Ken Loach: "We could have made a whole film of brutal acts and gone on for 24 hours."

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty create a stir with Palme d'Or winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
Cannes, 2006

This is the second film you have made about Ireland, the first being Hidden Agenda. Why Ireland again and why this particular period?

(KL) "Paul has a long family connection to Ireland and I've been interested in this subject for a long time, and I think we both felt that those years of 1920-21, 1922, were pivotal. Those were the crucial years because they defined everything that had gone before and everything that came after. So not only was it the central story for British-Irish history, it also was a classic account of a colony struggling for independence, of an army of occupation dealing with a civilian population, and equally important, of when there is a possibility of independence, what kind of society do you construct? Because there was a leadership struggle to decide, what kind of society can we build? And Damien actually says, ‘I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it.' What was that Ireland? So those three things apply over and over again in many different situations."

Both brothers, Damien and Teddy, would be labelled terrorists today, wouldn't they?

(PL) "This is a fascinating question when you think about it, isn't it? The notion of terrorists and how it's been defined and how it's been constructed, because if anyone took an objective view from a human rights point of view of how many innocent people have been killed, by far the majority have been killed by state terrorism. That shouldn't really be contentious but it's almost impossible to say. But look at Columbia just now, look what's happening in Iraq. All you have to do is look at the history of Latin America and Central America, which I had lived through and I had seen - it was actually financed by states. Now it's been defined as Bush's ‘war on terror'. It's really quite fascinating how they got away with it and I think it really shows a lack of critical thinking.

"But going back to your question in relation to the brothers, this is why we were very keen to place it just after that vital election in 1918. It was the last all Ireland, all British election; Sinn Fein won 72 out of 105 seats, they had a democratic mandate for complete independence from the British Empire, they set up a parliament in consequence of their mandate, Lord French banned that parliament, when they complained they were put in prison, when they wrote about it they banned their newspapers, so what do they do in those circumstances? All peaceful methods were actually barred to them. There was violence perpetrated against those people who tried to follow the democratic wishes. So out of that came the war of independence. But it's fascinating that the people who opposed the British state are always deemed to be the terrorists. I think it's worth unravelling and going back and examining that."

What is the human cost of violent revolution?

(KL) "Well you can count the cost in many ways. First of all trying to establish a peaceful independent country the cost was brutal oppression by the British. And then once that has happened, it is inevitable that people will resist, because they always do. So I guess the cost is the exposure of the hypocrisy of empires in this case. You can count it in all kinds of ways but it just exposes the hypocrisy of empires, in this case the British Empire, which claimed to be exporting civilisation and tolerance but was actually exporting violence, brutality and oppression."

There was a critic on British TV yesterday who said that while he really liked the film he felt we had to be careful not to glorify the IRA.

[Loach bursts into laughter] "Oh God preserve us! God preserve us! It is amazing! It is amazing!"

But do you differentiate between the IRA of the 1920s and the IRA who years later carried out bombing campaigns in London, Birmingham, and so on?

(KL) "I think this is an outrageous question and an outrageous point to make. The brutality is on record. We could have made a whole film of brutal acts and gone on for twenty-four hours. I mean just imagine it: they slit a man's throat, they tie him to a cart, they drag him for a mile and kill him. They beat a man's skull in. A woman comes to the door with a child in her arms, they shoot the mother. I mean how much brutality do you have to show for someone to actually take it and say, ‘Yes, we did that', without trying to get a sort of dagger in underneath?

"The IRA of the 60s and 70s was a product of the despicable treaty that the British imposed at the point of a gun. If the British hadn't imposed partition, there would be no Provisional IRA. The entire responsibility lies with the British state. The entire responsibility. Everything that has emerged has been a protest, sometimes a violent protest, sometimes an aberrant protest, but nevertheless a protest, from the brutality of the British and the brutality of the British Empire embodied in bastards like Churchill, who not only sent the troops into Ireland, he sent the troops against Welsh miners in his own country when they wanted a decent wage. So I mean we should have no tolerance at all for these questions that try to indicate that somehow the resistance to British brutality is not acceptable."

Post-9/11 most resistance is now classified as terrorism, isn't it?

(PL) "Actually, it's funny how the language and the psychology hasn't changed very much. There was that great phrase by Churchill, talking about Ireland, ‘We have terror by the throat'. It doesn't really change very much."

Do you think the movement from a struggle for freedom to civil war is an almost unavoidable process?

(KL) "No, I think if people were to accept a democratic decision that people take, and were not to occupy them and were not to oppress them, civil war is not inevitable. Doesn't history tell us that? It comes from the denial of democracy, not the assertion of democracy. People don't go out onto the streets to vote. They go to vote and then they are denied the democratic will and then there's violence. That's the way it seems to me."

Is it easier for you to talk about the present through the past?

(KL) "I think we have to rescue the past. You know, it's the old, much-quoted saying, ‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.' We have to rescue the past."

I really like the way you combine the political and the personal and show how we got to where we are, whereas I was a bit troubled by something like United 93, because that doesn't contextualise the event and its power almost makes it seem obscene to ask questions about the reasons for 9/11. So what responsibility do you think filmmakers have when they are dealing with historical subject matter, and especially events which are still having repercussions today?

(PL) "I suppose, because there's a thousand different ways to tell this particular story, I mean you could have told the story from the point of view of a young Tan and that would have been fascinating. You know, a demobbed soldier, brutalised after the First World War, unemployed, given money and sent over to terrorise. That was a systematic and planned decision that came from the British cabinet. There's a fascinating story to be told there. But the one that we thought was most interesting to us, and gave us more possibility to examine many ideas that were current at the time, was through a flying column, because you've got different classes within that group. You've got young farm lads, young farmers' sons with different interests from the farm labourers, you've got artisans, and, actually, I discovered, the Cork medical faculty was very Republican, and there was actually three young medical students with a flying column, and a voice like Dan, played by Liam Cunningham, a railroad worker who had lived through the 1913 lockouts, who had seen what Irish capitalists had done to the urban worker, through that they've all got different points of view and their vision of Ireland is all very, very different.

"So, though a flying column, it gave us a chance to echo, reflect and mix up all these contradictions, so you feel that you're being truthful to the times really. So we felt a massive responsibility to be accurate with that. I'm not saying that every single voice was Socialist, but some were, and many were not. Many were confused, like Steady Boy Murphy, who cannot deal with it. So we tried to touch on and paint a mosaic of many different voices."

(KL) "I think the other point you make is, what is the responsibility like in general terms? You can get very pompous about this, really, but I think it is that if you can ask the root questions, which is what we tried to do - we may have failed - but when you take an incident the interesting thing is to ask the questions that get to the bottom of it rather than just describing the event."

I think with 9/11 the problem is that the why hasn't really been addressed. People like Chomsky and Gore Vidal posed questions early on but they were shut out by the mainstream, and films like United 93 and, we're told, World Trade Centre, although we have yet to see the final film, essentially depoliticise what is a political event.

(KL) "Yes, I agree. I agree."

(PL) "But it doesn't only happen in films. It happens in the news agenda. It happens like Gordon Brown on January 15th saying we must stop apologising for the British Empire. It's all part of that same matrix. You know, this selection of facts to suit our politic."

Your next project is going to be a contemporary piece. Which is more difficult: making a historical drama or something set today?

(KL) "Well doing something set in the past is only a challenge for research and art direction and clothes. Everything else is the same. You're still battling with the light, you're still struggling against the clock, and everything else. But having done this, which is quite a large film, we wanted to do something short and sharp and contemporary."

(PL) "To have done this film in 35 days was amazing, really."

You have courts run by women in the film, which I think many of us didn't know existed. Also, you include scenes where the characters just debate issues, something you were widely criticised for doing in Land and Freedom.

(KL) "They were real the courts. And when the treaty was proposed, there were huge discussions within what they call the Republican Family, to decide what the opinion should be. But I think there is an important point here because in Britain there is a kind of heresy in film criticism which is that film can only deal in images and that verbal conflict and dialogue is not dramatic and cinematic, and I fundamentally disagree with that. I think certain things have to be expressed in language. The ideas that Paul was talking about you have to express and refine in language, because only language can carry the nuances. Images are too ambiguous. And it was a struggle for ideas, it was a struggle for political position, it was a struggle for class interest, and you find that in language. So there is a real issue here that film can deal with argument and ideas and conflict like that."

(PL) "Talking about the Republican courts, what was key, following the new parliament, when that was not recognised, was they were very creative and they said, ‘Okay, it's not just a war, we'll try and set up our own infrastructure. We will take control of our own courts.' All the local authorities started recognising the banned parliament so there was an attempt to build up an alternative power structure outside the British Empire, and women were key to that just as they were key to the safe houses and intelligence."

The actors said when they worked with you there was no script and they went along with the events in the film. Is that how it is?

(KL) "No, it's not like that at all. There is a script, which is a result of a long process, which Paul writes and is very precise. The only point, which is a really minor point, is that in order so that you feel it's really happening, rather than being very heavily rehearsed, is we shoot in sequence and they have the script as they go along. But they get the script. Ninety-five per cent of what they say are Paul's words. They sometimes feel they've improvised more because when we were shooting we improvised a lot more. It's just a technique and it's not a thing to make a big deal about."

(PL) "They've got to believe. When you see them in the eye if you don't believe that you don't believe anything and you've failed."

Ken, you are very good at creating intimacy within a broad historical context. How do you go about achieving that?

(KL) "Again this is something that is shared between us but I think if you choose fictional characters then you can choose an array of characters and relationships that have an in-built conflict and in-built tensions, and the story is really the working through of those tensions. But because they come from different positions, their history gives them different experiences and they reflect the wider tensions and the wider conflicts. I think if you remove that personal narrative you're just left with big political figures doing big political things and you lose that sense of lived history.

