The strange tale of my search for Process (2004) and its director, the enigmatic CS Leigh.
‘‘For a particular type of cinephile from my generation […] the physical act of seeking out and consuming great or hallowed or mythical films was as obsessive as our need to experience these films, when and if we found them.’’
CS Leigh. April 2009, the Believer.
‘‘Many people ask, I guess because of Process and Humbert [Balsan] — and Jack [Goldstein] and Katia [Yekaterina Golubeva] — and Niki [Niki Lexa, a former assistant] — they ask if I’d ever commit suicide. I’d never give them the satisfaction. Many people would love to see it, but I’d never give them the satisfaction.’’
CS Leigh. December 2015, speaking to me at the National Theatre, London.
“All these excited, highly motivated, ultimately disappointed and angry artists [who worked with CS Leigh], touched by him, perhaps missing him a little, and perhaps left wondering, after the correspondence is finally ceased, do I only care about the money?”
Carl Shuker, in the introduction to his novel Three Novellas for a Novel (2011), which contains a story inspired by his time with Leigh.
“I liked [CS Leigh]. He’s one of those people who might be very brilliant or just a complete chancer.”
Marianne Faithfull. August 2005, as quoted by Adrian Dannatt.
The beginning: adding Process to my Wishlist
It all began when I read Mark Kermode’s sarcastic, dismissive review of Process (CS Leigh, 2004) in the Observer newspaper while wasting time in the local library, waiting for the rain to stop. The review read as follows:
Process is an artsy Anglo-French endurance test. Child death, cancer, fatuous Holocaust references — it’s all here in 29 fun-packed, dialogue-free single takes from director CS Leigh, who admits: “Not a day goes by I don’t visualise myself taking my own life.’’ Béatrice Dalle stars as ‘the actress’ who swallows broken glass and engages in rough sex before wrapping a bag round her head and expiring. Miserabilist muso John Cale goes plinky-tinky-plunk-bong on the soundtrack, and then it all ends with the Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment!’ Ha bloody ha.
Mark Kermode. 17 July 2005, the Observer.
True, it wasn’t a synopsis that would appeal to everyone. So why did I add the upcoming Tartan DVD to my Wishlist later that evening? I was an admirer of Beatrice Dalle’s later roles, which placed her among the boldest, most fearless actors working today, and liked what I’d heard of John Cale’s solo albums. The fact that it featured scene after scene of unrelenting misery, then ended with That’s Entertainment, suggested a certain bleak humour and metatextual depth that perhaps Kermode was in no mood to meet halfway. And besides, I would buy almost anything that sounded good, unusual or French, as the backlog of DVDs on my shelf, still wrapped in cellophane, confirmed.
That said, I soon forgot all about the film until I decided to prune my Wishlist a year later, removing some books and DVDs that I’d already bought or lost interest in. I saw that Process was listed as currently unavailable, which struck me as odd (once I’d remembered what it was). It wasn’t available through the usual alternatives, both domestic and international, too.
Then something else struck me as odd: there were actually very few reviews of it. Apart from the Kermode one, there were reviews on the BBC and Time Out websites and in Sight & Sound magazine (all more positive than Kermode’s), and that was it. It had seemingly shown at the Edinburgh and Berlin film festivals, then completely disappeared, never making it to the art cinema circuit or home video. Surely this was unheard of for a film with a (relatively) well-known cast and crew, released in the internet age?
As I deepened my search, I discovered the most interesting thing about the film was its director, CS Leigh (also known as Kristian Leigh, Christian Leigh and possibly Ezra Saftia), and the trail of mystery, hostility and ‘financial complications’ that seemed to follow him.
CS Leigh’s filmmaking career so far (or “Does this movie really exist?”)
The Internet Movie Database listed four films written and directed by CS Leigh before Process. Most noteworthy was Far From China (2001) starring Lambert Wilson and Marianne Faithfull, with a soundtrack by English indie band Suede. There was no evidence of this film’s existence beside its IMDB entry: no photos, no poster / cover art and no outside reviews. There were two suspicious-seeming user reviews, one of which hyperbolically compared the film to the works of Derek Jarman, Todd Haines, Nicholas Roeg, and Jean-Luc Godard, called CS Leigh ‘‘one to watch … [he] knows what he’s doing,’’ and concluded with ‘‘bravo.’’ Both reviewers had signed up solely to praise the film and had not reviewed anything else since.
