Peter Middleton and James Spinney • Directors of The Real Charlie Chaplin
“We were making the film during the #MeToo era, and of course, it looms large over everything”
by Kaleem Aftab
- The directors of the acclaimed Notes on Blindness documentary and VR project talk about their new doc on the iconic British artist
The Real Charlie Chaplin [+see also:
interview: Peter Middleton and James S…
film profile] is a new documentary about the iconic titular British artist by Peter Middleton and James Spinney, the directors of the acclaimed Notes on Blindness [+see also:
interview: James Spinney, Peter Middle…
film profile] documentary and VR project. This look at the life and work of the cinematic legend blends audio recordings with rarely seen archive footage to give a portrait of a man in turmoil. The film had its world premiere at the Zurich Film Festival before screening at the BFI London Film Festival.
Cineuropa: Can you talk about the archive material and how you gained access to it?
Peter Middleton: I was approached a few years ago, in 2017, by producer Ben Limberg, who had done this extraordinary deal with the Chaplin estate to get full access to his personal and creative archive. It was one of the first times that anyone had had the opportunity to have such extensive access. It included Chaplin’s films, his home movies, some wonderful personal materials, and lots of photographs and archival documents.
James Spinney: There was a tantalising reference to a three-day audio interview done with Life magazine in the 1960s. Fragments of it had been used before, and the transcript was out there, but no one had had the opportunity to take a deep dive and use modern digital techniques to make the material useful in a film. We began looking for other material out there that perhaps hadn’t really been used before. There were a few key ones that we found: one was an extraordinary audio recording of Chaplin’s childhood friend, born in the 1890s, who speaks about the poverty of Chaplin’s childhood in this beautiful, musical Cockney accent. The other one is this 1947 press conference on the eve of Chaplin’s departure from the USA, when the Hollywood establishment is out to get him and accusing him of being a communist. They were really attacking him for his lack of patriotism and his politics.
Is this the Charlie Chaplin story for the #MeToo era?
PM: We were making the film during the rise of the #MeToo era, and of course, it looms large over everything. To some degree, you could say that Chaplin was the first modern celebrity, the first person whose fame was international and kind of mediated through a screen. He was one of the first people where this question was raised about whether someone’s personal life would dilute our sense of having a relationship with their work. His divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey, was a massive scandal, and part of that was the age difference and some of the allegations made by Lita in the divorce case. Fast-forward 20 years to the late 1940s, when Chaplin had abandoned the Tramp character and his work had become increasingly political. He was starting to make enemies of influential people in the American establishment, so he wasn’t afforded those same protections that he’d had before. Suddenly, these personal scandals were weaponised by the FBI in the tabloid press. It’s quite interesting to see how differently the case of Lita Grey and his relationship with Joan Barry in the 1940s affected his star power. A lot of Lita’s story resonated with the #MeToo story – particularly her struggle to have her story heard and believed by people.
The Tramp was such an iconic character. Did Chaplin struggle because the public didn’t want the real person, but instead wanted the icon?
PM: I think it was so complicated for Chaplin because his character was so wrapped up in his own psyche. He’s clearly journeying inwards in his films, like in The Kid: that separation scene is so clearly playing on the traumas of his childhood and the fact that the Tramp character is constantly circling back through his humiliation. Chaplin talks a lot in his autobiography about the humiliations of his early life, and in the MOMA interview, there are a lot of references to humiliation. There is this sense that the Tramp character is so wrapped up in his own psyche, but at the same time, there is a kind of cosmic pact that they have with each other.
Will there be a VR show?
JS: We thought about it, but we haven’t yet found a way to do it that would be unique.
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