There is simply not enough of Douglas Gordon to go around. When we met him at the recent DAAD exhibition opening for his 2005 film Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, journalists were pawing the ground to get their one pound of Gordon flesh. The Scotsman remains characteristically jovial despite the fuss, but admits he is slightly knackered after a recent ‘working trip’ between ‘New York, Kyoto, Marrakech and Tel Aviv’ on consecutive weekends, shooting short films and performing a ‘mix of rock and pop theatre’ in Kyoto with high octane screamers Chicks on Speed. It is 12 years since Gordon won the Turner Prize, primarily for his work “24 Hour Psycho,” after which he hot-footed it out of Britain and has since been trying to meet global demand for his work, which is often defiantly anti-religious, morbid and yet comic in content. From 2005 to 2006, Gordon managed to break the globetrotting pattern and remained in one city for one year: Paris. With director Philippe Parreno, he obsessively edited footage of one man playing one 90-minute game of football. The resulting work, a tribute like no other to French football legend Zinédine Zidane, shows an entire match whilst focusing only on the player himself. The film fulfills Gordon’s consistent motive – to cross the boundary between art and cinema, pull audiences from the ‘white cube of the gallery into the black box of cinema,’ and vice versa.
Here you are, back in Berlin after a 10-year absence …
Yeah, I’m actually looking for a place to stay. I have a little flat in Charlottenburg, my girlfriend is in Mitte, but we’re having a baby in September, so its time to galvanise and get things together. I first left in 1998; I didn’t ever want to leave, actually, but I won another prize down in Cologne, so I moved there. Then I went to live in New York and then came back here, did the Berlin Biennale and then I had a show at the Guggenheim. I actually hadn’t spent any social time in Berlin until the World Cup Final. I came in to see the final at the stadium and I just kind of stayed around for four or five days and just thought it is so stress free here, compared to New York. It’s a funny atmosphere here – makes you feel a bit like a student again.
How did you manage to get a ticket for the final?
It was a very funny experience actually. I was in New York with my son in Dean & DeLuca and got a call from a guy that I didn’t know, who just said, ‘Hi, I’m calling you from Geneva, I’m a friend of a friend, I hear you’re looking for a ticket. I know a football player’s agent who has some. If you can get to Berlin by tomorrow I can get you a ticket.’ So I booked the flights – cost a fortune! I was so excited that I forgot all my credit cards and all my money. I made a phone call to the Kunstwerke. I said, ‘I’ve nowhere to stay and no money,’ and they completely looked after me. It was a very Cold War situation, they said, ‘Get in a cab, go to the Paris bar and at about 14:30 you’ll see a blue Peugeot pulling up outside …’
And you’ll get handed a brown envelope?
Exactly! I had to go and sit somewhere secretive and then pick up the money and then I went and got the tickets and … well, the whole thing was fantastic!
Apart from the result … What was your reaction?
I was devastated. I was watching the game and at half time France were up 1-0 and I called Philippe (Parreno), who was in Paris, and said, ‘This is fantastic; Zidane’s going to win it again!’ And Philippe said, ‘No, there is something weird in his body language.’
So because he had studied him for so long during the making of the film he could predict his body language?
Exactly, It was quite amazing. It was something that he could see on TV that I couldn’t see watching in the stadium. He said, ‘You know the way he does that funny thing with his feet, like he did in our film? Well, he’s doing it and I think its going to have the same result!’ Which was exactly what happened – he got a red card …
When did you start making the film?
The process with us was very, very intense. We first had the idea in 1996 and we were about to approach him in 1998 when he was playing in Torino, because one of the producers was based there and then he transferred to Madrid and we had no connections in Madrid! So, it took us about three years to get to know someone in Madrid and we eventually got him! We shot the thing in 2005, so it took about 10 years from the origin of the idea to actually shoot the film … and then we spent the next year editing … it nearly killed me! Having watched this man nearly on a daily basis for a year, I became a bit … obsessed.
