Ever heard of Tom and Barry Howe, conjoined twin frontmen from seminal seventies punk rock band Bang Bang? Remember “Two Way Romeo,” their signature live hit, when Barry would pull up his shirt and display the shared flesh-band that forever connected them at the midsection? No recollection? Then what about the British band Spinal Tap, with the exploding drummer?
“Brothers of the Head” creates a “fake documentary” mythology like no film since – well, “Spinal Tap.” Co-directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (“Lost in La Mancha”), the film builds an entire universe around the supposed existence of the Howe Brothers (played by real-life identical twins Luke and Harry Treadaway) and their raucous, angry punk group. Like Rob Reiner’s “Spinal Tap,” “Brothers of the Head” is pure fiction. And like those English metalheads whose amplifiers went to eleven, the brothers and their band are presented in an all-too-real documentary format.
But that’s where the comparison ends.
In fact, a funny thing happened during a Seattle International Film Festival screening of “Brothers of the Head.” During its first few minutes of densely packed data, jammed into talking head interviews, grainy film footage, and even scenes from a phony feature film (“Two Way Romeo,” supposedly directed by veteran filmmaking eccentric Ken Russell), nervous laughter accented the theater. Fed on a diet of “Spinal Tap” and fodder from Christopher Guest (“Best in Show,” “Waiting For Guffman”), filmgoers assumed that “Brothers of the Head” would be another laugh-fest of broad humor. Later in the film, however, the crowd became silent, drawn into a disturbing story of pain, identity crisis, and tragedy.
“We knew that was going to be a potential problem,” explained Fulton of the “Spinal Tap” expectations. “If you hear that something’s going to be done in a documentary style, you’re going to assume that it’s a mockumentary. So our editor and myself designed the front of the film so that it would feel the most like that kind of film, so we get this barrage of talking heads and information. We wanted people to get it out of their systems. We didn’t want to do a satirical documentary, but rather, an intense fiction.”
Dressed in tattered black shorts, jean jacket, and sandals, Fulton defines casual. Meanwhile, a cream-colored beret covers his bald bean and suggests the sensibility of an artist. It makes sense. Before devoting his life to a handful of documentaries that includes “Malkovich’s Mail,” “Moments of Doubt,” and “Lost in La Mancha,” Fulton worked at several galleries, including the Seattle Art Museum.
“It’s also a pacing thing,” explains Fulton of his film’s gradual shift from information overload into a more focused, leisurely direction. “Lou (Pepe) and I are big fans of American Direct Cinema, documentaries from the sixties and early seventies. Those films have a very slow, kind of labored pace about them. They’re very pleasant to watch, because you really get the time to study characters. We also wanted to give the audience time also to accept that pace. So we started very quickly, and then we kind of slowed down, into a different rhythm.
“In the beginning, ‘Brothers of the Head’ feels like an ‘often told’ story, with so many different perspectives, and Ken Russell making a movie out of it. There’s all this hoopla. Then, when that’s out of the way, you get to the core of the story. You’re settled in.”
The fleshy band of connective tissue that permanently binds Tom and Barry is a startling sight. Like Alice Cooper’s onstage guillotine, the twins’ attached torsos become a center of geek-show attention at Bang Bang concerts. But the filmmakers don’t use this conjoinment for titillation or cheap laughs. The Howes embody a tragic tale of neglect and exploitation. Sold at an early age by their opportunistic father, the fraternal curios are plucked from obscurity by impresario Zak Bedderwick (Howard Attfield) and replanted at Humbleden Hall, a creepy, gothic mansion oozing decadence and decay.
In typical capitalist denial, Zak declares, “I never exploited anyone who didn’t want to be exploited.” But soon, he’s grooming the impressionable boys into Bang Bang, a volatile punk band in which Tom wields guitar and Barry supplies vocals. During onstage blasts of untamed, high-decibel rebel-rock, Barry pulls away his shirt, revealing the glue-like flesh that binds them. Unlike the intentionally hokey, bargain-bin grotesqueries found in, say, Troma films, the Howe’s skin-shackle appears authentic.
“It was based on a very realistic form of conjoinment,” explains Tom of the ghastly prosthetic. “We talked to a doctor in London named Lewis Spitz, a specialist in separation surgeries. We gave (the conjoinment) some creepy, visceral qualities. But we didn’t want it to feel over the top. It was pretty realistic. Dr. Spitz helped us with this. Practicality was a concern. Prosthetically, having the twins conjoined at the head would have been almost impossible to do, and horribly uncomfortable.”
