London on Film – London Symphony

While the film world’s eyes are turned towards London for the LFF, Alex Barrett talks about his ambitious new film project about the city, and explains how you can get involved.

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The idea for London Symphony emerged sometime last summer, born out of a mixture of frustration and creative inspiration. At the end of 2012, my debut feature, Life Just Is, was released. In the months that followed, I began working on a number of new projects. But it soon became clear that none would get made quickly – no surprise, given the intricacies and complications of getting films into production. As much as I was enjoying writing and developing these new fiction projects, I was also getting restless. Somehow, my mind cast back to 2008, when I made the short documentary Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, a silent film about the eponymous bridge that had been born out of a desire to create a tribute to the films of the past. It had been made quickly – very quickly – and it had been well received. The more I thought about the short film, the more I thought that maybe it could be turned into a feature, looking at the whole of London. Perhaps, I thought, it could be made quickly, like the short, and my restlessness would come to end…

Of course, when it comes to filmmaking, nothing’s ever quite that simple. For one thing, it became immediately apparent that expanding the scope of the film from a single bridge to the whole of London was going to take some thinking about – and therefore require some time to get right. London means many things to many different people, and the city itself is expansive, covering many different areas and comprising many different communities. So how to distil that into a single film?

Thankfully, the small team behind Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge shared my enthusiasm for making a feature length version, and we soon began working towards our new goal. The first stage was to return to our original inspiration: the city symphonies of the 1920s. A popular genre in the silent era, these films were creative, experimental documentaries that aimed to capture the essence of the cities they featured. Often free from dialogue or intertitles, the films experimented with the very fabric of film form, creating poetic meaning while also serving as important cultural records of their subjects (as time moves on, city symphonies only gain in interest – they are snapshots not only of their cities, but also of the times in which they are made). It is these qualities that inspired us to proceed with London Symphony – the appeal of playing with film form, and the desire to capture a creative snapshot of London as it stands today.

When we made Hungerford, we had questioned what the city symphony could mean for a 21st century audience, and this would naturally become an even bigger concern when stretched to feature length. So we now had to further probe our answers, and reconsider why it was that we wanted to make a modern day silent film. What could it teach us about life today? And how could we avoid it becoming a cheap parody of what had come before? With these questions in mind, my writer Rahim Moledina began drafting a script for the film. We feel now as we had when making the short: that just because it’s possible to film with sound and colour, it doesn’t mean we have to. Silent film remains a valid (some would say superior) art form and its lack of use in modern cinema is one of the great tragedies of the medium.

Slowly, as we worked, Rahim and I developed our ideas into something that excited us. When we made the short film, modernism had been on our mind. It was present both in the clash between the old Hungerford train bridge and the Golden Jubilee footbridges that run alongside it and in the very fabric of our film form (we were using modern technology to recreate an old style of filmmaking). Looking at London as a whole, we realised that this theme would be amplified – construction is rampant in the city, creating an ever-more interesting contrast between the old historic heart of London and the modern metropolis around it. The more Rahim and I thought and talked about this, the more important it became to the development of London Symphony.

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But alongside modernism, another big M – multiculturalism – came to the fore in our discussions. For both Rahim and I, the vast number of different cultures found within London is one of the things that makes the city so great. So our ambition became to explore and celebrate that diversity; and thus our key theme was born.

As Rahim and I continued to develop the script along these lines, we realised that the production was growing. Before we knew it, we had a list of over 200 locations that we wanted to film in, meaning this was now a far cry from the quick easy project we’d set out to make. But the development had added increased depth to our original aims, and we could sense that the script was going to be better for this added complexity. However, it became clear that we now needed to add a real producer to the team – Rahim, who had produced the short, is very much a writer and very much not a producer. As both Rahim and I come from fiction backgrounds, we decided it would be good to find someone from the documentary world – and in teaming up with producer Katharine Round, we did just that.

By this time, the script was at a fairly advanced stage, but I was starting to have doubts about the very notion of using a script. So we’ve now set upon a fluid way of working, which will involve a back-and-forth process between script, location list, shoot, edit and music. We want to allow ourselves the space to respond to the environments in which we’ll find ourselves, and also allow ourselves to ‘discover’ the locations as we photograph them, without inscribing our own preconceived ideas onto any one area of London. But we’ll also be guided by the structure and sequences Rahim has concocted on the page, allowing us to bring a level of planning and design to the shape of the film and its four movements that we wouldn’t have without the months of development we’ve done.

I’ve used the word movements as London Symphony is being structured around the new musical symphony which is being written for the film by James McWilliam, our other key collaborator. James is much more involved in the writing and crafting of the film than a composer usually would be – but that’s because the film is, after all, a city symphony, and music will play a key part in the overall experience we’re hoping to create.

Having now spent around a year developing the project, my team and I are looking to move towards production. We’ve explored several funding avenues, but given the non-commercial nature of the project, it’s hard to get it financed through more ‘traditional’ avenues, so we’re turning to crowdfunding. Given that London Symphony is a film about the community of London, crowdfunding makes perfect sense for the project, and it will allow us to build a community of our own. We want to make the production a truly interactive experience, and we want to speak to people about their opinions and experiences of London. All of our rewards include access to our updates, which will offer an unparalleled examination into the creation of the film. I attempted to do something similar with Life Just Is, but I’m looking forward to taking this production to the next level of openness.

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But first we need to make our target. By the time this is published, there will be just a few days left of our crowdfunding campaign. So if you think the project sounds interesting, please do consider contributing – no matter how large or small, it all helps, and we’d be thrilled to have you be part of our community. You can contribute here.

Of course, our challenges won’t end once the campaign’s over. In fact, that’ll be just the beginning. Trying to capture and distil the essence of London remains the greatest challenge, even with our careful blend of preplanning and openness to the moment. Meanwhile, the logistics of filming in over 200 locations will obviously offer problems of their own. But right now, all these challenges excite me and, with any luck, they might just put an end to my restlessness…

Alex Barrett is an independent filmmaker and critic based in London. His latest project, London Symphony, is currently in development. He also runs the blog Night on Planet Earth. Website: www.alexbarrett.net. Twitter: @albaztks

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