LWLies: What inspired you to get yourself an 8mm camera and start filming things in the mid-’70s?
Letts: The punk rock movement was very much about audience participation, it wasn’t a spectator sport. The energy was so infectious that you wanted to get involved. I’d seen a film a few years previously called The Harder They Come [Perry Henzell, 1972], a very famous Jamaican film, and realised I wanted to express myself in some kind of visual way, but I couldn’t see a way forward. When the punk rock thing happened in about 1976, the whole ‘Do It Yourself’ principle came into play. All my mates picked up guitars and I wanted to pick up something too, but the stage was kind of full up. So I picked up a Super 8 camera, and using that ‘DIY’ principle, taught myself to become a filmmaker through filming the bands I liked and working out how to do it as I went along. I’d never been to film school; I never even read the instructions for the camera!
So I started to film the bands I liked, and then one day I read in the NME, ‘Don Letts is making a movie’. And I thought, ‘That’s a good idea, I’ll call it a film’. I finished the thing that was later called The Punk Rock Movie, which then got shown at the ICA for about six weeks. Afterwards I kind of used that as my point of entry into the film world and started making music videos for some of the more successful bands when they started getting record deals. The first music video I did was for Public Image’s latest single, and then I did the Clash’s first video. From there I went on to make all of the Clash videos. I just progressed from that into music documentaries and a couple of feature films. So it was with the inspiration of punk rock that I became a filmmaker.
LWLies: What were your reasons for filming these punk rock bands when you did?
Letts: Some of the bands that appear in The Punk Rock Movie are in there to show the more ‘hubris’ side of punk rock, because for every one great punk rock band there were 50 ridiculous ones – and that was all part of the story. But to begin with I filmed the bands first that turned me on – that spoke to me politically or lyrically: The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Slits, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Subway Sect, The Buzzcocks. These were my favourite punk rock acts. I just filmed the bands that spoke to me.
LWLies: Did you have a documentary model in mind when you were filming what would become The Punk Rock Movie?
Letts: Absolutely not. I had nothing in mind other than being able to capture what was happening in front of me. And like I said, when you’ve had no formal training that’s fairly difficult. Super 8 cameras didn’t have all these auto functions cameras have today, like autofocus. But I found that to be good discipline.
I mean, for instance, Super 8 film back in those days – including processing – cost about 15 quid a hit [for about fifteen minutes of reel], which was a lot of money back in the mid-’70s! And that forced me to really think about what I was shooting, and it made me become very focused and disciplined in that regard.
Now with digital technology you can buy a 90-minute DVD cassette for about a fiver or something and get coverage of everything. But that’s not good for discipline at all. It was better when things were more expensive. The downside of affordable technology is mediocrity. Just because you can afford it, doesn’t mean you can do it. Ultimately you need a good idea.
LWLies: Did you feel yourself to be an insider or an outsider as you filmed these bands and gigs?
Letts: I wouldn’t have got the access that I did unless these people trusted me. My relationship with the bands helped to make it what it was. No one ever told me to turn the camera off, but then they didn’t have to because I’d know when to do that myself. We were all on the same page, and there was a mutual trust.
LWLies: Would you still be able to make a documentary the way you did The Punk Rock Movie today, given the way young bands are much more shepherded by managers and spokespeople from early on?
Letts: These days record companies rule. There’s a spectrum of music that operates outside of that, but for the bands that have record companies behind them, and PR and the A&R and so on – all these people telling them what not to do – the result is the bands are scared to have an opinion, because they believe it might affect their record sales.
There has to be more going on, some other agenda than just trying to flog product and turn people into passive consumers. That’s why I don’t make music videos much anymore, because all they want to do now is sell the record.
When I was making music videos, when it was still fairly new, you could still make a covert statement if you were an intelligent filmmaker – like in my video for The Clash’s single Rock The Casbah, where I had an interaction between an Arab and a Jew. You couldn’t get away with stuff like that now. Not only because the record companies would stop you doing it and MTV probably wouldn’t air it, but because you can’t find the bands with the balls to support an idea like that.
