Kiwi filmmaker Florian Habicht on his collaboration with Jarvis Cocker, the people of Sheffield, and appealing to non-fans of Pulp.
Florian Habicht’s wonderful Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets captures the last ever concert performed by Pulp in their hometown of Sheffield, England. Unlike your typical concert film, Habicht applies his trademark democratic approach to filmmaking on the band and the city itself. Throughout his career he has shown a real love and empathy for ‘ordinary’ folk, and in the process has created some of the most indelible films about towns and cities, whether it be a Northland town with bad PR, or a city like New York, which doesn’t need any PR at all. He has achieved a rare feat: he makes films without needing conflict to drive them and leaves his audience with a happy glow.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?
FLORIAN HABICHT: I wanted to be a musician or a singer. I didn’t have the talent. I used to kayak out to sea to practice my singing. I tried starting a couple of bands in high school. I even auditioned to be a singer in a band, which was made up of a whole bunch of the guys just came out of prison. I had no idea they’d been in prison and I auditioned to sing in their metal band. So anyway, I can’t sing. Then I got into photography, went to art school, and kept wanting to push the photographic medium by drawing on photos, doing narrative things with a series of images. That quite naturally led to film. The idea that I could make a thing with all of my friends. Combine fun with creating stuff was a dream.
BG: Given your initial love of music, does that explain your unusual approach to music in film (Woodenhead  for example, recorded its sound first before it was shot).
FH: Totally. It is my favourite part—doing the sound mix or the soundtrack. I really love it.
BG: I remember when you made Kaikohe Demolition (2004), you did it by accident after having heard about the Santa being beaten up.
FH: That’s right.
BG: It seems like your creative process is often accidental. Do you like this improvisational aspect to the creative process?
FH: Definitely. I always try to plan and make things in terms of ‘writing a script’, but I always just end up picking up a camera and making something. The street is my home rather than a studio.
BG: Had you always wanted to do a music film?
FH: No, never thought of it. Musicals. Yeah. I’ve done a musical and want to do another one. But never a music film. After making my first music video in New Zealand I told myself I never want to work with rock stars.
BG: Why Pulp then?
FH: Because I love their music. I actually thought collaborating with Jarvis Cocker would be really interesting.
BG: Do you remember when you first heard of them?
FH: I got a private dance from my flatmate who was a dancer. She was showing me a solo work she was working on in her bedroom. It was kind of a sexual dance, and she played ‘Bar Italia’ (from 1995’s Different Class) while she was doing it. I loved her dance and I loved the music. We were good friends. She could tell I liked the music so much, she gave me the album.
BG: It’s funny, I never really thought of Pulp as sexual. They seem more about impotence.
FH: Yeah, maybe that’s why the dance was so strong.
BG: So you just emailed Jarvis and that was it?
FH: Pretty much. Maybe I’m naïve, but I had the feeling that Pulp are a friendly band. That they’re a kind of band you could approach and expect to hear something back.
BG: I suppose they were a band that toiled for so long (they formed in 1978) and then all of a sudden ‘Common People’ (1995) exploded. They might have been a bit more cynical about fame.
FH: The fact it took them so long to make it, I found inspiring. The goals I set for myself when I was young, they never worked out like that. I always found it inspiring that it took Pulp so long to make it. As opposed to Kurt Cobain.
BG: Or even Oasis or Blur who fame happened straight away too. I suppose Pulp have got a pretty interesting view on fame.
FH: [quoting Cocker] “It was like a nut allergy. It just didn’t agree with me.”
BG: All of your films have a democratic approach, they don’t necessarily have main characters.
FH: Except Rubbings from a Live Man (2008), which had Warwick [Broadhead].
BG: You seem to bring in a whole cast. Did that structure your approach to Pulp?
FH: Yeah, the idea that this is about the people. That was going to be the thing that makes it special and different. I guess, also different to most rock docos, where it’s really focused on the band. And as being rock gods.
