Well, Dave and I had done maybe ten or twelve tours here in Denmark, and I had become the guy who backed him on guitar here. At one point it struck me that our tours here were a sort of microcosm – a tiny fraction of all the places Dave has played. The gigs, the road, the rehearsals – all the components of a travelling musician’s life were there. So at one point I had the idea of making a film about that, hoping that even this little bit of Dave’s world-wide arena would somehow be enough to make a picture.
Did you have any experience in film making?
None whatsoever. I am a novelist. I am also a musician of sorts, but a film maker I’m not.
So why did you want to make a film about him?
Because I think that filmed documentation of a musician’s life and work is interesting to those who know the sound of his playing. I wanted to put something down on film that could be seen in a hundred years and still give people an idea of what it was like when that musician was around. I wanted to do something that would shed some kind of visual light on Dave. He’s recorded so much music. I wanted to make some pictures of him doing it too. Because I think it is interesting to see how people of his calibre do what they do. Dylan, Picasso, Tommy Cooper – people like that, original geniuses. You can’t get enough of looking at them really.
But you are not a film maker.
No, but my daughter Sascha Pepke and her friend Line Buttenschøn are trained in film making. I talked them into doing it. As it turned out, the finished thing is largely a result of their intelligent, careful and loving minds. It could not have been done by anyone but them.
Did you set out to make an objective documentary?
No, we did not worry about that. Dave is like my big brother. He’s part of my family. He sends my mother post cards. I thought it was a big advantage – a privilege – that I did not have to approach it from a stranger’s point of view. You know from the word go that this is not an objective film – it is the opposite.
So your part in the film was well defined?
Yes. I am the one who accompanies Dave.
How did you edit the film?
We did not have any money. The most expensive part of it was paying for the right to use a black and white photograph from 1967 which shows a Swedish model lifting Dave and Martin Carthy, who were naked, except for leopard skin swimming trunks. But I was amazed by what Sascha and Line can do on a Mac laptop. They soon knocked it into some kind of preliminary form, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I recorded the narration on a Roland R-09 Edirol which is about the size of a pack of cigarettes. The girls synced that up with the bits of film – and I thought it was just fabulous. But, like I said, I’m not a film maker.
What happened next?
We showed it to a friend of mine – a highly respected documentarist who has made films about the creator of Tintin, about the great Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson and a terrific, Oscar-nominated documentary about Burma, among other things. Anders Østergaard is his name.
I thought he was going to love it, maybe the girls thought so too. When you do a thing like that, from the kind of motivation we had, and with the limited qualifications that we also had, there’s always that wild, optimistic feeling that perhaps, through a stroke of beginner’s luck, you have done something brilliant.
But that wasn’t the case?
Not really, no. Anders liked some of it, but no, I don’t think he saw it as much of a film. I remember he said something about ’local television stations’.
So it was back to the drawing board.
Did you show it to Dave at that point?
He did not know what you were doing?
No. I think we sent him the narration and he okayed it. But I was in a difficult position. If you paint a picture of someone, you don’t ask them to have a look while you’re doing it, just to hear their opinion. It’s one of those things – if you have to ask the question, chances are you won’t understand the answer anyway.
So what happened?
Well, we showed it to a few others. For instance I showed it to my friend Stephen Schwartz who came to Denmark from America in the mid-sixties and proceeded to start a new era in Danish Radio with his unique montage skills. He is a towering figure in his field. He also loves folk music. And he knows a thing or two about narrative structure, plot points and things. And he pointed out a few things.
Things to do with the structure. Things that we hadn’t suceeded in telling well enough. And then it dawned on me that maybe film making was a lot closer to writing novels – which I have done for thirty years.
Was that helpful?
Not at first. I thought that making a film was something different from writing stories. And I groaned a bit when I realised that the two were connected. It got complicated. What I thought was basically a question of recording people doing all kinds of things and playing music was rapidly turning into discussions between me and the girls about archetypical figures – Don Quioxte and Sancho Pancho were mentioned. I thought this was all nonsense.
But you relented.
I think I realised that although I knew about writing novels, perhaps I did not have the most trustworthy attitude towards a film in which I myself played a part. A film whose subject was so dear to me. At that point, the girls had me figured out, and they were ready to take over.
How did you move on?
What happened was that someone said that if we had some old stuff, archive film of Dave in his youth, or something like that – we might be able to tell a better story. But like I said, we had no money and someone had told me that you had to pay hundreds of thousands of kroner – maybe even dollars – to use bits from other films.
