The music of Nick Cave has been described as having a dark, mysterious, and gothic quality, but in 20,000 Days On Earth, the veil is lifted on the artist’s process, via a partly fictionalized version of a day in the cult rocker’s life. A stylized 24-hour chronicle, the film by directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard includes insight into the artist’s songwriting process, rehearsals and recordings with collaborator Warren Ellis, trips to Cave’s personal archives, and revealing car rides with various famous friends (Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone) — all culminating in some electrifying live performances.
Part bona-fide documentary, part staged narrative, 20,000 Days on Earth is an odd duck that blurs the lines between reality and fiction in innovative ways. After winning both the World Cinema Documentary Directing and Editing awards at its Sundance premiere, the film has been garnering extremely positive critical attention for first-time directors Forsyth and Pollard. We sat down with the pair to discuss their transition from the art world to the feature-film realm and how much input Cave had into their process, as well as the ins and outs of telling a compelling story around such an important artist.
Shutterstock: How did you decide on a film that’s neither straight documentary nor pure narrative?
Iain Forsyth: We were kind of lucky, in that we never had to think of it as anything, really, because there was never a big plan to make a film. We’ve known Nick for seven or eight years and worked together a lot in that time. When Nick started working on his record, he called and said, “Why don’t you come over and start shooting some stuff?” So we started shooting without any real plan for what it would become. We were given really privileged access to the very beginning of Nick’s process, so if we didn’t do something more, it was just going to wind up swimming around YouTube.
Jane Pollard: Coming from a visual arts background, we never really thought about whether it was a documentary or a drama — we just thought about it as a film. We wanted to make it around 95 minutes, and that was it. The first time we realized it was a documentary was when it was accepted into Sundance and we realized that’s the section it was in. Films like The Imposter and The Act of Killing operate in that same space, none of them set out going, “I am this.”
How do you compartmentalize between the spontaneous and the staged?
Pollard: There was never any difference. Most of the documentary stuff happened on Nick’s timetable. We were always going to things he was doing anyway, like the writing and the demoing, then the recording, rehearsals, and the live show. We would be in the background of those things. Everything else was all handled as if it was a fiction feature, so there was an art department and completely constructed sets — but the moment we turned the cameras on, it flipped back to being a documentary, because there was no script for dialogue, and we only ever did one take of a scene. The strategy was to shoot a lot and experiment on set, then find the bits that you’re going to craft in the edit.
You shot digitally on the Arri Alexa. What did you tell your DP in order to achieve the more cinematic moments, like when Nick is at his typewriter, or the car scenes?
Forsyth: Erik Wilson, our cinematographer, is amazing — but more than that, he’s just an incredible presence of positive energy to get you through long, grueling days. We met a whole bunch of people before we met Erik, and we were really struggling to find someone with the right personality to cope with the idea that you set up like a feature, but when you turn the camera on, you’re in the doc world, where you’re letting things run. You’re asking the cameras not to interfere.
So if there’s magic happening, you don’t want a guy going, “Oh wait, let me fix this fill light here.”
Pollard: Exactly. That was a massive challenge, and Erik was the only one who had a glint in his eye when we said, “Look, this is how we have to work.” Everybody else would be like, “Oh, okay, so that’s gonna be no tracking shots…” Erik just smiled and said, “All right.” We managed to do all the cinematic things you would hope for, but we just had to really prepare for them beforehand.
Forsyth: It’s a lot of pressure on the preparation. You can’t block it out and say, “Nick’s gonna start there, then he’s gonna walk over there and sit on that chair.” You have to light everything and cover everything.
With Nick Cave, you’re working with someone who has a lot of experience both in front of and behind the camera. He’s written films and starred in and scored others. How involved was he in the overall vision of the piece?
Pollard: He was complicit in absolutely everything, but never really stepping back to that overarching scope until about 15 weeks into the edit. He’d seen the storyboards, he knew what we were aiming for, and he knew what that structure was going to be. When we showed him a 100-minute cut we considered close to finished, he had some ideas on how to tighten and tweak it — real fine-tuning.
Talk a little about the car scenes. Those seem to be the most stylized aspect — unless Nick is secretly Kylie Minogue’s limo driver.
Forsyth: (Laughs) Yeah, gotta pay the mortgage somehow. No, those scenes were primarily a way of getting sides of Nick’s personality out. Normally in a documentary, you’re very aware of the voice of the filmmaker and the subject is in a dialogue with that person. Nick, like all of us, is different around different people. By putting Nick into situations with different people, we can draw out those different sides. Nick with Kylie is a very tender, gentle, reflective Nick. They have a very nostalgic relationship, because they’re both aware that their home is so far away and they’ve had to leave Melbourne to enjoy their success. That’s a very particular relationship, whereas Ray Winstone is a guy and they talk about guy things.
So that’s a little more rough around the edges.
Pollard: Coming out of the analysis session, Nick is still turning over all the thoughts about getting older. We were able to push that narrative into a psychological space and then manifest Ray Winstone. The same with coming out of the archive; we were able to have the flavor of that archive scene by bringing Kylie into his headspace.
Cars in films are always brilliant spaces. They look amazing, and they function as either the exterior space or the interior, the two worlds moving and existing. They were by far the scariest scenes to shoot. It wasn’t like the psychoanalyst, where we shot ten hours of that interview with very little stopping and starting. The archive was the same, about ten hours. The car scenes were twenty minutes each, really quick. A ten-minute drive, then we did the drive twice. There was no script, and the weather conditions for all of them were tough.
Speaking of the psychoanalysis scene, was it difficult to get Nick to talk about things like his childhood, his sexuality, and his drug use, or was it always kind of like, “I’m an open book”?
Forsyth: Yeah, it was surprisingly easy. As a person, Nick is a very open guy; he’ll talk about most things. He’s not particularly restrained.
Pollard: We used a technique to make it work as best as we could. For the psychoanalysis shoot — which happened two months before principal photography, because we wanted to use it to find some of those themes — we put the whole crew on non-disclosures, so Nick knew he could say anything and it could be scratched. It wouldn’t be talked about. He had a real freedom in that space to just go wherever.
When you were shaping the film, were you doing it with half a mind toward the audience that wasn’t already aware of Nick, or were you thinking of it more “for fans only”?
Pollard: Absolutely not for fans only; we knew they would come anyway. I know that sounds complacent, but they’re interested, so of course they’ll come. Nick is one of the most significant minds of contemporary culture. He operates in a very cross-boundary kind of way; he’s not just music. He’s literature. He’s poetry. He’s films. So he’s on a lot of radars, but without people necessarily having bought anything or having been to see him, and that’s who we wanted to speak to, hopefully.
For us, it had to be about a bigger story; it couldn’t just be about Nick. It had to be the story of creativity, that bigger thing that happens in all of us, and it’s not mystical. Having an idea isn’t something that happens from the gods; you’re not blessed with it. You have half an idea, you hold onto it, you keep going, you bother to see it through, and maybe something good’s going to happen out of it. It’s about perseverance and hard work and bothering — that’s what we get from Nick. He bothers, he puts the hours in. He reads, he writes, and works hard. That’s why it’s no surprise that good shit’s coming out of his life all the time.
Do you have any future feature-narrative aspirations?
Pollard: We do now! We didn’t before, but we do now. We love it. We absolutely love this process.