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What Must Be Done – The Cinema of Nick Cave

Nick Cave is not merely a songwriter, he is a storyteller. His music is rich with visual description and narrative, often exploring dark subject matters such as death and heartbreak, yet drenched in a romantic sensibility. There are very few modern musicians who are as revered as Cave, yet his reluctance to embrace his success and tendency to shy away from the attention of the media has caused him to remain something of an enigma.

Backed by his equally acclaimed group the Bad Seeds, Nick’s haunting vocals have graced such classic works of art as The Mercy Seat, Straight to You and Henry Lee, while his diversity has allowed him to work with an array of artists from Johnny Cash to Kylie Minogue. While he has maintained that he become a rock star by accident, initially wishing to become a painter, he remains one of the most consistent and respected artists of the last twenty-five years.

Perhaps it was inevitable that he would one day make the transition to the silver screen, although as fate would have it this would happen within just a few short years of his emergence from the Australian music scene. Following their work with the short-lived punk outfit the Birthday Party, Cave and drummer Mick Harvey joined forces with German guitarist Blixa Bargeld to form Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, with their debut album, From Her to Eternity, released in the summer of 1984. While the band would struggle to find early success in their native country, they would fair slightly better in Britain, although they still remained relatively obscure.

Following the release of Your Funeral…My Trial in 1986, the band were invited by acclaimed filmmaker Wim Wenders to appear in his classic fantasy Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), in which they performed two songs onstage; the title track of their debut album and The Carny, taken from their most recent release. A fantasy, in which an angel chooses to become mortal to be with the woman that he loves, the film was unanimously praised by critics and was later adapted into a Hollywood remake, 1998’s City of Angels, perhaps best known for the Goo Goo Dolls hit Iris. While working on their fifth album, Tender Prey, soon afterwards, Cave was approached to participate in a prison drama called Ghosts…of the Civil Dead.

‘When the original ideas was conceived to do a prison film, I helped write the original drafts for them and I think there was something like eight drafts done and I helped write the first two or so,’ explained Cave in a French interview at the time of the film’s release. ‘Then they went over to America and did a lot of research around the new-style prisons and so forth, and they found out a lot of information and they came back and changed a lot about it.’

The first feature of John Hillcoat, whom Cave would work with several times again throughout his career, Ghosts…of the Civil Dead was set in the Central Industrial Prison, a maximum security facility in the middle of the Australian desert, whose violent inmates has forced the facility to order a lockdown that would last for three years. Despite an investigation being launched by a committee, the truth behind the lockdown is something far more sinister; the authorities have intentionally instigated a violent struggle between the guards and their prisoners.

While ostensibly a low budget exploitation picture, Ghosts…of the Civil Dead had a message, and that was the prison system does not work. While it serves to punish the guilty, there is very little in the way of rehabilitation, with criminals being trapped together in close proximity merely breeding more crime. The film also explored aspects of media propaganda, social control, challenging authority and what rites a prisoner should be entitled to, regardless of their crimes. While being credited as one of the five screenwriters, which would also include Hillcoat, producer Evan English and Cave’s former guitarist Hugo Race, Cave would also be cast in a supporting role, portraying the psychotic Maynard who is brought into the prison to, as Cave one stated, ‘deliberately provoke a situation.’

Hillcoat would also offer Cave the chance to compose the soundtrack, something that Cave had little knowledge of, despite having been a key songwriter on the Bad Seeds albums. To help create an atmospheric score, Cave would turn to Harvey and Bargeld, with the latter wanting to avoid his typical role of guitarist and instead experimenting with flute and piano strings. ‘I think we were in Australia already, I don’t know if it was a tour that had finished or a tour after, but for some reason we were in Australia and the word was out that we were going to compose some soundtrack for a film,’ said Bargeld in an interview years later. ‘I had a couple of days in the studio for myself, I laid down a couple of ideas, and made Harvey edit a couple of the ideas, and so the music was fairly sparse. And I think that was a good quality about it.’

