Every once and a while you run into an interview that is so wonderfully comfortable that you almost forget that, hey, you’re conducting an interview. An interview with Sarah Townsend, the filmmaker behind the documentary “Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story,” falls into this category of “so comfortable and amazing a conversation, it’s hard to believe that I have to actually transcribe this now.” It’s almost as if you’ve had a regular phone call, albeit one filled with fascinating information, that you now have to share with the world.
This interview with Sarah took place in mid-August, 2010. At the time, Sarah and her documentary were up for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Special, and the original plan was to have the interview ready to go for the day of the Emmys so that folks could read it and, you know, find someone new to cheer for in a category that is less served than Best Actor in a Comedy Series, or what have you. As I worked on the interview that weekend, I got an email that informed me of the winners of the Emmys that were awarded prior to the live show, and the Outstanding Nonfiction Special just so happened to be one of those categories. Unfortunately, Sarah and her film were not the winners.
At that point, I had been rushing the turnaround of the interview in an effort to have it ready for Emmy night, and I was suddenly blessed with an opportunity to take what was an hour-long conversation and let it breath a bit more than what I had originally edited. So I moved on to the next story deadline I had set, and placed the interview aside, promising myself to re-visit and re-edit as soon as I could. Which brings to now, almost two months later.
“Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story” is a wonderful documentary in the way it steers clear of the obvious trappings of the comedian bio-doc. It’s often easy to just sit back and rely on the stand-up material to do most of the work, but since Eddie Izzard is such a prolific performer, and there are so many specials of his to choose from already, to allow your film to prop itself up on that material is like planning on making a “best hits” of videos that already exist. Thankfully, Townsend did nothing of the sort, taking us instead along the journey that built Izzard into the performer he is today. We follow him from sketch comedian to fringe festival street performer to stand-up comedian to world-renowned actor, and he’s right there to bring us along. It’s an intimate portrait of a man who, with such single purpose of mind and drive in the face of almost constant failure, easily could’ve achieved any goal he set for himself, given enough time. For Izzard, it was all about being a performer, and it’s not until the late minutes of the film that we get a true hint, from Izzard himself, of why he really does what he does. It’s a brilliant moment, and a brutal one.
Heading into my interview with Townsend, I was armed with all the normal, basic questions: where did the idea come from, when did you get started, how difficult was it and the like. Once we got on the phone, however, it all went out the window. For the first 10 minutes, conversation focused (or shall I say, unfocused) on Skype accounts and the strength of Blackberry’s email encryption. I knew I had to start the “interview,” but I didn’t know how. So here’s how it happened…
I like conversations more than interviews; I think conversations are much better…
“Yeah, I agree with you. What’s interesting is there’s a certain type of writer who asks things in a certain way and then you actually find that everyone has the same interests and you go ‘oh yeah’ and it’s really cool. That’s one of the joys of doing this is finding the people who have taken an interest, genuinely. People not going ‘tell me about this awful thing’ and ‘I want to hear about that awful thing’; what I feared might happen for a long time and it’s been just a pleasure. It’s been great.”
Whenever I interview a documentary filmmaker, particularly if I have to interview a documentary filmmaker on video, I always get really intimidated because I am then interviewing someone who has just spent “x” number of years interviewing everybody. It’s like a silent judgment that may or may not be taking place. I’ve sat down and interviewed some documentary filmmakers and they’ve been “alright, should I look… do you want me to look directly at the camera, how do you want me to frame this” and I’m very “uh, I was just going to press record.” It’s VERY intimidating.
“It is tricky. I never thought about that but, ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s all about the content.”
Exactly, but if there’s ever an interview you don’t like, you need to play that on them. Just turn it up to watch them squirm…
“I don’t know if I could do that. The whole scenario is so odd anyway. I haven’t actually been in this situation for many a year so it’s quite a relief when I can have a conversation I like as opposed to going ‘oh my god, I’m in this artificial situation.'”
“To be honest, now that you say that, I probably do have a lot of more empathy for someone put into that situation. It is tricky; it’s funny, you have to explain that you’re not out to get anybody. We’re all very savvy now, we all know that you can make anyone say anything, if you want to. Even if it’s just silly or stupid… you can’t really do that, at the end of the day, you can’t make any real statement that way, but you can certainly make someone who considers themselves a little person, ‘why would you want to talk to me’; you can make people look foolish if you want to. Quite easily, with the press of a button. So I can understand that.”
