Some regard him as one of pop music’s most influential artists, others as a bizarre one-hit-wonder. Either way (hint, it’s not the one-hit-wonder way) Gary Numan has been consistently releasing albums and touring for over 30 years. His impact on electronic music has seen him celebrated right across the spectrum of rock and pop – from Nine Inch Nails to the Sugarbabes. But it’s not been a smooth journey, and the respect hasn’t always been there. Often labelled a freak, and a bi-product of the weirder side of the 80’s, Numan has managed to ride it out despite a diagnosis of Aspergers, struggles with depression and the obstacles that come with finding fame at such a young age.
His story has now been captured with amazing intimacy in the film Android in La La Land. A music documentary that shifts from rock-doc to an insightful, raw but heart-warming look at both Gary and his family – wife Gemma and their children Echo, Raven and Persia – as they move to L.A. ahead of the release of Gary’s 12th studio album, Splinter.
Vulture Hound spoke to Director Steve Read about the film.
First off – what a funny, heart-warming and insightful look at, who would have believed it, Gary Numan as a human!
Yeah (laughs), yeah. There were a lot of surprises for me. I didn’t expect him to be anything like he turned out to be, but I didn’t really know anything about him actually and it was quite by fluke the film was started in the first place.
So you weren’t a fan before you started on …La La Land?
Well I was at the Hop Farm Festival in 2012 and Rob (Alexander co-Director/Producer) and I had just finished a film about amateur boxers on the road to the Olympic Games called Knock Out Scoucers – well Channel 4 named it that. So it was just about to come out, summer of 2012, the Olympics were about to happen and I went to the festival, and there was Bob Dylan playing and Paul Weller and stuff and I noticed Gary was playing and I thought I would go check him out cause I hadn’t heard his music in ages. I mean, I wouldn’t class myself as a Gary Numan fan, although I am more now after spending time with him and especially the album Splinter, but I’m not a Numanoid or anything. I just wanted to check out his show and I was completely blown away by it. I thought he was brilliant. His stage performance was incredible and I obviously recognised some songs because they’re so famous. Songs like ‘Cars’ and ‘Are Friends Electric?’, and he was playing them with a very industrial kind of sound and yeah, I loved it.
That show that I saw is pretty much what you see in that sequence at Bestival in the film – he’s in a big top tent, he’s performing to a younger festival crowd, lots of late teens, early twenties – and he was playing the same songs. So the experience I had seeing Gary perform that first time is pretty much the experience the viewer gets watching that scene in Android in La La Land.
So from there how did the film come about?
Well we ended up back stage later on and I bumped in to him – well my friend made me bump in to him because I kept going on about Gary all night after the show (laughs), and she pointed him out and told me to go and have a chat with him, so I did. I realised pretty quickly that he was a very interesting character, very engaging and had a unique delivery about him. He was also with Gemma (his wife) and the two of them together were just really funny and just seemed like great cinema – like a really great double act. So it didn’t take me long, after about 10 minutes I just blurted out “oh Gary, I want to make a film about you!” and from that he just disappeared into the night with my phone number scribbled on his wrist! I woke up the next day thinking “well that was a good night” and then I remembered speaking to Gary (laughs). So I went over in my head what we were talking about, looked in to him more, did some research – spent a whole week researching him really. We agreed to meet up and have a chat and just found out more about his back story, his huge influence on electronic music and pop music, rock music, and found out he was moving to L.A., packing up everything and moving to L.A. So there was enough to convince me there were enough layers and the film had legs. So I rang Rob up and convinced him to come on board and we started filming pretty much straight away.
All happened pretty quick then?
Well the scenes you see with the pink house before he moves to L.A., that was the first thing we did – that interview. Then the second time we went over there was to film him packing up everything and then we followed him out to L.A., to his new crazy castle, filming him as he’s writing, recording and finishing the new album. Of course we then go one step beyond and go on holiday with the family!
Did you go in a separate car or was there room for you in the campervan too?
Well I travelled mainly in the campervan, but we didn’t sleep in it, although they did offer. But believe me, once you’ve spent a whole day with someone you’re making a film about, you need your space at the end of it. And also we were cutting footage as well, every night, so we just stayed in this tiny wooden hut or a tent, depending on where we were, and stay up late going through footage making some loose cuts and then doing it all again the next day. But yeah, quite a buzz getting to go on holiday with Gary Numan. I really enjoy saying the line “I’ve been on holiday with Gary Numan” (laughs).
