In a world of constant social media updates and 24/7 paparazzi, Nick Cave has remained impossibly private. On stage, punk’s “Prince of Darkness” is an outspoken force of violence and rage, but off stage, the singer seems gentle and quiet. Filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s new documentary takes you inside Cave’s most personal thoughts, as he returns to the studio with The Bad Seeds following the tragic death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur.
Now 59, Dominik’s Cave is a far-cry from the outlaw junkie of Your Funeral… My Trial or The Birthday Party. The frontman is still quick-witted, brash and confident, but in One More Time With Feeling, Cave is not the brilliant lyricist who pioneered goth rock, or even the aloof artist whose voice shudders with emotion—he’s a father, paralyzed by the grief of losing his son, with no idea how to deal with it.
Shot in black-and-white 3D, the film is both an intimate portrait of mourning and an exercise in catharsis. The Skeleton Tree, alone, is a dark and romantic fever-dream, filled with all of Cave’s nihilistic allegories of love and loss. But in the context of the film and Arthur’s death six months prior, the album sees Cave at his rawest and most vulnerable. Dominik doesn’t exploit that. In One More Time With Feeling, he portrays Cave exactly as he is, at his best and worst moments.
BULLETT caught up with the Australian filmmaker to talk about the film and its famous subject.
What made you want to tell this story?
Nick asked me to. He didn’t ask me to make a documentary, but he was halfway through a record he wanted to release, and he realized he wasn’t going to be able to put himself through the usual kind of promotion activities that come with promoting a record. So, what he wanted to do was make a film of The Bad Seeds playing Skeleton Tree live. It was only about 30 minutes worth of songs, and if you were going to get people to go to a theater, you had to give them other stuff. What that other stuff was going to be, was something we negotiated and made up as we went along. It wasn’t the usual motives of making a film where you have this great idea or you think the film is going to be good—it was just trying to solve a practical problem for Nick. But it was a tricky situation. We started shooting within 6 months of Arthur’s death and the subject of Arthur was something that was so difficult to talk about directly. I knew the film had to deal with Arthur, but we were terrified the documentary would somehow exploit Arthur’s death, or trivialize it, or turn it into a performance. We had all these fears whether it was even a good idea to be doing something like this.
Stylistically, the documentary is very different—it’s in black-and-white and 3D, with voiceover. Why did you decide to do it that way?
The idea was always to make the film theatrical—a theatrical experience. I’ve long been a fan of 3D, the process, and I realized there’s a way to use 3D to create a kind of intimacy it’s not usually used for. At the same time, I wanted to give Nick a sort of distance. So to counteract the intimacy of it, I used black-and-white. I also knew the film was going to be a collection of moments—it wasn’t going to have a narrative structure—and 3D tends to switch off the plot-following part of the brain.
In the film, you suggest Nick’s songs no longer take on a narrative structure, as a lot of his music has in the past. Why do you think that is?
I think that fiction, and narrative, is how we give meaning to life. We live in a really chaotic world and things happen to us, and we tell ourselves stories. By telling stories, we bring meaning. I think Nick’s attempt, in the immediate aftermath of Arthur’s death, was to go back into the studio and try to get his head around the situation by working. But he was completely unable to do that. He found, for the first time in his life, he wasn’t able to bring any meaning to what had just happened to him, or even function in the way he used to be able to. Nick lived a very ordered life, where he knew from one moment to the next pretty much what he was going to feel. Now, he exists in a world where he was no idea what he’s going to feel from one moment to the next—he’s trying to make sense of something senseless.
Was your choice to abandon narrative in response to that?
The film does a have a logic to it—we’re approaching this subject, the elephant in the room. We can’t get near it to begin with, then we start dealing with it obliquely, and then we get to be able to discuss it head on. But the film really is the secondary work of this project. The main thing was the record, the songs. What I’m trying to do with the film, is to give you some sort of insight into Nick’s cosmology, so the songs can have a greater meaning. The film’s concerned with, ‘How does one feel? How do you deal with this? What’s it like in the aftermath of something like it?’
