Peter Whitehead is best known for documenting the landmark events in the rise and fall of the counterculture throughout the 1960s, from the Beat poetry reading at the Royal Albert Hall in Wholly Communion, to the explosion of the myth of Swinging London in Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. But at the end of the decade, Peter Whitehead withdrew from filmmaking to breed falcons after facing his own impossible position as observer of the protest movement in The Fall in 1968. A few years later, he was drawn back into filmmaking by the French sculptress Niki de Saint Phalle with whom he made Daddy (1973), a delirious psycho-sexual fantasy about the artist’s troubled childhood. Famous for her shooting altars and her Nanas, which celebrated a strong, joyous view of femininity, Niki de Saint Phalle revealed a darker, deeper, more ambiguous side in the film.
In May 2014, ahead of the Niki de Saint Phalle retrospective in Paris, Virginie Sélavy talked to Peter Whitehead about the personal entanglements that fed into the film, de Saint Phalle’s increasingly daring exploration of her past in the film and the extreme reactions of critics and audiences. The Niki de Saint Phalle retrospective runs at the Grand Palais in Paris until 2 February 2015.
Virginie Sélavy: Your relationship to Niki de Saint Phalle seems central to the film.
Peter Whitehead: That’s what it’s about. It is not just an objective film about Niki de Saint Phalle and her sculptures, a sort of crazy pseudo-fictional biopic, it’s a film that’s a complete relationship between two artists who make a film together, and it gets out of hand. We were introduced by a friend who said that Niki was thinking of making an animation film of one of her little books. It was arranged for me to go to her house and make the film. She picked me up in a car, but the funny thing is, we drive off to a church. She says, ‘I want you to meet my girlfriend. Do you mind if we go to this church on the way? This girlfriend of mine is actually a sculptress, she’s my husband Jean Tinguely’s ex-wife. I married Jean two weeks ago.’ So we arrive in this church and Niki says, ‘look, the organ’s on, you’re an organist, aren’t you? Why don’t you just play? We’ll be about 15 minutes’. I hadn’t played the organ in years, it was a massive organ in this huge church in downtown Paris. Then they come back and they’re giggling. I thought there was something fishy there.
We drive off to Niki’s house, La Commanderie, which is this big house just south of Paris with all these Nanas and altars in the garden. We start to discuss making the film, and two days later I suddenly see this pile of lithographs on the table. Niki says they’re for another project, which I called ‘Dear Diana’. They’re all letters: ‘Dear Diana, you won’t believe this but I met this bloke and I did that…’ Like a comic strip from the newspaper. They’re typically funny, crazy, mad early Niki de Saint Phalle stuff. But it wasn’t only about feminism and freedom and sex. It was two girls gossiping, but being Niki and her friend Diana, it had little serious connotations. I looked through all of them and I said to Niki, ‘I think we should make a film of this’.
So by the time I leave, a week later, I’m apparently moving to Paris to live with Niki de Saint Phalle and make a film called ‘Dear Diana’. I asked her about the organ thing. She said that she’d heard I was an organist at school. She said, ‘I told my friend that I met you in London and we were going to make a film and I was quite taken by you, and she knew this clairvoyant that she always consulted when something important was happening. My friend said, “why don’t I take you to meet her and see what is going to happen with this Peter Whitehead guy?” The clairvoyant said, you are going to meet a man who is going to be very important to you – he’s an organist!’ Niki comes out flabbergasted and says, ‘Peter Whitehead is the one’. So they wanted to prove that I could play the organ. This film was a sheer, unadulterated madness from the beginning – but a divine madness.
We started to develop ‘Dear Diana’. I went back to England because I had a bit of a problem. I was supposed to live in London with Penny Slinger, who was also a sculptress, and we were going to make a film called ‘The Exorcist’ [which became the book An Exorcism]. I went back about two weeks later. Funnily enough, I met Jean and he was fascinated because I had all these falcons – I had 40 falcons in my back garden. Jean Tinguely ended up looking after them. I looked after Niki and he looked after my falcons, we had a perfect relationship!
We were just about to start filming ‘Dear Diana’ and I was thinking about how I could translate all these things, and I saw a picture, a watercolour. It had a huge, black, nasty, hideous Nana. Next to her there was a coffin. And in the middle, coming out from the back, a cross, and on the cross was a crucified bird. The bird was multi-coloured. Niki said it was just a sketch she was doing for a sculpture. She said, ‘oh that’s the funeral of my father’. So I said, ‘right, the funeral of the father – what’s the crucified bird?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve done that several times, it’s just a crucified bird’. So I tried to make her sit down and tell me about her work – why was this and why was that? And she didn’t seem to know. She was not a reflective, rationalist kind of person who analysed her work. She started painting in a lunatic asylum where she’d been plonked by her mother for a few years, and her psychiatrist told her to paint and draw because she loved it so much. I said, ‘this is very important. You know who that bird is? You. We’ve got you crucified on the cross, we’ve got Daddy dead in his coffin and we’ve got… Mummy. That’s the essence of your work’. ‘No it’s not! Is it?’ So already I was pushing for something else, which was not evident to people who had looked at her work, who thought it was great because she did Nanas, which were full of joy, and fired at altars that burst into flames in colour.