“(laughing) I’m so fed up with it right now. Even another interview… oh no, I need a holiday. It’s just been such an exhausting process, the whole thing, and it’s just absolutely shattering. There’s so many dead ends and this and that. Very strange stuff going on.”
How does this idea come about? You’ve been friends with Eddie for a while, correct?
“Years. We met at the Edinburgh festival. I was running an event… I was running a venue. Films seemed to me, from where I was coming from financially, a complete impossibility. It wasn’t the digital era, you had to have a serious masterpiece to even be in the running for that kind of thing. I think I persuaded myself that theater was the thing, and there is an instant quality to theater where if you’re motivated and determined and you’re prepared to put the work in, you can literally create a production from scratch. But even theater was expensive to put on, a fraction of what film costs. The way I did that was, I found that if you took over a venue for the Edinburgh festival, which you probably know about is the biggest festival in the world, and anyone can do it, it’s about how good you are… if you can raise the money, and I was lucky enough to find somebody who helped me do that in the first year. So, if you took over a venue, I found that you could actually rent it out to all of these people who had been just like me in the first year. You could survive. You didn’t make money, but you certainly didn’t lose it and you had a venue at your disposal that you could put your own stuff into, but in my contrary fashion I thought, ‘oh no, that’s too obvious, I’m going to put mine in a different venue.’ (laughs)”
“That was typical me, it was 22 shows or something and Eddie decided… he came up and applied to our venue. And… (laughs)… that was interesting. He was such a very… how would I describe it? He was very in your face, ‘you’re going to take me, I know you want to.’ You’re dealing with this fellow and you’re thinking, ‘Who is this guy? Who does he think he is?’ But of course everything turned out alright. And he shared his thing with a couple other comedians and that was, what we later found out, was his first solo show, and that he’d actually only been doing 20-minute spots at comedy clubs up to that point. He was not at the level where you would do an hour show. He just decided that he was going to jump the fence and just go straight ahead and do it. And that’s how I met him and that worked very well.”
“The following year we did it again. He got a better slot, and I was getting more into the whole comedy thing because it was very exciting at that time. It was still in the wake of that mid-80s explosion, which was still slightly before my time, but that was the end of the ’80s, beginning of the ’90s and there was still this radical, very politicized alternative comedy scene in the UK. You know, I would’ve liked to have gone into that whole thing in more detail, but there just was not room. As with a lot of things, there just wasn’t room. But it was a fantastic era. All these amazing, smart, intelligent, motivated… politically-motivated people going… and I think it was that the lovely Margaret Thatcher was in government, and so people would be up there and they would have real political points and they would be funny, and some of them savagely so. Eddie, not so much. Eddie was actually one of the people who was doing stuff that was not so political because he felt that ultimately it dated and he preferred, at that stage, to be a-political. But he wanted to be able to occasionally make points. He wanted to get in the position he’s at; the power to make bigger points in the long run rather than short-term points on the circuit, which were very, very funny, but people would go ‘oh, that’s like a bit from 1990’ and you look back and a year later it looks dated. Because it’s the news. News gets dated, and that’s why he played it the way he did, but what he was doing, this kind of less political, more surreal thing was very unusual in that circuit.”
“It honestly was like the birth of rock and roll, it was a fantastic period. It’s not like that now. There are many more comedians who do sub-Eddie type stuff which is a-political and they don’t have any particular motivation for themselves or a grounded plan. And that’s great, and some of them are quite brilliant, but it doesn’t have the teeth that it did then, because it was a real fight throughout the ’80s, and I’ve researched so much of it, since it was slightly before my time. It is fascinating some of the stuff people did, and some of it is really silly as well, of course, don’t get me wrong. You know, what a time, wow. I’m actually really interested in it. I’m tentatively working on something that will be a little bit more about that period, and what that was all about.”
Yeah, it sounds like there is definitely another project that could tackle all of that…
“Yeah, well, several. The other one is the street performers. The street performers, again, are a complete… what I was trying to do was show these complete, self-contained societies almost, with their own rules and it was extraordinary. As it happened, I actually organized one of the big world street festivals, there used to be one in Covent Gardens, and through being around those guys, I got to do that. Basically… not because of anything other than the fact that people always want someone who can organize something (laughs). ‘Oh yeah, let’s lump all that stuff off on that person who is foolish enough to say yes,’ as you know, or will know yourself…”
Oh, I’m aware.
