20,000 Days on Earth
Interview by Barney McDonald
Images by Chlo Thomson
Film Stills by Jane Pollard & Iain Forsyth
“We just freed ourselves of all of [the facts] and paid no
attention to the truth. But it’s funny. Nick says he recognises
—Jane Pollard himself in this film better than he has in anything.” — Jane Pollard
Bernard McDonald is a New Zealand-based film and pop culture writer, and formerly founder and editor “Pavement” magazine, a youth culture magazine that ran from 1993-2006. Focusing on contemporary culture from New Zealand and abroad, “Pavement” featured rising stars in music, art, film, fashion, and design, and consistently pushed cultural & creative boundaries.
Jane Pollard & Iain Forsyth
British visual artists Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth have worked together since they met at London’s Goldsmiths College in the 90’s. Their first feature film, “20,000 Days On Earth” premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Documentary awards for directing and editing. You can find their art in museums worldwide, including the Tate Gallery in London, and more information at their website.
20,000 Days On Earth
Directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, the feature film follows a fictional 24 hours in the life of Nick Cave, cultural icon and world-renowned musician, on his 20,000th day alive. A combination of documentary (featuring footage of Cave’s everyday life) and drama (featuring Cave in contrived situations), the film explores the artistic consciousness, process, and resilience – how myth, memory, love and loss shape a person’s life. It premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, winning the World Cinema Documentary awards for directing and editing.
Born in Warracknabeal, Australia, Nick Cave is an iconic musician, songwriter, composer, author, screenwriter and sometimes actor. Cave has achieved critical acclaim in his many transformations, most notably for as lead singer of the alternative rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. On stage, he is known for theatrics, and musical output which covers a vast stylistic range – from post-punk to pop to film tracks – often thematically exploring religion, death, love and violence. As the subject of “20,000 Days On Earth,” Cave becomes, at once, both a fictional and very human study in character, memory, and the artistic pursuit.
A British psychoanalyst and author, Darian Leader appears as a psychologist in the film “20,000 Days On Earth” with Nick Cave.
An Australian singer-songwriter and actress, Kylie has received critical acclaim and various major awards during her career, including a Grammy. A 1994 duet with Nick Cave, “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” helped establish her artistic credibility. She most recently appears in discussion with him in “20,000 Days On Earth.”
Stage name of Christian Emmerich, a German-born musician and artist best known for his work with musical groups Einstürzende Neubauten, which he founded in 1980, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Blixa appears in the film “20,000 Days On Earth” with Nick Cave, where they discuss, for the first time, his sudden departure from the band.
An English film and television actor, Ray Winstone is known best for his signature gritty voice and “tough guy” roles. He appeared in the film “The Proposition,” for which Nick cave was both screenwriter and musician, and was consequently brought in as a character in “20,000 Days On Earth.”
The new Nick Cave documentary “20,000 Days On Earth” is less about the man, more about the creative process of an artist. And in talking to its co-directors, Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth, it becomes apparent that they’re as steeped in the process of making art as the man himself. The pair certainly admire Cave’s purity and focus as a musician, actor and writer, both also adhering to the importance of capturing the moment in the most uncontrived manner possible, which makes the fabricated nature of much of their film paradoxical yet thrilling.
Two English filmmakers trying to make sense of the life and work of an Australian provocateur, who himself lives in England these days, though he’s also lived in Berlin, South America and of course Warracknabeal in the Australian state of Victoria, where he was born, is much like somebody staring at the moon without a telescope. They can see the man, but how to get close enough to understand him? Rather than attempt to pick away as many layers of his psyche and soul as they can, they rely on truth and honesty emerging in unlikely ways.
A lengthy session with acclaimed psychoanalyst Darian Leader provides an intimate platform for Cave to talk about his childhood. The recreation of a Nick Cave archive permits him to reminisce about important moments in his career, such as the duet Where the Wild Roses Grow, his only number one single, with Kylie Minogue. Then Cave is shown driving Minogue around in his car, discussing their unlikely pairing. He also takes former Bad Seeds musical partner Blixa Bargeld for a drive, the journey taking them far back, yet also a little forward, in poignant ways. And British character actor Ray Winstone also gets a lift, coming on the heels of Cave’s discussion with the psychoanalyst.
