on alan rickman, art, and industry
Back when I was deeply mired in compulsory heterosexuality, I had—as one of my friends put it—the gayest crushes on men.
They were usually actors whose filmographies determined which movies would accompany me and my latest horror pick home from the video store. Among the list of men I gay-crushed on was Alan Rickman, whose magnetic and imposing presence became nothing short of an obsession. He represents a time I thought I’d be an actor, and one of my most distinct memories from that phase of my life is watching this segment of this interview on my Grandparents’ computer, late at night, over dial-up:
“All I want to see from an actor is the intensity and accuracy of their listening, and then what you have to say . . . will be free and alive . . .”
I was so struck by it; I’d never considered acting as a response to more than a performance at, and even as my interests shifted to different forms of storytelling, the wisdom of this advice crossed mediums. First, to the screenwriting I thought I’d be doing next, then to novels. I always return to it when I’m more deeply considering the connectedness of my own characters to other characters, and to the situations they find themselves in, by asking myself who and what they are or aren’t listening to, and how they are or aren’t responding.
It seems so obvious—but most good advice is.
My obsession with Alan Rickman became much more casual over time. Like everyone, I was shocked and saddened by his death. I didn’t expect to invest in his recently published diaries, but when excerpts relating his frustrations on the set of Harry Potter released—at one point he referred to filming as “a monumental waste of energies”—I preordered, recalling a man who took his profession very seriously. I’m more keyed in than I’ve ever been to my own creative and professional evolution, and I was excited to see what his diaries might offer by way of those insights. Unlike The New York Times, I wasn’t disappointed.
There’s something somewhat reductive about that review of Madly, Deeply, which seems to penalize the diaries for an absence of interiority that’s been measured by the kind of celebrity memoir standards I find as dull as, well—Garner finds Rickman’s diaries. It’s not that kind of book, was never intended to be, and it’s asking for a different kind of listening.
“The audience has to work a bit,” Rickman says of one of his darker movies, and the same holds true of these pages.
That’s not to say they’re devoid of intimacy, especially when talking about the people who matter most to him—passages recounting the last days of his mother’s life and others loved and lost along the way are truly affecting—but if the personal seems an afterthought compared to the professional, it’s because you might be overlooking just how personally Rickman took his professional life. The end of the collection highlights some of his earliest diaries, these much wordier and a little more navel-gazing, but the focus remains: it’s the work, the work, the work.
The work was his thing.
Madly, Deeply is a portrait of a man who seemed to live to work, and had a clear sense of what he wanted the shape and outcome of that work to amount to. He often laments and reproaches himself for his seriousness and the air of oppression he worries it causes on sets, but he also felt frequently undermined by how seriously people refused to take him, and their unwillingness to meet him where he was. These are the kinds of artists who resonate with me the most, and the ones I most identify with:
“[My definition of the word freedom] is totally connected to the word discipline.”
Publishing is a different business than film and stage but most creative industries can be, for better and worse, quite similar. As publishing relies more and more on performance from its authors and its most social media savvy employees, much of what Rickman writes can be viscerally comforting, discomfiting, and clarifying in turns. (“There is definitely the ART and the PRODUCT.”)
It was interesting, how hard Rickman worked to retain and protect his artistic integrity despite being, or expecting to be, overruled by someone else’s creative cowardice or weakness of vision, or discovering during post-production the narrative had lost form, or when he felt his contributions and intentions had been minimized, denied, or left on the cutting room floor. (“Truly disturbing what can be done in the editing room . . . And ultimately very depressing.”) What he seemed consistently in pursuit of was a challenge to rise to, and to collaborate with people who were centered, trusting, and emotionally open enough in their own creative processes that they might invigorate and bring something new to his own. Certain methods mystified him, but what seemed to bother him most was the absence of any. A common complaint from Rickman was a lack of meaningful direction from directors, who he felt “should only encourage, challenge, reassure [and] never look for validation” and who, in turn, were often exasperated when he had the temerity to ask for more from them. There are moments when he recounts trying, or wishing that he could have tried, to infuse meaning into hollow filming experiences by getting his colleagues to invest wholeheartedly in the materials they were working with, but it was a fight to get them to listen to him.
Why, Rickman seems to be repeatedly asking in doing so, don’t you want to succeed with me?
Then, as now, and across most industries, Rickman had to contend with a business that has lost sight of the value of what marketer Seth Godin calls ‘the smallest viable audience’—the consumers a work dares to be specifically and uniquely for—in its misguided attempts to sell the most of anything to the largest amount of people. He struggled to understand what space his own artistic interests, artistic relevancy, and performances could occupy. His relationship with Die Hard evolved over the course of his life depending on how pigeonholed he felt by it at any given time, and he, like any artist interested in creative growth and forward momentum, wanted the opportunity to be seen for the possibilities he could inhabit, and properly credited for those he realized. Accounts of his directorial and writing pursuits show a man who embraced the delights and challenges posed in having access to every piece of the puzzle typically denied him as an actor, though he seemed regularly discouraged by the reception to his work.
