Julien Temple, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
For 30 years, Brit Julien Temple has combined his dual passions of film and music, and worked with greats in both fields along the way. He first came to prominence with The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1979), the Sex Pistols’ madcap cinematic offering, and from there went on to become an important figure in the fledgling pop video medium as well as pioneering the feature-length promo with the Human League’s spy-themed Mantrap (1983) and Mick Jagger’s Running Out of Luck (1987). Though Absolute Beginners (1986), the lavish 50s-set musical starring David Bowie and the Kinks’ Ray Davies, famously flopped, he immediately bounced back by contributing a segment to the opera portmanteau movie Aria (1987) and followed that with Earth Girls are Easy (1988), an aliens-on-earth Hollywood comedy with a strong musical aspect. In the decade that followed, Temple made an IMAX movie for the Rolling Stones, At the Max (1991), a gritty New York crime pic co-written by and starring Mickey Rourke, Bullet (1996), and biopics of French auteur Jean Vigo and the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vigo (1998) and Pandaemonium (2000).
Having recently made two definitive music documentaries, The Filth and the Fury (2000) and Glastonbury (2006), Temple now continues the trend with Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, his film about the iconic Clash frontman. Blending archive footage with campfire remembrances from myriad figures in Strummer’s life, it constructs a portrait of a complex, evolving artist. Initially defined by his politicized rebelliousness and ruthless ambition, Strummer found greater peace after the demise of the Clash. He died tragically of a congenital heart defect in 2002, aged just 50. As with The Filth and the Fury, Temple’s superlative documentary about the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer is brought to life by the director’s dynamic cinematic style and passion for the subject, and serves as a fitting memorial to one of the great figures in late 20th century music.
Filmmaker spoke to Temple about his unusual first meeting with Strummer, keeping his punk sensibility and why he wishes he’d made Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon.
Filmmaker: When did you first meet Joe?
Temple: I first met him in Chalk Farm [in London] in the rehearsal space that the Clash had. I’d got permission to go there from Bernie [Rhodes, their manager]; he said, “Go there, you can film and they’ll be rehearsing.” So we turned up — it was very cold, I remember, it was winter . There was no one there in this big, open warehouse space, except there was this really weird smell and there was this table with a plastic tablecloth over it, and the smell seemed to be coming from there. When I lifted up the tablecloth, there was Joe asleep. He still had his boots on, and was not very happy to have been woken.
Filmmaker: And how quickly did you become friends with him?
Temple: Well, I was filming them quite intensely for three or four months, and then it was all over because they said, “You’ve either got to be with us or The [Sex] Pistols.” So I wasn’t friends with him properly until much later, in the mid-‘90s when he actually moved down to where I live [in Somerset] in England. I met him again by accident: he turned up at my house with my wife’s oldest school friend, as her new boyfriend. It was a quite bizarre moment. Partly because we were spending time down there in the middle of nowhere, we became quite close friends.
Filmmaker: What are your strongest memories of Joe?
Temple: My main memory is his knock on my door: it was always very clear that it was Joe knocking on my door and there was a kind of excitement about hearing the knock because you knew you were in for a really good time. It was great spending time with him, he really challenged you and there was always a provoking dimension to what he would talk about. He made you feel that he would listen to what you would say and it’s a stupid cliché but I think people really felt he made their lives better in some weird way. Partly because he was a great listener, which a lot of people aren’t. But the campfires [that Strummer organized] were great in those years, in the sense of seeing him find another direction, or begin to find a direction, after clearly having gone through a disorienting, dark period [after the Clash split up].
Filmmaker: And did the idea for the film only come to you after his death?
Temple: Yeah, I wouldn’t have made it if he was still around. I think a lot of people who knew him were very affected by his death and were a little disoriented themselves by it, [so] I had to wait [anyway]. We didn’t have a memorial or a concert, so I felt that it might help people to get back around the fire and talk about him
Filmmaker: You brought together all these interesting, diverse people — from Jim Jarmusch, John Cusack and Matt Dillon to Joe’s schoolmates, band members and contemporaries — to talk about him around campfires in London, New York, Los Angeles, etc. That must have been a great experience.
Temple: It was. The key was they were all very keen to do it for Joe. They all knew Joe in different ways but it wasn’t as if you had to hunt them down or pressurize them. Some of them said, “I hear you’re doing this, can I come to the fire?” A lot of other people would have been in it if they’d been around in those cities at the time we were doing the fire, but it was a pretty good cross-section. You’re always slightly conflicted about the idea of celebrity endorsements and one thing that helped me with that is that the fire is a great equalizer: around a fire, no knows who you are. You don’t wear a nametag like at a convention.
Filmmaker: It almost seems as if Joe was maybe the only person who could have been the link between that disparate group of people.
Temple: Yeah, I think so…that hippie-punk thing that he seemed to own up to at the end. I think he was unique in being able to cross cultural barriers. He was more a beat than a hippie; there was a real beat poet aspect to Joe, a punk aspect and a rasta aspect almost. There was something almost shamanic about the guy but also something rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly. That’s quite a strange confluence of things.
Filmmaker: What was it like finding archive footage of Joe from his childhood and late teens?
