Interviews Tom Duggins

Interview: James Erskine, dir. The Ice King

James Erskine is an accomplished director and documentarian who has explored a number of different sporting greats through the medium of film. His latest, The Ice King, tells the life story of John Curry: a pioneer in the world of figure skating, who redefined the sport by incorporating elements of performance art into his routines. We sat down with Erskine to talk about Curry’s triumphs and the private demons of an inspired athlete.

Tom Duggins: You’ve made films about football, cycling, cricket, tennis, motorsports, and now figure skating. Are you slowly working your way through every sport there is?

James Erskine: I make films about the world that happen to be seen through the lens of sport. For me it’s about finding an amazing story with an amazing central character. I would say the film is really about genius. Whether that is genius purely constituted in an individual or whether that’s an act of genius. Even going back to One Night in Turin, Gascoigne is a kind of genius. He was problematic as a character, but what he does, no one had been able to do that. That’s what makes him a genius. It’s the same for Sachin Tendulkar and John Curry. I started off making films at the BBC in arts. I made a lot of films about art and performance and this film was a melding of those two things. The Curry story is amazing. Imagine wanting to be an artist and deciding that the way you were going to do it was to become an athlete.

TD: Do you think football is an art form?

JE: I do think football is a performance art of sorts. In football you get moments of art but the whole game is not art.

TD: That comparison between Paul Gascoigne and John Curry is interesting. Watching The Ice King, it’s noticeable how disordered John Curry’s private life was compared to how graceful and composed he was in his performances. Can that be another common element to genius?

JE: There’s a really interesting quote from Francis Bacon, this is in one of the amazing interviews with the art critic David Sylvester. He interviewed Bacon in his studio, and his studio was chaos, and Silvester asked him: ‘Why do you keep it like this?’ And Bacon says: ‘I’m an artist and my job is to make sense out of chaos, the chaos of humanity, and therefore I surround myself with chaos’. I think there’s a valid idea that artists require that. I don’t know about geniuses.

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TD: Another interesting element of that, which comes across in the film, of what artists do or need, is the idea of sacrifice. John Curry talks quite a lot about the sacrifices he had to make to pursue figure skating.

JE: I didn’t think about it properly until I made the film, but you would have to get up at five in the morning and skate for six or eight hours. Your legs are done in by the cold. We shot the end sequence at an ice rink in Baltimore, where they try to recreate one of the dances, The Blue Danube. I was just stood on the ice for an hour and a half, and I was in total agony afterwards. Because it’s a very hard surface and the cold comes up through you. A very interesting thing, I think, about Curry is that he sets out on this journey for acceptance – that’s a big theme in the film – acceptance by society. And he is accepted, he wins the gold medal, he has twenty thousand people at the Met Opera house, he’s told he is a genius. But he can never accept himself.

TD: The Blue Danube sequence in the film is very captivating. I couldn’t help thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey when I saw it.

JE: John was very interested in it. I have letters where he talks about going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was very aware. He was often compared to David Bowie. There was definitely an aesthetic which he reached towards with David Bowie as well. So there’s both Space Odyssey and Space Oddity going on in those things. That’s why they chose the music. It wasn’t the original piece they were going to do. But knowing that piece, the context of it in 2001 and where it comes in, where a man is cast into the eternal frozen waste of the universe, trapped to always be the same – it seems to me that’s what that dance is partly about. We lucked out with that Blue Danube footage, it had never been seen before we found it. It was old rehearsal footage.

TD: Who did it come to you from?

JE: It came from Nathan Birch, the man who choreographs it in the film. He was sort of John’s protégé, who then set up The Next Ice Age company. It was amazing when we found it because we weren’t sure how to end the film. We needed a final dance.

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TD: Does that kind of thing happen quite often when you’re making documentaries? Those moments of luck?

JE: Well, by the time I actually wrote the film, I knew we had that footage. But there was a point where I wasn’t sure if the film was makeable, I felt we needed to go and find something. So, I said to my researchers before we even started – if you can find ‘The Blue Danube’ and ‘Moon Skate’, these mythical dances, we’ll make the film, and if you can’t I don’t know how we can make the film. Because you feel it has to have something more, it can’t just be a bunch of old BBC shows. I mean you can make a film like that, but the performance needs to be somehow more. ‘Moon Skate’ is extraordinary and it really is a work of genius.

TD: The other piece of footage that really stood out was the dance to ‘Burn’ by Jean-Michel Jarre, where all the performers are dressed in red and white. Watching it, it made me think about red and white blood cells.

JE: That’s what I thought. For me it’s the only thing I can think of when I watch it. I’m glad you’ve said that, because that’s what I wanted you to take from it.

TD: Do you think John Curry was aware of it too, even on a subconscious level?

JE: Friends of his would have started to die around that time, from Kaposi’s sarcoma. In his community, in New York, people were dying and we know it affected friends of his. So I think, absolutely, it seems like it was not an unconscious decision.

TD: Another thing the film examines very well is the idea of machismo and masculinity in sport. Do you think the world of professional sport still has a confused attitude where those things are concerned?

JE: I think it’s more than confused. In terms of homophobia, in terms of gender, in terms of race there are still major problems in sport. And homophobia is a big one. In the art world, you’re allowed to be a little bit strange, but the sport world pushes you toward conformity. Also artistic excellence isn’t generally discovered until you’re in your twenties, whereas with sport you tend to be on that path from a very early age, and sexuality is something that you come to understand better later on in life.

TD: Another detail in the film is that John Curry was outed by the media…

JE: Well…

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TD: Do you disagree?

JE: He was definitely outed by the media. I think whether John Curry’s character was such that he was self-sabotaging is another question. I think that’s something you see in his life. He spent all that time working to win the Olympic gold, and then on some level, perhaps subconsciously, he allows it to slip out. Certainly, in the rest of his career, he would reach a peak and then self-sabotage. He would get the Met Opera House and then refuse to perform.

TD: Do you think that we should be less interested in the details of someone’s sexuality? Both the media and the public generally, do we need to get better at letting public figures have their privacy?

JE: I think it’s inevitable. It’s a double-edged sword. If there’s no gay footballers, for example, willing to talk about their private lives, then it’s very difficult to use them as examples at the same time. I think that makes it more complicated. I think it should be talked about. The worst element of it is what goes on social media, the trolling and abuse you get.

TD: The subject matter of the film is quite sad in some ways, but the tone of the film itself is quite buoyant and joyful throughout. Was that something you were concerned to achieve?

JE: Well I didn’t want the film to end and people feel depressed and feel like life is futile. This was someone who did something and changed the way the world saw this endeavour. And that is a triumph. There’s a quote from Johnny Weir, I’m not sure if it’s in the film, but he says that making your mark is the hardest thing to do in the world. John did it, he created great art and that’s rare.

TD: Lastly, what are you working on next?

JE: There’s a few things that I can’t talk about, but one thing I’m doing is developing a dramatic film about John Curry. That was always the ambition: to make the documentary, really explore his life, show it on the big screen, and then try to find another way into his story. Because I think his story can reach different audiences in a different way. I think he’s a fascinating character and I think it would be an amazing film.

The Ice King is in selected cinemas from Friday 23 February. theicekingmovie.com

Tom Duggins