There were intriguing comments on the (now deleted) message boards for each of Leigh’s films. Among the odd poster asking where to find the film, or whether the film even existed, were messages warning those in the film industry not to work with Leigh, a ‘‘con man’’ and ‘‘scam artist.’’ There was even a post with multiple replies dedicated to tracking down Leigh and recovering money owed by any means necessary. This linked to another message board with detailed discussions of Leigh’s scams.
The scams followed a similar pattern. Each poster had been emailed by somebody named Robert Trees, the managing director of a company called Syntax Editions. They had been offered, say, editing work on a film directed by CS Leigh and funded by Canal+, aimed at upcoming film festivals, perhaps even Cannes. They’d felt flattered, and eagerly signed up. A few weeks later, the charming Leigh had praised the work done so far (in person), but the promised weekly payments hadn’t arrived due to, as Trees explained via email, temporary problems with international transfers. Then pressure had been applied: the edited footage needed to leave right now for a festival. Could it be sent to the company immediately and payment would arrive next week?
At that point, the lucky ones had become suspicious, searched for CS Leigh’s name online and realised what was happening. They had connected the dots: ‘‘Robert Trees’’ was CS Leigh (and ‘‘David Moore’’ and ‘‘Portia Callis’’ were CS Leigh too), and Syntax Editions’ office address was an anonymous postbox in London. They would never receive any money and, most likely, would never be contacted again. On the other hand, Leigh wouldn’t receive his much-needed completed footage; his scheme to make a polished, maximalist art film on a minuscule budget, using unwitting unpaid volunteers and high-pressure tactics, had failed again.
One disgruntled poster at a post-production company had taken revenge. They had labelled the reels of Far From China with a different name and left them in an old film storage vault, to be discovered in 500 years’ time (or not). So that explained why Far From China had disappeared.
That wasn’t the fate of Process though. Process was financed by notable producers (Mark Westaway and Humbert Balsan), had definitely been completed, had actually appeared at film festivals, and had once had a proposed DVD release. There was now even a 3-minute clip on YouTube: a single take of Dalle and Guillaume Depardieu making love in a room adorned with hundreds of lit candles. As usual, there were posters calling Leigh a ‘‘rip off artist,’’ but none referred specifically to working on Process. Process had disappeared for a different reason.
It looked increasingly likely that the only way to watch Process would be to track down Leigh and ask him for a copy. This was exactly what my friend had done when searching for a Mark Cousins documentary about taking neo-Nazis to Auschwitz. Cousins was flattered by my friend’s interest and gave him an old screener. But I knew tracking down Leigh would be trickier than finding the genial Cousins, who had public blogs and social media accounts, and didn’t have a reputation for scamming people.
I was about to learn that I’d only scratched the surface of Leigh’s life. Leigh had already had two brilliant, successful and dubious careers long before directing Process. He was even more elusive and enigmatic than I thought.
Kristian / Christian Leigh’s second and first acts
According to a 2003 Artforum article written by Alexi Worth, Christian Leigh (no initials in those days) burst on to the New York art scene in the mid-1980s, ‘‘charming dealers and artists alike with his smarts, conspiratorial humour, and intimations of financial largesse.’’ After a brief period writing reviews for ArtForum, Leigh soon gained a reputation for curating large, chaotic, and usually vastly overbudget exhibitions that juxtaposed diverse artworks to an electronica soundtrack. Many of them were named after Hitchcock films: Spellbound, Vertigo, Rope, Psycho. Some of the featured artists were displeased at having their works subsumed by Leigh’s themes (assuming there really were meaningful themes), and decried Leigh’s curator-as-auteur approach, but the exhibitions caused a stir and received good reviews.
Everyone suspected Leigh was a fantasist. Worth writes that Leigh told stories about his glamorous mother who collected Jasper Johns and was friends with Barbara Streisand, and about his time in England working as a stylist for Boy George. The details were sketchy and changed over time, but Leigh’s compulsive self-mythologising was tolerated as part of his charm. Leigh had an aura of ‘‘pleasurable positive energy,’’ according to artist Gary Stephan. Everyone was enjoying riding the wave of the 80’s art bull market.
