this much i know to be true

Lessons from Filming Nick Cave’s Journey Through Grief

“The constant concern was just, is it grief porn? Is it exploitative? Where’s the line?” Photo: Charlie Gray

About halfway through Andrew Dominik’s new film about Nick Cave, This Much I Know to Be True, something remarkable happens: Nick Cave laughs. Making an offhand joke about his longtime collaborator Warren Ellis, Cave breaks into boisterous laughter, and suddenly that long, gaunt, stern face of his becomes a warm, round, giggly fountain of joy. It’s not that Nick Cave can’t be a funny guy — he’s written some of the most archly hilarious songs of all time — but cinematically speaking, this laughter feels like a long time coming.

Screening as a global one-night only event on May 11, This Much I Know to Be True is the second of Dominik’s films with Cave. The first, 2016’s One More Time With Feeling, was shot just months after the tragic and shocking death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur. That picture, ostensibly about the album Skeleton Tree, wound up being an unusually forthright look at grief. Grief is also present in This Much I Know to Be True, but we see how Cave has channeled it, not just into his work, but also his interactions with fans, his collaborators, and even Dominik’s camera. After the unbearable sadness of One More Time With Feeling, This Much I Know to Be True feels like a promise of hope for a world on the other side of tragedy and grief, with Cave serving as both guide and avatar. [Editor’s note: Days before the film’s release, Cave’s eldest son, Jethro Lazenby, passed away. The following interview was conducted before then.]

The emotional journey charted by these two films is breathtakingly powerful, and they represent a singular achievement in the world of music documentaries, in terms of not just subject matter but also of form. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have an unusual, improvisatory dynamic, fiddling with and riffing on each other’s ideas to create these songs, which don’t have typical structures; Dominik, in his own way, improvises around them. We see cameras swirling around on dolly tracks. We see the director barking out instructions and ideas. There seems to be no boundary between the frame and the set, the same way that in Cave and Ellis’s songs there doesn’t seem to be a boundary anymore between the song and the process.

In some ways, this is not new for Dominik, whose narrative features — Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly, and possibly the upcoming Blonde — tend not to adhere to linear narrative logic or cinematic convention, sticking instead with their own oddball rhythms and dreamy digressions. But the director says that he found the experience of working with Cave (whom he’s known for years, ever since he dated Cave’s ex, the subject of the rocker’s famous song “Deanna”) to be liberating, shaking up his own ideas of how to make movies — ideas that he appears to have subsequently taken into Blonde, his upcoming film about Marilyn Monroe starring Ana de Armas. Blonde won’t be out until later this year, but the Netflix production has already courted controversy thanks to its NC-17 rating, as well as rumors of shocking, explicit scenes and post-production disagreements.

Watching This Much I Know to Be True, it’s hard not to think of it and One More Time With Feeling as almost like one movie. It all feels like a portrait of Nick Cave’s journey through grief. And there are moments in the new film that feel like payoffs of things we saw in the first. Was that part of your conception?
It’s just one long film, I think, but with the six-year break in the middle. That’s how I look at it. I didn’t conceive them. I was asked to do both of them by Nick. And I never would normally do something like that. The first one was really just crisis management. Nick had gone into a news agency in Brighton and seen the cover of Mojo magazine and felt physically sick because he realized he was going to have to promote Skeleton Tree. And how was he going to promote Skeleton Tree without the context under which it was finished, which was after Arthur’s death? He had a nightmare about all these hundreds of journalists flashing before his eyes. So he came up with the idea: Well, let’s shoot all the songs on the record. They do this thing in England where you go and see a band play or record live in cinemas, and that’s sort of where the idea came from. Obviously there was a need to address what was going on. But it was a subject that you could only approach very softly. You see at the beginning of the movie, they won’t talk about it. You had to sort of creep up on it. But it was the only subject there was. So there was no getting away from it.

That must have made it pretty hard for you as a filmmaker to approach the project — to know that the real subject matter of the film was something that you might not be able to talk about or address.
From my point of view, I’m not turning up there with a film in my head that I want to make, or something that I want to say. I’m just there in the corner. I’m kind of an encumbrance, really, on the making of the record. Which is not really the main thing that’s happening. The main thing that’s happening is trying to take steps forward in the face of a tragedy.

