Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth believe the key to their film – 20,000 Days on Earth – a hybrid feature-film/documentary, an impressionistic glimpse into Nick Cave’s world (for a day) – is trust. Nick Cave trusted them. They trusted him. They trust each other.
Pollard and Forsyth met at art school and have a partnership that’s been active for some 20 years now, and though this is their first full-length feature film they’ve moved beyond their visual arts background through various video and film installations and design projects. The couple has worked with Cave before. In fact they have a working relationship with Nick Cave that goes back, as Forsyth says down the phone, “some seven or eight years now”.
“We made the video for Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”, Forsyth continues, “and from there we worked on the videos for that album – Nick hadn’t been all that interested in videos for a while and wanted something new and we hadn’t made a promo-video before. So it was the start of something new for all of us, in a way.
Pollard says they’ve stayed in touch with Cave since then – and the film was “completely an organic process; we didn’t know – at first – that we would be making a full-length movie. We didn’t really know what was going to happen, but Nick contacted us and told us that he was getting ready to write the new album – which was Push The Sky Away – and that he was going to be working with Warren [Ellis] and that they thought they could handle us filming them. They were open to the idea, they asked us to bring cameras and to have a go at capturing some of the rehearsals and writing of that album and some scenes around it and it really just slowly started to take shape. We didn’t go into it with the angle of making a documentary not to start with”.
Nor did the pair have any clever aims around subverting the usual documentary approach. Their job was to capture footage – that was all. And then the footage started to tell a story and to sell an approach. There was also something different about this – the fact that Cave was ultimately at the top of his game. That made it interesting.
Forsyth picks up, “we wrestled, at first, with this problem – that Nick was rich and famous, or at least that people seem has that; that he hadn’t suffered any fall as such. We started watching a lot of music films, documentaries, wonderful films of course like The Devil and Daniel Johnston but so often these films all tell of a redemption, or of some fallout, a falling out with band members and a rebuilding or some big ‘comeback’ concert or album. But with Nick it’s just a guy who is successful and is driven to work. We actually found that really interesting and hoped it would be an inspiring story. We just had to find a way to tell it”.
Pollard says “we wanted to use his brain as a tool for defining the film – the way of making a new kind of music film”.
Cave has a co-writing credit suggesting a collaboration. Pollard explains that her and Forsyth blocked out the scenes and storyboarded – “and then Nick would write these narration pieces, the voiceovers you hear. We would email him as we were watching back things we’ve captured. We’d say ‘oh, you know, do a bit about the weather’ or ‘do something about why you write’ or whatever. And he would email us back these wonderful passages which we’d get him to say as voiceovers. So that was Nick’s main writing contribution to the film. The rest of it – how it is mapped out is us”.
Scenes that play out – such as a meeting between Cave and a therapist or a lunch with Warren Ellis are not quite as scripted as audiences might think. Or as Forsyth clarifies, “they’re scripted in the sense that the bridging scenes – everything that’s not a rehearsal or live performance of a song – was storyboarded, there is hair and make-up and, there’s an aim for each scene and we’re shooting them with lots of cameras, just like a movie scene – the therapist is real but it’s not his real office, it’s a set that we built, but the dialogue is real – it’s spontaneous. The dialogue was never written. But we caught hours of footage and edited very carefully. With a very selective edit you can shape something – so what might run in the film for 5-10 minutes as a scene could be the process of an edit from some 10 hours of filmed footage”.
There’s a synchronicity in this collaborative approach for 20,000 Days on Earth as one of the themes that appears in the film is of Nick Cave as collaborative artist; constant collaborator. This was one of Pollard and Forsyth’s aims.
“You know, we could have had Mick Harvey there – who of course walked from the band, but we weren’t interested in dwelling on anything that had fallen away, it was all about this continual rise, and Nick’s constant movement as a collaborator; the way Warren has ultimately become his new right-hand-man in much the way that there was Mick Harvey or Rowland S. Howard or Blixa Bargeld and if you look at collaborative partnerships like say Morrissey/Marr they inevitably break off and both parties have a go at working alone but it doesn’t quite match up. Nick seems a rarity to us”, Forsyth explains. “He’s been able to continually find new collaborators that help him to bring out parts of who he is, they’re crucial to the process but of course so is Nick”.
There is a lot of extra musical footage and the pair are currently considering their options – obviously a future DVD release should see plenty of extra material.
Pollard says, “We really struck gold with the footage – the stuff that is in the film we’re really proud of obviously, these early versions of wonderful songs and we have a lot more – there’ll definitely be some extra music with the DVD and some extra filmed interview scenes – the standard deleted scenes. We’re very much working on that now. It’s hard to know at this stage how much will be included of course”.
Forsyth believes “there’s something very consistent about Nick – and his story hadn’t ever really been told. And here we get to show some of his motivations and desires and interests but we’re also keeping a little bit back too, that enigma is still there. And that of course is central to who he is”.
Pollard: “Every record goes somewhere new with Nick – too, you know he doesn’t repeat himself, there’s always this way of starting fresh, but being consistent, finding some new way to set the songs and to surge on into new areas, so that’s why this was so appealing”.
The pair aren’t sure if there will be any future music films – though they are sure the collaboration with Cave will continue and they have been bitten by the film bug. Pollard says, “we have lots on the go, a BBC project and I’m desperate to make a feature film – so that’s something we’re looking into” but if the right subject approached them wanting their treatment, this type of version of a documentary they say they’re open to looking at it.
“There are only a few people of course”, Forsyth says, “that you wonder about. Someone like David Bowie hasn’t really had the definitive film made – that could tap into what he’s about. There’s lots of footage of him but there’s no one defining feature or documentary”.
But for now the main project is living with this film – seeing it out into the world and around the world.
Pollard says “the single scariest moment of my life was when we showed the film to Nick”. He told Jane and Iain that he loved the film but they both agree that it was an intense experience sitting down to show him their completed take.
For my review of 20, 000 Days on Earth click here. The film is currently screening in NZ cinemas.