In the late ’80s, the cheques started bouncing and artworks purchased through Leigh were not delivered to their buyers; whether due to deliberate criminality or ‘‘administrative chaos,’’ nobody could be sure. There was an increasing wariness about working with Leigh, although his exhibitions remained successful. Surface appearances and bluster can sustain you a long time in the art world.
Leigh’s defining moment, in more ways than one, was his 1993 show at the Venice Biennale, Transactions (I Love You More Than My Own Death). It was another huge, heterogeneous mix, with works by Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, the ‘80s neo-conceptualists, and various sculptors, architects, and filmmakers, with a soundtrack commissioned by Pedro Almodóvar. The costs kept escalating (artists’ fees, shipping, rent, installers, the exhibition catalogue, opulent opening parties, staff), but nobody was picking up the bills anymore; Leigh had forgotten to arrange that side of things. At the end of the show’s run, the venue owners had no choice but to confiscate the artworks.
Leigh laid low and tried to arrange a settlement. In a 1994 New York Times article about the on-going legal affair, fellow curator Charlotta Kotik describes Leigh as ‘‘a totally fascinating and charming person. Yet he’s a Jekyll and Hyde character, he’s both wonderful and frightening. There’s definitely a dark side to his personality.” A defiant Leigh says “I make a good villain. I’ve had death threats on and off for six years now. There’s always a [false] preconception from the outside that what’s going on inside must be corrupt and somehow lacking in integrity.”
Eventually Leigh ceased contact altogether and disappeared. As former friends began to believe the rumours that he was lying at the bottom of a canal somewhere, a decade-old newspaper article was faxed around the New York art world. It was a 1983 People magazine profile about a precocious fashion designer named Kristian Leigh; there in the photo, dressed in a tuxedo, holding a cigar and flanked by female models, was an eighteen-year-old Christian.
The article explained that Kristian cut his first dress at thirteen, although his mother Barbara told her highly-valued client that it was made by an older Frenchman named, imaginatively enough, ‘‘Pierre.’’ Kristian’s dresses now sold for $20,000 and were worn by the likes of Jane Fonda, Farrah Fawcett, Jessica Lange, and Meryl Streep.
As the article is based on Kristian’s or his mother’s own words, it is difficult to ascertain the truth. Another article in People does show Meryl Streep at the 1982 Oscars in ‘‘a purple ballgown with layers of pleated taffeta and three-quarter sleeves with puffy shoulder pads […] by then-popular designer Kristian Leigh.’’ Likewise an article in Vanity Fair shows Streep at the 1983 Oscars (where she won Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice) in a beautiful, loose-fitting gold dress attributed to Christian Leigh. Yet several years later Streep told a source, quoted by Worth, that she had never heard of Leigh.
Why didn’t Leigh talk about his time as a fashion designer, given the sketchy, inconsistent tales that he did tell to create his glamorous backstory? The answer is found in the 10 February 1984 issue of Women’s Wear Daily. The headline reads: ‘‘Kristian Leigh Showroom Closed; Designer’s Whereabouts Unknown.’’ It tells of an abandoned office, unpaid debts and the arrest of Leigh’s mother for writing a bad cheque.
As the New York art world marvelled at the parallels between his first and second acts – even the disappearances were exactly ten years apart, Ezra Saftia (now thought to be Leigh’s real or birth name) was lying low in Shanghai, working with Bertolucci in Italy or the Dogme 95 school in Denmark — all or none of these could be true — and preparing for his third act. In the late 1990s, the British-American filmmaker CS Leigh emerged and eventually directed Process, bringing us to the present day.
It was now 2007 and I’d stopped searching for CS Leigh (or whatever his name was) and Process but for occasional, mindless Google searches while procrastinating in the early hours of the morning. I felt like I’d exhausted all avenues, and was busy studying English Literature at a UK university.
Due to the vagaries of Google, a previously unseen programme for the 2004 Berlinale now appeared at the top of one of my searches. It revealed little new about Process, but the short biography of Leigh stated, bizarrely, that he was ‘‘born in Madagascar and grew up in Rangoon in Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar).’’ I discovered John Cale had played the piano live to accompany the Berlin screening, with an additional backdrop showing footage of controlled building demolitions, and some of the audience (including three female Afghan guests of honour) had fled for the exit during some particularly explicit scenes.
