The di­rec­tor of Ab­so­lute Be­gin­ners, Julien Tem­ple, on meet­ing, be­friend­ing and mak­ing movies with David Bowie. “He was a great source of strength, if you’re a lit­tle out of the or­di­nary…”

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS -

The punk di­rec­tor re­flects on his re­la­tion­ship with the Thin White Duke.

I was still at school when I saw DAVID BOWIE live for the first time, Back In 1971.

I would have been 16 or 17, and AWOL — my par­ents had no idea where I was. Me and some friends had bunked off school and run off to Glas­ton­bury for the week­end. It was a very dif­fer­ent kind of fes­ti­val then, much smaller, per­haps 5,000 peo­ple at most. You didn’t have to pay. Or at least, we didn’t.

Bowie had been sched­uled to come on ear­lier in the evening, but ev­ery­thing was so chaotic that he didn’t ap­pear. The whole thing had reached a cli­max with Traf­fic, and ev­ery­one had re­tired to their tents. I sup­pose be­cause Bowie wasn’t an im­por­tant act, he was told he could go on at four in the morn­ing when ev­ery­one was asleep. But peo­ple got so en­er­gised by what he was do­ing on stage that they started run­ning around wak­ing ev­ery­one else up, say­ing, “You’ve re­ally got to come and see this guy!”

It be­came a very strange and pow­er­ful mo­ment. Dawn was break­ing and there was this won­der­ful ce­les­tial cho­rus of birds ac­com­pa­ny­ing him on his gui­tar: a guy in a dress with very long hair who looked like a woman. It was very oth­er­worldly and spec­tral.

Early En­coun­ters

It’s a slightly prophetic co­in­ci­dence that the next two times I saw David in the flesh af­ter that Glas­ton­bury per­for­mance, both were in cin­e­mas of one sort or another.

Af­ter I had moved to Lon­don and be­gun my ca­reer as a di­rec­tor, I re­mem­ber be­ing at a screen­ing of Fritz Lang’s Me­trop­o­lis at The Every­man Cinema in Hamp­stead. Just be­fore the lights went down and the film be­gan, Bowie and his en­tourage came in. That was a mem­o­rable thing, be­cause they looked so fan­tas­ti­cally ex­otic and alien. Just to have them there in this tiny cinema watch­ing this film with you was a pow­er­ful lit­tle mo­ment for me.

The next time I al­most met him was af­ter I had made The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swin­dle with The Sex Pis­tols. There was this rather point­less rit­ual of the ‘pub­lic screen­ing’ you had to go through af­ter you’d made a film in those days. You don’t have to do it now, but you had to ad­ver­tise a free screen­ing of the film so any­one who wanted could at­tend and com­plain to the cen­sor if they wanted to. You had to do it by law, but no-one ever ac­tu­ally turned up.

So we had ours in the Fox The­atre at Soho Square. As usual, it was empty. I re­mem­ber dur­ing the film I was look­ing at the print or some­thing and I re­alised that one per­son had come in. This lone, shad­owy fig­ure was at the back of the screen­ing room watch­ing my film. The lights came up and I saw that it was David Bowie. He just zipped out af­ter the film ended, but he was there watch­ing it be­fore any­body else had seen it.

There was this mag­pie-like qual­ity to him. He liked to know what was go­ing on be­fore any­one else did. Which of course would be­come a defin­ing as­pect of him and his work.

The first meet­ing

I was in Los An­ge­les when I got a call say­ing he wanted me to work on a video for him, which would be­come Jazzin’ For Blue Jean (1984). I flew back to Lon­don straight away and we met. My mem­ory of the lo­ca­tion is fuzzy. It may well have been in an early man­ager’s flat just off the Edg­ware Road. What

I re­mem­ber very clearly was my sur­prise at how or­di­nary he was. I was ex­pect­ing The Man Who Fell To Earth. I’d seen that film of course and I thought he was ex­tra­or­di­nary in it, but I was rudely sur­prised when I fi­nally met him in the flesh. I wasn’t pre­pared for how un­like some­one like Mick Jag­ger he was. I had worked with the Stones by then, and Mick is al­ways ‘on’ as a star. But some­times when you spoke to David you found your­self think­ing, “My God, this can’t be David Bowie!” Then you re­alised that he was able to sum­mon up this strange star power that he had at will.

So the first meet­ing was quite a dis­ori­ent­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But my ini­tial re­sponse to this puz­zlingly di­vided per­son is what that short film then be­came about. I had be­come very in­ter­ested in pre­sent­ing dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the peo­ple I was work­ing with within the same film. I’d shot a Come Danc­ing video for The Kinks with Ray Davies play­ing a spiv from the ’40s who then turns up in the present and watches him­self per­form­ing in the band. So I sug­gested do­ing some­thing along those lines, where David would play a very or­di­nary ver­sion of him­self and also an ex­otic, star ver­sion of him­self. He be­came very ex­cited by that idea and got com­pletely in­volved in the whole thing. And he wanted to make not a video, but a 20-minute short film that would have the song as a cen­tre­piece. He was con­vinced he could get MTV to play it rather than just a three-minute promo.

