Say what you will about rock star/composer/novelist/screenwriter/actor/etc./etc./etc. Nick Cave: There ain’t two just like him. The iconic Australian performer has been covered by Johnny Cash; rewritten the folk song “Stagger Lee” into the filthiest tale of murder and degradation imaginable; received honorary doctorates from universities on two different continents; appeared alongside Brad Pitt in both 1991’s Johnny Suede and 2008’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; published a Faulknerian novel about Southern American poverty and a farcical book about contemporary misogyny; and wrote scripts for films starring Guy Pearce and Shia LaBeouf, as well as an unused (and utterly batshit) script for Gladiator 2 at the behest of Russell Crowe; co-composed (with frequent collaborator Warren Ellis) and recorded the scores to films including The Road, West of Memphis, and The Proposition; and had a surprise massive international hit on a 1996 duet with Kylie Minogue, more than 15 years after rising to fame in the seminal post-punk band The Birthday Party. And that is but a sample of what Cave’s career has contained. While Cave’s success–with the exception of a brief period in the mid-’90s when he tricked Kylie Minogue fans around the globe into buying an album called Murder Ballads–has always been of the “cult” variety, there’s no denying that he’s been one of the more vital artistic voices working in a variety of media over the past few decades.
All of that, perhaps, helps explain why the new documentary about Cave, 20,000 Days On Earth, is utterly unlike any music documentary that came before it. The film is nominally interested in music, and performance, and celebrity, but it’s primarily an investigation into the creative process: Cave’s, to be specific, but also the way that creativity is mythologized and celebrated. In order to capture this, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard dove deep into Cave’s psyche and his persona–with the artist’s full and gleeful participation–in order to strip away layers of affectation.
The resulting film is a document that dips through staged set-ups and scripted voiceover, conversations that were steered through earpieces, and situations that capture an emotional truth while remaining at times utterly uninterested in factual truths. So how do you capture someone as slippery and unconventional as Nick Cave without resorting to easy rock star documentary cliches?
20,000 Days On Earth–so named because, as the conceit goes, it opens on the 20,000th day of Cave’s life–wasn’t intended to be a genre-busting documentary on the creative process from the get-go. In fact, according to co-director Jane Pollard, the original mandate was a bit more conventional. “We thought what we were going to see was the creation of an album from the first scraps of lyrics to its being performed onstage,” she says. That would have been interesting, perhaps, to Cave’s obsessive fans, but it’s not exactly something that we haven’t seen before starting around, say, The Beatles’ Let It Be. But as the directors began working on the film, the project started to shift.
“It becomes less about the making of a record, and far more about the seeing through of an idea,” Pollard says of the film’s narrative, which focuses mostly on just a pair of songs from the 2013 album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away in its documentation of the writing/recording/performance process. “That’s what we wanted the film to achieve–to make you feel the way that we feel, through knowing Nick. Nick’s the hardest-working, most progressive, and most interesting artist that we’ve ever met.”
Capturing that, then, wasn’t so much about showing the ways that Cave and his band rock out in the studio, or showing a process that ultimately isn’t much different from any other band’s way of working. Instead, the film became about making clear that, after 20,000 days on Earth, seeing through a project requires a creative drive that is very easy to sublimate.
“Nick de-mystifies the creative process–that it isn’t a lightning bolt from the gods that only a few people are blessed with,” Pollard says. “It’s about taking an idea, even half of an idea, and protecting it and bothering to see it through–and then waiting to see if something good can come out of that. And being willing to let it fail.”
There’s always a risk, when creating a piece of art that’s specifically about the creative process, that the entire project is going to Inception itself into a meta mess that swallows itself whole. But rather than try to distance the film from the thing the film documents, 20,000 Days On Earth embraces the fact that telling a story about creativity in a unique way is going to, by default, be about more than its subject–it’s going to be about the process of telling that story itself.
That’s something Pollard is comfortable with. “It’s not only what the film is about,” she says. “It’s what the film is. The film was that kind of half-baked small idea–‘Let’s make a sort of new kind of film. A film that engages in the mythology of music, and attempts to be as imaginative and as inspiring as that act, rather than an observation of it.”
