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Tribeca: Tell us a little bit about sex & drugs & rock & roll.
Mat Whitecross: sex & drugs is the story of Ian Dury, who was one of the world's most unlikely pop musicians. He basically rose from nothing and overcame huge obstacles to become the father of pop-punk, and it was one of those things where I didn't really know very much about him going into the project, but I rapidly, like the rest of the crew, became quite obsessed with him. He's a one-off. He's a really unique character.
Tribeca: What attracted you in particular to Ian Dury's story?
Mat Whitecross: Well, nothing, initially. I wasn't attracted to the project, because I felt like I was the wrong generation: I didn't really know the tunes, I didn't really know him. From what people were saying, he seems, on the surface, relatively dislikable. And I just didn't really get it. I didn't know why anyone wanted to make this film. And so I went off and started listening to the music and doing my research, and I started looking at clips of him on YouTube, and I was absolutely blown away. He's the most incredible performer, especially live. I've never seen anyone like him, I think, before or since. So really quickly, I became the most obsessive fan... I couldn't believe I hadn't really encountered him before. I think he's a secret, a well-kept secret among the music community, and I felt like there's something really incredible about this story, which has lain relatively hidden for all these years. It feels like it's the right time to tell it now.
Tribeca: The movie has such a fabulous cast. Was Andy Serkis already attached?
Mat Whitecross: He was on board. He's a friend of Paul's [writer Paul Viragh]; I think Paul was best man at his wedding, so they knew each other. I think Paul quite innocently asked him if he could recommend anyone for the job, and Andy went a bit goggled-eyed and was like, "Yeah, of course. Me. I love Ian Dury!" So they had been together working on the project for, I think, about six or seven months before I came onboard... First of all, [Andy]'s literally the loveliest person you'll ever meet. And he's incredibly passionate and incredibly hardworking and determined, so once he'd set his eyes on that goal, he set about transforming his body and learning all the mannerisms, and he immersed himself in all the documentaries and all the radio footage that we had...
[Ian]'s such a well-known character in England, people aren't really going to believe anyone else as him. Who would you be able to get to do an impersonation but not really an impersonation? And as soon as you say Andy Serkis, everyone went, "Oh, okay!" Because there's a physical resemblance, but everyone knows that Andy's got the acting chops and also that he hasn't really had the exposure, so he's a bit of a secret weapon in that he's been in these huge, huge films but always in some form of disguise, so his face isn't recognizable in a lot of cases to a big mainstream audience.
Tribeca: Definitely, especially for an American audience—I think he's most well known as Gollum.
Mat Whitecross: Or King Kong!
Tribeca: The film has a lot of different styles and elements throughout. I'm not even sure how to describe it. There are some very stylized and theatrical scenes, and sometimes it's very dirty and grotty, and there are different editing styles and animation. Can you talk about how you came up with these different things that all came together?
Mat Whitecross: When we sat down to talk about it, me and Paul, we talked about films that were an influence... We were talking about how you would approach anyone's life but particularly Ian's. One thing I feel philosophically is that each person is a million different people, that we each contain many different lives and many different personalities inside us. I switch from when I'm talking to you to when I'm talking to my mum to when I'm talking to a financier to when I'm talking to an audience at a screening. I'm a different person each time, and then also changing depending on which period of my life we're talking about...
Because it's kind of anecdotal, because it's Ian telling his own story—which we decided from the outset—as soon as you see that and because he was a real self-aggrandizing, self-mythologizing pub talker, it felt like, let's take that kind of flavor to it [and] make it as anarchic as the music... We only have people's slightly inflated, exaggerated stories to go along with, so let's just take them at face value and try and recreate them the way they're being told. But as we got closer and closer to modern day, there's more and more evidence of what we're actually filming, so we actually had those certain scenes which we were really recreating from documentary footage [and] from photos... At the beginning, it's all slightly heightened and it's mythologized, and as you get closer and closer to the modern day, and closer and closer to reality, it becomes a bit more sober and a bit less colorful and a bit more restrained.
Tribeca: So what's the craziest or most stunning or illuminating thing that happened while you were filming?
Mat Whitecross: It's always difficult to shoot anything, but I think even by average film standards, we had a very tough shoot. It was, despite the fact that we had a fantastic crew, every single day we seemed to have another disaster, whether it was losing 50% of the rushes on Ray Winstone on the first day in the camera, or me breaking down... and turning up two hours late on an already really tight schedule... it was really, really difficult. And on the last day we pushed and pushed and pushed to try and get the underwater shoot [done]. It was tricky because we were told it was going to cost too much and we couldn't afford it and the schedule and time, and in the end we managed to get it [at Pinewood Studios].
We all went to the pub and these police came in and they were pretty heavy-handed with us, and I was mildly cheeky to one of them and ended up getting arrested and put in the cells for the night. That was the last day of the shoot, so I was convinced that was the disaster. So when I got picked up by one of Damian's assistants the next morning, I thought, right, okay, I get it. That was the one that capped them all off. And then I got a call from the line producer saying that we'd lost all the rushes from the underwater shoot, and we weren't insured to reshoot the Pinewood sequence. It was really horrible. So that was probably the worst moment, was emerging from prison and being told that we'd lost all the underwater sequence.