(What are those explicit scenes, exactly? What do they show?
What does it mean she “swallows broken glass”? How do you, like, eat glass?
“Burning her belongings… painting over a mirror… defacing her own photographs…” I’m once again briefly immersed in the Sisyphean task of trying to imagine it all. What does a film like this actually look like?)
There was occasional activity on Leigh’s IMDB page. There was a new film named See You at Regis Debray about Andreas Baader (of the Baader-Meinhof Group / Red Army Faction) hiding out at philosopher Debray’s Paris apartment. It was a one-man film starring Lars Eidinger and directed, written, edited and produced by Leigh.
See You at Regis Debray’s soundtrack was created by Japanese experimental sound artist Ryoji Ikeda (an old article had claimed that Cale was composing the soundtrack again, but that had seemingly fallen through). On its Discogs listing, there is a statement from Ikeda claiming that the soundtrack’s CD release – via Leigh’s Syntax Editions – was illegal. ‘‘After the post-production of the film, the director and his team disappeared. A few months later, the CD was suddenly released without any permission or contract. I don’t have a copy of it.’’ It seemed that, after the legitimately-made Process, Leigh had returned to his former ways.
There was a Process DVD with Tartan artwork listed on eBay by a Dublin seller. Had some DVDs been manufactured and slipped out of the factory before its official release was cancelled? It turned out, somehow, the listing was an error. Hundreds of Chinese websites that automatically-generated pages based on culled details from the IMDB claimed to have Process for download. They hosted nothing but viruses.
Tartan folded in early 2009, extinguishing any hope that the DVD would be officially released. Most interestingly of all, there was an article written by CS Leigh himself in the Believer magazine. In the article, he writes that ‘‘for a particular type of cinephile from my generation […] the physical act of seeking out and consuming great or hallowed or mythical films was as obsessive as our need to experience these films, when and if we found them. When I say physical, I’m talking about the rumors traded among cinephiles, the stories and the clues.’’ He later mourns that ‘‘as cinema becomes more portable, more easily created, and less difficult to acquire, it also runs the risk of forfeiting one of its greatest attributes — its physicality. Its necessary exertions.’’
The subtext seemed to be that Leigh had deliberately made his own films difficult to find; if you wanted to watch them, you had to put in the necessary exertions. Was this conceivably true or an attempt by Leigh to switch the narrative from that of chronic deceitfulness, and vengeful post-production staff sabotaging his releases, to that of a true cinephile and auteur making films in the grand obscure tradition?
In 2015 while I was living in the Republic of Korea, there was a breakthrough. Leigh was more visible than he had been for decades. He’d written a play based around a discussion between Jean-Luc Godard and Jeane-Pierre Beauviala (the founder of the camera manufacturer Aaton), which was performed at London’s Tate Modern, and had an exhibition at Liverpool’s ERC, organised by Antony Hudek, a curator and senior lecturer at John Moores University.
I found Hudek’s email address on the university’s website. I assumed that Leigh would’ve told Hudek not to share his contact details, or Hudek would’ve assumed as much anyway. With little to lose, I sent him an email explaining that I’d been searching for Process for a long time, and asked if he could pass on Leigh’s email address. Hudek replied: ‘‘Hi Neil. It is always nice to hear from another fan of CS Leigh. You can reach him at: CSLeigh@_______.com. Best wishes. Antony.’’ I thanked Antony greatly.
I assumed that Leigh would be suspicious of emails from unknown people. He had good reasons to be wary of journalists, and former editors, etc, trying to recover money owed by any means necessary. In the end, I decided to send him a similar email to what I’d sent Antony, short and to the point.
Incredibly Leigh replied hours later: ‘‘It’s nice to get your message. The DVD availability of Process is certainly frustrating as there does seem to be a genuine interest in the film. The short explanation is that when Humbert Balsan the French producer of the film committed suicide in 2005 there were complications with the chain of title which paired with the changes going on at Tartan at the time made for a kind of perfect storm holding up the UK DVD release repeatedly. I should be able to figure out a way to get you a screener of some kind. I will come up with an option for you. Hope to hear from you soon.’’