It’s mentioned in the film, but it’s also true of some people I know, those who just see Gary as the guy who did ‘Cars’. That he was this weird, 80’s one hit wonder and not a lot else. You say you weren’t a fan before working on the film, so did you have any similar misconceptions?
Well obviously ‘Cars’ is a huge hit, its one of the biggest songs ever recorded and you hear it all the time – in TV commercials or just going in to a bar or something and it’s followed me around like you wouldn’t believe! I just think a huge hit like that would give anyone’s body of work an imbalance because it’s so big. But, I mean, he has recorded albums consistently for 30 years – with that small hiatus before Splinter came out, which of course is one of the themes of the film, and there’s reasons for that – and releasing albums, touring the albums and doing these classic album tours as well. But as for misconceptions, like I said I never knew that much about him but I guess, yeah maybe it was a bit – “hes the guy who did Cars”, and I guess that’s the same with a lot of people – if they don’t know him, they’ll know cars.
Its like at some of these film festivals in the states you’ll be speaking to someone and they’ll ask – “what are you doing here?” and ill say I’ve made a film about Gary Numan and they’ll say – “oh, ive never heard of him”, yeah you do he’s the guy who did ‘Cars’, you know – (sings) “here in my car, I feel…” and by the time you get to the ‘der der der du” but, they’ve got it!
As for the other misconception, his character was kind of revealing itself to me as we went along. I think initially I thought yeah, he’s definitely unusual but Gary admits that he’s probably a bit odd -how many rock stars blow up a dingy and use it as a sofa in their front room, you know, or live in one bedroom in a six bedroom mansion? But its great for the film, and while we were filming things he would come out with this stuff like the dinghy line and I would look at Rob and go – “did you hear that? That was great”. And probably the other thing that people think about him is that he’s quite miserable but he’s not. He’s really really funny, and that was something I certainly wouldn’t have had him down to be, cause he is, he’s a really funny bloke. Particularly when he’s feeding off Gemma and they’re feeding off each other.
And she’s great, she’s absolutely hilarious – as are all the family, the girls as well. It’s almost like this isn’t a music documentary but a film advertising the triumph of ‘family’.
Yeah, definitely. It’s as much about the kids and certainly as much about Gemma as it is about Gary. The kids play a really important role and even the cameo from the dog, Wilbur –he’s got some great comic timing that dog – but yeah, it’s definitely a love story before anything else. I think what it ended up being was part rock-doc, part road trip, part love story and part therapy session. All of those things kinda play their role in the narrative. And it starts off just like a music doc and then sort of develops in to this other thing and I think it kind of seduces you about half way through when all these other layers start to reveal themselves.
And you manage to capture that contrast especially during that moment where Gary’s talking about his struggle with depression and late diagnosis of Aspergers, while his daughter Echo is going around the garden singing ‘Cars’ to herself. The film is full of those moments when darkness and inward reflection are contrast or accompanied by shots of the family, as especially the focus on Gemma’s role in both of Gary’s lives – family man and rock star.
Yeah, well Gemma certainly is the rock of his life and she’s certainly responsible for turning his career around and his life really. Her role in his resurrection, if you like, is absolutely pivotal. He needs her so much but he does talk about when he was thinking about leaving her and the whole relationship was breaking down, but god knows what will happen to him if that actually happens.
In the film he describes Gemma as “my buffer between me and the rest of the real world”, was that obvious while spending time with them?
Yeah, she is but his music is as well. And the thing I’m really proud of with this film is that we’ve managed to deal with issues surrounding depression. A lot of people, well, a lot of men actually, find it really difficult to talk about depression and it’s pretty common. This idea of the ‘midlife crisis’ you know “Colin next door is having a midlife crisis”, its seen like a bit of a joke but it’s very much the opposite of that, it affects a lot of guys, and women. So it’s great that someone of Gary’s stature is talking frankly and really openly about the experiences he’s been through – with mental health issues and the anxiety attacks – so I’m really pleased we’ve managed to address that, and hopefully someone will watch it and see Gary talking about it and maybe help them to deal with it themselves.
