minutes. We had to narrow it down. I think it was always the pressure of time. We were always under pressure to finish it on time. The more time you have, the more time you can finesse and remove stuff that’s less relevant, but right now, we wouldn’t remove much.

Some people said “Oh, you missed that,” but you have to make decisions. It’s a two hour movie. It was going to be theatrical. One of the challenges is that all of our distributors involved Lionsgate. Bleecker Street in the US always wanted a theatrical movie, so we always had to think about emotion. How do you get people so emotionally involved in your film that for them it’s worth paying the extra money and making the effort of going to the cinema? Emotionally, but also visually, why is it more relevant to see it on a massive cinema screen than it is to see it on DVD or streaming it or downloading it or whatever? That was always what we had to do. We created a lot of special imagery – around 10-15 minutes of the film are visuals that we created ourselves for the film.

When Michael Nyman, the composer, accepted to take part in the film, we realised his music is so cinematic and so big and, at the same time, so classical and contemporary, a bit like Lee. It allowed us to really move to the next stage of the theatrical experience. Michael makes such amazing films, like The Piano, and on top of it he had worked with Lee a lot. The first time we met him, he made us listen to a track that he had composed for one of Lee’s shows, that he didn’t end up using. He gave it to us and we used it in the movie.

We’ve got stories as well. We interviewed Lee’s nephew, who worked for McQueen and the brand for four years while Lee was alive, and another two years when Lee had passed. He created a lot of the skulls for some of the shows and invites. He created the skull used in the movie poster, so you’ve got a McQueen that actually designed it. He was very close with Lee. Gary was eight years younger, so he’d babysit Gary and there was a lot of connection. You have to watch the film to see all of it.

We tried to leave out the fashion journalists or the fashion specialists because we didn’t want audiences to just see through the eyes of people that comment on fashion. We wanted people to see a film about people that work next to Lee. They might not be the best people to describe the next wave and they all really like Lee because he was their way into fashion or their main influence in fashion, but we felt that that’s the best way for the audience to really identify with him.

Another thing that we did is used a lot of Lee’s voice. It’s very much narrated by him. He’s the main character. It’s not about the contributors, it’s very much about Lee. Everybody that says anything in the film contributes to Lee’s thought process or his working habits or his state of mind.

You’ve been playing loads of festivals with it and it’s won two festivals in the US, did you say?
We’ve won two prizes and I think it’s playing six or seven festivals. Only Bleecker Street, the Americans, wanted to go to the festivals. In the UK, they had a lot of faith. They liked the film a lot, so they just wanted to push it in the UK. Our theatrical release is June 8. We’ve got a premier on June 4 in Leicester Square, at the main Empire Cinema, so it’s quite amazing to have such a big premier for a doc.

On June 5, we’ve got a screening at the V&A, which is where they did Savage Beauty, and Lee used to go there to be inspired. Claire Wilcox, who is organising that, really wanted the film as well. We almost interviewed her but again, because she knew Lee, but she wasn’t that close, we agreed with her that it would have been more from a historical point of view. Then I think we’ve got a Q&A at the BFI and then, I think, at the Curzon. The Curzon wanted it as well, because obviously, they are such amazing supporters of independent and less commercially driven cinema. It’s an honour.

After McQueen, what’s next for you?
After leaving Pulse Films and setting up Misfits, the idea of Misfits was always to make genre and creative film for the international market, so they might be set in Britain, they might be set in the UK, but they need to have a voice in the international market. We need to be able to work in different markets. You have your creative designs but you also have the reality of the market and how films these days are very complicated to finance and to get to an audience.

If you can’t find an audience everywhere, even if it’s a small, niche audience, then your film becomes very narrow and ends up being a single country or territory film. That’s very dangerous. You need to find emotional, international or human stories that can echo for everybody around the world, so when we set out to do that, we try to concentrate on scripts.

We’ve got quite a few ideas, we’ve got scripts of movies ready that we’re taking out to different markets. We went to Cannes to introduce two or three projects to the market. We started to come up with more documentary ideas and documentary series ideas as well. We’ve got two TV series we’re pushing. It’s a variety of things, and me and Andee Ryder, my business partner at Misfits, we’re just reading a lot of stuff. People are approaching us with ideas too but we always have in mind that making a film is going to be so hard that you really have to love it. You really have to believe in the story, or in the concept and the people that you’re doing it with, because you’re going to be stuck with them for a long journey.

At the same time, you always need to ask yourself this question, “Can I find the money to make it?” No offence against any wealthy people or patrons of the arts, but if you are having to find people to invest in your films, you need to make sure that the market understands it. You need to make sure that potentially the French, the Germans, the Canadians, the Australians, Japanese, Asia, Latin America, Middle East, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia understand. The way we financed McQueen is presales. We sold the rights of the film before it was done to loads of different countries, just on the concept and the script we had written. That’s how we financed the film. Viking, the other film, which is now called Of Gods and Warriors, was one third financed by the market, one third financed with equity (investors) and one third financed with soft money and taxbreaks.

