Sunday, December 09, 2007

Jacqueline Roque & Picasso

Picasso’s wife Jacqueline has always been a mysterious figure. Now her close friend has shed light on the legal battles and turmoil that led to her suicide. John Follain reports

Pablo Picasso was 72 when he first set eyes on Jacqueline Roque, a green-eyed beauty 45 years his junior, in the pottery where she worked on the French Riviera. He wooed her for six months, drawing a giant dove in white chalk on the wall of her house, and married her in secret before spending the last 20 years of his life with her.

Picasso painted and drew Jacqueline hundreds of times; her features, albeit stylised, are instantly recognisable in a vast swathe of the Spanish artist’s prodigious output. And yet little is known about her. Jacqueline is herself in part to blame for this. The most reclusive of Picasso’s loves, she liked to say of him: “You don’t cast a shadow over the sun.” When she did step out of the shadows, in an acrimonious seven-year battle over his legacy, she was attacked by his other heirs as a possessive, moneygrubbing figure who went so far as to hold her husband hostage.

Twenty-one years after Jacqueline committed suicide in 1986, a close friend who was her privileged confidante has written the first portrait of this self-effacing muse. Pepita Dupont, a journalist with Paris Match magazine, befriended Jacqueline in 1983; an exhibition of Picasso’s works, including many portraits of Jacqueline, prompted her to write to his widow. Notoriously shy of the media, Jacqueline hesitated for six months before inviting Dupont to her Notre-Dame de Vie mansion near Mougins, north of Cannes. Jacqueline gave her a tour of the hilltop mansion and the treasures in its 35 rooms, and the women became friends.

Dupont decided to write The Truth about Jacqueline and Pablo Picasso after visiting the Picasso Museum in Paris on its 20th anniversary, in 2005. “The only sign that Jacqueline had ever existed was a small portrait of her in a notebook of sketches, but her name wasn’t mentioned. And this panel thanked members of Picasso’s family, but she wasn’t on it. But if it wasn’t for her, the museum wouldn’t even exist!” exclaims Dupont. A diminutive figure with big, almond-shaped eyes, long black hair and a dignified bearing, Jacqueline suffered two family tragedies even before she reached her twenties. Born in 1926 in Paris, she was only two when her father abandoned her mother and her four-year-old brother. Jacqueline never forgave him. Her mother raised her in a cramped concierge’s lodge near the Champs Elysées, working long hours as a seamstress. Jacqueline was 18 when her mother died of a stroke.

After finding work as a secretary, Jacqueline married André Hutin, an engineer, in 1946. She gave him a daughter, Cathy, and followed him to west Africa, where he worked on a railway line. But after four years there, she found out he was having an affair; she filed for divorce and settled on the French Riviera, working as a sales assistant at the Madoura pottery in the village of Vallauris, where Picasso made ceramics.

When Picasso met 27-year-old Jacqueline there in 1953, her features reminded him of the young woman holding a hookah in Delacroix’s 1834 canvas Femmes d’Alger dans Leur Appartement. He fell in love with her on the spot and courted her assiduously. She was wary of committing herself. “I knew about his reputation as far as women went. Pablo was old enough to be my grandfather,” she confided later. “I’d just had a painful divorce, and I had Cathy.”

Picasso pressed on regardless. He brought her a red rose every day, wrote poems for her and told her he had waited until his old age to find out what love really was. After six months they became lovers. When Dupont asked Jacqueline why he fell in love with her, the first reason she gave was that he was fascinated by her innocence and honesty. Jacqueline said of herself that she had been so ignorant about sex, she only realised afterwards how she had become pregnant by her first husband. “ But Jacqueline was very sensual, and with Picasso the chemistry was immediate. There was a strong complicity, love and eroticism. And in her, Picasso found all that a man seeks in a woman: she was at the same time his mistress, his mother, his sister, his accomplice and his muse,” says Dupont.

Given Picasso’s track record with women – biographers attribute seven main loves to him, but he is believed to have had many more affairs – Jacqueline sought to lay down the law early on. She warned him: “You have to know that if one day there is another muse, I’ll congratulate her, I’ll send her flowers. But I’ll be out the door.”

Jacqueline wasn’t jealous of his former conquests. How could she be, she said, given that he was 72 when they met? She willingly prepared cheques for him to sign every month for former girlfriends. “When women lose their beauty, life is pretty cruel,” he told her.

For more than three decades before meeting Jacqueline, Picasso had been separated from his first wife, Olga Khokhlova. As Franco’s Spain banned divorce, it was only after Olga’s death in 1955 that Picasso became free to marry again. He married Jacqueline in secret in Vallauris village hall in 1961, with his lawyer as best man and a surprised cleaner as the only witness. The newlyweds celebrated that evening with a dinner of duck and champagne, after which Picasso, who couldn’t stay away from his studio for long, went to paint a small canvas he dedicated to “Jacqueline, my wife”.

The marriage incensed Françoise Gilot, who had left Picasso after 10 years in 1953, accusing him of abusing her and of infidelities. As revealed by her letters to him, she had been hoping to re-conquer him one day. Her hopes dashed by the marriage, Gilot threatened to publish a memoir unless he handed over £200,000. He agreed to give £100,000 to each of their children, Claude and Paloma, according to Dupont, and Gilot promised to abandon the project. But she went ahead anyway, publishing an unflattering account called Life with Picasso.

From early on in their relationship, Picasso painted and drew Jacqueline many times – but she virtually never posed for him; she was simply there, in the house with him. She was the only love he tolerated in his studio when he was painting. He worked with such intensity, she said later, that his gaze was “like a laser beam”; nobody could pass between him and his canvas. She would stay up all night to watch him paint. He would scribble his love for her on the back of his canvases; messages such as “For Jacqueline’s Saint Valentine’s Day”, or, on her saint’s day, “For Jacqueline, for her day, her husband”.

The two were so close that she rarely strayed from their home – they lived in the 17thcentury castle of Vauvenargues at the foot of the Sainte-Victoire mountain near Aix-enProvence, and then in the hilltop mansion at Mougins. He was so worried about her that whenever she had a bath he would come, brushes in hand, to check she hadn’t drowned.

Picasso could also be cruel to her, so much so that Jacqueline sometimes called him “the abominable snowman”. She left hospital once after an operation, a drain still inserted in her body; she was supposed to rest, but instead she went with him, at his insistence, to a bullfight. But he was not the miser depicted in several biographies; Jacqueline insisted that he had never paid for a restaurant meal by drawing on a tablecloth. For years he met all the medical expenses for the treatment of his estranged wife Olga, who had cancer and was in a wheelchair after a stroke. After an operation to cure a duodenal ulcer, Picasso left his Paris surgeon a blank cheque to overhaul the operating theatre and another to repaint the surgery section.

He was both protective and generous towards Jacqueline. When he asked her to marry him, he warned her about the possible conflicts that lay ahead given his wealth: “If one day I fall ill, the others won’t let you care for me.” In their first months of living together, he banned her from speaking to visitors unless he signalled that she could. He argued it was the only way to prevent acquaintances speaking ill of her: a beautiful young divorcée was sure to cause envy. “I’d stay as dumb as a carp. I played the role of the perfect idiot,” she said. But he bought both the castle and the mansion under Jacqueline’s name.

Little could have prepared Jacqueline for the infighting that followed when Picasso fell ill in old age, with heart problems and breathing difficulties. Claude and Paloma, whom she had befriended, turned against her, accusing her of holding their father hostage. They sent bailiffs to the mansion to register this. From his bed, Picasso shouted to Jacqueline: “Throw them out. Let them go to the devil!” Three of Picasso’s children – including Paulo, his son by Olga – sued him in an attempt to ensure they inherited his fortune. Under the law of the time, they stood to inherit nothing, as they were illegitimate; they insisted that Picasso draw up a will in their favour. He refused and the children lost the case. After consulting Jacqueline, he decided never to see them again. He remarked: “If I’d known how things would turn out with my children, I’d have done better to piss against a street light.”

