Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are the creative minds behind the excellent documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, chronicling a staged day in the life of fabled musician Nick Cave. Blending fact with fiction, the pair have crafted an endlessly exciting exploration of its compelling subject, drawing on both Cave’s mythos and humanity. 20,000 Days on Earth is their first feature film, having a number of shorts behind them, and their big screen debut is not just one of the best films of the year, but a promise of great things to come.
Iain: It came about in a very, sort of accidental way actually, as a project that was never really something that we had a master plan or a great intention for, but through knowing Nick and working together over the past – I guess seven or eight years on various things – we kind of just got very easy being around each other, and enjoy working together. When Nick began writing for his last record, Push the Sky Away, he phoned us and said, ‘look, I’m about to start this. Do you want to come and just hang out, and maybe film some stuff while we’re writing?’ Which was just, you know, such a surprise, to be honest. It”s not something that Nick has ever really done in the past. He’s normally very protective of the studio, and that kind of creative environment. So we just knew that we would be being given a very special opportunity, but at that point, like I said, there was no plan, there was no ‘let’s do this and make a movie’; it was just friends doing something on the spur of the moment. Once we found ourselves in the studio and began to sort of see the material we were getting, it became really obvious to us that it needed to not just kind of disappear into YouTube clips and the kind of normally ends up with footage of bands.
At which exact moment did you realise this should be a film?
Jane: Well, for me it was when the French school kids were in the studio in France, and there was just so much going on; there were the pushy kind of mothers, the school kids who were just staring at Warren [Ellis, Cave’s long-time collaborator] like he was some kind of wizard, and Nick’s in the control room, kind of just shouting in instructions that only Warren can hear; there were just all of these layers, and this kind of story, and it just felt… I began to imagine how we could structure something, how we could do something that really sort of plugged into the myth rather than try to just sort of be an observational document.
On that note, were there any documentaries or just films in general that you were thinking about when making it?
Iain: There was a lot we were thinking about as a kind of, I guess, guide for what not to do. As you do, once we sort of just decided we were going to do a project like this, we began to watch a lot of music films and return to a lot of films that we’d seen in the past. I think what was difficult for us was that the films that we found that we really loved were films that generally had at their heart some sort of struggle, or crisis, or some sort of issue that everyone was grappling with. Films like Diggs, the film about the Jonestown massacre, or the Devil and Daniel Johnston, are incredible films and they’re incredible stories – but there was a kind of struggle at the heart of them that Nick really doesn’t have. He’s a great musician, at the height of his creative powers. He’s in a very good place. He’s very happy. It didn’t feel like we could make that sort of film; so, we ended up going further and further back, and I think that once you’re into the seventies and perhaps even as far back as the sixties, we started to find films that felt more playful. Films like A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles film, and The Song Remains the Same, the Led Zeppelin film. These films felt like they were much more in tune with their subject; they were kind of a more… what’s the word… a more impressionistic – maybe that’s the word I’m looking for. They were a more impressionistic take on their subject, and they did’t feel tied to quite such a journalistic, biographical approach.
Jane: They all sort of felt like films in cahoots with the subject. There was a conspiracy among the subject and maker to kind of engage in something, and because the way that we as directors worked through our practice, but also because of how, you know, fucking remarkable Nick is. Why would you not want to engage with that brain? It’s not something you want to put on the lab table and study – you want to use it, you want to plug into it and sort of channel some of its ideas and strangeness into shape of what you’re doing.
In The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese just happens to be there in the film, as a character really. Were there any moments where you thought that you two should make an appearance in the film?
Jane: Hmm, I don’t know if we did. Iain is in it – he was a blurry object in the background of a shot in the Lionel Richie bit. We were around; we had some very early ideas of getting much more meta on it, but they were short-lived and kind of almost pushing… Iain and I like to work in a way where we push an idea so far that it breaks. And we kind of go with it and go with it, and see where those boundaries are. When you’re working, you have an idea of where the tipping point is, and you’re trying to balance on that as much as possible; there were some ideas, one or two, that were definitely on the wrong side of that line.
A moment that I personally found that toed the line quite brilliantly was the scene with the psychoanalyst. That scene actually comes very early on in the film, and it unloads a lot of heavy, emotional stuff, which I think if it were any other documentary or any other film made by anyone else, that kind of scene would be right at the very end. Were there any other little bits of experimentation like that where you felt you succeeded?
Iain: That entire scene for us really unlocked so much of the film, really. It was a scene that we deliberately shot very early in the process, so once we kind of come back from the recording sessions and kind of begun to work up the story and the script for this film, we wanted to get really quickly into filming that scene because it felt like through that conversation would come to light a lot of the subjects that would become important for us in the film. So there’s loads of things that we kind of return to later on, or things that kind of raise the head in a different way, perhaps in the Archive or in the car at some point; there were actually grains of ideas that came out of that conversation with the psychoanalyst. We filmed for two days, and Nick and Darian Leader, the psychoanalyst, they talked for about ten hours on camera. So we had this huge amount of material, and it really gave shape to what was to come.
