Will Oldham and I wrote songs for director and writer Paolo Sorrentino’s new film This Must Be The Place. Needless to say, that Talking Heads song is in the film as well, in various versions, one of which is a live performance by my band and me. The film stars Sean Penn as a version of present-day Robert Smith of The Cure—an aging rock star who still wears makeup and dresses all in black.
They had a screening in NY recently, but I didn’t want to see the film in rough form, as I figured they’d eventually want me to be present for some public screening when it was done. I offered that they could pick a later screening for me to attend. They picked Cannes—whoa.
I flew Thursday night, arriving the day of the screening. Took a nap, got up and showered, dressed all in white (they said it was OK) and headed towards a rendezvous with the rest of the film people. In the hotel elevator on my way to meet up, two guys entered that looked like private security, but something was off. Their outfits were impeccable, perfectly tailored to their trim physiques—a little odd for cops. Their patches, upon closer inspection, said Beverly Hills Police. I thought to myself “this is probably a precursor of the unreality to come.” I walked to the hotel down the road and in a room were the sound editor, the picture editor, the DP the American line producer, the many Italian, French and Irish producers, Paolo the director, some LA agents and of course some of the actors.
The sound editor advised me that he had been asked to make the live performance of the song “bigger,” and he hoped I wouldn’t be shocked by what they’d done. I’m glad he prepared me! When the song started during the screening, it was more or less as I remembered us playing and recording it in Detroit, but then, as the camera pulled back and you saw more of the “audience,” the sound got bigger and you could hear audience members shouting and some singing along. I bought into it. I believed the crowd was actually that excited and rambunctious, though I knew they were not. They did a good job with the mix to create that illusion, but I wondered how he did it, as none of the extras sang along during the filming.
The sound editor said he was working on another film in London and had about 35 actor/performers on hand in a recording studio, so he threw up a karaoke version of the song and asked them all to sing along. He’s from Sarajevo, and said he was a refugee during the war. His family was totally mixed—Serb, Croat, Muslim—and thus didn’t fit into the emerging post-war situation there, where each of these ethnic groups are now more or less assigned to their own region. What was beautiful about that place before it fell apart was that families like his weren’t uncommon—families in which all the ethnic groups were represented and were cool with one another. Now he’s pretty much permanently relocated to London.
The other songs, the ones Will and I wrote, were meant to be demos that a young character, a singer, hands to Sean’s character, who listens to the CD sporadically as the movie progresses. This conceit wasn’t all that apparent, or so it seemed to me, but the songs did get heard, in bits and pieces, providing a kind of emotional commentary along the way—which was what Paolo intended.
Anyway, back to the screening ritual. There were about 20 town cars lined up at a side door of the hotel, and we were assigned specific cars—Paolo in #1, Sean in #2, me in # 3… These cars drove the 10 blocks or so along the seaside promenade up to the festival building, where crowds, a red carpet and security awaited us. There were no quickie interviews on the red carpet as one sees at the Oscars. This red carpet was carefully managed by a couple of men in formal suits. As if we were being choreographed or conducted by these guys, they directed us using hand signals to face one bevy of photographers, and then, by making a turning motion with their hands, let it be known that we were now to turn to face the photographers on the other side of the runway. Then they used other gestures to herd us a few meters further down the runway, where the same dance would be repeated. Eventually this conducted procession was led up the stairs, and we were directed to stop at various levels and once again turn and face the photographers. Then we entered the theater where there was applause for Sean and Paolo, as a voice of God spoke their names and the title of the movie for all to hear.
Our names were on our seats, so no confusion there. In the row in front of us was Pedro Almodovar, who has a new film in the festival, and we all said hi.
After the film, the lights came up and the applause started—and didn’t stop. The audience stood, as did we all, and a man with a video camera appeared in front of me, shooting Paolo and Sean receiving the applause. It went on and on…is that common here? Does it mean they REALLY liked the movie? On and on it went. I look around, beginning to fidget. Oh, there’s Rosario Dawson in the row in front of Pedro—wow, she’s gorgeous—and oh, that’s Jane Fonda, and there’s some Hollywood exec whose face looks familiar. A publicist motioned for me to go congratulate Paolo, which I did and then I tried to invisibly step to the side so the attention can go back to him.
Eventually the applause died out, and we began the parade back to the waiting cars. Inside the theater women in matching brown outfits confine the audience to their seats while we filed out into aisle. They did this by standing along the sides of the aisle, all holding hands with one another—like some strange feminine cult. They said nothing, smiling, but only a little.
