The View From Here

Bootleggers, bounty hunters and gangsters: a handy guide to the films of Nick Cave

Bootleggers, bounty hunters and gangsters: a handy guide to the films of Nick Cave
Michael Bonner

With a new Nick Cave documentary, 20,000 Days On Earth, due to open in the UK next month, I thought it a good time to dust down a piece I wrote on Cave's film career for our 2013 Ultimate Music Guide dedicated to Cave.

Incidentally, you can read a preview of the new documentary here.

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner

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Nick Cave can often seem rather modest about his extra-curricular activities in the movies. Speaking to The Guardian in 2006, he compared his involvement on one picture to a “cog in the machine. I had no responsibility… it wasn’t my film.” Last year, he told Uncut that he saw himself “at the bottom of the heap” when it came to the pecking order on a film set. But however much Cave downplays his work as a scriptwriter, soundtrack composer or occasional actor, these are still recognisably Nick Cave projects, sharing overlapping themes and obsessions with his songs. And while Cave’s songwriting has been to some degree mellowed by clean-living, marriage and fatherhood, his film scripts still feel like an extension of his ’80s musical output, steeped in lurid violence and preoccupied with Old Testament notions of good versus evil. Certainly, the characters who populate his screenplays for Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead (1988), The Proposition (2005) and Lawless (2012) are prison inmates, corrupt lawmen, bootleggers, bounty hunters, gangsters and sociopaths – people, in other words, who would not appear out of place in one of Cave’s fabled murder ballads. If you were looking for a thread that links all of Cave’s films, you could do worse than start with one of his own song titles: “People Ain’t No Good”.

The inmates at Central Industrial Prison, located deep in the Australian outback, are one such collection of ne’er-do-wells: “The prison system’s most violent, unmanageable and predatory inmates”, they’ve been on lockdown for 37 months by the time Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead – which Cave appears in and also co-wrote – begins. We see the events that led up to the lockdown unfold in flashback, mostly through the eyes of new inmate Wenzil (David Field). Shooting using onscreen captions, multiple voiceovers, computer graphics and CCTV footage, debuting director John Hillcoat creates a raw, semi-documentary feel, which suits the film’s narrative flow well: lengthy stretches of inaction intercut with explosive moments of extreme violence.

The film is already primed to go off before they introduce Cave’s character, Maynard, nearly an hour into the film, dressed in orange overalls, hands cuffed and hair cropped tight to his scalp. “Here goes the neighbourhood,” he snarls, before launching into a foul-mouthed stream of racist invective, the catalyst that finally tips the prison population over the edge. “There weren’t many actors per se in the film,” admits Cave in an interview on the Ghosts… DVD Extras. “It was a bunch of general psychos, ex-prisoners, hobos, rock stars, failed artists, dead beat poets and general riff raff who got together to make a film about a prison.” In fact, Ghosts… had its roots in the late-’70s Melbourne scene. Producer/co-writer Evan English and cinematographer Paul Goldman first worked with Cave in 1979, when they directed the video for the Boys Next Door song, “Shivers”; they also made The Birthday Party’s “Nick The Stripper” video two years later, with John Hillcoat as editor. Arguably, Maynard feels like the logical extension of the ‘Nick The Stripper’ character – raging against the world, brimming with hate. The word ‘HELL’ smeared in red across Cave’s chest in the “Nick The Stripper” video is echoed in the ghastly cock and balls Maynard scrawls on his prison wall with his own blood.

“Nick was a bit wild at the time, and it just suited his particular state to let him go off,” Hillcoat told me. “We just had this basic plan of this guy entering the unit and just being so obnoxious. He drew on some experience when he was in a lock-up in New York, and we reference self-mutilation, which was very popular in high security prisons. He got all these aspects and just ran with them. He couldn’t learn lines and work in a traditional sense. So we just let him rip. Even the ex-inmates who’d done a lot of hard time were wary of Nick.”

