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Archive: The Perfect Match: Director Lian Lunson and Her Subject Leonard Cohen

Find Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man on Video

The Perfect Match: Director Lian Lunson and Her Subject Leonard Cohen

(from 6/22/06)

Lian Lunson

In late January 2005, a one-of-a-kind tribute concert was held at the world-famous Sydney Opera House to conclude the Syndey Festival, an annual three-week event dedicated to the arts. Rockers and folk artists such as Nick Cave, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Kate's supertalented kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Beth Orton, Linda Thompson, Linda's rising-star son Teddy Thompson, and Jarvis Cocker were among the 13 performers on stage that memorable night, singing thirty-one songs—including such classics as "Suzanne" and "Chelsea Hotel"-- that had been written and recorded by Leonard Cohen during his almost 40 years as a pop culture icon.

Lian Lunson, who had acted in Australia before coming to Hollywood in the 1980s, filmed the occasion, shot additional footage of Bono and The Edge talking about the influence Cohen had on U2's music, and managed to record intimate conversations with the reclusive Cohen about his poetry, songwriting, and unusual life (including how this Jew became an ordained monk). She inserted old photographs and footage from Cohen's past, mixed in some expressionist footage of her own to capture the haunting mood of much of Cohen's work, and topped it all off with a historic coupling in New York of Cohen and U2 on "Tower of Song."

The result is her first theatrical feature, "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," which--as she pointed out prior to the film's New York City opening at the Film Forum--is more than a concert film and something other than a typical documentary.
Q: What part of Australia are you from?

LL: I'm from rural Victoria, the countryside outside of Melbourne. I moved to Sydney to go to drama school, which I attended for three and a half years. Then I did a lot of theater and starred in a TV-movie ["Army Wives" (1986)] and a feature film ["The Big Hurt" (1985)] and had a couple of smaller roles. So I was just starting to get known when I moved to L.A.

Q: Did you go to Hollywood to be an actress?

LL: Yeah, but I lost interest in about five minutes because it was much different from what I'd known. Australia had a much smaller acting environment, so we all knew each other and the few major casting directors all knew us. Even if you weren't getting paid, there were a lot of theater groups and opportunities to perform. I guess acting was my way out of Australia to come here, but it wasn't really the right thing for me to do. I'm very proactive and like getting involved in things rather than sitting around and waiting. I grew impatient and went into production.

Q: Your resumé says you produced music videos for such artists as Neil Young, INXS, Pearl Jam, Public Enemy, and Dwight Yoakum. Was it because you were a music fan that you gravitated toward music videos?

No. When I first came to America I started doing work on various film sets, doing pretty much every job. As part of that I got into the producing aspect, learning how to structure budgets. The particular production company I worked for, overseeing budgets, did mainly music videos and commercials, but I left that company and started to produce on my own for various directors. I formed my own company, Horse Pictures, in 1997. I did my first video and other stuff with Willie Nelson and that led me to making the feature documentary "Willie Nelson Down Home" for PBS.

Q: How much time did you spend with him?

I ended up being in that world of his for nearly two years. I'm so hands-on in my producing that I couldn't spend that amount of time, energy and work on a project if it weren't about someone I was moved by. It was great because I was already such a huge fan of his before we met. I did the video and a short movie with him in Europe. And based on that, he asked me to do the PBS film. Now I've written a feature film that will star him, which I'm doing next. I love Willie. He's 72, but looks 40.

Q: How did you learn about the Leonard Cohen tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House?

LL: Hal Willner is a very good friend of mine. He's a well-known music producer from New York who does these great concept shows where he ingeniously puts unique people with amazing songs. It's all kinds of music. I had seen a lot of them, including the Harry Smith Project and the Randy Newman one. He told me he was putting on the Leonard Cohen "Came So Far for Beauty" concerts, beginning in Brighton, England, with an amazing group of performers. The third one was in Sydney, and he said there was the possibility that it would close the annual Sydney Festival at the end of January 2005. I thought it would be great to film it, given that it was in the Opera House. But I felt I could do that only if I could include Leonard in my movie. I really wanted to make the film about him, with the songs in the concert being like chapters in his life.

Q: Do Australians embrace Leonard Cohen as much as Americans and Canadians do?

