New Town Utopia – Interview with director Christopher Ian Smith

New Town Utopia – Interview with director Christopher Ian Smith – words Paul Risker

A journey through the memories of the artists, musicians, poets and residents of Basildon, Essex, filmmaker Christopher Ian Smith’s New Town Utopia paints a picture of utopian dreams amidst concrete realities. Actor Jim Broadbent narrates Labour MP Lewis Silkin’s utopian aspirations for the new towns of post-war Britain.

The director’s early experimental work and live performances as a producer with the audiovisual collective Addictive TV were performed and screened at venues including: Le Centre Pompidou, the ICA and the BFI. Since then Smith has created commercial films and photography for major brands that include: Guinness, O2, Sony PlayStation and the National Lottery. His feature debut documentary signals a shift in focus back to narrative and documentary filmmaking.

Speaking with Flux ahead of the theatrical release, he discussed his interest in exposing the complications of world views found in the grey areas, and the requirement of the documentary filmmaker to explore the intricacies of a subject. He also reflected on discovering objectivity within subjectivity, the broad communication hosted by New Town Utopia and the questions posed to its audience. 

 

Why film and documentary as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

For me it has always been film and from my teens it is what I always spoke about doing. I made a few experimental things when I was younger, and then I became part of a group called Addictive TV. We were a live performance group, with electronic music and visuals onscreen, and we played at festivals and such. So that was when I was in my early twenties and I was into the experimental side of things, but then I went off track and ended up working in advertising. About five years ago I realised I had gotten far out and was not making any film stuff at all. I was stressed out working with brands that I didn’t ethically believe in – a breakfast cereal company making chocolatey breakfast cereal for children, and a big high street bank. I had hit my mid-thirties and realised if I didn’t do the thing I had always talked about doing, then it was never going to happen. Making the decision to leave that job, for the last five years I have been trying to find interesting stories to tell on film.

In regards to early inspiration, probably not so much documentary. I am a big fan of British experimental filmmakers like Terence Davies and Peter Greenaway, but I am also a big genre fan, of horror and sci-fi that has a social or political subtext. So David Cronenberg’s or John Carpenter’s films, and the more experimental filmmakers like Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and Terence Davies, and other genre filmmakers were my real loves, and they still are to some extent. But how I came to make a film about Basildon, I am not quite sure [laughs].

So how did you wind up making New Town Utopia?

I never intended it to be a feature, but a short experimental film. What I found interesting when I started this around five years ago was a conflict between looking at post-war modernist British architecture, and the real conflict between the almost fetishisation and love of it from people in the arts and design world, with the reality of what it’s like to live in brutalist estates, or brutalist tower blocks. For me it was going to be something about that conflict because I am someone that loves the texture of concrete, and loves the ways brutalist buildings look. I have lived in ex-council house buildings in the past, but I have never lived in a tower block or estate, and so for me it was to try and connect the dots between those two different views of the architecture and town planning.

I had grown up in Benfleet, which is the town next to Basildon and it always struck me as different from the other places you would go to. The buildings looked completely different and the high street was pedestrianised. There were these amazing sculptures with no explanation as to what they were or what they meant; they were just there. So I always found it a very interesting place when I was young, and it was an obvious place for me to look at the conflict between an appreciation of modernism and modernist architecture, with the attitudes of people that actually had to live in these places. So that’s where it started, but then with documentary you go down a rabbit hole, and your research leads to all sorts of possible directions.

It was the people I met that were creatives in Basildon, and I use that term quite loosely – musicians, artists and poets, and one guy is a puppeteer. Those people I met were very funny, opinionated, talented and interesting, but at the same time struggled to fulfil their creative desires. And it seemed to me that they were trying to do it with their hands tied behind their back, partially because of where they were living. What I also discovered when looking back into the initial ambitions of the new towns, the Crombie report and the 1946 New Towns Act, was that art and culture were a core part of the design and the utopian ambitions. Hence why you have lots of sculptures, murals and all sorts dotted around the towns because beauty, culture and civic pride were a key tenet. What I found interesting was that conflict between the ambition to create hubs for culture and creativity, with a belief that was important to the well being of individuals and communities, alongside other things like shelter, health and work. The film then shifted when I decided there were more stories to tell through these individuals and artists, and that’s when it became something bigger and broader, and feature length.

