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Felt Up: Lawrence Of Belgravia Director Interviewed
Nicholas Abrahams , January 25th, 2012 12:30

Having spoken to the documentary's titular subject, Nicholas Abrahams now gets director Paul Kelly's perspective on Lawrence Of Belgravia

Paul Kelly works as a photographer, graphic designer and musician, having played in bands including Saint Etienne, Birdie and East Village, as well as directing pop videos and documentaries. He is the first to admit the influence of the work of Patrick Keiller, whose films London, Robinson In Space and Robinson In Ruins are extended meditations on an alternative England, generally through combining extended shots from a static camera combined with voiceover from a disembodied source. Paul's collaborations with Saint Etienne on the group's trilogy of films Finisterre, This Is Tomorrow and What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? all drew heavily on this influence. Lawrence of Belgravia is his first feature to be focused on a person rather than a place. It feels like a real progression, with Paul stepping out from the shadow of both Keiller and Saint Etienne to craft a work which sometimes seems as if it might be as much about himself - as a middle-aged man living in London - as about Lawrence, constantly dreaming of pop stardom, fame and success. [You can read tQ's interview with Lawrence himself here.]

From the opening shot it's clear that this is not a fly-on-the-wall documentary, as every shot is meticulously framed, with the camera seldom moving. But by following his subject over a period of eight years, he managed to shoot enough scenes which reveal who Lawrence really is - and how funny he can be. Paul also has succeeded in combining a strong aesthetic approach with a keen sense of empathy for Lawrence. And by shooting, editing and funding the film himself he's maintained total artistic control, so that we are given a pure vision, as far away from the usual clichéd rock doc as one can go.

The history of rock'n'roll is always at its best when it is made by or about an outsider. Lawrence Of Belgravia is both a beautifully measured and uncompromising portrait of the complicated, eccentric, difficult and gifted artist that is Lawrence, as well as a meditation on middle age, shattered hopes and teenage dreams.

You always keep your camera very static.

Paul Kelly: I like the cinema experience, and moving the camera has become so overused now. It makes me feel a bit dizzy. If you're watching a massive screen, you want the camera still. I want cinema not television. I like photography. The filmmakers I like are David Lean, John Houston - epic films - while I obviously have a small budget. So anything I can do to make it look more epic and filmic is good!

It's like you've combined the static approach with personal themes.

PK: It's funny, I've seen a couple of reviews which say it's clearly set up, each sequence was a set-up... and that's true. But you get far more truth from setting up a little scene, a different truth comes through. OK, you might not be catching the moment when someone falls over, but people reveal themselves in a different way. I do really like The Only Way Is Essex. I think if in 20 years time you look back to today, The Only Way is Essex will give a much better idea, at least aspirationally, of people these days, than a lot of 'true' documentaries. There's a certain truth that comes out through drama, that doesn't come through fly-on-the-wall. Anyone who thinks documentary is truth is deluding themselves.

Did you have to know Lawrence well to be able to create situations or set-ups for him that have a truth to them?

PK: Originally the set-ups were him in the studio recording, and because I use a tripod I would say: "I'm putting the camera here now, and here now". Slowly an element of trust was built and a filmic style developed through doing simpler things like interviews or the studio. There wasn't anything said from the outset, the set-ups grew out of the process. The trust came from... [long pause] I don't know if there was any trust!

The project started eight years ago. I'm surprised you didn't give up!

PK: Well, that probably happened five or six times. The film got cancelled many times. It started as an idea. I'd done Finisterre and Lawrence was one of the interviewees, and I thought he seemed so fascinating it would be really good to film him. So the first thing was an interview in 2002, soon after Finisterre. Saying it took eight years is slightly false as it was a very fragmented process. Lawrence doesn't function the way a lot of people do, his sense of time doesn't work on a nine-to-five basis, it's very extended and fragmented. For six months I wouldn't see him. As you know as a film maker, you have several projects or ideas going on at the same time. So it was almost a side project that was always being done in the background.