“So they go, ‘okay, fine, you carry on’ and away you go. But you do it because you love it, don’t you? And that’s another whole entire lifestyle choice for people. Another pocket of people that are fascinating and never really… I think the problem is street performance, actually. They never get a form where they look good. The problem is, when you shoot street performing, they always look s**t. They just always look s**t, because you have to be there. So what I tried to do very hard was to try an give the impression of how impressive it can be when you’re in the moment with a really good one. And of course we had to use found footage, which made it even more difficult. That’s something that I feel you have to spend a lot of time on to get right. But, again, another entirely fascinating chunk of society, completely independent.”
“There’s just so much fascinating stuff, and it can be frustrating trying to get it all. And the other thing, the Edinburgh thing, you get stuff… we had an interesting situation come up… (laughs) …not everybody is delighted that Eddie has made a success of it.”
I can imagine. It seems with the street performance and then the juxtaposition with the stand-up comedy, I got the impression with street performance that you didn’t have to pull off what you said you were going to pull off, as long as your showmanship was up there. But with stand-up comedy, it’s the exact opposite. If the jokes don’t hit, it doesn’t matter how much of a showman you are…
“That’s right. That’s absolutely true. I think with the street performance it’s like me and the Edinburgh thing, you can just do it, but it is far, far harder than you think it is. The battle with street performing is it’s the hardest audience in the world, that is the truth, and I speak as one who used to regularly walk by street performers because we have this embarrassment about committing to watch something, especially on your way to buy a pair shoes. It’s like, ‘look, I’m in a hurray, I’m just passing by, mate, leave me alone.’ There’s always that slight embarrassment plus, especially when somebody is setting up a show, somebody has to intrigue you and there’s no question in my mind that, and I hope I’ve showed it to some degree, that Eddie’s particular technique for the in-the-room humor, where you get the crowd listening to you, interested in you, even from scratch… that street performing skill, there is no question, made him able to interest people, pull the energy into himself.”
“There’s an energy thing where, instead of pushing out like you see with some of the other performers, there’s a charge that you see other people emitting… you actually do something small that you pull them into your own. You pull people in, you intrigue, you manipulate, you do all that stuff and it’s a lesson that everyone has to learn, and there’s nowhere harder to learn it, or faster to learn it, than street because it is the most incredibly demoralizing thing ever. In Covent Garden, on a rainy day, like most days are, with people just going, ‘what!?!’ and not even giving you the benefit of being in the room sitting there. They are just not interested. It’s like, ‘don’t annoy me; leave me alone.’ That’s quite an extraordinary training ground and I have no doubt that gave Eddie the most incredible advantage but, who would choose to do it? Who would choose to put themselves through that? That’s hardcore. I can’t imagine what it would take to put yourself out there. You’d have to be slightly mad, I would think. It’s just too painful. At least if people are in a room and you get humiliated, at least you know they paid to go in there and you think, ‘well, maybe if I make it better, maybe they’ll listen,’ but, with street performing, you have absolutely nothing. You’re there, and you have to intrigue them.”
“And what was interesting was that Eddie coming from a sketch background, where it was all talk and silliness… it just doesn’t work. He was trying to do talking on the streets, and then realized that, no, you’ve got to have a gimmick. You’ve got to have something that you build your talk around otherwise, if you have nothing visual, people will not wait. If you don’t either do some contortionist type stuff, or you don’t have some implement, be it a cycle or whatever, then you have nothing to build it around.”
“I love it because I come from all that Shakespeare and stuff. I love that old school thing and there’s something about street performing that goes right back to that history. Seeing the modern day version of it, and what it has developed into is extremely interesting to me, but it is really hard and you learn techniques that you just couldn’t learn any other way. I do believe this is a large part of… and what I tried to do was give pieces of what made his technique unique, and that was one of them.”