Most tellingly, several live sequences, including one show performed especially for the filmmakers to capture, expose the rawness of Cave’s façade, revealing the man behind the mask even as he plays a role for the adoring audience. This is Cave in his element, leering and lurching toward the crowd as he intones apocryphal words about sex and death and love and God. A pestilent preacher he most certainly is, but there’s tenderness there too, understanding, a clear sense of the fragility of emotion and knowledge. Fast forward to the end of the film, where Cave eats pizza and watches Scarface with his two adolescent boys, and we’ve been shown a side of the artist few people see. He’s just a man, a dad, a lover, a friend, who happens to put the world in a spin with his art.
Barney McDonald: Who did you make the film for?
Jane Pollard: We didn’t make the film for fans. They have their Nick. Just go and see him live and you get everything you want. There are thousands of different expectations and they’re all in love with a slightly different Nick. The junkie or the lover, there are so many different Nick’s across all of those albums that it’s just not possible to fulfil the thousands of expectations in a meaningful way. So you end up bogged down in an almost Wikipedia type of reeling out of the facts. We just freed ourselves of all of that and paid no attention to the truth. But it’s funny. Nick says he recognises himself in this film better than he has in anything. And I get that. I understand that. There’s a lot of his character, a lot of his humour, and a lot of emotional truth, but not the spoken, biographical truth.
BM: Did you get to enjoy the live sequences while shooting them?
JP: It was absolutely incredible. We were there for a few nights and we watched the shows around the ones we were filming as well. The hardest one for us was the little bit of footage you see from Stagger Lee. It was a show that Nick and the band did for us especially. It was a pretty small, special show, with a small audience. We felt we needed to film a gig where we could get really close. While it was happening, Nick and I were sat outside in a car, watching all the footage being shot. We were on headphones with all the people doing the shooting. But we were probably the only ones who weren’t in the building.
Ian Forsyth: To be fair, we saw about 15 shows on the tour, so we did okay.
JP: It’s a hard task to capture live performance. I can’t think of too many good live performance films. The Led Zeppelin film is an exception. The live footage in that is extraordinary. You’re looking to capture some sort of essence and that’s why we decided not to use an awful lot of music and live footage in the film; just to illustrate that kind of transformation that he makes. He becomes the thing that he created and we’re watching that played out on stage.
“We didn’t make the
film for fans. They have
their Nick. There are
thousands of different
expectations and they’re
all in love with a
slightly different Nick.”
— Jane Pollard
BM: Warren Ellis is a standout in the film too. Was he fun to work with?
JP: Can you believe Warren took the chewing gum off the stage after supporting Nina Simone? [laughs].
IF: We have a photo of Warren with the gum [laughs].
JP: It’s really underwhelming. It is just chewing gum in a towel. We had no idea he’d done that and that was going to come out. So it was a really great twist when he said it.
BM: Is the relationship between Nick and Warren as close as it appears in the film?
JP: They have a great relationship. It’s a good one. He’s the only person we could think of that you could put Nick in front of and suddenly there’s somebody else who will do more talking than Nick will [laughs].
BM: Did you try Warren’s eel soup?
JP: [laughs] I didn’t try it.
BM: Nick wasn’t keen either, simply pushing his bowl to the side.
IF: There’s a kind of private joke going on there. When Nick arrives at what is notionally Warren’s house, he has a gift for him. It’s a cage with two budgies. He brings them for him because Warren has an enormous phobia of birds. Then Warren decides he wants to make a dish that he thought Nick would be horrified by. Apparently Nick is quite squeamish about fish. I think when they’re on tour Nick has to look after himself and is wary of getting ill. So he’s generally quite conservative about what he’ll eat, whereas Warren’s looking for the kangaroo testicles. He’ll seek out the most outlandish thing on the menu.
BM: How much time did you spend with Nick before shooting began?
JP: Well, we’ve known him for about seven years, but we spent about seven weeks talking about what the film was going to be and what we’d try out. We just talked about ideas and took a sort of storyboard to Nick, where we said, ‘We should do this and then do this’. Basically, we had a script but with no dialogue in it. We had no idea what was going to be said, just the situations we thought something interesting could happen from. Like using a psychoanalyst or taking him to the archives and not telling him what we were going to show him. They were all situations we felt would give us a good chance of getting him to talk about his process and his past, in a way that hadn’t really been done before, but also in a real way. Everything you see is in one take. We never ask him to repeat anything. And we shot so much more than we could use. The psychoanalyst alone, we shot about 10 hours in order to get about 10 minutes.