"One way of looking at the film, I think, that we were aware of is the relationship between the brothers, Teddy and Damien. Teddy, as he says, he's older, he was the man of action, he's dynamic; Damien was more reflective, he's a thinker, he's more academic, and Teddy has always been the stronger of the two. He says he was always the stronger of the two. But in the very last scene, when Damien is going to be executed and they face each other across the table, Teddy is losing power in the relationship and he's saying, ‘Please, will you tell us where the arms are? Will you go back home?' and Damien is the strong one. He looks him in the eye and says, ‘No.'"

Which of them do you prefer?

(KL) "Well, you know, it's not a preference. It's the kind of struggle of person against person. It's the kind of working through of a sibling relationship. It's principle against pragmatism."

Some people have said that Damien is a fanatic or fundamentalist.

(KL) "I don't think he's a fanatic at all and I don't think he's fundamental. I think he's got quite a shrewd reading of history. You know there are such things as revolutionary times, where revolutions are possible, and they're very rare, you know? It doesn't happen very often. His reading of the situation is: this is the moment when things could change. Somebody says in as many words, ‘If this moment passes, never in our lifetime will we see it again.' I don't know if you will agree, you may not, but there was a sense that the door was just a little bit open."

So we should be on the side of Damien?

(PL) "It's very easy to look back. What we're very keen to do is be true to the time. The key event there was the threat from the British cabinet of ‘immediate and terrible war'. From their point of view and what they'd lived through, that was a real and genuine threat. I'm sure you know there is a great debate about how serious that threat was, and many historians think it was a real and serious threat. But what would you do in those circumstances? You're a young man, you're 20, you've seen friends tortured and murdered, and you're looking ahead and saying, ‘Right, will they invade and just absolutely wipe us out and many more besides?'

"There was great integrity, I think, in Teddy's point of view there - it was the [Michael] Collins argument - when he says, ‘Freedom will achieve freedom.' It's alright for us sitting here in Cannes, drinking gin and tonics, to say, ‘Nah, nah, I'm going to take on the British Empire.' And don't forget Teddy says as well, ‘You're part of a minority government, are you going to give the green light to Africa and India?' Those were really key, thoughtful, intelligent reflective points. But at the same time you can understand Damien when he says, like, ‘John Bull has his hands round your bollocks. You have the Attorney General who can veto everything. You will be a puppet government.' There was great truth in that as well. I think it's very finely balanced and I think it would be incredibly arrogant of us to say, ‘I would be on his side.' I think it's a lack of imagination to think how fucking terrible war is, really."

These aren't ideologists they're a grass roots response to what was happening.

(PL) "Some are confused. Some are frightened. Steady Boy can't deal with the [civil] war afterwards because he's been through the First World War and he can't shoot his friends. There was terrible confusion and people were mixed up. For young people, don't forget they're all under 30, most of them, the idea of being picked up by the British and being tortured was terrifying. So it's very easy to look back in hindsight and say we'd do this or that.

Which do you find easier to make, Ken, historical films such as this and Land and Freedom, or social issues films like Sweet Sixteen?

(KL) "These have a dimension that those don't have. The difference is this, I suppose: the pictures that are, I think, stories of everyday life, like the boy in Sweet Sixteen, you can simply tell their story, because the characters have a consciousness which is just very ordinary. They're not political, they just live their lives. But like in Spain, or Ireland at this point, because the conflict is so public and so great, in the course of the conflict, people get political. It politicises people. So then the added problem of doing a film like The Wind that Shakes the Barley is to absorb and do justice to that consciousness, which is politicised and can use arguments, and can be self aware in the way that characters in Sweet Sixteen are not self aware. They just see life at ground level. But these characters, like Dan and Damien and the others, they're beginning to see the whole picture. So the difficulty is trying to include that while moving the narrative forward."

Do you believe cinema can change people's consciousness?

(KL) "Well cinema could be like a library. You could have a documentary book, you can have a historical record, you can have a dramatisation, you can have a fantasy. It should be as wide as a library, really."

Do you think a British audience is ready for this story?

(KL) "British audiences, yes. British film critics are something else. They see the world like a horse with blinkers. The problem is getting past the critics to the audience."

(PL) "A question in one of today's papers was: ‘Were the Black and Tans really that bad?'"

(KL) "This is a serious, respected, newspaper reviewer. One of the most respected in the business."

(PL) "It's a matter of record, you know? They always like to portray it as the exception, as a few bad eggs, but they were sent there with the mission to terrorise and that is directly linked all the way back to the British cabinet, and there is minutes there to prove it. It would take two minutes to check it out. It's not contested. The Central Court was burned down. The library was burned down. A hundred creameries were burned down. Hundreds of civilians were killed. Many were tortured. It's quite amazing, really."

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006


Kevin Willmott: "We've really always had two Americas - the USA and the CSA - and 9/11 has made us go even more towards the CSA."

Kevin Willmott, writer/director of CSA: Confederate States of America, discusses race and the legacy of slavery in the United States.
London, 2006

How difficult was it to fund CSA: Confederate States of America?

"We ran into some opposition, big time. We really funded it ourselves. We got a small grant from The National Black Programming Consortium and then we just kind of went to friends and family. We found one investor and it took us about three years to make the film. So we just did it the best way we could with the limited resources that we had. That's okay. That's a reality I expect when you're doing something that the system - I hate to use that term - but the system doesn't want to see you do. So you've got to be honest about it and go, ‘Okay, I'm going to have to make this movie somehow on my own.' But it's been a real, beautiful thing, because the discussions we've had have just been incredible. People have made all kinds of different connections to the film. It just opens people up to a whole host of issues and ideas. People relate to the CSA history with their history, which could be a whole different history, like the Israeli and Palestinian thing. There's so many different connections you can make. Here we are talking about putting a wall between Mexico and America now, and we just had it in the film [as a wall between America and Canada] as a joke. They've also been putting a wall up in Israel. The world's big on walls these days, you know?"

PBS gave you seed money but didn't give you any after they'd seen the script? What scared them off?

"Well they've been really honest about the fact it's just too controversial. And I appreciated their honesty about it. A lot of times, we run into things with the film and no one's honest enough to tell us, ‘You're dealing with things that are just too hot and we're afraid we're going to offend somebody.' What I love is that there's no bad language, there's no sex, there's only historical violence in the film, and it's too controversial? Wow, dull American history is too controversial. So the stuff that puts most people to sleep you can't put on television. It just lets you know we still got a problem."

The History Channel also refused to show it, didn't they?

"That was the most disappointing because that was supposed to be a conversation. A debate. But they showed a documentary a couple of years ago about the Confederate flag and they caught so much flack from those people. And those people that watch the History Channel, a lot of them are those battlefield memory people. They watch those documentaries about the Civil War and they don't want to talk about the causes because that's no fun. I thought it was a really fine documentary. It wasn't just saying the flag is wrong, it showed both sides. It was here's this one group that believes one way about the flag, here's this other group. But the fact that you have the other group is the problem [laughs]. It's something that's not even worth debate. So I think the History Channel wasn't even in a position to have an honest debate about it, because a lot of the bread-and-butter comes from those, and I'm just going to say it, red necks, that like to watch those kinds of programs."

It's a fascinating film but as a non-American, I wasn't always sure where historical reality and your imagined reality parted ways. Are Americans always sure themselves, or is the fact that the one is not always distinguishable from the other the point?

"Well a little bit of both. It varies about how well we know our history, which is part of the problem in a way. We tried to use history that was pretty general. There's some specific characters we mention in the film that a lot of people don't now much about, but our important figures, in terms, I think, of understanding the concepts of our film, are well known. What we hoped for was to use what I call ‘historical signposts', kind of the big events that happened in American history and most people know about internationally. There's clearly some things that are very specific, but the big overall point of the film is the Confederacy did win the Civil War. So hopefully by telling a fake history, you tell the real history. So I think your feeling that way is kind of part of how the movie's supposed to work."

Is what you're talking about an American crisis of identity?

"No doubt about it. 9/11 made a lot of issues come forward that have made Americans question who they are and how they want America to work, and what democracy means, big questions like that. And so, you know, the film really kind of poses it as you've got two Americas. And we've really always had two Americas - the USA and the CSA - and the CSA is that other America that we can choose to be. We've chosen to be it many times in our history, and I think 9/11 has made us go even more towards the CSA in ways. So that's the idea."

I'm sure that the negative image of America you paint in the film will appeal to a lot of Europeans in the sense that it reinforces many of the negative opinions people have about the country, albeit it in a satirical register.

"It's nothing new really. For an African-American, we've had to deal with the CSA all our lives. Many of us look at it like the more you understand about the victims of American history the more you understand what American history's all about. What the film tries to do as well, I think, is make you relate to the CSA from the slave point of view. It puts slavery central to what the CSA means, so you can't look at Gone with the Wind and just get caught up in the romance. Suddenly you look at Gone with the Wind and you see how slaves are treated and how slaves act in that film. I think it's just one of many examples, hopefully, the film gives of showing there's this other reality going on [laughs]. And the more we relate to that other reality, I think the more we know what's maybe going on in the world."

I read that you first had the idea for the film 20 years ago. Is it really that long?

"Well, yeah. I think the thing that came to me a few years ago when we got started on it was finally how to do it in a form where I believed it - the structure and the format of the movie, the fake documentary, from the point of view of the Confederate Television - and the fact that I discovered that the Confederacy did have an actual plan, had they won, to do all these things [build an empire in Latin America, for example]. Those were the big revelations that kind of defined the film for me. I wanted it to be real for people. I wanted it be uncomfortable.