BG: When I see your films, I think of the films of Abbas Kiarostami. He often constructs his films through lies, and in between the lies and what you see in the camera, there’s a kind of ‘truth’ in it all. I find your films have that similar effect, like in Love Story, for example.
FH: I totally believe in what you said. Cinema is a lie, there’s no way around it. It’s constructed, it’s selective.
BG: How do you try to get a sense of a band through that’s something constructed?
FH: I asked Jarvis on camera, “Are you performing now?” And he said, “yeah.” “When are you not performing?” “When I’m asleep.”
BG: I suppose there’s a performance that everyone puts on.
FH: It’s an interesting thing.
BG: In many respects, in this film, Pulp is peripheral. Just like in Love Story, the love story was peripheral. You have a much wider focus. Sheffield is just as much a character as the band itself. When did you get a sense of the city’s relationship to the band?
FH: When we started filming.
BG: Do you like approaching people?
FH: I love talking to strangers. When I was a student at Auckland Univeristy, I saw Mike Leigh’s film, Naked (1993), and it was about a homeless guy and he just makes contact with strangers the whole time. Even though his character was complex, just the interacting with strangers, I found inspiring. I like it. Having a camera makes it a lot easier.
BG: Could you do it without a camera?
FH: If I’m in a good mood, I could definitely do it without a camera. But I have to be in the right mood. Whereas, if I’m filming, then you do have to do it all moods. Having said that, you get the best footage when you’re in the right mood.
BG: How did you choose the subjects? Was it just a matter of asking them if they liked Pulp?
FH: Sometimes. The first guy I asked, a young guy, “Pulp? What’s that? A software?” We set up the camera outside Castle Market and got some curious people wandering up wanting to know what we were up to. A few of them made it into the film.
BG: How keen were Sheffield inhabitants to be involved?
FH: When audiences watch the film, they think they were keen. People in Sheffield are amazing, but they don’t like being filmed. I actually found it quite hard in the beginning.
BG: Whereas Love Story?
FH: That was easy.
BG: Even Kaikohe Demolition?
FH: Maori people and New Yorkers are really comfortable in front of the camera. Whereas people in Sheffield, they aren’t.
BG: I guess they’ve been stereotyped in England, that North-South divide.
FH: A bit of that. Some people were worried that we were going to make a film like [the Sheffield-set] The Full Monty, being portrayed like that. They didn’t seem to like technology so much. For me, I found it a little bit like going back in time, which I really liked about it.
BG: Given the class system that operates in England, did you care about it, or just walk in?
FH: I just walked in. Someone asked Jarvis at a Q&A in Sheffield, “What is a common person?” And he said, which surprised the person asking the question, “Well, I don’t think there is a common person. People are all individuals. Everyone’s different.” I have definitely the same philosophy.
BG: That comes through in the film. While a community is constructed, you never can say, they’re all the same.
BG: In all of your films, they subvert the stereotypes of the place. How aware are you of that?
FH: I’m not aware at all. As a person, as a human being, I don’t like judging people. I can feel at home, with a range of people. I can be hanging out with the homeless people at Cannes. When Woodenhead played at Cannes, on my first day, I just hung out with a bunch of homeless people to hear their story. Or I can be at James Wallace House for a dinner party. I really believe you can learn from anyone. You can often learn more from people that you might not be expecting. Of course, I’ve got stereotypes in my brain, and I hate the way your brain is conditioned or programmed. When I do have moments like that in life, I feel embarrassed to be a human being.
BG: There’s a review or two in England, which criticised you for stereotyping the North. Knowing your M.O., it’s ridiculous. Can the stereotypes affect the way a place like Sheffield is constructed?
FH: The people in the film are the people I was attracted to. They were generous in insights on life or Pulp. That’s why they were chosen for the film. I did film a wide variety of people. What you see in the film are the people I found most interesting. I guess the reviewers that made that comment were maybe not seduced or didn’t find the people as special as other people. It’s quite cool, as I know the review you’re talking about, and there have been other reviewers who have challenged it. I had that with Love Story as well. I had people saying, “Why did you interview this kind of person?” A businessman once told me, “You’ve put me off New York.” I don’t think the people in the film are strange or kooky. I find them interesting.
