Memory Itself Is Completely Fallible
Rupert Murray Talks About His Amnesia Movie
Andrew Wright and Andy Spletzer grilled Rupert Murray, the director of the documentary Unknown White Male, about Doug Bruce and his alleged rare form of retrograde amnesia.
How is it being on the other side of the microphone?
It’s challenging to keep your energy up, and to hopefully keep it interesting for whoever’s talking to you. I have learned one thing through this process: I will always carry notes whenever I interview someone for any documentaries I do in the future. I mean, I talked to this one guy earlier who started the interview by saying, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my memory, because I have this fantastic, incredible recall.” And then he proceeded to get all the facts wrong about the film. [Laughs.]
How did you get started?
I initially began doing man-in-the-street market research things for advertising agencies, where I’d go all around England, asking people about packets of crisps or mortgages. I’d always been making films for myself and my friends, but doing these bits eventually led to some short documentary work for the BBC and Channel 4. I really had a fantastic time making them. They haven’t always initially been subjects of my choosing, but I always learned a lot along the way.
So the film had some reshoots after its debut at Sundance and before it played here at the Seattle festival last year. Has anything else been changed since then?
No, not since it originally played Seattle. The original cut had, I think, a purer, more intense, feel to it. The opening was slightly more dramatic, and there was much more of a hanging conclusion. There were none of the doctor interviews, which kind of dot the i’s and cross the t’s. To be honest, I do still prefer the previous cut.
What compelled you to do the reshoots?
It was due to many other people who said that they didn’t feel like there was an ending, that it wasn’t a complete film, that they wanted to know more. And these were people like one of the main documentary judges at Sundance, for example, who I subsequently had dinner with, and found her very sweet. But, at Sundance, when she gave her speech during the award ceremony and talked about celebrating the work of documentarians who risked their lives and spent years and years in difficult situations around the world highlighting the plight of put-upon people, I knew there was no chance of us winning the award. [Laughs.] I mean, I’d spent the last year jetsetting around Europe filming a friend. But she was brilliant, and gave us some fantastic advice. I hear a lot of Hollywood stories about directors dreading test screenings and being up in arms about making changes. I have no qualms about that whatsoever. I was really interested to hear about what people had to say about it, and what they wanted to know about Doug, and how they felt about him. Overall, I think the feedback was really positive, and helped us with some problems with the editing that we were probably too close to see.
We were interested in your early days with Doug. When did you meet him?
I can’t remember the first time I met him, actually. Which is fitting, I suppose. What it is, is I have a group of 20-30 friends, a loosely knit group, who I’ve known for 15 to 20 years. They all came from one school in Northern England, but from different years. They were all sort of badly behaved, which is why they stuck together. Douglas’s father had a house near there, which is how he initially got in with them. I met the group on holiday a few years later, which is how I got to know Douglas. I didn’t envy Doug’s trip back to meet the bunch [seen in the film], actually, as they can be this big, gregarious mob. We were basically reprobates in London, from the age of 18 through, well, our early 30s.
That’s a good span. Was there a class difference? From what we see in the film, Doug seems like he comes from a pretty wealthy background.
Yeah. His mother was a European-French countess, I think. Although, really, counts and countesses are fairly common titles in Europe. Doug’s uncle owned a brokerage in Paris, and Doug dropped out of college in London, went to work there for about 10 years, and did extremely well, enough to retire. Then he moved to New York, and after a year of deciding what to do started taking lessons in photography. His interest in photography, I think, has gotten stronger after losing his memory.
So you were making films in London, while he was doing all this. How much contact did you have during this time?
Not a huge amount. He used to come back over a lot initially, but it lessened over the years. You know, the thing that’s happened to him, I think, has made both of us reevaluate our friendship. We always enjoyed seeing each other, and never parted company when he moved away, which I think says more about our relationship than anything else.
When did you find out about his condition?
