We Spoke to the Director of the New Blur Documentary 'New World Towers'
Director Sam Wrench highlights the perks and quirks of trailing the reunited Britpop legends as they launched their excellent comeback album 'The Magic Whip.'
On February 19, the legendary British rock band Blur held a press conference to announce the release of its new record, The Magic Whip. It would be the band’s first album as a four-piece since 1999’s 13, whereafter they put out 2003’s Think Tank as a trio, losing guitarist Graham Coxon.
When London-based filmmakers, director Sam Wrench and producer Tom Colbourne, caught wind of the announcement, they immediately put wheels into motion to document the story behind the record. Two months later, the album was released, and Wrench was well into development on his third full-length documentary film. But it was important that the film did not replicate, nor attempt to tell the story of 2010’s No Distance Left to Run, a retrospective history of the famed “Britpop” band paced alongside reunion shows in 2009.
Instead, New World Towers documents Blur in 2015, a reborn band with a record primarily recorded over a five-day span at a reclusive studio in Hong Kong. The doc isn’t a legacy piece, but a current slice of time where four life-long collaborators made a return to comfortably writing music together. Bringing us inside the studio, homes, and on stage with elaborately produced live-performances from both London and Hong Kong, New World Towers is a human story, not just a “making of.”
We spoke with director Sam Wrench for a look at the making of the film, which will make its North American debut Sunday night at DOC NYC.
Noisey: Can you tell me about your background in filmmaking?
Sam Wrench: I’m 24. This my third long-form doc. I made one last year with Mary J. Blige that went to Tribeca, that was more following the actual process of the making of the album. Before that I did it with a band called Biffy Clyro. I’ve known Blink TV and the film’s producer, Tom Colbourne, since I was really young. I was a runner for them when I was like 15. He gave me a shout around the time of the press release, he said, “What do you think? Are you a fan? Does this seem interesting?” It seemed amazing. From the press junket, it also seemed like there was more to the story. There’s something else there. We said we should approach them and start talking about how to tell that story.
How was it publicly presented?
I felt like at the press conference, which is actually in the film, they kind of glossed over what seemed like big things: the fact that they recorded [The Magic Whip] in five days, that it had then gone to bed for 18-months, and then Graham [Coxon] picked it up and had done something with it and taken it to Damon. That’s what sparked my interest. There’s a story here. What we didn’t want to make was just a straight album making-of. What we also didn’t want to do was look into the past. Someone else already made a film looking back on the past, and it was amazing. So this needed to be about the present day. The treatment I wrote said we should just show Blur in 2015, if we hypothesize about the future that’s fine, but let’s not go back to what 90s Britpop was. That’s been covered, and everyone is very aware of that. Because of that it gave them the freedom to talk a little bit more about now rather than worrying about the past.
I noticed how deliberate it was that this wasn’t a retrospective and that you weren’t going to include historical context.
It’s one of those things where you’re making these decisions, and you’re hoping they pay off, and you’re hoping that people agree with why you’ve done it. Not referencing the history was a big thing. It felt like there was no point in going halfway on that. You either do it, or you don’t. Also, I know the guys that made that film, and it doesn’t put us in competition with them. This was one thing that’s amazing, and it exists, and this is another one. They exist side by side.
So it didn’t intimidate you coming into it knowing someone had done a film on Blur fairly recently?
I think the biggest intimidation is to tell a story that’s worthy of the band. Damon [Albarn] is a songwriter, he’s a master of telling stories. He’s a master of capturing people’s emotion, whether at a gig or in an album. As a filmmaker, especially making a film about someone who does that so well, you can’t try to beat that. You’re there to try to convey it in a way that justifies it and brings out a greater importance. If you try to tell all of a story or trivialize it too much, you kind of get yourself into a mess.
The band does tend to gloss over really heavy topics. How was it trying to dive into that type of flippant answering to dramatic issues?
