The pioneers of aviation were never lonely
Who: Paul Kelly
Where: London, UK
What: Filmmaker Heavenly Films
Is it true that you started to work with film and video because you used to make the videos for your old band? Can you tell us a bit about that? You said they were usually very low budget. I’m interested in how you made videos and edited back then? What kind of cameras, editing set ups did you have to get to grips with in that pre-digital age?
I was fascinated by cameras as a kid, probably because of my dad who was a keen photographer and film maker. My mum bought me a little Kodak Super 8 camera when I was about 12 years old which I used mainly for filming aeroplanes at the local airfield.I also used to make little dramas featuring my younger brother acting out fight scenes and bike chases. I didn’t know anything about editing and so I used to shoot everything in sequence and in-camera until I saw a feature on Screen Test (TV show) about editing. After that I saved up to buy a film splicer which in retrospect is a bit of a shame as I then went on to chop up most of my films in an attempt to improve them. I do still have a couple of complete unedited reels though.When we formed our band East Village in the eighties it seemed quite natural to try and film ourselves and so out came the super 8 camera. At the time film was still pretty cheap and as I had turned my back on most mainstream music and become obsessed with all things sixties, using film suited the aesthetic. We did hire a VHS home recorder once but it was really cumbersome with a heavy old recorder that you were supposed to wear on a shoulder strap and a separate camera that was massive. The original camera my mum bought for me was a Kodak M24 which despite being at the bottom of the range was very compact and was actually a very good little camera. I continued using it right up until the 90s when I began buying more expensive things like Braun Nizo and Bolex 16mm cameras.I had a friend at Leicester Poly who had access to a U-matic editing suite and through him I began to learn about telecine and editing. We would shoot everything on film, get it telecined and then edit on tape. It was quite laborious as you had to type in the timecode for your in and out point on the edits and typing fast is something I’ve never really mastered. However, compared to actual film cutting it seemed quite advanced at the time. We made one promo film which we entered it into a competition held byThe Tube (TV show) which I think was eventually won by Pop Will Eat Itself.
You’ve worked in actual Super 8, would you consider using some of the newer post-production simulation film stock plugins and if so how do you think they compare or are you quite precious about that kind of thing?
I’ve tried various filters and grades and although you can achieve a pretty convincing Super 8 look these days, I just don’t find it as satisfying as working with film. If I could afford it I would only ever shoot on film, unfortunately I rarely ever do anymore. With Super 8 in particular, I think there is a lot to do with the way you hold and operate the cameras and move them that creates the charm and the look of the footage. The other day I filmed a live gig using Super 8 and it was quite nerve racking. We have become so used to being able to instantly check the footage during the shoot and have the reassurance that everything has been captured whereas on this particular shoot we now have an anxious wait for the results and these days the film isn’t cheap!My overriding memory of using any film in the past is that of the money almost literally running through the gate while holding the trigger which is probably why you would rarely take too many long shots, especially with Super 8. Home movies shot on film often tend to look like a series of snaps with each clip being so brief. On the recent gig shoot we needed to run the entire reels without letting go of the trigger which was reallyquite difficult.Film cameras are far more forgiving when being used hand-held. If you think of a film like Don’t Look Back with Bob Dylan, that would have looked fairly ropey if it had been shot on video, but the 16mm film camera gives even the roughest shots a kind of elegance. Bob Dylan is obviously a very compelling subject and DA Pennebaker is a wonderful film maker, but I don’t think that kind of movie works so well on anything other than film.
With Finisterre you wanted to get away from all that MTV fast-cutting and make something a lot more contemplative. What other kind of long-take films were you influenced by for that?
