Chris Waitt Photo: EIFF
I was fairly confident that I knew beforehand what to expect of A Complete History Of My Sexual Failures, the controversial but highly entertaining debut feature of Chris Waitt. This particular director and I crossed paths many times when he lived in Edinburgh, my hometown, and thus being acquainted it wasn’t too hard to get an equally entertaining interview. I was also fortunate to have seen much of his earlier work as a result of our encounters. So I knew this film would probably be riotously funny, push the envelope of bad taste and feature a few squeamish moments. Check. Tick. I was correct. I also suspected that it would include sex, nudity and exhibitionism in one form or another. Check. Tick. Once again I was proved right although one has to admit the title is a bit of a giveaway.
Around about July 7th, after the second weekend that Failures will have been on release in the UK, the box office figures for its opening weekend will be available for the public and the industry’s perusal. I predict the film may be a bit of a cult hit. It’s got all the right ingredients but the main thing is that it has a major talking point which could generate a lot of word of mouth, which is principally the conundrum about whether any of it is actually real. After the press screening during the recent Edinburgh Film Festival, my colleagues and I argued for hours about which scenes were invented. That in itself is a potential sign of a success in the making. The film does come across much of the time as a carefully choreographed mockumentary (think Spinal Tap) so it was a bit of a revelation to hear from the horse's mouth that the whole thing is in fact a bona fide documentary that wasn’t intended as a spoof. It’s harder to believe as Waitt’s on screen persona seems a cross between the affable bumbling of Michael Moore and the insensitive blundering of Borat. Chris Waitt is a hybrid of the two and could pass for Shaggy in Scooby Doo.
I meet him in a hotel bar where the first thing he does is to comment on the corny romantic sax solo that is blasting out of the bar speakers. He jokes that we could be having a romantic rendevous but he’s really wondering whether the background noise will affect the recording of the interview so I do a little test to check this. He’s as charismatic and as dishevelled as ever but unlike his persona in the film he’s quite relaxed and cheerful. He’s also accompanied by his girlfriend Alex whom he meets for the first time on camera in the film. Her presence lends some weight to the fact that perhaps the film isn’t quite so bogus after all. I begin with the obvious – why on earth did you do it?
“I’d been dumped by a number of girls so I was interested in finding out why. I didn’t really have a job at the time so I thought this would be a good way to fill my time. I thought it would be a quick turnaround, just a simple little idea that would just happen. What a naïve idiotic fool I was. It turned out to be a lot more than that.”
The film is essentially a comic and at times painful road movie following its intrepid yet inept ‘hero’ on a voyage of self-discovery. So what made him think any of his exes would be willing to discuss something so personal not only with a former boyfriend they haven’t seen for years (bad enough) but with one accompanied by a documentary film crew?
“I didn’t really think ahead that far. I just got stuck into it and I thought aah, this will be fun - and it was only after I made all those phone calls that you see in the film that I realised, okay, this is going to be a lot more difficult than I’d imagined. I hadn’t seen many of the girls for over ten years so I figured they wouldn’t still be holding that resentment and anger for that amount of time. It turns out I was wrong. They were able to. And they weren’t as pleased to see me as I thought. I was foolish to just go marching into those situations although I think I was trying to be a bit provocative anyway, I was a bit angry and I wanted answers from someone.”
It’s not until about a quarter of the way through the film that Waitt, having had a few doors closed on him, finally gets to interview anyone, and once it's over, it is revealed that this ‘girlfriend’ was merely a primary school sweetheart whom he was with for a few days. It’s included for comic effect but even the next woman willing to talk to him at all turns out to be his mum. So didn’t he think about packing the whole thing in at that stage, having had no results?
“Three times in the course of the film I actually said to everyone involved 'I’m giving up, this is the end of the film, forget it, I can't finish it.' The first time was during the phone call that appears in the film from Mark Herbert, the top exec producer, who basically said 'Look, this is terrible.' He basically said 'you’ve got to stop making this film', so that’s when I visited my mum. That whole sequence of events really happened. As far as I was concerned at that point I really didn’t know what I had or what I could I do to shoot the film any more, so when you see my mum going through all the old love letters, I didn’t really know what else to film. I didn’t have any ex-girlfriends willing to talk to me at all. It was only through that help from Mum that it got going again.”
“The next time was after the first visit to Vicky (his former long term girlfriend). I felt terrible about the whole project, bad for her, bad for myself. The whole thing was way more serious and painful than I expected and all I could do, as I show in the film, was start reviewing the footage. As far as I was concerned the film ended there. But then because the making of the film became so much a part of the film itself, it somehow carried on beyond the point where it was originally meant to go, and that’s when I met Alex.”
I’m becoming more convinced. But still curious about the veracity of every scene, I remind Chris that in the end credits, it states that some scenes were reconstructed. So was some of it faked?
“The only things that we had to construct was to replace voices from a couple of the phone calls near the beginning, as two of the girls wouldn’t give me clearance because I didn’t tell them I was recording. But it’s a different scene people think is faked - they think the phone call from the producer is scripted but the reality is it was about an hour long phone call edited down to 40 seconds. It’s only funny because the guy was firing good lines back at me anyway. I jump cut that sequence together and if it had been scripted I’d have just kept it as a continuous piece of dialogue. The amazing thing is that he let it stay in the film because he too didn’t know he was being recorded although I think he might have suspected. I only found out about a third of the way through that you’re meant to tell people you’re recording them beforehand and it got me in a load of fucking trouble. The film company said 'What the fuck? You’ve been recording hours of footage and no one knows about it?!' That was definitely a low point.
