This day is both more real and less real, more true and less true, more interesting and less interesting than my actual day, depending on how you look at it.
-Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth.
July 10th – Los AngelesOn our first night in Los Angeles we found ourselves standing in a line that wound around the block at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater to pick-up will call tickets for a special screening of the new pseudo-documentary about Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth. Craig and I had already been lucky enough to see the film back in May at the Seattle International Film Festival, and I was thrilled to see it again before its official release in September. But that’s not all. There was also going to be a special solo performance and Q+A with Nick Cave following the screening. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world when my fabulous husband scored a pair of these very limited and coveted tickets as an anniversary gift.
20,000 Days on Earth opens with a bare-chested Nick Cave waking up in bed to the sound of his alarm clock. He sits up, his wife Susie still asleep, and walks into the bathroom and examines his middle-aged features in the mirror. I squirm in my seat. It’s intimate, uncomfortable, and vulnerable. Do I feel this way because I’m thinking about Nick Cave’s mortality or my own? I haven’t reached my 20,000th day yet, but am close enough to be crafting my own mid-life transformation, and it’s clear from Nick’s recent songwriting that he is thinking about this too. This is a very poignant opening scene that sets the tone for the entire film.
The film has received rave reviews from critics and fans alike, winning directing and editing awards at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered. However, some long-time fans have expressed disappointment that they didn’t learn anything new about their idol. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I didn’t feel that way at all, and I’ve been trying to reconcile the different points of view. Despite the fact there are no unexpected revelations about Nick Cave’s relationships, family, addiction, or music, there is an intimation of all those things. There is a subtle revealing of the man he is beyond his stage persona yet without losing any of his mystery. After all, isn’t one of the things that fans love about Nick Cave his otherworldly, larger-than-life mythological persona? I enjoy the seemingly candid moments of the off-stage Nick Cave, but I don’t want my rock-god image of him to be shattered. And finding that balance is where this film is so successful.
Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, working closely with the star himself, build up the myth of Nick Cave more than they break it down, while still revealing intimate details that make him both the man and the myth that he is. Instead of divulging new Nick Cave trivia, the film puts an exclamation point on what we already know: that he is incredibly gifted over a variety of artistic mediums, that he’s thoughtful, funny, and obsessive, and that he’s dangerously intelligent. It makes you realize that the stage persona is not artifice and is both very real and necessary to the man that Nick Cave is, but also that this on-stage persona is just one facet of a complex personality.
The central theme in the movie is an exploration of the creative process and the transformative power of that process. Instead of chronicling a history of Nick Cave, the film uses his memories to illustrate the evolution of his artistic endeavors, pursuit of the muse, and the inherent struggles that brings to the artist. In a contrived scene where Nick is talking to real-life psychoanalyst Darian Leader, he is asked what his greatest fear is. “My biggest fear is losing my memory, because memory is what we are.” But Nick is also clear that it’s the present he’s most interested in, and memories are important only when they help inform the here and now. In an interview he remarked, “I think there’s definitely traps for people who grow older. One is nostalgia and writing nostalgically. I’m very aware of that. That idea that you don’t have a present that’s worth writing songs about, all you have is a past. I don’t believe that.” At age fifty-seven, Nick Cave is one of the few artists of his era who is not resting on his laurels and whose music today is as provocative as ever.
In the film Nick talks about how once an idea becomes a song it loses its interest for him. Maybe this is why he is so prolific and is always working on multiple projects. It’s the process of creation rather than the product of creation that excites and inspires him. Watching scenes in the film of the band recording Push the Sky Away at a residential studio in France provides a glimpse into that process, especially as we watch Nick and Warren hunkered down on the floor together working on a song, keeping rhythm with the tapping of their pointy-toed shoes. There is a musical chemistry between these two that doesn’t require conventional dialogue – although they do have some hilarious conversations in the film – and it’s lovely to witness.