At a certain point you get the feeling that whatever is going to be the next hardest step a person could possibly think up for themselves, that’s the direction Eddie goes. If it doesn’t make sense to do sketches and then do street theater, that’s what he does, and if it doesn’t make sense to do street theater into the stand-up, he’s going to do that next…
“I think there was a logical progression. He says, it was a bit like the Edinburgh thing, you go to Edinburgh because everybody goes to Edinburgh and that’s what people generally do when they get to university if they want to perform. Then after, you try to take it somewhere serious, you try to get an agent, you try to do something like this and nothing’s happening, so what do you do? Not perform? You know you have to perform in front of an audience. Get some money? You get a bank loan or employed, and he couldn’t get any of those, so the next logical step is, ‘okay, where can I get an audience… okay, Covent Gardens, there you go’ and you think, ‘well, this will easily adapt. It’s comedy, I can do it in the street,’ and then you discover that doesn’t work. If anything it’s getting an audience; it’s getting time in front of an audience.”
“There’s an absolutely logical progression to, once you’re outside the safety of university, there are a limited number of options, really, and street performing is a valid one. What happens is most people give up and go, ‘no…’ and I think possibly his stubbornness is what makes him go. I don’t think he just randomly looks at things, I think there’s an absolute strategy, and a logical strategy, and I know, because of having spent time in these myself; I know myself how you go ‘alright, I can’t do that,’ or ‘nobody will book me for that, so what do I do? Okay, I’ll do this then.’ From that experience you learn something that pushes you in another direction so that’s why, having done the street performing thing, and once he cracked it and learned his lesson, he went, ‘okay, now I’ve got that.'”
“I think what happens is, he tries it, gets so pissed off that he can’t make it work, that he goes, ‘right, I’m going to stay here until it works,’ and then having made it work, goes, ‘it still hasn’t gotten me to anywhere like where I want to get to, so where else can I turn now that I’ve got this skill?’ Of course, the next thing was stand-up. In fact, there was a tradition of street performers trying to crossover to stand-up, and not all successfully, but a few now did manage. A few; it’s a handful. Interestingly they exhibit the same skills as Eddie had, that ability to just manage a crowd and just handle them in a way that no stand-up usually can. You can be a really excellent stand-up but have no idea how to actually deal with a crowd. You just learn these abilities, and you have an ability to improvise, I think also which is different from the kind of improvisation that you have in, say, ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ There is so… you see, this is what, this happens… there are so many divisions and sub-divisions then you can go to improv. Improv, right, there is this type and this type and really, until you get them all under your belt… it’s like one of those games I’m so terrible at, computer games, where you get your life and your knife and your potions and your this and you stack them on and now you can go forward to the next bit. I was thinking about that all the way through this. It’s like getting the extra life or the extra toy or thing or something that will suddenly become really useful at the most unexpected point.”
I have a friend, Chris Gore, who actually founded Film Threat, and he likes to say, whenever you go through a rough patch in your life, and all of a sudden things work out, when what you learn would then come to the fore and be helpful, he would be like, “Well, you leveled up.” All that stuff you went through while you were wandering around the woods trying to complete Task A, Task B… leveled up. You’re done with that now, you can move on to the next difficulty.
“For me, making this thing was a nightmare. It was only after I suddenly, after going through all these productions, realized that sometimes you have to look to yourself and see, ‘what is the parallel here?’ and then you suddenly go, ‘that’s what the story is. That’s it! That’s the thing everybody knows; every single person knows and everybody tries and fails and sometimes you just have to submit to the fact that you must learn things.’ And we don’t like to do that as human beings. We don’t, as soon as we’re adults we go, ‘well, I don’t have to do that anymore,’ but actually we don’t grow unless we do. I think it is just really timely, and it started to give me comfort and keep me going because we had a lot of nightmares with this. It’s a truly independent… I don’t even need to go into that with you, you know exactly what I mean. All the horror… I don’t even like to, partly because it is so depressing; I don’t want to remember the bad stuff now, I just want to remember the good stuff…”
“…just horrible stuff, people threatening that if we used this snapshot that they put on their website that they were going to come after us, and this was like a friend of his. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. That sort of thing, and then a series of editors, one of whom went AWOL, do you use that phrase here, for several months with all the master tapes locked in his apartment. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh or… it was just, honestly… stupid s**t.”