Within 24 hours, Leigh had sent two more messages, each from a different email address, asking if I could contact two executives at Palisades Tartan (the company created after Palisades Media purchased Tartan’s back catalogue) and encourage them to finally release Process on DVD. I did so, but never received a reply.
A month later, I received the following message while holidaying in Tokyo with my girlfriend: ‘‘Good news. A French collector has a Process special edition DVD for sale. Email me if you’re interested. CS.’’
‘‘Great! Yes, I’m interested. Can you tell me more details?’’ I replied.
‘‘It’s a beautiful and rare edition. It will cost around £100. If you want to go ahead I will pay the owner and collect it in Paris and send it to you together with some other things. I will be in Paris on Wednesday. At the moment I am in London. Please get in touch and we can organise everything.’’
It seemed strange that there was a ‘‘special edition’’ of a film that had never been officially released in the first place, and the mysterious ‘‘French collector’’ made me more suspicious (was he called Pierre?). Was Leigh really trying to take advantage of me, a fan who just wanted to see one of his films? Mark Cousins had given my friend the screener for free.
Well, what else could I do at this stage? At least I’d get a Process DVD of some kind, whether it was a ‘‘special edition’’ or not. Two days later, I transferred £100 converted into Euros to a Spanish bank account in the name of Christian Leigh. I didn’t tell my girlfriend; I closed the laptop and we took the train to Yokohama.
Later that day at our new hotel, I was relieved to see an immediate reply from Leigh: the money had been received with thanks. Leigh maintained regular contact, asking random questions about my favourite films and authors, but it was clear that he would never get around to sending me the DVD. There were constant delays: he was waiting until his new assistant arrived (this was a job for an assistant, after all), his new assistant was now in Belgium or Copenhagen, Leigh was at a film festival or a fashion show in Paris, and so on. Leigh had asked before if I ever visited London, so I told him that I would be there in December and suggested meeting up then. ‘‘That will work,’’ replied Leigh.
Meeting CS Leigh
A week before we were due to meet, I received an email from Leigh asking if I could pay his latest storage bill. ‘‘I’m awfully sorry it’s a difficult financial time for me. There is some very precious things in there and I don’t want to risk losing them. You would be helping me greatly but I understand if you can not do so.’’
Of course, I had no choice but to do so; Leigh still had my Process DVD. I was certain that Cue Card would win the King George chase on Boxing Day, so I would soon recoup the £120 anyway. When I called the storage company and asked for Stuart as instructed, he said ‘‘ah yes, good old Christian, I know who he is …’’
We met in a café at the National Theatre at 2pm. I had seen old photos of Leigh but was unprepared for how thoroughly odd he looked. He was very short and had a round, near-bald head and round body, resembling simultaneously a baby and an old man; a little like a puffy Alfred Hitchcock crossed with Truman Capote in his later years. He was dressed in what must’ve been the cheapest clothes on sale at an untrendy market stall, with fading colours and holes. His glasses suggested severe short-sightedness.
He shook my hand warmly, and I ordered a Coca Cola for him and a coffee for myself. ‘‘This is for you,’’ he said handing over a DVD-R with Process home-printed on it. ‘‘And this,’’ he added placing a Jiffy envelope on the table. Inside was another DVD, photos from the set of Process, posters, soundtracks on CD and vinyl, and promotional leaflets from his recent activities. ‘‘Remember, please don’t upload this or share it with anyone. I’ve heard about pirated copies of Process doing the rounds in Russia, and Far From China in Vietnam, which I’m not very happy about.’’
Leigh was charming and witty, and spoke with a slightly effeminate, ingratiating New York accent. We talked for three hours about a wide range of subjects: working with Beatrice Dalle (destroyed hotel rooms, explosive arguments about hoop earrings, and more); Dalle being ‘the anti-Juliette Binoche’ (making Process the anti-Trois Couleurs: Bleu); his admiration for Jean-Luc Godard; Atom Egoyan; Peter Greenaway; Peter Tatchell; Thurston’s Moore’s latest noise show at Cafe Oto; Cat Power; Joy Division; Andy Warhol and Nico; BlackBerry phones being underrated; why Cannes wasn’t the same anymore; Cannes 1968; Answered Prayers; Christopher Isherwood; Proust; Paris Vs London; the theory that Cary Grant’s characters in Bringing Up Baby and North By Northwest are the same man (and applying this to other actors’ films, including Dalle’s); his admiration for Yves Saint Laurent; Barbra Streisand; Gerhard Richter; his old friend Jack Goldstein.
