As mentioned earlier in the week, Blasted first encountered the work of Paul Kelly with 2011’s Lawrence of Belgravia. No standard ‘rockumentary’, it was an idiosyncratic portrait of an idiosyncratic figure and a distinctive authorial voice – recently watching through a substantial portion of his work before and since, it was remarkable to note how recognisable and distinctive the voice was to LoB (without even having seen it for three years), and through the disparate subjects and narrative tacks taken in these films. With 2002’s Finisterre he collaborated with Kieran Evans and Saint Etienne to create film accompanying the latter’s album of the same title – no half-arsed ‘music video for every song’ affair, it was a look at a London that fell and falls between the cracks of the popular consciousness that happened to feature the album as its soundtrack.
Since then, he’s made a film about the criminally overlooked Dolly Mixture (Take Three Girls), three short films for Channel 4 (Today’s Special) and made a concert film like no other with Dexys (Nowhere Is Home), recently screened on BBC Four. He’s worked with Saint Etienne on three more features, and five shorts, the most recent full-length effort being How We Used To Live, which screens at NFT1 at the end of next week. Kelly’s films are entrancing, subtle, fascinating, fearlessly intelligent and far from obvious but absolutely accessible. We haven’t seen one yet that isn’t essential viewing.
Blasted would like to thank Sukhdev Sandhu for all his help (and his beautiful book Nothing’s Too Good For The Common People: The Films of Paul Kelly), Stephen Pastel for putting the idea in our heads in the first place and, of course, very special thanks to Paul for giving us his valuable time and thoughts - presented below, unabridged.
What is How We Used to Live about? How did you come to make it?
In 2008 I had screened an early cut of Lawrence of Belgravia at the Barbican and while I was sat in the projection room waiting to check everything was running okay, the Terence Davies film Of Time And The City was playing and I thought it looked really intriguing. I later mentioned this to Bob (Stanley, Saint Etienne) and we ended up watching the film several times in a row. We couldn't decide if we loved it or hated it, and kept changing our minds after each viewing. This started us thinking about whether anyone had ever done anything similar, but with a London theme. Bob and Pete (Wiggs, Saint Etienne) had been doing some work with the BFI and so already had a working relationship with them and so we went in to talk about possibly looking through their archives with a view to making a film using entirely London themed footage from the 20th century. The original idea was to look at how the city had been depicted and also changed since the early days of film.
Given its extensive use of pre-existing footage, how different was the experience of making How We Used to Live from that of your previous films? Was it more difficult or was it liberating? Can you see yourself making more films in that form?
By the time we started HWUTL we had already made three London films together and after the third I really didn't expect to make another. The first three were all self shot and so part of the appeal of using archive footage was that it would avoid having to trudge around London with my camera again for several months on end. However enjoyable that can be, I felt I had done enough for the time being. I also thought that it might speed up the process of filmmaking - as everything is literally already in the can. However, actually finding suitable material is incredibly time consuming and the film took far longer to make than any of us could have anticipated. It was fun though and I learnt a lot of about the technical side of working with archive, especially with regard to things like different frame rates, film stock and formats etc., so that's been really helpful. I have just started working on another archive-based film and so I am hopefully better prepared this time.
Did Travis [Elborough, writer]'s narrative come first or the images, or was it more of a back-and-forth than that?
Travis was involved from the start, and along with Bob, Pete and myself would sit at the BFI looking through the COI (Central Office of Information) British Transport Collection and Visit Britain archives searching for any interesting London footage. During this time we would have discussions about what form the film might take. An early idea was to cover the entire 20th century focussing on five specific areas of London to see how they had changed over a hundred years. However when the BBC started doing something very similar we decided to shelve that idea and concentrate on the post war period leading up to the arrival of the Thatcher government. So our timeframe begins with early days of the welfare state and leads up to the beginning of its systematic dismantling under the Tories. This period is also when a lot of the government funded film units were at their most active.
We would discuss the various themes we wanted to cover and then try and find footage to match, but it soon became clear that this idea was far too ambitious as more often than not we couldn't find specific images required. So I just began to cut sequences based on visual themes and let the footage dictate the narrative. I would collect themed clips and build sequences from those - for example the early morning sequence with empty streets, or the banking scenes - and then Bob and Travis would create a narrative thread to work with these. I would then try and make the disparate sequences work together while also loosely moving the whole film forward in time. Bob and Travis were writing as we went along and Pete was also creating the music and so the edit, music and script were all being created in tandem, which meant the process was all fairly organic.