Ghosts… debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988: a busy year for Cave, as it turned out. Not only did the Bad Seeds release Tender Prey, but aside from his co-writing and acting work on Ghosts…, Cave also found time to compose the film’s soundtrack with Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld. It’s a discomforting mix of brooding synth lines and treated strings – accompanied by the occasional lone flute or the unearthly keening of Cave’s former partner, Anita Lane – which wouldn’t sound out of place on a horror film. The soundtrack album features excerpts from the film’s voiceovers layered over the music. Eight years later, Cave, Harvey and Bargeld reconvened to score John Hillcoat’s second film as director, To Have And To Hold, about a man obsessed with his late wife. It’s an unusual detour into lush, melodramatic instrumentals and elegant string arrangements – the kind of score that could have easily graced an old Hollywood movie.

It took nearly 10 years for Cave’s next film to make it to the screen. The Proposition – again a collaboration with Hillcoat – started filming in summer 2004, after almost a decade of rewrites, financing problems and scheduling conflicts that saw cast members (including Russell Crowe and Liam Neeson) come and go. The Proposition is to some extent a film about individuals struggling to survive in a hostile and dangerous environment – a recurring theme of all Cave’s screenplays. Set in a fly-infested Australian wilderness during the 1880s, the focus here is on the three Burns brothers, on the run from the law. At the heart of Cave’s script is the relationship between Arthur (Danny Huston), the eldest and the most savage of the Burns brothers, and Charlie (Guy Pearce), the middle brother – who is required to kill Arthur in order to save their imprisoned youngest brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson) from the noose. The Burns are “like animals in a cage”, says Pearce in the DVD Extras. Arthur – “a monster, an abomination”, pitched somewhere between Ned Kelly and Colonel Kurtz – carries himself like a character from a folk song, sitting “up there in those melancholy hills. Some say he sleeps in caves like a beast, slumbers deep like the Kraken. The blacks say he is a spirit. The troopers will never catch him. Common force is meaningless, as he squats up there on his impregnable perch.”

Cave’s screenplay invokes the moral ambiguity and violence of Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist westerns, but he tempers it with lyrical prose similar to Cormac McCarthy, another Cave favourite. (It’s seems apt that each night Arthur Burns sits and watches the sun set over the desert – the “evening redness in the West”, as McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian is subtitled.) Cave revels in his decorously antiquated dialogue. “I was a believer,” begins John Hurt’s grizzled bounty hunter, Jellon Lamb. “But, alas, I came to this beleaguered land and the God in me just evaporated. Let us change our toast to the God who has forgotten us.”

But The Proposition is more than just elegant wordplay and gunfights. There is a rich subtext, too, about the attempts of the colonial English
to maintain propriety in an untameable land. A montage of black and white photographs runs over the opening credits, mixing pictures of the cast in character alongside real pictures from the late 19th Century showing such starchy, English scenes as a group of women dressed in their Sunday best sitting primly in front of a piano, while in another a white man stands stiffly alongside his eight-man Aboriginal cricket team. “I will civilise this place,” swears Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone); later, a group of drunken British policemen sing “Rule Britannia” while their Aboriginal trackers sit indifferently behind them. The conflict Cave explores here is as much between the Burns and Captain Stanley as it is between man and nature, and also between white European settler and indigenous Aborigine. In this respect, you could place The Proposition alongside films that address Australia’s troubled racial history like Fred Schepisi’s The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978).

With hindsight, you can argue that the score for The Proposition – the first by Cave and his new adjutant, Warren Ellis – forms part of a triptych of soundtrack albums that share a particularly ruminative tone and sensibility. Along with Cave and Ellis’ score for The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007) and The Road (2009), these largely consist of sparse instrumentals – often just piano and violin – that seem well suited to the rugged terrains they soundtrack, be it the Australian outback, American Midwest or a post-apocalyptic American Southeast. The best is arguably the Jesse James soundtrack. The film contains long stretches with no dialogue, which gives the music time to breathe: the tracks don’t just feel like cues. “Song For Jesse”, with its beautiful celeste and triangle accompaniment, is a highlight. There’s also a highlights compilation called White Lunar, which also includes Cave and Ellis’ equally atmospheric compositions for two documentaries, The English Surgeon and The Girls Of Phnom Penh.

