Nick Cave's 15-year-old son, Arthur, was alone when he fell to his death from a Brighton cliff last July. His untimely, solitary end haunts One More Time with Feeling, Andrew Dominik's 3D, black and white documentary about Cave's experience recording Skeleton Tree, his 16th album with The Bad Seeds.
"The struggle to do what I do requires more effort," says Cave in the bleak voiceover that soundtracks the footage. "You have to renegotiate your position in the world." Captured six months after Arthur's death, the film is unsurprisingly hard to watch. Cave's lyrics have long conjured dark, gothic images of death and despair, but Dominik's lens captures the moments when the artistic moroseness of Cave's past work suddenly becomes present dread. "When did you become an object of pity?" he asks himself.
As the doc progresses and Dominik explores each album track, Cave opens up bit by bit, often holding back tears as he talks through his grief. Glimpses into his wife Susie's healing process come at first through her body language, as her initial avoidance of the lens finds her fluttering on the edge of the frame. Eventually she too gives way and lets Dominik in. "She's been out there, communing with the dead," says Cave.
Their son Earl, Arthur's twin brother, features briefly, when Dominik's policy—that the Cave family have final cut—is transparently communicated. Unsurprisingly, he's visibly uncomfortable with being filmed. Domanik and Cave's relationship gives their filmed discussions moments of both frankness and occasionally, surprising levity. The Australian director and Cave have a long history together, both personal and professional: they once dated the same woman (with whom Dominik now has a child), and the pair also worked closely together when Cave and fellow Bad Seed, Warren Ellis, composed the score to Dominik's 2007 revisionist Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Cave's participation in One More Time with Feeling acts as a safeguard against the inevitable onslaught of press and media interaction that comes with promoting a new album. Its rollout suggests the project was not conceived by Cave as an act self-immolation, but a mechanism for portraying his current place in the universe as honestly as possible, protecting both himself and his family in the process.
Originally intended to screen last Thursday, for just one day, at indie theaters around New York and LA, due to public demand and the overwhelmingly positive response, additional screenings were added through the weekend. When the documentary will be available to watch again remains to be seen.
Noisey caught up with Dominik over the phone last Friday, the day of Skeleton Tree's release, to discuss the film's genesis and delicate subject matter, as he continues to act as the media mouthpiece for a close friend, who's just exposed himself to the world.
Noisey: We see grief and mourning in films a lot, but most directors don't sit with the negative space—the quiet, meditative moments. I get the sense that's something you wanted to work into this. Not all action. Was that a conscious decision that arose while you were going through the footage? How did you approach the pace of the film?
Andrew Dominik: The film's completely improvised, we had no idea what it was gonna be. Nick contacted me in December saying that he wanted to make a film for a theatrical release for one day, and he wanted to play the eight songs from the record live. But that would've only added up to 30 minutes of material, so we had to come up with other stuff. He wasn't exactly unsure of what that other stuff was gonna be, but I felt like we needed to deal with the loss of Arthur in some way. The whole thing kind of evolved organically. This is the first time I've ever gone to work having no idea what I'm going to shoot that day. But I think I realized the film was going to be a portrait of him at a particular moment in his life, and that it was going to be comprised of bleak moments. I guess I wanted to try to get a sense of outer life and inner life.
Well that's where the cinéma vérité comes in to play, right? People are comparing this a lot to Don't Look Back. And I think of Gimme Shelter too, particularly that moment where Mick Jagger is playing back footage of the kid getting stabbed at his show and you can kind of see the 60s dying right there in his eyes.
Yeah, there are parallels [to Don't Look Back]. It's London, it's a portrait of a poet, it sort of drops you in situations and doesn't really explain what's happening and you kind of figure it out yourself. It's like that, but it's got an internal voice to it as well.
And they're both artists going through a tremendous period of change. The change is very different, but the sudden shift in tone and memory and moment is the same. How did you personal history with Nick play into your presence with him at this time, into the intimacy?
Nick and I have always been able to talk about anything, you know what I mean? Obviously the fact that I give a shit about him makes it easier for him to open up about what's going on, and this would be a very difficult thing for him to do with somebody who was a stranger. But the idea that we were gonna deal with the present at the beginning of the project—he just realized at a certain point… Arthur died in July, and I think sometime toward the end of the year he walked into a magazine shop and realized he was gonna have to promote the record. The idea of him made him sick because there was no idea he was gonna be able to promote the record without addressing the conflict of the record, and the conflict of the record is obviously what happened to Arthur. And so the film was kind of conceived as a self-protection mechanism, where he could discuss that, but do it with one person, rather than a whole lot of different people. I have to say, after having done a few days of press for the film I completely understand it. You have words coming out of your mouth that are absolutely meaningless, and you certainly don't want to be placed in a situation of the meaning being drained from an event like this.
Talking about the power of words is important too, I think he says something to that effect in the film as well. How language is our higher capacity, the ability to express something linguistically and contextualize it through words is necessary. We get that through his oeuvre as a poet and a songwriter and a novelist, but the explicit recounting of what he experience that day is tastefully handled and never really something you exploit as far as going into detail.