Temple: I was amazed how much stuff had been shot of him, in photographs and stills as well as bits of moving films. One of the fun things about a project like this is the archaeological dig aspect, finding a horde of treasure on 8mm. We had one bit of film that hadn’t been developed, and they said maybe it was something to do with The 101ers [Strummer’s band before the Clash]. It was great, those images of Joe loading up the van, on the steps of the squat and so on. When we developed it, it looked like it was shot yesterday. It was so strange — no scratches, really good color.
Filmmaker: You also found quite a lot of Joe’s art, some of which you animated in the film. How straightforward was that to do?
Temple: It’s a lot easier than it used to be. A guy who worked in my garden did that on his laptop. We had all these old carrier bags of Joe’s doodles, and people told me that at one time he did think he’d become an animated cartoonist, so it was like, “Well, Joe, here you are, you are a cartoonist, you drawings now are animated,” which was a nice thing to do.
Filmmaker: How easy was it to make this film as Joe’s friend, and to keep a perceived objectivity?
Temple: Well, it was helped by the fact that you felt he’d get out of his grave and strangle you if you showed him in too perfect a light. I had a very strong sense that he would not want to be shown as some kind of saint, partly because I had watched how he worked and the contradictions and the flaws were part of his creativity: he went to those areas to find a creative energy. He liked different opinions and he liked being honest about your faults. I certainly didn’t want to put him down, I wanted to celebrate him but I did want to celebrate a version of him that I felt was truthful and rounded.
Filmmaker: Your film career has mostly stuck very closely to music, so how do feel about the tag of “music filmmaker”?
Temple: I don’t like it because I don’t think this really is a film about music. It’s [about] a man who made music, but it’s still not his life. The culture he came from, the time he lived— those things, to me, are more what it’s about than music. I think every film is given another dimension by the use of music, or the absence of music. How you play with music and images in a movie is a very powerful part of making movies, whatever the movie is. But I don’t like [the word] “rockumentary” — I hate that; the name gives me nightmares.
Filmmaker: It seems as if in Vigo and Pandaemonium you were investing yourself in subjects you were passionate about and people you were interested in just as much as you would have with a music-themed film.
Temple: Yeah, definitely. I think Pandaemonium was something I put a lot into, but you have more “cooks” telling you what to do in those situations, which I’m not so good at. [On documentaries], you’re left alone, partly because you don’t have a script where people can say, “Tear that page out.” There’s nothing physical to control because you‘re making it up as you go along and [have] that freedom to do it very minimally, budget-wise, do it with a small crew and be light on your feet, spontaneous, improvising — if you want to do it, you can do it. But the juggernaut of a big film crew is scary. Your creative function is challenged by this administrative keep-everyone-happy [role]. So you spend a lot of energy doing that and not wrestling with the actual [questions], “Is this a better way of doing it than what we thought of?” or “What’s happening in this moment? Can we use it?” which is really to me what the cinema should be about, chance, and what’s happening as you make the film as well as the planning of it. I think the planning of it is overestimated.
Filmmaker: Looking at your career, you’ve worked with Jim Carrey before he was famous (on Earth Girls Are Easy), Tupac Shakur just before he died (on Bullet) and with Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Altman (on the portmanteau film Aria). There seems to be a wild diversity there.
Temple: It’s important to me to try and do things you haven’t done before, or at least treat each film as if I don’t know anything about filmmaking. I like the crew to think I don’t know anything, so they’re telling me, “If you put this lens on…” and so you get ideas from them that way, rather than you saying, “I want this lens.” If you treat each film as a new start then that’s the best way, and often a new subject gives you that as well.
Filmmaker: Do you think the current popularity of documentaries will last or that it is a fad?
Temple: I think it has every chance of lasting because it is exploring other ways of telling stories. Mainstream cinema that most people have access to has a very limited way of telling a story, but [in documentaries there is] the idea that I was talking about before, that the filmmaker isn’t quite so controlled by the forces that finance films and develop films. This committee idea that a film has to get through all these hurdles to be ready to shoot kills the cinema in a lot of films. Documentary is inherently free of that, and there is real chance in the telling of it because you’re not about to say, “I didn’t like the way you did that, do it again,” it’s just what you get, which is quite interesting.
Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you’d directed?
Temple: I don’t think that you should wish you’d directed anybody else’s film really, but the [Georges] Méliès one, A Trip to the Moon, would be quite good. [laughs] It wouldn’t have taken that long to do as it’s only about five minutes long, but it kicked off a whole lot of stuff, didn’t it? I like that idea of something that opens up other things.
Filmmaker: Is that something you’ve tried to do in your own career, to make groundbreaking work?
Temple: Partly because of the punk connection I’ve had. Yeah, I like the idea of trying to break down conventional rules, and it’s nice if you can show [something] from a different point of view than you’d expect. I think [a film] should provoke thought.
Filmmaker: Do you still try and instill that punk ethos into your work, even the narrative stuff that you do?
Temple: I do, but I want to do more of it than I have done. They like to take it out — that’s part of the committee thing. It’s quite hard to demonstrate it until it’s there as an edit and a moment in the film, as that aspect can be hard to put on a piece of paper but you find it in the making of it. That’s the kind of unplanned nature of punk events as well.
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Temple: Never give up. If you want to do something, there are ways of doing it if you don’t give up. Also believe in what you’re doing. Don’t take yourself too seriously. These are all mistakes I’ve made. [laughs]