Interview with Paul Wright

ARCADIA is a  provocative and poetic new film exploring our relationship with the land. Directed by Paul Wright, it’s a sensory journey into the beauty and brutality, magic and madness of our changing relationship with land and each other. The film combines over 100 years of archive film with a grand, expressive new score by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp. Toby Miller of Bums on Seats spoke to Paul about the film.

Toby Miller: Arcadia’s first ten minutes use archive footage to show Britain as perfect. Then the film goes deeper, and you gradually unpick it.

Paul Wright: Exactly. The idea for the film was to start with a chocolate box version of Britain, especially the British countryside. Then we start distorting that slowly. That was the starting point: the idea of starting everything off at a peaceful, calm pace, then as these different versions of the countryside came about we subvert the original opening ten minutes.

TM: How did you get involved with the archive footage?

PW: Adrian Cooper, who works for Common Ground, went to the BFI archive and floated the idea of doing a film on the rural Britain. Further down the line when they were looking for filmmakers, John Archer at Hopscotch Films came to me. At that stage it was slightly more of what’s in the first ten minutes – more conventional, what you would expect. Lots of lovely images, but I was quite clear straight away that I didn’t just want to make 90 minutes of “isn’t the countryside nice?” because especially now, that would be the most dangerous, political film to make. I was interested in these other facets about Britain and the countryside. I spent a week or two doing a treatment and thankfully everyone was excited about it.

TM: How much of the narrative did you have prepared when you began to look through the archive? Did certain themes become apparent?

PW: It was an organic process. As I was watching I came up with the idea of structuring around the seasons. Then there’s a second Spring right at the end, and the year starts again. With each season a dozen buzzwords mapped out a journey that we wanted to explore. Then as I watched more, different things came to light. Throughout the edit, the challenge was how to get the material we wanted and tell the story we wanted but leaving ourselves open to other ideas which were often the bits that you never would have expected to come across – those strange little moments that shifted things in a different direction.

TM: There’s a thread that runs through the film about how the working men and women of Britain have in the last 100 years reacted to the little that’s left to them by the ruling classes.

PW: Yes, through the archives there was very varied material to work with and a theme that kept reappearing was inequality. It became such a big thing that it felt very natural to have in the film itself. Do we care about each other, is there a sense of community or are we individuals looking to create a profit? These conflicts play out throughout the film.

TM: The score seems to offer a jarring juxtaposition to the images…

PW: Yes, Adrian Utley and Will Gregor created the soundtrack. In the early days we discussed the idea of having an eclectic soundtrack, so in the film there is classical music and folk music, as well as electronic and industrial music, which maps us through the grand narrative from beginning to end. A big part of it for me was using image and sound to create a new idea, a new emotion. That’s what we aimed for from the beginning. We could hear a folk song or a vocal in the first half hour of the film, then it comes back towards the end and there’s a very different sound to it – these reoccurring musical motifs that change as the film progresses.

When watching the archive, we found folk celebrations and then you have things like raves – you’re drawing parallels between people getting together for these events where the goal was not to create money but to do something higher than that – this group euphoria. There’s a sequence where we have one of the folk rituals that involves hundreds of people chasing the Haxey Hood, and juxtapose that with a punk gig. The two went very well together and that was something of a breaktrhough for me. These things are still happening today – the need to assemble, to be together for some greater good.

TM: Arcadia underlines how archive films were shaped by the prevailing fashion of the time. Did you feel that Arcadia couldn’t help but be shaped by today’s filmmaking fashion – the folk horror trend, our nostalgia for public information films, ghost box imagery…

PW: I’ve been into folk horror since I was a kid, so that was a way in. It seemed to make sense, the idea of a mysterious truth coming out of the land. That as a starting place felt right. During the research, we found a lot of stuff that’s relevant today. It’s a time when we’re looking back, sometimes in a nostalgic way but then there’s things like hauntology, this idea that it’s a complex thing to look back at the past and shape the future. That’s something that we were very conscious of when we were doing it. Trying to leave the audience space to bring their own interpretation and have their own sensory journey through the last hundred years of material.

TM: When you’re editing archive footage and breathing life back into the subjects, do you feel you have a responsibility towards them? I felt Arcadia gave the people in the film a dignity that wasn’t necessarily there in the original footage.

PW: At the start there was a bit of that – especially the few fiction films we used. Obviously they were loaded with complexities, a lot of these films were amazing pieces of work. We were conscious that by showing one image the context was out of place, but we had to free ourselves from that because we were telling a particular tale. It was about making one new film, so we had to shake off the idea of the original being in a different context. It became an emotive response to the images, almost, and what we wanted audiences to feel emotionally each step of the way. Sometimes the clips would keep their original form and meaning, and other times it would be subverted.

TM: The lady who has had her dog taxidermised, for instance – one way to have taken that scene would be to mock her or underline the ridiculousness. The film doesn’t do that – it’s a little moment of suburban loneliness which is terribly sad!.

PW: She’s one of the heroes of the film, for sure, it’s not a cheap laugh! Obviously some of the earlier films were made for particular political reasons – usually propaganda in its own way. So putting them in a different context was quite interesting, quite an exciting process.

ARCADIA is currently touring UK cinemas. Click here to find a screening near you.

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