But it was incredibly liberating to just not matter. You’re doing it on instinct because you’ve got no other choice. It’s the opposite of how you make a film, normally. People want to know the answer to everything before you start, because there’s so much money involved and everybody is terrified.

The constant concern was just, is it grief porn? Is it exploitative? Where’s the line? And we didn’t know where the line was. But Nick knew there was no getting around it. He had to do the state of the union about where he was because everyone cared about that. There’s such an outpouring of love toward Nick. I think he wanted to acknowledge that.

I think for Nick, whatever happens in his life, he can cast his feelings into song and he can tell himself a story about what happened. He can turn it into a narrative and that enables him to encapsulate it, put parentheses around it, and put it up on the shelf and let it go. But I think with Arthur, there was no way of doing that. It was the first time he wasn’t able to do it. He was living in a world without narrative, a whole lot of fractured bits and pieces. He’s realized that life is chaos and there’s not much he can do about that except how he responds. So he’s done a lot of work to find his way back to solid ground within the unknown. I’ve seen people deal with grief before, but I’ve never seen anyone do it as well as Nick has. As responsibly as Nick has.

And that’s another way that the two films seem inextricably linked. We see in the new one scenes of Nick reading the comments about grief that people have sent him through his website, and responding to them. It feels like a way out of the emotional ruin that he is in the first film, and it’s also a portrait of someone using the public nature of his life — his celebrity — for good.
It’s a positive use of the internet. It allows nuance. A lot of people reached out to Nick and passed on their own experiences and I think that was incredibly helpful for both him and Susie [Bick, Cave’s wife]. I think he also wants to pass that on to the other grievers because there’s just a lot of us out there. Most of my movies, they end on an unhappy note. It’s great to do something that’s so positive, that has such good intentions and such a generous spirit.

This Much I Know to Be True director Andrew Dominik. Photo: Matt Kennedy

You talk about how you went in not knowing how you were going to approach it and how liberating that felt. I feel like the style of the films reflects it, where we see the camera equipment and the camera crew and we see you walking in and directing. The films reveal the circumstances of their creation, which echoes the improvised way that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis create these songs.
I learned that from them! I think there was a habit that began with the first movie, which was that the only way we could avoid being exploitative was to be honest. And that meant being honest about everything — including the fact that you’re making a film. Because it’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise. And I like the aesthetic of filmmaking. It’s like Jackson Pollock, who’s painting on a canvas and then he looks on the floor and he sees all the spots on the floor where the paint’s dripped. And he thinks, That’s much more interesting than what I’m painting.

On movies sometimes when you’re watching the dailies, as soon as you call cut, real life comes back. The frame fills up with life: The actors become real and the crew step in and something’s actually happening. And the trick of it is, how do you get that to happen while you’re shooting the movie? You want to blur that line because you just want everything to be real. I mean, a guy like Warren, he doesn’t know if you’re filming, or if you’re not filming. He had six cameras pointing at him, and he wouldn’t even notice them if he’s making music or he’s got something to say. He just wouldn’t care.

I love the expression Nick uses when talking about Warren: “He’s never receiving, he’s always transmitting.” And you show that in the film, how everything’s chaotic and nothing seems to be written down. I wound up asking myself, How do these two ever actually wind up with an actual song they can record and perform? With a beginning, middle, and end
They’re playing. They get in there and Warren will start up some music and then Nick will start trying to sing lyrics over the top of it. And Nick will go [snaps his fingers quickly] and that means “do something else.” So Warren will try something else. And Nick will add a bit of piano to it. They’re just experimenting. They recorded Carnage in two days. But Nick has done three months of preparation for those two days. And when it works, it’s magical because it surprises them. They listen back to it and go, “Wow. Whoa. Where’d that come from?” The music becomes a thing by itself, with its own life.

