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Arcane Benefits of Creed - Arena on Brian Eno

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Pete Marsh - BBC Music Interactive | 12:14 UK time, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The perenially wonderful Arena are currently putting the finishing touches to two programmes dedicated to the life and work of Brian Eno (whose music is heard on the famous opening sequence).

I spoke to director Nicola Roberts about filming the Life of Brian...

How did the film come about?

Brian Eno's team and Anthony Wall (Arena editor) had been talking about doing a film. Obviously Brian had been approached by other people to do similar things, but (without blowing our own trumpet too much) I think it's worth saying that people will come and make films with Arena rather than anyone else.

Was the fact that Brian supplied the theme music a factor in his willingness to make the film?

I think that's one aspect of it but there's also the fact that people have a lot of confidence and trust in the fact that Arena will do them justice. It's a great programme and I'm very proud to work for it.

Arena has a reputation for making 'film essays' rather than 'straight' documentaries. Can you talk a bit about your approach to this one?

The Wikipedia type timeline music documentary seems quite prevalent at the moment, which is fine. But you feel a little bit apprehensive these days when you're doing something a bit different, something more like an 'essay'. There's a sort of feeling that if you don't start your Eno film with Roxy Music then you've done it 'wrong'. It's quite a challenge to take another approach, and there's not a lot of that kind of programming around on television at the moment. But on the other hand there's so much information out there already on the internet, that it kind of liberates you as a filmmaker in a way. You don't have to tell that linear story if you don't want to.

Were you an Eno fan?

Definitely. I loved and still play Here Come The Warm Jets a lot, and Before and After Science (which is an album Eno doesn't like but I love side two). My son's first ever favourite song was Eno's Baby's on Fire. Oh and Roxy Music of course. But I didn't know much about Eno rather than he had this slight reputation as a sort of Magus. I just loved those early songs.

So how did you start the whole process?

I did a bit of reading and came up with an initial treatment. Some of those ideas are still quite strong in the film; little visual things and metaphors. I loved that he came from a long line of postmen, and there was a lot of stuff about tape loops and looping. I had an idea that Brian would have a conversation with a long distance pilot; the idea of 'repetition being a form of change'. So we met with Brian and his people (who co-produced the film) and they liked it. Brian was very keen on the importance of conversations; he subtly steered the film the way he wanted to go by choosing the people he wanted to speak to.

So how did the shooting work?

We were a very low key presence, which he really liked. We would be invited into the studio on certain days when he would be talking to someone (Richard Dawkins, Paul Morley or whoever). There was nothing very contrived about it. The first day we were there he was jamming with Karl Hyde, which I'd love to have used more of. I'm sure it didn't get to the point that he forgot we were there or anything, but it was very relaxed and Brian gave us a lot of creative freedom. He was very charming.

There's one scene where Eno seems to be struggling a little with technology...

That was the tip of the iceberg really. Perhaps it was only when I was there, but it did seem that every time he switched on his computer, it didn't work. I had taken a line with the film - that if you'd been brought up a strict Catholic like Brian and then had rejected all that, what do you believe in instead? And it's science. I always liked the fact that Before and After Science is an anagram of Arcane Benefits of Creed. But that was too pretentious to put in the film!

How was the interview you did?

I asked him quite a lot of slightly bolshie questions about his corporate work. I think the word 'breadhead' came up. But of course he's perfectly comfortable with (and honest about) working for Microsoft or Nokia or whoever. Eventually Anthony (Wall) said to me "Not everyone finds making money out of corporate work as contentious as you do" so I thought 'Is this really that interesting? No'. Because again, that information's all out there on the internet if you look for it.

How did you go about sifting and editing your material?

Luckily at Arena we get a reasonably good amount of time to cut films. So you get a chance to read transcripts and look at your shots and start honing your material to give you the best results. Transcripts are really invaluable when you have a subject like Brian who's very keen on talking. They were huge on this shoot...very chunky. But his trains of thought - that you don't need complex systems to produce complex results, Darwinism, the Game of Life, cybernetics and so on, plus his music, all add up to something very coherent.

Arena: Brian Eno will be broadcast for the first time on Friday 22 January at 9pm on BBC Four.

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