Interview: Matt Reid – Documentary Director

It is becoming increasingly apparent to me as Backseat Mafia develops that one thing keeps on leading excitingly to another and that the enjoyment won’t stop building. In this case, a dream of an opportunity, namely to put questions to New Model Army’s Justin Sullivan, has turned out not to be the end of that particular road. In the course of preparing for that e-mail interview – and as a consequence realising just how disconnected I had become from NMA’s continuing career – I found out that a documentary was being made about the band. Two and a half weeks later and I’m sat in a café in Shepherd’s Bush talking to director Matt Reid over coffee (me) and tea (him, with sugar).

Matt’s background is in TV – you can see his work in Sean Lock and Jon Richardson’s recent trip to the American West or in 2007’s series about the Royal Family, ‘Monarchy – The Royal Family At Work’. Having begun making small films at university (although not studying film), he went “the classic TV route” of runner, researcher and then got a lucky break in his mid-twenties to direct a programme about ex-pats living in Spain for Channel 5. From there “one thing led to another” including the more high-profile programmes above. This documentary, aiming to tell the story of the band across their 30 years-and-counting, is also being prepared for television although, depending on when it gets released, you might see it at some late summer festivals. He has been working on the picture for 4 years now, encompassing numerous interviews with Justin Sullivan and a huge array of concerts. There are more interviews coming – including with some huge fans and in some touchstone locations with the band – and a little bit more gig footage to shoot – but the good news is that the film is already being edited and it is likely to come out this year.

My story with New Model Army started (and in a sense ended until now) with 1989 LP ‘Thunder and Consolation’. Although I was aware of ‘Impurity’ after becoming a fan through ‘Thunder…’, it was always THAT album that I held onto. It was that album that was part of a communing fandom, that I enjoyed with and that was amplified by like- and open-minded friends. It was that album that I shared particularly with Kate Barber all that time ago in bedrooms and in campings-out in parents’ gardens, and on holidays on the coasts of Dorset and Cornwall in teenage years – years in which we came to more fully understand the power and the perspectives of Justin’s unique lyrics and visions. Over time, although I never went any further with NMA, that album has always been part of me. ‘Thunder and Consolation’ has endured, but it has also grown more potent. And that is why, when the chance came to talk to Justin, and now to Matt, that I couldn’t let it go.

Matt has a longer and much more colourful association with the band – but then maybe you would expect that from someone who has been prepared to give this much of his time (and money) to setting down this visual record. For him the story begins at school (don’t all of our greatest musical loves come from that time ? when we’ve got the undented, un-fucked-with ability and energy to love things with total intimacy and joy) when he heard ‘No Rest For The Wicked’ for the first time and experienced the simple “wow” and “that’s amazing” that we have all felt, whether for NMA or someone else.

“I remember where I was and what I was doing… I was at school and I was lying in bed in the dormitory and these guys had an in-school pirate radio station which they used to broadcast using guitar parts and a really weak FM signal. We could just about pick it up and they played the whole of ‘No Rest…’ and I just really remember hearing it. I would have been 15 and so it was 1986 or 1987, something like that, and then I just did what everyone did – I went out and bought all their albums.”

A couple of years later and Matt was seeing them live for the first time (confession: secret shame: I have never seen them live) in Manchester, touring ‘Thunder and Consolation’, probably the day before his 17th birthday (he’s not entirely sure). He remembers it being “pretty hardcore” and that he got “battered around a lot at the front” owing to his relative size. Matt glazed over a little, fondly remembering:

“I used to get on the floor quite a bit, although someone would always pick you up … and they did this thing, back then in the late 80s, where the hardcore following would form a circle and pluck someone small like me out from, like the front three throws. They would pull you out and they would throw you round like a beachball, and then they’d just get rid of you and put you back where you came from and you’d be thinking ‘what the fuck just happened then ? what did I do?’”

I suggested that presumably after that he was forever after to be found at the front urging them to “pick me ! pick me !” but Matt, laughing through the bruising memories, assures me that no – that experience, hard-won, was enough. That doesn’t go for seeing them live, however. Although, in making this film he has now seen them a lot, he was already a regular attendee every year, for example at the sadly-departed Astoria in London, including their last-ever show there on 17 December 2008 (the venue closed down the following January). And it was that gig that was in a way the seed for this documentary. After seeing NMA play, Matt was talking with a documentary-maker friend who was amused to find he was making the Christmas pilgrimage to see the band every year and jokingly told him he should make a film about them. “Literally the next day” he wrote to Justin, “thinking ‘what have I got to lose ?’” and about a week later the ‘phone rang and a voice said “it’s Justin from New Model Army here”.

