Over the past few years Nick Cave has been explicit in his desire to do things differently.
Whether its his ongoing fan correspondence at The Red Hand Files or his beautiful album 'Ghosteen', the songwriter seems to be approaching both art and life from a different vantage point.
His latest project is another milestone. With Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds unable to tackle their world tour, the Australian musician decided to try something new.
Idiot Prayer is a concert film shot in London's beautiful Alexandra Palace, a building once dubbed the People's Palace for its role in citizen's lives.
Performing alone at the piano, the clips that have emerged to date have a startling intensity and a real emotional freshness to them.
Set to air on a one-time-only basis tonight (July 23rd), it's an unusual experience, pulling towards a rather more old fashioned sense of unity in this era of streaming fragmentation.
Clash caught up with cinematographer Robbie Ryan to find out more about the making of Idiot Prayer.
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How did the project come about?
I did a film called The Favourite with a woman called Fiona Crombie, and she recommended me. So then Nick called me, we chatted on the phone, and we started talking about it. He broke it down – he couldn’t do the world tour, but he wanted to perform music, and he wanted to do it in a big space. He’d had it all in his head for a while, and at the end he said: the main thing is, I don't want you to make me look shit! And I was like: OK, no problem!
But Nick is very easy going, he’s a nice guy to talk to, and he’s very trusting. He wasn’t in any way tough to work for at all, it was a real pleasurable experience, I have to say.
And Nick Cave took the reins throughout?
Well, I think what happened is that he has friends who are directors – through his work on The Proposition and One More Time With Feeling – so he might have gone to them if they were in London… but because they weren’t, he wanted to keep it small, and he wanted to do it himself.
He got in touch with John (Hillcoat) and asked for a few ideas, and John sent through a tonne of ideas which set the cat amongst the pigeons! I thought it was going to be really straight forward, but when the dust settled there were some amazing ideas there from John and they informed a lot of what Nick wanted to do. It did help a lot.
As I said, he knew what he wanted, and he knew what he didn’t want. And that’s all a director is, really, once you have a vision and a direction you work to that. But for me, what usually happens is that I work for the director, and become the middle man between the director and the artist. Whereas this time, it was me and Nick, and we had a good relationship because of that. It was a nice experience.
Alexandra Palace is such an iconic venue to choose, was that in the frame right from the start?
The brief he sent out included a desire to play in a space that could hold a lot of people. Not necessarily a theatre or a stage space. The stipulation I asked to put in was that it wouldn’t have any daylight, because I wanted to use a nice lighting scheme that would add colour to it.
Basically, Ally Pally worked out well because it has such a grand history – it was called the People’s Palace. And I didn’t need to black out any windows!
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Were you able to do any preparatory work on the site at all?
Actually, to start with a lot of the early choices were done on location websites. Then we narrowed it down to Ally Pally, and they were keen, so we did a recce with a few of the team. Three of us went in there, and there were actually a lot of people working at that time for a food charity, who were packaging food and sending it out. That was happening in that very space where we filmed it. That hit home for me the situation that we’re in – a lot of people volunteering to help other people. That resonated with me a lot.
When Nick filmed there I was reminded of it, because they were moved to another room while he did his concert. The world keeps going on while we’re doing something creative! It worked out as a great venue, they were so friendly and let us film wherever we wanted.
Did you end up utilising the building in different ways, then?
In the trailer there’s a segment from the beginning of the film as he recites a poem, and there’s a visual journey as Nick walks around all these rooms to get to the main performance room. The rest of the film is him performing at the piano in the West Room of Alexandra Palace. It’s an introduction, as such. It’s just him – giving some context on who he is, and showing Alexandra Palace. We knew that it would be essentially Nick playing at a piano in a space, and we prepared for that.
It was all live. He came in a day before and played a few songs. I think the very first song is actually from that day. But then the next day he came in and sat down at nine o’clock in the morning, and he played until five o’clock. I think he did about 37 songs, altogether. We repeated about four, five songs at the end.