"I love the film Dr Strangelove and the thing I love about it is there's never any comedy at the expense of the truth. There are rarely bits in the film where they're just trying to make you laugh. The humour comes from the absurdity of the Cold War and nuclear weapons and all of that stuff. That's what I wanted to do with this, to have the humour come out of the reality of slavery, of the reality of expansionism, and the CSA mindset that still exists, and the link between the CSA and the USA. So the idea had been around a long time but I didn't know how to do it. I didn't know how to take the idea of what if the South had won. I think a lot of people had had that idea."

Yes, there have been a few books based on it.

"I avoided all of them. For me that wasn't the point. I didn't want to give a battlefield kind of history of all this, about Generals and how that would have turned out. I think that's actually part of the problem with the Civil War in America, that people love to talk about the battles but they hate talking about slavery. But slavery is the thing that still defines us today in America. It defines our understanding of race still in America. We still understand each other based in a lot of weird concepts left over from slavery. So, all of that, once we really found a way to create a structure that made it all real, then the movie kind of clicked."

Is there a taboo surrounding the way that not only slavery is discussed in America but also the terms in which the Civil War is talked about? It seems incredible that the causes are still a matter of controversy when they seem clear enough.

"Well it's amazing, and one of the main reasons why I wanted to make the film was exactly what you're talking about. The Civil War's still going on in America. There's still many people that want to hold onto the Confederacy as this great concept that had nothing to do with slavery. That was one of the things, if you honestly look at history, and you read books outside of battlefield books, you quickly find out that it was all about slavery. So that's really the chief reason I wanted to make the film, to finally give the history of America from this other point of view. You know, the Confederate flag still flies over the State of Mississippi, over the State House. You still see it on a lot of people's cars and trucks. You still see Hollywood making movies that celebrate the Confederacy, in various ways, as a sad, lost cause. A great civilisation gone with the wind, as Gone with the Wind calls it. But from the slave point of view, there's nothing civilised about it.

"I think it's interesting how our [fake] historian says that by losing the war, the South and the Confederacy really wins. Our sympathies go to them in movies. Our sympathy went to them in literature. Unfortunately, to get these two regions, the North and the South, back together again, we had to remove the issue of slavery from the cause of war. It's like two guys fighting over a girl, and once the two guys decide to become friends again, what happens to the reputation of the girl? And the reputation of the girl is slavery. That's what happened. Slavery was just removed from the cause of the war so North and South could become friends again."

In the film the South take advantage of the fact that Northerners were once slave owners, and, indeed, that the founding fathers were slave owners. The implication is that this is not just an issue for the South but for the whole of the United States. It's an American issue.

"That's exactly right. And that's the other big theme in the film. It's kind of easy to attack the Confederacy in the South and call them racists. The reality of it is that slavery did start in the North and some of the worst places Dr King went in a protest was not down South, it was Chicago. The other example I always gives is I live in Kansas, so it's not the Mississippi Board of Education case that desegregated schools, it's the Topeka Kansas Board of Education case. So, you know, even places like Kansas, where we fought over being a free state here, and we love our abolitionist roots in many ways, even Kansas became segregated and Jim Crow existed here. So it's a very complicated history and you're trying to find ways to simplify it so that people can take what I like to call ownership of the history. Right now, I think the big problem we have as Americans is we've not fully taken ownership of this history. We can't talk about it freely, we can't talk about it openly, we can't talk about it without feeling guilty, or without feeling angry. So it's also a real problem."

You address the myth of Manifest Destiny in the film and suggest that underlying it is a belief in white American racial superiority. Bush has spoken in terms of something like manifest destiny in his justification for the invasion of Iraq.

"Well yeah. It's interesting because to own slaves means you have to turn people into things and the whole concept of slavery goes along with colonialism and Manifest Destiny and controlling other people's countries, the whole list of that kind of stuff. I think we see them as separate things at times, and we discuss them as separate things, but the reality of it is that they all started out of the same kind of concept, which is: we are better than you. And any time that you go into the ‘we are better than you' kind of idea, you're going to run into this kind of reality. So yeah, it's an interesting kind of situation. Hopefully showing how the real CSA wanted to take over Central America and South America and so forth means you do make those links to Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam, the whole list of things that we've gotten involved in that, in the end, are CSA kind of feelings and ideas."

Different generations of the fictional, ultra conservative Fauntroy dynasty represent the continuation of these values and attitudes throughout the film, and, I suppose, American history.

"That's exactly right. They're kind of the Bushes or the Kennedys of the CSA [laughs]. You know, they have this point of view which is the world is there to serve us, its resources, its people, whatever. It's the essence of the Manifest Destiny concept that the world is ours to use at will. And, you know, it's all point of view. Obviously the Bush administration and others would say, ‘That's not the way we feel at all about all of this,' but from the slave point of view, from the point of view of the people that are in a country and then suddenly people invade it, for whatever reason, they go, ‘Last week I could go down to the market and today I can't, because we're shooting and killing people outside.' It's one thing to talk about it politically; it's another thing to talk about it in terms of human life. And what the film tries to do as well, I think, is to show what's at stake for the little people."

At the end of the film Ambrose talks nostalgically about family friend Hitler and his dream of America regaining its Aryan heritage. That's disturbing because some people in American are warning about a drift towards fascism.

"The problem is a lot of the folks that really believe in that don't realise what it means. They'll talk about heritage, they talk about the ‘good old days', but from the African-American point of view, we don't have the ‘good old days'. The good old days started like about five years ago [laughs]. We have moments in America that we can celebrate, but it's hard for us to celebrate the whole thing, if we're going to be honest about it. Even with people like Fauntroy, there's a huge thing of denial that's going on where they pick and choose the history that they want to celebrate. They talk about heritage but never speak about slavery. They talk about heritage and they never talk about the people they hurt when they invade these countries. So the thing the movie tries to do is be like the Howard Zinn book [A People's History of the United States], in that it's a people's history of the world. It's the history that we feel as much as it is anything else."

I corresponded with someone at the Hunter Museum and she said that there was no real controversy when they screened the film, that it was a fascinating look at what might have been. However, the way you're talking about it, and the way that I understood it watching it, is that the film is a ‘What is' rather than a ‘What if'.

"Yes. The thing we worked to achieve was not to give people that out. I think that Hollywood, oftentimes, even science fiction at times, give people an out. It says ‘Oh, this is just a fantasy. This is just a crazy, crazy little world I've created that has nothing to do with you,' or the connections are so subtle, most people don't find them. We wanted to be artistic and subtle as well but we also wanted to be honest about the history. People say, ‘Well, this is really heavy handed', and I'm like, not really. What may feel heavy handed to people is just the reality of slavery. We don't make you feel better about what happened. The example I always give is Nazi Germany, or the bombings in England. You wouldn't want to deal with that by saying, ‘This stuff makes you a little uncomfortable so we're going to hold back on this.' No, these were horrible things that happened to people and you can't make people feel better about these things by toning them down. They're realities. Part of the problem, oftentimes in film, I think, is you don't feel the impact of what this thing you're trying to express is.

"So, anyway, the point being that for me at Chattanooga, it was a beautiful experience. I think in some many different ways some of my best experiences have been in the South talking about the film, and some of my worst have been in the North. I think liberals, and I would probably be called one of them for no better choice of word, liberal folks are even a worse part of the problem, because good liberal people don't want to go there. It's ugly, it's uncomfortable, it makes people feel bad at times. There's a part-liberal thing that has said, ‘Oh, let's all be nice to each other, even if it means being dishonest with each other.' Political correctness, in a sense.

"See, liberal folks like to believe if you say the right words and look in certain directions and not other directions, that everything is great. And conservatives would get mad at me and say, ‘Well this is not my America.' Well that's a valid argument. If you don't want to believe this I guess that's okay. But you kind of expect liberal folks to be open. Liberal folks' whole thing is, ‘I'm open [laughs]. I'm open to suggestions and other cultures and other ways of life, blah, blah, blah.' The reality of it is they're closed to it for a whole other set of reasons. They're closed to it because they can't control it, and they can't control the feeling of it. It makes them feel bad. It makes them uncomfortable. Americans need a lot more of feeling uncomfortable about their reality. I grew up with the movies in the Seventies and the Seventies movies always did that. They made you question what was going on, what's happening, what reality am I living in, all those things. I think that's good."

Have you had problems knocking down some of the walls between the film and some people who still support the notion of a Confederacy, though? I have read comments on the net where people say they cannot even begin to debate the film because they feel you're trampling over the memory of ancestors who died fighting for the South, painting them as racists.

"They don't think about my ancestors who they had chained up to a tree. So, you know, I think the fact that they're able to divorce my reality from their reality is the problem. A gentleman I met in Chattanooga, which is one of the reasons why I loved that experience so much, he was the first gentleman who you'd call probably a Confederate, and somebody who was probably a member of the Sons of the Confederacy or something, he said, ‘I disagree that you compare the Confederate flag with the Nazi flag.' I said ‘That's fine, I understand.' ‘But,' he said, ‘if I was a black man, I would be upset about this. I would be offended by the flag as well.' I said to him, ‘Well why isn't that enough? Why isn't that enough? If you know why I would be offended by the flag, then why isn't that enough?' And that's the issue. They don't care about my reality enough to make them give up a whole kind of heritage that, in my opinion, is not worth celebrating the way they want to try and celebrate it. What this gentleman was trying to get at was can't the Confederate flag mean a lot of different things? I said it can't. I said ‘If I put an X on a piece of paper and I went to your house, and me and these other guys were carrying this sheet with an X on it, and we burn down your house and we shoot your dad, and we rape your mom, and we take your brother and sister away and enslave them, what would that X mean?' And that's just the reality of it.

"The point I would love to have people see is that it's time to try and make the American flag have some kind of real meaning instead of holding on to dead flags, and dead iconography. The American flag has been in some really bad places, and done a lot of really bad things, but the one thing you have to say about the American flag is it's still a living flag. It's a living thing and it can become better [laughs], it can do good things as well. And it has done good things. So you try to sell them on that idea of, why are you still holding onto this other thing? And I know why they do, because they were raised to believe that's what that was. But they were raised to believe it at the expense of not thinking about my pain."

