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Nick Cave talks to EW about his new movie '20,000 Days on Earth' and why he doesn't like meeting his heroes

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Nick Cave
Bleddyn Butcher

Over the course of a nearly four-decade music career, Nick Cave has been one of music’s most reliably inscrutable rock stars. The forthcoming documentary 20,000 Days on Earth (in theaters September 19) does a bit to shed some light on Cave’s dark spirit, but it does it with a twist.

Although many of the day-in-the-life conversations aren’t scripted (or very loosely so), and everybody in Cave’s life—from bandmate Warren Ellis to former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld to Kylie Minogue—plays him- or herself, a lot of the film is built on artifice. The office where Cave undergoes a therapy session, the “archive” where he goes to review old photographs—they’re all built sets and faked scenarios, and constructed to try to wring some truth out of something inherently fake.

20,000 Days on Earth splits its time between those scenes and in-the-studio footage from the sessions that led to Push the Sky Away, Cave’s 2013 record with the Bad Seeds. It’s a remarkable movie, existing in the unique dimension between fiction and reality straddled by filmmaking greats like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris:

Cave recently presented 20,000 Days on Earth at an intimate screening at New York City’s Florence Gould Hall Theater, which he followed with a 10-song solo performance on piano of tunes like “Into My Arms,” “The Mercy Seat” and “Watching Alice.” The next morning, I caught up with Cave for breakfast at his hotel, where we discussed his adventures in the film world, the strange sensation that Push the Sky Away gave him, and the women who have changed his life.

Entertainment Weekly: How are you feeling today? Were you happy with the show last night? 

Nick Cave: It’s the last thing I had to do for this tour. I feel alright today, which means it’s gonna get real bad tomorrow.

The directors, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, mentioned that you needed some coaxing to finally agree to do 20,000 Days on Earth. What held you back? 

Only a fairly natural reluctance to have a film made about myself. Music documentaries are often very similar to meeting a hero, you know? You love the person’s music but you wish you never met them. It must happen to you all the time. They often do more damage than good, I think. They attempt to make the subject of the documentary human, and that’s not really what we want to see.

That’s a thing you talk about in the film—the rock star as God-like. Do you still feel that concept is important to what you do?

There was certainly a time when it was like that. There was even a time when people believed that. It’s not so much now. The Internet has kind of burst that.

How did you first get involved with Iain and Jane?

They were invited into the studio to film some footage for a kind of EPK or something like that. They’re really good friends of mine, so I just invited them in from the very beginning to film the whole thing. I’d worked with them on film stuff before and they’re weirdly unobtrusive, and you look good when they film you. So that happened, and they got great stuff, and they wanted to do a larger thing rather than a kind of Internet thing. So they came with the idea of doing a documentary.

What was the pitch?

They said, “Let’s do a Nick Cave documentary,” and I said, “I have no interest in doing that.” They went back and put together a kind of reel or a storyboard type of thing that would show how this would be a different sort of a film, and it became more attractive to me. They gave me final edit on it, so that allowed for things like the interview to be pretty free and I could say what I like, and in the end I just cut s– out.

You’ve been absorbed into the film world a bit over the last decade. What drew you into it?

I have a love of cinema. I have a love of watching movies. I have a lot of favorite films. But I’ve always just loved to sit and watch movies. I’ve done it all my life. But really I had no interest in getting into the film world until John Hillcoat asked me to write a film script for him for The Proposition. I would never have even thought of doing that, but he’d just been trying to get an Australian Western together, and getting these scripts that felt like American Westerns arbitrarily dumped into Australia. I kept saying, “This isn’t what you want.” So he said, “Well, you write it.” I wrote that, and kind of just found myself in that world for a while.

Have you been satisfied with the films you’ve worked on? Did they execute a vision you were happy with?

It just depends on the film, really. I very much like what Iain and Jane have done, because I know the vision they had at the beginning of this, and they pretty much realized it exactly as they wanted to. It’s very encouraging to see that. The Proposition was a huge struggle to get it where we got it. I think there were certain people who thought The Proposition was a different film than it turned out to be—they thought they were investing in a different sort of a film. With The Proposition, I think largely John stuck to his guns and made an interesting film.

Is it true that you wrote a script for a new Crow film, or is that just a dumb Internet rumor?

That’s an Internet rumor. I did an anonymous script doctor for it years ago that didn’t remain anonymous for very long. It was rapidly leaked by the people who told me it would remain completely anonymous. And I think I took a pretty dodgy script and made it perhaps slightly less dodgy.

There’s a lot of talk in 20,000 Days on Earth about the fictional world of your songs, and this film almost seems like an attempt to reconcile that universe with the real world. Do you feel like the fiction has invaded your personal life at all?

The world that I’m creating is expanding for sure, and it’s growing more populated and it’s growing more intricate. But to say that it’s intruding on any personal life isn’t correct either. I think you get a bit older and your world shrinks in some way as well. You have different needs. If I’m left alone to work and spend a bit of time with the people I love, I feel pretty complete in that respect.

There’s a sequence in 20,000 Days on Earth where you and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis have an amazing conversation about Nina Simone over while you eat a lunch of eels. Is that a pretty accurate representation of your relationship?

That’s pretty close to reality—Warren on transmit, and me on receive. The hardest part of the entire film was pretending I hadn’t heard that story about Nina Simone a thousand times before. Warren is a music and film enthusiast of epic proportions, and a great part of his life is about digging around and finding esoteric knowledge about the people he loves, and then imparting it to the people around him. It’s that enthusiasm that he brings to that that’s in everything he does. It’s an amazing attribute. I’m making light of it, but…Warren said once, “You know, you’ve made a career out of feigning interest.”

