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JULIEN TEMPLE - Putting Glastonbury on screen

We are in danger of becoming extinct. We worry about the rhino and the blue copper butterfly or whatever, but we are on our way to becoming a different thing, a half-computerised species. I think there is something about just the eccentricity of the Englishness of the Glastonbury Festival that does say, ‘Remember you’re a human being and you’re not programmed. However much you’re bombarded with things telling you what to be, you should find that in yourself and with other people, and not ever lose that or you’ll lose humanity.’ And the journey’s been so rapid so far, we should wake up to that, not just global warming, which is a problem the festival pointed out 35 years ago. We should worry about the very nature of our humanity and of our soul being taken away.

How do you think Glastonbury is going to travel because it is a very British film. It actually made me feel proud to be British.

“Yeah, there was this great review that I never expected I would get, saying, ‘It makes you absurdly happy to be British – The Daily Telegraph,’ which is very strange for me. I think it will work if people have got the right frame of mind. It’s partly a formal thing as well as a cultural thing, because I did decide to do it without a kind of television narrative telling you what happened, or linear approach. I did very much make the decision that I wanted to try and be as random as the festival. I wanted to do it from the sense of being in the festival from the point of view of the crowd going through, not the kind of usual rock star sound bites or simplified way of reducing this event to something it isn’t. It is a very sprawling, spontaneous, anarchic, vibrant, random thing. You go around one corner and you hit something, you go around another, and you have a totally different experience. It’s all rushing at you. Some heads won’t be able to take that. But, I think culturally, we showed it in Salt Lake City, which is pretty hardcore, mid-west, fundamentalist America, and they seemed to love it. So I think it depends.”

What I liked about it is the way you mix up footage from different years rather than editing it chronologically. Is that because you feel that for all the changes in fashion and so forth, there is a continuity of spirit at Glastonbury?

“Yeah, I think there is a continuity on the level that it has tried to remain true, certainly through the person of Michael Eavis, to its roots and its spirit. On the other hand it’s been forced to adapt in order to survive to the pressures of the outside world. So, you know, the history of it is very much present in the fact that the event is there and has survived. There is a kind of pride in it still continuing, in many ways, against all the odds, because it does retain an element of its original purpose and spirit. “I also wanted people to think about the difference between these different years. And if you label them and make them too easy in a linear way, then people just say, ‘Oh, well that’s like I Love the 1980s’, or whatever. But if you, say, put an image from 1983 next to an image of 1999, they’re forced to say, ‘Well what’s different about that image?’ in a sense challenging them to think about what the differences between the times are. And I think it’s very important that people do think about the difference - in a very small amount of time, the huge differences between 1970 and 2006 - because those changes, as they’ve happened, have been very invisible: you live through them and you’re not really aware how quickly things are changing around you. It’s only when you have a chance to take a constant like an event like Glastonbury - that’s travelled, like a strange spaceship through these decades - and you look at people with that perspective, you get a sense of how extraordinary the changes have been. I don’t mean just in a man on the Moon or Mrs Thatcher leaves Downing Street kind of way, but in your persona, how you see your life and see who you are. And your body language tells you a lot about that. Obviously the clothes and the slogans on T-shirts, and the corporate invasion of the space tell you a lot of things. So I made a choice to stick within the festival; you didn’t need to get in library footage from outside. You could actually tell this journey through those decades through this one event.”

For me one of the most interesting pieces of footage was when your late friend, former Clash lead singer Joe Strummer, starts attacking the cameras. You show the CCTV cameras at the festival and appear to use this to illustrate how, as a society, we have kind of sleepwalked into this situation where we are highly monitored.

“Yeah, that was an important part of the film to me. And actually there was a lot of pressure not to use it. It’s really interesting. I have done two films where the censor has not just asked me to take things out but asked me to put things in, which is a very strange sort of censorship, actually. I don’t know whether any other filmmaker in England has had that problem.”

What were you asked to put in?

“Well I was asked to put in the apology. Although Joe said this he apologised for it and that was the only way I was allowed to use that footage. They all were all saying the cameraman’s traumatised and whatever and he did apologise. But, you know, the circumstance was he got on the stage, after 20 years not playing to an audience, and the first thing that happens is there’s a crane, wherever he walks, between him and the crowd. For 15 minutes there’s a camera right in his face, so he had reasons to push the camera away, because he wanted to re-connect with the audience. But, you know, he did make that very important point that we have, I think, walked into that situation. “I ran away from school and didn’t tell my parents and went to the ’71 Glastonbury – Joe was there, and he became a vegetarian for life there, which is strange – and if you’d said to me then, ‘In 35 years you’ll be sitting here with a steel fence being filmed, surveillance cameras everywhere,’ you’d have just said, ‘George Orwell fantasy, don’t be stupid.’ But that’s what’s happened. And they’re testing out all these retinal scans and fingerprint stuff, and the Gleneagles guys asked for Glastonbury to be postponed so they could use the fence at the G8 in Edinburgh. It’s a very different world. But just as strange today, I suppose, is the idea of walking in, in bare feet, sitting down and that’s all you had to do. Now there are guys walking in with fridges and washing machines for this weekend. They can’t handle the idea of being away from home.”

Despite all this, what the film seems to show is that there is something irrepressible about the British spirit which we should remember is still there.

“And celebrate, yeah.”

Definitely. There is a kind of freedom in that spirit of eccentricity, a kind of, not to be too romantic about it, unconquerable force, which is worth remembering at a time when our civil liberties are being eroded.

“I think that that, in a sense, is the underlying message of it. We are in danger of becoming extinct as a species, human beings. We worry about the rhino and the blue copper butterfly or whatever, but we are on our way to becoming a different thing, a half-computerised species. I think there is something about just the eccentricity of the Englishness of the event that does say, ‘Remember you’re a human being and you’re not programmed. However much you’re bombarded with things telling you what to be, you should find that in yourself and with other people, and not ever lose that or you’ll lose humanity.’ And the journey’s been so rapid so far, we should wake up to that, not just Global Warming, which is a problem the festival pointed out 35 years ago and only recently have governments and Churches got worried about it, but we should worry about the very nature of our humanity and our soul being taken away.”

Thatcher told us there was no such thing as society and technology now, rather than bringing us together, is in some ways actually alienating us from one another. But this event also appears to show that there is this desire in people for community and there is a need for closeness with other human beings.

“Yeah, I think that is the wonderful thing about Glastonbury. I mean I love that moment where the guy says, ‘I’m an insurance salesman or whatever’ and the interviewer says, ‘Why have you come here?’ and he says ‘Because my job’s not real. I want to find out what it is to be real again.’ I think the degree of alienation in jobs, or careers, where you’re made to think of yourself as that, as an achiever or non-achiever in that little box that you’ve put yourself in, and you’re worried about how people view you in that box is immense - I’ve got a lot of metaphors of that, like that invisible tent or see-through tent - and it’s great to go to Glastonbury and just leave that at the door and get on with people, whoever they are. They could be a corporate lawyer and I will sit and have a great conversation with them, whereas if I was sitting in a skyscraper, I would probably hate the guy.”

Absolutely. Glastonbury allows us to escape the definitions that society places on us.

It’s really about being open-minded being in there. You have to be to survive it. It is a mental obstacle race – from wherever you come in to wherever you come out – a survival course in mental stamina. And, you know, if it’s bad weather, it’s physical stamina too. If the Global Warming thing goes as it’s predicted to do, we’ll have to get used to living a bit more like that. It’s not a bad preparation [laughs] for what’s to come in a way.”

People talk about being changed by Glastonbury. You went there for the first time when you were 17. What are your memories of that experience and what lasting impact did it have on you? Is it a regular thing for you now?

“Well, I didn’t for a long time. It’s a non-Punk thing to do.”

Actually, I thought it sounded somewhat oxymoronic when I heard your name attached to this project. It’s ironic that the man who made movies about the Sex Pistols is now making one about an event which conjures up images of hippies.

“Well, I like the irony of it. You know, it’s quite liberating to make a film about hippies – although it’s not just about hippies – and to give hippies a platform to say something. Some of those guys in the tepees, who have lived their all of their lives, would have had their tepees burned down by Punks in 1976, just for being hippies. But what you understand is that however differently that hippy thing manifested itself and the Punk thing, totally antithetical in image and portrayal of what they were doing, underlying it is a similar need to celebrate being human and having a voice of your own, and questioning what you’re told. And the hippie thing, you know, did degenerate into a horrible, depressing thing, in the early and mid 70s, but so did Punk. They all get co-opted and fizzle out in a horrible way. But the renewal of it is what’s important. So it was quite ironic for me to make a film about hippies. And I’m pleased I did, because it’s good to do things people don’t expect you to do.”

Yes, and in the film you have a Punk saying that Glastonbury is a Punk event.