He actually goes into a lot of detail about the actual process of grieving and what it's like. He doesn't describe the events of that day, but I don't think anybody can because no one was there. Arthur died by himself, and we don't know exactly what that was. Nick can talk about the process, but not the fall or whatever the fuck happened. I certainly haven't talked to him about that stuff because its clear to me that those couple of days are a black hole of absolute horror, you know, and I certainly don't feel like I wanna put my friend in a situation of having to relive that for an audience.
Maybe that's why nobody else but you could have made something as tasteful and sensitive. Even the 3D, I mean, people have asked you 'why 3D?' and you've said 'why not?', but I'd argue it serves a purpose. That moment when Earl photographs you with the small camera you give him and we see the enormity of your operation reflected back for a second, it seems like all that gear could be both a barrier to intimacy or a way of tearing it down. Because there's some humor that comes from the set-up, some jokes and some levity. Didn't the whole 3D rigmarole wind up being a sort of icebreaker?
Yeah, you see at the start of the movie that Warren (Ellis) is not even prepared to be real until the camera breaks down. The fragility of making this gave us a way for people to be real, because there was kind of an onscreen and off-screen division, which eventually we brought down as we kept shooting.
You play with color a bit too, right? The film seems to get lighter as it goes on, and the color scheme winds up paralleling the mood of the record, which starts really dense and noisy with "Jesus Alone," and then slowly grows a bit more at peace.
That's the idea of the movie. There's this horrible thing and he gets closer and closer to it as we go along. What about the narration? I know Nick recorded it on his iPhone after the fact. How did you decide what to use and what not to use? He kind of forsakes his words at the end when he asks himself what he's doing, running his mouth and saying all this inane flowery shit. It seems like you found a way to make each part mirror the song's theme itself with where you placed it in the film. How did that come about?
Well it's 3D so you don't wanna cut too much. But you can't expect people to watch long images of nothing, so the idea is to use voiceover as a way to give you some insight into what's going on for him and his cosmology. I got Nick to just record stuff. Sometimes it would be song lyrics that had been abandoned; sometimes there would be subjects I would get him to record on. I would give him a subject and he would record it on his iPhone then send it to my Dropbox in the morning. And we had hours of material, different things in different spots, and certain things really worked. He would even describe his dreams to me.
I love that you just said cosmology. One of his few quotes that I wrote down was when he said, "I think I'm losing my voice. Just file it under lost things—my voice, my iPhone, my judgment, my memory maybe. Isn't it the invisible things, the lost things, that have so much mass, so much weight, and are as big as the universe?" You seem to have a knack for taking some of his more meta-perspectives and theories about time being elastic into your aesthetic choices too, those pinhole shots and the birds-eye pan out toward the end. Were those just stylistic choices you wanted to play with or did they come to you after hearing these words?
They're just images that occurred to me when I listened to the album. Some of it comes after the fact, some of it is [that] I've shot stuff to the voiceovers after he sent them. He sent me a villanelle, the poem about how there's no paradise in Hell, and I would shoot a lot of empty rooms in his house. The idea of photographing the invisible or the empty space—one of the great things about 3D is that you can actually photograph an empty space. And it has depth.
There's the empty space in an aesthetic sense, but also thematically, too. Maybe that's why they play off each other.
Yeah. So a dialogue went on between us where he'd do stuff to make things that I shot work and I'd do stuff to make things that he said work, you know?
Totally. Thinking about dialogue, one of the most interesting points for me is when you and him are in the cab—total Don't Look Back moment—talking about the function of narrative as both something in someone's personal history and talking about narrative as a function in storytelling at the same time. In this case maybe Susie and Nick's sense of superstition, their sense that Arthur's death was foretold or predicted somehow becomes a healing device and a coping mechanism to fit their narrative. How did that affect you as a creative dude, as a storyteller, as someone who shapes narratives in some sense?
I think the function of narrative, or the function of fiction is to make sense of things that are incomprehensible. I think that the instinct behind all art, I mean, we live in a chaotic situation and we ascribe meaning to it just like telling ourselves a story. What's going on in both the film and the record is that narrative has been abandoned, in favor of a direct collision of images and words, which is what poetry is. I'm not sure that the film really has a narrative. It's supposed to be an experience, and I think 3D kind of helped that. It's something that envelops you, and the part of your brain that has to do certain work to follow the story is sort of happily pissed off by the technique.
The Marianne Faithfull cover "Deep Water," with Earl and Arthur singing with Nick over the credits—how did that come to the fore and wind up in the film?
I think Marianne Faithfull wrote the words, but she gave those words to Nick and he and Earl and Arthur actually wrote the song. So Marianne Faithfull's version may actually be the cover, and that's the original. Susie sent it to me and told me she hadn't told Nick about it. And then two months later, Nick sent me the same thing. They [both] wanted it to be in the film, which I thought was kind of beautiful. We give Arthur the last word, in a way.
Justin Joffe is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.