Julien Temple


In the early 1980s there were few young British film directors with reputations as hot as Julien Temple’s. But if any name supports the notion that an artist’s early work marks the way they will always be perceived then it is surely his. 

The British film industry’s current revival somehow only makes the disaster that was Absolute Beginners now look even worse – Trainspotting having achieved what his film failed so visibly to deliver. Then there is the way that 20 years after his first film The Great Rock N Roll Swindle, even now – with the impending release of his new film, a commendably thoughtful, moving love-story about the 30s film maestro Jean Vigo (director of the masterpiece L’Atalante) – he still finds himself talking about a rather different cultural legacy: the Sex Pistols. 

You could almost feel sorry for him, were it not for the fact that he has finally relented to constant pressure and made a second film about the Pistols – about the two years he spent with them. 

While The Swindle was based around a messy, rather biased, version of events, narrated by the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren, The Filth & The Fury puts the band’s view of what he calls “the firestorm they went through”, using previously unseen live footage and interviews, both new and from the time. 

“I wouldn’t have made a film about any other band,” he admits, somewhat sheepishly. “The whole personal history of that band is still extraordinarily fraught. The Swindle didn’t deal with that at all. The Swindle was meant to be a joke on many levels – puncture the way people put them on a pedestal. I think, in the end, Malcolm really did believe that he had done what we were spoofing in the film. It became his reality.”

Now 44, Temple, a well-spoken, quietly intense man, has not changed since his 80s heyday. His spiky hair is greyer and he is more twitchy – understandably so considering that this is his first British press interview since the mauling he got for Absolute Beginners. 

His face lights up with a sweet boyish grin though when he remembers his Sex Pistols stories, which no matter how hard he tries to expound about the virtues of Jean Vigo and his film about him (Vigo – Passion For Life), he can’t resist re-telling. 

One of his most endearing memories (mercifully missing from The Filth & The Fury) concerns the time he witnessed McLaren lying in bed in a hotel room in Paris having a furious argument on the phone first with Sid Vicious and then with his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon. He was interrupted though “as the door comes flying off the hinges – bang !” Temple grins. “And there’s Sid in his swastika underpants and motorcycle boots – nothing else – and drags Malcolm out of bed and starts laying into him.”

A naked McLaren ran off down the corridor, pursued by the semi-naked Sid and a selection of French chambermaids trying to stop Vicious from killing him – like a punk version of a Benny Hill sketch. 

“I loved Sid,” Temple chuckles with obvious fondness. “He was actually a very sweet guy, very funny. They all were not violent at all. Very sharp. Quite… shy actually. I don’t think people understand the black comedy in the Sex Pistols – all the way through.”

At first glance, a biopic of Vigo looks like the sort of subject matter Temple might have chosen precisely because it was as far away from the Sex Pistols as he could get.

In fact, Vigo’s Anarchist family heritage and pioneering, willfully self-destructive, beliefs meant that he and the Sex Pistols have more in common than anyone probably realised. 

“I’m not saying Vigo was a punk rocker or anything,” Temple points out, squirming slightly. “But I loved the idea of Jean Vigo because he was one of the few figures in history who said: ‘give me a fucking camera now !’ There was a real sense of gate-crashing the club !'”

Now living in the Quontock Hills in Somerset where he spent much of his childhood, Temple studied architecture at Cambridge University and is from the sort of respectable family that was suitably shocked when he got involved with the Pistols – “which was good” he chuckles. 

Having discovered a love of film through the film societies at Cambridge, seeing as many as 75 films a week, Temple was at the National Film School when he stumbled, almost literally, over the Pistols one Sunday afternoon when he was wandering round Rotherhithe docks and heard them massacring one of his favourite Small Faces’ songs. 

He made a duplicate of the key to the camera room and instead of studying, ended up filming the Pistols almost constantly – from their pre-Vicious early rehearsals through to their last gig in this country in Huddersfield on Christmas Day, 1977.

“They played a party for the children of striking firemen, playing Bodies to all these little kids. Tremendously surreal. Two weeks later they split up.”

After the Swindle, he made The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball and an Arena documentary about video (titled It’s All True) for Alan Yentob most notable for featuring Orson Welles explaining how to video/record material from the TV – an activity which was outlawed at the time. 

Then came Absolute Beginners, a hopelessly misguided, over-hyped, glossy, musical, that the British Film Industry spent years recovering from. 

“I made alot of mistakes,” Temple murmurs, almost imploring you for mercy, before forlornly trying to remind everyone what a radical project it was. 

“It was totally different to today. There was a sense that you couldn’t do anything as a film director until you were 50 – you certainly couldn’t make films about British subjects, let alone young British subjects…

“We were set-up and got smashed down in particularly spectacular fashion, largely because there wasn’t anything else going on. In some ways, it was trying to do what we’re able to do now, so perhaps it played a part in helping that happen.” 

He fled to LA (“after Absolute Beginners it was clear I was probably better advised to seek work elsewhere,” he laughs uneasily), but another kitsch pop-promo musical, Earth Girls Are Easy, didn’t fare much better. It was seven years before he made another film – the cliché-ridden gangster Mickey Rourke flick Bullet, which predictably disappeared without trace. 

The lack of success ensured Temple’s name remained synonymous with pioneering musical videos through the 80s – for the likes of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me, Bowie’s Blue Jean, and the Stones’ Undercover. 

“That’s the one about the CIA where Keith executes Mick ! I was amazed when they said they’d do it. It was a time when the record companies knew nothing about moving image, so you could get away with murder… I used to just try and get the videos banned basically.”

The era of pop promo as artform ended, he snipes, with Vienna by Ultravox and John Landis doing Thriller – “when money and MTV took over.” 

Apart from Bullet, he somehow spent the whole of the 90s trying to make films about the photographer Weegee (eventually scuppered by the Joe Pesci film, The Public Eye) and Vigo: Passion For Life – the sort of struggle Vigo himself experienced because of the legacy left by his father’s anarchist activities. 

The start of the film was shot in the same sanitarium where the 21 year-old Vigo was sent for treatment for the chronic  respiratory disease that eventually killed him, and where he met the love of his life, Lydu. 

The film follows their fight to make films (Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante consequently becoming regarded as classics) before his death at the age of only 29, but is, to Temple’s credit, a deeply romantic and uplifting story.

It has just won first prize at the Lovers Film Festival in Verona.

“They both knew they were going to die. In a way making films killed him, but it allowed him to be very honest as a result. He didn’t compromise at all and took alot of risks.”

Given the contrast between the struggle that Julien Temple himself has had to go through to make the seven feature films of his 20-year career and the vibrant climate that instant hot-shots like Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie find themselves in, you might think Julien Temple would have more regrets. 

But in fact he seems almost grateful. 

“In a sense it leaves me more energy to do them now,” he argues, albeit uncertainly. “I haven’t made that many films. I feel I’m still learning, which is a good feeling. I’m 44 now. Visconti started at 43 !” he states sounding more positive, before adding with a touching and rather plaintive final note, “I’m a beginner.”