Paul Hallam, co-writer/co-director of Nighthawks, talks to Andrew Southcott ahead of the film’s appearance as part of Criminal Acts: A Charged Past.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, we’re exploring our collective past through a season of exceptional British movies.
Often seen as Britain’s first major gay film, Nighthawks is a vivid account of London’s gay scene soon after decriminalisation. Under the newly relaxed laws, men were able to seek love and sex in the dark confines of London’s more open club scene. But these laws were still harsh, and many difficulties remained.
Nighthawks is often referred to as the first major British gay film. What were you hoping to achieve that had been missing from previous depictions of gay characters?
Before Nighthawks there were some powerful representations of gay life, Victim and A Taste Of Honey stand out for me, and homosexuality was not exactly hidden in the work of John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Bloody Sunday) and Lindsay Anderson (most notably in If…). Derek Jarman had made the erotic/historical Sebastiane with Paul Humfress in 1976. (Schlesinger, Anderson, and Jarman all helped in different ways on Nighthawks. Derek makes a cameo club appearance in the film and was later to say of Nighthawks, “That film is my life all wrapped up”).
Most histories of gay cinema agree that in the late 1970s things began to change on the representation of gays in the movies. There was a shift away from either gay characters as stereotypical figures of fun, camp or comedy, or isolated, lonely or tragic characters who often met with sad ends. So in contrast to previous depictions, Nighthawks took on two of the most common features of gay life in London: the issue of “coming out”, and the club scene.
We focused on the process of coming out as gay to family, friends and in the workplace, not just through the main character, but also from the stories of people he meets in gay clubs. And we depicted the rituals of the clubs themselves: the looking for Mr. Right or perhaps just “Mr. Right for the Night”, the “cruising eye”, the attempts at conversation, the pick-ups, the often banal and funny conversations the morning after. The complexity of one-night stands, when perhaps one of the two people involved wants the relationship to continue, and the other doesn’t.
How do you think the partial decriminalisation, a decade before your film, affected the London gay scene you depicted?
People found their ways to meet before the partial decriminalisation, but at far greater risks, so change was hugely welcome. But it was a highly restricted decriminalisation: two consenting adults over 21, and in private. The definition of “private” was strict, meaning no landlord, flatmate or anyone else on the premises. Pubs and clubs could more openly flourish, and I am sure many people felt less nervous about visiting them, but smaller, more clandestine places continued, as did cottaging and backrooms, group sex, adventures in parks and on heaths.
How did you shoot the club scenes?
There was no way you could go into a gay club with a film crew and just film. Technically, setting up the lights, dealing with sound, with bulky equipment and a crew, would have ruined the night. More importantly, many people would not have wanted to be seen on film at the time as it would have “outed” them. So we built a set for the main club in the film at the London Film School, featuring elements of various actual clubs in its design, and shot in some real clubs outside of working hours. Everyone in the club signed a permission form to say they were happy to be filmed. Working with people who wanted to be in the film was remarkable. Many of them knew they were taking a risk, and perhaps some intended to out themselves by appearing on-screen.
The most remarkable scene features the protagonist, a schoolteacher, coming out to his young students. It feels incredibly real. How did it come about?
The idea for the scene was there from the first outline for the film. It was never a fully scripted scene; we made suggestions as to some questions that might help get the school pupils into a discussion. The teacher, Jim, does not just suddenly “come out” in a geography class; he is provoked into it by the students. On the afternoon of the shoot, the scene really did take on a life of its own; we couldn’t have tried more takes. It just worked. Some of the students’ comments are genuine, others they discussed amongst themselves beforehand.
Apparently no school would give you permission to shoot the classroom sequence once they heard the subject of the film. How did you get around this?
One head-teacher of a prominent and well-known “liberal” comprehensive school declared he would not “touch that topic with a barge-pole”. So instead we found a lecture room at the back of the London College of Fashion to film it in. We had to have parental consent for their children to appear in the film, and we were open about the context of the scene. But it still proved controversial: The Sun published an article (alongside the pin-up on Page 3) with the headline “Kids to Star in Gay Film”, which was somewhat misleading and actually very scary for us at the time.
How did you find the reaction to the film? It faced criticism from some for showing an un-romanticised side of gay life, but was applauded by others for the same reason.
It definitely divided people; some screenings I attended were quite tense. This may have been partly because so many people wanted their own gay film. Some wanted a clear happy ending: Jim and John walking into the sunrise or sunset. Others wanted a wilder film. And people were divided over the style of the film, its aesthetics, and the long held takes. It isn’t an easy film, but it has a humour and many people identify with it.
Nighthawks plays on Monday 10th July at selected Picturehouse cinemas, including an appearance by director Ron Peck at The Gate for an extended introduction and Q&A.