And Nanas seemed to be about powerful women.
She was loved by a lot of women who saw her as a feminist celebrating joy and sex and voluptuousness. And I was in a way, even from the beginning, being slightly threatening because I was starting to analyse her. She had admitted that she killed off Daddy, because Daddy was in his coffin and that’s where he was going to stay. So that being the joyful feminist required the murder, or the destruction, the assassination, the elimination of Daddy with all his power, which of course fascinated me because it went back to a novel I wrote called Nora and…. With Nora and…, Penny Slinger and Niki de Saint Phalle, I was having a rough time at the time of this explosion of feminism! I said ‘the most important thing is to aim high, let’s try and make the ultimate film about you and your work and what it is really about: Mummy, Daddy and the crucified bird.’
We played around with the ideas and she asked Clarice to come and play Mummy. Clarice [Mary] was her girlfriend, her lover, and the wife of Larry Rivers. She was English and she had a little daughter with Larry Rivers. Niki and Clarice had been very close for a very long time and Clarice was the inspiration for the Nanas. Clarice was the Nana. She didn’t care about anything. And the other crazy thing is that Niki had introduced Clarice to one of her previous lovers, with whom she’d done the scenery for a play, Rainer von Diez. Clarice and Rainer got on like a house on fire and became a couple. Rainer was a distinguished theatre director so the next thing is, she decides that this Rainer figure, who was a German count or a prince actually, would be the perfect Daddy.
At that time I had been filming and working with Mick Jagger in the south of France where I met him and Bianca. I’d visited a house with Mick where we could have some falcons. I flew 12 falcons to the south of France, Antibes, and I had them in the garden with Mick and Bianca. We went and saw this castle, which Mick considered renting, but it all fell through because the count who owned it didn’t like the idea of Mick Jagger. But I remembered it, so we flew to the south of France and apparently this castle was owned by a cousin of Niki in some part of the de Saint Phalle empire, which is vast. Her father owned most of the banks in France. After a short while, he was delighted to rent it to her. So we rented it for three months and we had the place where to film it.
Some of her sculptures appear in the garden and on the terrace.
Yes, I took them all down there. We moved in.
So during the shoot you have Niki de Saint Phalle, her current female lover, her previous male lover and you – that must have been a fairly intense experience.
Yes and no. Niki was very cool about everything. She couldn’t have got away with it if she hadn’t been very cool. And everyone was very cool with everybody else. We all got on very well. I was the filmmaker who had authority and power over Niki, which she reluctantly had to admit in public in front of all her ex-boyfriends and girlfriends. But it wasn’t dark in any way at all. We had the most wonderful time. We started to film. I had written most of this sort of narrative.
So you wrote the script even though it was her story.
I started writing it, but it became a total collaboration. Niki totally accepted the fact that I was making the film, writing it and creating it, and she had to contribute in every single situation whatever she could. It was a total dialogue. Soon though Niki came up with the idea that she should play the 12-year-old daughter who was ravished and ravaged and abused by the father. So we shot a whole version of the film from beginning to end with Niki playing the daughter. Most of the scenes where she’s kicking Daddy down the stairs were filmed with Niki dressed as a 12-year-old, being shouted at by Clarice while Clarice and Rainer went off and screwed on the stairs while Niki was watching. It gets very complicated and very strange.
Why was that version rejected?
It was finished as a 60-minute film, and we showed it to Richard Roud, director of the New York Film Festival, and he wanted to give it its world premiere at the festival, as part of a MOMA thing about films made by artists. Fantastic. But then Niki started to get cold feet, saying, ‘I’m not happy with my being this 12-year-old. Am I good? Does it work?’ And I said, ‘nothing in the film works if you’re talking about embarrassment. But if you want embarrassment it works, you’re challenging every possible taboo about family and children and childhood’. Niki was in a real quandary about it all. Things were coming back. The analysis was proceeding. She’d been in bed with Clarice, talking about seducing Clarice. Things were darkening.
