A Long Term Effect: Tim Pope On Four Decades Of Work With The Cure

Our man in San Francisco Ned Raggett chats with Pope about his forthcoming Cure concert film Anniversary as well as more unusual anecdotes about his many music videos for them than you can shake a stick at. Or is that a sock?

Tim Pope portrait by Andy Vella

It’s Glastonbury weekend 2019, the day before The Cure play a rapturously received set, and their longtime video and film collaborator Tim Pope is wandering in a field. Not that one, though: as he immediately and exuberantly tells me after he picks up my phone call to him, it’s a field elsewhere where he’s being eyed by a hundred suspicious cows.

I make an inevitable Withnail & I joke, but it’s just as easy to imagine Pope coming up with the scenario so it could feature in his art. His ridiculously deep catalog of 1980s video work, ranging from Neil Young and David Bowie to long-term runs for acts like Soft Cell, Talk Talk, The The and the Style Council – and that still only scratches the surface – helped establish the language of what a music video could be. His commercial work, reinvolvement with music videos in the 2000s and beyond, and occasional feature film project continues to keep him busy.

But it’s Pope’s work with The Cure that remains both his and their defining work in the public eye when it comes to videos. While he’s not done a formal video for them since 1998’s ‘Wrong Number’, his (at least) twenty or so clips for the band, starting with 1982’s ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, remain a wonderful smorgasbord of colourful, engaging and often thoroughly outre interpretations of the music of Robert Smith and company.

He also directed the band’s first formally released concert film in 1986, The Cure In Orange, and he’s about to follow it up with the 11 July worldwide screening of their newest, Anniversary 1978-2018 Live In Hyde Park London. It’s a record of another recent show that drew wide acclaim, a complement to their curation and participation in that year’s Meltdown festival and a celebration of the band’s first forty years all told.

"Robert asked me to make this film in two weeks or three weeks," says Pope when asked when he specifically started planning for Anniversary. "As is the way with The Cure, always. You know, two o’clock in the morning or one o’clock in the morning or 1:37. Whenever Robert’s emails tend to come to you, saying, ‘Fancy filming us in Hyde Park?’ We went for a very low-key approach – I think the thinking was that we would film it and see what we felt.

"What I did without really telling Robert or anyone was I shot it in an aspect ratio which would enable it to be projected into cinemas. I knew about a third of the way through the show this was going to be a good one. I think the ‘Just Like Heaven’ aspect of the band is so suited to a perfect summer’s day. We got the quintessential English day."

It’s no idle boast – the weather was indeed spectacular and Anniversary shows it marvellously, almost like an extended golden hour running through most of the film before settling into a twilight and early nightfall. The setlist was similar – not exactly so – to the recent Glastonbury set, an epochal career overview with just about every hit one could want. There’s also a few deep cuts that have become established fan favorites, including ‘If Only Tonight We Could Sleep’, ‘From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea’ and ‘Burn’.

As Pope sees it, looking ahead to the band’s long-gestating new album, their first since 2008, these choices of sets are very deliberate. "I think I’m there at a very interesting moment in their career now," Pope muses. "I’ve spoken a little bit with Robert about the new album, which sounds fantastic to me. It sounds like it’s going to be completely dark, completely gloomy, ten-minute songs. So I think this film draws a line in the sand."

While Pope only had a couple of weeks to prepare for the film, he drew on his experience with The Cure In Orange for part of his approach. He notes how in preparing for that film he realised that while the band didn’t move much on stage, their "musical conversations" could be the real focus in the end. Before he and his camera team could fully concentrate on something similar for Anniversary, however, Pope needed to convince the group on a particular technical point — which itself led to an even bigger complication.

"I’d been haranguing him about filming the thing in 4K to futureproof what we did," he explains. "And he and the band were not keen on this. He basically said, ‘We’re old men. We don’t want to see ourselves with bald heads.’ I said, ‘It’s not because of that.’ I said, "I’ll look after the way you look as best as I can, but this is important that we actually put this down in 4K." He decided that just a couple of days before and so there was a mad scrabble.

"The downside of this was that you go into a festival, they’ve been putting pictures to the screen all day from high-definition cameras. I had to get my big 4K cameras in in the 20 minutes before the band went on. I walked around and got the positions in my head geographically, where they were. I came back to my truck 10 minutes before the band went onstage, but I only had one monitor up. However, I knew the camera positions so for the first four songs, as the cameras came up, I had to work in braille. I had to close and see them in my mind’s eye. It was quite interesting being a film director having to direct cameras I couldn’t actually see but I could only work with in my mind’s eye. And I remember thinking, I’m going to make a choice here. I’m not going to freak out. I’m not going to do that."