Patrick Keiller’s London was obviously a strong influence as well as Norman Cohen’sThe London Nobody Knows which I first came across in the ’80s when they would still show a lot of post war cinema documentaries on TV in the afternoon. Daytime TV was still relatively new and so I suppose they hadn’t yet begun to fill the schedule with quiz shows and soaps. I was in my band on the dole in those days and so we had a lot of time on our hands and would watch a lot of films.Finisterre was definitely an attempt to make something cinematic and anti-TV, which obviously worked a bit too well as it has yet to be broadcast! We originally wanted to shoot it on film but without any kind of budget it would have been impossible. We were keen to achieve a filmic look which is one of the main reasons why everything was locked off. The idea was to shoot the film in the style of a wildlife documentary and let the camera hold on each shot for as long as possible except our landscapes were urban. It probably doesn’t sound very unusual these days to slow things down but at the time everything seemed to be so fast cut and cheap looking, especially documentaries.
What have you done today, Mervyn Day? was a final chance to capture an area of London before it was effectively gentrified by the plans for the Olympics. You’ve said before that you don’t like the space or what they’ve done to it since the Olympics. Will Self has recently been speaking out about the increasing privatisation of public spaces, do you think it is getting worse across the capital?
Yes, it’s a total disaster. The Olympics was a great chance to channel vast amounts of IOC money into regenerating that part of London and keep it in public ownership but it has all fallen into private hands. Westfield is a disgrace and the whole area has effectively been given away under our noses. The main Olympic site itself has been turned into a sanitised corporate wasteland. The city parks are increasingly being used for pay to attend events including things like Field Day and LoveBox in Victoria Park which results in large sections of the park being shut off from the public for weeks on end during the summer when the public should have full access to these places. Although some of the money is supposedly going back into the upkeep of the park it is effectively the use of public space for private profit which will no doubt ultimately lead to their privatisation in one form or another.
Who came up with the idea to use the name Mervyn Day as a kind of symbolic presence in that film? It always makes me smile thinking about that film and about Mervyn Day because I grew up with him as a name on a Panini football sticker and, apart from him playing for Leyton Orient who obviously play near the Lower Lea Valley area that the film depicts, Mervyn Day also seems to me to be almost a byword for a certain kind of provincial 1980s England. He played in the North, the South and the Midlands in his time so he kind of represents some kind of everyman footballer of a certain era.
We were trying to think of a famous local character and the one name that really stuck in my mind was Mervyn Day. I remember seeing him on the Big Match every other Sunday playing for West Ham. He always struck me as looking pretty cool and unlike your average goalkeeper – more like a striker. In my mind he always seemed to wear thin green gloves although I checked it out recently and couldn’t find any pictures of him wearing them, and so I must have imagined it. I think Bob or maybe Andrew our producer actually got in touch to make sure he didn’t mind us using his name – he was working as a coach at Charlton at the time. I understand he gave his approval but I don’t know if he has ever seen the finished film.
As a footnote to that last question, I was recently putting a mix of music together that was chosen by Sam Knee and when putting it together I came across an old clip of football commentary where Mervyn Day was playing for Leeds and just prior to kick-off he’d somehow got himself tangled in the net which I thought was kind of apt inasmuch as football then compared to football now seems to mirror the Lower Lea Valley then and now. In the 80s, football was still kind of fairly innocent, a competent goalkeeper like Day could still somehow get himself tangled up in the net, compared to the corporate media presentation that is invoked by the Premier League today and that seems like it’s going to be true of the redeveloped Lea Valley areas too. They’re gonna be slick but soulless. Do you think there is anything in that analogy?
Yes, absolutely. There were recently some re-runs of The Big Match from the late ’70s and early ’80s and the thing that struck me is how muddy the pitches were. I love that slightly broken down crappyness of the past. My kids are generally horrified by the way things looked when I was growing up which is quite different to how I was. I have always been fascinated by the past, and as a kid I was obsessed with the second world war and the forties and then later rock and roll and the ’50s and ’60s and still am. I think my fascination with dereliction must in some way be tied up with a loss of innocence and a rejection of the soul less world we seem to find ourselves living in these days.
Just to stick with your London work for a moment. Was How we used to Live the first time you’d worked with archive footage only? You’ve said that letting the footage dictate the film was ‘liberating’. How so?