Definitely. We have fewer people there so when we take someone into our arms, pretty much everyone does. Everyone there seems to be a Leonard Cohen fan. I was always a huge music fan with eclectic, across-the-board tastes, and I came across him in the punk days in Australia, at the time of the Boys Next Door and when Nick Cave had his first band. In those days, every house you went to where there was a punk fan, that punk fan also had a Leonard Cohen record. Punk and Leonard Cohen. Today there aren't many people who don't have a Leonard Cohen album in Australia.

Q: When you were getting to know Leonard Cohen and trying to get him to be involved in your film about him, did he ask you a lot of questions about yourself?

It was just general conversation. Leonard and I would talk for hours, about everything but the film. I never talked to him much about the film. That's because after my first meeting with Leonard, which lasted six hours, when I walked away I thought that if he didn't want to partake in the film because of his perception of me, that was meant to be and I'd have to trust his decision. I would accept it was the right thing.

So I didn't push it at all and just let it take its course. And we became friends, and he'd make lunches for me and we'd talk, and then one night before we were going to meet at his house for lunch, I asked him if I could bring my camera. And he said, "Sure." So I locked in my camera, and we continued taping the types of conversations that we had prior, and we'd eat, so it was natural and easy. I filmed him at different times, including when he had a beard.

Q: What went into your decision to film him only in extreme close-up?

LL: It's just a personal choice. I was interested in his face. Also, in my Willie Nelson film everything is shot in intense close-up. It's like I'm talking to you now—that's how I see you. We're right across from each other. That's how I like to see and talk to someone; I find it to be much more intimate.

Q: After you got Leonard Cohen's blessing to go film the concert, did you worry you'd have a hard time getting financing for such a film?

LL:  Mel Gibson set me up with LionsGate. Without his support, I never would have gotten the film made, so that's why he got a producer credit. I'd known him for a long time and we'd worked together when I produced "Music Inspired by the Passion of the Christ."  Mel's got eclectic musical tastes, and I knew he was a huge Leonard Cohen fan, as well as a Nick Cave fan. Leonard is a deeply spiritual searcher, like Willie Nelson, and that's why I'm attracted to him and I'm sure that's why Mel and other men are attracted to him. Mel knows more about Leonard Cohen than anybody. I knew he had deep respect for him and would understand what I was trying to do, so he was the right person for me to go to. If anyone could help me get it made, he could.

Q: In the film's production notes, you say, "Leonard Cohen is essential." Why do you think that?

LL: He is essential because he's one of those great writers who don't come along very often. There are only a few of them who are prepared to wander out into the wilderness and ask questions. We wouldn't have the courage to go out there by ourselves, but he takes us with him. He's a deeply spiritual, funny, adventurous spirit.

Q: You have said that his poetry and lyrics are "resonant and unfathomable," that his words are "constantly reaching for something beyond what can be expressed.

LL: It's the otherness behind the things that he says that I was always attracted to. Particularly in this day and age, we are reminded that he is one of the great poets, one of the great wordsmiths that inspired the likes of Nick Cave and U2. Bono just went on record saying there would be no U2 without Leonard Cohen. He admires him that much. I'm hoping that the younger generation discovers Leonard's music, so when Bono says that it it's meaningful.

Q: I had always thought of Cohen as a lyricist for adults, but Bono says in the film that Cohen "gets you at all stages of life"—when you're young and idealistic, when your relationship is breaking apart, when you can't face the world and need something higher to comfort you.

 LL: I agree with that totally. I found Leonard when I was a teenager and many others have too. As Bono says, he taps into every moment you seem to have.

Q: You have said you wanted to explore what motivates Leonard Cohen to write. Did you learn why when you spoke to him?

 LL: What I learned about him is that even after all the years of writing, he's still such an incredible searcher. He's a searcher in the true sense of the word, and that's what motivates him in his writing, as well as how he lives his life. He mentions the first thing he wrote was when his father died, and though he doesn't even remember what it was, the element of this young boy writing a poem and putting it in his father's bowtie and burying it in the garden is so deeply symbolic and beautifully natural.  You realize that his expressions on anything really come out in his writing.

Q: Do you think his writing has changed over the years? Or does he think it has?