The end result is often entrancing. The 4K quality does bring all the band members into sharp relief but, speaking frankly, everyone owns their various looks to the full, and Pope is quick to praise the stage lighting of Angus MacPhail, who has worked with the band for some time. The exchanges Pope refers to are also readily evident throughout. It can be seen in how Simon Gallup sometimes locks in with Smith on the one hand or Reeves Gabrels on the other. Pope at one point also observes that "the way that Reeves’s guitar circles around Robert’s voice is a wonderful interplay. I think the band has to evolve and it has to move on. And I noticed particularly at this show that Reeves has integrated fully. You can see it with Simon now; they have a great relationship, a big musical interplay, and that is lovely, lovely to see." Similar moments of real warmth and connection show in how Roger O’Donnell flashes smiles with Smith as they sometimes lock in in turn, or how Jason Cooper’s now 25-year run with the group shows in his comfortably strong performances on parts often originally done by Lol Tolhurst and Boris Williams.

One moment of the performance stands out for Pope, and is a big reason why, as he notes separately, "I try to urge, in all my interviews, the audience to go and see this film, this one-off chance on July the 11th. When you see it on the big screen, there’s a different experience. On ‘From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea,’ Robert lets out a primal scream there. I synced up my camera crane to reflect it and pull back at that moment as though his voice were throwing to the universe. I had three or four tons of camera crane and five blokes working, and so I had to get there early to get the moment, and I did it and I was so thrilled. It was a rather sad ‘film director’s moment.’ A fifteen-second shot. But it really captures that moment on the big screen!"

While Anniversary is generally speaking a straightforward portrayal of the performance shaped by editing, Pope further adds some specific visual touches at points for extra flair. There’s jittery zooms on ‘The Walk’, a queasily colourful flow on ‘If Only Tonight We Could Sleep’ and, on a shattering performance of ‘Shake Dog Shake’, a destabilisation of otherwise clean shots to accentuate the song’s power.

"(‘The Walk’) was the one song [where] I alluded vaguely to the video I did in 1982," Pope says happily. "I think this audience really picks up on that stuff. It’s like a wink from me saying, ‘We’ve all been there on the 40-year journey, haven’t we? You remember this.’ But I love this audience, because they do get it. I guess I wanted to film slightly cheesy effects in a way to kind of allude to the eighties a little bit. It just felt like there were certain moments where I should elevate the film slightly. We did the same in ‘A Forest’ as well. I didn’t want it all just to feel grand and grownup. It had to feel slightly Cure-y and slightly low-end in places. In a high-end kind of a way!"

Pope’s far from done with working with The Cure. While he says there’s no plans for him to direct any videos from the new album, he’s also been working on a planned documentary on the band as well, ever since it was announced a while back he’d be working with a massive stash of films from Smith’s own archive. But everything’s still very much in the works, and as Pope makes clear, there’s no such thing as a set schedule in the Cure’s world:

"What you have to understand with Robert Smith is you go into Robert time and that doesn’t necessarily relate to other time spans in the universe, if you like. And that’s fair enough. Why should he do anything? He doesn’t have to do anything. We decided to put out information because he was getting fed up and I was getting fed up with people writing to me every fifteen minutes, asking whether they could do this Cure documentary. It’s very obvious that I’m going to do it!

"To be a fan, to actually see this footage at that moment before he becomes who he was, it’s amazing. So really, Robert is going to give me access to fifty boxes of film, of stuff, right from the get-go, which is amazing. And we’re going to pool all the resources together. That’s all great. When it’s going to happen, no idea. That’s the bad news."

Pope also takes some time to talk about his continuing close friendship with The The’s Matt Johnson — Pope himself appeared in the recent documentary about Johnson, The Inertia Variations — some recent work with Marc Almond and his own shock and sorrow over the passing of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis. But before plunging into discussion of ten of his many memorable videos for The Cure, he readily reflects on how his and Smith’s working relationship has remained so strong over the years:

"I think when we were a lot younger it was a lot more fun, because it’s a bit like falling in love for the first time. It’s kind of crazy, mad. People always ask me if I’m friends with Robert. And I’m not particularly friends. We have a very friendly relationship and a very affectionate relationship. Sometimes I’m one of the people who will say what I think to him, and I think he likes that. I think sometimes it makes him uncomfortable but I will say it if I feel so. So I think we have a very healthy relationship.

"We’ve always been in each other’s lives. If I’d known I’d be talking about it thirty-seven years later, like he says in the film, I wouldn’t have ever been able to predict that, of course. It was just a meeting with a band that I happened to start my career and work with."

Anniversary 1978-2018 Live In Hyde Park London, released by Trafalgar and Eagle Rock, has worldwide screenings this Thursday, 11 July. The Cure play Rock En Seine in Paris this August, for more information go here

Tim Pope talks about the drama behind the scenes filming ten separate videos for The Cure. Just click on the photograph below

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