In anticipation of the UK release of the documentary Meet Me In The Bathroom (previewed here), based on Lizzy Goodman’s book, Naomi Dryden-Smith spoke with directors Dylan Southgate and Will Lovelace in depth about the making of the film, the portrayal of the bands, and the significance of the New York music scene in the early 2000s.
LTW: What was the creative process around the look and feel of the film – obviously you were trying to capture the nostalgia of Lizzy Goodman’s book – and does it achieve what you set out to do?
Dylan Southgate: The process started with the book – I remember picking it up and suddenly four hours had passed and I was rifling through it because it was such an amazing read. But the beginning of the process was we knew we couldn’t do what the book does – because the book is 800 pages long, it’s very granular, it spans 10 years. So our first point was “what can we do as a film that the book can’t do, because the book already exists, so how can we create a different beast?”. The first thing that struck us was that the most interesting period in the book was the origin story, the first three years that the book covers.
The second thing was that what we can do really well as a film is to immerse the viewer in that time. We didn’t want to have any talking heads of the bands now looking back at 20 years ago, we didn’t want to do that sort of VH1 ‘behind the music’ kind of approach. We wanted to do something that placed you at the beginning of the Millenium and let the story unfold. And I think that dictated the aesthetic, because that period has a very specific aesthetic; it’s when the early DV cameras were coming out and people had handicams rather than HD phone cams, and also the aesthetic of the artists themselves was very DIY. We wanted to embrace that, and we knew that we would be building this film as much as we could from materials that originated at the time, so it had a sort of time capsule, scrapbook feel, and that we would make it as immediate and immersive as possible, right down to the interviews. The majority of the interviews were sourced from journalists at the time, radio interviews. If we saw a minidisc player in a photograph, we’d do detective work to find out who the journalist was with that photographer and if they still had that minidisc. It was a gargantuan process of detective work to source all of this archive, and an even bigger process of how we assimilate that into a 90-100 minute film, keeping the spirit of the book but without perhaps having the scope of the book.
It’s a vast amount of footage, it’s hard to imagine the hours that have gone into this. Did the bands have much input into what footage was used, did they share it with you?
Will Lovelace: We spoke to all the bands and lots of them shared archive with us. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a relationship with Patrick Daughters who makes music videos and documentaries for them, and he shared all of the rushes from their early tour footage. James Murphy pointed us in the direction of people who were around his band who were filming and taking photographs. So all of the bands were really useful in terms of pointing us in the right direction, telling us who we should speak to. That got us a lot of the footage that was official or filmed by people they knew, but then the stuff that we found to complement that was from videographers or photographers that were based in New York who were filming gigs because they liked filming gigs, they were into that scene.
DS: Also going on old message boards, going on the wayback machine and finding message boards from the early internet and figuring out who the scenesters were. It was pulling at threads and following them, sometimes they paid off and sometimes they didn’t. I think one thing that helped us was that we started the edit just as lockdown hit – it started before that with a whole process where we had a writers’ room where we sat around and interrogated the book. We had a film written on paper that we then hoped we could find the materials to create and we had to be adaptable, but the edit started a week before lockdown which was a hindrance in one sense. But actually, eventually, we thought, well, all these other people were stuck in their houses as well, and that whole first lockdown made people quite reflective and quite willing to go into their pasts – a captive audience really. People were going up into their attics and digging out photographs, I think we got archive that we perhaps wouldn’t have got if people were doing their nine-to-fives or out on tour with their bands. It was an incredibly lengthy process because, obviously, we didn’t just get all of the archive and then start the edit – we started the edit with a tiny amount of archive and built it as we went. The whole process was two years I think.
Just going back to what you said before, about the soundbites of the bands talking and how much of that was actually interviews with you – I had figured these were conversations that had gone on during lockdown, most likely by phone, but it sounds like some of it was also just historical?
DS: I would say it’s about 30% contemporary and 70% historical. We got to the point where there were gaps to fill or we needed to craft the story in certain ways, but we were keen that it wasn’t too retrospective and that it felt that you were there as much as we could make it feel like that.
WL: I was going to say it might even be less than 30% is contemporary. We just loved the quality of the recordings of those early phoner interviews when the bands were on tour – but also the perspective that someone was giving then rather than looking back on it 20 years later is the thing that we were most interested in.
DS: It was also one of the things we could do as a film that the book couldn’t do, because the book, being an oral history, is a dialogue between everybody involved in the scene, which is brilliant, and there’s a sort of Rashomon quality to it, where people have different recollections and the truth is probably somewhere in between. But we liked that we could get a similar effect but by trying to build it from audio recordings and video archive from that specific time, and hopefully in doing so bring that time to life in a way that takes people back if they lived through it or, hopefully in the case of [younger people], present them with a world that’s so different to the one that they’re living in now. That’s the thing that depressed us at the beginning because we’d been walking around for the last 20 years imagining this was five minutes ago, but realised it isn’t.
