George Hencken is set to make her feature film directorial debut with documentary Soul Boys of the Western World, which focuses on Spandau Ballet and the relationships and friendships within the band.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film, what drew her to the project, and the whole experience of making her directorial debut.
- Soul Boys of the Western World is the new film, so can you tell me a bit about it?
I would say that Soul Boys of the Western World is a buddy movie that is set in the eighties. I wanted to make a film about these five guys who met at school and had this dream of creating a worldwide successful band; that came true, but in the process, it destroyed their friendship.
We see the beginning of the resolution of that at the end of the film. My interest was definitely in evoking the eighties because that was the era that I was a teenager in and the relationship between these five guys.
- That does actually lead me into my next question. What is so interesting about this film is that it is more about relationships and friendships, why did you decide to tackle the story from that angle?
I decided to tackle the story first of all because… when the band got together for the reunion tour in 2009, Steve Dagger and Scott Millaney - Steve is the band’s manager and Scott was a man who ran a company who made a lot of Spandau Ballet’s videos back in the eighties - came up with the idea of making a film.
Several years later, this had had a number of false starts and someone suggested that I might be able to do something with it. I felt that I could, but I was never a Spandau Ballet fan and I wasn’t particularly… the movie is very evocative for me as it was the soundtrack of every school disco that I went to in my teens. However, it wasn’t the music that I loved.
The interesting thing was when I started looking at all of the archives… the first person that they hired was Kate Griffiths - who is an archive producer - and she has had done a dragnet trawl of every single bit of Spandau Ballet from every corner of the world; regardless of quality, relevance or interest.
Watching this, it became really apparent to me that the whole story had happened on camera, from their parent’s Super 8 cameras, to their own Super 8 cameras, to the fact that they were in a documentary before they had even signed to the band.
They grow up in from of the cameras, you see these relationships emerging, and that was infinitely more interesting than the story… I wanted to make something that would appeal to people who aren’t Spandau Ballet fans as well as appealing to the fans. I am not a great lover of the list, fact, number rock documentaries as they just leave me cold. This really needed to be about the people involved.
- This is a very personal film that follows a band that has had success as well as their fallouts - they are back together now. How keen were they about the project? And what sort of insight were they able to give you to that time?
Absolutely. Were they keen about the project? Initially, they weren’t; apart from Gary Kemp, none of them were particularly involved in the project. By the time I had come along, they were all off doing other things as they had established separate lives and careers in the time that they have been apart. After the reunion tour, they went back to living those separate lives and maintaining their separate careers.
The only member of the band who was deeply involved in the idea of the film when I came along was Gary. However, I knew that I needed to talk to them all - Tony Hadley was the last member of the band that I met.
The narration in the film is from all of the members of the band; you don’t seem them on camera apart from in the archives. I got each of them to come down to the edit suite, they would sit in that dark room with me and show them some footage, and then I would ask them to talk about what had happened at that time.
There is something very confessional about a situation like that; it is not the same as being on camera and people tend to be a lot less guarded. Some of the footage that I was showing them they had either never seen before or hadn’t seen for many years - so rather than asking them to give me a retrospective edited version of events from memory; they were being prompted to really re-visit those moments.
At one point, Tony Hadley said it was like going to see a therapist every week, except this therapist recorded it, put it in a film, and told everyone else about it (laughs). I think it is quite easy for people to for get when it is just you, them and a microphone; you are not just having a conversation.
They were very willing to open up in that situation - that’s not to say they didn’t phone me up the next day and say ’you know that thing I said? I am having second thoughts about it now.’ By and large, I would have to say, ’let’s just see.’ Quite often, the thing that they were having second thoughts about was the thing that was the pertinent and precious gem that had to go in.
- How have you found working with them and getting to know them?
It has been great. As I said, Gary was the most closely involved of all of them, and he lived just around the corner from the edit suite. I did have a bit of issue with him initially just popping in constantly.
Initially, I thought that was a good thing and I didn’t want to tell him not to because they had taken a huge leap of faith with me; they had trying to make this film prior, and then they had allowed me- a complete stranger and someone who… although I have produced numerous documentaries this was my first directing gig. So it was a leap of faith and I wanted him to real reassured. But once I felt that ’ok mate, you can see that I am doing it, now go away and leave me alone.’ And he did go away and leave me alone.
