By Cord Jefferson on June 26, 2009
Music fans averse to change already know to be wary of Kevin Drew’s Broken Social Scene. On the one hand, the acclaimed Toronto outfit’s lo-fi rock is some of the most inspired of the last decade; on the other, its members are so eager to create that to do so in one place for an extended period doesn’t seem to fully satisfy them. While front man and founder Drew has been an unshakable cornerstone during BSS’s eight-plus years of recording and touring, several former Scenesters have left the band to found successful projects of their own, like Metric, Stars and Leslie Feist’s solo juggernaut.
But in the words of Henry VIII, change is good, and Drew, one of BSS’s few constants, has himself begun branching out from his musical treetop. While still playing regularly with the group, Drew, whose appetite to create seems to rival Da Vinci’s, is now also a budding filmmaker. With a few music videos (his own and others) under his belt, he’s recently finished The Water, a surreal short from Revolver Films based on ex-girlfriend Feist’s song of the same name and starring Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Sunshine) alongside Feist herself. With dialogue as sparse as the snow-blanketed Canadian scenery, The Water, built more on the atmosphere of Feist’s song than its lyrics, depicts the emotions and conflict of a long-lost lover’s strange return.
Like Drew, Zach Galifianakis is involved in both music and film. Equal parts actor, performer and comedian, the eccentric Greek with the funny name (and vice-versa) often incorporates his pretty piano noodling into stage shows that have included everything from a legitimate doo-wop trio to bickering with the audience to leaving the stage in mock-furor. As is presumably the case with everyone who plays music, Galifianakis is also a fan. Asked who he’d like to interview, Zach, a longtime Social Scene (as Drew calls it) follower, told us the BSS leader was “second on his list.” Unable to summon Mary Todd Lincoln, we obliged.
On a cold winter’s day, Galifianakis, on his farm in North Carolina, called Drew, in a bathtub in Toronto, to discuss movies, music and the sad disappearance of mystery, a piece they agree is so often missing from the trite Hollywood puzzle.
Zach Galifianakis: What was the genesis of The Water?
Kevin Drew: I had made some music videos before with a friend of mine under the name Experimental Parachute Movement, and when Feist’s new record (The Reminder) was coming out, she told me to pick a song I wanted to do a video for. I thought “The Water” was the most beautiful one on the record and asked her if, instead of a music video, she wanted to make a short film based on the track. Once she was in—I already knew Cillian after meeting him at a Social Scene show in London—so I told him I’d love to have him do the film, too. It took about a year to get everybody’s schedules settled down and we took it from there.
Galifianakis: The older gentleman in the film [David Fox]…there’s something familiar to me about his face.
Drew: Yeah, you see him in a lot of films and plays here in Toronto; he’s a big Canadian actor. He’s got a brilliant, shockingly assertive presence when he comes on screen. He makes you feel as if he’s got it together with his wisdom.
Galifianakis: His presence is pretty striking; that mug of his is something. I like storied faces and he looks like he’s had a few gin and tonics.
Drew: He’s lived. He’s a theatre guy: he’s drank, he’s divorced, he’s a real person. He engulfs the scenes when he’s in the zone.
Galifianakis: How did you pick the art direction for the film? Even the scene with the mummy is really beautiful; how did you go about preparing for it? Is there some mummy district in Toronto?
Drew: [Laughs] Yeah, we went to the mummy specialist and got an actual mummy and that was that.
Galifianakis: Oh, so it was a real mummy? OK, that makes sense.
Drew: [Laughs] No, we had this amazing producer who put together this amazing team—from the first assistant director down to the art direction guys—and it was just one of these things where, like with Broken Social Scene, I walked in and everyone had their role. Everyone was very familiar with the story and as soon as we all got together, I knew the film was going to become this sort of Canadian poem.
Galifianakis: What do you mean by that, “Canadian poem”?
Drew: I say it’s a Canadian poem because recently I realized that most Canadian films either have snow in them or guys making out. The Water wasn’t really fit for guys making out, so we went with snow. That makes it Canadian.
Galifianakis: Yeah, the whole film I was waiting for a couple guys to come out of the bushes and go at it with a nice Anne Murray song playing along, but the snow was alright instead. Speaking of Canada, I don’t know if you remember this, but I saw Social Scene at Folk Fest in Edmonton this summer. You guys were doing a sort of experimental thing, but it was fantastic.
Drew: Thank you. We had the best fucking summer. We were doing a lot of experimental stuff like that, backing people we didn’t know and doing music workshops. That’s definitely when it’s the most fun, when you can break out of the repetition.
Galifianakis: How do you get so many members together to play Broken Social Scene shows?
Drew: That’s the number one question everyone has. You just constantly have to be open for the idea that some people are going to be there and some people aren’t. We started having a core five and then this year it sort of became a core six. And when we toured all over the world this year, we would pick up horn players and female singers wherever we went. We did it in Mexico, we did it in Singapore, we did it in Taipei—just put the word out to the promoters that we were coming as a six piece and would love to have some local horns and other players. That made everything so much more fun, because we’d be bringing out the hometown crowd and local bands, and the fans appreciated it that much more. The scheduling thing has always been the mystery of our band, but the reason we’ve never capsized is because we’ve always had different energy rotating around. Obviously a lot of people got focused on other things and had to leave—bands like Feist and Metric and Stars—and it’s very hard to get together with them anymore, but even if it is the end it feels like we did do it. And I look back and realize that the last eight years have been amazing.
