A unique artist like Nick Cave demands a unique documentary and 20,000 Days on Earth is exactly that. Here the musician and the movie’s directors reveal how the Sundance winner – opening next month’s Sydney Film Festival – came to be.
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23 May 2014 - 4:54 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

When their Nick Cave movie, 20,000 Days on Earth, won the documentary award in Sundance, English visual artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard were already in an airport, stranded in a blizzard on their way home. They were able to accept the award thanks to the wonders of the internet. Chubby and decidedly goth in their appearance, the jovial pair, who have made their name creating re-enactments of cultural and art historical events, seemed like a lot of fun.
 
So when 20,000 Days on Earth screened in Berlin, I was keen to sit down for an interview. Cave was at the festival too, and proved entertaining at the film’s press conference. He explained how he put his trust in his old friends after their numerous collaborations on Bad Seeds’ music videos, and the result is highly entertaining.
 
The film’s title refers to how long the cult musician, scriptwriter and novelist has been among us. It follows a fictitious day in his life as he works on composing Push the Sky Away, the Bad Seeds’ latest studio album, released in 2013, and working up to climactic performances of the singles ‘The Higgs Boson Blues’ and ‘Jubilee Street’. Cave also appears in fleeting staged car scenes with Kylie Minogue, former bandmate Blixa Bargeld and Ray Winstone (star of the Australian movie, The Proposition, which Cave wrote).

“On the one hand, it’s a fiction, yet more truth can be gleaned this way,” notes Cave. “What I liked about the film was it gave me the opportunity to ruminate about things I was actually interested in. This rarely happens in a journalistic interview. I was given the opportunity to write things and talk about things that were unexpected. It was very clear from the start that the film was going to be something very different, about something greater than just the life of Nick Cave and that’s what drew me to it.

“This film goes for an hour and a half and it’s not my entire life. I don’t think these sorts of films can really get that kind of information across. But that’s not what we were trying to do. We were trying to make a film about things that interested us, the greater ideas about memory and inspiration, and not just telling stories.”

“Nick was remarkably trusting and patient,” notes Pollard. “It was a psychological endurance test; it was unscripted and he just ran with it, especially in that scene with Kylie.”

“There was something going on in those car scenes,” says Cave, “especially with Biloxi and Kylie, in that I hadn’t seen these people in a very long time. There was some unfinished business with me and Blixa because he left the band with a two-line email and I’d never really spoken to him about that since. We didn’t get a chance to hang out for a couple of days before we did this. We just sat in the car and started filming so it set up a very strange tension. It was very moving for me to be in that car with him and to see him again in all his glory and to remember what a pivotal person he was in my life and in the life of The Bad Seeds. It was the same thing with Kylie. I hadn’t really seen her properly and we had the most intimate talk that we’ve probably ever had inside that car with the cameras rolling. Maybe it’s got something to do with being a celebrity, of being constantly interviewed, that the most intimate things that get said ultimately are in those weird, false situations. That may be one of the tragedies of being a celebrity or whatever you want to call it, whatever creatures we are.”

What has been his most important musical collaboration?

“Everyone you work with brings something very different to the table. Blixa was certainly someone who had a massive impact on me as an artist, his attitude towards art in general, his love and disgust of art that he had in equal measure. But these days it’s my collaboration with Warren Ellis. Working with Warren is fundamental to everything that I do musically. It’s a privilege to work with him because everything that I bring to the table Warren transforms into something extraordinary.”
 
Q&A with Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard

HB: What was your aim with the film?

JP: It couldn’t feel like a promo or vanity project. We knew what the structure was going to be and Nick was providing the voiceovers but we never quite knew where they were going to go.

IF: If we had to worry about those kinds of things it would have failed. It evolved very organically and it built up momentum as it went along. The way we set up the film is very much like the way we work as artists. This idea of a situation that plays out is very much at the heart of the work we’ve made together.

JP: I don’t think we learned to become film directors. We have such a great relationship with Nick and we work on instincts. Jane and I don’t talk a lot about what we do and obviously over 20 years have established a very natural way of working together. It’s a very quick way of working and it’s quite ruthless at times.

What was the toughest part in making Nick Cave open up that much?
 