Now, I think, financing in film is becoming creative financing. There’s not one way to do it, there are loads of ways. Every project will have to find its own way to get financed, but for us, at Misfits, we will always think “Is there an audience?” We are still in discussions but we will probably join a very, very beautiful documentary called Donna. Even if we don’t join as executive producer, we’ll be helping because it’s a story worth telling. It’s about a transwoman getting older in LA, in San Francisco, and coming out to a very traditional Mexican Catholic family, but she’s been part of the LGBT community in San Francisco since the ‘70s. She has witnessed and seen so many things. It might be a bit niche, but there are so many amazing universal themes; growing old, acceptance from others, it’s coming out to your family.

It doesn’t have to be coming out because of your gender or sexuality, it can be coming out with your desires. If you say “I want to be an artist,” 90% of families will be like “What the f*** are you talking about?” So, you know, I think a huge number of people have to constantly come out. Obviously I wouldn’t want to imply that there’s the same power in coming out as being gay if you live in Saudi Arabia, to your family, as telling your family in liberal England, or liberal London saying “I want to be an artist.” It’s not the same but we all have, as human beings, issues of coming out, and this one triggers a lot of issues.

There are a lot of projects. We want to do docs, we want to do commercial movies, and we’re looking, as well, towards the US. At the moment we’re not doing short films in the company but, again, we’ve been thinking, maybe we’ll do a bit of short film as well.

My background, at Pulse Films, was a lot of music videos and commercials and I still love it. It’s another sort of muscle in the creative brain that you’re using, so it’s nice to do, but the future is getting some more of those projects and making sure the company is sustainable. Even if you potentially have a successful project, it’s very tough out there for everyone, commercially.

Navigating through Brexit, I’m very skeptical that the creative industries, from the film industry, to the fashion industry, to the music industry, will come out unscathed. I think we will be affected, even if we don’t leave the single market. We will be marked in the UK because we will have been the ones s***ing in our back garden.

It’s all juggling a lot of plates but, you know, I don’t know how to do anything else.

What advice would you have to someone wanting to become a director or to get started in making films? Other than creative financing!
It’s really interesting, because you’ve got a vision when you’re young of those people you admire and how they got there. Then you grow and you’ve got a generation of people around you that might do OK. Everyone’s got a different path. Hard work. I mean, literally, first up, last down, in any industry, with enthusiasm. That might mean bulls**t to some people because everyone who is very motivated says “I am working really hard,” and that’s true, so I’m going to be a bit more specific than that.

I think there’s plenty of ways to get into a creative industry. You can just lock yourself away from the commercial world and focus on trying to tell stories that make sense to you or develop a visual style if you’re more into short films, music videos, commercials or art. You need to develop your own voice, and that doesn’t take five minutes and I don’t think you ever find it completely, so it’s a total evolution. That’s one route where you kind of ignore the noise out there and you really try to do things. You don’t make 20 pieces, you make one, two, three extremely strong pieces and they will be your calling card. That’s one route, and I’ve seen people succeeding like that.

The other route is to work really hard within companies. Try to join a company and make yourself invaluable. I know some extremely successful director-producers who have started as runners and then they did a little bit of researching and then they were like “Oh, I’m bugging people, can I get a music video by pitching?” and then they pitch one and grow from there. Or often, they’ll do a short film outside.

Again, I think what’s really important is to know if you like narrative storytelling or you’re more of a metaphorical, visual person, because they can merge, at some point eventually in your career, but to start you need to know if you’re going to go more the storytelling route or the pretty visual concept route. That’s the route I’ve chosen. I was inspired by music and music videos and I was like “instead of slugging myself to make a short film and try to convince people to give me some money to make a short film” it was easier to get £500, do something, £1000, do something, five grand, do something. Then 10, 20, and it grows. Sometimes you get given a million dollar commercial. You have to follow a script and you’ve got a client. The brand will always be your boss because it’s their film in the end – they’ve paid for it.

So, those are the two main routes; either you join a group of really good people or an established company or you really try to develop something and a voice on your own. They both have their difficulties, because doing your own thing can be lonely and when you work for a company that’ll be very frustrating because your time is always consumed and your creativity is being sucked in by other people.

I can tell you that 99% of people came out from either of those two routes. It’s climbing up through other people with the help of other people, or just developing such a distinctive voice that it can’t be unheard. At the end of the day, quality people recognise quality in people. They recognise good stuff.

With Alexander McQueen, at the beginning people slagged him off and didn’t understand him, but it was just going to happen. It happened quicker, potentially, because he got hired and he joined a big company so he had money, but if it didn’t happen at 27, it would have happened at 28, 29 or 30. It would have happened, I really believe.

It’s not giving up.