20,000 Days on Earth offers an impressionistic sketch of one day in Cave’s life; a present day and specifically his 20,000th day. All the scenes in this fictitious day-in-the-life are contrived or at least altered from reality. There really is an archive, but it’s in Australia not Brighton; we see Nick’s office, but it was redecorated to work for the movie; Warren’s house and the meal he cooks for himself and Nick isn’t real, but is representative in its details to give insight into how he lives. But while the scenes are staged, the dialogue is unscripted so the conversations that take place within the fake scenes are genuine. This set-up provides a forum for various topics to be explored. The laughter, the camaraderie, and the tensions are real, and that’s the insight viewers glean from the film.
I had the opportunity, via The Nick Cave Fan Club, to ask the directors a question about the film. I wanted to know more about the improvised versus the scripted dialogue in an effort to understand more about what was real and what was not. They replied, “There was no dialogue script at all, so in that sense the whole film was improvised, but obviously it was improvised around a tightly considered structure. There was a very clear script, but it only detailed action and locations, not what was going to be said. So there were no ‘lines’ as such, nobody was asked to act. There was one place that spoken sections were ‘scripted,’ and that’s the monologues that you hear from Nick. Nick wrote these on tour – we’d send him thoughts and ideas for possible subjects – ‘the weather,’ ‘being forgotten,’ and so on, and he’d write something. These would then get worked on and edited and eventually placed into the film.”
There are hallucinatory scenes throughout the film where Nick is driving in his car with ghost passengers from his past. These conversations were not only unscripted, but were done in one take without rehearsal. One of the conversations is with former Bad Seeds guitarist and collaborator, Blixa Bargeld, whose sudden departure in 2003 after twenty years alongside Cave is still shrouded in mystery and lamented by many fans. When they appear in the car together in the film, there is hope that everyone’s question – “Why?” – will finally be answered. Spoiler alert: it’s not; at least not in a definitive way. The conversation is stifled and awkward. There is no joyful reunion, at least on screen, although obviously both parties agreed to do this scene. In the film, Blixa says he couldn’t balance two bands and a family; he needed to make a choice. Nick suggests that the process of songwriting is better now and more collaborative. It’s an uneasy conversation and to me, that speaks volumes. I didn’t need to hear the down and dirty details of the real reasons why. If anyone was hoping for more from this film, I think this as real as it gets.
After the screening, Nick came out and sat at his piano. He intermixed playing songs with taking questions from the audience. Many of the questions were disappointing or plain silly, and some were even embarrassing. Nick was always polite and managed to graciously deflect questions he either didn’t want to answer or didn’t feel warranted an answer. But there were some revealing moments too. Someone asked if he would ever write an autobiography; Cave’s response a definitive “No.” Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise because he’s made it clear he’s not interested in a tell-all story of his life, otherwise 20,000 Days on Earth would have been a very different film. We also learned that he and Warren would really like to score a horror film and he’s disinclined to write another screenplay now that he understands the Hollywood process. In response to another question, he said he was honored when long-time hero Johnny Cash covered “The Mercy Seat,” and seemed almost giddy to talk about the opportunity to actually sing with Cash.
In-between the questions, Nick did solo renditions of “The Ship Song,” “The Mercy Seat,” “Into My Arms,” “Love Letter,” “People Ain’t No Good,” and “God is in the House.” According to Nick, the last song is not a favorite of his wife Susie, who was in the audience with their twin sons, and he used this opportunity to lightly point out to her that she was in the minority.
I can’t wait to see 20,000 Days on Earth again. It’s visually stunning and has a multitude of layers that will be peeled away upon each new viewing. The Alternative Media Group of Australia summed it up perfectly when they wrote, “This is a beautiful film that makes you wish for a world where films are tangible; you’d take this one to bed and sleep with it under the pillow in the hope it seeps into your subconscious.” It’s a groundbreaking piece of work for the documentary film genre, combining reality with artistic vision and poetic license. It also has potential for an audience beyond those who are already devotees who appreciate lush, evocative filmmaking, and are interested in the subject matter of creative process. And with Nick’s charisma that comes forth in the film, I’d bet good money that those uninitiated viewers will become Nick Cave fans as well.