Alasdair McLellan’s nostalgic film captures coming of age in 90s Britain
The photographer discusses the cinematic road trip project that accompanies Saint Etienne’s new album, ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’.
Photography Alasdair McLellan
If you’ve ever admired Alasdair McLellan's work and thought, wow, I could watch a whole 45 minute film version of this, then you’re in luck. The photographer, director and longtime i-D collaborator has teamed up with beloved British band Saint Etienne to shoot the cinematic visual for their new record, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You. Out 10 September on Heavenly Recordings, the project is the group’s tenth studio album -- released 30 years on from their cult debut Foxbase Alpha -- and a body of work that encompasses our specialist subjects: optimism, youth and the late 90s.
The album, it transpires, was made largely from samples and sounds from between the years 1997 and 2001 -- a time period ushered in by Labour’s victory in the UK and brutally brought to a close by 9/11. A brief span of positivity for the nation considered by many to be something of a “lost golden age”. But, as the film sets out to explore, our collective memories are often a warped, hazy version of what life was really like. And that’s where Alasdair comes in.
“The album is about the late 90s, that feeling of optimism and how memory can play tricks on you,” Alasdair tells us. ”When it came to the film, I chose to look at when I first started to listen to Saint Etienne -- my memories of that time. But obviously I’m looking back now, so the memories might be slightly different to the reality.” Alasdair, who grew up in South Yorkshire, recalls a time of teenage boredom in a place where very little happened. “I now look back at that time as something quite idyllic -- even the boredom seems idyllic -- and a big part of its soundtrack was Saint Etienne.”
The nostalgic project took the form of a Great British road trip on which Alasdair captured young people, from Scunthorpe to Stonehenge, living their best lives in the summer sun. In the resulting film, black and white Tudor houses are spliced with shots of the M1; gothic cathedrals with factories, shopping centres and power lines. We watch on as topless lads skim stones, groups of friends stalk familiar looking cul-de-sacs and, as the sun goes down, have a makeshift rave in a field illuminated by the headlights of an old VW Golf GTI. They surrender to the sound, embrace the softness of the morning after, hold each other close, go wild swimming, skate their local bowls and take in the hallucinatory trip that is the Blackpool Illuminations. They’re young and free and nothing else matters. It’s a love letter to the country that birthed both the photographer and the band that meant so much to his teenage self.
Watch the trailer below and read on for our conversation with Alasdair about his memories (real or not) of the 90s, the appeal of its aesthetic and the iconic films he referenced for this project.
Do you remember the first time you ever listened to Saint Etienne?
Yes, vaguely. It was around 1990/1991. I was doing my GCSEs and then starting lower sixth form. I remember buying all their albums, from Foxbase Alpha to Home Counties. It still feels like an event when a new album comes out by Saint Etienne. I feel like I grew up with their music.
I’ve Been Trying To Tell You is centred around the late 90s. What did your life look like then? What do you think is so appealing about that period and its aesthetic to young people today?
I think the aesthetic is everywhere. A lot of sportswear and other brands are either re-issuing clothing from around that time or looking at that time [for inspiration]. As for my life in the late 90s, I was graduating from university and then I moved to London to try and be a photographer.
What’s the significance of the particular towns and cities you chose to include in the "strange roadtrip" you embarked on for the film?
The idea was always to make a video about Britain. Or at least some places around the UK. I’ve always loved factories, so we filmed in Southampton and Ferrybridge and Scunthorpe and then Grangemouth in Scotland, which is an amazing factory. It almost looks like something out of a science fiction film. I wanted them to look beautiful. So we were relying on nice weather when we shot them. The road trip was a way to link all these places. We shot in lots of towns from Sheffield to London to Blackpool to Portmeirion.
You’ve said that elements of the film are borrowed from cinema – can you tell us about the sorts of references you were working with there?
Even though Saint Etienne are considered a quintessential British band, I’ve always thought their music was also very international. A lot of their music is influenced by European cinema, so when we shot at Marble Arch in London, I thought it might be interesting if Hannah got in the fountain there, like in La Dolce Vita. The fountain is certainly not the Trevi Fountain, but there was something lovely about it. It doesn’t even look like London. The fountain looks like it should be in a small municipal town. We also shot in Portmeirion in Wales, which looks like a beautiful Italian village, so that also felt very cinematic and otherworldly.
Is there a scene that means the most to you?
I think I like the Blackpool illuminations. I was very happy that they’d turned out so well. My Mum was born in Blackpool, so I felt I had to do them justice.
I love the idea of teenage boredom now seeming idyllic. If you could, would you want to shake your teenage self and tell him to appreciate it while it lasts?
Well, there’s a lot you wish you knew then, that you know now. Haha, it’s something that everyone says and thinks about. I think I’d tell myself not to worry and enjoy those years and moments more.
I’ve Been Trying To Tell You, the film, premieres 3 September as part of a weekend of screenings and Q&As at BFI Southbank.