Director Paul Duane Discusses The Process Of Capturing The Process Of Bill Drummond: ‘Best Before Death’

On one hand, Best Before Death is a film about the artistic process of one man, Bill Drummond. The movie joins Drummond on two legs of his Twelve-Year World Tour – an artistic endeavor that aims to visit a number of cities around the world in order to complete a series of creative tasks repeated in every location. These tasks include, but are not limited to the construction of a bed, the construction of a cake circle, the banging of a drum, working as a shoe-shine boy, the recording of local artists performing a particular song from Drummond’s solo album, The Man.

On the other hand, Best Before Death is a film about the urgency of creation. It is a celebration of more than just one man on one project. The movie quietly uncovers the significance of personal ritual, private histories, and the shared experience. It is a movie about the everyday magic of simply being involved with time and space to the fullest of our abilities. It is also about the preservation of significant, unspoken truths.

Fans of Drummond and his work will revel at the idea of anyone attempting to document his process. Famous for no longer giving interviews. Reluctant to discuss his process let alone the meaning of his work, the artist protects the unknown and unknowable aspects of his world-view. Who would attempt to document the ineffable enterprise?

Director Paul Duane, whose broad catalog of work includes Natan, and the electric Barbaric Genius, is a man who appears to share Drummond’s reluctant optimism about life. It was Duane who assembled a crew to follow Bill Drummond and his friend / collaborator Tracey Moberly on location in Kolkata, India and Lexington, North Carolina.

Best Before Death has opened in the UK – and will be showing at Indie Memphis, which runs from October 30 to November 4 2019.

We sat down with Paul Duane to discuss all of the above, and some other stuff too.

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Finn: Best Before Death has been premiered. Reviews have been favorable. The film is now scheduled for showing at Indie Memphis. Has your view of the film altered now that the umbilical cord has been cut?

Paul Duane: I haven’t changed my feelings about the film, though seeing it with audiences has confirmed some of my beliefs – we always thought people would find it funny, for instance, and I’m glad they have; we hoped people would take something from Bill’s avoidance of explanation, and would forgive us for not offering a cut & dried explanation of his activities & their reasons for existing, and by & large people have gone with it and been inspired by Bill’s attitude in the way I am myself. 

That’s been a really good experience.

Finn: So, let’s head back to the beginning. Can you speak a little on the origins of the movie – when did you first hear of Bill Drummond’s ‘12-Year World Tour’, and who approached who with a view of shooting the documentary?

PD: I had completed three films in three years, each of which was a struggle in a different way, each of which was draining in different ways. I was trying to think of somebody I would feel good about spending a lot of time working with, who would not just be an interesting subject for the film but who would also be interesting to spend time working with. 

I happened to be reading a book by Bill Drummond and his writing was really speaking to that part of me that was looking for hope & inspiration. It was easy enough to get his email address, it was public at the time, so I wrote him a pretty carefully worded email, telling him a bit about myself & asking whether he’d be open to meeting to discuss a film covering whatever he was currently engaged in. 

I made sure to specify I wasn’t trying to do a thing about The KLF or whatever. He was kind enough to watch my films, enjoyed them enough to meet me, and we started talking. He was planning the World Tour at that point, though it was still a little inchoate, and that was what we decided the film should cover – though at first I was just going to film one stop on the Tour, not two as we ended up doing.

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Finn: Funding for independent movies is famously difficult. Can you describe the conversations you had when explaining the content and form of the film to potential funders.

PD: Well, yes, it’s always difficult to get funding, and I had hoped that Bill’s public profile might make it easier. However it turned out that most people who were interested in funding a film about him would have wanted it to be about his past, which was the area I’d agreed to leave out of the project for various reasons. 

There’s also a certain concern about narrative – there’s no big finish to this story, it’s ongoing, it’s a couple of steps along the road with Bill. It wasn’t easy to pull the finance together, but I managed to attract some really heavyweight co-producers who were able to piece together just enough to get it made. 

My old friend & invaluable collaborator Robert Gordon, from Memphis, played a crucial part in that. Of course everybody ended up deferring most of their fees for the work, as often happens – it’s ridiculous how often producers end up going unpaid on these types of films.