But when we were filming it each song was pretty much performed once, and we didn’t know what the next song was going to be, so we winged it as far as the best approach – visually – was to filming it. We all got really excited by it – it’s like, this is what it is, so we’d best hope we get something good out of it! Nerve-wracking, but exciting.
It must have been a wonderful experience to witness that, but at the same time you must have been incredibly focussed throughout the day.
I got pretty lucky! I was sent a playlist the week before of all the songs he was considering playing, and I listened to that on a loop. And I really got hooked on those, I have to say! So to go in, and be so close up as he interpreted them, it was very special. But you’re also doing a job – it’s a small team, we had to stay focussed. When you watch the film, actually, there’s a fair bit of out of focus stuff going on! It’s the rough around the edges feel of the film.
I’ve watched the film again and again, and somehow it keeps on sucking me in. Every time I sit down to watch it, I get really excited – I know how fresh it is, and the way we filmed it. I hope that people don’t think it’s too professional. I mean, it doesn’t matter that much, as the songs are incredible and the way he performs them is so magnetic.
I remember when he played ‘Jubilee Street’ I really got a connection with that. And ironically, he wasn’t going to put it in! We did it three times, due to various issues, and he didn’t want it in. We played it again, and he decided to include it, and – for me – that’s the one where I think, oh I can’t stop watching this!
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You mentioned a rough around the edges quality, was that something driven by Nick Cave himself?
That’s more of a visual perspective, as obviously Nick’s performances are amazing. He’s not rough around the edges at all! But we didn’t rehearse anything, we didn’t know what was coming up next. He’d go: you’re OK with that, aren’t you? It would have been nice to prepare a little, but he just wanted to play the songs, and I respect that, and I wanted to try and let him be free to do that. I fell on the sword a bit, and we tried to figure it out as we went along! He liked the stuff that was even more rough around the edges – like, he likes ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ because of that. It’s a bit bumpy, it’s a bit out of focus, but it’s got incredible intimacy and a great energy.
To perform all day like that is just… incredible, really.
He was worried about his voice! He worried about his voice going… but it didn’t. When he sings, he’s aiming for the best performance… he wanted to get it right. The sound guy who was recording it would come out and just say: that was good…! I didn’t want to create a day that was frustrating, I just wanted him to be happy with the recording. And I think that comes across in the film.
An empty venue has different acoustics than a full one, how did you work with that?
In a way, when you watch the film, you don’t even notice that. I thought it would have more reverb. It’s a good space, but there is an echo. The final recording, though, sounds brilliant. It doesn’t sound like a big auditorium at all. But you do know it’s live… so it’s the best choice for it. It’s the best of both worlds – you sense that he’s performing live, but it sounds great. We got really lucky in a lot of ways.
Did Nick Cave bring anyone with him as support?
Susie, his wife, was with him. She’s very much a support for him. She watched it all on the monitors, and he’d shout: Susie, how was it? And she’d be like: yeah, looks great! So luckily Susie was really into it. And his manager. It wasn’t a tiny crew, but it was definitely a very small crew.
It’s amazing to think that he can channel that level of intensity from 9am to 5pm… that’s a full working day!
It makes you realise the level of the man. Obviously, he knows the songs, but he knows how to perform them. He brought the energy in with him, and he really performs them so well. I didn’t watch it back until Nick rang me. I actually expected him to hate it! I was so nervous when he phoned, but he rang and said he really liked it. That was a big weight off my mind, so I’ve been able to enjoy it.
I’ve been watching it a lot… I’m privileged to watch it whenever I want! Whereas fans only get one chance. Which is a good thing itself, as it’s bringing people together to watch it. I like that. It’s getting people hooked on something for a specific period of time.
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Idiot Prayer airs tonight (July 23rd) - buy a ticket HERE.
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