It's a kind of magic

Antonioni, Bertolucci, Jarmusch and Van Sant are her influences. Bewilderment is her objective. Clare Peploe discusses life and her new film, 'Rough Magic', with Ryan Gilbey.
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The Independent Culture
Think of magic, that most debased of arts. Now cast out all thoughts of shifty men with bouffant hairdos capable of making Concorde vanish. Forget about wee Paul Daniels, and banish the lovely Debbie McGee from your mind while you're at it. The peculiar and beguiling new film Rough Magic is here to offer a different slant on a tradition that has become obscured by rabbits and hats, and ping-pong balls under egg-cups. The movie rummages around beneath the sequinned surface of magic and finds it thriving in every corner of Fifties America. It's there in the traditional carnival-style stage routine of the film's heroine, Myra (Bridget Fonda), a magician's assistant; in the dumb faith with which Fifties society regarded uranium; and in the practices of a 700-year-old Mexican shaman whose beliefs prove integral to Myra's survival when she finds herself on the run.

You may have gathered by now that Rough Magic makes considerably weightier demands on the viewer than The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna. Which may explain why audiences tend to emerge from the film looking like they've just had a crash course in quantum physics. Dazed is the word. So is bewildered. This appears to delight Clare Peploe, the director (she also co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from James Hadley Chase's novel Miss Shumway Waves a Wand).

"I love to be surprised!" she chuckles. "I thought that was a real quality in the film."

An unexpected trace of disappointment surfaces suddenly in her voice. "But I know people have been confused, and I can't understand that. Why can't they take pleasure in being baffled?"

Heaven knows. The film's melee of styles is sometimes too lumpen to gel (it veers from Saturday morning serial-style thrills to Bunuelian surrealism to light noir, with dashes of Nicholas Ray and Howard Hawks here and there). Its unpredictable nature is very winning, but any movie in which the heroine transforms an adversary into a sausage was never destined for a three-month run at the local multiplex. Peploe must have realised that she would need a few magic tricks of her own to get the film made, let alone seen. "I thought I'd have no problem," she recalls. "Then when I started looking for backing, I saw that it was getting complicated, simply because I was always being asked to describe the film. And it's not quite like anything else. The cast and crew were behind the material all the way. The problem was always with the financing. They were always thinking, 'How are we going to market this?' And it's only now that I'm seeing how difficult it really is to market."

Almost as difficult as it was to shoot, evidently. The production was marked by chaos, in the shape of a constricting budget and the logistical problems of shooting in a foreign country without having made provisions for the rainy season. Peploe is clearly enormously proud of Rough Magic, but her recollections are tinged with regret. "I had storyboards for lots of scenes and not once did I refer to them," she shrugs. "I've thrown them away. I couldn't bear to look at them."

By her own admission, she has never had to bear the kind of pressure that Rough Magic brought. She works slowly; she has directed just one other feature (the pleasant 1987 comedy High Season). Yet she has been a peripheral part of the movie industry since the late Sixties, when she was just a giddy film buff who chanced upon Antonioni while he was shooting Blow-Up in London, and babbled uncontrollably at him about how much she admired his work.

This enthusiasm and vivacity was instrumental in landing her the position of assistant director on Antonioni's next project, the controversial end- of-an-era masterpiece, Zabriskie Point. Soon afterwards, her screenwriter brother, Mark, introduced her to his own collaborator - and her future husband - Bernardo Bertolucci. The two plunged straight into an impassioned discussion of Godard ("Godard really turned me on!" she chuckles). It was an auspicious start.

The pair became friends, and when Bertolucci had completed Last Tango in Paris in 1972, they moved in together, and Peploe worked with him on La Luna and 1900. She remains a passionate admirer of his work, "His cinema is beautiful," she whispers, reverently. "He puts breath into the tiniest, most insignificant movement. I love to watch films that are made by a person, not a committee. Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch - I like to be able to feel the soul of a film-maker."

She continues to muck in on her husband's movies, but bans him from her own sets. "He makes people nervous," she explains. "People are in awe of him. He knows it but thinks it's silly and can't understand it. He came in one day on the set of Rough Magic and started saying, 'Oh, why don't you shoot that side of the room as well.' I said, 'We haven't got the lights,' and he replied, 'It doesn't matter, you're impoverishing the shot, it's ridiculous!' And I just couldn't bear him saying those things that I felt so much, things that I had already done my weeping about in private."

She seems visibly troubled by her experience on the film, but it may prove to accelerate her work rate - if she can bring herself to say the magic word: Hollywood.

"I made a short film called Couples and Robbers which was nominated for an Oscar, but I was so snotty about it. I wasn't impressed. And I certainly didn't go to the ceremony: I was convinced that I was going to win! How completely embarrassing that would be, I thought. In fact, I was relieved when I didn't win. Now I realise how incredibly useful it is. Everything is Hollywood. I used to just care about whether my friends liked what I did. Now I want a commercial success. Or I know I can't make another film."