I think its the best thing you've done, as it seems more personal than your others.

PK: It's the first film I've done about a person. The other ones have been about a city or they're basically about buildings! Ha ha. It's much more engaging with a person, isn't it?

You seem to combine two things. You still do lots of shots of buildings - close ups - but it's about a person, seen through details. And Lawrence is very obsessive about details.

PK: The conscious element was just trying to put him in the context of the city, the streets. When you walk around you're looking at buildings, and the city goes at its own pace and then the person exists within that city. You hear someone talking and you see what they could be seeing... Lawrence has a great depth of knowledge on architecture and film, or a great interest at least. Films I had in mind when I was making it include that Marvin Gaye one in Ostend [Transit Ostend]. Do you know that? It's a weird thing to have this Motown superstar in this bizarre setting. He's wandering around the bars and living in Ostend. Someone at that point could have made a film about the history of Marvin Gaye. It would have been archive footage and all of that, but what is fantastic is seeing him out of place. There are lots of vistas of ferries and shipyards. It's just a character out of place.

I like that juxtaposition of Marvin Gaye and Ostend. It doesn't sort of seem to fit. You have to put someone in the context of where they are; that's what makes it interesting. Have you seen that film of Gene Vincent in London [the BBC TV documentary Rock & Roll Singer]?

In my mind Lawrence is like Gene Vincent and Marvin Gaye in those films: he's out of place. He should be successful. But he's the kind of guy you could bump into in the street and he's carrying his carrier bag, and you wouldn't know the wealth of art he has put out into the world. I find it quite weird that this guy, who probably will get recognized at some point, is just wondering around the streets. That's what I wanted to capture. Also, what I love about watching documentaries is when you go, 'Where did they get that footage from?'. You want to go back to the source, to find it. I wanted to make that source footage.

Could you have made a film about Lawrence using archive footage, in a more traditional fashion?

PK: It's hard, because I think the film I've made is not the film a lot of people want. They probably want the Felt story. That can be told and you can read about it, especially in this day and age, but to get to the person is another thing altogether. To really see into their world and how they deal with things, is a more interesting story. This sounds very arrogant, but in time they will appreciate the fact that someone documented this period of Lawrence's life.

There are many funny and sad bits, especially that bit about John Peel, where Pete Astor says that Peel was still upset by a letter Lawrence had written to him many years earlier. Peel said: "I've never had a letter as vitriolic and nasty."

PK: That's the one thing that has obviously really annoyed him, that has really plagued his life. It's funny, I didn't know that story until Pete Astor told it, and then later Lawrence pulled out that record [Lawrence had demanded that John Peel return him two copies of his first single]. Because, obviously, everyone loves John Peel! And of course Lawrence is the one person who bears a grudge against John Peel. He won't give you the answer you expect; he will always surprise you in what he does and how he answers you. When people started to appreciate Felt he formed Denim and alienated all his fans. Now they've come round to liking Denim of course, so you have Denim fans and Felt fans but not many Go Kart Mozart fans. I think in the future they'll come round to that. I think he's making the best records he's ever made now.

Does he really turn down offers to write music for other people?

PK: There's that bit in the film where he says, "I wouldn't reform Felt. I'm stronger than Lou Reed." Everyone laughs, because it does sound funny. But he is stronger than Lou Reed, because Lou Reed is a millionaire and he doesn't need to reform The Velvet Underground, while Lawrence has nothing at all yet he doesn't take these offers. He won't compromise his principals at all. You can either see that as being foolish or being true to your own beliefs. It's very easy to judge people on material success and think that anyone who doesn't follow that is an idiot. Lawrence lives for his band, for what he does, and if he was to compromise that he couldn't bear to live with himself. It does seem silly on the face of it. There was another offer [for Lawrence to write music for a band] the other day, but he just won't do it.

