Julien Temple talks Joe Strummer, His New Movie, The Future is Unwritten

In the paper this week, Jim Ridley reviews the new documentary The Future is Unwritten, which is about the life of Clash front man Joe Strummer. I recently interviewed director Julien Temple; here's a longer version of the piece that appeared in print this week. The film is currently playing at the Tivoli Theatre.

Julien Temple’s directorial debut was a doozy: 1980’s The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, a chronicle of the rise and fall of notorious British punk band the Sex Pistols. In the ensuing years, Temple became an in-demand music video director (David Bowie, Tom Petty, Van Halen and Whitney Houston), and lensed sporadic feature films: the 1988 cult classic, Earth Girls are Easy and 2000’s The Filth and the Fury (a follow-up to Swindle).

But Temple’s newest project is perhaps his most poignant: The Future is Unwritten, a documentary-style chronicle of the life of Clash front man Joe Strummer, who passed away suddenly in 2002 at the age of 50. By splicing together video of Strummer’s musical projects, Monty Python-esque stock footage and interviews from people in his life – conversations Temple filmed around a crackling campfire, which creates bittersweet, conspiratorial intimacy -- Unwritten celebrates the life and career of the punk legend.

Reached via phone while editing an opera film that was recently shot in Australia, Temple talked about how his deep friendship with Strummer affected the genesis of the movie.

How long has The Future Is Unwritten been in the works? Julien Temple: 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. And even when he died [in 2002], 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. I just felt making the film would be… 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 become friends? 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.” 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. [My wife Amanda] said, “Oh, my best friend from school is coming to stay [with us in Somerset], 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, 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? It made it harder to make the film, because it was a film about a friend, about a good friend. 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.

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.

Why wasn’t Clash bassist Paul Simonon in the film? I was in touch with him, and he kept saying, “Yeah, I’ll do an interview.” And then you’d say, “Okay, when can we do it?” “Well, I’ll get back to you.” And then, “I don’t want to do an interview,” and you’d call him in another few days and he would want to do an interview. In the end, he didn’t do an interview, and we had run out of time to try and persuade him to do one. [But] I understand. Paul was very close to Joe at a certain time, and that’s a very personal thing to talk about that kind of friendship. I understand people not wanting to be on the film. [Joe’s] daughters didn’t want to do it, understandably, I think.

Is there anyone else you wanted for the movie you weren’t able to get? Not really. I have some people I didn’t really want for the movie in it, truth be known. I wanted Jimi Hendrix, some music. They wanted $186,000 for this Hendrix track. We got everyone else for three thousand dollars, so that was a bit out of wack. I would have liked it to be part of it, cause Joe loved Hendrix.

Were there any surprises you learned about Joe in the course of making the movie? I was shocked to know how many really good friends he had all over the world -- L.A., New York, Paris, Spain Granada. He lived in those [places] as well as in London and Somerset. He didn’t just visit them; he actually seemed to have parallel lives going on in these other cities. I got the feeling maybe he’d lived three lives in one – which probably made him a very old person when he died.

-- Annie Zaleski

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