In the meantime I had been going back to London periodically and seeing Penny Slinger, and she’d just done a play in London, called The Four Little Girls, written by Picasso, quite close to the bone, about four little girls playing with dolls and things, really very sexy and provocative. Penny Slinger had done all the costumes and backgrounds. Penny and I were still very close. She’d known that I’d met Niki and was now making a film with her so she was a bit upset, but that was the world we lived in. So I get on to see this play and it’s very erotic, very naughty, you couldn’t do it now, you couldn’t show that in England now. One of the four girls was Mia Martin. After the play, Penny said, ‘would you like to meet any of the girls? Who did you think was the best?’ ‘I think the one who was the most authentic was the girl in the yellow.’ She said, ‘I knew you’d like Mia’. She looked about 12.
How old was she?
Eighteen. So Penny went to see if Mia was available but she’d left. She said, she strips in Soho. Penny was always pulling girls for me. Penny told Mia about me and one day Mia dropped in my flat at 1 o’clock because she was just round the corner stripping at lunch time. So there’s a knock on the door and instead of the innocent 12-year-old girl from the play in her little skirt, there is a 12-year-old vamp who dances in strip clubs as the school girl number. I discovered she was also a very successful actress. She’d played Wendy in the London Coliseum’s Peter Pan and Wendy. Her mother was a very famous actress. And there she was, heavily made up because she’d just come from the club. I told her about the film and I said, I have to take photographs of you in your outfit from the play. Poor old Peter Whitehead. She couldn’t take it out because the play was on for another two weeks but I had to film on the Saturday. So we agreed that we’d have to go and buy all the gear from Selfridges. The day after, we went to Primrose Hill to photograph her dressed as a 12-year-old nymphet, as Lolita. It was getting late by the time we finished the photographs, we go back to my flat one way or another, it was a Sunday so she wasn’t stripping in a night club, so she stripped for me.
I went back to Niki and showed her the photographs. She said, ‘she’s perfect, bring her’. Because Niki had admitted that there was one element that wasn’t in the film. She considered herself as the young girl who had been sexy, and therefore responsible to a degree in seducing and leading the Daddy figure on. And she thought and I thought that it was a very important element, if not the most important element of the film, that she, the little girl, is in part responsible, and enjoyed it.
By that time, we’d filmed everything in the south of France and the chateau was gone. So I said to Niki we’d use the Commanderie. I arrived in Paris with Mia to film and we started having all this fun. Mia was a bright kid. They got on famously, Mia and Niki. And eventually we got on famously the three of us. I shoot all the scenes then I realise that I need Rainer von Diez again. I had to do the scene in which she is taunting the father in the Commanderie so I flew to New York and filmed Rainer and Clarice in their flat. Rainer never met Mia until about three months after the film was finished.
In the film Daddy loves birds and you play his falconer, which makes you a stand-in for the father, right?
I would have no doubts whatsoever that in Niki’s mind, although I might have been a young guy, like Rainer had been a young guy, that was the case. Rainer was a passive, weak, but very talented guy, and I’m not, I would have thought, that much of a macho hulk – but certainly Jean Tinguely was that. I was nevertheless the psychiatrist, the filmmaker, the father figure. We had all these episodes, which corresponded to her imaginary sex life as a young girl in this family with this mad woman and this terrible father, who did drown when she was quite young. So the real death of the father was repeated in the filming with the little girl, and by the role I was forced to play. Just before the London show is when we both seemed to reach a consensus about the question of the psychoanalysis and the mythological meaning of the whole thing. It had started off as a child’s charade in a little book, then became an adolescent charade with ‘Dear Diana’, then became a rather ominous presentiment of Daddy’s death, then went on finally to be the celebration of Daddy’s death, because the murder of the father and the transforming into a transvestite was for Niki the perfect kind of embarrassment for her mother, revenge on her mother.
Do you feel that at any point you manipulated her, or that you pushed her into things?
Not at all. We manipulated each other. She suggested things and I’d do it, we were living it out. We were living out a fantasy, a dream. I was thoroughly enjoying making a film, having a fantastic holiday from reality for six months. From the moment I met Niki I was in a surrealist movie. Perhaps a horror movie.
In addition to your personal relationship, there’s also the relationship between the voyeuristic filmmaker and the actress-sculptress.
I made that clear. From The Perception of Life through to The Fall and Fire in the Water, this was me playing that role. I had always, still have, a very ambiguous, dubious attitude to filmmaking. I made the film for Niki, and I made Fire in the Water for Nathalie [Delon] because I cherished the relationships. They wanted me to film them. That’s the important thing. You can’t talk about the narcissism and the voyeuristic person filming pretty girls dancing in night clubs without recognising this is one of the tropes that is absolutely essential to female sexuality from the earlier stirrings right the way through. They have to turn Daddy on. And if there are no daddys, they’ll do the uncles, and if there are no uncles they’ll experiment with the brothers.
