Curry earned his status as an international sports celebrity through the early 1970s as a revolutionary character in figure skating, transforming the sport from a simple display of physical prowess into an art form. He won Olympic, World, European and British Championship medals, permanently changing the worldwide public’s perception of the sport. Yet Erskine recalls his recollection of Curry as being only vague prior to embarking on the documentary, with his primary inspiration coming from author Bill Jones’ 2014 book, Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry: “This was an amazing story and I thought, ‘I must make it!’”
It wasn’t as straightforward as just ‘making it,’ however, as the production process required a tenacity rivalling Curry’s own. “We actually wrote a document where we would identify which dances we wanted and which ones we hadn’t yet found, and then looked at how we would structure the story coherently through those dances,” explains Erskine. “I’d said to my researchers, ‘Ok, we’ll do it if we find these three dances, but as far as I know they don’t exist on film and if they don’t exist then there’s no point in making this.’ We spent a long time combing the globe for any material on John, any interviews that he’d done. It was just before we started that [assistant producer] Siwan Clark and [co-producer] Luc Tremoulet spoke to people who actually knew John and said, ‘By the way, have you got any footage?’ We knew that a lot of the performances, whilst they were written about, had never been filmed, so there was quite a few performances that we found the footage had never been seen. Nobody had pulled this stuff out before.”
While Erskine, whose recent work has included acclaimed features such as 2013’s The Battle of the Sexes on the infamous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and 2014’s Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist about Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner Marco Pantani, has a background in sports filmmaking, he found himself ever more drawn to the artistic and psychological aspects of his subject’s story, a transition mirrored in Curry’s move from sportsperson to choreographer, producer and performer in theatrical ice skating productions.
Showcasing this artistry placed new demands on the filmmaker: “In films, often it’s action and it’s quick cuts, and that literally was just on a single camera. There’s a dance in the film called Moonskate, which is the most amazing work of art – it’s just extraordinary and if you know the circumstances of his life it’s even more extraordinary. We tried that at different lengths and with different talking underneath it and actually, to really understand it, you needed to have it play for four-and-a-half minutes and only have occasional prompts. You needed to immerse just as if you looked at a Monet – there’s a reason why they have those benches in the National Gallery to sit and look at it. It’s a completely different experience.”
Knowing the circumstances of Curry’s life was not only essential to understanding his work but also to understanding this film. Following his gold medal win at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Curry was outed as gay in the German press. Where The Ice King acquires its most potent emotional resonance is in its excavation of the emotional undercurrents of self-doubt and self-loathing that drove Curry’s duelling impulses to create and to destroy. “I think if you have an inherent belief that you’re not good enough, no matter what you do, you will attempt to destroy it,” says Erskine. “He sets out to be accepted by society but he can’t ultimately accept himself. And at what point does that happen to him – is it growing up in a repressive family, or with a repressive relationship with his father, or a repressive society?”
These are dilemmas that Erskine recognises in artists in every field – from skating to Shakespeare: “I think the quest for perfection is actually an inevitability of the enterprise in itself. But if you’re seen as lesser, how do you ever get completely convinced that you are great? Most people can’t, and I’m not sure John was entirely able to do that.”
Erskine believes and hopes, though, that John Curry’s professional success might serve in a demonstrative capacity for sportspeople moving ahead, even now, 24 years after his death from an AIDS-related heart attack. “I think anybody that comes out [in sport], it shows that they’re just as good as anybody else,” he says. “They’re role models.” It’s a note of optimism in contrast to the emotional heaviness of much of Curry’s story, a detail that made The Ice King, “Quite a traumatic film to make,” as Erskine notes. “I found it got under my skin, and I was pretty down making it. It was a hard, hard film to make.”
It’s referenced in the film that the culture of mistrust around homosexuality in Britain, including its very illegality in Curry’s youth, persists today in much of the world, making Erskine’s query, “What would it be like to grow up in a society that said you cannot be who you are?” even more poignant. Interestingly, even he remains uncertain of how to resolve such difficult, delicate concerns: “What is life about? We could all get knocked over by a bus tomorrow. It’s about what you do and what you leave, as much as how long we last. How happy you are, I mean, does that matter? If the art’s good, whether you’re happy or sad? I mean, does the art matter? Should you be happy? Those are eternal questions. For John, love mattered. He didn’t ever fully find the love that he was seeking.” It’s a painful point, though one made within what is, ultimately, a positive film, whose own commitment to artistry is worthy of that of its subject.
The Ice King is released in the UK on the 23rd of February and is being distributed by Dogwoof.
Writer: Paddy Mulholland