But the attacks from his family fuelled the artist’s work. “It was a formidable outlet,” Jacqueline recalled. “He’d go into his studio and come out liberated, purified of everything.”

During the last two years of Picasso’s life, she was at his bedside day and night. “There were times when Jacqueline drank enormously. She was affected not only by seeing her husband dying, but also by her difficult relations with her daughter, Cathy, and the fact that her former father-in-law was dying of cancer. She felt alone,” said Dupont. She became yet more depressed when both her father-in-law by her first marriage and her doctor, both of whom she was very close to, died soon after each other.

In April 1973, on the eve of his death, Picasso drank some herbal tea, as every evening, and then stood looking at himself in a mirror. He said to Jacqueline: “Have I got enough canvases and paintbrushes? Tomorrow I’m going to start painting.” The following day, shortly before noon, as a doctor gave him injections to help him breathe, Picasso asked him if he was married. The doctor replied that he wasn’t. “You’ve made a mistake; it’s useful. You should,” Picasso said. He then turned to Jacqueline, who was holding his hand, and whispered: “My wife, it’s marvellous.” They were his last words. Jacqueline said of what followed: “I saw a pink face become grey, and I don’t accept it.” For six days and nights she watched over the coffin in the guardroom of Vauvenargues castle. She buried him in front of the grand staircase at the castle entrance.

Jacqueline was attacked for banning Picasso’s children from the funeral, except for his son Paulo – the only one who had maintained a relationship with him. In fact, according to Dupont, she was simply obeying instructions left by Picasso, who had never forgiven them for accusing her of kidnapping him or for suing him.

On the night of the funeral, Jacqueline, in her white nightdress, stretched out on the burial mound in the snow and slept all night there. In the seven-year war over Picasso’s legacy that followed – the law changed in 1975, giving rights to illegitimate children – Jacqueline requested that she be left with the portraits he painted of her, and the works he had dedicated and given to her. Lawyers and court-appointed experts descended on Picasso’s properties, labelling everything, down to his toothbrush and a bouquet of dried flowers sent by the musician Mstislav Rostropovich, which they believed was a work by Picasso. Whenever Jacqueline left the mansion, she was asked to empty her pockets.

One morning, a state-appointed receiver and his team entered her bedroom, turned her mattress over, checked under the bed and rifled through her knicker drawer. Later that day, an exasperated Jacqueline gently pushed a ceramic ashtray decorated by Picasso over the edge of a table, while looking the other way. The ashtray shattered as it hit the floor. “And one fewer number for the inventory!” she shouted as the experts cried out in horror. When the lawyers for Claude and Paloma asked for their father’s bed, she promptly burnt the mattress in the park outside the Notre-Dame de Vie mansion.

From now on, Jacqueline, who was left close to 1,000 works as her share of the colossal inheritance, fought to preserve and promote Picasso’s work. “She wanted all the works to be shown to the public; she said paintings weren’t for rich collectors. It was her obsession. And unlike other members of the family, she didn’t sell a single work,” says Dupont.

Three months after Picasso’s death, Jacqueline decided, in accord with his son Paulo, to push for the creation of the Picasso Museum in Paris. She spent three hours walking through her home to select works to donate to the museum. She also gave the Louvre Picasso’s personal collection of works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Renoir, Matisse, Miro and Modigliani, among others. When she lent works, she renounced all her rights over publication of images in postcards or posters, and demanded no fee for the loan. And she would pay for her own ticket to the exhibition. All she asked for were catalogues to give to friends.

Many friends and even chance acquaintances benefited from her generosity. When a young petrol-pump attendant admired her white Lincoln, she stepped out and handed the keys to him. “My husband’s dead. I don’t need it any more. It’s yours. I’ll take a taxi home,” she said.

But her husband’s death, and the war over the legacy, drove her to seek refuge in drink and sleeping pills. According to Dupont, Jacqueline had simply taken too many blows. The early loss of her own mother also weighed on Jacqueline, and she often spoke of her. When Jacqueline was depressed, she would knock on Dupont’s bedroom door in the night and say: “Come on, let’s go and see the paintings.” The two women would walk through the mansion, Jacqueline talking about how much she missed Picasso. “Pablo is waiting for me and I’m late,” she would say. Dupont only once dared to mention the alcoholism, telling Jacqueline: “I’m afraid for you. You have to be careful.” She shot back: “What do you mean?” Dupont replied: “I think you should stop. You scare me.” Jacqueline was so angered, she treated Dupont frostily for three months.

In September 1986, Dupont spent a week as a guest of Jacqueline. Over lunch in a Riviera restaurant, the frail Jacqueline kept staring out at the Mediterranean and repeating: “Pablo, why aren’t you here?” Dupont took her hand and tried to comfort her, but to no avail. Back at the mansion that evening, Jacqueline asked Dupont to stay and become her assistant, to help run her affairs and organise exhibitions. Dupont refused, saying she wanted to remain a journalist. Dupont spoke to Jacqueline for the last time two weeks later, on October 13. Again and again, Jacqueline asked her: “Do you love me?” Again and again, Dupont said yes, Jacqueline was her friend. Jacqueline suddenly said: “So now I can hang up.”

The next morning, Jacqueline asked Doris, her housekeeper, to prepare Dupont’s bedroom and put fresh flowers there. “Why? Is Pepita coming?” asked Doris. “Yes, very soon,” Jacqueline replied. In fact, Dupont had made no plans for returning. That evening, Jacqueline told Doris she was going somewhere “where you cannot come with me”. She said Doris would live in her seaside flat in Cannes from now on, and gave her a wad of banknotes worth £20,000.

Around 3am on October 15, as she lay in her bed under a blanket like the one she had covered Picasso with at his death, Jacqueline pressed a revolver she kept in a drawer of her bedside table to her right temple and pulled the trigger. Doris found her body at breakfast time.

“I didn’t see it coming,” says Dupont. “And yet Jacqueline told me sometimes that she wanted to end it all. But she looked so happy organising exhibitions and making gifts to museums. Jacqueline’s tragedy is that she couldn’t trust anyone. Everyone who entered the gates of Notre-Dame de Vie came to beg for something.”

There are two enigmas for Dupont. Firstly, Jacqueline told friends and acquaintances that she wanted 61 works she had lent to an exhibition in Madrid to be given to Spain, but the wish was flouted and the works returned to France. Secondly, Jacqueline told Dupont several times that she had written a will, but her solicitor said he never saw one and it has not been found.

Nor have Jacqueline’s last wishes for her homes yet come true. She wanted the mansion at Notre-Dame de Vie to become an old people’s home, or a home for the destitute, but the property, still crammed with Picasso’s archives, is regularly put up for sale by her daughter. It has yet to find a buyer. Jacqueline wanted the castle at Vauvenargues to become a museum. Her daughter has recently announced that this would happen in 2009 – 23 years after Jacqueline’s death.

One of Jacqueline’s few last wishes to be respected was that she be buried, in a Spanish black cape like Picasso, in the vault next to him in front of the castle. She had once told Dupont: “I’d like to be wrapped in Pablo’s last canvas.”

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Wired: I'd like to just start out by asking you how it feels to be talking about a new movie that you began 25 years ago.

Scott: It's been ongoing so long, it never went away. So I'm used to it. It kept reemerging, and that's when I realized that it had really unusual staying power. And it's all very well, at the time, as the person who made it, to say, "Well, I knew it had." But I didn't, really, at the time. I knew I'd done a pretty interesting movie which, in fact, was extremely interesting but was so unusual that the majority of people were taken aback. They simply didn't get it. Or, I think, better now to say they were enormously distracted by the environment.

Wired: What do you mean, "enormously distracted by the environment"?