I know that for you there’s a definite breaking point after The Fall but I see continuity here too in the sense that from The Fall on you film your girlfriends, lovers, partners, Alberta Tiburzi in The Fall, Niki de Saint Phalle in Daddy and Nathalie Delon in Fire in the Water. And that starts in The Fall.
Does it? Yes, it starts with The Fall. The first time I had an intense relationship with a strong, powerful, creative female was with Alberta. The next one was Penny Slinger.
So The Fall is the end of something but it’s also the beginning of a different kind of filmmaking that you start developing with a female partner.
Was it that different? I consider everything in my life to be a search for that female partner who is a muse.
Who’s the muse in Tonite?
No, there is no muse in Tonite.
The other thing that connects the two films is that The Fall is about you exploring difficult questions about yourself as a filmmaker and as a person, and in Daddy, you’re filming Niki going through a similar process.
She added her own element to it that I hadn’t had time yet to do with Penny. She came fully blown, ready-made. She was older than me, she was a world-famous sculptress. And she asked me to do it, that was a different situation. I have some beautiful letters from her saying how it had changed her life, and there is this book that she wrote called My Secret [Mon secret], in which she discusses the issue of her abuse by her father, and she says that she would not have accessed it if she hadn’t made Daddy. The other funny thing is that after we made the film we split. She went into another relationship with a woman, saying that she was never going to have another relationship with a male ever again in her life.
And did she stick to that?
No, she was with this woman for three years, I think. But at the end of it, after we made the second film, I went back and made another film for Niki. There is another film altogether, another 90-minute film. It was originally called ‘Camilla’. And then it became called Voyage au bout du rêve.
Where is that film?
In my boxes in the room next door.
Why is it not available?
It will eventually emerge but Daddy has to be shown and reconsidered first. It has not been re-released since Niki’s death.
How did the second film come about?
She wanted to make a film called ‘Nana Island, but it never happened. Then she had an idea for a new film and she wanted me to help her make it. I flew to the Commanderie and I photographed it, I edited it, I did all the music in it. This time she wanted to make her film and that was fine. By this time I was just happy not to have the responsibility for anything. I was just the cameraman. It was she and Jean who made this film. But this is the funny story. Jean was very involved, he was doing all the sets, it was a collaboration between them about her and her fantasies about young girls, and Jean and his fantasies about machines, and guns. Jean rang and said, ‘sorry, Niki didn’t like the script and she’s writing it again’. He rings me up again a few days later, ‘Peter, I’m sorry to mess you around but Niki has thrown the script out again. She’s completely rewritten it, it’s going to take another week’. This goes on for three months. Finally I get a phone call at the end of the summer, ‘Peter, we’ve got to film it now. She’s got a script. Listen, don’t tell anyone I told you this: she’s written seven complete scripts. But they’re all identical. She writes and then she decides it’s completely wrong, it’s terrible, she throws it away and she starts again. You’ve got to come, we’ve got to make the film with the latest script’. So I arrived and I helped them make the film. It’s crazy. But if you’re interested in Niki you’ve got to see it, and the world has got to see it. But if you were to show that tomorrow it’d be meaningless. If Daddy comes out and is recognised thanks to the retrospective [at the Grand Palais], that’s fine because it’s a sequel.
You also did the music in Daddy. What was the idea behind it?
I had done the music for The Fall that opens the film. I hadn’t played the organ since I’d left school. Thanks to the connection with the Stones and the Olympic Studios, I knew the guy there and he had a Hammond. All the electronic music in The Fall was recorded there with me improvising on the Hammond because I wanted something other than rock and pop. Music for films is not music necessarily. You can try and combine high ideals about music and composition, few people have succeeded in this. The story of just how kitsch music has to be for the cinema is quite an entertaining subject actually. But when you start to imagine putting Pierrot Lunaire by Schönberg on the soundtrack of a film, the film gets destroyed, the music is too powerful.
So I had done that music for The Fall and considered it to be efficient and I enjoyed doing it. When I was making Daddy I suddenly thought, ‘what are we going to do for music?’ And why on earth I came up with the two Hammond organ pieces of music, I don’t know. But it was provoked by the fact that in the castle of Mons was an old piano sitting there in one of the rooms, out of tune. And I had the idea of having the little girl playing piano. I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe I filmed it and it was never used. And I thought of this tinkly kind of piano music in the background. I thought about the kind of music I could have for a film like Daddy, which is a children’s fantasy story and a horror movie. And I thought of ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, which is a famous Cole Porter song. I thought, I’ll do my pretentious bit as well and I’ll have Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. I moulded the two so they come into one, into a kind of dissonance. I thought this is perfect, this is a film about revolution. Niki very kindly bought me an organ. For the first time ever in 1972 or 1973, Philips had come up with an organ that looked like a piano, which you plugged in but in fact had organ stops in it. Then there are some other songs, the ‘Wedding March’, ‘On with Christian Soldiers’, and ‘Lili Marlene’. I changed the original words. I really like it.