If Cave’s earlier soundtracks for Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead and To Have And To Hold are for completists only, the soundtracks for The Proposition, Jesse James and The Road feel more like substantial parts of Cave’s ongoing musical narrative – and also confirm Warren Ellis’ increasing role as Cave’s key musical collaborator. Intriguingly, Cave and Ellis are operating as ‘composers for hire’ for directors Andrew Dominik and John Hillcoat on Jesse James and The Road. All the same, the plaintive soundtrack to The Road specifically reveals how intermingled Cave and Hillcoat’s sensibilities are, to the extent that Cave often seems to be the driving force behind Hillcoat’s movies. Everything about Hillcoat’s film of The Road – based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel – feels like a Nick Cave project. In fact, since Mick Harvey left the Bad Seeds in 2009, Hillcoat can claim to be Cave’s longest-serving collaborator. “John found me because I did violence well,” Cave told Uncut last year. “I think that is what our relationship is really about, on some level.”

Cave and Hillcoat’s latest collaboration, Lawless, is a companion piece to The Proposition. It also deals with three brothers, the Bondurants, who are running their moonshine business from the hills of Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition. “Mountain boys,” we’re told, with “Indian blood in them, Cherokee. This would explain why they’re a little animalistic in their nature.” In Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), the seemingly indestructible middle brother, Cave gives us a character as mythic as The Proposition’s Arthur Burns. The remote, densely forested hills of Franklin County, meanwhile, appear in their own way just as inhospitable as the outback in The Proposition. Lawless, though, is a new undertaking for Cave: it’s his first adapted screenplay, from a 2008 novel by Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County In The World.

But it cleaves close to Cave’s own sensibilities – the stylistic nods to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, the moments of swift violence, and the patterns Bondurant divines in the story seem to reach for something more profound than a simple hillbilly gangster tale. Like Arthur Burns, Forrest’s story achieves a near-mythic status; you can imagine Forrest’s exploits passing into local folklore and celebrated in songs sung in the hills of Franklin County. Such songs are very much at the heart of the Lawless soundtrack. Here, Cave and Ellis formed a house band – the Bootleggers – with Groove Armada guitarist George Vjestica and composer/producer Dave Sardy, along with a rotating band of vocalists including Mark Lanegan, Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley, one of the few survivors from the earliest days of bluegrass. The album reimagines covers of Link Wray, Captain Beefheart, John Lee Hooker, Grandaddy, Townes Van Zandt and The Velvet Underground in the spirit of rowdy backwoods singalongs.

Maynard aside, Cave’s acting attempts have been pretty variable. Along with the Bad Seeds, he appeared in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film, Wings Of Desire, playing “From Her To Eternity” and “The Carny” in a nightclub scene; Wenders has continued to use Cave’s music in his films since. In 1991, Cave played albino rock star Freak Storm opposite Brad Pitt in Tom DiCillo’s Johnny Suede. “I don’t know too much about my daddy, except he shot a man five minutes after I was born,” he tells Pitt’s Suede. The performance is awkward, though.

He had a brief cameo as a saloon bar singer in the aforementioned The Assassination Of Jesse James…. There is also his hilarious arch narration for a 2009 animated short, The Cat Piano. Of his unmade film projects, he repurposed ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’ into his second novel, The Death Of Bunny Monro, although sadly his script for a sequel to Gladiator – written at the request of Russell Crowe – is unlikely to see daylight any time soon. Cave’s script envisaged Crowe’s character Maximus, who died at the end of the original film, resurrected by ancient gods and sent back to Earth to fight all the wars in history.

Cave shows no sign of cutting back his involvement in film. He and Hillcoat have already announced plans for their next collaboration: a contemporary crime drama set in Los Angeles called Triple Nine. Scriptwriting is “nourishing”, Cave explained to Uncut, “because it’s something you’re doing for someone else. My other job, writing songs, is so much about sitting down and writing lyrics that are centred around your own, tiresome life. To sit down and write something about someone else’s life, where you’re just a bit-part player in the whole scenario, is a lovely thing to do.”

Pic credit © Bootleg Movie, LLC

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