“You need to remind yourself of the luxury of opportunity, that you have one chance to get it right because once it’s done it’s done” says writer, director and producer James Erskine. “Nobody will get a chance to do it twice and so you better well tell someone’s story properly.” The Ice King chronicles the life of the Olympic gold medalist ice skater John Curry, who was seen to take the sport and elevate it to new heights of artistry, making history as the first openly gay Olympian. Exploring the personal and political turmoil that haunted the man, from his father’s foreboding presence to the contradictory Jekyll and Hyde relationships he shared with those closest to him, creates a stark contrast to the sublime art Curry created.
In conversation with ASFF, Erskine reflects on the reasons that compelled him to tell this story and how Curry’s journey speaks to the contemporary world.
ASFF: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an influential or defining moment?
JE: I actually studied law at university, but I always had in mind that I’d like to be a journalist or writer. When I went to college I started writing and worked on a couple of papers, and became intrigued with film. Where I grew up the idea of making films for a living wasn’t what was really expected. In the 1990s there was a competition that Channel 4 ran in combination with the Lloyds Bank film challenge, in which you got to submit an idea and it got made into a film. I won and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of film, and after seeing up close for the first time that was the point I started to become enraptured with filmmaking.
ASFF: Interviewing Larry Fessenden recently he spoke of how a film is abandoned. This ties in with the pursuit of perfection and the impossibility of the task, as each spectator will respond differently. Do you agree that films are abandoned and perfection is impossible?
JE: Is there anything perfect? You just have to try and strive to get close and of course even if you were able to create something perfect, not everybody would see it as perfect. Do I abandon films? Yeah, in the end because with anything you just keep on going over it and you see its flaws. You might watch a film I’ve made and think it’s great, but I’m watching it hundreds of times looking for every crack, and even on a physiological level that’s true because I read somewhere that only ten percent of what you see is actually what you’re seeing.
Your brain makes up the rest of it and actually when you watch something a second time, that’s where you feel like you see more and more, just like staring at a painting. The longer you stare the more you see it because your brain is adjusting, taking in different information and reinterpreting it. So yeah, in the end you abandon it because you don’t have any more ideas, or you just surrender to the fates of money and time.
ASFF: What compelled you to tell John Curry’s story and why now?
JE: Well, I originally read The Guardian’s review of the book on which it is based, Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry. There was actually a piece written by Bill Jones about John when it came out which I thought it was fascinating, and so I acquired the rights to the book. It’s both a timely and a timeless story. I think it is timeless because he was a great artist who had this unique moment, and he hasn’t been surpassed artistically, and timely because his struggle for the right to be yourself without prejudice is one many people face today.
Maybe in the metropolitan world we quickly move on and of course John is gay, it’s fine, who has the issue with that? Only 50 years ago if you were caught in a sexual act you went to prison for 25 years. This was horrendous. Imagine growing up in a world where you are treated as a criminal for your sexuality. So this is as relevant in the world today as it was when John was growing up, and certainly in many countries still in the western world.
The world of Donald Trump doesn’t stand for a great degree of social liberalism – it’s supported by right wing and conservative groups. This story of someone who stands out to say, I’m going to stand up and show myself to be the person that I am, and whilst I may not be the most articulate person in the world, I may not be openly political, it was a political act to say, hey look, I was like you and I stood there and did this, and it was hard and horrible, but I’m still standing.
ASFF: In this context, the story perhaps captures a snapshot of the cyclic nature of tolerance or progress that moves between liberalism and conservatism.
JE: The universe is in constant entropy – it is always changing. The waves go up and down the beach, the tides are eternal and of course things move backwards and forward, and that is part of the planets as well as our human experience. What one hopes is that even for moments of regression there is further advancement. I just think that’s a natural yin and yang. We all seek a more progressive world, but we do not all share the same experiences. An 80-year-old doesn’t have the same world view as an eight-year-old.
It’s like history – the law of England is largely based on the battle between fathers to dictate what there sons would do in the future, and sons to unshackle themselves from the obligations laid upon them by their fathers. In some way that is what’s at the heart of it – the battle between parents and children in society. At one point Obama was the parent and now Trump’s the parent. It is this reversal in fortune that is inevitable.
ASFF: The Ice King shows the interconnected nature of a life story, Curry’s journey a prism for the exploration of cultural attitudes and tragedy such as the AIDS epidemic.
JE: What was interesting about Curry was that he was a man that set out to win the acceptance of society and he succeeded. He won a gold medal, he got the opportunity to set up his own company, to play at the Albert Hall and at the Met Opera House to rave reviews. So on the one hand he succeeded, but even for the period when homosexuality was legalised and there was a reduced stigma, what he could never do I feel was accept himself. He went on this journey and that’s where I see the tension of the film, of someone reaching for the stars, but finding themselves alone at night with a deep melancholia, always feeling that everything was brittle and could fall away at any moment.
The Ice King is released theatrically in the UK on Friday 23 February by Dogwoof.
1. Still from The Ice King. Courtesy of Dogwoof.