How did Ian McShane come to be the narrator?
We had decided to use some kind of semi fictional narration quite early on and one plan was based on the idea that the Keith Waterhouse character Billy Liar had actually taken the train with Julie Christie and was now looking back over his time in London before heading back up to retire in Yorkshire. We abandoned the Billy Liar link but still felt the narration needed to come from someone we could believe might have lived through the timeframe of the film and have inhabited the world portrayed. We didn't want anyone young and we didn't want anyone particularly associated with London. Ian McShane was top of our initial wish list and when he agreed I was actually quite surprised! I think it really helped Travis and Bob once he was involved as it gave them a voice to write for, and it was wonderful to hear him bring the lines to life. He mentioned during the voice over recording session that he had worked with Sarah Cracknell's father on the Battle of Britain film so we felt like he had a genuine connection to us, however loose!
To what degree do the scores/music influence the shapes of your films (i.e. do you ever 'cut' to music)?
I came to film making came through directing pop videos in the '90s and although I never really liked the format or - in my case - the end results, I do enjoy cutting to music. Pete and I have now worked together on a number of films and we usually start by getting together with Bob to decide on a palette of sounds we want to use. We make compilations of songs and music that is close to the kind of mood we want to create for the particular film we are making. Sometimes I'll cut to temporary marker songs which have the pace and mood I'm looking for and Pete will then create something in a similar vein. This can be a problem as I tend to get attached to the marker songs and can be reluctant to replace them! Often Pete will create his own finished pieces from scratch and send them over to see where they might work, on other occasions I'll send over a cut of a sequence to Pete and he'll write a score to fit. There's no specific pattern we're just cutting and making music all at the same time.
The first film Finisterre was built around the Saint Etienne album of the same name and the music has remained at the centre of all of the films we make together. I think we are all drawn to certain films that have distinctive soundtracks, things like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Lubos Fiser, The Wicker Man, Kes by John Cameron and even The Graduate. We have all known each other for a long time now, watching the same films and listening to the same records so we have similar reference points and are able to work together with a kind of mutual understanding.
I think I've only ever made one film with no music at all and I take great care making sure the soundtrack is right, whether it's scored by Saint Etienne or not and I'm sure the soundtrack is a large part of what defines them.
Are there any filmmakers you feel a particular affinity with? The influence of Norman Cohen and Patrick Keiller have been noted before, but is there anyone beyond the London influence - the broader essay film tradition of the likes of the Rive Gauche filmmakers, perhaps?
My band were all keen Bob Dylan fans and we saw Don't Look Back in the early 1980s which was a revelation. Originally filmed in 1965 it wasn't released until about 1967. In my view it is easily one of the best music documentaries of all time. After seeing that we learned that there was a follow up shot in colour during his 1966 electric tour and after looking for years and deciding it was probably a myth we eventually managed to track down a third generation VHS copy. That film was Eat The Document and it is a speed fuelled experimental montage featuring some pretty harsh cutting (apparently Bob Dylan sat in on the edit) It's a wonderful film and presents a fascinating picture of a country in transition, with this almost futuristic American rock band tearing through a sleepy post war Britain. It was through these films I became aware of D.A. Pennebaker and through him, the French New Wave and so on.
I think his first film Daybreak Express is quite beautiful and must have had an influence on me as he was trying to capture something that was being lost and present it in a very poetic and moving way which is something I have tried to achieve with my films.
Along with the Maysles Brothers, he is one of my favourite documentary filmmakers.
Producer/Director Paul Watson who created the original 1974 TV series The Family also made a series called A Year In The Life for the BBC in the late 1960s in which he follows various people over the course of a year. These were re-screened in the late 1980s or early 1990s and included one about a band called The Mike Stuart Span - which my brother recorded on VHS. It's a hilarious (pre Spinal Tap) depiction of a band falling apart and we all used to watch that on a regular basis.
But to be honest the directors who have probably had a greater impact for me are not strictly documentary film makers but those working in Britain during the post war years, people like David Lean, Powell and Pressburger, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger.
Who do you feel your peers are? Being from a music background and working with musicians, do you feel they are more musicians than filmmakers? Or are there filmmakers (or writers etc.) you feel are your contemporaries?
