Humans can be difficult when you put them at the centre of a film. Donald Rumsfeld resolutely avoided revealing very much at all to Errol Morris in his documentary The Unknown Known. Nick Broomfield had to do daily contest with the odious beliefs of South African white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche while making The Leader, His Driver and The Driver’s Wife. But what if your subject spits and drools, not to mention sings self-composed ditties in a vocal style that lies somewhere between a strangulated hoover and a starving seagull? Mat Snead has that problem.
Luckily for Mat the extraordinary creature at the centre of his film, is an act created by comedian Matt Roper. The short film, Wilfredo Comes to Town follows the eponymous character as he walks the streets of London introducing himself to passers-by, before heading off to Abbey Road Studios for a session. Wilfredo wears stained beige trousers pulled up dangerously high and a crumpled white shirt half unbuttoned to reveal a half an acre of chest hair, atop of which is his bird’s nest hairdo and gravestone teeth. The effect is startling.
Mat first encountered Wilfredo at the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of years ago, where he was recommended him by Ben Walters, the cabaret editor at Time Out. “I think I saw 15 shows that weekend and that was the one that stood out,” he says. “I just laughed and laughed and laughed. I thought there was something very different about it, but also something quite old fashioned.”
Wilfredo has performed at venues and festivals all around the country for the last four or five years and found acclaim with both audiences and critics. However, he hasn’t quite made it into general public awareness. Why does Mat think this is? “An act like this is going to find it quite hard to break through into the main stream as it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.” One example close to home is Mat’s mum, who finds Wilfredo’s persona so grating that she won’t watch the film at all.
Nonetheless, there was something about the act that Mat felt he could use in a film: “Wilfredo really does exist on stage, so what I was trying to do was get him off stage and get him into some different environments and do some things that you can’t do on stage. I’ve seen a lot of those kinds of acts, but there are very few that can actually pull it off.” The act contains elements of parody, which in itself is hard to making convincing, but beyond this Wilfredo’s deluded nature is something we can all identify with.
Back in London a few weeks after seeing Wilfredo perform, Mat got in contact with Matt Roper about a collaboration. The only plan was to make sure the film would be entirely improvised. “I just put him in different situations and filmed it really,” says Mat. One early idea was to make a cookery show, with Wilfredo slobbering away while he stuffed a turkey, but together they couldn’t decide what sort of kitchen he would be working in.
In the end the film follows Wilfredo to Abbey Road where he regales the camera with his wisdom and berates his musicians for not meeting his exacting standards. The guitarist in particular seems to get it in the neck… but somehow keeps a straight face. Mat explains: “That’s Uncle Ignacio, he’s part of the Wilfredo family and they often tour together, so he’ll never steal the limelight from Wilfredo… he takes an enormous lot of abuse.” They also filmed some footage with Mana Maria, Wilfredo’s ‘sister’, but that would have taken the film in a different direction, so it was left out.
“I think what I wanted to do was to try and take Wilfredo off stage and almost push the absurdity of it by showing him in a real world environment. If you’re in a cabaret or theatre environment you expect something larger than life, but if you’re walking down the street or just catching a bus in St John’s Wood and he comes up to you and goes [Mat puts on Wilfredo’s strangulated voice] ‘Come on, we go for drink, we go for drink’. People either get it and go along, or they don’t and I wanted to capture that danger really, the boundary between on-stage and off-stage. To take something like that and put it in the real world. We did a lot of stuff in the Underground. There were people that loved it and people who were a bit disturbed.”
Mat studied film at university but then spent the next 10 years building his career on the business side of TV and film. It was when he saw American actor and theatre performer Taylor Mac at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006 that he realised that finally he could use his film skills for a collaboration of some sort. Mac’s performance involves elaborate make-up and costume, and singing songs that are both highly personal and deeply honest. Their first film together Walk (2007), saw a fully made-up Mac travelling around the tube while one of his own songs plays.
“Again it was very much improvised,” he explains. Mat met Mac in Waterloo Station, who arrived in the busy station fully made up, and spent the day filming him. This elaborate looking creature gliding through London got a number of reactions, including from a young boy who came up to Mac on the bus and asked if he was Michael Jackson. “It was such a fun, surreal day. It’s theatre itself while you’re filming it.”
Importantly, Mat didn’t want to explain too much about the character in the film, so the audience could find its own meaning. He went on to make two more films with Taylor Mac, Make (2008) and Work (2009). There is a connection between these earlier projects and his latest, he says: “I’m drawn to lone performers. Taylor Mac and Wilfredo are lone wolves, they work on their own and they travel around on their own.”
The Taylor Mac films were recently shown at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with some performances from Mac himself. But for now Mat wants to work a little longer promoting Wilfredo Comes to Town and haul it round a few festivals. His next project will probably be another film with the Andalusian legend. Perhaps a prequel, introducing a bit more back story could be a possible angle.
The idea of introducing Wilfredo to the Spanish sounds like a somewhat risky business, but it’s sure to be interesting. The key to why it works, for Mat, is the simplicity of the format: “You don’t need to do too much, you’re just bringing together two things which you don’t need to dress up. It gives you quite a lot of freedom in a way. Something that’s so dynamically opposed to what’s going on, set against a grey London environment.”
Wilfredo Comes to Town is available to watch on Vimeo now and coming to a festival near you soon. Learn more at the Wilfredo Comes to Town website, where you can also see some of Mat’s earlier work. Read our review of Wilfredo Comes to Town here.