Mat Whitecross: Orson Welles. I remember growing up with his films when I was a little kid and watching them all with my dad... Even though the films he made were amazing, there were so many difficulties in his life trying to get them made, that I think a lot of times, people think, "Oh, it's such a shame," or like somehow his career was a failure but I think actually his life was so very incredible... He lived such a full and varied life that he achieved more in his early life than most people could do in ten lifetimes. It would be incredible to sit down [with him]. And he was such a kind of generous and moral person, it would be amazing to sit down and spend half an hour with him and just listen to him talk.
Tribeca: What piece of media—art, books, music, TV show—are you currently recommending to your friends most often?
Mat Whitecross: I have been recommending [that] people go off and listen to Ian's music because it's incredible, and I felt like I'm someone who's really obsessed by music and I listen to new albums every day and yet I couldn't believe there was this massive gap in my knowledge. I think it's true for a lot of people from my generation. They've forgotten about his music, so that would be my first tip.
And the other thing is I'm researching a film on William Blake, the poet and artist and print-maker, so I've just been immersing myself in biographies about him and I'm going to see some of his artwork at the Tate in Britain and so on, so that's what I've been recommending to people. Just showing them the prints that he made. I mean, they're absolutely incredible. They're so ahead of their time. They're so visionary. And they're incredibly inspiring.
Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?
Mat Whitecross: My first time I ever told anyone, like an adult, I wanted to work in films is when I went to see my careers advisor and he listened to me talk about how I wanted to work in films, how I wanted to be a film director, and... he listened and nodded away and just went, "Right, well you can't do that. It's impossible." And then he recommended that I became a tree surgeon... I think it was because I was a member of Greenpeace or something. So maybe I should call it The Tree Surgeon. Or Get a Proper Job or something like that. It still feels like I'm faking it. I remember someone else said once you start getting paid for what you want to do, then you can consider it a proper career and job, but it still feels like I'm kind of winging it, faking it. I'm sure I probably still will in ten years' time if I'm still working in film.
Tribeca: It's really exciting that not only will sex & drugs & rock & roll be premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, but that it's also part of Tribeca Film and will be on demand. What are your hopes for all of that?
Mat Whitecross: When Damian [Jones] the producer told me about that, I was over the moon because I've been to Tribeca a few years back with The Road to Guantanamo, and first, just being invited to the Festival was a huge honor, and it was the most starstruck I've ever been. We did a screening one night of Guantanamo and then Peter Scarlet, who was the Festival director at the time, whisked me off to the restaurant... and I basically sat down at a table with all the people I've admired since pretty much the age of about eight. I was at a table with De Niro, Scorsese, Spike Lee, Lou Reed, and Christopher Walken. [laughs] I thought I was gonna trip out!... It was like I'd taken happy drugs. And when he wanted to take me back to do the Q&A, it was like he had to literally drag me out the door. So I was desperate to come back...
What's amazing about Tribeca's approach, and I think it's very smart, it's the fact that a lot of people hear about festivals and they get a real buzz about [a] film, and I know it was like this for me in England growing up, that I'd hear about all of these films that were coming out of the London Film Festival but I wouldn't be able to go to the Festival. I'd miss the screening or something, and then it would be another six, seven, eight months before the film comes out, and then somehow you have to try and regain the publicity again, [and] the same thing for the DVD release, and the same thing for the TV release. And it seems crazy not to capitalize on that, especially the way that people now view films.
A lot of people go to cinema, but a lot of people won't get that opportunity or the film won't be screening near them, and they want to be able to watch it online or be able to watch it on video on demand, and there's countless times recently where there have been fantastic festival films which appear and disappear in the space of a few days and I know I'll never get a chance to see them again, whereas I would have watched it at home. Any way we can get the film out to a US audience is great, and it just seems a very smart way, an innovative way of adapting to the times and the fact is... people might be massive Ian Dury fans or fans of the music of the time, and yet [if] you've got kids and if you're going to go and see one film a month, possibly... you're gonna go and watch Clash of the Titans or Avatar because people are looking for more of an experience, and I completely understand that. They're not going to take the risk when they go out and they spend $20, whereas if they get the chance to just try something out at home, especially with the systems you've got... I've been to friends' houses where they've got a better set-up than most cinemas. It's ridiculous—the surround sound and the 100-inch TV or the project or whatever. So I think there's less reason, in that sense, [and] I don't have a problem with people watching it for the first time at home. For me, I've always loved to see a film for the first time in a cinema, but like I said, things are kind of changing now.
Tribeca: What makes your film a must-see?
Mat Whitecross: Ian Dury was someone who's completely one-off. He was a unique human being, and what really cut him apart from other people is he had this incredible lust for life. He had this insatiable appetite for living, and he used to grab every single day by the balls and he didn't care what the consequences were. I look at a lot of music now and it's so homogenized and bland and smoothed over. I stick on the telly and I'm watching Simon Cowell on X-Factor and he makes me want to kill myself...
Ian had a unique voice; he was someone who was a complete individual. He didn't care what people thought of him, but he also was completely tapped into the past, and he was a master jazz fan and he was a huge rockabilly fan and he somehow adapted and synthesized all those styles and turned it into something new. I just don't see that happening at the moment, even though there's some really great bands out there. There's no one with the kind of energy and anarchic quality that Ian had. I find it incredibly inspiring, whatever you do—whether it's music or film or art or any job that you do, I just feel that getting an element of that in your life is incredibly inspiring, so I think if people get nothing else, other than either going back rediscovering his music or going off and kind of reenergizing their lives in the kind of way Ian did or reevaluating them in that way, then that's worth it.
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