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What Time is Death? Director Paul Duane talks with IFTN
06 Nov 2019 : Nathan Griffin
What Time Is Death?
IFTN caught up with director Paul Duane to find out more about his new feature documentary What Time Is Death?

The film will feature at the TULCA Festival of Visual Arts at 6pm on Saturday, November 9th in the Pálás Cinema and will be followed by a Q&A with director Paul Duane.

Audience will have another chance to see it at the 64th Cork Film Festival, where it will screen at the Triskel Arts Centre at 6pm on Tuesday, November 12th.

Paul has been making films, both drama & documentary, for over twenty years. In January 2014 he was the only director with two films on Variety’s Ten Directors To Watch list. He has been nominated twice for an IFTA & once for a Grierson and produced the IFTA-winning documentary In A House That Ceased To Be in 2015. His film Barbaric Genius was called “enthralling – four stars” by the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw and his documentary about rockabilly bank robber Jerry McGill was described as “a riveting ride to the wrong side of the tracks” by the Sunday Times.

Follow on from his documentary Best Before Death, Duane’s sister project What Time Is Death? follows the latest artistic endeavour being undertaken by the artists formerly known as The KLF. After retiring from the music business, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (The KLF) entered the art world as the K Foundation. Following their biggest artistic statement to date (filming the burning of a million pounds) they signed a contract on the bonnet of a Nissan vowing not to mention the burning for 23 years, then promptly disappeared. Sure enough, 23 years later, in 2017, the K Foundation resurfaced with plans to build a ‘People’s Pyramid’ in Liverpool filled with human ashes, marking the birth of the ‘Toxteth Day of the Dead’.

Funded by the Arts Council Reel Art scheme, What Time is Death? is produced by Nick Franco of 1185 Films & Paul Duane of Screenworks, executive produced by Andrew Starke, and directed by Paul Duane. Editing by Eoin McDonagh, camera by Eugune O’Connor and Torquil Fleming-Boyd, and music by Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs.

We caught up with Paul ahead of TULCA to find out more about how the project came about, his long-standing partnership with Nick Franco and the need for more initiatives like the Arts Council Reel Arts Scheme.

IFTN: How exactly did you get involved with the project?

Paul: “I was making Best Before Death, my film about Bill Drummond, and had already filmed the first part of the documentary, which took place in Kolkata, when Bill told me he had to take a year off his World Tour in order to launch the book 2323, which represented the return of the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu after 23 years of silence.

“Then the book launch became a three-day event in Liverpool called Welcome To The Dark Ages, an event where 400 tickets were sold at £100 each. Since I was very interested to find out what this event would be like (nobody was told anything ahead of time) I decided to buy a ticket & go along as a participant. It turned out that the event led up to a ceremony on the third day where The JAMs announced their new business venture, the People’s Pyramid, a 23-foot tall pyramid of bricks made from the ashes of those who signed up for MuMufication.

“I ended up writing about it for the Irish Times, but at the time I had no notion of doing anything further about it until I realised that the launch of the MuMufication venture had received pretty much zero press coverage. The UK TV & newspapers had covered the first day of the event exhaustively, but by the end they’d all gone home & missed the most important bit of it (something the publicist for The JAMs had warned them would happen, but there’s no point telling them anything once they’ve got their minds made up, as I was to discover).

“So I realised there might be a gap in their armour, given that the only way the People’s Pyramid will ever be built is if lots of people hear about the idea. 

I was also aware that the only way the film could be made was by a filmmaker who had complete ownership & control of the project - something that’s very difficult to promise with a conventionally funded documentary where there will always be a risk of funders or broadcasters sticking their oar in, but with an Arts Council Reel Art film would be baked into the structure of the film.”
 

IFTN: The Jams have not allowed anyone to document their work for 23 years. Why did they decide to embark on this project now?

Paul: “I asked them when they were at a receptive time, I suppose, and I offered them certain guarantees, about being able to control the project, and Bill Drummond knew, and to an extent trusted me, so I was in an unusual position. They’ve turned down everyone else who’s tried to make a film about them, which hasn’t stopped some people going ahead with unauthorised ventures like the recent BBC Radio drama series. 

“However, after agreeing to participate, they did very quickly decide to limit their participation in the film - on Day 2 they told me they weren’t really interested in being in the film at all, which presented me with certain problems.  They kept me up to date with what they were doing and where, and I just kept turning up with my crew, and they didn’t make any attempt to stop me filming, though they didn’t do anything to make it easier either. 

So we proceeded in a state of uneasy truce, like the soldiers playing football in No Man’s Land at Christmas during WW1.