LWLies: In terms of making a documentary these days, do you prefer the new HD digital cameras or are you still fond of using film cameras?
Letts: I don’t know any serious filmmaker who doesn’t prefer film. But quite often it’s cost prohibitive. Having said that, the new HD digital stuff definitely has a place – I’ve been using it a lot lately. With post-production now you can make it look like film. HD can never duplicate the warmth of film but it can get bloody close.
But at the end of the day it’s about the content. The content always overrides the medium; content will get you over bad lighting, bad editing, even – in the case of drama – bad acting. If the story itself is intrinsically good, you’ll overcome all those problems
LWLies: Has new technology in recording images really made it easier for people to make their own DIY underground movies?
Letts: There’s no doubt in my mind that is has. The means of production is now in the hands of the people. That’s fundamentally a good idea but going back to what I said before, just because you can afford it, doesn’t mean you can do it. The technology is good but it can’t help if the people using it are rubbish!
LWLies: Do you have any plans for another film, either a feature or a documentary?
Letts: I’ve always got plans for a film – finding somebody to finance it is the issue these days! I’m sort of a ‘left-of-centre’ filmmaker, so the ideas I come up with are not populist or tabloid. In the last three years I’ve made documentaries on George Clinton, Sun-Ra and Gil-Scott Heron – all people whose art and music has an agenda other than just flogging product. But it’s harder to get funding for those kinds of films than, say, a proposal for a documentary on Amy Winehouse or James Blunt. But this is generally the case for any art that has an agenda beyond just trying to take your money.
LWLies: Have you seen any films made on the same shoestring budget lately that have impressed you?
Letts: Lately? That’s a good question… The last great music documentary I saw was that film Dig! [Ondi Timoner, 2004]. I don’t know if it was made on a shoestring budget or not, but that was absolute genius. I kept forgetting that it was a documentary while I was watching it, because it was almost like it was cast and scripted, and the director couldn’t have picked two better groups. Imagine – she made that over seven years! She could’ve picked two bands that would’ve imploded or were rubbish, but she picked The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. It’s like a rock and roll parable. Everyone should see Dig! Other than that I have to go way back… Don’t Look Back , the DA Pennebaker film on Dylan, still floats my boat. Cocksucker Blues [Robert Frank, 1972] was kind of interesting, though the myth was better than the reality. The film’s reputation had reached mythological proportions by the time I got to see it.
LWLies: Thirty years before punk rock there was Miles Davis and Be-Bop. It’s now 30 years since The Punk Rock Movie was first released – does it now seem as distant a musical era as Be-Bop to you, or do you think punk rock has kept its cultural relevance?
Letts: Well for me ‘punk rock’ did not begin and end in the mid-to-late Seventies. I mean, for me, the Miles Davis/Be-Bop thing has an element of punk rock. I actually argue in my film Punk Attitude  that even the hippy movement had a punk rock moment. People have got to understand that when punk rock exploded and we rebelled against the hippy thing, we weren’t rebelling against, for example… Do you know that famous photographic image of the girl putting a flower down the barrel of a soldier’s gun? Well, that’s not what we were rebelling against. We were rebelling against what the hippy movement had become, which was Cheech and Chong.
All counter-cultural movements eventually become part of popular culture, until the next generation comes and reclaims it. It happened to punk also. By 1978 punk had got kind of ridiculous and tabloid, and a lot of the main instigators actually removed themselves from it and became part of this whole post-punk scene, which I think musically was a lot more interesting. So what we’re talking about is a kind of ongoing dynamic that does have a lineage and a continuity… Although you might wonder where that continuity has gone because as far as I’m concerned, culturally now in the West it feels like punk never happened. When I got into music it was an anti-establishment thing. Now a lot of people get into music to become part of the establishment. How radical can you be if that’s what you want? Having said that I know there are young people out there who don’t want what MTV or the Top 40 radio is offering, and they’ve got the internet now which gives them the ability and the facility to express themselves and get their ideas out there. So that’s kind of encouraging. If you look beneath the radar there’s always something going on. ‘Punk attitude’ is like The Force in Star Wars – you can’t stop it but you do have to look in new places. It’s out there!
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