tue 23/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Director Julien Temple | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Director Julien Temple

theartsdesk Q&A: Director Julien Temple

Britain's greatest rock doc director holds forth at definitive length on punk, class, London and dying for cinema

London pride: director Julien Temple sports a rare Billingsgate bobbin

Julien Temple’s directing career has been struck seemingly stone-dead twice. After working with Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols on The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle (1979), then again after the flop big-budget British jazz musical Absolute Beginners (1986), he was made a notorious cinema untouchable in the UK. Exiled in Hollywood, he fell back on his parallel life as a landmark pop video auteur.

But during the last decade Temple has bounced back to become the world’s most exhilarating and influential rock documentarian, with films using cut-up, rapid-fire film grammar to tell a story of post-World War Two England through its greatest rock bands. A more darkly human retelling of the Pistols’ story, The Filth and the Fury (2000), was followed by Joe Strummer - The Future is Unwritten (2007), and Oil City Confidential (2009), about punk’s early Seventies pub-rock John the Baptists, Dr. Feelgood.

A brace of BBC films, Ray Davies: Imaginary Man (2010) and Dave Davies: Kinkdom Come (2011), helped secure the unprecedented approval of both the feuding Davies brothers for a possible feature film about their old band, The Kinks, which Temple’s now developing and could be his crowning glory.

Another candidate for that position is his latest, London: The Modern Babylon. Expanding the deep sense of place in Oil City Confidential’s Essex and another of his docs, Requiem for Detroit? (2009), this loving tribute to his home town saw him sift and splice 6,000 hours of archive reaching back to the 1890s. With trademark chutzpah, X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” soundtracks the Suffragettes as past and present clash and cohere, in a metropolis made of music and the mob, rich and poor. The DVD of this surging, inspiring film is out this week.

Temple lives in Somerset these days (Glastonbury [2006] is another recent work), but I meet him in his Ladbroke Grove office, festooned with old punk mantras, reminders of ideals he’s kept. As well as The Kinks, future subjects include Marvin Gaye and the next Olympic city, Rio. At 58, Temple has hit a golden run, and isn’t slowing down.

NICK HASTED: You’ve talked about London: The Modern Babylon acting as a form of time-travel. And watching its early, amazing scenes of people walking around the West End in the 1890s and 1900s - which looks like a futuristic, steam-punk place, with steam-engines zooming on overhead rails by Charing Cross - I felt happily transported.

JULIEN TEMPLE: I know, they’re very beautiful scenes. We were lucky to find 11 minutes of 1904 footage in Australia that hasn’t really been seen, and that gives it a freshness. We also tried to find moments where people are in close-up and looking at the camera, so you get a strange kind of emotional connection with them that you often don’t get in early archive. There’s a phantasmagorical feeling to that footage, that you really are entering another time-dimension than anything you’re familiar with.

Did you feel transported and lost yourself at times, going into the archives?

Yeah. I looked at 6,000 hours of London footage (an example, pictured left). It got to the point where if I didn’t have 30 hours of DVDs at the weekend, I’d be cold turkey. The beginning of it is very hard, where you enter into this place with an incredible number of choices, and you're questioning yourself. But once you start finding a grammar for the project, and the way things stick together, in the end it’s like playing music - it’s like a sax solo, where all these harmonics seem to visually work. There is an alchemy in getting that archive and reanimating it to mean something new.

You’ve said that you take on the character of your films as you make them. Were those long weekends with all that archive swimming through you part of doing that?

Yeah. I bought a very rare thing called a bobbin, which is a Billingsgate [fish market] leather porter’s cap. It was very heavy, so I didn’t wear it all the time. But I have done that in the past. I did become a kind of hippie when I did my Glastonbury film, and I certainly reverted to my punk past when I did The Filth and the Fury.

Having a good time, I’ve always been into that. I don’t like puritans very much

Were you here for the riots last year?

No, I was in Rio. But I was in the LA riots…

In the film it’s very clear that riots and the Mob are a recurring part of London. What you seem to be saying about last year’s riots is that although there’s no revolutionary intent in them, and the reasons behind them seem thin, the thinness of the reason is because of the inequality that has fed down from the top since Thatcher.

Yeah, they are a product of rich and poor being stretched further than they can handle, and they’re addicted to things that they’re not allowed to have. There’s a point when that snaps, and I don’t care whether it’s coherent political protest or inchoate anger. It’s still something that has to be listened to. And I find that image of Boris Johnson with all the brooms so hilarious, because it’s like, “Let’s sweep it under the carpet,” which is exactly what they’ve done.