Jazzin’ For Blue Jean

The ‘or­di­nary’ ver­sion of the char­ac­ter David plays in Jazzin’ For Blue Jean might be the near­est thing to the ‘real’ David Bowie that’s been put on screen. I think it cer­tainly has echoes of things that were hap­pen­ing in his life. Par­tic­u­larly his re­la­tion­ship with his older half-brother Terry, which was very im­por­tant to him. Terry was schiz­o­phrenic and un­well while we were shoot­ing. But when David was a teenager, Terry had fed him stuff like the Beat Po­ets and the whole jazz world of the West End, which David de­voured. He was this ex­otic per­son who turned David on to a lot of things.

We had a great deal of fun on the shoot, but I re­mem­ber the worst mo­ment came as we shot the ex­te­rior scenes of the night­club that ‘or­di­nary’ David is try­ing to get into, round the back of The Savoy. It was all, of course, sup­posed to hap­pen at night. To my hor­ror I re­alised that, at about half three in the morn­ing, it was al­ready start­ing to get light. We hadn’t fin­ished. It was like, “Shit, what do we do?” We’d spent two or three days shoot­ing the film and we weren’t go­ing to have an end­ing! But it turned out to be a bril­liant mo­ment, be­cause David and I had to come up with some­thing on the hoof. So at the end of the film, where David breaks the fourth wall by yelling at me, that came out of that screw-up. I think it still feels com­pletely fresh to­day.

Bowie on Cinema

With film, as with books and art, David was a vo­ra­cious au­to­di­dact. We watched them to­gether a lot. Buñuel was a big thing for him, as well as Fritz Lang, Cocteau and Fass­binder.

We watched the Eal­ing Stu­dios films to­gether, too. He loved com­edy, and was a very good comic ac­tor. I re­mem­ber watch­ing Tony Han­cock’s The Rebel with him, and him just laugh­ing his head off all the way through. It may well have been his favourite film. I think he saw a con­nec­tion with Han­cock in that film, in a weird way. It’s about that bor­ing nine-to-five world that at one point David was des­tined to go into. Han­cock plays a man trapped in a rou­tine, en­meshed by Vic­to­rian re­pressed emo­tions, whose bad art is a means of es­cape. But some­how this much-hyped yet crap art be­comes the most soughtafter work in Paris. I think David felt that a lit­tle bit about him­self, in a Man Who Sold The World kind of way. I was very aware, as I watched it with him, that he — prob­a­bly more than any­one else — had bro­ken down those re­pres­sive emo­tional hang­overs that peo­ple had right af­ter the War.

We shared a love of Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cals as well, which would fate­fully lead us into Ab­so­lute Be­gin­ners.

Ab­so­lute be­gin­ners

I was read­ing the novel while we were shoot­ing Jazzin’ For Blue Jean. I may have even given David a copy at that point. There’s a phrase in the open­ing chap­ter where au­thor Colin Macinnes de­scribes a glo­ri­ous sum­mer night in ’58 on Shaftes­bury Av­enue: “One day peo­ple will make mu­si­cals about this.” If only we’d known when we’d started mak­ing it…

The role of Ven­dice Part­ners was per­fect for David, and he came on board quite early. Ab­so­lute Be­gin­ners is very much in­flu­enced by Vance Packard (whose book, The Hid­den Per­suaders, laid bare the dark arts of ad­ver­tis­ing in the late 1950s) and David had worked at an ad­ver­tis­ing agency when he was younger. He knew that world and had found it very cyn­i­cal and dis­liked it. Pri­mar­ily, though, I think the film gave him an out­let for his love of Soho.

Soho was a mythic place for him. It was where the ’60s had be­gun — but dur­ing the ’50s. A mys­te­ri­ous, ex­otic land his brother fed him sto­ries of when he was a kid. It was bright lights and bo­hemian, and where the ac­tion was. I used to go on tours of Soho’s drink­ing dens with him, ex­plor­ing the sub­ter­ranean clubs and bars. I was as­ton­ished by how fa­mil­iar he was with ev­ery­body, day and night. The af­ter­noon clubs, and then the fivein-the-morn­ing places like Gerry’s. He knew the bar­men and the hook­ers re­ally well. He didn’t drink very much but he smoked a lot, he liked that am­bi­ence.