I know a lot of other filmmakers and they all seem to have very different ways of working and most specialise in one particular discipline - directing, producing or editing etc. I don't know what it's like for them, but as I'm involved in all aspects of the films I make, it can be a solitary affair. Apart from when shooting I spend months locked away in a studio or edit suite and my only real contact with the film community is attending the odd screening or festival. It's probably slightly akin to being a writer.
It feels completely different to being in a band where you spend a lot of time with others. Even when you are with a lot of other people on a film shoot it can be quite intense and there's no time to mess about. On the contrary there's a lot of hanging about and socialising when you play in a band. Although I never had much success in music I have always felt more at home around musicians to be honest.
As an occasional but enthusiastic visitor, much of the appeal of London seems to me to be that it invites a highly personal experience, not despite its vastness but because of it (as in, you can make it your own, in some way, yet still be an alien) - would you agree that your films tap into that in some way in their fascination with its lesser known corners? You're not from London originally, but do you feel like a Londoner?
I suppose we are particularly drawn to certain people and places that may have been overlooked or forgotten. When we went to film in the Lea Valley, I didn't really know anything about it and that's what made it interesting for me. I couldn't believe that there was such a vast area of wilderness so close to the centre of London. It seems obvious now but back then it was practically unknown.
A few years ago Bob and I were trying to make a film about the FA Cup with Nick Sanderson from the band Earl Brutus, who is sadly no longer with us. He was such an amazing character and obsessed with non-league football. Our idea was for Bob and Nick to follow the winner form each round starting at Wembley FC in August and ending up across the road at Wembley Stadium nine months later. It wasn't about football really it was about taking a look at Britain with a guy from Sheffield who had a very individual and hilarious take on the world. We began shooting the first few rounds with Nick and took what we had to a number of broadcasters including the BBC, who all claimed to love it. However they all insisted we use an established presenter instead of Nick, purely because they had never heard of him and seemed to believe their audiences only want to watch established celebrities, they just didn't have a clue. I'm sure there is a genuine hunger within the TV viewing public for discovering new things and people but all we get are the same old stories re-told by the same old boring faces over and over again. We are reliant on cinema and the internet to bring us anything slightly unusual because, despite now having so many channels, television is just too conservative, and that's why it will eventually die out.
My father was in the R.A.F. and so we were always on the move, even living abroad quite a lot and because of that I've never felt that I have a hometown in the way that most people probably do. I've lived in London for most of my life now although my tenure does feel increasingly fragile as the city becomes ever more expensive, corporate and unfamiliar.
I think the themes within How We Used To Live are fairly universal and are as much about the times as London itself. This has generally been borne out by the fact that it has been so well received in Scotland and the north of England despite some critics suggesting that the film wouldn't appeal to anyone who was not a London resident or Saint Etienne fan!
I understand you've been taking photographs for a lot longer than you've been a filmmaker - do you think this has had a large influence on your films? You've obviously got a keen compositional eye and appear to have a preference for static shots.
My father had originally wanted to be a painter and was at art school before he had to join the RAF for national service. He eventually became a pilot but continued to draw and paint throughout his life and encouraged all of his kids to take an interest in art. I have always loved drawing and I'm sure it has helped in the way I think about framing and composition. Ever since I was a kid I have found myself adjusting my eyeline slightly to square up whatever I'm looking at for a better composition. I had a little Kodak instamatic as a child and when I was twelve my mum bought me a super 8 camera. I used to get my younger brother to act out fight scenes and create small films. I used to shoot everything in sequence as I didn't know about editing. I still have some of those films now and I was surprised when watching them back recently how much thought has gone into setting up the shots and the various camera positions. I carried on getting into photography even while I played in bands and when our first band split up it seemed like a natural move to get into film making as a way of earning a living.
I think being involved in music has been very helpful too, especially with editing where rhythm and timing of a sequence and indeed the pacing of the entire film seems very similar to making music and even putting a record together.
Your films have a definite political bent to them, without being preachy or shouting in the audience's face - do you think there has been an absence of political commentary in the arts in the UK, and is it changing? If so, do artists bear some responsibility for the political situation the UK now finds itself in?
If you have strong political views and you also have some kind of opportunity to voice those views, either through music or film or whatever, it seems a waste not to use that opportunity.
