Nick Cave's colossal rockumentary

The rock’n’roll icon and his new doc's directors talk psychotherapy and why the film almost didn’t get made

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue in a still from the film 20,000 Days on Earth Cinematography by Chloë Thomson

The innovative new documentary 20,000 Days on Earth – about Nick Cave and the nature of creative inspiration – had its European premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it was hailed as one of the best music bios ever made. Directed by British filmmakers Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth (who have shot music videos for the Australian musician before), it places him in conversation with a real Freudian analyst about his early memories and the transformation he experiences on stage, and, in a series of in-car chats, in conversation with past collaborators from Kylie to Blixa Bargeld. In front of the towering gold curtains of the socialist-era Kino International cinema, Cave and the directors spoke to the audience about the film.

What made you want to be in this movie?

Nick Cave: Well, it would be pretty shit without me. No, actually I didn't. It took quite a lot of persuading, because rock'n'roll documentaries are usually so tedious and give so little. Iain and Jane came with a concept that promised it would be something different than a standard rockumentary.

When did you first approach Nick to be in the movie?

Jane Pollard: I don't think you can even think about making an ordinary kind of rock documentary about an extraordinary musician. There's no point in filming and showing gigs, because you can go to them. The astonishing experience that you can have there is never going to able to be replicated on a screen, but we could find ways of letting you into his head.

“I don't think you can even think about making an ordinary kind of rock documentary about an extraordinary musician” -Jane Pollard

Ian Forsyth: When Nick was starting to work on 'Push the Sky Away', he made it known that he could tolerate our presence around the studio. We've done things before where you go in right at the end when everything's done, and you find a sofa with a load of guys sat round listening to it going oh, can you turn the high hat down a bit. It's not an interesting thing to film or watch. But we jumped at the chance to be there right at the beginning and literally see some of these little melodies starting to form and ideas starting to churn.

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Nick Cave in a still from the film Cinematography by Chloë Thomson

Are the scenes with the psychotherapist realistic? Or to put it differently, have you ever thought about going to psychotherapy?

Nick Cave: I haven't been to a psychotherapist before who looked so much like a psychotherapist. He's an extraordinary guy. He's a Freudian, so he's interested in certain things that I'm interested in as well. We got on very well from the start, even though there was a camera crew there. We did that for two days solid, and it's too tiring to skirt around issues, to lie or to be protective of certain things, so it all just comes tumbling out. He was very good at making little connections and I learnt a lot from my two days with him. But seeing a therapist isn’t necessary. I kind of love my various pathologies.

Did Nick's ideas influence the editing process much?

Nick Cave: Good hair influenced the editing. I didn't worry about what I was saying.

Ian Forsyth: It was an unscripted, mostly an improvised film so it was found in the edit, and the process was at times exhilarating and at times devastating. We chose Jonathan Amos to edit who was exceptional because he didn't come from a traditional documentary background. He's cut a lot of comedy. Making sure it was funny was way up on our list of priorities.

Any music documentary that you admire Nick?

Nick Cave: One we all like is Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same. Even though it's embarrassing on some level to watch that documentary it comes from a period where rock stars were not only viewed as gods but they viewed themselves as gods. This sadly is not the case any more. With the internet everybody's a god – or nobody's a god, it's difficult to work out. But there was an aspiration of this band that they were something immortal and larger than life. The period that I grew up through, my heroes like David Bowie and Bryan Ferry were very much up in the stratosphere. Sadly the democratisation of the art world but especially the music world has pulled these people down. And now we have a kind of level playing ground of mediocrity.

How did you decide who would be with Nick in the car scenes? Why Blixa Bargeld and not PJ Harvey, for instance?

Nick Cave: Why isn't PJ Harvey in it? Is that the question?!

Jane Pollard: When people meet Nick, and even when they know him, there is a still a sense of awe. There is a change in behaviour from Nick’s unrelenting lack of willingness for there to be bullshit - a break in people that you witness. The British actor Ray Winstone is another no bullshit guy. For us it was about feelings, so the feeling for Ray being in there was someone where there'd be no bullshit. And someone in another creative industry round the same age, who might be going through similar thoughts about getting older and how you change in the industry that you're in. Kylie was a very different feeling - there's a tenderness. We’d never seen Nick and Kylie together, and when he even talks about her there's a tenderness. We knew that if we could her into the car and they didn't meet beforehand there would be this kind of release of that emotion. We knew there was some unfinished business with Blixa. We had no idea whether they would or could talk about it, with cameras on, in a Jag. But it was worth a try. Iain and I often start from the understanding we might fail, but if what you're aiming for is worth it, and there's a chance that you might get it, then it's worth it anyway. 

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