Niall McCann is making a name for himself as a documentary maker that looks at creativity under neo-liberalism. His feature on Luke Haines got rave reviews from those lucky enough to see it at film festivals. His recent Lost in France is about the seminal Glasgow record label Chemikal Underground. Martin Leen sat down with him to chat about making art in these market-driven times.
Lost in France is a great documentary on many different levels. How did it come about?
My Luke Haines film (Art Will Save The World) didn’t come out due to complex production company issues. I suppose the thing I didn’t realise at the time but you learn as you get older, is that when you are a filmmaker even if you write and direct a film unless you own the production company you don’t own the film. Young filmmakers should always find people to work with who they can trust.
So, I spent about two years trying to get it released while also trying to come up with another film, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t feel that I wanted to make a fiction film, because the budgets I deal with are tiny. It made sense to me after making a film about Luke Haines who was so important to me when I was growing up, to look back again.
The music that came out of Glasgow in the mid 90’s was very important to me when I was growing up particularly Arab Strap and Mogwai. No one had made a documentary about that scene around it so I reached out to those guys.
I met Aidan Moffat from Arab Strap at a gig in the Grand Social in 2012 and I just went up to him and told him I had made a film about Luke which he had seen and liked, and told him I wanted to talk to him about making a film together. Aidan is a good guy he gave me his e-mail address and we stayed in touch. Over the next year or so we tried to figure out an approach to making a film.
I knew I wanted it to be a bit different to my first film which was about one person. I wanted it to be about a collective of people. I went over to Glasgow and met a lot of people who had been in that scene. I was amazed that these guys came from a place like Glasgow or Falkirk and had these really leftfield artistic approaches to indie music or whatever you want to call it, and that they didn’t really give a fuck, which I thought was amazing because I always gave too much of a fuck myself.
Using the trip to Mauron as a narrative hook was a great idea, and kind of made the film part documentary part road trip. How did you come up with this?
I asked Aidan about his big memories from that time and he told me about when Arab Strap, Mogwai and The Delgados started out and he told me about this trip they took to the French town of Mauron, where they played a festival in 1997. I came up with the idea of recreating this trip because I didn’t want the film to be just all talking heads.
In many ways I think I kind of fucked myself because a lot of people think that the trip to France was very important. But it isn’t, it’s just an instrument to get people talking. There were many times over in Glasgow when I got the people involved in the scene in a room together but I couldn’t really get them to talk about it. Scottish people are like Irish people, we are not good at talking about ourselves. So the bit of distance allowed people to open up.
It’s weird. There is a bit of a road trip element in all of my films. There is in the new one as well, maybe it’s just me wanting to go traveling when I get a bit of money.
While on the surface it’s a music documentary, it’s about much more than that and is very reflective of the times we live in?
Well, I suppose it’s a bit of a cliché but a good music film is not just about music, you do need good characters. I thought for a long time that Lost in France was a lament for stuff that is lost, that type of music industry or that type of world where you had to save up for an album before you went and bought it. These days everything is now so immediate if you want to hear something you have immediate access to it. I’ve loads of friends who never buy music; they just illegally download everything because music means nothing to them.
I thought that it was quite telling that everyone I spoke to in Glasgow, everyone I spoke to in the music industry said that something like Chemikal Underground could never happen now. It could happen in the way you guys do Rabble where you do it as something you are passionate about, but it’s not something you take an income from anymore, where everyone involved can make a living. So the film is a lament for that world but it’s also a celebration of what those guys did.
Another key point that comes across from the musicians/bands in Lost in France is that the welfare state supported them when they started out, that the dole gave them the space and time to make their art. The movie is also a kind of a lament for that kind of a welfare state.
Yes, the thing that interests me most is that I don’t think that Chemikal Underground could happen now but not just for reasons to do with the internet. There have been real socio-economic changes that have happened in the meantime, the world has shifted to the right. There is not the support there now, particularly in working class communities for people to grow and develop into bands.
I’m not saying all the Chemikal Underground crew were working class loads of them weren’t. But at that time in Glasgow, Manchester and former industrial centres in Britain if you were from a council estate you could end up being in band and end up making it. It seems to me that working class communities seem intentionally more disenfranchised by governments now. It’s not a coincidence that when the lads were starting in the 90’s the welfare state was not a dirty word, it is now, particularly in Britain, it seems to be going that way here too.
I think that shift to a place where the arts become a hobby unless you are independently wealthy is quite worrying. What sort of art it will lead to in 10 years time. I can see in film those who can afford to indulge are the ones who are making films because with the time you need to spend it’s impossible otherwise. Especially in places like Dublin. Look at rents in Dublin, how can someone who decides I can’t have a 9 to 5 because I’m working on this script, you decide I’ll stay on the dole, then the dole are at you the whole time. It’s very difficult not to feel totally worthless when you are on social welfare because you notice all this shit that is written about people on social welfare in the press.
Could you tell us a little about the first film you made Art Will Save The World?
It was a look at Luke Haines life and work. But again it was using Luke’s story to look at other things. What the Luke film is about in my mind is if you rely on the market to tell you what’s good you’re in very troubled waters. In the film every time Luke has an album released I list other stuff that was released and successful at the same time like Kylie, The Spice Girls and all that sort of stuff.
We live in a world at the moment where lots of people think that if you are in the arts and you don’t make a lot of money you mustn’t be very good. This idea that if you are successful you are good. In my view a lot of the best and most interesting artists are the least successful. The movie is also asking the question can you sum up someone’s life in a film which of course you can’t. It’s me taking the piss.
Your films are all about these kind of maverick stubborn bloody-minded people like Luke Haines, Stuart Henderson and Adrian Crowley.
That is something I admire. You need to be that way. It takes years to make a film.
Follow Lost In France on social meeja for upcoming screenings here and there!