We did it over time. When we all met, I spent some time with Damon without cameras. Then the interviews we did built up. The first one was like 15 minutes or something. We were hanging around, and there was a camera, so we decided to have a chat. They grew so by the time we got to the last one you could really feel that there was a trust there. It was the same for the other members. Both Damon and Graham, both of their interviews came quite towards the end of the project, when they felt like there was a trust there. It feels like you’re there having a conversation with them, as opposed to just another interview. The way that I do the interviews: I bring a camera, lock it off slightly out of their eyeline, I sit down, and we have a chat. The idea is for them to forget the camera is there and talk with a real person. So for what you lose from maybe it not being perfectly in focus the whole time or looking perfect, you gain from the natural reaction from someone and a genuine sense of who they are.
Can you tell me about the first time you met Damon?
It was pretty intense because we had a couple of meetings with management and talked them through the approach. They liked it, but we needed to speak to Damon and then the rest of the guys about it. So I went to the National Theater. He was working at the time on his musical, and we we went through the idea. We bounced back and forth, and he was very into the approach, but he said he thought that Hong Kong was a much bigger part than I had been making it out to be. He was really keen to having the bit of Hong Kong that he sees in his lyrics to come across. So he gave me a list of all the places he went to in Hong Kong to write the songs, and when we went back for the gig we all went back there. It was amazing. It was him engaging the project and adding to it and bringing more to it. It’s a massive part of the film. Then I met with the other guys, went back and forth, and we were all in agreement. We shot Hyde Park first before Hong Kong. Since then, we’ve spent a bit of time together watching the film.
What places did Damon tell you to shoot in Hong Kong?
Mong Kok, Hollywood Road and the Po-Lin Monastery, where this massive Buddha is up on a hill. New World Towers, which is the title of the film but is also a song on the album, is outside of the hotel that the guys were staying in. There’s a massive tower with a giant sign that says “New World Towers.” Ironically, I don’t think we featured it [laughs].
Why do you think he had such a connection to Hong Kong?
I think that’s definitely a question for him. But it’s a very absorbing space. This massive city of contrast and this sort of old Britishness and also this Chinese influence. It feels like a very creative city. He’s always written about places. He connects with the places he’s in. I don’t think it would’ve been the same record if it was in Düsseldorf.
What’s your impression of Damian’s feelings about doing interviews? Does he hate it?
I don’t think he hates it. He likes engaging in conversation, and I think if that conversation doesn’t engage him then he doesn’t want to do it anymore. If it’s the same boring questions, then he has a tendency to switch off I’d imagine. Having said that, I’ve never really seen him do that. I’ve only been there for a couple of other times he’s been interviewed,. He always given the Damon vibe.
What about Graham? He seemed to have opened up a lot for you.
With that one it was definitely a building thing. He doesn’t enjoy being interviewed quite as much. But he understands that people find this stuff interesting and that it actually is interesting. So we spent loads of time together before we were in front of a camera at all or shot anything. Just chatting really, talking about their story but also about other stuff, so by the time we got to the interview it was just something that felt good. I wouldn’t want to speak for him but I think he enjoyed it in the end.
Coming in as a stranger, how did you build these relationships?
Myself and Damon would have a coffee at the National Theater, or I’d get dinner with Graham in Hong Kong. Me and Alex [James] went out for a wander, and I took a camera that time. Dave [Rowntree], we spent taxi rides together, which we filmed. It’s not like, “At 4 PM you’re going to get to know this person.” I’d come to see load of shows before Hyde Park and saw them backstage. It just kind of evolves. I think if you walk up with a camera on day one and ask a question, you’re going to get a very different reply than they’d give someone that they’re used to having around for three weeks of a tour who now has a camera. It’s hard to find that line to draw when you’re making a film because a lot of those days you feel like you haven’t actually captured anything, but you have to go through that process. Otherwise you won’t get all the great stuff you need.
Why was this an easy decision for you to make this film? Are they an important band?
