Francine Stock meets me for coffee at BAFTA, after a long day working on her third novel – ten years since the release of In Glorious Technicolour, a book that chronicled the last century with the three most impactful films per decade.'It’s just a question of sitting in front of the machine until it gets done, no secret really', she laughs, as if wishing it was only that simple, knowing full well that there is a world more to it.
Image: Francine Stock at BAFTA
Brought up in a bookish family, with a mother who adored going to the cinema, Stock was introduced and connected to film from quite early on. It is during her time living in Australia that Stock recalls her earliest memory of going to the cinema: 'for me, everything looked so bright and colourful, full of lush gardens. We went to see My Fair Lady and from that opening scene, which has got these huge flowers, everything seemed hyper real. I was pretty much hooked then'. The first conscious adult experience of film Stock remembers is after her father came back from America, where he had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and insisted they must go see it; 'watching it, I remember feeling absolutely terrified and fascinated at the same time'. During her teenage years, Stock remembers the BBC beginning to broadcast a great deal of foreign films, many of them French. This is the moment she became acquainted with French cinema and felt inspired to start a French society at school, which in turn led her to begin thinking critically about films.
For Stock, film is the most influential art form today: 'one would love to say that it was still books, but actually, film has shaped the majority of our contemporary culture and will continue to feed into future generations’ cultures in pervasive ways'. In Glorious Technicolor is about that pervasive influence of film. She mentions La La Land as an endlessly referential example, explaining that although being a very enjoyable film, the impression it gave was that the producers thought "we’re going to make it recognisable for this generation and use all the old tropes in it". Stock explains, 'they are doing this in a studiedly approachable way, using incredibly glamorous, popular and talented actors to play "ordinary folk"'. Film and television has gradually, and now entirely, shaped our common cultural references, through catchphrases or our reactions to situations. Titanic is an example of this, perpetuating the idea that there is only one person that we truly fall in love with and continue to be in love with, even after they die. Stock agrees with this and says this idea is 'still powerful, because people are still reading eighteenth-century romances... it’s been kept going in Titanic with all the panoply of amazing sophisticated effects that came with it'.
Moreover, film can often affect political discourse and the way people present themselves. Stock says, 'the idea of Star Wars and the "Star Wars language" was taken up in politics with the use of terms such a the "evil empire", meant as sort of a joke but wasn't really'. Film language is used in politics because it implicitly plays on the fact that many people will have seen the films that are embedded in our visual culture – even the use of short quotations has the power to make people feel that they are one of the people, perpetuating the feeling of "I saw that movie too", which creates a feeling of inclusion. Film 'is a medium that is available to everyone, whether it’s streamed, or the price of a cinema ticket or Netflix'.
We then began to discuss the nature of her job, and why people want to talk to the artists and creatives behind the scenes. Reviewing is documenting their existence, but Stock explained that 'the way the whole interview machine works at the moment is that somebody has been trotted out for a day or two and dozens of people go in – you want to get some insight as to what it is that they were thinking and trying to do. What was it that made them give up a year of their life or two years or five years? I think it’s because we react emotionally to cinema, and therefore, as a journalist, you want to get beyond the glossy PR machine'.
On the topic of the nature of things, I asked Stock if she could pinpoint some of the driving forces behind her career: 'there’s an enormous sense of how exciting it is to be allowed to follow your enthusiasms. I worked in mainstream news and current affairs for a number of years and I used to occasionally do film reviews, and always kept going to see films at the cinema. And then eventually I had the chance to follow those passions – it is really endlessly fascinating', she smiles. Stock's film-reporting career today consists of hosting one episode of The Film Programme per month and BBC Radio 4’s series Moving Image, where she talks to filmmakers about films they absolutely adore and why. Discussing this, Stock says, 'sometimes filmmakers can be either tired of talking about their own work, or maybe a bit reticent', she then pauses and thinks carefully before concluding, 'a lot of it stems from simply not wanting to sound pretentious. Sometimes if you get them talking about somebody else’s work, they relax a bit and it gets easier.
