An interview with Julien Temple
Julien Temple directed the bracing 1980 curio The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, a half-fantastical documentary about the selling of the Sex Pistols, then made one of the greatest rock and roll docs of all time in 2000's The Filth and the Fury, which was largely a corrective to the first film's mythologizing. Temple's new picture, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (opening today at the Lagoon; here's Jim Ridley's review), might be a great movie far beyond its value to fans of the Clash (many of whom will recognize some of the late Strummer's voice audio from interviews in Don Letts's equally essential Westway to the World; see more of my Clash writing here, here, and here). The new picture is one of the few nonfiction films to explore how punk effected those it mythologized. It's impossible for me to review it with disinterest, for it asks what it means to be a Clash fan, and offers poignant answers.
I spoke to Temple a few weeks ago, reaching him over the phone at New York's Soho Grand hotel:
What was the most difficult thing about making your new film about Joe Strummer?
There's several different things. The fact of making a film about a friend is more complicated than making a film about a subject you're more distant from, because you are constantly second-guessing what you think your friend might have thought. Also, there's the volume of material to go through.
Did you envision yourself making something like this at some point, years ago?
Not about Joe when he was alive, certainly. I had started filming the Clash back in '76, and there's my footage that I shot then in the film. So I was fascinated by the Clash then, and was trying to make a film of some kind at that point. But I hadn't really thought about it at all until several years after Joe died, when I was cutting another film about Glastonbury, which is a festival in England, and I was cutting a sequence with Joe in it. And that's what triggered me to think I should perhaps do a film about him. Also, in terms of the way a lot of people I knew, who knew Joe very well, were still feeling a few years after he died. I just felt maybe getting everyone together and talking about Joe, and in a sense passing something on about him, would make everyone feel a little bit better.
Was that something you found people doing off camera, just in your life?
Yeah, everybody was talking about Joe all the time. It was very hard for people to come to terms with the fact that he'd died. Partly because he was such an incredible connector of people. A lot of people knew each other quite intensely through Joe. He also seemed to be such a life force that it was hard to take on board that he could suddenly just be like that.
You've sort of joined the biographers, but at a certain point you were simply watching films or reading books about your friend. Now I think we're up to something like five Clash biographies. Do you have a favorite book among them?
Well, I hadn't read any of them until I started to do this film, and I haven't read all of them.
There's a certain law of diminishing returns in reading about the same subject over and over.
Yeah. And there's a difference between a Joe Strummer biography and a Clash biography to an extent. But his life on its own is something I find interesting enough to make a film about. I hadn't really thought about his life on its own, really. I had heard the Clash story told many times, but not particularly Joe's.
And your film deals a lot with people talking about their feelings about Joe after the fact, which doesn't come up a lot in those books.
Yeah. It's also great hearing voice, I think, rather than just seeing words on a page. There's something just compelling about the pattern of his speech, in a kind of beat poet way.
For me, I was born in the same year as Joe, so there's a sense of making a film about the time that you've lived in, which is quite interesting to do. I think the film isn't just about a musician, it's about a life lived in a culture with immense change going on, and the film is also about that on one level.
Do you think the outlines of that life appeared different to you once you got to know him, than from when you were simply fascinated by the Clash?
Yeah, when I met him again in the mid-'90s, he seemed to me a totally different character than he'd allowed me to know in the late '70s. In '76 he was very much having to in a sense overcompensate in terms of his punk credentials, in order to put people off the scent of any kind of baggage that might be totally unacceptable in that moment and context. So he was much more aggressive, projecting a kind of street persona, and a hardcore accent that when I met him later, he'd lost that. He still had an edgy, punky aspect, but he'd certainly mellowed. He'd become a father, and he was beginning to allow some of the things that he'd been before he was a punk. Certainly his upbringing, the manners that are instilled in a diplomat's son were coming through, and some of the hippie period of his life was more evident.
I wasn't there, and I'm a bit younger, and American, but looking in from the outside, it seems as if some of that posing had to do with class credibility.
Yeah, a lot of it did. He was from the wrong side of the tracks at that point in time, even though he lived in a very humble bungalo in not a very nice suburb, it still wasn't from a project in inner-city London. He went to a very nasty little public school. It wasn't an aristocratic school in any way, but it was certainly not a state public school. He didn't come straight off the streets. And it probably made him the figurehead of punk that he was, because he had to try that much harder to kind of convince, if you know what I mean.
There's almost something more compelling about the real story than the myth that might have been built up there. I was wondering if that entered your thinking in making the film, that there was something admirable about the way he remade himself.
Yeah, that's what I found fascinating about him, really, that he could reinvent himself. And he did seem to embody this idea that it doesn't matter so much where you come from, it's where you're going.
I never knew that Strummer was troubled about living down the Clash--that material in the movie was new to me. Did a lot of people know that? Did he share that with a lot of other people?
He had a lot of close friends, and I think they knew what he went through after the Clash, and how long it took for him to find another direction that he could really hitch himself to creatively. I'm not sure how much he gave out in terms of interviews, but I think his friends knew that he was paralyzed, really, in the aftermath of the Clash, by what had happened. And it took him a long time to get over the feelings of guilt that he had in terms of what he had done, I think [in breaking up the band]. He certainly turned that over and over in his mind.
It seems like the film is also about just simply what it means to be a fan of Joe. How do you think that fandom has changed since he died?
Well, sainthood beckons when you die. The figurehead, Che Guevera aspect of things can swamp the reality of who the person was. Often that comes with a sense of hagiography, of someone being more perfect than they actually were. And I don't know whether I succeeded or not, but I wanted to show the flaws in the man and show a kind of rounded sense of his contradictions as a person without doing a lot of dirty laundry washing.
He stole Topper's girlfriend! [laughter]
Yeah, you know, if he can steal his, he probably stole some others' as well. You don't have to go into every affair. That's not what the film is about, anyway. It's more about the essence of the guy, which to me a lot of it is to do with contradiction, the poles of some incredibly ruthless behavior, some incredibly generous behavior, the contradictions of his upbringing that made him act in different ways at different times. But to try to give a rounded portrait was very important to me because I thought that would be very important to Joe, as much as anything else.
Do you think he's the kind of figure who will inform people by his life and not just by his music, over time?
I felt that knowing him. I think when he was alive, you felt that actually spending time with him was probably more enlightening and inspiring than just listening to the music. Because he was a thinker, and he was a person who really appreciated other people, and listened to other people. I think the life and the opinions and the kind of code that he had of living and thinking about the world will have an ongoing impact. And he probably is more of a figure now than he was 10 years ago.
For someone who's never heard of Joe Strummer, how might you describe that code?
It's made up of many things, but it's certainly to do with great respect for other people, at the core of it. And wanting people to believe in their power. Joe felt that people were very powerful, but it was a question of unlocking that power. And questioning everything you're told, and trying to think for yourself, which becomes more and more important the less people do actually think for themselves. That idea of reminding them that that's what makes you human, really, is something to really try and hang on to, and not give up on. [Joe] was also about not giving up. That was something he kept saying to me: "Don't give up."
End note: Clash fans in the Minneapolis area might want to check out Rude Girl, an "all-girl Clash cover band," at Pi this Sunday; doors at 8:00 p.m., $5 cover, 21-plus show, with openers Sux Pistols, Party of One, and the Shortcuts.