Julien Temple on Using Film for Time Travel and Ghost Sighting

From the Doc Channel Blog archives, here's an interview with Temple about 'London: The Modern Babylon.'

Julien Temple

This two-part interview with Julien Temple was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on September 10, 2012, during the Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the big names in documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival last year was Julien Temple, who Documentary Channel viewers should know as the director of Oil City Confidential. He’s also known for helming the music docs Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten and The Filth and the Fury, a ton of classic music videos (David Bowie, Tom Petty, Van Halen, and many more) as well as the fiction films Earth Girls Are Easy and The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.

His latest doc is a kind of history of London that’s very much filtered through his memory and style. Titled London – The Modern Babylon (also known as Babylondon), it is a chronological collage focused on rough periods of the 20th and 21st centuries, consisting primarily of archival footage and infused with the sort of soundtrack that you’d expect from Temple (i.e., lots of punk). I’ve decided to classify it as a city mixtape film. You can watch the film’s trailer below.

Unable to make it to TIFF, I talked with Temple over the phone about the new doc, cinema as a historical record, and how that allows for a sort of time travel and a way to see ghosts, among other things. I’ve broken the conversation into two parts, and this is the first.

Christopher Campbell: London has obviously been very timely this year. Did your making this film have anything to do with the looming Olympics?

Julien Temple: Well, it wasn’t directly commissioned for the Olympics, although obviously, the BBC were creating a whole amount of TV programming to coincide with the Olympics, and this was commissioned as part of that. Then we got the BFI involved to make it a film.

So it was made possible by the Olympics. We wouldn’t have been able to get this kind of soundtrack with all those great London musicians. We wouldn’t have been able to afford all the archive, I think, unless people had got behind the idea of it being a special moment in time for London. That was a great blessing for the project.

What is your take on Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony and its history of the city and British music?

It’s interesting, because I’m a similar generation to him, and I think music has informed most of the interesting British directors of that age. It was such an overpowering force in our lives. It reached the whole world, the music we grew up with. It’s part of our language as filmmakers to use it.

Certainly, there are themes in the opening ceremony that bisect with things in my film. Danny was doing something more about Britain, I think, than London. But it was very inspiring to see someone making a piece about the Britain that we are now rather than some kind of heritage version. I hope my film shows some of the journey of our main city through time to that point where we can celebrate being a very modern, energetic culture.

Did you begin the film before the riots of last year? It’s pretty much where the film ends, and it ties so well to all that comes before. So I thought it might have figured into either the origin or at least the focus of the project.

It was before that happened that we began the project. When you look over that much material, over a hundred years of a city, you start to see cyclical events and recurring strands of experience. The riots happened in the summer of last year, but before then I’d been looking at this footage and seeing recurring discontent on the streets of the city.

Every time the elastic band gets stretched a bit too far, it can snap. That’s something that’s happened repeatedly in London. Then suddenly it happened again last year. So it did become more the theme than it would have been without that. But it was certainly a theme that we were exploring before those riots happened.

How many clips are there in the film? And how much is new footage?

Most of the contemporary stuff was stuff we shot. We did shoot quite a lot, but it is obviously an archive-based film. I watched, I think, about 6,000 hours of footage, and there are more than 1,000 different sources that we cleared in the film. It’s a major archive project.

But it’s interesting because you have new interviews and then also old interviews in archives providing exposition, right?

Yeah, in the ’60s you’ve got people like Michael Caine.

Your film is a good demonstration of the way film is record, not just with documentary but even the fiction films that you sample. They can show us what the past was like to an extent and become docu-footage for a certain means. But are we to treat the fiction clips as historically as the real clips, or does it matter?

It looks like we’re not ever going to be able to time travel for real, so movies are the next best thing. In every movie shot on location, you’ve got a great window into the moment that film was made. I like the idea of a kind of interior history of Londoners, which fiction films give you an access into. But they also provide a wonderful physical testament to what the place was like at the time.

In the background of scenes, you get these wonderful glimpses of how cities were in the past. It was very important for me to get access to British London feature films because I wasn’t trying to make a straightforward narrated TV-style archive piece. I was trying to create more of a poetic time travel rather than a history lesson.

You obviously couldn’t really make this documentary start any earlier than the time at which cinema began. Do you wish you had the material to travel back further?

I would have loved it, yeah. But I was keen to make it a film of the moving image. In other films, I’ve used lots of stills and other advertising material and graphics. I wanted a slightly dreamlike quality of everything flickering and moving. I think there’s something magical about beginning it with the first piece ever filmed in London.