Outside the security was more robust—burly men in gray suits formed a phalanx between us and the photographers, who were no longer confined behind the barriers. As we slowly advanced (and the sound system segues from Saint-Saen’s mysterioso Aquarium movement from The Carnival of the Animals—we were the animals, I suspect—into the Talking Heads version of the title song), this human barrier advanced in front of us, physically pushing the photographers back. The photographers were used to this I guess, but inevitably one or two tried to squeeze in one more snap, and the pushing became a little more forceful. At one point I was distracted as one photographer was somewhat violently shoved back in with his own kind. He slipped to safety behind a barrier.
How did all this feel? Umm, slightly surreal to be sure. Not to be taken too seriously. Flattering, yes—the ovation, of course—but even that might be taken with a grain of salt. This is show business after all, and even the audience is a willing participant in the show. That might sound cynical—their enjoyment and appreciation of the film was largely genuine—wasn’t it? But the cars and the security and the red carpet—it’s all engineered to pump up the glamour and distance the “creators” from the “consumers.” The latter is something I’m a little uncomfortable with.
One works on these things (movies, songs, whatever) often alone, or with relatively small groups. The cast and crew that were present during the couple of scenes I was on set in Detroit was small, and there’s almost no glamour during that creative production phase. The contrast with what happens here is simply hard to imagine, though who would deny that it isn’t flattering? Seductive too, I’d imagine—it’s easy to see how this monster could get a grip on one’s sense of reality.
Onward. Into the cars again and down to a large tent set up down the beach. The entire beach was covered with these white tent things. You can’t see the sand in this town—there’s the promenade, the tents and then the water with its luxury yachts floating nearby. The tents are all party spaces, clubs and restaurants, aligned one after another. A security gal at the tent asked who I was, and looked for my name on her list. I told her my name, and one of the producers jumped in and told her I’m “OK.” Inside girls in VERY short skirts offered everyone champagne. The same group as before gathered in the tent, but we were supplemented by even more invitees. I chatted with a few folks—the head of the Venice Film Festival, whom I met just recently—and then headed to the back area where I was told we folks from the movie are to go. I chatted with Judd Hirsch and his agent. He plays a Nazi hunter in the movie. The women in skirts brought out raw oysters. I heard that Luca, the film’s DP, and some of the crew (production design, costume, etc) are shooting a low budget movie in Napoli, so they would go back to work the next day, just like me. He did an amazing job on this film.
Many American directors and DPs have a habit of covering a scene to death, shooting every angle and approach as a hedge, since they often don’t have a preconceived concept of how each scene will look. I’m generalizing of course, but I think the factory approach of much American filmmaking encourages this, as do the producers who can then have scenes re-cut if they don’t get a good test result. Luca and Paolo didn’t do that. They pretty much knew how each scenes shots would piece together, so, although there was certainly coverage, it wasn’t excessive. Their approach is generally cheaper too, and though I heard the budget bloomed a bit, I suspect it was still done fairly efficiently.
I made my way to the back room, behind the back room, where Sean and some others were sitting around a giant low table chatting. He was engaged in conversation with a tall woman with bleach blonde hair—a singer, I think. She said hi to me after a bit, but I didn’t catch her name. I sat next to some business guys, and we slurped more oysters. Someone ordered a cheeseburger and fries! Courtney Love waltzed in and plunked herself close to Sean, who was at the far end of this massive lounge table, but he didn’t seem to pay much attention. She spotted me and shouted something about “I wish it went for more money!” I didn’t know what she was talking about at first, but then realized she was referring to some of her late husband’s LPs that she donated to Creative Time, an NY arts organization, for a benefit auction—among them were some Talking Heads LPs, I was told. She moved to our end of the table and began to engage with an agent sitting on the other side of me, as well as some other folks—carrying on about 3 conversations at once, all at high speed. She mentioned to the agent that she was clean, except for sleeping pills sometimes and something else—cigarettes? Wine?
She doesn’t look as botoxed and surgically enhanced as I suspected, at least based on recent photos, but when she put her hand on my knee (we’ve never met before), I figured I’d better go. So, when she was fully engaged with the agent, I slipped off, saying I needed the toilet.
I walked back to my hotel along the Croisette (the promenade), which was packed with people. On the other side of the street were luxury shops and soon another screening would be letting out. Some people in the hotel lobby recognized me from the live video feed from the festival screening and shouted “bravo.” In my room I read a New Yorker article on my Kindle about the crazy expansion of the NSA post 9/11, which I think I blogged about at one point, and then I fell asleep. It was a little after midnight, and I wondered if the party would be getting more interesting now.