“It has been hellish and perplexing reading some notices, avoiding most—the complaints are beginning to be predictable. Too theatrical, nothing new to say. All focusing on negatives. All missing the point.”
He felt the tension of wanting from the industry what he knew it would never be prepared to give him, which was also an industry he rarely capitulated to in the name of his wants. The running list Rickman kept on his feelings about this or that movie, or this or that awards show, reveal more of this tension than whether or not he truly liked or disliked what he’d seen: “American Beauty. Ron was right—the endings are all too neatly contrived so that we can leave disturbed but at peace with ourselves—hence the multiple Oscar nominations.”
It was an industry Alan Rickman fully committed himself to in the name of his craft, all the good and bad of it, but could never quite get the same sense of commitment from, even as he was a respected and beloved member of his community and to audiences the world over.
“Feeling a bit used in the work area and a bigger bit irrelevant in the world . . . This in spite of loving generous phone calls about Snow Cake—something I’m proud of and which does have a point. This is one of the more painful paradoxes.”
In 1994, Rickman wrote, “I want something to come at me not to be always looking, probing, hoping, reaching.”
I remember being at a major publishing event and overhearing, for the very first time in my professional life, “It’s just books.” This, I later learned, is a meditative refrain of the publishing side of the desk when the stress of that part of the job gets to be too much, which, in that particular context is understandable. Still, it was a moment that made me realize that, despite what success anyone works towards, aims for, or wants to happen for one author’s book, this is a business model whose fate doesn’t usually rest upon it. I went back to my hotel room unable to imagine myself as anything but this, an author, wondering how long my stories would continue to support me, and at what point I could no longer afford such a direct line of connection to my heart. To be confronted with that level of precarity, and the vulnerability and trust it has asked and continues to ask of you, is illuminating to the point of feeling almost verboten. I have yet to meet an author, or any artist, really, who hasn’t, at some point, had to reckon with this—both the fear and reality of being left behind in a place that rarely lets you forget it could go on without you.
Even Rickman felt this way. One of the most disheartening industry truisms in his diaries is the specific type of silence experienced in the absence of quantifiable measures of success. He knew immediately of a less than stellar return on his efforts by way of acclaim or profits when he failed to hear from his team, and frequently noted it: “[A] common attitude of non-culpability is asserting itself. Sometimes I truly hate this business . . . Here we are again. Major avoidance. Major silence. . . . Another heavy silence hangs over the grey, grey day . . . By now this means only more bad press . . .”
One of the last significant entries Rickman wrote relating to his work also happened during one of these unforgivable bouts.
“[A] deep sense of quiet crumbling inside, which re-assembles every now and then and will re-form, but into what? Not sure. This is the kind of work I make. If I am to be disallowed then—I just stop. But as I write that, it feels like the wrong response. But some energy has to come towards me, otherwise I am emptied.”
A short time later he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Unsurprisingly, the importance of listening is repeatedly emphasized in Rickman’s diaries. Whether employed as compliment, insult, or directive, he found it a necessity in both art and life: “She listens to nothing, responds to nothing . . . My function is to listen . . . A slowish audience turns out to have been listening carefully . . . Not a dishonest moment, always listening, always responding . . . gentle, sharp, acute listeners . . . Commit to the line. Listen hard. . . . There is a kind of listening but real stubbornness. . . . not a listening bone in her body . . .”
I have no doubt Alan Rickman could be as sometimes difficult as he and others claim he was to work with, but after I finished his diaries that wasn’t the overriding impression I was left with. What I saw was a man who didn’t seem to demand from others what he was not willing to give of himself, who expressed a readiness to listen and the expectation to be listened to, who had an intensely strong vision of what he wanted from his career, and his art, and a willingness to defend it—because when all the rest of it is stripped away this is what you have, this is what can’t be taken away from you, and that is, ultimately, what endures. It’s why, whether or not everyone he encountered in his career was someone who wanted to succeed with him, Alan Rickman himself will always be a success.
I think of that interview he gave all those years ago, how in the intensity and accuracy of your listening, your responses become more alive and free. While I would never presume to guess what conclusions about his career Rickman would have arrived at had he lived longer, I think, for any artist, no matter what stage of their journey, his diaries consistently return to what is and should always be one of the most empowering and important truths in this line of work: when relegated to silence, all that remains left to listen to is—yourself.