INTERVIEW: STELLA STARR

Mad Love Jeff Keen

By Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais. Originally published in Film Panic Magazine, issue 1, June 2013 

As a child, Jeff Keen’s daughter Stella performed in her father’s films alongside her mother Jackie and the troupe of players that regularly got involved in the home-made movie extravaganzas. It was from her father that she received her stage name Stella Starr, which she uses to this day. Later she collaborated with her father behind the camera, helping with the shooting of his films. More recently, she has been working on archiving Jeff’s epic output of paintings, drawings and artworks, much of which has been hidden away for years in his home behind other piles of artworks, books, and collections of magazines and toys. Stella has kindly taken the time to talk to us about her father, his art and the wonderful things she has been doing to bring his work to the world.

DANIEL & CLARA: I’d like to get a picture of what it was like growing up in the world of Dr. Gaz. Were you aware as a child that your life at home was different to that of the other kids at school, that they didn’t spend their weekends dressed up in wonderful costumes and running around at the local tip?

STELLA: It wasn’t until I went to school and was a bit older – around 6 or 7 I guess – that I realised that my home life wasn’t exactly the ‘norm’! Up until that point it seemed like one great big game and that my parents and their friends were just like big kids really, always dressing up and playing – which is essentially correct on one level!

I’m sure from the outside it would seem like a social worker’s nightmare! Given that from a very early age I was exposed to people cavorting around naked and used to seeing pornographic, horror and war imagery which was used in the collage work for his films! And let’s not forget the toxic fumes as he used spray paint and melted toys! I don’t remember being particularly bothered about the dolls being melted – I found it all quite thrilling. I just accepted it all as part of the process of film-making, which I found endlessly glamorous and exciting.

My earliest memories – aside from the aforementioned! – were of many hours spent meticulously setting up scenes and my mother’s amazing makeup melting slightly under the heat of the arc lamps! The makeup she wore had a particular strong perfume as it was traditional Leichner stage greasepaint… The main thing I enjoyed about the whole process in filming those early group scenes in his films was that they were usually rounded off with us all having a tea party with plenty of jelly and ice cream!

It was impossible to try and explain what my family did at weekends to my friends at school, so I was quite quiet and shy really – led a bit of a double life I guess! It was safer to keep quiet around school bullies… I was still bullied at school though, as they knew I was ‘different’, and also my dad was older than most other dads at the time. This was the late 60s, early 70s when most people still had kids quite young and Brighton wasn’t quite the liberal place it is now!

DANIEL & CLARA: What’s your first memory of your father?

STELLA: The image of him when filming and performing is of a monumental figure in a white boiler suit who always shared a joke and loved eating green jelly! A mad scientist controlling the chaos… and on the flip side, a sweet kind gentle man full of fun and a font of all knowledge… His mad behaviour with a blowtorch with “Born to Kill” written on his back didn’t seem to phase me at all! He was such a lovely person and so playful in his approach to making his films that I couldn’t take the more aggressive imagery he used seriously. To me, he seemed superhuman – a superhero – and therefore immortal. This was compounded by his seemingly limitless energy, incredible encyclopaedic brain and extensive talent as an artist. Even from an early age I understood he was a unique genius.

Jeff Keen and family

DANIEL & CLARA: What was Jeff like as a person? I get the impression that he was very sociable with his close group of friends but that he may have kept to himself outside of that group, is that correct?

STELLA: It’s true, he had a few close friends who he was always happy to see and many other friends and acquaintances he kept in touch with as best as he could. Although the early filmmaking process with friends and family was often one long party, he was a quiet, thoughtful man who was shy and very modest – which totally belies his persona on screen!

He was an interesting dichotomy – like most natural born ‘show people’ he hid the shyness behind a flamboyant desire to show off and play. He was incredibly self-deprecating and didn’t seem to take his work seriously at all. This almost undermined the serious intent and deep thought behind the work. It was interesting that he wasn’t really a party animal at all – positively puritanical almost, as he didn’t drink, smoke or take drugs. (In fact the idea of him on drugs is actually too much!). But he enjoyed being sociable with everyone he met, not just close friends… he loved joking around and could take conversations down so many different paths for hours. He also enjoyed sharing his love of music – playing mainly Jazz, Classical, Latin or Rock n’ Roll…

