Interview with Neil Young
May 17, 2011 § 1 Comment
For the past four decades Neil Young has weathered the fickle storms of rock fad and emerged as the consummate survivor. Since his early days in Buffalo Springfield, to his hits with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to his Crazy Horse solo years, Young has consistently produced music of unprecedented depth and gripping emotional rawness.
Instead of speaking with Young about his music (which he has discussed ad infinitum), I decided instead to talk to him about his filmmaking. Young has helmed two offbeat narrative features, Human Highway and Greendale, both music driven and atmospheric and very weird in the good way, in the way only Mr. Young can be.
Q: It seems like Greendale was a project that came together pretty organically. I’m interested in how those characters and this place developed in your mind, how much was mapped out beforehand?
A: Well, basically one thing leads to another and there really wasn’t a plan in the beginning, not even a plan to do concept album, I just start recording and the songs just started coming out. I was going to do a live video of the recording of the album. So I shot that with five video cameras hi-def and I had these green screen windows, which I was going to fill in with images once I finished the songs, but once I realized after recording the album, one song at a time, we discovered we had a story going on. So at the end, we started to rethink. In the end, it really just wrote itself, the more we did the more we liked it, the more we did what we liked.
Q: Is that the way you usually work?
A: Yeah, that’s right – you just follow it. You follow the trail. I just started writing. I don’t think about what I’ m going to write before I write it, the key thing is that I sit down and pick up the guitar. From there I play a few chords, strum them a few times and if I like the chords then I’ll put the guitar down and write some words to the rhythm of the chords and one song at a time that way. I record one song at a time, because I don’t want to be thinking about three songs at once. I do them one at a time and as these songs unfolded and these characters came to life.
Q: In a way Greendale is a place I’m homesick for, even though I’ve never been there.
A: It’s quiet a place, Greendale, it has a look and a feel to it. And we just did it so fast, we didn’t try to do a good job, we tried to capture the moments, so we didn’t worry about the weather or anything like that. We just kept on going 16 hours a day for two weeks, we didn’t even look at tests, we just trusted that it was working.
Q: So when you were filming did you have a specific structure you were working with or did the songs provide that foundation?
A: Our structure was very loose. We had the tapes and we knew where we were going with the songs, we had the locations and we knew the actors. So we just brought that together, walked in, set it up, locked it and went for it.
Q: I think in some ways musicians make ideal filmmakers in that they have a sense of tone and pacing and storytelling as well. And I think they don’t come to the medium with the same sort of restrictions.
A: We didn’t know how we were supposed to do it, which was one of our biggest advantages. When other people saw the film, I was petrified, it scared the hell out of me and then we were going to take it to film festivals and I thought we would get killed. I thought people would put it down because of its technical quality and it does have a technical quality, but it’s so low grade. I thought we would get killed.
Q: I think the audience reacts positively to honesty, despite technical form.
A: I think you might be right.
Q: This is your second film, the first was Human Highway, with Devo.
A: Yes, I had done that. I’ve dabbled; I just do it for myself, that’s the way I did with Greendale too. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it, so I shot Greendale on super 8. Plus that camera is so easy to shoot.
Q: It gives a film that inherent nostalgia.
A: Oh yeah, it’s beautiful.
Q: People see it-
A: And they believe it. Video doesn’t give you any room to move, it’s too stark and cold, that’s the way I see it for what I do anyway, other people can create masterpieces with it. You just play with it like anything else; you use what works best for you and you hope that the best comes out of what you make with those tools.