“And it was also just exhausting trying to find people. People not being able to comprehend what the documentary was and… people get weird. It is such comprehensive story, it got complicated but, in the end this is it. You just have to go, ‘screw it, I am not giving this up now because I’ve started, I’ve got to finish,’ and the answer is right there. That’s what it is, that’s what it’s all about, we all do it. Sometimes we just need to be told… I think the issue is that we see films, and good lord, some of them are extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary, no question about it, and we see someone in a distant country suffering untold misery and you go, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe this is like that,” but you can’t empathize because it is too far from our own experience. We don’t know what it’s like necessarily… well, some of us do, but we don’t necessarily know what it’s like to grow up in a war zone. We don’t know what it’s like to have some terrible thing happen, we just don’t. Whereas, with someone like Eddie who is essentially a middle class boy, where you go ‘oh, yeah, he’s more like me,’ it’s actually more interesting or something people can relate to more easily to their own lives in a very direct way and go, ‘well, he did it so I can do that too.’ It can be inspirational, and that’s what I really hope we have there. That that stands out for people, makes people feel, ‘I’ll give it another try, I can manage that.’ I mean, what do you say to someone who has been through untold horror; real, real horror? The struggles that he’s been through, they’re extreme, but are they extreme compared to genocide? No, but they’re extreme compared to what most people would put themselves through.”
“I think it’s encouraging… sometimes it’s right to be stubborn. Sometimes it’s right to just keep fighting on and go, ‘right, well, just because you said I can’t I bloody well will!’ That’s healthy, and it’s great, but it’s funny, it was the very last storyline we thought of. Originally it started off as a bio, then it was a treasure hunt, then it was this, then it was that but, in the end it’s a bit of all of the above really.”
What’s the conversation like when you say, to a friend, “hey, I want to do a documentary about you”? Was it “No,” or was it more, “Well, of course you’re doing a documentary about me. What took you so long?”
“Funnily enough, at the time I had a gang of people in London I was hanging out with that I knew through theater and I was tentatively hovering towards how to move that stuff across to film when the whole digital revolution happened, and that was all very exciting because I suddenly went, ‘oooh! Now I could do something!’ But, of course, I knew that technically I was going to have to learn a hell of a lot because it’s all well enough to know how to do theater and what drama is but it’s not the same as the technical aspects of filmmaking which are fundamental because they’re more than technical, they are artistic. The whole expression of it is quite, quite different, there’s so much there. I wanted to get as much in as I can, so I said, ‘what can I do?’ so I asked if I could do some DVD extras. I had been working with a production studio for years at this point, as well as everything else, so I was very familiar with the idea of what editing was, and thank god for it (laughs) how did I think I was going to edit this human’s life? So I had a concept of what it can do. How you can alter mood and what you can do with it and how you can fudge things that aren’t really there in order to tell a bigger story. And believe me, we did!”
“At that time I felt I didn’t know how to start. I was too old for film school and then I couldn’t get the money, so what do I do? So I started doing DVD extras, started doing some pieces and then he said, ‘Why don’t you do a special?’ and I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t know how to do that. A multi-camera shoot, for god’s sake.’ I knew well enough to know that that was out of my range, but I thought, it’s interesting that’s he’s asked me. That set me, because I hadn’t actually dreamed of asking him myself, to be honest. So I thought about it and then I went, ‘Actually, you know, we’ve been doing some side DVD documentary stuff, I’ve been practicing, learning this, learning that, doing these courses… what about a documentary?’ At that point I was thinking of something very small, and not a documentary documentary but then I’m seeing people doing stuff and I’m thinking, ‘well that’s not great, but at least you did it and you got it out there, why don’t I just do that?’ I thought, ‘alright, let’s give it a go’ and piece by piece it started building up.”
“I began thinking it’s either a low budget horror movie with 10 people in a room getting hacked to death one by one or it’s a documentary. It’s called a ‘write what you know,’ and I crept toward… when did we start? Was there a start date? There wasn’t a start date. It was a gentle, rolling towards… you could say, that stuff was shot before you started but it’s like, ‘yeah, but it wasn’t shot for this.’ So much of this was actually research, trying to find people, trying to get hard photographs. People vanish after 10 years, it’s amazing. People just disappear. You could say you could find people on the internet, but trying to find the film, trying to shoot stuff and trying to gather together someone whose life as been as desperate as Eddie’s is a task, you know. And of course we didn’t have… we had almost no budget. Everything was done, at the beginning, for the first few years, was pretty much done for free. Working, working, working, working for all of that time without that, and doing it in bits and scraps… occasionally you hear the wonderful examples exist of things working out, but what would happen when people thought we had a budget, and it would all be fine but we got duffed by some people. You mention his name and they go, ‘oooh, there must be lots of money,’ but we were scrabbling along 18 months with nothing at all. It was a joke. There were no production assistants, there was no… everything was just stuck together. In the end… I’m sorry, where am I going with this? (laughs) I actually had a point to make! I’m rambling away aren’t I?”