Being both Nick’s friend and the filmmaker tasked with telling his story, how did you find a balance between respecting his boundaries while also getting the answers you needed?
We were all very aware that what we were doing was potentially repulsive in some way—the biggest fear was that we would somehow do Arthur a disservice, and as far as where the line was, we really didn’t know. As a friend, I wouldn’t ask him the questions I’ll ask him as a filmmaker. But he did ask me to do it, as a filmmaker. We had a deal I could ask him anything, I could shoot anything, and if he didn’t like it, he could cut it out at the end. On that basis, he felt safe enough to perhaps expose himself in ways he wouldn’t under normal circumstances. My criteria of whether or not something was in the film, was they had to say something about the experience of grief—about what the process of grieving is like. I think, on that basis, the film has integrity, as opposed to being some sort of pornographic display of feeling.
Were there any moments Nick didn’t like?
He had the most visceral reaction to the cliff—when we showed the cliff in the end. He had quite a violent dislike for it because, obviously, that place for him is just a place of horror. I let him sit with it for a week, and then let him come back and look at the cliff again. The next time, I think he saw it a bit more like I did.
How did you see it?
When I first heard of Arthur’s death, I imagined that cliff—what it was like to fall from it and what the cliff looked like. On the day of the funeral, Susie took a group of us to the cliff, and it was surprisingly really beautiful. When you stood at the top and saw the sea and the sky, it was kind of an image of eternity, a continuum of our insignificance. Originally, in my mind, it was a terrifying thing. But the cliff in reality, was not. For me, that end sequence takes this thing and finally allows you to get your arms around it.
Did the film turn out like you planned?
I didn’t have a plan—the only thing I had to guide me in making the film was my curiosity. This was the first time I ever went to work with no idea what I was going to do, and that was really liberating.
Do you think that process will change the way you approach filmmaking in the future?
What I’ve realized from this experience, is that you can trust the unconscious—the things you don’t know are always more interesting than the things you do. I’ll be prepared to rely on my instincts more than I used to. I often rely on them when I’m doing a feature film, but there are times when you don’t listen to that voice because you can’t see where it’s leading. On this project, I didn’t have the luxury of ignoring it.
Now that you’ve made a documentary as opposed to a feature film, what do you see as the pivotal differences between the two?
You can’t plan a documentary—not really. Or at least, not in the same way you can plan a film. Nick has this belief he’s obsessed with right now—the moment when the song doesn’t know what it is yet. For a lot of these songs, Nick doesn’t hear the music for the first time until he sings the lyrics. He doesn’t even know what words he’s going to sing, he just makes them up as he goes along. So he wouldn’t even tell me when he’s going to do a take, because he’s got this superstition that if he sets up the moment like it’s a performance, it’s going to lose the spontaneity. It makes it tough for me because I’ve got to be ready at all times. If I’m not, I miss this beautiful thing. So often on a movie, it all revolves around the needs of the camera, the needs of the crew—not the needs of the performer or what’s actually happening. The great thing about this was, we were totally secondary—we didn’t matter.
Why did you choose a line from the track ‘Magneto’ for the title?
The title, for me, is really about exhaustion of having to do it again—the record, the song, the performance. In a way, it encapsulates the dilemma of the film itself—how do you make a situation real, if it’s being filmed?
Did you learn more about Nick through making the film?
We were so worried about the potential pitfalls of the movie, I couldn’t really see the generous impulse that existed in making it, and the amount of courage it took—it never occurred to me that what they were doing was such an act of bravery. The other thing I found really surprising, was his ability to take the joy where he finds it. I mean, life is not happy by any means. But Nick and Susie and Earl don’t feel guilt for the happiness they find, and they don’t experience that as a betrayal of Arthur. I’m not sure the pain is something they would want to be without—the pain is the expression of their love for Arthur. But it’s incredibly painful. You get the sense of it, but you don’t really see in the film the real horror Nick experiences—it’s in every breath he takes.
Photography: Alwin Kuchler & Kerry Brown
Film Stills: Taken from ‘One More Time With Feeling’