Fascinating, ethereal and concrete, the personal encounter with Jeanie Finlay, a Nottingham based documentary film director, evokes similar emotions to her recent movie ‘Orion: The Man Who Would be King’, which was released in UK’s cinemas in September. In a conversation with Joanna Oleskow she looks back at her career, talks about ‘Orion’ and her relationship to Nottingham.
Jeanie always knew she wanted to be an artist. She studied Arts and Music at University and worked with media installations and music compositions for soundtracks. However, one installation proved to be a break-through. ‘Home-Maker’ was an interactive work in which people were photographed in their living rooms. Jeanie quickly realized that the conversations she was having with the subjects were the most ‘important and valuable’ of the project and she started to film them. As end result, she accrued over 70 minutes of mini films. After speaking to a curator of one gallery, they decided to show a sample to BBC. That was the first time when Jeanie was commissioned with a 60-minutes documentary.
‘Once I made that I never looked back and I made another feature next. When I got the opportunity to show my features on TV, there was an intoxication in meeting the audience, I have never achieved though my artwork. For the first time, I felt I found the medium that I really wanted to do. And I just carried on. I just find an idea, I can’t stop thinking about and then I go out to raise the money.’
Especially fundraising seems to be ‘one of the hardest think you can do’, however due to good contacts with broadcasters, international funds and also with the help of crowd funding campaigns she makes her films happen.
Her latest movie ‘Orion: The Man Who Would Be King’, co-founded by organisations such as Creative England and Broadway Cinema, depicts the forgotten story of Jimmy Ellis, a doppelganger of Elvis Presley. Born in 1945, with an unusual gift – Elvis alike voice, Jimmy always dreamed about becoming a singer. Unfortunately, it quickly turned out that his talent was ironically an obstacle in his career. Trying to establish himself in the music industry, he was only perceived through the prism of ‘the King’. It was only Presley’s death, which enabled Ellis the success, however not as Jimmy Ellis, but as a made up figure in a mask, called Orion, who could continue Elvis’ myth.
Jeanie Finlay came across Orion 12 years ago, long before she started to make movies. She just bought one of his records and got interested in the story behind the man in a mask.
‘I think you have to trust your gut feeling. With Orion I have always had this gut feeling that there is a story to tell. Because it was a story that happened in the past, and I could see the whole picture of a man’s life stretched out. I felt that I had the opportunity to tell the story about so many other things like the music industry, Nashville, about the icon, such as Elvis Presley, but without making it in such a straightforward way, because it is not a film about Elvis, it is a film about Orion, but Elvis cast a big shadow on Orion’s story.’
However making this movie, even for an established documentary filmmaker was very challenging. ‘It was difficult to raise the money, as Orion is not a famous person, but also because this is a story which happened in the past, so I had to rely on archives. Many people involved had already passed away and it was very frustrating that I wasn’t able to ask the questions I wanted to’, Jeanie says.
Also the fact that Jeanie was a complete stranger in the American community did not always help. As she was not well known in the United States, people did not have much idea about the way she makes her films. She had to persuade her interviewees to trust her.
‘I generally do love interviewing people. I think if you have a passion for that and you are genuinely interested, so not just going through emotions, then I think that people really respond well to that. A lot of people want to tell their story, they want their story to be heard’.
And that is what the audience can expect from ‘Orion’. There are many intimate memories told by Ellis’ family and friends which build the whole picture of the singer. In her film, Finlay looks for Ellis’ real identity behind the Orion’s mask and reveals the difficulties he was exposed to as an artist.
One could ask what such a filmmaker with rapidly increasing international recognition is still doing in Nottingham, but Jeanie has a very straight forward answer.
‘I love Nottingham. I have chosen to stay and live in Nottingham. There have been times in my career over the past few year when I thought “Oh maybe I need to live in London to make it as a film maker” but actually Nottingham is an easy city to live in. You know when I am making work internationally, I am really happy to come back here and have a stable home in a quiet place, where people say ”Thank you’ to the bus driver”.’
She also points out that precisely in Nottingham there are many artists, like the writers Robert Macfarlane and Jon McGregor, and creative places, like Primary.
‘I feel like there is quite artistic time in Nottingham, there is a lot that is going on.’
In December, Nottingham residents will have the possibility to watch one of Jeanie’s previous film, ‘Panto’, at Broadway Cinema.
‘Orion: The Man Who Would be King’ is available on BBC iPlayer.
This interview was also published in Nottingham Post.