LL: I wouldn't answer for him. But I think his writing always has been incredibly rich and continues to be that way. His latest book of poetry is so beautiful.LL: The first time I met him I was so struck by him. When you meet somebody and they have a profound effect on you, when you walk away you have a sense of that person. That's what I was interested in portraying rather than something suited to the voyeuristic, day-to-day, information highway everyone is on. I wanted to try to capture the vastness and essence of who he is as a person through what he says in the film. That was my goal. There wasn't one thing about him I was trying to express, but I'd go to sleep at night thinking of things he said that had stayed with me and that helped shape how I cut the movie. I was hoping people would be stuck with the same things I was.

Q: Were you trying to set a haunting mood with the dark, surreal imagery that bridged the Cohen interviews and the concert foootage?

LL: Leonard comes with such grace--he fills the room with just his voice and energy—that when I pulled away from him talking, it all just dropped. I felt I had to build a world to nestle him in. So that was a lot of Super 8 footage I shot around his house; a lot was shot in Australia—the night scenes were shot in the Sydney Harbor. I wanted the film to be sort of a collage. It's not really a regular documentary with talking heads and music; it's more like a scrapbook and collage of imagery supporting this man. That's what I was working toward.

Q: Did he attend any of the concerts?

LL: No. He knew the concerts were taking place, but Leonard is very private and reclusive and doesn't partake in anything like that. However, I brought some of my footage to his house. We watched it together and he was very, very moved by the performances.

Q: Do you think he learned anything about himself from watching how people reverently perform his songs in your movie?

LL: No, he's too modest. I don't think Leonard realizes how other people are inspired by him

Q: Does he realize he's a unique talent?

LL: I don't think so.  He's so humble, he doesn't think like that.

Q: How did you feel watching the concert?

LL: The concert was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. It was so beautiful and in my country, so it was a really gorgeous experience. That concert was like how you should see music. Everyone was standing off in the wings watching each other, and you could feel the joy that they all had together singing those words. It really was incredibly special to see that. And I remember while watching it that I was wondering how I'd make it work because I couldn't use it all because the concert was much too long.

Q: When I was watching the film I was thinking how performers with different styles, from Antony to the McGarrigle Sisters, can all do Leonard Cohen songs, and have them sound like their own. For instance, all drew from Cohen, yet a few had a Lou Reed bent, while Martha Wainwright beautifully singing "The Traitor" sounded at times as if she were doing Steven Foster, whose tunes are a strong influence on the entire McGarrigle clan. I've read that you think the different performances are a collage of Cohen himself.

LL: When I got to Sydney and met all the singers and saw them performing, I felt like they were a patchwork quilt of Leonard Cohen. They each represented some part of him in some way that I had sensed when I met him. I felt, wow, they all had inside them an essence of Leonard Cohen, who is such a complex individual. I felt there was some part of him in all of them. That was part of their being such big fans of his as well. I was trying to capture the essence of them, so it wasn't my mindset to think that they were being influenced by anyone other than Leonard Cohen and their own styles. I felt Martha's version of "The Traitor" was so unique. You know, it was done all in one take. When someone is singing so great you don't go anywhere else. The one cut is during a musical interlude, when Leonard explains the song, and then we cut right back to her.

Q: Talk about the camera placement.

LL: This was a very important concert for the Sydney Festival and the audience. I wasn't able to light the show, I wasn't allowed to be seen, and I wasn't able to get into the Opera House and place my cameras until about an hour before the show. So I had to run by the seat of my pants and do the best I could. Given the nature of the Sydney Festival and that it was their show, I really respected the limitations. It was right for them to not want me seen, because it was a very personal, intimate show and I would have been annoyed if I was in the audience and was distracted by filmmakers. So I was grateful to even be allowed to shoot.
I didn't have a lot of room to try different things with camera angles. I had four cameras, very, very basic. Personally that was fine with me because I'm not really into those big shoots. I was beside the main camera in the TV booth, so I was able to tell the cameraman exactly what was needed and he got a lot of footage from the front. I had my main DP down on the floor in the dark getting close-up side shots. I was very confident that with those two cameras that I would get it covered. I also I had one camera by the mixing desk up the back, and another above, which I didn't use because I didn't have enough time to plan it out.

Q: What about mixing color footage and black and white footage?
LL: The choice was usually based on how it looked. For instance, I thought Nick Cave singing "Suzanne" was better in black and white. And there was a group shot of them rehearsing that was in black-and-white. That was shot on my small DVX-100 camera, and because of the lighting in the room it looked better in black-and-white. I didn't have a plan although I knew I wanted to use black-and-white if it worked in context of what I was doing aesthetically. When I was cutting the film, I could see how it worked. So we were doing the opening credits in black-and-white, setting that up with some color, and blending it in so it wasn't "Oh, my gosh, why have we suddenly gone to black-and-white," and then letting it come in periodically.