Finally, how optimistic are you that these debates will take place?

"Well things get better all the time. You can't help but be optimistic. I try to look at myself as an optimistic person. But it's tough. I'll just be honest, it's tough to get black folks and white folks to talk about these things.

"The road blocks we ran into with the media here [America] in being afraid to talk about it is probably the best example. I think the History Channel is the best one. When we kind of get to the core of things and the things that still separate us, we choose to just go, ‘Well that's a little too uncomfortable. We're not going to talk about it.' And those are the very things we have to talk about. We have to find a way for black people to deal with their residual anger, the pain that we still have about these things. And we have to find a way to talk to these Confederates and others that still want to hold onto these things as a beautiful concept, and talk about their ancestors and so forth.

"I always say celebrate their courage but not their cause. If I had a relative that died in the war or fought in the war, I would certainly want to honour their courage. But I would separate it from the cause. And that's the part that we have not been fully able to achieve. They feel like to celebrate the courage they have to lie about the cause, and water down the cause, and make the cause better or different than it actually was. That's a huge gap that we still have. A huge gap. We've come a long way but we've still got a long way to go."

CSA: Confederate States of America is available to buy on DVD.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

Oliver Stone: "I didn't want to be the bad guy again."

Oliver Stone's World Trade Center: cop out or honest response to 9/11?

A month after the 11 September attacks, Oliver Stone gave a talk in New York. He said that if he ever tackled 9/11, his movie would be a realistic, politically balanced examination of terrorism from the American and Arab perspectives. He offered The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s unbiased account of the Algerian revolution, as a touchstone.

Five years later, Stone’s World Trade Center is being hailed as a masterpiece by American conservatives – a first for the director who attacked US foreign policy in Salvador, portrayed a disabled Vietnam veteran's transformation into an anti-war protestor in Born on the Fourth of July, and explored numerous conspiracy theories with JFK. He has made it easy for them: there is no mention of terrorism or Arabs or George Bush's failure to respond swiftly to events.

Instead, Stone focuses his narrative on the true story of two Port Authority police officers, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), who survived beneath the rubble of the Twin Towers, and the tense uncertainty experienced by their families. It is powerful cinema, just not in the way you expect from Stone.

What happened to that other film, I ask him, when we meet at the Venice Film Festival? He sighs and recalls another comment he made in New York.

“I said that 9/11 was a rebellion against what Arabs considered an oppressive system of capitalism and military troops in the Middle East. I got killed for that.” He claims it was a misunderstanding. “In the English language, the concept of rebellion or revolution is considered to be a good thing, but I didn’t mean it that way. To those Arabs who felt that way it was a good thing, is what I was saying.”

The attacks hit Stone hard. He concedes that while it would have been impossible to finance the kind of film he was advocating in America at that time, he could have tried to make it abroad. “Suffice it to say that after the criticism I got I kind of shied away," he says candidly. "I didn’t want to be the bad guy again.”

Some have now accused Stone of going soft, or doing World Trade Center to atone for the (perceived) failure of his historical epic, Alexander. That film actually did very well outside America, he insists. “We did $170m. It’s no joke. It was one of the top 20 films of the year. It’s not a turkey like the British-language press would say.” Nixon and Heaven and Earth were by far his “worst financial disasters”.

Stone, who unusually was a hired hand on WTC, says he did the film because he liked the script and because he understood the camaraderie between its uniformed protagonists, having served as an infantryman in Vietnam. Wounded twice, he also knew what it was like to survive by a hair’s breadth.

“I got a bullet wound right here,” he says, pulling up the hair on the back of his neck. “The bullet went right through. I guess this much more and I would be dead.”

The director argues that he is not avoiding politics in the film because there were none that day, just shock and anger. Even so, a “stupid comment” made at the end of the film by a marine calling for revenge means he now finds himself accused of making a pro Bush film by some liberals.

Stone is eager to defend his record. While he believes they were right to “take vengeance" in Afghanistan - "We went after the right people” - he was opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning. “I was castigated in America for my positions against Bush and the Iraq war,” he says. “Many of the liberals in America, don’t forget, were for the war. Hilary Clinton voted for that war. John Kerry voted for that war. The New Yorker voted for that war. I didn’t. I did Alexander instead because I wanted to get out of America.”

He dismisses suggestions that World Trade Center could help the Republicans in the forthcoming mid-term election because it would reinforce the fear of terror. “I don’t see it that way. It’s demystifies part of the 9/11 phenomena. It puts you right in the middle and says, ‘Okay, how bad can this be?’ Yeah, it’s as rough as it gets, but those two guys got out. In other words: you can conquer your fear.” At a time when governments are using fear as a weapon, this is arguably a political statement in itself.

“This movie was not to be politicised,” Stone protests. “To politicise it is to indicate that the Left is as fucked up as the Right, frankly. Some of these people on the Left have lost sight of humanity. They’re so anti Bush that they have lost sight of the possibility of change, and change comes out of the heart. We’ve got to talk to the centre again. We’ve got to be at the centre. The movie is very much about peace at the centre.”

In this respect, World Trade Center is, arguably, as much a reaction against trends in Hollywood filmmaking as anything else. Stone appears to suggest that US cinema, consciously or otherwise, helped prepare the American public for the invasion of Iraq. ”The war iconography changed again,” he says, “and it went back to shock and awe at the American military machine.”

Films like Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbour (“I hated that film because it basically said we won Pearl Harbour”), even Saving Private Ryan (“If I had been in that group, if I had been in the infantry, we would have killed that sergeant long ago”), he believes, “had a big influence on people about how powerful and technically superior we were”. Meanwhile, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, which showed the cost of war, were ignored, he claims.

“I got very depressed in that period,” he says sadly. “I mean it was my life’s work. I was a forgotten figure. Nobody even mentioned those films, or very rarely. I got my first taste of how history filters out what it doesn’t want to remember.”

Conversely, World Trade Center put Stone on the cover of Newsweek. He is the hero of the hour. However, his conservative supporters could be in for a shock. Speaking in Moscow recently, Stone reinforced his maverick reputation by hinting that he was considering doing a film about “a conspiracy by a group of people in the American administration who have an agenda and who used 9/11 to further that agenda”.

Has Stone gone soft or is he playing a long game? Time will tell.

The original version of this article appeared in The Big Issue.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

Alfonso Cuarón: "The world is in a sorry state and it's being run by c***s."

Alfonso Cuarón looks into the future with the chilling Children of Men.

Get Alfonso Cuarón on the subject of politicians and his speech suddenly turns blue. "The world is in a sorry state because it is being run by "c***s," spits the Mexican filmmaker. "It's so bizarre it's not even funny. The nation that prides itself on tearing apart the wall in Berlin is now building a wall between Mexico and the US. I'm sorry," he says, briefly pausing for breath, "these c***s are looking backward; they're going back into primitive times."

This is not the language you expect from the director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Then again, Cuarón's new film, Children of Men, has rather more in common with his controversial road movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien, than JK Rowling's family friendly universe of trainee wizards. His breakthrough film took the socio-political temperature of contemporary Mexico in a story set in the present day; Children of Men, a hit at the recent Venice Film Festival, looks at today's world through the future tense of a dystopian science-fiction thriller set in 2027.

"I don't think it's a bleak vision about the future," Cuarón says. "I think it's a realistic vision about the present." Loosely based on a novel by PD James, Children of Men takes place in a plausibly grim, isolationist Britain, into which Cuarón has crammed and condensed the things he feels are "shaping the first part of the 21st century". So, terrorist bombs shake London and violent gangs roam the streets, striking fear into the citizenry. Life feels nasty, brutish and short. For those who cannot take it anymore, the government provides a way out in the form of an over-the-counter suicide kit. Suffering at the bottom of the heap are illegal immigrants, or "fugees", who are rounded up and herded into Guantanamo-style cages before being transported to a violent detainment camp.

The cause of much of this grimness is the fact that women have been infertile for almost 20 years, so it is a world without children. But this could change if Clive Owen's former activist can smuggle the one known pregnant woman on earth, a young African immigrant, out of Britain and into the care of the Human Project - an international group working towards a new society. "The conceit of the world stopping conceiving is a very hard thing to take on board," admits Owen. "But what happens to the world, it's closer than we think, I think. There are images in this movie we've seen on the news.

"The world's very unstable and when you've got young children there are huge concerns. Unless you're completely naïve or trying to pretend it's not happening, we're living in scary times."

Cuarón, who is 44 and has three children, says it is no accident that young people have been central to his work, in films such as A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter, because children are very "important in my own notions of hope. And Children of Men is a film about hope". Referring to the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, he says, "Tony Blair and George Bush had the most absurd, bizarre excuse of why they weren't going to stop the war: politically it was not the right time. Forget about politics; you're killing children. It's completely absurd. And that, pretty much, was the intent of the metaphor of this film. Because even if the approach is very realistic and very documentary, at the end it's like a fable."

In this context, he says the initial "immobility" of Owen's reluctant, world-weary hero, "represents the immobility of people of our generation". The problem, as Cuarón sees it, is that when hope is taken away, ideology pours in to fill the space. "But because the notions of hope and faith are so connected now your ideology's connected with your notion of faith. Ideology then becomes a matter of faith and that just polarises things even further." He thinks this is what leads some young people to commit acts like the bombings in London last year.

Cuarón didn't want to glorify any side in the film because he believes politicians and the people who finance them, and politics and ideology, are part of the cause rather than the solution to the problems we're currently facing.

"The way they are approaching immigration, the way they are approaching the 'war on terror', nobody is standing back and saying, 'OK, we have been thinking like this all this time, maybe we should try something different.' There is no other understanding of these things that we're living. No other."

