London Symphony (2017)

When it comes to 21st Century silent films we can be rather reserved about it all here. It is very rare indeed to find any titles which are of good enough quality to highlight. But, there have been a number of filmmakers who have been able to showcase their love of the silent film era successfully into a film project which not only celebrates silent film but also respects the subject matter. Over the years, the likes of The Artist (2011) as well as  The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish (2005) have all been successful candidates in our eyes (alright! Blancanieves (2012) as well) We are very happy to say then that the brand new film by Alex Barrett London Symphony (2017) can be included in this exclusive club of successful 21st Century silent films. 

London Symphony is a brand new silent film, a city symphony, which offers a poetic journey through the city of London. It is an artistic snapshot of the city as it stands today, and a celebration of its culture and diversity.

The film was nominated for the Michael Powell Award for Best British Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017, and it will be released in the UK on September 3rd 2017 a list of the films locations can be found on the London Symphony Website and at the bottom of this page. 

London Symphony will land in the South West mid September with two screenings scheduled at the Cube Cinema, Bristol:

Monday 18th September / 18:30 
Wednesday 20th September / 20:45

And then a special one off screening with a live Q&A with director Alex Barrett at the Curzon Cinema & Arts, Clevedon with South West Silents’ James Harrison hosting the event on Thursday 21st September at 19:30.

Finally, we have scheduled a screening of Berlin Symphony of a City (1927) in October to tie in with the release of London Symphony. Tickets are now available via the Cube Cinema, Bristol Website.  

But before all of that, James was able to catch up with Alex Barrett during the preparation for London Symphony’s UK tour:

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James Harrison: City Symphony films are a unique kind of creature when it comes to film genres, when and where did the idea for London Symphony come from initially?
Alex Barrett: Back in 2009, I made a short film called Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge. It was a three minute cinepoem about one of the bridges in London, which had been heavily inspired by the original city symphonies of the 1920s. The short had been a joy to work on, had happened very quickly, and was well received for what it was. My first feature, a fictional drama, came out at the end of 2012, and had taken seven years to make. So in 2013 I decided I wanted to do something quick and easy, and set about trying to turn the Hungerford short into a feature which looked at the whole of London. But, of course, when you start looking at the whole of London, rather than just a single bridge, it becomes a more complicated process. Very suddenly, my ‘quick and easy’ project turned into something which was a lot more creatively and logistically complicated than I had originally intended.

JH: Were there specific themes or subjects you wanted to cover early on?
AB: Yes, definitely. I was very keen to make sure that the film wouldn’t just be seen as style over substance, and I wanted to use this ‘old’ style for a reason: to look at modern life through the lens of the past, much as historians do. London Symphony might be a film about London, but it’s also a film which looks at modern life as a whole. The Hungerford short had dealt, thematically, with modernism and the clash between old and new, and this was something that I was keen to continue exploring with the feature version: this idea of old historic London and the modern metropolis which has been built up around it. We were looking at it primarily from a sociohistorical point of view, but it unavoidably brought a political dimension with it – the way rampant building work is happening in the ‘age of austerity’, and the way this is affecting the city’s inhabitants. But I think the predominant concern, thematically speaking, was to celebrate London’s cosmopolitan nature. We’re living in a time of divisive politics, and we wanted to counter that with a visual celebration of the city’s culture and diversity.

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JH: How did you decide on the locations found within the film? Was it a matter of listing them all and cutting stuff out?
AB: It was a mixture of things, really. My writer, Rahim Moledina, and I started by discussing the themes of the piece, and then worked outwards from there. It was about trying to encapsulate what we liked about London, but also what we saw as indicative of modern London or life in the modern era. We did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of people, including our crowdfunding backers, and asked for advice and recommendations. We started with an initial list of 200 locations, which swelled to over 400, and was then cut down to about 325 during the shoot. It was really just about trying to cover as many different aspects of London as possible, while also making sure that everything on screen was going to somehow further the various themes of the piece (there are a lot of ‘subthemes’ in addition to the wider themes mentioned above).

JH: Any major changes when it came to putting the film together in the edit?
AB: In a sense, the film was really written in the edit, so I wouldn’t say there were any major changes per se, as that implies we had something to change away from! That said, Rahim had written a full script, which was quite specific about certain ideas and images, but I had already moved away from this prior to the shoot, as I wanted the cinematographers to respond naturally to the locations around them, rather than trying to force the images or the location to fit a preconceived idea. Really, we used the script to help us plan which locations to film in, and what the general topic and themes of each movement would be – and there were no major changes to any of those during the edit. It was really more of an organic progression from the script to the final film. There was a lot of material to go through (we filmed over 112 hours of material), but the actual edit was a fairly smooth process.

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JH: I have to put my hands up now. When I first heard about the film (it was in the early stages as I remember) I was rather apprehensive about it all… but all that fell away after seeing the first few clips. What I was really impressed with was how much the music and the images on the screen work together; especially with the tone… how much of a relationship did you have with James McWilliam with this?
AB: James (McWilliam) and I worked incredibly closely throughout the whole process. When the project was at script stage, James put together a detailed structure for his music, breaking down each of the movements into sections and subsections, telling me exactly how long each part would be, to the second. He also told me roughly what the tempo, tone and mood of each part would be. Later, I used this outline to turn Rahim’s work into an editing script, which followed James’ structure. So, basically, the music dictated the overall shape of the edit, along with the tempo and tone, even when I was cutting without any music. There was a bit of back-and-forth between James and myself during the edit, and I was constantly sending him material to look at. But most of the music was written to picture, rather than the other way round.

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JH: So much has happened in London in the past few months since the completion of London Symphony… 
AB: When we set out to make London Symphony, I always knew that it would gain an extra level of interest as the years rolled on and the city changed. It’s the same with all city symphonies. They’re portraits of the time in which they were made, serving as snapshots not only of the city on which they focus, but also of their given era. But what I didn’t know was how quickly things in London were going to change, or what challenges the city – and the rest of the UK – was going to face. So, in a way, the film already shows a different London. But I think the difference between then and now, as highlighted by the film, allows viewers to meditate on recent events and the way they’ve affected the city.

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JH: What are the plans for the future? Anymore City Symphonies?
AB: Well, once the release is finished I’d like to catch up on some sleep! But, more seriously, I’m working on a few projects, although I’m not sure what will be next. While working on London Symphony I’ve been co-writing a script with a Bulgarian filmmaker, Andrey Paounov, which I’m hoping will shoot next year. We describe it as Waiting for Godot meets The Shining. So, as you can imagine, that was a lot of fun to write. As for more city symphonies – never say never, but I’ve no plans at the moment. Given how long this one has taken, I’d probably only do another if it was a commission. Another type of silent film though? That might be fun…

London Symphony will be released throughout the UK from September 3rd 2017 with two screenings at the Cube Cinema, Bristol on Monday 18th September / 18:30 and Wednesday 20th September / 20:45. With one screening with a special Q&A with director Alex Barrett on Thursday 21st September / 19:30 at Curzon Cinema & Arts, Clevedon.

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