“This continued until the minute I told Jimmy Cauty that we were finished filming, that it was a wrap, at which point he said ‘Oh, I’d quite like to be in it now.’ So I took him up on it and we did do a last bit of filming with him & Bill, against Bill’s better judgement I think, about a month before we were due to premiere the film. It all sort of worked out in the end. Sort of…”
 

IFTN: How did you approach documenting this story? 

Paul: “The same way I approach documenting anything, I suppose.  I didn’t really know what was going to happen - I just knew there was an endpoint - Nov 23, 2019, the first-ever Toxteth Day Of The Dead, when the first brick of the People’s Pyramid would have to be laid. It’s good to know there’s an endpoint - you just have to work towards that & hope for the best.

“In the meantime, I just filmed whatever happened and tried to involve as many as possible of the people who worked with The JAMs on the Pyramid. My feeling was, since Bill & Jimmy weren’t going to feature much on camera, we would learn a lot more by just talking to the others they’d gathered around them, people like Gimpo (who was the roadie for The KLF and filmed the burning of the million quid), Claire & Ru Callender, the undertakers who went into business with Bill & Jimmy to set up the MuMufication project, Paul Sullivan, the architect of the Pyramid, etc. So we ended up with a film that throws light on their work without really needing to put them on screen or interview them, except about one or two very specific things.

“I usually only know how the whole thing is working when I start viewing it in the edit, and with my editor Eoin McDonagh who I’ve known & worked with for many years, we figured out the structure of the film once we’d viewed the rushes. It wasn’t that complicated - I knew it had to start with The JAMs lighting the flames of the kiln where the Bricks Of Mu are being made, and we pieced it together from there, and were careful not to explain things too much - just enough information to let people figure it out for themselves, no more. It seems to work for audiences, so far anyway.”
 

IFTN: The project itself has sentimental value to the duo, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, with the first brick holding the ashes of Cauty’s brother, Simon. What sorts of considerations were made when approaching the structure of the story unfolding on screen?

Paul: “Well, we needed to fill in some of the backstory of The KLF, not too much but enough for anyone watching to understand the history, but we also wanted that history to drop away as you watch the rest of the story. You might go in thinking about them as the guys who burned the money, but we want you to come out much more interested in the People’s Pyramid and its possibilities, its visionary qualities, its scope, rather than still focusing on Bill & Jimmy and their history and them as personalities. 

“They are very uninterested in themselves, in their own egos. They prefer to disappear and for their work to speak for itself. So the film foregrounds the idea of the Pyramid and how it resonates with people. The structure of every film is different. This is entirely different to Best Before Death, for instance. But both films share an interest in how an idea can come to life, organically, in people’s minds, and maybe live a lot longer that way.”
 

IFTN: The film sees you once again team up with producer Nick Franco. Can you tell me a little bit about your dynamic and what Nick brought to the project?

Paul: “Nick & I are very old friends & have worked together in lots of different ways. He produced my film While You Live, Shine, and we had a really good experience making that, but he had a lot more to do on What Time Is Death - for instance, for the opening sequence, Nick and the Irish filmmaker Michael Higgins worked together to create the post-apocalyptic landscape of Liverpool, using tabletop models we constructed in Michael’s studio, then doing a ton of post work in Nick’s post-house 1185 Films, then bringing that CG work back to Michael to bounce it onto analogue formats and re-digitise it, then finally combining everything with the amazing graphics created by Bread & Circus for the final result.”

“So Nick did a LOT more than producers usually do - he personally did the CG FX, he oversaw the conform & did the picture grade, he even created the DCP. It’s hard to find a producer who can do all that, but who also has the people skills to go out on the shoot & deal with everyone, cast & crew, and who gets on well with everyone and is respected by everyone. I’m very lucky to have someone like Nick to work with & we’re looking forward to doing a lot more work together.”
 

IFTN: The film is funded by The Arts Council Reel Arts Scheme. How did you go about securing this funding?

Paul: “It was pretty straightforward - I applied, got an interview, and they decided to fund this project! The thing about Reel Art is it’s very specific, though - you need to make the case that the only way to make your project is with their funding. I couldn’t have made this film any other way, for many reasons, and they understood that & came in with the funds we needed. 

“The Reel Art scheme fills a vital role in Irish documentary funding, particularly as RTE backs ever farther away from feature documentary and serious arts coverage. 

It’s a shame they can only make two Reel Arts a year. The need for a fund that treats filmmakers as artists & gives them control & ownership of their work is greater than ever, and they punch way above their weight, I think, with the films they make.”




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