The recent Museum Of Liverpool exhibition Reel Stories explored the city’s film heritage. It declared Liverpool to be “a filmmaker’s dream… a city of storytellers and performers, writers and entertainers, musicians and poets”. It’s true that while music may be the artistic medium we are most famous for, film is also an important part of Merseyside’s cultural history. The romantic streak of the Liverpudlian, the grand backdrop of the Mersey and its skyline, as well as the city’s tumultuous social history, all contribute to a rich vein of storytelling which many a filmmaker have tapped into.
Filmmakers and writers like Terence Davies, Frank Clarke and Willy Russell have all made films which have positioned Liverpool as a filmic city, but how is this tradition being upheld? Clarke’s 1985 film Letter to Brezhnev is cited as the high watermark for Liverpool filmmaking, a romantic comedy which explores popular themes such as class, unemployment, sex and the sea. Lynne Saunders, manager of LIVERPOOL FILM OFFICE sees the production as kickstarting a very important cultural export for the city. “[Letter To Brezhnev] was universally highly-acclaimed. It was a low budget feature film, many people on that had never worked on a feature film before,” Lynne told me at the Office’s Cunard Building base. “It was hugely successful but I think what it did was put Liverpool on the map as a location. The city looked great in that movie but also the talent in front of the camera and behind, so it really made the industry sit up and take notice of what was going on in Liverpool.” The city’s innovation came at a time when it’s public image had been waning: “In the late 80s there was a huge recession and Liverpool itself was struggling. The city was looking at creative ways to create revenue without spending much and meanwhile the phones were going and there’s all these filmmakers going ‘Can we film in your empty factories and your empty warehouses and empty tower blocks?’”.
Today, Liverpool Film Office provides this service, facilitating the search for locations, organising road closures and ensuring the city’s myriad visual assets are readily available to the big productions which are using Liverpool more and more. Blockbusters such as Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them and Captain America have made Liverpool famous in the industry as a desirable location either as a workable double for New York or London, or a period setting for high end TV dramas like Peaky Blinders. The work of the Film Office has helped make the city the most-filmed UK location outside of London and generates an annual of income of £20 million.
This is undeniably a boon for Liverpool and its cultural capital but is it beneficial to the next generation of homegrown filmmakers and those wanting to earn a living in the industry? Saunders acknowledges that there are gaps in support now that the Film Council is defunct, but the incoming productions certainly serve a purpose to those with film aspirations. “The idea is if you can attract more large-scale feature films and have a constant conveyor belt of production coming in, that’s where the opportunities are and I’ve seen many, many more who have gone in at various departments and have progressed to become producers and directors and writers,” Lynne tells me of the important role outside productions play.
The development at the former Littlewoods building on Edge Lane is also a positive sign for the city’s industry and independent filmmakers. While the chief aim will be to attract more outside productions and keep them in the city for longer, it will provide a hub for homegrown independent creative businesses who can support such projects. Post-production companies, prop makers, casting agencies and the myriad other enterprises that are required to assist feature films and television series will all be given space to set up shop at the ‘Pinewood Of The North’.
Homegrown talent development is the main aim of production company FOOT IN THE DOOR who are reimagining the movie development model with various projects which feed into their vision. Founded by Paul Morrissey and Michelle Billington, the North Liverpool-based CIC look to provide opportunities to young people and adults who find barriers to education, volunteering and employment, while creating feature films made by cast and crew from Liverpool. Billington herself experienced barriers to getting into the industry but has managed to work on a number of critically acclaimed and award-winning films such as Be All And End All and Don’t Worry About Me, which stars David Morrissey, the brother of her fellow director at Foot In The Door, Paul. Now through initiatives such as the Veterans Project which looks to provide opportunities to former military personnel who are struggling to get back into employment, the company is looking to create opportunities for people to get into an industry which is notoriously hard to break into. The hope is that a feature film will be in production next year as a result of the Veterans project.
Another company which has been flying the flag for Liverpool film for years is HURRICANE FILMS, a celebrated production company responsible for the likes of Under The Mud, Of Time And The City and Sunset Song. Funding is obviously a large barrier for independent productions and Hurricane Producer Sol Papadopoulos and business partner Roy Boulter have had to travel to ensure their films were made with the requisite bank roll. “A fund specific to Merseyside would be a boon. We’ve made our last three films all outside the UK for financing reasons; tax breaks in Belgium, funders in Luxembourg wanting to invest, etc. We’re hoping to make the next one here!” Papadopoulos told me. “Filmmaking is an international business so our work is done at the markets in Berlin, Toronto, London, Los Angeles, etc.. Most people assume, of course, we’re in London.”