Scott: Well, we — I mean I had new ground to address: the idea of doing a film that is not necessarily futuristic in the sense of the, futuristic science fiction, but actually more as a look into the future, and the future possibility, which can be more interesting. Because then you're touching on various possibilities of, like, replication, which now are quite commonplace, but 25 years ago they were barely discussing it in the corridors of power where you have to — you know, like the Senate and things like that. They hadn't even gotten to that point. I'm sure it was firmly in biological institutions and laboratories, but they hadn't yet gone for permission. It was almost 10 years or 15 years after Blade Runner that I read about replication. Now, the film is not really about that at all, it's simply borrowing that possibility and addressing it and putting it to making a sort of unusual protagonist or antagonist that will be leveraged into a Sam Spade or one of those detective, film-noir kind of stories. So people will be familiar with that kind of character, but not at all familiar with the world I was cooking up. Which, again, really came from what I'd seen. And what I'd seen was quite a lot of Hong Kong at the time, pre-skyscraper, where the actual harbor was filled with junks, so Hong Kong was remarkably, darkly romantic. And also a lot of New York at that time, which always seemed to be a city on overload. It seems less so today, because, I think, between the last two mayors there's been this massive cleanup and also a massive show of prosperity. And prosperity, of course, is what cleans cities up. So I'd borrowed from those two dark places and put that into what essentially would become the background, and where we'd be looking forward into — was it 2017 or 2019?

Wired: 2019.

Scott: 2019, yeah. In fact, I even wanted to call it San Angeles, and somebody said, "I don't get it." I said, "Duh! San Francisco and Los Angeles?" And they go, "Oh, oh, oh." They're not even thinking like that, they don't get it. It's bizarre. People only think about what's under their noses, for the most part, until it comes and kicks them in the ass. Like, right now, global warming and how we're nursing what's happening in Iraq.

Wired: Did you take that as a lesson into your future films?

Scott: You know what? I was always aware that this whole Earth is on overload. I've been like that for 30 years, and people used to think I was a — not exactly a depressive, but always dark about it. And I'd say, "It's not dark, mate. It's a fact. It's going to come and hit you in the head." It's right where we are right now, where we're still going, arguing in circles. There's some politicians who still seriously believe that we haven't got global warming.

Wired: In terms of audiences and their ability to accept what you're presenting, did Blade Runner pose any sort of a lesson to you?

Scott: Word that again?

Wired: Well, you were just saying that people clearly weren't ready to accept —

Scott: People either want a pigeonhole or have a comfortable preconception about what they're sitting and seeing. It's a bit like 20 years of Westerns, and, now, 45 years of cop movies. People are comfortable with the roles, and even though every nook and cranny has been explored, they'll still sit through endless variations, permutations on cops and bad guys, right? In this instance, I was doing a cop and a different bad guy. And to justify the creation of the bad guy, i.e., replication, I had to justify that the outside world would support that idea. So, then, it has to be in the future. So, the future that I had seen portrayed to that particular point — without being specific or mentioning names, because that means I'm getting really critical — all of the urban films until that moment had been pretty ordinary to not very good. So, it was a challenge to say — it's the same as trying to do a monster movie it's, like, Aliens is a monster movie. Alien is a C film elevated to an A film, honestly, by it being well done and a great monster. If it hadn't had that great monster, even with a wonderful cast, it wouldn't have been as good, I don't think. So, in this instance, my special effect, behind it all, would be the world. That's why I put together [industrial designer] Syd Mead and people like that who were actually serious futurists, great speculators, great imagination, looking to the future, where the big test is saying, draw me a car in 30 years' time without it looking like bad science fiction. Or draw me an electric iron that will still be pressing shirts in 20 years' time without it looking silly. That's the stretch, that was the target: that I wanted the world to be futuristic and yet felt — not familiar, because it won't be — but feel authentic. I could buy it. One of the hardest sets to design was his kitchen. It's not Tyrell's room, which is easy because we fantasize about a giant super-Egyptianesque, neo-Egyptianesque boardroom. But the idea of saying, what is his bathroom and kitchen like in those particular times — that's tricky. Nevertheless fascinating. I love the problem.

Wired: Well, let me ask you the obvious question, which is: You did a director's cut in 1992. Why wasn't that the final word?

Scott: The director's cut in 1992 was actually the removal of the voice-over and the ending. But data-wise it wasn't a very well put-together transition onto disc, honestly. It was represented on a disc, and the disc wasn't terribly good. Technically, it didn't look that great. And it should look great, because Blade Runner, at the time, was pretty formidable — is pretty formidable even now, actually. It's surprising when you go from photo chem and not off digital — photo chem's better, right?

Wired: You're talking about picture quality.

Scott: Well, after all that's what we're looking at: picture and sound. We're experiencing picture and sound. If those are sub, then it's going to already start to affect or infect the output. It is important. A lot of people don't even notice the difference of whether they're watching something beautifully technical or not. But it's important to me. So that always got in the way of it being the final version. Right now, I think it's final because I've done all the nips and tucks — removal of voice-over, tidying up one or two of the visual areas — that we couldn't do properly at the time because we didn't have the technology. And removing that silly ending, right? I tried in stuff, once again, because sometimes 25 years afterwards you think, "Let me look at those scenes that were removed." And there was still a good reason why the scenes weren't in the film. The putting back of extensive stuff didn't fly. So, we were pretty good almost the first time up. But what's great about the five-disc set, because there is so much interest and discussion about this particular film, is that it covers every piece of ground, from this final version to the version that was put out to a whole disc just on discussions such as we're having right now, except between all the people who actually helped make the movie. It's really a very in-depth chronicle of the whole goddamn thing.

Wired: Can we talk about the deleted scenes?

Scott: Yeah.

Wired: So what will the audience never see?

Scott: There's a guy in the very opening scene interviewing one of the replicants, and it's in some kind of institutional booth. And he is shot. And out of that, the replicant is out and on the streets. That's when we know we have a problem. That character later turns up in the hospital, where Deckard goes to see him and where that character can explain who these replicants are and where they're coming from. But it kind of a repetition, in a way, of the meeting with Deckard's boss in Grand Central Station, which we turn into a police station, right? Not Grand Central Station, but the equivalent of Grand Central in LA, the beautiful Spanish downtown station. It was a bit of over-explaining that you didn't really need, although what was fascinating about it was the hospital room and what would be the equivalent of the breathing machine they'd put him in because he'd taken it through one of his lungs. So, there was that. There was a little bit more with Rachael and Deckard, which was sexuality. I think we went far enough in the film, so I kind of cut it back a bit. It got a bit rough. I needed to actually have Deckard sympathetic. I thought Deckard was very sympathetic. I think Harrison [Ford] was playing a character so opposite to what people had normally expected from him that they were surprised by that — and the fact that the hero, or antihero, finally gets his butt kicked by the so-called bad guy who turns out not to be a bad guy. That's what's good about the movie, right? Otherwise we're all down to bad guys and good guys, which is really boring. It's always nice to make the bad guy either be interestingly sympathetic, because it makes it more interesting. It gives him more depth, as opposed to just being a bad ass, which is kind of boring. Watch American Gangster for Frank Lucas. He's a bad man who sells heroin, and yet you love him. I always try to spin it, you know. I always try to look for the pluses in these characters to keep you involved, evolved. And I guess, in this instance, it did. It kept people involved for 25 years. And those who had seen it are going back for more because they keep rediscovering in the corners of the story, they keep finding new discoveries. So, that's good as well. Somebody had written very simplistically that one of the fascinating things about the film was that it was incomplete. That's absolute horseshit. The film was very specifically designed and is totally complete, with great decisions. A lot of decisions made in that film.

Wired: I'm not sure what that would mean — "incomplete."