(laughing) I can’t tell you where you were going…
“No, I actually had a point, but I can’t remember what it was. Sorry. I’m going to shut up now. (laughs) I did! I did actually! What was it? Oh, how did it start? That’s how and…”
And that’s when Sarah’s phone battery died. As often happens when you lose someone mid-sentence, and then try and call them back, it was a series of dials, rings and sudden voicemails or near miss pick-ups. When we eventually got back on the phone with each other, our focus on the film, which had taken a good 10 minutes to establish initially, was again left to tangents. Now the conversation turned to failures of technology, planned obsolescence and mutual fears that, with all archival information being moved to, or now originating in entirely digital mediums, that, in the future should something catastrophic occur to destroy all computers, leaving only bits of plastic on a beach, the only history of the world that would exist would be whatever we wrote down or, worse, carved into the walls of caves. This of course lead to a discussion on whether or not civilization has reached this stage of technology before (or gone beyond) before something happened to wipe that record out and leave us with, say, the Mayan calendar or the just the Egyptian pyramids as a clue that, at one point, humanity got very far, only to lose it all. But before we ponder that for too long, what about when the sun goes supernova? This conversation on the digital age and planet mortality went on for 17 minutes, before we finally got back to the interview segment of our conversation…
I didn’t get to say this earlier, but before we get too far along, I just want to say congrats on the Emmy nomination.
“Thank you. Yeah, well… just some acknowledgment of all that work that nearly bloody killed me. It’s funny because people come up and go, ‘wasn’t Eddie wonderful?’ and I’m going, ‘you have no idea how it was to finish this.’ So that has been a real… for me, it just validated all that effort. It means such a lot. I know some people are like, ‘oh, Emmy nomination, whatever,’ but, to me, from where I was standing going ‘is there any point to continuing?’ to 18 months later going, ‘wow,’ it’s the most incredible validation. It’s wonderful, I’m extremely happy about it. Now maybe I can get on with doing other things… (laughs) …that won’t test the ends of my patience.”
“I never thought I’d end up doing a documentary, that was the bizarre thing. But what you learn, a lot of the stuff we’re talking about, a lot of the purely tech-ist… you know, you can’t re-write a scene because a person is a person and what happened happened. It’s all about how you tell it, but you can’t just go ‘oh, I don’t like this. Guys can we go back and re-write and re-structure that’… re-structuring with bare facts, they don’t change. It’s all about how you piece it into the narrative. Someone as complex as Eddie, that’s been a real challenge. Now, of course, I find my ability to discern what’s right and what’s wrong has speeded up beyond belief. That was part of the learning curve that I knew I signed on for, I just didn’t think it would take so long.”
“The joy now of looking at a script is the thing, and going, ‘I don’t like that scene, please write something else, why don’t we do this instead.’ You just don’t get to do that with documentaries. From that perspective it was totally new to me, and that was a challenging learning curve, I can say. Absolutely worth it now. It feels great.”
It is funny how many people I’ve talked to, who make documentaries, get to a point in the interview where they say that they never had any intention of making documentaries, but so many people end up doing. Personally, I’m always drawn to documentaries. For whatever reason, I guess I’m much more interested in, say, if there were two versions of “Believe,” and one was the narrative version and was the documentary, I’d be drawn to the documentary version because, even if it was completely fabricated, it would feel more real.
“Yes, I think you’re right. I’ll tell you something, I have found that there are elements of documentary filmmaking now that I will definitely bring with me into more scripted stuff because you are absolutely right, there is truth to it. After this much time and this much effort, obviously you do learn something and I’d know better what to use and what not to use and how to go for it but there is a realness to a documentary and, you know… Eddie is a really tough nut to crack, and he’s done many documentaries and a lot of people have said, ‘oh, why didn’t you do the running thing’ and, yeah, well we were already in the final edit at that point. That was very frustrating; that would’ve been a wonderful backbone for our story. We didn’t have one, so I had to try and create it with a pick-axe because that’s straight from Biography or the E! Channel, isn’t it? That’s not going to tell you anything more than the sum of its parts, really.”
