Following on from the short films they made to accompany the albums of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have continued their working relationship with Nick Cave with 20,000 Days on Earth, a beguiling, artistic and highly spirited look at the life and work of a man who, celebrated as a musician, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer and occasional film actor, never seems to rest. Through a vivid collection of memories, archive materials and conversations with those who have affected and inspired him, both professionally and personally, the film revolves around Cave’s very personal views on the world in general and his everyday life and creative process in particular.
Pamela Jahn caught up with the filmmakers at the Berlinale in February 2014 to talk about their relationship with Nick Cave, the magic about emotional truth and why you should never mess with somebody else’s mojo.
Do you remember the first time you heard a Nick Cave song?
Jane Pollard: I do! Mine was actually track four on the first compilation tape that Iain made for me. It was ‘Slowly Goes the Night’. But back then, I didn’t know who Nick was. I thought that he was more from the kind of Elvis era because he had this phenomenal gravel in his voice… an amazing voice. I immediately picked up on that song. Then I bought the record and became just as obsessed with it as Iain already was.
Iain Forsyth: I don’t remember a particular moment. But I remember that the first album I knew was The Good Son and that I was astonished by the range of styles, I suppose, because with most of the bands I was listening to at the time, every one of their records was just another version of the same thing, which was great in a way because I loved it all. But to listen to somebody who can change so much and be so interesting in such a short space of time was very memorable.
What was the most difficult thing about shooting and interviewing a friend?
JP: This film couldn’t have been made without the friendship already being in place. But there were times where we needed to get out of his way. We couldn’t be in his line of vision because he’d let himself get so comfortable, like when he’s talking to the analyst or in that scene in the archive, for example. If we hadn’t stepped aside he would have started including us in the conversation because he is used to talking to us. But it wasn’t that hard actually. There was a mutual understanding that either of us would have to walk away from this if at any point it wasn’t working, or if it was just average. It had to be good and it had to be different. And it couldn’t have happened without that level of trust. And without that patience. He’s not a very patient man, but he gave us a lot (laughs).
Did you discuss beforehand how close you could come, or how much of his private life could be revealed in the film?
IF: There were no lines drawn. The amazing thing for me is that, now that I am sitting here looking at what we have done, the Nick I see in the film is the Nick I know. I mean, Nick has been doing what he is doing for over 35 years and there is so much stuff about him out there already, but I never particularly recognised him in those things. In the film I do.
JP: He didn’t have to check himself, because he knew that if, at any point, he had said, ‘Oh, you know, that thing I said about so and so, I don’t want you to use it’, then we would have just not used it, full stop. But we needed him to know that about our crew as well, that he was in a safe environment. And when he talks about his father, for example, we chose to use very little. We decided to leave it as an open question, so that you could make up your own mind about the ramifications a loss of that importance has on somebody. That was a very deliberate decision in the editing process. He actually did talk a lot about his father over those two days, but we didn’t want the film to offer itself up to psychoanalysis. We thought it was more interesting that you watched him and understood through all of this – like his relationship to his children, or his reliance on, and closeness with, male collaborators from Roland Howard to Blixa and Warren Ellis – how much of an impact that loss had on him.
Was Nick Cave involved in the narrative structure of the film?
IF: No, we deliberately kept Nick away from that, in as much as he himself was quite keen to keep himself away from it, because he was very conscious about not getting involved with making the film. In fact, as the project became more and more structured and inevitably more people became involved, one of his big concerns was always, ‘Are you keeping control? Is this still your film?’
JP: And Nick would say that ‘you don’t mess with somebody else’s mojo’. So as an artist, he gets that, he knows that you have to feel that it is your voice making this thing. It’s the same with how an album comes together. It’s about a feeling, an instinct, about being in the moment or ‘mojo’, as he calls it.
Part of the allure comes from his striking voice-over, which almost feels like another composition of his. Was that scripted or is that something you developed together as you were going along?
IP: Nothing was scripted. There was no set structure. But the voice-over was written by Nick, mostly while he was on tour. While we were going through his notebooks and stuff, we got to the point where we thought it would be great to have some of that background information in the film, like why he lives in Brighton and so on. So we would call Nick and he would write something and show it to us. And when it got to a stage that Nick felt it was right, he would record it on his phone and we’d use it as a guide in the edit. The thing is though, that Nick is not an actor. He’s done a couple of things before, but if you’ve seen those films, you know he’s not an actor. So we wanted to avoid giving him the feeling that he would have to play a certain part, or imposing another ‘act’ upon him as it were. We just wanted him to be Nick.
In the press conference you mentioned your theory about the truth not being the most interesting thing, meaning that sometimes you have to create a fake situation to create something that is really true.
JP: Oh, thank you for picking up on that. This is something that carries through our art practice on the whole. Some of our earliest works was a re-enactment of the last David Bowie show as Ziggy Stardust, with a fake band, fake costumes, everything, down to the last detail. And we had this theory as young art students that somehow through the most crazy, artificial environment, to the extent of re-enacted situations, there is a democracy of that experience that allows the viewer to have a new emotion. In the way that, say, you go and see a gig for the first time and often in that moment you think about really mundane everyday stuff, like what you should have for dinner, or that your shoes are hurting and that you are stood behind the tallest bloke in the room. But then that gig becomes legendary, it becomes the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, but you weren’t in that room thinking that, ‘one day, that gig will become legendary’, you were there thinking, ‘shit, I am stood behind the tall bloke again’. So in other words, when you know you are in a situation and you know the guy who looks a bit like Ziggy Stardust is coming on stage and he is going to play, note for note, the entire set, there is a freeing from within that happens. We have experimented with this in our art work for years, so when we came to do the film, it was those theories that we brought to filmmaking rather than trying to adopt known techniques in directing. We wanted to try and use the theories and experiences we had beforehand, and we were very lucky to find a crew who were willing to work with us on that basis. For example, we only ever did one take, because otherwise it would have been like asking Nick to act and that’s when self-awareness kicks in, and we wanted to avoid that. The takes usually last for about an hour or two, without intervention. Endurance becomes very important. The crew has to back off, and we often use cloths or put cameras behind things. Because as artificial and constructed as the situation may be, the heart of it is still a real experience for Nick. And there is still something in there, a bit of reality, that he can crap on to and you get this lovely truth out of this, a sort of emotional truth. Because we are not interested in factual truth, but emotional truth, hell yes!
How many hours of material did you end up with before starting the editing?
IF: (laughs) All I can say is that I am glad we didn’t shoot on 35mm.
After all these years of friendship and working together, what is it that still fascinates you about Nick Cave?
JP: The feeling that we want you to get from watching the film. That is it. And I’m still fumbling around trying to find an eloquent way of articulating it. It’s a feeling that you only have a very limited amount of time and you should bother to see through ideas. If you have any ambitions or thoughts, that you should get on and do them. And that’s what it is like to be his friend, at least that’s the biggest impact he’s had, and still has, on us. He’s just so impressive, his discipline and the fact that he’s so progressive and ruthless with his work. He works hard, his schedule is mad. And you come away feeling… not inspired that you want to be like Nick Cave, but that you want to work like Nick Cave. You want to work that hard, and think in a forward direction, and not look back, and never rest on your laurels, and raise the bar, because that’s what he is doing and he does it with every single album they put out – constant progression.
Interview by Pamela Jahn
Watch the trailer: