Darkness Then Salvation
An Illuminating Interview with the Antipodean Auteur of the Killing Joke Film 'The Death and Resurrection Show'
If, like me, you are keenly attuned to the gloriously gnarly sturm and drang of the mighty Killing Joke, and the plethora of interesting non-band projects that trail in their white-hot wake, then the last 18 months or so have been a particularly fecund period.
Mike Cole’s epic hardback collection of graphic greatness Forty Years in the Wilderness, is fit-to-bursting with edgy and dynamic Killing Joke artwork, much of which is now rightly considered to be not just as classic KJ artwork, but as classic design, end of.
Similarly, to Mr. Coles, filmmaker and photographer Mont Sherar, who’s stunning, photographic portrayal of Killing Joke in Twilight of the Mortals is set to thump satisfyingly onto the doormat of our cultural consciousness any day now, is set to redefine hoary old "rock photography."
The third part of this powerful triumvirate of Killing Joke-related artworks is Antipodean auteur Shaun Pettigrew’s seismic The Death and Resurrection Show. This taut tapestry of tumescent textures and searing colour celebrates, revels and rejoices in the fearsome foursome’s gloriously majestic, timeless music, and even at two hours plus, it still feels like every solitary second is both justified and necessary.
The film’s sense of scale is simply staggering. From Ladbroke Grove to the ley lines at Nazca, from Coleman’s Cheltenham to Cairo and back again, this is a tsunami of sound vividly bolstered by corrosive colour. And If there is one constant that spirals through the film like a DNA helix, it is, of course, the mercurial maestro: Jaz. Whether he’s in the guise of a philosopher stoned and speaking in tongues behind the astronomical clock in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, or he’s recording vocals in the King’s Chamber in one of the pyramids at Giza, director Shaun Pettigrew is more than happy to let Jaz try to lead us into temptation….
And speaking of the intrepid director…
Rahman: Shaun, thanks for taking time out to answer a few questions. What was your association (if there was one) with the band prior to starting the film? Did you know them as individuals, or collectively perhaps?
Shaun Pettigrew: I saw the band play at the Kilburn National Theatre in 1981 and then subsequently met Jaz at a party in a squat called the Apocalypse Hotel in London’s Notting Hill Gate, an area also known as the Free Republic of Frestonia. I think the band were recording at the People’s Hall on Freston Road. The party was a potent omen as I recall the entire first floor fell in like the sky falling, followed by a record player and dust. Eventually [I] met the various band members in the early 1990s. Big Paul being the most recent, but we all had mutual Frestonian friends, including Raven.
Was The Death and Resurrection Show the title from "day one" or were other titles considered and why did you finally settle on TDARS?
Pettigrew: No. We had a working title called "Let Success Be Your Proof" which was the original concept for the film, about pilgrimage, multiple coincidences, and the search in the Killing Joke labyrinth for a mythical island called "Cythera."
Was the intention to cover the band’s entire labyrinthine, linear timeline right there from the film’s outset?
Pettigrew: Again, no. Killing Joke were never actually going to be a major part of the story, they were only going to be a few quick interviews on the important watershed moments in the band’s history. Jaz didn’t actually want them in the film! The initial story was about purification whereby a very real Czech journalist called "Jana" interviews and researches Jaz and an in-depth look at "An Irrational Domain." The film retraces Jaz’s footsteps from 1979 through Iceland, Cairo, Iona, Glastonbury, Peru, and finally to a Pacific island off the coast of New Zealand. The second storyline was an attempt to understand the "spiritual aims" of the Joke.
Jaz’s story takes us on a soul-searching journey on how to discover that which resides within each individual human being: there’s an infinite amount of energy and power which could potentially change society. The film explains what a true joining of one’s God-spirit and your destiny can do and, if necessary, by using ritual magic to achieve success or your own self-worth. It’s also about understanding one’s ability to change one’s external and internal realities, by becoming more political in your perspective on life, how you treat people, and ultimately how you treat yourself.
In terms of band’s timeline it was a retrospective look at the Joke’s career and I’d always intended using Killing Joke’s music from each of their well-defined periods that I liked, tracks that explained the ritualistic side of the band, the revelations on frequency and resonance. Ultimately, I chose the best parts from a filmmaker’s perspective and what initially started out as a pleasant tiptoeing romp through the history of Killing Joke became the Death and Resurrection Show that you see today.
Did you feel at any point during the film’s ten year "gestation" that the film was "drifting" or that you’d hit an impasse?
Pettigrew: Yes, lots of times. Most illuminating: the impasses, the logistics, the obstacles, the challenges, management, the band; everything became irrelevant. You just kept going and looked for signs; you just had to keep on pushing.
I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Conrad’s epic Heart of Darkness (which became the film Apocalypse Now) with you in the role of the heroic and tenacious Marlow character and Jaz of course as the intelligent yet ever-so-slightly unhinged Colonel Kurtz; any comments on that analogy?
Pettigrew: I don’t know about heroic and unlike the death of Kurtz, who I believe is buried in a muddy hole up our (fictional) Nung River, we had Jaz as our tour guide: “Oh, the horror, the horror, the horror!” as Kurtz says. But let’s face it, I was the only sucker drawn into this project. Also: no one else had dared before — I really had no choice in the matter.
You have amassed an impressive cast of contributors: from former Joy Division and New Order bass player Peter Hook to the Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl and many more contribute illuminating anecdotes and asides, but how exactly does one convince serious "rock royalty" such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to take part?
Pettigrew: Jaz suggested I contact Jimmy Page and just ask him out right. I tracked down his accountant and it was as simple as that. Jaz is also an eccentric friend, Mr. Page enjoys this plus they both shared a mutual connection and an interest in rock and roll, which is essentially an occult activity. Dave Grohl and Peter Hook were all done in similar fashion and actually, with Dave Grohl, Jaz and I went along to film at his hotel in Auckland with Jaz dressed up as a priest in order to forgive Dave’s sins! It was a crazy interview that ended up with Jaz and Dave mauling some American and Asian tourists. Poor sods.
Were there any potential contributors who refused to participate because of the band’s, shall we say, reputation for not "suffering fools gladly?"
Pettigrew: Yes, a few. Killing Joke’s first manager Brian Taylor (RIP) wanted nothing to do with the band. Most after a little persuasion, however, were keen.
Killing Joke have always been open regarding their interest in the occult and esoteric philosophies. Were their any issues with the film’s backers because these themes would probably appear in the film?
Pettigrew: If you mean were there people who just rolled their eyes at the mention of Jaz Coleman, Killing Joke, the Occult, and just stared off into the distance? Yes, lots, and there still are today.
Do you yourself have any interest in religion or the occult?
Pettigrew: I have an interest in the theoretical but I’m not religious. If the last 15 years have shown me anything, it’s to have an open mind and contemplate everything.
At any point during this huge undertaking did you ever think that if you had to listen to yet another Killing Joke song, you might just spontaneously combust?!
Pettigrew: On lots of occasions, but myself and Prisca Bouchet (my editor) would just smile and put on the track "Walking with Gods!" There’s nothing that that track, a joint, and a cup of coffee can’t do to put a warm fuzzy smile on your face.
The sad passing of Paul Raven is dealt with both movingly and with great sensitivity. Did you know him well?
Pettigrew: Thank you, obviously totally unscripted. Raven and I had mutual friends in London, I knew him briefly and shared a few jars over the years. His death was a complete shock to everyone and the outpouring of emotions from fans expressed exactly what the rest of the band were feeling: that they had lost a brother.
In some respects TDARS reminds me of the Ramones biopic End of the Century or Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster, in the sense that even if you are not very familiar with Killing Joke’s music, that it’s still a hugely watchable and enjoyable film. Did you consciously factor in "classic story telling" to make the film more inclusive?
Pettigrew: I didn’t want to make the normal "talking heads" style of music film, so: yes and no. Yes, in the classic sense of storytelling, but we ended up shooting two films and intertwining them. Enclosing Jaz’s process of individuation and the pilgrimage elements that Jaz went through. We shot supporting interviews in each location, sometimes just following your nose on the day. We placed these around the band’s career and really at that point the classic storytelling ended, and what I can only described as a "ritual" took over. The film became a metaphysical structure and was colour coded with intense detail and attributed with a "number" to point the way to each of the locations we filmed in. This emphasised the spiritual development in the story, using imagery of earth, fire, air, and water to create a "Magical Child" using "star seed." In the end what was totally un-scripted became an embryonic form of one’s self-realization and unknowingly for Jana it became a reality with the birth of her daughter Little Ana.
This film will prompt many to investigate the band’s back catalogue and Jaz’s solo work, both of which clearly deserve a wider audience. Was this something you discussed with the band and Jaz individually?
Pettigrew: I never talked about it with the band or Jaz. I selected the tracks for the film that I liked, both in terms of Jaz’s classical compositions and Killing Joke’s. Jaz’s classical music is beautiful and dramatic, he is England’s "Mahler" plus the band have an immense back catalogue, one that’s as relevant today as it was back in the early 80s. I hope some fans will be inspired by the film to dig deeper into their back catalogue.
With regards to the diverse locations: what were some of the problems & challenges you encountered that perhaps you hadn’t factored in beforehand?
Pettigrew: No cash, no sleep, friendships tested, fucked cameras stolen, constantly trying to walk the tightening rope between the management and the band, paranoia, and nature in order to achieve our goals. Most of the principle filming took place over a two year period, travelling from New Zealand to London, the Czech Republic, Cairo, Peru, Glastonbury, Iona, and then back to New Zealand to the Great Barrier Island. I had to take other jobs to pay us some kind of pittance for food, and picked up what we needed in each location. All our gear was stolen in Los Angeles Airport and then all our personal gear went missing just as we turned up in Prague in -20 degree winter weather!
It took two months in Prague to film the main interviews with Jana and Jaz, and then we had to organise and finalise the script and scenes for "Let Success Be Your Proof", with Jaz helping by producing some amazing locations as our scout-extraordinaire! The golden city of Prague was enjoyable but at times it was also frustratingly hard to make it work. It was spring time so we took side trips to Glastonbury and Iona to remain focused and this way we managed to achieve our film goals.
In Cairo we hit a wall. There was anger and the element of fire appeared in everyone’s moods and relationships, and it became more strained as we got closer to Giza. Friendships were tested and at times it felt like the film’s Spinal Tap moment was going to be its epitaph.
In Peru I felt a sense of psychedelic delirium when we finally arrived at the Nazca Lines to meet up and film the "Spider Camp" scenes. The only way to film the Nazca Spider scenes was from the air, so we co-ordinated with a balloonist and a local microlight pilot. And typically for us it was ballooning and flying without permits, so: no escape plan, lots of cheap cocaine, and dodging 40 metre high "dust devils!" Great! For our "protection", it was suggested that we perform a "purification ritual" with a group of local Nazca Indians, burning some coca leaves, a few cigarettes, alcohol, and a Killing Joke badge and more importantly we asked "Pachamama" for good luck. Much to everyone’s surprise, good luck, good humour, and fortune prevailed and everyone had great time. Although Jaz suggested that I hang off frayed ropes from the balloon, as it took off into the air 700 meters high and far above the desert! Yeah, right! No! Fuck off!
Finally it felt good to arrive back in New Zealand revitalised and we then started filming Jana’s epic journey through the element of water. Huge waterfalls, prehistoric swamps, caves, eventually leading to "the Lizard scenes" at the Hot Pools. This was probably the hardest location to access and involved everyone undertaking a two hour forced march in/out of an area called the Badlands. It was like a scene from the 1957 film Pride and Passion, Hobe and I pushing a make-shift gun carriage through the bush, with all our film equipment, a large seven-sided pentagonal cross, diesel for fire, a smoke machine, dry-ice, lights, and a generator for production support for a full week. It was hard work for the initiates, but we were crossing into the twilight mythical world of "Cythera", so there was no turning back.
Jaz’s solo classical music adorns the more sensitive and contemplative moments in the film beautifully. Was this a joint idea?
Pettigrew: Thanks, but it was Jaz’s idea really, as he supplied the pieces and let me loose. The struggles we faced during filming seemed to fit Jaz’s soaring, classical score perfectly. Ditto moments of achievement or hopes dashed and lost.
Youth is of course now recognised globally as an uber-producer outside of his role as Killing Joke’s bassist, so was he involved in any capacity with regards to the soundtrack?