In Children of Men, the prospective baby offers a small ray of hope for a new beginning. And Cuarón, despite his grim vision of the present, is surprisingly optimistic about the future. "I believe that there's a new generation that is fed up with our generation and our consumerism and our fast-food values," he says. "I believe that in the generation that is now 20, and I feel it more strongly in the generation to come. I don't believe there is any other solution because this world cannot keep on existing the way it is for much longer."

Ultimately, he says, the message of the film is summed up at the end by a recent Jarvis Cocker song. "It pretty much says everything is f***ed up and there's a lot of shit, but shit floats and goes to the top," he laughs. "The chorus," he adds, "says, 'Let's be perfectly clear, boys and girls, c***s are still running the world'."

Cuarón smiles broadly and a mischievous glint appears in his eye. "It would be so great if everybody starts singing that out loud because that is the problem. But I'm very hopeful. I believe in, and I have a lot of faith in, the evolution of the human spirit."

The original version of this article appeared in The Scotsman.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

Kuno Becker: "I'm proud to be Mexican but I'm also very tired of the violence and the corrupt system."

Mexican heartthrob Kuno Becker shoots and scores in British sports movie Goal!*
London, September 2005

You have signed up for three films. What does the Goal! trilogy mean for you in career terms?

“I didn’t sign for three films. I just signed for one. But the plan is to be part of the other two films. I think it’s going to happen, hopefully. I want to do it and they want me to do it so I’m very happy because it gives me a bigger process of creating a character and gives me a chance to put a character through so many more things than just two hours of screen time.”

What kinds of things does your character, Santiago, go through in this film, on and off the pitch?

“The most important part here is to see what happens with the people, their lives, their minds, everything. All kinds of things happen in the film. This is basically the process of him trying to get the dream -- he’s trying to achieve that goal -- and that’s basically it. Being a simple, simple guy, almost poor, from East Los Angeles, and trying to become a big football star in a big team is pretty interesting. So this is the beginning of the process when he, like, starts to try that. It’s very interesting.”

It’s a rags-to-riches story. What is interesting is that he is the kind of character we see in films going after the American Dream only in this case he has to go abroad to achieve it, because football is not big in the States.

“That’s interesting. I never thought about that but actually yeah, his family went to America to become successful, or sort of what everybody thinks of as successful, and yeah, he has to go to Europe to get that, which is very interesting. It’s ironic and it’s interesting. And you know what? That’s real, actually. Because I was actually watching the news and a lot of the illegal immigrants that are in Los Angeles, they really don’t get what they expect, and secondly it’s so hard to cross the border and it’s becoming harder and harder. It’s so tough. They die and all kinds of things happen, it’s pretty tough, so some of them are emigrating to Europe or Asia. Yeah, it’s interesting that that is sort of reflected in the film.”

What is your relationship with America? You live in LA but go back to Mexico, I believe.

“I’m based in LA but most of the time I’m working somewhere else.”

What is your relationship with the country? Earlier this year the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, praised armed Minuteman patrols for trying to prevent illegal migrants crossing the border and told people to stop putting water in the desert for them. As someone who lives in LA, how does this make you feel?

“Oh man, it’s such a hard thing. It’s so complicated that thing about immigration and immigrants. On the one hand it’s so difficult to see people dying and don’t give them water, right? It seems criminal. And then on the other hand I understand the point of view of everyone that lives there. Everyone wants to cross there and it’s illegal. I’m an immigrant if you think about it because I’m from Mexico and I went to work in Los Angeles, or here [England], and it’s pretty hard. But I didn’t do it illegally so it’s kind of like, ‘Oh man, is it right or is it wrong?’ On the other hand, my relationship with the States right now, Mexico City, for me, is a very dangerous place. I’m proud to be Mexican but I’m also very tired of the violence and the corrupt system, and the pollution, it’s so, so hard to live there. And it’s becoming harder and harder, it’s not nice, so I couldn’t do it. On the other hand I wanted to move on to films and I was just able to work on TV in Mexico, and from time to time on a small independent film, and I would rather do it somewhere else where I can at least pay the rent. You know what I mean? So it’s pretty difficult. But at the moment my relationship with America is pretty good. I’m happy, I respect the rules, and I think it’s still a great place to live. I don’t agree with a lot of things that are happening there as in Mexico, or any other place, but I agree with a lot more. So it’s [a] normal [relationship].”

How easy was it to relate to Santiago because you come from a quite different, presumably middle class, background?

“Well, a little bit I think, I don’t know. But it’s very similar. I mean most people have a dream. Mine is acting or being able to keep working, doing films or whatever, and then his is about football. I’m not a very sporty guy. I used to play football as a kid but I’m not into that, which is interesting as an actor because I have to transform into something that I really am not. It’s similar, the situations. When I was a kid I was living in Europe for a couple of months a year because I was studying violin, that was in Salzburg, and when I was younger I was living in Germany because my grandfather was German, and they also sent me there for a couple of months. It was pretty difficult being a Mexican kid in Europe. Santiago’s a lot older than I was at that time, of course, but I kind of know that feeling so it really helped me to relate to the character a bit more.”

What was making you feel like an outsider as a kid?

“I was in a German school when I was a kid for like almost all my life and I kind of knew the language, so there wasn’t much problem with the language. But then what was really difficult was to be like 9 years old, 10 years old, 12 years old or whatever, and being alone in Europe and so young. The loneliness is pretty hard and you don’t know how to deal with it. You just miss your family. For me it wasn’t the happiest part of my life because when you’re a kid the truth is that you cannot decide anything. Everybody tells you what to do, what you eat, what you do, what you don’t do, when you have to go to sleep, this and that, so you think to be a kid is pretty cool, but it’s not really. So I’m enjoying myself a lot more right now when I can really take the reins of my life and really make choices and make decisions. That’s really awesome.”

Was learning the violin something that accentuated the loneliness because that’s an instrument that takes a lot of time and discipline and something quite private, whereas if you’re out doing sport you’re with other people?

“Yeah, it seems the cliché loneliness thing to be playing the violin. It’s funny. But I can relate a lot to the character because of what I did as a kid.”

When did your dream switch from becoming a musician to becoming an actor?

“I was sixteen and I realised it wasn’t my decision to be a violinist. I really like violin, I really like classical music, I can read now, a couple of things, and it really helps with languages, for example, to really hear sounds and listen. But I really realised that I wanted to do something else. I wanted to transmit emotions, maybe, but I didn’t want to make a living as a violinist or as a musician. It’s a very important part of my life but I really wanted to switch to something else. I found acting really helpful as a tool to help me say what I wanted to say through my scenes or through my job. And also when I was 16 or 17 I was very scared of dying. It’s just the normal process, I guess, but I was just thinking about death and all that stuff so I think that was the main reason I really had for becoming an actor. That was the only way to really stay alive for more time.”

So you were working through things?

“Well I was just thinking, ‘OK, you know what? First of all I need to express myself and I need to say something and transmit emotions. And secondly I really don’t want to die.’ It’s a big ego thing, I think, a stupid thing. I mean I don’t think about that anymore. Well, I think about that but it’s not my motive right now. At that time I was just thinking about that and then I found acting, so that was my idea: I wanted to, like, act so that I could live more time. Which is stupid, but that’s what I was thinking, yeah. And then I fell in love with acting and that became the reason why I kept doing it. Now I cannot stop doing it because I find it beautiful and I can’t get enough of it.”

When you were learning the violin did that instil in you a kind of discipline that you have been able to apply to your new craft?

“Yeah, playing classical music when you’re a kid, it’s so tough and you learn so many things about discipline, professionalism, being on freaking time, all those things. It really helps you to listen. I didn’t know it was going to be so useful to be able to play an instrument. The violin! When you’re a kid, you say, ‘I’m never going to be able to use this in any way’, but I use it in so many ways. It’s really interesting.”

Does that kind of discipline help when you need to pick up a new skill for a movie such as this? Like you said, you hadn’t played much football.

“I played in school and from time to time but I wasn’t a professional or anything. It wasn’t my dream to become a footballer. I wasn’t even close to that so it was hard. But it also really helped me to be able to focus and train and try to understand it. When you hit a ball properly it sounds different, and that’s amazing. I don’t think many people notice that but it’s a whole different thing.”

Did you have to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency before you got the role? Did you have to prove that you had a certain level of fitness?

“Actually that was a big part of the whole thing. First of all I did a couple of auditions and I read for the part a couple of times and they went, ‘OK, we know you can act, but playing football is a whole different thing. Now you’re going to have to do a test, a football trial, so you’re going to go to Newcastle for two weeks to train and then after those two weeks we’re going to be able to see if you make it or not.’ They really wanted me to almost become a professional footballer player, which obviously is not going to happen. I did it the best I could. What I had in mind is I really wanted to do as much as I could. In the end I did it so hard that I broke my ankles. So the day of the trial I couldn’t even walk. It was tricky because it was like, ‘What now?’ A couple of the guys were disappointed and I was like, ‘I cannot run. I cannot even walk’, so it didn’t happen. When it was over, they were kind of unhappy. I noticed that, they didn’t tell me. When I was about to leave I came back and I said, ‘You know what? I’ve been here for two weeks training so hard, why don’t you let me show you what I learned in terms of skills and all that stuff, not tricks, and try to get the ball from you and show you what I learned’. Then I got the job. It was pretty tough. I mean my body’s not used to it. My body’s not used to playing football. So I did improve a lot from my level of football.”

You must have felt like Santiago in the scene where he is pushed in the mud all the time and told that there will be no second chance?

“Yeah, it was exactly the same! So I really related to the character and I know how he felt, and it’s pretty hard because you want that. For me as an actor this role was great because it’s one of the only chances to be something you’re not. Most people, most directors and most producers and casting directors, they want to see a guy who is the character, which is not the point. They don’t see an actor that can become something different. They want to see the character, which is not the idea. You have to find somebody to become that character which is a whole different thing. I wanted that chance to become somebody else.”

