Catherine Bray interviews Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, the directors whose portrait of Nick Cave’s 20,000th day on earth was recently embraced by Salt Lake City audiences at Sundance.
20000 Days On Earth
With two standing ovations from the packed Egyptian Theatre when it premiered in Sundance and two awards, for Best Directing and Best Editing, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s feature debut 20,000 Days On Earth was one of the most warmly received films at the 2014 edition of the Utah-based festival. Billed in several what-to-see-at-Sundance preview pieces as “the Nick Cave documentary”, the audience soon found out it wasn’t as simple as that. Although it isn’t exactly fiction, 20,000 Days On Earth isn’t exactly a documentary, either. Tracking a fictionalised version of the Bad Seeds frontman’s 20,000th day on earth, it’s a portrait of Nick Cave, not a fly-on-the-wall snapshot. And like many of the most interesting portraits, it isn’t photo-real, but gives an impression of the man, drawing together facets of his identity into a constructed whole that is deeper and more interesting than a more realistic approach would be.
Too many rock docs are like either a paparazzi’s picture of a celebrity, capturing them off-guard in an unflattering light that destroys the persona of the performer, or else a Hello magazine portrait, endorsed and airbrushed and uninterestingly flattering. 20,000 Days On Earth sets out to be something else: distilling the essence of Nick Cave into an audio-visual portrait that is also something broader: a celebration of what it is to be inspired and to create. That it does so via scenes of Nick Cave watching Scarface with his kids, chowing down on eels with Bad Seed Warren Ellis and chauffeuring Kylie around Brighton is, of course, a massive bonus. I sat down with Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard at Sundance to find out a bit more about how it all came to be.
Can you remember your very first contact with Nick’s work?
Jane: For me it was a song called ‘Slowly Goes the Night’ from Tender Prey. Iain put it on the first mixtape he ever gave to me, and I thought it was maybe an Elvis-era song. I didn’t really know who Nick was, it was just this gorgeous kind of Elvis-y, drunken, wonderful, amazing voice and I really fell in love with it. But I wouldn’t go and see Nick live for quite a long time, because Iain told me that he was really a violent performer and I used to be frightened of that.
Iain: The Bad Seeds were one of those bands that I found out about when I was at school. I remember hearing The Good Son and Your Funeral… My Trial, and being really excited by the fact that those two albums were by the same band. A lot of bands I liked at that kind of age were fairly unsophisticated, but the palette, I suppose, across those few Bad Seeds records was kind of incredible.
One thing that was an incredibly pleasant surprise about 20,000 Days On Earth for me was that I feel like anyone could watch it, whether or not they have any specific prior interest in Nick. Was that your aim from the beginning?
Iain: A couple of years back we made 14 forty minute long documentaries about each of Nick’s albums and they were very specifically made for fans – you needed to know the album, the song names, everything about it. They were made for the reissues, a film per reissue of each album, and so we felt we’ve been there, we’ve done that. We really delved into the minutiae of what it means to be a fan of that music and into the music itself, and the impact it has on people and how it lives on through their lives. And this was a deliberate decision to make something that was much more universal.
Jane: We started this wanting to make something that inspired people to do more, to make more, to be better, because that’s how we feel about Nick. When you get to know him, and when you watch him and the band at work, and you watch how disciplined and how progressive they are, and how brutal and ruthless in leaving behind half-baked ideas, you can’t help but feel completely fired up. You feel, “god, I wanna be like that”, I want to see things through, to bother to do things. So from day one we worked with the absolute certainty that we didn’t want to make a film just for fans – which is not to kind of dismiss the fans – but we wanted to make a big thing that would inspire everyone.
Iain Forsyth, Nick Cave and Jane Pollard at Sundance
I was excited that you mentioned Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! as a reference point. I loved that film – and the trilogy. Do you think you’d ever do the Hospital Britannia follow up? Or an If… style prequel?
Jane: [laughs] Hospital Britannia, I do like, but there’s something about O Lucky Man! You know when you come back to something over and over again, and it’s not just about what something is, it’s also what it does to you. Some things set fire to you inside, and that’s what that film did, to us. It was really galvanizing for us, and we go back to it, not for anything really specific, but to get that feeling back, to get that kick up the arse every time.
Were there any other conscious film influences in the mix?
Jane: Not in a big way, but we did look at other music-related films. For a very short time it became a way of discussing ideas with Nick – we could talk about other films, and what we’d seen and what we liked and what we didn’t like. And I think we all agreed very quickly that what we didn’t like was films that tried to peel away the mask. Fly on the wall, classic music docs that follow the band and film their life for 12 months, and you see Bono doing the washing up, and Sting taking the kids to school and all this kind of nonsense… I don’t think those films really stand up, or have any sort of longevity, because very quickly the band moves on and is in a different place, and the films just become this historical record of that one moment.