Their relationship is funny because the music is a direct expression of how they deal with each other. There’s this piece of music in Blonde where Warren’s singing into a vocoder. It’s this operatic, incredible sound, and Warren’s just singing and singing and singing. And Nick, there’s this amazing slamming on the piano that goes with it. It’s these two things going together that you just think, Wow, where did they come up with that? And Nick later tells me, “Dude, I was so pissed off with him. He was on that fucking vocoder for like half an hour. I’m just hitting the piano, trying to get his attention.”

Has this experience changed your approach as a filmmaker? You made Blonde after you did One More Time With Feeling
One of the things that I noticed on that first Nick Cave movie was when the focus puller would have to react to Nick. He doesn’t know what Nick’s going to do. We’re shooting wide open [aperture], and often he was better the first time than when he knew where Nick was going to be. His focus pulling when he was in a state of panic was better than his focus pulling when it was a little bit more measured — there was an honesty to it.

So since that time, I’ve tried to push people to start working before they’re ready. Before they’re comfortable. I don’t think that shooting a film is about perfection. I think it’s about being interestingly imperfect. I don’t believe in “the take” anymore. That’s the great thing about digital. You don’t have to cut. You just keep going, you don’t stop. Filmmaking can be dull, but this kind of filmmaking is not boring for the director. When I get bored shooting something now, I move on. Because unless something’s actually happening, it’s not going to look like something’s actually happening.

I’m trying to develop a relationship with the unknown where I’m more comfortable with it, because I often find that when I put myself into an unknown situation, I’m alive. Doing the first film with Nick, I made a deal with him that I could shoot anything I wanted and he could cut out anything he wanted. Now, he didn’t end up exercising that control that he had, but I would never, not in a million years, make that deal with anyone but him in those circumstances. Nick’s the best financier I’ve ever worked with.

For all their unique qualities, the two Nick Cave films do fit in the continuum of your career. All your films, on some fundamental level, are about this notion of celebrity, and the constructed self. Even Killing Them Softly is all about maintaining appearances and maintaining reputations. 
Blonde’s the grandmother of those films! It’s very much concerned with identity. But isn’t that the whole thing, dude? Do we even have a sense of self? Is our sense of self just getting in our way? Is the self illusory? Do we need it?

The idea behind Blonde is basically it details a childhood drama, and mistaken ideas that she carries into her adult life, and she sees the world through the lens of those ideas. And they necessitate a split into a public self which can be loved, and a private self which has no hope of achieving intimacy. She’s not seeing the world, really; she’s seeing herself. I think the world’s heading in that direction with the advent of all this technology anyway — the algorithm reinforces all your prejudices when you’re looking up stuff on the internet. There’s no consensus reality anymore. But on a simplest level, it’s about an unwanted child who becomes the most wanted person in the world and can’t deal with all of that desire coming at them.

I was just looking at all the people responding to Kim Kardashian wearing that classic Marilyn Monroe dress to the Met Gala. Sometimes it seems like everybody has their own idea of Marilyn, and they all seem so protective of her, or their idea of her.
Well, you know, Marilyn’s whole vibe was “rescue me.” Some great feminist writers have said this: Everything that’s been written about Marilyn Monroe, whether it’s by Norman Mailer or Gloria Steinem, is a rescue fantasy. It’s all from the point of view of: “If I’d been there. I understood her. If I’d been there, she would’ve been fine.” Blonde the movie is no different, you know?

Are you at all worried when your film comes out, all these people will feel like they now have to rescue her from your vision of her?
I hope so! I mean, I don’t know. I don’t even think about that. That’s the media crisis person’s preoccupation. It’s not mine.

Do you think Netflix is worried at all?
I mean, look, mate, Netflix is a big business with much bigger fish to fry than Blonde, in terms of where they spend their money. They’re paying $400 million for movies. A little $22 million movie, it’s not going to break the bank for Netflix. They just want to get their sort of marketing plan in order, I think, before they start rolling it out. Then we’ve got to work out how they want it to enter the world. It’s not going to come out ’til September. We shouldn’t even be talking about it. [Laughs] By the time Blonde comes out, everyone’s going to be sick of talking about it.

