Andrew Dominik has created a gorgeous, immersive, and emotional experience in “One More Time With Feeling.” Sprung from the grief of Nick Cave, it is black-and-white, 3D, and a music documentary like no other.
I screened it in the basement of the Australian filmmaker’s Laurel Canyon home, then spoke with Dominik on iPhone video as he smoked an American Spirit on his patio, then inside on iPhone audio over a bowl of spaghetti bolognese. The film will premiere at the Venice International Film Festival.
Dominik first met his fellow countryman because they both once dated the same woman, who is the mother of Dominik’s child. Cave would call her on the phone and the two men would chat; they got along. “Nick Cave was like Jesus in Melbourne where I’m from,” said Dominik. “He’s a person people had a wide array of feelings about. People loved him, were jealous of him, hated him — he was dangerous, and he was notorious, like an outlaw. I didn’t want to like the guy: I was in love with this girl, and he was her ex-boyfriend.”
They eventually became close friends. Cave and one of the Bad Seeds, Warren Ellis, composed the music for Dominik’s 2007 Brad Pitt western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Dominik admires Cave’s honesty. “He’s one of the only rock-and -rollers who writes songs about impotence, not being able to get it up, that’s pretty fantastic,” he said. “There’s not many areas where he’s not prepared to look.”
There’s one. In the summer of 2015, tragedy struck as Cave was in the middle of recording his 16th album with the Bad Seeds, “Skeleton Tree.” Cave’s son Arthur took a high dose of LSD and plunged to his death off a Brighton cliff at the age of 15, leaving behind his twin brother Earl.
The day before the “Skeleton Tree” album is released September 9, the documentary that arose out of that devastating accident, “One More Time With Feeling,” will be shown one time only in 1,000 cinemas around the world. Aimed at his fans, Nick Cave commissioned and financed the Dominik film in order to protect himself from having to do promotion for the album.
“As you imagine, it has been a catastrophic event for the Cave family,” said Dominik. “They’re traumatized. Nick decided to go along and finish the record. When he realized he had to promote the record, the thought made him feel sick: talking to journalists, discussing Arthur. He didn’t feel he could do it with strangers. The initial instinct for Nick was to protect himself, so he didn’t have to answer questions. It becomes the only subject that there is, all the film is dealing with is Nick’s grief feelings.”
In today’s DIY music world, Cave has no record company, and self-finances his records and their promotion. He may release portions of “One More Time with Feeling” as music videos. “He’s not expecting to make money out of the film,” said Dominik. “His best hope is to break even.”
The doc started filming in February, a mere six months after Arthur’s death. “It was so raw,” said Dominik, who wanted to come through for his friend in a selfless way. (Like Wim Wenders on 3D doc “Pina,” he’s serving another artist.) But he also wanted to make a good movie, even as he and his crew were intruding on “a major artist who is going through a traumatic event in his life, who is an intensely private person, suspicious of outsiders,” he said. “He let a group of people into his life at a vulnerable point and he’s sharing who he is at that moment. The atmosphere as everybody was doing it was extraordinary—it was a real, authentic situation.”
Dominik left many emotional bits on the cutting room floor because “they weren’t interesting… There was always a lot of confusion: how to deal with the subject, whether the film is exploitative in some way, exploits a tragedy. What’s the difference between somebody creating a portrait of a person going through an extraordinary experience, and at what point is it a little bit off, like grief porn? That was a constant worry, for me and obviously for him.”
So, the two artists made a deal. “I could shoot anything I wanted to shoot and ask him anything I wanted to ask and if there was anything he didn’t like he could cut it out,” said Dominik. “He’s talking about grief, how you deal with it, how to cope with it. That’s what everyone wants to know. How does he feel, what’s it like to lose a child and what does it feel like, what does that mean in terms of your life? Because they haven’t stopped living, life goes on. There’s a constant attempt in the film to always frame him against life, to get that sense of life going on outside, the possibility for life to intrude and get in our way, be put in a situation where things out of our control can happen. That’s the way people reveal themselves.”
“One More Time with Feeling” was filmed in 10 days in black-and-white 2D and 3D with a crew of seven (including two 3D technicians). The doc weaves together 35 elegantly photographed minutes of Cave and the Bad Seeds performing songs from their new album at London’s Air Studios, with improvised off-the-cuff conversations with Dominik and Ellis, Cave and his wife Susie — in a London cab, on a Brighton beach and at the Caves’ sunlit home — as well as Cave’s own voiceover rumination, often recorded on his iPhone.
Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Look Back” was one inspiration for the film, including the taxi interviews. “It’s London, it’s a guy who’s a poet, it’s supposed to be verite,” said Dominik. “But it’s a guy trying to make a record, and there’s all this noise around him and inside him is an inner voice that is constantly struggling and trying to deal with his feelings. It’s about giving them a narrative structure that can help him make some sense of something that doesn’t make a lot of sense. That’s the whole ambition of the film. It’s supposed to portray the confusion and the beauty.”
Despite its visual composition, Dominik said even the music video stuff is improvised. “We pull in things, lights on dimmers, circular dolly tracks, pieces of gear, to come up with a basic visual strategy,” he said. “It’s performance, so the camera has to be in the right place at the right time, he’s not going to sing it over and over. A song like ‘I Need You’ is three takes, after that the voice starts to crap out.”
Why black-and-white and 3D? Well, why not. ” There’s a spareness and special quality to the music,” said Dominik, who admitted he had “no idea what the film was going to be. It was completely improvised. There was no plan other than we were going to shoot the songs, and I got the idea of voiceovers just before we started shooting. I told him what I wanted him to do, not polished. Anything he thought… He would just record things, record his dream, send it to me in a Dropbox. He sent me hours of stuff. I built sequences around pieces of things.”
He researched 3D with cinematographer Benoît Debie, who had shot Gaspar Noe’s “Love.” “He said, ‘You can do it.’ He’s amazing, he’s so not precious.”
Dominik had never worked with such a small crew for such a short time, not even in his film-school days, and he loved it. “The great thing about making a documentary is you can’t prepare for it. This is the first time ever I’ve gone to work and not had any idea what I was going to do that day. It’s also great to be recording people doing something more important than what you’re doing. You have to fit in with them. It doesn’t revolve around you.”
For Dominik, the film “is about the creative process, because it’s being created out of nothing as we’re going. We’re filming it and the film is turning into what it’s going to be. I don’t think perfection is your friend, it’s the enemy. The film is just a bunch of scraps. There’s nothing I like more than getting a piece of sound and voiceover that seems poetic. We go through and cut the day down. Some bits sound interesting, we take pieces of voiceover and run it over. Most of it is shit, but then these amazing collisions happen. Things you’d never think of doing consciously, often have a feeling.”
Meanwhile, Dominik is finally getting to make his eight-year project “Blonde,” based on the Joyce Carol Oates book about Marilyn Monroe. Netflix is making the film possible at long last. (He’s cast someone to start in January, but won’t say who.) “I’m very grateful,” he said. “My idea with the film is to make something a little more accessible than what I’ve done before. It moves a bit faster.”