Describing the format of the Nick Cave documentary “20,000 Days on Earth” is about as difficult as describing the enigmatic singer’s rock-star persona.
Filmmakers Iain Forysth and Jane Pollard say their film isn’t a biography of Cave, who gained fame with the band the Bad Seeds; instead, they hope it serves as a love letter to creativity. They were inspired by the energy and ambition of films they describe as gloriously flawed, such as “Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same” and Jean Luc-Goddard’s “One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil).”
“We wanted to make a portrait of an engaging and inspiring artist and his creative process,” the filmmakers wrote in an email interview the week before their Sundance premiere. “We were interested in how you choose to spend your time on Earth, what it is that makes us who we are, and what can make us the person we want to be.”
Where did the idea for the unique structure for this documentary come from?
We’ve worked with Nick on various projects over the last few years. When he was planning to begin work on this album, he called and said he thought he would be comfortable with us filming some of the writing and recording process. Nick’s normally very reluctant to be filmed, so we knew this would be a unique opportunity. The footage we began to capture was so remarkable that we all agreed it should form some sort of starting point for something bigger. We began to dream up ideas of what form a film might take, and those ideas evolved into “20,000 Days on Earth.”
How did you decide to weave together two strands — scripted drama and fictional reality — to create a film around a fictitious 24 hours in Cave’s life?
We all had a lack of interest and a lack of trust in the fly-on-the-wall style music documentary — the sort of film that suggests it somehow gets “behind the mask” of the rock star. Our background is in art rather than filmmaking, and in our own work for many years we’ve explored our belief that artifice can be used as a device to reveal a greater truth.
What were the most interesting results of that decision?
The structure gave us the freedom to make the film we wanted to make. We felt no obligation to tell the Nick Cave Story, to stay true to the biography. Nick has spent more than 30 years as a master storyteller, weaving truths and untruths, weaving myths and creating modern legends. We wanted to stay true to the spirit of Nick’s story, rather than the facts. The truth doesn’t matter.
How do you “not break the mythology” of a rock star and still provide an intimate experience for film viewers?
A rock star, at least if they’re any good, becomes the thing they created. The mythology becomes just another part of the myth, and the mask no longer comes off. From the beginning, we felt very strongly that we had no interest in trying to “get behind the mask.” Seeing a rock star in the supermarket or taking the kids to school might be interesting to some on a vacuous star-spotting level, but it can’t truly engage you. Each scene of the film is constructed to reveal something unique. By moving through different scenarios, we were able to explore different facets of both Nick’s character and the character Nick has created.
Tell me about filming Cave’s visit to a psychoanalyst — what work does that scene do in the documentary?
The scene is completely constructed. Nick, like any public figure, has been completely conditioned by the media. We wanted to try to provoke Nick to respond to questions in a way a journalist wouldn’t be able to. Darian Leader is a British psychoanalyst, [whom we met] when we were students at Goldsmiths College of Art. We knew Darian would be able to get something new from Nick and then build on it. But it was also important that the scene was real for Nick. Darian isn’t an actor and nothing is scripted. We made sure they didn’t meet or talk before the cameras were rolling and when they sat down, Nick knew he was talking to a genuine psychoanalyst. They ended up talking for two days, and we filmed for almost 10 hours.
How did you use fans’ photographs of Nick Cave, as requested on Facebook, in the documentary?
The images contributed by fans feature in the opening sequence of the film. We run through Nick’s entire life, from birth leading up to his 20,000th day, in the first 90 seconds of the film. The idea was to clear the decks, get all that stuff out of the way, and free us up to make the film we wanted to make.
What do you hope film viewers come away with after watching “20,000 Days on Earth”?
We want the audience to feel what you feel when you get to know Nick: You’re inspired and impressed. We want you to get to the end of the film and feel fired up, to think “I need to be better, I need to do more.”
A documentary about Nick Cave: ‘20,000 Days on Earth”
This film, playing in the World Documentary Competition, mixes fact and fiction in telling the story of 24 hours in the life of musician Nick Cave.
Monday, 6:15 p.m. • Egyptian Theatre, Park City
Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. • Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
Thursday, 9:30 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
Friday, midnight • Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City
Saturday, 11:30 a.m. • Holiday Village Cinema 1, Park City