For someone so experimental and ahead of his time, he was delightfully old fashioned – like a proper English gentleman, very well mannered, who preferred nature walks, tea, cake and poetry to staying up late and partying. He was incredibly well read and deep thinking and so driven to create work that he didn’t allow himself much time to party really. From his traditional rural upbringing he’d been instilled with a strong Protestant work ethic, although he wasn’t religious, and kept to a strict daily work routine. Part of that must have come from the discipline of being in the army, of course. In the morning he’d get up early, make porridge and write notes on what he had to do that day, followed by drawing in a sketchbook, then coffee and marmalade on toast at 11am! The day would continue with more work, only stopping for tea and cake at 4pm… Although sticking to a fairly strict regime like this, he was far from boring or repetitive! He was a constant joy to be around as he was so full of fun and entertaining chat… He worked every day – drawing, painting, writing, etc – always developing new ideas and keeping up with the latest developments in technology. In the last few months of his life I managed to get him drawing some animations on the iPad!

Even though he found public speaking quite nerve-wracking, he actually really enjoyed the teaching and lecturing he did when he toured with film shows and performances. As his alter ego Dr Gaz, who later morphed into the archetypal hero ‘Omozap’ (a play on the word Homosapien), he could hide behind this strong stage/film persona in order to perform both on stage and screen. Having devised my own stage persona from the stage name my father originally gave me – Stella Starr – I know very well how a shy person can hide very successfully behind this kind of larger-than-life alter ego to become the showman…

Marvo Movie Jeff Keen

DANIEL & CLARA: Tell me about some of the friends of the family who starred in the films, who were the key players?

STELLA: The main key player was, of course, my mother, who bore a remarkable resemblance to both Jack Smith’s muse – the exotic B-movie actress Maria Montez – and Rita Hayworth. My mother Jackie had a unique talent at performing for camera, creating costumes and a chameleon-like ability to change her appearance drastically with clever use of makeup. A painter herself, she used her talents only in her film appearances unfortunately. But the camera loved her and my father’s early films are a unique love letter to her.

The other key players – apart from me! – were friends who also happened to be talented artists in their own right. It was a ‘zeitgeist’ moment of the right people being in the right place at the right time… One of the most memorable figures was the Australian sound poet and Dadaist performer Jas (Jim) H. Duke – a truly wonderful character… I think my dad met his match with him in terms of shared intellect, ideology and playful anarchy! They were great friends and did some wonderful work together, both writing and performing.

Other players in the Family Star productions also included poet, filmmaker and Warhol Factory performer Piero Heliczer, Steve Wynard who was so fabulous as Silverhead, Mothman and Natural Man, and designer Avril Hodges Wilshir as Daphne Dayle the Girl Detective, artists John Upton, Gary Turner, Michael Paysden and Milena Dragic and video artist Tony Sinden, amongst many others. It was a great ‘happening’ scene! My father was actually a really talented director, managing to get so many great performances from people with little or no acting experience. I learnt a lot from that, about how you can create magic from nothing! Very important that…

DANIEL & CLARA: The films Mad Love and White Dust are my two favourite films of your father’s and may well be two of my favourite films ever. What can you tell us about these films, can you remember them being made?

STELLA: I have to agree regarding these being favourites, although I am still constantly astounded by the incredible animation, ideas and editing in his other work too. White Dust and Mad Love are the films I remember most vividly and with much fondness. They were a joy to be part of and definitely helped shape my performing career.

For me, White Dust is a beautiful elegy to the innocent poetry of B-Movies. I was fascinated by how my father could achieve the wonderfully dreamlike layering of imagery in that film. Incredibly, it was a set of random accidents brought about by simply filming a reel then rewinding it back to the beginning in camera and refilming over it again. You can do that with those beautiful 16mm cameras and it creates something sumptuous, mysterious, majestic… The soundtrack is made up from Hollywood music library stock – a kind of generic B-movie soundtrack that my father edited together and it really makes the mood and pace of the film.

Mad Love is my favourite of all as it is not only a Surrealist masterpiece but a great homage to cinema history – with just the best soundtrack ever – created from some old records that dad found in a Brighton street market. It’s definitely the most theatrical, jokey and playful of all his films, incorporating great elements of music hall, saucy seaside humour, haunting erotica and silent movie style vignettes. The pulp fiction style tableaux vivants directly reference things like the early Louis Feuillade Fantomas murder mysteries that inspired the Surrealists.

DANIEL & CLARA: Tell us about the process of how a film was made, would your father discuss ideas with you and the other people involved or would he keep things to himself?