How important is it for a film live this to have crossover appeal? To be for both the fans and non-fans alike.
I think the film definitely has cross-over appeal, and also you can’t just make a film about music, it’s got to have more to it than that.
Plus with that level of access it can become more than just another music documentary.
We were so fortunate to get that level of access to Gary, it was incredible, and at times I was like “why is he doing this? This is so open”, I’ve never seen anything like it before. I’ve watched a lot of music documentaries, so we knew we were experiencing a level of openness that was going to make the film very powerful. And I think the reason for that is because Gary wanted to get his story across you know? He obviously trusted us, felt safe and felt comfortable with me and the camera. He was going through these themes and writing about these themes for the album Splinter and dealing with them, I think, for the first time – his ideas of depression on ‘Here in the Black’ and the songs about Gemma – he’s getting his head around that stuff, all while were there filming him. So because of that it’s all very honest and very revealing and candid. That’s why its so raw.
How much of an idea did you have going into this about the look of the film? Because there’s a surprising amount of colour in it, especially with the landscape of L.A. and its big blue sky featuring heavily.
Yeah, there’s a lot of blue in it when you get to L.A. In a way, the look of the film is dictated by what you chose to shoot with and I shot everything with two lenses on a Canon c300. A lot of it was shot on the 100mm lens with a very tight depth of field which gives it a very cinematic look. Also the framing of some of the interviews helped enhance that raw aspect – the camera has to keep a really long lens on it. Rob would go to the back of the garden to shoot while I sat and did theses sessions with Gary – almost like therapy sessions I think – and with a long lens, zoom straight into his face. He has this great, engaging look about him, and his eyes are incredible, you really engage with his eyes. So that’s one look. Then the gigs, they were great to film, but again they were shot with very tight depth of field. Plus Ollie Hudderson, the editor, did a really great job too, on the whole film. The way those colours create a consistency though the film, that’s all down to great editing.
And those gig scenes were still incredibly intimate.
Yeah, and it was really good fun to film that, because I was basically on stage with the band. By the second gig they trusted me to go anywhere and sometimes I would go on to the stage first to get shots of the crowd chanting “Numan, Numan!”, and really the crowd very much became part of the film too.
What was it like interacting with such a passionate, enthusiastic a fan base like Gary’s?
We were very conscious about getting the fans in from both sides of the Atlantic. In fact we wanted to get more of them in. We did quite a few fan Q&A’s but there was so much stuff that didn’t make the cut, but the fans were great. Their dedication to Gary is second to none. And they’ve been really supportive of us actually. We’ve had a facebook page from day one and the (early) trailer we cut somehow got out on to youtube so the fans knew about it pretty early on. They’ve been following us and going to screenings and enjoying the film. They’ve dedicated their lives to Gary and we seem to be getting some of that love as well.
You hit the film festival circuit in the U.S, including a screening at SXSW. Did you get a lot of Numan fans showing up?
SXSW was the first one we went to and it got some nice reviews but the people that were going there were film fans – there for the film festival. For the fans side of it, there weren’t many at SXSW but certainly by Hot Docs festival in Toronto there were more fans – half were fans, maybe, and half were just there for the festival. But it was really great to bring it back to the UK too, doing the European premier at the Edinburgh Film Festival and the East End Film Festival as well – because there’s a lot of fans who were quite frustrated that we were out in the U.S. first – but at those U.K screenings they were queued out of the door. We’ve also sold out a few showings for the cinematic run as well. So yeah, word is out which is great, but it would be nice to cross over and get non-fans checking it out, cause it’s a film for everyone really.
I can think of a few people who need to see this film. People who have given me shit for years for being a Gary Numan fan. I want to take them and say “watch this!” and “stop singing Cars at me! It’s more than just that!”
Let me know how that goes! I’d be interested to find out! I think it’s going to get a lot of people in to Gary’s music, certainly into Splinter, which is a brilliant album and personally I think it is his best album, and I know a lot of people will disagree with that! But for me it’s my favourite, no doubt about it. And the music in the film is primarily from Splinter too.
I know in the film Gary talks about wanting to get into writing music for film, and although Splinter wasn’t written for film, it’s so appropriate. It’s just another sign that Gary’s musical pallet is made for a potential move into film composition.
It was great for us to hear the tracks for the first time – I’m a big electronic music fan – and being quite relieved to hear how good they were, because we had no idea if the album would be any good or not. The first time I heard ‘I Am Dust’ I remember thinking “he’s bang on form here”. Fortunately for us and for Gary it was a great album and it did well – his biggest selling album for 30 years.
And at one point it was nearly all lost due to a broken hard drive. Then Gemma comes to the rescue with a soldering iron!
Yeah, while the kids are walking around with their ice lollies as well trying to help!
Did Gemma happen to help fix any of your equipment too along the way?
I don’t know about that. We looked after our own gear I think (laughs). She would make us dinner every now and again though. But she was good fun. We spent a lot of time with her and got on really well – we still talk to each other.
I suppose spending such a long time with someone and their family, it’s hard not to make some lasting connection.
Well, I definitely immersed myself in to Gary Numan’s world and it sort of took over my head for a while. I was having Gary Numan dreams, a different one every night. It took a while to get over. Because we just got so embedded in his and his family’s world. But it was a good experience, and so rewarding now, hearing people saying good things about it.
And have you spoken to Gary recently?
I actually met them a couple of months ago when I was in LA, we went out for lunch. But very recently Gary’s Mum died.
And that makes certain scenes in the film harder to watch, like that moment when he’s talking about the big falling out with his Mum and Dad – he cries, and it’s absolutely heart breaking considering the recent news.
At time it was really heavy, but at the same time as a film maker you’re thinking – “this is great, this is great cinema”. But he just came out with it, we didn’t even know about it, we didn’t know they had fallen out. Gemma had mentioned it, but we thought he wouldn’t want to talk about it. After suggesting it he just opened up, and then obviously broke down. After he said – “I can’t believe that that happened, breaking down and crying. That’s never happened before”. I just think he had so much weight on him that it was such a relief for him to finally get stuff off his chest. But not long after that we were in the studio and he’s talking me through his writing technique. He can switch, and within maybe 20 minutes he’s gone from being in the chair crying to being in the studio showing me his quite unique way of constructing songs.
That scene where he’s demonstrating his writing process was a special moment, especially for fans.
Yeah, for fans it’ll be a massive eye opener because I don’t think anyone will have seen that before, well I know they haven’t. He’s never talked about it. So yeah, that scene is very revealing, hugely interesting moment, cause he’s not just any old star, he’s a very important, influential artist that is still doing great work.
For a first feature documentary, having a subject like Gary Numan, did you ever feel that weight of expectation?
Me and Rob always thought we were making a good film, because of the access we were getting. It’s all about trust and access. The more trust you get, the more access you get, and we were shown a lot of trust, almost from day one really. Although Gemma initially was really really nervous about the whole thing. In fact when we first met she just bust in to tears. I had to walk her around the garden just to calm her down a little bit and let her know I’m actually alright (laughs). So she was literally in tears, but obviously a natural in the film, and everyone loves her. I’m so glad she comes out as strong as she does.
So you’re going to start a second career as a therapist now do you reckon?
Yeah, I could do I think. Certainly, if you can get Gary opening up like that maybe I’ve got a hidden talent.
And has Gary seen the film?
Yeah, yeah, he’s seen various cuts of it.
It must have been good to have a subject so supportive of what you were doing.
I’m not going to say he loves the film. There are some bits he loves and some bits he hates – because it’s so revealing, so raw. Of course it’s going to be hard to watch for him. I mean, at SXSW the screen was huge, Marble Arch Odeon size, and Gary’s face is huge on the screen. So yeah, must be tough to watch. Plus his delivery is so honest – when he’s talking about the song ‘Lost’ which he wrote about Gemma, or when he’s talking about his depression – because that delivery wasn’t as polished as it ended up being, when he was doing press for Splinter, he’s going to have issues with that. From our perspective though it’s much better when it’s not polished, when it is raw. But people love him anyway, that’s the main thing! After 85 minutes of it, people love the guy, and those people may not have known him before, or even disliked him before, or had those preconceptions. And it is a good point about those preconceptions, or misconceptions about Gary, and hopefully we address quite a few of those.
Android in La La Land is at selected cinemas, now. For screening details visit numandroid.com.
All photos by Steve Read © 2013 Read Images Ltd.