It seemed that everything the riots suggested was washed away by the Danny Boyle Olympics Opening Ceremony, that live piece of cinema, that bread and circuses. It worked for me as well - I found it very inspiring and brave up to the point it could be.

I agree. There were huge constraints on what they could do, but within that context, it was brilliant.

It seems to me that your London film is like the underground version of that.

Yeah, it’s more anarchist than socialist! But also more rock’n’roll than those guys. They’re quite straight. But they’re passionate, which is a good thing.

Do you view things like that partly through the prism of the Communist ideals that were around you from your dad as you were growing up?

I was very rebellious as a kid, and I rebelled against my father’s politics as well as everything else, so I never became a Communist, and I hated the Soviet aspect of it. But he was this mad old guy who wouldn’t get a cab, he’d walk everywhere because he felt being waited on like that was wrong. He was very pure like that. I admired that aspect of him. I’m of the Left, definitely, but I’m not really into political parties. I don’t like right-wing Tories, but I like what I’d call left-wing Tories. Having a good time, I’ve always been into that. I don’t like puritans very much.     

Do you still feel as much a Londoner as you were, living in Somerset?

Well I think I am a Londoner, even though I brought my kids up in Somerset. I found that slightly daunting about the film - the fact that I was making this film about my home town. I felt the stakes were quite high. I felt if I fucked up it would have really been a mess. Because you are the product of your time and place, so you’re making a film about yourself in a way.

Did you feel that you really should have been able to make a great film here? And that it would have been crushing if you hadn’t?

Yeah. There was a point where I thought that I couldn’t do it. I got very paranoid about it, when I was drowning in the archive choices. Also my father died when I was making this film. It was quite a powerful thing in terms of the film, because he connected with a lot of the periods in it, and I went on a very long walk the night he died, around all the places I remembered going with him. I remember when I was a kid, he came back one night with his hip cracked. This guy Colin Jordan had run him over in a car, in an alleyway. That was in Camden Town. He was a real dangerous animal, that Jordan guy. He was the head of the British Union of Fascists. He’s the guy you see in the film doing the Nazi salute in Trafalgar Square. He’s saying, “We should have done what the Germans did…” So there are personal connections that a lot of the footage has for me. But also a great part of it was being able to use London music over 100 years.

Most of these great music films you’ve made recently are in part London films as well. It’s interesting, the connections between Ray and Dave Davies and John Lydon, working-class North Londoners born not far from each other, with similarly anarchic principles (pictured above, Ray Davies with Temple on the set of Absolute Beginners).

Well, I always wanted the films I’m doing about music to be one story, from the end of the Second World War to whenever. You could put them together as a 20-hour screening.

This film almost sets the landscape, psychic and real, for where all the other films happen.

Yeah. They’re obviously all linked.

I was thinking when we’ve walked around these streets before, towards Powys Square where Performance was shot, that these are very resonant counter-cultural addresses. From what you’re saying, there’s also personal resonance. So does this part of London in particular come alive for you?

I remember being beaten up for not believing in God. And I remember my parents telling me not to talk like the kids outside

Yeah. I actually grew up in Primrose Hill, on a council estate, but my father was an old Oxford Communist radical. It was weird being an intellectual family on a council estate in the Fifties and early Sixties, when we moved when I was about 8.  It was hard. But it does mean that I understood that culture much more than if I’d been a middle-class kid in a middle-class house in a middle-class street - which I had been, to a certain point, before that. I was given an incredibly hard time by Malcolm McLaren, who thought I was a public schoolboy. I was never a public schoolboy! And I went to Cambridge because my father was saying, “You’ve got to go to Dagenham and work on the assembly line.” I said, “Well, you went to fucking Oxford, I’m going to Cambridge. Fuck you!”

So it was an inverted rebellion to end up there?

Yeah. And actually, at that time being in Cambridge was a real rebellion. I was at King's College, which was very hippie and acid. We used to have Syd Barrett playing in the café downstairs, off his head.

Was that the very early ‘70s?

Yeah. And Roxy Music (pictured above) had a rehearsal place in King’s. There was an artist in residence who was given these big rooms, where Roxy Music first rehearsed in ’70, ‘71, and that was a cool thing.

Was that almost like seeing the future?

Yeah, it was amazing. That’s when I cut my hair.

While I think of it, why were you expelled from grammar school?