Is it true that the first time Lawrence saw the finished film was its premiere at the London Film Festival?

PK: Well, he'd seen early cuts and sequences and started coming in with lists - Lawrence communicates by letters, you see, even though he lives 300 yards away from me - and I started receiving letters with lists of ideas of how shots could work. When you're making a film some nice sequences don't make the final cut. So Lawrence would often see sequences and get really attached, then when they were cut out he'd get upset about it. We had big arguments. He'd say, "You're ruining the film!" I had to get Debs [Kelly's partner and former Dolly Mixture] to mediate between us, because we weren't speaking. It was because we were getting too close and it was becoming my relationship in a way. And that's when I said: "You can't look at it any more. The next time you see it will be in the cinema. I'm the filmmaker and you're the subject." I banned him.

Tell me about the last shot, where Lawrence on his balcony then the camera pulls out and keeps on pulling out, wider and wider...

PK: After Lawrence was homeless he got a flat, strangely enough, within view of mine. I have a pair of binoculars and could keep tabs on him. When he wasn't answering the phone I could look and see if he was in. I thought it would be fantastic to get a shot on a telephoto lens of him on that balcony. You have a lot of ideas that never materialise. But luckily a friend of mine was shooting a gig and had that camera with a long lens and motor zoom, so I managed to get that shot

...And it's magic.

PK: You've been really living in Lawrence's close-up world and you're pulling away and seeing how small he is in this massive city. Not how insignificant he is, but how hard it is to make yourself heard in this vast place.

You almost say this at the start with the title sequence, with Lawrence doodling in tiny letters on posters in the street.

PK: He was worried about getting caught for graffitiing. Whenever we did an outside sequence we'd end up having an argument. Every time the film came to an abrupt halt and I walked away, it was a relief.

You can't see that in the film.

PK: The homeless thing was such a complex and protracted story: half the time I thought he was in one hostel, and he'd moved to another. If it was a fly-on-the-wall documentary I would have kept track of that. So the story condensed. The only thing that reaches a conclusion is the fact that he makes his album. A film has to have an arc of some kind and it was quite hard to do that. I tried to make it look like it was shot over a year, not eight, and I used the seasonal thing to help that. Luckily he wore that same hat, a trucker cap with a blue visor, from start to finish. He has about five of them, but I didn't realise for some time.

A friend thought it was going to be a 'glass half-empty' film but it isn't, even though you touch on the drugs.

PK: Someone said to me, 'You didn't go into the drugs enough', but they are clearly there over the whole 90 minutes. Look what has happened to his life, you know? There are different ways to approach it. You have to decide what story you're going to tell. Lawrence is a very warm person. However frustrated you get with him, he has an incredible charm and always draws you back. He admits that he will only associate with people because he can get something out of them. He's quite upfront about what he's trying to get out of people. But he's so charming. He feels he's being hard, but probably doesn't realise he's actually quite a nice person.

This is the incredible thing about him: he is able to partition his life. His records and his books are kept in immaculate condition, while he lets himself fall to bits. It's as if this stuff is more precious. Even at the depth of his drug addiction, he still made sure his records were kept well. Whereas other drug users I have known, they will fucking sell their mothers! It's that control thing I guess: rather than completely losing himself in it, he somehow keeps something together. He's a very hygienic person, which is the opposite of most people who fall into hard drugs. He is full of contradictions. I could have gone further into the drugs, but they would have dominated. And that film has been made before.

Some people seem to think Lawrence is deluded.

PK: He's got his niches which he is well into. He's not an idiot. He's a fucking smart bloke - dysfunctional, in many ways - but his art comes first. When people say he's deluded, how do you measure that? From a financial perspective? From an art perspective? Who is to judge that?

Lawrence Of Belgravia will be screening around the UK from April; further details can be found at Heavenly Films. And the Quietus heartily encourages you to investigate Nicholas Abrahams' own film work.