As with many rock ‘n roll success stories, the Howe twins experience a quick surge of fame before a downhill spiral towards drug-fueled crash-and-burn. Nick the Manager (Sean Harris) pounds on moody Barry when the singer acts up. When asked if Nick was based on any real-life rock-manager bullies, Fulton tilts his head back and emits a solid laugh. “We had heard a lot about various managers who would use less physical forms of brutality. The Bay City Rollers’ manager was apparently notoriously corrupt, and sort of abusive. Not physically. It just seemed that if you’ve got these country-bred kids, these boys who have been raised in isolation and have no social training whatsoever, you figure Zak would put a heavy on the scene. Someone who can whip them into shape – literally. That element comes from the novel. It does add a kind of creepy, gothic quality to the story.”
Other sinister side characters inhabit “Brothers of the Head,” an acid-trip universe written by Tony Grisoni (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”), and adapted from Brian Aldiss’ sci-fi novel (“The book was done as a series of accounts,” explains Fulton of Aldiss’ vision. “The twins were not characters – only talked about.”) Tom Bower plays leathery, seen-it-all documentary moviemaker Eddie Pascqua, whose motives become suspect. Why is it that this somewhat sinister lensman lurks behind the twins in bathrooms, showers, and bedrooms in his effort to immortalize their every move?
Meanwhile, there’s Russell playing himself, a more flamboyant, feature-film counterpart to Bower’s hard-boiled documentarian. According to Fulton, only two actual directors were considered for the part – Russell, and Canadian horrormeister David Cronenberg. The latter, with his squishy, slimy aesthetic and identity crisis shockers like “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers,” would seem an inspired choice. “We tried to contact him,” explains Fulton, “but he was in production with another film. So it wasn’t going to be a possibility. Ken was available, and was perfect. I kept thinking about the ‘Tommy’ connection.”
Russell’s surreal resume – which includes “Tommy,” “Lisztomania,” and “Altered States” – makes him an obvious choice for “Brothers of the Head.” However, a less obvious collaborator on the film was composer Clive Langer. Described by Fulton as a “one-stop shopping kind of guy who brought more than music,” Langer produced and composed most of the film’s corrosive punk-rock numbers. However, he also brought considerable street cred to the film’s seventies-era ambiance. Throughout the new wave era in which “Brothers of the Head” is set, the respected Brit produced albums for Madness and Elvis Costello. As a genuine veteran in the trenches of these raucous rock wars, he could suggest changes if the film’s look didn’t ring true.
Fulton also referred to 1996’s Please Kill Me, the classic, often hair-raising oral history of punk rock written by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. “That book was an enormous influence,” confirms Fulton. “It’s really great at capturing the kind of honest vibe of what happened behind the scenes with some of these bands. The beginning of the New York scene was pretty tawdry. The stories of the Ramones and Iggy Pop are just incredibly outrageous. Our film is pretty tame compared to that scene, actually.”
According to the BBC Horizon documentary “Conjoined Twins,” fewer than a dozen adult pairs of conjoined twins exist today, appearing once in every 100,000 births. Meanwhile, Fulton confirms that contemporary forms of separation surgery provide options unavailable during the seventies punk-rock era encompassing his film.
“These days, the type of conjoined twins that Tom and Barry are would be very easily separated,” he informs, lifting a glass of lemon-water to his mouth. “But given the way they grew up, their father wasn’t looking to have them separated, and didn’t want to even touch them. By the time they were seventeen, it would have been physically possible to separate them, but the emotional damage that’s done from that is apparently quite severe. Dr. Spitz would tell us about babies he had separated as infants. Long into their childhoods, they would continue to be found sleeping in exactly the same position, in relation to each other, as when they were conjoined.”
Fulton confesses to having not interviewed actual conjoined twins during his research for “Brothers of the Head.” However, he studied films and articles concerning society’s more celebrated pairs, including Chang and Eng Bunker, and Reba and Lori Shappell. Born in 1961 and believed to be the oldest living female conjoined twins, the Shappell sisters share a more extreme variation of Tom and Barry Howe’s condition. Attached at their heads, the sisters have shown astounding adaptation to their unique physical predicament.
