Raygunesque #19: An Interview With Julien Temple For Absolute Beginners
In the middle of the 1980s, the much feted film adaptation of Absolute Beginners had everything going for it. One of the hottest directors in British film, whose CV included Sex Pistols flick The Great Rock N Roll Swindle was at the helm; the bright young things from hip new production outfit Palace Pictures were putting it together; David Bowie not only penned the theme song but had also agreed to star, while scores of cool names were lining up to specially record new material for its soundtrack. The book the film was based on, meanwhile, had always remained on must-read lists among those in the know; jazz was back in vogue thanks to the likes of the capital's Wag Club. The nascent style press, particularly The Face, and the music press were all behind it. Meanwhile, David Cameron and his wealthy chums were a long way off moving into its setting of Notting Hill yet, the locale was still the place to be.
What, everyone thought, could possibly go wrong?
Well, as it turned out, pretty much everything.
Script problems – the book is, as director Julien Temple admits now, talking ahead of a first ever Blu-Ray release for the film 30 years after its initial bow, not that exciting; budget problems and a British press eager to give the young upstarts behind it a kicking, were just the start of its woes.
"It was a nightmare atmosphere," Temple says now, "one we were partially responsible for creating."
Its problems, catalogued in, among other places, the excellent book about the rise and fall of Palace, The Egos Have Landed, began with the tome itself. While Colin Macinnes' slim novel is a much revered text, it's light on plot and heavy on observation, as it charts a changing London, with growing youth culture and music movements set against a backdrop of social and political upheaval.
As Temple now admits: “The book is very limited, it’s not a great involving story, it’s not a big thrilling read, it’s more of an observational thing.” The script problems dogged it throughout; many believe it started production before the issues with its narrative were sorted, leading to endless tinkering.
But that was nothing compared to its financial woes.
These problems too were never fully addressed, as Temple now wryly notes, it wasn’t necessary profligacy during the shoot, it’s more that the budget was never properly worked out. “We were a million pounds over-budget before we’d even started filming,” he says.
There was the overriding ambition of Temple and the producers too.
Temple was drawn to London in 1958 as much as the book, which, he says, “describes this amazing summer, nighttime in Shaftesbury Avenue…” One day, as legend has it, “they’ll make a musical about this”.
“I was coming out of the punk thing,” he says, “I wanted to do something as unhip as possible. I wouldn’t want to do a Ken Loach-style Absolute Beginners. There are other ways of doing things. I was trying to make it socially aware, a social commentary, but in a form that was the antithesis of social commentary. At that point that was a musical.”
He continues: “Unusually for a musical, it has themes about immigration and the emergence of young people as a cultural force in England. It was all played out to a backdrop of race riots, it felt in 1985 we were on the verge of something similar.
“It has parallels today too,” he adds.
As production began, the sweeping opening scene, a tracking shot over the vast set built to represent London’s swinging Soho, became ever-more ambitious. “The whole look and feel of it was something I became obsessed about,” admits Temple.
Club faces from The Wag, then the capital’s hippest nightspot, were recruited as extras. “They came straight to the set from clubs in the morning, a lot of them slept on the set,” says Temple. “They partied there too. I like that aspect of the film, it’s a document of that time – 1985 when we shot it, being a kind of mirror of 1958.”
While that may have been fun, the budget was never truly locked down, while the hype was building to a level that was setting them up for a fall…
“When we couldn’t get the money, we started talking to the Face about it, the NME. We were going into meetings with all these magazines. We created the hype about the film in order to get it made. It became a national news story at the time, people were reviewing it without seeing it.”
The traditional film industry weren’t happy about these upstarts, while backers at Goldcrest, further weighted down by making the likes of Revolution, which had entirely different and arguably bigger budgetary problems of its own, were becoming increasingly nervous.
“It wasn't as if we went out of control,” suggests Temple now. But, as he recalls, after the shooting had wrapped, he was thrown off the film. “We were fired immediately. we didn’t get to edit it.” Worried backers installed their own team. “They had three editors, one for the beginning, one for the middle and one for the end. They worked for about three or four months.”
When they struggled to get a coherent finished product out of it, Temple finally got to have a crack at editing himself, but had a lot less time to do it: “We came back over Christmas we had two weeks to try and make sense of it. We just didn’t have the time.”
Much of the fortnight was spent painstakingly reassembling and rescuing the opening scene from the cutting room floor. The film never recovered, at least not in this country. It was panned, Palace, Goldcrest and others were left severely wounded by the debacle and Temple ended up being shunned by the British film industry.
“In those days, if you were 25 year old, you’d be told to come back in 40 years if you wanted to direct a film. You had to start sweeping the floor, work your way up for years, then you might be able to shoot a film.
“We weren’t meant to make the film and we got a spanking.”
Critical brickbats flying their way, poor box office and the financial fallout from the film dogged Temple afterwards.
“We were just creating a hype about the film to get it financed but myself and the producers, we were to blame for everything. I was accused of destroying the British film industry. It became an albatross around my neck, it made it impossible for me to get funding from the BFI. I had to leave England to continue working, I went to America.”
The US received it far better (“it was the greatest film in the world according to some”), while European territories, such as Spain, Italy and France, also welcomed it.
Although he’s not a fan of anniversaries per se – “people have to have a year,” he says, noting that the same case applies to punk, 40 years old in 2016, as well as Absolute Beginners, celebrating its 30th anniversary – he does believe that the film is ripe for reassessment. It deserves more really,” he says. “I think now was a good time.”
The newly transferred Blu-ray looks a treat, the opening shot alone really comes to life and it’s one Temple’s highlights. “That was one of its main achievements,” he says.
Of course, its release now comes as Soho moves into another great period of change – if in 1985 there were still a few reminders of its late 1950s heyday and plenty of sleaze on the streets, today, it’s a different beast all together. Some of the clubs featured in the film had been there since the 1950s and before (“just with different names”) and as he says now, “the hookers were still there”. “We tried to make a magic version of it,” he says, “now it’s gone.”
And then there’s David Bowie, whose presence looms large over the film. “Sadly,” Temple says, “the film gains more interest because of [his death], that’s not what anyone would have wanted.”
Temple was close to the singer, and pays tribute to his involvement. “I’m still finding it hard to believe he’s not around. That was an amazing moment, when he said I’ve got a song to play for you [the theme, one of Bowie’s great later period pop outings], and he played the song pretty much as he recorded it. He put a lot into it.”
Working with Bowie, and the likes of jazz great Gil Evans on the score, as well as a host of other names, makes, Temple suggests, the experience worthwhile. “I’m proud it’s a musical,” he concludes, “the music is great.”
How does Temple view the film as a whole now? “There was a naivety, we made lots of mistakes. The film is flawed in various ways. My main feeling is one of being proud to have survived it. It was a difficult thing to crawl away from the wreckage of it.”
Temple, of course, has now cemented his career as a documentary filmmaker, working on such titles as the excellent Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer and Dr Feelgood documentaries, as well as the cracking London documentary London: The Modern Babylon.
“I’ve been trying to make up for lost time,” he laughs. “But maybe if Absolute Beginners had been successful, I’d have been found floating upside down in a swimming pool after an overdose.”
Absolute Beginners is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Second Sight Films,