Ghosts...of the Civil Dead

Ghosts…of the Civil Dead

Following the low key release of Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, Cave and his bandmates turned their attention back to the Bad Seeds, with 1990’s The Good Son. A year later he would return to the big screen, this time as a caricature of a rock and roll star in the offbeat comic drama Johnny Suede. Based on a quirky character he had perfected onstage in the Lowe East Side, first-time filmmaker Tom DiCillo’s story told of a young man who idolises ‘50s heartthrob Ricky Nelson, who dreams of becoming a singer and starts a band, while also dating a local girl. For the titular role, DiCillo cast rising star Brad Pitt, who had struggled through a string of forgettable roles in the late 1980s, before landing his first break in a Levi’s commercial, followed by his scene-stealing turn as a petty thief in Ridley Scott’s 1991 classic Thelma and Louise.

From the very beginning, DiCillo had wanted Cave to make an appearance as the over-the-top Freak Storm, but it would take almost six months before he was able to convince the musician to read the script. ‘I have a lot of respect for having the courage to kind of lampoon himself,’ DiCillo told Spin in 1992. ‘He’s very, very embarrassed to even speak about himself as an actor, but with this, he helped design his whole costume. The result is sort of like an evangelist Elvis.’ With hair bleached almost white, Storm is an egotistical and self-centred success story that Johnny Suede hopes will one day be his own future. Self-referential and tongue-in-cheek, the movie was a playful satire on the music industry and the effects of fame, as well as the desire for it. Despite his lack of acting experience, Cave’s performance was often singled-out and described by Rolling Stone as, ‘hilariously wicked.’

While not involved with the making of the movie, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds received unexpected exposure with their 1994 single Red Right Hand was featured on the soundtrack to the slasher blockbuster Scream two years later. Developed from a screenplay called Scary Movie by a first-time writer, the film was directed by horror veteran Wes Craven and featured an all-star cast that included Drew Barrymore and Friends actress Courtney Cox. Both a satire on the early ‘80s slasher cycle and a whodunit thriller, Scream proved to be a surprise success and helped to reinvent the horror genre, which had fallen out of favour with the public in recent years. A reference to John Milton’s iconic text Paradise Lost, Red Right Hand ultimately became the unofficial theme of the franchise, with a remix being featured on the soundtrack the first sequel and a re-recorded version appearing in the third instalment.

Following on from his script contributions to Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, as well as his literary career, Cave continued to write screenplays. What could have proved to be his first major success would sadly never see the light of day. In 2003, three years after the success of the Academy Award-winning epic Gladiator, Cave was contacted by actor Russell Crowe to pen a sequel. The first issue that the writer would have to overcome was the death of Crowe’s character, Maximus Decimus Meridius, at the end of the first movie, yet with Crowe onboard, Cave was forced to find a solution. The concept incorporated elements of the supernatural, with Maximus making a pact in the afterlife and being resurrected as an immortal, thus living through the centuries and taking the story as far as Crowe participating in the Second World War. ‘Luckily, it was so completely unacceptable they didn’t even ask me to do rewrites,’ Cave stated in 2006. ‘It was just this really wacked-out script.’

In 2006, following the release of the gritty western drama The Proposition, Cave confessed in a magazine interview that he enjoyed writing about violence, describing it was an ‘exciting thing.’ Reuniting him with Hillcoat, whom he had also collaborated with on 1996′s To Have and to Hold, as well as the 1992 Bad Seeds concert video, Live at the Paradiso, Cave’s script for The Proposition told of the impossible choice that outlaw Charlie Burns was forced to make, freeing himself and his younger brother from capital punishment if they hunt down and kill their older sibling, Arthur, who has gained a reputation in the area for his cruel and brutal crimes. While the script for Ghosts…of the Civil Dead had explored prisons breeding crime, The Proposition posed the question of whether violence can be solved with violence.

‘It was a new experience for him and I think the key is that he watched so many DVDs and films, he sees more films than anyone I’ve ever met including more than film critics,’ said Hillcoat in an interview with LOVEFiLM regarding how Cave had obsessively watched movies in order to immerse himself in the world that his characters would populate. ‘And over the years I think its all kind of absorbed in some way, he tends to kind of watch movies in his free time whereas I listen to music which is probably why we work well together.’ The Proposition would cement Cave’s reputation as a talented screenwriter with a unique voice, as echoed in the positive reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert, who described it as ‘so pitiless and uncompromising, so filled with pathos and disregarded innocence, that it is a record of those things we pray to be delivered from.’