You’ve mentioned that that extra material might find its way onto YouTube or DVD Blu-Ray extras – something like that. Do you think cinema is becoming something else entirely?
Jane: We had some really positive and some really negative thoughts through the process of doing this. I mean, I think that culture is in a bizarre state at the moment. In a way I’m glad, otherwise we would not have made the film. But there really simply wasn’t another outlet, because culture in general is flooded with content – you know, that awful word, ‘content’ – for anything to kind of rise above and stand a chance of being a bit more meaningful or becoming something that can stand the test of time a little. It’s actually quite hard to do that. We found that we were choosing to go back to quite a traditional way of shaping the release of something. The film’s been kind of sold and released in a very, very traditional cinema way; but then, on a very positive note, when you actually engage with that, there are all of these ways which you can expand your story. And one of those is putting stuff onto DVD and all that kind of thing which we’re doing, and providing little funny clips and stuff, outtakes… but another way in which is exciting for us is the Museum. We’ve turned the website for the film – 20000daysonearth.com – into the Museum of Important Shit, and the first item in there is a photo from Warren of Nina Simone’s chewing gum. And the idea is just to then start getting anybody, anywhere, to submit a picture and the story behind it – some kind of humble signifier of huge influence and significance, and already we’ve got some really remarkable things collecting in there. There’s a great, beautiful notebook from Richard Ayoade that where he’s hand-felt-tipped the cover, and sort of laminated it with sellotape (laughs).
On the theme of museums and archiving stuff, do you think that you would do 20,000 Days on Earth Part II, in say, twenty years? I’m not sure how many days that would be…
Iain: My head’s hurting just trying to do the math…
Jane: I don’t know. You never say never, because the odd ideas are the ones that sometimes end up making the most sense, the ones that seem utterly preposterous now. We never set out to make a documentary, and the minute we thought that’s what we’re doing, we were just trying to make a film, a good film, about a great person and about the story, almost everybody’s story, of creativity. And now, I think we really want to work in fiction. I think this was so heavily steeped in the conventions of fiction filmmaking, that that’s really where we want to sort of try and expand next.
On your filmmaking techniques, during the making of the film and indeed your whole career, are there any particular duties that one of you is better at than the other?
Iain: It’s funny really, but I think because we began collaborating so early – I mean, we met at art school and began working together when we were twenty, I guess – so we didn’t really sort of come into the partnership, as it were, with kind of separate skills. It was sort of, you’re a good producer and I’m a good writer, let’s get together and make a film. Everything that we’ve done together over the last twenty or so years has all come out of kind of learning together – so there isn’t really a very clear line, which I think can be very confusing for other people. It can be kind of difficult to work with that sometimes, but for us it makes things incredibly easy. So there’s so many advantages; you can literally be in two places at once, and on a film set, that’s an extremely useful thing to be able to do.
Jane: I think our personalities shift as well. When we’re further away from something and working up toward it, I’m usually the calmer one and Iain can get more worked up about details. But then on set, he’s the calm one and I’m not (laughs). And we kind of swap positions, its’ nice when there’s two of you because you can sort of move around like that, and sort of fill in the blanks that the other isn’t coping with.
Iain: Good cop, bad cop is what you’re saying.
Jane: Good cop, bad cop – that’s a technique we use, yeah.
For someone like me, who didn’t really know that much about Nick Cave going in, were there any worries you had about how well the film would do? Or were you completely confident?
Iain: We certainly had a huge note in the back of our heads constantly that we were very consciously making a film that, we hoped, was not just for hardcore Nick Cave fans. I think we felt that there was a bigger story, there was a lot that could be said about creativity, and about time and how we choose to spend the time that we have, and we very very consciously steered away from getting stooped into the biography. I think, and I hope, there’s not a great deal in the film that is inaccessible to people that don’t know a great deal about Nick Cave. There’s an in-joke or two here or there, and there’s hopefully certain things that the bigger fans perhaps can enjoy it on a different level.
Jane: It was hard. It meant a lot of material immediately needed to be cut out. And so, there was lots we had to reject. Lots and lots of stuff in the Archive and in the psychoanalyst interview in particular that we had to carve away, because we had no way of communicating the basis of that information, and we didn’t want to exclude anybody from being able to follow the whole story.
20,000 Days on Earth is in cinemas now. Read our review here.
Stella Artois is supporting the gala screening of 20,000 Days on Earth, the latest in a series of films to be funded by the Stella Artois bursary programme which endeavours to support stand-out film.