A few days afterward. It made the rounds really quickly. I heard, “You’ll never believe what happened to Doug. He’s lost his memory.” And then, you ask yourself, well, what does that mean? It’s a difficult thing to comprehend, the full implications of it. It took a while longer to get more detailed information, because he was in New York, and didn’t really like talking to people from his past. It’s quite difficult, the idea of calling up someone, and them not knowing who you are. How do you move the conversation along? It took me about eight months to make the call, and I think the reason I could do it then was because I had the film as an excuse to talk with him. I spent a lot of time during those months thinking about him, and the various implications of what such a loss could mean, and I finally went to Channel 4 and asked for a thousand pounds so I could go meet with Doug and talk to him about the movie.
The press notes say that 10 other people had already approached him about making a film?
Yeah, I think a lot of people, upon hearing his story, immediately thought that this was the stuff of a big feature movie. Doug had forgotten all about movies, along with everything else, and someone gave him a list of 50 movies he had to see. And he got really excited afterward, because, you know, he hadn’t seen any rubbish. [Laughs.] He was like, Jesus, this cinema thing’s amazing! And, early on, he shot some footage with friends of friends, which didn’t develop into anything. They were kind enough to let me use it, which is how I got the early shots of him coming into the realization of what had happened, which I think are the most moving parts of the film. It’s interesting: When I met him in New York, actually, I asked him if he had any home movies, and he showed me boxes and boxes that he hadn’t gone anywhere near since the incident. He had become this naive, gentle soul, who had been told of this hard, somewhat arrogant playboy in the past. And I think he was worried about that person appearing in his life and taking over who he was now. He found it easier to send the movies to me, and let me put together pieces for him to watch, things that I thought were relevant.
How did he respond to watching these clips?
He doesn’t think that the person I’ve captured on screen is a complete, full person, which, to be fair, is true, really. The thing about the film is that it’s an approximation of what happened to him, the person he is now and was before. I can only paint a rough picture. What’s really quite weird about the film is that I thought that my friends would love it, and everyone else would think that it was too personal of a story to get involved in. The opposite is true, really; my friends, who had already thought through all these different avenues, in greater depths than I can show with a camera, are all, like, “Oh, it’s okay.” But people who have never met Doug in their life seem really absorbed, which is fantastic.
The use of recreations within documentaries has been kind of a hot button lately, with Herzog saying, for example, that he will often stage a scene to get to the essential truth. What’s your take?
The recreations I shot, particularly the early bits of when he woke up on the Coney Island subway, tried to capture what I really thought he felt like at the time, based on talking to him, and the footage that he had already shot. No one’s ever expressed a problem with being unable to distinguish between the stuff I shot and what he shot himself. What I wanted to do was convey the spirit of what had happened to him. For example, the shot on the poster, where he discovers the ocean for the first time, was taken by him. But I cut in some of my stuff as well, from a trip with him to Australia and other places. The very nature of the subject matter, I think, allowed me to take liberties with it, but not to falsify it. I think the spirit is the truth. What I found quite interesting about making this film is that it’s all based on memory. Memory itself is completely fallible.
The James Frey situation has seemed to really call on the carpet the whole modern concept of truth.
Yeah, I’ve had a small percentage of people that watch the film who think that it’s either a situation where Doug is faking it, or that I’ve masterminded this huge hoax to trick the audience, which is really shocking to me. I’ve had to prepare a variety of defenses, such as, you know, would I really use the memory of his dead mother to promote a fake documentary? Or, to be less serious, if I was going to make a hoax, it would really have to pay a lot better than this one. In a way, it’s a compliment, really, because people are saying that this story is too good to be true. I’ve had some people say things like, “All these people are far too good looking.” He’s friends with models, you know, and what are you going to do? It initially really shocked me, and then I felt angry, and then I just sort of resigned myself to it, because I know it’s the truth. Doug had to put up with the same thing, initially. But let’s say, for example, that the cause wasn’t medical, that his brain was voluntarily making him forget because there was some terrible memory in his past that he couldn’t deal with, and it shut down to save him all that anguish. If that’s the case, is his amnesia any less real? No.
Did that thought ever cross your mind?
No. I think it’s involuntary, and totally real.