Justin and Matt met to discuss the idea, and Matt’s proposal and credentials were supported by Joolz Denby’s approval of a mini-series that Matt had made previously about child labour in clothes production (‘…Stacey Dooley Investigates’ for BBC3). Sometime in early 2009 the project kicked-off, and this is where Matt makes the admission (“how embarrassing!” he says with a groan and a grin) that this has been going on for over 4 years:

“[at the beginning] I didn’t have funding so I would do a couple of weeks here, and a couple of weeks there. The nature of my work is freelance so it tends to be quite intense, then there would be a couple of weeks off, which I would dedicate to NMA. So that’s been going, on and off, for four years.”

The film is mainly self-funded “at first it was quite cheap” but, Matt acknowledges with a wry grin and a (nervous) laugh, “it is getting more expensive”. He’s using his own time, his own camera, and the editing is being done at home but it is “beginning to add up now !”. What really adds to the costs is the archive footage – NMA don’t own all their archive footage – and especially something like using Top of The Pops (such as their 1985 performance of ‘No Rest’ famously featuring anti-heroin t-shirts) which can be bought either as a one-off significant expense or via a series of broadcast-type-specific licences. Discussions are ongoing with various people about additional funding and where and when the film might be shown but Reid is optimistic – although documentaries can be a difficult thing to market, the fact is that there are big-grossing examples and the relatively low costs of making documentaries can make them an attractive gamble.

Although the project has taken some time to reach this stage it does mean that it will be able to deal with some of the difficult moments that the band has experienced during that time. There is an argument, I think, that this will also mean that he is better able to serve us, the audience, as an informed director, and a very strongly connected conduit for the band, given the amount of time that he has been working with them. In fact, reflecting on recent days’ coverage of the decline of the celebrity interview, following the Jan Francis/Rhys Ifans cluster fuck, you wonder if Matt is someone who is making a movie through the kind of relationship with a band that many would have you believe died in the 70s.

As you already know, NMA also have a new album ready to go. This was revealed at the end of May as ‘Between Dog And Wolf’, from the French idiom ‘l’heure entre chien et loup’ meaning the time between evening and night when it becomes hard to distinguish between friend and foe. The finishing of that album, a few months ago, was something which took Matt by surprise: “I had always said to Justin, whatever happens, I’ll finish this film before you’ve finished your next album, and he proved me completely wrong. Because, suddenly, from my asking him ‘when’s your next album coming’ and there being no evidence I could see of songs being formed in his head, before I knew it, he’d pretty much written and recorded it !”. But, although the idea is to release the album and the film at the same time, Justin “seems to be very understanding that the film’s not ready yet. I think he quite likes the fact that, and I don’t think I’m misquoting him, the fact that he’s finished the album, he doesn’t have to release it straightaway, is quite nice for him. Because previously they have finished the album and rushed to get it out, and they haven’t had time to think inbetween.” Given that, Matt has been working for some time now to the soundtrack of that new album. And Matt thinks that this new album is “quite exciting for us” because “it means that the ending to the film is them producing something that we genuinely think is amazing that, you know, rounds it all off. It’s a really nice full-stop to the film that could have just ended on the 30th anniversary [of the band] which would have been fine but that wouldn’t have been doing something new. They have created something amazing, something that is really kind of cinematic sounding, big, beautifully produced – and brilliant to edit to !”

Matt has dipped in and out of them recording it but “because I’m not particularly musical I couldn’t say whether it would be good or not” but when presented with the full version of the songs they are “brilliant, really brilliant”. The current plan is, unusually for a documentary of this kind, to open the film with one of the songs from the album – “most people … would have opened with one of their classics” but the new music is “so good we can start the title sequence with it.”

