"You just end up touring around with them and you're hanging out in hotels and meeting people like Pharrell and Mick Jagger. Then I met Morrisey, which was like 'Okay retire now, I've met Morrissey!'. You just end up meeting all these amazing people backstage at all these festivals...."
To celebrate the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival, we caught up with director and musician Tim van Dammen to discuss his new film 'Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song' and hanging out with Pharrell...
COUP DE MAIN: 'Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song' was originally written as a musical stage show, but how else is this version different from the traditional star-struck lovers tale?
TIM VAN DAMMEN: I think it was put on as a stage show for a couple of week in England, but I was just given a couple of CDs with 38 songs on them and asked if I could turn these songs into a movie. The way it differs - well so many different ways - it's a opera which means there's no dialogue, it's a trashy campground setting, and I tried to get as far away from the standard treatment of just a couple of rich bratty kids. I had to come up with a solution for all these various things that I wanted to achieve, so my initial thing was like 'Okay, they're rapping original Shakespeare dialogue in some of the first scenes, you can't treat that with earnest,' because people will just be like what the... it just won't work. It had to have a sort of knowingness to it. It had to be aware that what it was doing was quite strange, otherwise you would just alienate everyone. So I thought well what if it has a sort of bad-taste setting? Then I started thinking about what if it's Romanian gypsies and really underplaying everything with just rubbish everywhere and stray dogs and cigarette buts, but then you've got these couple of really beautiful kids that stand out against all the trash. The more I played with that idea I thought I think I can make this work as a sort of comic-trash opera, and then as the film develops I can move away from the comedy and start sucking into the actual main line of the story, of the love story. I felt I really needed to have a comic tone for the first act in order for people to not just think that it was either too weird or something like that.
CDM: The film has been described as a 'Grungy Rock Opera', what influence does music have in telling the story?
TIM: The music was both good and bad because it can set a mood really well but it also paces the scene for you. That was one of the most difficult things about trying to direct actors to music, because often the music is written for it to be in time and to rhyme and to make sense musically. Dramatically, if doesn't give the actors time to have a dramatic beat to change and their responses don't work, so we really had to cut and add in bits and pauses later to get those dramatic beats across. I think that they really did nail the mood of the scenes and the tone of the music, which is a great help. The music is still a major part of it and it was hard to find that balance of keeping it a major part but not having it just overpower the drama. You don't want anything to be distracting. Once people have eased into the world and the film which is the hardest part, which is why the first fifteen minutes is just ridiculous because i thought i'll just go completely extreme so that people just say what the hell is going on, so they're not so weirded out when the story starts. Then all the things that are weird about the way that we did it, don't seem weird anymore because you've already seen something that's just bizarre.
CDM: So you have said that 'This Romeo and Juliet is for the YouTube generation' - could you please expand on that?
TIM: For me, there was the movie generation which was the nineties. Then there was the rise of HBO and pretty much anything good is now on TV. Then you've got the rise of YouTube, the next wave, which is pretty much what is happening now. I completely agree with Stephen Speilburg and George Lucus who say in another ten years, there just won't be cinema. So for me, it's about people that grew up on YouTube who see a DVD and go what's that? There's so much exposure to things on YouTube that, in order to do something interesting and refreshing, it needs to be that much more different. Now, people have seen everything. That's what I mean by the YouTube generation - it's a film for people who have seen everything, and still they should see something new in this.
CDM: In your opinion, what is the difference between a good film and a great film?
TIM: A good film is a story that's well told. Well, there's lots of different ways it can be good, because something that can be directed really well but the writing just hasn't been good. To me, a great film is something that evokes a mood that stays with you. Something that has a 'aftertaste'. Then there can just be technical displays of awesomeness. The films I like the most are the ones that are well written, and some that are well directed even if the script isn't very good. It's something about a mood and a presence, so the film feels like something more than just a script that's been shot.
CDM: What inspires or influences your creative process?
TIM: I just watch a huge amount of crap online. I just like stupid shit. I'll just watch so much stuff on YouTube that often times that can be good, or just talking about stupid stuff with my friends. It depends, like I'm a massive New Zealand history buff so one of the things that sparks my imagination the most is to places where things that you8've read about have really happened. I love all that New Zealand history and that early settler stuff and so I've been on a few trips around the country where all this sort of stuff happened, and it's just like an imagined history of your own.
CDM: Do you have any interesting or funny anecdotes from any of the projects that you have worked on?
TIM: I've got plenty from when I was touring with the band [Collapsing Cities] because we were signed to a top management company that had all the top UK people. So we'd be touring with all these fancy people and then we would stay in some shot hotel in the middle of nowhere, but we made quite good friends with these people. We had no money, so we'd just be staying there, and there would be people like Pharrell and there would be just all these big guys who you'd talk with and hang out with. We'd do stuff like run down the hallways and look for room service that had been left outside and that's how we'd have dinner. Just craziness.
CDM: Are there any other upcoming projects on your to-do list?
TIM: Yeah we're working on two at the moment, we've got two in development. One is an early New Zealand film, surprise surprise, which I've been trying to do for ages and ages. I keep having to think of new ways to do it because I need to downsize because people hear 'period piece New Zealand' and they automatically think idiot, that's going to cost a trillion dollars and on one's interested in watching it. The way that we're gonna do it, it's gonna cost bugger all and it's gonna be awesome and everyone will want to watch it. It's difficult because people just have that instant 'no', but we just have to go and do it. Then the other one is another musical project that I'm going to work on. After doing [Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song], everything will just seem like a piece of cake because we've had to put up with such restrictive circumstances…that it's put me in good stead to tackle any problem.
CDM: What has been a highlight of your career so far?
TIM: Director-wise, winning the Vodafone music award was pretty up there for me because I was not expecting anything like that. The first year I got nominated I didn't even know what it was, and even after the event and everything I still didn't even know that is was a 'thing'. It was just the first music video I'd ever made back in New Zealand that wasn't for my own band so I didn't even understand, and I was so embarrassed about it too, I was just this is no good they're gonna hate it. Then I sent it off to Andy at Sola Rosa and he was just like this is awesome. The one that I actually won, that was pretty awesome because I worked my ass off when I was making videos, i was doing more than one a week, and I was doing everything. It was a massive relief to know that I wasn't killing myself for nothing. Another highlight was screening the film for the first time to all the investors and people that actually put their family's money into the film, and the cast and the crew that had put in all their creative energy and technical skills - that was massive highlight too. You get the sense that they're all happy with what you've done with it. It's a mixture of relief and a little bit of pride, you just feel good about yourself knowing that you didn't screw it up.
In my musical career there was several milestones with that, like being signed in the UK to Nathan Goff who used to manage the Happy Mondays and now he's managing White Lies and they had Crystal Castles, Franz Ferdinanda and Kaiser Chiefs. You just end up touring around with them and you're hanging out in hotels and meeting people like Pharrell and Mick Jagger. Then I met Morrissey, which was like, 'Okay retire now, I've met Morrissey!' You just meet all these amazing people backstage at all these festivals.
CDM: What is left on your bucket list that you'd really like to achieve?
TIM: I would really like to make an internationally successful film, that would be one thing, and travel with that. I would like to spend more time in the States. I've spend a lot of time in LA and New York and I really love it there, so I would like to live there for a while. I real love for our band to record another album. There's plenty of things and various people I would still like to meet. I'd love to live, this is sort of the other end of the scale, but I love cooking so would love a place when I could grow my own vegetables and have my own cows and all my own animals and live self-sustainably for like five years cause I think that would be awesome.
Watch the trailer for 'Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song' below...