Scott: I read this article recently. I don't remember who the hell it was. But somebody had intellectualized and theorized that the film had found an ongoing audiences because in its completion it was incomplete. And therefore, because there had been no decisions made at the end as to who this character may be — which is entirely wrong, because this character always in my mind was a replicant. In those particular days there was more discussion than was welcome, as far as I'm concerned. But at the end of the day, a director is a director, and that's the job, when he carries it hopefully through — particularly if he's actually written or developed something. There's a lot of me in this script. There always is in all the films I do. And you know, a lot of ideas get injected and then are put on paper, right? So, I don't want to pen it — I don't want credit for that — but that's what happens because that's the kind of director I am. If I could write — I can write, but not like, say, [Steve] Zaillian or Hampton [Fancher] — if I could, I'd do it myself. Or if I do, it takes way too long, and I could have done two films in that time. That's really where I come from. And besides, I like to work with writers, like a good composer. I like to talk music with people. Can I play "God Save Our Gracious Queen" on the piano? No. But, do I know music now? Yes. I learned music really through films.

Wired: Well, they're both compositional media.

Scott: They always are. I always shoot my movies with score as certainly part of the dialogue. Music is dialogue. People don't think about it that way, but music is actually dialogue. And sometimes music is the final, finished, additional dialogue. Music can be one of the final characters in the film. That's why people say you shouldn't note the film score. That is complete bullshit. If the film score is working absolutely great, you will probably find that the film is working brilliantly and is probably being elevated by good score.

Wired: Mm-hmm.

Scott: You don't sound too sure about that.

Wired: No, I understand. It's sort of like saying you don't notice when the acting is excellent. Of course you don't because you're drawn into it.

You're so sucked in, you're completely engaged. It's afterwards when you can say, "Damn, that was good." Then you can quietly analyze why it was good, if you want. And usually it's the unusual circumstances of great story and great acting, and really well carried out. Or less good story, brilliant acting that supports it. Or great story and not such good acting, because the great story supports the not such good acting, which means the director wasn't doing his job. You've got three parts there, you know. I think it always comes back to, if you can, a good story. The hard thing is getting the bloody thing on paper. That is the hardest single thing to do. Once you've got it on paper, the doing is relatively straightforward and, if you've really got it pinned down, makes it more — this is a bit of a generalization — makes it more enjoyable.

Wired: Well, it was never on paper that Deckard was a replicant.

Scott: No, it was actually.

Wired: It was on paper?

Scott: Oh yeah. The whole point of Gaff was — the guy who makes origami and leaves little matchstick figures around, right? The whole point of Gaff, the whole point in that direction at the very end, if Gaff is an operator for the department, then Gaff is also probably an exterminator. Gaff, at the end, doesn't like Deckard, and we don't really know why. And if you take for granted for a moment that, let's say, Deckard is Nexus 7, he probably has an unknown life span and therefore is starting to get awfully human. Gaff, just at the very end, leaves a piece of origami, which is a piece of silver paper you might find in a cigarette packet. And it's of a unicorn, right? So, the unicorn that's used in Deckard's daydream tells me that Deckard wouldn't normally talk about such a thing to anyone. If Gaff knew about that, it's Gaff's message to say, "I've basically read your file, mate." Right? So, that file relates to Deckard's first speech to Rachael when he says, "That isn't your imagination, that's Tyrell's niece's daydreams. And he describes a little spider on a bush outside the kitchen door. Do you remember that?

Wired: I don't remember the — oh, the spider. Yeah.

Scott: Well, the spider is an implanted piece of imagination. And therefore Deckard has imagination and even history implanted in his head. He even has memories of his mother and father in his head, maybe a brother or sister in his head. So if you want to make a Nexus that really believes they're human, then you're going to have to think about their past, and you're going to have to put that in their mind.

Wired: Why didn't the unicorn dream sequence appear in either the work print or the original release?

Scott: As I said, there was too much discussion in the room. I wanted it. They didn't want it. I said, "Well, it's a fundamental part of the story." And they said, "Well, isn't it obvious that he's a replicant here?" And I said, "No. No more obvious than he's not a replicant at the end. So, it's a matter of choice, isn't it?"

Wired: As a fan reading people's comments about this, I've come across statements of Harrison Ford saying that he was not a replicant.

Scott: I know.

Wired: And watching the director's cut, it seemed to me when Ford picks up the origami unicorn at the end of the movie —

Scott: And he nods.

Wired: The look on his face says, "Oh, so Gaff was here, and he let Rachael live." It doesn't say, "Oh my God! Am I a replicant?"

Scott: No? Yeah, but then you — OK. I don't know. Why is he nodding when he looks at this silver unicorn? It's actually echoing in his head when he has that drunken daydream at the piano, he's staring at the pictures that Roy Batty had in his drawer. And he can't fathom why Roy Batty's got all these pictures about. Why? Family, background, that's history. Roy Batty's got no history, so he's fascinated by the past. And he has no future. All those things are in there to tap into if you want it. But Deckard, I'm not going to have a balloon go up. Deckard's look on his face, look at it again now that I've told you what it was about. Deckard, again, it's like he had a suspicion that doing the job he does, reading the files he reads on other replicants, because — remember — he's, as they call them, a blade runner. He's a replicant moderator or even exterminator. And if he's done so many now — and who are the biggest hypochondriacs? Doctors. So, if he's a killer of replicants, he may have wondered at one point, can they fiddle with me? Am I human, or am I a replicant? That's in his innermost thoughts. I'm just giving the fully flushed-out possibility to justify that gleaming look at the end where he kind of glints and kind of looks angry, but it's like, to me, an affirmation. That look confirms something. And he nods, he agrees. "Ah hah, Gaff was here." And he goes for the elevator door. And he is a replicant getting into an elevator with another replicant.
Wired: And why does Harrison Ford think otherwise?

Scott: You mean that he may not be or that he is?

Wired: Well, he is on record saying that, as far as he's concerned, Deckard is not a replicant.

Scott: Yeah, but that was, like, probably 20 years ago.

Wired: OK, but —

Scott: He's given up now. He's said, "OK, mate. You win, you win. Anything, anything, just put it to rest."

Wired: OK.

Scott: I'm just saying that the hours of discussion that the writer and I used to have when were trying to get it on paper, that it expanded into that, you see. And that's where it all came from. And suddenly you get everyone's opinion and their mother, and I don't tend to have that any more.

Wired: A moment ago you mentioned that there's a lot of you in the movie.

Scott: Yeah. Always has been. There's a lot of me in The Duellists. There's a lot of me in Alien. I was the fifth choice of director on Alien, and I just knew what to do with it. I knew it was a kind of — it would be classified as a B horror movie, and I just knew what to do. So I said, "I'll do it." And that's what happened.

Wired: You've called Blade Runner your most complete and personal film.

Scott: Probably, yeah. Probably.

Wired: Well, I'm sorry to jog something you probably said off the top of your head 10 years ago, but can you tell me in what ways it's complete, and especially in what ways it's personal?

Scott: Well, different things drive the bus, you know. For instance, I've just finished a thing called American Gangster — well, I finished months ago, but it comes out in November with Denzel [Washington] and Russell [Crowe]. And it's honestly about two guys who are still alive. And therefore your target, when you're preparing that, is to make sure all the accuracy goes into what you actually know about these people. And, therefore, because they're sufficiently interesting to make a film about, you want to make it absolutely accurate. So you almost have a feeling of, not exactly but nearly, documentary. You really make it a film and not a movie. You know what the difference is? It's not exactly a documentary, but it feels awfully real. This [Blade Runner] involved full-bore imagination, right? And so did Legend. But Legend was borrowed very much from Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and a lot of the best of Disney. I just think I did it too early, actually. But this was such a brand new presentation of an arena, which is loosely called the future, that a lot of very specific invention went into this. And because of that, the invention was very entwined, first of all, from the requirements of the story and therefore from what the actors are saying to each other, which is driving it along. So if, in very simplistic terms, Deckard's saying, "I am going out, and I will be back later," when I see him on that street, I have to involve that exterior, that universe. His universe has to be expanded into credibility. That was probably the hardest pressed thing I've done, really, because there was nothing to borrow from. You know, for Black Hawk Down, you can just walk from street to street and say, "I want to be there at 2 o'clock," and just shoot it, right? With some prep — it's not quite that simple, but you know. This was all invented, really.