Yes that was the first archive only film I’ve attempted. Bob and I saw the Terrence Davis film Of Time And The City and it started us thinking about doing something similar about London. The original idea was to cover the entire 20th Century and focus on five boroughs to see how they have changed over the years and using a fictional narrative to connect them. When we started we had the idea that we could create a narrative and then tell the story through all of this old footage and so we spent weeks looking for specific types of shot to illustrate different ideas.
However, as we only had access to particular collections held by the BFI, the footage wasn’t quite as varied as we had imagined and so it eventually struck me that the best way to work was to cut themed sequences with whatever was available and then build a narrative afterwards. So in that way the footage available began to dictate the structure of the film which was much more fun and free form. I decided to use only colour footage from around 1950 onwards as I felt this would give the film a singular look by drawing the disparate clips together and hopefully allow the viewer to forget that they are watching a collection of unconnected archive clips from different sources.
For our, albeit occasionally roughly produced, Dostoyevsky Wannabe films and short trailers, we’ve often used archive footage and have been struck by how so much of 20th century archive history exists in a 4:3 ratio. Do you think the ratio that a film is made in contributes its overall poetry or do you think it’s not a distinction that matters too much?
When we were sourcing footage for How We Used To Live, just about everything was in a 4:3 aspect. I guess it was in part due to cost and then later with the advent of television it was a more compatible shape. I saw the Pawel Pawlikowski film Ida at the Barbican and seeing a drama feature in 4:3 gave the film real impact because we are just not used to seeing films on the big screen in that aspect anymore. It was beautifully shot in black and white to suit that academy frame. I can remember when we first started using super16 as opposed to standard 16mm thinking how cinematic it looked because we were suddenly using a widescreen format for the first time. We are now so used to a 16:9 frame that it just seems fairly normal. I really like all of the different formats and it has a big effect on how you frame a shot and use it.
The Quietus called Lawrence of Belgravia “as far away from the usual cliched rock doc as one can go’. I personally think it wasabsolutely the right thing to do to not use cliched tropes like an artist’s ‘descent into drug addition’ or to just make some kind of standard rockumentary about Felt in order to capture a character as multifaceted and as eccentric as Lawrence. Do you have trouble resisting those kind of cliches from a funding point of view? Do films ever not get made because you won’t comform to them for instance? I was thinking about what Tony Visconti said about the record industry, where he talked about how major record companies stick to formulas and insist that these formulas work but clearly if they did work then they’d be selling a lot of records so maybe something else is at play. Perhaps some other ideology that really doesn’t want genuinely artistic documentary films like Lawrence of Belgravia to be made? Or do you think the funding situation is actually a lot more diverse than that and we shouldn’t read so much into things that might be said to resemble conspiracy theories?
It’s quite incredible that something as creative as pop music is so often documented in such a dull and conventional way. There are so many innovative and interesting documentaries made but not many good ones about bands or musicians. I must admit I have made a couple of music films using a fairly conventional format and I feel there is room even within that ‘talking heads / archive’ structure to be creative but let’s face it most music documentaries are pretty bad.I have been able to make a lot of my films without having to compromise but that is only because most of them have no funding. With the Lawrence film any sense of responsibility if any, was to Lawrence and myself. It meant that I could do what I liked but it was also partly why the film took so long to make. I love having that freedom but I think it can actually be a good thing to work within a formal structure and to a deadline as it gives you something to fight against and can actually aid your creativity. A lot of great films and records have been made within a very restrictive and commercial set-up. I think it’s a good idea to think about who your audience will be and how your film will get seen while still effectively making something to please yourself. Most music or film that is completely free of any restraint or sense of its audience is generally self indulgent and boring. Great pop music can also be great art and I think the same is true with film. I always want as much control as possible but I still need to focus on what I’m trying to get across. When I’m editing a film I always imagine that I’m the audience watching it in a cinema, it’s important to remember to entertain.