Why did you pick this game in particular to film? [Real Madrid vs. Villa Real, April 25, 2005]
We started negotiating with Real Madrid in 2004, but by the end of 2004 we still hadn’t raised the money that we needed, so it was a race to try and shoot it in that season because we weren’t sure whether Zidane was going to retire or not. So by the time we got the money together there were only five home games left. One was against Barcelona, which we couldn’t shoot because it’s too crazy, so then we were left with four. So then it was really through discussion with Zidane and the president Florentino Perez that we decided … well, they decided actually, it should be this game. We knew that against Villa Real it was going to be a tough game.
You filmed him with 17 cameras over one match, it must have involved a lot of coordination.
A lot! When we got the go-ahead we had one month to assemble the crew. The cameras were all around the stadium as well as all the others that were already there, Sky Sports and all. We had one behind each goal, one up on the roof, we had a travelling camera, we had about four on that side, three on that side, it made quite a spectacle. It was pretty nerve-wracking. Seventeen cameras means 17 cameramen, 17 assistants, 17 loaders and 17 runners. Plus, the catering; the crew was like, 150 people. And Philippe and I were actually sitting in a broadcast van outside the stadium with 17 monitors and hoping to God that nothing would go wrong. Which it did! [Zidane got a red card] But not until the 92nd minute, so it actually worked out quite well! The producers constantly worried during the planning because the cost was going up and up, they said, ‘What happens if he breaks his leg? What if he gets sent off?’ They told us that we had to come up with a plan B so we said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll think about it tonight and tell you plan B tomorrow.’ Tomorrow never came.
The sound effects are pretty precise, from his boots crushing the grass or kicking the ball … How did you create them?
We started out with a fine art principle that we had to be very pure. You can’t put microphones on footballers because it’s not legal so we had some sound from the stadium and then we worked on the sound a lot, we had a great sound engineer. Some of the sounds are real, some of the stadium sounds are from an empty stadium – a Milan game that I remembered from years ago when the audience was banned … But we had a fantastic sound engineer and folie artist. We were in one room and he was in another huge room, and as we were editing things we would send them to him. He was running around with a football on grass and gravel trying to recreate the sounds. The poor guy, you’d see him at the end of the day sweating because he’d be running around as much as Zidane! After about a week, we were listening to it and it still wasn’t sounding quite right, so we went to meet him and I said, ‘You’re wearing canvas shoes, mate! You need some leather!’ So he had to start all over again! We started off with this very pure principle – but the more we were involved in the film world, the more we had to embrace the idea that artifice creates reality.
What was your experience working with Zidane?
We have a very good but ultra-professional relationship with him. We are fans, but we didn’t want this to be a fan film, so Philippe and I don’t have one photograph of us with Zidane, not one autograph, nothing. We really went in as artists doing our job, to do a portrait of him doing his job. But we spoke to him; the subtitles that you read come from conversations that were not recorded, which meant he spoke more freely. One day we were sitting there talking to him at the stadium, and we were pointing as if to an imaginary pitch and he said, ‘Do you want to come onto the pitch?’ I was trying hard to remain cool! So, I can honestly say I have spent 90 minutes on the pitch with Zidane! All we did was walk around and talk. He was remembering certain things. We wanted to show that football is more than just an advertising thing, that there can be a thinking man involved. We asked him what he could remember, and it was really good fun with him. We asked him if he could remember an imaginary voice of a commentator in his head from when he was a kid and he said, ‘No, no, I’ve been professional since I was 13 and the trainers are always shouting at you so there is no space in your head.’ And then, about half an hour later he said, ‘Actually, I do remember, from when I was very young there was a voice,’ a voice that he used to fantasize with. So I think he was quite provoked by some of our questions. There was one chat that we had that was hilarious; he was describing one of the most significant goals he scored, which was in Glasgow at the European Champions League. He said, ‘We were on the field and the ball came in from here …’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I scored a goal just like that when I was at primary school!’ He was like, ‘OK …’ (Laughs.) There was always this shared enthusiasm.
