The Beautiful City is a new series of short films from production company Tin Monkey that looks at the dark side of ‘Madchester’ in the days of the Hacienda, a unredeveloped side creators Richard Sainsbury and Kieran O’Brien felt wasn’t represented by films such as Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People.
The first film, 99 John (below), was shown in cinemas alongside Michael’s latest film, Trishna, and features a voicover by 24HPP star Steven Coogan. It tells of a mute man dealing drugs from an old ice cream van, with the grimy world of damp brick buildings rendered in a brown half-light.
DA: What was it about a different side to the city of '24 Hour Party People' that you wanted to show?
RS: "The original inspiration for the stories came from having a first-hand knowledge of 'Madchester' that wasn't reflected in any of the stories that came out subsequently. The most interesting stories from that time lay in the rather dubious marginal characters. [They're] not your usual protagonists, but this is the very thing that makes them interesting as their stories have not been told before. They thrived away from the limelight while attention was focused on the Hacienda, the bands and the glamour.
"The idea of The Beautiful City grew from here, of a city within a city, existing in plain sight but unseen by most people, exploiting that anonymity to their own ends. The best analogy is the one about rats – we're never supposed to be more than a few yards from a rat at any time in London but you'd never know they were there. The same can be said of the citizens of The Beautiful City."
SS: "Richard happened upon Matthias's Kingston university film N77 (below) and thought it evoked perfectly the mood he was writing in The Beautiful City. Over several meetings we drew out what Richard and Kieran were aspiring to, and due to limited funds we agreed it was best to augment, re-edit, and re-present the original film to match the narration.
"The film was then blown up to cinema res so as to be projected before Trishna."
DA: Where did the story of 99 John come from?
RS: He's not based on anything factual. [He's] just an idea for a narrator that sees all, hears all – with the catch that he can say nothing."
DA: How did you get Steve Coogan involved?
KOB: "I'd worked with Steve on 24HPP and A Cock and Bull Story. I went to see him and pitched the idea (over drinks of course), which really appealed to him. He absolutely loved the writing and that coupled with the bigger concept for the project enabled us to get him
"He was so supportive he took the time out of a bloody hectic schedule in NY to voice for us there. Steve's reaction to the finished ep has been amazing and Richard's extraordinary world of The Beautiful City has really excited him. I think it's fair to say we'd love to have him back and I'm sure this will be the case..."
DA: Matthias, what were your frames of reference and influences for both this piece and N77?
MH: "[They were] influenced by shadow theatres and the light-box animations of Lotte Reiniger, only that I wanted to apply the silhouetted effect to environments rather than characters. This allowed me to evoke a cityscape without having to show much detail, letting the viewer's imagination fill in the black areas.
"I think Richard was drawn towards this ambiguity and thought it would tie in with his ideas for The Beautiful City, where the protagonists identity is also rather ambiguous and takes on a different narrator's voice in each episode.
DA: Why did you choose a muted colour palette of distant- and half-light?
MH: "We wanted to describe the central character by looking through his perspective rather than by describing him from the exterior, so most of the story is left in the dark and you never see any of the characters in the story. The animation was not intended to illustrate or explain the narration directly, but rather to create an atmosphere that gently supports the narration without narrowing down the viewers imagination.
"The colour itself was a result of the original shadow puppet reference. All the textures in the piece are actually a filmed candle that is glowing through sheets of paper."
DA: How will the other pieces sit alongside 99 John? Will he be making a reappearance in the other stories?
RS: "All of the stories are from 99 John's perspective. He is our conduit – all of us being 'straight members' – into the world of the 'citizen', who are the true denizens of The Beautiful City. The idea is that because he is mute, different people can give voice to his thoughts [with] very different interpretations – Keith Allen and Kathy Burke both did incredible jobs for example."
DA: What's next for you?
MH: "I have just finished work on a 10-minute sequence of A Liar's Autobiography for Beakus. It's an animated feature film of Graham Chapman's biography, which will be released towards the end of the year. I also made a series of idents for CBeebies, and I was designer for a 25 x 5-mins CBeebies series called Numtums, all produced at Beakus.
SS: "Aside from Matthias's latest work, we've been busy on new animation for the National Maritime Museum – we're bringing to life a huge painting via projection-mapping across 4 screens above the museum's reception desk (just in time for the Queen's visit). We've also completed two corporate motion-graphics pieces for Google, created in-programme animation for BBC Learning's The Charles Dickens Show, and begun designs for a new CBeebies show.