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A Brief History of Filmic by Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson, one of the creative minds behind Bristol’s Filmic festival, shares how the project has grown from cross arts parallels to endless possibilities of imagination.

Bristol’s filmic festival, which began in 2012, developed from the friendship between myself and Mark Cosgrove, the Head of Programme (or whatever he is now) at Watershed. He’s a film person mad about music, and I’m a music person mad about films, and we shared a feeling that there was an increasing amount of common ground that we ought to be covering, picking up projects that were beginning to emerge but that fell between the cracks of conventional, genre-specific programming …For the debut festival we came up with the slogan of film + music = filmic and that became our first, and in some ways only, proposition.

The founding vision was also a recognition that music could be filmic without an actual film being involved at all: that film was so embedded in contemporary culture that music could not help reflecting and referencing it. And that’s another filmic idea: that it can be about the film in your head, or the imaginary, so the range of things we can do is very broad. This also related to Bristol’s contemporary music scene and its world-wide reputation for producing artists such as Massive Attack and Portishead who tended to produce work that was variously characterised as moody, atmospheric, and, well, filmic.

For me, it also went way back to the mid-1980s when as a lecturer teaching video at a local college I had – following the fashion of the times – done a cassette mixtape of film-related themes from my LP collection for one of my students, Robert Del Naja, later of Massive Attack, that I titled ‘Music For The Film In Your Head’. My copy is lost but I remember that it included tracks from Bernard Herrmann’s music for ‘Taxi Driver’, the title theme by Miles Davis for Louis Malle’s ‘Lift to the Scaffold’, and a version of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’, arranged by Joe Jackson for a Hal Willner-produced tribute to Monk album.

The tape got copied and passed around, as they did in those pre-internet days, when discovering new things depended on the actual exchange of physical artefacts. When I interviewed Goldie years later, he told me that he had received a copy. Del Naja also referred to his interests in film for a story I wrote at the time of Massive Attack’s curation of Meltdown at London’s South Bank.

Another founding filmic idea was that we would mix world renowned artists such as Michel Legrand, Lydia Kavina, Jocelyn Pook and Philip Glass with Bristol’s own international yet locally based artists. This has always remained an important principle, continuing in filmic 2017 with Three Cane Whale, Mark Springer – a member of the great, Bristol-connected band Rip Rig & Panic, and whose father, Mike Springer, was a visual artist who specialised in scenes of Bristol topography and life – and the Lochrian Quartet, who also appeared last year as part of our programme Theremin!. The opening season in 2012 mixed shows by Australia’s Spaghetti Western Orchestra and legendary film composer Legrand with the Bristol/Paris aggregation The Greatness of the Magnificence and Frome-based pianist/composer John Law for a Fellini/Rota and Morricone night; a commission for John Parish’s film scores and Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble followed in subsequent years and since our inception in 2012 Watershed has assembled an impressive digital archive of filmic related stuff including filmed interviews with Legrand, Glass and many more.

As there’s no proper budget or wodge of cash to make our dreams come true, we’re mostly dependent on what’s out there and available, but that can be a good thing as well as a restriction. For the first year (2012) we approached the legendary Legrand, who just happened to be planning an 80th birthday tour, and he happily fitted our unstated requirements – basically all the film hits we could get – into his performance. But first we had to get him to the piano. He arrived with his wife – a harpist with the Paris Opera – by air from Paris in a terrible mood, and the limo that had been requested to pick him up at Bristol Airport turned out to be an old Mondeo that smelled of cigarettes… The maestro relaxed at his afternoon talk at Watershed where he was shown so much love by the audience, but then he nearly collapsed on the way back to the hotel…As soon as he saw the great Steinway at St George’s he recovered and spent the next four hours rehearsing before giving an absolutely mind-blowing concert, one of the very best I’ve even seen. Of course, we were ahead of the game: Michel’s scores for musicals such as Jacques Demy’s ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’ are an acknowledged inspiration for this year’s bag-full-of-Oscars winner La La Land….

The next year we got Philip Glass, who was on our dream wish-list, and again things just worked out as he was going to be in europe between two big London engagements, and therefore we wouldn’t have to pay his transatlantic air fare. Out of this booking came a great relationship with his management that led to 2014’s glassfest at St George’s, Watershed and Colston Hall.

Putting things together for each season is good fun. I see what’s out there or what we can commission especially – as we did with the Coen Brothers evening for 2014 – ‘O Bro’, or our folk noir theme for 2015, and then Mark and Madeleine Probst at Watershed somehow come up with a neat mix between supporting the music with talks and screenings and taking advantage of any film/music things that happen to appear as possibilities. This year we also welcome the full involvement of Colston Hall, whose Head of Programme Todd Wills has bagged the fantastic ’There Will Be Blood’ and ‘Under The Skin’ film + live music screenings. Now we have the possibility of hosting events on a larger stage, we can maybe look at bigger things for the future, but it’s not really size that matters, it’s imagination. If we want to do off-the-wall stuff, we will.

Find out more about Filmic 2017