Like I say in the film, I’ve always collaborated with people, especially around music. For me, it’s the most effective way to write songs. I know my limitations musically, and there’s a lot of people out there that are far more savvy about that sort of thing than I am, and far more sensitive to that sort of thing than I am. I play the piano. I’ve never really been able to get past that. No matter which was you cut it, you sit down at a piano and you write a certain type of song. It’s just the nature of the instrument. I’ve had a lot of other sorts of songs, but I’d gotten bored of doing that. It became very repetitious, and Warren was just there with a different set of instruments and a different sensitivity towards music in general that could open the whole songwriting process up for me. And now we work together on everything—I don’t really embark on anything without bringing Warren along, or vice versa. I think Warren fulfills something in me that, and it’s sort of the same thing for me and him, we sort of complete each other in some way as songwriters. The way that we write songs is not so different than the way the early Bad Seeds used to write songs, in that they were constructed from a very simple idea and constructed in the studio in a way. Those early songs weren’t songs I could come in and play on the piano and go “It goes like this.” We really kind of pieced them together. But it’s also quite different as well.

You also talk a lot about memory in the film—you even mention that one of your greatest fears is losing your memory. Was that part of the goal of the film, to create a mile marker for yourself for this point in time?

I’m not so sure that was the drive for it, but it’s certainly a kind of pleasing by-product of it, as are all things that you do. I was actually going to say your creative output are the mark of memories, but I’m not sure it goes that way around. I don’t do it that often, but when I look back on my life it seems divided up into particular women who kind of lord over particular periods of my life. The songs themselves act as a way of kind of keeping the fantasy of that kind of memory of that woman that’s sort of trapped in the aspic of your memory alive in some kind of way. That kind of marker then—there’s a whole world that operates around that. So the songs definitely do that. They’re constant repeating memory. I started writing a diary, and I’ve never written a diary in this way before. I’ve always tried to write them but I’ve never been able to maintain one for whatever reason. I always forget why I’m writing them. But I’ve written one for this tour, day-by-day, basically writing what goes on. And it’s been amazing to read that back and be able to remember the details of a tour, which just disappear off the landscape completely. There’s something about touring where for me nothing sticks at all. I don’t remember the gigs, I don’t remember the towns, I don’t remember the hotels. Writing something down is very helpful. I’ve never been able to remember those things, especially gigs. I think the better the performance the less you can recall about the actualities of the show, in a way. Or the venue. You can’t see the room when you’re on stage. You have this experience of lights being on you, and people gathering. You can maybe tell if it’s an old theater, but that’s basically it.

But the songs do shift, don’t they? I’ve seen you perform certain songs completely differently every time I see a show.

They do, but I’m really talking about lyrics. Doing a song like “West Country Girl” or something like that, it just rockets me back to a kind of a mythologized memory of that person—an idealized memory of that person. And because you’ve written a song about it and you’ve elevated the memory and elevated the situation in a way by writing about it, then that elevation becomes the memory itself, right? I’m very superstitious about meeting these people later on, 20 years down the line or something like that. Because that memory has become so powerful in my life, because it’s a song I sing every night. It is more real than the person. I think we all have that. We all do that with our memories. I don’t think our memories are in any way reliable at all, and we all have a collection of stories we pull out, the amusing anecdotes we have about our lives that we roll out in the company of guests. They’re the building blocks of your life.

What does your wife think of 20,000 Days on Earth? The monologue you give about meeting her for the first time is quite romantic and flattering.

She likes a lot of aspects of it. She was filmed a little bit, but in the end she was very happy not to be in it. She is extremely reluctant to be involved in anything that’s like that, so the whole idea of the film ran against the grain much more for her than it did for me. We had to kind of coerce her to get into bed and be in those scenes. I think she’s really happy about it, because the way she’s represented in the film is really true. In my life, she does kind of hover over a lot of things and is hugely important in general. But she’s almost sort of pathologically shy of any kind of people paying attention to her, even thought she worked in that business for years.

Do you see yourself going through the process of making a film like this again?

I don’t think we will. There’s not going to be a 21,000 Days or something like that. But it’s funny, because that film opened something up for me. I quite enjoy being put in a situation where I had to think about certain things like the creative process, which I’ve never really examined and I’ve always pretty much taken for granted. I know there are certain things I know I have to do that I’ve just intuited that over the years. This forced me to take a stand on particular things. They were writing to me saying we need you to write something about this to glue the film together, so it did force me to kind of look at some of the process analytically, and I have a particular take on it that’s been helpful to myself and others. I’m not going to write self-help book.

People would buy that.

Alright, I’m doing it then. In that case! It’s not a bad idea.

Do you feel like the film changed the way Push the Sky Away ended up sounding?

There’s one thing I’ve learned over the years that’s necessary to continue to do things is to disrupt the process, to do something that no one really kind of understands. You don’t really understand it yourself. You sort of end up screwing up the instructions and starting over again. I have plans to do that with the next record, because the Push the Sky Away record seems to me, weirdly, like a first album. There was something about that process, especially in the way that me and Warren were writing together that kind of hit on something that is extremely effective, and we’re sort of straight into the second album. But that’s quite dangerous to do that. There’s a kind of comfort thing that goes on within that that I think needs to be disruptive. So I am doing something that’ll kind of throw a spanner in the works.