“Fame puts you there, where things are hollow.” David Bowie
Today, January 8, 2018, would have marked David Bowie’s 71st birthday. The remarkable pop culture icon died however, after battling cancer just a few days after his 69th birthday in 2016. HBO and BBC teamed up to commemorate and honor the man that left such a creative imprint, not only in music, but modern pop culture. Today HBO premieres documentary, “David Bowie: The Last Five Years”, detailing the last years of his life. Years which marked some of his most productive and seemingly cathartic, creative release of his career.
We caught up with the director, Francis Whately to discuss the making of this film and his experience in life with David. He conceded, “I think there was a feeling that I must be mad to embark on this endeavor.” Having already created a successful documentary featuring David Bowie, called, “Five Years”, Whately was presented with a creative challenge. To tackle another 90 minute film and tell a new story seemed a reach.
He shared, “Telling the BBC that I thought that we should make a film on the last years, where there is no footage other than the [music] videos, no interviews, no TV appearances, no nothing really. I think I persuaded them by saying that I would use the work of the last five years as a springboard back into his earlier career.”
More noteworthy is that this film was completed in roughly four months! Francis modestly recounted, “I think some critic in Britain said that this film was a love letter from Francis Whatley (i.e. me) to David Bowie, and I don’t mind that.” Concluding, “I don’t think the public knew what he was like. I don’t think I knew what he was like. I think it’s very hard to work out another human being. So in a way, if I gave a tiny insight, it is only a tiny insight into what this great man was like.”
You can find out more of what Francis told The Feature Story below. Don’t miss the debut of this beautifully reflective documentary on HBO airing tonight at 8:00 pm.
The Feature Story: What was the catalyst leading you to follow up on the original David Bowie documentary and produce “David Bowie: The Last Five Years”?
Francis Whately: The catalyst was his death. When he passed away, the BBC approached me and asked, would I make another film. I was slightly skeptical that another film could be made after the first film I made, called “Five Years”. But then I thought, okay, perhaps I could concentrate on the last five years of his life, which was sort of a creative release for him.
TFS: Let’s talk about the logistics, what kind of work goes into creating a documentary of this magnitude? How long did it take you to flesh it out and tape the footage, edit, etc.?
FW: A lot of sleepless nights. Plenty of sleepless nights. No, I have a very, very good team. I don’t know whether you have this expression in the States, but we have an expression called a Busman’s Holiday. It means it was a joy to work on, because it is sort of my specialist subject. I was a fan and so reading books and reading articles about David Bowie never seemed like work to me. I was pretty familiar with the material, I knew who the musicians were. Having made the first film, I had a fair wind behind me in terms of getting the people on board. They kind of understood the approach I was going for and that it wasn’t going to be prying into his illness and his death, but instead concentrate on the music. From that point of view, it was fairly easy.
There was a time restraint in that we had to make it very quickly, because I was making another film when he died. So I had to finish that film. I really made this film in about four months. That’s pretty quick for a 90 minute film. Again, I had a very, very good team.
TFS: While he was alive, had you ever met or encountered David Bowie personally or in your work?
FW: I did, yes. The first thing I ever worked on for the BBC as a Director, I did a two minute film about a piece of British sculpture and I worked directly with him. So that’s how I got to know him a bit. And then we sort of kept in touch. Not as friends, but as sort of email pals. I did meet him occasionally, but it was really through the internet that we sort of corresponded.
TFS: What were your impressions? Did these encounters with him have any influence on you motivation to create such beautiful documentaries telling his story?
FW: Well, I think some critic in Britain said that this film was a love letter from Francis Whitley (i.e. me) to David Bowie, and I don’t mind that. I didn’t want it to have lots of celebrities saying, ‘Oh he’s wonderful. Isn’t he amazing.’ I was far more interested in letting the people who really knew him, (i.e. the musicians), talk about what he did and his creative process and let him speak for himself, rather than having second hand witnesses who didn’t really know him say he was wonderful. We all know he was wonderful. We don’t need anyone more to say it. But it was quite interesting to see the workings of the man, you know, and to see how the creative process came about.
TFS: In the process of working on this film, did you learn anything new about Bowie that you hadn’t known or expected?
FW: I suppose the degree to which his life all connected. I think he made a big play of not being interested in his past and sort of always focusing on the current project. At the same time as that, he was fascinated by his past. And I suppose he was using his past, certainly in the last two albums, as sort of a source book perhaps. I think to some degree he would do that throughout his career. He was revisiting a lot of ideas from right back to the 1960’s.
TFS: As producer and director, how challenging and/or rewarding is it to capture and retell the human side of an cultural icon?
FW: With someone like David Bowie, who was such a shy individual and such a private man, even the people I interviewed like Earl Slick and Tony Visconti, who have known him on and off for 50 years, 40 years, even they I think perhaps would admit to not ever thinking or believing they knew the real David Bowie. So, I don’t think the public knew what he was like. I don’t think I knew what he was like. I think it’s very hard to work out another human being. So in a way, if I gave a tiny insight, it is only a tiny insight into what this great man was like.
“What I am used to doing, is being very stubborn, obscure, confrontational… And enjoying every second of it.” David Bowie
TFS: Did you encounter any major roadblocks or obstacles while creating this film?
FW: Telling the BBC that I thought that we should make a film on the last years, where there is no footage other than the [music] videos, no interviews, no TV appearances, no nothing really. I think there was a feeling that I must be mad to embark on this endeavor. But I think I persuaded them by saying that I would use the work of the last five years as a springboard back into his earlier career. I think that is how I got away with it. But yeah, it is not an easy thing to persuade people to come on board for a film. They are investing a lot of money and they need to know that you’re going to do something that is worth everyone’s time. That was a hard one, having made a film already about him that I’m glad to say, had done pretty well. To make another film, and tell a different story was a challenge.
TFS: For you, what was the most rewarding part of the whole process of creating The Last Five Years?
FW: The end. (laughs) No, the most rewarding thing, I suppose I watched it in a cinema in London for its British launch and I watched it with many of his bands. Although I was in the front row, I couldn’t obviously see them, I heard from my friends who were there, that a lot of them were crying and a lot of them then came up to me and said, ‘thank you for making this film’. And I suppose to be thanked by people who really knew him, and these guys really knew him and I didn’t, was a great honor. To know that his management, his family, his musicians, his friends all thought that I had made an accurate portrayal, I suppose that’s the biggest accolade isn’t it.
TFS: At the end of the documentary Bowie is heard joking that he hoped his legacy would be that people would think he had really good haircuts. Having worked so closely on two films detailing this man who created such iconic artistry, what would you say his true legacy is?
FW: That he represented a freedom in terms of experimentation, that I think is quite rare nowadays. I think it’s very hard to do what he did as an artist because the record company, or the public, or whoever it is will tell you as an artist, ‘Oh I like that one. I want another one very similar.’ And David Bowie never did that. He kept experimenting. Some did well and some did less well. But I think, the generation that he came from, where record companies would take long term risks on artists is sadly over. But I suppose I take away his integrity. This was a man at the end of his life and he was suffering, who continued to work like a demon and produced some of the greatest work of his entire career.