BG: Is there a fine balance between someone you find interesting and an audience who might laugh at them?
FH: Peter [O’Donoghue] my editor, we do everything with the best intentions. By doing that, I never worry or have moral, ethical dilemmas of “Are we representing these people right?” You can spend a lot of time worrying about that sort of stuff. I don’t think anyone gets laughed at in this film.
BG: In Love Story, you seemed to capture a New York that felt more real than Girls or Gossip Girl, or those typical New York representations.
FH: I would agree with that.
BG: You’ve gone from New York to Sheffield
FH: Kaikohe to Sheffield!
BG: An eclectic group of places. Did you expect to have this kind of travel with your filmmaking career?
FH: I would have hoped for it. It’s such a great way to get to know a place by making a film. One day in Sheffield we were filming a church in the morning and chatting with this beautiful group of people making music outside the church, and that evening, Alex [Boden, the producer] and I were at a swingers house in this really kitsch amazing place with a shag carpet, and the guy had a pet python snake. It was all in one day. Those extremes. If you just arrive like a normal tourist with a Lonely Planet guide, neither of those would have happened. It gives you special access at times.
BG: Did you get a sense of how Pulp came to be Pulp from having been in Sheffield?
BG: Were they popular in Sheffield?
FH: Some of the younger people didn’t know who they were. I was surprised. I thought everyone would know who Pulp were. Some of the really young people did. What I liked most about the concert was that it wasn’t just old people. I went to Human League in Sheffield, and it was mostly just old people in the crowd. Whereas Pulp had a lot of new young fans. Not everyone knew them. The people who did know them had a story or two or felt quite proud.
BG: Are there many bands you can think of that have that integral relationship with their home town? I can’t think of many.
FH: True, I’m trying to think of. I’m sure they exist. But I don’t know. Because they write about Sheffield. The other bands from Sheffield, like Human League or Def Leppard don’t write about Sheffield.
BG: How important was it then for them to have their last concert in Sheffield?
FH: Really important. I could tell with how much they put into it. The sound-check was three hours long. They were really nervous and they didn’t want to be filmed that much right before the gig.
BG: Given you were given the gig of the last ever Pulp concert, people might have been freaked out, but it seemed like you just got on with it, given you only had six weeks?
FH: I didn’t have time to freak out. I would have freaked out if I had a year to prep.
BG: Given you had six weeks and given you hadn’t shot a concert before, how did you go about shooting the concert?
FH: Maria Ines Manchego—who was also the DOP in Love Story—the film looks really beautiful thanks to her. She pushed that we shoot on the best cameras with cinema lenses. I suggested we shoot the film on a small camcorder and get more intimate with people. She insisted, “we should make the film like this.” She orchestrated twelve people to be shooting the concert. We wanted it to feel like you were at the gig, having cameras in the crowd.
BG: Heads in front of you?
FH: Yeah, not too in your face. What’s that Rolling Stones doco?
BG: The Martin Scorsese one? [Shine a Light (2008)]
FH: Yeah, opposite to that. We didn’t want it like that. And Pulp wanted it to sound like you were at the gig. To sound quite visceral as if you were in the front row. It was mastered like that. Maria Ines orchestrated that, and the camera operators, who were not exactly auditioned, but we checked out their cinematography showreels and I also got a few friends, DOPs, a few Kiwis who were around Europe, in Berlin, who came. We had a really strong team.
BG: Given it’s Pulp, there would have been a bit of expectation from fans wanting to see a “Pulp film”?
FH: That’s right, and getting that balance right was the hard part. Keeping the Pulp fans happy but not making it too indulgent on the Pulp music front. For the non-fans.
BG: I think your film appeals to non-fans of the band. Was that a key consideration?
FH: Definitely. Really hard to get right. Until the very end of the edit.
BG: Just like you didn’t need to be a fishing fan to enjoy Land of the Long White Cloud (2009), or a demolition derby fan to enjoy Kaikohe Demolition.