Wired: I don't know how to ask this question, but in the invention of it, were there personal experiences that you drew on?

Scott: I think you always do. I mean, I do. In that respect, directors, probably — well I do. Actors draw from personal experience, certainly, as a director. I don't think all directors do, but I certainly draw from personal experience — sometimes I remember things, sometimes it will come out from the back of my head and I'm thinking, I never knew where that came from. And then I can analyze afterwards and realize that's what it was. Funny enough, the beauty in industry, which is probably killing us, but actually nevertheless is beautifully like Hades, is one reason why you start to feel the beauty in the godawful condition of the red horizon and the geysers of filth going into the air. I used to go to art school in West Hartlepool College up in the north of England, which is almost right alongside the Durham steel mills and Imperial Chemical Industries, and the air would smell like toast. Toast is quite nice, but when you realize it's steel, and it's probably particles, it's not very good. But I'm still here. So, you draw back on that. And to walk across that footbridge at night, you'd be walking fundamentally above, on an elevated walk on the steel mill. So you'd be crossing through, sometimes, the smoke and dirt and crap, and you're looking down into the fire. So, things like that are remembered. Personal experience in spending a little bit of time in Hong Kong at the time when it was kind of almost wonderfully medieval, Asian medieval. And therefore deciding what to do: Do we go Hispanic or do we go Asian for what seems to be the majority on the streets in San Angeles at that time? So I opted for Asian.

Wired: Is it true that you didn't read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? before making the movie?

Scott: I actually couldn't get into it. I met Phillip K. Dick later, and he said, "I understand you couldn't read the book." And I said, "You know you're so dense, mate, by page 32, there's about 17 storylines." And I said, "So, one of the problems is actually distilling this down into a three-act play that can be filmed." And Hampton had done that with a thing he had called Dangerous Days. Didn't Catherine Bigelow do a film later called Dangerous Days?

Wired: It sounds familiar, but I don't know.

Scott: It was called Dangerous Days, and [Michael] Deeley had come to see me when I was actually mixing Alien. And he said, basically, "I hear Alien is pretty good, and do you want to do another science fiction?" I said, "I don't really want to go down that route if I can avoid it next." But, to cut a long story short, eight months later, after a lot of buggering about what I might do, what I might not do, the Dangerous Days script stayed with me. So I went back to him saying, "You know, if you guys had to expand this into something more spectacular, we can push this right outside and onto the street and create this universe of futuristic urban future. And wouldn't that be interesting." Because I could never shake loose the fact that I was a designer, which I'm constantly criticized for, and I really don't give a shit. Because, at the end of the day, it's proved to be quite useful. In fact, I'm sitting right now in front of a 6-by-4 canvas, because I've been painting again seriously for a while now. I'm staring at a big portrait of my niece with her pony. And my favorite artist, if you're going to go back — do you know who Stubbs is?

Wired: I don't know him.

Scott: George Stubbs is an 18th-century painter, one of the great ones. I always get influenced way back when. So the target is, how can I paint like him? That's a tough call, but I'm getting there. So I always like to struggle with the visual side still, and it's working out quite well, actually. I've never lost the art school background, you see. Always draw the storyboards, and the old paintings — seven years of art school. I decided to start painting again a year ago. I was afraid, actually, because — and big is better. You know, when you start painting, you want to be a big canvas if you can. So the [?] simple small sketch, and then you think that's that. And then you're facing the big white canvas. It's a bit like a movie. And getting the canvas together, where you can start really addressing it — I always remember being told, "Get rid of the white canvas as fast as possible." It's a bit like saying, "Get your assembly as quick as possible, then you can look at the overall scheme of things."

Wired: "Your assembly"? I don't understand.

Scott: Editing.

Wired: I see, the assembly edit.

Scott: Editing is the same thing as — when all the lumps and pieces are missing, it's hard to judge. And that final look of it, when you're going to look at your first cut, is always scary as hell, because it's nearly always too long. A few road bumps in it. Sometimes you're amazed that, "Oh, my goodness, that works." Doesn't happen very often. It's always hard work.

Wired: I've read that there are wires and shadows in the earlier versions of the movie that you've eliminated.

Scott: Mm-hmm, yeah.

Wired: Given the design focus that you have, and you're famous for your attention to detail, I just wonder: How did wires and shadows get into the original print?

Scott: Because you can't make a spinner fly without a crank. That's why it was raining in the shot, because the rain would help to hide the cables. But when that spinner comes around the corner — we always say today, "Oh, that's digital." It's not. That's a real 2-ton spinner being hoisted out around the corner and brought around the corner by a large crank that literally brought it down, landed it, and took it off again. Bloody good crane driver, right? You have four points on the cable that keep it steady. Because those big cranes are incredibly technically accurate. So he could do that. But I always used to sit there staring at the cables. Then eventually one or two of the geeks spotted it. So we took those out.

Wired: I see.

Scott: I was tempted not to, because I thought it was quite charming that there were cables still in the shot, you know. And there was when Roy Batty came out of the phone booth, and for some bizarre reason we never noticed that somebody's thumb was in the bottom left-hand corner. The phone booth was automatic door and I couldn't de-automate it, and I was getting really beaten up because we were against the gun, so I just shot. I was, by then, getting a two-take Charlie. And there was the bloody thumb in the shot. We just left it in there for a while. It's things like that, the little mistakes like that, that you're tempted to leave them in actually. It's a signature saying, "Yes, it is fiction, it is fantastical moviemaking."
Wired: Today it would be done with computer-generated imagery.

Scott: Oh yeah, you wouldn't even think about it.

Wired: There would be no thumb.

Scott: Oh, it's become too easy.

Wired: Do you have a sense that it's better to do it physically or better to do it digitally?
Scott: No, not necessarily. I mean, otherwise I'll sound like an old fart. I think less is more. When you see an explosion where no one could have survived that explosion, and the person is still running, then it's bullshit. And that's frequently why they're just not as good, you know. Whereas when you've got to do it physically, you've got to be careful — like really careful. And it's different. With digital the painting book is unlimited, and there are advantages and disadvantages, you know. The world in, say, Lord of the Rings would have been nothing like as impressive as that 30 years ago, as it is today where he can literally do anything. Although I must say Star Wars was one of the first — the one that George [Lucas] directed is still, honestly, the best by far. There was the beginning of some interesting digital thinking in that one. [Stanley] Kubrick really showed the way with 2001: [A Space Odyssey], where he had some very simple variations and versions of digital work. It was not digital so much as computer-driven shots. And that was [Douglas] Trumbull. Trumbull was working with Stanley. They got through that pretty magnificently. That was the first of the really great science fictions, where I went, "Wow, that works." Everything up to that one, I always felt, was a bit too much fantasy and not enough reality.

Wired: But that's digitally controlled cameras, which is really — I suppose the mechanical precision is related to current CGI. But today you have a plastic universe. You generate it the way you want it to look.

Scott: You can't say it's not as good, because good things have come out of it, like the variations of some films where they've really used it discerningly, I think is the best way of putting it, rather than going to massive overkill, which is when it becomes the end, not the means. And that's OK, because there are audiences who want that, right? I still have to have the story, so the digital is purely not the end. It's the means to the end.

Wired: Blade Runner was prescient in its presentation of technology in some ways. Not presentation of technology, but in its depiction of the world. You know, anticipating globalization, genetic engineering, biometric security. What kind of influence do you think the movie has had on —

Scott: Enormous, enormous. I know it has. I had one of the biggest — now maybe the biggest — one of the top six architects in the world tell me he used to run it regularly in his office once a month.

Wired: Will you name names?

