Tacita Dean on David Warner: ‘Hummingbirds were his angels – he had an altar for them in his apartment’ | David Warner

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I learned that David Warner had died after landing in Los Angeles on Monday evening. It was here a few years ago that I started courting the actor, trying to persuade him through a series of requests to let me film him, which I’m happy to say he eventually did.

I had long admired him as an actor, especially for his performance in the great film Providence by Alain Resnais (1977). Only Ellen Burstyn remains alive from this extraordinary five-member ensemble now that David has joined John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde and Elaine Stritch. I had invited David through his agent to come to a 35mm screening of the film at the Barbican and he answered in person, telling me he couldn’t come, but regaled me with stories nonetheless on all that Providence meant to him. He told me that Resnais had chosen the five actors he wanted in the film even before a script so that when David Mercer wrote it, he wrote it for “us”. He also mentioned, with pride, that he had been responsible for adding a single word to the script, which appears in the last line, spoken with such farewell elegance by Gielgud: “I think I have time for just one more.” David had suggested the “righteous.”

Impressive… Ellen Burnstyn and Warner in Providence. Photography: Christopher Collection/Alamy

David finally agreed to pose for me after I described to him at length what my masking system in the aperture grid of a 35mm camera allowed me to do. Masking, specific to photochemical film, allows me to film part of the image, like a form of stencil, before rewinding the roll and filming another part. I only see what I have filmed when I finally process the negative, often months later. I told David I could film anyone or anything alongside him as part of the film and the example I gave was of a hummingbird. Without knowing it, I had come across the key; David loved hummingbirds. He told me they had played a big role in his emotional life over the past 20 years since he lived in Los Angeles. To non-religious people, he wrote, hummingbirds were the equivalent of angels and when I visited him later I saw that he had made an altar to them in his apartment.

The scene was set. I filmed David in a house in Hackney. First, for His Picture in Little (2017) for the Miniatures Gallery of the National Portrait Gallery, I chose to film three actors from three generations who had all played Hamlet successfully on the British stage: David, Stephen Dillane and Ben Whiskash. They appeared together photochemically “in frame”, but were all filmed using my masking technique at different times and in different places. I realized that it was not easy to ask an actor, who is used to directing, to just sit down and do nothing, so to make the relationship between the artist and subject, I drew little pencil portraits of David as the camera rolled.

I filmed him on the left of the frame, on the right and even in the middle, theoretically next to Ben Whishaw, who I had already filmed, and in anticipation of Stephen Dillane, who I would film later. I didn’t direct it, just represented it. David’s presence was so spellbinding that he carried every frame beautifully and something curious happened: unparalleled moments of synchronous reaction between the actors – movements, gestures, gazes. The only direction had been chance itself.

Tacita Dean Providence, 2017
Tacita Dean Providence, 2017. Photography: Courtesy of Tacita Dean; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

Finally came roll 50: the roll I had planned to take back to California to fill with hummingbirds. David understood the gravity of the scroll and his role in it; he knew he would be in a future duet with hummingbirds, and he performed it that way, summoning his angels in absentia, as emotional memory and in blissful reverie. His performance was perfect. I also understood the seriousness of the roll, terrified of failing to catch the elusive birds that dart and disappear and never stay still. There would be no possibility of a second take, no chance of just one more.

I researched the habits of hummingbirds extensively, spoke with experts, and investigated reliable locations where birds tended to congregate and at what time of day. Eventually, I narrowed down the location to a flower bed at dusk in the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena. The birds answered the call and played.

I called the film Providence (2017) in honor of Resnais’ film and David’s role in it but above all in recognition of the providential moment that led me to make the film in the first place and then to direct it . The last time I saw David was him watching the film at the National Portrait Gallery with his son Luke. The elegiac beauty of his father’s performance, not to mention his parting nature, overcame Luke and I left them together silhouetted against the hummingbirds, the father moved by his son and the son moved by his father.

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