A Life That Never Goes Out

Riverfront Times talks with director Julien Temple about the making of The Future is Unwritten.

Director Julien Temple struck up a friendship with Joe Strummer in the last few years of the Clash frontman's life, which makes his film, The Future is Unwritten, a particularly poignant experience for Temple and viewers alike. Here, Temple speaks with Riverfront Times about the journey.

Annie Zaleski: How long has The Future Is Unwritten been in the works?

Julien Temple: I have a dual feeling about that, 'cause I did actually start shooting a film about the Clash in '76, that black-and-white footage at the beginning of the film of Joe singing, and then the other black-and-white of the early band is stuff I shot when I was out of film school in the late '70s. But then I had no idea I was ever doing again with the Clash... well, I did become friends with Joe much later, and still had no idea I would ever do a film about him. And even when he died, I didn't think I was going to do a film about him. It took about two years after that, to realize that I could do a film and it might help where my head was at, because I was very upset by his death — as were most people who knew him very well. It was actually pretty devastating — and strangely problematic to deal with. I just felt making the film would be a good... a bit like having a wake for him, where he'd actually come back and be part of the wake, sitting around the fire, telling us what he was about. I had no intention ever of sticking a camera in his face and doing an interview with him when I knew him as a friend.

How did you meet him as a friend?

I had bumped into him over the years, I had to choose between the Clash and the Sex Pistols. I had been shooting the Sex Pistols before I saw him in the Clash. Then I saw the Clash and I thought, well, I could maybe film both these groups, 'cause they're both great. Which I did for awhile, and then the Clash said, "Well, look, if you want to film the Sex Pistols, you can't film us." Us-or-them kind of thing. So I stuck with the Sex Pistols.

I saw Joe very rarely on and off over the next 25 years. Never a bad thing, but we weren't quite friends. I didn't meet him again until the mid-'90s, when my wife, Amanda — who produced this Joe Strummer film — just said to me one day... "Oh, my best friend from school is coming to stay, and she's bringing her new boyfriend with her, is that all right?" I said, "Fine." And then it was a nice sunny evening and this school friend of Amanda's came, and through the garden gate came Joe Strummer. It was like, "Oh, my God, what's he doing here?"

And I was in the middle of building a hot-air balloon with my kids, all laid out on the lawn and was trying to figure out how to glue it all together. He said, "Oh, let's get this thing going." So me and him worked on it all night, it took us longer than we thought. We went through the night, we had a little fire, we had some wine. We got it ready in the morning just as the dawn was breaking, actually. We woke up my kids and said, "Well, we're gonna fly this thing now."

We lit it up and it started rising up into the dawn. And then suddenly it caught on fire, and there was this giant fireball going up in the sky, in this bucolic Somerset valley. And Joe was jumping up down and saying, "Ah, this is amazing! It's so beautiful, I want to live here, I want to live here!" and a few weeks later he bought a house literally up the road. For the last eight or nine years, we were pretty close down there. We became very good friends.

How did your personal relationship shape and affect the way you constructed the movie?

As I said, I had this idea of having it like a wake around the fire, because Joe loved those fires. That you have a wake, but the guy you're actually celebrating is there somehow, in some kind of way. I wanted the sense that people felt they were sitting next to Joe around the fire, and he was telling that story very intimately to them, his story or what he felt about things. It made it harder to make the film, because it was a film about a friend — about a good friend — 'cause I've never really done that. I've done films with people I've been friendly with, like the Pistols, but Joe shared my life and my kids' life, he's godfather to my kids and stuff. We're very close. So that made it very difficult. I was constantly trying to second-guess what he might have thought of things — and then getting really angry with myself, because I wasn't going to get an answer from him, what he might have thought about it. It did affect the working process. He also always would say, "Never give up." So when I found it hard-going, I did remember that quip ringing in my ears a bit.

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