Before Hollywood: Kriv Stenders
Posted on October 1, 2017
Watching Kriv Stenders’ film about The Go-Betweens made me homesick.
Hearing ‘Cattle and Cane’ killed me. It’d been a while. Only music can do that. Bang! That forlorn bass-line wrapped itself around my heart and squeezed out a river of tears. From the depths. From a lifetime ago.
Nostalgia had come calling. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of where you’re from, especially if you’ve given over swathes of your life to leaving it behind. I’ve come to know that a sense of ‘home’ is necessary. Especially when you’re living oceans apart.
Viewing the film in Berlin, Germany – my home for not much longer now – it also stirred a deep sense of yearning. For the lush tropics of northern Australia, a place I’ve lived once before. For quiet suburban streets with lawns, wrought-iron front entrances and canvas window awnings – the place in Australia I lived the longest. For streets punctuated by orange-brick, post-war houses with rounded windows, cracked pavements and the sea just down the road. Places of pain. Places of sorrow. Boredom. Compromise. Trauma. Play. Fun. Learning. Rites of passage. The full catastrophe.
There’s nothing romantic about it. It’s just home as I know it. It contains the familiar. I think it may not even exist any more.
Nonetheless, The Go-Betweens: Right Here stole the breath from my lungs, an echo of my youth writ large, only down south.
So were the stories of trying, loving, succeeding, failing, repeat. And looking back at it all from within the prism of a creative life. The 80s were a time – a space – where dreaming was allowed. So was stumbling around in the dark without a fucking clue, looking for a way out and a path forward into the luminescent possibility of your own making.
“Back then” when you were “a bit arty”, no-one really cared much or knew any better. Or what to tell you. It was beyond the suburban experience. You just made it up as you went along. You’d find ‘your people’ at Victorian-terraced parties or in crumbling record stores. You’d look to heroes at home or across the waves, often not much older than yourself. You’d commune with them by ‘taking in’ their work – for hours, deeply: next to a stereo, with book in hand, magazine on lap, or in front of a screen usually big and sometimes small if you were lucky enough to know someone with a VCR.
If you’d done the work and had some talent, you might get lucky. Eventually. Or not. But you gave it a crack. There was no-one to tell you otherwise. Crap day jobs would fund the “night job” – the real work. The one where you’d spend time practicing. Over and over. Trying to not get waylaid by exhaustion, despair or giving in to convention.
In many respects this is what Kriv’s film is about. It’s as much his story as it is theirs. It belongs to both the filmmaker and the band. Those kids with ‘Marquee Moon’ tucked into the crooks of their arms might as well have been him. Or me, as it turns out, given the sentiment that sprang forth so readily.
It’s a very affectionate portrait of a band that paved the way for so many. The Go-Betweens were truly inspiring. Our Talking Heads. Our Modern Lovers. Hearing their music for the first time changed everything. There was an alternative. There was art. There was an original. Right here. At home. We knew because we could hear it through the speakers.
Right Here is poetic. It can’t have been easy juggling the truths everyone carried with them for so long. Pain. Betrayal. Abandonment. Affection. The Go-Betweens were a beautiful entity, loved by many. Inside and out. What struck me most about this film was was its sense of kindness. It is honest, it is direct. Contradictory too. Sad. Fucking funny in spots. But kind. These are people, not “subjects”. And crikey do they look good in that old weatherboard Queenslander.
Hats off to Kriv. For finding a way to bring everyone together. For telling this significant Australian story. For making it “just so”. And emotional. I’ve always been excited by the prospect of his new films. Ever since I saw the gritty cell-block (sur)realism of short Two/Out. I’m over the moon about this one. I think it’s his best yet.
We need our poets. “Further, longer, higher, older,” sang The Go-Betweens in the dying strains of ‘Cattle and Cane’. Too right. Das stimmt.
Circus Folk: The story around how you first met The Go-Betweens is fantastic: would you be kind enough to share that with us – and perhaps some of your own Brisbane story too?
Kriv Stenders: Yes – I was born in Brisbane and lived on the Gold Coast, then Kenmore, Toowong (which is where and when I met the band) and later Annerley. My parents still live in Brisbane.
I went to high school in a [Brisbane] suburb called Toowong. Every afternoon I would walk home via a shopping arcade and in that arcade was a record store called The Toowong Music Centre. This was 1981, and I was 17 and already totally obsessed with cinema and music.
The guy who owned the store, Damian Nelson started to chat to me about movies and we became friends. I told him I was making Super 8 films and at that point in time wanted to become a cinematographer.