“One of the Shappell twins is a country western singer,” explains Fulton. “Even though they are joined at the head, when she does her performances, the other sister is turned around, with a curtain over her, so that she is not seen. The one woman lives like a show person, while the other lives a very sheltered life out of the public eye. So it’s very interesting. We based a lot of stuff on that, in terms of the conflicts of the personalities.”
“Brothers of the Head” convincingly presents Tom and Barry as both separate and “one.” Despite identical appearances, we come to associate their contrasting mannerisms with individual entities. Fulton had seen “Twin Falls, Idaho,” one of the few other recent films dealing with conjoined twins, and couldn’t buy that the two brothers had spent an entire existence together. “I’m not saying that I hate the film,” the director clarifies. “But there was something very tongue in cheek about it. It wasn’t what we were trying to do with this film.”
In Fulton’s movie, we watch the Howe Brothers nonchalantly groom each other, or finish each other’s sentences. Oftentimes, the two connected beings will huddle up, like members of a two-man athletic team debating which play to run. Meanwhile, there’s something organic and natural about their basic movements that suggests a lifetime of physical attachment. In one scene, Tom rises from a couch and casually saunters across the room, with Barry following along in a submissive, resigned fashion.
“It was really important for us to get that degree of naturalism,” confirms Fulton, reclining casually in his chair with legs crossed. “It was tough to get that. I remember when we were first rehearsing the band, Harry and Luke would wear this rock climbing harness that would keep them adjoined together, just to practice. They initially were not working in unison very well. When you’re playing in a rock band, your initial impulse is to do your own thing. If you’re playing rhythm guitar and the other one’s singing, you’ve got different agendas altogether. Initially, it looked all wrong.
“We watched them, and they seemed to be fighting. If you’ve lived your whole life with someone, you wouldn’t do that. You would figure out a way to communicate without words – to communicate just physically. So yeah, if one wants to cross the room, it should seem very natural.”
The director chuckles, as if visualizing the unusual – yet practical – synergy of movement employed by the Brothers Howe. “One brother senses that the other wants to do something, and decides to cooperate.”
While perfecting the twins’ smooth, lived-in appearances, Fulton and Pepe used a steady, un-forced approach to the camerawork as well. Herky-jerky, hand-held images are such a common cliché of documentary filmmaking, Fulton refers to them as “Shaky-cam.” In “Brothers of the Head,” however, there’s little of this jarring movement.
“I quite like the ‘Blair With Project,’” admits Fulton, “because it’s very inventive and pretty scary, as horror films go. But they really went overboard on the shaky-cam, in an effort to make it look like it was a documentary. Anyone who is really trying to tell a documentary story is not going to distract you with that.”
“Going back to American Direct Cinema, all of those camera people were doing their damnedest to make their documentary look like fiction. They would shoot shot over shot patterns. They’re shooting to cut, basically, in a way that’s supposed to be smooth. There are establishing shots and reaction shots – it’s a narrative form, even though it’s a documentary technique.”
When asked for an example of American Direct Cinema that intrigued filmgoers would be advised to view, Fulton provides an immediate suggestion. “I don’t hesitate to say that ‘The Salesman’ is my absolute favorite film. It’s a beautiful film. It feels like a scripted movie, and looks like a very carefully constructed movie, visually. It was a Maysles Brothers documentary. They were a huge influence on me, in terms of their shooting and narrative styles. Another American Direct Cinema recommendation is Pennebaker’s ‘Don’t Look Back,’ the Bob Dylan documentary.
“Those films were patient in a way that documentary filmmaking doesn’t tend to be anymore. Even in my own documentary, ‘Lost in La Mancha,’ sooner or later we had to rely on interviews. You usually can’t tell the whole story without using interviews. But these American Direct Cinema guys didn’t do that. They found a way to tell the story without so-called ‘intervention.’ Obviously, they interviewed plenty, with their cameras and their editing. But they didn’t feel it was necessary to get all the story information crystal clear out of someone’s mouth. It was very much about observing people in real situations, and being patient with just watching an _expression, or watching something slowly un-fold over time.”
Fulton and Pepe capture some of this American Direct Cinema spontaneity by applying a technique they call “conjoined directing.” Rather than summon the entire cast together for didactic talks concerning who does what, the directors consulted each of their actors individually. This one-on-one instruction created a certain unpredictability and freshness on the set.
“In general, we don’t like to direct the actors as a group,” reveals Fulton. “In some scenes, we’ve got ten different characters, but we never get together and say, ‘Okay, everybody, here’s what the scene is and here’s what you’re doing.’ We always give very private direction to actors. A lot of times, it helps the other actors, because if you’ve discussed one characters’ motivation privately, then some things that actor might do are a surprise to the other actors on the set.”