Your film presents London as a mash-up of Griersonian social issue film and pop. That’s just what visually exists, I suppose. Is that where London’s memory is, in this mix of serious issue and entertainment?

I think that’s one aspect, or rather two aspects of it. A city like London is composed of millions of different elements, culturally. And more and more, as the whole world comes here. I think London has a particular quality of self-irreverence, like taking the piss out of itself, which other cultures haven’t developed to the same extent. I don’t know why that is. It probably has its roots in the empire and ruling the world and feeling guilty about it.

That’s an important mix, and although the film is deadly serious on one level, it hopefully takes the piss out of itself a bit, as well. I wanted to make an entertainment and have a ride that people really enjoy through the film, as well as explain the city that I come from.

Does film truly capture every, and all of, history? For instance, you have a great interest in the subcultures and underground and foreign and marginal parts of society, which might not be totally represented in archival footage. How can one make up for this?

The way you edit it can make up for it, in part, because you can take down very top-down, establishment kind of footage and corrupt it and reinterpret it and turn it upside down, create a kind of rebel take on things through establishment footage. I think part of the reason I was keen to do this kind of thing is that the top-down story is what is normally channeled out. Ninety-percent of the documentation of the culture is from the top looking down. It’s very interesting to show it the other way around, looking up.

Especially with the technology we have now, people below can appropriate that and turn it around. There’s an interesting connection and contradiction with the “Big Brother” CC surveillance cameras concept, which is depicted in the film. I think someone even mentions how you can’t go anywhere in London without being filmed. But people want to document themselves and be visible today.

There is an irony in that. There are more CC TV cameras in London than the rest of Europe put together. It’s a phenomenally filmed city. Every day you wake up and you are an actor in some film bank somewhere. But if you try and film on the street, they don’t want you to do that. They are still very suspicious of people filming it themselves, although they love to film you.

Well, now a lot of cameras are very small and just look like home movie camcorders and snapshot cameras. Isn’t it harder for them to determine if you’re shooting for a film?

They’re even getting hip to that. I tried filming stuff on an iPhone and they told me to turn it off. It’s getting difficult to film in London. They’re worried about people filming it themselves, even on smartphones.

Even for tourists?

I think it’s a good idea to dress up as some dumb tourist and go around filming. You’re more likely to get away with it.

Where did the idea for the recurring surveillance control room motif come about? And is that supposed to be you in there watching all the videos, monitoring the history of the city?

Well, it’s also partly the ghosts. I put 19th-century footage into those CC TV cameras as well. It’s using them as a sort of panoptical device, so when the CC TV camera is filming today, there are ghosts from other times in those same streets, and I was playing with that. Again, the time travel idea.

They are very dramatic spaces, those dark rooms, where silhouetted figures stand 24 hours a day watching the city unfold before them. It’s a very strange space and they are very strange people who do it.

Did you discover anything new through your archival time travel or was your historical view of London set out beforehand?

Obviously when you look at a hundred years that intently, you start seeing the city as a kind of mutant organism, a living thing. Particularly London compared to a city like Paris. Such a planned city and they’re keen to keep that 19th-century plan totally visible in Paris. Whereas in London it’s a much more mongrel, cavalier kind of “let’s rip this down, maybe it’s a thousand years old, but let’s put a skyscraper up” thing. It’s a strange mixture of the really ancient things and the very, very modern things. I learned about that.

I grew up in the ’50s, and part of my preconception was that it was a very white monoculture, and obviously, it was compared to today. But in researching the archives I was fascinated by how deep the roots of different cultures in London are. I wasn’t quite aware of how certain areas were so diverse even in the 1900s.

I also learned things about the modern city that I didn’t really know enough about. Particularly the suburbs of London that had become a very vibrant part of the city, whereas they were dead, kind of dormitory High Streets with the same boring English shops. They were like death warmed up. You didn’t want to go there when I was a kid. But now probably the most exciting parts of London are on the edges because people are being pushed out. The life is moving from the center of the city out. That’s an interesting phenomenon. A sad one, in a way, because you don’t want that doughnut effect that knocked out Detroit, where the center of the city just falls out of the earth.

The one image that surprised me the most was of the beach on the Thames.

Yeah, in the ’30s. That shocked me. I thought that was a kind of modern idea of a city doing that. It’s great to see. They had nowhere else to go on holiday, so they must have demanded a beach.

This is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.