STELLA: In the early days, when I was quite young, I just remember him directing us all with these very definite ideas for the scenes he was creating. He made extensive notes and storyboards (which I’m still discovering and cataloguing!) and took time to set up each scene and pay attention to details in costumes and props. It looks very thrown together in the movies somehow but was actually very carefully worked out. I remember the actors/friends understanding and sharing the jokes and references he was making as they were similar intellectuals who also shared his love of movies. They all went to the cinema a lot! By the time I made Mad Love, I was old enough to understand the references myself (although I questioned if the audience would always ‘get’ all of it!). Also I was already working behind the camera, helping film various scenes as well as taking stills. With his later work, which took a different turn – more introspective, more about the artist and their place in the Universe – I worked extensively with him on those. By that stage we were a camera team and I understood intuitively what he wanted to achieve with shots and scenes. This extended to the work we did in his Expanded Cinema performances, where I worked mainly on sound effects and music with other participants as well as performing.

DANIEL & CLARA: It seems that he was very much a collaborator and that he set up situations and let everyone enjoy the game of making movies, but all of his films are clearly made by one artist with a strong and direct vision. What do you think it is that makes your father’s films his, that spark that can never be imitated?

STELLA: Ah well there’s the question, isn’t it?! It’s what makes an artist and an ‘auteur’. You think of great auteurs, visionaries like Hitchcock, Powell and Pressburger and the like… and you know they created their own language and universe which you could choose to step into and be immersed in, or sit outside and marvel at. It’s about having a very unique vision and sticking with it. My father referred to all his work – films, paintings, sculptures, collage, poetry and sound experimentation – as his ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ – i.e. a ‘total artwork’. He had a very democratic approach to art, believing that it shouldn’t be elitist but available to all. He was very interested in the ideas of universal language – signs and symbolism that is universally understood. He constantly used word play in all his work and created a new punchy language. It draws from various elements of popular culture – the wording of advertising in the backs of American comic books, cinema trailer language and the lurid prose of pulp fiction. But it also takes on board his love of Beat poetry – poetry and the Classics in general – as well as the rhythms of Jazz and other music he loved. Of course his work can and has been copied up to a point, but never bettered! My dad always liked to quote Cocteau when referring to himself – ‘Je suis un poet’. All artists are poets, after all…

The Return Of Silverhead Jeff Keen

DANIEL & CLARA: Who were Jeff’s heroes and idols?

STELLA: Many, many – too many to list here! He got inspiration from so many different things:

In art – Titian, German Romantics and Symbolist art, William Blake, Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, English Neo-Romantics of the 40s and 50s, Surrealism and Dadaism, particularly the work of Matta and Wilfredo Lam, Abstract Expressionists and artists from the Cobra Group.

In film – John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Cocteau, Buñuel, Film Noir directors like Nicholas Ray, Ed Wood and so many more. It’s interesting it was mainly mainstream movies that excited him – not so much other experimental work, although he acknowledged people like Len Lye and Stan Brakhage, of course.

In writing – he had a vast library which ranged from greats like Shakespeare, Rabelais and Jonathan Swift right through to the likes of Henry Miller, Burroughs and many modern writings. His love of poetry (in its broadest sense) also extended from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and metaphysical work right through to Beat poetry and beyond.

In terms of popular culture, of course his love of American comics – both mainstream and underground – and trash pulp fiction as well as B-movies, is obvious. He loved Forrest J. Ackerman for his Famous Monsters magazine and amazing museum collection of B-movie Horror treasures. He was a particular fan of artists who displayed so much dynamic energy in the drawn line. Jeff did many homages to Tex Avery, for instance, and he collected Mad Magazine – mainly for Don Martin’s fantastic drawings.

DANIEL & CLARA: Do you know what his favourite films were?

STELLA: I put together a list of some of Jeff’s favourite films with him that they were potentially going to programme for Brighton’s Cinecity Festival. This didn’t happen in the end sadly but here they are:

Cocteau’s Orphée (1949)
Peter Ibbetson (1935) – a favourite of the Surrealists.
Max Ophuls’ Letter from an unknown woman and Lola Montés
Judex (1963)
Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Sunrise (Murnau 1927)
Cobra Woman (1944) – the definitive Maria Montez film
White Zombie (1932) – Magical Bela Lugosi horror that helped inspire White Dust
Island of Lost Souls (1932) – from the H. G. Wells story The Island of Dr Moreau
Written On the Wind or Tarnished Angels by Douglas Sirk

A host of early cartoons:
early Mickey Mouse cartoon – e.g. ‘Mickey’s Revue’,
Mutt n’ Jeff cartoon e.g. ‘Slick Sleuths’,
Tex Avery Cartoon,
Warner Bros Bugs Bunny cartoon – ‘What’s Opera Doc’,
The original Three Stooges

Django (1966) – Operatic Grand Guignol Spaghetti Western
Warlock (1959)
Sam Peckinpah films: Cross of Iron and Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia
a Bud Boetticher/Randolph Scott western: The Tall T
A Touch of Zen (King Hu 1971)
Lone Wolf and Cub (1972) – Babycart at the River Styx
Predator (1987)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Robocop (1987)

It’s an interesting one as his favourites ranged from obscure and classical to some modern mainstream ones. I remember the last film I watched with him was Thor, which he loved as it captured the spirit of my dad’s favourite comic book artist Jack Kirby’s original drawings.