“[Laughs] Well Glastonbury is . . . I learnt a lot of things doing this film. I didn’t understand that Glastonbury was, and Stonehenge as well, this melting pot crucible of hippie and Punk becoming melted down and mixed. When Thatcher created unemployment on that huge scale in the 80s, and kids, like the guy says, had the choice either to live in a cardboard box, under Charing Cross Bridge, or get on a convoy and see the country and live in a community, a lot of Punk kids did take that option and you have this strange hybrid thing of hippie-punk characters, which I’d kind of missed because I wasn’t in England at that time. So it was interesting for me to explore that and excavate that theme, which gives a slightly biblical sense to the film. I like the way they were thrown out of Stonehenge, which is kind of like the English birthright, and given refuge at Glastonbury, and then the Garden of Eden was somehow poisoned. But there’s an accommodation as well. It’s an interesting story.”

Did you have the themes that run through the film in mind from the outset, or did they emerge as you went through the footage?

“I think a lot of them emerged from seeing the footage. As I say, I wasn’t an expert on the history of travelling and Travellers, I learned that by looking at the footage and being attracted to it as kind of a narrative strand. I love this kind of filmmaking because you are free to do what you want; I don’t have people telling me what to do, and if they do I tell them to back off, because they don’t understanding this kind of filmmaking. Even though you don’t make any money and you don’t have a big budget, you have this freedom to follow a course where you discover. You don’t have to pitch exactly this is the film A to Z. You’re saying, ‘I’m going to discover this film in the process,’ which is a hard thing to live up to. “I got to the beginning of the edit and I freaked out because I felt I had too much material, I had too many options, I had too many ways of going – I really felt I was drowning with too much footage. So I was like, ‘Shit, I said I was going to make this film and I don’t have a fucking clue how to do it.’ It was a nightmare, and a nasty place to be. I was ill. Sick. But then, you know, you find something in the film swamp to hold onto and you go, ‘OK, if I can make that work. . .’ because your preconceptions go out of the window. I had originally thought I would find interesting footage of the outside world and interact the festival with that, and then I started looking at that and it looked horrible, clichéd, like Tony Palmer-type rubbish. So that was no good. I’d had all these ideas and they weren’t working and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do something with all of this.’ So it was very improvised. You know, it’s a high-wire act, really. It was with The Filth and the Fury: there was a story to this band [the Sex Pistols] but I didn’t have footage to tell the whole story so you’d get to a point where you’d say, ‘What do we do next?’ and try and find ways of solving it, which was nice. But this was on a bigger scale and more of a morass of footage.”

So how long did this take?

“Well, I had about a year of looking at the footage. Because you’ve got to remember three million people try and go to Glastonbury, so when you put a call out on the website for footage, you’re getting a big response. At the time of year when they’re all trying to get in we did it. We got 900 hours and it kept coming and coming, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a bit too much here.’ A lot of it was rubbish but there was lots of interesting stuff that people had filmed themselves, which was very interesting in itself, because it gave you that point of view of the crowd and being there, none of the ‘fluffy-microphone-in-tent syndrome’ that just kills everything stone dead. So it was exciting on one level. But when I got to the editing and tried things out, I was a bit overwhelmed by it. But I hung in there.”

Was there stuff you wanted but didn’t get? I saw that you’d put a call out for footage of Bowie in 1971 and didn’t get any. His performance of Heroes from a later year is amazing, though.

“Yeah, he is wonderful, David Bowie. The Holy Grail would have been footage of him at the first one, because I saw that. When he performed in ’71 it was very early in the morning. I was asleep and this big bloke shook me awake, saying, ‘Wake up, you got to see this guy’, and the whole festival, which was much smaller then, was waking each other up saying, ‘You’ve got to see this guy.’ So it was the moment, or a moment, when everyone was turned on to what Bowie really was. He’d had Space Oddity a few years before as a one-off, freak, novelty type hit, but he wasn’t a star at all. And there he was in a dress, long hair, and just a guitar, sun coming up . . . it was magical. So if there had been footage of that . . . There is sound of it, actually. I don’t know why we couldn’t use it.”

A lot of your career has been making films about rock stars and I wonder what fascinates you about them. In Pandaemonium, your film about the Romantic poets, you portrayed them as kind of the rock stars of their day.

“I’m not really interested in rock stars per se; I’m interested in figures who impact on the world they live in. It doesn’t have to be a rock star for me to be interested. You know, I love music and I grew up at a point where music was very direct. In the mid 60s I could see the world through music and it was talking about how I felt and how the world interacted with me. Those songs were very visceral and very connected to young kids at the time. So whether it was The Kinks or The Who or The Stones, you really felt that music was talking to you and what you were feeling. And Punk did that again, I think. That to me is when it connects. In that way it’s interesting. And I think the Romantic poets did connect, obviously to a much smaller, literary audience at the time, and did make people question the way they felt about the world. You know, I’m bored with rock stars really. I don’t like them. But I am interested in extraordinary human beings, and some of them are, and some of them aren’t. Some of them are for a while and they’re not anymore.”

Glastonbury is released April 14