Sandwiched in between two sex films at a cinema in London’s Piccadilly Circus in 1967 was The Image, the rarely seen, first film starring David Bowie.
“Whether David had gone in on his own, I don’t know, but he said he felt really strange sitting there on his own, in this cinema with all these guys in their raincoats” recalls the film’s director Michael Armstrong, speaking from his flat in central London, a home adorned with posters from a fifty-year career that began with ‘The Image.’
Since then the 14-minute short, about an artist’s painting that comes to life and haunts him, has all but vanished – strange for a movie starring a musician, songwriter, producer, painter and actor who influenced Britain’s music, fashion and entertainment scenes for six-decades, before his death on the 10th January 2016.
Occasionally poor quality versions of ’The Image’ surface on YouTube, which are promptly intercepted by Mr. Armstrong, who is pleased the public can now see the film in it’s entirety, for which permission was obtained from The David Bowie Archive, which has a master tape and paperwork in storage.
“It got an X certificate. I think it was the first short that got an X-certificate. For its violence, which in itself was extraordinary” says the veteran writer and director, who’d go on to make horror nasties including 1970’s ‘Mark of the Devil,’ for which sick bags were dished out to the audience upon admission.
In 1967, aged 20 years old, David Bowie had just released his debut album on Deram Records, an album Mr. Armstrong loved but which hadn’t been well received by the public. It would be the release of ‘Space Oddity’ two years later that put Mr. Bowie on the map, and the birth of his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust in 1972 that would reserve him a place in musical history.
Creatively “we clicked” recalls Mr. Armstrong, slouched on his leather sofa, in a living room floor-to-ceiling high with DVDs and Bluerays on one side, and original animation cells from Disney movies including ‘Peter Pan’ and his personal favourite ‘Sleeping Beauty’ on the other.
Mr. Armstrong, now 72, described the young David Bowie as “very pretty” and “flirtatious” and remembers him doing a wonderful Elvis impersonation. But he says when the opportunity to make ‘The Image’ came up it wasn’t “Oh he’s perfect for the role, it was really to give him a job.” While Mr. Armstrong can’t remember how much Mr. Bowie was paid for his part, he believes “it was probably around 10 quid ($15) a day.”
At the time, Mr. Armstrong, aged 22, had just finished training as an actor at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and had written the screenplay for a 30 minute ghost story called ‘The Image.’ It was picked up by Border Film Productions (London) Ltd, a company which funded new movies, which included several directed by Michael Winner including 1960’s ‘Climb Up The Wall’ and ‘Shoot To Kill’, and 1961’s ‘Out of the Shadow.’
Mr. Armstrong was given three days and a tiny crew which included cameraman Ousama Rawi, who would go on to be the director of photography on movies including ‘Zulu Dawn’ and recent TV series including ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Borgia.’
He said the shoot took place in a semi-detached, three-storey, red-brick building in a street just off the Harrow Road in central London – it was fraught with difficulties including a scene that made Mr. Bowie sick; turning him the bloodless-pallor of the vampire he’d later portray in 1983’s ‘The Hunger.’
For the scene in question, Mr. Bowie was required to stand on a window ledge in freezing November weather, clinging to the crumbling sides of a window frame, while an assistant simulated rain with a hose. “What does he do?” recalls Mr. Armstrong of his bumbling assistant, “He points the hose at David and hit him square in the back with fucking hose pipe water. And he’s moving it around. So David is drenched.”
Mr. Bowie remained on the window ledge, below which was a drop to the basement, for 20 – 30 minutes while the crew battled with camera jams and other issues. ”We’d actually said David, come in, come in, get warm and he’d said no, no I’m fine – I think he was terrified of moving. By the time we got the shot, he came in and he was literally blue. He was bright blue. We had to strip him down and stand him in front of the lights to warm him up.” says Mr. Armstrong.
Another challenge were the frequent outbreaks of laughter during the many death scenes, in particular when co-star Michael Byrne’s artist has to stab Mr. Bowie’s ghost over a stairwell. “And so there’s him trying to die, while he’s trying not to fall over. There’s Mike trying to prop him up a bit and David’s trying to lean over at the right angle. It was the whole awkwardness of it – the two of them trying to keep a straight face during this dramatic moment was just too much.” recalls Mr. Armstrong.
The crew shot seven mins of the 30 minute production before it was shut down.
”It’s the only film to have grown twice as long in the cutting room” says Mr. Armstrong, because “unless it was around 15 minutes long, it wouldn’t qualify for Eady money.”
The Eady Levy was a scheme set up in 1957 to boost the British film industry. It channeled a portion of the box office receipts back to British producers via the British Film Fund Agency, provided that 85-percent of the film was shot in the U.K. and no more than three of the main personnel were non-British.
Mr. Armstrong, who amusingly refers to ‘The Image’ as his “arthouse film” says that’s why the opening and closing credits are slightly longer than they need to be. “There’s actually even a hand over the camera lens in the film. That’s how desperate I was for footage to pad it out.”
‘The Image’ ran at the Jacey Cinema in London’s Piccadilly for several weeks, a venue from where Mr. Armstrong can remember Mr. Bowie calling him: “David when he phoned me up was laughing, for the same reason I’d sat there laughing, he said because he’s sat with all these guys in their raincoats watching the first film, and he said then “The Image” came on, and he said the confusion that must have been in their heads wondering “what on earth was this?”, how long before they could get back to having a wank again? He thought it was hilarious.”
This article is the longer version of a story written for The Wall Street Journal on March 9th 2016.
David Bowie died on the 10th January 2016 following an 18-month struggle with cancer. This short obituary video looks back at key moments in the musician and artist’s career.