How Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, Portishead’s Adrian Utley Turned Documentary ‘Arcadia’ into a Live Show

BAFTA-winning Paul Wright’s archival exploration of the evolution of the use of British land, “Arcadia,” has been given a new lease of life thanks to the duo behind the film’s score. Five years after it first hit screens, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley have turned the film’s vibrant music into a live show appropriately titled “Arcadia Live.” In the show, the film plays in the background as a nine-person band, including lauded singer Lisa Knapp plus Gregory and Utley themselves, performs the eclectic collection of songs, which goes from classic folk to techno.

Why present the film live now? “We both feel the relevance of the film has become more acute because of what has happened in the years since,” says Gregory, when sitting down with Variety to discuss the live show after its international premiere at IDFA. “We’ve got evermore peril to do with climate and, obviously, this relates very much to the use of land and the countryside. I think it’s just becoming even more apparent that the way we use the land is dysfunctional. The film is quite good because it doesn’t paint a picture of utopia in terms of how it used to be, it’s saying the politics of the way the land is used and abused is as relevant now as it ever was.”

“And it is really changing, isn’t it?,” agrees Utley. “I mean, we can all feel it. It has become much more present to us all over the last five, six years. I don’t know if we are doing what we need to do but there is much more awareness about it. The film doesn’t talk about that all the time, but it’s a doorway into thinking about what the world used to be once and what it is now. We have other issues, such as tribal gathering and tradition and whatnot.”

“When we started the project, Brexit hadn’t even happened yet, so it was an idea to explore certain themes and, as the years rolled on, they’ve become more important or more relevant to all of us, especially in the U.K.,” notes Wright. “Also, on a wider scale, it feels in the West like we are on this kind of cusp of what happens when capitalism has gone to its extreme, with a lot of decisions being made only for those right at the top. It seems like a lot of us are kind of going through a mass existential crisis almost, trying to figure out what happens next and where to turn next.”

On the visual appeal of the film, Gregory says, “It’s such a patchwork of ideas and images, many of which you only get a momentary flash of. But, as a musician, I don’t have a problem with that. I’m someone who never listens to the words of songs, I just listen to the music, and I think that, in a way, this is what the film is. It is quite unusual for British cinema, which I think is very word-dependent, very plot-driven. It’s because of Shakespeare, you know? Everybody in this country comes to film usually through theater, which is very word-centric. I think to have a project like this, where the words are the backdrop and the images are at the front, is probably quite hard for some people but it was easy for us.”

“We stepped back in a way,” he says of the creative process of putting together “Arcadia: Live.” “We made a lot of decisions early on: we wanted a string quartet, we wanted a choir, we wanted a bit of a guitar band, and we wanted the synth. So before we started, we knew what we wanted to play with, and we knew we wanted the folk voices. I think, really, that was the kind of menu, the buffet of sounds that we knew was going to be there anyway. And obviously, the mechanics of turning what was a load of disparate multi-tracks into dots on a page that linked together was a massive undertaking.”

“We’d already written the music, so we got Ross [Hughes], the conductor and a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, super focused, and he wrote the whole lot out for us so we could all play it. We said to him that we needed people who can sing, who can play their instrument, who can play the percussion… We got a lot of multi-instrumentalists, which was something we decided we needed, and we found unique people who could do it.”

When asked if they would like to work more with film in the future, the duo was quick to offer a firm “yes.” “We are always looking out for films,” says Utley. “It’s quite hard to find a silent film that has relevance for us. We did ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ because it spoke to us, and we did ‘Arcadia’ because we never thought we’d play it live. I guess we are always looking for that one. You can’t do ‘Battleship Potemkin,’ you can’t do ‘Metropolis,’ all of those films have been done so many times and they’ve got great scores.”

“Hopefully people will think about carrying on making silent films,” adds Gregory. “There are people who believe that, as soon as sound arrived, the golden era of cinema was over. I am not one of them, but there is a purism, too. There is power. And, certainly, with live music, it is even more powerful.”

Wright has also been greatly influenced by his experience with making “Arcadia,” his first non-fiction film. “I fell in love with archive work through making ‘Arcadia.’ Before that, I had only made fiction films, and I was surprised in a lot of ways by the similarities. With my fiction work, I try to create sonic cinematic experiences, drawing on images to create emotion. Working with the archive was such a gift for me. I’m trying to start another archive project, so we’ll see how that goes, but, for me, archive work has been a great departure and opened my eyes to what can be done with cinema.”

Gregory and Utley were thrilled with the audience’s response at IDFA, where the show got a roaring, minutes-long standing ovation. “I got the feeling that they were a very informed audience, that they were knowledgeable about film and the experience and history of watching film. So it was nice to get that reaction. That was lovely, wasn’t it? It seems like we connected, and that was a worry, with the film being all set in Britain,” said Gregory, with Utley adding: “I only noticed it at the end because, to be honest with you, I’m so worried about what we’re doing [laughs]. It’s such a big technical thing. It’s pretty scary, so it was nice to get a smooth one. I truly enjoyed it and we had such a nice response.”

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