Matt also talked me through some of the other elements that are part of the film, which is very firmly in the editing phase, although when we spoke he was adding in a couple of additional pieces. At that point in May an edit had been produced of around two hours length which was giving him and Paddy Lynas, the editor, a good steer for what more needed doing. Those extra elements include a trip with Justin to Sawmills studios in Cornwall, where NMA recorded ‘Thunder and Consolation’ and ‘Impurity’, having previously filmed a lot of interviews, unsurprisingly, in Sullivan’s hometown of Bradford. This month Matt has been over to film NMA live in Switzerland (at the AFG Arena in St Gallen) where they were playing alongside German behemoths Die Toten Hosen. That material will of course sit alongside live footage of the band from throughout their careers, taken from extensive archives.

Obviously missing from the stuff that Matt has shot will be some of those people dearest to NMA and their fans, and who have been such a major part of the story such as Robert Heaton, the original drummer who died in 2004, and Tommy Tee, friend and manager, who died in 2008. But Matt feels that they have been well-represented, whether through interviews with current band members, or through NMA’s own archive. This includes backstage footage from across their career – mainly captured by the band themselves and Joolz Denby, particularly from the 1980s when EMI had given the band a camera – either shot by the sadly departed, or featuring them. “The death of Robert, not surprisingly, is quite a powerful element of the film.”

There has also been recording with fans of the band (many of whom will have come to the project through NMA and fansites) and over the last few weeks has been speaking to some pretty famous admirers – I can’t give you their names at this stage but in a sense they came as no surprise (of course their taste is immaculate) given what they themselves produce and have championed in the courses of their own careers. From my own perspective I can say that the kinds of people Matt has been interviewing can only add to the quality and interest of the film – lucky audience ! Asked to pick his favourite moments from filming so far Matt opts for the meeting between Justin Sullivan and Glyn Johns, the legendary producer who helmed 1986’s ‘The Ghost of Cain’. Reid hails Johns for “out-blunting Justin” when they got together for the first time in 25-odd years.

The band were also keen to have detractors taking part in the film, not just fans or friends and that that would be an important part of the story – NMA have, after all, really wound some people up the wrong way and there were some people who “really fucking hated them”. This has been “harder to get than it sounds” however, “because the people who hated them, back in the late 80s, most … have forgotten about that now”. Nevertheless, Matt and Paddy have “tried really hard not to make it a film for fans, it’s really important to us that the story and the music appeal to anyone … and I think we are achieving that”. It certainly seems to have worked on Paddy who “had not heard a note of NMA” before they had started working on the film and now “fucking loves them” and is actively decrying their relative lack of fame “why isn’t this band bigger ? I can’t believe they’re not bigger !”

There is an enormous amount of material to boil down for the documentary: Matt estimates he has shot something like 100-200 hours himself in terms of interviews, and about the same again when adding-in live and archive footage. And he keeps finding stuff. With a burst of giggles, Matt regales me with having retrieved evidence of Justin getting nicked for speeding in 2007 (whether or not this makes it into the film, it’s worth mentioning…). Back then an American film-maker (very much in the same mould as Reid) was working with the band on a now-defunct project and he very kindly gave that footage to Matt. He was driving around Bradford with Justin when he got pulled over and this complements beautifully the lifelong narrative of Justin as a “terrible driver who drives too fast, has always got 9 points on his licence, which he’s lost once, who doesn’t stop at red lights and who has an attitude to rules that they’re made to be broken so speed limits and red lights don’t matter – if it’s safe you can go, there’s no reason to wait.” Matt admits it is a “struggle” to stop filming, because “you could go on forever” and that part of the difficulty is how interesting Justin is.

As the final stages are by-and-large complete, and editing five months along, Matt is clearly excited at the prospect of the end product. In terms of his hopes for the film he offered the following:

“To bring a lot of people to NMA who didn’t know them before; and maybe for a lot of people who may have thought they didn’t like them to realise that actually they have written some amazing music and that Justin is an incredible writer, an incredible lyricist. He comes from a line of writers – his Grandfather and his Dad were writers and I think that how he writes words, even if it is just poems, is worth celebrating or knowing or publicising. So I hope it brings people to New Model Army, I hope the band like it, I hope that it at least breaks even ! That would be nice !”

And when might we see it ? Well, keep an eye out here, and over at NMA’s website, but Matt’s initial estimate is “maybe September, but that might change…”

We cannot wait.

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