Artist interview: filmmaker Julian Boshier
Swagger of Thieves - the music documentary about iconic New Zealand band Head Like a Hole, is appearing at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. I caught up with director and producer Julian Boshier to find out how this confronting, insightful, and emotional film came about.
Tell us a bit about what you were doing before you started to put together Swagger of Thieves.
I had made quite a few music videos over several years for various New Zealand bands; Shihad, Breathe, Zed etc and of course Head Like a Hole. The second video I ever made was Wet Rubber for Head Like a Hole. This video was promptly banned by TVNZ for containing explicit lyrics and visuals (taken from a pornographic film – which is what the song ‘Wet Rubber’ was inspired by). At the time, television presenter ‘Mikey Havoc’ who had a weekly music talk show on TVNZ defied the ban of his employers and played the video two weeks in a row, much to the disdain of the general NZ public and his superiors. This first collaboration with Head Like a Hole resulted in a very striking and acclaimed music video, winning a major award in the Flying Fish NZ Music Video Awards.
After making these music videos for Head Like A Hole back in the day, was it a natural progression to move on to a music documentary? How did that happen?
Eventually, it was time to take a break from music video production, and I started shooting documentaries and TVCs within the local NZ industry. Head Like a Hole had since broken up, and this breakup lasted for nine years – we lost touch during this time. Out of the blue, I saw an ad for a one-off gig they were doing in Auckland. I attended the gig and said hello to Booga – he did not recognise me, which I thought was somewhat odd after the previous exploits we had got up to - touring together, filming extremely questionable situations, getting arrested and of course the time spent on the three previous music videos that we had collaborated on. Halfway through the gig, Booga blurted out from the stage that he had suddenly remembered who I was, and promptly instructed me to come backstage at the conclusion of the gig. He apologised for his fractured memory, and we quickly resumed our relationship. It became apparent, that the band was contemplating a reformation and a tour. This was the moment that the seed was planted in my mind – a Head Like a Hole documentary, that would obviously qualify as the substantial personal project that I had been looking for.
To what extent did you set out to make a film about the music of Head Like A Hole or was the film always going to be about the characters behind the music and those legendary gigs?
The attraction of Head Like a Hole for me has always been there - because of the music and the character of the members. The early music I loved, alternative and experimental, heavy bright guitar, tribal drums. As people there has always been a realness and humanness about them, but also a dark and sinister element perpetuated by their drug use. I also had an ease with them and them with me; they were open, inclusive and friendly. Because of this relationship, I figured an in-depth study of the band, accompanied by a camera wouldn’t be too hard from a practical point of view.
From my understanding and experience, a good film is usually anchored by a reasonably solid story – story was first and foremost in my mind. I did not want this to simply be a band profile film or a film made by a fanboy. Music content was to be minimised, so the story would dominate. This simple plan I stuck by throughout filming – during editing this plan remained in place.
Swagger of Thieves was named the 6th best film of 2017 by the NZ Herald - outranking films like Blade Runner 2049 and T2 Trainspotting. What is it about the film that people find so compelling?
I think sometimes people just crave real life in their movies, and Swagger is as real as it’s going to get. It’s the inside view of a band and their innermost core issues, drug addiction, friendship and the constant battle of trying to make it in the music industry. Nothing in this film is orchestrated, nothing is set up. I have presented in this film, what was presented to me by the band. Sometimes a documentary can be incredibly refreshing as an entertainment option. The New Zealand media has really responded to this film – I think because it’s unlike any film that has ever come out of New Zealand. I saw Blade Runner on Sydney’s largest screen, and I was impressed. I found it very atmospheric and inspiring. For the NZ Herald entertainment team to vote Swagger as the sixth best of 2017 beating two massive studio films; to be honest it made me choke on my toast and tea (I was having breakfast at the time when I saw this in the newspaper). After the sweat and tears of making this film over such a long period, a moment like that is personally very satisfying (not the choking, but the acknowledgment of my work).
Films like this take weeks and months of sorting through archival footage to slowly uncover the narrative. What are the themes that you found emerging from all of that vision?
Head Like a Hole has several recurring themes in their daily lives: working, kids, new songs, recording, touring intertwined with addiction or recovery, interpersonal battles, personal battles, confidence. It was reasonably straightforward to me in what I needed to cover. I knew that I required a base narrative for this film to work. The beauty though with Head Like a Hole is the naturally occurring situations, the actions, the lines – all impromptu all natural; and often this would result in golden moments. Which really meant the camera wanted to be rolling most of the time. I knew when I had captured a moment, and would then make the immediate call to expand upon the scene or not that the moment occurred in. This is the reason why the available material was overwhelming; did I overshoot? – yes, but I was also editing in a sense whilst I was shooting. When I completed filming, all the discs, tapes and media were packed away in boxes – these boxes I did not touch for two years, as I knew the task at hand was so monumental, I just didn’t want to think about. I was exhausted!
