DISCOVERING MR. BOWIE
During his career David Bowie collaborated with plenty of artists, not always strictly connected with music. Only a few people know that Francis Whately, the director of the two BBC documentaries Five Years and The Last Five Years had previously worked with Bowie on a number of little-known projects. A few days ago the English director presented his second project on Bowie at The New York Premiere of the HBO Documentary Film, meeting again David’s bandmates and friends: Tony Visconti, Gail Ann Dorsey, Mark Plati, Carlos Alomar, Sterling Campbell and Robin Clark. In our interview Whately reveals some unknown details about his relationship and collaborations with David, and gives us some of his thoughts on him and much more…
Mr. Whately, I suppose you first met David Bowie in 1998, when he provided his words and voice for the short film In Stillness and in Silence (Sacred), an episode of your serie Conversation Piece on British sculpture. Is it right?
FS: I first met David in the flesh after we had finished Sacred (1998) in his offices in NY. Sacred was all conducted by telephone and letters. I just wish I had kept the messages he left on my ansaphone. They were often very amusing!
In a recent video appeared on the Net for the Spanish David Bowie Is... you defined Bowie your hero, as you had a poster of him on the wall when you were a teenager. How was to meet him of flesh and blood?
FS: In my line of work, I am lucky enough to meet quite a few famous folk, but the only person I have ever really wanted to meet was David Bowie. But you are never meant to meet your heroes, are you? So when I got the call to meet him in his offices in NY, I was terrified that the dream would shatter. So there I am waiting in his office in NY and after almost no time this incredibly down to earth looking figure dressed in jeans and a khaki shorts comes over and greets me. Is this him? It is and he disarms me immediately; the ‘butterflies’ in my stomach dissolving to dust. There was a Japanese copy of the Space Oddity album on this table and we started talking about the song Cygnet Committee, which I loved and I think he was happy to forget all about. We then sat at a long table with him silhouetted against a bright window so I couldn’t properly look at his eyes, which I remember disappointed me! We then discussed a film project I had and he listened intently and asked all the right questions. He then said we should remain in touch but in the meantime suggested some off the beaten track galleries that I should visit while I was in town. We said goodbye. The dream was intact and we stayed in touch after that right up until his passing.
About Sacred. Did David himself choose Richard Devereux’s piece of art? Could you tell us anything about his involvement and his narration?
FW: The whole idea of the series was that the ‘celebs’ would chose the works, so yes.. David Bowie chose the Richard Devereux piece! I then went to film the sculpture in a wood in the county side in Hampshire, England, while Bowie composed the words and thought of what music to use.
I tried to find something about your second video collaboration with David, Resurrecting Stanley, on the English painter Stanley Spencer. But I didn’t find anything. Is it a documentary? I know Bowie collected his works, some of them were sold in auction from Sotheby’s at the exhibition Bowie/Collector. Could you please tell us anything about David’s passion for Art and/or his collection?
FW: Yes! David and I collaborated on a documentary film about the English eccentric painter Stanley Spencer, whose work David collected. David was passionate about Spencer and the ‘Moderns’ as they were called. He worked for the magazine ‘Modern Painters’ and did a rather brilliant interview with the reclusive painter Balthus among others. Whenever we communicated it was about art not music.
Some of your memories of David have recently appeared in Dylan Jones’ biography A Life. You have dedicated some beautiful words to him but at the same time you try to understand what happened during his retirement. What is your opinion about?
FW: David was incredibly hard working all his life and I think during his ‘retirement’ he was able to have proper family time with his wife and daughter and be ‘normal’. He would often write to me during this time and we would discuss books and plays and exhibitions and I would send him BBC documentaries to watch. Not all of them were mine!
Which David Bowie was your favourite?
FS: My favourite Bowie is the Bowie who tells the story on page 287 of Dylan Jones new book – ‘the c*** in the clown suit’.
You directed the documentaries Five Years and The Last Five Years in two really different circumstances. The first one when David had just came back with The Next Day, the other some months after the release of Blackstar and his death. Obviously the approach to produce them would have been quite dissimilar, or maybe not?
FS: The approach was very dissimilar in many ways because the tone and the material we covered were so different. But I had the same team working with me so I hope the films appear to be companion pieces. In terms of the musicians, some crossed over but it was great to work with the Blackstar band and The Next Day band who all are amazing musicians and equally amazing human beings.
I enjoyed very much your documentaries on David: rare and inedited documents and a really amazing cutting! You interviewed so many collaborators, but my sensation is that there’s a plenty of unreleased stuff in BBC archives…
FW: In terms of the editing my editor Ged Murphy deserves all the praise. He is a superb editor and understands music better than anyone I have ever met. He is a musician himself and has a sensitivity that is second to none. We interviewed so many people across the two films so yes there are hours of interviews we never used. One day I hope it can be released.
Was there anything you wanted to include in those documentaries but you couldn’t do?
FW: So much, but there wasn’t enough time!
Was there a collaboration with David Bowie’s management or estate, to produce the documentaries on him?
FW: The BBC is completely independent, so no there was no collaboration. Perhaps bizarrely, David and I continued to communicate during the making of the first film, but we didn’t discuss it! We discussed books instead. I suppose the fact that all of Bowie’s collaborators talked to me, suggest, that Bowie and his team were happy that I would do a reasonable job!
In The Last Five Years Tony Visconti introduces the vocal solo version of Lazarus. Was that a decision by Visconti or yours?
FW: That was my idea but I couldn’t have done it without Tony. He had the material and very kindly provided it and discussed it. Tony is an extraordinary man.
Reading Dylan Jones’ A Life I was quite surprised to discover that David had a relevant role in the organization of the exhibition David Bowie Is… I understood this thanks to the witnesses by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh. Why was David so mysterious? Only to gain his fans’ curiosity?
FW: David was an extremely clever man and understood the world better than most!
From your professional point of view, do you think that the video installations inside the exhibition organized by V&A could be better? Or different?
FW: I loved the V&A show and couldn’t possibly see it being any better.
[ Will you produce or direct anything about David Bowie in the future?
FW: Who knows? I would like that but… who knows?
Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli
(Thanks to Monica Colussi)