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Director Julien Temple on Knowing Joe Strummer

Photo: Getty Images

Having already worked with legends like Neil Young and David Bowie, Julien Temple looks set to cement his status as rock and roll's favorite director with a new film on Joe Strummer. Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a documentary about the late Clash singer and his influence on a generation of punks. Temple became close with the self-proclaimed “punk-rock warlord” toward the end of his life and had unrestricted access to Strummer’s writings, close friends, and home movies. The movie opens at the IFC Center tonight.

How did your friendship with Joe develop?
I lived in a squat around the corner from him. I didn’t officially meet him until he was in the Clash. I was filming the Sex Pistols [the documentary The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle], and the Clash had just formed, and they were supporting the Pistols. I saw Joe on the street, and by then, he had punked himself up, a bit too much. He looked like a Marlon Brando figure with hair like Julius Caesar, and I thought, “He’s never gonna pull it off being a punk like the Pistols.” I went downstairs during a show and two seconds later, you could tell he was going to be fantastic. I finally met him by going along to film a rehearsal at a warehouse in North London. I was expecting the band to be there rehearsing, but there was no one. There was just a table in the middle of this big, empty freezing room. There was a terrible smell in the room. I followed the smell. It led to the table. I pulled the tablecloth off and there was Joe without his boots on, and these were his socks that were smelling so bad. He was very unhappy to be woken up by a camera crew. Needless to say, my first meeting was quite … snappy, and less than pleasant.

But then you spent the last decade plus of his life with him. How did that happen?
I didn’t see Joe for another 25 years, but then he suddenly turned up at my house in Somerset — by accident, it seemed. Bizarrely, in the mid-nineties my wife said to me, “Oh, my best friend from school is coming to stay with her new boyfriend and then in through the garden gate comes Lucinda, Joe's second wife, and then Joe. I was like, Oh, my God. And from there on we were quite close.

Did you come into the project with a clear idea of how you wanted to present him?
I knew I wanted to avoid him climbing out of his grave and strangling me for making it too perfect. How do you make the balance of celebrating someone you love but also showing them as a real person with flaws and contradictions and imperfections? He would have hated it if we made some kind of saint out of him — The St. Joe Strummer Story — it would have been unacceptable all around. But I want to show how inspirational and generous he was also. Joe went through contradictions, but he didn’t hide them away. He engaged with them and made them work for his lyrics, and he was interesting that way.

After the Clash broke up, he really struggled with breaking out on his own. Was it important to you to separate him from just “Joe Strummer, ex-lead singer of the Clash”?
I did. I wanted to emphasize the part before and after. I wanted to show that I think he has quite a powerful emotional narrative arc of building to an extraordinary achievement to global fame — and driving that particular car into the wall and crawling from the wreckage severely damaged. And then having to put it back together with feelings of guilt, and insecurity, and lack of direction and a concussion, or whatever you want to call it. [Laughs.]

After the Clash, Joe was a strong believer in the campfire as a way of bridging people and cultures together by singing and telling stories. What was it like gathering everyone around that same campfire to re-create the experience?
Incredible. Obviously, there was a bit of research finding his old school friends and people who lived in the squat, but a lot of the more famous people heard we were doing the film and made it clear they would like to be part of it. A lot of his close friends really wanted to be around the fire and say something about him and what he meant to them. And how he affected their lives. A lot of them had been at Joe’s actual bonfires, and he was crazy — they had spent days and nights around a fire, it was really incredible.

You mentioned that while making this film you realized that it was also a story about you and your generation, too.
I meant that in a very loose sense that I had lived through those same moments and became very engaged at school with this fantastic music that was coming out of London, which seemed to speak directly to you at that stage. I would never say that I was comparable to Joe in any real way, except in telling this story. I at least knew the framework of the culture and the times as they changed through those 50 years. I was pleased to make a film about my culture, which was also Joe’s culture.

And you’ve referred to him as a philosopher. What do you mean by that?
Well, I think there’s a key moment when he said, “The point of getting up in the day is to think,” and I do think that he meant that and lived by it. He was a very practical kind of philosopher. He designed a code of living that was very possible for others to follow, and he changed many people's lives by turning them on to that. The core of his message is never give up your right to think.

What do you think he’d have to say about the film?
I’d like to think he’d strangle me anyway. —Sadia Latifi