That is the potentially limiting factor of working somewhere like Hollywood, isn’t it? That they do want to put people into boxes.

“And that leads you to so many bad things. You have to start from the beginning. If you don’t do that it’s because you don’t love the craft. If you’re not looking for the good characters or the good scenes, or you’re more into the magazines or the money or something, you get it and then it’s not enough, or it’s actually not very nice. So everybody gets angry and they don’t like it, and they’re a pain in the ass with the people. Then they don’t enjoy their scenes and the result is people don’t enjoy the scenes either, it’s such a fucked up thing. So it’s better to be honest and say, ‘I really like this and if not I’d better do what I like’. Because that’s one of the main problems we have in this world. If you don’t do what you like, you’re going to be a freaking problem. You’re not going to do it right. You’re not going to be on time. You’re going to have a long face. It’s a pain in the ass. I enjoy it. Honestly, the whole thing around the job, it’s a pain in the ass for me but I do it because I love my job and being on the set. And being on the set gives me everything else. But I hate the popularity. Nothing personal, but I hate all the interviews and all that stuff; I do it because of my job, which is what I like.”

Is that why you wanted to move out of soaps, not just because of the need for more complex roles but because of the celebrity factor that comes with that? You’re hugely well known in Mexico, I read.

“Yeah, I would be still in Mexico City doing television and I wouldn’t care about anything else because they pay very well. They’re just a TV industry. There’s a small film industry which is growing, slowly, but they make great things from time to time. But it’s not enough to make a living out of it. It’s very difficult, right. Theatre is also pretty small. You can find great things but it’s also not enough to make a living out of it. So if you really want to get into your job and do something interesting that you enjoy, you have to do either films or theatre, and you cannot do that in Mexico and make a living, so you have to really go somewhere else, like the US, Europe or wherever.”

When you look at someone like Gael Garcia Bernal, he has worked in all different countries. Is that the kind of career you’d like?

“I don’t have any specific goals. I don’t want to go to some country or certain countries and do a film. I don’t know what’s going to happen. You make so many plans and then something else happens. My goal is to keep working and trying to find good characters, and that’s all I want to do.”

So wherever the work comes from, you’re prepared to go?

“Wherever good work comes from, hopefully. Right? There’s times where you say, ‘You know what? Right now I will do anything because I don’t have any fucking money.’ But most times you really want to choose and you really want to do something that you like. I did one film like two years ago which is like the worst thing in the world, a very small, three-week film that I really regret, and I’m never going to do it again, and hopefully nobody is going to see it. Then I understood and I remembered how I felt when I wasn’t working doing what I loved.”

What was the film?

“Hopefully you’re never going to see it, man. I shot it in Miami.”

You also worked in Kazakhstan recently, on a film called Nomad.

“Yeah, that one was wonderful. I did that one before Goal! That was incredible. We were shooting in Kazakhstan for like six months in total and it was great. It was an big independent film, this wonderful Russian director, great DP, and great crew. It was pretty difficult, hard conditions, independent, but it was awesome. It looks beautiful. I don’t now if somebody’s going to see it some time. They’re trying to find distribution. I’ve done six films so far and I don’t know if someone’s going to see them one day because it’s so difficult with independent films. I think this one is the first one they’re going to see which I’ve done.”

How did you get the role in Goal!? Did they come to you? Was it through your agent?

“Well they told me about the audition and my agent sent me to the audition, and I met Mike [Jeffries, the producer], I met Danny [Cannon, the director], we had a meeting, we talked about the script. The first thing was I read the script, I loved it, and then I met them, I read for them and then I read for them again, and then the football began. So I had the trial and it was crazy. It was stressful, also. You know, just the weight of not knowing and then it’s like you’re going to be training and you’re not quite there, but they’re not sure about you because they’re not sure you’re going to be able to play football. That was very stressing because I really wanted to get the part and wanted to do by best. It’s pretty hard, man.”

Did it bring a lifestyle change in the sense that you weren’t only having to act but also achieve a certain level of fitness in order to be convincing as a professional sportsman?

“I do exercise form time to time, but not much. I go to the gym from time to time. I started riding horses when I was three years old so I do a sport, but not much to do with football. I played in school and stuff but I’m not like a sporty guy that plays a sport every day and stuff.”

What do your parents do?

“We’re not an actors family or anything. My mom is a psychologist. We’re a pretty normal family. I have one brother and one sister; I’m the youngest. They’re not in the business.”

Can we talk a bit about the representation of Latino and Hispanic characters in American films? I was talking to John Leguizamo in Cannes and he said that you get certain stereotypes because the people who make the movies live in their gated communities and they only see them in terms of the people who work for them, so you only get a certain section represented on screen. I wonder how you feel about that because you come from a very different background to Santiago, who is breaking out of the barrio in East LA.

“It’s a little bit of ignorance, I think. Yeah. Beverly Hills is not the whole world, right? It’s nice but you really have to really think about it and there’s so many different levels and so many different kinds of Latinos and Mexicans, South Americans, oh man, so many different things. America’s a whole thing, there’s not one country. Those kinds of things, if you really think about it, they’re a little bit ignorant. There’s not much that I can do but say it. And when I do an interview and somebody asks, well just say what I think. And that’s what I think. I think it’s because of the ignorance of some people but there are others that really kind of know. We have more and more Latinos in Los Angeles, we are more and more, so at the end of the day, they’re going to have to learn I think [laughs].”

But another film you’ve done, English as a Second Language, also shows a
character coming from a similar background to Santiago.

“Yeah but it’s a bit hard. At the beginning of a career you make choices but you’re sort of limited. I mean you cannot say, ‘Okay, you know what? I’m going to play an Italian now because I can do an accent’ or whatever. Everybody sees you as a Latino and that’s it. Period. You know, in a way that’s who you are, but then maybe you can do something else, right? But it’s pretty hard to make a choice when you’re starting so that’s what I was saying. Sometimes you have to do what you think is good, not the worst thing in the world, but you have to really start. It’s interesting because there are so many stories happening about Latinos in Los Angeles, so many stories about crossing the borders, so many stories about a guy from East Los Angeles that makes it or whatever, but it’s also true. It’s happening so much that people have to tell those stories. Maybe we’re part of it and we’ll do it."
*Goal! 2 is released in the UK on February 9, 2007.
© Stephen Applebaum, 2006


Eugene Hutz: "I didn't want to do acting just because acting is the highest cult of celebrity there is. I wanted the right role."

Gogol Bordello wildman Eugene Hutz talks about his screen debut in Everything is Illuminated.
Venice, September 2005

So you’re a musician and you were cast in your first movie.

“That’s a true story.”

Yeah, the sort of all-American story.

“Oh no. Now I have to represent Ukraine and America. Now I have to represent the Ukrainian dream and the American Dream. Oh my God. I don’t think I want to do that.”

How did you get involved in Everything is Illuminated then?

“Um, Well, exactly as you said, being a musician is actually what led me to this movie. Liev [Schreiber, writer/director] had Gogol Bordello, my band, on his radar for the soundtrack, and us being basically the only musical force that could have done the cross-over of Eastern European authentic gypsy music and rock ‘n’ roll, and, you know, versus electronica versus and all the new mediums, because we’re friendly with all those things, living in New York.

“So I had a meeting with him to talk about music and it was like a streak of lightning went through the room, where I told him that I’m actually reading the book. I said, ‘How fantastic is that? You’re asking me to do the soundtrack for the book I’m reading?’ Which I was because my friend gave it to me saying how much similarity he thought there was between the way the book is written and the way I write my lyrics, which is kind of, like, fuck the syntax, treat the language as your own creation; say what you need to say, it doesn’t matter how long the sentence is and whether it’s rightly or wrongly constructed. And it’s true. I never properly studied English and I never properly studied music, and I never studied acting. I just went ahead and did all those things.

“So, getting back to the story, he said, ‘I can’t believe you’re reading this book. What do you think of the character of Alex?’ That’s when, I think, lightning kind of struck and he was like, ‘I’ve been looking for somebody to play Alex for so fucking long here and in the Ukraine. Do you think you could do that guy?’ I said, ‘Consider it to be done.’ [Said like a Genie granting a wish] He and Peter Saraf, who was one of the producers, looked at each other and said, ‘You have to come in for a reading tomorrow.’ Which I did and five days later my candidatura was approved.”

Why did you think you could do it?

“Well because of a couple of reasons. First of all I thought the character of Alex is very fun and has the Eastern European energy that I can identify with. He was a very comical, and tragical, character. A character who is deeply based in bravado and then gets his whole fancy storefront blown into pieces. The contrast of that was already interesting for me.

“Second, I always knew I am going to do some acting, it was just a matter of time. And I felt that was the time it was coming. Because since I have moved to New York, people have always pushed me towards acting and tried to lead me on, saying, ‘I’m going to introduce you to Jim Jarmusch’, or some other director. Which I did but I didn’t really pursue it because music is my first passion and I went with that more than anything. I had to be honest to myself and truthful to myself; I didn’t want to do acting just because acting is the highest cult of celebrity there is. I wanted the right role. I wanted an artistic film. I wanted it to be something that is meaningful. And here was this role.

“That is why I had that confidence. I am sure Liev got me not only because I said, ‘I am that guy, consider it to be done.’ I think he felt my enthusiasm. I think he felt I could do it, and I knew I could do it too. I don’t think my reading was fantastic; I think it was OK. But we knew we were going to do it once we get there.”

Alex seems very unaware of his own country’s history. Are there elements which have been suppressed?

“In me?”

In the Ukraine, I mean. He is shocked to hear that there was anti-Semitism before World War 2, which I’d have thought was a pretty well known and well-established fact.