Mad Love Jeff Keen 1

DANIEL & CLARA: Which of his films is your favourite and why?

STELLA: Mad Love – see above comments! But also I love his first film, Wail, which has such a fantastic rhythm to it and incorporates the wonderful drawings and collage with great shots of motorbike riders. It’s very evocative of the time.

I’m also really intrigued by the one traditional style narrative film he produced, Breakout, which gives us an amazing sense of Brighton as it was then – still the run down seedy seaside resort of Graham Greene’s novel… It’s also a great homage to Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and other French Realist cinema of the time.

DANIEL & CLARA: You had the daunting job of clearing out your father’s house after he passed away. I have seen photos of his workroom with paintings, papers and objects stacked from floor to ceiling. How did you go about archiving his work and what discoveries did you make when going through his things?

STELLA: The archiving is ongoing and I actually had to clear my dad’s one bedroom flat that he’d kept as a studio/living space since 1973 while he was still alive. It took me 5 months full time to clear – like an archaeological dig – and I discovered the most amazing body of artwork, the bulk of which I didn’t realise existed, as he’d kept so much of it hidden, stacked up behind more recent work. It was a shocking revelation and pretty emotional – especially discovering the large paintings from the 60s and the early portfolios from the 40s and 50s. This was like unearthing some amazing treasure chest. When I saw these beautiful works it made complete sense of all his other work. I also realised then and there that this was an incredibly important discovery in art historical terms and simply had to be made known to the public. He had to have an exhibition! Luckily I was able to achieve so much for him and the recognition he deserved as an artist while he was still alive – which was marvellous to be able to do.

DANIEL & CLARA: You are doing a lot of incredible work bringing your father’s films, paintings, sculptures and poetry to an audience. Tell us about what has happened so far and what you have coming up?

STELLA: While he was still alive I put together his first solo exhibitions of artwork in Paris and New York, and we worked together right up to his death on the amazing Expanded Cinema installation for the Tanks at Tate Modern and the retrospective at Brighton Museum. All this started from me putting together a pdf of samples of his work along with some information and sending it out ‘blindly’ to London West End galleries. I just wanted to start somewhere and was interested to see the reaction. At this point I was already being encouraged by the Tate, following on from interest in the Film Retrospective that had happened at BFI Southbank. It was this starting point of emailing West End galleries that led to the connection with the Paris Galerie du Centre – then the rest, as they say, is history!

Jeff’s artwork has now also been in group shows in London and Paris and a recent solo exhibition at Kate MacGarry Gallery in London. I’ve also been able to do talks and workshops to help introduce a new audience to Jeff’s work, which is great!

Looking ahead, there are touring versions of the Tate Tanks and Brighton Retrospective exhibitions planned, a new group show proposal I’m developing, a self-portrait inspired exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and representation at important art fairs like Basel – to name but a few!

In terms of other aspects of his ‘oeuvre’ – with the sound and poetry work – I’m doing a lot as well! I feel very fortunate to have made a connection with Trunk Records who are completely in tune with Jeff’s work and I feel very proud of the first project we worked on – Noise Art (on fabulous coloured vinyl and CD) – a collection of my father’s Expanded Cinema work which has a great essay attached by David Toop. This has been incredibly successful and will be the first of a few projects with Trunk to bring out more collections of Jeff’s fantastically innovative experimental sound work. They’re also helping me build a Jeff Keen website which hopefully will be online soon!

I’m also working with Cambridge-based poet Ian Heames on collating all Jeff’s wonderful poetry into a selection of various facsimile reproductions of his original books, and a collected works and a series of limited edition prints of some of the more visual prints.

In keeping with my dad’s aesthetic of making ‘art for all’, I’m also working on sets of limited edition screen prints of some of his paintings, so people can buy work within a reasonable price range. Having produced one book about him to coincide with the retrospective, I’m going to be working on another bigger glossy art book for him too. It’s a lot of work but it has to be done. I think I’ve definitely inherited some of that Keen drive and energy!