Was there any footage that you wanted to use?
Oh yes. The first time I saw Dave play with Fairport was when I saw Tony Palmer’s film of Fairport and Ian Matthews’ Southern Comfort. That was in the seventies. I was in London with a friend and we had heard of Fairport. We saw the film was showing in a cinema and in we went. We were still teenagers, half drunk, but I came away with very strong images of Dave and the boys doing ’Sir Patrick Spens’ in a park on a sunny day. It was absolutely wonderful.
But you didn’t think that you could use that?
I didn’t think we could afford to. But one night, I googled Tony Palmer and found a way to contact his company, Isolde Film, via e-mail. So I wrote a few lines saying that we had no money but we were determined to make this film and could we please use a bit of ’Sir Patrick Spens’? I went to bed telling myself, yeah, right. I didn’t even expect an answer. Or, if I got an answer, I would be from some lawyer in Hollywood giving me a price and threatening to have my legs broken if we as much as touched Palmer’s film without first paying millions.
Did you receive an answer?
I did. The next morning there was a mail from Tony himself saying, ’I will do anything to help you. Let me know how much you use. No charge.’ I was very surprised. And very very happy. Such generosity from a stranger. And not any stranger, either. Tony Palmer made ’Bird on A Wire’, a wonderful film about Leonard Cohen. He won the Prix Italia – twice! His permission to use ’Sir Patrick Spens’ was a very important thing to me. It told me that someone high up in the hierarchy of documentarists actually believed that our film might mean something.
So you got back to work?
Yeah. It gave us a tremendous boost. Dave was very pleased too. He dug out some more old footage for us from his own archive, and soon we had incorporated footage of him and Whippersnapper and him and Martin Carthy. Not a lot, but it added something important. And the film turned into something else.
It sounds as if it could turn into a much longer film.
Well, no, not really. We still wanted to keep it tight and short. As all this happened, we still developed all the archetype, dramatype, symbolic stuff that I like to use in my books, but do nor necessarily like to talk about for fear of talking everything to death. But when you make a film, you have to talk about it because you are not working alone. So we decided to stay with the 30-minute format and perhaps add some of our concert footage as a separate bonus. The structure of the film became much tighter, and I realised how clever the girls are. They are good at killing darlings. My darlings.
Can you describe the structure?
Well, it tells a big story by telling a little story. The little story is Dave and me. The big story is Dave and the way he has worked for more than half a century. It is really not that complicated, but it has to be told right. It is difficult to convey to an audience what it requires to be a travelling artist. But I think the film does that.
So despite your involvement – or maybe because of it – Sascha Pepke and Line Buttenschøn are really the ones who made the film?
Yes, that is true. I think the process was unavoidable. At first I thought that I would control everything. And I convinced the girls that was the case, although they may not have believed me one hundred percent, but they let me carry on out of respect, at least until it became apparent that I didn’t really know how to control it at all, since my own emotions would cloud my judgment. So they did their job and watched me and Dave. And at one point they took over. By then we had watched Dave and myself in the same sequences over and over and over, and it was hard for me to keep clinging to the sense of control that I had tried to muster, because it was almost painfully obvious from the footage that – apart from the fact that one of us is a musical genius – in fact Dave and I are just old men who like to play together and drive thousands of miles and play gigs for money that would make normal working people suicidal. So it was a stone off my chest when I realised that the more I surrendered to the girls and their razor-sharp minds, the better the film would be.
So now you have a 30-minute documentary and a 60-minute concert bonus bit. What are your plans?
We have got a distribution deal now – and the film will be released on DVD soon. I know for a fact that there are many people all over the world who love Dave and his music. So we are trying to reach them, because I think they want our film. The girls are very intelligent – and they have a lot of love. I think there’s a huge demand for intelligent love.
Yes. Art is often confused with entertainment. And of course to a degree it is. But in order to create art, you need talent, love, and stamina. Dave has it all in spades, and I think that people who watch the film will realise that he has spent his life giving his all. You see, it is my belief that when all is said and done, what really marks that particular kind of performing genius that Dave is – is that people like that give themselves to others. Not just their work. No, they give themselves, body and soul. If you watch Tony Palmer’s film about Leonard Cohen, you will see a man who does more than perform. He does that too, but he puts himself on the line in a way that is heartbreaking, really. To me it is. It’s all to do with commitment and courage. I don’t want to make a big thing of it, but there it is, and part of what attracts the audience to people like Cohen and Dave is exactly that. Commitment to a God-given talent and the courage to keep on keeping on.