“What I found really interesting are the moments where people say things that they didn’t expect to say, most obvious of course is the moment at the end, but he was a very, very tough nut to crack and I really didn’t… I knew him very well, but I hadn’t really taken on board just how closed he is. What happened was that when we analyzed the stuff that he did we went, ‘well, he seems to be saying lots here, but he’s not really saying anything.’ He’s just putting a positive spin on everything, which is an absolute part of his character, the whole military thing. That’s his background, it’s very ‘stiff upper lip, keep going’… what’s the Churchill thing… ‘keep buggering on.’ And I was watching some Churchill stuff and that kind of became the motif of the thing over the last year. ‘Don’t complain, just carry on. Carry on, chaps,’ and all that. Which is really old school, now people are much more,’ Ohhhhh, life is terrible,’ since the Diana thing. Everybody now just spills the beans, and of course now we physically have the means to share that information more easily than we used to.”
“But what is interesting is in the odd special moment that you do get, like with his Dad or with Eddie or with different people, you suddenly… you know, you can do an interview, and I won’t say which, but there was one, someone that knew Eddie for a long time where the interview is really just unwatchable. Some people are just, and you know very well, are just horrible interview subjects. I include myself in that because I ramble away, but this is someone who couldn’t finish a sentence without, ‘sort of, sort of thing… I think… well… maybe or.’ Every sentence was peppered with these, and when I say every, I mean EVERY. Every clause, not just every sentence, every clause was full of it. It was unwatchable and I just was in despair. We spent weeks trying to pull something out of it, because we thought he could say something of interest and now I don’t think you could tell who it is, and I really have to be careful not divulge that, but what was interesting was, when you’re in a situation like that, where it’s just 40 minutes of just awfulness and you have to piece it together and just fake it like crazy, meticulously, there was a moment of truth in what he said that just made me go, ‘ohhhhhh…’ and it really is exciting.”
“And of course Eddie’s at the end was the most shocking and… that’s the thing with documentary. That’s it! It’s that moment where you go, ‘oh my god, only the camera could do this, only this particular circumstance.’ And it sounds awful, but it’s sort of a thrill and a relief and all of those things… that makes it sound like some sort of ambulance chasing monster, but you know what I mean. When you say you prefer documentaries, it’s that moment, isn’t it? I’m hopefully not just putting that out on a plate or leaving it out to dry, but in a way that means something and has some value outside the moment but, yeah, there is something in documentaries that you just don’t get in anything else. That I have absolutely learned, to answer your question in a not so succinct way, though I promised I would, I know exactly what you mean, and I think you’re absolutely right. That’s something that’s new for me to have learned during the course of this. I’m going to shut up now, you see! (laughs) I could say anything now! (laughs) I hope you’re not going to quote me verbatim with all of this junk.”
It’s been a great conversation, and thank you so much for doing the interview with me.
“Oh, no it’s been an absolute pleasure. Actually, and this is probably very bad my PR person is probably going to shoot me, but I almost forgot it was an interview. You’re amazing to talk to, and that must be very dangerous to talk to, isn’t it, I keep being told. You actually listen to all of this stuff; I love that. You know there are people who you talk to and you think, ‘you’re just doing a job, aren’t you, you don’t love this’ and clearly you do and that makes it so fun.”
You don’t do this job, particularly at this stage in the economy, you don’t do this job if you don’t love it, and those that try to pass it off otherwise, I think you find out really fast. But it’s like anything, you can read anybody to see if they’re in it for an ulterior motive and, as a human, once you pick up on it, then you see it from a certain spectrum and it’s always better to be passionate than passionless.
“(laughing) And still somewhat crazy! I think you have to be. I mean, indie film really, when does it ever really make serious money? It doesn’t. (laughs) I’m sure you’ll be able to, ‘well, actually in this case…’ and be able to just quote lists of things, but you have to love it and I think that’s really healthy. Then you’re actually sharing something that means something. Even if we end up with nothing left on that beach except a few bits of plastic, at least something good did happen, occasionally, between some people. Gives you something to hang onto. Good vibes, or whatever it is. (laughs) Will we survive the supernova?”
“Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story” is currently available on DVD