JP: He is a very open person actually, surprisingly. Keeping his interest, he is tremendously active and very aggressive and possibly the most impatient person I have ever met, so just keeping him in one place and interested in what you are doing for long enough is the challenge. There was a lot of planning that went into the psychoanalyst interview and also into the archive to make sure we had enough material. Everything was set and ready so we'd capture it in one take because we never did two takes of anything.
 
How Australian do you think Nick has remained through all his fame?
 
JP: Incredibly. In fact, I asked him before Christmas—because he always goes home to his mum’s for Christmas—I said to him, when are you going back? He’s lived in England for ages, but that’s easy to forget.
 
IF: He seems very Australian but when he gets together with Warren suddenly you realise. I think Warren is the most Australian person I know.
 
JP: It’s great! (Pauses) Is it a personality trait? There is something you get with Australian men, that amazing warmth and humour and a real deadpan kind of delivery.
 
IF: What’s great about working with Nick is he doesn’t have that British sensibility that can be almost embarrassed of success. On a good day, it’s self-depreciating and funny, but on a bad day, it’s a bit crippling and people put things down very easily. I think Nick has really managed to not take on those English cultural traits and I think still sees himself as separate from it. It’s a great thing to work with, someone who is not afraid to be ambitious.
 
You said there wasn't a screenplay, so the editing must have been an enormous task. (Jonathan Amos won the editing prize in Sundance.) How did you start constructing the film?
 
JP: We started with the psychoanalyst interview; that was crucial. We shot it two to three months ahead of everything else and we used that to find the film, in a way to find the themes. The psychoanalyst is a friend of ours and we chose him because we trust him. He is brilliant, a brilliant mind and we knew he would keep Nick interested and keep him (chuckles) engaged for long enough!
 
The film has a strong visual style. Who came up with that idea to shoot in such a beautiful way?
 
IF: I guess we never felt like we were making a documentary, that was a big thing. I think particularly when you are coming from a background as artists your work involves lots of different media. You play with ideas and the work eventually becomes whatever it is and I think we approached this in the same way. We never felt an obligation to tell a story or to find the bigger Nick Cave story, so we made something that we hoped would be enjoyable, interesting and engaging to watch.
 
JP: Our parameters were very much 90 minutes in a cinema. That’s where we would like this to primarily live. Of course, it will eventually go onto DVD and stuff.
 
It’s highly cinematic.
 
IF: We had a fabulous cinematographer, Eric Wilson. When we met him it was obvious he would be able to work in the way we needed to work with Nick, to strip away the technical stuff about filmmaking that gets in the way and takes Nick’s interest and attention away from what we are trying to do. He totally got that.
 
What was the idea behind Nick’s friends as guests in his car?
 
JP: The idea for the car was that some of the most memorable cinematic shots have come out of cars. Shooting in cars is an incredible way to film, if you can get it right, it looks just glorious and more importantly, in The Death of Bunny Munro, Nick's second novel, the car is so crucial. The car becomes a kind of metaphor for the inside of your head, for your thought process, when you are in that bubble and disconnected to the rest of the world. So we decided to extend that. For us, the people you see are figments of Nick's imagination. We didn't want to go anymore cheesy and make them fizzle into the screen and out again, but they are like ghosts, they are like conversations he is having in his head and they all represent concerns or areas where we wanted to get a different tone of voice, a different way of speaking out of Nick.

With Ray we needed somebody who would be blunt and like, “Are you worried about getting old?” Ray worked really well for that, he was our first choice and we were so lucky. Kylie represents a tremendously important moment in Nick’s life when The Bad Seeds got through the doors of the mainstream and were exposed to mass culture for a while (via their song ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’). But also I think Nick represents an important moment in Kylie's life, and even if they don't see each other very often, it was a really amazing way of capturing something there. We expected the car scenes to fail, but they were really worth trying. You can't shoot for very long, the people, Nick and Kylie or Nick and whomever, would become tired quickly, bored. They’d exhaust a conversation so you had 20 minutes to shoot and that was it.

So you're next going to make a movie about Kylie.
 
JP: She is amazing. She is a tremendous character, creation.
 
