Most music docs chop up concert footage, edit in screaming fans and call it a day. Far too often, it feels like you’re watching the exact same film, only recast with different bands. But Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth, about apocalyptic rock poet Nick Cave, is something very different. The filmmakers and Cave create staged scenarios, in which Cave improvises naturally, that explain his creative process. He’s shot driving in a car three times: with tough-guy English actor Ray Winstone in the passenger seat, Australian singer Kylie Minogue in the backseat, and former bandmate Blixa Bargeld explaining why he left the Bad Seeds. Along the way, Cave – not just a songwriter, but novelist and screenwriter too – reveals himself as a consummate aphorist, coining lines like, “Your limitations make you the wonderful disaster you most probably are.” Instead of revealing the private life of a public icon, 20,000 Days magnifies Cave’s mythology into something stranger – and more elemental. “Being on stage meant I got to be that person I always wanted to be,” he says at one point in the film. “Then, you look down into the front row, and someone yawns.”
So many music docs are boring. But this is different.
There’s lots of music docs out there. We looked at some of those, and in many ways they informed us most in terms of what not to do more than anything else.
We didn’t want to do a warts-and-all-style documentary. I didn’t want my life invaded in that way. The Metallica one [Some Kind of Monster] was interesting because it showed a band in a state of collapse. There was something kind of ghoulish about it – about the experience of watching that. But most documentaries feel to me to be self-serving exercises. They’re just vehicles for self-promotion. I was very reluctant to do this in the first place, because I had no interest in doing that kind of documentary.
The scenes in your film aren’t scripted. Is that what made you sign on?
Ian and Jane were very clear and came through with a concept that was looking at things from a different angle. I decided that I was kind of going to hand the thing over to them and see what happened. They had a very clear, strong storyboard, right at the beginning, and that made me relax about the idea.
In the film, you drive around with Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone, and your former bandmate, Blixa Bargeld. Was that part of the storyboard?
Not the conversations. But the basic idea that we would get people that had some influence over my life. We hadn’t quite worked out who but they were nice people in the end. Ray I see around, but I hadn’t really seen Kylie or Blixa in years.
Kylie surprised me by being so sincere. At one point you ask what she’s afraid of. And she answers, “I worry about being forgotten and lonely.”
We hadn’t really spoken for a long time, so it was quite special to be with her again. We were really close in a detached kind of way. We both really liked to be with each other. That was a poignant answer, and a very honest answer. And none of that is staged. We just got in the car.
Blixa left the band in 2003. In the car, you hash out why he left.
He left after about twenty years through an email. It was a very short email: a couple of lines. I rang him up and asked if he was sure. He said yes. And that was that. I’d never really talked to him or worked out why or what had happened. That conversation was the first time we’d ever really talked about why he’d left the band.
He seemed shockingly respectful and not angry. Did you believe him?
Yes. There’s another longer version where Blixa says that on the final record we were making together, that it was so different than the band he had originally joined that he was in tears. And I kind of understand that. I have always wanted to make different sorts of records, and I don’t want to make records that I’ve made before. I want to present things that challenge us as musicians. Nocturama was a particularly difficult record because nobody really liked the songs. What was required of the band was very minimal, and I think Blixa felt there was nothing left for him to bring to a band.
Did his quitting change the way you worked with your other bandmates?
No, not at all. First of all, it’s really important that what I do is a collaborative effort and that a kind of collaboration is the most noble artform you can be involved in. It’s a stronger way of creating something. And I think there are a lot of people who collaborate but don’t appear to collaborate. Or maybe there’s a lot of people who should collaborate! But collaborations, they live and they die. They cease to work and things happen and they don’t offer up what they once did and that’s the nature of collaborations as well. I will say that I approach it differently with [musical collaborator] Warren [Ellis] because of how enormously fertile our relationship is. We are both conscious and have seen the way that relationships fall apart. So we try to do as many different things as possible – things that take us out of our comfort zones and challenge us so that we can bring that back into the music.
You’re headed to Sundance after writing two screenplays, for The Road and Lawless. Did that experience change the way you saw this film?
I understood the potential of film more. I am hugely aware of the traps of making a film too. When I made The Proposition with John Hillcoat, I was totally naïve about filmmaking and knew nothing about screenwriting. I didn’t even know that there was software you could write scripts with. But it was an extremely exciting and positive affair. With Lawless, there was a kind of committee around the writing of the script. Great films can be made that way. But after making a film in Hollyowod, some of the sheen wore off the idea of being a screenwriter for me. Since then I haven’t been that interested in doing it again, to be honest. But everyone around this film was amazing because they let Ian and Jane make the film they wanted to make.
Were there any music docs that inspired the film in a positive sense?
You know, one of their reference points was Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same – do you know that one?
A lot of people hate that one!
As much as it’s flawed and kind of boring and silly, there was something they were reaching for, maybe unsuccessfully. It may have been outrageous on one level, but it was very much a thing from that period of time, where the rockstar was godlike and they themselves believed that, in the sense that they each imagined what they wanted to be within this film. Robert Plant is climbing mountains and saving damsels in distress! And as ridiculous as that may seem on some level, particularly today, it showed that they were reaching beyond themselves. I always loved that about the film. They are the rock personalities that I trust, really.
Your film – staged and curated – also seems like a reaction to the the bands who Instagram every time they go to the bathroom or eat a burrito.
The film is talking about that as well. A strand running through it, deep underneath the film, is about our need to be photographed all the time.
You see a therapist in the film. Is he real?
He’s a Freudian psychoanalyst. I never met the guy. That’s not actually someone’s office. It’s a set. But we met on set and began a conversation that went on for two days.
When you’re asked about your first sexual experience, you talk about a “kabuki-like” girl who dresses you up in women’s clothing. Is that truthful?
Largely. It’s edited, of course, but editing can do all sorts of mischeiveous things with the truth. Once you sit down and talk to someone for a very long time with hardly any lunch break, after a while it just becomes impossible to be guarded with your answers. You just say, “Oh, fuck it.”