I don’t think it’s necessarily an easy decision. As a filmmaker, when you commit to a film, you have to be sure that you’re not gonna run out of steam there. My instinct said that there probably was a story to tell. Based on that alone we figured we should explore it. It’s not supposed to be sensationalist or completely revelatory, it’s supposed to be a really nice portrait of a really important band in 2015. The band was really important in the 90s and early 00s and are still really important now. It’s about four friends. I thought those key things were interesting. Tom Colbourne really loves the band, and he also felt really close to the album. But it can be dangerous if you go into something saying, “This is it!” and thinking it’s black and white. Piece by piece it evolves and changes as you go.
So what's the story that you told?
I think it’s a story of someone, Graham, not letting an opportunity go and wanting to do something to make up for the past, or the perception of what the past was. It’s also about four friends not forcing themselves to do anything, letting it be natural, and because of that you end up with this great thing that they’re all so proud of. Those two things are quite overriding factors here. This could’ve just as easily been four friends in a high school soccer team together that get back together for a Friday kick-around.
Have these guys ever been good at communicating with each other?
Definitely not. They’re awful communicators. I think that they would say that, too. There’s a clip of Alex—I don’t think it went in—but he’s talking about how they don’t communicate really, but now over the years they’ve worked out a way to make it work, and it’s now working. Half of it is telling the story of them not being too scared to change that but also being content with where it is. Graham says at the end of the film that part of him thinks it was really nice and maybe worth doing again. Then he’s like, “Well, why do it again? It was really nice, maybe this enough…”
I think everyone enjoys seeing the vulnerability of a rock star…
Yeah. Absolutely, that’s what the end is supposed to kinda be. Because we ask them, “What about the future?” And they’ve all got completely different answers [laughs]. Maybe, maybe not, we’ll see… they were all completely different. So we put them in as completely different things really to show them that’s the case. It’s not something that they know and they’re not saying or we know and we’re not telling, they honestly don’t know.
I watched the other film as well as yours, and I was most blown away at the super fandom that Blur had. They had teenage girls hysterically crying and pushing their faces against the glass to get closer to them. I don’t know if that’s existed since the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC here…
Well, One Direction, maybe. But not for a rock band. It was massive. They still are this sort of juggernaut that represents a type of British culture and a time in British culture that everyone is very fond of. I think the new album actually shows that they can be as relevant now as before, if not more so.
You’ve spent so much time one-on-one with Damon. He seems to always lament the notion of recommitting to Blur, but he’s the happiest when he’s on stage with them. Why does that struggle exist?
Why does that struggle exist? I think… it’s just that thing of knowing that there’s always other life to deal with, isn’t there? He loves it but it’s something that’s been there forever. He’s doing a musical at the moment, he’s a very prolific person, and Blur is the thing that’s always there. I don’t think it’s a torment for him, but it’s been a constant. It’s probably not fair for me to say, but that’s my take on it. Because it’s a constant, he likes to say he doesn’t want to be in it. But he says when he is in it he loves it.
Were there any challenges making this film?
I guess the specific challenge is making a film that holds true to a human story and not becoming too much of an album making-of, that’s something that we kept self-checking on. I think that we achieved that, it has an album undertone but it’s really just a story about four people who happen to have made an album. That was the biggest challenge.
Do you think they learned something about themselves through this process?
It’s hard, isn’t it? You’d like to think so. That’s an ambition. You always want to leave the audience with a feeling that they’ve learned something about themselves. If someone walks out of the cinema and says, “I should call my old mate,” then it’s achieved something that it should’ve. And if one of them watches it and thinks, “I should give Graham a call,” or they’ve laughed about something, then it’s worked. Has it changed their perception of it? I don’t know. I haven’t spoken with them since. It’s hard to know.
Have you watched the film with Blur?
I watched the film with Damon the first time around, before the last interview. It was a quite good cut, and it was intense. But it was what he wanted to do, he said, “I want to watch it with you.” So I went over to Dublin and watched it. Luckily he liked it.
New World Towers will screen on Sunday November 15 at DOC NYC.
The film will be released on December 2 in the UK. Details here.
Derek Scancarelli plans to make the third film on Blur. Follow him on Twitter.