So the music happened with me originally recording the plinkety plonkety piano stuff in Mons and then adding a few bits when she shoots the altar at the very beginning – it’s perfect, it’s an altar, it’s a church, and it’s an organ. It’s interesting, people either go ga-ga about it and appreciate what it’s trying to do and it does resonate on all these non-serious levels, or they hate it. But it works for the film.
What was the reception of the film? Was the London Film Festival screening the first time it was shown in the UK?
Yes. After it was shown in America, which was quite an event in itself, Richard Roud said Ken Wlaschin, who was in charge of the London Film Festival, wanted to show it. So I get a phone call, ‘hello my name is Ken Wlaschin, I just watched your film Daddy – American. Looooved it! Wow, we’re going to blow them away! I’m going to hit them hard this year, I’m going to use Daddy as the first film for the critics’. I said, ‘are you sure about this, Ken, because I don’t think it’s a terribly English film’. And he said, ‘no, it’s fine, you’re coming on Sunday, everybody’s coming’. So I drive down and I come in. Ken is sitting at a table and he’s looking very miserable. And he said, ‘It’s not quite finished yet, we started a bit late. I wish I’d listened to you. Two thirds of the people have left already. The last one, from The Times, said to me, “Ken, if that’s the kind of film you’re showing this year at the London Film Festival, I’m not going to review any films at all!” And we’re sitting talking about the differences between England and the French, and the English don’t have a sense of humour, and the American sense of humour, and then suddenly one of his secretaries comes back and says, ‘Mr Wlashin, can I have a word with you? We have a problem. I was standing at the back trying to gauge the reception and seeing how many people were still in there and you know what I saw? There’s someone in the back row masturbating’. So Ken goes to have a look. He comes back in five minutes. He sits down and says, ‘Peter, I’m sorry this has been such a disappointment for you, one way or another I hope it works out well. I ask, ‘who’s the bloke on the back seat masturbating?’ He tells me. That person gave it a good review. That’s the funniest story ever.
How different was the reaction in America?
They loved it. It was shown in the New York Film Festival, Niki and I were there, in the MOMA. It was a big thing, and it went really quite well. At the end of it, Richard Roud came out on stage with me and Niki and said there was time for questions. People tended to ask me more, interestingly, and then Richard would ask Niki what she thought. It was quite an interesting dialogue. And then there was a howl. It created quite a few howls, this film. Suddenly there was some boy shouting from the very back. ‘I disagree! I want to speak!’ He walked half way down. ‘How dare you? How dare you do such a thing?’ To me. I said, ‘I’m very sorry you seem so hurt’. ‘Hurt? Not hurt, worse than that, I’m destroyed’. And I said, ‘I’m very sorry, why?’ He said, ‘well I’m gay, I’ve never told anyone ever. Seeing your film made me realise I’m gay’. And I had to talk for about 10 minutes to calm him down.
But then another very interesting story. We went out on to the pavement, waiting for a taxi. And suddenly I looked around, I heard some noise, and I thought it was the same guy, coming for me. But it wasn’t the same guy. It was some other guy, running along the pavement, towards us. And he lurched to a halt, and he said, ‘I didn’t expect to see you here. I’ve just seen your film, I’ve had to run round the block twice. It’s an amazing film, I’m sorry about the guy in there, but maybe that’s the best thing that happened, because he can be gay now’. And he said, ‘you know, I found it totally erotic. I had an erection throughout almost the whole film. There was only one scene where I didn’t. When the father is sitting in his wheelchair and the mother comes along and she lifts up her skirt and she sits on him’. And I said, ‘yes that is a disturbing scene’. But he added, ‘I don’t think the film should be called Daddy. It should be called “Blind Man”’. Very clever. Because that’s the game the father and daughter play. He’s right. It’s the story of Antigone. But on the other hand it would have made it a man’s film – his and mine. It had to be Daddy because it was Niki’s film.
For more information on Peter Whitehead visit his website.
Main photo credit: Niki de Saint Phalle Daddy Phallus in a coffin © 2007 Niki Charitable Art Foundation
This interview was first published on the Electric Sheep Magazine website on 30 January 2015.