When filmmaker Andrew Dominik heard that the 15-year-old son of Nick Cave had fallen off a cliff and died, he immediately phoned the Bad Seeds singer. They had known each other for decades, and Cave had co-written the score for the director’s 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – so he wanted to support his friend. The musician didn’t pick up; a few days later, he texted that he would be giving him a ring. “I was terrified at the thought of receiving that phone call,” Dominik says. “I just didn’t know whether I would be equipped to deal with somebody who I knew was going to be in state that was unimaginable to me.”
Eventually, Cave asked Dominik for help. At the time of the death of his son, Arthur, the singer-songwriter had already been crafting a morose new album, Skeleton Tree. Some of it was written after Arthur’s death, and it is imbued with the trauma of his loss, from the hurt in his voice to the songs’ sparse arrangements. Cave wanted to put out the album, but he couldn’t bear to do interviews where strangers would ask him about his loss – so he asked Dominik to make a film that would do that for him. The result, titled One More Time With Feeling, offers an intimate, nearly two-hour tableau depicting how the loss affected not only Nick and his wife, Susie Bick, but also his son Earl (Arthur’s twin), and Cave’s band.
“I felt tremendous responsibility because it was his tragedy, it was his money, it was his record, and I had to come up with something coherent. I wasn’t sure if that was possible,” says the director, whose previous credits include the Brad Pitt movie Killing Them Softly and Chopper, which starred Eric Bana. Dominik shot it in 3-D and black & white, giving the movie an otherworldly quality, and captured revealing scenes of Bick lamenting a painting she had found that Arthur had made and Cave ruminating on loss – all leading to a crushing final montage of portrait shots. It also contains footage of the band performing each heartbreaking song on Skeleton Tree. (The movie premiered briefly around the release of the album last September; it’s getting a second theatrical showing starting December 1st.)
It was a challenge from the start, but Dominik is happy with the result – and, despite initial reservations on Cave’s part, so are the people who are in the film. “It wasn’t conceived as a work of entertainment,” the director says. “It was a practical solution to a practical problem. I think there may be a certain voyeuristic interest in what happened to him. But I think his fans are very much interested in how he and his family are doing, and that’s the subject of the film: How they are.”
It’s an unusual portrait of grief, and as Dominik spoke to Rolling Stone about it, he explained how it means so much more to both the family and to viewers than may appear on its surface.
Why did Nick trust you to tell his story?
I’m not sure. We’ve known each other for over 30 years, but at the same time I’m not as close to him as, say, [director] John Hillcoat, who was practically Arthur’s uncle. Maybe he felt like I could be a little more objective; he needed somebody who wasn’t necessarily grieving themselves.
Did you ever worry you were making a film that was too voyeuristic?
Yeah. The biggest concern we had was, is there something kind of disgusting about making a film whose center is this terrible tragedy? There’s a way of looking at it like we’re exploiting Arthur’s death to sell records. And there was the big, big fear that the film would, in some way, devalue or shrink the tragedy. There was a lot of discussion about where the line is, where it’s a legitimate portrait of a family going through a situation and where it becomes more like grief porn. Since we didn’t know where that line was, the best way to deal with it was to be honest about the confusion we felt about it. I know Nick was concerned about it.
I think Susie very much had the sense that the film could be a memorial to Arthur. He was a pretty ballsy kid. He was interested in filmmaking. He used to make home-invasion movies. And there’s a complete lack of self-consciousness in the song that he sings in the movie, so I feel Arthur is a person who, had he lived, would’ve made some mark on the world. The film was a way to say, “Here was this person. He’s not just an abstract thing. He’s somebody who left a hole behind him.”
How did you decide what to include and what to edit out?
My rule was: If Nick or Susie were talking about something that involved the process of grieving, then it was OK to have it in the movie. I didn’t put in displays of emotional grief that had nothing to say.
So when Susie’s talking about Arthur’s painting, she’s describing a situation which enables you to understand what they’re going through, or what life is like after a situation like that. She finds this picture, which kind of knocks her over, and then she has to make a decision about whether to put Nick through the same emotion that she’s just had or whether to remain isolated with the feeling. Something like that seems valid to me because it gives you a sense of their situation, what they had to deal with. But there were other things where Arthur came up where I felt it just wasn’t right.
How did you work out what you’d be shooting with Nick?
The deal was that I could shoot anything I wanted and could ask any question and in turn for that he could take anything out of the film he didn’t like. I’d ask him to send me voiceover on various topics. I think that gave him a certain sense of safety. The other thing is we shot the film in two chunks. We shot a bit where they’re finishing off the record, which was three days, and then about a month and a half later, we did the big shoot. In the gap of time, I cut together the first 20 minutes of the film and showed it to Nick. After he saw that, he felt a lot more comfortable with what I was doing.
How was it working with Susie? She seems reserved.
Susie’s a genuinely modest person. But she was lovely and liked the idea of the film, so she was cooperative. She was a bit leery, but I wanted her in the film because Nick’s a family man. If you spend any time with him, she is a constant topic of conversation, so I didn’t really see how it would be possible to make a film about Nick without Susie. And you couldn’t deal with this subject without both of their lenses. Everyone will want to know, what does his wife think? What does his son think?
What were the challenges of filming the songs?
The biggest challenge was Nick himself. He didn’t want to do songs too many times. They generally make a record in two weeks. If something comes together, great, it’s a song, and they abandon fantastic things if they can’t get it together in a couple of go’s. Nick has this obsession with what he calls the unconscious life of the song, which is the moment where the song doesn’t even know what it is yet. If you can capture that moment on tape – it’s the most powerful expression of a thing. He doesn’t want to do it to death.