You don’t strike me as someone that looks at things as being black and white, and early on in the film with Silkin presenting his utopian vision, you are waiting for that “but.” By the conclusion of the film, there is the sense that you have not tried to paint it as either a utopia or dystopia, but rather a complex space. With this in mind, I can see you and the film as being interconnected.

Yeah, I agree, and it was intentional to do that with the film, and it will be an intention in whatever I try to do on film or otherwise. And especially today when everything seems so polarised, and recently with regard to Brexit. Where before it seemed there was Labour and Conservative, and you’d have these views or those views, but now if you have conservative views you are right wing, and if you have liberal views you are left wing, and there is nothing in between. But this is not how the world is and I come from that area of Castle Point, which was the highest Brexit voting borough in the south, with Basildon the second highest. So I have a lot of friends and family who are conservative and Brexit voting, but they are not racists, and they are not doing it for a lot of the negative reasons people will accuse them of doing it for. Being able to understand the complexities of any individual’s view of the world is what is important, and when you look at something like a town, which has hundreds and thousands of people living in it, and has evolved so much, then I think it would be ridiculous to say this is how or this is the only reason that could have happened. It’s those grey areas that are interesting and it would have been easy for me to just make a film that said it’s all Thatchers fault. I grew up watching The Young Ones, Friday Night Live and such comedies; everything was anti-Thatcher. Having seen it a million times before, there was no point making a film like that.

For me what was interesting was to say that yes, some of Thatcher’s policies had a very negative impact on the right to buy for the new towns, and of course it was going to have a huge impact on a town built on social housing. One of the things I don’t go into detail in the film about is that Thatcher was also responsible for selling off a lot of the assets the new towns owned: green space and other commercial land. I could have dwelt on that and made a bigger thing out of it, but interestingly there are a lot of people, and especially in Basildon who even though they might look at their town and say: “Well actually, it’s not doing so well at the moment” would probably still vote for Thatcher now. And they would actually have no regrets about utilising the policies and attitudes I guess that enabled entrepreneurialism and business start ups, and all of that which Thatcher’s conservatives offered to people in the 80s. That’s why Terry’s line, a theatre and film actor and producer is important in the film. He says how he comes from a labour family and votes labour, and he has socialist values, but ultimately he was also able to set up a business and run a theatre company because of some of Thatcher’s policies.

I wouldn’t call myself a socialist, I am definitely a liberal and I’ve had lots of arguments and debates with my friends and family over Brexit; I voted remain. But at the same time these arguments and debates have to an extent helped shape this film, and it will also help shape what I do moving forward. So it’s the grey areas that are more interesting and in a feature length documentary you have the opportunity to explore those, and there is no excuse not to. In a tweet or thirty second Instagram video you are going to get a singular view across, but in eighty minutes of film you have a real opportunity to go deep, and try to find different sides of an argument. But at the same time I had full editorial control and I had to get hundreds of hours of footage down to eighty minutes. So I have shaped it in a way that I feel is right and I think is balanced, but it must in a way reflect some of my own views; I guess it has to.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film, to the subjectivity of the subjects, it is not purely objective. 

Well it totally depends on the approach and the style. Yes, it is almost impossible to be completely objective because unless you make something completely observational, in real time, and you are not making any editorial decisions and it’s a fixed camera, then it is impossible for it to be completely objective. My documentary is not observational in the traditional sense of that type of film. The approach to much of the style I have taken with the cinematography and the composition is to be as objective as possible with a static camera, wherein action may or may not happen within the frame. There is a little bit of more observational stuff when I am with some of the characters who are doing their thing, whether it is music or whatever it may be. One of the reasons for that was I wanted the film to be quite immersive in the way it treated the environment, and I wanted the viewpoint of the audience to be similar to the viewpoint of someone who lived in the town. So everything is shot at eye level and at either walking or standing still pace, or from the window of a car. I never wanted to do some helicopter or drone shots because that’s not the way anyone from Basildon would see the town. But at the same time, with regards to the composition of the exteriors I was trying to replicate, and how these buildings might have been seen on the original architect’s plans, I wanted to retain that objectivity with the image; a geometry and a symmetry. And for me another reason behind doing that was to show the view point of the planners and the architects, because I knew that the memories and the stories of the people in the film were going to be anything but objective. It would be their personal experiences told from their perspective, and so it was about bringing those two things together.