So why Zidane?
The seed was planted in 1996, so before Zidane was really famous, but anybody who knew anything about football knew who he was. And I think in the UK at that time Cantona had just finished his career so everyone was like, ‘Who is the next Cantona?’ and Zidane was mentioned. So we knew he was a gifted player and the fact that he had this North African, Kabyle [Algerian] heritage, we were interested in that. I said to Philippe, ‘Hey, did you know that Albert Camus was born in Algeria and played as the Algerian national goalkeeper?’ So, Zidane kind of fit into a pattern of things. And I think Zidane’s parents were born in the same place that Philippe’s parents were born. Also, on the one hand I think he represents more than just football, partly because he doesn’t give anything away so you can fantasize that behind the façade there is something else going on. And obviously being from a working class immigrant family, growing up in Marseilles, this was all important to us. So on one hand he represents more than football, but on the other hand he is pure football; he’s not like Best or Beckham, you don’t know what aftershave he wears – and who really cares?
This film was created as a work of art and the DAAD is a gallery space, but it has also made the crossover to the realm of feature films, and has been shown in cinemas …
The work was developed for cinema and museum and DVD. We thought, because of the subject we would have what the French call a diffusion in cinema. But on the other hand we can show it in galleries, which is not sit down, watch it, and leave like a cinema. And here in DAAD we put in the split screen, because although it is not that orthodox a project, it was more orthodox to show just one screen in the cinema. The cinema version had one camera; here it is camera three, in Paris it’s camera five and in Scotland I think it’s camera seven – they’re all different. So we’d be editing it for the single screen and then watching another version in a different room. So we developed these different ideas …
As a medium, film is sometimes criticised for its limitations, but you seem to constantly subvert that idea and demonstrate just how capable film is of showing the intricate details and mechanics of things …
For orthodox filmmakers it is pretty hard to do something like that, because there are limitations and expectations within that field, just as there are limitations and expectations in the art world. But Philippe and I fell into a space between the art world, the film world and the sport world, which really allowed us a hell of a lot of freedom. It wasn’t quite by chance that that happened – we worked hard to manufacture that space for ourselves conceptually … But not financially, unfortunately (laughs). We didn’t make a penny …
You first moved to Germany around the time when the YBA scene was really kicking off in Britain and after just winning the Turner Prize. Was that a conscious decision to escape it all?
I had a series of strokes of good luck. I got the Turner Prize in 1996, when I was 30, and pretty much immediately left to go and live in Hannover because I had won another prize there. And then I got the DAAD so came here and got another prize. So I kind of disappeared for a bit around that time – it was a conspiracy of circumstance (laughs).There is quite an impressive contingent of Glasgow artists.
Do you consider yourself part of that scene?
Yeah, there are about 40 of them in Berlin today, actually (laughs). The scene in Glasgow is miraculous, in a way. It is incredible in the UK that there is more than just London. Obviously there are really important things in Newcastle and a lot of stuff happening in Manchester and Liverpool, but in terms of an artists’ community, the Glasgow thing is – I still can’t quite believe it! One of my assistants from there is a photographer here. David Shrigley is in town at the moment, Jonathan Monk, who was at art school in Glasgow, lives here, NathanColey’s girlfriend has a gallery in my house in Glasgow (laughs) – Y’know, it’s a small city!
What do you have planned for your upcoming retrospective in Avignon?
We have some of the old hits, such as “24 Hour Psycho” but it will also be very broad. There is a fantastic chapel there, Grande Chapelle du Palais des Papes, and somehow the museum persuaded the chapel to let me take donkeys in there, so I made a short film about asses in the Pope’s palace pissing on the floor. And next week I’m taking a snake charmer down there with some cobras to film that. So, it’s going to be quite a huge video presentation and quite a challenge.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a film by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, DAAD Gallery, Mon-Sat 11-18:00. through August 8