“Different Ways of Telling A Story”; Neil Young on “Greendale”
by Jonny Leahan
Every few years, it seems like a young director is discovered who creates a film so raw and honest that he’s hailed as the latest visionary — having made a compelling no-budget movie with fresh eyes and a conscience untainted by The System. Even more rare is when an established artist with a career spanning four decades is able to achieve the same thing. Neil Young has done precisely that with “Greendale,” a music film that defies the very category, delivering something entirely new that — much like the man himself — simply cannot be put into a box.
Although known primarily as a music legend, Young has directed four other films, but none have been as hands-on and personal for him as this one. Despite some impressive resources at his disposal, Young chose to direct, shoot, and edit the movie himself using super-8 film, recruiting friends and family as actors. The characters’ only dialogue is the lyrics of “Greendale’s” 10-song cycle, sung by an unseen Young and lip-synched by the actors on screen. Seeing them deliver lines like “Turnin’ the pages in this old book/ seems familiar/ might be worth a second look,” it’s hard not to think of Young himself, as this latest incarnation recalls so much of the mischievous minstrel many of us grew up with in the ’70s.
“Greendale” tells the story of a fictional small town and its residents, primarily focusing on the Green family, who are going through crises emblematic of the larger issues facing Americans today. A cop is murdered, Cousin Jed is arrested, and Grandpa confronts the subsequent media onslaught with tragic results. His granddaughter, Sun Green, becomes an activist on the day he dies, and begins fighting corruption and pollution with a hope that is only seen in the very young or the very wise.
Recently, I sat down to talk with Young about Sun Green, Super-8, and the suspect media. “Greendale” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; it opens theatrically in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, tomorrow, and follows in other cities across the country (for complete listings visit www.neilyoung.com).
indieWIRE: “Greendale” is not only a film, but part of a larger mosaic that seems like it’s taken on a life of its own. How was “Greendale” born?
Neil Young: Well, it started, of course, as a record. There was no concept at the beginning to do a story or anything… the songs kind of dictated what happened. And as the songs came out, as I wrote them, I could tell that a story was developing and I just went along with it. We were almost watching the thing unfold for the first time ourselves as I was doing the songs. I knew I had enough of a story to make a movie. Whether it was a real movie or not didn’t matter, just the fact that we could do it — do it cheaply with super-8 — so it wasn’t too much of a challenge for us, a lot of the decision making was already made. To go ahead and make the film was pretty well a cakewalk, taking the soundtrack and mapping out what we needed, where the locations were and just bangin’ them out. We did most of the film in about 12-14 days.
iW: You mentioned super-8. Can you talk a bit about the cameras and your methods?
Young: Well, it’s mostly super-8 — I was all super-8, handheld a lot of the time, with a Eumig Nautica. It’s an 18-frames-per-second underwater camera, which has hardly any dials on it at all; there’s not much you can do wrong so it was good for me. When we had the movie done and thought it was pretty cool, it was time for me to go on the road to Europe. I went over and I was doing solo acoustic shows for about six weeks, and all I did was play “Greendale,” and tell the story in-between the songs and that’s where the DVD that comes with the record came from.
Then we took about three weeks off and did the Crazy Horse tour of the U.S., and again I felt like I wanted to do “Greendale” with Crazy Horse. So I had to create the stage play, and I mapped that all out, and then we went on the tour and we filmed it. That gave us another product, which was a live version, a stage play. So now we got the CD, and a coming live CD, and the live show, and the “Greendale” rehearsals, which is the sort of scoring of “Greendale,” and then there’s the film, and then there’s the book. I didn’t have to sit down and write it. We recorded it all and then I had it transcribed, and then we just stuck it all together. I didn’t pay any attention to fixing it. I didn’t try to make it right.
iW: A lot of people may not think of you as a director, but you’ve directed five films now; do you have plans to do more?
Young: Well, I do feel like doing more, I had so much fun that I wanna do more. It comes very easily to me. You know, I’ve been around the track a few times making records, and people tend to put me in a box. They try to put me in a box and say what I can do and what I can’t do. It’s been like that for years, so it doesn’t matter, but this gives me a chance to do something new that’s rewarding. The way I make a film it’s sorta like how I make a record. That’s the way I wanna do it; I wanna do it impulsively and I wanna do it at my own pace, which is fast. And I don’t like getting hung up on technical difficulties. I don’t give a shit about the technical aspect of it. We try to use what some people might consider to be mistakes to create a sense of urgency about what we’re talking about. It’s realism. Also, super-8 is cheap, so it has two good qualities. It’s really cheap! (laughs)
iW: What are the directors or movies that you love?
Young: Well, I was talking before about a film called “Crazy Quilt” by John Korty (1966), which I really love, although I can’t remember a lot of it. And I like “Lord of the Rings” for the modern stuff. It’s nice to know that a great story like that can be told, and it certainly is a great artistic achievement. That group of people did a great job, and I like fantasy.
iW: I’m curious, tell me about this biodiesel fuel you’re starting to use on tour.
Young: It’s a very Sun Green idea. There are eight buses and five trucks on the road with us. They consume a lot of diesel fuel, so we’re changing that. We’re gonna run ’em on biodiesel, which is not petroleum based at all, it’s vegetable based, and it can be grown here in North America. There will be no damage done to the ozone during our tour by our vehicles. The only reason I’m doing this is because it has to do with the end of “Greendale.” It has to do with the kind of things that “Greendale” stands for. That’s where Sun Green is going, and if she can get enough followers that do those kinds of things, then it can make a difference.
iW: Speaking of the end, “Greendale” opens with the line “Grandpa said to Cousin Jed/ sittin’ on the porch/ I won’t retire but I might retread.” That made me wonder, are you ever going to retire?
Young: I don’t know what else I’d do. I mean, you know, sometimes I get tired and I feel like I gotta stop for a while, and I do. I’ve been going hard with this, but this is its time. This is the moment for “Greendale,” so I have to give it all the support I can. All the things I used to count on to get my music out there — record companies, they’re all gone. And radio stations, they’re gone — they’re completely controlled by the government. If they’re not controlled by the government, they’re controlled by a programmer who’s controlled by the government. Mainstream radio is suspect. You can’t trust it. It’s not gonna play what it wants to play because it doesn’t know what it wants, because it doesn’t think — it’s not paid to think, it’s paid not to think, to just do.
So now all I’ve got left is satellite radio, which is great. I don’t have MTV — I got nothin’ that gets to kids, so I’m using this now. I’m using the tour, the movie, all kinds of different ways — all these different ways of telling a story — because I gotta keep pounding on any hole that I can to get it through.