[Go-Betweens co-founders] Grant and Robert were also working at the store. One day Damian asked if I would shoot a short film he was producing that Grant had written called Heather’s Gloves. Of course I said yes. From that moment my life changed forever.
I became friends with Grant and Robert and their circle of friends and that’s when my own creative journey began. I was kind of like the kid in that film Almost Famous: instead of a pen, I had a camera.
CF: What was the first Go-Betweens song you remember? And your reaction to it?
KS: I think it was probably ‘Lee Remick‘, as everyone at that point in time in Brisbane was playing those early Able Label songs at parties and on the local university radio station 4ZZZ.
I remember finding those songs very funny, almost tongue in cheek, and just loved the honesty and purity of them. They were like the films we were making – technically rough but full of ideas, made in a naïve style and always referencing other movies or pop culture.
I was always humming ‘Lee Remick’: it had such a great hook and riff. I still do!
CF: Like so many at the time I became a bit obsessed with The Go-Betweens after I discovered them in 1983, stopping in my tracks when I first heard ‘Cattle and Cane’. Were you also obsessed by their music?
KS: Yes! ‘Before Hollywood’ and ‘Cattle and Cane’ [the first single from the album] just blew me away too. I loved that album so much – for a number of reasons. One was the songs: each was just so great and pure, like crystal jewels. There was such a direct clarity to them.
The second reason was that I was just so excited that I knew these guys and that they were making ‘real’ records, living in the UK, getting noticed, and had become (from my small Brisbane perspective) ‘famous’.
They were living the creative life and had succeeded in doing what they loved, and I just found that album so personally inspiring on so many levels. It was a kind of beacon for me.
And finally I think it’s the emotional worlds those songs and lyrics create inside me. I find them very cinematic and full of feeling and yearning. I think that’s why their music connects and endures. They are very unique songs and that makes them kind of timeless as well.
CF: You’ve said part of the reason you made the documentary was because you felt “haunted by their music and story”. What has “haunted” you about The Go-Betweens, enough for you to make a film about them, and, all these years later?
KS: For me The Go-Betweens’ story is very epic, yet a beautiful, bittersweet story about love, friendship and growing up. These are the things that define all of our lives: we all have friendships and relationships that have either endured or have failed, and we’ve all made mistakes in life.
What you have with The Go-Betweens is this very intense narrative – or rather melodrama – in which love is tested in some very dramatic and sometimes tragic ways. With that you also have these amazing songs and incredible characters. So for me as filmmaker, my ambition was always to try and tell the emotional ‘saga’ of that band one way or another.
CF: Was it difficult getting the remaining band members involved? [Co-founder Grant McLennan died in 2006 aged 48].
KS: Yes and no… Robert Forster was very open to it once I explained my creative ambition for the film. Getting Lindy and Amanda [Brown, multi-instrumentalist and former partner of McLennan] on board was certainly more difficult. Mainly it was an issue of trust. I think they were very unsure at first about my motives and my agenda.
At the time I had approached them Robert’s book, ‘Grant and I‘ had just come out, and they were very concerned that I was making a film based on that book and that this was going to present the story of the band from Robert’s perspective.
But once I re-assured them (after much fine wine and dining!) that I wanted to tell everyone’s story, and that I wanted it to be full of contradictions and contrasts, I think they thawed and then saw it as a chance to finally have their side of the story heard once and for all.
CF: Shooting in the old “Queenslander” house with the surviving band members locates The Go-Betweens story as not only a uniquely Australian story but a uniquely Brisbane story. Was that your intention? And do you think The Go-Betweens’ story would have been a similar one had the band evolved out of a different town in Australia?
KS: The Queenslander served a number of purposes. One, it was practical. It was cheap and I could get the band members alone, without any distractions, totally focussed on digging deep and telling their stories.
Secondly, as Grant is no longer with us, the house and its surrounds were a way to subtly evoke his spirit. [Grant’s family owned a cattle station in remote Far North Queensland, 300 miles west of Cairns].
Thirdly, having grown up in Brisbane and a Queenslander, there is something very sensual and unique about living in those houses: the way the light works in them, the textures – the whole feeling of them is just very romantic and specific to the Queensland experience.
And finally I think Brisbane itself – especially in the late 70s – was a unique place to grow up in. You really felt that you were on a remote part of the Australian coastline living in a hot, humid town in which nothing happened.
So when you heard about other people doing and sharing the same passions as yourself, those bonds, those connections, were absolutely earth shattering and vital to your survival as a young person.
And I think that intensity and lust for breaking away and escaping boredom, conservatism, and banality was amplified a thousand-fold in Brisbane. That’s why bands like The Saints and The Go-Betweens were created. They were a kind of chemical reaction to the environment around them.