Q: All through the film I wondered if U2 was going to perform and if Leonard Cohen was going to perform, because they weren't at the Sydney concert. Did you know all the time that they would perform at the end?

LL: No, that was an organic thing that happened. I was putting the film together and trying to work out how I was going to make it and how it would be a cohesive piece. I called Bono first. I had met him 18 or 19 years ago when I had just moved to Los Angeles and they were doing "Rattle and Hum" and living there. I didn't really know anybody at the time and met him through a friend of mine and we became instant friends and the whole band became like family to me. And we've been close friends ever since. I knew how much the band revered Leonard Cohen, so I asked him, "Will you say something in the movie about him? Will you let me interview you in the movie?" And he said, "Or course I will."

Then one day, after I'd pretty much cut the whole film together, Leonard and I were having coffee and I just said, "It's sort of weird that we have all these people performing, but we don't have you." And he said, "Well, I don't have a band. And I haven't performed in near on fourteen years." It was the words "I don't have a band," that struck me. And I thought, "Well, I know a band." I wondered, "Maybe if I asked them, he might be willing to sing with them." So I ran home and called Bono and said, "You know, there's a possibility that Leonard may perform if he had a band, and I don't know any other bands…" And he said, "Are you asking us to be his backing band?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "You know we would be honored, we would do anything." That was their dream.

Bono was incredibly busy with their tour and everything else he does, so I fell into The Edge's corner. So during the tour, he had the band rehearsing "Tower of Song" at all of their sound checks across America. When they got to New York to play at Madison Square Garden, they had one afternoon off. So I brought Leonard to New York for that day, and we used all their sound engineers and crew to record it.

Q: The final sequence in which Leonard Cohen sings with U2 has a surreal feel, almost like when The Band sings on the soundstage at the end of "The Last Waltz." Were you affected by that film and is it a hindrance for all directors of concert films to always have to take that picture into account?

LL: To tell you the truth, I've never seen "The Last Waltz." I like a lot of the '70s concert footage. I love "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "The Concert for Bangladesh." I like when it's shot close-up and you feel like you're there. It's like the boxing footage of "When We Were Kings." I want to get lulled into the experience. I hate a lot of cutting and editing--it just does my head in. I hate cranes and dollies and never use them. That stuff is just a waste of money. I want it to be intimate and basic.

Q: What was the feeling when you were recording Leonard Cohen and U2?

LL: You have never seen happier people than everyone in that room that day. Even the crew was ecstatic. Crew members are usually tired on their day off, but they were all like schoolboys. Seeing U2 like schoolboys, too, was very special. They were feeling it was a remarkable day. So the energy was so high.

Q: And were you like a schoolgirl?

LL: Absolutely! I had to work and focus, and didn't have much time to do what I needed to do and keep that together, but it was hard not to be overwhelmed by what I was watching. When I turned the camera off, the excitement continued, it didn't let up. We didn't do that many takes, and everyone would look at each other and want to do it again. It was really a beautiful group to be part of that day.

Q: Since you're Australian and the Leonard Cohen tribute concert was filmed in the Sydney Opera House during the Sydney Festival.  I'm surprised it hasn't been distributed there yet.

LL: I have gotten so many inquiries from Australia because, as I said, Leonard Cohen is so popular there. It was picked up for distribution by Roadshow Pictures.  I think what they're going to try to do, which is a really great idea, is to tie in its premiere to the next Sydney Festival in January. It would be so nice to give it an outing outside by the Opera House, surrounded by water. In that way, we can remind people that the concert did take place in the Opera House. Fingers crossed, that's what they'll do before they have its regular release. For its L.A. premiere, it's going to be part of the L.A. Festival and be screened outdoors. It's that kind of movie.

Q:: What about the soundtrack album?

LL: The concert was over three hours long, and it was so hard deciding what music I had to leave out because everything was so great. I'm glad to say that all the songs in the movie are on the CD, plus a lot more that I couldn't fit in. So if your favorite Leonard Cohen song isn't in the movie, you'll find it there. It will be coming out on July 17.


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