Documentary-maker Julien Temple tells Tony Clayton-Lea about his fascination with the Pogues singer Shane MacGowan and why making a film about him was like tracking a snow leopard
Shane MacGowan is a "fascinating quarry". So says film, documentary and music video director Julien Temple, whose latest film is about the Pogues frontman. "I'd always been fascinated by him," he says. "I first interviewed him in 1976. It was around the time of the Sex Pistols and you just knew even then that he was someone you should keep an eye on. I'm attracted to quite difficult subjects, so he certainly ticks a couple of boxes."
Delayed, like much else this year, by Covid-19, Crock of Gold: a Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan splices accomplishment with misfortune.
For the most part, Temple's documentary work focuses on iconographic, conflicted pop culture figures and MacGowan is certainly one of those. The London-based director admits he is compelled to tackle subjects whose work challenges and confounds and he is fascinated by how people express themselves.
"The way they push themselves towards the edge of creativity is riveting," he says. "Of course, with those visits to the edge come risk and danger, an interesting convergence that can lead a person deep into the heart of creativity."
With a figure such as MacGowan, however, surely his story is as much about falling over the edge as much as running towards it? Temple isn't at all disingenuous about his subject. People can decide what constitutes the "heart of creativity" when they see the film, he allows, yet he himself realises "there is a deep tragedy in the story, as well as triumph".
"Like everything about Shane, there is a big contradiction in terms of whether he has destroyed himself, or whether that was necessary to enable his work to live on after him," he says. "It is, of course, a cautionary tale: don't go to the edge like Shane did unless you really want to push it to the limit and see what the results can be.
"Having said that, Shane's mind is still very much alive. You wouldn't want to make a film about a vegetable and he is a million miles away from that. He is an extraordinary specimen and in a league of his own."
While the film is, as usual with Temple's work, distinctive and perceptive, the making of it was fraught. Or, as he laconically says, "a nightmare, as you might expect".
MacGowan's reputation as someone who doesn't remotely take other people's schedules into consideration (amusing only if you're not the person left hanging around for hours, sometimes days on end) means he isn't easy to pin down for any appreciable length of time. Those who know him realise this is part of his erratic modus operandi, notes the director. "When I first sat down to really talk with Shane about things, I remember the first thing he said to me was 'no interviews', to which I shuddered. He was watching a Discovery Channel film about snow leopards. They are one of the rarest beasts in the world, where you have to set up cameras all over the Himalayas, in the snow, or wherever, in the hope that one day they will appear and trigger the motion sensors.
"During our filming it actually felt like that - we had crews, cameras, the money clock was ticking and we were asking, quite often, 'Is Shane on his way?' It got to the point where we were running out of budget and with not much to show for it."
Every cloud, and so on. Waiting for MacGowan to appear prompted Temple and his research team to find audio tapes of MacGowan's interviews with journalists over the decades.
While the sound quality of most of the old interviews may be weak, unguarded, intimate moments are uncovered, with MacGowan speaking far more coherently than he is, regrettably, now able to. Interview snippets with Johnny Depp, Bobby Gillespie, Gerry Adams, MacGowan's wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, his parents (with archive footage of his mother Therese, who died in 2017) and sister Siobhan advance the notion of him as, ultimately, a casualty of his own self-destructive defiance.
Oddly, no former members of the Pogues are interviewed. Why not? "We tried hard, but they turned us down, so you'll have to ask them," is Temple's pithy response.
Underpinning everything is the quality and vibrancy of songs that MacGowan wrote in his glory days (and which, lest we forget, were brought fully to life by the Pogues' collective, instinctive musicianship).
Temple is understating it when he remarks that MacGowan "hasn't written much recently", but says he is of an era that still fascinates people, is still relevant and of which "he remains a towering figure".
"His influence is quite obvious in some younger musicians, not least Fontaines DC, Lankum and Lisa O'Neill, who are building on the template that Shane set out," he says.
It seems likely that MacGowan will never again write songs as potent as he once did, but Temple rightly directs the same claim at many other songwriters. "There does seem to be a fountain of youth that eventually dries up," he says.
He refers to a scene towards the end of the documentary that he found especially poignant. "It's when Shane says he wants to find his mojo again, to write great songs again, but my feeling is that he has already written enough great songs for him to worry about it. Frankly, it's hard to top what he did."
While the idea to make a film about MacGowan had been swirling around Temple's head for many years, it only came to be realised two years ago. He acknowledges the presence of movie star/producer Johnny Depp, a long-time friend of MacGowan's, edged it towards being properly funded.
"Johnny certainly kept that boat from capsizing and gave us firm back-up that we would actually be able to deliver the film."
Equally helpful in persuading MacGowan to be filmed for several pivotal interview settings were Victoria Mary Clarke and his sister Siobhan. Each was, says Temple, "key to the film being made". The latter, in particular, provided acute biographical awareness and context.
"Without Siobhan, the film wouldn't really work," says Temple. She has a very independent take on things, but also a very loving sibling affection for her brother, so her honest perspectives are interesting and also very protective of him.
"Their father is around and he's great, but no one really remembers growing up with Shane the way Siobhan does and she gives such a grounded account of things."
Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer, Wilko Johnson, Keith Richards, Shane MacGowan - the subjects Julien Temple makes films about are a dying breed, aren't they? There is no disagreement.
"Yes, they're a lost tribe no longer walking the Earth. They're in wheelchairs, or falling out of coconut trees. It's a great shame, because they pushed envelopes.
"No one does that anymore these days."