Scott: No. But he's real big. And he said to me once, he said, "Do you know who I am?" I said, "Sure." He said, "You know, I've got to tell you something. The bloody film Blade Runner drove me crazy. And I eventually couldn't explain it, I just used to run it and we'd sit there watching it, usually on a Friday afternoon, staring at it." He was talking about retrofitting the interior on the exterior, where the innards can be beautiful. And a lot of architecture has grown to innards on the outside, you know? And eventually now we're into full-blown glass. I don't think we're seeing great developments necessarily in LA. Some quite good stuff in New York. But the best stuff is stunning, is staggering, in places like the Far East. I'll even say Hong Kong. I'll say certainly Shanghai is really interesting. But very interesting stuff in Europe; in Holland they've got really great architects, fantastic. And Potsdamer Platz in Berlin is kind of interesting, evolution into glass, which is kind of practical and beautiful. I'm not including Chicago, because I haven't been there in a bit, but I understand Chicago has some nice stuff there. But New York, while it's evolved spectacularly, the best in New York, to me, is keeping a hold of all the old buildings, old warehousing and things like that. Thank God they didn't pull them down. They're kind of beautiful, and they've sort of kept them and they've evolved, which is cool. London's evolved very nicely now. Really good stuff. Wow.

Wired: I haven't been there.

Scott: Architecture would have been my game if I hadn't done movies.

Wired: That kind of comes across in Blade Runner, along with your design sensibility.

Scott: Yep. Design and/or architecture. I think, living — I would have gotten involved in just living. I mean, [Philippe] Starck is very clever in terms of his — he can design a building, design interior, design furniture. A lot of the architects are now shifting into taking on board the whole thing, which is what it should be. Because frequently an architect will design a building, take a walk, and not care about what's put inside it, which is a pity, because you get a great building, you walk in there, and everything inside is shit. They'll design the space and then walk. And then it's up to the client to say, "Oh, we want to put these things in there." If I was an architect, I'd say, "You can't have that chair."

Wired: Perhaps the moviemaking analog to that is keeping in mind how your audience will view the movie once you've made it and released it.

Scott: Yeah, I mean, hopefully. Certainly Charles Knode people don't talk about often enough. Charles Knode's wardrobe. Deckard was subtle, but very good, because it's so futuristic. Usually you get bad futuristic suits, right? Deckard was very good, very well done. And the women's clothes, Rachael's clothes, were stunning. And I stared at what happened very shortly after that, which are a couple of really big Italian designers. There's a lot of influence from the film in that direction.

Wired: I'm sorry, I lost my train of thought.

Scott: You were talking about influences of the film, various influences. Fashion, definitely. Architecture, definitely. Interiors, definitely. A big clothing designer sent me stuff with the interior of his whole place. The factories looked like Blade Runner. He used to send me stuff, which is very sweet. And hotels in New York started to get very what I call — Blade Runner is kind of retro, '40s projecting into the future. A lot of that happened in New York for a bit.
Wired: Those buildings you said you loved in New York, those are '40s buildings.
Scott: Well, there's a beauty in having a big girder in a room with bolts and things like that. You don't tear it down, you keep it.
Wired: The quaint touches, I don't think you intended them that way, but there are pay phones in Blade Runner.

Scott: Yeah. But there are digital phones that have been scrawled all over, because in the nightclub he talks to her on a digphone.

Wired: I also think of the flying car, which is sort of a 1950s sci-fi cliche almost.

Scott: I think it's impractical. That's why it's probably not going to happen. You'll probably get, like, if you take Los Angeles. Who said, Los Angeles is 45 miles across and 7 meters thick? You've got the big downtown city and the big uptown developments of Century City, which will definitely evolve probably more than it has. I'm surprised it hasn't evolved more. And between that you've got the huge hinterlands of two-, three-story architecture. So, that's where LA would be far more practical for lots of air traffic. But New York would be very impractical. And I used to fly regularly, so here's another personal experience. The years when I was doing a lot of TV commercials, I was flying in and out of New York. Once a week I'd go into New York — once a month I'd go into New York, 12 times a year. And I'd get off the plane at JFK, I'd get a helicopter, which was the service — which in those days I remember cost $20 — get on this chopper with double rotors, almost like the big Sikorsky. Take off, you're in — land on top of the PanAmerican Building, winter or summer, high wind or balmy evening. And it was hairy. And that's how I used to do it, did that for almost two years, until one of the choppers in a very stormy January or February evening nearly missed the top of the building because of the wind gusts. And it perched perilously on the edge and they nearly lost it. And that was the end of that. There was no more helicopters, they just closed them down. But I always remembered that. It was always coming and going down 5th Avenue and approaching the PanAm Building as we got closer and closer that I used to think about Blade Runner.

Wired: Aren't those flying cars kind of like the explosion that you couldn't possibly walk away from, that the protagonist walks away from?

Scott: Sorry, how do you mean?

Wired: It's maybe not so much an unrealistic as an impractical, as you say, element —

Scott: I think it will certainly happen when they plan it. We're talking some time away when you may have controlled cars on controlled freeways, where you interlock, drive on, and it turns off until you want to get off. Where you'll be going at a given speed. It will be assisted. It won't be gasoline, it will be electric or whatever, hydrogen. I drive an electric car now. My whole company's gone green about a year ago. So everybody's now got the combination electric and a bit of gas. You start up a little gas and then you go straight to electric as soon as you're moving.
Wired: What do you drive?

Scott: I'm driving — what do you call it? — a Lexus. It's like an SUV, but it's a Lexus. It's very good, actually.

Wired: It's a hybrid.

Scott: Sound is toxic, so there's no sound. So when you switch it on, you think, "Has the engine started or has it not started?" There's no movement until you put it in gear; then you start moving. It's really, really impressive. And the surge ain't bad at all.
Wired: This is difficult for science fiction films, if everything is silent.

Scott: Yeah. You won't have any of those big bursts and gouts of steam and shit. In those days, I thought everything from hot and cold air, condensation, overload, all pushing us toward global warming.

Wired: What have you learned about Blade Runner, about the story, the characters, the ideas at play, that you didn't know when you went into production?

Scott: I always knew everything! I mean, I always knew it. I knew all the characters. But because the film wasn't expensive, and it wasn't cheap — we're like three years after [Michael] Cimino's movie [Heaven's Gate], and two years after 1942, which was fairly expensive, Steven's [Spielberg's] film — or '41 was it? We were about 23 [million dollars] and a bit. So, probably about the same price as Indiana Jones. And Indiana Jones was the previous year. So, what did I learn? I learned more about and got more experience as a filmmaker. But every time you do a movie, in fact, the more experience you get, you can almost say, the less you know. Because the more you know, the more can go wrong. So that can also make you more insecure. But I guess I don't really worry about much. I just try and do the best I can on the set. And at the time, I'm in three movies. I mean this is my third movie. My first movie is pretty good actually, called The Duellists. And that was criticized for being too beautiful, and you know, I took that to heart. So the next one wasAlien, and that was less beautiful but more impressive and more grungy. I was criticized for a lack of character development. I said, "What fucking character development do you need when you've got that son of bitch on board?" So I started getting defensive, then realized actually I was in fairly good shape in terms of being a film director, because for the kind of movies that I will do, I will be always very visual. And I won't push it in your face, but I know it's an advantage. I've got a good eye, and I don't know what a good eye means, but I've got a good eye, I think. I can align and see way beforehand, imagine way beforehand, what's going to be. That's good, that's very useful. Because some people don't have that, they have other talents. I've had to evolve my capabilities in developing material. And even though I've chosen the story, found the writer, had it written on The Duellists, so that was a total development by us, by [Scott Free?], and then got it financed and got it made. Alien I was sent, and I read it and thought, "I know what to do with this," and didn't want to change anything. Because they kept saying, "Want to change anything?" "Nope." They said, "No?" I said, "No. That's it. Let's go." So that was great, because that flew. And then Blade Runner was the play, which then evolved for eight months every day. Hampton and I and Deeley every day talked, talked, talked, talked. As Deeley was trying to get the financing, the film was growing. And that was interesting because that was a real evolution of working alongside a writer that I really respect. And it was hard for him because sometimes he'd say "Oh fuck." I'd suddenly have this brain wave that comes from a visual notion. We'd get a lot of, "Oh God, I thought we had that worked out." I said, "Yeah, but wouldn't this be great?" And he'd say, "Yeah, but that will mean this, this, this, and this." Because then there's a domino effect, particularly if you're going to have — the best screenplays are organic. Like a good book is very organic. And that's why the words — I always liked the definition of sentimental. I am asentimental. Sometimes it's used as a word to describe something as a compliment, and I say, "No, sentimental is bad. Emotional is good." The difference is that sentimental is unearned emotion, right? So when something slips by and you either sneer or feel for the moment that somebody was trying to manipulate you, it's because the playwright hadn't earned it. Right? He hadn't earned the right to push your emotional button. That's when you think, blech. OK, then it means he came too quick or from the wrong direction.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Quentin Blake