We then discussed the experience of going to the cinema: 'It’s often quite striking how emotional even big, successful, weathered, experienced directors can be when thinking about the experience of being in a cinema and watching a film with other people. The ability to talk about things afterwards, to agree or disagree, is a commodity that is much more effective than simply discussing something online'. This is the result of the fact that people still want to go out, even though there are so many different, accessible ways to watch film at home; Netflix naturally came up in the conversation and Stock said, comically, 'we’re going to have to sort that one out; because I saw Roma on the big screen and I’m so glad I did'. Mulling over what a strange time it is in the development of the media industry (particularly television and cinema), Stock initially speaks of the positives of the arrival of platforms such as Netflix: 'Clearly you’ve got very good directors working in television. Production quality is going up all the time, such as in Sex Education on Netflix for example, which has many cinematic values, from the way it is shot to the set design. So there is a whole blurring of aesthetics, which is an interesting time, but there’s still that sense that people enjoy watching things together – that sense of wanting communal discussion about things'.
The experience of coming together to discuss film with professionals and experts in their field is the major pull of film and television events, such as festivals and Q&As. Stock remembers the event she co-hosted with Martin Scorsese for the BAFTAs' Life in Pictures segment, recalling it going on for hours, 'but every word was fascinating. I wasn’t inclined to stop him and I don’t think the audience wanted him to stop. He thought very carefully about all the things that were going to be shown'. In fact, the audience play a huge part in such events, changing the process and bringing an extra dynamic, Stock expresses how important it is that the audience 'feel it’s not just two people gazing into each other’s eyes on a stage and they just happen to be the fourth wall – there’s really an opportunity to make it feel, and you have an absolute duty, to make the audience feel that they are a part of that discussion, which flows into interesting Q&As'.
When asked if there was anything she was tired of hearing or talking about, Stock took me off guard by answering exactly how I had hoped, with honesty, truth, and without mincing words: 'I’m not sick of the idea of women working in film, and obviously, more women need to work in film. But I don’t want to ask another director what it’s like being a "woman director". I have never wanted to ask that, because they simply do what they do and shouldn’t have to talk about it in terms of judging themselves against some kind of standard. They cannot know any other experience, and therefore, just need to get on with their job. Is it true that women haven’t always had the breaks to do that? Absolutely. I think you can overdo this whole thing about the female experience. There are women who make fabulous films, there are women who make mediocre films, and we need more of both. I don’t want to be cross-questioning people about being "a female" anything. I think we can forget that now, and it is time to get on with our work. But there is still this feeling that people have to talk all the time about if enough is being done for female directors. Of course there is not, but I feel we just know that. We are getting there, and we don’t need this slightly patronising, special pleading kind of treatment'.
Normalising equality now means ceasing to draw out the plight of being female and the obstacles we face because of gender. If anything is made an obstacle specifically because of our gender, we have the ability to speak up against that and be heard, but for the most part, in Stock's words, 'it is time to get over and on with it'.
To conclude, as her book In Glorious Technicolour was published in 2010, I was intrigued as to know what three films Stock would ascribe as being the most impactful of the past decade (2009-2019). The first film she answered with was Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013), "for cinematic verve, startling p.o.v and a revealing exploration (never pretentious) of consciousness. Next was The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer 2012), "a profoundly disturbing documentary about the perpetrators of genocide in Indonesia. It questions narrative, accountability and the notion of remorse, as well as the role of cinema in the glamourisation of violence." The final film she decided on was Thirst (Park Chan Wook, 2009, still in the last decade, just). "Although his Vengeance trilogy was successful in the West, this is the crossover film - a radical reworking of Zola's Therese Raquin as a vampire story - that brought director Park's spectacular vision to western culture (see also his version of Sarah Waters with The Handmaiden or the tv adaptation of Le Carre's Little Drummer Girl). Like his fellow Korean Bong Joon-ho with Snowpiercer and Okja, he infuses filmmaking with a dark energy, humour and beauty".
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor