Back in the ’80s, he blinded audiences with science. Now, techno pop star Thomas Dolby is hoping to open eyes with cinema.
His latest project is “The Invisible Lighthouse,” a live multimedia experience about an old British lighthouse from Dolby’s past that’s surrounded by memories, mysteries and a very unamused military presence. The performance, coming to Shank Hall Thursday night, combines Dolby’s impressionistic feature film debut with live music and foley sound effects from Dolby and sound designer Blake Leyh to help tell the story.
OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to catch up with Dolby and ask about the project’s real life origins, making one’s first movie and how UFOs possibly fit into all of this. Oh, and SCIENCE!
OnMilwaukee.com: Where did the idea come from for “The Invisible Lighthouse”?
Thomas Dolby: Well, it was really prompted by the news that the Orfordness Lighthouse was closing this year. When I first heard the news, I was just very sad about it, and I found that there was this collective sense of grief among the local residents because most of them – like me – had grown up with the lighthouse. It’d been there since 1792, and we always assumed it always would be.
So it’s sad that it won’t be flashing anymore, but it’s also symptomatic of the erosion that’s taking place on our coast. Suffolk, where I live, is very low-lying, and due to a combination of erosion, global warming and the general geology of Britain, which is tilting eastwards, the coast is shrinking. Many villages that did exist are now under the waves, so it’s only a matter of time before we go the same way. So I saw the lighthouse closing because of the threat of the sea as very bad news.
OMC: In your research, it sounds like you dug up a lot of interesting background information about the past of this lighthouse, with UFOs and things of that nature.
TD: It’s the 11th lighthouse that’s been recorded on the island, and the other 10 are under the waves now. But the undercurrent of the film is really about memory and how unreliable it is. I have a strong family history in the area and have really powerful memories of my childhood there. But I’m beginning to question how much of them I’ve distorted and fabricated.
OMC: How so?
TD: There was a building that was built by my great-grandfather, a huge building where they used to make malt for whiskey. In 1960, it was converted into a concert hall by an English composer named Benjamin Britten. In 1968, there was a terrible fire, and the roof burned and caved in. I remember vividly staring across the marshes at the flames lighting up the sky. Years later, my mother told me, “I hate to break it to you, but we were actually nowhere near Suffolk that night; we were hundreds of miles away.” But when I tell this story, it’s like I’m replaying it from my memory.
OMC: So how do UFOs fit into this?
TD: Then I find about this UFO incident where these three U.S. Air Force men claimed that they had an encounter with a UFO out in the woods on the periphery of an American Air Force base at Rendlesham. One of them said that he touched a craft and received telepathic messages in binary code, then it broke up into several globs of mercury and disappeared into the woods.
OMC: Where do you land on the story?
TD: Their stories have gotten more elaborate over the years. They claim that it’s because they had the hush put on them by the U.S. government. But obviously, the skeptics say that they’re just making up stories because it’s popular on the lecture circuit. You can believe either version, but when I think about my fire experience, I wonder whether over the years that their memory of the event has become distorted. In criminal cases, eyewitness testimony often turns out to be the opposite of the clinical truth, and that’s really the underlying theme of the film.
OMC: Is that why you decided to do this mix of documentary and impressionism with the film?
TD: Yeah, it’s not a literal documentary, like a David Attenborough or Ken Burns documentary. It’s a pretty impressionistic piece, and the narration is more like a poem. I taught myself how to shoot video and to edit just for this project. I had some experience from working on my music videos on the past, but never pointed a camera before. So I had a lot of new skills to learn.
As I was putting it together, I’d show it to the residents and neighbors. Everybody said, “Wow, it’s really amazing being in the room with the guy who made it and hearing him narrate him in real time.” I would tinkle on the piano and let my songs into it, so I decided to keep it as a live experience at least for now and take it on the road.
OMC: So it sounds like the movie came first and the live experience/music aspect of the film kind of came after?
TD: There was a time when my plan was to release it commercially as a download or on Netflix or on DVD or whatever. But I just decided to take it out on the road really. I suppose my dream job would be to get to the point where I can take shows like this out every couple of years to performing arts centers and present something different each time. A lot of musicians tend to be in one particular pigeonhole when it comes to their particular genre. And I’ve always tried to defy that and bring something new each time. I guess I’d like to establish enough of a reputation and a live following that I could create a new show like this every couple of years.
OMC: It’s interesting to me that the story of the show, with this old lighthouse being put out, focuses on missing this kind of, I don’t want to say this, but outdated technology with your career, which has always been so forward-thinking and technologically aware. What do you think about that?
TD: Well, I’m not really into technology for its own sake. I love technology because when there’s a neat technology that becomes available at kind of a street level, it opens up artistic possibilities. And there’s this sort of this limbo period where people still really figuring out what the new technology means and what it represents.
We’re in a moment like that right now with video and film because it used to be that, if you wanted to get a professional film made, you’d need a crew and budget, and therefore some funding and therefore you’d have to justify it to the distributors or the studio, who have to make money back on this film. But the equipment has gotten so cheap now that a couple of friends can club together, pool their savings and make a feature film in their spare time if they want to. From a technical standpoint, there’s nothing to prevent it from getting widespread recognition. But because the pressure is off in terms of making a budgetary case for a film, it means different kinds of films can get made.
“The Invisible Lighthouse” is a story that, if I had to go justify it to investors or distributors, it never would have gotten made. It was possible because the technology opened that up for me. That’s my relationship with technology really. What new avenues are opening up as technology becomes more affordable? And I also have a nostalgic love for old technologies that have maybe outlived their usefulness, and lighthouses are one such technology. They’re a transitional technology between celestial navigation and modern times.
OMC: How was it being a first-time filmmaker for this project?
TD: I had a great time. I used equipment that I could just point and shoot. I never learned to use the manual controls. I don’t read user manuals. Everything was shot within about a 10-mile radius of my home, so therefore, if I shot something and it didn’t look right, I could see to it the next day. But I didn’t have a shooting schedule or budget because there was no crew transporting equipment or getting permits. I was just able to just carry the cameras around with me and shoot spontaneously whenever the mood took me.
The one part of the show that I had to plan very carefully was my clandestine commando raid on the island. It had to fit in with the tides and the weather, plus dodging the patrols in the area.
OMC: How was that? I mean, you did actual espionage stuff to make this movie happen.
TD: I had spy cameras rolling because I got almost no cooperation from the authorities with it.
OMC: Were you nervous that day?
TD: I was nervous, but I was really thrilled at the same time because I thought with the cameras rolling, whatever happens – even if I get surrounded by Land Rovers, arrested and tortured on the island – it should make for an interesting climax.