The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Jarvis Cocker Interview: Complicating The Human Animal In Fantastic Mr Fox
Luke Turner , November 11th, 2009 10:11

Jarvis Cocker tells Luke Turner all about his role in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox, the cursed tabloids, and why CGI just won't wash

Although Jarvis Cocker is currently winding up his most recent solo album Further Complications, Sheffield’s most intriguingly dressed son is far from resting on his laurels. This week, he’s occupied the Village Underground gallery space in East London for three days of collaboration with pole dancers, yoga practitioners and, most importantly, members of the general public, all invited along for casual experimentation and opening up the idea of participation in music to a wider audience – more of which later.

But Cocker also hints that as part of his planned year-long sabbatical from music making he might consider getting more involved with film – the subject he was studying at St Martin’s College when he encountered the infamous posh lass after a bit of rough. "I'd love to do it," says Cocker when asked if a return to filmmaking was on the cards. "But there's so much money involved I don't know if I'd be considered a responsible enough person. I'm trying to think of some ideas at the moment actually. I'd like to think that I've got a film in me. I don't know what it'd be, it might be easier to start with a documentary because your subject matter is there then. There are a few stories that I think would make interesting films."

Jarvis Cocker’s latest work in celluloid has been his bit part in Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox, in which the singer plays Petey, a rather bedraggled and dusty assistant to Michael Gambon’s farmer, Bean.

So Jarvis, were you a fan of Fantastic Mr Fox as a young’un?

Yes I was, and I've continued that because now I'm a parent I read it. We read Esio Trot last night, which was one I wasn't familiar with. Not one of his major works, but amusing all the same. The thing with kid's books is that if they're written well they can appeal to adults as well. They're not sentimental, those stories. That's something that's nice abut Wes' adaptation; usually kids wouldn't see a fox kill a chicken in a film, it'd be implied or glossed over. There you see it. There's the joke at one point where the Opossum can't do it because his teeth are too small, stuff like that you know?

How did you feel when first approached by Anderson?

I just thought however he approached it would be interesting. I couldn't imagine him making a not very good film. From what I can gather from talking to various kids and parents it was a good film for both, and the style of it was just right with the animation.

Apparently the cast were recorded ‘on location’ rather than just in the studio reading from a script. Were you involved in that element of the film?

No but I'd have loved to. Given that I only had one speaking line I didn't get to scurry around in barns and fields and barns and things like that. At one point I did a narration that was through the whole film, but they showed it to test audiences in North America and they ended up cutting it. I believe that my contribution will end up the DVD extra when it comes out in Europe. I tried to use my best speaking voice...

How was it playing one of the evil humans?

All the human characters are baddies, but I like to think that I'm a almost not as bad, because I sing that song about the animals, but if I'm honest I have to admit that I'm a baddie...

Well you did have a shot gun and hang around with some nee-er do wells...

And I suppose I am the one that Bean calls when he needs more men or diggers or whatever.

How about all the English actors playing the bad characters? That’s a stereotype we’ve not seen for a while.

Anderson got asked about that a lot at the press conference, and squirmed slightly. His excuse was that he's American so it was easier for him to write the happy dialogue for the animals, whereas the more villainous dialogue was more formal. Which still doesn't explain why they had to be English.

Seems like a bit of a cop out. What did Albert think of your character?

That was quite sweet actually. He really liked it and then after he asked me "why does that man flick a cigarette at you?". When Bean comes and tells me off for playing the song he abuses me and then throws the cigarette at me.

There were loads of pictures of you and Albert in the tabloids after the premiere. Did that upset you?

It's not something I'd choose to happen really. I thought I'd managed to avoid them all. I don't think he should be in that situation, I feel a bit bad about it. He was really excited about seeing the film, so it's six of one and half a dozen of the other.

As a natty dresser, were you slightly envious of Mr Fox's wardrobe compared to Petey’s togs?

I had a strange quilted affair with diamond patterns in it. But you know, it is utilitarian wear I suppose. I didn't think it was too bad - it was quite fitted, and at least it wasn't baggy.

Would the film have worked as CGI? Oliver Postgate's family recently refused to grant permission for a CGI remake of Bagpuss...

Good on them. I get really turned off by CGI films because I feel like I'm watching somebody play a computer game. I went to see that Moon film recently, the one directed by David Bowie's son, and that's all done using shots of models. You're aware of the fact that they're models, but cinema is about suspending disbelief, and it's nice to know they're physical objects and not just a rendering that's done on a computer. It just feels better in some way.

So can you tell us a bit about what you’re doing at Village Underground? How is it different from the Paris event?

The gallery in Paris was very small so there was a limit to what you could do. We've got a thing where anyone can bring their instruments down, and get a few guests in, maybe musicians from the Shoreditch area. I like to leave it fairly open-ended, because that worked wel last time. I like the idea that anyone can turn up. What I really like is the idea the idea that it's free. It's a bit weird the Village Underground, because there is an entrance on Great Eastern Street but it's shared with a massage parlour, so we might get a few confused people along. I like the idea that passers by can wander in, and I like the fact that I know the neighbourhood.

Are you getting local kids involved?

We did that in Paris because kids don't have school on Wednesday, here I suppose we might have some trurants hanging around. It runs until six each day so hopefull we'll get some kids along with their parents. Sweets will be available.

What should people bring?

People can bring whatever they like. In Paris we had a really good age range - I think the youngest person who played with us was a 10-year-old boy who came with a trumpet, and the oldest was a 93-year-old guy who played jazz piano. In between that we had a sitar, a really weird Vietnamese one stringed instrument. Loads of stuff. The idea is that it's an open-ended thing, people will get involved. I want to let it take its own shape, without having too much of a plan beforehand.

What's the philosophy behind it?

We're told that the music industry is dying blah blah blah, it's more an idea of going back to thinking how music can work, and trying to get some spontaneity back into it I suppose. It's more of a gallery situation and seeing how that works. Some people call it a 'happening', which tends to be met with a raised eyebrow, but I like the idea that it occurs and it's open ended and nobody knows exactly what the outcome of it is. People are so obsessed with stage managing things, an the media profile, almost like this boring kind of spin doctoring to make sure their project is 'seen' in the right way.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.