I could have made a purely observational film of those twelve characters by spending a week with each of them, following their work, but it would have been a very different film. Or I could have taken an old school television approach, but quite early on I decided that I was not going to use photography for the film, I was only going to use video. And I was only going to use archive super 8 footage that was from those individuals who had grown up in the town because then I felt it would be closer to representing memories, rather than pulling up a photograph of an outside of a building, or pulling up whatever aspects of the town were taken for the local paper. The only archive is from some people who found super 8 reels in their lofts and that was quite a lot of work trying to dig that out. And one of the schools in Basildon made quite a professional looking film in the 70s with a London production company. So there is some great footage from that, but it was made by one of the schools from the town itself. So all of the viewpoints within the film are in one way or another from people that are from or live in Basildon. I was never going to approach this with regards to using a scripted voiceover, or was I ever going to appear in the film Louis Theroux style. For me it was to try to at least give that sense of subjectivity, whereby if you are watching it, you can listen to those characters and you can decide whether you agree with what they are saying; you can even decide whether you like what they are saying or whether they are telling the truth or not. 

Jim Broadbent is the voice of Lewis Silkin, yet in spite of being such a familiar actor, he brings a neutrality to the film by not being overly recognisable.

Again, it was intentional to cast someone who is an outsider because he’s playing Lewis Silkin, who himself was an outsider to Basildon. To be fair to Silkin, he was working class and he worked his way up to becoming a Member of Parliament. I think he was from south London originally, but he never lived in one of the new towns. For me it was to bring someone in from outside who could portray him in a sympathetic way, because even though I am contrasting what he’s saying and what the utopian dream is with where we are now, or where we were twenty years ago, it may very well be different to what his ambitions were. But at the same time, I do get the sense from what I’ve read about him and that post-war Labour government, the new towns and the ethos behind them, that there was a genuine sense of hope, belief and desire to do something new and different, that was going to make life better for the people that moved there.

It’s amazing how many people have come up to me and said: “Oh, Jim Broadbent is in it; he’s my favourite actor.” I don’t know if you will hear anyone say anything bad about Jim and I certainly haven’t. I just think by having him, even though it’s subtle, and even though we’ve effected his voice so that it sounds like an old recording, if it’s on that subliminal level in peoples minds that Jim’s voice activates a certain level of empathy, then that’s hopefully a good thing for the film.

Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?

I would want the audience to have gone through some kind of transformation. My one objective for this film is that I would like the audience to feel as if they are from Basildon or a new town. The hope is that it enables people to see the place where they live and the place where they grew up in a slightly different way. And if you are not from Basildon or if you are not from a new town, or have not grown up on an estate, then I hope that it enables you to see those places in a different way. That’s obviously open to quite a broad communication, but that’s quite important. And to go a bit further into the film, perceptions and those reputations are actually very important. An external reputation and an external perception of a place can have an impact on the people living in it, and can become self-fulfilling. And so for me, changing these one way or another I hope it manages to do, but people will come into a film with a lot of emotional baggage, and will see it through a certain lens.

For me it is definitely a transformative process because I have been working on it for four years, and so one way or another this film has touched every aspect of my life for a sustained period. On a personal level it has had an impact because a lot of time and effort goes into making films, and also because I was so involved in this, I produced and shot so much of it myself, and I ended up editing it. So yeah, it has definitely had a huge impact on my life and the way I will approach making anything, and especially my next feature will be shaped by this experience.

The time I spent with these people has been an incredibly eye opening and fulfilling one. To hear their memories and stories is something I wouldn’t have otherwise done because people live their lives within their own circle of friends and work. And especially when you get to a certain age you just don’t meet as many people. So it has given me something that has shaped me, and I’m not quite sure how, but perhaps the way I view the world, and the way I approach relationships and other people.

New Town Utopia is released theatrically on 4 May 2018 by Verve Pictures.

New Town Utopia – Interview with director Christopher Ian Smith – words Paul Risker