Nick wouldn’t want to wait for us to get our shit together to film [laughs]. He doesn’t even tell us when he’s about to go and sing. You don’t want to be in the middle of a lens change or reloading something when he walks out to the microphone. Or sometimes he wouldn’t sing and you’re just shooting hours of shit where nothing’s happening [laughs]. So I came up with some ways of doing it that gave us flexibility, like there’s a couple of songs where there’s a circular dolly track that we can go round and round on all day. And sometimes I’m trying to come up with a loose visual metaphor for what’s going on; “Girl in Amber” is a song with a lot of lyrics about spinning or turning. It seemed appropriate. And then “I Need You” seems so bold and bare and simple that it seems to demand a very simple treatment. You want it to be honest, so we did just one camera angle that contains his performance.
I liked that it didn’t feel like I had to create something. I’m trying to see what’s inside something that’s happening around me and trying to ascribe a meaning to it. I’m trying to find the meaning that’s in it and bring it to the surface.
It’s evident in the performances that he was still deep in grieving. How soon did you film that after Arthur’s death?
Like, six months. He’s only just through the shock, I think, now. I have to say when we were filming it, I wasn’t even sure that Nick was making good decisions … [like] making the film, for example. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing for him to be doing. Nick was in a state, and he was doing all of these things and everybody was just jumping to around him because of the situation he was in. Even I was.
What was your thought process behind the final scene of the movie, which shows the cliffs in Brighton, England where Arthur died?
When I heard about Arthur’s death, the first thing I imagined was where it happened. I had an image of it in my head. And the day of the funeral, Susie took a group of us there. We just kind of stood there. It felt like the whole film was revolving around that location to a certain extent, but I decided to present it in the film as an image of beauty or eternity. It’s not an image of horror.
That’s certainly something Nick didn’t like. He was quite upset about it, actually. He had issues with various things throughout the film, but then I showed it to him again a week later and, I guess, he changed his mind and saw it differently.
What did he say about the scene?
He had a visceral reaction. He felt it was bad taste, and he felt traumatized. Nick drives by those cliffs sometimes a couple times a day, because they’re between his house and the studio where he records, and every time he gets a very unpleasant feeling. Susie actually got a ticket for speeding because every time she drove past them, she would unconsciously speed up. She didn’t even realize until she got the ticket.
Nick called me after the movie came out and said that when he drives past the cliffs now, he has a kind of warm feeling. I guess the film must’ve done something right.
That scene is accompanied by Arthur and his brother Earl singing Marianne Faithfull’s “Deep Water,” which Nick co-wrote with his sons. Is that something he sent you early?
That was something Susie sent me in an e-mail on Mother’s Day this year. She said she hadn’t been able to listen to it and that she hadn’t told Nick she’d sent it to me. Then, about three months later, he sent me the same song. So I thought it was kind of like Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”; it was a way of giving Arthur the last word. And if you listen to the lyrics, they seem to be about surviving a trauma.
You’ve said that when you showed it to him he said not to change anything.
Well, he did want to make changes for a moment. Nick doesn’t like the whole last 30 minutes of the movie. He doesn’t like the stuff of him talking. He didn’t like the cliffs. He just watches himself speak and thinks, “What the fuck is that guy rambling on about?” I thought that stuff was fantastic.
But we knew Nick was going to have a bad reaction to the movie. So we decided to have Susie watch it with him the first time; if he hit the roof, at least he would have somebody who he trusted watching it with him. She hated all the stuff with her in it, Nick hated all the stuff with him – but they liked each other. So he basically thanked me after he saw the film and voiced his objection to the last 30 minutes. Susie very quietly expressed the opinion that it was fine. They decided to show it to Warren [Ellis, Bad Seeds violinist], as somebody they trusted who wasn’t me. And he said, “No, that stuff is good. It’s all OK.”
I think Nick ultimately thought he couldn’t exercise authorial control and then send me out to take responsibility for the film. He has to take some responsibility for it. And the whole idea is that he didn’t want to do that so in the end he just gave the final cut of it back to me and let me release the film I thought was best.
You’ve also said that Nick objected to the movie being in 3-D. Why is the film in 3-D and black & white?
The record’s got a sparseness to it. It’s very spatial in the ways the sounds are organized, very stripped back. Basically, 3-D’s really interesting because it’s involving but not emotionally involving. It puts you in the moment, but at the same time the black & white creates an aesthetic distance. I wanted to make something that gave you new eyes; it’s a brand new world for them. I knew this film would be like a poem or collection of moments that don’t necessarily have a narrative momentum, and I wanted to create a mental space where those things could wash over an audience as opposed to annoying them.
Now that the film has come out, how is Nick doing?
The grief comes in waves. I think what happens is when Nick and Susie get through a period of horror and sadness and [then] feel happy again, it rises up and knocks them down again. Grieving is a two steps forward, one step back process. It’s like he says in the film, everything is not ok but it’s also ok. They’ve got Earl and they’ve got each other, and it’s never going to be the same again.
The one thing that never occurred to me when we were worried about making grief porn is that there was something generous on their part about making the film. I’ve come into contact with people who have lost children and seen the film and found something in it that is comforting to them. For something that doesn’t really tie the whole thing up in a neat bow, it shows that grief is an ongoing thing … but also something you can live with.