There really is something to be said for repression and tropical humidity; they really get the creative juices flowing…
CF: Could a band like The Go-Betweens be born, survive, and be ‘successful’ today?
KS: I think every era has artists who live outside of their time. I’m sure there are bands like The Go-Betweens around today that are struggling to be recognized in one way or another. But the whole world of film and music is changing so radically now because of technology and the internet, so the [definitions around] what an audience is – and what ”success” is – are constantly evolving.
Therefore I think there will always be people who are original and striving to do things on their own terms like The Go-Betweens, because that’s what these kinds of artists do. That’s what makes them unique and beautiful.
I also find the notion of “success” kind of irrelevant and absurd anyway: to me the band have always been successful because they created truly great music. And for me personally, success means work: in my mind if I’m working I’m successful. No amount of “good box office” or “good reviews” is going to change that.
CF: Lindy Morrison, The Go-Betweens long-time drummer and former partner of Forster, said that she feels for the first time “the women’s side” of the band’s story has been told in Right Here. I’ve always felt there’s been a lack of their presence in the ‘post-mortem’ of the band – a kind of ‘shunting’ to the side, as often happens with female members of bands where there are romantic involvements. There’s a tendency to characterise women as ‘distractions’ who somehow jeopardise the ‘genius’ of male band members, rather than acknowledging their musical contributions and talent at ‘the centre’.
While there have been some attempts to redress this (the ‘16 Lovers Lane’ episode of SBS series ‘Greatest Australian Albums’ comes to mind), how did you approach this aspect of the storytelling? And did anything surprise you when you recorded their interviews?
KS: I just tried to let them tell their side of the story. Just like everyone else in the band. The girls were an integral part of that version of the band [pre-1989] and I couldn’t make the film without them. If Lindy and Amanda didn’t agree to be in the film, there wasn’t going to be a film. Simple as that. So my approach was very direct and straightforward.
It also helped that Lindy is one of the most candid and intelligent people I’ve ever met, and that Amanda was willing to open herself up so honestly about her relationship with Grant.
I guess what did surprise me was that despite all the anger and bitterness [after the band’s acrimonious split in 1989], I can still see and feel love there. For what they had, and who they all were, together…
CF: The editing in Right Here is remarkable: you and your editor must have worked very closely on shaping the material, especially given some of the sequences, which are like watching an emotional shipwreck crashing against a jagged shoreline. It was very symphonic in structure…
KS: The edit was a terrifying process for me. I guess because, not only was I a huge fan of the band, I also knew this was an incredible story of a much-loved band, and that my responsibility to ‘get it right’ was just enormous. So personally it was a very intense and gruelling experience that I don’t ever want to go through again!
But my editor Karryn de Cinque was absolutely incredible. I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to watch over 100 hours of footage and was able to elegantly distill and glean the material that you see in the film. And she did all of this over only a short period – four months. It was an extraordinary feat.
She is a great editor who takes huge risks and is willing to fail, but it’s in that risk-taking where you make the most exciting and beautiful discoveries. I will be forever grateful to her and I am just glad that I didn’t panic, and that I let her find her own path through the material and the story, even when sometimes it felt like we were going nowhere.
CF: I feel as if this is if not one of, your best film to date. How do you feel about it?
KS: I am simply very proud of it and glad that it’s connecting with people. Next to Motherland it’s my most personal film so far. I’m just relieved it’s all over and that the film can now stand as a testament to the band and their enduring legacy.
CF: And finally, if you had made a fiction film – a ‘drama’ of The Go-Betweens’ – as you originally planned, what film do you think it would most resemble?!
KS: Well my original idea, even over ten years ago, was to make a film about a band ‘like’ The Go-Betweens. I wanted to tell the story in reverse, in four acts, that began (kind of prophetically now) with the death of one of the band members, that then ended on the first day the band formed.
I was inspired by the Harold Pinter play Betrayal, which tells the story of a love affair in reverse in four acts. I thought that would be a great template to use, as I think the narratives of bands are kind of like love affairs.
I still have my outline for that film tucked away somewhere. I might dust it off one of these days…
Many thanks to Kriv Stenders for the interview! Excerpts of this interview appear in my article on Double J.
- Interview: Kriv Stenders
- Words/edit: Megan Spencer
- Photos: courtesy of Kriv Stenders, Essential Media and as credited
- Watch: The Go-Betweens Right Here in cinemas from September 28. Check the website for details.
- Read: my Go-Betweens: Right Here article for Double J
- Visit: The Go-Betweens website
- Listen: to The Go-Betweens music
- Follow: Kriv on Instagram
- Watch: Kriv’s short film Two/Out and Streets Of Your Town music video.