Iain: The films that we really liked, or that we felt some sort of affinity with, were films that felt like they were reaching much higher than that, whether they succeeded or not. I’m not sure that any of them really got to where they were reaching for, and I wouldn’t necessarily say they were great films, but the ambition in them was exciting. There were two that we came back to. One was the Led Zeppelin film, The Song Remains The Same, which is ridiculous. It’s insane on many levels, but there’s something about what they’re trying to reach for. And the other that I think has stood the test of time less well maybe is One Plus One, the Jean Luc Godard Rolling Stones’ film, Sympathy for the Devil. There’s something very conceptual in it, and then again almost something Beckett-like. We got really fired up by the ambition of those films. I’m really glad that we didn’t try and include too many references though, because I think it gave us a freedom to really create our own language.
Jane: I think because we don’t come from a film-making world, and we’ve not made documentaries, we therefore felt there’s not a set of rules that we needed to follow, or a formula that we needed to respect. It still sticks a little bit every time I call it a “documentary”. Because I feel, “Is it? I don’t know. Maybe. Yeah.” It probably fits better in documentary than it does in drama. But it doesn’t quite fit in documentary either.
Maybe it needs a new genre: constructed-doc, or performance-doc or something like that. Sorry to ask this, but was it strange making a film with someone whose music you’ve grown up a fan of?
Jane: Yeah, but he makes it very easy. He’s just a really lovely, remarkable, warm, funny person. And he talks about himself sometimes in third person and that makes it a lot easier as well. Like there’s a Nick Cave that’s separate to the one you’re sitting with. You know, there’s the one you’re having dinner with and then there’s the one that goes on stage. So that helps. It helps an awful lot. There’ve been moments where you pinch yourself and you’re like, “That’s Nick Cave, that’s Nick Cave”. But you’ve got to get beyond that pretty quickly to be able to actually constructively work with someone.
Speaking of pinching yourselves, it’s pretty amazing to debut your first feature at Sundance – congratulations!
Iain: Yeah. I mean, it’s just the coolest thing, isn’t it? A year and a half ago whatever, we had this kind of semi-formed idea to make a film, and a year and a half later we’re at Sundance and we’ve made a film.
Jane: And I have no idea what happens now. That’s gorgeous. It’s delicious, and it’s really frightening as well. We’re going to show the film at Berlin, but what’s beyond Berlin, we don’t know. There is for us this kind of black hole of “I don’t know what happens then”. I don’t know what we will do. I don’t know what will happen to us. But I know we want to work in this world again. Because this world, and by this world, I mean the British independent filmmaking support system, that’s the world I want to work in again. It’s tremendously healthy and supportive and fairly radical, and it seems to be occupied by some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.
Iain: They let us make the film we wanted to make, and all they did was help make that film a better film. Nick’s worked in Hollywood and he’s made some pretty big films, and hearing some of the experiences he’s had with big studios and filmmaking by committee is pretty terrifying, particularly coming from a kind of an art world background where nobody’s interfering. Some of those stories are absolutely terrifying. To have been able to make this film with Film4 and the BFI and Pulse and everyone else, and to feel like we were just enabled to make the film we wanted to make was amazing.
Jane: I was going to say I feel like a fraud, but I don’t know that I do. I thought I would, but actually I just feel very lucky. That we’ve got here on our first film, and we’re being received really well, that’s incredible. I mean, it’s such a buzz. There’s a surrealism to the whole experience. I feel really aware that I don’t wanna take it for granted, because I know that in this world, there are an awful lot of our peers and other filmmakers who’ve struggled to do this. So I feel really fortunate.
The film looks amazing – it was shot by Erik Wilson (Tyrannosaur, The Imposter), is that right?
Iain: Yeah, he’s great. The moment we met him, we knew we had to have him. There’s something so positive and infectious about his attitude. With other stuff we’d done with Nick over the years, we’d shot it ourselves, so to bring someone else into that role is quite daunting in a way, and Eric was just someone that immediately we knew we could trust. Because the film was more improvised than most scripts, and if there’s a technical problem, Nick’s not the kind of person where you can say, “Can we just go back and do that again?”
Jane: We ask people who work with us to trust certain principles that we have, and they’re principles that come from our practice. One of them is that a set belongs to the central person, in this case Nick. The set belongs to Nick. He’s a real person; he’s not an actor. He doesn’t have that discipline. That’s not something he understands. So when he comes on to set, the whole space has to feel like it’s his to walk around, in a 360 environment that he can just be in. So that means that there can’t be a lot of things that are usual to filmmaking, we just can’t have them. It comes out a bit more like theater, maybe, in that we ask our crew to disappear a lot, and we ask them to step back. We don’t allow a lot of cuts. We generally do takes that last for a couple of hours, and it’s a lot to ask. It’s a lot to ask of professionals who are just trying to do the very best job they can for you. But we need that psychological space for Nick to settle into.
You could probably work with a David Attenborough style camera crew, capturing wild animals in their environment… Was there anyone else in particular you couldn’t have made the film without?
Jane: Our producers really, since we’re inexperienced filmmakers. It’s not an industry we know anything about, so I think without the producers Dan Bowen at Pulse, and Jim Wilson, who is an independent producer, it wouldn’t have happened. They’ve both been just incredible at getting us from one end of the process to the other.
Iain: And really protecting us and protecting that vision of our ambition and enabling it to be made. I think within a week of meeting Jim, we were sat in a meeting, pitching for money, and got it. It was just great.
20,000 Days On Earth will be released in the UK in 2014