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Director Steve Read talks Gary Numan doc

Director Steve Read talks Gary Numan doc

By: Andrew Jenner

But there were times where you think, ‘I can’t film that!’. Gemma is hilarious but she can be crude as well so there would be bits like that when you just wouldn’t film… or if they have massive arguments, families argue so if you hang around them long enough they are bound to argue, so we didn’t use any of that. There’s a bit where Gary breaks down about his parents where I just left the camera rolling for quite a long time on that shot. I could’ve made it longer, more obvious with tears coming out and stuff.

I am not going to dwell too much on the merits of Gary Numan: Android in LA LA Land only to say I agree entirely with William Alexander's review – ‘it’s an absolute gem!’

I am going to focus on my conversation with one of the films directors Steve Read. Steve was also the cameraman on the film and his directing partner Rob Alexander also took care of sound. It’s a hell of an achievement for such a small crew!

 

Disorder: So, from the beginning… whose idea was it?

Steve Read: I didn’t know Gary was still around until I saw he was playing at a festival so I went to check him out. I bumped into him backstage, after the gig and we got chatting and I just suddenly declared I want to make a film about him! So then I wrote his number on my wrist and ran off into the night! The idea just presented itself to me, that night after the gig… it wasn’t like it was planned or anything like that. I certainly didn’t envisage the next two and a half years living in his kitchen, his studio, camping with him on holiday… things like that.

D: Compared to a few music documentaries I’ve seen recently in which just band members and colleagues are interviewed, in Android the family are right up front. Do you think Reality TV made this possible?

SR: I think we are more used to it… the family are almost as important as Gary. Particularly Gemma (Gary's wife) her role is really important in the film. And the kids were brilliant, even Wilbur the dog! Making a good documentary is part access, part trust and the more trust you get the more access you get. They obviously trusted us from very early on so we were allowed to roam around the house and they just got used to us. Gemma early on was very nervous of us, worried about what they had let themselves in for. So I walked her around the garden a couple times… so I could put her at ease. At first she wouldn’t be on camera but by the time we got to LA she was actually a lot better. And certainly she is a key ingredient in the film and the audience are loving her!

D: There were moments in the film, particularly with Gary that were quite painfully revealing… did you feel a responsibility to protect them at all?

SR: Yes definitely, you do feel a responsibility to protect them… because they were so open, we could film anything. But there were times where you think, ‘I can’t film that!’. Gemma is hilarious but she can be crude as well so there would be bits like that when you just wouldn’t film… or if they have massive arguments. Families argue so if you hang around them long enough they are bound to argue, so we didn’t use any of that. There’s a bit where Gary breaks down about his parents, where I just left the camera rolling for quite a long time. I could’ve made it longer, more obvious with tears coming out and stuff. I don’t think Gary is one that cries very often. So in the end I think there is a good balance. It is hugely intimate and revealing… and that draws people into their characters and makes them more engaging. They are not putting on a false facade, the film shows an honest portrayal of these people.

D: That scene with Gary talking about his parents, where he went very quiet made me feel his vulnerability… if I was filming this I would’ve felt the temptation to break that ‘silence’ to help him through it-

SR: No, don't do that! Keep it rolling… and speak as little as possible really and most of the time they will say something else anyway. And you never know what its going to be so just keep it rolling, especially if someone is upset. I know that, as I’m a friend and I don’t want to see him hurt but you are also there to make the best film you can make. So keeping the camera rolling is always the decision I would make in that situation.

D: So practically, how did it work? Did you operate as a one-man-band?

SR: Well, I shot everything and Rob did the sound… he was also the producer. I did all the interviews so by the end of it we just decided to share the top line credit. Two people made this film… Rob did a lot of other work on it… After Ollie finished his three month stint (Ollie Huddleston edited the film) we had to change a bit after… and the film was self-financed so we didn’t have the budget to get Ollie in again. So Rob did the tweaking and editing and stuff. So, yeah, it’s very much a two-man-band. Rob also paid for it and we are only just seeing some money coming back in. So it’s not a great way to make a shit load of money! But it’s not about that, it’s about the experience… and audiences are loving it so it makes it all worth while. Because it’s really hard work… you are only two paces away from the lunatic asylum!

D: I remember a quote from Michael Moore, ‘You don’t know what the story is at the beginning so you film as much as you can and then the story reveals itself in the edit’. Is that how it felt to you?

SR: That’s alright for Michael Moore, he can afford to spend £500K on the edit! I didn’t know anything about Gary, I did a bit of research but the story was just unfolding before us. I didn’t know Gary was moving to LA, we didn’t know if the album was going to be any good let alone well received. But we were mindful that we couldn’t let it unravel because we didn’t have a year in the edit, we didn’t have a budget for that. But I certainly agree with shooting everything. Or if I can’t shoot it, recording it on my phone or recording audio. So certainly get as much footage or as much content as you can but at the same time try and keep a sense of direction. It is difficult with an observational film because you don’t know what is going to happen next. So we didn’t have the budget to shoot everything so you do have to make decisions… ‘are we going to film the album launch in LA or are we going to film the gig in NY’. We couldn't do both. But I feel we got all the major moments over the two and a half year shoot. But the story does come to life in the edit. But it can go any number of ways, I mean we could have made three different films out of what we had.

D: For filming did you have a go-to camera or did you use a range of cameras?

SR: I just used one camera, the Canon C300… I shot everything on that. And just used two lenses… pretty minimal kit really. A long lens, a 100mm F2.8, a short depth of field for that cinematic look and was used extensively for all the interviews. And then a wider lens, a 40mm, F1.4 really tight depth of field, so all the live stuff where I’m pulling focus on Gary and then onto the guitarists. All that was shot on the 40mm. All shot on one camera, two lenses and a couple of radio mics.

D: You shot in a wide range of lighting conditions. How did the C300 hold up in low light?

SR: It can handle quite a lot of low light before it gets really grainy. I was really surprised about how well it stands up… I saw it on a huge screen at SXSW and when I first walked in I though ‘what the hell is it going to look like on that!’ But it stood up really well. I’m really impressed with the C300. I didn’t use a steady cam – if you use an IS lens you don't need it.

D: So to finish up, what piece of guidance would you give to young documentary filmmakers?

SR: Bear in mind this is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. I don’t care what you think going into it, if you think its going to be easy… Take on board immediately this will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. So take that on board but then don’t let that get in your way. Don’t let anything get in your way. If you want to make a film and you really have to want to do this, then make it and don’t give up. At least 12 times we thought ‘shall we give up on this?’. But we didn’t, we just kept going on with it. It will absolutely drive you nuts, and it will take all your money… which you may never see again! But trust me, when you see your final cut there is no better buzz in the world, there’s no better drug, no better party, no better gig, no better girlfriend, no better boyfriend than seeing this film for 80 minutes, after you’ve spent four years on it and it sounds great, it looks great – and other people like it. There is no better buzz than that in the world. Ever!

Interview conducted by Andrew Jenner.

 

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