20,000 Days On Earth directors Q&A

26 Jan, 2014 Posted in: Awards, Directors, Documentaries, Festivals, Interview, Sundance

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

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

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

Magnolia Pictures has acquired Frank for North America

25 Jan, 2014 Productions Posted in: Festivals, News, Sundance

We are delighted to announced that Magnolia Pictures have picked up Film4-backed comedy Frank for distribution in North America.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Donhnall Gleeson in Lenny Abrahamson's Frank

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Donhnall Gleeson in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank

The Wagner/Cuban Company’s Magnolia Pictures announced today that they have acquired North American rights to Frank, the offbeat Film4-backed comedy that just premiered to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Garage, Adam & Paul), the film was written by Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare At Goats) and Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Frank stars Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy and Michael Fassbender as the titular character, a brilliant and eccentric musician who wears a giant fake head at all times. Frank was produced by Ed Guiney, David Barron and Stevie Lee, and executive producers are Tessa Ross, Katherine Butler, Andrew Lowe and Nigel Williams. Frank is an Element Pictures/Runaway Fridge production for Film4, BFI, Protagonist Pictures and the Irish Film Board.

Gleeson plays Jon, a wannabe musician who finds himself out of his depth when he joins a maverick pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender)—a musical genius who hides himself inside a large fake head—and his terrifying sidekick Clara (Gyllenhaal). It is a fictional story loosely inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the persona of cult musician and comedy legend Chris Sievey, as well as other outsider musicians like Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart.

“All of us at Magnolia were completely taken with Frank,” said Magnolia President Eamonn Bowles. “It reaffirms the considerable talents of Lenny Abrahamson, who has delivered a beautiful, poignant and hilarious film that speaks on many levels about being an artist. That Michael Fassbender can be so affecting while encased in a papier-mâché head proves that he is one of the greatest actors working today.”

Speaking from Park City Lenny Abrahamson said: “I’m delighted that Frank has found a home in the US with Magnolia. Eamonn Bowles was an early fan of my first film, Adam & Paul, and I know that the team there has a genuine passion for Frank. Along with their skill and experience this makes them the right partners to bring the film to its audience here.”

Producer Ed Guiney said “Magnolia is an incredibly innovative and exciting company and we have long wanted to work with them. They are the perfect partners for Frank and we could not be happier that we have landed with them and we are very excited about their plans for the US.”

The deal was negotiated for Magnolia by SVP of Acquisitions Dori Begley and Director of Acquisitions John Von Thaden, with WME and Protagonist on behalf of the filmmakers. Magnolia is eyeing a summer 2014 theatrical release for the film. Frank will be distributed in the UK by Artificial Eye.


Five Sundance Highlights

25 Jan, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Sundance

Film4 Commissioning Executive Anna Higgs shares five highlights from her typically hectic but exhilarating trip to Salt Lake City.

Overall, Sundance has been an absolutely fantastic festival, with Film4 having four films here – premieres of 20,000 Days On Earth, Frank and A Most Wanted Man, and a special screening for The Double, which premiered at Toronto. It’s been a real embarrassment of riches, and has made for a very hectic festival, with lots of running around making sure that the filmmakers are all being looked after and supported. But I’m lucky to have enjoyed some incredible highlights here in Park City, which I will treasure for a long time to come…



1. Frank mask bonanza
One of my absolute top highlights definitely has to be seeing the entire audience of Sundance’s biggest theater donning masks of Frank’s face at the premiere of Frank. This was so that director Lenny Abrahamson could take a picture for Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson because they were both sadly away shooting and couldn’t come. It was quite a surreal moment, and it created a real buzz and a real energy for the audience in the screening, it was fantastic.

20,000 Days On Earth

20,000 Days On Earth

2. Nick plays piano
The 20,000 Days On Earth premiere was wonderful. We held it at The Egyptian theatre, this lovely old Art Deco cinema, which this year has this amazing projection mapping artwork on the front of it. Being with directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard and of course Nick Cave when they were doing pre-premiere interviews in the press line and seeing the excitement starting to build was great, and then seeing the film receive not one but two standing ovations was just the best thing that we could have hoped for. It’s been great to see the early press reactions start to come in. And as if the night couldn’t have got any better, Nick did a little impromptu show at the afterparty! He played three songs just on the piano, and asked one terrified looking guy from the audience to turn his pages for the last song. It was incredible.



3. The filmmakers
The events that the festival themselves put on are great, and the international filmmakers lunch was a really fantastic one. All the programmers were there – John Cooper, John Nein, Trevor Groth, Kim Yutani and the whole Sundance team. I chatted to lots of filmmakers including Norwegian writer-director Eskil Vogt who made a brilliant film called Blind, and I think he has a huge future ahead of him as a director. He was so excited for people to see the film.