FH: Yeah, that’s right.
BG: Given you were also a fan of the band, did you feel any personal pressure to get it right?
FH: Subconsciously, I would say definitely. When I was younger I used to think too much about everything. When I made films I couldn’t sleep at night. You need sleep. My approach now, I tend to just to do it, and I do more of the thinking around the edit. I wasn’t putting pressure on myself like that.
BG: There’s an interesting rhythm to the film. Was it found in the edit?
FH: Peter came from Sydney and was editing while we were shooting for the first part of the shoot. That way the film could take its own shape.
BG: Did you have a favourite moment while filmmaking?
FH: In the scene where Bomar and Carina talk about how they met in the loony bin. When we were rolling that, after that conversation, when Bomar said he escaped to listen to Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service [Cocker’s Radio 6 show] and he just wanted to be hugged. He picked up his guitar to sing Carina a song, but it was actually a song he had written for his previous girlfriend. It wasn’t for her. It was really beautiful moment. I was really touched by that whole scene. It was the most special interview moment, but it didn’t end up in the film.
BG: I loved the cafeteria scene singing ‘Help the Aged’ (1997).
FH: That’s Jarvis’s favourite scene in the film.
BG: I think it was also my favourite Pulp song growing up.
FH: Yeah, it’s a good song.
BG: Actually, I think This is Hardcore (1998) is one of the more underrated albums from the 1990s. I think it’s fantastic.
FH: I also love We Love Life [the band’s final album (2002)], which is an album that didn’t do very well, but I love a lot of songs on that too. It was those songs that ended up in the film. My favourite song is ‘Dishes’. That ended up on the cutting room floor. We had this sequence of cleaning up after the concert, people sweeping up the mess on the stage, and we put it to ‘Dishes’. It was quite beautiful, but it didn’t make it.
BG: Given their legacy was so dominated by ‘Common People,’ did you feel you had to acknowledge that in the film?
FH: The band didn’t even want ‘Common People’ in the film. They were really surprised how much it’s in the film, and that it works. They didn’t have any issues. They were really expecting not to have it all. In the beginning there was talk of calling the film “Common People” and they very clearly said, they don’t want the film to be called “Common People.” They didn’t want to be seen as a one-hit wonder band.
BG: The song is also quite misunderstood.
FH: Yeah, totally.
BG: It’s interesting because the people you interview aren’t pretending to be somebody else. My favourites were the two kids.
FH: Liberty and Rio. Liberty was the star at the Sheffield screening.
BG: Do you think you’ll release some of the extra concert footage?
FH: Yeah. Some of it.
BG: It has gone well in terms of reception.
FH: Amazing reviews from the Auckland screening. I couldn’t believe it.
BG: Has that vindicated your filmmaking methods? There seems to be a real warmth to the reaction.
FH: I think the film works really well with Pulp. I saw the Nick Cave film [20,000 Days on Earth], which I loved. That film was very much Nick Cave. That film is about creating a god. Our film was the complete opposite, about making Pulp not gods, making them real people. Pulp are really about Jarvis’s and other people’s lives, and this type of film, they’re just nice.
BG: Your films also never fail to make me smile too, there’s a quality to your filmmaking that has that effect.
FH: With all of the war and fighting and horrible news at the moment, and with people killing each other, it’s not a bad thing. I also believe that the subconscious has a sense of humour. Sometimes when I come back from a Pulp festival screening, I’ll be singing Oasis.
BG: What’s next?
FH: I’ve just got script development funding to make a fictional film, a ‘real’ film, with a story to be set in Japan and New Zealand, which is kind of a musical of sorts. It’s kind of the idea I had before the Pulp film, which I wanted to develop, but Pulp happened.
BG: Because Pulp happened so quickly and so out of the blue?
FH: I hit a pause on everything.
BG: No regrets?
FH: No regrets. It’s nice from the beginning of the film, meeting up a place similar to where we are now, to meeting up with you here and chatting about it. It’s really cool.
Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other