That was a bit of a shock to me too. Watching it, with the hollow sound of the interviews and then the choppy, washed out footage, it’s got the feeling of those films about Woodstock, which to me seems an awfully long time ago – but then this scene doesn’t seem that long ago.
DS: It’s an interesting the Woodstock comparison because [in the early 2000s] Will and I were filming bands, and it was just as mini DV digital tape recording had come in, and at the time we hated the look that you got on DV because we were romantic about 16mm and 8mm film. But then 20 years later, we’re seeing DV footage of these bands and it has the same kind of nostalgic or romantic quality that film did 20 years ago. Time does something doesn’t it, it takes you back.
How have the bands reacted to the film? One of the things that struck me, and I know the book was very melancholic about this period of time, that there’s quite a depressing tone – you’re almost expecting someone to die in this film. And I know that no one does die because The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing in August, and Moldy Peaches are playing in May.
DS: That could just be our influence, low energy.
So what was the bands’ perception of that; there’s Karen O and the treatment of women in music that arguably hasn’t really changed, and then Julian and Albert in The Strokes and the fact that there’s a bit of a negative slant put on their relationship?
WL: Overall, pretty positive. Lots of the bands were up for talking again, some of the people didn’t want to revisit the stuff they’d talked about in the book, but overall, everyone’s been pretty positive about it really.
DS: One of the things that we were really interested in is the mythology that’s created around artists and music versus the reality of it. That’s one of the reasons we bookend the film with that Walt Whitman poem and it starts with iconic New York artists, like Warhol and Velvet Underground and all these people that have this sort of romantic mythology about them. The question we wanted to leave the audience with “is are things the same now? Can it ever happen again?” Because I think this film is about a scene that emerged on the cusp of huge cultural, technological, political changes in the world that left the world a completely different place, and I feel like there was a point when it burned brightly, like any scene – that first out of the gates moment when it all felt really exciting and The Strokes arrived fully formed, and all of this stuff happening. But those moments are ephemeral, and we wanted to capture that. And the reality was that after that first album and the machine taking over, life didn’t seem that fun in The Strokes. It did seem that they were falling into every cliché that they said they didn’t want to at the start; drugs, falling out, dating models, all of that kind of stuff.
So, there is a melancholy to it but I think it’s also a film about coming of age, I think for each artist, whether it’s Karen, as a shy girl coming to New York, finding this amazing scene, developing almost an alter ego and then the ramifications of that, or James Murphy, whose coming of age moment almost happens by accident later in his life. We were just looking for those things that were slightly universal, so it wasn’t just about being in bands, and I think whenever you’re thinking about coming of age there is an element of melancholy to that. Albert sums it up in the film when he says “You have this thing and it’s amazing, and then you lose that thing and then you spend a lot of time chasing it again but you can never catch it.” For us, maybe we’re melancholy souls, but that was kind of appealing to us.
Thinking about Lou Reed, Blondie, that scene in New York that is seen now as such a special and significant time – do you think that this scene is going to be looked back on in the same way, has it got the same kind of endurance?
WL: My feeling is yes, I think people will still talk about this moment and those bands at the turn of the century, for sure.
DS: I’m going to contradict Will there, but that’s why it’s good having two directors. I don’t think they’ll ever resonate as much as those artists, because the world is a much different place now. Everything’s available to everyone whenever they want it, so it’s a slightly different trajectory. Maybe our generation will treat those early 2000 bands with the reverie that our parents’ generation treated Bob Dylan and whoever, but I think the way we consume music, entertainment, everything, has changed so much that there aren’t these totemic artists any more who become part of the canon, in a weird way. I don’t know, maybe the answer’s both!
Obviously, you’re both from the UK. How has the film been received in America and what are your expectations or hopes for the UK when this gets released?
WL: It’s gone down well in the States, we were over there for the early premieres and screenings and it seemed to go down well. Hopefully people in this country will have a similar experience. The UK plays quite a bit part in the story so it will be interesting to see a UK audience watch the film and see how they react.
DS: The British music press got so behind – they almost created – the New York scene. There were disparate things happening in New York and the NME, ever hungry for a scene to get behind, grabbed it. I remember when all of these bands were coming out, it almost felt like it was happening here, even though they were New York bands – the rite of passage was to come to the UK to get signed, or to do your first tour. All my musician friends were inspired by this period so I think there’s a big audience for the film here and hopefully they’ll like it.
Interview with Naomi Dryden-Smith, find her Louder Than War archive here.
Read our film preview here.
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