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

4. The films
Of those I managed to see, the film I liked most was Blue Ruin, which I thought had a really unique style and was really, really unexpected. It’s really inspiring to see the range of films at Sundance, the range of subjects and to see the strands of the competitions, documentary, narrative, animation and shorts all come together in one space. It really showcases how special Sundance is. I’m gutted I’m going a day before seeing Gareth Huw Evans’ The Raid 2. That’s the problem with festivals, you can’t get to everything that you want to get to – but it’s a luxury problem!

5. The panels
A really brilliant highlight for me was the Storyworld Panel at New Frontiers. New Frontiers is curated by Shari Frilot and it is where all of the cutting edge digital and interactive storytelling and artwork takes place. This year they’ve taken it downtown, which is really fantastic, so it’s right in the heart of the festival. I really enjoyed a panel with an amazing range of people including Jonathan Harris, Chris Milk, Aaron Koblin, Nick Fortugno, Susan Bonds and one of the guys from Oculus VR which is this new, wearable virtual reality technology which is being showcased in the festival and has some really interesting implications for immersive story-telling. It was a fascinating panel that really tried to tackle some of the key questions about interactivity, and hit home something in which I passionately believe, namely that the story has to be the star. It can’t be technology or platform first, it has to be about the story and what the best way of telling that story is.

First look review: The Trip To Italy

23 Jan, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Review, Sundance

The Trip To Italy (2014)

Dir. Michael Winterbottom

Starring: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan

The Trip To Italy

The Trip To Italy

If you’ve seen 2010 film The Trip (or indeed the TV series from which the film was edited together), you’ll know exactly what you’re in for in The Trip To Italy. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, playing versions of themselves, are off on a road trip punctuated by fine dining, competitive impressions of celebrities and caustic analysis of each other’s talents. This time, we’re in Italy, and the pair are on the trail of the Romantic poets who ate, drank, shagged and died there. Brydon and Coogan sail across the Gulf of Poets, brave the traffic in Rome and stop by Pompeii, in a sequence giving Brydon one of his best moments, talking to a petrified corpse.

The dynamic between Brydon and Coogan is more or less the same as the last installment – and that’s no bad thing, as it is the greatest strength of this delightful film. Perhaps Coogan is portrayed as having mellowed slightly – he seems genuinely keen to spend more time with his son – and there is an incident involving Brydon and a yacht crew member that makes Brydon more of a bad guy than we’re used to, but it’s not a film we’re watching because we want to witness dramatic upheavals or wildly variable character arcs; like dinner with an old friend, this is mostly about relaxing in convivial company. However, as before, there is an undertow of melancholy, the fear of failure hovering around the edges of conversations about working in America or being remembered in centuries to come, and it is this that gives the film its robust, rounded character – a grace note in a minor key, if you’ll forgive a la-di-dah metaphor.

The most surprising aspect of the screening I attended here in Sundance was the extent to which the audience of largely local Salt Lake City residents embraced the film’s often fairly culturally specific humour. It probably says more about me than the film or the audience that if asked in advance I would have said the jokes and impressions might be too British to be broadly embraced by an international audience. I would have been completely wrong – the Salt Lake City crowd loved it, adding to a strong run of British films that have been a big hit here in Utah (including Calvary, Frank and 20,000 Days).


First look review: Life After Beth

23 Jan, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Review, Sundance

Life After Beth (2014)

Dir. Jeff Baena

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza

Life After Beth

Life After Beth

Joining films like Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies in the subgenre of zombie pictures that incorporate some laughs and romance into their dalliances with the undead, Life After Beth stars an excellent Dane DeHaan as a recently bereaved boyfriend who comes to suspect he is the victim of a hoax when he glimpses someone who looks an awful lot like his late girlfriend hiding out at her parents’ house.

Life After Beth starts strong, with Dane DeHaan engagingly offbeat as a would-be Romeo in mourning. As events progress, it loses focus a little, with characters making decisions that seem implausible even within a world in which the dead walk. What saves it is the goofy sense of fun and daft black humour – just when you’re feeling you can’t possibly suspend your disbelief any more, something sufficiently silly will win you over anew. The film’s larky tone is splendidly complimented by a counterintuitive score of elegant alt-prog moodiness.

I’m going to end on a slight digression which may come off preachy, but it’s been preying on my mind, so here goes: in a week where The Wolf Of Wall Street has been criticized for its use of the word “retard” (a usage that has the advantage of feeling totally in character in the mouths of irredeemably awful 1980s Wall Street arseholes nobody wants to emulate), it’s worth saying that this is also a word chucked about pretty thoughtlessly by Life After Beth’s contemporary teen characters, with whom we’re supposed to be identifying (dead or not). For me it was the one slightly sour note in an otherwise enjoyably imaginative film.