Interview: Julien Temple on Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

Can Mick Jones: The Reckoning be far behind?

by | October 31, 2007 | Comments

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
, director
Julien Temple
presents a fascinating portrait of the Clash frontman, whose life was filled
with contradictions. He was embarrassed by his boarding school education. He was
a hippie who became a punk. He was politically liberal and open-minded but
occasionally staunchly ideological. And he was fascinated by American culture,
even though he wrote a song called "I’m So Bored with the U.S.A."

Temple is uniquely positioned to tell this story. Not only was he was a friend
of Strummer‘s, but he’s made a number of excellent music films, from a well
constructed history of the Sex Pistols,
The Filth and the Fury
, to
a portrait of Britain’s venerable rock fest. To tell Strummer’s story, Temple
utilizes a mix of images, from concert footage to scratches of Strummer’s
writings. Before his death from a heart attack in 2002, Strummer became obsessed
with the idea of the community of campfires, and Temple uses the concept as a
framing device, interviewing Strummer’s friends and famous fans (including
Johnny Depp, and Melle Mel) next to a campfire.

Temple spoke with Rotten Tomatoes at the Mill Valley Film Festival, where The
Future is Unwritten
screened before its limited release this week. The
director discussed a number of subjects, including the legacy of the Clash, the
challenge of making original musical documentaries, and why
Tupac Shakur was one
of the few musical artists who could actually act.

Rotten Tomatoes: Someone like Joe Strummer is indicative of punk becoming a cultural
phenomenon. He went from an underground situation to selling out stadiums and
becoming this beloved figure. What’s the story you wanted to tell in making this
film about him?

Julian Temple: I wanted to tell the story of his life beyond the Clash, what led up to that
and what he had to deal with breaking it up. I was interested in it on a number
of levels. I was born in the same year [he was] so I wanted to make a history of
our culture through [that] kind of framing device: how Joe was educated, how he
was shaped by our culture and then went on to have some quite profound impacts
on English and global culture. On one level it was a social history, on another
level it was a film about a friend. It wasn’t really a film about music. You can
call it a music film if you want but it’s about celebrity [and] its effect [on]
not just the fans but on somebody famous. Those were various elements that seem
intimate to me but his life throws up so many ideas. I like him as a philosopher
more than as a rock star.

Joe Strummer sort of embodies a contradictory spirit. He began as a hippie
and then he jettisoned that and then the Clash became something else. Your film
is a celebratory film but not altogether.

JT: It’s not a fan film. That was Joe’s strength. He was very, very human and
that’s what he fought to retain: his connection with his own humanity. Obviously
that means flaws and faults. A lot of rock stars I think believe they’re
perfect. A lot of a–holes thinking they’re above criticism and confliction and
contradiction. In contrast with that, I think Joe used the flaws and
contradictions as the motive for his work.

Was it tough making a “warts and all” film about a person you knew?

JT: It is. I knew I had to do that because Joe would have risen from the grave
and strangled me. He may yet do that, I don’t know. He would have wanted “warts
and all” but what was quite hard was getting the balance in your own head and
getting over this thing of trying to second guess what he would have thought. In
the end he’s not going to give you an answer but obviously I didn’t want to
assassinate the guy because I loved him. But on the other hand I wanted to show
what was special about him. He was deeply flawed as well as deeply generous and
inspirational like most people.

You seem to have a pretty interesting way of making these biopics in the
sense that you’re not doing the “talking heads” thing. Are you trying to break
out of the model?

JT: I’m just trying to find another way of doing it. Treat each time as though
you know nothing about the form. Certainly, I do hate, more than anything, the
curse of the talking head. Going on about how he made an album, that’s as bad as
it gets. It’s so far away from the cinema but you do have to include talking and
you have to find ways of doing that that doesn’t kill everything else stone

Were you at all concerned the narrative might get lost if people didn’t know
who was whom?

JT: Not really. In a film with that many people you’d be having a title every
two seconds. So you wouldn’t be watching the film, you’d be reading names. You
have to do it for everybody or else you shouldn’t do it. What I’d hoped to do is
treat [the story] like cinema and fly [viewers] into the screen, into this life
that Joe lived. And if you’ve got captions, you can’t fly. It’s like barbed
wire. You get caught.

Your fiction films include musicians of some stripe. At Cannes,
Wong Kar-Wai
said singers have a sort of built-in actor-ly rhythm. Does that appeal to you?

JT: I disagree with that. Some singers are the worst actors you can dream of.
Mick Jagger, for example. Singers have a rhythm they have to lose, unless you
want them to play themselves.
, Mick Jagger isn’t bad in that.
But if you want him to play
Ned Kelly, he’s got a big handicap. He has
to get rid of his Mick Jaggerisms.

How was it working with Tupac Shakur on

JT: It was cool. I think rap stars are a bit different than pop stars. I
had a great time with Tupac. We got along really well; I think he’s a very
intelligent guy and a real rebel so I liked him a lot. I was lucky actually,
because I have Mickey Rourke in the same film and Mickey can play up the bad guy
and because, I think, he realized Tupac was badder than anything he could come up
with so he behaved a bit more. Tupac had quite an aura about him; like if you
want to do something, take it seriously and do it. In a context like we were in,
that was really helpful.

Do you think on some level the Clash, who had something to say and sold out
arenas, do you think they’re the last group who could have that? Is that
something your film is saying?