Pettigrew: No. Youth wasn’t involved in the film’s sound design. We used the very capable Eden Martin, who took on the Herculean tasks of dialogue and track balance. After that Alan Jansson and Richard Huntington from Uptown Studios finished the mixing. The DVD 5.1 and stereo sound is about 90% there. We had to compile 40 years of interviews, live footage, dialogue, voice overs, classical music, and sound effects, a lot of which was degraded by the time that had elapsed and so the mixing was a real challenge. It’s a documentary which seems to have been misunderstood by a small group of fans. Bearing all of this in mind, I hope that everyone perseveres and sets up their systems correctly to get the best sound and visual experience, because it’s worth it.
Perhaps the "haters" need to remember that the film is about Killing Joke’s extraordinary music and not a sterile listening examination under laboratory conditions! Sorry, rant over! Will promoting the film take up most of 2017 and are you thinking about another project yet?
Pettigrew: Ha, your right there, I’ve seen plenty of music films that lack the spiritualism we were after and I think what we have captured is the right balance. The Death and Resurrection Show is after all a documentary and promoting any "indie" doc these days is very hard, but we will push through via the dedicated websites and see what happens. As for another project? A new film? Yes, I’m looking and perhaps a TV series on the search for "empathy."
Are you prepared for the film premieres at which, if there’s any justice, you will be winning some awards?
Pettigrew: I doubt that the film will be seen in all the right festivals to win awards but thanks, I appreciate your positivity. The bottom line is that all those festivals cost money and it’s me paying the bills, and they are big. You don’t use 99 tracks without paying for them. There’s forty years of music so it’s not been easy. There’s a lot of confusion over the music rights, and even the band and management don’t know who owns which rights to which songs, but ultimately I am very grateful for every fan that buys a copy and encourages others to do so. I know I’ll never recoup my time and efforts back but it wasn’t done for those reasons. Justice for me will be not owing anyone any money. A lot of people, and I include the band and management in this, have absolutely no clue or idea what’s involved in making a film. Subsequently a lot has been taken for granted, but I think more importantly there’s also been a huge gesture of goodwill from fans, who do get the film and respond positively; and for that they have my heartfelt gratitude.
I count myself as fortunate to have seen the new trailer that you’ve recently completed, and I have to say that the enigmatic Mr. Walker, not unlike his ES295, is on fire!
“I’d rather listen to frazzled genius than sterile perfection. It isn’t about accuracy, it’s about fucking soul. It isn’t about cutting it all down and sucking the soul out of it! It’s about the rub!’’
Pettigrew: Ha! It is indeed all about the rub and it’s always fortuitous to get Geordie on film, he’s a hard man to capture, but he is the commander-in-chief of the Joke and as much as this film portrays Jaz’s story, Geordie is the constant.
Any last thoughts on the enormity of your achievement, and the fact that in my opinion TDARS is set to take its rightful place within the pantheon of the greatest music-related films?
Pettigrew: I consider it a huge achievement to be included in those films but I won’t lie, it was a tough project. The whole experience has left me numbed, which I can only explain as having been burnt by the "white-heat" of the band. When I try to sum up The Death and Resurrection Show, there’s neither a beginning nor an end to understanding the power that you have to control your own destiny. It is immensely gratifying to recall the laughter we all shared making this film. Of course there were dark moments too but today, after fifteen years, I can still get on the phone at any time of the day or night and make a call to either Jaz, Hobe, Jana, or Prisca, and just laugh my head off! That’s made it worthwhile.
Thank you for your time Shaun Pettigrew!
The concept and the very nature of time seems to dominate this film: the chaos and dark majesty of Killing Joke’s unique artistic journey, the "real" time that it took to make the film, the foreshortening of The Raven King’s time amongst us, and of course, the length of the film itself.
The Death and Resurrection Show is such a uniquely visceral and incendiary ride that to compare it with other music-related films would be both facile and to damn it with faint praise. Just like the music of the band that it both celebrates and elevates, this film stirs the heart, the senses, and is by turns both fascinating, engaging, and inspiring even and when was the last time you felt like that whilst watching a film?
© 2017 Rahman the Writer
You can buy the two set deluxe DVD of The Death & Resurrection Show from here.