Director Martin Wallace on The Big Melt
It is scary to recall that Jarvis and I have been firm friends for over 25 years. We met in London in 1988 whilst studying filmmaking in the Fine Art Department of St. Martin’s School of Art. Demand was high for the limited college editing facilities. Sometimes we would hide in the edit suite at the end of the day, in order to be locked in overnight and gain extra editing time. Two naughty northerners, prepared to break the rules to get the job done.
We’ve worked together countless times since, (the all-nighters have waned a little with age and experience) and we are usually very much on the same wavelength, so, when Jarvis called me in April 2013, it was an easy decision to get involved in what would become The Big Melt.
By then, Jarvis had already envisaged some key ideas about the project. Firstly, he was determined to make the live performance of the film and its music (an event which would open the 20th edition of Sheffield Docfest) a unique, sensory experience for the audience and one to which our main efforts should be focused. He especially wanted the end of the show to be very loud in order to ‘melt their faces’. Secondly, his approach to musical content was to be both flexible and eclectic. Finally, there was a particular 1901 film clip - a young man flicking the ‘Vs’ to the camera - that should play a central role in the film.
In 2012, in an earlier BFI/BBC collaboration, Penny Woolcock and British Sea Power had created a classically constructed film - From The Sea To The Land Beyond; a film that told a sweeping story of the British people, particularly the working class, through the prism of our coastline. That film meant Jarvis and I could not tell a straightforward, social history of steel without covering too much similar ground. This only strengthened our resolve that we should head for new territory and the 1901 clip of the dissenting youth seemed to hold the key.
After viewing several days’ worth of incredible BFI footage, a few key ideas started to coalesce for me. I began to appreciate just how much the mass production of steel had transformed our world in the first half of the twentieth century. Whether it was being used to create the machinery of war, gigantic civil construction projects, or unlocking the means to mass production and the impact of these products in the home, steel had created a new kind of world, one that was shiny and future-facing; a world that had forever broken away from modes of living established well before the nineteenth century.
Other footage, taken within the steelworks and forges, had somewhat epic proportions and Faustian connotations; images that conjured up grandiose Vulcanic operas or secret alchemical processes. Most of all though, I was struck by the faces to be glimpsed here and there – ordinary people for whom the production of steel had no doubt become a way of life; a hard-life, but one that sustained entire communities for several generations.
Over the next few months, Jarvis and I spent several sessions together, a few days at a time, exploring the many possibilities of picture and sound, trying to find a structure that could accommodate the evolving musical selection, engage and excite a live audience and do justice to the material.
I began to imagine an alternate, conspiratorial history, a fanciful conceit in which steel had been given to humans as part of a secret, quasi-sacred pact. In the small print of this illicit deal, however, there had been a heavy price to pay. Although in the short-term steel seemed to proffer only benefits, the transformations steel brought forth carried seeds that would eventually bloom into disruption, despair and decay.
Whilst we wanted to be playful and irreverent, we also felt a strong and natural duty to be truthful to what we felt was the more objective, underlying story of steel and how it shaped both our nation and particularly the regions that were instrumental in steel production.
And so, with these various ambitions swirling around in our heads and summer in the air, we moved the edit suite from Liverpool to Sheffield, into a once abandoned Victorian factory that was now something of a hub for the Sheffield music scene – Yellow Arch Studios.
We spent nine, long days there, trying to integrate the various sequences (that had so far been edited to pre-recorded music) with live music created by the assorted groups of musicians Jarvis had recruited. It felt a bit like something from a Cliff Richard film - probably The Young Ones - (Jarvis would be Cliff, of course; guess I’d have to be Melvyn Hayes), as we tried to piece together an ambitious show with the odds stacked against us.
As the logistical magnitude of what we were trying to achieve gradually became clear, we realised there would eventually be fifty-two musicians on stage on the night of the live performance. But for now, the greatest challenge was that there was no way to get all of them together prior to the afternoon of the event itself.
On the 12th June our one and only run-through of the whole score with all of the musicians took place, just two hours before the doors of the Crucible Theatre would open to around 1000 people, raring to kick-start the beginning of the 20th Sheffield DocFest. No pressure. The run-through was not great. We were forced to stop a couple of times, including when the brass band burst into the arena from the wings at the wrong time.
Two hours later, the performance itself only benefited from this nervous energy and even Cliff would have been impressed by just how well the steely performers managed to craft an amazing experience that seemed as if it had been practised for a lifetime.
In no small part the success of that evening and the very existence of this film is due to the producers, Mark, Heather and Martin. I am incredibly grateful for their brave and trusting support throughout the process.
Although the film was, first and foremost, designed to be part of a live music event. I hope when viewed without the fifty or so performers silhouetted in front of the screen that some of the special energy of that night (captured so brilliantly in the live sound by Andy Pink) finds its way into your home.
So, please turn up your telly, open your mind and prepare your eyes and ears for hot steel; enjoy The Big Melt.