Director Julien Temple struck up a friendship with Joe Strummer in the last few years of the Clash frontman's life, which makes his film, The Future is Unwritten, a particularly poignant experience for Temple and viewers alike. Here, Temple speaks with Riverfront Times about the journey.
Annie Zaleski: How long has The Future Is Unwritten been in the works?
Julien Temple: I have a dual feeling about that, 'cause I did actually start shooting a film about the Clash in '76, that black-and-white footage at the beginning of the film of Joe singing, and then the other black-and-white of the early band is stuff I shot when I was out of film school in the late '70s. But then I had no idea I was ever doing again with the Clash... well, I did become friends with Joe much later, and still had no idea I would ever do a film about him. And even when he died, I didn't think I was going to do a film about him. It took about two years after that, to realize that I could do a film and it might help where my head was at, because I was very upset by his death — as were most people who knew him very well. It was actually pretty devastating — and strangely problematic to deal with. I just felt making the film would be a good... a bit like having a wake for him, where he'd actually come back and be part of the wake, sitting around the fire, telling us what he was about. I had no intention ever of sticking a camera in his face and doing an interview with him when I knew him as a friend.
How did you meet him as a friend?
I had bumped into him over the years, I had to choose between the Clash and the Sex Pistols. I had been shooting the Sex Pistols before I saw him in the Clash. Then I saw the Clash and I thought, well, I could maybe film both these groups, 'cause they're both great. Which I did for awhile, and then the Clash said, "Well, look, if you want to film the Sex Pistols, you can't film us." Us-or-them kind of thing. So I stuck with the Sex Pistols.
I saw Joe very rarely on and off over the next 25 years. Never a bad thing, but we weren't quite friends. I didn't meet him again until the mid-'90s, when my wife, Amanda — who produced this Joe Strummer film — just said to me one day... "Oh, my best friend from school is coming to stay, and she's bringing her new boyfriend with her, is that all right?" I said, "Fine." And then it was a nice sunny evening and this school friend of Amanda's came, and through the garden gate came Joe Strummer. It was like, "Oh, my God, what's he doing here?"
And I was in the middle of building a hot-air balloon with my kids, all laid out on the lawn and was trying to figure out how to glue it all together. He said, "Oh, let's get this thing going." So me and him worked on it all night, it took us longer than we thought. We went through the night, we had a little fire, we had some wine. We got it ready in the morning just as the dawn was breaking, actually. We woke up my kids and said, "Well, we're gonna fly this thing now."
We lit it up and it started rising up into the dawn. And then suddenly it caught on fire, and there was this giant fireball going up in the sky, in this bucolic Somerset valley. And Joe was jumping up down and saying, "Ah, this is amazing! It's so beautiful, I want to live here, I want to live here!" and a few weeks later he bought a house literally up the road. For the last eight or nine years, we were pretty close down there. We became very good friends.
How did your personal relationship shape and affect the way you constructed the movie?
As I said, I had this idea of having it like a wake around the fire, because Joe loved those fires. That you have a wake, but the guy you're actually celebrating is there somehow, in some kind of way. I wanted the sense that people felt they were sitting next to Joe around the fire, and he was telling that story very intimately to them, his story or what he felt about things. It made it harder to make the film, because it was a film about a friend — about a good friend — 'cause I've never really done that. I've done films with people I've been friendly with, like the Pistols, but Joe shared my life and my kids' life, he's godfather to my kids and stuff. We're very close. So that made it very difficult. I was constantly trying to second-guess what he might have thought of things — and then getting really angry with myself, because I wasn't going to get an answer from him, what he might have thought about it. It did affect the working process. He also always would say, "Never give up." So when I found it hard-going, I did remember that quip ringing in my ears a bit.
I was helped by being the same age as Joe as well, 'cause I was born in the same year. So I lived a lot of the same moves that Joe made — like in the mid-'60s, I got involved in that same music in a big way, although different, because I was not a player. I was in a band as well...well, I guess Joe wasn't very good then, either. I became a bit of a hippie — but not really, because we were both too young, but we'd grow our hair, I guess. I didn't know him then, but I went to the same festivals and then I went to the squats and lived in the squats. I first became aware of him when I was squatting in west London. Then we both got into the punk thing, married girls from the same bloody school, even. It's a bit crazy. So I did feel I knew the subject of the time that he'd lived through quite intensely. So that was a good thing about making the film.
Where was [Clash bassist] Paul Simonon, were you not able to get in touch with him?
No, I was in touch with him, and he kept saying, "Yeah, I'll do an interview." And then you'd say, "OK, when can we do it?" "Well, I'll get back to you." And then, "I don't want to do an interview," and you'd call him in another few days and he would want to do an interview, and we would agree to do an interview... In the end, he didn't do an interview, and we had run out of time to try and persuade him to do one. I had the same thing with Topper [Headon], I just got lucky with Topper and not with Paul, I think. But you'd have to ask Paul why, when I was asking him if we can do it.
I understand. Paul was very close to Joe at a certain time, and that's a very personal thing to talk about that kind of friendship. I understand people not wanting to be on the film. His daughters didn't want to do it. Understandably, I think.
It's very much, like you said, a wake. Partly I would think it's emotional catharsis, but bringing up these deep emotions are also painful.
Yeah, and not everyone wants to do that at a certain point in time. Maybe some times are better than others in people's lives to do that. Selfishly, it would have been great to have Paul in the film. But I completely understand he might not want to do it. I think it survives without Paul, because it's not a film about the Clash, obviously. I think a film about the Clash would be pretty mortally wounded by not having Paul in it. [Laughs]
Is there anyone you wanted for the movie you weren't able to get?
Not really. I have some people I didn't really want for the movie in it, truth be known. I wanted Jimi Hendrix, some music, and I couldn't afford...they wanted $186,000 for this Hendrix track. We got everyone else for $3,000, so that was a bit out of whack. I would have liked [his music] to be part of it, 'cause Joe loved Hendrix.
Were there any surprises you learned about Joe or his life and his career in the course of making the movie?
I was shocked to know how many really good friends he had all over the world. In cities like LA and New York and Paris and Spain, in Granada. He lived in those cities as well as living in London and Somerset. He didn't just visit them; he actually seemed to have parallel lives going on in these other cities — which, having known him in Somerset and in London, I didn't really experience. When I did the film, I was like, "Wow, this whole Joe dimension to New York, and this whole Joe dimension to LA, or Paris." I didn't know about that. I got the feeling maybe he'd lived three lives in one — which probably made him a very old person when he died. 'Cause he did have this ability to really live in these places, rather than just visit them.