BM: How many hours overall did you shoot?
IF: It’s a really skewed number because when we were in the studio we spent about 15 days shooting about 12 hours of footage on two cameras.
JP: We were about two-and-a-half weeks in principal photography. Most of that time was taken up with any scene where there was talking. Then we had a whole lot of days where we had Nick walking across the pavement or whatever.
IF: When we did anything with Nick, his time was very limited and very precious. And I think over the years he’d developed this remarkable ability to really strip out of his life the stuff that doesn’t matter. He focuses on doing the work that he wants to do. The moment you try to fit anything else into that it’s really difficult. He’s got a record to do or a book to write or a script that he’s working on or some other kind of creative project consuming him. So you’re stealing these pockets of a day here and three days there. And on the weekends, he’ll spend time with the kids. So it’s quite a negotiation.
JP: It also makes you very economical with your shooting. It makes you tell the story in as few strokes as possible. Also you can’t keep going, ‘Oh, shall we try that again?’ You make decisions quickly and you think about things beforehand. It’s actually a really good way to work, a really good discipline to have. The moment the person has to say something twice they become self-aware and you’ve lost that kind of honesty or freshness about it.
BM: How did you select the people to ride in the car with Nick?
Top of the Pops
A British music chart TV program, broadcast weekly by the BBC from 1964 until 2006.
Big Day Out
An annual music festival held across five Australian cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast, Adelaide, and Perth, as well as in Auckland, New Zealand.
IF: Well, they came out of their position in the film. Kylie was the first we decided on. We knew he would encounter her in the archive; he would see photographs of her. In fact, we had a lot more material that you don’t see. We had the dress that she wore on the “Top of the Pops” appearance and on some of the Big Day Out stuff they did together. So we thought that in the conceit of the fiction of the day, he goes to the archive and encounters all these images of Kylie. So wouldn’t it be amazing if she were this thing that was occupying his head as he drives home?
JP: So that was an obvious one. We knew that from the start. The other two kind of found themselves. There was a moment of reflection on the people he’d collaborated with. And we secretly hoped that Nick and Blixa would have the conversation that we know they’ve never had. They’ve seen each other over the past however long it is, but they haven’t ever talked about what happened. We were hoping that could happen.
“Nick’s a very
different person when he’s
with different people…
All of this was
about trying to reflect
the multiple sides
to Nick’s personality.”
— Iain Forsyth
BM: Ray Winstone appears in the film around the time Nick is talking about his relationship with his father. What was the thinking there?
An Australian western film directed by John Hillcoat and written by screenwriter/musician Nick Cave. The film stars Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone among others, and received vast critical acclaim for it’s strange and unflinchingly gritty portrait of the west, as well as its musical score.
JP: Ray was the hardest one actually, because Nick hadn’t really done much on the film at that point. When we decided he should be driving the car, we didn’t know what we were going to use out of all that footage. But one of the most interesting things Nick had been writing about and we’d been discussing with him was the idea of the performer. If the performer is any good, he becomes the mask that he’d created. It was then that we thought, ‘Well, who else has to tackle that?’ And actors obviously have to put on and take off masks, or live them momentarily and go into method for short periods of time. Ray’s the guy who starred in Nick’s first big film, “The Proposition,” but also a guy who’s the same age. And Ray is remarkable. He’s the most no-bullshit character. He doesn’t let you get away with anything. The whole conversation with Nick was hilarious. There are some amazing moments.
IF: That to me was very important because Nick’s in almost every frame of the film. We’re very aware that if you’re going to put anybody else on screen for 97 minutes there’s a pretty high risk you’re going to get bored with that. So you need to find a way of bringing out the different sides of Nick. Nick’s a very different person when he’s with different people. Kylie brings out a very tender, reflective personality; Ray maybe brings out a slightly bolder, brasher side of his character. Watching TV with his kids, he has a very different relationship with them. All of this was about trying to reflect the multiple sides to Nick’s personality.
BM: Are there many other people you could make this style of documentary about?
JP: I can’t think of any. He’s not precious and that’s a really remarkable thing. He’s worked really hard to maintain an image, a credibility, and integrity to what he does, but not in an overly sensitive or precious way. If an idea’s interesting or borrowed or good, he’s willing to listen. And that still really impresses me about him.