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Meet the Filmmakers: Eva Weber—'The Solitary Life of Cranes'

By Tom White

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Eva Weber, director of The Solitary Life of Cranes.

Synopsis: Part city symphony, part visual poem, The Solitary Life of Cranes explores the invisible life of a city, its patterns and hidden secrets, seen through the eyes of crane drivers working high above its streets. What emerges is a lyrical mediation about how our existence is shaped through the environment we inhabit, both for the drivers high up in the sky and the people on the ground they are watching.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Eva Weber: Although I originally studied documentary filmmaking at university, I started my career making several short fiction films before joining the British Broadcasting Corporation as a promotions director. It was only when I left the BBC in 2003 that I seriously started to work in documentary again. However, I believe that this background has really helped me to develop my own approach to visual language and storytelling. In particular, my time working at the BBC, making promotions and commercials, meant I had to fine-tune my visual style, and to always think about the best creative approach for each film. Having had to pitch projects to clients teaches you to be very clear about your ideas and the most effective way to express these visually.

IDA: What inspired you to make The Solitary Life of Cranes?  

EW: I originally got fascinated by the idea that there is almost another world above London (or any other city); yet most of us never look up to notice cranes or their drivers. The drivers, in turn, can see everything going on below them, yet their only way to connect with the world they are building is by watching it from a distance.

In many ways, the film builds and expand on themes touched upon in my earlier film, The Intimacy of Strangers--the conflict between being intimate yet distant, and how our lives are shaped by our urban environment. As one of the drivers says in the film, their work and the enforced closeness to some of the buildings around them means that it is difficult for them to not look at the lives of the people working and living around them. I feel this is definitely also true for many of us living in modern cities; there is almost an enforced intimacy in our lives.

Once I started researching the film, I was blown away by the sheer beauty of being up on a crane and seeing the world from such a different point of view. There is something about being so high up above the ground and removed from the world that puts everyday life into a very different perspective and lets you see the wider patterns of a city. Yet, in many ways it has been the small observations of the drivers that have really stuck with me: the way people walk differently at certain times in the day, the different way couples look before and after a long and stressful Saturday afternoon shopping trip, or the way office buildings in our financial districts change at night--whereas during the day, mirrored glass keeps the outside world out, you can suddenly see clearly inside at night.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them? 

EW: When I set out to make the film, I didn't realize that it might actually take longer than for the drivers to put up a 50-story building. Getting access to construction sites proved to be an incredibly slow and difficult process, not helped by the fact that at the time there were a number of accidents involving cranes in London. As a result, the period during which filming took place turned out to be a very difficult time for the construction industry in the UK. In the end, it took months of e-mails, phone calls and meetings to build the trust with the companies to allow us access, albeit limited.

The filming itself proved to be no less complicated. We soon found out that there is no easy way to bring a HDCAM (and initially an S16mm) camera kit up a 40- or 70-meter- high crane. Whatever way you try, it involves a lot of climbing up ladders. There was also no telling who had the stomach to work up on a crane. Crew members who felt they would have no problem with the height ended up not being able to take the movement. The tower of a crane twists and turns sideways as they slew round, and bends forwards and backwards as they lift up a load. Being up on the tower, hearing the crane creak and seeing the metal of the structure twist in front of you can be a rather unnerving experience. 

During the filming, my producer and I got obsessed with weather forecasts, checking on them every few hours to see whether the following day might be suitable for filming. We were not only worried about rain and visibility but also about wind speeds, as cranes stop working when the wind gets too strong. We turned up plenty of mornings at a site, only to be told that we would not allowed up the crane that day. On one particular morning, we actually climbed up a 43-meter crane with all our equipment, only for my cameraman and sound recordist to arrive at the top and decide they could not take the weather conditions. Ironically enough, when we were finally trying to film on a rainy day, for the "weather" sequence in the film, London seemed to go through a dry period, and we had to wait for what seemed like weeks to finally film these shots. 

However, regardless of the difficulties of organizing the filming and carrying the equipment up on the crane, there are still very few moments that beat being up on a tower crane for the first time. Even now, endless climbs later, I am still amazed at the view of the world you have from up there. Walking down the back jib and looking through the thin, perforated metal floor at the ground below is both exhilarating and nerve-wrecking.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

EW: When I set out to make this film, I had a very clear idea of the themes I wanted to explore, and this informed the whole filmmaking process--from the interviews, to the visual style, to the way I approached the sound design. For instance, I decided very early on that I wanted to divorce the image and sound in the film to reflect the way the drivers are separated from the world they are building below. My aim was to make a film that transcends individual stories, and for me, the detached, stylistic approach invites the viewer not only to engage in the portraits of individual people, but to recognize in them bigger, more universal emotions and experiences. So, while this film is told from the drivers' perspective, it is obviously also shaped through my own experiences and interpretation of their situation. 

However, I always try to keep an openness to change my ideas about a film or a subject during the interviews, the filming or in post-production, and to respond to what is actually unfolding in front of me. I love being surprised by what I see and the way this changes the way a film develops. For instance, at one point during the film we see a small scene played out between two young kids on a playground. Moments like this are why I love documentary filmmaking--there is no way I could have ever thought or planned for this scene, which for me is now one of the most magical moments in the film.

IDA:   As you've screened The Solitary Life of Cranes-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

EW: We had a fantastic response to the film at festivals so far, both from other filmmakers and audience members. We had so many e-mails from people after screenings, telling us that the film really changed the way they look at their own cities, and they now always look up at the cranes.

I also remember one particular screening where almost all of the drivers were present. Arriving with their wives and partners, it was wonderful to listen to their banter throughout the screening, yet the funniest moment was when they mistook one of the crew members for another driver, due to his impressive belly. It is an old joke among drivers that you can always recognize them by their physique, as the only exercise they get is climbing up and down a crane. And according to the drivers, this member of our crew is definitely qualified! One driver also e-mailed us after a screening that this was the first time he felt his own family could finally understand what his life up there was like-- which was very special to me.

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

EW: I love the work of Werner Herzog, and his creative approach to documentary filmmaking. For me, his films are very much about the way he sees the world, and the subjective truth he finds in a situation. However, I am equally inspired by the work of fiction filmmakers, such as Wong Kar Wai, and painters, such as Edward Hopper. 

The Solitary Life of Cranes will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles.

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