In advance of their film screening and discussion of Under the Cranes, we asked poet Michael Rosen and producer and Director Emma-Louise Williams to explain the process behind the making of this film.
Image: Under the Cranes, 2011. Courtesy Hackney Archives
If I decide I want to write something, I know that I'm asking of myself to do a variety of things with my mind. In any combination and in any order I know that I will end up doing quite a lot of daydreaming; pulling out images, phrases and sounds from what is in effect a store of such things in my head, laying things out on a page or screen; playing with what I've just written - moving things around, swapping words with other words from the same piece of writing or going back to the 'store' and pulling out something else; getting to a point where I think I've got things right.
Some writers want this to feel mysterious - both for themselves and when they're talking about it to others. I sympathise with this to a degree. I think I like the idea that there is some spontaneity and surprise in what I'm doing and that I'm not trudging off to that 'store' along the same old well-worn path, only to find what I know is already there. I want the path there to be different and for the store to have things in it that I didn't know were there.
This is a way of saying, how can I write something that feels fresh and seems to engage with something unfamiliar? And if that's my objective, are there ways of training oneself to do this? I know this sounds a bit sanctimonious, but I'll say it anyway, I would say that one way to achieve that is to stay curious: curious about the world around you, curious about the things you read and curious about yourself. Take yourself to places (real and imagined) that will surprise you, and try being an archaeologist on yourself in order to be surprised by what's in the next layer down.
This is what I've tried to do. I have a sense of myself when I'm coasting and not being curious about anything. So there are times when I say to myself, do something new; make something happen; poke your nose into that building or book or magazine or radio programme or website or memory; see what happens.
There aren't immediate 'results' to these excursions, I find. Instead, there are 'connections'. A memory chimes with something I read or with a place I'm in, or something that someone says and this triggers off the possibility that there is something I could write.
One problem with all this is that I've made it sound very private, as if no readers or listeners or viewers are involved. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Writers are constantly trying
to find ways to get to the audience, to let the audience in to how they work. One way is to imitate aspects of what another published writer has done already. It's as if the audience
is fossilised in the words, phrases, scenes and plot of that piece being imitated. Another way is to go out and find people - one person even - and see what happens when what you
write meets that audience.
Eventually, you embed the memories of these encounters with audiences in the very process of writing. It's as if people are at your elbow, not so much telling you what to do, more sensual than that: smiling, nodding, frowning, shaking their heads, laughing. They are your hired spectators who you have conjured up from your memory of seeing what happened when you took what you wrote to a place 'out there'.
Michael talks about his imagined audience, I was part of the literal audience at a play for voices that he wrote called Hackney Streets
which was originally performed at the Round Chapel in Clapton and then at the Rosemary Branch Pub Theatre in Islington in 2008.
I was very moved by what Michael had written and I had the notion that I wanted to take on his original piece of writing, to complement the feeling he expressed in words about Hackney, the place and the people, with my own expression of feeling about the place. Where Michael had created a wonderful collage of different voices, I wanted to bring some other textures and transform the piece into something like a film-poem.
In my work as a radio producer, I had already been trying to think about how we live in cities, social histories, how migrants are welcomed, music and memory, and working on a film gave me the chance to explore these themes a bit further. So mine is an artistic response to a piece of poetic writing; a montage of urban sounds and images, where I have tried to weave together old fragments (archive footage) and new cinematography, layered with voice, song, poetry, music and location recordings.
In making Under the Cranes
(the title is a line from the final poem in the film), I drew a lot upon films that have inspired me, particularly Patrick Keiller's London
with its total-fiction-all-true quality, which is rather like Michael's writing. I am also a big fan of Agnes Varda's films, with their playful, enquiring, essayistic style.
For me, it all starts with the street and how familiarity with the geography of where we live and work, going about our everyday lives, makes us feel 'at home' (or not). Like many people, I think it is important how buildings, architecture, spaces and places suggest meanings to us, are the repositories of our thoughts, ideas, feelings and memories, and in the film I have tried to re-imagine derelict buildings as sites of history, beauty and worth, like the painters whose works appear in Under the Cranes
; Leon Kossoff, Jock McFadyen and James MacKinnon.
And, in a spirit of camaraderie with the generation of Londoners, like my grandparents, who lived through WWII, I have tried to re-connect to that moment of immediate post-war optimism, in terms of planning the city and building decent homes, expressed so clearly
in Forshaw and Abercrombie's County of London Plan (1943), showing us the city as a place of possibilities.
Under the Cranes is on Wednesday 13 February.
Find Under the Cranes on twitter @underthecranes
Keep up to date with all our events; sign up to our newsletter.