I used to be obsessive about brass rubbings. So I was trying to rub all the pre-1400 brasses in Britain. This is aged 12. And I got my parents to let me go off to these churches. The mother-lode of brass-rubbing was this church in Kent, where there were 14 pre-1400 brasses that you weren’t allowed to rub. So I psyched myself up into hiding in the church, aged 12, and rubbing these brasses on my own all night, and then hiding again when they opened up the church. I was pretty scared. And then at the school I was at, Marylebone Grammar - which was great, because my classroom was looking out on the court where Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] would come every other month to get tried, Marylebone Magistrates - the headmaster was gay and I think he fancied me, and I’d have to stay behind to get these weird, personal prizes. They weren’t prizes for real things. And then he would cane me. Anyway, he had a friend, it must have been some vicars’ paedophile ring, who had an early brass, so I went on a Sunday to rub it and he’d set me up that this guy would let me in. So I’m in there rubbing the brass and err [laughs] the vicar comes in after his Sunday lunch, locks the door, stinking of whiskey, and jumps on me, basically. And it was this hilarious thing of running round the church and kicking things over till the guy got so exhausted he gave up. It was weird being trapped in a church with a drunken vicar [laughs], running around this big bell they’d taken down from the tower. Anyway, I hadn’t told my parents about much of this, but I did tell them about being attacked by this vicar, and they just went berserk about the headmaster. And I think it was mutual agreement to leave. And then I went to William Ellis School, near where The Kinks come from.

It shows a very committed frame of mind to be going around the country following that brass rubbings path. It seems like the same mentality as watching 6,000 hours of footage to make a film about London.

I was totally addicted to Penguin Classics when I was about that age as well, and I would insist on my father taking me down to the factory, so I could get them as soon as they were printed, before they were in the shops. Things like Thucydides and Ovid….

Do you think that connects to making three films about the Pistols, and going over similar terrain in your rock documentaries again and again, mining more things?

Maybe. I’m certainly aware that I am slightly academic. Because I was educated in that way. I’ve always really admired these people like John Lydon and Ray [Davies] who are self-taught. That’s something that I will never have. But I do fight that academic side of me.

When did you understand your place in the world, and what you were going to be doing?

I’d discovered films when I was at college. With my parents on this council estate, we didn’t have a TV, so all that culture that the other kids had, I didn’t. The only thing I really had was the music, because I had a crystal transistor set, so I could hear that whether my parents wanted me to or not.

Did that make film more powerful, when you got to it?

I think it made the music more powerful to me, that my parents didn’t want me listening to it, but yet I could secretly listen to it at night. It made it a really magical thing for me. And I think similarly the film thing was powerful for me. When I went to Cambridge, I’d probably only seen 4 or 5 films. I did see A Hard Day’s Night, I don’t know how. I saw Zulu, and I saw El Cid, but not a lot more. I knew a lot about Art History, I did an A-Level in it, so I was into visual things, but I hadn’t seen movies. So then I had this very traumatic visit to a cinema with a bunch of fellow students when I got there, where they were playing this film by Godard, Le Mépris, and I was really embarrassed because I just couldn’t understand it, it was like it was in Japanese - I couldn’t make head or tail of the grammar of it. All I enjoyed was Brigitte Bardot. And they were like, “Oh, isn’t it marvellous?” and deconstructing what it was about. I was like, “Shit, I don’t understand this at all, these guys must be much cleverer than I am.” I went back and I saw it about 6 times. And then I got it, in the end.

It’s that committed mentality again.

Yeah. And every other college had a film club and we didn’t, so I started a one where we got three 16mm prints, but all the other 25 colleges had three as well, so you could share that round. So we were watching 75 movies a week, on the roof of the common room on a sheet in the summer. I remember showing a Jean Vigo (pictured above) film there, and because we didn’t really have enough room, you’d put the projector right on the edge of the parapet, and the River Cam was below, and I forgot to spool it on the reel properly. We’d been so transfixed by the film that we hadn’t realised that it was going down the building into the river. So I had to haul the whole film back up, and we rigged up this weird Heath Robinson way of winding it round the room, and I had a hair-drier, and I was drying each frame. So I got really close to that film…

Why is Vigo [subject of one of Temple’s rare non-documentary features, 1997’s Vigo Passion for Life] such a touchstone for you?

I was being out of control. I was scared when this rabid dog nearly chewed my legs off Because he was an anarchist. And he was a guy who made films with his friends outside the system. And he was the first guy to take the camera off the tripod and go hand-held. There’s lots of reasons to love Jean Vigo. He’s really the first independent film-maker, in a modern sense. He died for film, as well. He had TB, but made it a lot worse by working obsessively.

Would you do that?

