Given the grief Nick Cave and his wife Susie have felt over the death of their 15 year-old son Arthur, the singer-songwriter was not up to dealing with the media throng to promote The Bad Seeds’ new album, "Skeleton Tree". So he asked Andrew Dominik, who was over in Europe shooting a Diesel commercial, to make a movie about the album and the underlying grief behind it.
(Cave had previously composed the music for Dominik’s 2007 movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and was not about to ask his more recent collaborator John Hillcoat, who had become a family friend and kind of uncle to his sons after they had collaborated on Lawless and The Proposition.)
As the final credits rolled at the Venice Festival’s world premiere of Dominik’s ensuing mostly black and white film, One More Time With Feeling, it was hard not to be moved by the voices of Arthur and his twin brother Earl, singing "Deep Water", a song Nick and Earl had written for Marianne Faithfull. Arthur had recorded it on his iPhone.
“Susie sent it to me when Nick didn't know and then Nick sent it to me two months later,” Dominik explains. “So I figured they wanted the song in the movie. But neither of them had listened to it; they couldn't bear to listen to it.”
In the film we only see Arthur briefly as an infant. “Well he’s no longer there, is he? That last shot of the empty space is kind of Arthur’s shot in the film,” explains Dominik.
We do not learn how Arthur, high on drugs in July 2015, fell to his death off a cliff in Brighton, near where the family lives. Rather we watch as Cave embarks on recording new kinds of songs in a London studio as well as talking in his Brighton home, and we see Susie, a former model, creating her own clothing line. They both acknowledge it has been best to throw themselves into their work, that creativity comes from pain and from a terrible situation they are only starting to work through.
"They [Nick and Susie] both acknowledge it has been best to throw themselves into their work, that creativity comes from pain and from a terrible situation they are only starting to work through."
We watch as Dominik asks Cave to agree to be filmed constantly. In return, as the director explains later in our interview, he gave the couple the power to veto. When they didn’t particularly like the depiction of themselves, but didn’t mind how each other turned out, they left it to Warren Ellis to decide. Cave’s creative partner thought it was fine and the film went ahead without a hitch. “What would I do without Warren?” Cave asks at one point.
It was not always an easy shoot as Dominik filmed in time-consuming 3D “to try to get a sharper focus”. He is the first to admit that Cave “is not the kind of person who likes to wait around” and they sometimes argued.
“I’m naturally manipulative and Nick’s very suspicious and not very trusting, though it’s a relief that he’s very bright. He was anxious to get to the studio to record, but I was deliberately slowing things down at times to get a reaction from him.”
He says Cave didn’t find making the film therapeutic, even if what we see on screen proves insightful. At one point, the 58-year-old rock god looks in the mirror acknowledging the bags under his eyes that have come since his son’s death.
Has he changed?
“Nick says he’s a more extreme version of himself and I think it’s probably true,” Dominik admits. “He’s a lot more compassionate, more open to other people. Before he was a very armoured person and was never afraid to make things difficult. He’s a lot less like that now. He’s more patient with people than he used to be.”
"Skeleton Tree" is available for download from midnight Thursday. One More Time With Feeling screens for one night only on Thursday 8 September. Go to One More Time with Feeling's website for a list of the selected cinemas.
Watch the One More Time With Feeling trailer: