AA: It all started with me meeting Joe Strummer. I was talking to him about narrating a documentary series about music and social movements – covering jazz, hip-hop, punk and reggae – and that had me thinking about what The Clash had meant to me as a kid. I grew up in an immigrant family in a community where a lot of people, including my family, still spoke Italian at home. It was a small world, it was the Reagan era and I was in Catholic school — and it was The Clash that opened that all up and made me see there was a whole lot of stuff happening beyond my block. Their music really showed me that there is so much more to being a human being – because it encompassed roots, R&B, early rap, rock, everything, and there was something magical in that greater inclusion.
I’d heard a lot about him but when I met him, I found Joe to be someone who was unusually generous, open and committed to the truth. When he died, it was like losing a family member. In grappling with what he meant to me and to a lot of people, I published Let Fury Have The Hour, a collection of essays about Joe, which drew some acclaim and some very nice responses from a lot of people. That’s when my friend Tim Robbins suggested I should think about maybe doing a film based in some way on the book.
But I didn’t want to do a biopic about Joe Strummer. That’s not really my kind of thing. I always was drawn to doing something broader and more conceptual. I decided I wanted to tell the story not just of Joe, but all these people who were using creative-response to stem the tide of cynicism and individualism. Rather than tell that story through one voice, I wanted to do it through as many voices as I could. I started putting together a list of people who inspire me and I had soon interviewed 70 people. It was getting broader and broader in scope and that was really exciting. It was not just artists, but economists and writers and scientists. And along the way, I also grew as a person and a filmmaker.
AA: I remember so clearly when Reagan was elected because I was about 8 or 9 and my family had just come back from Italy to America. I remember sitting and staring blankly at the TV, thinking ‘what is going to happen to people like us?’ It wasn’t anything I could articulate at that age, but there was a feeling that America was moving in a direction that was the opposite of bringing people together. I had this very intense family life that was built around hard work and community, and I could sense that times were changing. Cynicism seemed to be replacing compassion. Consumerism trumped citizenship. And though I wasn’t sophisticated enough to talk about it, I intuited that this wasn’t working for a lot of people.
Then, I discovered punk rock, skateboarding, hip-hop and street culture in the early 80s and I went from confused to inspired. It opened up my mind and got me thinking – as Lewis Black says in the film “just think” – and I began to see that I could be part of a much richer conversation people were having with each other all over the world.
AA: No two interviews were done in the same way. I only asked two questions that were the same for each participant: the first was “what kind of world do you want to live in?” and the second is a line from a Clash song, “are we going backwards or are going forwards?”
Instead of going in with a set list of questions, I approached each interview as an open-ended conversation. I told them ‘I’m interested in your ideas about the world and how your work manifests that,’ and that started things flowing. I knew from the first few conversations that I was onto something because people were so moved by this inquiry and were so eloquent talking about their personal experiences. A lot of the artists were people I’d collaborated with previously in some way, so that helped. And I’d been following many of their careers for years, so in a sense, I’d been preparing my entire life.
But the most important thing to me was for the audience to feel the excitement I did sitting in these rooms talking with these people. That was not only part of the interview process but also of the structure of the film. The structure is about the reality that real conversations are messy, that democracy is messy, that part of the incredible beauty of the world is that it is so messy, not at all linear, and full of more questions than answers.
AA: Very much so. The film is about creative-response and so the film’s style is a creative-response! I wanted the film to feel like an intimate and open experience with these people, yet at the same time, to be a mixed-media collage that visually reflects what people are talking about.
For the interviews, I wanted to employ what I call “active filmmaking,” trying to replicate reality as much as possible, so that you feel like you are actually sitting there in Sean Hayes’ San Francisco apartment or you’re there watching Eugene Hutz sing “We’re Coming Rougher All The Time” – with all their intensity.
Then I spent an enormous amount of time mining historical footage, more than 400 hours of it, to create a kind of visual tone poem around the interviews. It mixes together old government films, old newsreels from around the world, original art from Shepard Fairey and illustrations from artist Seth Tobocman, as well as my own original photography.
Every second of the film for me was about uplifting the ideas – from the colors to the emotional tone to the way the music, much of which is from the artists in our film, interplays with Wayne Kramer’s beautifully calibrated, original score, which are intentionally very different.
AA: I think one thing that all the people in the film share is that they aren’t engaged in some kind of fantasy of purity. They are a part of this world in 2012 with all its messiness and difficulties and they embrace that. They embrace their own contradictions and doubts, which are the source of their humanity.
They have all found a way to be successful in this society, but what sets them apart is that every single one of them is saying ‘I’m not doing this alone.’ They are each very much part of a larger community. And they are thinking about ways to make the world better for everyone. The way that their individual talents become so magnified when they are combined with others is what becomes so powerful.
AA: Being a realist and not a fantasist, living in this world we have right now is fine by me, but I just want it to be more compassionate; I just want it to work better for all the world’s citizens; and I just want there to be more truth about the way things really are, without any rewriting of history. Basically, I want to see this very same world we have right now become kinder, more honest, more sincere and to embrace the most idiosyncratic, odd and unusual ideas that make human beings so interesting and vital.
It’s always been ideas and conversations that have brought people together. That’s the true “social network” of humanity. It’s not about clicking like on Facebook. It’s about making the kind of authentic connections that hold us together.
AA: I think we’re always going forwards. And it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. I think the greatest con that has been pulled on those who are working for a more honest and compassionate world is this belief that our gains have to be monumental. That is not the way that history has been proven to work. It is many small changes, that come slowly and one at a time, that add up to the greater whole. Small steps are the building blocks of civilization. We might go three steps forward and one step back – but the point is that we’ve still moved that one step forward.
Right now, we’re at another interesting point in history and creative-response is about embracing that. I’ve been really excited to see so many young people reacting so strongly to screenings of the film so far. They have a chance to ask themselves “What am I for?” and that’s a powerful question.