The capital may be the hub for international interest, but Liverpool’s not without its own film-orientated centres. A familiar creative hub for film fans, FACT also plays an important role in providing knowledge, networking opportunities and showcases to filmmakers, and is now host to the FILMMAKERS MEET-UP, a new regular event ran by Ryan Garry. The evening invites guest speakers to talk about various aspects of filmmaking, from getting chosen at film festivals to picking the right music for your soundtrack. Garry recognises FACT and others’ roles in nurturing Liverpool’s film scene. “Liverpool has a number of institutions which are of use to filmmakers in the city and the first resource I would turn to would definitely be the Liverpool Film Office. They’re billed as a one-stop shop for productions, and, from my experience at least, will give the most independent film the same attention as the larger ones. FACT have also been very supportive, not only in helping put together the Filmmakers’ Meet, but also in having a very positive attitude to developing and encouraging local talent.” Garry tells me following the inaugural meet-up in July, “They are also responsible for the annual Film Night in November – which showcases filmmakers’ work from across the North West. Earlier this year I would’ve also included the LIVERPOOL SMALL CINEMA in this list – their open attitude to screening work by local filmmakers made it a great place to get shown. Sadly, it’s now closed down.”
As a place to showcase independent productions as well as a space to meet up and talk all things celluloid, Victoria Street’s Small Cinema has indeed been a loss to the city’s indie filmmakers. However, events such as LIVERPOOL FILM NIGHT at FACT aim to go some way to fill that void. The annual event invites filmmakers based in the city to submit their short films (under 15 minutes in length) for a showcase of films made by people working in the city. Demelza Kooij (filmmaker and Senior Lecturer in Documentary and Fiction Filmmaking for Film Studies at Liverpool John Moores University) is this year’s judge, charged with putting together the programme for the Film Night. “I hope I can build some kind of journey, it would be really nice if I could pull the audience through a journey,” Kooij tells me when I asked about how she will go about making the selections for November. “The best film programmes that I’ve seen are the ones that are very diverse, so ones that mix slow cinema with animation with upbeat film with something that keeps you on your toes as an audience; those are the best films. I want to get all genres, I love it all. If the film didn’t get in, it may have been that it didn’t fit with everything else or maybe it was too similar… or maybe it wasn’t good enough!”
As a filmmaker and lecturer who is new to Liverpool but has been entrenched in filmmaking circles in other cities like Edinburgh, Kooij believes that, while there are efforts being made by organisations like FACT, more needs to be done to bring filmmakers and creatives of all disciplines together to encourage collaboration: “You’ve got arts festivals, you’ve got music festivals and I think that, if there is a film festival in the future, there should be some kind of week-long thing running up to the festival where creatives of all direction should make something – doesn’t have to be film – so they can start working together. So, the musicians don’t just group with the musicians and the filmmakers don’t just group with the filmmakers cos the world is changing, right? You’ve got so many new technologies that we can all learn from each other.” It’s an enticing vision. While areas like visual arts and music get much of the limelight in Liverpool, it makes sense for filmmaking to join the party and get the attention it deserves, while simultaneously providing encouragement to aspiring directors.
Talking more about her criteria in making her selections, Kooij points to what she calls ‘authorship’ as the most important quality to filmmaking. She elaborates: “A persona in film form if you like. Some kind of passion or conviction or a clear identity. It can be a comedy, a documentary, a mockumentary, fiction, horror, sci-fi, I like it all as long as there is authorship in there. People are often worried, like: ‘Oh my god the picture quality isn’t that of a Arri Alexa movie camera. But you can make a really, really bad film with really, really good equipment or you can make a really good film with really bad equipment and programmers will always choose the latter because in the end all they care about is the story itself and how you have used your means to make that story happen.”
Across disciplines, authorship always stands out and it’s those films, as well as songs, plays and poems, which have gained Liverpool a reputation of creating great art. The likes of Hurricane Films, and Foot In The Door are doing their utmost to ensure filmic voices are being heard and events like FACT’s Film Night also provide a valuable platform. As Letter To Brezhnev was created out of one of the city’s darkest periods, with the support of these organisations, we can hope that today’s cruel socio-political climate will give rise to other classics and place a spotlight on Liverpool as a place where culture is created, not just manufactured.
Liverpool Film Night takes place at FACT on Wednesday 22nd November.