Rock documentary Meal Tickets was ten years in the making. Director Mat de Koning tells the story of best friends, a roadie who wanted to be a rock star, in a cautionary tale of life in the world of modern day rock’n’roll. The film has gone on to win Best Australian Documentary and Best Emerging Director at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, and has scored a host of other accolades and prestigious event selections.
With such iconic films such as Spinal Tap and Wayne’s World telling the satirical story of rock’n’roll, how did you want your documentary to sit?
I wanted a balance of ‘real-life satire’ and true-blue heartfelt moments. My mantra making this film was ‘Spinal Tap meets Stand by Me’. I wanted this to feel more like the 90s films I grew up watching such as Empire Records, Clerks, Basket Ball Diaries then a factual documentary. Tony Wilson once said, ‘All movies made about music are shite’. I was blessed with Meal Tickets because if it were a scripted film, I don’t think I could have cast better characters than the people I was fortunate enough to film in this documentary. Lee, Ben, Dave – these guys are funny fellas on a daily basis, so by rolling the camera, I caught comedy gold.
Does filmmaking destroy the ethos of what it means to have rock’n’roll cool? Is there a fine line between ‘cool’ and ‘wanker’? How did you portray this in your film?
Dave Kavanagh had impeccable taste in cars, film, art, music. He brought this pop-culture sensibility to his approach in managing the Screwtop Detonators. Given his success with the Libertines, we were all pretty open to adhering to his advice. But through time, Dave started contradicting himself to keep up with what was marketable, indecision clouding his vision, and the band stated questioning his judgment. Dave wanted them to present themselves as rock stars the whole way though, which was easy to do on tour in the US, but when the band returned to hometown Perth, playing to the same crowds, they started to feel like wankers, quiffing their hair and wearing leather jackets all the time. As Pip said in the second act, ‘There is no guide book to rock’n’roll’.
How did the friendships in the film develop over the 10 years?
When we were in our early 20s life was easygoing and friendships were free flowing. But when you hit the other side of 25, life gets a little more serious. The reality that we’d all been putting financial stability on the line for careers in film and music became more real, and when you feel your friends aren’t pulling their weight, it weighs you down. That’s when you’re faced with finding the right approach to confront your friends about your feelings. This is where some of the friendships faltered.
You must have had an enormous amount of footage to choose from. How did you choose a story arc to hang your doco narrative on? Did the change in the way the industry works over that decade help inform how you told the story?
I found a pretty clear-cut three-act story within the 400-plus hours of footage. Act one USA or Bust was when the Screwtop Detonators had a manager, getting taken on this wild ride across America, followed by the hard-hitting reality of suburban life when they got back to Perth. When it all went sour with management, the second act kicked in, DIY or DIE. This covered the years that the Screwtop Detonators were slugging it out as a self-managed band. Act three A Band Apart looked at the years when the band had called it a day and they all had to figure out what was next in life. Throughout the story, I found it important to introduce the new technologies that had become available to musicians as a way of promoting bands, starting with MySpace then YouTube and Facebook, all of which the Screwtop Detonators had very little interest in.
How important is it, do you think, in a documentary to just get in behind the camera and let things roll? Does the long time of filming mean you get more candid natural footage than quickly shot – we need to get this in the can kind of stuff?
That’s certainly one of the strengths of this film: so much of it was observational. In fact within the first hundred hours of footage, I had only filmed one interview. I did ask questions here and there but they were the same questions I would have been asking without a camera in my hand. In the later years when Dave had left the picture, I had to establish my presence as a filmmaker and start seeking the responses I was after. I feel this is when the audience properly get to know the guys in the band.
What were the stories you told in Meal Tickets?
The story of a manager with a vision for a young band, and a young band who weren’t prepared to take on board the manager’s vision for fear of compromising their integrity. Of a group of best friends who started carefree in a band, but through time had to face the sacrifices of making it in the music industry, and whether or not they had it in them. Of a music industry that lost its feet as illegal downloading took down the record labels and bands had to start self-promoting though this new social-media craze. Of a roadie who turned to re-invention as a means of realising his vision for himself as the frontman of a band, and of a group of best friends from WA who dedicated their 20s to having a right crack at making it in the mad world of rock’n’roll, having a hell of a lot of fun along the way, learning many life lessons.
How did your friends respond to the finished product? Did you have to lose footage to save friendships?
Some of them had hesitations in backing the film when we premiered at MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival), but after the response we had at Revelation, everyone is pretty proud of the film. From MIFF to Revelation, I did lose a few moments, partly for the mental sanity of my friends, and also because it’s a different time we’re living in. I had someone give me a pretty strong talking to after the MIFF screening about a scene involving a groupie that I was unsure about keeping in the film. She said, ‘There’s no denying it’s as funny as hell, but what kind of message are you putting out to the world by leaving it in your film?’ That scene is now on the cutting-room floor.
Have you been surprised by how well this has been received?
I spent years listening to people say I was crazy spending so much of my life filming two bands that were pretty much unknown, so to read the response from the critics who have picked up on the social and cultural relevance of Meal Tickets has been hugely satisfying.
Did you know that you had something a bit special when you were shooting, or did that happen in the edit selection?
Lee French was the coolest cat in our high school – James Dean meets Elvis – so I had wanted to make a film with Lee for years before commencing Meal Tickets. The Screwtops had that ‘gang of four’ dynamic that was the winning chemistry in some of my favourite films such as Basket Ball Diaries and Stand By Me. Then you bring Dave Kavanagh into the mix who looks like a dead ringer for Bono, and felt like he was straight out of central casting, topped off with tour manager PIP, who looked like Tommy Lee meets Keith Richards. So yes, I definitely thought I had something special from day dot.
What is success? After making this are you any closer to knowing? Especially in the music industry – is success necessarily commercial?
Success is in my book happiness. Commercial success is a huge bonus and generally means you’ve created something that enriched other people’s lives, that in itself is successful. But if you’re not happy, commercial success only takes you so far. A healthy balance of friends, family, career, travel, the pursuit of artistic satisfaction, giving back to community and taking time to smell the roses feels like the right path to happiness to me.
Meal Tickets screens at Brunswick Picture House on Saturday, February 10 at 7pm and Star Court Theatre, Lismore on Sunday, February 11 at 2.30 and 5.30pm.
Tix for Bruns screening on www.brunswickpicturehouse.com