Welcome To Sundance: 20,000 Days On Earth
With his slicked-back jet-black hair, menacing eyebrows, 6’2" height and ever-present suit, Nick Cave embodies what a living modern day rock star should be: imposing, intriguing and a little bit frightening. He’s violent, mysterious and sexual to an extreme that doesn’t really exist anymore in today’s watered-down pop icons.
20,000 Days on Earth was an odd calculation made by Cave on the day he went into the studio to record his latest album, Push the Sky Away. He scribbled that note in one of his personal notebooks, which was then unearthed by visual artists and first-time feature length filmmakers, Lain Forsyth and Jane Pollard and used for the title of his documentary, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Friends of Cave for more than seven years, Forsyth and Pollard were originally invited to record footage in the studio for no particular purpose in mind. As they began shooting, Pollard noticed that they were capturing “surprising glimpses of intimate moments, too good to not make it into something bigger.” Nick himself is an amazingly intricate storyteller through his music, and to create a story about him in the form of a documentary seems like an almost obvious choice.
Forsyth and Pollard proposed the idea to do an unscripted recreation of an imagined day in the life of Nick Cave, creating somewhat fictionalized environments and situations —- eventually putting together a portrait of the musician from personal conversations and excerpts from his notebooks. Reluctant at first to let people into his private life, Cave finally gave in after seeing in the synopsis something unique and different from anything he’d heard about in a music documentary. Pollard told Billboard.com how they were able to capture “really magical moments and in such an unguarded, unaffected way. He [Cave] can kind of ignore us when we’re in the room. It was just Lain and I, so he allowed us to get so close.”
His fictionalized day consisted of an interview with a post-Fruedian psychoanalyst, a visit to the Nick Cave Archives and a few car rides with friends and a former band mate whom he hadn’t seen in ages. All of the situations put Cave in a very vulnerable position, as they were all unscripted. Exploring very personal topics with the psychoanalyst was especially trying for him, as he described in an interview with KCRW’s Jason Bentley, “After awhile, you can’t protect yourself. I went in with a certain amount of trepidation and terror, but found it quite rewarding.”
Blixa Bargeld, a founding and key member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, makes an appearance in Cave’s car rides. This was one of their first conversations they’ve had after the passing of nearly a decade since he’d left the band with a “two line email.” As Cave recalls, “There was no preparation—there was a kind of intensity to these conversations. A very strange atmosphere.”
With such genuinely intimate moments unfolding on camera, it is almost difficult to watch, and yet you’re fixated because it’s so real. After being desensitized for so long from watching horribly scripted and incredibly fake “reality” shows, watching people on the screen engage in a genuine conversation can feel incredibly awkward. The discomfort is an intentional byproduct as Cave explains, “The film is about discomfort in many of these scenes. There is a discomfort I feel throughout the film that’s quite interesting.”
Feeling uncomfortable seems to be a familiar place for Cave as he firmly believes that, “it’s when you step into a place of unknowing and discomfort and risk—things start to get interesting.” Pollard also subscribes to this notion of leaving comfort zones and taking huge risks, especially with this film. “I think it’s risk for Iain and I, it’s when we know there’s a high chance of failure," she says. "Accepting failure is hugely important in making what should be your most ambitious work.”
Kylie Minogue, a passenger in another car ride, is a friend of Cave’s as well as a musical collaborator. At one point, she is asked by Cave what she’s afraid of, to which she answers sincerely, “I worry about being forgotten and lonely.”
Although you know that the situations are fictionalized, the complete honesty of what is being said is what makes it so uncomfortable, yet at the same time relatable. Even the thoughts from the notebooks that Cave narrates throughout the film are startling yet poignant; at one point he describes the process of writing a song, and states that one must use “counterpoints,” using the odd example of seeing what happens after “putting a small child and a Mongolian barbarian in the same room.”
The film climaxes with a performance of, “Push the Sky Away," with an entire children’s choir present. It becomes a montage with footage of many other Nick Cave performances. Most notably, there is an excerpt from a concert where Cave connects with a specific audience member, singling her out and holding her hand while singing the lyrics, “Can you feel my beating heart?” The montage ends with her seemingly overcome with emotion, shaking and wiping tears away. He admits in the film that he is not the type of musician that can simultaneously make a connection with every single audience member at a concert, but rather he needs to fixate on a few people in the front row. A notable phenomenon happens when he does that though, with his intensity on that one person from the crowd, everyone else in the audience becomes completely captivated by him; he crosses the boundary between the stage and audience both physically and emotionally, flawlessly, and makes meaningful connections with every performance.
20,000 Days on Earth is not just a music documentary about a single legendary artist but a reflection of what it means to pursue creativity. The title of the film also doubles as a reminder that Pollard hopes is accessible and universal, and poses the question, “How do you achieve what you want to do– your goals, as a creative person.. We’re all on Earth for an amount of time—what we do we do with that time?”