The film that would become 20,000 Days On Earth started with a phone call. Pollard and Forsyth, who had collaborated with Cave on a few music videos and on bonus DVD content for the recent wave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds reissue albums, were invited to France to hang out while Cave and frequent collaborator (and co-star in the film) Warren Ellis worked on new material. But after a few days of filming, the idea of making a traditional music documentary started to feel like a wasted opportunity.
“It was a massive shift of scale,” Pollard says. “We had a realization that we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves if the footage we were shooting, and the moments that we’d managed to capture, would only live on in what is essentially ‘content,’ which really means ill-formed things pushed out on YouTube that sink really quick. They’re not able to really gather meaning in any way that we remember those documents of the ’70s, ’80s, or even going back to the ’60s. That was the thought: ‘What can we do with this? How is this going to stand a chance of being meaningful? How is this going to stand the chance of being around in a year or two and not just disappear?’
Pollard’s co-director, Iain Forsyth, explains that Cave was quick to allow the duo to pursue the project in whatever manner seemed appropriate to them. “I think it really does just come down to friendship more than anything,” he says. “Nick’s comfortable with us around, and without that sort of willingness to be productive, and to do what Nick does on his own with us also in the room, we would never have been able to make the film that we were able to make.”
If you see 20,000 Days On Earth and someone asks you to explain it, you’re in for a challenge: It’s a documentary, but it’s got imaginary scenes and dream sequences in it. Scenes take place in locations that are meant to be someone’s house, except they don’t really live there. At certain points, the conversations between people who are interacting are being steered by the directors speaking into earpieces.
One recurring motif that the filmmakers use involves Cave driving by himself, when he suddenly has a passenger of significance to his life or work in the car with him. It’s not exactly cinema verite–the sequence feels more like a hallucination captured on film, as Cave finds himself talking with former Bad Seeds collaborator Blixa Bargeld, or actor Ray Winstone, or Kylie Minogue. Moments like that separate 20,000 Days On Earth from what we think of as documentary film, but Forsyth says they keep some truth nonetheless.
“We wanted to find ways to provoke the different sides of Nick’s personality,” he says. “We all have traits that only come out with certain types of people–the relationships you may have chatting to your families is different when chatting with your friends in a bar, and different to chatting with people you work with. In a traditionally formated music documentary, you feel very much that the subject is doing a one-to-one dialogue with a filmmaker, and we wanted to break away from that. The Nick you see speaking to Kylie Minogue is a very gentle, tender, reflexive conversationalist; there’s something quite nostalgic. That relationship is very different from the relationship that he has with, for example, Ray Winstone, who’s very boisterous and down-to-earth. He’s a guy’s guy, and it’s a very, very different emotional state. So a lot of it was trying to engender that.”
Don’t Be Afraid To Push The Singular, Iconic Artist You’re Documenting In Ways That Make Him Uncomfortable
Cave’s a boundary-pushing artist, but Forsyth and Pollard found ways to push his personal boundaries nonetheless. “There were definitely scenes that Nick was very reticent about,” Forsyth recalls. “There were things that we wanted to do with him. I remember when we first described the idea of him waking in the morning, in bed with his wife, Nick’s reaction to that was ‘Whoa, don’t really want to do that.’ But he kind of understood what we were trying to do and he understands our process. When approached with things, he was willing to give things a go that, I think under different circumstances, he wouldn’t even entertain.”
Some of those sequences are fascinating–Pollard and Forsyth spent 10 hours filming Cave talking with a psychoanalyst–and presumably many of them ended up getting cut out of the final product. But ultimately, pushing Cave to do something unlike other music documentaries is probably what he wanted when he contacted the pair to make the film in the first place.
“I don’t think he’d have entertained anything other than something totally unconventional, because he’s turned down the idea of music documentaries hundreds of times,” Pollard says. “People have approached him. We thought it was going to be maybe something more like capturing the making of the record. We were having dinner every night when they were in the recording studio. He knew that what we were doing was getting was bigger–and more special, in some way–and so it was a very alternate process. He knew that we were going away to go and build a Trojan horse. He knew to sort of give us the kind of material to do that.”