As for the others, it was really interesting as the editor and I would work on an individual member’s story, and after spending time doing a bit on John Keeble, we would be like, ’John is our favourite.’ But I felt that after I had spent any time focusing on any one of their individual stories that they became my favourite and I loved them the best.
Now I feel bizarrely, because they are all older than me, I feel like I am their big sister and I have watched them all grow up. As Tony said, they all have these solid working class upbringings, they knew each other from when they were kids and their parents all became friends during the time that they were all in Spandau Ballet together.
They are just proper, solid, good guys; they are the kind of guys that you want to have in your corner. The rapport between them is really touching and funny; they are mercilessly funny with each other and take the piss out of each other in a way that only people who have known each other since they were eleven can. It is a privilege to be a proxy member of Spandau Ballet; even though I thought Spandau Ballet were awful when I was a teenager (laughs).
- I was reading that you had four hundred hours of archive footage, so how tough was it to bring all of this great footage together to make the story that you wanted and flowed? How tricky an editing process was it?
The reason that they got me involved in the first place… they had had another director who didn’t know how to deal with archives and my career over the last few years, had been very much rooted in making feature documentaries with a very very high archive content.
I have been producing with Julien Temple for a few years and the last film that I did with him was called London - The Modern Babylon, which was the story of this entire city. We started with the earliest footage shot in London, which was the Lumiere Brothers’ footage from 1865; that was a monumental amount of archives. In comparison, four hundred hours seemed very manageable and I know how to tackle it.
What I did to begin with, was to spend as many hours as I could stand a day watching all of the archives and making notes: that went on for about a month. Because it had been a dragnet trawl, there was plenty of footage that I could just discard really quickly, because it was boring, badly shot, irrelevant, for whatever reason.
I had about twenty hours after the first pass - it was quite brutal but I am good at that - and then it was just a matter of arranging that in chronological order and watching that from start to finish.
It really is like sculpture; you have a big lump of rock and you chip away at it until you can see the shape of it. What was very apparent to me, was all of this footage was a gift as they had grown up on camera; their relationships had formed, evolved and the dynamics between them had been established on camera. It is like sculpture.
- This movie marks your feature film directorial debut, so how have you found the whole process?
I have absolutely loved it. Working with Julien Temple is something that has been a transformative experience in my life, as I have learnt an incredible amount from him and his confidence in me has really enabled me to find my creative voice. However, nothing beats being the final authority on your own film; I have loved it.
It is tricky at this stage… in the course of making the film, the relationships between the band have changed dramatically. When they all saw the film together for the first time at South By South West, and then went and play in this tiny club - the first gig that they had done in the U.S. for thirty years, - something really shifted in them. That has now led them to get back in the studio to work on some new material.
One thing that has been hard from my point of view is seeing… this is my film and my baby, but it has got swept up in this huge Spandau Ballet PR machine. That is a tricky one for me because I see it as a film and an entity in its own right.
For anyone who is creating a piece of work, the minute it goes out into the world and starts to live its own life, there are lots of pangs of letting go that you have to go through.
Overall, it has been tremendous and I have loved every minute of it. I was really lucky in the editor that I worked with, because despite not every having worked with him before and he had never done a long form film, we formed a very good working partnership.
- Finally, what's next for you?
I have got a film about the Bay City Rollers in development; I don’t want to make music film all of my life (laughs) but that is the closest one to getting into production. The only other music film that I would like to make is about Dolly Parton, I would give my right arm to be able to get the chance to do that.
She is the greatest feminist in history and the greatest feminist in the music business and I would love to make a film about her. I have got three drama scripts in development as well.
I don’t see there being a difference between documentary features and drama features as I feel that they have both got to be engaging, emotive and take an audience on a journey. I like the idea of being able to make my characters to exactly what I want them to do for a change.
Soul Boys of the Western World will be in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on Tuesday 30 September including a live satellite performance from the Royal Albert Hall by Spandau Ballet. Tickets are on sale now from www.spandauballetthemovie.com.
The film is on general release from 3 October.