The Reeler

Features

October 30, 2007

Unwritten Rules

Reeler Interview: Director Temple on new Strummer doc, campfire filmmaking and how not to light Scorsese

Titan of The Clash: Joe Strummer, the subject of Julien Temple's doc The Future is Unwritten (Photos: IFC Films)

Part documentary portrait, part hagiographic orgy and wholly intoxicating in its measured chemistry of each, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten profiles the late Clash leader in an extreme close-up only a friend and rock-film daredevil like Julien Temple could sharpen. That focus -- from Strummer's (nee John Mellor) middle-class, globetrotting upbringing as a diplomat's son to his art school exile to his fortuitous introduction to bandmates Mick Jones and Paul Simonon and the punk world conquest that followed -- embraces the Strummer mythology only to the extent it can unravel it, with the songwriter's archives and a who's-who of interviewees including Jones, Bono, Johnny Depp, Flea, Jim Jarmusch and even Martin Scorsese crashing perspectives as dynamically as anything in Strummer's versatile oeuvre.

As a music survey, The Future is Unwritten (opening Friday in New York) is the perhaps the most generous, personal work of Temple's 30-year career and handily his best film since Pandaemonium, his over-the-top 2000 narrative deconstruction of the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. That angsty, romantic complexity of creation revived here opens Strummer up to fans and newcomers alike -- for many of whom as many questions as answers may remain about Temple's subject. I caught up with the filmmaker during his recent stopover in New York to hear more about his own struggles with learning the real Joe Strummer, the stories in his images and how not to light Martin Scorsese.

THE REELER: You're known for uncompromising films about rock culture. In what ways, if any, did making a movie about a good friend compel you to compromise with what's said and unsaid?

JULIEN TEMPLE: Well. I don't feel I compromised. I felt impelled by Joe as much as anything else to show the Joe I thought I knew, which meant someone who wasn't perfect -- someone who had flaws and weaknesses and contradictions like everybody does, but someone who wasn't ashamed of those and didn't try to sweep them under a carpet like a lot of famous people. Miraculously, they're somehow perfect when they're famous. Joe would've hated that. He'd have jumped up out of his grave and strangled me if I'd done it. That wasn't a problem. I didn't feel compromised in telling the truth at all, but it's my truth, and it is selective. It's just two hours out of this hugely complex life.

R: Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones says at one point Strummer's persona wasn't an act, yet Clash drummer Topper insists he got to know the real Joe during a brief jail stay. The film suggests either could be true. What do you think?

JT: At that time, the Joe Strummer I knew was the real deal. If you tapped the armor, there was someone inside. There wasn't a hollow echo. The Joe Strummer of the early punk moment -- when Topper was talking about trying to get to know him -- was a different person. He was a construct that was forced somehow to be what it was because of the circumstances of that moment in time. By the end of his life, I think Joe had managed to integrate all these different parts of his persona back into himself; he didn't have to hide his parents and his upbringing or his years spent bumming around as a proto-hippie before punk. In the end, he wasn't John Mellor; he was Joe Strummer. But he had John Mellor in him.

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R: When did you determine that your interviews would take place around campfires -- one of Joe's most cherished symbols -- and that you wouldn't identify your subjects onscreen?

JT: That first part sort of cures the problem of the talking head, where you've got these wrinkly old rock stars in a rocking chair with the spotlight on them. It's very uncinematic; I just hate it. The faces disappearing and appearing in the flickering light was just a nice thing; they would lose the sense of the camera being there because it was hidden behind the flames in the darkness on the other side of the fire, which allowed a much more intimate, spontaneous, truthful, equal conversation. And that's what Joe was about: An exchange of ideas, not grilling someone for information. And no one has ID's like "Bono, rock star" or "Johnny Hallyday, car thief," or whatever. A hierarchy is implicit in that, and the campfire was about breaking that down. Plus you have to do a little detective work; it makes the audience's journey more active. I like that people have to say: "Who is that? The prime minister of Chechnya or is it Mick Jones? My God! It's Mick Jones!"

R: Exactly! Of course it's made easier when Mick is the only one who never appears near a campfire.

JT: He was Joe's partner, so he could choose how he was presented. He asked for a three-bar electric fire -- that's what he grew up with in his grandmother's high-rise flat in London. He's an urban kind of guy, you know.

R: It even looks like there's a campfire in Martin Scorsese's screening room.

JT: Yeah, Marty doesn't do campfires either, so I had to go shoot him at his office. Which was fine; I was just happy to go film him. But I did go down to Canal Street and buy a couple of those really cheap lights that blows around orange ribbons and looks like flickering flames. We stuck it near Marty's head and he thought we were taking the piss out of him. "What? What? You call this lighting?" "No, don't worry, Marty -- you'll understand." I never understood that he was such a nutty Clash fan. He was showing me pictures of his parents having dinner with The Clash at their house.

Director Julien Temple

R: The New York segment of the film is extraordinary. Everyone seems to forget today that The Clash literally ruled the city for a short time in 1981. Why do you think that is?

JT: Many people overlook the past, don't they? Even when it's an important past and useful for the future. But I really don't know why.

R: Everybody thinks instead of, say, The Police packing Shea Stadium for one night, but The Clash took over Times Square for a month.

JT: And in a much more interesting way. Things were closed down. There were riots outside. They introduced hip-hop to white audiences in New York at those shows. It's more interesting than The Police could ever dream of. Maybe that's why we don't remember: It's too interesting. We're encouraged to forget about it in case someone else comes up with something that interesting again. The Police are encouraged just because they're so bland, and the people who run the world want it blander and blander. Reunions of The Police ad infinitum is just what they want.

R: Of the band's internal squabbles, Bono notes: "The thing that pisses me off about The Clash is that this extraordinary band should still be here." I kind of see his logic, but I don't know if I agree. What do you think?

JT: I never think bands -- especially when they come back -- top what they were originally or match the kind of importance that they had in their original incarnation 10 years or 20 years earlier. I understand where Bono's coming from, because he's in a band that's refused to break up and has become a corporation or whatever it is. I don't think it would be a very pretty sight to see The Clash prancing around at age 50 singing "White Riot" for a living. I think it's much nobler for them to be remembered as they were -- an amazing rock band, not a parody of one.

R: Part of the mission seems to be to carry on Strummer's message, but have you seen any bands or even any cultural infrastructure in place that could support such tireless idealism?

JT: I think it is around. There's certain -- I guess you'd call it "underground" -- culture in England that's very close to those ideals. When we were having these campfires in England, there were a lot of people who came to them who were very much about continuing that type of attitude. But I think it'll be hard for a band to achieve what The Clash were able to physically achieve in terms of mass commercial success with an uncompromising idea about what they're doing. The whole cultural landscape is so fragmented and broken up into tribal areas. It's harder to get a message across the way The Pistols did when punk broke in England -- the whole media circus would be hit by one thing. They were national figures overnight and hit every level of culture in one go.

It will become easier once this bubble-like aspect of the word we live in is punctured. When things like global warming have the effect that we deny they're going to have? Then other areas of culture will pick up the mantle of The Clash and demand that people have the right to think for themselves.



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