I do like the idea that you could push it all the way, yeah. In Detroit, I did things in that film (Requiem for Detroit?, pictured overleaf) that you shouldn’t do. Filming at night in places that you shouldn’t be. People were saying, “You’re completely crazy, what are you doing?” And the BBC didn’t really know what I was doing - working 16 hours round the clock in this mad way, in buildings that were falling down, with scrappers with guns saying, “Get the fuck out.” But if I’d gone in all Health and Safety and BBC, I couldn’t have got that film. I don’t know whether it was a good thing I didn’t do it, but I was going to do the same thing in Tijuana, right after it. Partly because I was high on the adrenalin of shooting in a dangerous place - not like a war correspondent, but from creating cinema in this extreme environment. It was very culturally exciting, because that fear in the air creates incredible responses.

Were you fearful yourself at times, or were you being crazily brave in the service of the project?

I wasn’t being brave. I was being out of control. I was scared when this rabid dog nearly chewed my legs off…yeah…

You said once when we were talking about your Dr Feelgood documentary, Oil City Confidential, that the late Sixties and early Seventies was a dark time. What was the nature of that darkness?

It was the bankruptcy of the whole hippie idea that had been quite liberating and exciting in ’66, ’67. By ’72, ’73, it was like the Afghan coats were really stinking. It just felt so disillusioning that people were still trapped in that way of thinking, that had been sold out and had failed, but they still had the trappings of it. Things like Roxy Music and the Feelgoods and punk were really about getting out of that.

Do you think the punk movement ended differently to that hippie dream?

I hated punk the moment after the [Bill] Grundy show, it was all over then really, it became another army to join. It had some great effects on some individuals. But yeah, it became really disillusioning to me, and I hated 90 percent of the music.

Did The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle reflect that?

Yeah. The idea of the Pistols to me was that you had all these kids praying to pop star posters in their bedroom, and that seemed such a false construct created by record companies, and felt very different to what I’d experienced with The Kinks and the Small Faces, and the Stones to an extent. When I was a kid in London, you felt that they were really talking to you and you were involved in the music, and the music was important because you were digging it. It wasn’t a one-way thing. By the late Sixties, early Seventies, that had gone, and people were literally worshipping these guys, and that whole celebrity power-trip was in place. So the Pistols to me and to other people I worked with then were meant to blow that up - not just the poster, the bedroom itself. Get rid of it all. But then, 18 months later they were worshipping the Sex Pistols the way they worshipped Rod Stewart before. Lydon hated The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, but I think he was aware that the whole worshipping aspect of the Pistols, which Malcolm hated too, was a prison situation. We called it “The Film That Incriminates Its Audience”, that was the strap-line, we wanted to anger and wind up all these punk rock fans.

Are you still working to some of the ideals that you formulated then?

Yeah. That’s when I became aware that I had a take on things that was partly my own, and I got a lot from my connection with Malcolm McLaren (pictured above left) and the Pistols, but it wasn’t a one-way thing. Because the whole thing was so accessible to a wide part of society, and it reached the world as well, you felt empowered by being part of that. The way I started making films then was out of that punk aesthetic of ripping stuff up, smashing stuff together that wasn’t meant to be together. And it came from not having any money, really. So I would just film a lot of television, and edit, mash that up together with the Pistols. We couldn’t afford to go out with a crew, but I could film the television of an evening. And then I became aware that that random thing was quite a good process, it had a good energy.

When you moved into making pop videos, did you feel you were in wide-open territory? Could you make them very personal in those early years?

Yeah, I did. At first they didn’t want anyone who’d been involved with the Pistols anywhere near the music industry. They hated us. And they were terrified. It was like they thought you were going to shit on the carpet when you went in the office. Which I should have done, really…

Who took a chance on you first of all?

Judas Priest, bizarrely. But then, I did the Stones - and Bowie (pictured in Absolute Beginners, below right). We had to have a public screening for the censor, where anyone who wanted to complain could come. No one ever turned up, but you had to do this screening in an empty theatre. And I went along, I don’t know why, and there was no one there except this shadowy guy at the back. And when the lights came up it was Bowie, and he ran out. [laughs] And then he asked me to do videos. But yeah, you got this sense that the record companies didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, so as long as you could get the act to go along with an idea, you could be very personal, in a way that I don’t think you can now. And you could have an idea when you were falling asleep, and then two weeks later it would be round the whole world. That was very exciting. Because movies take years to get going, but that had a real spontaneity about it.

And when you made Absolute Beginners, what were your expectations for that - and did you meet them?