Galifianakis: Since the women have branched off from Broken Social Scene, do you ever feel like you want a female voice again?
Drew: Yeah, we played with Liz Powell from Land of Talk at the end of 2008 and really connected with her and her voice. We’re hoping she’ll be able to come back with us. I just love working with different people.
Galifianakis: You know what would be amazing? I don’t know how you would arrange it, but for your next tour, try to get Mariah Carey to come out with you guys. Don’t introduce her, just put her up there. The audience would be whispering the whole time: “Is that Mariah Carey?” That would be so phenomenal.
Drew: I’m not even joking: I would love that. Trust me; it’s always been a goal for us to throw the biggest juxtapositions we can into it.
Galifianakis: Back to The Water, and I feel like such a lame film student asking this next one, but why such an open-ended ending to the movie?
Drew: I would have loved it if we could have done the big-budget, Hollywood ending and seen the couple walk into the pond, but we couldn’t do it. They would have frozen to death and I would have felt bad. So that was the ending that we could do, and I’m happy with it. I’m happy with the film. I’m happy that it comes across like a poem and there’s not much to it. Now that I’ve gotten a taste of this short film, there’s a lot more stuff I wanna do.
Galifianakis: You wanna do some features now?
Drew: Oh yeah. I’m working on some stuff right now. See, I got into music to do music for films and the next thing I knew I had all these musician friends and a band. And when the band started to go well, I decided that that was going to be my destiny for then, so doing music for film was put on hold. But then I used Broken Social Scene as an excuse to learn how to make our music videos, and I’m back on track to make films now. I love telling stories, Zach. It’s one of my favorite things in the world.
Galifianakis: So is your major focus these days on branching out into films?
Drew: Yeah, it’s a problem for me to just do one thing for so long. And I have a burning desire to see my own films and see these stories come to life. I also love group efforts, and there’s no bigger place to create and make art as a group effort than in film. It reminds me a bit of Social Scene, a band where everybody now knows their positions and where their strengths and weaknesses are and when to step aside. That’s how film is. The Water wouldn’t have worked if I didn’t have the director of photography, if I didn’t have the writer, if I didn’t have the crew guys building me dolly tracks on snowy hills. And because Leslie [Feist] paid for this out of her pocket, everyone knew this was a passion project and worked a little harder for it.
Galifianakis: What movies have influenced you? Not The Water necessarily, but you in general.
Drew: I don’t know. I’m a massive movie buff and there’s just so many. I wouldn’t know what to say.
Galifianakis: Honestly, I was just kind of hoping you would name only movies that I’ve been in—it wouldn’t be that long of a list.
Drew: I liked your Kanye West video with Will Oldham. And I liked Will Oldham in Junebug.
Galifianakis: Funny you brought that movie up; the director was at my house drinking moonshine last night. Anyway, in the long run with filmmaking, do you have specific stories you want to tell?
Drew: Yeah, there’s tons more stories I want to put to film. I also want to get back to the time when going to the movies was an event. In Social Scene, we used to be really addicted to playing joyous, celebratory anthems and I wish more movies were like that, like events. But they can’t be anymore, because now they need to follow a certain format or you need to plug a certain product. It’s a shame to go into video stores and see how many amazing movies come out that never get a chance in theaters just because they didn’t follow the Hollywood format.
Galifianakis: Yeah, to me, movies anymore are just about DVD extras and marketing and interviews. If I were a director, I would just release a movie and let it speak for itself—no interviews, no DVD commentary. Because all that stuff makes the films so much less interesting. I just did this big Hollywood movie—it was a big part for me—and it was like half of my job was talking about the goddamn thing. I was getting in arguments with the publicist because I thought my job was going to be to vomit my lines out, not be a salesman. I mean, isn’t it more interesting if not every facet is known?
Drew: But that’s the society we live in now, man. There’s no fucking mystery anymore, is there?
Galifianakis: Would you work in the Hollywood system? If you had a great script, you would work on it even if you had to go to Hollywood, right?
Drew: Absolutely. A couple of my film ideas require some mega, mega dollars to pull off, so I’d be into it. I still believe there are some great producers in the Hollywood system, and there are certainly some fantastic directors. I think a lot of the time that some of these big Hollywood blockbusters could have been good had people paid attention to the smallest details or reworked just a little flaw of tradition. People won’t break out of tradition on things and the film suffers because of that. I had this conversation with Cillian—who’s a brilliant fucking actor—about how, of course, when he comes to America, he gets stuck doing what so many Irish actors do; he plays the villain.
Galifianakis: Have people been pressing you to explain to them the mystery of The Water?
Drew: I’ve tried so hard to not directly tell people the story, because I believe it can be up to anyone’s interpretation. In pretty much all the interviews I’ve done, the first question is, “So, tell us the story.” And I go, “No, I can’t tell you the story, because that’s for you.”
This article is from FILTER Issue 34