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Julien Temple began documenting the Sex Pistols and the Clash while in film school in London. Thirty years later, the director’s credits include several fiction films, but he’s best known for such rock documentaries as Glastonbury. Temple’s latest, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, is an account of a punk icon who became a friend. The film, which opens today, is warmer and less polemical than Temple’s most recent account of the Pistols, he says:
The Filth and Fury was designed to try to fly the audience into the punk moment. To explain how the fuse was lit. The band to do that through was clearly the Pistols. The film about Joe is a very different thing. It’s following the story of a man’s life over 50 years. Seeing how the culture created him, but also how he changed the culture. It’s a more emotional film in a way, because it is a film about a friendship.
How did your relationships with Strummer and John Lydon differ?
I’ve never really lived with John in the way I did with Joe. I had an intense relationship with the Clash in ’76, ’77. But I had to choose between them and the Pistols. I didn’t see Joe very much for the next 20 years. By a strange accident, he came to live down the road from me in the English countryside. We were living in each others’ houses, looking out for each other’s kids, which is the way to get to know someone very closely. With John, I only see him when I go to L.A., or he’s in London, and it’s very intense.
It’s probably also a class thing, which unfortunately underpins life in Britain, still. I was from more of a similar background to Joe’s. As a result, I probably shared intellectual interests more easily. I do think John is a brilliant thinker. There’s something about his personality that’s unnerving to everybody. Which made him the one who could spark that movement.
The first time I interviewed Strummer, in 1989, he described 1977 London as stultifying.
In those days, the three TV channels turned off at 11 o’clock. Everything shut down. We were always very aware that New York City or somewhere was not like that. Britain was still very much a Victorian society, despite the attack on that in the ’60s. London was a white city with no respect for any immigrant culture. Punk helped break that down.
You largely skip Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the second Clash album.
Partly because I didn’t like it very much. It was worrying to me at the time. It sounded like they were going in a more heavy-metal direction. And I knew that Joe didn’t like that album was much as others.
You filmed reminiscences around campfires. That must have hard to shoot.
Yeah, it was. But I liked that it was quite a punk-rock thing. We didn’t have any electricians; we didn’t have any lights. We just lit it with the fire. Recording conversations was difficult, and at times I would take people to another fire, 30 meters away or something, and record it there.
The campfires started at festivals like Glastonbury. That’s one of the great things about Glastonbury; it’s a city of campfires, 180,000 when you look down the hill. Joe had one, which became very different. It was a kind of ideas factory, people exchanging their life experiences. An incredible mixture of people, and Joe would be DJing. That’s where the Mescaleros came from.
Why did you decide not to ID the participants on screen?
No one had name-tags around these campfires. “Hi, I’m Mandy from Hertz rent-a-car.” But more importantly, I like the idea that there’s a bit of detective work: Who is this person? Why do they look like that? It invites you think around it a bit more. I did suggest that, at the end, we put the photograph next to the credit, but we didn’t have the money, apparently. You could say “John Perkins, school friend.” But then you’d also have to say, “Bono, rock star.” There are some ironies in it.