November 27th, 2014 | Interviews

jared pittack

Pulp began in post-industrial Sheffield—Jarvis Cocker’s steel city of cooling towers, deserted factories, “pudgy 15-year-olds addicted to coffee whitener, courting couples naked on Northern Upholstery, and pensioners gathering dust like bowls of plastic tulips.” Filmmaker Florian Habicht’s career began to take off after Milli Vanilli appeared to him as angels in a dream, desperate to confess that they were only miming along to their music, ultimately inspiring his out-of-sync, out-of-its-mind musical, Woodenhead. Paired together, Cocker and Habicht dreamed up Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, a documentary full of commoners singing and dancing to Pulp, some choreographed, some spontaneous, some screaming ecstatically at the band’s 2012 hometown show. Where other rock docs would have talking heads, Habicht’s film has Sheffielders talking about themselves and about their city—even the film’s poster skips the band altogether in favor of a pair of elderly ladies with scarves knotted at their chins just so. It’s a film about Pulp, but it’s the story as Cocker wants to tell it: with both concert footage and footage of him re-enacting a dream about changing a tire. Habicht talks about knife-making, nut allergies, and Jarvis Cocker’s favorite bus stop. This interview by Rin Kelly.

This movie began with you deciding to invite Jarvis Cocker, whom you’d never met, to the London Film Festival screening of your prior movie Love Story. Why did you pick him out of everyone on Earth?
Florian Habicht (director): Freddie Mercury’s not alive anymore. I would have invited him as well. I invited some friends too, but I don’t know too many people in London and Pulp are one of my favorite bands. I thought they might like the film.
And Jarvis did like it to the extent that he wanted to make a film with you. What was it about that prior film and the aesthetic you have that fit so well, that made him—for the first time—actually want to see a Pulp documentary made?
It was unconventional. He didn’t want to have a conventional film about Pulp. He thought I was an interesting filmmaker, and he he also liked that I was a bit risky. In Love Story I put myself in situations like jumping into a taxi with strangers and filming them. I also gave him some cake. Red velvet cake.
Love Story tells a fictional story but also has you on the streets of New York asking real people what should happen next in the fictional story—like a Choose Your Own Adventure movie driven by strangers. So in that spirit: What should I ask you?
You can ask me what I had for breakfast.
What did you have for breakfast?
I had coffee and lebkuchen. It’s like a big biscuit—it’s like traditional German Christmas food. In Sheffield I always asked people what they had for breakfast, and the replies I got were amazing. I can’t believe they’re not in the film. It tells you a lot about a person straight away.
The film is full of ordinary people who eat remarkable breakfasts. Why did you and Jarvis Cocker decide to make ordinary lives of ordinary people your subject?
We don’t find them ordinary. We kind of find them extraordinary.
Rather than having the thirty millionth talking-head interview with Thurston Moore you had people just living. Why is that right for a film about Pulp?
I don’t find Pulp a pretentious band; they’re not this kind of huge force, and for me it felt more appropriate interviewing real people rather than celebrities. I went to Jarvis Cocker’s birthday party in London a year ago and for some reason I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be like a venue full of celebrities.’ And when I got there I was really pleasantly surprised. It was all kinds of real people and artists and musicians. But it wasn’t what you expect. They’re quite real people. Jarvis says in the film that fame didn’t agree with him.
He compares it to a nut allergy.
I was on the airplane just like a day after we put that on the film—I was on the plane and we had to have an emergency landing because a girl had a nut allergy.
Fame kills! But it also inspires people like one of your most memorably awesome commoners, faux-fur-and-lipstick Bomer, who once broke out of a mental hospital so that he could listen to Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service.
What else did you ask people—sometimes people who had never even heard Pulp—other than what they’d eaten that day?
If they believed in an afterlife. I was asking people outside the ladies’ toilets while the concert was going on. I got some beautiful responses but they’re not in the film.
You can put them on the DVD: Pulp, Death, and Breakfast. And details of the lyrical ties to Sheffield: Jarvis gave you a book of his lyrics with various things underlined and with notes in the margins, a guide to the kinds of things and the places he thought got to the essence of things.
We met up at a café in London and had flat whites, which is a New Zealand coffee. It’s like a cappucino without the foam, and it’s a lot stronger. He went through the book, which is great because you realize how great the lyrics are—like stories. But he was underlining things and scribbling down comments; that was my little guide. There was a bus shelter he really wanted me to see. I remember arriving at this bus shelter in the rain. There was like no one there but I figured something must have happened to him there. Jarvis thought it was like I was being dropped from a helicopter into Vietnam without a map.
Are there key things about Jarvis Cocker and Pulp that non-Brits can’t entirely get if they don’t know Sheffield and the North? If they’ve never heard of ‘Oop north’?
It’s just that understated thing—that something can be really amazing and people will say, ‘Eh, it was alright.’ When the band watched Love Story, for example, they weren’t like, ‘Yeah, this is a great film!’ I actually didn’t know if they liked it. That kind of Sheffield thing. Americans are kind of the opposite.When I made Love Story in New York, I had this little device where I wore pink pants. Holding a camera in New York City wearing pink pants, I was like a magnet for people, for interesting, great characters. I met so many people like that and filmed them, interviewed them, whereas I tried that technique in Sheffield, wearing pink pants, and people stayed a mile away from me. ‘Who’s this freak with a New Zealand accent, tall guy wearing pink pants?’ It didn’t work.