Fulton lifts a hand to his smiling mouth, stifling a chuckle. “The twins were always strapped together. So it was very difficult to give them private direction. I would be whispering into one ear, and Lou would be whispering into another.”
And while the filmmakers avoid disorienting, “shaky-cam” visuals, they create a simulated sense of history by using varied styles of film and video. “We shot very little video,” Fulton clarifies. “Mostly Super 16 film, for a seventies look. We pushed stocks that really highlighted the grainy look.”
“Brothers of the Head” also explores a disturbing truth about human nature. While appearing to crave a sense of awe and wonder, society also proves eager to dismantle life’s mysteries in its rabid quest to explain the unexplainable. The more mysterious something is, the more tempted we are to dissect and dismantle its magic, looking for logical explanations. The longer that Pasqua, Russell, and other members of the twins’ intrusive entourage claw away at the boys’ mystique, the less they unveil. Fulton refers to these various Howe hangers-on as “mirrors trying to reflect the essence of the twins. And you never really do get the essence.
“Werner Herzog’s film, ‘The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser,’ really inspired me. The story is about a wild child raised in complete isolation. He enters into society, and everybody is picking at him, trying to figure out what makes him tick. There’s a scene where someone takes a brain from a head, as if it would really explain this wild child.
“I do think that is human nature, to an extent. We can’t accept things that are mysterious. We need an explanation. For the film, we thought about it in terms of how our culture tends to define artists. We don’t accept that creativity is a mysterious thing. We absolutely have to find all the roots of it. We have to ask, ‘What were your childhood experiences?’ We ask, ‘What was the defining moment when you learned how to paint that way?’ It’s never considered something that’s just – there. Something that’s mysterious, and acceptable for being mysterious. It’s like a classic science versus religion parable, I suppose.”
The ultimate mystery behind “Brothers of the Head” might be how Fulton and Pepe financed their bizarre collision course between the real and the surreal. Producer Simon Channing Williams proved no stranger to renegade talent. Having been impressed by the brilliant, stylized brutality that director Fernando Meirelles brought to “City of God,” he produced the Brazilian filmmakers’ Oscar-winning follow-up, “The Constant Gardener.” Meanwhile, Williams proved instrumental in ensuring that the Brothers Howe became immortalized in celluloid.
“Simon has produced most of Mike Leigh’s films,” confirms Fulton. “Ever since ‘High Hopes.’ Leigh is a guy who gets films financed that have no scripts. His whole process is about improvisation. He spends eight months to a year improvising, in order to come to a script. That’s a hard thing to get money for. So this is where Simon cut his teeth. It was a gift (having him involved). We pitched the project to a bunch of different people, and went with Simon. He said, “I’m up for this. It sounds totally f****d up, and I’ll do it.”
The bottom line is that Fulton has created a fictional work of art posing as a documentary. About conjoined twins. Who happen to be the semi-insane musicians of an ear-damaging punk-rock ensemble. In an age when even Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Michael Bay have difficulty financing mass-appeal blockbusters, Fulton admits that he’s the luckiest S.O.B. in contemporary cinema.
“’Brothers of the Head’ was a weird idea,” he confesses. “It was a fairly experimental film with totally absurd subject matter, but we wanted to take it dead seriously. So everything about it suggested that it was not a financial venture. We got the best people working on the film, and the most patient financiers. I felt like, ‘All right – you’re spoiled from the start. You get to make a five million dollar art movie, and no one’s really looking over your shoulder.’
“Now I’m trying to get other projects off the ground, and it’s a complete uphill battle. You’re expected to have a crystal clear pitch and a ‘three-x’ structure for everything. And if you’re gonna spend more than $500,000 dollars, you had damn well better have bankable celebrities in your movie. Once you hit that stuff, it really starts to make me lose my optimism. I need to figure out a path through this. You have to find a way to express yourself, while being financially responsible. It’s a tough compromise.”
Yes, indeed. But “Brothers of the Head” is now a reality. It’s that rarity – a truly original movie that snuck into the time capsule, despite decidedly dicey commercial appeal.
“We’re part of a very small genre,” admits Fulton with a laugh. “The conjoined twins genre. It consists of ‘Twin Falls, Idaho,’ ‘Stuck on You,’ and ‘Brothers of the Head.’”