“Well for sure. There are people that are still not able to deal with it, really. They are in denial. Ukraine is a very confused country -- East and West Ukraine constantly versus each other – and never finds peace. Uh, Anti-Semitic question and gypsy question being the forefront of disharmony, you know?

“That was one of my connections with the film, actually. My deepest connection, really, with the story lays not in the fact that I’m a party animal, night owl, bar-hopping maniac, and I could identify with Alex’s party sense. It’s not because of that. It’s because [taps his foot three times, suggesting this is emotional territory for him] the film is based on the Jewish theme of investigating your heritage and looking into how much your past pre-determines your future, really, as a being, and I’ve dealt with that issue. It’s very much along my wavelength, because I come from a mixed family, which is gypsy and Russian and Ukrainian. If you look into history, you will find that the Final Solution plan was originally conceived for eradicating gypsies and later on applied to Jews. Those two went hand in hand.

“Even now, finally the Ukraine came to terms with establishing monuments to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and now it’s the same with Roma, the gypsies. And I know that, for example, that monument to gypsy victims of the Holocaust, when it opened last year, it was very much attended by Jewish community.”

Have you met the actress Fairuza Balk?


She’s American and she’s part Roma. She’s tattooed as a sign of protest with the mark the Roma were made to wear in the concentration camps.

“Really? No, I’ve never even heard about her. I’d better look her up. It’s important to link and connect the dots like this because the struggle still goes on. I just got back from gypsy camps in the Ukraine where I was tracking down my extended family. I mean the conditions of that are just like . . . even the gypsy ghetto would be right in downtown of the small city. The things that go on there are unbelievable. For example, if somebody would be having a heart attack, the ambulance simply wouldn’t come. To call it poverty, the conditions they’re living in, is to say nothing [said bitterly]. It would be just like a bunch of burned mattresses laying in the middle of a field and people literally live like that, including through the winter. They’re like living in holes in the ground.”

Could you identify with what’s been going on in New Orleans, because the Federal Government were very slow to respond there?

“That very much reminds me of how they acted in the Ukraine when Chernobyl blew up. Passivity! Of course they throw force to deal with, like, the immediate, most obvious aspects of disaster. But then the government never mobilises itself to a full degree to do all it can for some reason. And those reasons are oftentimes racist, you know? Most of the time they’re racist. Same thing in New Orleans, basically.

“Yeah, of course all the Russian people split from New Orleans because they had Russian relatives all over the place, in other communities, to where they could go. But people who were up in Louisiana and basically had two bucks to their name, they had nowhere else to go. Same thing in the Ukraine. When Chernobyl blew up, I found out about it with my family not because our TV told us or our newspapers told us; I found out from the BBC. I listened to the BBC for musical broadcasting, I wasn’t even trying to listen for anything like that. It just happened that that night instead of musical programming, on both Voice of America and the BBC, talking heads were talking about a nuclear disaster that happened in the Ukraine, and anyone who has any concern for their health had better get out of there. But for a week afterwards it never appeared in any papers or anything. People were still going to work and to school. So there is your care system for you.”

What do you think of a new report that says the number of victims of Chernobyl is astonishingly low? Do you believe it? They claim the number of victims was over-estimated.

“I don’t think it can be over-estimated. How can it be? I think the damage of Chernobyl goes much beyond Ukraine. Traces of it are found in Scotland and Ireland, you know what I mean? It’s like what the fuck are they talking about? It’s the most shameless cover up.”

If you lived there at that time, when did you move to America?

“I left Ukraine – it gets confused in my biography a lot of times in the press, evacuation and immigration, because I was evacuated from Kiev, I was 13 or 14, and that is why when that happened I ended up going to the Ukrainian countryside, and I was stationed with my extended family, who are gypsies, Roma, and that is when I found out who we are.

“Because in Kiev my family was hiding it, they didn’t want anybody to know, because we would never get out of our lower social status and things like that. So there I found it out and I came back to Kiev already with a different mind. And then when I was 18, I left again, which was 1989 or 1990, and we finally got refugee status and approval to go to the United States, which didn’t happen so quickly because we went through Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy. We were in Italy for a year before we went to the United States.”

When you discovered your Roma identity what were your feelings given that it had been suppressed by your close family?

“Well, I was coming from a more naïve, let’s say romantic, perspective, because I always loved gypsy music. I was, like, going nuts for it as a matter of fact. I was also into punk and rock ‘n’ roll, and any music that was extreme and wild. So I thought I was an outsider and when I found out I’m an insider, I got twice as excited, and kind of went to the theory. I also, when I started speaking up about it, invoked some pride in my family about it and kind of was able to battle their internalised shame of their ethnicity to some extent. But, you know, that ethnic identity is a very complicated thing. Even within the gypsy community, the real gypsyness is constantly an issue, forever. Nobody gives each other ultimate approval of that.”

It’s very similar within the Jewish community.

“Yeah but what counts, to me, is that that is what makes me who I am at the end, which is what the movie is about. It’s like when I was younger, I thought I was breaking away from all my baggage and brushing away all my Ukrainian past and fuck it, I’m rocking in the free world. Now I’m turning 30 and I’m constantly asked, ‘How come you’re so comfortable in any society you enter and you’re so comfortable on the road? You spend six months on the road and you come back like you just came back from a gig.’ It’s like no, I looked around and there’s something bigger than me about it, which that is my Roma ancestry. It’s a more advanced way of living. It’s not a way that’s built on possessing a house.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

Julien Temple: "I was drowning with too much footage. It was a nightmare. I was sick."

Julien Temple talks about bringing one of the world's greatest music festivals to the screen in Glastonbury - The Movie.
Berlin, February 2006

How well do you think Glastonbury - The Movie is going to travel, because it is a very British film. It actually made me proud to be British.

“Yeah, there was this great review that I never expected I would get, saying, ‘It makes you absurdly happy to be British – The Daily Telegraph,’ which is very strange for me. I think it will work if people have got the right frame of mind. It’s partly a formal thing as well as a cultural thing, because I did decide to do it without a kind of television narrative telling you what happened, or linear approach. I did very much make the decision that I wanted to try and be as random as the festival. I wanted to do it from the sense of being in the festival from the point of view of the crowd going through, not the kind of usual rock star sound bites or simplified way of reducing this event to something it isn’t.

It is a very sprawling, spontaneous, anarchic, vibrant, random thing. You go around one corner and you hit something, you go around another, and you have a totally different experience. It’s all rushing at you. Some heads won’t be able to take that. But, I think culturally, we showed it in Salt Lake City, which is pretty hardcore, mid-west, fundamentalist America, and they seemed to love it. So I think it depends.”

What I liked about it is the way you mix up footage from different years rather than editing it chronologically. Is that because you feel that for all the changes in fashion and so forth, there is a continuity of spirit at Glastonbury?

“Yeah, I think there is a continuity on the level that it has tried to remain true, certainly through the person of Michael Eavis, to its roots and its spirit. On the other hand it’s been forced to adapt in order to survive to the pressures of the outside world. So, you know, the history of it is very much present in the fact that the event is there and has survived. There is a kind of pride in it still continuing, in many ways, against all the odds, because it does retain an element of its original purpose and spirit.

“I also wanted people to think about the difference between these different years. And if you label them and make them too easy in a linear way, then people just say, ‘Oh, well that’s like I Love the 1980s’, or whatever. But if you, say, put an image from 1983 next to an image of 1999, they’re forced to say, ‘Well what’s different about that image?’ in a sense challenging them to think about what the differences between the times are. And I think it’s very important that people do think about the difference - in a very small amount of time, the huge differences between 1970 and 2006 - because those changes, as they’ve happened, have been very invisible: you live through them and you’re not really aware how quickly things are changing around you. It’s only when you have a chance to take a constant like an event like Glastonbury - that’s travelled, like a strange spaceship through these decades - and you look at people with that perspective, you get a sense of how extraordinary the changes have been. I don’t mean just in a man on the Moon, Mrs Thatcher leaves Downing Street kind of way, but in your persona, how you see your life and see who you are. And your body language tells you a lot about that. Obviously the clothes and the slogans on T-shirts, and the corporate invasion of the space tell you a lot of things. So I made a choice to stick within the festival; you didn’t need to get in library footage from outside. You could actually tell this journey through those decades through this one event.”

For me one of the most interesting pieces of footage was when your late friend, former Clash lead singer Joe Strummer, starts attacking the cameras. You show the CCTV cameras at the festival and appear to use this to illustrate how, as a society, we have kind of sleepwalked into this situation where we are highly monitored.

“Yeah, that was an important part of the film to me. And actually there was a lot of pressure not to use it. It’s really interesting. I have done two films where the censor has not just asked me to take things out but asked me to put things in, which is a very strange sort of censorship, actually. I don’t know whether any other filmmaker in England has had that problem.”

What were you asked to put in?

“Well I was asked to put in the apology. Although Joe said this he apologised for it and that was the only way I was allowed to use that footage. They all were all saying the cameraman’s traumatised and whatever and he did apologise. But, you know, the circumstance was he got on the stage, after 20 years not playing to an audience, and the first thing that happens is there’s a crane, wherever he walks, between him and the crowd. For 15 minutes there’s a camera right in his face, so he had reasons to push the camera away, because he wanted to re-connect with the audience. But, you know, he did make that very important point that we have, I think, walked into that situation.

“I ran away from school and didn’t tell my parents and went to the ’71 Glastonbury – Joe was there, and he became a vegetarian for life there, which is strange – and if you’d said to me then, ‘In 35 years you’ll be sitting here with a steel fence being filmed, surveillance cameras everywhere,’ you’d have just said, ‘George Orwell fantasy, don’t be stupid.’ But that’s what’s happened. And they’re testing out all these retinal scans and fingerprint stuff, and the Gleneagles guys asked for Glastonbury to be postponed so they could use the fence at the G8 in Edinburgh. It’s a very different world. But just as strange today, I suppose, is the idea of walking in, in bare feet, sitting down and that’s all you had to do. Now there are guys walking in with fridges and washing machines for this weekend. They can’t handle the idea of being away from home.”