I was way out of my depth. I couldn’t comprehend how someone could find the time to become so knowledgeable about so many things. Maybe the rumours were true that Leigh only slept for one hour a day, fuelled by litres of Coca Cola. When I mentioned that I would need to leave in thirty minutes, he talked with renewed urgency as though needing to unburden himself of something while there was still a chance.
‘‘I didn’t think I would be living like this when I was fifty. I hoped things would be different somehow. I had a health scare two weeks ago [pointing to his heart]. I’m OK, but I didn’t think I’d be living like this when I was fifty, that’s all. I won’t stop though, don’t worry. Many people ask, I guess because of Process and Humbert [Balsan] — and Jack [Goldstein] and Katia [Yekaterina Golubeva] — and Niki [Niki Lexa, a former assistant] — they ask if I’d ever commit suicide. I’d never give them the satisfaction. Many people would love to see it, but I’d never give them the satisfaction.’’
I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket. I picked up the envelope and put it on my lap.
‘‘I really appreciate the help you’ve given me, paying for that storage bill. I was touched, really. All I’ve ever needed was a friend, a friend who could help me when times got tough.’’ He removed his glasses and wiped a tear from his eye. I was stunned. ‘‘I’m happy to help,’’ was all I could think to say. ‘‘There aren’t many good people in this business — in this world,’’ he added.
Wanting to end on a more positive note, I asked him again for the name of the ‘‘Proust book’’ that he’d recommended earlier, although I could remember it clearly: In The Absence of Men by Philippe Besson. He said he was meeting friends in Elephant and Castle that evening, and gave me very detailed, Knowledge-like instructions for getting back to Angel by bus.
Eating at Jamie’s Italian with my auntie and three cousins was a strange experience. How could I explain that today had seen the culmination of a near-decade long, and rather expensive, search for an art film about a woman committing suicide, that all began after reading a bad review of it in the Observer? I said I’d spent the afternoon at the Tate instead. But this wasn’t to be my final contact with Leigh.
Paris, Christmas, Process
Leigh emailed me later that evening: ‘‘I wanted to say it was a pleasure meeting you today,’’ he began. He said that the next time we met, we could go to the storage warehouse. ‘‘I have some Slimane-era Dior and Ghesquière Balenciaga that would fit you from a past shoot, it would be my way of saying thank you.’’ He gave some recommendations for Paris, where I was heading the next day. For a comfortable night’s sleep, you couldn’t beat the Ritz (‘‘you should eat at the Proust Salon too’’). For Christmas presents, try Editions de Parfums: Frédéric Malle on Rue du Mont Thabor (‘‘tell them my name’’).
While staying in Paris (at a 3 star hotel), Leigh asked me what I was doing for Christmas. My instincts told me to downplay my plans. I knew Leigh had fallen out with his father (‘‘the only good thing he gave me was a British passport!’’) and his mother was still living in New York. I made it sound like spending the festive period with my parents would be a chore. I hadn’t needed to: Leigh was spending Christmas in Mustique. When I replied jokingly that I couldn’t imagine him sunbathing, he said I was right but when a producer from Sky One invites you to a party at Mick Jagger’s beachside villa, you say yes. I agreed.
I watched Process, which was certainly a special edition in one sense. Leigh had needed a copy of Process to give to selected people (ever the curator), and play at exhibitions. He had taken a grainy timecoded screener, played it on a Mac, recorded it using a RED camera, degraded the quality eight times and recorded it again; whereas the original version had a high-definition glossiness that made the action deliberately difficult to emotionally engage with, this version had the inherent creepiness of found-footage.
(Does watching this version, ‘The YouTube cut,’ still count? Or is the festival version, apparently languishing in storage somewhere — high-definition, pristine sound, no timecode— the real lost film now? Does it matter?)