You made the film about Dolly Mixture. Dolly Mixture really seem like a band people should know about and in some way could it be said that it was a similar theme to the film about Lawrence in terms of being about the poetry of thwarted ambition, etc? Is that a theme you think runs throughout your work?After starting the Lawrence film I had this idea to make six films about amazing bands who – for whatever reason – hadn’t had the success or exposure that I felt they deserved – flamboyant failures – and as I was planning the Dolly Mixture film anyway I thought they could be the first two. I even tried pitching the idea to the BBC as a series of six half hour films about great lost bands but nothing came of it. Anyway it took so long to get those two films finished – mainly the Lawrence film – that by the time they screened there were some other similar films kicking around so I just left it at those two. Everyone loves those kind of stories now and it’s difficult to remember that just a few years ago they weren’t really being done. In a strange way though all bands have a similar career arc whether they are successful or not and they all tend to have a fairly tragic end or break up so I wanted those films to focus on the positive aspects. Commercial success so often seems to create bitterness within bands.
Dolly Mixture were originally around when terms like ‘indie’ were not quite even invented and apparently once U2 supported them? They really seem like a proto-Riot Grrrl band around a decade before that term was invented.
I didn’t pay too much attention to Dolly Mixture when they were still going and deliberately avoided seeing them play at least twice which I now regret. It was only when I first met Debsey that I actually began to listen to their records properly and I was completely blown away. After an initial flurry of interest they were pretty well dismissed by the UK music press and so I assume that I must have been swayed by that negative coverage as I can’t imagine why I would have avoided them. I think they were a wonderful band with a genuine pop sensibility who just wanted to make great records, but in a grey post punk world they just didn’t fit in. It’s obviously a quality that is admired now but at the time it meant they weren’t taken seriously. Their records stand head and shoulders above most of their contemporaries and although they are still pretty well unknown here in the UK, they are highly regarded abroad and particularly in the US.
How was it making a documentary that had your wife at the centre of the story?
I had interviewed Rachel and Hester ( the other two members of Dolly Mixture) which was fine, but when I tried to interview Debsey (my partner) it was quite difficult as I think I was just stressing her out too much. In the end I gave a list of questions to Fred – Rachel’s son who helped work on the film with me – set up the camera and I took our young son out for a walk in the park while Fred conducted the interview. It obviously worked because she gave a great interview, as they all did. I wanted to tell their story from an inside perspective and so apart from Captain – who is almost an associate member – I didn’t use any other interviews. It’s probably helpful that I wasn’t around at the time they were playing as a band because I really wanted to understand the story myself and things they maybe didn’t really see as being particularly relevant or of any interest to anyone I often found fascinating.
We’re really hoping the A Scene In Between film gets made. How is that film that you’re making in collaboration with Sam Knee progressing and what other projects are you currently working on?
We have some incredible footage and are making the film using original sound and picture archive only with no talking heads or retrospective overview. The idea is to transport the viewer back into the mindset of someone living through that period and capture a sense of youthful optimism. I’m also working on a film about the Jamaican singer songwriter Bob Andy and we are in hoping to go into pre-production soon for a feature drama called Junk Mailwhich was written by John Niven and Nick Ball.
Finally, can you give us a couple of new bands for us to put on our next Swimmers Club mixtape or at least any music that you’re currently listening a lot too? Your brother part-owns Heavenly Records and we’ve covered a few new bands who’re coming out on Heavenly like Palehound and Amber Arcade. Are there any more you can point us in the direction of, or new bands on other labels who have recently caught your ear?
My favourite ‘recent’ record is probably the Low album The Invisible Way which was from about 2013 and only really goes to show how little new music I listen to. I do like the new Cat’s Eye’s record though. I could send you a playlist but it probably wouldn’t include much recorded after about 1969.
Stills are from What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? 2005 and Finisterre , 2002 and permission is courtesy of Paul Kelly.
Paul also did an Astronaut Wives Club Guest-Mix. Listen here.
Check which is the shallow end and note the point where you will be out of your depth.
Check which is the shallow end and note the point where you will be out of your depth.