THE RIME OF THE MODERN MARINER

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Aug 5 2010, 11:21am
You may not have given much thought about the decline of Britain as a great maritime power. But Mark Donne certainly has, so much so that he decided to make a film about it. The documentary, entitled The Rime of the Modern Mariner, was scored by Mark's good friend Anthony Rossomando and narrated by Carl Barat, both of whom are in some band you've probably never heard of. We caught up with Mark and Anthony to find out more about the film. Vice: Hello Mark and Anthony! So how did The Rime of the Modern Mariner start? Anthony Rossomando: It was born out of me wanting to take a trip on a container ship. Mark had told me you could hire a cabin on one and go to Antarctica or anywhere you want in the world, basically. I quite liked the idea of that isolation. At that time I was just losing my mind, I just wanted to get away from everything. Mark was talking about doing something similar and writing a story. His father was a docker and my grandfather was a docker, and he said, "I think we should do a film, you could do the music," and I said, "Great idea!" You know how you have those conversations with other creative types over many drinks and you don't think they're going to materialise or come to a fruition of any sort? But Mark Donne just gets things done. He called me up three months later and said he had funding to get this project off the ground, with an outline and narrative. The rest of it was a blag, we didn't really know what we were doing. Joe shot most of it sneaking his camera off in between times he had to use it for his company to shoot commercials. I wrote all the music basically without seeing the edit, because we were doing it at the same time, which is not what you're supposed to do. It's almost like what it was in our minds and imaginations kind of stayed that way until we came to the final product. Like all the things that come with a first in life, like your first love I guess – there's all this fear, anxiety and excitement. The booziness of the film's origins seems true to the nature of maritime life. Mark Donne: Some sea shanties have been passed down orally in pubs, in some cases for over 800 years. So we spent a lot of time in pubs with dockers, trying to get their stories. It's a very insular but very rich culture with its own language and cultural history. What they were saying was, "Our culture was denied us, removed from us. It was still viable economically, it could've carried on, but now I don't know anyone around me, I don't know anyone that lives here." They lived through a transformation. They were familiar and friendly with everyone, and now they live in this divided up society where essentially the economic inequality is massive. Anthony: When we were actually on the ship, I was like, "I can't believe we're actually doing this." I'd been very wide-eyed about the whole thing, and Mark had as well. It was great feeling like a kid again but having the resources and experiences of an adult to create something with people who you can be honest with about what you think, and during the process no one's too precious about shit. I think with collaborative work you need strong-minded, creative people, but also people that are able to put the project before themselves. And that's what we had. We were very fortunate about the whole thing really. [caption id="attachment_14900" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Gantry cranes"][/caption] Do you think the decline in Britain as a maritime nation corresponds to a greater decline in British culture, this lost sense of wholeness? Mark: Absolutely. To me, personally, it's allegorical. It shows that globalisation removes choice, it removes liberty, it removes freedom. These guys and their families couldn't choose to change this avenue of history, it was imposed upon them. They didn't choose for their houses to suddenly be worth ridiculous amounts of money so they had to be moved out of them. It's a force that's been thrust upon them. I mean, in a way, this generation has grown up with work being work, unless you're particularly well-educated and you're working in a desirable profession. But for most of this country, work means call-centres and drudgery and the service industry, and a lack of self-esteem. For these people, whether they were lifting crates of tea with their friends or navigating their way around the Bay of Biscay, it was a way of life. There was one point in the filming where we were talking to two Asian kids, maybe 15 or 16, standing on a street one block from the Thames. They didn't even know where the river was. I think it's completely extraordinary. You walk around the East End and people just don't realise that trendier pubs have this past. The George has a tunnel which leads to the Thames in its basement, where dockers went for hundreds of years. What united myself with Carl and Anthony in the first instance was... well, I don't want to turn this into Time Team, but... you don't really understand the future unless you understand history. Anthony: Society just kind of rolls forward unapologetically. These men are completely and utterly forgotten. Everyone in their position who's ended up in their situation has a story to tell. We battled with the juxtaposition of global trade and the implications of that all around the world. Although it was