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Filmotomy Exclusive Interview: Alex Barrett

We were very lucky to get the opportunity to speak to independent filmmaker Alex Barrett about his latest film, London Symphony. The film is a poetic, artistic, black and white silent film about Great Britain’s capital and is incredibly well shot. It leaves a lasting impression and I highly recommend you seeking it out.

Unfortunately on the day of our interview, Skype was refusing to play ball and after a few failed attempts to speak to Alex (who was very patient and understanding about the whole debacle), we resorted to an email interview. We would like to thank Alex for his time and we would like to give Skype a firm telling off! Without any further ado, please find our interview below.

Bee Garner: Hi Alex, please introduce yourself and your latest film, London Symphony.

Alex Barrett: I’m an independent filmmaker from London. I’ve made a number of short films, and two features. The first, Life Just Is, was a character drama, and the second is London Symphony. It’s a city symphony, which is a genre of film that was predominately around during the 1920s. Essentially, a city symphony is a creative documentary that seeks to capture the essence of a given city, but they also serve as time capsules for the era in which they’re made. So I thought it might be interesting to create a new city symphony in the style of a film from the 1920s, and thereby shine a light on life today through the lens of the past, in much the same way that a historian would look to the past to help make sense of the present. The film was shot in over 300 locations around every borough of London.

BG: Your film is very much a love letter to London, what was it about London that appealed to you?

AB: Both my writer, Rahim Moledina, and I are native Londoners, so it was only natural that we would gravitate towards London when thinking about making a city symphony – and I think it would be quite hard to make an authentic portrait of a city that you haven’t lived in for many years. At the time that we had the idea (summer 2013) there was a divisive politics running through the UK, so we thought that it would be good to take a positive look at the city and, specifically, the diversity found within London (especially the religious diversity). We were also interested in capturing the physical shape of the city before it changed beyond recognition – there’s been so much building work in London over the last few years that we wanted to capture something of the city at this specific moment in time, before it disappeared forever.

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BG: Please tell me how you managed to arrange the filming process? It seemed so organised but very spontaneous.

AB: Thanks. I suppose organised spontaneity is a good way to describe it! After deciding early on what the themes of the film were going to be, Rahim and I developed a script through several drafts. This was very specific, outlining certain images in detail – but that wasn’t really the type of film that I wanted to make. So rather than sticking to the script, I turned it into a location list. My cinematographers and I would then turn up at the locations and respond naturally to what was around us. The idea, really, was to avoid too many preconceived ideas about what we might find at a given location. My composer wrote a structure for his music while we were still developing the script, and this lent a shape to the project (we used it as the structure of the images as well as the music). So when it came to the edit, we already knew what the shape of the piece was going to be. In a sense, then, it was all very thought through in advance – but during the shoot itself we were trying as much as possible to stay alive to the possibilities of the moment.

BG: How were the locations chosen? Did you have any problems accessing certain places in order to film?

AB: All of the locations were really chosen for thematic reasons. Having decided what we wanted to explore through the film, we worked backwards from there – so, for instance, knowing that we wanted to explore religious diversity in London led us naturally to the various religious buildings that feature in the film. There were a few venues that didn’t allow us access, and some that priced themselves out by refusing to cut us a deal, but there were always alternatives available. For instance, one of the big museums wanted to charge us £1,000 for a one hour shoot, so we simply chose to film in other museums which were more approachable, and more appreciative of the spirit in which we were working.

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BG: London has been featuring in the press recently for all the wrong reasons, what was your experience dealing with the city’s citizens and it’s public. Do you feel that the city and its people are being misrepresented by the media?

AB: When we set out to make the film, we knew that we were capturing the city at a very specific moment in its history, and that it would become a kind of ‘time capsule’. What we weren’t expecting was for London to change so quickly. We started the project in 2013 (which was pre-Brexit), and it’s been interesting to see the ways the city has changed since then, and the ways this has been dealt with by the press. I think, on a personal level, I’d be a little wary about trying to make a sweeping statement or quick soundbite which encompasses these complex issues, but I hope that the film itself stands as something of a meditation which will enable people to reflect on these topics for themselves. Despite the fact that we began with clear themes and ideas that we wanted to express, the film is intended to be a non-didactic, observational piece which creates a space for the viewer to reach their own conclusions. In terms of my own experiences – I felt nothing but welcome, and was incredibly grateful for all the hospitality I received from the communities which feature in the film.

BG: I believe your film was shot on digital, what was your reason for this decision?

AB: Aside from the obvious cost benefits, I thought that using digital technology to shoot in an ‘old style’ (essentially in the style of a film from the 1920s) would give rise to a dichotomy which could represent one of the key themes of the film: old versus new. London is a historic centre dwarfed by a modern metropolis, and the idea of reflecting this through the form of the film itself was very appealing to me.

BG: Which filmmakers inspired you?

AB: I’d say the two most important were probably Walter Ruttmann and Joris Ivens – specifically Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Ivens’ Rain (1929). But there were lots of people that influenced us in one way or another – I put together a list of about 30 films for my collaborators to look at. Many of them were classic city symphonies, but we were also influenced by other filmmakers from the silent era, especially people like Jean Epstein and Paul Fejos. And, of course, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and the Soviet Montage Theorists. In terms of sound cinema, the GPO filmmakers were probably the most important to us.

BG: You went down the crowd sourcing route to fund your film, what was your decision for this?

AB: We always saw London Symphony as a kind of community project, so for us it made sense to foster that kind of spirit as much as possible – we tried to build an online community for our backers, where they could open into dialogue with us about the film we were creating. Basically, it was a way to involve people in what we were doing, in one way or another.

BG: What’s next for you?

AB: At the moment I’m really concentrating on writing – going back to my roots in fiction. I’m not sure what will be my next project, but right now I’m having fun playing around with ideas, and words, on the page.

BG: And lastly, if you could travel to any city at any point in time in order to film a symphony, where would you go?

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AB: Good question… I’d probably go for 1920s, when the genre was in full swing and there was a sense of modernist grandeur to the architecture – though, of course, a lot of the great cities already have their own symphonies made in that era. Still, I’d probably go for one of the European capitals – Paris, Barcelona, Lisbon, Rome. Any of those would have been magical (and they still are!).

London Symphony is now out on DVD and BFI Player. You can check out the details for the film here: http://www.londonsymphfilm.com and follow on Twitter at @LondonSymphFilm 

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