At this point Chris’ girlfriend Alex begins taking photographs of two pieces of carrot cake arranged side by side on a plate in front of us. For me it’s a surreal life imitating art moment for in the film his voiceover states that Alex has a thing for apples and we see her taking pictures of multiple pairs of apples in various settings. Although there’s a large bowl of Granny Smiths nearby on the bar, she’s settled for the cake on the table in front of us. I’m offered a piece and I decline as it seems wrong to eat the subject of her art while she’s still documenting it.
Before Waitt is seen meeting Alex for the first time, he goes on multiple dates with women he meets online to find out what they want in a bloke. But unlike most regular guys, he films the encounters. Not only could I not work out how he’d filmed these scenes but I wanted to know if the women knew beforehand that they were going to be filmed.
“I went on 30 dates and I ‘invented’ this way of filming that involved putting a very small digital camera on a tiny tripod on the table between us”. (He demonstrates this to me as if we’re on a date ourselves). “I came up with this way of shooting it where they’re virtually looking into my eyeline a bit like Errol Morris’ invention ‘the Interrotron’.” (The Interrotron involves the interviewee looking directly into the camera lens at an image of the interviewer asking him questions, which gives more intimate and informal results). “Here it’s similar enough that they almost appear to be looking into the camera. They could spin it around and talk to me. It was a very odd way to have a date. I did break it to them shortly beforehand. Again it became a big effort to turn 30 hours of material into a 2-minute sequence. It’s quite easy for everyone to say something funny eventually if you point a camera at them for a whole hour. I had to come up with this way of shooting it because we tried one date where we had the cameraman there and he sat with us like it was Blind Date. It just didn’t work. It was too intrusive and we couldn’t relax.”
Despite the film’s infamous scene of graphic sado masochism involving some manual testicle crushing, the scene I thought might prove most contentious is the one in which Waitt apparently pops 7 viagras and then begs women in Compton Street in Soho to sleep with him. I found this both unbelievable, dangerous and potentially immoral. I asked him how true the pill taking scene was and why he thought he could ask women who were total strangers to sleep with him on camera and not expect to give some offense or get beaten up (which nearly happens). At this point Alex interjects and says she found the empty Viagra packet after he’d told her about what he’d done. Maybe he did take them after all.
‘The reason I took so many was because of a phone call that’s been cut from the film where a mate said yeah, you can take that many. When I spoke to him later he said he was referring to the 25mg sizes but the ones I was doing were 50mg and 75mg! I do silly stuff like that occasionally but part of me was thinking well, I’ll do it for the film, because I’d run out of things to shoot. I was at a bit of a dead end and I remembered seeing this old documentary from the Sixties where this really straight laced BBC guy took acid and gave a report every 15 minutes." (Chris now affects a slightly posh old fashioned BBC voice.) "It’s half an hour now and I’m starting to feel a little bit giddy. An hour later he’s totally freaked out going ‘whoah’ and seeing elephants on the curtains so I thought I’d do the viagra version of that for the film. I thought ‘fuck it, I’m willing to do anything, I’m going to do something outrageous.’ I do that occasionally, I go off the rails sometimes. I also thought it would be funny."
Chris went on to admit that in terms of morality he didn’t really think about the effect his approaching women on the street would have because of the mental state he was in at the time. If you’ve seen the film you’ll know women react to him with a mixture of bemusement and outrage. He nearly gets his head kicked in by various brothers or boyfriends and in the end gets arrested and jailed for the night. But the irony is it has a happy ending as one of the women he met in that sequence is sitting affectionately beside him right now. He then tells me that the first rough cut of the film was three and half hours long and it was just an exercise in misery and pain. So he was forced to turn it into something else - the hip controversial comedy it has become. But he’s pleased that despite that it still reflects what really happened and how he felt.
“It’s quite real and accurate in terms of the trajectory of my experience. Some of it's not edited in a very documentary style, like when we’re walking around the streets. We brought in music during the scene where I get arrested because in a couple of test screenings everyone was laughing but in the next scene I’m on my way to Vicky’s and I just thought this is giving the wrong tone because it wasn’t representative of how I felt which was pretty tragic. I couldn’t find anyone to have sex with and I thought, this is another doomed project. So we put some serious music on it, which made it more cinematic and I tried to make the experience of the film as close as it was to how I actually felt and what actually happened. It certainly wasn’t artificial, that’s how it actually panned out.”
And as Chris’ explanations reach the end of the film’s narrative, my dictaphone tape runs out, so it seems an appropriate juncture to end the interview there. After all, the coffee’s been drunk, the cake’s finally been eaten, the sax solo has ended and Chris has a new girlfriend. We all shake hands and I wish them well, wondering if there will ever be a sequel – perhaps A Complete History Of My New Found Sexual Successes And Inner Peace - but I find this unlikely, as new found happiness doesn’t sell as well as slick comic misery. I’m sure Waitt will move on to greater cinematic achievements in the years to come. Ironic that this break has come from a man daring to do what few of us would ever do, particularly in this buttoned up, tight lipped society, which is to bare both our outer and inner skin, warts and all, for everyone to see. Maybe there’s a lesson in there for us as the cynic in me now believes that what I’ve seen is for real.
A Complete History Of My Sexual Failures is out on DVD on October 20th.