There is a nice moment where Nick gets in the car and there is the Kylie song ‘Can't Get You Out Of My Head’ on the radio and he turns it off. It’s funny. That’s not the only moment in the film where he’s funny. If people were to imagine the world of Nick Cave, it would be very dark and it is, but there are also those sparks, the humour, the hope and love. Did you know it was going to come out like that?
 
JP: Yeah, that is Nick. What you are seeing is Nick and that’s the Nick that we recognise. Whilst there are a lot of things in the film that aren't true, or are wrapped in a mythology or are artificial in some way, there are some very important emotional truths. I think you can mess with people's minds but you shouldn't really mess with their hearts, when you've got somebody investing in you.
 
Cave’s two children are in the film and I think this is the first time that he shows his face as a father.
 
JP: It is a good scene to pick up on. It was a tough moment in the film, that gap between getting back to the house and what did he do? We needed something; we needed a scene. Was he eating? Or putting the kids to bed? But everything we approached that was really domestic felt wrong. Then Iain remembered about these nights that Nick does with the boys called Inappropriate Film Night where he shows them an inappropriate film and we were like, “Oh let’s just do that”. It’s really good. He just comes and flops on the sofa.
 
What film are they watching?
 
JP: Scarface.
 
What’s so funny about this moment is he is still wearing his suit or his uniform. He always has this distinctive image, his dark hair and dark suit. Is it important for him?
 
IF: Yeah, I think that scene was trying to do lots of different things. One of the things it was trying to say is that the Nick that you see on the sofa with his boys is the same Nick that you see throughout the rest of that day, the same Nick you see on stage. The character Nick Cave has created is the truth, is the reality. The myth and all the trappings of being a rock star have molded into one thing. To put it another way, when we first started talking to Nick about the form of the film, the easiest thing to do when you are trying to discuss ideas is to compare it to other things. So we were talking about other music documentaries and music films and the thing that we all agreed on really quickly was that we hated those fly-on-the-wall kind of music docs that seem to be about trying to peel away the mask and show the man behind the myth.
 
Cinematically, it wasn't an appealing idea for us to see Nick driving his kids to school or washing the dishes or whatever mundane normal things that everyone does. It doesn't reveal anything at all so we wanted to stay within a very heightened reality.

I think it’s much more inspirational to see the extraordinary, to see the fabulous, to see the people who aren't like us. The great people like David Bowie are on a pedestal. He is untouchable and that’s kind of where I want my rock stars, my idols to be.
 
Cave has archives and is in control of his image like Bowie.
 
IF: For us, the archive was a useful cinematic device that allowed Nick to talk about the past in different way than documentaries usually do. We didn’t have to use a bit of archival footage and then go back to the place where Nick lived in Berlin and stand outside the building and talk to him about his memories of the city or anything like that.
 
JP: We could do it in a way like when you get that box out of the cupboard that’s got all your shit from when you were a teenager—letters and photos that when you tumble through them, you’re misremembering all the time and you get, like, fragments of smells and the craziest set of things. We wanted to give the sense that we all shape how we think and talk about our stories and it’s why in that scene we used a lot of glass and magnification and refraction because we wanted to visually say something about the way that memory works and the way you misremember things and you fill in the gaps. It’s a very strange state of mind.
 
Nick’s father was important to his sense of creativity.
 
IF: Yeah. I think anyone losing their father at 19; it’s a pretty crucial age where you’re still kind of making the person you want to be. Even at that age Nick was doing a lot of public performing and being in bands, so to lose your father at that point could be nothing but hugely influential. Though, we didn’t want to dig into that side of the story too much. Actually, when we were shooting, Nick talked about all sorts of details about his father and told some fabulous stories about going boating with his dad and his sister when he was a kid. But it felt like the more present his father was, the less you understood the influence, so we took it all away. It was the same with his wife, Susie. We shot a lot more scenes where Susie was more actively involved, and again, once we started to watch that back, the more physically present she was, the less it felt like you were really understanding about her relationship to Nick, because she’s all over everything Nick does. The record is Susie through and through. But kind of normalising that by having her there felt like it missed the point.

20,000 Days on Earth screens at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival (click here for more information) and is scheduled for general release on 21 August.