Process features some of Giorgos Arvanitis’s best cinematography, particularly in the opening theatre scene. The film frequently borders on farcical: after a brutish, gruelling threesome, Dalle’s unnamed actress smokes a cigarette while watching a Holocaust documentary; later, she tattoos numbers on her arm while looking at Holocaust victims in Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun and listening to a recording of a poem about French Revolution atrocities (read aloud by her absent husband to boot), and quotations from Don DeLillo and Elaine Scarry pop up pretentiously towards the end. Yet there’s a single-minded conviction behind it all that’s difficult not to admire; it is genuinely extreme, genuinely unlike anything else. I found it particularly interesting that many of the books that the actress systematically packs away, defaces or burns in a long central scene reflected Leigh’s specific personal tastes, judging by our conversation at the National Theatre. I told Leigh that I liked the film – it was worth the necessary exertions – and looked forward to seeing more by him. It turned out he had another offer for me.
The emails stop
Around Christmas, Leigh asked if I would like to produce his latest film. Sometime back in 2005, Leigh had recorded two hours of footage with Lars Eidinger and Yekaterina Golubeva in Berlin, which was intended to comprise a chapter of a longer film loosely about 9/11 named American Widow (also starring Anna Thomson, and Cat Power singing ‘Hate’). He’d decided to postpone that longer film for now, and release the footage of Eidinger and Golubeva separately.
What made the footage particularly significant was that Golubeva had committed suicide around six years after it was recorded. Not only that but many of the Berlin locations had since been demolished, so the film would have an inherent eeriness. The fact that Eidinger was now fairly well-known wouldn’t harm too. I would not be a conventional producer; Leigh just needed to pay a French editor to travel to London and edit the footage in time for the next Berlinale (and maybe pay Mica Levi to do the score); Leigh just needed money.
I accepted the offer. I was seduced by the prospect of having my own IMDB page attached to a film starring Eidinger and Golubeva, and attending Berlin. Leigh asked if I could transfer the £300 (I assumed this was a preliminary amount) to the French editor directly. Leigh was somehow hiding his name until the last minute. ‘‘Too many psychos and weirdos on the internet have ruined my reputation,’’ he said. He repeated his offer to give me some designer clothes from his storage.
Meanwhile, Leigh was thinking of putting out a book about Process, inspired by the story of my search for it (which he only knew the half of), and compiling the catalogues from his ‘80s-90’s exhibitions into a single collection. This was the first time that he’d ever directly mentioned his days in the art world to me. He used three separate email addresses, depending on whether the subject was the new film, the Process book or the exhibition catalogues. He replied to every email within minutes, if not seconds, no matter what the time of day.
Leigh opened up about ‘‘H’’ (Humbert Balsan) too. He’d considered ‘‘H’’ a very close friend and was still affected by his suicide nearly a decade ago. ‘‘H’’ had believed in Leigh’s ideas and, after Process, would’ve undoubtedly produced more films by him (implying that he wouldn’t have had to resort to scams). For some reason, Leigh seemed increasingly interested in my new life in Singapore as well.
A week later, Leigh told me that the French editor was blown away by the footage, especially a scene filmed at Checkpoint Charlie. Further developing news was that Leigh was ‘‘getting in with the Rothschilds,’’ after a chance meeting with a London-based member at an Alexander McQueen show. He was already planning a documentary on the family, but for now this meant that future funding for our film was ‘‘probably secured.’’ I heaved a sigh of relief.
In early 2016, the editing was ‘‘just about done’’ and Leigh asked me to enter the details of the film, now called Projection, into the IMDB as an official announcement of sorts. He sent me some stills of Katia smoking outside the Neue Nationalgalerie to upload, then our emails went back and forth as I entered the technical specs one-by-one. Finally there was one more option to choose from: was the film still in Post-production or should I just choose Completed?
There was no reply. After 24 hours, I already had a bad feeling. I tried to call Leigh but his phone was engaged. A few days later, I decided to get in touch with others whom Leigh had mentioned to me, including trusted interviewer John A. Riley, and frequent collaborator, cinematographer Joachim Høge. I was surprised that I was the only person who had talked to Leigh in the past few months. Leigh didn’t reply to their emails or phone calls either. I was urged to call the Police to investigate, but none of us knew his real name or where he lived in London. There was nothing meaningful to tell the Police.
