Lost In France is a new documentary about a group of Scottish musical acts which, in the early '90s, decided to band together and travel to France for a music festival in a sleepy hamlet.
Mogwai, The Delgados, Bis and a number of acts made the journey back to France and reminisced about their experiences then and what they made of their time there, as well as where they are now.
We talked to director Niall McCann about his own background with the various bands, reflecting on their careers, the wider music industry and chopping down footage to make it into a cohesive story.
How did you come to get involved in making this? Were you a fan back in the day?
I met Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap after he played the Grand Social in the summer of 2012, I introduced myself and we stayed in touch. A few months later I travelled over and spent the day with him in Glasgow, discussing the music scene of the 90's there and his memories of it. Aidan mentioned this trip they all took to Mauron in France and something clicked for me. I had my way into the story. Unfortunately Aidan couldn't join us on the trip as he had his own film in production at the time but this allowed me to refocus and Stewart Henderson who was running Chemikal at the time became our main character in a way After that there was a lot of travelling back and forth to convince the guys to make the film with me...
I knew after meeting all of them that in order to get them to reflect on their lives and what they had achieved I'd have to take them out of Glasgow, the label was under serious financial strain when all this happened (the music industry has been enfeebled by file sharing and the drop off in album sales, which the film discusses) so I knew the last thing they'd want is to sit around Glasgow patting themselves on the back when the business they had spent 20 years or so building up from nothing crumbled before their eyes. That's what Mauron was about too, the trip back was a device to get them talking, to give them space to reflect.
So the film became about this trip back, with the label Chemikal Underground at its centre, Stewart, Emma, Paul and people like Alex Kapranos, RM Hubert and Stuart Braithwaite there to represent the wider scene too. What intrigues me about the Mauron trip is the normalcy of it. Every one of us can identify with the trip because most of us have had similar experiences. The film is first and foremost about people and we can all see elements of our own lives in their stories. It doesn't matter if you are a musicians or an artist or an accountant. You can see yourself in them. The trip also allowed me to draw parallels easily between the mid 90's and the present. A lot has changed. Changed utterly and this was a great way to highlight and discuss that change.
Was it difficult to bring everyone together? I know Alun Woodward from the Delgados wasn't involved, was there a particular reason for that?
These things are rarely easy especially when you are dealing with musicians. All their lives are very different now from what they were before, they have families etc but they were all so willing and open to the idea by then that it was more a logistical problem than anything to do with convincing them to come along. Filmmaking is very much like herding cats, you just have to hope the stars align and things go the way you had hoping but it's this unknown quantity which makes it magical also.
Alun had a number of personal things going on at the time which made it difficult for him to join us over there. As I said making a film with an ensemble cast has obvious difficulties which a narrative about one person would not. The Delgados were like a family and I know they all wanted him there. He looms large over the events in the film and is a felt presence, however it would have been great to have them all there.
I did imagine from the off that I would probably be making the film with a smaller selection of the people who went on the original trip rather than everyone who went first time round. so I knew I wouldn't be taking them all back. That would have been impossible.
One of the big things I noticed about the documentary was just how brutally honest everyone was, or at least seemed to be brutally honest. Was that the case and how did you get them to open up to you?
Trust. As a filmmaker I often feel this is the most important thing there is. I spent a lot of time with them all. Little by little they get to know you and vice versa. When I met Paul Savage we hit it off straight away, he was a big part in convincing everyone else to enter into the project. Pauls a great guy and once he was on board the rest could see I was on their side. Many people have tried to convince them to make a film before with no luck.
When you were filming the interviews, particularly the ones with Emma Pollock about her relationship with Paul Savage and so on, did you think, "OK, this is getting too close to the bone, I need to stop," or step back from?
Not at all if I'm honest. People know the story when you are interviewing them and if you've done the groundwork as a filmmaker and discussed the concept of the film, what you are looking for, where you are trying to go, the subject should be willing to go with you. People can also not answer questions if they don't wish to but I like to think I'm charming enough to get away with a few cheeky questions!
With something like this, it looks like there's a huge amount of available footage and anecdotes to wade through that you could potentially get lost in. Aside from the idea of the bands reuniting for this festival, was there a criteria for you what made it in and what was left out? How much footage did you have altogether to work with?
How much footage? How long is a piece of string? As you say with something like this you have all this archive, music videos, interviews, footage from the present etc. But what has struck me from looking back over the start of the edit and before was the blueprint Cara (the editor) and I sat down with, i.e. The treatment I wrote was actually quite close to where we ended up. I knew the bus journey back would be the spine of the film and that they would arrive there at the end of film so that dictates a lot.
It's then a case of killing your darlings and we had to lose so much great stuff, you always do. It's like torture. The criteria was no more than what worked best in the context of film and what fitting with what I wanted to say about the changing music industry, class, social welfare and the arts etc often the film dictates itself to you in the edit. It's a very transformative experience. Not always a pleasant one though! Hard to say exactly how much footage but definitely a 10:1 shooting ratio at least, probably more than that.
I'm thinking that this could have been a straightforward concert movie, but instead it became this sort of record of a scene and a time and so on. Did you set out with that in mind or did that come together in the edit?
Yes from the start I always wanted it to be a record of this Lost era which I don't think too many people are maybe aware that we lost. It was the trip to Mauron and the concert in Momos which was in many ways the icing on the cake. The gig being something we begin and keep returning to is something which became apparent in the edit more than anything else.
You have to be willing to change course and do what's right for the film. You are in service to the film. Not the other way around. I like how the gig in the film is like another gateway to the past. The past is all around us and you can fall into it if you are willing.
One big thing that struck was just how funny some of the anecdotes and characters were and how almost bawdy the humour was. Any story that didn't make it in to keep the rating or the like? Favourite story you heard?
There was a story about someone in our film knocking out a Loaded Journalist with a chair that we left out as the person asked us to. You need to be willing to engage in some give and take when you are making a film like this and be aware you are dealing with actual lives and people's own stories.
There were plenty of debauched tales from the trip and that time. Anything we left out was either out of respect for people who were not involved this time or due to lack of space in the film. There was another story about the bus driver who pops up a few times in the film. He just sat screaming at this old lady serving them dinner who didn't understand him, "do you have any [email protected]@king Malk" (Milk) eventually telling the bemused woman that it is "from a coo" (cow). I don't think he had any interest in the red wine they were serving.
Nothing was left out because it was too much, if I had put everything in I wanted it would be five hours long. Lost In France Redux. If it's good enough for Francis Ford Coppola, it's good enough for me.