Finn: The film was made over the course of a couple of years. During one scene Bill asks if you were with him for one part of the tour; forgetting if you’d participated in that part of the project. Did you ever worry at the timescale, and the amount of footage you were shooting – compared to the runtime of a ‘conventional’ movie?

PD: We didn’t really shoot much material – even though we worked over a long timescale there were only about four weeks of filming in total, two in Kolkata, two in Lexington & a couple of days in the UK. The timescale was an advantage in one sense because time became part of the subject matter of the film. 

Bill’s doing the same things in both places but he’s a little older in Lexington, and as you mention he’s already forgotten some of the things that happened – things that for the viewer are very fresh in the memory. It’s interesting when that came together because to me it did what films do best & no other art form can really do – make time explicitly visible, along with the frailties that come to us all, given enough time. 

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Finn: On the scale of things – let’s deviate a moment.  Can you speak a little on your work timeline – your documentary ‘While You Live, Shine’ was released in 2018. A Year ahead of Best Before Death. I imagine there was an overlay between the two projects – both about creatives, both with a titular reference to the brevity of life.

Does the relationship between the two films show an odd synchronicity or does it show something about where you are in your own artistic life?

PD: I’d made While You Live, Shine during the hiatus period when I was waiting to finish Best Before Death, because there was quite a gap between the Kolkata portion and the US portion of the journey. It was made very quickly – two weeks filming in Greece, one in the US – but took quite a while to finish because of money issues. 

I don’t really know about the relationship between the films – cinematographer Patrick Jordan who shot While You Live, Shine also shot the US section of Best Before Death and I think you can definitely see his distinctive style at work in both – but both films largely grew from the worldview of their central figures, and Chris King is perhaps a similarly stoical figure to Bill Drummond, a reluctant optimist finding his way in the world. 

The titles do kind of have a resonance, but both titles came from the circumstances of the individual films… I suppose filtered through my sensibility!

Finn: The audio work on the Best Before Death is exceptional. Can you speak to any challenges and how they were overcome in capturing what were quite intimate conversations out in the field?

PD: We had two really excellent sound recordists out on location with us, it’s a luxury I haven’t often had (I recorded the sound on many of my films myself, which gave the sound mixers a lot of unwelcome extra work to do, cleaning it up), but on a film intended for theatrical exhibition, we really couldn’t skimp on the sound.

I also spent time talking to the guys about wanting atmospheric sound – the differences in the soundscapes, between Kolkata & Lexington, is as important as the differences in the visual appearance of the two places. But we only had a limited number of mics so a lot of the time you’re trying to figure out who’s going to be important in a particular scene before you shoot it, so you can make sure to put a mic on the right person & not miss any important dialogue.

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Finn: Superficially, Best Before Death can be described as a film about a conceptual artist. You do a nice job of affording Bill space to do his thing, and allowing onlookers / participants to ask questions and experience his work.  Do you personally have any questions about Bill’s work that remain unasked?

PD: Not really, I’ve spent enough time observing Bill at work to have a pretty good grasp of what he’s doing – as much as anyone can have. Simply put, he’s much more about the process and the journey than he is about any destination. 

I’m slightly concerned that among his next destinations are some quite dangerous spots – Kurdistan, Syria, places like that – and I’m torn between hoping he changes his mind & goes somewhere safer, and hoping he sticks to his guns and has some extraordinary adventures while he’s there.

Finn: Bill is famously reluctant to make attempts to explain his art. There are moments throughout the film where he provides a modicum of resistance to the camera crew.  His protests against appearing on camera seem more playful than serious, but were there any moments where cameras were shut off, and you missed something that would offer fresh perspectives on the final cut?

PD: There aren’t really any missing moments or scenes we dropped & regret dropping, we made the film we wanted to make. I regret not pushing Bill harder to talk about his reasons for returning to Kolkata – he mentions it’s to do with women, and the role of women in his life, but doesn’t go into detail. In his writing, however, he’s mentioned that on his first visit to the city he was appalled to realise that children were being sold for sexual purposes there, and that his horror at the way in which men were exploiting women & girls sexually was part of his unfinished business with the city. It wasn’t something he felt comfortable discussing on camera at the time but I should have tried harder – it’s a crucial piece of information which has its counterpart in Lexington’s history with slavery.