In a Q&A after Leigh’s play at the Tate Modern, Leigh notes that Godard was ‘‘very, very good at having intense relationships with people during projects, then never speaking to them again; at making people feel like part of the family [one day], then the next never returning their phone calls.’’ As often with Leigh, he could be talking about himself and his own relationships with people. Perhaps completing Projection marked the end of act three, and now he needed to cut all ties, abruptly and permanently, and move on?
I hoped that one day I’d see a British-French sound artist named KS Leigh causing a stir on underground music forums. There would be rumours about unpaid studio bills and synthesiser sellers on Gumtree being ripped off, but there would be choice admirers of his uncompromising sound.
The final act
But significant dates passed without news. I’d noticed that Leigh’s last two updates on his Tumblr blog were on 26 Dec 2015 and 26 Dec 2014 (this was no coincidence; nothing ever was), and now the equivalent days in 2016 and 2017 had been and gone. Leigh wouldn’t have been able to resist leaving a clue of some sort.
Then in January 2018, my worst fears were confirmed. Høge had received an email from Laurence Ellis, a photographer who had worked with Leigh on his Syntax magazine a decade ago (typically the magazine was near impossible to find; typically Ellis hadn’t been paid). A coroner had contacted Ellis in March 2016, seeking details about the recently deceased Leigh. The coroner had searched for Leigh’s name online and landed upon Ellis’s website first. He had been the only person who knew about Leigh’s death until now.
So the fashion designer who had (probably) dressed Meryl Streep for the Oscars, the curator who had briefly enchanted the New York art world, and the filmmaker who had directed Marianne Faithful, Beatrice Dalle, and Yekaterina Golubeva had died anonymously in London. The people who still cared had found out nearly two years later; that’s what saddened Høge and me the most.
Today I’m troubled by the fact that there is little tangible to show for CS Leigh’s lifetime of work. Perhaps his later wishes to put out a book about Process, to persuade Palisades Tartan to finally release it on DVD, and to create a collection of his exhibition catalogues were ways to address this while he still could.
It is difficult to say what CS Leigh was: some would call him a con man, even a sociopath, others would say a gifted man with extraordinary ambitions, and an almost admirable, single-minded determination to fulfil them at all costs, both literal and metaphorical. His philosophy was that the end product would always retroactively justify his (unethical) actions preceding it; those lucky enough to have seen / to see his completed art might agree. Leigh’s life was a sort of performance art both in its various acts, and in those ‘convoluted’ processes by which he created art.
Did we become friends eventually, after meeting in London and exchanging over 600 emails? That’s hard to say: I’m certain he told me things that he had never told anyone else, about his personal life and sexuality, but then again, contact may still have ceased the moment that I didn’t financially support his latest venture. What is for certain is that, like all people who met him, I will not forget him. Despite and because of his faults, an old quote from Antony Hudek — who gave me Leigh’s email address those years ago — comes to mind: “In my opinion, the world needs more [people like] C.S, even if the world probably couldn’t cope with more.”
Process is a good film too, should you ever find it.
I have obtained some footage from Projection (it even has a ‘Projection’ title card). It is low quality, frequently pauses, has no sound and only amounts to around 20 minutes. Nonetheless I’m pleased it exists; the Berlin locations, stylishly shot by Giorgos Arvanitis, look superb (and Berlin is my favourite city). There may be more to come.
Before he died, CS Leigh had finally begun to use his notoriety to his advantage. He was collaborating on a retrospective exhibition named The Camera Never Lies (Even When I Do) to be shown in Vienna, and had started claiming that a 2005 (UK) Sunday Times article about his many disappearing acts was really written by him (assuming the guise of its ostensible writer, Adrian Dannatt) to generate publicity.
To this end, I’ve read comments speculating that ‘Neil Thomas Ward’ is CS Leigh’s latest nom de plume and he’s faking his own death, either as a performance art piece or to avoid paying debts. I can only affirm that this is not the case, but it’s a fascinating theory …
Recommended further reading: John A. Riley’s C.S. Leigh: A life (1965–2016).