Having joined the Bad Seeds in the mid-1990s, Warren Ellis had worked with Cave on the soundtrack to The Proposition to great acclaim, and so when Cave was given the chance to score another movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ellis was brought onboard. Allowing his collaborator to lay down the basic music, who makes loops and structures in his home studio, Cave then helps to shape the melodies and flesh out the songs, much as they would do in their side project, Grinderman.

Cave was also given a brief appearance onscreen as a troubadour in a bar. ‘I don’t enjoy the process of acting. It is so slow and tedious. I just like to be my own boss and work. It might be nice if you are a great actor and you know you are going to go on and do something that is a great work of art. But I know I’m not a good actor and I know that what I am going to do will barely scrape through. When they go ‘Action!’ I’m not thinking of my lines but of ruining this film,’ Cave explained to the Guardian in 2007.

Two years later, during which time the Bad Seeds had released another studio album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Cave and Ellis turned their attention to film scoring once again with The Road, an adaptation of the 2006 novel from Cormac McCarthy, whose No Country for Old Men had already provided the template for a stylish Coen Brothers thriller. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, a man and his son wander a futuristic wasteland in search of salvation, struggling to find food and even hope as they make their way towards the coast. Cave and Ellis’ music, as with the movie itself, faired less well with the critics, who felt that despite its strengths, The Road lacked something that audiences had found appealing with both The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

‘The intermittently fake-folky orchestral score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is musically inoffensive, but the way it is used softens crucial scenes and turns the sublime into the sentimental,’ said the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, while Variety’s Todd McCarthy added, ‘Score by longtime Hillcoat collaborator Nick Cave and Warren Ellis borders on the treacly, softening the tone and further conventionalising a film that should have gone the other direction toward something harsh and daring.’

Rob Zombie had failed to interest producers with his ambitious attempt to inject new life into the Crow franchise, and so eventually Cave was given the chance to reinterpret the themes and concepts of the graphic novel. The series had died with a whimper in 2005 with Wicked Prayer, in which troubled star Edward Furlong was brought back from the dead after being murdered by a biker gang, the project was set to be helmed by Stephen Norrington, who had successfully adapted the Blade comic in 1998. Cave was brought into the project to rewrite Norrington’s script but, as with the abandoned Gladiator project, The Crow eventually stalled once again. Another misfire proved to be The Promised Land, a script that Cave had written for Hillcoat as their next collaboration following The Road. Instead, they decided to adapt a different story from Cave, Lawless, with Ellis once again contributing to the memorable soundtrack.

In June 2013 it was announced that Cave would be the centre of another unique movie, this time a semi-faux documentary which examines a fictitious twenty-four hours in the life of the singer. 20,000 Days on Earth saw Cave working with British filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, whose introduction to Cave had come with a series of promotional videos that were produced to coincide with Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! in 2008. ‘Nick took the money they would usually spend on videos and gave it to us – some artists who’d never made music videos before, though we’d used the language of music videos before and we use it in our art,’ Pollard told in 2009. ‘We talked to Nick about a lot of the ideas behind the album. He was reading Larry Sloman’s book about Houdini and a lot of references in Dig have come out of an interest in escapism and Houdini.’

20,000 Days on Earth

20,000 Days on Earth

20,000 Days on Earth also marks several other collaborators from Cave’s past to contribute to the picture, with Ray Winstone, who had previously appeared in The Proposition and the Hillcoat-directed Bad Seeds video Jubilee Street.

More recently, fellow Australian Kylie Minogue, who took a break from her pop music to work with Cave on the 1995 hit Where the Wild Roses Grow, was announced as the latest addition to the cast, appearing in the back of Cave’s car.

‘They filmed everything,’ Cave told the Guardian on his experience making 20,000 Days on Earth. ‘They had a camera set up in my office when I’m just writing the first lines of things, picking out the first melodies on the piano. That’s kind of why I let this go in the first place because you just don’t have cameras on bands doing the actual thing. In the past, I’ve let cameras into the studio, but we’ve basically already finished the record. So you get shots of people sitting around in the control booth, listening to music.’


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