Despite all this, what the film seems to show is that there is something irrepressible about the British spirit which we should remember is still there.

“And celebrate, yeah.”

Definitely. There is a kind of freedom in that spirit of eccentricity, a kind of, not to be too romantic about it, unconquerable force, which is worth remembering at a time when our civil liberties are being eroded.

“I think that that, in a sense, is the underlying message of it. We are in danger of becoming extinct as a species, human beings. We worry about the rhino and the blue copper butterfly or whatever, but we are on our way to becoming a different thing, a half-computerised species. I think there is something about just the eccentricity of the Englishness of the event that does say, ‘Remember you’re a human being and you’re not programmed. However much you’re bombarded with things telling you what to be, you should find that in yourself and with other people, and not ever lose that or you’ll lose humanity.’ And the journey’s been so rapid so far, we should wake up to that, not just Global Warming, which is a problem the festival pointed out 35 years ago and only recently have governments and Churches got worried about it, but we should worry about the very nature of our humanity and our soul being taken away.”

Thatcher told us there was no such thing as society and technology now, rather than bringing us together, is in some ways actually alienating us from one another. But this event also appears to show that there is this desire in people for community and there is a need for closeness with other human beings.

“Yeah, I think that is the wonderful thing about Glastonbury. I mean I love that moment where the guy says, ‘I’m an insurance salesman or whatever’ and the interviewer says, ‘Why have you come here?’ and he says ‘Because my job’s not real. I want to find out what it is to be real again.’ I think the degree of alienation in jobs, or careers, where you’re made to think of yourself as that, as an achiever or non-achiever in that little box that you’ve put yourself in, and you’re worried about how people view you in that box is immense - I’ve got a lot of metaphors of that, like that invisible tent or see-through tent - and it’s great to go to Glastonbury and just leave that at the door and get on with people, whoever they are. They could be a corporate lawyer and I will sit and have a great conversation with them, whereas if I was sitting in a skyscraper, I would probably hate the guy.”

Absolutely. Glastonbury allows us to escape the definitions that society places on us.

“It’s really about being open-minded being in there. You have to be to survive it. It is a mental obstacle race – from wherever you come in to wherever you come out – a survival course in mental stamina. And, you know, if it’s bad weather, it’s physical stamina too. If the Global Warming thing goes as it’s predicted to do, we’ll have to get used to living a bit more like that. It’s not a bad preparation [laughs] for what’s to come in a way.”

People talk about being changed by Glastonbury. You went there for the first time when you were 17. What are your memories of that experience and what lasting impact did it have on you? Is it a regular thing for you now?

“Well, I didn’t for a long time. It’s a non-Punk thing to do.”

Actually, I thought it sounded somewhat oxymoronic when I heard your name attached to this project. It’s ironic that the man who made movies about the Sex Pistols is now making one about an event which conjures up images of hippies.

“Well, I like the irony of it. You know, it’s quite liberating to make a film about hippies – although it’s not just about hippies – and to give hippies a platform to say something. Some of those guys in the tepees, who have lived their all of their lives, would have had their tepees burned down by Punks in 1976, just for being hippies. But what you understand is that however differently that hippy thing manifested itself and the Punk thing, totally antithetical in image and portrayal of what they were doing, underlying it is a similar need to celebrate being human and having a voice of your own, and questioning what you’re told. And the hippie thing, you know, did degenerate into a horrible, depressing thing, in the early and mid 70s, but so did Punk. They all get co-opted and fizzle out in a horrible way. But the renewal of it is what’s important. So it was quite ironic for me to make a film about hippies. And I’m pleased I did, because it’s good to do things people don’t expect you to do.”

Yes, and in the film you have a Punk saying that Glastonbury is a Punk event.

“[Laughs] Well Glastonbury is . . . I learnt a lot of things doing this film. I didn’t understand that Glastonbury was, and Stonehenge as well, this melting pot crucible of hippie and Punk becoming melted down and mixed. When Thatcher created unemployment on that huge scale in the 80s, and kids, like the guy says, had the choice either to live in a cardboard box, under Charing Cross Bridge, or get on a convoy and see the country and live in a community, a lot of Punk kids did take that option and you have this strange hybrid thing of hippie-punk characters, which I’d kind of missed because I wasn’t in England at that time. So it was interesting for me to explore that and excavate that theme, which gives a slightly biblical sense to the film. I like the way they were thrown out of Stonehenge, which is kind of like the English birthright, and given refuge at Glastonbury, and then the Garden of Eden was somehow poisoned. But there’s an accommodation as well. It’s an interesting story.”

Did you have the themes that run through the film in mind from the outset, or did they emerge as you went through the footage?

“I think a lot of them emerged from seeing the footage. As I say, I wasn’t an expert on the history of travelling and Travellers, I learned that by looking at the footage and being attracted to it as kind of a narrative strand. I love this kind of filmmaking because you are free to do what you want; I don’t have people telling me what to do, and if they do I tell them to back off, because they don’t understanding this kind of filmmaking. Even though you don’t make any money and you don’t have a big budget, you have this freedom to follow a course where you discover. You don’t have to pitch exactly this is the film A to Z. You’re saying, ‘I’m going to discover this film in the process,’ which is a hard thing to live up to.

“I got to the beginning of the edit and I freaked out because I felt I had too much material, I had too many options, I had too many ways of going – I really felt I was drowning with too much footage. So I was like, ‘Shit, I said I was going to make this film and I don’t have a fucking clue how to do it.’ It was a nightmare, and a nasty place to be. I was ill. Sick. But then, you know, you find something in the film swamp to hold onto and you go, ‘OK, if I can make that work. . .’ because your preconceptions go out of the window. I had originally thought I would find interesting footage of the outside world and interact the festival with that, and then I started looking at that and it looked horrible, clichéd, like Tony Palmer-type rubbish. So that was no good. I’d had all these ideas and they weren’t working and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do something with all of this.’ So it was very improvised. You know, it’s a high-wire act, really. It was with The Filth and the Fury: there was a story to this band [the Sex Pistols] but I didn’t have footage to tell the whole story so you’d get to a point where you’d say, ‘What do we do next?’ and try and find ways of solving it, which was nice. But this was on a bigger scale and more of a morass of footage.”

So how long did this take?

“Well I had about a year of looking at the footage. Because you’ve got to remember three million people try and go to Glastonbury, so when you put a call out on the website for footage, you’re getting a big response. At the time of year when they’re all trying to get in we did it. We got 900 hours and it kept coming and coming, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a bit too much here.’ A lot of it was rubbish but there was lots of interesting stuff that people had filmed themselves, which was very interesting in itself, because it gave you that point of view of the crowd and being there, none of the ‘fluffy-microphone-in-tent syndrome’ that just kills everything stone dead. So it was exciting on one level. But when I got to the editing and tried things out, I was a bit overwhelmed by it. But I hung in there.”

Was there stuff you wanted but didn’t get? I saw that you’d put a call out for footage of Bowie in 1971 and didn’t get any. His performance of Heroes from a later year is amazing, though.

“Yeah, he is wonderful, David Bowie. The Holy Grail would have been footage of him at the first one, because I saw that. When he performed in ’71 it was very early in the morning. I was asleep and this big bloke shook me awake, saying, ‘Wake up, you got to see this guy’, and the whole festival, which was much smaller then, was waking each other up saying, ‘You’ve got to see this guy.’ So it was the moment, or a moment, when everyone was turned on to what Bowie really was. He’d had Space Oddity a few years before as a one-off, freak, novelty type hit, but he wasn’t a star at all. And there he was in a dress, long hair, and just a guitar, sun coming up . . . it was magical. So if there had been footage of that . . . There is sound of it, actually. I don’t know why we couldn’t use it.”

A lot of your career has been making films about rock stars and I wonder what fascinates you about them. In Pandaemonium, your film about the Romantic poets, you portrayed them as kind of the rock stars of their day.

“I’m not really interested in rock stars per se; I’m interested in figures who impact on the world they live in. It doesn’t have to be a rock star for me to be interested. You know, I love music and I grew up at a point where music was very direct. In the mid 60s I could see the world through music and it was talking about how I felt and how the world interacted with me. Those songs were very visceral and very connected to young kids at the time. So whether it was The Kinks or The Who or The Stones, you really felt that music was talking to you and what you were feeling. And Punk did that again, I think. That to me is when it connects. In that way it’s interesting. And I think the Romantic poets did connect, obviously to a much smaller, literary audience at the time, and did make people question the way they felt about the world. You know, I’m bored with rock stars really. I don’t like them. But I am interested in extraordinary human beings, and some of them are, and some of them aren’t. Some of them are for a while and they’re not anymore.”

You’re maiking a documentary about Joe Strummer? Where are you with that and is it quite an emotional experience going back and watching footage of him?

"It is, yeah. Because I don’t really think of Joe as a rock star, because I knew him on and off, sometimes more intensely, other times not, as a friend and as a kind of non rock star for a lot of the time, he wasn’t making a lot of big music, so I’m not going to make a film about a rock star, really. I want to make a film about a very special life that, again, enlightens certain worlds and journeys from one world into another that’s very interesting. I find the kind of minor public schools of the 50s a very interesting world. And again, there are Orwellian questions there. And I find the squatting world the 70s, which is a disappeared world that I lived in and Joe lived in, fascinating. I find the whole American thing he got involved in - American record companies - another strange world. So hopefully it’s not a biography of a rock star, it’s a life lived on many levels.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006