Funnily enough my films are often accused of not being political enough, I'm not sure if this is because people come along expecting something more extreme, but just because we don't choose to bludgeon the viewer with overbearing polemic it doesn't mean the political content is in any way soft.
The idea is to seduce the viewer and provoke thought. Hopefully the film will stay with them and its themes continue to roll over in their minds long afterward. It may seem slightly fanciful but I think this approach can sometimes help make a more powerful film.
Even with the Lawrence film, some people felt that I way shying away from the whole drugs issue but it's all there, and as far as I'm concerned very obvious, like the elephant in the room, I just have a very specific approach to presenting a story.
Having said all of that I do have a very angry and heavily political film in mind that goes against the way I have worked in the past.
What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? included a (for want of better terminology) fictional narrative thread, could you ever see yourself making a fully fictional narrative film?
The idea with …Mervyn Day was to include some local residents of the Lea Valley and build them into a fictional narrative but within their natural working environment. I suppose it was a bit like a kind of proto TOWIE which worked better in some cases than others but was quite an interesting experiment.
I'm currently working with Heavenly Films on a drama feature written by John Niven and Nick Ball which is due to start shooting early next year. I have only done a few drama pieces in the past and so on the one hand I find the prospect quite daunting but also on the other, very exciting. John has the adaptation of his book Kill Your Friends released this October and so I'm keen to see how that goes.
Do you want to make more London films? Are there any cities you'd like to take on?
After we had finished Finisterre I didn't want to make another film about London ever again but here we are with our fourth! I would say no, but I probably say that every time we finish a film and yet we always seem to come back for more. If I did make another film about London I think it would be a much more cynical look at what has happened over recent years.
Other cities always appear fresh and exciting and full of possibilities. Maybe it takes an outside perspective to see things an insider may overlook. I don't have any plans to make a film about any other town in particular but it has crossed my mind. I suppose all cities are fairly universal and interchangeable at the end of the day, we all understand the language of urban life.
A little birdie tells us you're working with Sam Knee on a film version of A Scene in Between - can you tell us anything about it right now? Do you have any other projects lined up?
Yes, Sam has been gathering footage together while making the book and he has found some amazing films but we still need more, so if anyone has any interesting super 8, 16mm or even video footage from the eighties indie scene or even just footage from that period please get in touch. We are also working together with Stephen Pastel and hopefully should have it ready some time next year.
Do you think you and Saint Etienne will continue to make films together? Could HWUTL be the first film in a new trilogy?
Everyone is so busy working on their own projects these days and so it's partly a case of finding the time when we are all free. We still see each other a lot and are always throwing film ideas about but I guess the real obstacle to us making more films together comes down to funding. We've generally had to make films on a shoestring and it is our collective enthusiasm as much as anything that drives these particular projects through to completion. As I said earlier I didn't think we would make another film together after Finisterre and now we've made four together so you never know. It would be good to do something outside London, but who knows? Maybe the BBC will give us a commission!
Will there ever be a DVD release for Lawrence of Belgravia and/or Take Three Girls?
I'm sure Lawrence of Belgravia will come out at some point, but getting it released is not at all straight forward. I get asked about this a lot and I know some people think I'm withholding the film on purpose but it is slightly out of my hands. When it was first screened at the London Film Festival, although it sold out all four screenings including NFT 1, we had a technically disastrous press screening and it didn't really connect with the established film press. I don't think many people could understand why the film had been made at all and that had a negative effect with regard to anyone picking it up. It was only after a successful UK theatre release that it began to pick up some decent reviews and people began to look at it as something quite special but press wise the damage had already been done.
Regarding the Dolly Mixture film Take Three Girls, I am very keen to get this out but I'd like to slightly re-cut it first. I have recently acquired some previously unused 16mm footage as well as about 60 reels of audio recordings, some of which I'd like to include, so I'm hoping to expand the film a bit and maybe get it into the festival circuit next year. Ideally I'd love to get a broadcast for both films before any kind of DVD release as I think both Lawrence and Dolly Mixture deserve to be more widely appreciated, but we'll just have to see what happens.
'How We Used To Live' screens at NFT1 to a live soundtrack by Saint Etienne on 24 July, tickets are available here. 'A London Trilogy: The Films of Saint Etienne 2003 - 2007' is available on DVD now.
Andrew R. Hill