As you spent more and more time with the band did you have an idea of the themes you were expanding on and seek footage that told that story?
I always had a base narrative in my mind, but what the band presented to me I normally just ran with. Everything I filmed had a degree of merit to it and everything that didn’t make it into the film could have. Often I would just stop recording and wait. I also had quite a vast personal archive from when I hung out with Head Like a Hole sixteen years ago making music videos for them. One of those videos was shot doco style on the road during a tour – so I already had some material available, that I knew I could connect with the contemporary footage I was now shooting. I had seen Boyhood, and as I was watching that film it occurred to me that my film also had potential similarities in the ability to jump back or jump forward by ten-twelve years. My archival footage I had personally shot and had shot it in my same style (hand-held and close). This was a very exciting prospect for my edit. I already knew that the scope and years covered off would give the film a lot of depth.
Because I was filming one camera and was always on the go, I did return to several locations to shoot pick-ups for editing. I was always very mindful of editing when I was shooting – and I am not one to tolerate bad continuity, so I was equally mindful of that as well. My editor almost killed me through my obsession with insisting upon flawless continuity (but he did concede that the benefit to the scene was, and is, worth it).
Common advice to writers is that you need to kill your babies - a reference to the need to be brutal about editing out any character that isn't core to the story even if that character is one you love. What were your babies? What were the sequences that landed on the cutting room floor that you really wanted to keep?
Our first cut was five hours in duration. It was an incredibly agonising process to eliminate three hours worth from that initial cut, but this is a monumental task most documentary directors face. I was lucky, in that I was spoilt for choice in the material that was available to me. As I had filmed it all, I was intimately familiar with the footage – so had the ability to imagine connecting sequences and scenes together in my head before trying it out in the computer. There was no script and no plan. Eddie Larsen, the editor, and I cut this film part-time over two years.
The title Swagger of Thieves comes from the name of a Head Like A Hole song. Is there any particular significance to the title?
Swagger of Thieves has been described by journalists as a seriously and brutally apt title. I mulled over the title for a long time, but Swagger of Thieves was always the most obvious and most appropriate in my opinion.
It contains two words that are very descriptive of certain elements this band possesses.
Documentary, perhaps more so than any other genre of film, is a labour of love. Did you have finance partners that came on board early or was this self-funded for most of the production phase?
Swagger of Thieves is completely unfunded. I funded it myself. Very early on I decided to not apply for any sort of funding. The reason being, that I did not know what was going to happen: I did not know how long the film would take to complete and I did not want a deadline. I did not want to write a thirty-page treatment and I did not want to make any empty promises to any funders – and of course, I was making a film about quite a notorious band with certain nefarious habits, therefore I did not want to be impeded with censorship or conditions to the final cut. I wanted control and I felt I had to maintain control in order to do justice to the band, their story and their music. I kindly received a small amount of funding from the NZ Film Commission that helped out with post and marketing.
Head Like A Hole is such an iconic New Zealand band! Did that make it harder or easier to bring finance on board?
Head Like a Hole are not exactly the darlings of the New Zealand music industry. Funding would have been very elusive; another reason I did not bother. I did not want to lose interest in my project before it began, so I just proceeded to shoot, and I did not stop shooting for several years.
In response to requests for a VOD release of Swagger of Thieves, you said that "this is a very complex film from a legal point of view". Have you overcome that complexity to secure distribution?
My reference to “this is a very complex film from a legal point of view” relates to the music licensing complexity. Because of financial constraints, the first round of music licensing only covered certain media and territories.
The extension to the music licensing has now been completed, which means the film is now able to be distributed on all media, throughout the universe in perpetuity. Swagger of Thieves contains music from various bands and songwriters, not just Head Like a Hole. All the legal clearances can become quite complicated and expensive to execute when dealing with several different songwriters.
Has Head Like A Hole endorsed Swagger of Thieves? Did you give them a veto over any aspect of the film?
Head Like a Hole has had no editorial or cut control throughout this project, and they never expected any. We have a long-term professional working relationship and they trust my tastes and decisions. Right from the beginning, it was agreed that the film had to be ‘warts and all’, and we stuck by that mantra to completion. The band were shown early cut progress and liked what they saw. They do understand that some content in the film will not do them any favours, but Head Like a Hole don’t fake it – they walk the walk and understand the consequences of their actions, resulting in either the good the bad the ugly.
What can people expect when they walk through the door of the cinema? How would you describe the film?
Most people tend to walk out of the cinema a bit shell-shocked. It’s a film that you will think about for a few days, as it certainly leaves an impression. My aim in this was to give people a great cinema experience – to provide an insightful, informative yet emotional journey – that is laced with humour and entertainment. I think I’ve succeeded. You don’t have to know Head Like a Hole or their music to enjoy this film – it’s a film about people and people living their lives; these people just happen to be in a band.