There are some people who think songs like ‘Help the Aged’ are just sardonic and nothing but, that it’s exclusively a mean-streak aesthetic like Mark E. Smith’s, but then you see Jarvis Cocker talking and see the approach you guys take in the film—it’s probably a revelation for some people that there’s real affection there.
That wasn’t a surprise to me, but definitely.
That take on the band is similar to the take people who really like the mocking, Roger and Me documentary aesthetic seem to have on any documentary that features regular people as the heroes of life.
Someone wrote in a review that the elderly ladies are clearly actresses. What? They don’t get more real!
You have a lot of elderly people—elderly Sheffielders just going about their lives—for a music documentary. Aging is a theme but you approach it from a completely different direction.
I have this side of me, and I don’t know if it was my marketing brain or what, but I keep thinking it’s going to have this young energy—it’s got to appeal to young people because it’s a music film. But it wasn’t actually honest. They’re an older band. They’re actually not together anymore, all these things. And I’m going to embrace these things. That’s why you see the two elderly ladies on the poster and not Pulp, not a sexy young Jarvis in his twenties. In a way, it’s quite un-rock-n-roll, having old-age pensioners singing in a café.
Old people are necessary to the portrait of the city, and it’s a portrait of the city in a lot of ways.
When I met Jarvis that first time, when we said goodbye to each other, that café is the Curzon Cinema in Soho, in London, and we were about to exit the door and I opened the door and there was like a whole clump of pensioners, like fifteen or twenty people, and it was quite beautiful. Just waiting to get through the door—it must have been a sign.
The movie has these wonderful staged performances where a group of elderly people in a cafeteria sing ‘Help the Aged,’ where a women’s choir performs Pulp, where a youth dance troupe performs to them. Why did you guys choose those over including more concert or archival footage?
In the beginning I didn’t want there to be any archive, and that was because I wanted to make the film in the now and not be like a retrospective look at Pulp when they were young. And to also look at the theme of aging, getting older, that kind of thing. The only reason that archive footage ended up in there was because Jarvis gave me these VHS tapes and one of them had this concert that didn’t work out, the one where they tried to make it snow. And the fact that they made it snow indoors was kind of a nice story.
Where they were trying to make the fake snow flurry with a hairdryer.
When I met Steve Mackey, the bass player, he told me that what they love about concerts is that they’re such communal events and they bring people together—and for me that’s what I find magical about music is that it can bring people together. One of the things I like exploring in the film is the power of music, bringing all these different types of people together, and that’s why I wanted to get people to perform versions of Pulp songs like ‘Common People.’ I love karaoke myself. I know Jarvis likes karaoke as well.
Did you collaboratively come up with this idea that you were going to have a youth troupe dancing to ‘Common People’ or elderly people sitting around in a cafeteria singing about being elderly?
That was my idea, and I made a documentary before, a fishing documentary in New Zealand, where I got the fishermen to do musical numbers—so I had it up my sleeve. It’s also a thing that Pulp do because I think they once had people covering Pulp songs in a contest or something. It’s been in both of our vocabularies; we’ve both done it before.
Is that earlier movie the one that was inspired by a dream where Milli Vanilli came to you as angels to tell you that their music is all lip-synced?
That was an earlier film! That was a musical too.
What’s it like to have a divine visitation from Milli Vanilli?
It was pretty amazing. I felt really blessed. If I was ever going to make a biopic film, a real proper biopic, I think the story of Milli Vanilli fascinates me.
Did they have wings?
They did, and they were spotlit in a rugby field, at night in an empty rugby field.
Something really crucial to the film is that you don’t play the regular people’s interviews or the song-and-dance numbers for irony—you don’t go for that sneering sort of distance from the subject that’s so predictable in a lot of modern documentaries. Was it ever hard to get the tone just right?
That comes a bit naturally. It’s from the heart, and I’m not really into irony. If I wear something in bad taste it’s because I think it looks beautiful. I’m not wearing it because I think it’s cool.
Were there any particularly awesome staged performances that you cooked up but couldn’t end up doing?
There was one with an older dancer doing a private dance on a bed to the song ‘Live Bed Show.’ The band weren’t too keen on it. They didn’t think it was appropriate.
Do Pulp really sponsor a kids’ soccer team? With shirts and everything, funded by Pulp itself?
Nick Banks, the drummer, his daughter is on the team—they played the morning of the concert and he seemed to be more nervous about the girls winning the game rather than the gig at night.
There’s an amazing, documentarian’s dream guy in your film, a knife maker who’s made knives for Elvis’ band and for the Crickets. Sheffield is known for knife-making, but why
the hell did these guys need giant knives? How did he end up with a reputation that would draw the Crickets to him, thinking ‘We’re not leaving Britain without one of this guy’s knives?

Embarassingly, I still don’t know why they need the knives. I guess they hang them on the wall, right? It’s still a mystery to me.