A scene from the filming of This Much I Know to Be True. Photo: Trafalgar Releasing

Do you feel like audiences have changed over the years? Chopper was a huge hit in Australia when it came out, but it’s such a strange, nonlinear movie. Do you think that if it were a new film being released today, audiences would embrace it the same way?
Probably more so now, because I think they might be more used to something that was like that. I don’t know that there’d ever been a movie that had a protagonist who was so out of control. It’s like, usually you’ve got Henry Hill to kind of keep you a bit stable around Joe Pesci. Making Goodfellas from Joe Pesci’s point of view would’ve been pretty interesting, I guess. But I think the reason that Chopper was successful is because it’s funny. The other films I’ve made aren’t that funny.

Killing Them Softly is kind of funny.
I think it’s funny. But not as funny as Chopper. I mean, in Australia, Chopper plays … they roll in the aisles kind of thing. You know? The only country where they didn’t laugh was Germany.

Why is that?
Because they’re German.

You cast Eric Bana as the lead in Chopper, and he was a comedian at the time. What possessed you to cast him? Was it the comic background or was it something else?
He could do Mark. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Mark “Chopper” Read, the real guy? It’s unbelievable how close Eric is to that guy. His own father thought that in some parts of Chopper, it was actually Mark. Usually, the problem with most films is they’re miscast. Not most films, but it can happen. It’s the same problem with Blonde. You have to cast somebody that you buy as Marilyn Monroe. She’s amazing, that girl. You’ve got no idea, dude. You’ve got no idea how good Ana is. She’s as good as James Gandolfini.

Blonde was supposed to come out in 2020, alongside all these other movies, including No Time to Die. It was going to be the year of Ana de Armas. 
There’s going to be many years of Ana de Armas. It wasn’t just that one year. The secret’s got out, mate. The word’s out.

You’ve been wanting to make Blonde for a long time. How has your approach to that story changed over these years?
With Blonde, the big idea initially was to imitate images that we’d already seen of her life. So if you Google Image search “Marilyn Monroe,” you’re going to see scenes from Blonde that we’ve imitated. The idea was to take stuff that we’re familiar with, imagery that we’re familiar with, and change the meaning of it in accordance with her drama. So it’s like this uncomfortable déja vù thing where you’re seeing stuff you’ve already seen before, but the meaning of it is wrong. The meaning of it’s the opposite of what you think. A simple example would be “Bye Bye Baby” becomes a song about abortion. That’s the most prosaic way to put it, but it was an attempt to sort of use the collective unconscious, the collective visual memory, to try and harness that.

Did you assume you were going to get an NC-17, or was that a shock?
I was surprised. Yeah. I thought we’d colored inside the lines. But I think if you’ve got a bunch of men and women in a boardroom talking about sexual behavior, maybe the men are going to be worried about what the women think. It’s just a weird time. It’s not like depictions of happy sexuality. It’s depictions of situations that are ambiguous. And Americans are really strange when it comes to sexual behavior, don’t you think? I don’t know why. They make more porn than anyone else in the world.

I think maybe the fact that Marilyn Monroe is such an iconic figure probably feeds into their trepidation, no?
I don’t know. It’s dangerous to do other people’s thinking for them. Who knows? On the one hand, I think if I’m given the choice, I’d rather go and see the NC-17 version of the Marilyn Monroe story. Because we know that her life was on the edge, clearly, from the way it ended. Do you want to see the warts-and-all version or do you want to see that sanitized version?

It’s an interesting time for Blonde to come out. If it had come out a few years ago, it would have come out right when Me Too hit and it would have been an expression of all that stuff. We’re in a time now, I think, where people are really uncertain about where any lines are. It’s a film that definitely has a morality about it. But it swims in very ambiguous waters because I don’t think it will be as cut-and-dried as people want to see it. There’s something in it to offend everyone.

I know there was some talk of getting a director’s cut of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Is that still a possibility?
I mean, it’s not something that I think about day to day. Maybe, if I have a success at some point, I’ll try and talk Warner Bros. into doing it. But it’s a Brad Pitt movie that made nothing. What cinephiles on the internet feel and the reality of the business, the two things, they’re different universes. I’m always surprised and delighted when people like it, I love all that. It seems to be more and more liked as time goes by.

Lessons From Filming Nick Cave’s Journey Through Grief