After almost 60 years in the business, Quentin Blake is one of Britain's - perhaps the world's - best-loved illustrators. He tells Stuart Jeffries about working with Roald Dahl, the teacher who got him started, and the hardest job he ever had to do

Friday September 28, 2007
The Guardian

Dusk is settling beyond the vast picture windows of Quentin Blake's studio in a west London mansion block, as the illustrator ushers me to a well-worn Eames chair so I can sit and watch how he works. The man the Guardian once described as "a national institution" (which makes him sound like a cross between the Queen and Broadmoor) begins each morning at 9.30 at the guillotine, chopping sheets of paper into shape to warm up for the day ahead. He stands to draw, working on a light box. The glow from it gives him the aura of a magician. Some interviewers have described him as gnome-like, but I won't.

He puts a rough drawing on the light box and on top of that a sheet of watercolour paper. He then draws with old-fashioned dip pens, or sometimes a vulture quill. What he does is not, he stresses, tracing. "It's important that I can't see the rough drawing underneath too clearly, because when I draw I try to draw as if for the first time; but I can do it with increased concentration, because the drawing underneath lets me know all the elements that have to appear and exactly where they have to be placed." When the drawing is done, he swivels round to a nearby desk where he sits to paint.
Is there anything he can't draw? "I stay away from motor cars. And I can't do architectural drawings, really. What I want to convey is movement and gesture and atmosphere. I like drawing anything that is doing something. Dragons are good because you can arrange them in interesting ways across the page, get people to ride on them. I can't seem to keep birds out of my books." You can see them not only in his edition of Aristophanes' The Birds and his book with John Yeoman called Featherbrains, but in a grinning self-portrait featuring him dangling from a ceiling fan, pencils stuffed in his pockets, papers and birds flapping round. His grin is the still centre to the chaos.

I ask Blake what was the most difficult drawing he did and he tells me it was the one where he had to depict the writer Michael Rosen grinning, even though he was really feeling very sad. "I did it 15 times, but I just couldn't get it right," he says. "It wasn't so much that he was sad. I could have done that. It was that he was sad, but trying to look happy. I did it once and he looked too cheerful. Another in which he looked too sad. It was a matter of trying to dose the happiness."

Even to the illustrator whose visual genius determined how Willy Wonka, the Big Friendly Giant, Matilda and a host of other fictional characters looked to millions of people around the world, this wasn't a small matter. He may have had six decades of work and 300 books behind him, from Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim to the best part of Roald Dahl. He may have drawn for Punch and the Spectator, taught illustration at the Royal College of Art and earned an OBE in 1988. But nothing in Blake's oeuvre up to that point was so fraught, so emotionally poised as this.

Blake's image was to be first in Rosen's Sad Book, in which our current children's laureate wrote of his grief at the death of his 18-year-old son, Eddie, from meningitis. This wasn't going to be a normal children's book (if there is such a thing). The words accompanying Blake's illustration were to read simply: "This is me being sad. Maybe you think I'm happy in this picture. Really I'm sad but pretending I'm happy."

"My illustration had to say that he was smiling because he thinks people won't be able to tolerate his grief," says Blake. "It had to show him smiling while looking stressed. I got it in the end." If you look at the published image carefully, it finally dawns that Rosen's smile is forced. Just around the corners of the mouth, there is a hint of a grimace. The lower lip too twisted to be joyful. The eyes almost wild.

Rosen had sent the text to his publisher along with the uncertain note: "Is this is a book?" They weren't sure: "His editors sent the text on to me, saying, 'We don't know if we can publish this, but would you like to have a look at it?' What I looked at was really two pages of text, wonderfully written, and it was clear there was a whole book in there, but it needed illustrating. And clearly Michael intended it to be illustrated because he had written it with changes in mood every two sentences that cried out for illustrations. I really wanted to help it."

So Blake, standing at the desk in his studio in the Kensington mansion block where he has worked for more than 30 years, went to work. What he drew made Rosen's words a book. Next to the words, "What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. He died," Blake did a gloomy portrait, all grey wash and black lines. "The way I drew his eyes for that image - well, they're really just scrawls." And yet the scrawls suggest so much: sleepless nights, tears, a world of grief. "You can't draw that way slowly. I could have done them anatomically correctly, with eyelashes and so on, but I didn't want to. I tend to do everything fast." Why? "If you're playing tennis and you throw a ball in the air very slowly and sweep your racquet slowly, you're not going to produce a good serve."

Then Blake's palette lightens the mood, in an octet of cheerful scenes from Eddie's life. But the text is grim: the narrator admits that thinking of Eddie's death makes him angry ("How dare he go and die like that? How dare he make me sad?"). The eighth panel, the most harrowing of the lot, was the easiest work for Blake: it is empty.

When the book came out in 2004, the critic Dina Rabinovitch wrote: "It is an outstanding book, head and shoulders over anything else, for any age, published this year." Blake says: "It was a very moving experience to do it, and commercially it did well because there aren't many books like that."

The book struck powerful chords, especially among bereaved parents and siblings. One parent submitted this review to Amazon: "Ever since my daughter died I've been trying to find ways of telling my autistic son about her. I said all the usual stuff, but he became inconsolable and cried as if heartbroken. I've left it alone for months and then suddenly found this book. I knew it would be perfect for him, as he has such a visual intelligence. It was. He asked me to read it again and again and pointed out aspects of the pictures that I had failed to notice."

Blake has agreed to this rare interview because he wants to promote the Big Draw, an annual festival of which he is patron. This year it will include 1,300 events across the country aimed at encouraging people to draw. Why is it that he can draw and I can't, damn him, I ask the 74-year-old doyen of British illustrators. "Sorry!" he replies. I notice he's done a book called Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered ("100% klutz certified"), which might help me redress the balance.

By way of a longer answer, Blake relates his early career. "There was nothing to suggest that I could draw - my parents certainly couldn't." He started drawing young, probably about the age of five. It proved an astute career move: Blake has always earned his living from drawing. "I remember a visitor during the war saying, 'He draws a lot, but he won't speak!'" What did you draw? "I was particularly motivated by things that were funny. But not entirely. I remember when I was 11 or 12 doing a realistic drawing of boys after a football match in the changing room. Heaven knows why, I hated football!"

But it was the husband of Mrs Jackson, his Latin teacher at Chislehurst and Sidcup grammar school, who shaped Blake's career when he was 15. "He was a painter, who had a very naive style influenced by Modigliani. What I loved about him was that he spoke both about Punch and Michelangelo. So I showed him my drawings. " Better yet, Alf Jackson encouraged young Blake to send some drawings to Punch. Most were rejected, but eventually, aged only 16, he got published.

