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INTERVIEW: Lost In France Director Niall McCann
Éamon Sweeney , February 20th, 2017 15:16

Talking to director Niall McCann about his new film exploring the history of Chemikal Underground Records

“We all have appointments with the past,” reads a quote from W.G. Sebald at the start of Lost in France, a startling and entertaining documentary about Glasgow’s vibrant music scene by Irish director Niall McCann.

McCann’s previous features include Art Will Save the World on Luke Haines, and An Exile’s Home in the Bronx about Irish immigrants playing Gaelic football in New York. Lost in France sees a motley crew of Glaswegian musicians, including Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai and Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, retrace their footsteps to play a reunion gig in Mauron in France eighteen years after an infamous show in 1997. “Is this us peering back into the past, or gazing hopefully into the future?” ponders Chemikal Underground Records’ Stewart Henderson in a pivotal scene.

McCann blends interviews with the participants with live footage to create a funny, revealing and thought provoking film. “In 2012, I went to see Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells play the Grand Social in Dublin," he explains. "Aidan was doing his regular thing of selling merch afterwards. I'm a huge Arab Strap fan, so I introduced myself. Luckily enough, he'd seen Art Will Save the World and really liked it, so we exchanged emails and started developing an idea for a project, although it wasn’t clear at the start what the project would be. I flew over to Glasgow and spent a day with Aidan. We had a few pints and chatted about back when Arab Strap started. I was trying to find a way into the story that was a bit different and unique. Aidan mentioned this trip to Mauron and said it felt like the point everything changed from being mates in bands into something that could be a serious endeavour with a future. It was very important not just to Aidan, but to everyone who went on that trip and the scene that subsequently emerged from Glasgow.

"So I spent the next few years hopping back and forth to Glasgow to convince all the guys to go back to Mauron. A lot of Glaswegians have Irish roots, and like the Irish, they don’t like blowing their own trumpet and they're quite self-deprecating. The first time I met Stewart Henderson he was under a lot of pressure from running Chemikal Underground with all the changes in the music industry over the last ten or fifteen years. The last thing they wanted to do was to look back on the so-called 'glory days'. Stewart totally downplayed the role of the label and thought Chemikal wasn’t particularly important, which is absurd. It dawned on me if I was to talk to these guys properly about their own past, I’d have to take them out of Glasgow."

Aidan Moffat got involved in another film and the schedules clashed, which McCann now considers to have been fortuitous, as it enabled Stewart Henderson’s story to become central to the film. "Even though it has a reasonably uplifting ending, there is a melancholy to the whole thing tied to a fear of the future of what’s coming down the road for labels like Chemikal Underground,” McCann explains. “While it’s important to celebrate what they’ve done, and you can’t underestimate what they achieved at the time, there is also a sadness to the story. Personally, I don’t really believe in happy endings. I don’t mean to sound grim, but we are all in a system where it’s stacked against us. I think it’s important to accept and understand this, but to still keep pushing forward and striving to better yourself and do good things, yet never trick yourself into thinking we’re in a happy Hollywood movie.”

While Lost in France addresses the harsh realities of life, there is plenty of sparkling Glaswegian wit. "If you’re going to make a film about Glasgow that isn't humorous then you’re missing a big part of it,” McCann says. “Glaswegians are very funny and humorous by nature. Good music films aren’t just about music, they're about people. There were a lot of hilarious moments, even before we made the film. The first time my producer and I met Aidan Moffat, we ended up going out with him and got thrown out of our hotel by the police. We met a guy who claimed he was in Afghanistan and had witnessed his best friend getting blown up. He kept screaming in my face about fighting a war for me. We ended up hugging him and he started crying, but the guys in the hotel were a bit spooked and called the police. Aidan refused to leave because he wanted to have a drink with us. Then, we were dragged out of the hotel and our bags were flung out onto the street after us.”

Lost in France offers further evidence that music films as a genre are going through a very purple patch at the moment. "We are living in a golden era for music documentaries,” McCann agrees. "I think Julien Temple has done a lot for it, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with him. I’ve always found it patronising that some people who are really into film can be dismissive of music documentaries. Julien Temple has always taken them extremely seriously and I consider his later stuff about Dr. Feelgood and Wilko Johnson to be his best. A good film is a good film, and as Jean-Luc Godard said, all movies are documentaries because you’re documenting some sort of truth. Look at someone like Jim Jarmusch, who has done so many amazing movies and is unquestionably one of the greats, and see how he did a movie about the Stooges at the age of 63.”

McCann hopes Lost in France will have a wide appeal beyond fans of Mogwai or the Chemikal Records stable. “I think because of the humour and the personal stories once you get into the cinema it doesn’t really matter if you like the music or not,” he says. “Anyone who has ever had friends and grown up with a circle of people will see a lot of themselves in it. In many ways, it's about me and my weird mates growing up in Dundalk, sitting in a garage in a housing estate with a pool table listening to these records. This is my way of paying homage to a lot of people who really changed my life. It is about something bigger about what is going on, not only in music, but in culture in general. We talk about social welfare and how it can allow people the time and space to make art, but also how attitudes to social welfare have changed. The story became a lot bigger thematically, but if you don’t have good engaging characters, then you can forget about your big themes."

Niall has another music documentary in the works about Irish Maltese songwriter and Chemikal Underground artist Adrian Crowley. “Art Will Save Your Life and Lost in France are a bit like the first two parts of a trilogy and the film with Adrian is the last part,” he reveals. “Even though they're all different, they all deal with the artist living under liberal democracy and changing attitudes to art. My Luke Haines film is really about someone who makes arts for art’s sake being judged in a market economy. Lost in France is ostensibly about Chemikal Underground and the Glasgow music scene, but it’s also about how the industry has been decimated by file sharing and people not buying records anymore. For me, this is linked to the rise of liberal democracy. My film with Adrian is about the role of the artist and demystifies that role, but it also talks about how everyone is creative, even though most people think they're not. People are led to believe only some people are creative, but every single one of us are creative creatures. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the arts go from a viable career option to a hobby for so many people. If we’re not careful, we'll end up in a place with lots of bands like Mumford & Sons.

"Art is important. Neil Gaiman described art as anything that makes you proud to be a human being. If we devalue it completely, we’ll lose a lot of great records, movies and art. We all need to have a good think about these things. If my film can get people thinking and talking about it, then it’s done some good.”

Lost in France premieres next Tuesday, February 21 at 8.15pm with screenings all over the UK and Ireland, plus a special live broadcast from ABC, Glasgow, featuring Stuart Braithwaite, Alex Kapranos et al. For tickets, click here. Lost in France will go on general release on Friday, March 3

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