It’s a strange mixture of things. I was very aware that the least hip thing at that point was a musical, so I wanted to do something which was what people wouldn’t expect - which was probably a bit stupid, in retrospect. And you know, I wanted to crash the British cinema citadel as a young kid - I was only 24 or 25, and it was run by old men with grey beards. The idea was you had to wait till you were 60 to be a director. I was saying, “No, I want to do it now.” It was very punk. I got into a lot of trouble with my attitude about it. I got a big spanking. And basically had to leave the country. No, you know, I think the film was very flawed. The big flaw to me is the casting. I used bits of it in the London film. I’m not ashamed of it. But it had a bad effect on me. I couldn’t do a lot of things because of that film, because it was so hyped up, and then it didn’t work here - it worked better in other places, actually, but here, Julie Burchill slagged it off before she’d seen it: “10 Reasons to Hate Absolute Beginners.”

It did actually meet a cultural moment - that's why the NME put it on the cover. There was that jazz revival around…

Well we partly created that…that was why we got in such trouble with Absolute Beginners, because no one would finance us, because we were young kids. So we had to hype the idea. Hype some bands that were interested in playing jazz, get some articles in the NME, then you could say to [production company] Goldcrest, “Look, they’re writing about it, The Face are!” So it was hyping it up before it had happened, to get it to happen, and then it became a snowball of hyperbolic press that became vitriolic. So it’s a kind of funny media story. It's slightly McLarenesque.

And what form did that spanking from the British film industry take?

Well, my producer, Steve Woolley did an article on the day it came out on the cover of Time Out that said: “My Absolute Nightmare.” So I got the blame [for its flop], basically, and I probably did deserve most of the blame. But suddenly, you were pretty friendless. So I left the country, into ignoble exile.

And when you got to Hollywood, how was that for you?

You either become an American, or you get out of there, and I couldn’t become an American, somehow

I was really excited. I got obsessively into the mythology of Hollywood, and noir. I loved it, actually. And I did that film Earth Girls Are Easy (pictured above), which is what I went there to do. Which again wasn’t a success, although it’s got a real cult thing going now - I got a letter from a girl who said she’d seen it 2,000 times. You know, I didn’t mind doing it. It wasn’t necessarily what I would have done on my own volition. I was hurt in Hollywood by the fact that I couldn’t get any film that I wanted to do off the ground. I kept doing music videos and developing scripts with the money that I made, but I could never get any of them made. So in the end I came back. I had kids and I didn’t want them to grow up there, and after I was there about seven or eight years, you either become an American, or you get out of there, and I couldn’t become an American, somehow.

Was it psychically wearing to spend seven or eight years marking time?

It was. But I had kids, and I put a lot of energy into having a good time there. I think I did lose my way. So it was a good idea to get out.

When you made The Filth and the Fury in 1999, you said, “I’m not a documentary maker per se.” Is there a sense in which in this later period, you’ve been wanting to make features, but doing these great documentaries is making the best of where you are?

To an extent. I just love the freedom you have doing these kinds of films, because there’s no Hollywood committee-writing, and there’s no insane pressure from people who know nothing about film. It’s much less hierarchical, and a more spontaneous way of making stuff that I really, really like, but my background is in thinking about cinema in a fictional sense. So I don’t really think about them as documentaries so much as some kind of free-form cinema.

Is it like in these last 15 years you’ve been making a sort of long autobiography, with the musicians who are important to you as part of that?

Could be, yeah. I told you about that idea that I thought you could put them all end to end. I think I am a rock’n’roll film-maker. I grew up in a world of a very different way of making films, working with all the cranes and dollies I could get. And now I just work with a little semi-professional camera sometimes, and two or three people, and that’s very different to working with 100 people. The idea that you’re supposed to be at the apex of some triangle telling them all what to do takes a lot of energy away from making the film. I’m aware that there’s part of me that really doesn’t like being told what to do, and that goes way back, I was very rebellious at school. If you’re doing it with a bunch of friends, it’s like that Vigo thing. You’re just being loyal to each other, and no one’s more in charge of it than anyone else. And you’re not being told by a banker that you’ve got to do these scenes this way, this day. That’s why when you’ve got a lot of restrictions on a big feature film, it’s maybe not the best place for me to operate. [laughs ruefully] I’m also aware that I should grow up a bit. Probably. I don’t necessarily feel like I’ve grown up. I think there’s a lot of energy in my films, still, which connects to the energy I had when I was working with the Pistols.

I get the feeling that there’s a half-hearted regret or apology that you’re still down this path, and raking over this ground. But really, it is your ground. So perhaps you’re not going to leave it.

I dunno. We shall see. I think it’s good to keep taking risks. I think it’s good I’m still hungry. If Absolute Beginners had been a huge, huge success, I’d probably be dead in some swimming pool.

  • London: The Modern Babylon is out on DVD now.

Watch the trailer to London Babylon

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