When Edwyn Collins had a stroke in 2005, many assumed that we had lost of one of Scotland’s great musical talents. Thankfully, it wasn’t so and when Collins returned with his album ‘Losing Sleep’ in 2010, after years of radio silence, filmmakers Edward Lovelace and James Hall were eager to find out more about the former Orange Juice front man’s journey.
Their film, The Possibilities Are Endless, chronicles Collins’ remarkable recovery, thanks in no small part to the love and dedication of his wife and manager Grace Maxwell. The end result is a life-affirming celebration of the will and determination of a precious musical talent, whose triumphant return serves as an inspiration to all. Paul Weedon recently sat down for a chat with the director duo.
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Tell me a little bit about how you guys first came to work together. What led to you first considering reaching out to Edwyn and Grace?
Lovelace: We met at film school down in Bournemouth about 12 years ago and we came to London about eight and half years ago, where we started making music videos and short-form music documentaries. We made our first film five years ago, called Werewolves Across America, which was an indie doc about these musicians in the States who are homeless and travel around sleeping on floors and basically live on tour. Then we shot all of the documentary scenes for the Katy Perry: Part Of Me 3D movie and executive-produced the release of that.
For us, The Possibilities Are Endless has been years in the making. We’d been watching certain types of films and thinking about a certain idea which all really fed in to the moment that we heard ‘Losing Sleep’, which was Edwyn’s first album following his stroke. And when we heard that album, this whole idea of what happens to an artist if they kind of go away and lose their sense of self [arose] – if they come back, do they create the same art?
Hall: Yeah, that album definitely had these themes of identity and memory. It seemed to be about a guy trying to come to terms with who he was and who he is now. Straight away we were kind of intrigued by what had gone on. Obviously we knew Edwyn had that stroke in 2005 and then everything went quiet. Then when he released that album we were kind of surprised. And it was exciting to listen to it, because you didn’t know where his headspace was. We weren’t sure what he was capable of lyrically. We found, listening to that album, the lyrics were more direct. Some people might say they were simpler than previous Edwyn and Orange Juice stuff, but they still seemed to conjure up these quite magical images of nature and this longing to discover an identity and really figure out who he was. So from there, that was the initial impetus for us to try and get in contact with Edwyn and Grace and see if there was a film there.
It’s an incredibly sensitive subject to approach someone about making a film on. When you initially went about contacting Edwyn and Grace was there a concern about how they might react to the idea?
Lovelace: Yeah, definitely. I think we had predicted how sensitive and how protective they would be over their lives and their story. I think you can imagine Grace and Edwyn being totally against this whole idea that Edwyn is some kind of victim and then having a film crew come in to document how hard his struggles have been. So our approach was, “Look guys, we really want to know what Edwyn has to say about his story.” We don’t want to make a documentary about someone who’s got a disability and interview everyone to get their opinions. We just care about Edwyn. How does he see the world and how does he see his own identity now?
The film was only ever going to be told from his and Grace’s perspective, so it was kind of in their hands. And I think our whole attitude when we first went in was, “We just want to come and hang out. We’re not going to bring a camera in for a couple of years. There’s no pressure, let’s just see if we get on.” And I think, maybe because of that, they responded well. We were never going to turn a real-life situation into a film set. We just wanted to be there to try and figure out the atmosphere and take it really, really slowly. I think that’s why it worked, because we basically committed to a really patient process.
Hall: At the beginning we weren’t even sure if there was a film there. We were interested because every time we went to see them, particularly the first time, your natural reaction with a loved one or someone you know really well is to finish their sentences, especially as Edwyn has aphasia so he struggles with getting words out as quickly as the next person. When we were first hanging out, you could see that people were maybe finishing his sentences or prompting him for memories. So we thought about trying to take that away and see if Edwyn could tell his own story. Our process was to give him time and space and just sit with him really, and delve into parts of his brain that he maybe hadn’t delved into before. So it felt more like conversations than interviews, really. We’d let the conversations go off on tangents and we’d discover funny little anecdotes about his childhood, purely by coincidence.
The end result definitely paid off.
Hall: It was all about giving him the space to stop. And sometimes it would take up to 20 seconds to really get what he was trying to say out. Obviously your natural reaction is to want to help him out and you’d be thinking ahead – we know what he’s trying to say, but we’d hold it in. And Edwyn, in typical Edwyn fashion, would come out with something completely different that blew away what you thought he was going to say. So that was a good lesson – always bite your tongue. Don’t try and cut him off, because he is a genius when it comes to words. His poeticism is just beautiful.
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The idea of letting another artist create this image of them and their life is such a brave thing to say yes to. The fact that Edwyn and Grace said yes is totally amazing…
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How much involvement did Edwyn and Grace ultimately have with the editing process? Were there things that they were less keen to share or were they generally quite happy for you to experiment with the material?
Lovelace: Yeah, we shot a test really early on, which we showed to them. It was pretty abstract, using nature as a character to represent Edwyn’s headspace and I think they understood right away that it was going to be its own piece of art and creativity. I think at that point they realised that they could trust us. At one point Grace, maybe once in three years, made a joke about what we were talking about with Edwyn in the studio alone, away from her. It was just about how we had their lives in our hands. They were both talking so honestly about each other and we’d obviously encouraged them to speak completely openly, and I think Edwyn and Grace knew that we were only ever going to make a film that was true to them. They just gave up the reins to us, which was totally amazing.
That’s the reason why it’s so difficult to make a film about an artist, because obviously they have such a protective nature over their own image and over how the world perceives them. The idea of letting another artist create this image of them and their life is such a brave thing to say yes to. The fact that Edwyn and Grace said yes and then said, “Guys, we’re totally cool with you going away and painting your own picture of us,” is totally amazing.
How did Grace and Edwyn react to the film the first time they saw it?
Hall: The first cut was two weeks before the final cut, and you can imagine we were terrified going in to a screening room in Soho. It was almost the first thing Edwyn and Grace had seen since the test. By then Edwyn had written the soundtrack and right there we had our careers on the line, if you like. As Edwyn said, it was so key that we were true to them, and true to our experience of them. They were our only audience, in a sense. We wanted to make something that Edwyn and Grace were proud of, and if it felt like it reflected their experience in some way then we were happy.
As we were watching the film the projector started messing up, the computer was freezing. It was a complete nightmare. Ed and I were cowering at the back. And Edwyn and Grace just soldiered on. Edwyn piped up about six minutes in and said, “So far, so good, lads.” So that was ultimate relief. But all the way along they’ve been so supportive, which is quite unprecedented, I think.
On the subject of that abstract imagery at the start and the fact that you refrained from using talking heads – you didn’t go to other people, you went to Edwyn and Grace – what informed that style? You start with this abstract imagery, then re-enactments and then you employ fly-on-the-wall footage towards the end. How did you develop that structure?
Lovelace: We basically learned from Edwyn that his whole recovery process started off very out of focus, so it was very confusing and quite scary, because nothing made much sense. But also there was a lot of beauty – he could remember a lot of these amazing memories and dreams, but he didn’t quite know what they meant. And then, slowly but surely, things and characters that he cared about – his family and his music – these came back to him and things started to make more sense. Cut ahead to the present day and everything’s sharp and everything’s real. So we had this idea: what happens if the film felt like an image that was out of focus slowly getting crisper, and then by the end you can see it in crystal clarity? That was the idea.
The film very much defies the conventions of a traditional rock documentary in that sense.
Lovelace: I think we’ve always wanted to try and step outside the normal constraints of a documentary. You normally turn up at any cost to document something and it doesn’t matter what camera you’re shooting on or how you’re shooting it – just make sure you film it. That’s the normal documentary rule, isn’t it? Whereas, luckily for us, we had the time to essentially create this narration, which was basically Edwyn telling his own story, and then James and I were left with a blank screen for 90 minutes. So we went away and wrote it the way you would a fictional film.
Edwyn was so visual and emotional in the way he described his memories, it seemed like it would be such a let down to just film Edwyn at home and get archive stuff that everyone’s already seen. The question was how can Edwyn watch it and be like, “Guys, you have visualised what I was telling you.” And all these memories of when he was in Orange Juice and first meeting Grace – obviously we could have used loads of photos and we could have used loads of archive, but the way he talked about it, it felt much bigger and more cinematic than the real footage that already existed.
Hall: Yeah, and I think we wanted not to try to make this kind of conventional music documentary. We wanted it to be experiential in a sense. We wanted to put the viewer in to Edwyn’s mind and suggest what it could feel like to go through something like that. And the way we really felt like we could do that was to be led by emotion and follow Edwyn’s emotional journey, rather than a factual one. So that was something that we thought about – how would we create those feelings and emotions, with abstract images and soundscapes? It’s very immersive and you react to them in a certain way, but it’s always led by Edwyn’s experience.
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It’s not like you don’t care about the old Edwyn – obviously everyone’s still completely in love with that guy – but the new Edwyn is as amazing and charming and witty in a new different way…
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The use of the Conan O’Brien interview at the start was particularly effective. You follow it with a smash cut to black, which threw a lot of people in the screening I saw, I think.
Lovelace: Yeah, we toyed around with how we’d open the story. For a long time we were thinking about opening on black with the underwater sequence, but we also wanted the viewer to imagine the last thing that went through his head before he fell in to a coma. We wanted the audience to have a teaser if they didn’t know anything about Edwyn and make it a really simple set up: here’s a guy, he’s got a quiff, he plays pop songs and a guitar, he’s funny, he’s charming and he’s full of life and creativity. And then bang – the idea that 20 minutes into the film you may never get to see that guy again, we wanted to try and have the audience longing for that guy in the same way that Edwyn and Grace were trying to find that guy. Then, hopefully, by the end it’s not like you don’t care about the old Edwyn – obviously everyone’s still completely in love with that guy – but the new Edwyn is as amazing and charming and witty in a new different way.
Hall: Yeah, we liked the idea that it was this kind of ghost that lingered over that first 25 minutes of the film, which are a bit more out there. It’s in the back of Edwyn’s brain as much as it’s in the back of your brain. Throughout the film that ghost disappears and you’re left with this fully formed man in front of you who’s amazing in his own right.
Changing tack slightly, you worked with Katy Perry previously. Edwyn and Katy are both stars of their respective eras, but how did that experience compare to working with Edwyn?
Hall: There was an overlap period where we’d come off tour with Katy and end up in Edwyn’s studio desperate to do another interview because their studio was kind of like a beacon of home. It was so comforting, with tea and biscuits and everything. And we’d come back in and Edwyn would be like, “How’s Katy?” (laughs)
It was this really strange clash of two worlds, but I think there were certain themes that crossed both films. What Katy was going through on the tour was almost this almost change of identity, stepping into a new realm as this megastar pop artist. It was the tour that made her even more famous and more successful, so this idea that we get close to someone who’s like the eye of the storm almost, that always seems to be something we’re drawn to.
Obviously, Edwyn’s experience was very traumatic and intense for him, and on the other hand what Katy was going through was also this quite intense shifting of persona. And with each project we’re always trying to think of the best way to trade the idea and the themes that are raised from that idea.
Lovelace: The films are so different and, obviously, we shot the documentary footage of the Katy Perry film, so some of our intention of how that footage was going to be used ended up being slightly different because the film was made by Paramount and we only exec’d it. But, yeah, critics have been aware of the difference in terms of filmmaking style and execution. We’ve got such a strong identity of how we want to make films, and every time we make a film we want it to mirror that world.
Katy’s world is one of pop and gloss. It’s quick and it’s fun and it’s colourful and things change at 100 miles per hour, so the film was always going to feel like that. And then, with Edwyn, he’s a guy who’s chosen to take a certain perspective on life in a really thoughtful and creative way, so that allowed us with this film, which is probably more us, to be like, “Right, this guy thinks in a similar way to the way we see the world and how we see art.”
It was definitely something that crossed my mind when I was watching the film, that they must have been completely different worlds.
Lovelace: And it’s worth saying also that if you step back, yeah, there’s something tangible and reachable about Edwyn. He’s one of the people and I think everyone feels like they know Edwyn because he’s himself in every scenario, whereas Katy lives in a completely separate world – this modern world of fame and perception. There’s this idea that she’s a step away from the everyday or reality in a way. But she’s just a girl who just happens to be in the middle of a complete shitstorm, which we found so interesting. In the same way that we connected with Edwyn, we just wanted to see what it’s like to live in a really extreme scenario, but just through one person’s eyes. But in the end, yeah, they’re just people. I think we’re interested in stories told from this person’s perspective where they’re just like us, but going through a heightened experience, basically.
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Words: Paul Weedon
The Possibilities Are Endless is on general release in cinemas across the UK and is available to download on iTunes now. More information at its official website.