Meet the (New) Directors: Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, ‘20,000 Days on Earth’

Posted by Erik Luers on 3.30.2014

New Directors/New Films concludes this Sunday evening with 20,000 Days on Earth. "A gorgeous, haunting portrait of Nick Cave,” raved Andrew O'Hehir on Salon after the film's premiere at Sundance, “... an unclassifiable and frequently spectacular documentary.” Prior to the film's screening, co-directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, specialists in art installations incorporating elaborate usage of sound, spoke about their new feature-length film.

20,000 Days on Earth
Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, UK, 2014, 95m

Description: This unclassifiable immersion in the twilight world of polymath musician Nick Cave is a portrait worthy of a great self-mythologizer. In their feature debut, artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard combine footage of Cave and the Bad Seeds recording their 2013 album Push the Sky Away with alternately telling and teasing scenes that fall somewhere between fact and fiction. As Cave visits a shrink, digs into his archives, and reminisces with friends (like Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue) who pop up in the backseat of his Jaguar, 20,000 Days on Earth evokes Godard’s One Plus One and Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There in its playful deconstruction of stardom and identity. This enthralling film offers a glimpse of an icon at his most exposed, even as it adds another layer to his legend.

Responses co-authored by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard:

On crafting a work designed for longer attention spans:

We're visual artists. We've been working collaboratively since meeting at Goldsmiths in London 20 years ago. Our work is usually installational, often incorporating moving image, sometimes performance, and sound is usually a key factor. For example, we recently made an installation using Ambisonic sound in collaboration with Scott Walker for the Sydney Opera House.

One of the things that excited us the most about making a long-form film was the opportunity to engage with an audience over a longer period of time, for ideas to be able to play out and evolve, as they're weaved together and connections drawn. Having worked in museums and galleries throughout our career, you start to get a instinctive sense of the attention span you can expect from an audience. People are used to giving art a few minutes of their time—if you can engage someone for 20 minutes in a gallery then you're doing incredibly well. Perhaps as a result of that, our work has tended to focus on a singular key idea. An artwork trying to do too many things is confusing, it frustrates and repels your viewer. But a film... well that's a different thing. It's a challenge. That's what really drew us to filmmaking. It was something that we didn't know we could do. And that's exciting.

On gaining Nick Cave's trust in order to make a film about him:

We set out to make a film about the creative spirit, so in many ways we could have made it with anyone, but we couldn't have made it with anyone better than Nick Cave.

We met Nick Cave maybe seven or eight years ago, he asked us to make a music video, which we'd never done, but agreed to try! Since then have worked together on various projects and became friends. When Nick began work on his latest album he called and said that he thought he could probably cope with us being there and filming while he and Warren began writing. He's never done that before so we jumped at the chance. We filmed them writing together and then moving into the studio with the band to make the record. Once we started to see the material we were getting it was immediately obvious that we needed to do something more than make a short film about the making of an album. So we began to dream about what this film might be.

At first, Nick was incredibly reluctant to want to have a film made about him—he's had many offers over the years, but it's something that just doesn't interest him. But the more we discussed ideas and explained what we wanted to do, Nick slowly came around to the idea once he understood that we didn’t want to make a "fan film." It’s not a biography, and if you’re interested in facts and figures about Nick then this isn’t the place to look. We wanted to make a portrait of an engaging and inspiring artist, and his creative process. The themes that interested us are universal, we can all relate to them. We were interested in how you choose to spend your time on earth, what it is that makes us who we are, and what can make us the person we want to be.

On always focusing on what you want your intended audience to feel:

Our subject came out of friendship, and out of trust. We couldn't have made the film we made about somebody we didn't know. And we're sure Nick would never have allowed the film to be made, and certainly be made in the way it was, by anyone he didn't know. There's a trust that's developed over the years that we've been working together and that's really what was at the heart of the project. We were able to say to Nick: "Look, let's try this, if it doesn't work, we'll trash it, but let's at least find out if it'll work, let's try it"—and he would.

To be frank, we never really set out to make a film. And throughout making it we never felt like we were making a film "about" Nick Cave, even though he is, of course, at the heart of everything. Our approach to our work as artists has always started by defining the emotion we want the viewer to feel. We approached the film in exactly the same way. We want the audience to feel what you feel when you get to know Nick. You’re inspired and impressed. We want you to get to the end of the film and feel fired up, to think, ‘"I need to be better, I need to do more," It’s been described as a “love letter to creativity,” and in many ways that’s true. Anyone can have an idea, but for it to be worth anything, you've got to see it through.

On categorizing their '"documentary":

Once Nick understood what we wanted to do with the film, one of the biggest challenges was then finding ways to communicate that to others. We spoke to production companies, producers, financiers, and all sorts of "industry" people and had to make sure they understood that we had no intention of making a typical "rock doc." We felt no obligation to tell "The Nick Cave Story," to stay true to, or even incorporate his biography. Nick has spent more than 30 years as a master storyteller, weaving truths and untruths, rewriting myths, and creating modern legends. We wanted to stay true to the spirit of Nick’s story, rather than the facts. The truth doesn’t matter. We were lucky in that we found our amazing team, including our producer Jim Wilson who was really able to take our vision and make it possible. Then once our financiers came on board we were able to stop explaining and start making!

On managing their time:

We of course experienced many of the tedious problems that most productions face: the weather was against us, time and money was usually against us, but the one logistical challenge throughout was working with Nick's schedule. He works incredibly hard, and is constantly engaged in several projects. So we had to find the pockets of time we could get with him, and then use them. This wasn't easy while we were still trying to complete the financing and get everyone on board, and we learnt quickly that the film industry just isn't used to moving at that sort of pace. We were incredibly fortunate to have the support of our production company Pulse Films, who completely got that we needed to grab Nick's time when it was available, and this was a project that had to be made to fit with his schedule. The important thing of course is that we got there, and the film got made.

On their upcoming projects:

Our sound installation with Scott Walker will be touring soon, and should be in the United States in 2015. We're also beginning work on a collaborative project with the musician Joe McAlinden [ex-Superstar/Teenage Fanclub] and the author Alan Warner [Morvern Caller/The Sopranos].

We're hoping to begin work soon on our first dramatic feature film. We've learnt so much making 20,000 Days on Earth, and can't wait to make another film!

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