In this series, Nicola Blackburn interviews members of the St Andrews community with interesting stories to tell – all while strolling down Lade Braes. The second installment spotlights James Montgomery, a student at the University.
I first met James on an Inklight/ArtSoc affiliated creative retreat about two years ago. I noticed that he was never without his new camera in hand, like a child let loose in the toy store of the austere Scottish forest. Everyone at the retreat was “quirky” in one way or another, but James emanated a profundity that made him particularly unique in my eyes. He was someone you wanted to talk to for hours, knowing you would learn a great deal; things that he would say altered your perception of the world somehow. One story springs to my mind as exemplary of this: on the final day of the retreat, one girl was braiding her friend’s hair. James watched her for a moment, observing, then asked, ‘Do you think that braiding hair is a form of artistic expression?’
When we begin our Lade Braes wander, clutching our hot chocolate and chai latte, respectively, I am quickly reminded of the depth a conversation with James carries; this, coupled with an open, easy-going manner, makes him someone with whom it is a pleasure chatting. James’ is almost a household name in St Andrews; he is known as the roving hand behind Ampersand Media’s video coverage of the University’s most sought-after events. Most recently, James filmed the promotion videos for the 2019 St Andrews Charity Fashion Show – known to most students as “FS”. The four videos offer a bewitching narrative that traces the ‘Origins’ of the world (the theme of the event), from the outset of the cosmos to the contemporary technological age. The artistry is astounding – so amazing, in fact, that I find it difficult to believe that the scenes were filmed in the Barron Theatre, or on a local Fife bus — locations so familiar to St Andreans.
James is an avid storyteller. On our walk, he tells me another story of origins, this time about his talent with a camera. ‘When I was super young I was always obsessed with telling stories…I used to draw treasure maps and imagine whole worlds,” he recounts. James’ childhood enjoyment of photography and filmmaking became a more serious passion at university. This was exemplified in his win for Best Film in the 60 Hour Film Blitz during his second year at University. This was shortly followed by his introduction to and recruitment by Ampersand Media. “It opened up the possibility of, ‘wait, maybe I could actually do this as a career! Maybe I could do this and also be given enough money to live, that would be super cool!’”
Now facing the imminent prospect of graduation, James is showing no sign of putting the camera down outside The Bubble. He’s got an exciting new project in the works. It will involve creating an ‘intuitive interface’ (I think this is a fancy word for ‘website’) where films can be broken down, tagged and analysed shot by shot, like ‘storyboarding in reverse.’ How does he see this resource being used? “I could put up my own analyses, and then someone else could come along (with their analyses) and you could get a discussion going.” James hopes the resource will attract interest from university Film Studies departments, by offering an innovative new approach to film analysis for their students.
This project encompasses what I admire most about James: his extraordinary talent coupled with admirable selflessness. James does not want his skills to be exclusive to an ‘elite’ tier of filmmakers; he is eager to share his skills and insights with other people, to encourage a wider appreciation of the art.
Throughout our walk, I get an increasing sense of the happiness that films and filmmaking give James. “For most of my life I had this notion that to be happy I need to have this, and this, and all my needs served…[but] if all I had was comfort I’d be kind of bored and would feel like I wasn’t doing what I should be doing. Being able to make things that resonate with me, and feel they are expressing things that are important to me – that is my happiness.” As a result, James feels an “uncompromising drive” to pursue his art. Despite “huge sacrifices, whether that is financial or even emotional” and a “really competitive” film industry, James will “just go into it with the mindset of, ‘I have to do it – my happiness is what I make.’”
We sit on a bench on Lade Braes whilst James explains a niche ‘fun fact’ about him. Holding out his palms, he explains that the two horizontal lines that cross them are known in palmistry as the ‘head’ and ‘heart’ line. According to James, for only one out of sixty people, these lines merge. This is supposed to indicate a merging of one’s emotions and logic.
For James, this fusion only appears on his left hand. “But palms are supposed to be symmetrical. So this,” he says, raising his left palm, “is my creative side and this,” he raises his right, “is my computer side?” We laugh and agree that a palmist would consider him to be someone unique, someone to watch. I’m not sure how I feel about palmistry but would have to agree with them on that one.