JT: The film is about the process because it does show a no-win situation. You
believe things you’re doing and saying in your music and reaching an audience
with that music. And when you do, you have to sign up with some machine that
allows you to play places that’ll reach big audiences and sell records but in
doing that you’re doing a deal with the devil and you have to live with that and
you don’t like it. That’s part of why Joe is really interesting. On a bigger
level, he wrestled with that. And that’s the drama of the film: that struggle
with what you want and what you get.
What do you think about the state of music today?

JT: I think there’s great music out but not any great commercial music. That’s a
kind of contradiction. It’s certainly much harder for really good music to be
seen as commercial or meeting a mass audience than it was in the past. I think
that’s partly the problem. There is great music out there but people don’t get
to hear it. Same with movies. You’re fighting a machine that only wants you to
hear shit. I saw a punk band in London — which normally would scare me, but now
how pathetic that idea is. The band was really [good] but they’ll never get an
album. A lot of people don’t think [so], but there are still people who do [good
music] and what they do is as good as it ever was.

Was Joe Strummer unhappy after the Clash broke up?

JT: I didn’t really know him at the time. I was working with the Pistols
already. I was given the ultimatum by the Clash: “Us or them.” So I didn’t
really see The Clash very much for like 20 years. I did bump into them, funny
enough, [when] Joe came down to where I lived, by chance, to Somerset. He was on
his way out of that [dark] period. I got the feeling he was very lost and
haunted by a lot of things and unable to find a direction that made sense to
him. A lot of people I got to know [who were] close to him didn’t [recognize]
that thinking. Sometimes you’d get the sense that was a really dark place he was

It seemed so long between the Clash and [Strummer’s last band] the Mescaleros. I wondered where
he’d been.

JT: He was always capable. That was exciting to me because I was part of seeing
that process. He did really do it around campfires. He would find musicians and
talk to them in-depth around the fire and he’d play incredibly diverse music
around the campfire — music from different cultures. You could see him piecing a
way to the Mescaleros between different fires. He had different attempts at it
with characters that weren’t in the final lineup of the Mescaleros. That was
really interesting, it wasn’t overnight.

Was he really haunted by his brother’s suicide?

JT: I think he was. He never really talked to me about it. He spoke with my wife
when we were living with Joe in Somerset, because she lost her brother to
suicide. Joe was very responsive to her and what she was feeling but he wouldn’t
talk to most people about it. He did say that he made a point of thinking about
it once a day.

Is that similar to a political or world view of —

JT: Yeah, I think Joe saw him as a real victim of that school system. And I
think Joe saw himself as a survivor who had to move as far away from what he
expected to become as a product of that system. So it did have a sort of
springboard effect on what Joe would become. I don’t think it was a kind of a
‘rosebud’ thing to what Joe Strummer is.

Joe Strummer wrote a lot of notes to himself. Was he always writing randomly
or did he have a diary?

JT: He was constantly doing that. I think it came from writing lyrics. By the
end it became a thing in itself, it didn’t have to be part of a lyric, if he
thought something he’d write it down. He had plastic carrier bags of these
doodles in his bath. It’s funny, he could slam the door on different parts of
his life and still get away with these carrier bags full of doodles and ideas.
He was funny. He did have a sense of some kind of destiny about him. Some sense
he’d do something important. Maybe everyone does but he certainly delivered on

What else are you working on?

JT: I’ve just done an opera film, actually. It’s called The Eternity
, it’s an Australian Opera. I had
Guy Pearce wanting to do it for a while
and it’s a difficult decision but in the end he couldn’t do the arias. Opera is
quite an art. We tried out musical theatre people and they couldn’t do it. It’s
not like you can master the technique in two weeks. It’s probably harder to get
actors to sing but it’s hard all around. These opera singers are used to having
to hit the back rows. It’s never going to be the same as in a regular close up,
they’re singing, but we did need to find a way to get them to feel ‘in the
moment.’ I also didn’t realize how important counting and conducting is. We
actually had a conductor off-screen conducting and keeping time, white gloves
and all. They [the singers] are actually looking at this conductor and then
trying to deal with entering and how to act in each scene.

Are you working on any other music biopics?

JT: I don’t want to do another one like this immediately. You know, you
get pigeonholed. And they’re hard to do, energy-wise. It’s quite nice to have a
script when you edit. You know: This shot goes next to this one and that one
before this, whereas [in a documentary] you’ve got all this footage for this
film and there’s a million ways to put it together. So I’d like to work on some
narrative films, but I’d like to be free with them the way I have been with
these [documentaries]; where I’ve not been told so much what to do. I have a
project called Wise Children by novelist Angela Carter, who died in the
early 1990s. I have a thriller about Christopher Marlowe, the playwright from
the time of Shakespeare. I do want to do a film on The Kinks at some point. I’m
sort of searching and not quite ready. Though I think that would have to have a
layer of fiction involved in it.

What do you hope a young person who doesn’t know anything about the Clash
might take away from this film?

JT: That you can create a whole code of liberties when you’re young that you
don’t have to give up on when you’re older. I think a lot of people grow out of
who they were and that paradigm of having joy making whatever it is they make.
They don’t have to take on that paradigm of thought that once they grow up they
have to let go of their right to think. I love that about Joe: he had a code he
created when he was young — though you don’t have to come up with it when
you’re young — and he held by it. He knew you don’t have to abandon those ways
of thinking when you get older. You’re forced to do it on many levels but in the
core part of you, you don’t have to do that. And Joe was a philosopher. He
really enjoyed thinking things through and trying to find a new way of looking
at whatever it was. I think that’s very good for everyone.

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