In Blake's 2000 memoir Words and Pictures, there is a reproduction of the precocious cartoon that Punch published before he was out of his teens. A bearded beatnik with a paintbrush in one hand drips juice from a pear he is holding on to a canvas. It's an accomplished, warm-hearted Jackson Pollock satire (even then there was nothing caustic in Blake's work). "They paid me seven guineas! I didn't know what to do with it - I didn't even have a bank account."

Instead of going to art school or trying to live off his art, he went to Cambridge in 1953 to read English. Why? "I knew I wanted to be an artist and that I would have to train, but I thought that if I went to art school I would never go to a university, whereas if I did go to university I would still have the option of doing art." The iconoclastic don FR Leavis, whom Blake would gently satirise in drawings, was one of his tutors, and his then unfashionable enthusiasm for Dickens infected Blake. "I was fascinated by Dickens and by his illustrators, who were crucial to his career as a novelist. I've never lost my interest, nor my love, for Cruikshank and Phiz, Dickens' illustrators." In 1995, he did an illustrated version of A Christmas Carol.

At Cambridge, he also dabbled in illustrating for magazines, art editing some issues of Granta (though before it became the globally renowned literary journal it is today). He was asked to draw for the university magazine Varsity, but refused because the editor, Michael Winner, was turning it into "something like the Daily Mirror".

Already, Blake could pick and choose among the offers of work. Not only was he working for Punch, but, during his national service, he finished his first book. English Parade was for soldiers who hadn't mastered reading. "From time to time I had to show my work to a lieutenant-colonel for his approval," he recalls. "A few moments of silence and then: 'Very good, Sergeant Blake. But the grass in this one ought to be shorter.' 'Yes, sir. I'll see to it, sir.' The problem with making the grass shorter in drawings is that you can't cut it: you have to do the drawing again. But at least it was preparation for encounters with editors and - worse - committees, later on."

After Cambridge, Blake tried to make a living from art. "I decided to give it until I was 30 and if I hadn't made it by then, pack up and do something else." He went to Chelsea School of Art. "I went there because I read an article about a man called Brian Robb who described himself as cartoonist, painter, illustrator. I wanted to be all three! I'd seen his illustrations to Tristram Shandy and I thought he could give me the advice I needed. He did. It was wonderful to know, almost instinctively, what was the right thing to do to help make one's dream a reality."

Blake dutifully attended life drawing classes (there are some rather lovely life drawings from the time in Words and Pictures), and mastered the skill of looking at something really hard that Robb instilled in him. "But that isn't how I work now. In life drawing, one was obsessed with capturing accurately what one saw, but that isn't enough for art. The really great artists like Rembrandt and Goya could draw what was in front of them and unleash their imaginations at the same time. I couldn't. So now I don't draw from life. I draw as though I'm trying to capture something that isn't there."

Inventing new worlds rather than capturing pre-existing ones has been Blake's forte: "Some people have vivid memories of childhood - Michael Rosen's recall is astonishing - but I don't; I just try to invent it again now, whether it is a child or a dog or a woman reading a book or a hunchback of Notre Dame."

Is this why he became a book illustrator, so he could invent visual worlds? "I think so. Certainly, when I asked my friend John Yeoman in 1960 to write a book so I could do pictures for it, that is what I had in mind."

His association with Yeoman, an old school friend who went up to Cambridge with Blake in 1953, has been the longest creative partnership in his life: they still regularly collaborate on books together. More than that, they share another flat in the same block as Blake's studio.

Did Blake never want to be a cartoonist? "No. I didn't really want to spend much time thinking about politics." Instead, as he writes in Words and Pictures: "When I took my first steps in book illustration, I found that I had entered a sort of enchanted grove where there were things to draw at every turn." In 1960, he illustrated his first children's book, Yeoman's A Drink of Water. "I had asked him to write a story I could illustrate. I usually rely on other people to invent the stories, because I can't be bothered with the words."

That grove became even more enchanting when, in 1975, he was asked to illustrate for Roald Dahl. Was he the irascible old monster that others have described? "No, I was very fond of him, though he could be curmudgeonly. Initially, I was very nervous of him because he was so powerful. He did like to tease me for my white plimsolls, and he was the only person to call me Quent. He would say: 'Here's Quent, going out for dinner in his plimsolls.'" I glance at Blake's feet: he's still wearing white plimsolls in defiance of Dahl's satire.

It was the schematic yet potent illustrations that Blake did for Dahl's stories for the next 15 years until the writer's death that, for many, were his iconic works. "What was so wonderful to me was that so many of Roald's stories were fantastical, unrealistic, so I was free to do what I wanted. I could let my style develop. Think of The Twits or the BFG - they don't really take place in a realistic world. They come from my head." That said, Dahl sent Blake a dirty old pair of sandals through the post and suggested he use them as models for The Big Friendly Giant's footwear. He did.

Was there a danger that he might become so synonymous with Dahl that he could illustrate for nobody else? "Apparently not. I've worked with lots of writers - Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken, Michael Rosen. I find I do little shifts, not just between writers, but between books by the same writer, to give each work its identity."

Isn't he locked in an infantile world? For the first and last moment in the interview, Blake looks a little cross. "Not at all. I've done illustrations for Quixote, Cyrano de Bergerac, French writers like Daniel Pennac. All adult stuff. Let me show you my latest book." Called Vivre Nos Vieux Jours!, it is a book showing what old people can do. It is an expanded version of the drawings Blake did of elderly patients at a health centre in Kensington "As you can see, I put old people in trees a lot."

In France, where he spends much of the year and was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for services to literature in 2004, they created an imprint, Gallimard Vieillesse (Gallimard Old Age), for this book, which will be published next month. He hopes it will be published in English soon.

"I'm doing a lot for the NHS now." He shows me a photo of a mural called Planet Zog that he's done for a health centre in Harrow. It's in the waiting room, to make the experience for children less grim. In Blake's version of the public health system , some of our NHS problems seem to have been solved by recruiting aliens. If only Patricia Hewitt had listened to him. "It might be nicer to have your trolley pushed by someone with eight legs, don't you think?" It is a gentler, barmier world than the one we know - like many of Blake's works, it has the helpful effect of cheering you up.

After the interview, I walk from his flat realising that my picture of Blake is incomplete. (I also realise that I have forgotten to tell him my hilarious anecdote about when a waiter in an Indian restaurant asked me how I would like my dal soup and I replied: "Rolled." True story.) Seduced by Blake's art, I forgot to ask about his personal life. Is he gay, straight, what did his parents do, does he have children of his own, nieces or nephews to enchant with his charming illustrations? All I do know is that he was nicknamed Q when he taught at the Royal College of Art. I'm especially intrigued because Blake has done many interviews, without shedding any light on what he gets up to outside the studio.

The following day Blake is too busy drawing to speak to me, but sends an email to this intrusive hack: "I don't have anything interesting to conceal or reveal in my private life, and it is really only my work and professional life that I want to talk about." Fair enough. "I think the relevant item here is that I have not been married or had children, so that I tend to approach the subject of children's books as a teacher rather than a parent. In other words, I try to identify with the children in the books rather than look upon them as a benevolent adult."

I'm not very sure about this answer (does a teacher identify with children?), but still, one can see that image of the benevolent adult that is Blake again and again in his work. There he is on G2's cover, in a shadow of grey wash, quite possibly wearing his rebellious white plimsolls. He's encircled by smiling children and characters he has created over a happy lifetime's work. It reminds me of Robert Buss's painting Dickens' Dream, where the author is surrounded by his creations. Here we can see some of the characters Blake put before our eyes. They are (clockwise from the top): Up With Birds by John Yeoman; Quentin Blake et les Demoiselles des Bords de Seine; How Tom Beat Captain Najork by Russell Hoban; Clown; Michael Rosen's Sad Book; The Life of Birds; Mrs Armitage on Wheels and The BFG by Roald Dahl.

And, at the centre of the picture, typically, is Blake's smile. It is gentle, without the hint of a grimace. It is his signature, in life as in art. But when I saw him, he wasn't that stubbly.

Monday, September 03, 2007