British-centric, I think that sentiment resonates everywhere. Then there's these up-close-and-personal stories of these men who've ended up at sea. It makes my heart go kind of weird when you think of some of them trying to escape their families. Some of these people aren't interested in connecting with the rest of the world, they like being out there. It's those kinds of people that are running these ships that are making the world work. Global economy depends on that industry. You can't ship any cheap goods without these ships. Yeah, and it's funny that people don't think twice about having a mango in England in December. Anthony: You've hit the nail on the head, totally. I mean avocados in England? Give me a break! It shows how important it is for western culture to rely on disposable goods, cheap shit. Everyone just wants to buy cheap shit. [caption id="attachment_14898" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Docker Ned Curly"][/caption] From what you touched on in the film, these ex-dockers and sailors are part of such an esoteric culture that if it's not acknowledged now, it's going to be lost. Mark: That's precisely the point. You're exactly right. In contrast to WWI and WWII, because it's the docks and because it's the sea and because it's industry, there's no commemoration services, there's no endless documentaries and books and films. They just don't exist. But this thing has been around for a thousand years. When Oscar Wilde and Joseph Conrad and Charles Dickens wrote about opium dens, they wrote that about Poplar and Shadwell. I think there's not that glamour associated with it as with the two World Wars. One of the guys you interviewed said there had been a real lack of respect for people who had been involved. Mark: That's a very acute observation on your part because it took me about three months, no exaggeration, to get them to trust me because they had such a belligerence, such a negative view of the media. Once they began to trust me and to believe that I was interested in what they were saying, I made sure never to mention the word strike once; I didn't talk about unions. I made sure they knew I wanted to know what their life was like and what it meant to them, the codes they lived by. Essentially, it's a colossal world that's vanished. It must have been difficult with the interviews when you're trying to win their trust, because you have to be careful about what you choose to include and what you don't. Anthony: You've got a very, very insightful point. There was a lot of debate. There was some stuff that was in there originally, but we had a discussion about it and decided it wasn't appropriate for public consumption. We had to make those decisions pretty quickly down the line. It would've been so much harder to complete if anyone had been too precious, but all points were heard and no one acted like a baby about it. It was a real treat and brought me back into the fold after trying to make a second album with a band that were falling apart at the seams and taking too many amphetamines and getting way too precious about everything. It made me realise that these kind of collaborations are possible, and I feel reinvigorated. Did you have a way you were going to approach it from the outset, an initial vision which changed as you gathered information for it and did the interviews? And how did the dynamic work between the three of you? (Joe Morris, Director of Photography; Anthony Rossomando, Sound Design and Score; Mark Donne, Writer and Director) Mark: It was quite a tricky one. Anthony had the most autonomy really. He was pretty sure that he wanted to adhere to the organic framework, the whole field work thing, the cracking of midnight, the myriad noises of the vessel, layered with bells from the sailor's churches round the East End. For me, I'd written in certain sections which I thought were in a narrative sense transition belts, taking people into stories, three minutes here, two and a half minutes here. His role was to put music to that transcendence, to take them there. On the ship you'd bump into him at four in the morning, in the complete black, recording the sea. From years of walking around the Docklands area, I had certain ideas about the photography, and Carl was very good at chipping in with these bits and bobs. I would itemise and say, "Here are several hundred shots I think I could work to carry the story, interspersed with talking heads and the rest of it." Joe's job was to say to me, "That's not a good device, that's not going to work, the equipment's too heavy and I can't carry that, so we need to think of another way of illustrating that particular strand of the story." Last of all, really, was Carl's voiceover, so I wrote the script. He'd just done a play, actually, so he was very much up to it. It was quite difficult for him I think, and quite challenging for me to get him in a studio and say, "I don't want any thespian affectation, I want your voice, uncut and unclean, like you've just walked into a boozer and you're taking me on this labyrinthine journey." Some documentaries are so prosaic, you're guided by three different core devices, one of them being the voiceover, and the voiceover is usually a good regional Scottish accent or BBC English. But I said, "Fuck it, just tell it." Anthony: Early on I was quite stoked to get Carl involved to do the narration because Carl showed me The London Nobody Knows, which