And our Soho set was a mirac­u­lous thing. We had this idea of mak­ing a vast dis­til­la­tion of Soho, so all the good bits were right next to each other, but you still had the very strong sen­sa­tion of ac­tu­ally be­ing there. All the kids from the clubs in Soho were the ex­tras. They would ar­rive di­rect from the real clubs and just be hang­ing out or mostly sleep­ing in the cages or base­ments of the set. When we started shoot­ing, we had to go round wak­ing them up. Even on days when he wasn’t work­ing, he would just come to the set and hang out with these kids — he was a kind of god­like fig­ure to them. I think he loved that set. Be­fore it got knocked down we were both try­ing to find ways of keep­ing it as some kind of night­club some­where.

David was very sup­port­ive of me af­ter Ab­so­lute Be­gin­ners (which was mauled by the crit­ics and un­der­per­formed at the box of­fice). We were thrown off the film, so we didn’t re­ally get to fin­ish it. He tried to get us back on it for some time, but that didn’t work. I think he was aware af­ter its re­lease that it had re­ally fucked my ca­reer up. I couldn’t work in Eng­land af­ter that. I had to go to America and he was very sup­port­ive of me there, he con­tin­ued to work with me. We did a cou­ple of videos to­gether, Day-in Day-out and one for Tin Ma­chine.

Di­rect­ing bowie

I’ve worked with a lot of mu­si­cian-ac­tors who’ve turned out to be a night­mare on set. Just get­ting any kind of cin­e­matic per­for­mance out of them can be­come a bat­tle of wills — the ‘don’t tell me what to do’ syn­drome. But David was al­ways very flex­i­ble and col­lab­o­ra­tive. Per­haps it came from his con­fi­dence, be­cause he was a very good ac­tor — par­tic­u­larly of com­edy, though he didn’t of­ten get to show that side of him­self on screen. Once we’d de­cided on the idea, he be­came to­tally flex­i­ble and joy­ously col­lab­o­ra­tive. Then, like all the best ac­tors, it was just a case of: how can we make it bet­ter? He

was ca­pa­ble of do­ing what­ever you asked, and very fo­cused when he wanted to crack some­thing. When his char­ac­ter had to fall through a ceil­ing in Jazzin’ For Blue Jean, he was happy to do the stunt him­self.

He was a bit fazed when I asked him to learn to tap-dance for Ab­so­lute Be­gin­ners. Then he went and mas­tered it in about a bloody week. The big dance num­ber on the gi­ant type­writer was in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to shoot. And we had to fly him up onto this gi­ant globe, so it wasn’t easy to find a point where he could stand up, es­pe­cially as he was whizzing up and down on a wire. It took a lot of phys­i­cal ef­fort to land prop­erly and grace­fully, but he was de­ter­mined to do it.

He did want to di­rect films, and I’m sad that he didn’t get to do that. He talked about mak­ing a film of Ker­ouac’s The Subter­raneans. And maybe Last Exit To Brooklyn, which of course was made in the end (by Uli Edel). I think he would have been a very good di­rec­tor — I would have loved to see any­thing he did. Of course, his son is now car­ry­ing that torch.


I got the news on a bloody text. It was wait­ing for me when I woke up on the Monday morn­ing. I was very lucky to know David, more closely ob­vi­ously when we worked to­gether than later on.

I vividly re­mem­ber go­ing ski­ing with him. I’m not a skier and he was very con­sid­er­ate of this ter­ri­fied guy go­ing down a moun­tain with him. He said he thought of me as a younger brother at times. He was keen to turn me on to things, like his brother had for him.

I’m not say­ing that this was spe­cial — there were peo­ple much closer to him than I was — but it was great to feel that you were close to some­one so ex­tra­or­di­nary and in­spi­ra­tional. Once you’ve had a re­la­tion­ship with some­one like that, it re­mains with you.

Un­der­neath the sad­ness and the ter­ri­ble shock there is some­thing joy­ful. I think there’s some­thing pos­i­tive in his death, which isn’t some­thing you can nor­mally say about peo­ple pass­ing away. He left an in­cred­i­ble kind of up­draught be­hind him that en­er­gised peo­ple in ways I don’t think they ex­pected.

He was a great source of strength, if you’re a lit­tle out of the or­di­nary, if you were a lit­tle fright­ened, if you didn’t know who you were in life. He re­ally con­nected and gave a lot of peo­ple a lot of strength.

Still, I find it very, very hard to think of him as his­tory. He al­ways seemed to be the fu­ture.

Top: Julien Tem­ple on set with blow-dry­ing David Bowie. Above: Bowie and Tem­ple’s first col­lab­o­ra­tion, Jazzin’ For Blue Jean.

Above: Bowie is Man On Wire. and Man in Spivvy Suit. Above right: The kids wig out as the That’s Mo­ti­va­tion num­ber builds to a cli­max on — ap­po­sitely — a gi­ant record player.

Top: With patsy Ken­sit as Crepe Suzette. Above: DB as ad exec Ven­dice part­ners dur­ing That’s Mo­ti­va­tion. Right: Bowie is beau­ti­ful 12 dif­fer­ent ways on this con­tact sheet from an Ab­so­lute Be­gin­ners promo shoot.

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