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Finn: Not to share a spoiler – but the segment where Bill emerges from plunging himself in the Ganges appears to be quite affecting on him.  Were there many moments, like this, when the cameras were rolling and you knew you’d caught something special?

PD: I don’t really remember knowing I’d caught something special – most of the time when filming you’re just hoping you have something, anything you can use – you don’t really know if it’s special or not til you get home and start viewing it in context!

Finn: There’s a definite existential element to Bill’s work, and to the movie about Bill’s work. In the movie, he speaks a little on his personal relationship with locations and with the projects he engages in. What was the inspiration for you to dedicate so much time of your own life to make art about making art?

PD: I didn’t really know when I started it how long it would take, but it was an enjoyable journey for sure. I just wanted to do my best to do justice to Bill’s work & personality, it was a privilege to be able to capture at least some of it in the film so that others can have some idea about what it is he’s about. 

Some people really get it, others don’t, which is fine – it’s not for everybody – but it’s certainly had an impact on me and on my way of working. Not quite sure how to put it into words, but there’s certainly been an impact.

Finn: Often one to play with convention, for some screenings Bill has sandwiched the film between two segments of a play about his work. There’s a pleasing kind of distortion – a feedback loop – that happens at the end of the film where you show a little of Bill’s play… which, for some audiences is in the play, in the movie, in the play. Were any days more confusing than others?

PD: Most days working with Bill have some element of confusion, because he’s in a state of flux about what he’s doing & can sometimes change his mind, or simply be very open to ideas coming from other people, which is great but sometimes difficult to keep up with. 

My job in those situations is to be some kind of calm centre in the middle of the confusion, trying to keep the show on the road – deciding what’s important to film & what might not be so important, or maintaining the crew’s focus when things are a bit foggy. 

But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this project so it was usually straightforward enough for me to do that, even when things were getting a little chaotic!

Finn: Throughout the film Tracey Moberly, Bill’s longtime photographer/collaborator is beside him almost all of the time. Tracey is a fine artist in her own right, and she seemed much less troubled (than Bill) by your cameras. Can you speak a little on her role in framing Bill’s process, whilst you framed her work?

PD: Tracey is Bill’s best friend and has travelled with him a lot, they have a really interesting working relationship where she finds ways to photograph him at work and he pays her for her work, seeing it as the only record of these otherwise very ephemeral actions. She’s also in many ways Bill’s opposite as you can see in the film – she’s talkative, very sociable, always on social media – something Bill abhors – so they are kind of yin & yang. 

The photographic element has become less important to Bill recently so now they collaborate on plays; he writes them, based on things that have happened & people he’s met on the World Tour, & she directs them. 

Tracey was hugely important to the film, both as an artist in her own right (the poster for the film is one of her photographs) and as a foil for Bill, somebody for him to talk to & bounce off. Their dialogue exchanges are some of my favourite things in BBD. Tracey just makes me laugh, a lot.

Finn: Your ambitions ahead of the shoot would have perhaps started with ‘get it made’. Now Best Before Death is complete and released, it will forever exist in the canon of your work – what are your ambitions for the film?

PD: I just would very much like it to be seen! Documentaries are in kind of a weird place right now, between the collapse of indie distribution & the rise of Netflix. This one will be on the BBC at some stage in the future & that will probably be the largest audience it’s had to date. 

Thankfully the theatrical & festival screenings have raised its profile so that it has some good press out there for the random Googlers to find. Beyond that, it would be nice to think it has some chance of longevity, but God only knows about that… it’s hubristic to even imagine it.

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Finn: Any chance of a sequel: The Tale Of Tenzing Scott Brown?

PD: Ha! No. Though I hope to work with Bill again. What form it will take, neither of us really knows, but it will be something very different if it happens at all.

Finn: What’s the next project for you?

PD: I’m trying to make a return to scripted work, which was what I did before I became obsessed with documentaries. I have a strange little film called “Thistle” I’d like to make, a kind of Sadean comedy about terrible things happening to good people. I’ve made my life-affirming, positive, optimistic films, and it feels like a good time to do the opposite… we will see how it goes.

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY TRACEY MOBERLY

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