we used to watch in his house all the time at six in the morning and that was one of the inspirations for the film. He was really stoked to do it, but of course everyone cracked up about the idea because nobody could understand what he was saying! With the mic up close, I think he did a really great job, and now I think the tone of his voice really lends a lot to the film. In a respectful way it tells these stories, but it lets these men speak for themselves. I think having someone who wasn't a professional narrator seemed more conversational, which lends itself to the feeling of the entire project. [caption id="attachment_14899" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Anthony recording sound"][/caption] Anthony, how did your approach or vision change as you started to engage with the interview footage? Anthony: I made a snap decision. When I was looking for a voice or sound that would link all the music from the film to make it sound like one body of work thematically, I just realised I had to use my own voice and make a choir out of it instead of trying to find some instrument. It was male voices I needed, it was a male chorus, because it had to sound masculine, while the sea is quite a feminine thing, so that's why I brought the strings in and the samples I made out at sea too. I was looking for the thread. I think we were all looking for the thread to be honest with you. I noticed you used the Morse code. Anthony: I had to use the Morse code, I had to. I met the engineer who used to do Morse code on the ship at breakfast and I thought he was just one of the oddest human beings I'd ever met in my life! From having been chief radio officer, he could have a conversation with you while listening to Morse code in the background and tell you what they were saying in Polish or Russian. I just hadn't met anybody like that before. He didn't like going home either, according to the captain. When I mentioned him he was like, "Yeah... he doesn't even really like leaving sea." These guys are not influenced by pop culture and western media or anything else. I think being at sea that much in your life really allows idiosyncrasies to manifest themselves and develop into full-blown, very interesting human beings. We got loads of Morse code recordings, all kinds of it. I found out that Morse code was in the same key as the engine was in the first piece of recording. I couldn't believe some of these things I worked out, I was incredibly lucky. The Morse code was pretty key to the whole thing coming together really. I actually had to reign it in a bit and because I wanted to use it all over the place. I've got loads more recordings that I'll probably use on some pop tracks in years to come, it's all stored up. Was it fun? Mark: It was fantastic, I loved it. The trip on the ship was extraordinary. No one's allowed to drink, it's banned, but we managed to smuggle quite a lot of booze on, so we were having these sneaky parties every night in our bunks. It felt quite authentic really! Most nights we'd be up filming until two or three in the morning, then we'd be starting at six or seven because the sunrises are so beautiful and all the rest of it. But yeah, we had a good few illicit drinks. We developed a sense of deference really, for these people who really no one gives a fuck about. The sailors in it now know that their way of life is on its way out, but they've got pensions, they know they're going to be okay financially. The dockers were fucked. They're lamenting now for the end, as they see it, of 1000 years of sea-faring culture, and the fact that no one knows about it – a seismic change that happens silently. Anthony: It was totally fun, but I was just happy to make something that wasn't shit as far as the music is concerned. My conceptual get-out clause was that I wrote the first piece of music based on a sample of the engine, which I then carved into a loop. "I didn't do this, the ship did this and I made the music to it. I am just a vessel, man." But it was a blast, I'm totally into this whole thing now, which is the last thing you'd expect me to be coming out of the debauchery of a rock and roll band. But at this point in my life it's much more fulfilling, it's rewarding. I would never have met some of those dockers otherwise. There was very little ego involved in the whole project; I think we all felt quite dutiful about trying to represent these incredible men for who they are and their stories. We had a great deal of respect for everyone that was interviewed in the film. It's about them at the end of the day, just trying to serve the project. The thing is, if you're writing a song you just want to serve the song, it doesn't matter who's got all the credit at the end of it, how many percentages or what the split is. You want to make the song itself sound great. So we all just wanted to serve the project and serve these men's stories to the best of our abilities. Mark and I are going to work together again, we've got another idea now. We think it worked out pretty good and we didn't spend much at all, we blagged a lot of stuff. We're going to be doing it at a few festivals around the world. EMILY FOISTER Photos by Barney Bodoano There will be a screening for The Rime of the Modern Mariner at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on 17 September. Click here to buy tickets.
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